The Last Rider, Chapter Two
The Buffalo, the Witch and Ward row...
The battered sign hanging from a giant skeletal tree creaked in the howling wind. The words carved unevenly into the splintered green wood had chipped away at their edges but were still legible: TIME WASTED IS NO TIME AT ALL.
Just beyond the tree, a translucent boundary of wards guarded a wintery landscape. Red and yellow cottages spread across the land. Behind the homes, snow-covered fir trees led back to a frozen pond emanating an arctic mist. The Valkyries had claimed this enchanted piece of land in Lapland centuries ago and made it their home.
“Will Herja sense we’re here?” I said.
“Not likely,” Kirsi said. “She’s absorbed herself in a ritual of introspection for months. Her instincts have completely surrendered to a meditative state of consciousness.”
“Then how will we breach that enormous ward fence?”
Kirsi chuckled. “Nothing in life is easy. I’d be more worried about what lies behind it, to be honest.”
The cute Scandinavian style farmhouses and icy winter woods appeared as wholesome and safe as a Christmas card. Whatever danger it was that Kirsi alluded to was not visible to the naked eye.
Kirsi approached the fence, sword in hand.
I threw a side glance at Winter. “Any insight would be appreciated.”
He shrugged. “I’m not a Valkyrie whisperer.”
The fence flickered, changing colors multiple times as it did. I couldn’t latch onto the magic that propelled the wards. There was nothing familiar about their formation.
“Can you deactivate them, Kirsi?” Winter said.
“Herja was among the first Valkyries. I am no match for her powers.”
“Maybe if we all joined forces…” I suggested.
Kirsi shook her head. “That’s messy. It could take days to locate and defuse all her traps. Our best bet is that a few of her companions will feel the disturbance.”
“What disturbance?” I said.
And what companions for that matter?
Kirsi rammed her sword through the fence. The wards thundered and roared so loud we had to cover our ears. The sky above us turned dark purple. A viscous, black liquid spilled out of the fence like tar. I jumped back.
A huge and furry creature exploded through the fence. Standing at least seven feet tall at its shoulders and bearing thick, imposing horns, two camel-like humps and a furry midnight-blue hide that covered its entire body, including the eyes, it snorted as it came to a sudden halt.
The creature exhaled fire as its jaws snapped open revealing two rows of sharp yellow teeth.
I inhaled its foul scent as I tried to swallow.
The blue beast glided to us slowly like a giant buffalo-camel on wheels.
“Don’t hurt it,” Kirsi said.
The beast charged.
Don’t hurt it? Really? It’s about to gore us all to hell.
I swerved out of the beast’s way just in time, then planted myself in front of Winter to protect him.
He moved me aside and ran at the beast, locking his hands on its horns.
I quickly formed a lasso of raw energy and hurled it at the beast, trapping its back legs. The beast’s body vibrated with energy of its own, quickly dissolving my energy lasso.
The beast snarled and knocked Winter back. Winter’s feet slid, his face straining, before he dug in and regained the upper hand.
Kirsi jumped on the beast’s back, grabbing the stringy mane.
Oh, yeah, I forgot. Both of them are idiots.
The beast shook Kirsi off its back and snorted. I reacted instinctively, pressing my hands together. A fountain of water spilled out, drenching the beast and extinguishing the fire pouring out of its nostrils before it hit Winter’s chest.
The beast wailed as if the water were hot oil.
Its tar-like discharge came to life spreading out on the ground in every direction like a burning moat. The beast retreated to the fence.
“Now!” Kirsi yelled out as a wedge opened in the ward fence to allow the creature reentry.
We dashed as one, then clutched to the beast’s fur to pull ourselves through the seam to the other side of the ward wall. I felt the surge of the wards on my skin as I slid through them, infused with a power both living and ancient—almost divine.
We hit the ground and tumbled onto our feet, sprinting in the direction of the first row of cottages. The cottages receded away from us, back toward the forest like a cruel mirage.
The blue beast charged after us, its heavy hoofs striking the ground with hellish thuds. I sensed the snow all around us puff up, forming shivering mounds like waves made of Jell-O.
Things drilled their way through the waves, springing to the surface. I focused on the moving farmhouses ahead. Whatever monstrosities Herja kept as pets, I didn’t want to know. My breath came out in clumps of steam that froze immediately.
“Herja!” Kirsi shouted. “This is urgent!”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a blood red snake uncoil to a length of thirty, forty feet, painting the snow a deep crimson as it slithered our way.
Holy hell, Kirsi’s warning was an understatement. Herja didn’t play.
The cottages stopped moving. The front door in one of them swung open. A magical shower of cotton threads rained down on the house like dispersed dandelion seeds, shrouding it in a soft white light, a stark contrast to the mess of fangs and horns all around us.
Herja stepped outside. Tall, imposing, with auburn hair pulled up into a ponytail and a strong, toned body with centuries of murderous muscle memory, Herja had that otherworldly feel about her that only the fiercest of ancients possessed.
“There better be dire cause for all this fuss, sister,” Herja said.
“This wouldn’t happen if you shared a key with one of your sisters.”
Herja frowned. “This is my solitary retreat, not a social salon for bored and gossiping Valkyries.”
Kirsi sighed. “Believe me, if there was another way…”
Herja glanced at Winter and me. “And them? Why did you have to bring your whole caravan?”
“I didn’t want to die alone. They make good chew toys for your beasts.”
Not funny, Kirs. (Okay, maybe a smidge.)
Herja huffed. “I suppose I have to invite you in.”
Everything went quiet. The creatures vanished back into the snow, all except for the humped blue buffalo who keeled over and began snoring.
We followed Herja inside to a cozy living room with flower pattern wallpaper, a vaulted ceiling and a crackling fireplace in a corner.
Herja’s eyebrows came together. “So… what mischief is afoot?”
“Our enclave was ransacked,” Kirsi said.
Herja didn’t miss a beat. “Your council’s seal?”
Kirsi nodded. “Most likely.”
“I recall warning you not to get involved,” Herja said.
Kirsi bowed her head. “If I had refused, the task would have fallen on some other magistrate. I trust no one more than us.”
I sat down gently on the couch, trying to avoid drawing attention. Herja intimidated me. Winter stood by the fireplace. His eyes locked onto mine, clearly regretting the decision to come along.
“Now’s not a good time,” Herja said, almost as if talking to herself. “I’m not finished here.”
“We need you, Herja,” Kirsi said. “You are our greatest strategist.”
Herja paced the room. “You couldn’t have come to me with news of a wedding or a rare Loki sighting. No, my sisters always bring news of war.”
“Isn’t war what Valkyries do best?” I said, instantly regretting it.
Winter quickly glanced out the window.
Herja’s inquisitive eyes landed on me. “We are more than moths to the flame, barely born witch,” she said. “War comes in with the tide, wave after wave. We merely have the courage to face it.” She paused for a moment. “I know of a place where the seal can be protected.”
“What place?” I said, not really expecting an answer.
“Curiosity can be molten metal, Luna Mae. Once cooled, you might find yourself chained to a heavy burden.”
Well, when you put it that way.
“Normally, I shouldn’t know where the seventh council seal is kept, but these are desperate times,” I said.
Herja studied me. “Desperation never validates. Prophecies are not etched in stone. All things are fluid, adaptable. But when one succumbs to things foretold, destinies harden—free will loses its grip—and, only then, does it become impossible to veer away from the predicted path.”
So Herja knew about Horror and me. I understood her intention. Horror wanted the seal. If I stood in his way, the first step in the prophesied rift between us would transform from a possibility into a fact.
Herja’s stare intensified. “Once you know, you know,” she went on. “You will have to fight for the seal with your life. Are you ready for that battle?”
“I’m never ready for battle, but when there is no choice…”
Winter walked to me. “There is always choice, I agree with Herja.”
I shrugged. “You’re both protecting me. I don’t need it.”
Herja grinned for the first time. “I had heard that you are as brave as you are naïve. Did witch school ever teach you of Ideon Andron?”
I nodded. “Not witch school. San Diego State. Ideon Andron is a cave on the highest mountain in Crete where Zeus was raised according to the myth.”
“It is no more a myth than any of us. Zeus’s mother, Rhea, hid him in the cave to protect him from his father, Cronus. A group of demons shielded Zeus so Cronus would not sense him. Lucky for us, those very same demons owe me a favor.”
I stared at her, not sure how to respond. In a single sentence she had informed me that the story of Zeus was based on real events and that she hung out with demons.
“I thought the Ideon cave was off limits,” Kirsi said. “Didn’t the Great Eternal Magistrate himself block all entrances?”
“He did after the Fire Giants tried to take residence in the cave. The Eternal Magistrate could not allow them access to such potent enchantment. That’s where the favor owed comes in,” Herja said.
“And should we really be consorting with demons when so much is at stake?” Winter said. “In case you’ve forgotten, a demon’s favorite past time is manipulation.”
Herja’s face slipped into a stoic state. “I forget nothing. That’s why I meditate. It becomes unbearable. You must trust me on this, Shadow Winter. We are to fight fire with fire. Unless you lot have a single other idea.”
Winter looked to Kirsi. “It’s your head, and ultimately your call.”
Kirsi looked like she wanted to bury her head. “I trust Herja’s mind over any other. Let’s do it. Whatever keeps the seal from Horror.”
“I’m finally getting my trip to Greece,” I said. “I was thinking more bikinis and martinis than demons and caves, however.”
Herja slipped on a black cloak, pulling the hood over her hair. “Let Kirsi and me deal with that.” She stopped in front of me. “The seal was not your secret, and it is not your fight, but now you must stay the course. Killing your father won’t be easy, but your deciding to kill him may prove even harder.”
Herja’s words dizzied me, but I managed to steady myself. “Perhaps, but compared to letting the world fall, it won’t be hard at all.”
Kirsi clucked. “Sometimes it’s good to be an orphan.”
© 2022 Stella Fitzsimons. AllRightsReserved