Ul’vade and Lorcan fell backward in shock, spluttering and stammering with equal, and impressive, force. “A dragon!?” cried Lorcan. “We can’t just…why…a dragon!?”
The old stranger nodded gravely, still focused intensely on Lorcan with his shockingly blue eye. He hadn’t moved or shown any expression as he had declared their task, as calm as if he were discussing the weather. It seemed that he had said many things like this before, setting forth men’s fates, and likely sending them to their deaths. Lorcan, trying to regain his composure, sat up, wringing his hands, and laughed nervously. “But,” he stuttered, “t-that can’t be right. There can’t possibly be any dragons here. And, even if there were, we couldn’t possibly kill one. And even if we could do that, how could that possibly help us?”
The old man did not smile, move, or even twitch. “Boy,” he said, “take it from a very old warrior, there is indeed a dragon here. And, nothing is unkillable.” He smiled bitterly, “not even a god.”
Lorcan tried to protest again, but the old man’s eye flashed dangerously in the firelight, silencing him. “Do you think I would make a jest of such a thing?” he snapped. “I guide warriors to glory son, and I never lie about things such as this. When I tell you that I can guide you to Mimir’s Well, and when I say you need to slay a dragon to enter, know that I am completely serious.” His eye flashed again, as if daring Lorcan to protest again. He didn’t.
Ul’vade, being the hardier of the two, had his face set in a mask of grim determination. However, his shoulders slumped in resignation. It was almost as if he suspected they were going to die, and the stranger had just confirmed it. He raised his head to look squarely into the mostly hidden face of the old man. He spoke resolutely, “What manner of dragon is this beast? How might it be slain?”
The old man regarded Ul’vade approvingly. “This,” he said slowly, “is no ordinary dragon. This is no noble creature, no great wyrm of the air. He was a man once (was that a quick, furtive glance at Lorcan?), but corrupted, evil, and sick. He has become like Fafnir (he nodded at Ul’vade, who shuddered), who has lost his mind as much as he has his body. This soul needs to be put at rest. Only when you do so will you be given the power to find the well.”
The stranger stood, adjusting his hat to cover his face. He raised his hand in farewell. “You won’t be seeing me again, but I’ll be watching from afar. I wish you well. Fight well, die well, and Valhalla awaits you.” Without giving the two time to respond, the old man turned on his heels, and strode off into the night, disappearing almost instantly with the ravens overhead.
Lorcan and Ul’vade sat in silence, bot experiencing their own whirlwinds of emotion. Suddenly, Ul’vade sat bolt upright and cursed loudly in Norse. “That was Odin!” he cried.
Lorcan didn’t know much about Norse religion, but he knew who Odin was. He choked, “Odin!? Like, Odin Allfather, the king of the Aesir, lord of Valhalla, THAT Odin!?”
Ul’vade nodded vigorously. “It had to have been. I should have recognized him the second the ravens came. He must have placed some kind of spell over us, that we wouldn’t see who he really was.” He looked at Lorcan with a new kind of fire in his eyes. “Lorcan, we’ve received a mandate from a god. This is not something we can afford to avoid. We have to do this.”
Lorcan’s voice became low and angry. “I’m getting awfully tired of making deals, being given quests, and being told I’m going to die Ul’vade. I’m sick of being this miserable goblin, I’m sick of demons, and gods, and monsters, and I’m done with this whole miserable world!” His voice sounded stronger than he felt. He was reeling from the knowledge he’d just met a god, what’s more, the king of the Norse gods. But it was true, he’d had quite enough. Just in the past few days, he had realized his friends had forgotten him, his home had been taken over, he’d transformed into a monster, been tormented and teased by a demon, sent on a hopeless quest, and was now being sent to slay a dragon. He was quite done with his situation.
Ul’vade stopped himself at the bitterness in Lorcan’s voice. Tentatively, he stood up, walked around the ire toward Lorcan, and sat down next to him. He put his hand on Lorcan’s shoulder and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry Lorcan,” he said, “I forgot for a moment what we were really doing here. I truly am sorry for what’s happening to you. I wouldn’t wish it on any man. This quest is too much to ask. But, I told you I’d fight with you, and die with you if necessary, and I mean it. But, if Odin says that we won’t find the Well by ourselves, he means it. He’s providing us with a way to accomplish our task. He must consider us worthy of help, so he’l aid us on our path. I know you’re tired, but we have a way to succeed now. Trust me on this my friend.”
Lorcan waited a long time before answering. He wanted to believe this was possible, but every moment that passed seemed to take his chance of reclaiming his humanity farther away. At last, he sighed. “Well, it’s only one dragon, right?” he said, attempting a smile.
Ul’vade grinned back. “Dragon doesn’t stand a chance.”
The Next Day
Neither traveler really wanted to wake up the next morning, but they had a job to do, and they wanted it over with, whether they succeeded, or died a horrible death. They quickly packed their things and set off for the mountain pass that Odin had pointed out. As the day went on, Lorcan had to once again place a blindfold over his eyes. The mountains seemed to magnify the meager light shining through the clouds, and it soon became irritating for his newly sensitive eyes. The two talked little as they traversed the narrow, rocky passage; they silently agreed that talking about what they were going to attempt could only make them feel worse. Traveling took up the whole of the day, and it was dusk before they found a decent place to rest.
There was a small, circular space between the mountains, with the remains of past fires in the center. They threw down their sleeping pads, and Lorcan had just pulled out his tinderbox when Ul’vade threw out his hand and grabbed his arm. “Wait,” he said, “There’s something about this place I don’t like. It feels wrong here, like Haute’s Den. I have the feeling we shouldn’t make ourselves known.”
Lorcan held still and listened. The passage was awfully quiet. There were no sounds of birds or insects, no wind, nothing. It felt almost as if even the setting sun herself were holding her breath. And, now that he paid attention, there was an unpleasant smell in the air; something that filled Lorcan with anger, despair, and disgust, though he couldn’t exactly say why. It was that feeling you get when you cross paths with an old nemesis or bully. Somebody you hated deeply, and had never quite forgiven. He put his tinderbox away and whispered, “Do you smell that?”
Ul’vade sniffed, then wrinkled his nose. “It smells of decay.”
Lorcan nodded. “Yes, there’s that, but there’s something else. It smells of…wine, and rotting food.” He shook his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Norsemen only drink mead, right? So what would wine be doing-“
All of a sudden, this horrible sound rose from the path in front of them, splitting the air, and forcing them to cover their ears, grimacing in pain. The sound was between a monstrous roar, and an agonized human scream, filling the air with the sound of rage and misery. The sound struck Lorcan to the core, filling his heart with dark feelings: loneliness, jealousy, anger, disappointment, envy, and pain. This roar, whatever it was, contained the same emotions he himself had been feeling. And, there was something about the sounds and smells that was familiar to him…
Then, the sound ceased, echoing off the walls around them. Ul’vade was saying something to him, but he couldn’t hear well over the ringing in his ears. It was several moments before he understood what Ul’vade was saying to him. “That’s our dragon.”
The two left their supplies on the ground, and ran as quickly and quietly as they could through the path ahead. It led them to a rocky outcropping overlooking a large basin. As they peered out over the cliff, they saw only desolation. It looked as if it had once been a lively, thriving oasis. Now, burned or rotting remains of trees dotted the landscape, dead grass and bushes sat blackened all over, and what had likely been pools of water were now filled with a dark, foul sludge. Lorcan was willing to bet that this place was a fair representation of the appearance of Hell.
The smell of decay and wine were much stronger here, so it wasn’t difficult to guess that this was their destination. He looked at Ul’vade, who was regarding the place with a mixture of sadness and disgust. “What possibly could have caused this?”
Ul’vade continued surveying the basin. “Fafnir’s curse.” Glancing at Lorcan’s confused expression, he added, This is where we’ll find our dragon. But this, this is no ordinary dragon.” He looked at Lorcan. “Fafnir was a hero, favored by the Aesir. One day, he came across a dwarf that possessed a vast fortune. Wishing to pay a great debt, he took all this dwarf’s gold, including his ring. he was warned that if he took those riches, the ring would curse him, and drive him to madness.”
Lorcan looked down at the wasteland below him. He was starting to understand what they were facing. “What happened to Fafnir?”
Ul’vade’s face was dark. “The ring twisted his mind and corrupted his soul. He slew his father for gold, drove away all those who were once precious to him, and,” Ul’vade gestured to the carnage below them, “this happened. Like Fafnir, this is no ordinary wyrm. It’s an abomination.”
As he stared into the pollution below, imagining the monster somewhere nearby, Lorcan suddenly felt quite sick. He swallowed hard. “So, what can we do to kill it? There has to be some kind of weakness, right?” He looked hopefully at Ul’vade.
He nodded. “There is. It’s scales should be near impenetrable, but it’s underside is soft and fleshy. If we can somehow get it to expose it’s belly, a well-aimed blow should kill the thing instantly. But,” he added, “it’ll be near impossible to get near the thing alive, much less get it to willingly expose it’s weakness. That thing is dangerous from head to toe. It’ll likely-“
The sound echoed throughout the basin, startling the two men. A second boom followed, then a third, a fourth, and then, the monstrosity emerged. on the other side of the basin, from a cave Lorcan hadn’t noticed emerged th most horrifying thing Lorcan had ever seen. The thing must have been 40 feet long, standing 20 or 30 feet tall. It’s eyes were black, with gold irises, accompanied by long pointed ears, and a maw of rows of serrated teeth, like the mouth of some enormous shark. It’s body was slimy and oozing, scales of unpleasant shades of brown and black. Two shriveled wings lay on it’s back, unusable. It moved by crawling and slithering, leaving a trail of toxic filth wherever it went.
The intoxicating, sickly-sweet smell of wine cloyed Lorcan’s nose, making him gasp for air. As he stared in horror and disgust at the dragon, it let our another horrible screaming roar, exposing all the rows of sharp teeth it possessed, which appeared to be digging into the flesh of it’s mouth. As Lorcan covered his ears from the pain, a swell of pity welled up inside him. This thing, this person, whatever it was, was in agony. It was twisted and distorted, and deep down, it wanted to be put out of it’s misery. No wonder Odin had said it’s soul needed to be put to rest; Lorcan had never seen anything that looked so wretched.
But the worst was yet to come. The beast spoke, startling the two men, in a horrible garbled mixture of a growl, and a man’s voice. It was low and strangled, as if it were drowning. “Must have some food…good vintage…where is…stupid boy…SHE ABANDONED ME…run the mine, run the town…miserable welp…” It’s voice was manic, as if it had no control over thought or speech. But, Lorcan could swear he knew that voice…that smell…but it couldn’t be.
The impossible was shoving it’s way into Lorcan’s mind. That horrible smell of wine, that harsh tone of voice, why he’d felt such hate and fear at the sound of the thing, that feeling of familiarity. No, no, no, it couldn’t possibly- he was dead, he had said he died years ago…
“LORCAN!!” bellowed the beast. “YOU GET BACK HERE AND FACE ME LIKE A MAN!! YOUR MISERABLE MOTHER ISN’T COMING BACK!! STOP CRYING YOU PATHETIC CHILD!! YOU DID THIS!! YOU ARE TO BLAME FOR US BEING LEFT ALONE!! WORTHLESS BOY!!”
Lorcan and Ul’vade leapt back in fright. They scrambled out of sight of the basin. Ul’vade looked frantically at Lorcan, who was mumbling “No, no, no, no…”, groaning and shaking his head. “Lorcan,” he asked, “what’s going on?” Do you know who this is?”
Lorcan looked miserably at Ul’vade, his face fallen in utter hopeless resignation. “I…I don’t know how… he drank himself to death years ago…but it’s him. That thing is my father.”