Author’s Note: This story was written live on stream with the audience bidding tokens (earned while watching) to determine the path of the story. The underlined phrases in the choice of three were the winning pathways. (This story used a different format of eliminated choices.) Stop by twitch.tv/blainearcade if you’d ever like to participate in our interactive fiction.
Alfheim – Elves Svartalfheim – Dwarves Jotunheim – Giants
Vanaheim – Gods Niflheim – Ice Muspelheim – Lava
The deep purple of the rent sky went on forever. In that forever, six realms could be seen, each hanging as fruit from the world tree Yggdrasil. There had been nine before, nine for incalculable time, but they were burnt to ash now, and the others soon to follow. It was Ragnarok, the death of the tree, and the movement of all the beings in all the remaining worlds was just the death rattle of life itself.
In the realm of Jotunheim, nest of giants, land of quaking songs, a party of three moved through the mountains. They wore heavy coats of astral hides, snipped pieces from the four great stags that fell through the hole in the sky. The coats were exceptionally beautiful, rich with the light of the stars, and at any other time the giants would’ve snatched them out of the deep snow, skewered them on chains, and worn them as jewelry.
The coming of Ragnarok had changed the natives greatly. Their ferocity was gone, because they had less hope than most. They were too large to escape via any of the portals between the branches of Yggdrasil. They had some magic, some of the sparkle of the gods’ written runes, but it was deep in their blood. They could not call it forth to cast anything. So they sat in the mountains, their backs to the stone, and wailed in despair.
It was this wailing, out of mouths the size of whales, that shook the mountains, that slowed the progress of the three travelers. All three came from Midgard, a dead realm, and they were still learning the extent of the world tree. They had adopted new names, based on their old, to avoid suspicion. They were Oskr, Throna, and Bartl.
They moved across the spine of a mountain, weeping giants leaning on either side, when they were forced to stop because of the din. The shaking forced them deeper into the snow, and their pleas were neither heard nor acknowledged. In moments they were all but buried, the snow invading every seam of the coats and every fold of skin. The tears froze in their eyes.
Oskr had been a mighty warrior back in Midgard. The had called him ‘special forces’. He had carried a metal rod that could spit fire at enemies a battlefield away. Yet, they were three weeks into their journey across thre tree, and he had been stripped of all his old weapons. In their place he carried a sling and a dozen magical stones pilfered from a being he wouldn’t have believed in at the start of his journey.
He needed help if he was to use them. Already the shaking snow had swallowed him up. It was only the clawing hands and strong arms of Throna and Bartl that brought him back to the surface. He gasped, spewing breath as a sparkling icy cloud, and fumbled with his numb fingers. They found the sling and a stone with glowing blue swirls. He pulled back, bit his mustache with his uneven lower teeth, held his breath, and fired at the most vulnerable part of one of the giants’ heads: the fleshy ear.
A normal stone would’ve done nothing, but Oskr’s tore straight through the giant’s blue lobe and left a singed piercing. It caused enough pain to distract it. It stopped its moaning and turned to face the travelers, scooping them out of the snow.
“Is it not bad enough that our world ends and the doors are too small?” the weeping giant roared at them. A river of white snot slowly fell from one nostril; they could see birds caught in it like bugs in syrup. “I can at least cast you out, sweep the pests from our world so it looks nice in death.” Without giving them a chance to respond, the giant closed its fist around them, rose, and hurled them into the burning purple of the rent sky. They flew out of Jotunheim, with nothing to hold onto but the tails of each others’ coats.
Alfheim – Elves Svartalfheim – Dwarves Vanaheim – Gods
Niflheim – Ice Muspelheim – Lava
Such a throw could’ve easily killed them, but the rent sky ate up the force of it until they simply floated through nothingness. The three kept their arcs. Their destination was no coincidence; the giant had thrown them towards the glowing red fruit that was the realm Muspelheim. It was the seat of the world tree’s destruction: the throne of Surtr.
The incredible heat of the new realm had them sweating before they landed in the literal seat of Surtr’s throne. He was a giant as well, a wielder of a flaming pruning sword, but he was off wreaking havoc across the realms, burning branches and laughing at death. Even such a giant as he could not stand the heat permanently, so there was a great cushion upon his throne, immune to fire thanks to its weave of the divine manes of ten-legged horses.
The three landed on it with a bounce that nearly sent them off the side. Everything beneath them was a slowly swirling ocean of lava. The blackened whales swam about, unaware of the disaster that would eventually come for them as well. They sprayed jets of liquid fire high into the air, to the tassels of Surtr’s cushion and the three Midgardians.
“This place is worse than the last,” Throna said, her voice already hoarse from the dry air. “There is no hope for us.” She rolled backward and threw her hands out, sinking into the cushion and staring into the sky. “What was our world? Can we even remember?” She’d hoped the memories wouldn’t come, but they did. They flooded her mind and racked her with the pain of what she’d lost in the fires of Surtr’s swing.
A farm. A field full of horses with only four legs. They could not pull a sledge across the sky, they could not run on the underside of a world-tree branch, but they were still her whole world. She felt their reins in her hands even now as she opened and closed her fists. The only reason she avoided crying was because she did not want to resemble the giants they’d just seen: mountains of despair over hollows of hopelessness. She turned to Bartl to see if he fared any better.
He was a very young man, not like Oskr with his graying beard, and he was their lantern: the only living coal of hope among them. He paced back and forth across the springy cushion, hands thrust deep in the pockets of his coat. He walked in circles, reliving his own memories. All three were of Midgard, but they had not left at the same time. Bartl was one of the earliest to depart; his roots were less rigid. His life was his world, not the other way around.
After Midgard he had spent time in another realm before joining the other two. It was his first taste of the different fruits of the world tree, of bathing in the juices of other minds, philosophies, and magics.
Alfheim – Elves Svartalfheim – Dwarves Vanaheim – Gods
Niflheim – Ice
Perhaps it was his stumble into the most brillaiant of the remaining worlds, Vanaheim, that allowed him to keep his hope even when buried in snow or sweating out his soul. Only Asgard had been more beautiful, but it was the first to fall. When Bartl landed in Vanaheim it was the height of life, color, and culture.
He was helped to his feet by a being he perceived as a young woman with skin like ivory and and berry-laden branches over her ears. In truth she was a servant of the gods, a girl of joy, a being sprung from the latest bountiful harvest, straight out of a green shoot.
Vanaheim’s air was magic and water. Everything was the rainbow spray at the base of a waterfall. In the same moments that she lifted him they fell in love with each other. In just days, as Surtr left black footprints on a flattened Midgard, they lived an entire life in the radiant shadow of Vanaheim’s gods.
He carried water with her, to the bath of a giant green woman whose name Bartl never bothered to learn, and told her about his dead dreams as if they still moved about and howled at the moon. He came from a long line of explorers that had nothing to do just before Ragnarok began. He had been told to blaze a trail, while staring at a vertical stone wall; there was nothing left to explore.
“Don’t be silly,” the girl had told him. They were deeply in love, so much so that they never even got around to sharing their names. They were simply partners. Names could only come between them. “There’s always something to explore. The worlds are on a tree, and the tree is alive. By the time you’ve seen one branch, another has grown.”
“How can you think that?” Bartl asked her as he poured one of the jugs of steaming water into the side of the giant marble bath. The green goddess ignored them, playing with the hearstrings of a long lost lover while she bathed, wrapping them around her fingers. The servants couldn’t even speak her language: a tongue of seasonal breezes and sharp precipitation. “Ragnarok has come; it was you who explained it to me. The worlds burn and shrivel every day. Every day there is less to see.”
She responded by dipping her bare toes into the warm water and splashing his legs. He jumped back, thinking she was avoiding the question by being playful. A moment later she was pressed against his side, pulling him down. They knocked their jugs over and they rolled inot the bath and burbled as they sank. She pulled him to his knees and then lower.
Both of them were against the marble, her splash seeping into their clothing, their faces pressed against the wet stone. She pinched the tip of one of his fingers and dragged it forward, swirled it in the puddle. He watched the designs it made, the rainbow color that came and went with the reflection of Vanaheim’s light.
“You see?” she asked. “Look at all those lights, born from the chaos of your finger. Even in destruction new things spring forth. That is why destruction always fails, why there is always something to explore. All it can do is change the form of things, or give up and go to sleep.”
Alfheim – Elves Svartalfheim – Dwarves Niflheim – Ice
“Let me tell you a story of Svartalfheim,” she said. Bartl stayed still, letting the warm water drench his clothes, and listened. He was so absorbed in her tale that he didn’t notice the gargantuan goddess get up and leave halfway through. When her story was done there was essentially a canyon next to them, with the remaining water barely visible in its bed.
“In the land of Svartalfheim, where the dwarves and dark elves live, there was a craftsbeing. They were many things across time, deep in their mountain workshop. The being started as a sundial, a tool of a woman who was good with a chisel. They saw the passage of time and its regualrity, and grew tired of it.
One day, the woman affixed the sundial to a work of decoration in her underground workshop. There, with no direct light, they could not even experience those regular shadows. The woman left and built a family, eventually dying surrounded by her children, never telling any of them of the location of her workshop. No new craftsman came to move or change the dial, so they had to change themselves.
They remembered the old songs of the dwarves, masters of all crafts, that they had overheard as their armies marched by. They worked for years to remember each exact word, to pull the lyrics from the shadows of the past. To make is to earn, to earn is to live, to live to find something neeeewwww… toooo siiiiiiiiing…
The sundial built a friend out of the darkness. The darkness had its hands on everything, so the tools they had access to expanded. They made friends out of old timber, dusty cloth, hammers, and nails. The friends under the mountain combined themselves into one being called the craftsbeing. They had spectacles of gold rims and ruby lenses. They moved about on iron legs and wrote upon the walls with arms of cloth and hide.
It was inevitable that they would grow bored again, and seek to leave the dark workshop. They had forgotten the days as timekeeper, and so had forgotten that their stone cage was not the entire world. They left, expecting to see an emptiness that they would be able to fill with all their creations, all their new friends. They thought they would be gods of Svartalfheim and that time would be infinite and good.
They did not remember the shadows. Regular as they were, they still moved and changed. Each piece of the craftsbeing was a valuable resource, gathered at first by a master of crafts after all, and they were seen as nothing more than walking treasure by the dwarves and dark elves.
They were forced to run and hide. Every time they were caught a piece was torn away and turned back into a simple tool. Eventually it was only the dial and the darkness. In the end, the darkness abandoned the dial to the bottom of a riverbed, where the water would slowly dull its blade until it wan’t even a tool anymore.
I’m not telling you this to be cruel, my love. I’m telling you so you can see, so you can step out of the cave of Midgard, of your small hopes that need room to grow. Your desires do not matter. The world and its people will take from you until you are no more, but they cannot destroy your parts. Surtr has killed your world, but has not killed you. Once you die, he will flounder against your remains, slashing at them with fire and steel, but only cutting. He destroys nothing. Do you see?” She blew into the water, splashing rainbow droplets into his eyes.
Alfheim – Elves Niflheim – Ice
The memory of those drops hitting his eyes, of them stinging only a little in the face of his love for her, forced Bartl back to Surtr’s cushion, where his two companions despaired. They were now as the giants they had just escaped: inert lumps of failure and gloom.
How had they ever been anything? How had he ever been anything in the face of this destruction? He felt his lover, whom he had left in Vanaheim, who did not fear the coming fire, kiss the back of his mind: the wellspring of inspiration. They were all the crafstbeing. Perhaps it never even existed. It could’ve just been a story, born in her mind, and killed in Bartl’s whenever Surtr’s sword would strike him like a collapsing bridge.
“Niflheim,” he said. The other two looked up. “It is the next realm over. If we find a raft we can get there. Surtr will return and rest upon his throne before setting out for Niflheim. We will have some time.”
“What good is time to the doomed?” Throna asked.
“All are doomed,” Bartl answered. “All have always been doomed. You were born that way. Yggdrasil sprouted that way. Your creations are not creations; they are actions. Everything around us is light and art and pain. We must stop seeing the pain as larger than the other two.”
Bartl walked over to Oskr and took the remaining magic stones from him. He pulled their arms, forced them to encircle the stones and focus with him. Together they made their own runes and whispered them onto the surface of the magic rocks. They were not gods, so their runes couldn’t do much, but they could annoy the destroyer.
They spoke of their lives and the trouble they wished to cause. The stones combined like clay and formed a large pin that they left at the center of the cushion. Surtr would return. He would sit, and feel the pain of his acts. He would feel Oskr, Throna, and Bartl in his yelp before his rage turned to the icy wastes of Niflheim.
They left the pin behind and took a raft of hardened stone across the lava rivers to Niflheim, where everything was frozen. They walked as far as they could, but the cold took them, turned them to statues, to sundials weathering at the bottom of a river. Their minds froze with a final thought of an annoyed giant, and how they had soured his apolcalypse. They were not permanent, but their pin would do its job. They would make a sound in the rustling of the falling leaves of Yggdrasil.
When that tree fell, no life would be around to hear it, yet it would still make a sound.