Part 3

The three mages tromped through the snow for about fifteen minutes before reaching the cave that housed the Bifrost. They wordlessly lugged their weapons and armour on their backs until they reached the mouth of the cave.

Thrunn set his satchel down in the snowpack and opened the top. He put on some plate mail and Brynhyldr helped him buckle the straps. He slid a small helmet over his head and began to help Brynhyldr don her armour. She wore a breastplate inscribed with runes and decorated with the image of a wolf etched into the metal by an acid bath.

Amund preferred his leather armour to the plate worn by Thrunn and Brynhyldr. He felt the heavier armour slowed him down too much, and besides, it chafed his armpits.

Once all three had dressed for combat to their satisfaction, they drew their weapons. Amund, held a short, one-handed sword with the word ‘Ulfberht’ etched into the metal. It shone in the light of the midday, picking up the light reflected from the snow and casting a beam of light toward the entrance of the cave.

Brynhyldr carried a long, bastard sword that was almost as long as she was tall. She carried a second, shorter blade in a scabbard on her hip, and wore a spear on her back. She craned her neck from side to side, cracking and popping the vertebrae. She grunted in an unladylike fashion and spat on the ground.

Thrunn’s weapon of choice was a massive war-hammer. The hardwood handle was wrapped in brown leather, connected to a small, steel anvil that had been repurposed into the shape of the hammer’s head. One side of the head was flat and the other had an elongated, horn-like tip. It was marked with runes along the sides and shone like obsidian.

Amund gathered them into a circle of three and raised his hand up to say a prayer. His words were lyrical and foreign to the ears of Brynhyldr and Thrunn. He’d studied many dead languages, including those of the Aesir. He cut the air with his finger in a fixed shape. The atmosphere coalesced around the tip of his index finger, creating a glowing, blue glyph of smoke and energy.

It was a protection spell to keep them safe from harm. Amund hoped it would be enough, whatever may come.

“Let’s begin,” Amund said.

He set out in the lead and entered the mouth of the cave. Brynhyldr followed close behind and Thrunn took up the rear. Inside the cave, the light grew dim. Amund pulled a torch from his satchel and lit it with a match. The air was warmer here – at least it felt warmer without the cruel, biting wind.

Thrunn had only come this deep into the caves a few times before. Each time was new and exciting, it seemed as if the trails had a life of their own, shifting and changing of their own free will. He noted their location in the passages by looking for carvings, paintings or markings. These were ancient caves, home to things much older than humans.

As they got further in, the climate shifted. A faint mist swirled at their feet and clouds gathered along the ceiling of the caves. Hard, rocky ground became softer, like grass and woodchips. The smell was a fresh, pleasant petrichor.

Amund moved the torch from side to side as they walked, illuminating his path. The others watched him closely when he stopped suddenly and raised his hand. He wordlessly motioned for them to stop and pointed at a lumpy mass on the ground.

“This is where the Midgardian wards begin,” Amund said quietly. He pointed to a painting on the wall. It was chalky white with bits of red, a spell cast long ago by a powerful mage.

Brynhyldr poked the lumpy mass with her boot. It was heavy, but soft, about the same size as a big dog. When she flicked her toe into the mass, it flopped over, revealing a wrinkled, twisted face with short, stumpy limbs, knobby joints and a fat belly. The creature’s eyes were half-open and fogged with death.

“What is it?” Brynhyldr grimaced.

Amund held the torch closer to the corpse and examined it in the dim, firelight.

“Looks like a boglin,” Amund said.

“A fairy creature? Here?” Thrunn’s tone was incredulous.

“Looks like … mmm, it’s not been dead long, doesn’t smell of rot yet,” Amund said.

“Are they hostile? Kill on sight?” Brynhyldr readied her sword and scanned the darkness.

“These things mostly keep to themselves. They aren’t exactly a martial race … bottom feeders, bug eaters, at best,” Amund said.

“It looks almost aquatic,” Thrunn said.

He noted the gill-like structures on the neck and the rubbery, flaccid state of its body. Thrunn rested his hammer on his shoulder and sighed. They’d come all this way for a harmless swamp creature.

“Still … one wonders how it got so far from home,” Brynhyldr’s voice was tinged with conspiracy. “To risk the discomfort of the wards must mean something compelled it here.”

Wards served various purposes. Some kept creatures at bay; others were for healing or protection. The simplest wards were ones that simply functioned as an alarm. This ward held many properties, protection, avoidance, and harm to dark and evil things. It would shoo foreign things away and protect Midgard from the oddities and threats from outside the realm.

What bothered Amund was this boglin would barely rate on the ward’s scope of protection.

“I think you might be right …,” Amund rubbed the ground around the corpse with his fingertips. ”There are no footprints or markings here from the creature. It was thrown across the ward boundaries by something or someone while it was still alive.”

Thrunn was confused. “Why bother? The boundary is clearly marked.” He pointed to the wall.

Amund felt the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Goosebumps rose on his arms and a chill sent shivers down his spine. He lifted the torch above his head and peered down the mouth of the cave. Something seemed to move in the shadows, but it could have been the flicker of the torchlight.

“There,” Amund stared into the darkness.

Thrunn and Brynhyldr followed his gaze, peering into the black, seeing nothing. A small, thin tendril sprung out from the abyss and wrapped around Amund’s ankle at a rapid speed. It snapped back into the darkness, unbalancing him and pulling him onto his back. It dragged him along the ground, out of sight. His torch fell and rolled a few feet until it hit the wall.

“Amund!” Brynhyldr cried out.

Thrunn could barely see. He lifted his war-hammer off his shoulder and readied it in his hands. He uttered a small incantation and growled out a keyword to activate it;

“Lys!” He called out. His voiced echoed down the caves and bounced back to them.

The cave filled with a mossy, glowing starburst of fluorescent lights along the walls. Thrunn felt a slight tingling sensation in his nose and a bubbly, carbonated taste in his mouth. Brynhyldr gave chase, her footsteps padding down the passage after Amund. Thrunn followed close behind, his feet clomping with each step, armour rattling as it bounced on his shoulders.

They chased down a tunnel until it split into two. Thrunn paused to catch his breath and Brynhyldr examined the ground. He sucked in air greedily while she decided which way to go. She pointed to the leftmost passage and began to run. Brynhyldr sprinted through the passage with tireless speed until it opened up into a larger cavern.

Thrunn’s illumination spell only filled the passageways, out in the larger cavern, the mossy light was too faint to offer any help. Brynhyldr pulled a small bead from a pouch on her belt and squeezed it in her palm.

She uttered the words and threw the bead up into the darkness. It exploded in a high-pitched pop and hovered about fifteen feet above her head. It was a sunlight charm. It filled the cavern with warm, yellow light and revealed what dwelled there.

A giant, feral-looking tree spread from a basin approximately two stories down from the passageway. Its roots spread out in every direction, flowing through every crack and crevice. The bark was layers of fat, grey chunks, interspersed with the odd, leafy outcropping from small, struggling branches.

The tree itself was at least five stories high, pressed along the wall of the cave, top to bottom. Littered around the trunk were bones and corpses and what appeared to be a stone altar. Brynhyldr scanned the area for her friend.

“Amund!” She called out. Her voice echoed in the room.

There was no reply.

A rustling noise came out from the shadows, calling her attention. A massive creature stepped into the light of her sun spell. It had a mushy face and wore a big, crude, furry loincloth that looked like a diaper. It had mottled-blue skin and was covered in muck and putrid pustules across its flesh.

It looked like a giant, but not like any kind of giant she’d seen before. It was almost three times as tall as Brynhyldr, with long, scruffy hair dangling from its head. Its arms were lumpy and huge and its fingers were bigger than plantains, tipped with rotten, yellow fingernails.

Its mouth dropped open and led out a gurgling bellow, baring a set of yellow, misshapen teeth. It was all Brynhyldr needed to know. She raised her sword and pointed it at the giant.

She shrugged her shoulders emphatically and a pair of wings sprouted from her back, pushing out between two slits in her armour. She flapped them vigorously and lifted off, only to dramatically drop down with a full swing of her sword. She buried her blade clean into the giant’s skull, cleaving it in twain.

The giant crumbled to the ground and ceased moving. She landed just-so and folded her wings behind her back to examine her handiwork. Thrunn came stumbling into the cavern. The fight with the giant happened so fast that he missed Brynhyldr’s swordplay entirely.

“Amund?” He panted.

Their eyes met and she shrugged and turned her attention to the giant. A black tendril slithered between the torn bits of flesh and brain matter. She lifted her sword up and hacked at the vine, severing it in two pieces.

The cavern shuddered beneath their feet and a low, groaning noise filled the air. It came from the base of the tree, far below them.

“I think it’s sentient,” Brynhyldr said.

“It’s controlling the vines?” Thrunn asked.

She nodded her head.

“That’s all I needed to know,” He said.

Brynhyldr watched Thrunn utter words, activating a spell that lit up his whole body, bringing the etchings on his armour to life. The wolf on his breastplate glowed bright blue and sparkled independent of any other source of light. His war-hammer also began to glow.

Brynhyldr watched Thrunn leap up into the air, more than twenty feet, projecting himself forward in an impressive bound. He descended into the basin at terminal velocity, pushed on by a mystical force, and landed with an explosive shockwave. The ground of the cave buckled and displaced a couple inches beneath his feet, sending shards of stone and a cloud of dust in every direction.

The shockwave from his impact created a shockwave of air that blew back Brynhyldr’s hair, forcing her to blink grit from the corners of her eyes. She flapped her wings to regain her balance.

“Yeeaaaaarrrrrgh!” He bellowed, raising his warhammer high above his head. He swung it with impossible speed and smashed the trunk of the tree with a devastating blow. Wood, petrified and otherwise, swirled in every direction as it was atomized by the war-hammer’s magical nature. An anvil-sized chunk of tree was gouged from the trunk.

The cavern shuddered again under the protest of the sentient tree. Brynhyldr took flight and dodged falling debris. She flapped her wings and carried herself down toward Thrunn. He raised his weapon again and uttered the words from a language not heard on Earth for many generations. His war-hammer glowed bright yellow.

“Stop!” Amund called out.

Thrunn stumbled as he caught himself mid-swing, the light from the war-hammer sputtered out and it returned to its natural colour. Both Thrunn and Brynhyldr turned to the source of Amund’s voice.

He stood opposite his cabal-mates, across the basin, on a large, horizontal, truck-sized root that wound itself up and down through the cave.

“We’re here to help!” Thrunn called.

“The tree means us no harm!” Amund shouted.

Thrunn and Brynhyldr stood still, dumbfounded.

“It confused us for something else,” Amund said. “It’s an ancient guardian of the Bifrost.”

“What?” She said.

Amund jumped down from the root and landed softly. He walked toward his friends so he didn’t have to shout.

“It thought we were giants,” Amund said. “Until it got a closer look.”

“I killed a giant up there,” Brynhyldr pointed back to where they’d come from.

“You destroyed its thrall,” Amund explained. “It showed me its thoughts … it can … sense us, read our minds, communicate with us.”

Thrunn was taken aback. “It’s reading our minds? Even right now?”

Amund nodded his head. Thrunn wrinkled his nose. “Gross.”

“It was using the giant to guard the passages. It linked its consciousness with mine … shared its knowledge, but it’s a two-way street. It saw we are the latest of the human guardians of the Bifrost.”

“How did we not know about this?” Brynhyldr said.

Amund shrugged. “This place is of-magic. The rules aren’t the same here. Time doesn’t even flow the same here. There are many pathways to the Bifrost in these caverns.”

Thrunn and Brynhyldr understood the implications of Amund’s explanation. Magic and reality were not so easily explained, or so predictable.

“Sorry about your thrall,” Brynhyldr called out to the tree.

Thrunn felt his face begin to burn. Pangs of guilt stung the back of his mind. “Sorry about your trunk,” He said aloud.

A groaning noise filled the cavern. It seemed less ominous in tone; instead it seemed to be a calming noise.

“Let’s get out of here before it changes its mind about us,” Amund grinned.

Thrunn set his hammer on his shoulder and made his way up the slope to the passageway they came in through.

“So the ward was tripped by a boglin? From somewhere in these caverns we’ve never seen before?” Brynhyldr asked.

“I don’t know,” Amund said gravely.

“Great. Now we have more questions than answers,” Brynhyldr furrowed her brow.

“It is the way of things,” Amund sighed.

Part 3

Mage: The Gun Quarter MattBarton