Darkness has swallowed me whole, encompassing me like a tight and narrow throat pulling me ever down. I don’t know how long I am consumed by this darkness before it begins to splinter—first in bright, crackling streaks like lighting across the sky, only they are the warm color of fire. Despite all that initial warmth, behind it there howls an ice far colder than any storm of Njordr.
I peel open my eyes against the cold. They feel frozen shut, my eyelashes clumped with ice. I blink against the hard brightness of sunlight on snow—though there is no sun here.
Something doesn’t feel right. I crane my neck to look down at myself—hearing my bones crackle and feeling the muscle stiff like jerky straining with the movement. I recoil, by there’s only so much one can recoil from themselves.
There is something writhing under my torn shirt. It finds its way to the blood-soaked tear and slips out. Fingers. A hand. An arm.
“Djävlar—“ I try to pull away from my own body, pull out of my own skin. I cannot.
Then I notice…a mutilated, twisted leg protruding from the side of my knee. More body parts, grotesque and blended into mine. I touch my face and to my horror, I feel teeth. Teeth breaking through my skin from the inside out—and moving. Just the faintest pulse, as though they’re chewing the air.
Bile stings the back of my throat and tears burn at my eyes. I’m about to go to my knees, wondering if this is some nightmare, wondering when I’ll wake.
Then I see her.
She stands before me in the howling snow and wind, her hair whipped up into icicles like broken and deformed antlers, her eyes two gaping black maws, her skin thin blue ice clinging to sharp, crystalline bone. She looks like a statue carved from the frozen wastes, tall and horrible, her ribcage wide and her waste sucked in to a narrow core around her spine, her hips jutting like ax blades. Her mouth a row of jagged, long teeth like needles pulled into a horrifying grin.
Then, all at once, she’s nothing at all—a flickering gray shadow sinking into horrible black then blasting my eyes with sharp, piercing white, her form changing in flickering flashes. At one moment an emaciated wolf, at another a bear with a hide torn by decay, at another a woman with her breasts out and frozen and cracking like ice, and in between a sucking void my eyes can’t bare to pin down.
She is horrific.
She is beautiful.
A chill runs through me as I realize then—I’m dead. I can’t be seeing her, not really, not if I’m alive.
I did it.
I finally died.
My heart sinks. I had meant to dance in the clouds, with Balthazar. He’d asked me to dance and I’d been coy and mocking. He’d bested me in battle, and he’d given me a bracelet, and he’d kissed me and held my hand and—
He’d been my friend. He’d told me he loved me, and I’d choked on the word because…well…what did it mean?
If I’m dead I don’t get to know.
I close my eyes and shake my head. Oh well. I was never meant for a life like that anyway. I was meant for Sveas. I was always meant only for Sveas.
My eyes search to pin her down. I reach to pull my mace from my belt and ready my shield, doing my best to ignore the writhing of the arm against my stomach, the aimless chewing of the teeth on my face. My body crackles like ice as I bend to brace myself for battle.
This was always where my life was leading. This was always where I was meant to be. I tell myself that it was the only place I had ever wanted to be, and I make myself believe it.
“Disgusting filth,” a hissing voice comes to me on the wind, coming from no particular point but beating at me from every angle. “Abomination. You do not belong here.”
My stomach clenches. “Yes I do,” I grit out. “I am Freydis the Undying, Daughter of Njordr and daughter of the Thrymfrost. I am the daughter of Nidhoggsdotter and the spirit of the Wolf, and I come at long last to defeat you, Sveas!”
Her laughter is glaciers breaking and avalanches burying cities.
“You are nothing. You are un-whole, bits and pieces of peasants left behind and forgotten. You are a cast out little whelp that should have been left to freeze in the snow upon birth. You are shit in the bowels of ghouls and I recognize you not as a daughter of Njordr but as just another southern mongrel.”
Her words are a thousand blades lodging in my chest. I gasp as though I’ve been struck, and the air in my throat freezes.
All I can see is her outstretched hand, her fingers long like twisted branches.
“No,” I say through ice and gasping. “No! I was branded in the Rimelands! I grew up in snow and ice, I came of age in blood—”
“You dirty the door of my hall.”
“No, no! Fight me Sveas!” The screams come again, and tears freeze on my cheeks. “I am meant to fight you! It’s all I’ve ever been meant for!” Ice clogs my throat, my voice straining against the sobs that swell, burning and cold in my chest.
“You were never worthy of the last rites.”
“Sveas! You can’t—”
“Be gone from my sight, you wretched dog.”
The blackness bites down on me, closing everything else out. The last thing I hear is my own pitiful screaming.
How? How can she still not want me?
The void that swallows me also swallows my screams, sucks the breath from my lungs until I feel my body collapsing in on itself. The tearing in my heart drowns the horrible burning in my flesh. I don’t care for the splintering agony in my bones, for my soul is being torn asunder.
How can she not want me?
The arm that writhes against my skin, the teeth that pulse on my face, the leg that dangles at my knee…
What have I become? In the bowels of ghouls, rendered shit.
Where he left me.
He who claimed to love me.
Whatever that may mean.