1 March 2006
I was encouraged to take my human form again before climbing the worldtree. The branches can handle the flames of fire giants, Yggdrasil explained, but there was no need to test its resilience to hellfire if we didn't need to. I think it was largely entertaining my own discomfort with having worn no flesh for over a year, but made no indication of my suspicion. I packed the book into my bag, after a reminder that it may not recognize its master in the face of a priest, and walked to the base of the tree. I have never before noticed the way the bark on one side resembled a stairway, but once I looked more closely I couldn't help but see it winding around and around the trunk all the way up, always meeting branches right where one could easily step onto them. Akshainie retained her natural form, slithering up the edge of the tree following a route of minute irregularities I could barely make out as she slipped over them.
I had no idea that the tree could be used to travel within Midgard, but Yggdrasil walked us through how to decide where we emerged on Earth instead of just popping up right outside. We tried to keep the track well, but it took a couple hours to get from the ground to the twig that opened to the world of man, and by then we realized we had forgotten some of the details. We tried to work it out, not desiring to make our way back down and up again, and lightly argued about bits we remembered differently.
"You could just ask," a female-sounding voice said. We both stopped and looked up, our gaze met by two ravens sitting on a branch over us. They were both far larger than normal ravens, almost as large as me; one looked otherwise normal, while the other had shifting blueish runes glowing in and under black feathers.
"I do hope you mean asking you," I said, glancing at Yggdrasil resting far below.
"It's worth a shot," the blue raven replied, connecting the voice we'd already heard to a face. Akshainie slid forward.
"Would you help us find our way? There's a place on the other side of the human world we must find, called Ohio."
"Vienna, Ohio," the raven answered. "An abandoned mental hospital." The black raven nodded silently. I turned to them.
"How do you know that?"
"It is time." She turned and cawed at the twig, and the image through the portal shifted and warped until we saw a dark room, a small amount of pale moonlight shining through the broken and barred window, the walls cracked and crumbling and covered in bits of graffiti, the ground covered in old leaves and broken bits of junk. We looked to the ravens, who nodded. We looked to each other, then Akshainie shrugged, and we walked through.
Once we were fully in the room, we looked back and found no evidence of the opening ever existing. Akshainie had to coil herself low to avoid bumping her head on the ceiling, which was only a foot over my head. It took me a moment to get used to being human-sized again, and as we both looked around and adjusted to the world of man, we heard footsteps crunching through the detritus in the hallway. We braced ourselves and turned, watching, when a young black man entered and pointed a flashlight at us. He looked us each over, with disinterest where I would have expected surprise, and there was silence for a few minutes until he groaned, lowered the flashlight, and lit a cigarette.
"What are you, a naga?" he asked.
"I...yes," Akshainie answered. The young man nodded and exhaled a long string of smoke.
"Always fucking something," he muttered.
27 February 2006
The Book of Shadows is in constant flux, but when the code was broken it largely began to obey the ways I now knew to read it in. It still took us some days to work through it, as even once we knew how to read it we had to figure out what we were even looking for. If there was ever a being named Nachash, it no longer went by such a name, or maybe it originally had no name. We didn't yet know enough of the book to know whether the names used were original or current, or something between.
The point of the book was to track the activities of demonic forces, that much was passed along to me by Tadzio on our way up from Germany. As we worked through, we came to understand that the text would change to show shifting alliances, locations, and even names. There seemed to be ways to use it to see the way things were in the past, but we had no time to dig into that different, and currently unnecessary, mess. What finally gave us a hint was when I began to find connections that lined up with my notes of some of the Brood's network. Some of them were dead ends, other bits were things I knew were being handled, but as I traced the network beyond the strands I knew I found reference to a Mother-in-the-Deep, a being who seemed central to some aspects of the Brood that I hadn't yet uncovered. The locations weren't always perfectly lined up with the human systems of marking them, but we were sure it was a location on the physical plane. It was another day of comparing notes and discussions with Yggdrasil before we were able to track it to a place in North America; when we lined it up with a map in my bag, we found it to be somewhere near the line between Pennsylvania and Ohio, likely on the Ohio side.
"Do you know any paths there?" I asked Akshainie, dreading the odds of her saying she did. But she shook her head.
"I could, through the River Network, probably get there. But without knowing what river we need, or what terms the Network would use for that region, it could take some wandering and guessing." I groaned and leaned back, scratching my chin.
"If it is passage you seek," Yggdrasil said, standing from the dirt, "you may wish to remember where you begin." We looked at it for a moment, then past it to the worldtree itself.
"I hope you've some skill at climbing," Akshainie whispered, looking at the tree's branches.
"Me, too," I answered.
25 February 2006
After a couple months, Benedict and Akshainie stopped keeping track of the time. The day/night cycle was strange in this place anyway, with a sun just orbiting the worldtree and casting light on the realms as it passed, and they had no idea how well it related to the world outside. They would work on translating for as long as they could stand, with Akshainie usually leaving to meditate what felt like a couple hours before Benedict was done. They would sleep when it felt appropriate; sometimes he would find her coiled up next to him when he woke, sometimes she was already up and training, sometimes she was half hidden away under a root. He wasn't even sure if she needed sleep or was just entertaining him. In this form, he mostly did it out of habit, but she was fully spirit and therefore might need even less. It never seemed sensible to ask if naga were a race with something approaching a biological cycle, though, so he never did.
This morning was one in which she was under a root when Benedict rose and went to begin his work, and he absently noticed her when she woke and slipped away toward the river. She returned some time later, still wringing water out of her hair and wrapped in one of the large leaves she had taken to using as towels.
"How's the book today?" she asked, settling down to what passed for sitting in her habit.
"If I was not assured of success," he said, turning a page and comparing to the assorted notes he had next to to, "I would think we were making no progress at all." She sighed.
"I suppose I should get dressed, then."
"I should think that was going to be part of your plan either way."
"Well, yes, of course. But I didn't want to leave you hanging if you were close to something." He nodded but didn't look up, and she waited a moment before rolling her eyes and leaving to gather her outfit. As she was slipping her shirt on, a large shadow began to loom over her.
"I am not equipped to know whether your playful attitude with him is born of amusement or desire," Yggdrasil said. Akshainie gasped and spun around, sword in hand. "But as your time here is nearly finished, I feel it my responsibility to inform you that if it is the latter, he cannot reciprocate."
"I certainly never said it was," she grumbled, putting her sword away. "But what do you mean, cannot?"
"You know how our kind are bound by our vows." She nodded, and it continued. "His priesthood requires some number of vows, one of which includes restraint from romantic or sexual attachments."
"Isn't it a mortal priesthood?" It nodded. "And aren't mortals pretty big on romantic and sexual attachments?"
"Generally. It is considered a sacrifice, in this case."
"Well, thanks for the tip, but don't worry. I'm not about to make any attachments with a joyless fire spirit, anyway." Yggdrasil slowly nodded, then turned away as she began to move toward Benedict. She stopped, suddenly, then turned back. "What do you mean, our time is almost finished." Yggdrasil didn't answer, but did stop and look toward Benedict. She watched it for a moment, then groaned and turned just in time to see Benedict jump up.
"I've got it!" he yelled. A massive smile spread across her face, and she looked to Yggdrasil, who had turned its back to her and continued walking toward its spot at the foot of the worldtree. She turned back and rushed over to see the book.
19 October 2005
Akshainie dove over Benedict's arm as his fist drove into the earth, then quickly wound around his ankles and popped up on his other side, delivering a quick pair of punches to his jaw before he was able to bring his hand back around. He stumbled, tripped over her tail, and fell backward into the grass as Akshainie threw herself over him and whipped him in the face with the end of her tail for good measure. He grunted and rolled over, catching his breath with his knees and fists on the ground.
"You're getting faster in this form," she said, slithering over and applying some ointment from a pouch on her side to her fists.
"Doesn't feel much faster," he grumbled. "Besides, I don't exactly plan on using this form once we leave here."
"What a shame, to hide a face like that just because it isn't traditionally human," she said with a smirk. She coiled her lower body around herself and began applying the ointment to the end of her tail. "But that's not the whole point."
"Oh?" he asked, pushing himself into a seated position. "And what is?"
"You don't know how to be a fighter and a spirit at the same time. You can punch, and you can use your gifts, but you insist on switching between them instead of seeing yourself as one person who has them all available all the time."
"I don't exactly have all the benefits of my demonic form when I'm in human form."
"But you have some, and I bet if you tried to embrace your nature you could have more." He let out a low, slow breath as he rubbed his jaw.
"You want me to, what, just be fine with demonic influence?"
"I want you to accept that you are what you are and make the best of it. I don't care what you think about demons in general. We're going against a force that will use all the powers you refuse to, and better than you can if you don't practice them, and your stories about them sound like they're very good at turning self-loathing to their advantage. If you insist on feeling bad about being imperfect in the eyes of your dad you will lose this fight." Her body slowly uncoiled as her torso lifted into the air, putting her eyes at the same level of his where he sat. She pointed at him as she continued. "And I'm not letting you take me down with you." He stared at her for a second, then groaned as he rested his hand on his knee and pushed himself back up to standing.
"One thing at a time. Ready?"
"Always," she said, smiling, as she dove forward.
6 May 2005
I had been working at the cipher long enough that day that I stopped counting hours. For all I knew it had spanned multiple days. But now I was having trouble seeing the words clearly, and realized I needed a break. I stood, stretched, let my wings twitch a bit to battle the stiffness in them, and then went for a walk.
In this form I couldn't really do much with water and had no desire to; and while I didn't technically need food on a daily basis, I still enjoyed the act and taste, especially of the pure fruits growing on the branches of the worldtree. It took a couple weeks for me to learn how to pick them myself without damaging the tree, which involved Akshainie painfully dousing the flames on my hands with the water she could call on when I did it wrong and nearly caused an issue. Yggdrasil watched these proceedings without comment, but never so relaxed that I thought it wouldn't handle the situation itself if she was just a little too slow. The first time, she picked two beautiful apples herself, taking a bite of the first one before handing me the other. When she slithered away with her prize and I took my first bite, I had heard Yggdrasil snicker.
"Don't they have a story about that among your myths?" it said, bemused. I grunted and it laughed as I walked away with my fruit, and we never spoke of the matter again.
I picked what appeared to be a gourd of some sort, with a crispy outer shell and a moist but chewy center, as I made my way around the tree today. As I made my way around the great roots of the worldtree, I noticed Akshainie sitting next to the well called Mímisbrunnr, quietly meditating with her tail curved around the edges of the water but never quite touching. I paused and watched her for a time, as she quietly hummed and swayed like a cobra enchanting itself, and the well softly humming along. Finally she stopped and, laying down beside the water, glanced over to me. She smiled and waved me over, and I walked closer to sit near her head.
"What do you know of these waters?" she asked, resting her ear on her folded arms and staring into the well's depths.
"I know that Odin, as he's now generally called, gave his eye for a single drink of it because the wisdom it could impart was so valuable."
"Is that how you Europeans think wisdom is gained? By consuming it?"
"It seems to have worked for him, at least once." She laughed.
"Consuming that which you value always seems to work. At least, once."
"Are you a philosopher, as well?"
"All things are connected, Benedict. You, me, this water, even the Barzai, all have their places in the great wheel. Some refuse to honor their place; but knowing this, and learning to recognize one's own place in it, is just the way of life in Iravati. That your people make it a separate discipline, as if such a thing could ever truly be separate from any other discipline, is a strange and probably harmful practice."
"I suppose we have a lot of those." We stared together at the water for a time, before I leaned back and resumed eating my gourd. Her body slid up alongside mine, until her face was next to my face and her eyes turned to me.
"Where do you think wisdom comes from, priest?"
"The One True God, who knows all things, sustains all things, and puts all things in motion. He is the wellspring of all truth and wisdom, and I learn to know the world best when I learn to see it as He does."
"At least it isn't found in consumption."
"Well," I said, "there is some of that. Every time we hold Mass." She laughed and rolled onto her back, and we stared into the endless sky dotted with leaves and branches from which the worlds hung.
"You'll have to show me this Mass one day. I must see this madness." I laughed then, as well, as I broke off part of my gourd and handed it to her.
"I would be glad to have you in attendance."
24 February 2005
The first thing to overcome with the book was the protection on it. Being a magical tome, it had a certain understanding of ownership, and recognized me in that regard; but it was never really intended to be something that was given away to anyone, let alone a priest, and it had the metaphorical teeth so express this discomfort. The process of opening it involved about an hour of placating it, countering its protection magic, and slowly reminding it who was in charge of the situation. By that point Akshainie had come and sat down across from me, watching with a certain amused curiosity as a massive flaming beast negotiated with a demonic book for permission to read it.
"So you've never actually bothered opening this thing before? Not even to find out what it was?" she asked as I was working.
"I wanted nothing to do with my mother, or anything she offered me. That's a dangerous road."
"But what can she really do to you? You're not exactly mortal."
"Her whole thing is control and corruption, and she is no low-ranking demon. Men and gods are equally malleable to her. The only way to win that game is not to play."
"And yet, here we are, opening the book." I sighed.
"I know. And I'm concerned about what happens next. But, I think saving all of mankind is worth it." I finished the procedures and the book relaxed. Akshainie and I looked at each other for a moment before turning our attention to the book again. I cracked it open, turned to the first page, and was met with a convoluted mess of sigils and letters from a dozen different scripts, half of which were either extinct or never used by mortals. I quickly flipped through the other pages, finding only more of the same. The only difference was that the markings on some pages were changing and others weren't. I yelled, got up, and started pacing around.
"I suppose this is why the tree gave you permission to use its resources," she said, looking over the page that was open and avoiding touching the book.
"Do you have any idea how long it's going to take to decipher that?"
"We have all the time in the world."
"We do! They don't!" I yelled, waving my hand toward the entrance to the chamber. "I could probably spend a century working on that and be fine, but if we come out of here at the end of that to find out the Brood had already summoned their dread god and eradicated any remaining good in humanity, what was the point?"
"A year and a day," Yggdrasil said, standing. It walked over to loom over Akshainie, and rested a finger next to the book. "This is not a parable, priest. This is a legend, and if you work at this problem for a year and a day and do not leave my realm, you will have what you seek." I stopped and scowled, knitting my fingers together behind my head and tapping the claws on my wings together.
"Fine," I said, finally, walking back toward the book. "A year and a day." Yggdrasil nodded and rose, turning to return to its resting place.
"Your rage on this matter is admirable. Try not to burn anything in the process." I sat down, took a deep breath, and turned back to the beginning of the book.
"Do you have to do this all day, every day, for a year?" Akshainie asked.
"No," I said. "It doesn't actually matter whether I spend an hour or twenty-four on it per day. As long as I'm doing something, it will come together."
"Well. We do have all this room," she said, leaning back and looking around at the endless fields around us. "Maybe we could work on those combat skills of yours."
"Oh, only mine?" I asked with a smirk.
"I could use some practice fighting someone larger than me," she said, with a chuckle, "but I'm not the one who has to remember how their natural body actually moves."
"Fine, fine. But you need to help me with this."
"As you wish, my lord," she said, getting up faking a bow before slithering away. "I shall begin by finding out what resources a tree has for translating an untranslatable book."
24 February 2005
The weather was fierce as we made our way inland, and although I was able to keep the area around me warm enough to travel through, I could not adequately fight off the snow without causing incredible discomfort for Akshainie. She had difficulty with the extreme cold, as well, but at least the snow didn't dry her out the way my heat did. The first few days we barely made any progress as we worked out a balance that allowed us to travel and gave her the warmth she needed, but didn't damage her. Thankfully she gave up on a human form fairly quickly, and her serpentine body moved through the snow much more gracefully than my legs; still, it ended up taking us far longer than I expected to reach the entrance to Yggdrasil.
The chamber of Yggdrasil felt like summer on the coast, and she immediately perked up once we entered. She laid on her back in the grass, driving herself forward with her powerful lower portion and enjoying the feel of the warm, humid grass on her arms and head and scales.
"You should try it, Benedict!" she called as she slithered along beside me on my way to speak to the guardian.
"I'm afraid my body doesn't quite move that way."
"Oh, but you can enjoy the grass! It's fun, after all that snow."
"I suppose we have fun in different ways." She laughed and started winding in circles around me, finally rising up behind me and resting her arms on my shoulders.
"I'm not sure I believe you've ever cracked even the tiniest smile in your life. Is this what that church of yours does to people?"
"There are some who say it does, yes. But you've also only seen me on business." I stopped as the great wooden being rose from the shadow of the Worldtree and stepped forward.
"You have returned," it said. It glanced to Akshainie, who let go of my shoulders and slid over to stand beside me. "It has been some ages since we have welcomed a naga to these lands, and never quite on purpose." She gave a low bow and then offered the introduction I had told her was customary in this realm.
"I am Akshainie, member of the Iravati guard, under commission by the Great Naga."
"Well met, Akshainie. What business draws you to the Worldtree?"
"Oh," she said with a brief laugh, then pointed at me, "I'm here with him."
"Indeed. Do make yourself comfortable." It turned to me. "What is your business?"
"I have come for the Book of Shadows," I announced.
"The Book of Shadows has an owner. I am merely caring for it."
"I am the owner of the Book of Shadows by right."
"You have not yet introduced yourself in this place to confirm such an identity." I frowned, then straightened up.
"I am Father Benedict Michael de Monte, ordained priest in-"
"The Book does not belong to a mortal," it said, before leveling its gaze intently at me, "not by right." We stared at each other for a moment, then I grumbled and turned to Akshainie.
"You may wish to back up." She raised a brow, but moved aside until I seemed satisfied. I turned back to Yggdrasil, who straightened up and crossed its many arms to wait. For the first time since childhood, I dropped my human guise. I heard Akshainie gasp as I became an eight-foot-tall demon, fire burning across all of my cracked and charred skin and forming something like a corrupted halo around my head, great wings stretching out to snap open and then slowly close. "I was born Telial of the Broken Oath; heir of Babylon the Great, son of Babylon the whore, seventh horn of the Scarlet Beast, king of a land not yet risen. And rightful owner of the Book of Shadows."* Yggdrasil nodded slowly, then reached one hand to the bark of the Worldtree and pulled the Book of Shadows as if from thin air.
"You are welcome to use this chamber to aid you in your quest, Telial of the Broken Oath." It handed me the book, then turned and returned to its place of rest in the shade of the Worldtree. I was looking at the book when I felt a hand rest against my chest. When I moved the book I saw Akshainie, at her full height and still looking up at me, her hand pressed against me with concern in her eyes.
"Why do you hide this?" she asked.
"It...it is not the life I chose," I said.
"All the way here, though. When no one could see you, even then?" I hesitated, then turned away.
"I could see me." I walked over to a table and seats formed from one of Yggdrasil's roots and set the book down. When I looked back, she had crossed her arms and turned aside to look at the tree and very pointedly not at me.
*- See the Book of Revelation (The Apocalypse of John), chapter 17.
20 March 2001
The first few years after Tadzio and I faced the Barzai, my work was largely centered on helping legal authorities sort through the maze of funding and corporate affiliations that had been identified by Mark Larmais. I would find sporadic opportunities to look into rumors of the cult's presence, and sometimes even find something, but the bulk of the cult's activities and the Barzai himself eluded me. One of the few things I had been able to collect from my own research was that the cult seemed to be appropriating serpent-related iconography and beliefs from around the world. Lacking an exhaustive mortal resource on serpents in the collective human imagination, I had now spent the last week hiking into the mountains of northern Norway in search of the one resource I knew collected the information I need.
I had known for decades about the role of the Worldtree in metaphysical affairs, though I had never sought it out. While its branches did literally hold the way to realms known to the Norse people who first interacted with it, its relationship to a well of wisdom and its function as a place where all realms meet ensured that it and its guardian became repositories of all knowledge. I knew it was not the only such repository, but it was the one I knew how to find. I actually knew two ways, one through Norway and one through Muspelheim, but I had sworn never to use that road long ago.
The people of Olderdalen seemed concerned when I arrived on the ferry with nothing but a small pack that contained a Bible and my notes, as well as a couple notebooks and pencils, and did not stop to buy anything. I don't know whether their primary issue was my safety or my money, but they grew silent when they saw the snow melt under my feet. Aside from some whispers, I was left to my own devices as I walked east out of town. My stops for camp were short enough that most of my time was not spent arriving in this area, but in searching it for the entrance. On finally finding a narrow cave etched into the side of a jagged mountain with ancient etchings surrounding the entrance, I took a moment to gather my wits before entering.
The passage was tight and stretched for about forty meters before suddenly opening to a massive chamber. It's probably incorrect to call it a chamber, as there seemed to be no actual walls or ceiling to it, only the hole I emerged from sitting like a doorway without a frame in the middle of a field and an endless night sky above. Before me was a tree larger than any building I had ever seen, and a dazzling array of gates scattered among its branches. There was a great well in its shade, and a worn rope dangling above it. The ground itself seemed to breathe, as something stirred beneath it. Between myself and the tree was a being that resembled a tree in the shape of a man. It was about three and a half meters tall, with four arms that stretched out of its body like gnarled branches and an array of root-like legs that continued into the ground. It rose to its full height on my entrance, and stared at me with a face that looked barely shaped from the bark of its surface, except for its one eye, set where a man's right eye socket would be. The eye itself was small, as though it had been made for the head of a human.
"Yggdrasil," I said as I approached, "forgive my intrusion, I did not know how to announce my coming."
"Nothing surprises me here." Its voice was like the breaking of branches and the roar of fire and the cracking of ice, but I could see no sign of a mouth moving. "Your coming was foretold."
"And my business as well, then?"
"It is customary to state your name and business all the same. However, you have forsaken your name, have you not?" I straightened up and took a deep breath. I had not had that matter mentioned in some time.
"I have taken another, if it pleases you to hear that one."
"It does not. State your business, flameborn."
"I have come in search of knowledge about a cult that claims to honor the Serpent of Old. They have used the visage of Jörmungandr in their works, and I have reason to believe they will do the same with all serpents around the world."
"All knowledge in this place comes with a price."
"What is the price for that which I seek?"
"Far greater than what you can pay. But for what you have requested, that is not my answer to give. You must ask the serpent yourself." It stepped aside to reveal an opening into the ground framed by the arc of a root of the Worldtree, and pointed into the darkness. "Jörmungandr has heard of your coming. You have his attention only briefly before the roots of the tree again draw his eye." I nodded a thanks and descended into the burrow.
The path was steep and winding, hewn from raw earth and decorated only sporadically with stones and glowing mushrooms. The further I traveled, the more the ground shook, and the louder came a sound like ridged metal dragging through the dirt. I finally stepped out into a dome, the roof supported by the roots of the Worldtree, lined with moss and glowing worms dangling from lines of silk, and a series of other passages leading off in every direction. I made careful note of the one I needed to return to the surface, and stepped forward into the center of the cavern. I stood only for a moment before the ground rumbled violently and a massive serpent's head, large enough to swallow me whole as an accident, emerged from one of the passages.
"You must be the flameborn," he said, his tongue darting back and forth as if sampling the air all around me.
"Jörmungandr, I presume."
"The very one. What business have you here?"
"I seek the Brood of Nachash. They have used your likeness, and that of many other great serpents."
"And you think I know them, personally?"
"I think either they are truly associated with you, or they use your name inappropriately. Either way, I see reason for you to take an interest."
"Protection of my name is no concern of yours," he said, drawing further from the ground and circling around me. "But if it is knowledge on the world's serpents you seek, I may have something for you."
"At what price?"
"Clever boy! What price indeed. What I offer you is my venom, flameborn. If you will take it, you may die. If you do not burn it from you, and you do not die, then you will gain what you need to trace the paths of the great serpents; and the price shall be your false name."
"What do you mean?"
"You have forsaken your name and you bring to this place, of all places! You bring to this place a new one, given by the tongue of man. If you take my gift, and use it, then the loss of this second name shall be a curse for you." I stood and stared at him for a moment, before I noticed his eyes drifting to the roots.
"Fine! Fine. I will accept your gift." The serpent's gaze snapped back to me, and he smiled as he drew close.
"Then take it," he said, before opening his mouth wide. A massive fang hung precariously close to my head, and I noticed a large drop of venom forming on it. I clenched my fists, then opened my mouth and caught the drop as it fell. It burned as it passed my throat, and I stumbled backward as the serpent laughed and drew himself back into his burrow. "Good day, flameborn."
I turned and made my way to the passage to the surface, and as I grew close my vision began to blur. I tripped and crawled along the path, coughing and forcing my body not to burn away the toxin. Colors began to flash in my field of vision, and by the time I felt grass under my hands I could barely move or make sense of anything I saw. I felt a cold wooden hand rest on my back, and everything went dark.
Evidence compiled for use during the trial of Father Benedict de Monte.