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.