For Al Larson it all began with his death in a fire-fight in Vietnam. He woke from this certain death to find himself alive - in a body and a world that was not his own! Transformed into an elven warrior, he became an unsuspecting pawn of the Norse gods, claimed as a weapon by both the forces of Chaos and of Law. Faced with challenges that would take him to Hel and back, Al made a place for himself in a land of swordsmen and spell-casters, and, after slaying one god, he found himself leagued with sorceresses and a master thief in the endless battle against Chaos. But when Al and Shadow the thief slew the Chaos dragon, they unleashed a magical force beyond anyone's power to contain. And Al and his companions would be forced to work a desperate magic to flee back to a twentieth century America which was not quite the one from which Al had originally come. But Chaos would not let Al, Shadow, and the Dragonrank mages Silme and Astryd escape so easily, and, a mortal man once again, Al would find himself caught in a desperate fight to save everyone he held dear, as Chaos pursued him into the heart of New York City.
Release date: April 30, 2019
Print pages: 288
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By Chaos Cursed
Mickey Zucker Reichert
Unhurriedly, Vidarr continued his walk, far from the gates of Valhalla, the Bifrost Bridge, and the citadels of his colleagues. Taciturn in the extreme, Vidarr had learned to radiate his emotions in lieu of words, but he preferred the more complete silence that could only come with solitude. Let the other gods argue over the quality of the wine or who deserved the honor of sitting beside beautiful Freyja. A seeker of wisdom and truth could speak with Vidarr’s father, Odin. For tales of strength and courage, no one could match Vidarr’s brother, Thor; and, for polite and attractive company, Vidarr’s other brother, Baldur, recently raised from Hel’s underworld, was the ideal. For scintillating conversation, a god could do worse than seek out Freyja’s brother, Freyr. Still, it was not bitterness that sent the Silent God tramping the fields of Asgard. Quiet, demure Vidarr simply preferred to be alone.
A patch of aqua and gold wildflowers seized Vidarr’s attention, and he swerved toward it. Two long-legged strides brought him to a patch of singed foliage before the flower bed. He froze, suddenly assailed by memory. He recalled a day nearly a year ago, an eye blink to the time sense of a god. Deeply etched remembrance rose, painful in its clarity. Vidarr recalled marching across this same field. Then, he had had a companion. Radiant as a new bride and nearly as handsome as Baldur, Loki the Trickster had matched Vidarr stride for stride, verbally goading the Silent One to interest in the new sword at his hip.
Aware Loki would one day betray the gods, Vidarr cared little for his walking mate. As did all the gods, he knew Loki’s destiny was to lead the giants and the souls of the dead against them in a bloody war, called Ragnarok, which would kill all but a handful of the Norse deities. But Vidarr also believed he had nothing to fear. The time for war had not come yet, and, of them all, Vidarr was to be the war’s hero, the only god every legend named certain to survive the Ragnarok.
As vividly as if it had been yesterday, light slashed Vidarr’s vision, and the explosion of Loki’s magics thundered through his ears. Pain slammed his chest with the force of a galloping stallion. Bowled to the ground, he was caught in a whirling vortex of sorcery that stole all sense of time, place, and existence. The recognition of flesh and self disappeared, replaced by a perfect prison of cold, solid iron. Vidarr vaguely recalled the high-pitched fear of his own scream ringing across his hearing through an eternity of otherwise unbroken, silent darkness.
Now, Vidarr shivered at the thought. Trapped within a block of metal, he had fought for a glimpse of light, a whisper of sound, a taste or a touch. As one eternity seemed to pass to the next, he came to believe himself forgotten, lost in an endless void of imprisonment. No external battle gained him so much as a flash of sight, so he strove for a madness that would not come. In this, mankind had surpassed the gods. The knowledge of their own mortality gave men a bent toward insanity that allowed them to surrender to it when other options seemed worse. Vidarr simply suffered, never knowing how hard Freyr tried to reach him through the iron nor how the god of elves and the sun had the dark elves craft Vidarr’s prison into a sword.
Freyr had then searched the world for a man without the natural mental barriers that prevented gods and sorcerers from intruding on people’s thoughts and dreams or warping their perceptions. Finding no one, Freyr had turned to alternative times, the magic involved costing him volumes in time, health, and valuables. And the answer had come in the finding that future civilizations had no sorcerers and no Balance of Law and Chaos. Unused and unneeded, the mental barriers had evolved away, and Freyr had found his hero/victim in the person of an American soldier in Vietnam, a twenty-year-old private named Al Larson who, against all propriety of his era, called upon Freyr himself as the enemies’ machine guns took his life.
The details of the transfer went beyond Vidarr’s knowledge. The other gods made only distant mention of the permanent damage to Freyr’s magic and his mental stability. Larson had lost his human body, replaced by that of an elf follower of Freyr.
And Vidarr’s first glimpse of reality had come through the eyes of his wielder, perceptions warped by battle fatigue, flashbacks, confusion, and gross ignorance. Struggling to sort reality from madness, Vidarr had forged a bond with his human wielder stronger than any ties to the gods. With the help of Larson’s Freyr-chosen companions, a powerful Dragonrank sorceress named Silme and her ronin bodyguard, Kensei Gaelinar, Vidarr finally pieced together the means to break Loki’s spell, a solution that had required the death, and ultimately the complete destruction, of Loki and the Chaos he harbored. In the process, Vidarr learned details about human nature he could never have guessed.
Now, before the hole of brown, curled grasses burned by Loki’s magic, a smile twitched across Vidarr’s lips. Unlike the humans of this era who fawned and groveled at the feet of the pantheon, Larson had little respect for anyone or anything. Through him, Vidarr learned that mortality made humans’ existence more, not less, precious than the gods’. Each day held the value of a deity’s decade. Lives so short and death so complete gave honor and glory to any life voluntarily sacrificed for the good of others. And Vidarr learned one thing more.
Intolerant of untruths, even among themselves, a god’s word was always held to be inviolate, unquestionable authority on man’s world of Midgard. Morality used to seem simple to Vidarr. What was right was simply right. But mankind, and especially Al Larson, knew a spectrum of behavior in shades of gray that Vidarr would never have hypothesized or understood without having tangled himself so deeply in a mortal’s mind. It was Al Larson who taught Vidarr to lie and to deceive and, appropriately, Al Larson who was the victim of that betrayal.
Killed centuries earlier by Loki’s treachery, Vidarr’s brother, Baldur, had spent his time in the dank, dark, malodorous halls of Hel, comforted by the knowledge that he was destined to live again after the Ragnarok. But Loki’s death meant that Ragnarok would never occur. Concerned for his brother, Vidarr had used trickery to commit Larson, Gaelinar, and a quick-witted thief named Taziar the Shadow Climber to a quest long considered impossible. As a result, they were forced to battle unmatched volumes of Chaos-energy in its natural form: as a dragon. The quest had cost Gaelinar his life, but it had brought enough Chaos into the world to balance the resurrections of two powerful keepers of Law, Baldur and Silme, and to replace the permanent loss of Loki.
The reminiscence roused Vidarr’s curiosity. Larson had come out of that quest gut-shot by a rifle as out of time as himself and clinging to the meticulously-crafted katana that had belonged to his beloved and respected Kensei swordmaster. Aware that Taziar’s Dragonrank girlfriend, Astryd, had some knowledge of magical healing, Vidarr had left Larson, Taziar, Silme, and Astryd to their own devices. I wonder how they’re doing? Vidarr considered. Larson had made it clear that he resented the gods’ intrusions into his mind. Through effort, the elf had learned to wall trespassers into pockets of memory. Vidarr had learned the danger of that tactic when Larson had trapped him and an enemy in the Vietnamese jungles, their only escape, back through Larson’s mind, neatly blocked by its owner.
Still, Larson had never found a means to detect the presence of a gentle probe. Through it, Vidarr could communicate and read the elf-man’s superficial thoughts. I’ll read his mood without him ever knowing I was there. If he’s relaxed, I’ll say my hellos. So long as I don’t play with his thoughts, he shouldn’t mind. With that idea, Vidarr thrust a probe for Larson’s mind.
Vidarr’s search met nothing. Shocked, he withdrew and tried again. Once again, he met only darkness.
Vidarr slid to the grass, sitting cross-legged, his fingers to his temples. Never before had it cost energy or effort to explore Larson’s mind. Vidarr lowered his head, putting his full concentration into the task. Again, his mental probe met no resistance. Dead? He’s dead? Surprise and concern sharpened his focus. Gradually, words, images, and the snarl of looping thought pathways took shape, black against near-black, like the outline of sun glazed through thunderheads, viewed as much from his knowledge of its necessary presence as reality. Not dead, Vidarr realized, gaining little solace from the realization. But nearly so. How? For now, the reason did not matter. Vidarr rooted through the darkness for a single spark of life.
For some time, the search frustrated Vidarr. Apparently Al Larson still lived, otherwise he would have no memories at all, not even the vague, smeared images obscured by the hovering fog of death. Vidarr drew fully into Larson’s mind, forcing himself to evaluate the quality of each shadow, following a subtle and scattered trail that was more “less dark” than light. Gradually, he discovered a single, cold pinpoint of light, rapidly fading.
A thought struck through Vidarr. If he dies before I get out of here, we’re both dead. Gently, he fanned the glow. It sputtered, frayed like ancient string. For an instant, Vidarr thought he had blown it out. Fear gripped him as the spark sputtered, then grew ever so slightly. He felt a survival instinct shift, erratic as a rusted hinge, then cringe back into hiding from pain.
You bastard! Since when has pain ever stopped you from doing anything? He kicked the wire-thin pathway that housed the instinct. Agony sparked through Larson’s mind, but this time the survival instinct hovered, uncertain, tenuous.
Vidarr held his breath.
In Larson’s head, a hand clamped onto Vidarr’s shoulder.
Shock wrenched a gasp from Vidarr, the strength of the emotion splashing insight through Larson’s mind. Heart pounding, Vidarr snapped back to Asgard. He could feel the other presence flash out with him.
After the crushing darkness of Larson’s mind, the hovering fire of Asgard’s sun blinded Vidarr. He whirled, slashing an arm up instinctively. His forearm crashed against a wrist, breaking the grip, and he found himself facing Freyr.
Freyr stood with arms crossed in judgment, and his pale eyes shone like the sun that was his charge. “What are you doing?”
Vidarr rarely used words. Over time, he had become adept at communication only by radiating his primary emotions. Now, as surprised waned, he stared dispassionately at Freyr.
“Allerum.” Freyr used the name Larson had won through an inadvertent spell of stuttering during his original introduction to his friends. “You were healing Allerum.”
That being self-evident, Vidarr mimicked Freyr’s outraged stance without a reply.
“You can’t do that.” Freyr made a brisk gesture with his arm that set his clothes shimmering colorfully.
Still, Vidarr waited, not bothering to contradict an obvious fallacy. Freyr’s commanding manner was starting to annoy the Silent God, but he kept the first stirrings of irritation from his disclosure and his manner.
Apparently recognizing the ludicrousness of his own claim, Freyr amended. “Well, of course, I suppose you can heal Allerum, but you shouldn’t. Vidarr, it would be bad.”
Vidarr cocked his brows, demanding explanation. If not for Al Larson’s courage and his willingness to fight against Loki, Vidarr knew he would still be trapped within a lightless, soundless void. Loki would still live to lead the hordes of Hel and giants against the gods and men. Without Vidarr to slay the Fenris Wolf, the beast would have survived to aid its loathsome father, Loki. Instead of the prophesied Ragnarok that would have ended with a few gods and men still intact, Loki and his followers would have torn the worlds asunder with a limitless Chaos of slaughter. Wives killing husbands. Fathers raping daughters.
The images wound through Vidarr’s mind, bringing a chill that the sun-filled Asgard meadow could not touch. Averted, all averted, thanks to Allerum. I owe him my life as do all the gods. And he paid a price we should never have asked of anyone. Vidarr cringed, recalling how moments before the sword stroke that took Loki’s life, the Evil One had reminded Larson that destroying him would prevent Ragnarok. Without the war, the Norse gods would reign through eternity, never replaced by the Christian religion Larson embraced. Larson, his family, his friends, and his world would never exist.
Freyr’s voice became fatherly. Apparently partially guessing Vidarr’s concern, he rationalized. “I know you think you owe something to Allerum, but you don’t. Men are pawns, meant to serve us. The opportunity to do so is all the reward they deserve.”
“I used to believe that,” said Vidarr quietly, his voice a mellow tenor.
Caught off-guard by Vidarr’s switch to speech, Freyr stared.
“Before I spent so much time in Allerum’s head.”
Freyr recovered with a snort. “You can’t judge all men by Allerum. He was addled by a war without glory, and he’s a product of his time and place. His god chooses to fade into the background, leaving men to make their own decisions and mistakes. I passed over hundreds of loud-mouthed, disrespectful future Americans before I discovered Allerum.”
Vidarr did not bother to argue. Natural mind barriers prevented the gods from reading the thoughts and intentions of mortals, so neither side of the discussion could be corroborated by fact. Vidarr extrapolated from the only model he could access: Al Larson. And, having learned how sincerely humans voiced their lies, he had to guess that most of the gods’ pawns hid their grudging acceptance of the position behind an artificial enthusiasm. Vidarr let impatience sift through his facade, making it clear he considered Larson’s life more important than a discussion on human motivation.
Accepting the cue, Freyr came to the heart of his explanation. “You are familiar with the Balance.” It was a statement, not a question.
Vidarr nodded. The Balance between Law and Chaos was eternal, since long before the gods entered the nine worlds. The natural forces seemed to keep themselves in line without need for a guardian. Minor inequalities had no effect upon the worlds and their inhabitants. The deaths of strong proponents of one side were always naturally compensated by equal deaths for the opposite cause.
“Then,” Freyr continued, “you must also know the effect Allerum has had on that Balance.”
Vidarr lowered his head, feeling responsible. Freed from his imprisonment, joy had made him careless. He had left Loki’s corpse where it had collapsed near Hvergelmir’s waterfall, never guessing Larson would hurl the body into the cascade that destroyed all things. Annihilated, body and soul, Loki’s harbored Chaos disappeared, leaving a gap no one could fill. Chaos. Vidarr shook his head. The stuff of life. It seemed odd that the very substance defining existence also poisoned it, so that corruption naturally accompanied power. The world’s only mortal sorcerers, the Dragonrank, drew their powers from tapping their own internal chaos known as life force. Therefore, those who served Chaos were always more powerful than their counterparts, and there were always larger numbers of Law abiding souls in the world to compensate.
“Allerum destroyed Loki,” Freyr explained anyway. “Then he raised Silme from the dead, balancing her resurrection with an equally powerful servant of Chaos. …”
Vidarr nodded smugly, but this perfect example of Larson’s concern for the Balance was crushed by Freyr’s next description.
“… whom Allerum later killed, thereby skewing the Balance dangerously further in the direction of Law.” Freyr sat in the grass, hugging his knees to his chest. Thin, white-blond hair tumbled about his shoulders. “Then there was that Geirmagnus’ rod quest. …”
“That’s not fair!” Vidarr interrupted. “It wasn’t Allerum’s idea. In fact, he fought against it so hard I had to lie and cheat to make him finish it. My father forced me to send Allerum on that quest. He couldn’t bear the thought of his most beautiful and gracious son rotting in Hel for eternity. …”
Freyr raised his hand to stop Vidarr’s uncharacteristic flow of words. “I never said it was Allerum’s idea, only that no one else could have succeeded. As it was, Allerum, Taziar, and the Kensei resurrected Baldur.” Freyr added quickly, “Don’t misunderstand. I’m as glad to have Baldur back as anyone. But the rift in the Balance would have been enough to destroy the world. If not for the dragon.”
Vidarr nodded. He had seen the beast through Larson’s eyes, a towering manifestation of raw Chaos energy imprisoned by the first leader of the Dragonrank sorcerers at a time when the Balance had tipped dangerously in the other direction. Again, he saw the house-sized creature bank and glide on its leathery wings, maneuverable as a falcon. He knew Larson’s fear as teeth long and sharp as daggers gashed his arm, and Vidarr also knew the tearing depth of grief when Kensei Gaelinar goaded the beast through a coil of razor wire, sacrificing his own life in the process. Dragons were conglomerates of unmastered Chaos-force; slaying it dispersed rather than destroyed its power. Here, Vidarr believed, was how the Balance had been put right.
But the expression of outrage on Freyr’s face cued Vidarr to the fact that there was knowledge he did not yet have. Freyr cleared his throat. “You have no idea how Allerum came to be as near to death as he is. Do you?”
Vidarr shook his head, hoping the gesture made it clear it did not matter. Regardless of the cause, he owed Larson his loyalty. Don’t I? Doubt seeped silently into his awareness. Feeling weak, he sat beside Freyr.
The lord of elves plucked at grass spears, avoiding Vidarr’s stare. “Raw Chaos can’t be destroyed, only disbanded. To destroy it, you must destroy its host.”
Vidarr waited, aware Freyr had started with the obvious in order to make a more serious point.
“Chaos-force is nonintelligent, geared only toward survival and the Balance. It knows only that it must find a strong host, one capable of surviving its transfer and its demands for cruelty, mayhem, and disorder. Once freed from dragon form, that raw Chaos-energy raged across the Kattegat to a farm town called Wilsberg. There, it struck with a storm that slaughtered every citizen except its new master.”
Freyr’s words stunned Vidarr into an awed silence. All of that Chaos into one man? The thought was madness. Until now, he had assumed the Chaos would disseminate, that every man, woman, and child in Midgard would become a trace more evil. No one could have survived the transfer of so much Chaos energy.
“A Dragonrank sorcerer named Bolverkr.” Freyr answered the unspoken question. “He came from the earliest days of the Dragonrank when the mages drew reams of raw Chaos to themselves rather than using life energy, ignorant of the cost to the Balance.” Freyr paused, leaving time for the words to sink in, waiting to see whether Vidarr would make the obvious connection without further hints.
Vidarr remained stunned.
Freyr met and held Vidarr’s gaze. “Chaos hunted out the strongest possible master on the nine worlds.”
Suddenly, understanding radiated from Vidarr. It went to Bolverkr, not me or Freyr or Odin. The natural conclusion was too enormous to contemplate. This Bolverkr apparently wields more power than any single god. He shuddered at the observation.
Freyr concurred. “Frightening, isn’t it?”
Freyr rose, brushing pollen and grass spears from his leggings. “Bolverkr knows Allerum and Taziar loosed the Chaos that destroyed the town and the people he loved, his pregnant wife and his fortress, and turned him into a puppet of Chaos, contaminated beyond redemption. He’s sworn to be avenged, but he isn’t stupid, either. He knows Allerum and Taziar have already defeated the Chaos-force that is his power, and now they have the Dragonmages, Silme and Astryd, as partners in love and war. He’s playing it careful and well. Allerum’s current condition demonstrates Bolverkr’s skill.” Again, Freyr held Vidarr’s pale gaze. “And now I think you understand why you can’t rouse Allerum.”
Vidarr beetled his brows, missing the connection.
Seeing Vidarr’s confusion, Freyr explained. “Allerum is an anachronism and Silme, by all rights, should still be dead. Taziar and Astryd are small enough in power that their deaths would not severely affect the balance. But, should Bolverkr die, wielding as much Chaos-force as he does, the Balance would overturn. The world might be destroyed, all men, elves, and gods with it. Or, perhaps, his death would need to be matched with equal amounts of supporters of Law. All the mortal followers of Law might not prove enough. Gods would die, Vidarr. Perhaps you and I? Odin? Thor and Baldur? For the sake of the world, Allerum and his companions must lose this feud. You’ll have to undo anything you’ve done and let Allerum die.”
Vidarr bit his lip, pained by Freyr’s words. He understood the necessity. The Balance and the lives of gods had to take precedence over one soldier, no matter how much good he had done for Vidarr. The idea of leaving Allerum to his own devices seemed difficult enough. But what’s done is done. To snuff the slight spark I encouraged would be murder.
Freyr tried to soften his command. “You have to remember, Allerum was as good as dead when I plucked him from the battlefield. We gave him life, if only for a few extra months. If not for me, he’d be a bloody corpse lying in an empty riverbed in Vietnam.”
Vidarr said nothing.
Freyr sighed. He clasped Vidarr’s shoulder comfortingly. “Do what you have to do.” Without further encouragement, Freyr started back across the meadow, his boots crushing foliage in huge patches, his eight-foot frame still visible against the sun long after he passed beyond hearing distance of Vidarr.
For some time, Vidarr remained seated without moving. Then, dreading the inevitable, he maneuvered a probe into Larson’s mind.
This time, Vidarr met a diffuse grayness that revealed the tangled tapestry of Larson’s thoughts as vague sculptures in shadow. He thrust farther, drawing himself directly into Larson’s mind. Pain assailed him, wholly Larson’s, and the god focused instead on the ring of companions whose words wafted clearly to Larson.
Taziar was speaking, “Everything’s impossible until someone accomplishes it. They said no one could escape the baron’s dungeon, but I’ve done it. Twice …”
The words droned on, reaching a crescendo, but Vidarr lost his thoughts in a different conversation. He recalled a time when the Fenris Wolf had penetrated Larson’s mind, intending to torture the elf with manipulation of his memories. Then, Vidarr’s sudden appearance in Larson’s mind had startled the Wolf into leaving.
Later, facing Larson’s anger rather than gratitude, Vidarr remembered his own words and the frustration that had suffused him at Larson’s stubbornness. “… And you seem to have forgotten that Freyr rescued you from death to bring you here, at no small risk to his own life … Freyr pulled you from a hellish war …”
Parts of Larson’s reply returned clearly. “… to place me into another hellish war. Into Hel itself even! I’m supposed to feel grateful that Freyr ripped me from a world of technological miracles and dumped me into the body of a ninety-eight pound weakling?”
“Technological miracles or not. You were dead.”
“Dead or not, I was free. I’m no slave. If I am to serve gods, I shall do so willingly or not at all. Otherwise, you can kill me right now.”
The memory slipped from Vidarr’s thoughts, driven away by the growing light of Larson’s mind as the dying elf responded to Taziar’s rallying speech.
Vidarr cursed, groping for the flaring glow of life before it could fill Larson’s being. He seized its stalk, aware he would need to retreat as he cut or else die along with Larson. Beneath his grip, he could feel Larson fighting aside the hovering numbness and peace that death offered. Some subconscious portion of Larson’s mind must have sensed Vidarr’s presence because his thoughts brought another memory vividly to life:
Larson lay, again near death, on the grounds of Geirmagnus’ estate, trying to keep Vidarr’s telepathic words in focus.
“… I always knew any or all of you might die, but I had no other choice … I care for Baldur very deeply. I did not enjoy the deception any more than you, but I saw no other way. I plead the cause of brotherly love and hope you can find it in yourself to forgive me.”
Then, Larson had fallen unconscious before he could delve an answer. Now, Vidarr could see that Larson had added an addendum to the memory, a selfless acceptance of the apology and an offer of friendship.
Vidarr stared, not daring to believe what he saw. His fingers slipped from the stalk. Larson’s will flared, sparking thoughts throughout his mind, and Vidarr withdrew.
If Allerum is to die, let him do so honestly and by his own doing. I won’t have a hand in his murder.
In the vast meadow of Asgard, a songbird twittered in a minor key.
Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;Still by himself abused, or disabused;Created half to rise, and half to fall;Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurled;The glory, jest, and riddle of the world.
—Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man
A sliver of moon hovered over the Barony of Cullinsberg, revealing the rows of buildings along Panogya Street as familiar blocks of shadow. Taziar Medakan, the Shadow Climber, had chosen the moon. . .
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