Story:ROAD TRIP! (Warhammer High)/Part Four
|This article contains PROMOTIONS! Don't say we didn't warn you.|
- 1 Fenris Greets its Daughter
- 2 The Local Customs
- 3 Fenrisian Blood
- 4 Freya's Home
Fenris Greets its Daughter
He Who is the Ancient
Only few hours later, Alex was leaning back in bed, reading before turning in, when Freya’s slate beeped. In an instant she had vaulted out of bed and landed beside the slate on its table, eagerly reading it over. As Alex pushed sheets and blankets out of his eyes, he watched as his girlfriend’s hair twitched from side to side. She was so engrossed in the message that she wasn’t even moving her eyes. Alex waited.
“FUCK YEAH!” Freya suddenly yelled, and leaped nearly the whole distance from the table into the bed. “I was hoping he’d be there!” she said, shoving the slate in Alex’s face.
He blinked, leaning back from it. “Why don’t you read it to me, baby, I can’t read Juvjk.”
“Oh, durr.” She held it up and eagerly read aloud. “‘Freya, my little lass, who would your father leave in charge other than me? We’re looking forward to welcoming you home, dear girl, and this boy toy you’ve been playing with,’” she said, as Alex paled. “I think he was kidding. Anyway: ‘I know you wished for this to be a getaway, but with the Sons of Vulkan and Sons of Russ both being mobilized to fight the green scum, the Fang will be quite busy. We’d be honored if you took the time to come down to us and speak of your life since you left the pack, naturally, but of course your companions would have to undergo decontamination before leaving, given the state of things.’ That’s fair, plagues on Fenris are horrifying.”
She sat down next to him, following the message’s words with her finger to show him her progress. “‘Little pup, I know you’re eager to see home, and I imagine if your friends are truly on a voyage of luxury, seeing us in our most sacred rituals is not on the itinerary. Would you like to come ahead on a Blizzard and carry out your duties before they arrive so that you can do as you will with them when they get here?’”
“The hell is a Blizzard?” Alex asked, baffled.
“Local variant Stormbird with the rocket pods ripped out and extra engines on it.” She read on. “Not much more. ‘Whether you do or not, little pup, your brothers await you. Eternally your servant, Bjorn the Ageless.’”
“Holy shit, isn’t he one of the Great Ninety?” Alex asked.
“Yep. One of the ninety Terran Space Marines to live out the entire Crusade, out of the quarter million who started.” Freya clicked the message away with a happy smile. “He’s my father’s oldest, dearest friend outside of his blood relatives.”
“Very cool. Are you sure his thing about boy toys was a joke?” Alex asked.
“Who knows? But I suspect that if Bjorn is running the show, you’ll be just fine. He might even offer to take you on one of his hunting expeditions to the equatorial jungles,” Freya said.
“Will I survive it?” Alex nervously asked.
“You probably won’t even set foot out of a transport. You’ll see, you won’t have to do anything.” She grinned as she opened the transcriptor. “Elder Bjorn, warrior of the Rout, I would be overjoyed to come back home in a Blizzard. Dispatch one that I may come back, if you could. I will need my formal dress, which I brought from home, so I will simply bring it with me. Sincerely, Princess Freya.” She tapped the key and sent it.
“Little Pup?” Alex asked with a smile.
She turned wide green eyes on him. “Bjorn’s nearly four thousand fucking years old, he can call me whatever he wants.” Her eyes narrowed. “You, however…” she said.
Alex reached over and gently ran his fingers over the helixes of her ears. She twitched and giggled. “Quit it.”
“Nope.” Alex leaned over and whispered. “I won’t tell anyone, don’t worry.”
“You better not…” Her words trailed off with a sharp rise in inflection as he tickled her ears again. She bit her lip and pulled away, trying to hold back another giggle. “If you do that in front of the Brothers, I swear I’ll break your wrists,” she said, rasping a bit.
He wiggled his fingers menacingly and grabbed her shoulders. She shrieked and tried to flee, but ‘stumbled.’ His hands traveled down her sides to her ribs and resumed tickling, until she grabbed his hands and forced them away, panting.
“All right, all right, that’s enough,” she gasped.
Alex sat back on crossed legs, looking smug. She glared up at him with all the force she could muster, which wasn’t much. She scrambled up and brushed herself off, still mumbling about his unjustified assault. “I’ll go get ready for the flight.”
“Sure. And let me know if he’s being serious about that whole boy toy thing,” Alex called after her.
Bjorn the Eldest stood fast as Freya emerged from her transport, already clad in her formal trappings. She hadn’t felt the need to wear them on Nocturne, as much as she would have liked to, but here? She was among kin.
The truly ancient Marine watched with lidded eyes as Freya paused a few paces from him. She went still, her eyes searching his face. He did the same, then slowly bent forward a fraction and inhaled deeply. Everything he needed to know came to him in an instant. Freya calmed the nerves she always felt when returning home; then she asked why she was bothering. He could tell.
With great reverence, she fell to her knees, then clasped her hands over her waist and bowed her head, still silent. Bjorn reached down to touch her shoulder once, running his hand under her chin to raise her head. She looked up at him, eyes brimming.
He finally offered her a faint grin. “Rise, little pup. Your brothers await.”
She rose and wrapped her arms around his arm, grinning into the blue ceramite. “I’ve missed you, you crotchety old fart.”
“Show some respect, little pup, or I’ll kick you from here to the Wylds,” Bjorn said sternly.
“Bah, you couldn’t even catch me now!” Freya said dismissively.
“Probably not, no,” he said. He turned to gesture broadly down the corridor behind them as the Blizzard settled into its cradle with a clicking of cooling engines. “Now, would you prefer to speak with the Lords first, or address your kin?”
“If I’m wearing the bloody thing, I may as well use it,” Freya said, fingering the rich furs of her formal outfit. The simple-looking garment of pelts, leather, and hand-spun cloth folded over her body like a wrap, but was held together at the waist and collar with broad and beautifully carved stone clasps. The dark brown calfboots she wore ended far below the soft leather skirt shorts she was wearing over them, but the details of both were obscured. She was wearing her own personal favorite part of the assemblage over them. It was a floor-length deep grey cowl, lined with white wolf furs, and with a pair of small silver totems of the moon dangling on the ends of draw-strings. With a tug, she could close the hood over her face, pull the cloak around herself, and become an anonymous Fenrisian woman in an instant. She wondered if her father was aware of how much she appreciated that touch.
“Then so be it, little pup,” Bjorn said. He turned down the corridor and started off towards the chamber where the other senior members of the Rout awaited.
“You know, you don’t have to call me that anymore,” Freya said in Juvjk. “I’m a pup no longer.”
“Such openness,” Bjorn noted.
Freya blushed. “I mean that I have finished the mandatory part of my schooling.”
“Ah, but you invite more?” Bjorn asked.
Freya shrugged. “I want more. A poor student is the one that stops learning.”
“Wise lass.” Bjorn paused, partway down the corridor, and eyed the girl carefully. “When do you intend to take up your role?”
“I honestly do not know,” Freya confessed uncomfortably. “Will I not choose?”
“You will.” He resumed his course, as intractable in his Terminator armor as a glacier on its migration. “Are you ready?”
“As much as I can be, Bjorn,” Freya said.
The hatch swung open. A wide circle of thick metal chairs surrounded a depressed holotank, over which a transparent mesh was extended. The tank was powered down, but when it was lit, Freya knew, the Lords of the Rout could stare down into its depths and see entire sectors stretch out below them. She walked, fearless, her head held high, over to the edge of the mesh, pausing for her lords to acknowledge her. The circle of Wolves – some in the trappings of Rune Priests, others clad in burnished battle armor, others yet in the elaborate accoutrements of the Iron Priests – were deep in discussion about something. As soon as she came within range of their senses, however, all of them paused. They went silent as she came to a halt at the edge, each staring at her, expressionless. She bowed her head once, ignoring her natural sense of intimidation. “Brothers,” she said softly. They nodded and rose individually, coming around the mesh to clasp her hand or ruffle her hair, smiling now. The glint of superhuman fangs in the dim blue lights of the room was everywhere. She blushed as the silent greetings continued. “It’s good to be back after seven long years,” she finally said.
“So I imagine,” a baritone voice said. An Iron Priest emerged from the throng, his ravaged face peering down at her. “Lass, you’re grown strong.”
“Thank you, metalshaper Kannd,” she said, bowing her head slightly.
“And beautiful too,” a Long Fang observed kindly, taking in her elaborately braided red hair and sparkling green eyes. “We shall have to see if your companion is worthy of your company after all,” he joked, to a few chuckles.
Freya winced. “I would ask that you do not. He is a not a warrior, and I do not want him to be. Even if I did…he has undergone a trial on this journey more horrible than any we could give him without an amputation.” She wasn’t phrasing it as a joke, either in voice or scent.
Bjorn raised a brow. “How so?”
“I am gifted with a father and mother that love me, a rabid fandom that adores me,” she said drily, referring to her oceans of fans on Terra, “and a pack to call mine. His father has wounded him so bitterly and horribly that I would feel ashamed to try him more,” Freya said. “More than that…I leave to him to speak.”
“I see.” Bjorn shrugged. “I suppose it is your decision.”
“Besides, I assure you that Father has…’tried’ him already,” Freya added. “He hardly let Alex out of his sight from the minute they met.”
One of the Long Fangs laughed. “Do you fault him?”
“No.” Freya half-smiled. “Not at all.”
“Then we’ll leave it to him,” the Long Fang said, and if Freya had been listening as closely as she could have, she would have heard something odd in his tone.
Let's Get Settled In
Alex and Jake were first off the transport, looking around in wonder. The Fang’s docking gallery was colossal, and completely empty. Dozens of cradles for Thunderhawks and other space and air craft sat idle and unattended. The entire room smelled like Promethium and incense, but there was none of either to be seen.
A few Iron Priests in servo-harnesses and outfitted with small metal tokens on their hair and arms were dutifully working on a partially-disassembled Stormcloud in one corner, and rows of servitors were sitting idle around the outsides of the massive chamber, but the rest of the colossal chamber rang with silence. Behind them, the profile of the Iron Tide flickered and disappeared into the Warp, streaming off to battle.
In the distance, the meter-thick walls of ceramite that blocked off the rest of the Fang slid open with a hissing of pneumatics. Freya’s distinct red hair appeared behind the thin cloud of mist left behind in the chilled air. She made her way over to the group across the expansive chamber as the boys continued to gawk. Even Remilia and Venus seemed astounded by the sheer size of the chamber. It could probably have housed a destroyer by itself.
A Marine in elaborate but heavily scarred armor walked sedately behind her. He was clearly trying not to outpace her. As she approached the group, Alex paused his inspection of the room to appreciate the form she cut. The cloak she had slung around her would have looked cheesy on a girl who didn’t have her appearance, but she made it look good. The outfit wasn’t clearly a formal uniform like the one Venus had been wearing, either. For all he knew, it was just clothing.
With precisely no ceremony at all, Freya walked straight up to them and gestured grandly. “Welcome to the Fang,” she said proudly.
“It’s amazing so far,” Alex said, craning his head back to look at the ceilings, painted white with artificial lighting, but nearly five hundred meters up. He turned his eyes back down to Freya and smiled, glancing up and down her unusual outfit. “That looks really good on you.”
“Thanks,” she said happily, brushing the thick pelt around the hood. “I thought I should look the role when I went to see the others. Incidentally,” she said slyly, gesturing to the marine who had coasted to a halt behind them, “this is Bjorn the Eldest, presiding Wolf Lord.”
Alex immediately took a knee, as the other three looked on in some surprise. “A profound honor, Lord Bjorn,” he said with genuine reverence.
Bjorn nodded once as Jake knelt as well. Venus and Remilia merely saluted. “Rise, lads. Welcome to my home.” His accent was thick, but understandable. Both men stood back up as he spoke. “I understand that for you both, this is the first time you’ve come to travel the stars?”
“I did when I was small, Lord, just not recently,” Alex said.
“I’d never left Terra before this,” Jake said.
Bjorn raised one massive ceramite gauntlet. “Then I’m sure you would wish to rest.”
“No, thank you, Lord, we slept on the flight over. All we really need to do is find a place to stow our cargo; we weren’t expecting to have to offload all of our possessions originally,” Alex said respectfully.
The ancient Marine eyed the four teens that had accompanied Freya. “So I imagine. Simply leave it here, someone will send it down to your cabins.” He glanced down at Freya herself. “Freya has convinced me that a more elaborate greeting would have been inappropriate, which suits me. What precisely were you hoping to do here on your…road trip?” he asked.
Venus smiled. “Straight to the point. Good. Freya has been filling our ears about the sights and spectacles of Fenris since we were little, and every time she comes back, she has fresh tales to tell. We wanted to see what had so captured her imagination,” she said.
“Ah, and what tales have you been telling, Freya?” Bjorn asked, smiling at last.
“The sights! I remember last time I came here we went out in an ornithopter and watched that kraken in the ocean,” Freya excitedly recounted. “I mean, obviously actually going out into the forests would be pretty much suicide for anyone who isn’t me, but we can still see the Great Plains, the ocean…”
“Lass, if it were a tour alone you wanted, I wouldn’t be here,” Bjorn said knowingly. Freya shrugged coyly.
“Oh, you know, I was sort of hoping that we could hear a few of the stories Dad likes to embellish so much first-hand, too,” she said.
Bjorn’s smile vanished. “Well, of course your friends are welcome to hear those stories our brothers wish to share,” he said, rather flatly. Remilia quirked an eyebrow at his evasive reply. Freya deflated.
“I wouldn’t share anything personal, Bjorn,” she said in her native language.
“I should hope not. The Wolf Brothers will not share some stories even with those for whom you have vouched personally,” Bjorn said in the same tongue. Switching back to Gothic, he continued. “Now. My friends, please, come to your cabins and accommodate. You can begin your acclimatization with the station afterwards,” he said.
A few minutes later, Jake dropped his day bag in his spartan cabin and looked around it. “Spacious.”
“I know, and it’s perfect,” Venus said. “It’s a bit cold for you, though, isn’t it? These heaters don’t go up much higher than this,” she noted, running her hand over the thermostat.
He smiled broadly. “That could work in our favor,” he observed.
“It could, if you were willing to risk the entire Legion finding out,” Venus said.
“Oh, right. Damn. Oh well.” He looked around. “Is it me, or does it look like we’ll be doing our own laundry here?” he asked, eyeing the piles of spare sheets and towels in the corner of the room.
“Probably. The Fang doesn’t house too many guests,” Venus said. “I don’t mind, do you?”
“Nah.” He sank into the bed, holding his arms out. She obligingly slid into them and snuggled up against him. “Mmmm…you’re still nice and warm. You’re sure you’re not feeling down from the radiation withdrawal?” he asked, squeezing his hands around her waist.
“Yep, I feel right as rain.” She looked over the piles of bags and boxes the serfs – the Wolves called them skjalds – had sent down to their cabins. “I don’t see your poker set.”
“I had it in one of the larger cases, I didn’t want the leather getting scratched.” He leaned forward and rested his head on her shoulder. “What do you want to do first?”
The hatch creaked as someone rapped it. Alex poked his head in. “You guys got a sec?”
Venus stood and stretched. “Sure.”
Alex entered and closed the hatch again. “Do you guys feel like this was a mistake?” he asked.
Venus and Jake both stared. “A mistake?” Venus repeated.
“Yeah. Freya’s over the moon that she’s home again, of course, but I’m getting some pretty negative waves from the Wolves. Rout. Whatever.”
Jake shrugged. “We knew it could happen. We’ll just see how much rope we’ve got when it comes to moving around. Because…well, I don’t think Freya would have brought us here if we couldn’t do much beyond leaving our rooms.”
“Then you’re feeling it too?” Alex pressed.
Jake didn’t answer. Venus sighed. “Guys, the one who greeted us was one of the Great Fucking Ninety. I think we’re welcome.”
“True enough,” Jake said.
The door rapped again. Venus pulled it open to see Freya and Remilia outside. “Hey! You guys all settled in?” Freya asked.
“Sure are. What are we doing first?” Venus asked.
Freya walked in, pulling her cloak around her so it wouldn’t snag on the hatch frame. “I know you guys are a bit nervous, but believe me, this is going to be so rad,” Freya said. “I’ve arranged a transport to take us out to the World’s Ocean, so you guys can see the reason Dad’s mildly obsessed with fishing,” she said.
“That sounds cool. How long is the flight?” Jake asked.
“Only half an hour by gunship flat out, you can see it from the observation deck,” Freya said. She beamed at the others. Her fangs seemed a bit more noticeable in her new outfit somehow. “This is going to be so cool, you guys, trust me."
Nearly forty minutes later, Jake was sitting on the lip of the ramp of a Thunderhawk and dangling his legs over an ocean nine miles deep. A pair of the Legion’s Blood Claws sat beside him on benches, keeping careful watch on their guests. Freya’s hood was down, and her cloak was unfastened save at the neck. The rushing air coming into the hold of the ship billowed the cloak like wings around her.
She was standing, unsupported and barefoot, next to him on the ramp. The others gripped the hydraulic tubes that lowered and lifted the ramp and stared out at the sight. All five were tethered to the gunship’s interior.
“I could live to be a hundred years old and never see anything like that,” Jake said in astonishment.
“Blue…as far as the eye can see,” Venus whispered.
“Farther. We’re ninety kilometers out from shore,” one of the Claws said.
Jake slowly put his hand to his head, staring out at the water. “It’s beautiful, all right,” he murmured.
A massive red tentacle whipped out of the water, splashing down several hundred meters away. The non-Fenrisian passengers stared and gasped. “The hell was that?” Alex asked.
“A Kraken looking for ships to devour,” one of the Claws said. “Don’t worry, it’s just a juvenile, it can’t reach us here.”
“That thing is a juvenile?” Jake demanded. “It’s the size of the ship we rode here!”
“Sure is. The biggest ones that ever existed are over five klicks long,” the Claw said.
Alex stared. “Are you shitting me?”
“Would I do that, Lord Carlin?” the Claw said drily. “It’s real.”
“All the water does on my planet is melt you, yours actually eats you,” Venus observed. The headsets each passenger wore crackled with Freya’s hearty chuckle.
The gunship wheeled around over the ocean to give its passengers a better view. Freya subconsciously shifted her balance, letting the motions shift right through her. Jake’s knuckles were white on the lip of the gunship. “Freya, have you seen this before?” he asked.
“Sure have. Every time I come home. If Dad were here, he’d put down at the edge of the water and fish for a while.” Freya smiled at him. “Crazy old fart loves the water. The worst part of living on Terra, for him, is the fact that there’s no water left.”
“Really? He never talks about it,” Jake said.
“You’ve met Father Russ, Lord Seager?” one of the Claws asked.
“Sure, he’s come to several parties I’ve attended,” Jake said. “I wouldn’t say we’re, you know, close, or anything, but we’ve spoken.”
“What did you think of him?” the second Claw asked.
“Funny question to ask in front of his daughter,” Jake said coolly.
The second Claw cocked his head. “What do you mean?”
Freya reached over and squeezed Jake’s shoulder. “Don’t answer, Jake,” she said.
“Wasn’t going to. Nothing bad to say, though, you understand,” he said with a wink.
Freya winked back before turning to face the Claw. “Terrans don’t like to talk about people behind their backs, Brother, certainly not in front of their relatives. They think it’s dishonorable and rude,” Freya explained in Juvjk.
“Oh, I see.” The warrior shrugged in contrition. “Sorry.”
“No harm done.” Freya turned back to the others, noting that Alex and Remilia were both peering into the water, trying to see the Kraken in its endless depths.
“Do you guys want to set down out there?” Freya asked, gesturing at the shoreline as it came into view.
“Can we do that?” Remilia asked.
“Sure,” Freya said.
“Not here, Sister Freya,” the first Claw said. “There’s a hell of a battle going on at the shoreline. The tribes of the Walking Waves are protecting their fishing grounds from the advancing Krennir,” he added, as if anybody but him knew who that was.
“Ah. Farther up the coastline, then?” Freya asked.
“That, we can do.” The gunship angled away from the waters and headed south, gaining some altitude as it did. Jake scooted back up the ramp and sat back down on the bench.
“Your world is beautiful, Freya,” he said.
“Thanks, Jake. It really is. There’s a few small cleared areas of the mountains outside the Fang. If there aren’t any units out on training runs out there, I should show you,” she said.
“I’d like that.” Jake turned to grin at Remilia. “Home, sweet home for you, eh?”
She shook her head. “No, it’s a hell of a lot colder on Inwit. Being in real snow, though…I’ve missed that.”
The water below suddenly shifted to brown rocks and earth as they passed over the shore. Freya slid her socks and boots back on and unclipped her harness. She jumped the last meter down to the rocky shoreline and landed with her head near the ground. While the others climbed down more sedately, she took a deep breath of the heady, saline air. She closed her eyes and let the memories of her last time here flood back.
Fishing with her father on the coastline. Riding the pauldron of his armor as he ran over the Koromi ice field. Sitting on the bed in the Royal suite in the Fang and letting her mother teach her how to make Fenrisian braids in her hair. Listening to Bjorn tell outrageous stories about the Crusade, calling him out on them, and having the entire room back him up.
Freya smiled contentedly as the others walked up behind her. She straightened up and rubbed a tear out of her eye. Being home, she decided, felt very, very good.
Alex walked straight over to the waterline and made his way down the rocks. The saltwater lapped at his arctic camo boots as he reached the edge. “Freya, anything going to eat me if I stick my hand in the water?” he called up to her.
“Yes. Let me see first,” she said, shaking the memories away and walking up to the rocks. She peered down into the water with her hyper-enhanced senses and saw nothing. “Go ahead.”
Alex stuck his fingers in the frigid water as a wave crashed. He watched, mesmerized, as the ripples of the Kraken’s distant passing splashed against the rocks below him. “Absolutely incredible.”
“Isn’t it?” Freya jumped down the rocks and dropped neatly into position beside him. “I used to go out to a little island in the ocean west of here and fish with Dad. The water’s so shallow there that there’s no Krakens or anything, it’s just grazer fish and small sharks.” She stared into the water, watching tiny fish swirl about under the wavetops. “I loved it. It was the most relaxed I ever saw him.”
Alex dried his hands on his thermo pants. “Do you fish too?”
“No, Dad said I wouldn’t enjoy it until I enjoyed being slow. I had no idea what he meant. I tried it a few times and I think I understand what he meant, though,” she joked.
She glanced over at him. The shimmering reflection of the sun off the water in her canine eyes was captivating. Alex started to understand the extent to which she was truly in her element. “I love it. I should take you guys out there if we get a chance.”
“I’m sure we will, it’s only been a day,” Alex said.
Freya slid her cloak back from the water’s edge and discreetly squeezed Alex’s hand. “I have so much to show you,” she said quietly.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Alex replied. She nipped his ear and rose.
“We can sit here and picnic if you guys want, we brought some food,” Freya said, gesturing to the gunship. The aircraft was settling down on the rocky ground behind them. The two Claws had vanished.
“That would be awesome,” Jake said. He and Venus were still standing at the top of the rocks, pitching little pebbles into the waves. Remilia had clambered up to the lowest bough of a tree on the rocks’ edge, and was staring out over the water with her hand over her eyes.
“How wide is this ocean?” Remilia asked.
“About twenty thousand kilometers across at the equator,” Freya said. She gathered her legs beneath her and leaped back up to the top of the rocky shore as Alex scrambled up behind her. “It’s called the World Ocean or Grand Seas in Gothic.”
Remilia leaped back down from the branch and rubbed her hands clean. “What did you pack?”
“Just some basic rations and salted meat, nothing fancy,” Freya said, walking back into the hold.
Lunch and a Lecture
She emerged moments later with a bundle of food in hand and spread it out on a tarpaulin. “Hope you guys are hungry, I maaaaaay have packed a bit much,” she said.
As the others sat down to eat, a small rustle in the nearby ground cover drew Freya’s ear. She glanced over at the source of the sound as one of her two ersatz tour guides appeared. He immediately knelt at her side and whispered.
“Sister, the message has come through for elements of Seventh to depart to reinforce the pack,” he said under his breath in Juvjk.
“Then do so, you don’t need my permission,” she said in the same volume. He nodded and walked up the ramp to speak to the pilot.
“So, I thought I would tell you guys a bit more about the tribes of the region if you’re interested,” Freya said as she sliced open a pack of salted ribs.
“Cool. What were the two he mentioned before?” Alex asked, gesturing after the Claw speaking to the pilot.
“Oh, the Walking Waves are a nomadic tribe of raiders and seamen who trawl the waters along the coasts. Every so often they land to cut down trees and build new ships, or trade their plunder in the larger townships. The rest of the time they’re sailing, exploring, fighting, fishing,” Freya said. “The Krennir are hunters, rangers, cartographers. Closest thing this part of the planet has to actual academics, really. They’re generally the only tribe around here that stays put long enough to actually research metallurgy or cartography. If they’re hitting the Waves, the Waves must have done something really precipitous,” she said.
“Like what?” Venus asked.
“Burn down a trading post or plunder a fishing fleet, something like that,” Freya said. “Nearly all the game animals around here are fish, so if you take out another tribe’s fishing boats, they’re beyond fucked. They guard the trees near the major settlements with whole armies.”
“I hadn’t even thought of that,” Venus said. She bit into a thin bread and ripped off a chunk. “How many tribes are there?”
“Dozens on this continent, it’s by far the most heavily populated. About thirteen each on the other two. They range in size from a few hundred people to fifty thousand. The really huge one on the southern continent has almost a tenth of a million people in it,” Freya said.
“How do the little ones not get annexed by the huge ones?” Jake asked.
Freya cross her legs and picked up a flatbread of her own. “The little ones are bare bones, really. All warriors and survivalists. The huge ones are only huge because they won some land in previous wars and had the chance to get big. Big families, internal politics. Eventually, the big ones splinter or get overconfident and attack enemies who have lots of allies, and they get cut up by the other tribes. It’s been like this for eleven thousand years,” she said.
“And they never learned any sort of advanced technologies or anything in all that time?” Remilia asked.
“They never felt like they needed it,” Freya said. “I’m sure that they’d take it if it were given, but they’ve survived alien invasions, the coming of the Emperor, and who knows what else without real science. Even the Rout doesn’t use technology if they don’t need it,” she pointed out.
“Don’t they have lower standards of living because of that?” Jake pointed out.
Freya shrugged. “Lower than whom? The other planets of the Imperium that they don’t know exist?”
“Fair enough.” Jake started assembling a sandwich. “So do you think you’ll go and see some of them in your time here?”
“Oh hell yes! I’ve been waiting for that. Probably in some of the larger settlements on the northern continent, they tend to be busy. Land is the only real commodity on Fenris. The summers around here are caused by volcanic eruptions, not seasonal axis drift, so the amount of available farm and hunting land changes literally every year. The only permanent cities are the ones that are built on top of stable tectonic plates,” Freya said.
“Sounds a lot like Nocturne,” Venus said.
Freya paused to think. “It does, doesn’t it? Not really the same. The Nocturneans are a part of the greater Imperium, and they’re proud of that. My people are proud that they aren’t. Inasmuch as they know about it at all.” She bit off some salted meat and chewed. “They think my father’s men are warrior-gods, who descend from on high to take fallen soldiers and sailors off to ascend to godhood in the Fang. Let’s not disabuse them, all right?” she said.
“Of course not.” Venus nodded solemnly. “We probably won’t interact with the natives much anyway, right?”
“Nope.” Freya paused to sip at her water. “I will, though. If you guys don’t mind.”
Alex frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I want to put on some makeup and disappear for a few days. Go and explore the tribes a bit from a distance.”
“Well, you just said you would do that,” he pointed out.
Freya shrugged uncomfortably. “No, I mean actually go into the cities in disguise and just explore a bit. It wasn’t really safe to do so alone before, I was ten. But, well…now I want to go see what my people are like when they don’t know I’m me.”
Venus smiled knowingly. “It gets to you, doesn’t it?”
“It does. On Nocturne you did it, but they all knew who you were by sight. If I hide my teeth and eyes, nobody on this planet will know me,” Freya said. “I want to take advantage of that.”
“You don’t need our approval, do you?” Alex asked. “Go.”
“You’ll be on your own for a while, though,” Freya pressed. “And you may have noticed that some of the Wolves don’t like visitors. I would feel awful if I left you alone for a week and all you guys did was sit around your rooms playing cards.”
The Claw returned from the hold of the gunship and knelt by her side again. “The pack leaves for the greenskin hunt, Sister,” he whispered.
“Good.” She spoke up, a bit louder, and in Gothic. “Tell me, Brother, what do you think my comrades should do in their time here?”
The Claw paused. “I do not understand.”
“Their journey is as much an opportunity to learn our ways and see our world as it is a holiday. What do you recommend?” Freya asked.
The Claw slowly sat back down, clearly surprised. Bits of sand flaked off of his well-worn combat boots as he sank onto his haunches. “Well…we so rarely support visitors…I would ask what they hope to do,” he said, glancing at the teenaged vacationers.
Jake shrugged. “Personally? I want to see real weather. Fly a gunship over a storm cell and look at it from above. That would be amazing.” “That can certainly be arranged,” the Claw said.
“You know what I haven’t done in a million years?” Remilia asked. “I haven’t gone mountain climbing. I would love that. If I even remember how,” she said with a snort.
“Also a possibility.” The Claw looked to be less than thirty years old, to Venus’ careful eye. He had a thick line of muscle growth along his upper back that said ‘ex-cavalry’ to her. Carrying the axe or lance on horseback and sweeping them at knee height would account for it. His eyes were even more bestial than Freya’s were. The edges of his irises were a bit blurred from hundreds of capillaries crossing the whites into the red-brown discs. His canines looked only a tiny bit larger than Freya’s. But then, he had probably only been implanted a few years before.
“I’m looking to see the mountains, too,” Venus said.
“The chance to go fishing in a body of water with actual fish sounds good,” Alex joked. “Nothing but reservoirs on Terra.”
The Claw finally smiled. It was nothing more than a faint curl of the lips, but it was there. Freya noticed and spoke up. “Sit, Brother, have some food.”
“Thank you, Sister, but I would rejoin Brother Arj on the hunt.” He stood and bowed slightly to his guests, slapping a fist across his plastron. “I will return in a while to carry you all back to the Fang.”
The Claw melted into the loose undergrowth and trees once more. As soon as he was out of earshot – keeping in mind that that was a fair distance with a Wolf – Jake asked the obvious question.
“He’s probably off getting lunch,” Freya said. “There’s decent game around here.”
“In an hour? What if he can’t find anything, it all got scared off by the gunship or something?” Alex asked in confusion.
“Then he’ll be hungry.” Freya lifted a fruit and sliced it in her hand. “It happens.”
Alex thought that worldview over. “You know, on Terra, someone once told me that parts of the planet were so agrarian at one point that hunting actually became necessary, because they had to keep animals away from the crops.”
“Not a whole lot of cropland on Fenris. We just eat whatever’s at hand, even if we have to go kill it,” Freya said sagely.
“‘We’ again.” Jake looked over at her. “You really do think of yourself as a Marine?”
“No, not…well. A Vlka Fenryka? Absolutely. An actual warrior? Not until I earn it.” Freya grinned at Jake just wide enough for him to get a good look at her fangs. “Do you not think of me as a Wolf?”
He smiled back, unperturbed by her display. “No, you are. It’s just not a side we see at school, much.”
She nodded, satisfied. Jake continued. “Do you know how we can send messages home? If there were Astropaths in the Fang, I didn’t see a way to contact them.”
“Eh, Astropaths aren’t too popular around here,” Freya said uneasily. “I’m sure there is one, though, we get messages from somewhere.”
Venus finished her sandwich early and rose to her feet. “May I just take a quick look at the gunship? Just to see how it’s different.”
Remilia chuckled. “Typical. We’re on a new planet for the first time and the first thing she does is inspect the wargear.” Freya waved her assent around a mouthful of cookie.
Venus walked around the outside of the gunship, her hearing still allowing her to follow the others’ discussion. The pilot, a handsome serf in the livery of the Wolf Father’s Company – the equivalent of the Fire Drakes – nodded politely as she ran her obsidian fingers over the rack of assault cannon targeting gear. The pilot emerged from the cabin moments later and joined her in her external inspection.
“Milady Venus, an honor,” he said.
Venus nodded to him and stepped back, drinking in the details of the gunship. It was clearly old, but well-maintained enough. A few errant spots of rust or damage peeked through the paint, though. She tried not to appear disapproving. “Hello,” she said.
“Fine old war bird, isn’t she? Stygies 13-built,” the skjald said. The rough brogue in his voice lent his words a proud feeling. That, or he just knew his aircraft. “The Rout assigns specific pilots to specific craft, and they’re almost never Astartes themselves,” he added, stroking the same targeting array fondly. “This little bird has been shooting heretics and aliens in the arsenal of the Rout for about nine hundred years.”
“Venerable spirits, then,” Venus said, nodding her respect to the ancient machine.
“They sure are.” The skjald – who only looked a few years older than the Claws that had ridden there with them – leaned on the light blue aircraft and smiled easily at his guest. “How are you enjoying your stay so far?” he asked.
“It’s been beautiful,” Venus said, gesturing out at the ocean. “They sure don’t have those on Terra.” “Not any more anyway,” the skjald chuckled.
“Right.” Venus stepped back from the ship and crossed her arms over her loose fleece jacket. “Do you ever fly her in combat?” she asked.
“My ship? Sure, several times. But, as you can see, it’s a Transport variant, not an Attack-variant,” the pilot said. He turned a keen eye to the horizon as he said it. “Hmm. That’ll be a problem.”
“Pardon?” Venus asked.
The skjald gestured expansively. “Lord Seager may get that chance to watch a storm today.”
“Is there one coming?” Venus asked, scanning the horizon with her hand over her eyes.
“Slow, but huge, milady, make no mistake of it,” the pilot said, shaking his head at her naïveté.
“How much time do we have?” Venus asked.
The pilot glanced at thickening darkness over the horizon. “It’ll arrive in perhaps…four hours. I’d say it would last less than two hours, but the wind will drive ships aground if they don’t moor properly.”
“Interesting.” Venus glanced at the much taller man. “How can you tell?”
“Milady, I grew up around here. This is something you have to know if you work the fleets,” the skjald said.
A faint rustle revealed the two Claws emerging from the sparse vegetation around them. “My Lady Venus, we must depart,” one Claw said. The other immediately reported the same to Freya, still sitting with the others and snacking. “A Walking Waves ship is moving down the coast to us. We will not be here when it arrives,” the Claw said flatly.
“Understood, Marine,” Venus said, immediately moving towards the ramp.
Minutes later, the group was in the air. The aircraft soared over the landing site. To Remilia’s vocal surprise, the Wolves hadn’t even attempted to conceal their presence by erasing any signs of their picnic site.
“We take no issue with our kin knowing of us having been here. If anything, it will help,” one Claw said. His wide brown eyes glinted a little in the light from Venus’ questioning stare. “The tribes of Fenris will always make war, milady. They know we watch them.”
“For what? Signs of weakness?” Remilia asked.
“Of course not, milady Remilia.” The Claw leaned forward. “We look for the fallen. Those who are struck down before their prime.” “And…what do you do with them?” Remilia asked carefully.
The second Claw spoke up. “That is for the Rune-seers to know, milady, and no other.” He glared at the other Claw for a moment, and Freya smelled the resentment that his companion had spoken out of turn.
The first Wolf was expressionless under the resentful stare. At length, the uncomfortable silence was broken. “We’re at two klicks up, Miladies, lords. If you wish to see that storm cell, Lord Seager, now would work,” the pilot said over the intercom.
“Cool. Can we?” Jake asked.
In response, the rear hatch began to open. Jake clipped his tether back on and rose, peering over the edge of the gunship. The pilot brought it to a dead standstill. Jake and the others grabbed hydraulic lines and hatch stanchions, staring out at the sea below.
“It was blue down there, last I looked,” Jake said quietly.
The whole world was grey. The entire horizon, from one end to the other, was wreathed in a thick white-grey mix of cloud. Every few moments, the veil would light up with blue, as a lightning bolt arced down to the water.
“Weather is awesome,” Jake decided.
“This is something I should have done years ago,” Freya chuckled.
“Funny how you don’t appreciate weather until you’re with somebody who’s never seen it,” Remilia mused.
Jake shook his head. “Remilia, you’d have thought that was cool whether I was here or not.”
She shrugged. “Probably.”
The ramp abruptly began closing. The five teens backed up as the pilot broke in. “Sorry, my Lords and Ladies, but the cell is moving closer to shore, and we’re going to get hit by fierce updraft. Can’t risk hatches open,” he said, sounding somewhat distracted.
“Understood. Back to the Fang, then,” Freya said, her cloak billowing around her in the wind.
The gunship banked and climbed as the group retook their seats. Within minutes, the roar of the engines died a bit as the gunship soared far above the storms and into the thinner upper atmosphere.
A Little Exploration
As the Thunderhawk flew back to the Fang, Freya removed her helmet and tether and walked up to the cabin, poking her head into the cockpit. “Pilot, what time will it be local when we arrive?” she asked.
“Around 1310 local, Princess Freya, but it will be dark as coal,” the pilot said.
“Aye, Princess, it’s late autumn in this hemisphere.” The pilot nudged a brass knob slightly as the wind picked up. “Only the top four hundred decks of the Fang will have natural light.”
“Any idea how many of the Brothers will be in the Fang when we return?” she asked, arriving at the question she had wanted to keep off the vox.
“Two Great Companies’ strength at most, at this point,” the pilot said, muting his microphone.
“Of course, thanks.” Freya closed the cockpit and thought over her newfound insights. She slowly ran a soft leather gloved finger over her lip, considering.
“Freya?” she heard someone ask over the engine din. Alex was looking at her questioningly.
She padded back to her seat and slid in. “Sorry, wanted to ask the pilot something.” She slid her arm around his waist and smiled. “You guys mind taking the afternoon off? The Great Companies go off to join the hunt. It’ll be a wild rush in the Fang to get the Brothers mobilized.”
“Sure, we can just hang out for a while,” Alex said as the others shrugged or nodded.
The gunship slid into a cradle on a mid-level dock of the massive structure. All around them, dozens of servitors and skjalds were hauling massive racks of autocannon rounds to pallets, to be lifted into gunships. Freya led the group skillfully through the chaos, arriving at a tiny passenger lift at the back of the dock. With a tap, the started ascending into the core of the colossal fortress.
Jake leaned back on the railing, massaging his aching ears. “How come the Wolves…Rout decided to make a single gigantic HQ, Freya?”
“No idea. It’s cool though, right?” Freya asked with a smirk. “I’ve never asked.”
“I’d kinda like to know,” Jake said, rubbing his fingers over his ears. Alex was looking uncomfortable too.
“I can just ask,” she said. She cocked her head with some concern. “Are you all right?”
“No, the pressure differential in here fucking hurts,” Alex said. He planted his hand over his nose and relaxed the muscles at the back of his mouth, popping his ears. “How in the hell do the skjalds deal with this kind of pressure shifts?” he asked.
Venus and Remilia, their biology accommodating them far better, looked at Freya askance as the perky redhead shrugged. “No idea. It’s probably just like working on a shuttle, though, right? You just get used to it.”
Jake shook his head. “The air pressure in the underhive is half again what is in the spires. I’ve been to both and I’m still in pain,” he said, aping Alex’s gesture.
“Well…sorry,” Freya said.
“I’m not faulting anybody. You live in a building this tall, you pay the price,” Alex said, sniffing deeply.
The lift halted on the deck with their suites, and to Freya’s immediate notice, they weren’t alone. She detected at least four other people where there had been none before. Curious, she glanced over the piles of luggage outside the apartment doors. The containers were all mil-spec plastic, with Imperial Aquilae on them. A few skjalds were carrying them into the apartments, apparently settling in some new tenants.
Venus pushed her own door open and stepped in, noting that her previous assessment had been accurate: the room had not been cleaned. She shrugged, tossing her fleece jacket over a chair. She leaned back out of the room and caught the eye of one of the skjalds. “Excuse me, where’s the laundry on this floor?”
The serf blinked. “I beg your pardon, milady?”
“Is there one?” she asked.
“Er, yes, milady, one floor below,” he said, somewhat surprised. “But all you have to do is leave something in the hamper by the door and we’ll do it for you.”
“Ah, thanks,” she said, sliding the door shut.
Jake stretched out on his back, weaving his fingers together behind his head. “Hell of a flight,” he said softly.
“Wasn’t it?” Venus asked. She unclipped her thermo belt – the only part of the outfit she had worn – and dropped onto the bed next to him. “That storm cell was something else.”
Jake glanced around the room before ruefully shaking his head. “Oh, durr.”
“I started looking for a holo,” he chuckled.
“Right. None of that on Fenris.” She slid up next to him and listened to his tension fade. The sound of him equalizing to the lower pressure on this floor was unusual. “You’re all right now? No pressure aches?”
“A little, actually. My legs are tired,” he said. “Not used to changing pressures that fast in an unsealed lift.” He stuck out a hand and she obligingly shifted into his arms. She may not have been Freya, either in regards to the sensitivity of her senses or her need for familiar environments, but it was still a comforting gesture. She relaxed into his grip as he rolled sideways to look at her. “How about you?” he asked.
“I’m great. Looking forward to tonight.” She closed her eyes to protect his. “Freya’s little story-teller circle should be fun.”
“I hope we’re not treading on people’s toes,” Jake said.
She shrugged awkwardly. “I don’t think we are. Certainly the two guys on the flight today were pretty polite.”
Jake conceded the point with a silent nod. She rose from his arms and started pulling a nicer shirt on. “If we’re going to be dining with the actual leadership of the lingering Rout, though, we should look the part. The jacket shirt from the ball back home should be good for you,” she said.
“All right.” Both teens fell silent as they dressed for the evening.
Freya, who didn’t feel the need to change, was waiting for the others outside the rooms when a few Imperial Army officers stepped from a lift at the end of the corridor. They were arguing vociferously, with all the wild gestures and veiled threats of an old married couple. Freya leaned back against the wall of the corridor to let them pass, and they walked straight by and into their rooms without even stopping to acknowledge her. Then, perhaps they hadn’t recognized her.
Freya stared at their retreating backs with confusion, but shrugged it off after a moment. It was only when a muffled yell came from one of the rooms that her attention returned. Curious, she made her way over to the open door, to see an officer cradling a hand, glaring at a dropped battery. “Bloody cheap power cells!” the officer growled. He caught sight of Freya and glared. “Something you need, ma’am?”
“Sorry, I heard a yelp and thought someone was hurt.” She ducked back, settling back against the wall outside her own room and waiting. Moments later, Alex emerged from the room, smartly dressed in a navy blue vest over a light blue formal shirt. Remilia emerged from her own room with Jake and Venus arriving moments later.
“Everyone ready? We have an hour before the dinner, we should explore a bit,” Freya said.
“Sure thing. You’re keeping the cloak and cowl look?” Alex asked.
“You bet your ass,” Freya said. “I’m the only Fenrisian here, I’m gonna look it.”
A Moment of Silence
The group walked into a lift and dropped down to the central levels of the gigantic structure, pausing outside a room Freya knew very well. She opened the doors with a respectful nod to the pair of guards outside, who clasped their Power Swords to their ceremonial leather armor with reverence. “This,” Freya said, taking in the room with a gesture, “is the Recollections Chamber.”
The wide room was filled with images of the sky. Not just Fenris’ sky, with its massive moon and wide starscape, but alien skies. Massive rings shimmered like vertical lines in some of the still photographs and holos on the walls. A complex moonrise of five tiny satellites orbiting a single massive moon filled one corner of the room. Directly above them, the white disk of Fenris’ own moon, in a partial eclipse leaving it looking like a platinum wedding ring, completely filled the ceiling.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Freya asked.
“It’s amazing. What words are these from?” Alex asked.
Freya gestured, and the lights of the room went out, save a single spotlight over a graven plaque on a chunk of marble in the middle of the chamber. The plaque had numbers and names all over its surface. “The holos all have numbers next to them, if you switch them on,” she said. She tapped one of the numbers on the plaque, and the seemingly inert surface *ticked* slightly. One of the images of starscapes over them blinked once. “So…that one was taken in the final year of the Arceba Wars, from the roof of the capitol building the aliens built over the human colony there, before Dad’s men burned it down.”
“So these are commemorative victory trophies?” Venus asked. Her eyes swept beams of light over the holos until she slid her mirrored sunglasses on.
“Sort of. These were taken any place the Rout won a campaign without losing any Astartes,” Freya said. She gestured at a small shot of the Milky Way from deep space. “We leave the spot next to that one picture there vacant. In that campaign, the Wolves won without losing any Marines, but an entire battalion of Army troops was lost to the Warp.” She pointed at another, very large image on the farthest wall, of a fiery red moon hanging over a tiny white one. “That’s the oldest. Fiftieth year of the Crusade, I think. Dad was there for that one in person.”
“These are incredible,” Venus said. She reached her hand through a hologram of an inky, black night, with only a few faint stars. “I bet this was taken on a hive world, but far from the hives."
“Sure was. How could you tell?” Freya asked.
“The light pollution. There are few clouds, but the stars are so faint.” Venus pulled her hand back and looked over the plaque. “This is very cool, Freya.”
“I’m glad you like it.” Freya crouched down before the marble block and sketched a quick symbol over the stone. She sat down at its base and crossed her legs, drawing her cloak up around her. “I used to sit in here and listen to Dad tell stories for hours as a kid. Closest I’ve ever come to inactivity,” she said with a self-deprecating chuckle.
Remilia tapped a rune on the plaque and watched an image flicker. “This is almost like a shrine,” she said.
“It is a shrine.” Freya looked up at the moon of Fenris overhead. “We honor our most significant victories.”
Remilia nodded. “It’s humbling.”
Alex sat down by the door, looking at the stars flowing overhead. “You ever sit here and try to make the star patterns line up?”
“A few times. It’s kind of useless without a reference point. There’s a few obvious ones,” she said, gesturing to two that looked nothing alike to the mortals in the room. “They were taken on two planets in the same system.”
“…Uh huh,” Alex said.
Venus crouched beside Freya and looked over the plaque. Freya looked over at her and saw the faint red ovals of light under the reflective surfaces widen and shift as she read. Of course, with no irises Freya couldn’t see them move side to side. “Six…seven…eight hundred image keys,” Venus said under her breath. “Are all of the Wolves’ major zero-casualty campaigns here?”
“Not even half, but these are the ones where they had time to stop and record them,” Freya said.
“Cool.” Venus glanced sideways through her glasses. “Do you guys have a shrine to your members of the Great Ninety, too?”
“We do, but it’s not here,” Freya said. “It’s in the Hall of the Giants. I can’t get you guys in there.” She paused. “Well. Yes…I could, but it’s the most sacred room in the star system.”
“I understand, Freya, I didn’t take you guys into the Hall of Deathfire, either. Can you describe it?” Venus asked.
Freya thought. “The Hall of Giants is where the Legionary Dreadnoughts rest. You can understand its significance,” she said.
“Sure, I get it.”
“Right. It’s a statue of a hooded Vlka, nobody specific, standing over two sleeping Fenrisian Wolves, with one hand over his secondary heart, and the other making the symbol of the Fang in mid-air over the sleeping Wolves,” Freya said. “The names of our four members of the Great Ninety are carved into the base of the statue, and the words filled with sapphire dust. In the light of the room, it looks like fresh paint, of the same color as the paint scheme on the original Legion Terminators,” Freya said. “It’s just a coincidence that all four of our Great Ancient Ones have Terminator Honors.”
“Oh, I didn’t know that. That sounds very cool,” Venus said. Remilia listened in with interest. The Fists had a much simpler monument to their five members. “You’ve seen our public one on Nocturne, in Themis. Dad also built a private monument on the grounds back home.”
“I remember.” Freya drew her knees up to her chin and stared at the plaque, reminiscing about her youth in the Fang. Venus stood and walked away, as much to give her cousin privacy as to see the rest of the room.
After a time, a guard at the entrance to the room coughed under his breath, drawing Freya’s reluctant attention. “Princess, Lord Ackur Redwind has instructed me to inform you that your room has been prepared for the evening meal,” the skjald said quietly. He didn’t enter the room as he said it. Freya nodded. The guard turned around to relay a reply. The teenage girl’s eyes drifted back to the plaque for a moment before rising to her booted feet. She brushed dust from her leather skort. “Well, guys, dinner’s ready.”
“All right.” Jake stood from his own seat and walked out. As Venus and Remilia followed, Alex paused. Freya was standing still, watching the simulated stars all around her. The legacy of her pack’s most hallowed and unilateral victories shimmered around her in a tapestry of history, one as lasting as her father himself. Alex didn’t need to ask why she liked it so much.
He waited for her. After a few more seconds, she shook herself awake and walked out, pausing to squeeze his hand and offer him a toothy grin. “Hell of a thing, isn’t it?” she asked.
Below, Lord Redwind, the presiding second in command of the Twelfth Great Company, slowly paced the small room the serfs had set aside. He hadn’t met Freya before, but from what little he knew of her, he expected the meal to be eventful, to say the least. The door swung open, and a pair of skjalds in formal uniforms stepped in and offered up crisp salutes. “Lord Redwind, on behalf of the Imperial Army Sixth Grand Army Group, I present to your Lordship: General Bletcher and General Mustafa,” one said. The odd tone in his voice spoke volumes about how unusual it was to speak so formally, even to a Lord, but certain protocols mattered more than others did. Lord Redwind was nothing if not a stickler for protocol.
The two Army officers walked in and saluted sharply. Redwind eyed them both before gesturing them to seats in silence. As they sat, Redwind halted his pacing and slowly walked up to the table. The loose blue robe of office he wore did very little to conceal his massive frame, and the tracery of tattoos and scars over his face and upper chest. “Warriors. Welcome. I am afraid none of us have a great deal of time to chat,” he said, completely without preamble. His voice was surprisingly soft, which was all the more unnerving for his bestial eyes. There wasn’t a scrap of humanity left in them.
“I understand, my Lord, and we are sincerely grateful for the time we have,” one of them said.
“Do not mistake me, General. I mean that we may discuss freely, but there is another guest arriving shortly, and that guest and their companions demand the highest attention I can provide. So please, let us be frank,” Redwind said. His Fenrisian accent brought his vowels long and cut his consonants short, lending him a somewhat imposing tone that did little to put his guests at ease.
“I see. Then straight to it, your Lordship: the call has come. I understand that the Seventh has mobilized?” the other General said.
“It has. Part of it, anyway. My own company will be next to dispatch on the hunt, I’m sure, if it is dispatched.” Redwind sat as well. “What’s your own disposition?”
“The regiments are raised, your Lordship, and the Naval assets diverted.” The first General looked sideways at the skjalds who stood motionless by the door, and decided not to make a point of them. “The messages coming in from the fronts suggest that the activity of the green hordes has died down a bit since the dam broke on the Void Walks, but we can’t rely on that. The very nature of the greenskins is a persistent one: when they find a target, they literally CAN’T stop fighting it. We have to be ready for greenskin colonies to be forming outside the traditional…‘borders’ of the Imperium,” the General said.
“Naturally, General.” Redwind leaned forward, setting his unblinking gaze on the speaker. “What are we looking at?”
“There are whole regions out along the Void Walks that are completely unexplored, sir.” The General shrugged awkwardly. “Worst-case scenario, there’s entire Webway networks and Ork empires out there we’ve never even mapped.”
“Sounds like a best-case scenario to me,” Redwind said, very softly. Both Generals shifted uncomfortably.
Redwind’s ears caught the other guest walking down the hall. He straightened in his seat. “Gentlemen, as much as I’d like to sit and talk shop…”
“Of course,” one of the officers said, rising to his feet. He paused with a gesture from his host.
“…Perhaps we could pause for supper and simply continue after my other guests are gone?” Redwind continued with a slight smile.
“Oh.” The General sat again, feeling somewhat foolish. “We’d be honored to eat at your table, of course, your Lordship.”
The door swung open. Both skjalds immediately sank to a reverent knee. “My Lord Redwind, her Majesty, Blood Princess of the Rout, Freya Russ.”
Both Generals froze stock-still. Redwind finally grinned.
He rose to bow his respect. “Sister, welcome home.”
“Good to be back, Brother Redwind.” Freya sketched a quick nod and made the symbol she had made before. “We’re honored.” She reached her hand out behind her, switching back to Gothic. “Lord Trader Alex Carlin, Sieur Jacob Seager, Lady Primarch Venus, Lady Primarch Remilia Dorn.”
“A true honor, my Lords and Ladies,” the one of the Generals said, rising to his feet. He started when he recognized the redheaded girl leading the group. Freya clearly made the connection, too.
“How’s your hand?” she asked slyly.
“Good as new…Princess Russ,” the General said sheepishly. “Sorry if I was short before.”
“Sure.” Freya swept her cloak aside and sat at the table as the rest of the group took their seats, and the skjalds discreetly closed the door behind them. “I do feel welcomed. This is hardly my first homecoming, of course,” she added with a tilt of the head.
“Naturally.” Redwind was still speaking Juvjk. “Perhaps you could share your own tales with the other Brothers at a later date, but for tonight, we thought you might want to ease back into the routine,” he continued.
“Of course,” Freya said, again in Gothic.
Redwind paused as the skjalds returned with the food. “Do you not speak conversational Juvjk, Sister?” he asked cautiously.
Freya replied in that language. “I’m entirely fluent, Lord-Brother, but I didn’t cross the sea of stars with my closest friends to speak in a language they don’t understand,” she said, with an undercurrent of instruction to her words.
Redwind nodded contrition. “Of course, my apologies,” switching back to his accented, but understandable, Gothic. Jake eyed the two officers sitting nervously at the other end of the table.
“Afternoon, gentlemen,” he offered.
“Good afternoon…I’m sorry, Lord Seager, was it?” one asked. “General Anton Bletcher, Sixth Grand Army Group. This is Lieutenant General Yusuf Mustafa, Ninth Army Group,” he said, introducing himself and his companion, who merely nodded respectfully.
“No ‘Lord’ in there, but yes. Jake works,” he said. “We’re out from Terra via Nocturne.”
“A home tour, sir?” Mustafa asked.
“Well, we’re from all over, but we went to school together on Terra until a few months ago,” Jake explained. Rising sounds from the Fenrisian end of the table necessitated he speak up. “We’re here for the next…hmm, twenty six days.”
“Indeed? Afraid we’ll only be here another few days ourselves,” Bletcher said. “Some of this job you just can’t do through couriers and Astropaths, you know.”
“Security risks, of course.” Jake dug into his own steak with enthusiasm. “You just might run into some friends of ours out there in the black, sirs.”
“Pardon?” Mustafa asked.
“We’ve got some friends who enlisted after school,” Remilia supplied.
“Oh? Good for them. Do you know what section?” Bletcher asked over his drink.
“Well, let’s see…Andrew was talking about Praetor Field Artillery. Julius was talking Geno or the Janizars,” Venus said, thinking it over. “Hana, of course, is just going to go home,” she chuckled. “And poor Julius is probably getting a taste of it right now.” She noted Bletcher’s raised brow. “He was travelling from Terra to Ultramar via Seadelant when…well.”
“Ah.” Neither General felt the need to continue.
Alex, meanwhile, was trying not to stare too hard at the display of Redwind tearing through his steak. Even Freya was more sedate. “So, Freya…” Alex said, looking for a distraction. “What’s on the agenda for tomorrow?”
“Hmmm…I was thinking we go seize that rock-climbing idea,” Freya said. “There’s a stable range of basalt pillars around here, we had a small training camp out there before we relocated it. We’ve got heaps of climbing gear, some of it rated to cargo-hauler levels. We could go scale the pillars.”
“Sounds like a lot of fun,” Alex said.
“I love it. First thing I do when I go to a new gym is try the climbing wall,” Remilia proclaimed. “It’s always fun. The hive skins on Inwit were rough instead of being smoothed over like on Terra, so climbing the hive walls is something people used to do for fun back home. Even Mom was a climber when she was my age.”
Freya downed a cup of her honey mead. “Really? Never knew that. Where did you climb on Terra?”
“Oh, the Public Center in Startseite. I’m just a bit out of practice.” Remilia sighed. “Might have to take it a bit slow.”
“I’m a little out of practice myself, but I’d love to go climbing.” Venus stared into the dusky orange mead in her glass, turning it the color of a sunset over the walls back on Nocturne. “I should make sure to write home tonight,” she said to Jake. “I forgot to write when we arrived.”
Redwind paused his consumption long enough to address her. “Then please send your messages to the Star-speakers Temple, milady, not the system Astropaths,” he said. “The system Astropaths are way out in the Oort cloud, on a relay station. Messages can take days to arrive. The Star-speakers are here in the Fang.”
“Sure thing, thanks,” Venus said. “Is there a cap on message length?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea,” Redwind said. “Do speak to their liaison.”
After the meal concluded, the five teens made ready to leave, when Redwind held them up. “One thing, Sister,” he said, as the other four rose with thanks for the meal.
“What is it?” Freya asked, her hand on the armrest.
Redwind switched back to Juvjk. “Please understand that any involvement with the Legionary Brothers beyond tomorrow night is at their discretion. You’re welcome in your own home, obviously…but your friends will not understand.”
“I know,” Freya said. This time, she was using Juvjk too. “They’ll be all right with it. We did the same thing on Venus’ world,” she said.
“Very well.” Redwind paused to offer the small group a befanged smile. “Now, do enjoy your stay, so long as you don’t get too near the Thunderwolf pens,” he said evenly. Nobody was quite sure if he was kidding, save Freya, who kept it to herself with a hidden grin.
The Local Customs
Evening arrived. The five Terran expatriates ascended to the higher levels of the Fang, above the atmospheric glimmer, to where the stars could be seen all day and night. Since the Space Wolf home was built on the planet’s magnetic north pole, seasons lasted a long time here. By the time the group arrived on the destination floor, the hour was late.
The deck was an oddity. On a proper space station, it wouldn’t have even been considered. That said, nobody doubted its effects. The majority of the deck was taken up with the same machinery that kept the rest of the Fang stable: power conduits, atmospheric venting systems, void shield generators, anticoncussive field projectors, an inertial dampener and antigrav system so the people inside weren’t thrown against the walls with every step.
The rest of the deck, however, was a single, massive, open space, with two-meter thick polarized armorcrys windows stretching from deck to ceiling, and completely undarkened. The polarizer kept the sun as a simple white/yellow disk in the distance, with no glare, but the rest of the sky was unfiltered. Trillions of stars, galaxies, nebulae, planets, and more were visible from the room.
Freya led the group across the open floor. Aside from a few colossal iron chairs, bolted to the deck in places, the floor was bare. No carpets or tiling covered the metal deckplates.
“This is the Observation deck,” Freya said. “I used to nap up here when I was a tiny kid. When the sun was up, I’d lower the polarizer by a fraction and read by the sunlight, or tan if I wanted. The Rout comes up here to look down on the world and see their homelands from the skies.” She sank into one huge chair – clearly meant for Power Armor. “Amazing, isn’t it?”
“People pay private pilots hundreds of thousands of credits to fly them up high enough to see this back home,” Remilia said. She walked up to one edge, peering down. “…Good thing I don’t get vertigo.”
“It’s magnificent, Freya,” Jake said. He gingerly peered down too, and immediately backed up. “Okay, that’s a long way down.”
“I’m going to guess that the Wolves justified this to themselves by saying they could spot hostiles or something from here, right?” Alex quipped.
Freya laughed. “Got it in one.”
“Well, it’s an awesome view,” Alex said.
As the other four were talking, Venus slowly walked right up to the window surface. The heat from her drew a wisp of vapor from the thin condensate on the inside of the window as she traced one obsidian finger over its surface.
“Like it, Venus?” Freya called.
She didn’t answer. She slowly spread both hands out on the surface, staring blankly at the galaxy beyond.
“Venus?” Jake asked.
“I’m okay,” she said under her breath.
Jake walked up behind her. “You okay?” He hadn’t heard her.
“I’m fine, Jake,” Venus said. “It’s…unforgettable, isn’t it?” she whispered.
Jake looked at her curiously. “It is.” He glanced out to follow her vision, and saw only the mass of stars beyond the sun. “Looking for Nocturne?”
“It’s…over there,” she said, pointing indistinctly to one side. Her eyes wandered across the ocean of multicolored dots. “I should be recording this,” she said, pawing at her pockets for a vox or camera.
“I am pleased to see you taken by the view of our world, Lady Venus,” a deep, growling voice said from behind them. Alex turned to see a Wolf in light grey robes moving up behind them. The Marine had a single mass of tangled blonde hair down the middle of his back, but the tattoos on his face covered nearly all his visible skin. “I am Konnar, Priest of the Runes. An honor,” he said, bowing slightly.
“Likewise, sir,” Venus said, returning the gesture as the others bowed.
Freya scrambled up from her chair. “Konnar, good to see you, Brother,” she said.
“You as well, little sister,” he said in Juvjk. Turning back to the others, his brilliant blue eyes settled on Venus, still watching the stars out of one eye. “It is captivating, is it not?”
“It’s magnificent.” Venus glanced back at their host. “What are the major constellations?”
Konnar walked up beside her. “There, directly ahead…that large red star. That is the highest of the Falling Stones. Below it there, and below there…those are the others. Our ancient kin took them to be rocks, falling down the side of the walls of the stars.”
“I see them now,” she said. Her eyes narrowed a bit. “And…that circle of blue stars, beside them?”
“The Waters of the Moon. Long before man tamed the wilds, the spirits of the ancient wolves traveled to the moon to slake their thirst for water. Finding an abundance, they sent some to Fenris, and some to the sky.”
Venus nodded in silence. The Marine looked down at her with an odd look in his eyes. “Your people have a story like it?” he asked. “We do.” She shifted her shoulders. “When the world was colder, and the forests still grew, Kesare and Kessarghoth, the Eldest Drakes, crawled through the tunnels of the Mountain of Death. When they went to the surface for prey, they saw a great dragon, larger than either of them, terrorizing everything in its path. Kesare attacked the dragon in anger, for the drakes and dragons are ancient foes, but was thrown back upon the rocks. Kessarghoth struck next, but could not bring the dragon down either. Finally, both slid back amongst the crags, where the dragon’s fire breath could not reach them, and lured the beast forward. When it drew too close to the top of the mountain, Kesare struck again, and held it still, while Kessarghoth lit the mountain’s heart on fire. The molten heart of the mountain burst forth, and propelled the dragon out into the endless night, where it rests now…” she trailed off, searching the sky. “Right…about…there,” she said, pointing at a brilliant red star.
“After that, the world was wreathed in fire from the bleeding heart of the world, and the waters turned to acid, and the forests to stone. Kesare and Kessarghoth were hated by the stars for causing such damage to their home, and throwing the great beast into the heavens, and all the good water was taken away by the stars, never to be returned…and there it is,” she said, pointing at a dim blue star near the shining red one.
Konnar smiled slightly in the darkness. “Both of our people found ways to turn the beasts of the land into a force of nature,” he said.
“They did.” She looked up at him from somewhere around his waist. “Is that what you wanted to show us?”
“No, Lady Venus,” the psyker said. He gestured to the chairs behind them. “Sister Freya asked me to tell you a little about us.”
The group founds seats as the Marine leaned back against the window, rubbing his chin. “Did you have something in mind specifically, Sister?”
“Well…I wanted my friends to have a chance to hear a bit about Fenris itself. The tribes, the people, the planet.” She leaned forward. “What can you tell them that isn’t in the history books?”
Konnar narrowed his eyes a bit. “Interesting.” He laced his fingers together and thought, head bowed. “Fenris…she is a harsh mistress, indeed,” he said. “Our world is a land of tumult. Where some colony worlds banded together to overcome their homeworld’s geography, ours turned life into a competition.” He tilted his gaze up a few degrees, staring into the interminable distance. “Not one with rules, either.” He gestured at the planet below. “There’s more than forty eight tribes down there, each claiming all the territory they can. Land is more important than anything else, to the tribesmen. Land means crops, trees, and most importantly, game.”
He half-turned to stare down at the massive oceans visible on the surface below. “Our people believe that the sky above them is a massive vault. Above the clouds, there is a great gallery, leading into many halls. Within them live the greatest warriors who have ever lived. The worlds upon which we kill in the Emperor’s name are halls, to which we send our warriors, some of whom do not return.” Konnar turned back to his audience. “Even here, on Fenris’ brutal surface, the great fallen are given a chance to live again, in song, in legend, in namesakes.”
Freya drew her legs up to her chin again and listened, green eyes wide. Konnar smiled despite himself. She looked no older than the ten years she had been when he had seen her last, at that moment. “Naturally, there is some truth to their myths. For the stars ARE halls, of a sort, and contain many worlds, many battlefields. And most of the Vlka Fenryka who have ever lived rest on those alien shores and lands.”
He sat in one of the iron chairs and faced the five. “The tribes share little beyond their language. We erase tribal loyalties from our Blood Claws, for once you join the Rout, there is no-one beyond your pack and your Wolf Lord, and Father Russ above all. What little they know of us…is shrouded in myth and reverence. And, of course, some fear. Many times have we descended on great wars and conflicts to break them up, or even encourage them. They do not know their Imperium, you see. Only their Emperor, the All-Father, He Who is Above the King.”
Jake tilted his head a bit in silent question. Konnar, of course, noticed. He didn’t need his immense psychic powers to do so. “Though the Fenrisians hold the Emperor above all other authorities, most do not worship him as a true god. They hold him to be the pinnacle, the epitome of all that is human. Which, by contrast, makes their worship of us all the more fervent. To them, we are the sentries of the Emperor’s army, who carry fallen warriors away to eternal glory. To a degree, we are.”
“Is that how you recruit?” Alex asked.
Konnar went silent for a moment. “I will say that that is part of it. More than that…forgive me, but that is not my part of the story to tell. You understand.”
“Sure,” Alex said, nodding assent.
Venus looked over to the expanse of stars, watching a tiny comet blaze by. “How many Fenrisians are there down there?” she asked.
“Perhaps eight million total, but for each major tribe, there are ten small ones, some less than a thousand strong. Others are much larger, and their nomadic camps can stretch over entire valleys.”
Jake looked out the window too. “Are all the tribes connected to the oceans in some way? Or just the ones we heard about today?”
“Which ones did you discuss today?” Konnar asked.
“The Walking Waves and Krennir,” Jake supplied.
“I see.” Konnar rolled one robe sleeve up to the elbow. “I was once of the Krennir, myself.” The tattoos to which he gestured were indistinguishable to the group from the others.
“How much do you remember?” Alex asked.
“Not a thing,” Konnar said. The Rune Priest let his sleeve fall. “The lives we leave behind are important as a lens, through which we examine our history, but they are not who we are now.” He leaned forward a hair in his seat, a lopsided smile on his scarred face. “The tribes of the shores…I would say most of them have at least some presence in the waters. Only a few dwell in the hills and fields alone, and they are the specialists. They are the cavalry archers, they are the beast-tamers, they are the traders. The tribes of the seas and those who travel between land and water freely are the raiders, the explorers, the fishers.”
He settled back against the iron chair, looking over the group. Freya hadn’t budged, and Alex and Jake seemed enrapt by the lesson. Remilia was listening with her hand on her chin, and Venus had gone back to staring out the window at the planet below.
“What catches your eye, Princess?” Konnar asked her.
“Nothing specifically. It’s just…really incredible. Can you see any of the SDF or Legionary ships from here?” she asked.
“Not with the naked eye. Not now that so many have taken to the front,” Konnar said. He turned back to the others. “Now…I am sure you’ve gathered, or even been told, that many of the brothers do not feel entirely comfortable with those outside the Legion learning so much about us. There is, however, one story they would be proud to have me tell you,” he said.
“Which one?” Freya asked.
“An older tale. The tale of our victory over the Fallen Souls,” he said. “Despite the name, they were neither daemons nor renegade human warriors.”
“What were they?” Jake asked.
“Warp Emanations. Not daemons, but aliens that live within that dark realm.” Konnar tilted his head back and began.
“Three thousand years ago, the Crusade had entered its second phase. The Primarchs had been found, STC relics and blueprints were pouring into the arms of the Machine God’s worshippers again…the Imperium was young and strong. Around this time, we began to lose contact with individual planets at the very outermost edge of our progress along the star lanes to the Astronomican’s edge. This happened, from time to time, you see, as Warp storms we had used as focusing points for Astropathy ebbed, or as worlds decided they really didn’t like that far-off Emperor fellow, and ‘forget him, we’re on our own.’ Nonetheless, the worlds with which we began losing contact were physically very close to each other. Some were less than three light-years apart. We began to suspect an alien invasion.” Konnar leaned forward, splaying his hands over his knees.
“As you can imagine, we were loath to part with our hard-earned territory. The Rout was dispatched, with Lord Gunar Wolfsmane at the head of the pack, nearly five thousand strong. The first world we reached was embroiled in anarchy. The Astropaths were dead, which was how we lost contact. The Mechanicum stations around the system were under siege from psychotic SDF crews, fighting for their lives. The surface was embroiled in a conventional arms battle that had laid waste to a city before we even got there.”
“Why did they turn on themselves?” Remilia asked.
Konnar nodded. “We quickly realized that most of the visible victims were authorities. Psychics, Astropaths, judges, techpriests, officers, a Navigator. We thought it was an uprising, or that perhaps that an Imperial officer had abused his authority one too many times and the people were attempting a regime change.”
He shook his head. “How wrong we were. Sporadic distress calls from bunkers across the planet began reaching us. We heard pleas for aid and backup, desperate inquiries into ‘when will the Sisters arrive?’”
“The Sisters…of Silence?” Jake asked.
“Indeed. We had heard no requests for assistance from the Sisters, so we simply retook the void platforms and ships of the system before landing in force. We fell from the skies in pods and ships, and cut our way to the embattled Governor’s mansion. No sooner had we arrived than we were fired upon. The Governor’s own personal guard had turned, and tried to cut our warriors down. After dispatching them, the Governor himself arrived, and begged for the Sisters of Silence to come as fast as they could. We demanded to know why they were needed, and he said that every single psychic in the system – and everyone who had been in contact with them for nearly a day before – had turned on the Imperium, and were using their abilities to control people and turn them into a slave army.”
Konnar took in their looks of disgust. “We felt much the same you do, my friends. We immediately split up, fanning out over the system and isolating every psychic we could find. As we did, though, we found an oddity. Many of them were already dead when we arrived. They had been parasitized, you see, by Warp beings. The beasts had taken over their minds and used them as hosts. So you see, the psychics themselves were not at fault. They were beyond rescue, however, and we granted them the Emperor’s Peace as often as we could. The ones who had already released their parasites to attack more people were burned.”
“Were you there in person for this?” Freya asked, spellbound.
“No, Sister, this was two thousand years before I was even born.”
He leaned forward again. “I’m sure you’re wondering why I told you this gruesome tale. The fact of the matter is, we remember such things, and pass along such things, specifically because they are hard to hear. We have peace, now. A grand peace, that envelops the Imperium, and honors the fallen. Some of the fallen, however, were not warriors. It is just as important to remember those who fell simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time as it is to remember those warriors of the Imperium who fall in the course of their duties.”
Remilia and the boys nodded solemnly. “So it is,” Remilia observed.
Freya rose and inclined her head. “Thank you for sharing that, Rune-brother,” she said respectfully.
Venus watched as the old Priest rose from his seat. “My honor, Sister.” He made for the door. “I will see you soon, when the time comes,” he said, departing through the lifts.
Jake turned to Freya. “Will we be having a session like this tomorrow too?” he asked.
“No, but we will be dining with the rest of the Fang soon,” she said. “He’ll be there.”
“Oh.” Jake nervously rolled his shoulders. She grinned at his obvious discomfort.
“Fear not, you guys will be able to leave whenever you want.”
“Good.” Jake glanced over to where his girlfriend was still sitting in her chair, looking around the expansive room. “You’re really taken by this room, aren’t you?” he asked.
“I am. Sorry,” she said, standing up.
“For what? It’s a cool room,” Jake said.
She shook her head with a rueful grin. “It just feels really familiar, for some reason. I dunno why, Prometheus doesn’t have anything like this.”
“Well, you can come back whenever,” Jake pointed out.
“True.” She shrugged, sending black hair across her back. “I think I will.”
One quick trip in the lifts later, the group bedded down. As Alex struggled out of his vest, Freya closed the door to their suite and pondered the day. “What do you think of my home so far?” she asked. Her reflection in the mirror on the back of the door showed her in her Fenrisian cloak, and she paused to adjust the drawstrings, idly closing the hood over her face.
“I had a blast,” Alex said, his voice muffled by the shirt he was removing. “The ocean was amazing. I can see why you wanted to come back, it’s a hell of a planet.”
“All you’ve seen so far are the military and some water,” she pointed out, playing with the hem on her cape. “The parts that will stick…we haven’t seen them yet. Thanks, though,” she added.
“Rock-climbing tomorrow, then?” Alex asked.
“Yep. Ever gone?” she asked. She slid her hands behind her and unclasped her skort, letting it fall away.
“Nope. Should be fun.” He sprawled back on the bed, fumbling for his slate.
Freya walked up beside the bed, sliding the cloak’s clasps loose and draping it over a chair. She settled down beside Alex and watched over his shoulder as he checked his messages. “Hmm. Nothing. Want to write home?” he asked.
“No, I’m fine,” she said. She tugged her shirt loose and snuggled against him as he turned the slate off. “You’re not writing?” she asked.
“I sent a message while you were already here on the Fang,” he said. He peered up at her. “So…why did you ask Konnar to tell his story to us?”
“I thought it would be interesting for you guys to hear a real Fenrisian storyteller,” she said. “Wasn’t it?”
“It was. I just thought he was going to go on a rant about pyskers or something, from the way he was building it up,” Alex truthfully said.
“Mmm.” She rolled away from him to lift her own slate from its slot on the charger. “He’s a psyker, you know.”
“I thought as much, but I couldn’t have been sure,” Alex said. “What time should we get up tomorrow?” he asked. “And is there a gym for serfs?”
“Sunrise. And we’re going mountain climbing, you won’t need a workout, trust me.” Freya sank back onto the bed, reading over her own messages. “Fuck.”
“I have over seven HUNDRED messages,” she said.
“What? How is that possible?” Alex asked.
“They’re not Astropathic. They’re from the Brothers, welcoming me home.” She smiled wistfully. “I missed you guys too,” she said, running a fingertip across the slate’s screen. Freya started paging through the messages, reading and deleting them as fast as her eyes would allow. “Awww, that’s cute,” she said.
Alex sat up to look over her shoulder. “What is it?”
“Not a specific letter, the others are just really pleased to see me.” She paused her perusal to glance back at him with a watery grin. “I missed my pack, baby.”
He sat back on his haunches. “What does it feel like? That’s not really an instinct I have,” he said. Her statement had been an acute reminder of her non-human side, on a day that had been full of them.
“How can I answer that? I’ve always had it.” She thought it over, putting the slate down. “Hmm.” She reached over and lifted her cloak from its seat back. “All right…you remember the way it felt when your rugby team won the championship last year? After the official party, and everyone went to the afterparty at Carlos’ house?”
“Yeah, it was rad as hell,” Alex said proudly.
“You spent the whole night with the team, just rejoicing.” She rolled the cloak over her hands. “Same feeling. Not just pride and accomplishment, but confidence. You felt like you belonged.”
“Yeah, I did,” Alex said. “Is that what it feels like for you?”
“No.” She sat back down at his side, running her fingers over the pelts on the hem of the cloak. “I felt that way when the wrestling and track teams won, too. It wasn’t like this. It was like…that, plus…” She sighed. “You ever been to one of Uncle Vulkan’s house parties?”
“Uh…yeah, with you, a few times,” Alex said.
“You know how after a while, it just feels like nobody there is out of place, even if you know they would be in any other context with the same people? Like, I remember the first one Jake went to. He spent most of the night on the rooftop gardens with Venus, because he was so nervous around all the Space Marines and nobles. Hell, the EMPEROR dropped by later. But by the third or fourth party, Jake was chatting, shaking hands, telling stories. You were too, after a while.”
“Yeah.” Alex felt the pelt too. The fur was surprisingly thick and heavy. “So…it’s like the two feelings together?”
“Sort of. It’s like them, only even more. You know? It’s…” She screwed up her face. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I can describe it to a human, even you. I don’t think humans can feel this.”
He shrugged, disappointed. “All right.”
“It’s as much smell as sight,” she said. “It’s as much ambient noise as speech.” Freya slid her fingers over the back of his hand on her cloak. “It’s just…belonging. Not feeling the need to belong, but being exactly where you want to be. Terra’s home, I said that on the way here and I meant it. But this is where my pack is.”
She looked up at him, smiling shyly. “You being here…contributes something, too.”
He smiled back. “Thanks, Freya. Does that mean that you think of me as a pack member, or whatever?”
“I guess so. It’s…” She thought it over, then puffed out a breath in irritation. “It’s so hard to describe. It’d feel the same if we were on a completely different planet, as long as the rest of the Vlka were there too.”
“Can you identify how many Wolves there are around just by listening really hard, and smelling the air?” he asked.
“Not in a building with closed ventilation, no,” she said. “It’s easier if I’ve met them more than once. Like…like you. When you see me out of the corner of your eye or whatever, you don’t stop to remember my name every time, do you?”
“Well, no. I know who you are.”
“Right.” She nodded emphatically. “I do the same, only for every sense. It really confused me when I was very small, that I was the only one besides Cora who could do it. After Miranda and Angela manifested their powers, they could do it with psychic imprints, too, but for the longest time it was just the two of us,” she said. She leaned in next to him, inaudibly inhaling the air. “Like…when I smell you, I don’t even think about it anymore. It’s just… ‘this is Alex.’ Automatic.”
“Hmm. But when you meet someone for the first time, you identify them with other things?” Alex asked.
“Yeah. Like that General Mustafa guy from downstairs. I could tell the second I walked in the door that he’s a problem smoker. The guy next to him, Bletcher, he used to use Onslaught, but it was a very long time ago, and he’s had at least one juvenat since.”
“Wow. That must be overwhelming,” Alex said.
“Nah, it’s been like that since I was a kid, so I don’t even notice.” She leaned back on the bed a bit, staring at him from a prone position. “I thought we’d talked about this before,” she said.
“Well, in passing, yeah, but it’s never really been…you know, relevant to something we were both doing,” Alex said. “What do I smell like?” he asked.
“I mean when we first met,” he said.
“Oh.” She thought back. “Just… ‘athlete, lives with both parents, sexually active, hangs out with smokers, mild allergies, loves pancakes,’” Freya listed.
“You can tell all that from just the way I smelled?” Alex asked, flabbergasted.
“Yep. Or other things. The way you talked, the way you moved, the way your internals sound.” Freya looked over at him, coy. “Did I get any wrong?”
“No, it was all right.” He shook his head. “Man…that’s crazy. How did you know I still lived with both parents?” he asked.
She waved a hand. “You had pheromones from an adult man and an adult woman on your clothes. It was an instinctive guess.” She sat up a bit, letting her complex braids pool behind her. “It helps that we were in a room that had just been cleaned. Smell is actually the easiest sense to remember, for humans and for me.”
Alex shook his head. “Well, it’s amazing, baby. Your senses blow my mind,” he said with a chuckle.
She laughed too. “It only really strikes home for me just now much different mine are from normal people’s when I’m talking to someone like this. Even a Thunderwolf doesn’t have senses as sharp as mine. They’re something the Emperor designed specifically for the Legion, to make sure we would be impossible to evade in the field.” She settled back against the pillow with a satisfied smirk. “It’s just my luck that it makes everything else easier too.”
He lay down next to her, one eyebrow raised. “How could you tell I wasn’t a virgin?”
She snorted. “Because the night before I saw Kathy Halsey walking a little funny in gym class, I saw her vanish into a bedroom at a party, with you.”
He blushed a bit. “You, uh…you saw that, did you?”
“And heard. And smelled.” She flashed a smile at his awkwardness. “Welcome to my life.”
“Uh huh.” He looked away for a sec. “Sorry.”
“Psssh, you think you’re the first dude to get laid within a hundred feet of me? If I held it against you, trust me, you’d never have had a chance,” she scoffed. She smiled up at him again, a bit more seductive this time. She traced a finger across his bare chest. “If anything, it was a point in your favor. Kathy was having a grand old time. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about,” she said softly.
He grinned broadly, puffing up a bit in machismo. “Well, thanks kindly,” he said.
“Which is the only reason I didn’t smack your ears upside down when you tried to smooth-talk me out of my tights after that wrestling meet,” she continued.
He deflated again. “Oh.” He peered back down at her through narrowed eyelids. “I don’t remember you taking it poorly, though,” he pointed out.
“Mmm, well, a nice butt and strong hands are all well and good, but if all you wanted was some Bro Points with your friends for getting off in a Primarch’s daughter, that would have ended VERY poorly for you,” she assured him. “Luckily for us both, you can cook too.” She smiled happily at his hurt expression.
“Oh, Freya, that’s just mean,” he complained.
She leaned up and pecked him on the lips. “I’m changing my college plans to stay with you a little longer, Alex baby, you’ve got nothing to worry about,” she whispered in his ear.
He smiled regretfully at that, and slid a hand behind her neck to hold her to his lips a little longer. “Sorry to put you out, cutie.”
She pulled away, her eyes sleepy and content. “No trouble.” She tossed the cloak over its chair back and rose from her position to begin her bathroom routines. “Now you rest up. Mountain climbing works your arms like nothing else in the world.”
Across the hall, Remilia flipped her own slate on in bed to find that she had two new messages. She opened one to find it to be a routine check-in from Mechanicus station in the outer system, greeting Her Highness Princess Dorn to Fenris, and the other was a message from home. Responding to the first with a simple ‘Thanks, it’s good to be here,’ she opened the second.
‘Remilia, I hope this message reaches you before you arrive on Fenris. If not, then you should know, I’ve taken to the field once more,’ the message from her father read. ‘The Phalanx is plying the stars around the resurgent greenskins, and I will be taking a thousand Astartes from the home guard to join them, with a few dozen Joint Task companies joining me. We will be gone when you return.’ Remilia closed her eyes in silent frustration for a long moment.
She opened them and resumed reading when her irritation faded. ‘I know I said I would be there when you returned, if I could. Sadly, I can not. The rising tides demand my attention, Remilia, and I am sorry.’
“Sure, Dad,” she said tiredly. “Of course.”
‘I do hope you have found this trip of yours fulfilling.’
She giggled. “In more ways than one, Dad, but let’s keep that to ourselves.”
‘I know the worlds you’ve selected are hardly hospitable ones, and I was saddened to hear of your friend’s injury on Nocturne. I hope he’s well again. When you return, please stop by to see your mother before Orientation, she’s worried sick over your choices of destinations.’
“Can’t blame her,” Remilia said.
She skimmed the rest of the brief message and turned on the transcriptor to compose her reply. As soon as she was done, she sent it and switched off the slate. She settled back against the rough sheets. “Wonder what Fenrisian rock climbing is like.”
Challenging the Aggro Crag
The next morning, Jake craned his head back and stared at the near-vertical pillars of craggy basalt jutting from the snowy ground.
“Pansy,” Alex scoffed.
“Nope.” Jake pointed up at the rocks. “Not happening. I’m just going to go enjoy all the snow while you genii scale giant boulders.”
“Okay,” Freya said, slinging a few extra spikes into her packs. She had forgone the cloak and Fenrisian adornments for a more practical winter jumpsuit, complete with sealed polyfiber boots. “If you must wimp out, then far be it from me to OW!” she said as a snowball broke over her face.
Jake rubbed the snow off of his gloves. “Hmm, I could learn to like this stuff.”
Freya wiped snowmelt from her balaclava. “You will suffer for that,” she promised darkly.
“Doubtful.” Jake turned to observe the massive fields of snow all around them. The pillars jutted from their surfaces like antennae, and aside from shallow slopes around their bases, the field was largely flat. “You go fight gravity, if you wish, I’m going to enjoy this here nice, safe, frozen water.”
“Bah, this is a light dusting,” Remilia scoffed, slapping her hands together. The sun was beating down on them, and there wasn’t a puff of wind on the air. The conditions were perfect. The fact that the temperature was approaching negative twenty Celsius was the only mild problem.
Even then, ‘problem’ was subjective. Venus, both to spite their climate and to show off, was wearing a tee shirt. The brilliant glare of the sun off the snow drowned out color from their surroundings, making her green shirt, waterproofed climbing pants, and skintight exercise gloves glow like beacons against her obsidian skin.
She rolled a ball of snow in her hands, letting it melt against her fiery flesh. “Hmm. Hey, Alex, catch,” she said, whipping the ball of slurry at him just as he stooped to pick up his climbing gear.
The ball splattered against his arm, and he yelped. “Gah! Hey, come on, we’re about to ascend here!”
“You can wait,” she said, rolling another. She cocked her arm back to throw.
She staggered and lost her ammunition as Freya avenged her fallen boyfriend. “Ever had a snow fight with an iceworlder?” she growled, scooping up another round.
Remilia knelt in the thigh-deep snow, driving her leg in an arc to kick an impromptu pit in the ground. She leaned in and packed a ball, chucking it at Venus with all her might.
“Ow! What is this, two-versus-one?” Venus said, ducking against the barrage.
“Three-versus-two,” Alex shouted, dumping an armful of snow on Remilia’s head.
She squealed and fumbled out of her firing pit, as Alex tore off, laughing hysterically. She took aim at his retreating backside when another one whiffed past her head. Remilia turned to spot her attacker and took another one right in the chest.
“Yes! Ah ha ha ha, yes! The timing was the best part!” Venus crowed. Seconds later, she had to duck as a furious missile from Remilia’s firing pit tore past her.
“You’re all just mad because I have the best camo!” Jake said, tossing another ball at Freya, who dodged it with ease.
“Sun-starved skin does not count as camo, that’s clearly just a paint scheme!” Freya retorted, catching him square in the stomach. He pitched backwards in the snow, sending up a flurry of fresh flakes where he landed.
Alex lunged at her from behind, caked in snow from his ‘stealthy’ approach. She neatly sidestepped, sending him face-first into the white. He coughed, then went still as her shadow loomed over him. “Oh no.”
“Just remember this, Alex, you’re the one who made this full-contact,” she giggled, popping her knuckles with simmering faux-menace.
A black and green ball and streamer slammed into her. She barked in surprise and shock as she fell into the snow. She blew some out of her mouth as Venus doubled over, laughing her head off.
Freya snarled and clawed her way up, but Venus was already backing up, rolling a snowball with both hands. Freya dropped into a crouch and leaped, propelling herself at her cousin. Venus threw herself forwards, under her cousin’s jump, and rolled away as Freya thudded into the snow, looking for purchase. Alex scrambled back up and rolled another ball, seeking a target.
Remilia wiped snow off of her ski goggles from a lucky shot from Jake as the solitary Grey Hunter who had volunteered to watch over them shook his head. “Nice to see you all taking to the climate,” he said.
“You kiddin’? This is home, for me,” Remilia said, packing a massive snowball. Jake spotted her assembling her missile and took off running, his breath coming in misty bursts as he ran away. She raised her frosty weapon and tossed it, not hard enough to hurt him, but hard enough to send him face-first into the snowbanks.
Jake popped up, glaring. Then he shielded his eyes from the sudden burst of white light that assaulted him. “Hang on, guys, time out,” he called, waving his hands around at snow-level.
“What’s wrong?” Freya called, halfway through pelting her boyfriend.
“My sunglasses fell off,” Jake called.
“There, Lord Seager,” the Wolf called out, pointing into the glare. Jake felt his way over and gingerly groped around in the snow until his fingers touched plastic.
“Thanks, Lord Hasskald,” Jake called, sliding his sunglasses back on with a sigh. “They were a parting gift from my parents, I’d feel terrible if I left them out here,” he added.
“Perhaps you should leave them here and wear goggles in the future,” the Wolf said as Jake walked closer.
“I think I should,” Jake said. The others had all dropped on the snow, panting. Jake himself was feeling a bit giddy from the exertion. “This snow stuff is fucking awesome.”
Hasskald laughed aloud. “So glad you approve, Lord,” he said. His voice had the rich and hearty tones of a man in his element. “They didn’t have snow on Terra?”
“They had the kind of lethargic, uninterested snow one expects from a weather machine several hundred kilometers away,” Jake said, loosening the collar of his white thermo jacket. “Never more than a few inches deep, since they didn’t want to make the roads un-drivable.”
“A few inches? Un-drivable? What kind of weak drivers do they have on Terra?” Hasskald asked, amused.
“Terran ones, Lord,” Jake chuckled.
“Probably.” Hasskald crouched in the snow, watching Remilia and Freya limber up for their climb. “At least those two seem to know how to use safety clamps on a climbing surface.” He glanced over at Venus, who was wiping the steaming snow off of her bare arms. “Princess Venus isn’t as experienced, I can see.”
“I haven’t asked.”
“She’s going to break her legs if she climbs with the clamps like that,” Hasskald sighed, standing up and walking over. His power armor ate up the distance in seconds, leaving Jake struggling in his footsteps.
He halted beside Venus. “My Lady, please refasten your clamps a bit,” he said, pointing at where Venus had arranged her carabiners and climbing clamps. “If you lose footing up there, your legs could break with the clamps arranged as they are,” he said.
She glanced down. “Oh.” She adjusted her equipment. “Like this?”
“No.” Hasskald knelt and gently moved the fastener on the rope feed. “Like so. Spread the weight out.”
“Ah, I get it,” Venus said. “Thanks.” She fixed the misfed rope clamp and hefted a hammer. “Thanks, Brother.”
“Are you certain you don’t need more…robust clothing, my Lady?” Hasskald asked.
Venus shook her head. “No, thanks, this is fine.” She lifted a handful of snow and held it on her bare fingertips. In moments, it was melting down between her fingers. “If we’re not approaching a blizzard at midnight, I won’t even feel it,” she said. She flicked the moisture away and started hammering a spike into the rocks.
Hasskald backed up, nodding. “As you wish.” He took a step to the side to see how Freya was doing. “A day for it, eh, Sister?” he called.
“Couldn’t have prayed for better weather,” Freya yelled back. Hasskald smiled.
“It’s a joy to see her taking to her world like this,” he said.
“I bet,” Jake said. He sat down at the base of the pillar Venus had started up. “Do you climb?” he asked his towering host.
“In my youth, for sport. Time took the appeal away for me,” Hasskald said.
He glanced over to where signs of the impromptu snow fight had disrupted the flat snow fields. “Tell me, Lord, what are your own plans for after this sojourn?”
Jake struggled to his feet, brushing snow off his pants. “Well, I’m headed off to college. Kouthry Technical, on Terra. Venus and two of her cousins are going to be there too.”
“I see. Do you have any aspirations towards the military?” Hasskald asked, leaning against the pillar. He dwarfed Jake in his Power Armor, but was clearly trying to project a casual air.
“I don’t, really. I don’t think I would fit in.” Jake shrugged. “I understand that that’s not a choice Fenrisians get to make, but it’s not the life I want to live. I had a few friends in high school who have enlisted, though. Praetor Field Artillery and some of the more esoteric Terran Army units.”
“Good on them, then.” Hasskald grinned broadly, showing his enlarged fangs. They were easily twice the size of Freya’s. Then, Hasskald was probably three hundred years old. “Don’t think we all resent those whose lifestyles are more peaceful, lad.”
“Some of the Rout seem to,” Jake said.
“The Rout? Hah! I suppose Sister Freya said to call us that?” Hasskald chuckled. “Well, ignore the naysayers.”
Jake looked at him, suddenly nervous. “Should I not call you that?”
“No, go ahead, it’s more respectful than ‘Space Wolves,’ certainly,” Hasskald said.
“All right. Really, it’s more of a general feeling of resentment than any single comment,” Jake said. “When we were gearing up today, the armorer we spoke to was downright cold to all of us except Freya.”
“Armorers hate parting with their precious gear, lad, I suspect that’s as true on Fenris as it is Mundus Planus, Terra, or Prospero,” Hasskald said. “Why do you not climb with the others?”
“Frankly, Lord, I’m distracted enough by the fact that there’s snow everywhere, I’d rather not argue with gravity too,” Jake said. “You know, lest I lose.”
Conversations with a Wolf
Hasskald good-naturedly shook his maned head. “So be it, I suppose. You have the look of a hiver about you, unless I miss my guess.”
“I am a hiver,” Jake said.
“I see. We have no hives here, the volcanism is too severe for it,” Hasskald said. He leaned back against the pillar, keeping a fair eye on the climbers. “What do you think of hive life?”
“It’s stifling, Lord. Very much so.” Jake shook his own head. “People there don’t realize how much they’re missing.”
The Marine nodded. “I know what you mean. I never saw the appeal of hives. I understand most hivers never breathe fresh air at all.”
“So true.” Jake looked down for a moment. “Good thing Kouthry is on the surface, then.”
His host sat on a pile of rock by the pillar and looked up at the climbers. “Tell me, Lord Seager, what has our little Sister’s life been like since we saw her last?” he asked after a few silent minutes of observation.
Jake glanced up to where Freya was scaling the pillar. “Busy. She’s a skilled athlete. Wrestling and track.”
Hasskald glanced back to Jake. “And yourself?”
“I’m not an athlete, per se, but I keep in shape. I’m more of a designer, really,” Jake said. “Venus is the athlete of the two of us. She’s a swimmer. Good, too, her team swept the cup last year.”
“I imagine all of the Royal daughters are athletes,” Hasskald said.
“You’d be surprised,” Jake said, thinking of Petra and Morticia. “Some just don’t care for it.”
“Mmm.” Hasskald drew a flask and took a pull. He offered it to Jake, who politely refused.
“No thank you, Lord, I’ve heard tales about Fenrisian booze,” Jake said.
“If you heard them from Sister Freya, they’re probably true, too,” Hasskald said drily.
He set the flask back into its sling and glanced up at where Venus was defying the cold and gravity alike. “Am I to interpret that you and Lady Venus are married?”
Jake coughed on his tongue. “Ah, no, your Lordship, we’re not,” he said quickly. He paused. “I…wouldn’t be adverse to it, but by Terran standards, we’re both just too young.”
Hasskald offered him a knowing little smile. “Of course. But I needn’t know you well, lad, to see the looks in your eyes when they meet.”
Jake blushed a bit. The Salamanders hadn’t been so indiscreet. “Sir, please.”
The Grey Hunter shook his head again, sighing in mock resignation. “Terrans.”
Far above, Freya paused her climb to drive a stake home. She glanced down at her watch as she did. “Hell yeah, it’s not even an hour gone!” she said. She grinned up at the peak of the near-vertical pillar. “Child’s play,” she said with a grin at the implied challenge. She rammed the spike home and climbed another meter up.
Down below, Alex dropped the last few centimeters to the ground, dusting himself off. “Phew! That’s enough for me,” he said, panting.
Jake peered over. “You done?”
“Yeah, the wind chill up there is sucking the heat out of my hands,” Alex said, quickly flexing his gloved fingers.
“Yes, that will be how it goes,” Hasskald said. “Wise of you to know your limits.” Alex buried his hands in his thermo coat’s pockets and snapped the dividers on the little heat bags inside. He sighed in relief as warmth bled back into his shaking fingers.
“Much better.” He sat down next to Jake and Hasskald and stared up at the girls, who were still ascending. “Climbing is fun, but I should practice on a wall in a climate-controlled room,” Alex said ruefully. “This is just too cold for me.”
“Doesn’t seem to be slowing our self-fuelled and iceworlder compatriots,” Jake said.
“Eh.” Alex wrapped his fingers around the heat bags and leaned back against the rocks. “Wanna place a bet on which one reaches the peak first?”
“No, because Freya’s going to win,” Jake said.
“Aw.” Alex wiped his sunglasses free of dust and snow. “So, Jake, you going to write home today? I’m thinking of bundling up a message for Mom.”
“Yeah, that…” Jake looked awkward for a moment. “What are you going to do?”
Alex sighed, heavy and resentful. “I don’t know. Freya and I both got scholarships to the same school, so…that’s taken care of. But without Dad’s assets…”
“You’ll deal,” Jake said decisively.
Alex nodded. “I hope so.”
Hasskald raised a brow. “What is this?”
Alex glanced over at him. “I…” he trailed off. “My family is undergoing some…brutal in-fighting.”
“Ah. That’s a shame,” Hasskald said.
“Yes,” Alex sighed. “Yes it is, a shame on the entire Fleet.”
“What Fleet?” Hasskald asked.
“My father’s a Rogue Trader, who makes his fortune robbing pre-Imperium grave sites of their offerings and relics and selling them to people who don’t know where he gets it all,” Alex said bitterly. “He’s made a lot of money that way. He disinherited me in public a few weeks ago.”
“Horrible.” Hasskald shook his head. “That’s no way to treat family.”
“Nope.” Alex craned his head back to stare at Freya’s white outfit and red hair on the snowy pillar.
The Marine followed his gaze. “Does Sister Freya know this?”
“She was there. She knows. We’ve made arrangements to stay together for now, hopefully until I can finish school and get a job on my own merits.” Alex closed his eyes under the tinted frames. “After that…who knows?”
Hasskald nodded, eyeing the younger man a little more carefully. He silently extended his flask to him. Alex shook his head. “No thanks.” Hasskald drained it and stood.
“Your Lordships, I shall return shortly.”
“Where are you going, sir?” Jake asked.
Hasskald cricked his neck and flexed his elbows. “This weather is too good not to use. I’ll be back in half an hour, max.” Without another word, he took off at a dead sprint, kicking up a plume of snow behind him. He raced off towards the distant treeline, unslinging his Stalker bolter as he ran. Jake wiped the snow off of his clothes, staring agape at the display of speed.
“Someone’s hungry,” Alex said. He tapped the tiny radio on his collar. “Hey, Hasskald just took off. He said he’ll be back in thirty.”
Venus paused her ascent to reply. “Really? What’s up?”
“I think he’s getting lunch,” Alex said.
“Not for us, we brought,” Freya said into her own collar. “This is awesome, Remilia, this was totally the right call,” she added.
Remilia clenched her teeth and hauled herself up another arm’s length. “Gets the blood going, all right,” she said. “How are you doing on yours, Venus?”
“Most of the way up,” Venus said. “You?”
“Nearly at the peak,” Remilia said. “It’s getting narrower up here.”
“Yeah, just keep an eye on your footing,” Freya said.
The group climbed in silence for a few more minutes, as Jake watched Hasskald disappear in the distance. Their host reached the treeline and vanished like smoke at nightfall. “Glad he’s on our side,” Jake muttered.
“No shit. Even Freya’s not that fast,” Alex said.
“Did you notice how they call her ‘Sister’ here? On Nocturne, the Salamanders called Venus ‘Princess,’” Jake observed.
“Different world, man. The Wolves have a pack mentality. She’s probably more like a little sister than a ruler to them,” Alex pointed out.
Jake thought that over and smiled. “Which, on reflection, is adorable.”
Alex shoved him in the shoulder. “Dude, shut up, she’s going to murder us both.”
“She can’t hear us from here,” Jake said dismissively.
“Can Hasskald?” Alex asked pointedly.
Jake hesitated. “I…don’t know.”
“Neither do I,” Alex growled. “So keep that ‘adorable’ stuff to yourself, huh?”
“Sure, sure,” Jake said with a laugh.
Back Down to Fenris
Freya bounded up the last meter of the pillar and scrambled to the peak. She grinned from ear to ear in the rising wind, holding her fists over her head in triumph. “FUCK YEAH!” she crowed, panting in the freezing wind.
Her collar crackled. “Did you make it to the top?” Remilia asked.
“Sure did!” Freya said happily, pumping her fist over her red mane.
“What took you so long?” Venus asked. Freya turned to her cousin’s pillar to see her sitting, cross-legged and smirking.
“You…you beat me up?” Freya asked.
“No, I actually got up here while you were dancing around on your pillar,” Venus admitted. “Now. How the hell do you get back down?” she asked, glancing around.
“Oh. Uh, just head back down the line, and remove the spikes as you go,” Freya said. “Use the claw.”
“But, you know, take a holo or something! We just climbed a basalt pillar, celebrate a bit!” Freya said.
Venus tapped her waist. “I’m recording this, trust me.”
“Oh.” Freya squinted and spotted the tiny holocam Venus had snugged in her bag. Freya sank back down onto the edge of the pillar to wait for Remilia to finish. “Have you climbed before?” Freya asked.
“All the time, in the Public Center in Startseite, just not as part of a school thing,” Venus said. “This is my first outdoor climb.” She grinned across the gap between pillars as Remilia’s blond hair emerged from behind one of them. “Remilia, this was a great idea.”
“Thanks,” Remilia huffed, clambering up the last few steps. “Where’s Alex?”
“He bailed, his hands were freezing,” Freya said.
Their radios crackled. “You all made it?” Jake asked.
“Was there ever a doubt in your mind?” Freya asked cheerfully.
“No,” Jake admitted.
Venus paused to snap another holo before grabbing a sturdy piece of rock at the top of her line of spikes. “I’m coming back down,” she said.
“All right, we’re not going anywhere,” Jake said. “I could start reciting lines from the movie we watched last night, to speed your descent,” he suggested.
“Sure, that’d be great,” Venus deadpanned.
Jake hesitated. “You’re kidding, right?” he asked over the radio.
“Of course.” She gripped the top handhold and eased herself down. “Hasskald still MIA?”
“Yeah, he’s off in the woods,” Alex said, shielding his eyes against the glare.
Freya started back down as Remilia paused to drink from her insulated water bottle. “Let him, he’s probably just off hunting.”
“Ah, here he comes,” Alex said, spotting a flash of blue armor in the treeline.
“And…he’s bringing lunch, I see,” Jake added for the girls. Indeed, the Grey Hunter had a deer carcass draped over his shoulder.
“Oh my god, seriously?” Freya groaned.
“Yyyep. Big fucking deer.” Jake stared. “This will be an educational meal.”
“Not if I can help it,” Freya muttered. “Unless…unless you guys actually WANT to watch a Space Wolf disembowel and devour a fucking deer what the FUCK am I saying, I need to get down there,” Freya said, descending her pillar as fast as she dared.
“Hang on, he’s stopping,” Alex said. “He’s just putting it down.”
“Wait, is he looking around for something on the ground?” Freya asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Jake reported.
Freya sighed in relief. “Oh, thank goodness. Never mind, we’re clear.”
“What is he doing?” Alex asked.
“He’s just looking around for wood to start a fire,” Freya said. She gripped a spike and ripped it from the rocks. “Be right down.”
By the time all three girls reached the bottom, Hasskald had lit his fire, and was roasting the deer over it, still a decent distance from the vacationers. Freya opened the pack they had brought, pulling some food out. “All right, who’s hungry?”
As the teens grabbed their food, Hasskald tore into his own. The wind was picking up considerably, and soon the barren snowfields were covered in tiny flurries as gusts of wind kicked up flakes from the surface. Jake huddled against the cold, munching on his bread. “So what’s the verdict on Fenrisian rock climbing?”
“Fun as hell. Awesome idea, Remilia,” Venus said.
“Thanks. I’m glad we went with this,” Remilia said, downing a little water. “There any other places we could go?” she asked.
“Well, yes, but not around here, we’d have to fly a good ways south,” Freya said. She bit a chunk off of a fruit none of the others could recognize. “Actually, we sort of have tomorrow off. I was wondering if you guys would be okay with me heading out to see the people a little,” Freya said. She glanced at the others, taking in their expressions. “Would you mind?”
Nobody objected. Freya nodded in relief. “Cool.”
“How are you going to do it?” Jake asked. “Just pick a tribe and fly out there?”
“No, that won’t work.” Freya’s red hair swung over her thermo shirt as she shook her head. “We’ll land a bit outside the settlement, and I’ll just sneak in.”
Alex looked a bit worried. “Will you be safe?”
“Not if I were going alone,” Freya admitted. “Two Hunters and a few snipers will be in the area anyway, so they’ll keep an eye on me.”
“But you won’t be going as Freya Russ,” Alex pressed.
She half-smiled. “Nope, just Freya. It’s a fairly common name. I might wear a falsehood or a mask that covers my teeth, though,” she said, tapping her lips. “Just to keep them hidden.”
Jake looked confused. “What’s a falsehood?”
“It’s a kind of holographic projector that makes your face look like a mannequin,” Freya said. “It’s obviously not a real person’s face. There’s other kinds that just shift your real appearance a tiny bit, though. So if I set it to cover just my mouth, it would look like I didn’t have these guys,” she said, tapping her mouth again.
“Do you even have one?” Jake asked.
“Well, I think we have a few in the armory, but…oh, crap, I’d need to personalize it,” Freya realized. She snapped her fingers. “Well, so much for that.”
Alex awkwardly shrugged. “Will people notice if you just don’t talk much?”
She grimaced. “I guess not. They’re not too visible when I speak, are they?”
“No, not unless you’re looking for them,” Venus said.
“All right.” Freya sighed away sudden nerves. “Tomorrow, then.”
Hasskald finished his meal and dropped an armful of snow on the fire. He turned to see the group finishing up their own food. He walked over, shielding his eyes against the rising winds.
“My young friends, I think it would be best that we depart,” he said. “The weather is turning.”
Alex rose to his feet, wiping his hands on the snow. “Sure. Back to the Fang, Freya?”
“Yep, we’re done here,” Freya pronounced, springing to her feet. “Thank you very much for giving us some help, Brother,” she said as Hasskald turned to activate his Thunderhawk beacon.
“It was a privilege, Sister,” the Grey Hunter said. He clicked the runes on his wrist-mount auspex and glanced over the display. “The gunship will be here in four minutes.”
The Next Day's Activities
As the group returned to the massive fortress, they dispersed back to their rooms to clean up after their exercise. Freya, however, headed down into the residential portion of the building, looking for someone specific. As she wove through the throngs of serfs and Wolves, she acknowledged their greetings with a hasty ‘hello’ or ‘good to be back,’ until she arrived at her destination. She pushed the door to the room open, stepping across the threshold with a nervous grin.
“Freya, little pup. What can I do for you?” Bjorn asked, pausing his conversation with the messenger skjald beside him.
“I don’t wish to intrude,” Freya said in Juvjk.
“We were done.” Bjorn turned back to the messenger. “Thanks, Earjac.”
“Your Lordship,” the skjald said, before walking out and closing the door.
Freya crossed her hands over her camo belt in respect. “Eldest Bjorn, may I impose upon you for a moment?” she asked nervously.
Bjorn silently bade her continue.
“I wish to see my people, Lord. I wish to go amongst the Fenrisians and see them,” Freya said.
Bjorn slowly leaned back in his seat, a crafty gleam in his eye. “I understand.”
“And…I wish your help,” Freya continued. “How should I do this?”
The ancient Marine slowly rose, hands on his desk. “Little pup, give me some credit, hmm?” he asked drily.
Freya cocked her head. “What?”
“We knew you would ask. The clothes you wore yesterday will be sufficient, for the most part,” Bjorn said.
“And what else?” Freya asked.
“Nothing, save this,” Bjorn said. He reached into his desk and drew a lumpy plastic bag forth.
Curious, Freya opened it. She lifted the contents out and arrayed them on Bjorn’s table, a smile appearing on her face. “Oh, Bjorn…you shouldn’t have,” she whispered.
The bag contained a pair of clearly hand-sewn doeskin leather gloves, a scabbarded dagger, a few small, rough pouches that were empty at that moment, and a bag of coins. She looked up at Bjorn, delighted.
“Just keep your hood on except when indoors, keep the dagger slung at your right side to fit in, and don’t spend it all in one place,” Bjorn said with a smile.
“Thanks, Bjorn, this is…this is perfect,” Freya said. She clipped the scabbard to her right thigh, low on her hip, then rested her hand on the pommel. She relaxed her shoulder, then whipped the dagger out with blinding speed.
Bjorn nodded with approval. “Good. Now, lass, go clean up and get ready for the meet. More appropriately, get your friends ready,” he said. “I suspect this will be a new experience,” he said slyly.
Jake and Venus re-entered their room, dropping their bags on the bed. Venus leaned over and unzipped her bag, pulling her un-worn arctic camo shirt out and tossing it in the open drawer in the dresser. “Shouldn’t have even brought it,” she said.
Her boyfriend walked up behind her and promptly slid his arms around her waist. “You are so lucky,” he muttered into her hair. She slid her own hands over his.
“You’re always cold, Jake, but this feels different,” she said with concern. “Are you gonna be all right?”
“Absolutely, just let me shower, and then you sit on my hands for a few minutes,” Jake said. “If this is what weather is like around here, Freya can keep it.”
Venus snorted, pulling his hands away. “Right.” She tugged her exercise gloves free and popped her knuckles. “There we go. You want the first shower?”
“Sure,” Jake said. He unzipped his arctic camo shirt and hung it over the back of the chair. Before he could enter the bathroom, his slate beeped. He swiveled it around on his desk and skimmed the message. “Hey, letter from home.”
“Cool.” Venus slid the slate over to her side and started reading as Jake undressed. “Really short. Your parents say hi, hope you’re feeling better…mine say have fun, don’t get eaten, et cetera. That’s about it. Couple pictures.”
“I’ll see them when I’m done,” Jake promised, closing the bathroom door.
Venus opened the pictures and glanced through them. Angela was sitting on the wide bench-like couch in her house, carrying a copy of her new pamphlet and beaming. The cover said ‘The Loudest Thoughts: Education Programs for Psychic Children.’
“Good for you, Angela,” Venus said with quiet pride. “I knew you could do it.”
She paged to the next one. George and Sandra were standing outside their apartment in front of a new aircar. George was dangling keys from his finger. The caption said ‘Behold, our new flying chariot.’
“Classy.” Venus opened the last picture to see Misja sitting cross-legged, with a box in her lap. Inside…
“EEEEEE! Jake get out here!” Venus squealed.
A few rattling noises later, Jake burst from the bathroom, shirt bunched in his hands. “What? What?”
“Look at this!” Venus giggled, ramming the slate into his arms.
Jake stared. “…Taxi’s been busy.”
“My dog had puppies while I was gone! ARRGH, I wanted to name them!” Venus groaned. The box was full to the brim with no fewer than four little baby dogs. The fourth and final photo was Taxi, lying down, as the other dogs crawled all over her.
“I thought Taxi was a male dog,” Jake said.
“No, she’s a bitch, in every sense of the word.” Venus sighed contentedly at the slate. “The male was one of the neighbor’s dogs. We don’t put a fence up, so he can come visit whenever.”
“That’s pretty cute.” Jake shuffled his feet. “Can I finish my shower now?”
Venus opened the caption of the final picture. “Hmm…their names are, left to right: Avery, Ormont, Kale, and Neeia. Mom must have named them, Dad wouldn’t have used Terran names.” Venus smiled maternally. “So adorable.”
Jake climbed back into the shower while Venus was still enraptured by the pictures. “I’ll be right out,” he called.
Freya jogged into her room with the bag dangling from her arms. “Alex, check this out!” she said.
Alex glanced over his book. “What is it?”
“Bjorn got me a present!” Freya emptied the bag onto the bed.
“Is that a knife?” Alex asked. He lifted the scabbarded blade. “What, uh…what’s the occasion? For the knife-giving?”
“He wants me to be safe tomorrow,” Freya said. “And look! Filthy lucre!” She dumped the bag of coins onto the bedspread. “I could buy a house with this much gold.”
Alex gaped. “Holy shit,” he said. “A house? On a planet of nomads?”
“Look at this!” Freya ran her fingers over the pile of money. “Man, Bjorn really went overboard here.”
Alex picked up a few coins. Each was embossed with a little symbol and the number fifteen on one side, and a man’s head on the other. He didn’t recognize the symbol or the head. “Who’s this dude?”
“Dunno. The symbol is for the Krennir clan, though.” Freya slid the gloves on. “How cool are these? One of the skjalds of the Second Great Company made them.”
Alex ran his fingers over the fabric. “Wow, that’s soft.”
“It’s doe leather.” Freya sniffed the fabric and ran her fingers together. “This is so awesome. I’m gonna be all set tomorrow.”
“What should we do tomorrow, while you’re out?” Alex asked.
Freya paused. “Well…I was hoping you guys would just be okay on your own…” She suddenly looked a little anxious. “I mean, you couldn’t come with me. You don’t speak the language.”
Alex grimaced. “Well, hey, you go have fun. We can just laze about for a while.”
She smiled ruefully. “Are you sure?”
He shrugged. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”
Freya leaned across the pile of goods and gently kissed him on the lips. “Thanks, baby.”
After a quick dinner in their rooms, the group reassembled for cards, and to plan out the next few days. Jake took the opportunity to ask a careful question of Freya.
He tapped his finger on the table, trying not to sound accusatory. “Freya…how do you pick which members of the Legion accompany us?”
She glanced at him, curious. “What do you mean?”
“I’ve met a few on Terra at your place…they seemed a bit more…rowdy,” Jake said cautiously.
She snorted. “Wait until we have dinner in the Great Hall in two days. You’ll change your definition of ‘rowdy.’ But to answer your question, I just pick. Guys I know from last time I was here.”
“Are you picking Marines that won’t object to outsiders being here?” Remilia pointedly asked.
“Yes,” Freya said simply. “Some of the Brothers will not like you being here. I don’t blame them, they’re not used to outsiders, but I’ve been cherry-picking guys I knew would be alright with us.”
“So when we’re dining in the main hall, will we have to put up with people wanting us to go?” Jake asked.
Freya shook her head. “No,” she said adamantly. “The rules of hospitality are sacred to the Rout. Believe me, you guys are going to be fine.”
When they were done, they retired, though it took Freya a while to sleep. When rest came, her dreams were full of the things she hoped she would see the next morning.
A Beautiful View
Venus sat down on one of the iron chairs on the observation deck, staring out into space.
An arc of comets soared by the planet on distant tails. The whorls of the Eye spun ominously in the vast distance, like tainted blood circling a drain. Fenris’ moon was a brilliant white disc in the sky, pouring empty light on the snowfields below. Above, the polarizers blotted out the sun’s deadly radiation, leaving it a blue-white spot in the dark of space. Undimmed by the sun’s fury, the stars burned, beaming their multicolored light into the Fang.
Venus was entranced.
A faint noise from behind caught her ear. The footsteps and breaths…Jake.
“Hey, Venus,” he said softly. They were alone. “What’re you doing up here, all by yourself?”
“Just thinking.” She glanced back at him. He blinked as he realized that she was wearing her mirrored sunglasses, but not the usual pair. These were just two-way mirrors, they didn’t block light from outside. Was she not wearing contacts?
“Well…I won’t interrupt, if you want to be alone,” Jake said. He turned to leave.
“You don’t…have to,” she said faintly. He looked back. She had extended a hand, and was sitting still, smiling faintly. “Come. Sit with me a while.”
He smiled back, settling into the massive iron chair alongside her. “What are you watching out there?”
Venus looked back out the window. “Everything.”
“It’s pretty big,” Jake chuckled. “Wonder why the Salamanders didn’t have a gallery like this on Prometheus Station when we were there.”
“They’re pragmatists. This isn’t very safe to build.” Venus sat still, staring out into the void. “…They should have done it anyway.”
“It’s gorgeous, all right.” Jake looked out into the darkness. Space was supposed to be dark, wasn’t it? He had stood on the top of the Palace once, at midnight, and stared upwards. The sky had been a dull, blank grey. Here, the light from below, above, and all around was so bright. Between the points, dots, and swirls, though, there was nothing. Empty blackness. So much of it…all the way out to infinity. The ugly purple bruise of the Eye blotted out one corner of his sight, but the rest was a mosaic of glorious color.
“Mind if I stay here a while?” Venus asked.
“Of course not, we’re just watching holos and looking at the puppy pictures downstairs.” Jake slid his arm across the back of Venus’ seat, expecting her to settle back against it.
She stayed still. He glanced at her. Her eyes were fixed on the spectacle. He looked back, trying to see what had enraptured her so. Nothing was changing. When he glanced at her once more, he noticed her lips were moving. Very little, but they were moving.
“I can’t hear you.”
She blinked behind her frames. “Uh…was I talking?”
Jake nodded. “You were. Or your mouth was moving, anyway.”
“Sorry.” She pulled her glasses down the bridge of her nose, folding them in her hands. “…Can I ask you something personal? Please don’t answer if you don’t want to.”
Jake sat up. “Sure.”
She turned her glowing eyes on him. “Jake…I’ve never asked you this. Why did your father refuse to enter the Mechanicus?”
Jake cocked his head in surprise at her totally unexpected question. “Well...shit, I think…I think he just found their obsession with augmentation to be maniacal.”
“What do you think about that? The idea of spirituality?” she asked. “Machine or flesh.”
He thought in silence as she watched him, inscrutable. “I think…it’s…it’s old. It’s part of our lives because it’s always been there. But I hold trust in the Truth.” He tilted his head. “I don’t…I don’t see any harm in wanting to be a part of something larger than yourself. I just don’t like proselytizers.”
Venus’ shoulders slumped a bit. She nodded again, sliding her glasses on as she did. “Okay.” She turned back to look at the stars. “Thanks.”
“Why do you ask?” Jake inquired.
She shook her head. “No reason.”
“You do nothing for ‘no reason.’” Jake gently traced his fingers along the back of her hand. She flinched a bit. “Venus…I was okay with you asking me. Are you not okay with me asking why?”
She sighed. “That’s fair.” She turned to regard him through the mirrors. “I’m…I’m an atheist, like you, Jake. But…there’s an aspect of the Salamanders…really, the entire Nocturnean world…that’s deeply spiritual. Not in the sense of gods and thinking forces of nature, or any rot like that, but the idea that the lives we live are meaningful. To each other, to ourselves, and to Nocturne as a world.”
He didn’t say a word. He just listened. “Jake…I’m not springing a religion on you. I’m not religious. But meditation and contemplation of the universe is a part of life for Nocturneans who live long enough to do them. Salamanders spend…well, days sometimes, just sitting in the saunas in the Sanctuary Castles and meditating.” She crossed her hands in her lap. “That’s what I was doing. I’m not looking for God out there, I know he doesn’t exist. I’m just thinking about…well, everything.”
Jake glanced out the window too. “Oh.”
“The Promethean Creed says that life is a circle. Birth, death, accomplishment or failure, learning. All in a circle, that ends in the lava that fuels our world, under the watching eyes of the beasts that ruled our world long ago. If that sounds like religion…” She hesitated. “It used to be, I guess. But…for me, it’s more a frame of reference. You see?”
“No,” Jake admitted.
“It’s…look out there. There’s a universe out there. There are worlds, and monsters, and beautiful people, and beautiful monsters. Life and death and discovery and ignorance, and hatred and love.” She rose to her feet and slowly walked up to the panes of glass. “It’s humbling, isn’t it?”
“It does feel that way,” Jake said from the bench.
“Yeah. It makes you feel small. Overawed, right?” she pressed.
“For me…I don’t just see swirling orbs of hydrogen and photon beams and energy cascades and a Warp rift.” She turned back to him, bathing him in her light. Her clothes were a dark grey that day; with her unbound black hair and skin, she nearly vanished against the skyline.
Her brilliant eyes burned in the darkness of her silhouette. Jake stared at the two little red ovals for a moment in silence. “What do you see?” he asked quietly.
“I see…I see beginnings and endings. When I look down there…I see people living the Circle of Fire. They don’t call it that, of course, but it’s there. Birth. Struggle. Accomplishment or ignominy. Death or apotheosis into Astartes, then death in the far future. The worlds out there…”
She cupped her hand and lifted it, until from his seat, it looked like she was cradling Fenris’ moon in the palm of her hand. “They’re the same, Jake. There may not be drakes and ske-run on those worlds, but they’re the same. Worlds full of life, worlds all but dead…humans and xenos.” She lowered her hand. “I see…I see a beautiful, frightening wheel of life and death, fire and glory, darkness and loss. Not visible, but it’s there.”
Venus slowly walked up to him, blotting out the darkness until all he could see was a halo of stars around her dark outline, and two little suns burning in her face. He stared up at her, something momentous building inside him. He had no idea what it was.
“When I lay in bed at home, I watch my homeworld spin over my head. Dad and even Mom would tell me stories, of the Nocturnean people, of their beliefs, and the things they had to teach us and others. We learn, Jake, we learn fast. We take the most ancient and powerful technologies of the Mechanicus and we turn them against our world, or in harmony with it, and we build homes.”
She slowly knelt, until her eyes were level with his. The lights in the room were off, all he could see was the light of Fenris’ moon behind her, and the endless, swirling pools of red in her eyes. “Jake…I think machine spirits are as real as the next girl who builds machines for fun. That is, I don’t think they’re real. And who knows. Maybe all the spirituality in the world is nothing more than our instincts.”
Venus stared into his eyes, as if she was trying to speak to his soul directly. “Maybe…all the spirituality in the entire universe is nothing more than people anthropomorphizing something to make it easier to understand. Maybe the Circle of Fire itself is nothing but pretty words to comfort mothers who outlive their children. But…Jacob…my love, when I look out at those stars…those worlds…those people…I see the Circle turning. I see the wheel aflame and spinning, driving time and the world forward.”
She sat next to him again, watching his eyes as he sat in silence. “I’m sure to someone who doesn’t think spirits are real…in the literal definition, anyway…that sounded like hogwash. But I look out at those worlds, and I feel my heart beat faster. I feel like I’m…back in the Hall of Deathfire. I can hear the fires of the world burn beneath my feet. I whisper thanks to the metal as I shape it, even if I know it’s an inert mass of gold that can’t love me back,” she said, finally cracking a grin.
“I want to think that maybe, just perhaps…the world can be seen through a secular lens and still be spiritual, to some tiny extent. Maybe we anthropomorphize life, death, and the stars because we want to, not just because we’re driven to by instincts we don’t need any more. It helps us feel a little less humble…but not un-humbled. It makes you feel a little less small…but not that big. It lets you feel awe…without being overwhelmed.”
Jake sat in silence as he looked back at her, meeting her eyes as best he could from inches away. Finally, she slid the glasses back on, and looked back out to the stars. “That’s what I see, Jake. I see a galaxy that…for all my Family’s glory…has been burning and spinning for a very, very long time. When the human race is ash, it’ll be burning still, turning still. I’m here…I’m looking out there…because I’m okay with that.”
Jake didn’t answer right away. The two teens stared out the window into the depths of time and space for a while.
“We’re…insignificant, Venus. I know what you mean…when you say that we’re trying to put a face on the faceless.” Jake slid his hand over hers again, and this time she didn’t flinch. He sat in the quiet a moment longer, letting the reassuring heat of her flesh bleed into his cold skin. “I feel the same way about you.”
Venus turned to him in silent question.
“When we met…started dating, you scared me a bit. Not the eyes and skin, at least not primarily, but what you meant. You were something vast. Something amazing, and a little frightening. A fraction of the Emperor’s power. When I went to that party with you, I was putting a human face on the side of the Emperor’s family most people never see.”
He coughed. “Now…obviously, I don’t think of your family as spirits, or anything. But to stand in the same room as the Emperor for the first time…that was humbling. Then I saw him eating nachos and wishing your cousin a happy birthday.”
Venus chuckled under her breath. He continued, a smile appearing on his own face. “If your entire lifestyle tells you that life can be seen as a circle…then so be it. You’re a brilliant girl, and I’ve known about the Astartes’ spiritual side for a long time. You have Chaplains when they’re outlawed for the rest of the galaxy, after all. You’ve never tried to hide it.”
Jake slid his hands around hers. “So…yeah. I don’t see a circle of fire out there. Literal or figurative.” He paused. “Okay, the sun, I’ll grant you,” he corrected. Her shoulders shook in silent mirth. “But I don’t see what you see. That’s okay. Right? I see an empty space, populated occasionally by orbs of hydrogen and helium and lithium undergoing pressure-derived self-sustaining fusion reactions.”
“I see that.” She glanced out the window again. “I would be downright hypocritical to say I don’t. I just see a little more, too.”
“That’s all right with me. Circles of fire and Promethean Ways…I don’t know them. I’m not really wired to see the things we don’t understand as mystical, even in a completely non-theistic way. I can spend the rest of my life wondering about it without a spiritual filter over it, even do it with you. But if it comforts you…what right do I have to complain?” he asked. He pointed out at the stars. “That’s our Imperium out there, and people live and die out there every day.”
The two of them sat in the depthless quiet of space for a few minutes more. Venus slowly slid closer to him on the bench. At last she rested her hands in his lap and lay her head down on the impromptu pillow. She kicked her sandals off and curled up on the seat, pushing her glasses up her nose until the only light in the room came from the sky outside.
Jake draped one arm over the back of the seat, gently running the other through her silky hair. They rested together, watching the stars burn.
“Did you mean it when you said you’d spend the rest of your life with me?” Venus asked quietly, nearly an hour later.
Jake smiled down at her. “I’d…” He trailed off. “Yes.”
“…What were you starting to say?”
“Venus…baby, I’d have proposed by now if we weren’t legally too young on Terra,” he admitted quietly. “I’m looking forward to Kouthry like nothing else I’ve ever felt.”
Venus shifted a bit. “Oh.” Jake felt a tiny wet spot appear on his leg below her eyes, but didn’t feel the need to dry it. One was appearing on his cheek, too.
The Lay of the Land
Far above, Freya knelt before Bjorn in the hangar of the Fang. “Eldest Bjorn, thank you again for your gifts,” she said. “I will use them well.”
“I know you will, child.” The two of them entered a gunship, and it rose from the hangar. “Now…little pup. Our destination is a very small outpost of the Krennir,” Bjorn explained. “It is called Hosanger, and the money we gave you should work here.”
“Good. What do I need to know?” she asked.
“There are fewer than four hundred souls in the place. You will need to be somewhat cautious. They will know you as a stranger.” Bjorn sat back on the metal bench. “I’d recommend you stay near the edge of the village. We can cover you from there.”
Freya’s ears popped as the gunship sank through the air. “When do I leave?” she asked.
“When you wish to,” Bjorn said. “But I would leave before nightfall. The storms tonight will be fierce.”
“All right, good.” She huffed in the dank air of the gunship. “I’m nervous.”
“Good. Ours are a hard, uncompromising people. They will not be kind to you.” Born leaned forward and skewered the redhead with his ancient gaze. “You should still see them as they are.”
“I want to.” Freya crossed her legs and snugged her hood over her head. “How do I look?”
“Beautiful, fear not. And I would not know you if I had not seen you before.” Bjorn eyed her gloves. “I’m glad you like those.”
“They’re perfect.” She flexed one hand. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long time, old man.”
“I should hope so.”
The gunship settled down a few miles outside their destination. Freya walked down the ramp and shielded her eyes from the glare of the sun. In the far distance, a thin column of chimney smoke wafted up from the collection of buildings that was Hosanger. Three Wolves with slung rifles emerged beside her and jogged off into the snow, either to keep an eye on her or just for exercises.
Freya paused and squinted at the village. The larger buildings were scattered around rather than focused at the middle, but other than that, it looked more or less like how she had pictured. Bjorn gave her one last piece of advice as she began the trip across the snowfields.
“Little pup, remember this: your name is a last resort. These people may not even know it.”
She nodded. “I know.” Without another word, she took off running.
Her hair flew behind her like a comet as she sprinted over the ice, leaving the gunship in her wake. The cold air bit at her ears as she ran, and flurries of snow kicked up behind her booted feet. Her new dagger clanked against her side. She reached down to secure it as she tore through the air, faster than any human could be.
Freya slowed as she approached the little village, taking care to approach from behind a small building. It looked to be made of mortared local stone, and the smell said ‘livestock shelter’ to her. She walked up behind it, steeling her nerves. “Okay, Freya…here we go,” she whispered. She rounded the building and peeked down the pathway beside it. The twisting road led into the heart of the little settlement, where crowds of people were moving about. She took one last breath and stepped onto the road.
Freya walked up the pathway, taking in everything. The air was light and breezy, even between the buildings. The road was nothing but cartwheel ruts in the ground, with nary a paving stone in sight. As she approached the square, the noise of people and animals grew louder. She resisted the urge to look around for targeting lasers from the Rout that were watching her. At that range, who needed a laser sight?
A trio of squabbling people walked past her, gesturing angrily and yelling in Juvjk. Freya stepped aside to let them pass. They walked right by her without a look.
She tugged her hood up over her bright red hair and followed, eyes darting around catching it all.
The group emerged in the square of the village, such as it was, being the only paved part of the whole village. A large stage made of local stone filled one corner, but the rest was left open. A few anemic-looking trees were dotted around one side. A few were missing boughs, probably from when the winters got too cold and somebody needed wood.
Freya followed the group around the edge of the space, eyes wide. Everything was so new! The people were dressed in a variety of leathers and pelts, but also simple fabrics and textiles here and there. Feathers decorated a few caps. Everyone seemed to have headgear of some kind, in fact.
Weapons were everywhere. Swords and simple axes seemed predominant, even on a few of the women. One fellow in an odd uniform was carrying at least four weapons openly, in fact: a sword, a dagger, a crossbow on his back, and what sure looked like a few throwing knives in leather slits on his torso. He had at least four more weapons hidden in his clothes, too.
Looking away from the walking arsenal, Freya spotted a few more men in the same uniform, and also armed, though none were as armed as he was. A local militia, maybe?
A door swung open behind her. She glanced over her shoulder to see a crowd of rowdy men emerge from a large stone building, clearly drunk out of their minds. Freya eyed the sign over the door. It read, in hand-painted Juvjk: ‘The Swollen Head Tavern.’
“Charming,” she muttered.
The smell of roasting meat caught her nose. She looked across the square to see a small plume of smoke wafting from a building with a crude image of a loaf of bread on the sign over the door. Two armed guards were standing on either side of the door, too. Four men to guard a restaurant?
Her eyes settled on a clear red stain on the stone of the stage. An execution site, then. How macabre, she thought to herself. “Coming through!” a rough voice from behind her said. Freya looked to see a man carrying a massive stone block moving quickly across the street. She stepped aside and let him pass, wondering what was up.
An entire procession of men with bricks, stone, and mortar followed. Freya watched them go, then discreetly followed. Her thick cloak let her blend into the general crowd as she indulged her curiosity.
She wrinkled her nose in concern as she took a more careful appraisal of her surroundings. The people around her were a mess, by their scents and sounds. Diseases, injuries, all manner of defects. Even hiver Terrans didn’t sound that bad, and neither had Nocturneans. Then, those worlds had hospitals.
The convoy of construction material ended at a large square depression at the outside of town, where a deep pit had already been dug. A basement with at least two floors had been built there, and the builders were assembling a ground floor now.
Freya stopped at the edge of the build site, mindful of traffic. “What’s going in here?” she asked one worker.
The rough man turned to her and snorted. “Haven’t you heard, woman? Eisker’s place burned down. He’s building another.” He peered at her under her hood. “The hell are you, anyway?”
Freya blinked, taken aback at his rudeness. “Just a traveler.”
He snorted again, swaggering a bit. “Sure you’re not here to take the edge off our labors?” he leered.
“In your fondest dreams,” Freya said darkly, turning and walking away.
Once he was out of earshot, she allowed herself a grimace. “If that’s how my people greet strangers, this isn’t going to be a fun vacation,” she muttered.
As she left, another man stepped to her side. “Did the thralls bother you, lassie?” he asked sternly.
“Thralls?” Freya asked. She glanced back at the men, and noted with some distaste that they all had thick scars around their wrists. The men were slaves. “No, that’s fine. I’m leaving anyway.”
“Mmm.” The man turned away and cracked a whip over the offender’s head. “Back to work, you lazy sodomite!”
Remilia snuggled into the thick blankets on her bed and closed her eyes, listening to the music on her slate play in the background. She had made the requisite noises of approval at the puppy pictures and watched a few movies with Alex before Jake and Venus returned from the observation deck. The two had both been a bit weepy, but Venus especially was also beatifically happy about something, so Remilia took it as a good sign.
Now, with lunch behind her and a lazy afternoon ahead, she relaxed on the bed and listened to the slow music linger in the room. She read the messages on the slate – a delighted response from the Mechanicus station and routine announcements in the Fang – and opened an orbital map of the planet.
She scrolled around the 3D map, staring at the endless fields of snow and waters fifty times deeper than mountains on her homeworld. Remilia tapped a rune on the side of the slate, and the view drew closer to the surface. The Fang looked like a spike, emerging from the ground to impale the sky. It stood alone on their continent, with no other settlements nearby. A blurred spot on the map looked like it was probably a Wolves training camp, though. Remilia noted the basalt pillars they had climbed the day before with a smile. “They look even taller from here,” she chuckled.
Freya ducked into the place with the bread symbol over the door with a shake of her hood. She pulled it back and let her red hair escape as she glanced about, taking in the smells, sounds, and sights of the place in an instant.
The place had a few open stone ovens at the back, where sizzling meat was cooking over wood and coal. A rowdy gang of men with matching tattoos were squabbling over a large map on a table in the corner. Small groups of well-muscled women and older children were picking through wooden and metal bins of uncooked foods around the edges of the room.
Freya walked through the large room, earning a few lingering stares with her appearance. As she reached the back of the room near the stoves, she spotted what looked like a menu hanging from the ceiling. She eyed it quickly, matching the amounts to the coins in her pouch. She was in no danger.
A man with his sleeves rolled up to his biceps stood beneath the sign. “What’ll you be having, lass?” he asked.
Freya shook her head. “Just looking, friend, I’ll be back for an actual meal tonight.”
“No, you won’t,” the man said curtly. “Not in that,” he added, gesturing at her clothes.
Freya narrowed her eyes. “Explain.”
The man snorted in annoyance at her naïveté. “You a traveler?” he asked.
“Then you’ll not be seen tonight,” the man warned. “The warbands will be coming home tonight, and no pretty lass like yourself will be seen on the streets if she wishes to be safe.”
Freya reached down to the two-foot-thick stone countertop between them and pressed down, with most of her superhuman strength. The mortaring audibly creaked. “I’ll be all right,” she promised coldly. She turned to leave after committing the menu to memory. “See you tonight,” she said.
She reached the door and turned, continuing her exploration. A simple-looking building of wood and brick caught her attention next. A wood building on Fenris. How peculiar, she thought to herself as she wandered over. The sign over the door read ‘House of the Kindred.’
Freya glanced through the door. Four men stood within, pouring over a massive scroll on a wide tabletop against the far wall. One, a burlesque old fellow with an axe-scar down his arm, noted her. “What do you want, lass?” he asked, though not unkindly.
“I apologize, I’m simply curious,” Freya said, looking around. “Mijagge kovness an?”
“Ah! Curiosity. A trait all too rare. May as well come in,” he said. Freya did so, taking stock of the man’s companions. One was nearly his age, and had a ragged crop of grey hair atop his scarred head, while the other two were mere boys, no older than she was. All four had some scars and cuts on their hands, but they didn’t look like war wounds. “About what are you curious?” he asked, wiping his hands on a cloth.
“I’m a traveler from far north of here, and I was stopping in town for some fresh food when I saw this place. I’d never heard of it,” Freya said. “What is the Kindred?”
The second older man sighed. “We, lass, are the last keepers of the thing that keeps the Krennir from falling into ruination.” The first man glared at him in recrimination.
“Olag, show some respect.”
“Fine, fine, Aron,” the second man said. He huffed. “We’re the keepers of the records, lass, for the Krennir clan.”
“The records…of what?” Freya asked. She pulled her hood back down and walked over to the fireplace in the corner, coughing on the rich scent of the coals.
“You are from far away, aren’t you, lass?” the second one, Olag, asked, peering at her. “The records of the clan. The old families are too spread out. Nobody knows our own history hereabouts! The least we can do is keep the stories alive,” he scoffed, tapping the massive scroll. Beneath the table, she saw, were at least ten more just like it.
One of the younger men turned back to the scroll, rolling it shut a little and picking up a quill. The other flushed bright red as he stared, completely unabashed, at Freya’s tight, muscled legs, luxurious red hair, and shapely curves. Freya noticed and hid a smile. Fenrisian boys, it seemed, were no different than Terran boys where it mattered.
“Have you found something more interesting than your job, Adric?” Aron asked drily.
The boy started and hastily turned around, scrabbling for a quill. Aron chuckled and returned to his own works.
Olag dropped a chunk of wood on the fire and huffed on the embers. “Ever try keeping parchment and deerskin dry in a glacier’s path, lass? It’s not cheap,” he grumbled.
Freya smiled. “No doubt, sir.” The rolls of parchment under the table weren’t the only thing in the room, either. The walls were completely covered in pelts and woven tapestries, flags and trophies. A Thunderwolf head surrounded by over two dozen small scales from what looked like a Kraken decorated the space over the fireplace. The rough-hewn wooden walls has splotches of some chemical or dye on them in places, presumably to close up gaps caused by rot. “Would you be willing to tell me some of the tales you’ve stored?”
“Normally, yes, lass, I’d love to, but under the circumstances…we’re just too busy,” Olag sighed. “Perhaps if you were to return in a few months, when the construction is finished, we could speak further?”
“What construction?” Freya asked.
“Why, the new building,” Olag said. “These cordwood walls weren’t built properly,” he grumbled, poking the splotchy materials. “If we unseal any of the scrolls, they could be damaged. We’re only working on this one because it was already opened.”
“Ah.” Freya glanced over the surface of the massive scroll. “Hmm. A recounting of a territorial dispute?” she asked.
All four men turned to look at her. “Why…yes, it is, lass, how did you know?” Aron asked.
Freya awkwardly shrugged. “I can read.”
“Well…good on you, lass, few others hereabouts can,” Aron said.
“My father said it’s one of the most important skills a person can learn,” Freya said.
Aron smiled. “He was right.”
As Freya turned to leave, Olag posed a question. “Lass, where exactly are you from? I mean no offense, but I don’t recognize your accent.”
Freya paused, racking her brain. “My father’s clan hails from Asaheim,” she said, naming the stable but barren continent to the far north. It was technically true.
“The Highest Peaks?” Aron asked. “You’ve travelled a far distance indeed, lass.” He glanced over her unusual hair and eyes again, clearly looking at her in a new light. “What brings you to our town?”
Freya spread her arms. “I haven’t travelled much. I just want to explore a bit.”
Aron crossed his arms over his chest and cocked his head, staring at Freya’s face. For an instant, Freya wondered if he had figured out who she was. “Well…have a fair stay, lass, and fair travels. May I have your name before you go?” he asked instead.
“Freya, daughter of Leman Hrodniksson,” Freya said. Her father’s adoptive father, the king of the Hrodniks tribe, had been dead for over three thousand six hundred years, it wasn’t a risk to say the name aloud.
She may have overplayed her hand, however. Aron’s eyes closed for an instant. When he opened them, his hands were clenched tight. “I see. Thank you for visiting, Freya,” he said. He turned back to the scroll without a word.
Freya left in silence, wondering with unease if she had gone too far in using her real name. After a moment’s indecision, she shook the feeling away. “No risk in a half-truth,” she said resolutely.
As the afternoon arrived, Freya wandered out to the outskirts of the little town. Life was clearly a struggle here, but children were children all over the galaxy. A massive battlefield in the snow outside the town bespoke a great conflict. There was no discarded weaponry or crimson snow, however, and the only fortifications were little piles of snow, with unused snowballs behind them. Mounds of icy missiles and the occasional outline of a fallen combatant littered the field.
Freya smiled. “Can’t have a winter without a real snowball fight,” she chuckled.
A faint scuffing behind her alerted her to the arrival of several dozen children. She stepped to one side of the road and watched as the throngs of kids – some no more than six, none more than fourteen years – ran past her, already calling challenges and insults. Clearly, this was a well-practiced game.
Freya leaned back against the wall of the building beside her and watched the spectacle. One group of industrious lads was packing snow into a wide ring, and fortifying it with more snow, dug from within the ring. They were crouching behind it and packing snowballs when the others caught on, and the group vanished under a barrage of impromptu ice grenades.
The Wolf Daughter grinned broadly as they boys retaliated, knocking one of their attackers back over a pile of snow of his own. The groups splintered and attacked, as several smaller kids wandered away to make snow Valkyries in the field outside or grew tired of the game and went back to wherever they had come from.
A harried-looking woman in thick grey robes and boots huffed up beside Freya. “Sakes of the ancestors, I’m not getting younger,” she panted. “Teach me for getting in their way.”
Freya drew her hood back up and nodded politely. “Are you their teacher, miss?” she asked.
“Aye, one of them.” The two women watched as a pair of girls packed a massive snowball between them and hurled it sideways into the melee. It broke apart over another combatant’s back, and the girls ran off giggling.
“Enthusiastic, aren’t they?” Freya asked.
The teacher snorted. “If only they learned the ways of war as easily. When their fathers come home from the campaign, it’ll be back to real learnings.”
“Oh? They have nobody to teach them how to fight or scout while the men are away?” Freya asked.
The teacher looked at her funny. “Lass, I don’t know how it works in your kin-hold, but around here, the campaigns never last the year. They just leave the poor things in my care while their fathers go off and hunt or fight.”
“And…their mothers?” Freya asked.
“They mend the homes.” The woman peered closer at her. “Where are you from?”
“Asaheim,” Freya said.
“Never heard of it.” The teacher examined her a bit longer before a loud shouting from the field drew her attention back. “Oh, come on…”
Two boys were going at it, fists flying. The others stopped their snow fight to watch as a circle appeared around them. One looked no older than ten, the other nearly a foot taller but a little younger. They weren’t even fighting, this was a brawl. One grabbed the other by the hair and tried to wrench it as the other clenched both hands around the first boy’s throat.
“What in the hell kicked that off?” Freya asked. “They’re going to kill each other!”
“I don’t even know. They’ve been at each other’s necks for days now!” The teacher groaned. “At least they’re outside this time.”
Blood splattered the snow as the taller boy managed to get a solid elbow strike into the shorter boy’s mouth. The youth staggered.
“So…should you stop this?” Freya pressed.
“I should, but those lads would turn on me if I tried to stop them,” the teacher said wearily.
“Want me to?” Freya offered. Her hackles rose – literally – as the taller boy pinned the other and started waling away on the prone one.
“Lass, if you think you can,” the teacher sighed.
Freya cracked her knuckles and crossed the battlefield unnoticed. Just as the taller one reached back to punch the prone one again, Freya grabbed his wrist.
“Desist,” Freya said coldly. “You’ve won.”
“Off me, bitch!” the boy growled. He tried to pull his hand free and found it locked in an inescapable vice. “I said GET OFF!” he roared, his voice breaking in anger. Then, he was ten.
“That’s what I was going to say,” Freya bit off. She pulled at the boy, enough to get him to rise, then locked her hand around his neck. She wasn’t clamping hard enough to choke him, but he could feel it.
He swung at her impotently, his fists skittering off of her Primarch muscle. “LET ME GO! HE DIES HERE!” the boy ground out through clenched teeth. The other boy slowly rose, nursing a bleeding gash on his jaw, his eyes pouring out liquid hate.
“For what?” Freya snarled, letting the barest hint of her canine legacy color her words.
“The whoreson insulted my father! I’ll RIP OFF HIS SKIN!” the taller boy roared.
“Your father was caught cheating at skillbones and you call me a whoreson for pointing it out?” the shorter boy managed through a split lip. “At least I know who my mother is.”
The taller boy screamed and tried to claw his way free, when suddenly Freya had had enough. Putting more than a little of her superhuman strength into the throw, she hurtled the taller boy away. He landed in a snowbank, sending snowy ejecta high. She wheeled over to the other and swept the legs from under him, toppling him back down with a yelp of pain.
“I don’t care who insulted whom, who cheated whom, and who has both parents,” Freya said coldly over the gasps of the other children. “You’ve no right to ruin everyone else’s fun.” She glared at the two boys, who were both rising, dazed. “You stupid children were going to kill each other. You think the Wolves come to collect the souls of those who die in a pointless scuffle? Play nice, or I’ll be back for you.”
She turned on her heel and walked back to the teacher, flexing her fingers to work the rest of her tension away.
The teacher gaped. “Now…I may not be a saddle-maiden any longer, I haven’t raised a blade in many years…but that was no ordinary throw, lass,” she said, boggling at Freya’s compact arms under the cloak.
“Anger gives you strength,” Freya said obliquely. “Maybe the shame of getting their dumb asses kicked by a girl will take the fight out of them,” she said a bit louder. A few of the female children sniggered.
The teacher looked out at the slowly-resuming snowball fight as the two boys wobbled away. “What did you say out there? Something about Wolves?”
“Yes,” Freya said. “Figured I may as well put the fear in them.” She grinned tightly. “Hope you don’t mind.”
“Fear of what? Animals eating them?” the teacher snapped.
Freya blinked. “What do you mean? I was referring to the ones who come to collect the honored fallen, and take them to the skies.”
The teacher sighed. “You mean the Dead Guides?”
“I guess we call them something else back home,” Freya said. “What do your Dead Guides do?”
“They come amongst us in armor as black as night, with the heads of animals, and burning eyes, and take the fallen away, like you said,” the woman said suspiciously. She was giving Freya a look not dissimilar to the one the scholars had given her now. “Why?”
“Just curious. My people tell the same tale.” Freya shrugged again. “Well. I should go,” she said. She brushed snow off of her gloves and walked back up the street.
Dinner and Religion
The rest of the afternoon, she wandered about the village, taking it in. The architecture was exactly what she expected it to be in a Fenrisian village. That is, durable, solidly built, pragmatic, and almost entirely stone. Nobody would waste wood on housing unless it was really needed, on this planet.
As night fell, Freya walked back to the food market/restaurant she had seen before. As she approached the square, however, her nose alerted her to a change.
She paused to sample the world with her senses. A very faint vibration was beginning in the ground. Hundreds of new scents were appearing. The air flooded with faint whispers.
Freya glanced around the corner into the square and spotted a faint blob of something appearing in the snowfields outside. “The campaigners return,” she muttered.
She hastened over to the eatery. Pushing the door open, she found the place almost vacant. She walked straight up to the counter she had visited before, hoping she could get her food before the place filled up. The man behind the counter blinked as he recognized her. “Bold one, you. What do you want?”
“Just whatever you can make fastest. You can see them from the square,” Freya said.
“Mmm.” The cook started preparing something, pulling a strip of meat off of the beast on the skewer over the coals. “Will you be moving on after this, lass?” he asked over his shoulder.
“I think so. It was good to visit, but I should be going home,” Freya said.
The door opened behind her. She glanced back to see Aron walking in, ushering a draft of cold air in behind him. He spotted her and made his way over. “Well, hello, Freya. Looking to grab a bite before the warband returns?” he asked.
Freya nodded politely. “I am, sir. I’ll be out of town before too much longer.”
“I think you ought to just buy a room and stay the night, lass, it gets bloody cold out there,” Aron said. He made eye contact with the cook, who started on another meal while Freya’s was cooking. Clearly, the cook knew most villagers by sight and order, the skill of bartenders and cooks everywhere.
“I’ll be all right, sir, but thank you,” Freya said.
Aron was quiet while the food simmered. When Freya’s was done, she accepted it from the cook and paid, with a coin denomination so high it raised both men’s eyebrows. She turned and sat at a table in the corner, meaning to eat and leave as fast as she could.
When Aron’s food was done, he walked over and sat with her, giving Freya a moment’s pause. “Freya, may I ask you something I didn’t ask in front of the others before?” Aron asked.
Freya narrowed her eyes. “Why didn’t you ask before?”
“Because, lass, I wouldn’t want to impose on you. Say no, and I’ll find another table.” Aron sat and watched her, gradually digging into his steak.
Finally, Freya tilted her head forward a fraction. “Very well.”
Aron eyed her, minding his words. “Let me begin…by saying that you surprised me before. And here, as well. Your clothes are spotless…your accent unusual. You can read, at your age, and you haven’t a scar on you, anywhere. Then, here at dinner, you pay with a gold acert, which is enough to pay for both our meals with change enough to rent a room.”
Aron paused his recitation to down a sip of his mead. “So…who are you?”
Freya looked at him for a long moment. “I spoke the truth before. I am Freya. My father is Leman, his father Hrodnik.”
“How unrevealing.” Aron cut off a chunk of steak and chewed for a moment. “Lass, I meant more than the superficial. Where are you really from? Why do you come to our home?”
“I wasn’t lying there, either. I’m from the Asaheim mountains. I’m here for a day, then leaving forever.” Freya swallowed a bit of her own food. “As for my money, my father is the clan leader. Beyond that, who cares?”
Aron sighed. “Freya, please. There is a reason I am the lore-keeper in a clan of over a hundred thousand souls. You are hiding something from me, and I wish to know if it’s a threat to my people.” His eyes and voice hardened. “Are you a spy from your clan, looking for an easy target?”
“No!” Freya stared at him, taken aback. “I’m no spy. I only found out your town’s name this morning!”
Aron’s face darkened. “From whom?”
“What?” Freya asked, stalling.
“Who told you the name of our town?” the man pressed.
“My uncle, Bjorn. We traveled together until this morning.” Freya improvised her answers.
The scroll-keeper slowly nodded. “Very well. Half-truths, then.” He sighed. “All right.” He cut off another chunk of meat. “What’s your clan name, anyway?” he asked around a mouthful of meat.
Freya’s mental gears locked up. She hadn’t even considered that question. “…Russ,” she finally said. The old man was clearly out-maneuvering her. Aron’s eyes narrowed as he thought that one over. Abruptly, his skin went white as paper. He swallowed his mouthful of steak and fearfully tilted his head upwards to meet Freya’s bashful stare.
“…Freya…Russ? The Russ?”
“I’m only aware of three,” Freya admitted. “Keep it quiet.”
“You…the clan of the Wolf King?” Aron whispered. “Here? In Hosanger?” His eyes darted around, as if the Death Guides themselves – clearly the local name for the Wolf Priests – were about to step forth from the shadows.
“I came as alone as I felt I safely could, scroll-master, fear not,” Freya said, dropping her imitation of the local dialect.
Aron squeezed his hands on the edge of the rough stone table. “…Spirits protect me, are you here as a portent?” he whispered hoarsely.
“A portent? What?” Freya asked, surprised.
“…You’re…” Aron swallowed. “You’re the…the blood of the Wolf King himself…in…Hosanger…” He screwed his eyes shut and opened them, as if willing reality to reassert itself. It didn’t. The pretty red-haired lass with the sheepish smile and divine blood was still sitting across from him, munching on a steak. “…Have you come for the souls of the ones who fell in the campaign?” he asked. His pupils had narrowed to tiny dots in his rheumy old brown eyes.
Freya felt understanding dawn. He thought she was a Valkyrie or something, a half-human or some force of the Gods in their Fang that pierced the sky. “Not yet, scroll-keeper. I’ve come for my own ends.”
“For…my gods above, this is…” he looked a bit woozy. “This is a lot to take in.” He squinted at her in the flickering firelight. “You’re really…did you say three Russ?”
“King Russ, his wife, Gairwyn, and their daughter.” After a moment’s hesitation, Freya fell silent. She didn’t want to frighten the old man. If he was acting like this because he thought she was just some Valkyrie, how would he act if he put two and two together, and deduced her actual parentage?
“You’re…” Aron sank back into his seat, pale. “You’re a servant of the Wolf King?”
Freya shrugged. “I am, to a degree.” The deception didn’t sit well with her, but she would catch hell if she started a religious uprising in the middle of her vacation.
Aron stared at her a moment longer, before slowly starting back up on his meal. “Well…Freya, please don’t take offense at my reaction.”
“I won’t, Aron,” Freya promised.
“To have the actual kin of the Wolf King before me…” Aron lowered his voice. “For a moment, I thought you had come for my soul.”
“No,” Freya said with a faint smile. “And…soon, I will be far away from Fenris for a long time, studying on the world of the All Father. Midgard. I will return, in time, and take my place amongst my family. Until then…”
Aron winced. “This feels…shamefully inadequate, Freya.”
“To have such a revelation in a cookery…” Aron said glumly. “These tales are related in clan halls, at the feet of kings. It seems disrespectful to question you here.” His embarrassment at his prior interrogation seemed to be welling back up.
“If anything, I admire the will you exercise to record the legacies of the clan in the middle of its ceaseless killing,” Freya said to assuage him. Aron nodded, delighted. A touch of color returned to his old visage. “Thank you, Freya! You’re most kind. It’s vital work.”
“It is.” Freya finished her steak. “Your apprentices, who are they?”
“They are Adric and Colin, Freya, and they are the sons of my senior apprentice Olag,” Aron said. At least he didn’t look like he was dying of shame. “They are seventeen and eighteen years of age, by the reckoning of the moon. Colin is the elder.”
“I see. I’m seventeen also,” Freya said, though of course Fenrisian and Terran years could be wildly different for all she knew. She finished the rest of her food and sipped at her drink. The commotion outside was building. “Do the words ‘Great Crusade’ have any meaning to you?” she asked.
Aron thought for a moment, his nerves returning. “Er…no.” He recoiled. “Should they?”
“Mmm.” Freya pulled the last of her thick mead. The heady scent coiled around her nose, burning her sinuses clear. “It’s not important. Not to Fenris, anyway.”
“What is it?” Aron asked.
Freya set her thick mug down. “Inconsequential, now.” She rose to her feet and pulled her hood up. “Fare you well, Aron,” she said, starting towards the door.
“Wait, wait,” Aron said, rising as well. “I…forgive my impudence, but I must know. Why Hosanger?”
“I wanted to see a place that would serve as a good example of the way my people live their lives,” Freya said, pausing and looking back. “My…uncle, Bjorn, he recommended it.”
“Is he…of the Vlka?” Aron asked.
Freya nodded once.
Aron closed his eyes for a moment, overawed. “…Does he watch over us? As his Guides do?”
“I assume so,” Freya said.
“Good…that is good.” Aron nervously glanced back at the detritus of their meal. “Freya, if you wish to see our world, there is one place you absolutely should not miss.”
Freya looked back again. “Oh?”
“Yes. Have you heard of the Cave of Indulgences?” Aron asked.
Freya raised her eyebrows. “…Sounds like a place of debaucheries.”
“Well, it may sound that way, but it is not. In the caves to the north, the waters grow thin and hot.” Aron looked out the thick, scuffed window to where the crowds of revelers and returning warriors were approaching. “Directly north, less than an hour on foot. The huge black rocks. On the north face, there is a crack in the stones, by a pair of natural rises in the earth. Go in and see for yourself.” Aron bowed. “Thank you for visiting us, Freya.”
“Thank you for having me,” Freya said.
“Dare I ask what your impression of your kin has been thus far?” Aron gamely asked as Freya slid her gloves back on.
Freya tugged the soft doeskin against her hands. “Hmm. Not sure. Good and bad, I guess.” She glanced back at him and grinned, quite deliberately flashing her fangs. “But then, I wouldn’t want to hail from a people with no…diversity.” She nodded a farewell as he paled again, and slid into the night.
Hosanger Welcomes the Menfolk
The square was a riot. Hundreds of clansmen were milling about, waving trophies, telling tales, sweeping their women off their feet, scooping children onto their shoulders and generally making themselves at home. Freya pulled her hood low over her head and tugged the drawstrings a bit, closing her face off from the world. She slid the cloak a bit tighter across her chest, concealing herself.
Freya stepped aside as the first of the warriors entered the building, already hollering for food. Many of the others were tromping off for the Swollen Head instead, and some dispersed amongst the houses with a reunion on the mind. A few cheap and overworked-looking women on one corner simpered at the passing warriors, and some peeled off to follow…like bitches on a leash, Freya thought with disgust.
She turned away from the scene and marched around the edge of the square to the tavern, peeking in through the windows. The room was flooded with people now, from a handful of alert-looking men with stone clubs in the corners to the reveling warriors who had come home. The crowd that had gathered outside was breaking up, some dragging trophies with them. Freya slipped into the building, making her way over to the massive bar.
She patiently waited for the harried barman to reach her. “A glass of red mead,” she said quietly, sliding some of the change from her dinner across the table.
“Aye, lass, here you are,” the barman said, taking the money and sliding her a thick stone mug. The scuffs on its handle showed that, clearly, it had seen use as a weapon more than once.
She nodded and lifted the mug, making for the door. Once outside, she slid around the back of the building to find what she had hoped she would: a ladder, built into the back wall, no doubt for posting sentries in times of siege.
Balancing the mug in one hand, Freya climbed the ladder up to the roof. She arrived at the top and sipped her drink as she walked up to the edge. The alcoholic drink was so named because it was supposedly made with human blood, long ago. Now, a cup of boiled mammoth blood was mixed in with the cask. With her refined senses, she could taste it.
Freya sat on the edge of the building and let her feet dangle over the side, after wiping a spot clean of snow. She looked out over the little town of Hosanger, and let its sights, sounds, and scents fill her. She breathed deep of her people, and smelled their cooking and labor.
She listened to hundreds of rowdy warriors sing their war songs, and tell their tales of victory and loss. She heard children cry as sergeants relayed news of their brothers and fathers’ deaths. She listened as the warriors caroused and refueled themselves, got into brawls and swore their oaths, lay with their women and spoke of the next campaign, the next war, the next raid.
Freya closed her eyes and drank deep of her cooling mead. She heard a few grown men weep as they sank to their knees before their wives and children and swore that that was the last time, no more fighting, home life now! The sounds of breaking glass and roaring song filled her ears from beneath her as the entire town of Hosanger turned out to greet their conquering heroes.
Freya smiled and brought the mug to her lips. “So…this is the part of Fenris dad loves so much.”
She drank the rest of the heavy mead and licked her lips. The blood lent the drink a harsh, metallic tang. This was the drink of a fighter. “You were right, Dad.” She climbed to her feet. “That was worth my time.”
Freya turned her back on the square when a voice called up from below. “Oi! Red!”
She looked down to see a few warriors standing below. “You looking for something?” one cried.
“No, warrior, just taking the evening,” Freya said.
“Well get down if you do not wish to freeze your tits off, girl!” he said, to the chuckles of his compatriots.
Freya threw her head back and laughed. “I’m just fine.” Without another word, she vaulted off the roof of the building and landed on her feet less than fifty centimeters from the startled warrior. She rose and nonchalantly pressed the mug into his hands. “Here, take this into the bar,” she said. “I’m off to home.”
Hail the Wolf Spirit
Without another word, she took off sprinting, leaving the rest of the people in the square stunned at her speed. She put all the strength she could muster through her two mugs of mead into the effort, until her hood pulled free, and her cloak billowed out from behind her neck like the tail of a comet. The three intricate Fenrisian braids she wore from her left temple dangled loose as the rest of her red hair fell from the hood and waved in her wake.
As soon as she was beyond the light of the torches in the village, she slowed her progress, reaching down into her pouch for the recall beacon for Bjorn’s Thunderhawk. As her hands brushed it, however, she paused. She glanced to the north, eyeing the low, rocky hills. “Hmm.” She tapped her lip with one gloved hand as she came to a halt. “…might as well.” Adjusting her course, she took off again, her booted feet skating over the ice and snow like the passage of a bird.
When Aron had said ‘less than an hour,’ he had presumably referred to the brisk walk of a soldier on march in the winter. Freya was superhuman, and ate up the distance in less than ten minutes. When she arrived at the low hill, she scaled it, allowing the height to slow her down. When she reached the downslope, she turned her eyes to the ground, wary of the cracks Aron had mentioned. The sun had set completely, now. The glorious stars had risen, and the huge red-and-white moon hung overhead. With her eyes, she could still see as clear as if the sun were directly overhead.
She reached the north side of the hills and looked around. She didn’t see anything that looked like an entrance. Freya held her nose close to the ice and sniffed. Sulfur…water…a small amount of methane…and lots of oddly misplaced heat. She looked at the snow around her more closely. Little ice clung to the vertical parts of the rocky hill, as if it had melted free, or never formed. Was there a hot spring nearby? Had Aron meant that when he said the waters grew ‘thin and hot?’
Voices. Freya slunk into the shadows of the hill by instinct as a pair of low, excited voices emerged. They faded again after a moment, and she walked up the hill a bit, trying to find their bearing.
There. A pair of human footprint trails was plainly visible there, coming from the town. They vanished into the wall of the rocky hill-face. Freya silently moved over the snowy rocks, lifting her cloak in her hands so the pelt didn’t drag.
“I’m telling you, we should wait! There’ll be a storm tonight!” a young woman’s voice insisted. Freya silently tread up to the crack in the rocks from above, and perched overhead like a bird.
“Don’t be silly. We can make it back,” a man replied.
“In less than an hour? Against the blizzard?” the woman asked incredulously.
“The skies were clear when we arrived,” the man insisted. Freya closed her eyes and focused. That scent…one of the boys from the House of the Kindred? Colin?
“I’ve lived off the game around here, I’m telling you that there’s going to be a storm tonight! Why do you think the warband was racing home? We should just wait.”
Colin scoffed. “Nonsense.” He emerged from the crack. His hair glistened in the moonlight. “See? No wind.”
“Not yet! Give it ten minutes!” the woman said from inside. “I’m not freezing out there!”
Colin sighed. “Fine. I’ll head back by myself. You can wait the night, if you want, Casse.”
“Colin!...fine. Be stubborn. You’re just going to freeze,” the woman huffed.
Freya licked her upper lip and tilted her head back, inhaling deeply. Sure enough, the woman was right. There was a strong blizzard on the way. Not strong enough to ground a Thunderhawk by any means, but strong. Enough to kill someone out on the plains with no arctic gear…and wet hair.
“Don’t,” Freya said.
Colin started. The woman inside gasped. Freya spoke again, pulling her hood back to let her braids hang free. “Death comes on the wind tonight, Colin,” she said, her voice the bestial growl she only let out when she was enraged beyond human limits, or was indulging in a bit of theater, like now.
Colin spun around to see her and bit back a scream. She had tilted her head to catch the moonlight on her canine eyes. All he could see was the green lights of her eyes, silhouetted against the stars. “Stay and live. Leave and die.”
“Who…who are you?!” Colin gasped. Casse emerged and spotted Freya, and she actually did scream, huddling up against Colin. Colin wrapped a protective arm around his girl and stared up at the wolf-woman giving him orders.
“The one who wants you to survive the night,” Freya said. Her voice was more animal than human. “Get back into the cave and wait out the blizzard that comes…or have the flesh be torn from you in the ice storm,” she whispered.
“I…I will die if I go?” Colin asked, his voice shaking with fear. Casse’s teeth were chattering, in terror or cold. Neither teen was dressed for the night, either, both were just wearing leather coats over their day wear.
“As sure as the moon rises, boy,” Freya growled. “Take refuge before I lose patience.”
“T-thank you!” Colin gasped, ushering Casse into the crack once more. “Bless you for your mercy, spirit!”
Freya nodded once, then silently slunk away as the sound of their panicked footsteps faded into the cave. As soon as they were out of earshot, she cleared her throat and grimaced at the discomfort in her voicebox. “Ow. How does Dad do that without straining himself?” she asked nobody, tapping the Thunderhawk recaller.
Minutes later, she was sitting on the bench of the gunship, excitedly recalling the day’s activities to a patiently-listening Bjorn and the other Wolves from that morning. “And the food! I mean, there’s only so much you can do with mammoth, but it was still great!” she eagerly proclaimed.
Bjorn smiled slightly. “I’m glad you had a good time at least, little pup.”
“I did!” Freya’s grin shrank a bit. “I was a little upset at the conditions of the town’s slaves, though. To see such horrible conditions forced on them…”
The ancient Marine narrowed his eyes. “How is it different from the way we employ skjalds?” he asked.
“Well, skjalds live like kings compared to the slaves I saw,” Freya pointed out. “But…well. I know I don’t have any real grounds to complain, either, but it’s just…new.” She sighed. “No slavery on Terra, after all.” She glared up at Bjorn. “You know, that question goes both ways. What do you think the difference is?”
Bjorn crossed his arms over his armored chest. “One is not allowed to be a skjald unless you were already a warrior or their child, lass. And skjalds are well-compensated.” He jerked his head back at the village. “This is how our people live, lass, and have for ten thousand years or more. Neither you nor I shall change it.”
Freya’s return glance was cool, but she understood. “All right.” She settled back in her seat. “One guy nearly figured out who I was. He was the local keeper of records.”
“Oh? Did you tell him?”
“No.” Freya snorted. “He thought I was a Valkyrie. I didn’t dissuade him, I just left.”
“Mmm.” Bjorn thought it over before sighing in irritation. “No harm done, I suppose.”
“I tried to keep from rocking the boat.” Freya tugged her gloves off. “Thanks again, Bjorn, the gloves were perfect. And nobody even looked at my outfit funny.”
“Good, lass.” Bjorn rubbed his eyes in a moment of distraction. “Will you wish to come back?”
“Not to the village, no, but that little hillock over there is of some interest,” Freya said. “Near where you picked me up.”
Bjorn glanced at her, curious. “Why?”
“Just something that caught my eye.” Freya shrugged innocently. Bjorn took in the air, but found nothing wary in her scent.
“Very well, little pup, keep your secrets.” Bjorn glanced down at his wrinkled hands. The scars of ten thousand battles crisscrossed their backs. He clenched one fist in a flash of irritation, but kept it well-hidden. Freya wasn’t the target of his ire. “We should be home soon.”
Alex was browsing his slate when the lights in the room suddenly went off. He looked up to see Freya’s cloaked outline in the door for an instant before she closed the portal. Alex grinned and set the slate down. “Someone had fun,” he said quietly.
“Sure did,” Freya whispered from above him. He was used to that by now, he didn’t jump. Freya was somewhat disappointed. Alex slid warm hands around her back and pulled her down to him, hugging her close.
“Good,” he said softly. She buried her face in the thick shirt he was wearing and just enjoyed the moment, breathing in his scent and listening to his body. She draped the cloak over them both and snuggled down on top of him with a contented sigh.
“How was it?” Alex asked.
She pulled her gloves off and dropped them on the bedside table. “Good. Educational. I really liked it,” she said quietly. She returned to stillness, one ear flush against him chest. “Got weird near the end.”
“Yeah? How?” Alex asked.
“Well…two or three different people mistook me for a Valkyrie or a nature spirit,” Freya chuckled.
Alex frowned. “What’s a Valkyrie?”
Freya paused. “Uh…it’s part of Fenryka mythology. A divine female spirit that comes to comfort the fallen warriors and assists the Guides in taking the fallen to the Fang.”
Alex looked down at the mess of red hair and three thick braids on his chest in the dim light of his slate. “And how did they get that impression?” he asked.
“That’s just what people believe around here,” Freya said.
She sat up on him and slid off to the side, pulling the cloak free. Alex followed her with his eyes, curious. “Did you do something that made them think that?”
Freya laughed again, a bit sleepily. “Maybe the third time, but only so the stupid fuck didn’t get his skin frozen off in a blizzard.”
“What was he doing?” Alex asked.
“He and his girl were about to cross an open snowfield. I could HEAR a blizzard coming, so I convinced them to stay put.” Freya slumped off of him with a weary giggle. “I wish I could take you there, Alex, there was so much going on! I want to show it to you!”
Alex smiled and found Freya’s hand in the dark. He gave it a good squeeze and lowered his voice, mock-serious. “Any run-ins with the wildlife?”
Freya shook her head in disappointment. “No. Maybe I can go hunting with Bjorn later.”
Alex glanced over at her. “Uh, politely refuse if he asks me to come along.”
“Pssh. I wouldn’t let some mean old elk shred you,” she joked, squeezing him back. She rested there a moment longer before pulling her boots and wrap off and tossing them in the hamper for cleaning. “All right. Big day tomorrow. Gotta rest up.” She stood and slid the rest of her clothes off for her shower. “Hmm. Where’s Remilia and Venus and Jake?”
Alex, already cleaned and shaved, just got under the sheets. “Venus and Jake have been up on the observation deck. Remilia’s watching holos.”
“Sorry you guys are getting bored,” Freya said apologetically.
“Well, we’re not, really,” Alex hedged. “You won’t be gone every day, will you?”
Freya shook her head. “No. Tomorrow, we’re headed out to the islands, then dinner with the Twelfth in the Great Hall.”
Alex settled down on the bed. “All right. That should be fun, huh?”
As the sun rose, the teens assembled in the Great Hall for breakfast, long after most of the Wolves had already departed and their own workouts had concluded. The cavernous room was almost completely vacant now, save a few skjalds scattered about the place cleaning up, a pair of Long Fangs discussing something over a map-slate in the farthest corner, and the travelers. Freya took the opportunity to show off some of the more interesting trophies, of which the entire room was absolutely packed.
Twenty minutes later, clad in the lighter versions of their thermo gear, the boys were waiting in the lower hangars of the Fang for their departure. Venus, of course immune to the cold, was just in jeans and a shortsleeve shirt, while the iceworlders adopted simple jumpsuits that could seal at the cuffs and neckline, in case of severe and unexpected downpours.
As they boarded the gunship de jure, Freya paused to accept a sizeable crate of supplies from a skjald that had met them there. When Alex glanced over the box and raised a questioning brow, a secretive Freya replied: ‘in case the weather stays nice.’
Soon enough, they were soaring over the waters that surrounded Asaheim, until the whole world was blue and grey skies and white-capped waves. In under an hour, the gunship was circling a jagged little island, with pads of thick green foamy plants and massive flocks of birds wheeling overhead.
The gunship settled down on a thick spur of rock on the top of the stubby island and wheeled off, as the five teens made their way down to the shore. Freya heaved a massive tarpaulin down to the rocks with the crate in Venus’ arms. When they were just above the waterline, Freya spread the tarp out over the stones and weighed it down on the edges and corners to keep it from tugging free in the wind.
Venus set the crate down and cracked it open. “So…do we get to know what this is, Freya?” she asked, pawing through the plastic bags inside.
Freya grinned happily and pulled forth a narrow metal pole. “Fishing gear! Dad used to take me fishing on this island every week like clockwork when I was here last. We’d sit here and fish the schools that circle the island until sundown, then bake the fish over an open fire and chow down.”
“Cool,” Remilia said. “Are there five rods?” she asked.
“Seven. Thought a few of the guys from the crew might want to join us, but they got called away,” Freya said with a shrug. “Oh well.”
Andrew tugged out a massive mil-spec plastic box from the crate. “Hell of a tacklebox,” he grunted.
Freya giggled. “Open it.”
Alex palmed the latch, but the box didn’t open. He glanced down at the panel. “Uh, I can’t.”
“Oh.” Freya palmed it instead, and it beeped. A moment later, with a hiss of pneumatics, the box swung open.
“Is…Freya, what the hell?” Remilia gaped. Freya was extracting a Kardil-4 pattern autorifle.
“In case the fish fight back!” Freya said happily.
The others exchanged worried looks.
“They never do, not in all the years I came here,” Freya soothed them. “But better to have and not need than need and not have, eh?” she asked, slapping a magazine into place.
Alex stared. “…And for those of us who do not wish to risk life and limb, what’s today’s activity?” he asked bluntly.
Freya’s grin drooped a bit. “You don’t like fishing?”
“Never tried, but…fuck. You’re not making it look safe,” Alex accused.
“Bah, this is a precaution!” she said, setting the rifle down.
“Against what?” Alex demanded.
“Krakenspawn, primarily. Don’t worry, I can smell or see them coming two knots off,” Freya said. “And the Thunderhawk is close.”
“How humans survive on this rock, I’ll never know,” Jake said, fingering his fishing rod. “The hell does this work?”
Freya set about instructing the others in how to bait and cast the tools, and soon enough the turbulent waters outside the rocky shore had five little plastic bobs floating in them. The wind died down to a whisper as the sun crawled higher. Alex and Jake found the temperature still quite unbearable, and wisely elected to retain their thermo kit.
“All right, I admit,” Alex said as he cast his line out again. “This is actually pretty fun.”
Jake shielded his eyes against the glare off the water. Even through his sunglasses, the light was overwhelming. “What are those arrow-shaped things in the distance?” he asked.
“Dactyls,” Freya explained. “Giant reptiles that eat fish.”
Jake stared. “Too cool.”
Freya nodded. “Biggest one ever recorded was half again the size of a Stormbird.”
Remilia took a drag from her water bottle. “You sure there are actual fish around here?” she asked, glancing over the water.
“Of course!” Freya said. She tapped her temple behind her eye. “I can see them through the water. We should just be casting closer to shore.”
Jake did so, casting only a few feet away from the rocks, careful not to let the line fray on the sharp volcanic stone. Sure enough, within minutes, the line was jerking. “Uh, what do I do?” he asked, pulling on the rod.
Freya gestured at the handle on the side of the line. “Turn that when the line loosens!” she said.
Jake rose to his feet and started reeling. He nearly pitched back down to the ground as whatever he had hooked pulled back. “Gah! Little help?” he asked, planting his feet and cranking at the line.
Remilia stood too and gripped the rod, helping him balance as he reeled. Something white broke the surface for an instant where Jake’s line had entered the water. Jake gripped the handle tight and reeled in as the line went slack, as the others pulled up their own lures to watch.
After nearly five minutes of panting effort, Remilia and Jake hoisted their prize aloft. Jake gripped the thrashing fish with both gloves and tried to weigh it down, but it twisted until it nearly broke free. Remilia grabbed a knife from her kitbag and plunged it into the fish just behind the skull, ending its writhing. Jake gingerly released it and slumped back. “Thanks…Remilia…” he panted, sweat pouring off of his face.
The blond athlete nodded. “No problem,” she said roughly, wrenching the knife free.
“And to the victors go the spoils,” Freya said, walking over with a peeling knife. “You wanna do it, Remilia?” she asked, offering up the blade.
“Nah, you can do it,” Remilia said, rubbing her hands clean on a towel.
Jake slumped back against the rocks. He stared at his gloved hands. They were visibly shaking from the exertion. “I’ve never gotten into a full-contact wrestling match with my food before,” Jake noted. He peeled his hat off and shook the sweat from his hair. “Whoof. That was hard,” he panted.
Venus set his water bottle next to him on the stone. He grinned up at her, still a bit shaky. “Thanks, babe.” He opened the cap and downed a few gulps as Freya set about busily dismembering the fish.
“Trick is not to cut too deep, but not so close to the skin that you wreck the knife on the armor scale,” Freya muttered, tongue clenched between her lips. She was trying to peel the skin of the animal back with the little knife she had packed, with little success. “Fuck. Wish I had brought a chainsword,” she said.
Remilia slid her own knife into the fish’s gills and held it there as Freya finally made some headway on the skinning. Alex watched the gruesome display from his own perch on the rocky shore. “Remilia, where did you learn how to skin a fish?” he asked.
Remilia paused her eviscerating to reply. “Last time I went home to Inwit, we went ice-fishing on the In-gui-teh glacial rivers,” she said, blowing a drop of sweat off her nose. “I mean, it was eleven years ago, but you never forget,” she said, going back to it.
Venus crouched next to Jake and rooted through her bags for a firestarter. Jake capped his water and set it down, cracking his knuckles under his gloves. “Oof.” He wiped some fish slime off of his jacket with a tissue from the bag. “So, you ever had fish cooked like this?’ he asked.
“Nope, this will be new,” Venus said, lifting the little plastic device. “Ah hah!” She slid it in her pocket and stood back up. “Hey Alex, help me grab some driftwood and we’ll start a fire, huh?” she asked.
Alex obligingly rose from his seat and started gathering some of the sun-and-ice-bleached drifts of wood around them.
They stacked them in a circle as Jake wobbled back up. Freya and Remilia hacked the rest of the scales off of the fish and started boning it as Venus stuffed some leaves into the middle of the wood. “Jake, can you grab the cooking bits from the crate?” Freya asked over her shoulder.
“Sure,” Jake said. He walked over to the crate and lifted a wide metal pan from the crate, glancing over the sky as he did. Aside from a few more dactyls in the far distance, the weather was as clear as could be, without a cloud in the sky. He looked back to the contents of the crate and grabbed a few metal forks with long, slender handles as he did. “This all of it?” he asked.
Freya glanced over. “Yeah, bring it over to me,” she said. She drew her knife back and sliced a thick slab of white meat off of the fish. Its watery blood sluiced down into the cracks of the rock beneath them as she hauled it free. “All right…put it down there,” she instructed. Jake set the pan down and Freya dropped the piece of fish-meat onto the metal surface with an audible *splat.*
“All right,” she said with relish, glancing over at where Venus was applying a little fire to the wood. The bone-dry wood erupted into a roaring blaze in under a minute, and Venus slid the lighter back into the bag. “Remilia, grab the plates?” Freya asked. She sank into a crouch near the blaze and let the warmth seep into her chilly fingers.
“Yep.” Remilia dug around in the crate and extracted five metal kitbag plates, and a few handfuls of cutlery. “Anyone running low on water?” she asked.
“No, thanks,” Jake answered, hefting his half-full bottle. “How long does fish take to cook?”
“Not too long,” Freya replied, watching as the flames ate away at the wood. “Just gonna let it heat up a bit more.”
Alex walked up to the edge of the rocks and peered out over the waves. The water was calming greatly, compared to how it had been when they arrived. The endless blue stretched out to the horizon, in every direction, unbroken by land or ships.
The fire popped and hissed as Freya put the pan over it on a metal frame. “There you go.” Freya kicked back and lay down a few feet from the little flame, a satisfied look on her face. “Nothing like eating something whose ass you just kicked, huh?”
“It does grow on you,” Remilia said with a grin. “Too cold to do it anywhere but the equator back home, but we did it.” “Yeah? Any good stories?” Freya asked.
Remilia crouched down by the fire and cupped her hands over each other in her lap. “Not really. I was just an eleven-year-old kid, the one time I remembering being on Inwit. All we really did was hunt Ice Hounds from the back of a Stormraven with a Stalker bolter, and even then I didn’t shoot it.”
She rocked back on her heels and crossed her legs. “Still…that was the best lunch.”
Freya chuckled. “Every time I came home before, we’d go hunting or fishing. The Legion’s too big to get its food from hunting alone, now, of course, because we’d pick the continent dry if we tried, but still.” She wiped fish goo from her arms and rinsed with a towel. “One of the best times I ever had was when I was about…this high off the ground,” she said, holding her hand a few feet high. “I was out on the Koromi ice fields with Dad, and for some reason he was wearing his armor. We were tracking an Elk, which might not sound so scary until you realize that Fenrisian Elk are about eleven feet tall and with antlers made of broken glass and diamond chips, basically,” she quipped.
She stared up at the sky with a happy grin. “Let’s see…we were losing the Elk over the snowdrifts. I just couldn’t keep up. So Dad says ‘you don’t get to complain about this later,’ picks me up, and sits me on his pauldron, then takes off so fast my hair was probably standing out straight behind me.” Freya giggled. “That was awesome.”
“And you did, of course, catch the Elk?” Venus said drily.
“Fucking thing probably felt like it got hit by a tank,” Freya replied with a smile. “Man, I hope we can get out hunting while we’re here.”
“Sounds like fun, but a little too risky for me,” Alex said. “Unless you can guarantee that we’d be safe.”
“Nope, sorry,” Freya said regretfully.
Alex shrugged. “Oh well.” He glanced down at where the chunk of fish was roasting on the pan. “Is it ready?”
“Nope, gotta flip it,” Freya said. Remilia reached for the fork.
“Here, let me just…fuck,” she said. The fork’s tines tore through the fish’s baking flesh. Remilia tried again with similar results. “This may be a problem,” she said, staring at the cooking fish.
Venus coughed. “May I?” she asked.
“If you wanna have a crack at it,” Remilia said, extending the fork to her.
Venus ignored it, and instead simply reached through the flame to grab the pan and jerk it laterally, neatly flipping the fish over. She pulled her hand back – unscathed – and smiled coyly. “Salamander.”
“Right,” Remilia said, shaking her head. “Of course.”
Freya chuckled at Venus’ smug grin. “Nice.” She sat up and tossed a small piece of wood onto the guttering flames. “Your hand okay?”
Venus scoffed and turned her hand around so the others could see it. It was completely unmarked. “Just fine, thanks, that was way below the level where I’d actually feel it.” Jake raised an eyebrow at that remark, and idly wondered exactly how hot the iron had been when she had scorched herself back home.
Alex refilled his water bottle from the little charcoal-filtered pitcher in the crate. “All right…who wants what?” he asked, pulling out a small bag of assorted cookies.
“I’ll just have fish, I think, the one I caught was huge,” Jake said, eyeing the massive chunk of the animal that Freya hadn’t even thrown on the pan yet.
“True ‘nuff.” Alex tossed a cookie to Remilia and to Venus, and selected one for himself. “Think it’s done?”
“Just about,” Freya said, poking it with the fork. “Remilia and Jake, you guys did the work, you get first portions,” she said, grabbing two plates with her free hand.
“Cool.” Jake took a plate as Venus grabbed the scalding pan and Freya pulled a chunk off. He caught it on his plate and set it down to cool a bit, as Remilia did the same. “Thanks, Freya.”
“Is this the first time you’ve had fish?” Freya asked.
Jake laughed aloud. “Hah! Can’t blame you for asking, but no, in fact, it isn’t. I had a fish when I was over at Vulkan’s for a dinner once. Blew my mind,” he said. He waved cold air over the fish and sliced off a piece. He stared at the chunk of food on his fork and made a brave air. “All right. Moment of truth.”
He bit into the white flesh and chewed, making a great show of consideration. The others exchanged patient glances. “Hmm. I have…no idea what this tastes like,” he said at great length. He bit it again. “Fucking delicious, though,” he added.
“Excellent.” Remilia dropped the rest of the edible fish into the pan and started cooking it. She turned back to her own food and bit off a steaming morsel. “Mmph. Awesome.”
“Good,” Freya said primly, as if the compliment was laid upon her entire planet rather than one hapless fish.
As the rest of the fish cooked and the other three dug in, Jake finished his own food and pulled some water. “If you all don’t mind, I think I’m gonna climb the rocks a bit,” he said. He jerked a thumb over his shoulders at the piles of craggy pumice in the middle of the wave-scoured island.
“Sure,” Freya said, waving him away. “Nothing vertical without a rope, now,” she cautioned.
“Yep.” Jake brushed his hands on the side of his pants where the oils would eventually flake away from the treated fiber. “Anyone else want in?”
“Sure,” Remilia said. She finished her own fish and followed Jake as he slowly wended his way up the rocks. The island was small, only about four hundred feet high at the peak, so they would be able to see the LZ from their route.
Jake cinched his gloves and grabbed a rough piece of wood, using it like a walking stick. “Not quite a basalt pillar, but it’ll do, right?” he asked Remilia as they climbed.
Remilia snorted. “Sure.” She pointed out at the peak of the hill. “Up for a race?” she asked, her voice laden with innocence.
Jake turned to look at her.
She grinned. “No, huh?” She clapped him on the shoulder and started up ahead of him on the rocks. “Here, you got a camera or a vox or anything on you?” she asked.
Jake patted one pocket. “I do.”
“Cool.” Remilia tested a chunk of grey pumice with her hand, then wrenched, pulling it free, and tossed it aside. She gripped the hole in the stone it had left instead, and nodded, finding it sufficient.
Down below, Freya finished off the last of the fish. “All right. Do you guys want to head out now, or fish a bit more?” she asked.
Venus grabbed the pan out of the dying flame and set it aside to cool. “Let’s stay a bit longer,” she said. She glanced up at the open sky and scanned the endless horizon. “I want to appreciate this view.”
“Works for me,” Freya said. She grabbed her rod and walked back down to the edge of the water.
Venus leaned back against the rocks behind her and settled down, watching the waves. “I wish we had views we could see like this back home.”
“Nocturne had oceans,” Alex pointed out.
Venus shook her head. Her black ponytail shook on her shoulder. “No, Terra. They boiled off the oceans before Uncle Rogal built the last wing of the Palace.”
“Ah, yeah.” Alex sat back down beside her. “You nervous about tonight?” he asked.
Venus looked away for a second. “A little.”
“I mean, I’m sure we’ll be safe, but it’s just gonna be…so awkward,” Alex said. He sighed to himself. “I don’t know how to tell Freya.”
Venus winced. “I guarantee she can still hear us at this range.”
Alex slapped his forehead. “Fuck.”
Sure enough, Freya’s shoulders rose a fraction before settling back down. She cast her bait into the water once more and crossed her legs for a long sit.
Venus pulled out her vox and snapped a picture of the skyline. “You know, I avoided the opportunity for us to dine on Prometheus with more than a few Brothers at a time because for the Salamanders, mealtimes involve a recitation of lore from the Creed. I didn’t want to make people awkward. I know for a fact that that isn’t the case with the Wolves. I suspect that there’s not much to be worried about.”
“Right.” Alex rose to his feet and patted himself off. “All right.” He walked down to where Freya was sitting and squatted down behind her.
“Hey.” Freya flicked her rod again, sending the little red plastic bob into the water.
“Hey.” Alex fidgeted for a moment. “Look, I’m sorry, I should have come to you first. Is there anything I should know about tonight?” he awkwardly asked.
Freya shrugged. “A few things. I would have told you before the dinner anyway.” She reeled up a bit of slack line. “First of all, you guys will get called into the Hall after I do. I wouldn’t want you to sit through the prayer.”
“Okay.” Alex crossed his legs too, and uncapped his water bottle. “What else?”
“Not much. I expect that a few of the Brothers at the High Table will be constantly asking questions, about Terra mostly. The Rout doesn’t go to Terra too often.” She looked over at him and grinned faintly. “Remember what I said when you asked me what it would be like to come here, back when Remilia was living with me?”
Alex thought for a moment. “Uh…you said someone might ask me if I wanted to be inducted into the Wolves,” he remembered.
“Heh. Yeah, I suspect so. Maybe a few drinking contest challenges too, and someone’s gonna poke wise at us sharing bed before getting married, you can bet on that,” she chuckled. “But it’ll all be older brother stuff. You’ll be all right.”
Alex nodded. “Okay. Thanks.” He picked up his own fishing rod and replaced the bait. “Mind if join you?”
“Just move a few feet away so we don’t cross our lines,” Freya said. Alex scooted a small distance to one side and cast his own line, leaving the two of them in silence.
Far above, Remilia reached the top of the volcanic hillock in the middle of the tiny island. “Hell of a view.” Jake walked up behind her, panting a bit. “Here’s a pic to send to your folks, huh?” she asked.
Jake nodded, out of breath. “Yeah, hang on…” He pawed the camera-vox out of his pocket and pressed a few runes. He snapped a few holos of the horizons, and tilted his vox back to capture the circling dactyls as well. “Those things are so cool.”
“I know. Did you see any on Nocturne? They have creatures called dactyls there, too,” Remilia pointed out.
“Really? Are they related?” Jake asked, handing her the vox.
“No idea. Doubt it.” Remilia snapped a picture of their impromptu campsite down below. “Here, smile!” she said, snapping a holo of Jake too. Jake blinked away the aftereffects of the flash. “You caught my bad side!” he joked, snatching away the vox. “Here, I’ll take one of you to send home,” he said. Remilia crossed her arms over her chest and grinned at the camera as Jake snapped a holo.
“Cool, thanks.” Remilia spun on her heel, trying to get her bearings. “Which way is the Fang from here?” she asked.
“Should be due north,” Jake said. “Hell if I know where that is.”
Shit Gets Real
Below, Alex idly cast his line again. A sudden tug on the end brought his attention down to the water. “Hey, I got something!” he said.
Freya leaned over. “Yeah, you do!” She set her own rod down. “Reel it in!”
Alex stood, bracing himself against the rough rocks. “It’s huge, whatever it is,” he grunted, pulling the line back in. He nearly toppled over as the animal on the other end pulled back.
Freya moved over behind him and wrapped her arms around his midsection, anchoring him. Alex reeled up the line, inch by torturous inch. Venus stood and walked over to watch the spectacle. After a few more minutes of reeling, a distant white blob broke the water and splashed back down.
“Looks like you nabbed a bladefish,” Freya grunted. “Good eats.”
“Think we’ll let it go, though?” Alex asked through clenched teeth.
“Probably.” Freya reached around him to grab the handle of the rod over his own hands. “All right, reel it up!”
Alex hauled on the handle, pulling the distant fish up another meter. “Get over here, you scaly little fuck,” he growled.
“The hell are those?” Venus suddenly asked, pointing out over the water.
The tone of her voice grabbed Freya’s attention. She tore her gaze from the battle of Alex versus bladefish to follow Venus’ pointing finger. A distant blob of grey was moving around in the water, nearly a kilometer away.
Freya’s eyes went wide. She grabbed Alex’s rod out of his hands and stepped aside, and he nearly stumbled from the sudden loss of balance. “Freya, what the hell?” Alex asked, panting.
“Quiet!” Freya snarled. She stared into the distant grey blob and listened carefully, drawing deep breaths of the fading wind. “FUCK! Call the gunship, Venus!” she snapped. She reached up to the fishing line on the rod and snapped it with one bite.
“Freya, what’s happening?” Alex demanded. Venus scooped up the recall beacon from the crate and tapped the button.
“Krakenspawn are coming!” Freya said, tossing the rod into the crate and running over to their campsite. “We are packing up and LEAVING!”
Alex paled. “How long do we have?” he asked.
“Maybe ten minutes,” Freya said. She dropped the rods into the crate and rolled up the tarp, chucking it in. “Come on, come on! Venus, go get the others!” she over her shoulder. “Alex, break camp!”
“No arguments here,” Alex muttered. He ran over to the metal pan and rubbed the fish goo out of it with a cloth.
Above, Venus hurdled a few low rocks until she was within sight of the other two, still up snapping pictures on the hilltop. She inflated her lungs and screamed. “GET DOWN HERE!” Her superhuman voice carried up to the other two, startling them both. Remilia stared down at where her cousin was urgently waving.
“Uh…” Jake said. “Sounds like an order.”
Remilia looked over to where Freya and Alex were frantically packing. “…Time for a dust-off,” she muttered. “Jake, how much do you trust me right now?” she asked, turning to face her friend.
Jake stared at her. “Uh…a lot?”
Remilia slid her arms under Jake’s shoulders and pulled backwards until the taller man fell back against them with a startled gasp. She shifted one arm below his knees and threw herself off the hilltop, landing on the ground beside Venus nearly thirty feet below.
“Sorry,” she said tightly, letting Jake back to his feet.
“No, no, it was quite…heroic,” Jake said weakly, easing back up.
“Krakenspawn, inbound fast,” Venus said, concern for their wellbeing overriding her amusement at the look on her lover’s face. “Gunship’s inbound, get down to the camp and help us break it down,” she said, already jogging off.
Jake and Remilia followed her, stopping to help Alex pack up the camp. Venus rolled her sleeves up and brushed the lingering embers aside, extinguishing the flames. Alex and Jake manhandled the few other pieces of equipment they had brought with them into the crate as Remilia and Freya opened the mil-spec case up and extracted the autorifle inside. “Hoped I wouldn’t need this,” Freya muttered, slapping a magazine home and chambering a round.
Remilia brushed her cousin aside and withdrew two small stub pistols, tossing one to Venus. “ETA on the gunship?” she asked.
Freya grabbed the recaller from the ground next to the case. “Eight minutes.”
“And the fish?” Remilia asked, staring at the growing grey blob.
“Kraken. And eight minutes,” Freya said.
“Fantastic.” Remilia straightened up and slid a magazine home, tucking a few more in pockets.
Venus clamped the crate shut and hefted it with Freya, carrying it up to the flat rock they had been using as a landing zone. Remilia dropped the gun case on top of the crate and stood behind it, eyeing the water. “What were you saying about the trip to the village not having any interesting wildlife encounters?” she asked drily.
Freya managed a tight laugh. “Funny.” She sighted down the rifle and leaped up on top of the four foot cubic crate. “All right. Krakenspawn are all mouths and tentacles, but they can cross short stretches of land if they’re trying to. Just aim for center of mass and remember to triple-tap.” She sighed. “I should have asked the gunship to stay, damn it.”
The group went quieter as the grey mass of waves and foam grew closer. “Can you tell how many there are?” Jake asked, nervously wringing his hands over his waist.
“Forty? Fifty?” Freya said, staring into the water. “Too many.”
Alex grimaced, anger at his predicament spilling into his voice. “Got any more guns?”
“I wish, baby,” Freya said softly. Her fingers tightened on the gun as her predatory instinct flared up. Venus arranged a few magazines of ammunition for her pistol on the crate-top beside her and balanced the weapon on her palm, feeling it out.
“Wish I’d brought the hardware that came with the formal uniform,” she said under her breath.
Remilia chuckled through her tension. “But we already had cooked fish today,” she reminded her.
“Mmm, pan-seared sea monster,” Venus said.
A distant ripple presaged the front of the swarm of monsters. A few creatures roamed out in front, their passing churning the blue water white. Jake shivered. The prospect of hive living was suddenly much less unappealing.
Alex crouched beside him, slowly flexing and relaxing his hands. “How big are these things, Freya?” he asked, his throat tightening.
“Depends on age. Five to twenty meters before they molt…” she said, flicking the scope open and sighting it. “Maybe a hundred meters when they’re older.”
Jake’s heartrate spiked. “…And you can kill them with a rifle?” he asked, trying not to sound distracting.
Freya bared her teeth. “I can. You just need to know where to shoot.”
“And where’s that?” Venus asked.
“Seven or so centimeters above and between the forwardmost eyes,” Freya said. “Soft spot in the cartilage.” She breathed in deep, scenting the monsters. “I’d say…forty five or so.” She gripped the rifle until her knuckles turned white. “Guys…I’m sorry. I swear this has never happened while I was here before,” she said, somewhat bitterly. “Just my fucking luck.”
None of the others felt the need to say anything. Remilia sat down with her side to the crate, looking into the water. The small fish they had been seeing, and the larger bladefish that had been eating them, were gone. They had fled the coming kraken, and Remilia couldn’t blame them.
Jake scanned the shy with hopeful eyes, wondering where the gunship was. “What I wouldn’t give for a teleporter.”
Venus met his eyes through her glasses. “Don’t give up, Jake,” she said softly. “We can hold them until the gunship gets here.”
His face was a mask of nerves and fear. “Not how I pictured this going,” he said tightly. “Tell me you can shoot that thing.”
Venus slowly raised one eyebrow. “I can,” she said flatly.
“Of course,” Jake said. “Sorry. I’m just scared,” he admitted.
Venus squeezed his shoulder. “So am I.”
“You don’t look it,” Jake said.
She stared out over the water. “I’m just good at hiding it.”
Remilia suddenly jerked her head up and stared at the horizon.
The rumble of engines in the air alerted them to their approaching salvation. The gunship appeared, flying over the wavetops from the opposite direction as the krakenspawn. Freya lifted the recall beacon and pressed the button on the end, and the small flare in the other side started spewing red smoke to mark their location. She tossed the beacon behind them and sighted down her rifle again, hoping that the pilot would realize the gravity of the situation.
It seemed he did. The engine sound suddenly grew much louder as the pilot realized what was happening and opened the throttle wide. He shot forward, racing towards them.
The first krakenspawn broke the water, nearly a hundred meters away from the island and growing closer, though still nowhere near enough to climb the rocks. The creature looked like something out of nightmare, with thick purple lines of flesh between plates of chitinous armor and tentacles that ended in wicked barbs.
Both boys swallowed. Freya clenched her teeth.
The gunship didn’t even slow down as it approached. Instead it shot overhead, slowing to unsling its assault cannon. The cyclic weapon opened up, firing a sheet of mass-reactive shells into the swarm of animals. The cohesive swarm disintegrated as the anti-tank weapon ripped holes in the first cluster of krakenspawn.
Venus allowed herself a sigh of relief, but mere moments later one of the spawn erupted from the water and landed on the shore, having somehow eluded the gunship’s cannon. The monstrosity flailed about a little before sighting the cluster of teenaged vacationers. Freya let it get that far before blowing three neat little holes in its forehead.
The report of the gun made the unaugmented party members flinch. The creature slumped over and died, sloughing back into the water with a splash.
Remilia snatched up the recaller, ignoring the smoke, and pressed the button again. The gunship slowly flew backwards, still firing. It slowly settled down on the edge of the clearing and the ramp swung down. Two uniformed skjalds leaped for the, sweeping the LZ for clearance. Before anyone could say a word, Freya stomped up the ramp. Venus and Remilia grabbed the crate and lugged it aboard as Alex and Jake scrambled up behind them. Freya ripped the cabin hatch open and stormed into the cabin, watching the krakenspawn flail and try to climb the island.
As the two skjalds climbed aboard, the ramp lifted and the gunship took off, heading back to the Fang. The pilot turned to look at Freya. “Are you all right, Princess?”
“When I recall your gunship and you see that we’re on the verge of being attacked, I never want to see you pausing for target practice before extracting us like I’ve ordered you to, is that clear?” Freya snarled.
The skjald recoiled. “Princess?”
“One of the spawn made the shore while you were off merrily blowing holes in its kin,” Freya said darkly. “I had to kill it myself. What would have happened if I hadn’t had a rifle with me, pray tell?”
“My apologies, Princess, but we were outnumbered fifty to one,” the pilot said, trying to keep the defensiveness out of his tone.
“Sure.” Freya closed the hatch and dropped the rifle into the case. Venus and Remilia passed her their pistols and she dropped them into the case as well. It closed and sealed with a *click.* The two uniformed skjalds set their weapons down on the benches beside the hatch as Jake sank into his seat, head in his hands.
Venus sat beside him, resting a hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be all right,” she murmured.
“Yeah, we’re all okay,” Jake said into his hands. “Just…fuck.”
“Never had someone fire a gun that close, huh?” Venus asked.
“Is it always that…loud?” Jake asked.
“Yeah.” Venus squeezed his shoulder, looking for some sign that he was recovering. “Do your ears hurt?”
“Not now…just…” Jake trailed off.
Alex sat down on his other side with a heavy sigh. Venus leaned on Jake’s shoulder and slid an arm under his own arm, gently lacing her fingers with his. “You’ll be fine.” Alex closed his eyes and ground his hands into his eyes, feeling the adrenaline bleeding away and leaving his arms shaking. Remilia sat down beside the skjalds and stared at the others, going through the motions of making their stresses go away. She clenched her hands and willed her own shakes away. Without any real mystery as to why, she found herself wondering where Kines was, and how he was doing. Remilia closed her eyes and tried to picture the look on his face when she told him what she had been up to, and smiled at the image.
Freya plopped down next to Alex. “Well, guys, I’m really sorry about this,” she sighed. “I knew there was a tiny possibility of this happening, but this was just…” she trailed off.
Remilia shook her head, eyes still closed. “Nobody’s mad, Freya. It happens. I guess?”
“Yeah. Welcome to Fenris,” Freya said, somewhat sullen.
“Fenrisian fishermen must be the manliest sons of bitches around,” Jake suddenly said.
The skjalds and Freya chuckled. “It’s true,” Freya confessed. Alex managed a grin.
“Estimated Time of Arrival is twenty-seven minutes, your Highness,” the gunner called from the cabin over the PA.
Freya stood, cricking her shoulder where the report of the autorifle had impacted it. With her strength, the recoil hadn’t injured her, but the weapon was made for Blood Claws, who were usually half a meter taller than her. “Guys, I feel like I have something to make up for here,” she admitted.
“Quit it.” Remilia looked up at her and frowned. “It’s Fenris. Fish happens.”
“Stick that on a travel brochure,” Venus said.
Freya sat back down, smiling sheepishly. “I’m glad you guys are so cool about this.”
“I don’t know, Freya,” Jake said quietly, clenching his hands over each other. “That thing’s gonna be in my nightmares for a while.” He looked up at her. “Can we not go fishing again for a while?”
Freya wilted a bit. “Of course.”
Stranger at Home
Bjorn the Eldest, presiding Wolf Lord, slowly paced his room in the Fang, reading a message on his dataslate. “A week and a half before the ship arrives, and then…hmm,” he said to himself. A loud knock on the door announced a guest. He switched off the slate and halted his pacing. “Come.”
Freya walked in, closing the door behind her. Bjorn spread his arms. “Little pup. How did your fishing expedition go?”
“Horrible. We were attacked by krakenspawn,” Freya said. She was very careful not to sound like she was accusing Bjorn. “The bastards actually made it ashore before the gunship got us out of there.”
“Oh? So much for that trip then,” Bjorn said. “Are you all uninjured?”
“Yeah, though Jake and Alex are a little shook up.” She sighed. “I don’t blame them, they’re not fighters. The gunship’s pilot and gunner paused their pickup to fire on the krakenspawn, though, that pissed me the hell off.”
“What did they do?” Bjorn asked, his brow creasing.
Freya snorted impatiently. “We signaled for a pickup. They flew over our heads and fired on the krakenspawn, and Remilia had to hit the recaller again before they came to actually pick us up. The spawn had actually managed to get ashore by the time they stopped jacking off and let the ramp down.”
“Disappointing,” Bjorn rumbled. “I’ll have a word with them.”
“Thanks.” Freya sank into a massive chair and ran her hands over her face. “I will never complain about not seeing enough wildlife when I go to town, I promise,” she muttered.
Bjorn nodded once. “Perhaps later you could return?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Freya said. The Juvjk dialect lent her words a melancholy tone. “I feel like shit.”
Bjorn sat down as well. “Why?”
“I jeopardized their lives, Eldest. I shouldn’t have done that,” Freya confessed. “It’s easy for me to forget sometimes that the boys especially can’t really keep up with me sometimes. I didn’t even bring guns for them.”
“I don’t follow,” Bjorn said. “Did they slow you down somehow?”
“No!” Freya stared at the floor. “Look, I just feel awful for putting them in harm’s way.”
Bjorn slowly stood again, looking down at the redheaded girl with an air of remorse. “Are you telling me that you regret taking them on this trip to go fish…or to Fenris? I can not tell, from the sense of you,” he said quietly.
Freya closed her eyes, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Yeah. I guess it did sound that way, didn’t it.” She huffed. “I don’t regret bringing them here. I truly don’t. But the trip today was supposed to be a chance for them to experience the parts of Fenrisian life that I enjoyed so much with Dad last time I was here. Instead we nearly get eaten.”
“Little pup, I don’t know how to tell you this, but most of the struggles of life on Fenris involve nearly dying in some way,” Bjorn said, sternness hardening his words.
“I was afraid you’d say that.” Freya stood. “So what do you recommend? We leave early? I just confine them to the Fang?”
“‘Confine’ sounds like a punishment.” Bjorn opened one hand and extended it to her. “Let them dine with the Brothers tonight. If we can not make them feel at home, then speak to me again. Until then, however…I think it too early to make a decision.”
“You’re right, Bjorn.” Freya stood. “All right. Thanks. I needed someone to talk to.” She yawned as the day’s exertions took their toll. “Would you mind terribly if I showed them the skjalds’ quarters? The rec rooms, and such?”
“I care not. Ask before you go.” Bjorn cocked his head. “You know that the skjalds find precious little free time here.”
“I do, but I feel that it’s as much a part of the lives of the residents of the Fang as anything,” Freya explained.
“Then of course you may, little pup.” Bjorn nodded once. “Now…if you would, I was reading an important message from Terra.”
“Sure.” Freya turned to go. “Nothing bad, I hope?” she asked over her shoulder.
“Quite the opposite; reinforcements from Terra are on the way to here and some of our field deployments,” Bjorn said. “I will speak to you tonight.”
Above, Venus sat down next to Jake on the bed in their suite. Jake was feeling a little better, but the afternoon’s activities were clearly staying with him. “Do you want to take a nap before dinner?” she asked.
Jake shook his head. “No thanks.” He straightened up, staring into space. “You know, even living in the hives I never saw someone firing a gun up close?”
“It’s scary the first few times,” Venus said.
“I wasn’t home when it happened to my neighbor. Did I ever tell you about that?” Jake asked.
“You started to, on Nocturne.”
Jake nodded. “Right. I was at work when someone walked up to my neighbor when he was opening his door to go to work, and just unloaded a shotgun into him at point blank.”
Venus shuddered. “Horrible.”
“Yeah. The killer just stepped over him, took my neighbor’s stereo, walked back out and drove off.” Jake sighed. “He got caught half a klick away, trying to fence it. An Enforcer Widget caught the sound of the shot.”
Venus blinked. “A what?”
“A Widget. Disguised camera and audio pickup built into the traffic lights. I mentioned them at the dinner in Skarokk,” Jake reminded her.
“Oh, yeah.” Venus looked over at him. Jake was still staring at the wall. Venus sighed. “This has been a wild trip, huh?”
“Good.” Venus lay down on the bed and held out an inviting hand to him, brushing his arm. He looked back at her and cracked a tiny grin. Shucking his jacket, he slid down and rested his head on her proffered arm.
“Thanks, baby,” he said quietly, closing his eyes. “…Maybe I will take a nap.”
Venus scooted closer to him and entwined her legs with his. Through his thick thermo clothes, she was nothing more than a comforting warmth. “Okay,” she said softly. “Sleep tight.”
Remilia leaned on the frame of Alex and Freya’s door as Freya returned from her status report to Bjorn. “How was it?” she asked as he cousin rounded the corner.
“I’m starting to regret taking you guys outdoors at all,” Freya grumbled.
“Come on, don’t be like that,” Remilia said crossly.
Freya puffed an out an aggravated breath. “Fine. I can’t obsess over it.” She looked at Venus’ and Jake’s closed door. “Is Jake okay?” she asked.
“He’ll be fine, he was just a little shaken up.” Remilia nodded solemnly. “He’s gonna nap, I think.”
“All right.” Alex emerged from the room, tousled a bit from removing his thermo kit and slipping on a more normal pair of pants and a tee. “How about you, baby?” Freya inquired.
“I’m just fine,” Alex said with a shrug. “What did Lord Bjorn say?”
Freya glanced down at the floor for a moment. “Not much. He said we should dine with him tonight before I decide what to do next.”
“Smart.” Remilia rose from her slouch. “All right. We’ve got four hours. What do you guys want to do?” she asked.
“I think I just wanna read in bed for a while, actually,” Alex said, stifling a yawn.
“Me too,” Freya said, walking past him into the room.
Remilia paused. “Uh, guys, do you mind if I read with you? I just don’t really want to be by myself right now, you know?”
Freya’s senses detected a slight urgency to her request. “’Course not,” she said.
Her cousin nodded. “Great, thanks,” she said, disappearing into her room.
ETD (Estimated Time of Dinner)
A few hours later, Jake awoke as a bead of sweat worked its way past his eye. He lifted his head to see Venus fast asleep across from him. He gingerly rose from where he had lain down on her arm and dried his forehead. He always woke up hot when he fell asleep that close to her. He pulled his thermo kit free and started dressing for the evening, glancing over the clock as he did. Early. Plenty of time. Good. He grabbed his slate as he finished and opened his messages.
Venus stirred on the bed as he did. “Mmmph. Hey,” she mumbled, propping herself up.
“I wake you up?” Jake asked idly, paging through to his inbox.
“No. Anything new?”
Jake laughed aloud as a message from his parents came through. “Check this out. It’s a photo from home! My cousin Alice got engaged!” he said, passing Venus the slate.
“Really? Cool!” Venus said, taking the slate. Sure enough, a picture of a radiant young woman standing hand in hand with a dark-haired man a few years her senior appeared on the screen. “Have I ever met them?”
“No, but you will when we have the going-away party when we get home,” Jake said. “That’s Alice and her fiancé Hajime.”
“Cute couple,” Venus said, passing it back.
“Yeah. Alice is my mother’s closest, by a lot. She has an even younger brother who’s a few years older than me,” Jake explained.
“I know basically nothing about your family on your mother’s side,” Venus noted.
“You’ll meet them when you go home with me after the road trip. That weepy guy there is my grandfather Eric, he’s a Fists Battle Group vet,” Jake said, opening a new picture.
“Huh.” Venus looked it over. “Where’s your mother’s mother?” she asked.
“Losing a battle to a viral infection in the hospital, last I heard,” Jake said glumly.
Venus winced. “Sorry.”
“Eh.” Jake turned off the slate. “All right. Well. I feel a lot better,” he said, standing up. “Wanna go hang with the others before dinner?”
“Sure,” Venus said.
Jake turned to put nicer shoes on. “So…you know, I don’t think I know Misja’s family at all either.”
“Well, Mom’s the youngest of like…eight siblings, half of whom aren’t even living on Terra,” Venus explained as she slid her bra off for something less sporty. “You’ll meet them all eventually, they make a point of coming home every so often.”
Jake grinned to himself. “We’ve gotta be lucky that way.”
“How many of your cousins have such close kin on their mothers’ sides?” Jake asked. “And me too?”
“It’s a thing to treasure,” Venus agreed. “I’ve never even met Lady Guilliman, or Lady Angron, for that matter. I’m not sure even Furia ever met her mother.”
“Really?” Jake asked. “I remember you telling me Lord Guilliman married first.”
“Oh, he did, but he married a woman from Macragge, not Terra, and she’s Lady Regent of Ultramar, so she’s hella busy.” Venus finished changing and grabbed her slate. Jake did the same and opened the door. “All right. Let’s go track down the others.”
As the hour approached, Freya glanced over the clock by her side and switched her slate off. “All right, guys, any questions before I head down there?” she asked.
The others looked up at her from their places in her room. “Yeah, what do we have to say?” Alex asked.
“Not a word, unless you want to. If you’re asked, just smile and shake your head.” Freya dropped her slate and pulled her cloak off the chair back. “Won’t need the dress, just the cloak will do…”
“Any rules of etiquette we need to know?” Jake asked.
Freya paused to look at him funny. “Have you ever seen Dad eat?”
“Point taken,” Jake said.
Freya shrugged the cloak on. “Just remember that the rules of the Hall are absolutely sacrosanct to us. There are members of the Rout that would rather go punch an Ice Fiend than deliberately insult an invited guest. You guys will be fine.”
Remilia set her slate aside. “Should we come down with you?”
“No, just wait ten minutes and follow me.” Freya pulled the gloves and hood on and left the rest of the outfit behind. “All right, off I go.” She leaned over to give Alex a kiss before heading out the door.
Turning to go down the hallway, she noticed Mustafa and Bletcher in their day uniforms, directing a trio of servitors to lift their boxes. She spoke up as she approached. “Heading out, Generals?” she asked.
“We are, your Highness,” Bletcher answered. “The wars of the Emperor call.”
“Very well. Good hunting, gentlemen,” she said as she walked past.
“Thanks for having us, your Highness,” Mustafa said after her.
Arriving at the lifts, Freya descended into the depths of the fortress, letting a tremor of excitement work its way through her belly. The afternoon’s terrors would be made up for, she was sure.
As she arrived outside the massive wooden doors, she paused and settled her nerves. The scents and sounds from the Hall were overwhelming, and she felt her blood pump a bit faster as the senses of belonging and desire alike filled her. “Here we go…” she said softly.
An exiting skjald spotted her and held the door for her as she approached. “Princess, the Brothers await you at the head table,” he said respectfully as she passed.
She nodded her thanks and entered. As the door swung shut behind her, she hesitated, taking it in.
Not a thing had changed since that morning, of course, save the room’s occupants. Where before there had been almost no men in the colossal room, now it was a sea of light blue armor and robes. The hundreds upon hundreds of massive tables were ringed with tens of thousands of Wolf Brothers, and she knew from experience that the room wasn’t even large enough to seat a tenth of the Legion.
A few heads turned as her scent mingled with those of the room’s other occupants. She had emerged halfway down one of the massive room’s sides, with the Head Table at the left extreme and a raised – currently open – podium large enough for ten to stand upon it at the other. The nearest table of brothers rose and called their greetings as they recognized her. She waved happily as she walked down to the Head Table, where Bjorn was already awaiting her, along with Konnar and a few others. Every table she passed bade her pause and tell her tales, and she refused with her eyes leaking tears of joy at every step. The sense of belonging that had been building in her since she had arrived in-system was pushing aside all else, until it broke free as she passed a table full of her father’s warriors.
She hesitated as she passed, allowing them to approach, some with nothing more than sly or happy grins, others asking questions, others yet allowing their appearances and senses do the talking. As she sniffled back more tears as they did, shaking many proffered hands. “Thanks, guys,” she said softly.
Freya left them behind and reached the Head Table, taking a seat at the left hand of the empty throne where her father would have sat. The seat at the right was also vacant, since it would have been filled by her mother. Bjorn, sitting to her own left, rested a hand on her back in silent support, a tiny smile breaking his scarred visage. “Feel good to be home, lass?” he asked under his breath.
Freya bit back a happy sob. “You have no idea,” she said through her joy.
The room gradually fell silent as Konnar rose. “Brothers!” he called. “Hear me.”
The Wolf Brothers halted their joking and talking as Konnar spoke. “Heed now. Even as our pack roams the stars and brings the greenskin low, we are made stronger once more, as our Sister returns. Make her feel welcome!” he proclaimed.
An ululating and throaty cry of welcome tore from every corner as the assembled Space Marines welcomed their little sister home once more. Freya looked down to hide her tears, thought better of it, and rose to her feet, allowing the full sound to reach her. She beamed from ear to ear at the tables of her pack calling their greeting to her.
As she sat back down, Konnar waved for silence. “As I am sure you all know, we are called upon once more by the All Father on Terra to bring his enemies to their knees. And so we shall! Even know, nine of our thirteen Great Companies ply the stars and root the enemy out from their holds. When they return, with new tales to tell and scars to show, as the Imperium grows ever more secure, let us now hold them in our memories, for not all shall return to us.” Konnar allowed a glint of cerulean light to play though his eyes as he closed them, bowing his head in silent memory of those who had left, and those who would not return.
The room fell silent as the men did as they were bade. Freya dipped her head over the bare table as she joined her brothers in prayer.
Dining With Wolves
After a moment, Konnar spoke again. “Dignitaries from Terra, Nocturne, Inwit, a Rogue Trader Fleet, the Imperial Army, and more besides have visited us over the last few days, as guests or allies or both. Some have gone, some will join us for a supper tonight, and either way remember them well. Show them our hospitality, as we are all kin beneath the Emperor’s just hand. And brothers, as new dispatch orders from Terra arrive, and reinforcements come from Terra or our own camps, remember always our mission and name.” His Juvjk words grew harsh. “For the Emperor and Mankind, we are the Wolves of Fenris.”
“Vlka Fenryka!” the crowd proclaimed, to muted applause.
Bjorn leaned over to where Freya was listening enrapt. “Little Pup, go get your friends, this is the perfect time for them to join us.”
“Yes, Eldest,” Freya whispered, wiping her tears away.
She rose and discreetly made her way back to the door, cracking it open. Alex and the others were standing there, all looking a bit unnerved by the animal roars and foreign words they had heard chanted from the other side.
“Come on in,” Freya whispered. “The prayer’s done,” she said.
“All right,” Remilia answered for them, leading the others into the room. A few heads turned and nodded polite respect to them as they passed, heading up to the table at the head of the room. Konnar had retaken his seat, awaiting the rows and rows of skjalds and servitors that were now bearing food up to the head of the table. As per the tradition of the Fang, the Wolf Lords were granted their food last, but had the largest portions. With so much of the Fang empty, it wouldn’t take long for their own food to arrive.
The teens took their seats at the end of the table, which had been left open for them, as Freya sat back down next to Bjorn. Redwind, who had elected to remain until his ship departed the next morning, nodded politely at them as they sat. “Hello again, friends,” he said in Gothic.
“Hello, your Lordship,” Alex replied. “Good to see you.”
“How was your trip this afternoon?” Redwind asked.
“Well, we were attacked by krakenspawn,” Alex said.
Redwind raised one eyebrow. “Oh? That’s always good exercise,” he said.
Alex stared at him. “For a Space Marine, maybe!” he said.
Redwind conceded the point. “Fair enough.”
Alex shook his head and fell silent. Down the table, Freya winced, but kept her lips sealed.
Bjorn leaned back from the table as the servitors deposited the food before them. “Freya, have you given thought to staying on Fenris after your future education has ended?” he asked.
Freya nodded. “I think it would be worthwhile, Eldest Bjorn. I really do think so. But I confess…I don’t know what I would do here. I could never keep up with you or any of the other Wolf Brothers in battle. And if I can’t fight with you, what would I do?” she asked. She lifted her leg of grox and tore off a chunk with her teeth.
“A reasonable question, Freya, but you will always be this system’s Blood Princess,” Bjorn said. “Perhaps you could administrate or even train at one of our Aspirant camps.”
Freya nodded. “Possible.” She paused to swig at her drink, noting the others’ eating with a hidden grin.
Remilia at least seemed comfortable eating with her hands, and Venus seemed to be ignoring the sounds and sights of the rest of the room, but Alex and Jake were both looking a bit stunned at the size of the portions they had received, and were much more hesitant. A Long Fang at Remilia’s side was also barraging her with questions.
“I would, if I were asked, but I honestly don’t think that politics are my future,” Remilia said. She glanced over her plate to answer the Long Fang’s question about her own post-college plans. “And besides, I think I’d play more to a business future. You know? Rulership isn’t really my thing.”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Lady Remilia,” the Wolf said. “I’m sure the Dorn family is as strong in guiding political tides as they are behind the stock of an Assault Cannon.”
“You’re too kind,” Remilia said. She searched for an easier topic. “Do you know what the Astropathic turnaround is for this planet from Terra?” she asked.
“It varies hugely on the tides of the Warp. A day? A year? It’s nearly random,” the Fang said. “The average time is a few days. The tides are cooperative right now, though. Two days, I would say,” he added.
Remilia nodded. “Good. I’m awaiting a message from home.”
Alex, meanwhile, was fielding a few questions of his own. The Wolf at his side, a member of Redwind’s inner circle perhaps, was politely interrogating him about his relationship with Freya. “An athletic meet at your school?” the Wolf asked.
“Yes,” Alex said, cutting into his dinner. “I’d sort of known her before, but that was when I asked her out.”
“What does that mean?” the Wolf asked.
Alex blinked. “What? Asking her out?” The Wolf nodded. “Er…it’s going with them somewhere in a romantic context, I guess,” Alex fumbled. Did they not have courtship on Fenris?
Freya sensed the rising awkwardness from that end of the table and cringed internally, but there was precious little she could do at that point. Perhaps fortuitously, Lord Redwind spoke up at that point. “Lord Carlin, do tell. How exactly do schools work on Terra? I understand you and our little sister met there,” he said.
The rugby player nodded. “Well, it used to be more varied, but it’s pretty standardized now. There’s twelve or thirteen standard grades of mandatory schooling, then you can go and get a degree if you can afford it – many can’t.”
“I see.” Redwind polished off his food. “And that’s where Sister Freya is going to be for the next few years?” he asked.
“Yes, she and I are going to attend a Terran college together for a while,” Alex supplied.
Redwind hesitated for an instant, his eyes darting over to where Freya was happily munching away on her own food and speaking to Bjorn. Alex noticed, but suddenly, he didn’t feel like explaining his relationship to yet another person, especially since its endpoint was still nebulous. He turned his own eyes back to his food and resumed eating.
As the meal ended, the five travelers stayed in their seats after a subtle gesture from Freya. The tables below were getting rowdier as the Wolves took to the evening’s drink, and a few tuneless songs began from some of the long wooden benches. To the surprise of the non-Fenrisians, the assembly broke up gradually, rather than all at once. Some of the Wolf Brothers took off as soon as they were done, leaving their dishes behind and nearly racing for the doors, while others lingered, telling stories, drinking, or doing something else. As Bjorn rose, however, many of the Brothers below paused and climbed to their feet in respect. When Bjorn walked out, returning to his own quarters, the room resumed its air, and the tone of conversation grew much louder.
Venus shot a glance Freya’s way, and Freya nodded, rising as well. When she stood, the reaction was greatly different, with many of the Brothers actually pausing to call out something or other in Juvjk as she passed. She acknowledged the hails with cheerful waves and toothy smiles as the others filtered out behind her.
Once safely in the halls, Freya let out a breath. “Man, I missed that,” she said.
Remilia spoke up. “I can see why. It must be great to be back, huh?”
“You bet,” Freya said. She spun on her booted heel to beam ecstatically at the others, and somehow didn’t notice their varying levels of disquiet. “So, what did you guys think?” she asked.
“I think your brothers can probably still hear us,” Venus said under her breath. Freya nodded and lead them down the halls to the lifts.
“To answer your question, that was pretty intimidating,” Jake said.
Freya nodded. “I understand.” She looked back at them, to see Jake avoiding her gaze. “Are you all right, though?” she asked, surprised.
Jake nodded. “Yeah, that was just really overwhelming, you know? So loud…and a room with several thousand Astartes in it, too.”
Venus tilted her head. “Pretty much all anyone asked was what Terra was like. How about you guys?”
“Everyone just asked me about my relationship with Freya,” Alex said. “I mean, I understand why, but…” he trailed off.
Freya turned away, disappointed. “Okay. Well, we won’t do it again,” she said.
Remilia and Venus both winced at the suddenly morose tone of her voice. “Look, Freya, don’t take it personally,” Jake hastened to say. “I’m a bit shaken by the kraken. And it’s just a little off-putting being around that many Space Marines at once. Shit, I never even saw one until four years ago.”
“Yeah, I know.” Freya sighed. “I think I’ve just been sort of…operating under the assumption that there was a way I could make you guys comfortable here, that’s all.”
“I’m sure we can, I just don’t think communal meals are going to happen,” Jake said. He grimaced. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel bad. I just wasn’t ready for that.”
Freya shifted her shoulders, thinking. “All right.” The lift carried them up to the level where they were staying. As they moved down the hall, Freya lagged behind the others. She paused as they reached their rooms. “Look, guys, I’m not gonna figure this out on my own. What can I do to make this more interesting for you all?” she asked, point-blank.
The others exchanged looks. Remilia spoke up. “Frankly, Freya, the best time I’ve had yet here was when were out climbing. Is there any other place we could go like that?”
“A few, maybe. We could try out on the mountains a bit, but…” Freya sighed again. “That’s pretty dangerous. The Ice Fiends live out there.”
“That sounds like a great name for a rugby team,” Jake commented.
Alex blinked. “It…it DOES.”
“So you guys aren’t mad?” Freya asked.
Venus waved her off. “’Course not.” Remilia shook her head as Jake opened his door.
“Yeah, it was just a little much to see the Wolves like that,” he said.
Freya nodded, eyes downturned. “Okay.”
Venus thought for a moment before following Jake into their room. “Hey, Freya, is there a separate kitchen for this level?” she asked.
“A kitchen? Uh, no, the skjalds cook for the entire fortress from the levels between here and the hammerhold,” Freya said.
“Hammerhold?” Venus asked.
Freya explained. “It’s like an armory. The Iron Priests are quartered there.”
Venus grinned. “Cool. Can I check it out tomorrow?” she asked.
Freya thought for a moment. “Sure, that would probably be okay,” she decided.
“All right, I’ll do that,” Venus said. Remilia walked into her own room as Venus ducked into hers to change.
Planning and Coordination
Freya sat down on her bed and stared at her feet as Alex went about changing his own clothes. As he undressed, she shucked the thermo shirt she had worn, her knuckles white on the plastic and metal weave, with her eyes locked downward. Alex noticed. She was either sad or angry, and he couldn’t tell which yet. “Are you in for poker tonight?” he asked, knowing full well that she could tell his casualness was forced.
Apparently, she was in no mood for games. “This isn’t working, is it?” she asked sullenly.
“I mean it! You guys nearly get eaten at lunch and you’re scared of the people you’re having dinner with!” Freya said angrily. She glanced back at him as she rose from the bed to pull a different shirt on. “I mean, the Fang is huge, there’s tons of places to show you in here, but outside?” she grumped. “Nothing. Nothing safe.”
“The rock-climbing was safe,” Alex pointed out.
“I guess.” She sighed again, sliding a thick cotton shirt on. “All right. Venus is going to check out the hammerhold tomorrow…I told you about that, right? What do you want to do?”
“Well, I was wondering if we could go see that cave you mentioned before,” Alex said. “Outside that village place.”
“Oh.” Freya thought for a moment. “That actually sounds pretty cool…but if there were people there we’d have to bail.”
“Why? Nobody here knows who you are,” Alex said. He looked sharply over to her. “Unless you identified yourself to someone there?”
Red strands waved as Freya awkwardly rolled her shoulders. “Kind of? I mean, they don’t know I’m King Russ’ daughter, but I may have let on to a few people that I’m not human.”
Alex looked away. “That’s bad.”
“I doubt they’d be there, though,” Freya assured him. “We can check it out if you want.”
“Okay. Remilia and Jake can come too, right?” he asked.
“We all can,” Freya said. “If there’s someone inside we can just keep flying and go explore the mountains a bit.”
Alex nodded. “Great.” He paused as Freya moved to the door to rejoin the others. He slid an arm around her waist and held her still for a moment. “Feel better?” he asked.
“Yeah, I do.” Freya looked back at him over her shoulder, the germ of an idea forming. “All right. Let’s go.”