Scott Clements lives in Windsor Ontario, where he spends most of his days teaching elementary students in a virtual setting. During the evenings, he enjoys spending time with his two daughters playing video games, building puzzles or binging whatever they tell him is 'trending'. On quiet nights, he spends his time working on his next novel, longing, as we all do, for a return to normalcy, when he can freely spend time with family and friends. Mr.C, as his students call him, hopes all of you remain safe and prosperous, and he thanks you for your support.
A Fool’s Lament
Called by some the wisest man in the world, Vainamoinen Kaleva was at least wise enough to know he was a coward, had made a coward’s mistake.
The burden of the wizard’s shame was like the weight of the night sky and all the stars. But he had never been one to suffer mistakes, and perhaps, if the fates smiled on him and the gods were kind, he would no longer suffer this one.
Too late, he had seen. Had known he would be. She would not have howled so, had he lived. An arrow in the neck, crimson fletched, like the red-black blood that soaked the loamy forest floor.
She had turned to him then, the largest wolf he had ever seen, regarded him with thunderhead eyes.
‘I came,’ he said, ‘with the cry.’
The enormous wolf tilted her head, storm-cloud gaze falling. Staring at the body of her lifeless mate, she said softly, ‘If only I were human, then might I visit the witch’s pool.’
‘The witch’s pool?’ he said.
‘Yes. Baba Jaga’s pool.’
‘Why, mighty wolf, would you visit Bony Legs’ pool? Please, tell me.’
‘I would visit her pool to retrieve its water.’
‘And why, mighty wolf, would you seek its water? What power does this water have?’
The great wolf paused, judged; spoke at last, quietly. ‘Know you not, great wizard? The witch’s water can raise the dead.’
He was silent then, as wind and salvation whispered through the trees.
‘Might I sing for him?’ he asked into the silence, his perfect voice feather-soft. ‘A final song for sorrow, for grief? Might I sing for him, mighty wolf?’
‘I think I should like that, great wizard.’
The memory was a mantra that even the predatory wind could not flay. Vainamoinen’s face and hands ached at the wind’s frigid touch, and before him his harsh, white breath streamed into the night. The only sounds that reached him through the surrounding gloom were the creak and groan of the skeletal trees that swayed all around him, and the moaning wind.
It had only been days before that he had spoken to the wolf, learned of the water, and with each step that brought him closer to it, closer to the witch, the weather worsened and the shadows darkened.
Had he ever been this cold when he was young? Vainamoinen shook his head and hitched his cloak. The effort was futile, served only to send bits of snow and ice cascading down his back and chest. He closed his eyes and suppressed a shiver. High above, the argent moon looked down on him. Kuu she was called, Mother Night and Protector of the Stars.
Beneath Kuu’s hoary, uncaring gaze, Vainamoinen the Wise, the Steadfast, son of a goddess whose might and majesty had always and ever been the source of his power, sat atop his warhorse, aged eyes narrowed. With the resigned silence of a man who knew his destiny and feared it, Vainamoinen peered through the wind-driven snow and spindly branches, strained to see the terrifying hut, the witch’s hut, nestled quietly in the center of the clearing just beyond the last of the dead trees.
“Easy, my friend,” Vainamoinen whispered over the wind, close to the courser’s drawn back ears. Tursas had been with him when he journeyed to Pohjola to steal back the magical Sampo from his most wicked enemy, Louhi, Sorceress of the North, when he slew the Great Fish and fashioned from its mighty jaws his kantele. Tursas had been with him when he left the world of men in search of Tuonela, the Land of the Dead. Vainamoinen knew well it was not the beast’s own fear that unsteadied its hoofed feet.
“It is well,” Vainamoinen whispered, his voice soothing, “let not an old man’s fear make you doubt.” Beneath him, like so many times before, Tursas grew still. “Ah, my brave, brave friend. One more time, into evil’s heart we journey. Shall you carry me still?”
And Tursas did carry him. Through biting wind and blowing snow, through midnight shadows and the lonely night, Tursas carried him beyond the last of the skeleton trees and into the clearing. That he might, at last, right a great wrong, and retrieve the Water of Life from the most terrible witch of all.
Nestled inside her stone mortar, fully at home among the frozen, shadowy recesses of the primeval forest, she watched him. Unnoticed, the wicked wind ripped at her tattered shawl, tore at the tufts of her stringy grey hair. In one knotted hand was her broom, hardly thinner than the emaciated arm that held it, a few bits of yellow straw clinging desperately to its end. In the other was her stone pestle. Her carrion, rheumy gaze split the darkness like a dagger, cut through the wailing snow, the whipping, frenzied wind.
Fixed on the invader in her forest.
She had known he was coming, had been warned. The shadows spoke often; one had only to listen. They told her of this man, whispered tales of his deeds, his courage. They feared him, she knew. All the powers of the Dark feared this man.
A mistake had brought him to her, a tragedy that the forest sang. But he would not suffer that mistake. What pride and desperation had sundered, his power and determination would mend. In the stories she heard, it was always so.
From the midnight shadows of her forest, Baba Jaga Kostianaya Noga, called ‘Bony Legs’, cackled with glee. With a whispered word, her impossible mortar, as much her home as her hut, carried her whisper-silent across the snow-covered ground, her broom trailing behind, improbably, impossibly, obscuring her tracks. Tracks that would have led any foolish enough to follow them toward her hut, where she would greet her guest.
Perched atop a demon’s leg, nestled behind a picket fence of human bone, the hut was the most terrifying thing Vainamoinen had ever seen. He had heard tales, of course, stories about the hut and its abominable single leg. He had thought the stories preposterous. Even if true, how could one fear something so…ridiculous?
Now he understood. It was the bizarreness, the absolute wrongfulness of the place. He felt small of a sudden, fragile in the face of so much malevolence. In the freezing wind it swayed gently, like a rotting flower. The wooden planks that formed the hut’s sides were split and cracked, the single, obscene leg that held it off the ground was thin and scaled and clawed, clenched the earth with a strangling hold. Above, the henna shingles of the wood-slatted roof were pitted and broken. A pair of black swans rested there, huge, shadows among the shadows. They turned their long, serpentine necks and fixed him with unblinking eyes.
Before the hut, the sepulchral fence creaked and swayed. The hollow-eyed skulls that topped the fence stared at him, screamed silent warnings. The gate, too, was made of bone, the lock a sharp-toothed mouth, the bolt a single, skeletal hand. A black cat sat silently before the monstrous gate, licking a chilled paw.
Here is the source of so much myth, Vainamoinen thought. Here is the Archetype, beside which so much pales. Stories of the witch were as numberless as the flakes of snow that fell from the sky. In some, she was a greedy hag who lured children to her hut and devoured them. In others, she was the First Witch, from whom all others came. In still others, Baba Jaga was manifest Fate, controlling the destinies of men by churning her roiling cauldron. While her ultimate nature remained shrouded in legend, one thing remained true across all the stories—she always demanded a price.
At Vainamoinen’s approach, the cat turned and stood before it stalked away into the shadows.
As he drew nearer the hut, the moon’s stark light seemed less than it had been, the shadows deeper, colder. In answer to the deepening dark, Vainamoinen reached over his shoulder and drew forth his kantele. Laying the ancient harp in his lap, he plucked the strings.
Life forbidden, where Death and Entropy are all.
He began to sing.
She watched him enter the clearing, watched him pause.
Smelled his fear.
Amid the silence of the clearing the swans waited, and the cat. The fence and the hut waited as well. Waited for her. She felt their impatience, sensed their fear. Fear of this man, this bane of the Dark, who had found them at last. At her silent command, her stone mortar carried her closer. He was tall, proud. His breath poured out from the depths of a beard that poured down the front of his red cloak, a cloak pulled low over eyes she still could not see. Eyes, the shadows told her, that contained all the knowledge in the world.
Nearer now, to the edge of the clearing. Even the beast could not sense her, not here, in this place. The steed, Tursas, would feed her own beasts for days. While the wizard, the wizard would be hers.
With a smile that split her pockmarked face, she shifted closer, readied herself.
Saw him reach around, draw forth his instrument. Then Baba Jaga Kostianaya Noga, the Dancer on the Gravestones, heard the wizard sing. And she understood at last why this man was so terribly feared by the Dark.
In a voice unmatched in all the long history of the Earth, Vainamoinen the Wise sang of Light. Bright, keening words fell from the air like shafts of golden sunlight and the earth shifted beneath him. Far into the woods the ancient trees trembled. Enraged, the wind rose in answer, sought to flay the wizard’s song with ice and snow and cast it away forever. But its insufferable moaning was drowned beneath the brilliant, scintillant notes.
Within the haunted clearing the shadows twisted and writhed like a man in pain, began to wither and ebb. And the moon’s light shone brightly down.
Beneath the harsh, argent light, above the soaring glory of the words, the tormented hut screamed, spun round and round on its hideous, malformed leg until the swans were cast from its roof, taking to the skies where they faded as the other shadows faded.
The bone fence too, suffered. Moaning, quaking, its ivory jaws clattered as the empty eyes of the dead flashed incarnadine, a thousand wretched souls fighting the wizard’s words of Light.
And then he stopped. Before him, Vainamoinen’s ragged breath escaped into the night where it was seized and rent by the impotent wind. Staring at the quivering hut, the trembling, quavering fence, Vainamoinen said quietly, “Shall I sing your hut to pieces, Baba Jaga Bony Legs? And your fence? Shall I rend every shadow cast by every tree in this forest? Or shall you come to me, now?”
“Turn wizard,” Baba Jaga said, “I am here. I am always here.”
Vainamoinen turned, and for the first time in their long, long lives, the steely eyes of the wizard, met the unrelenting gaze of the witch.
They were of a height, he atop his steed of war, she nestled within the confines of her impossible mortar. Gangly and gnarled, the witch resembled a dead tree, or a spider. For a moment they stood thus, frozen. Then Baba Jaga’s carrion gaze shifted, ever so slightly.
And Tursas reared.
Caught unawares, Vainamoinen was thrown from the maddened beast, cast from its broad back as the swans were cast from the hut. He landed hard on the frozen earth, stunned. Through the heaving gasps of his white breath, the blinding pain in his arm and leg, he watched Tursas flee the clearing, rush headlong into the night.
All about him the shadows grew, stretched forth spindly fingers.
Stretching out fingers of his own, Vainamoinen sought his kantele.
Found frozen earth and snow.
Confused, he glanced to his side. The harp was not there.
“There, wizard,” cackled Baba Jaga, “your instrument, it is there!” Pointing with her stony pestle, Baba Jaga indicated a place far removed from where Vainamoinen lay. Around the wondrous instrument the black cat skulked, its amber eyes boring into Vainamoinen.
“What shall you do now, I wonder?” Baba Jaga said, her mortar gliding forward over the frozen earth. “Bereft of his songs, what shall the word-mage do?”
Vainamoinen stared up at the ancient, smiling hag. In her right hand she held her stone pestle, and in her left, her broom. The stringy tufts of her hair billowed around her wretched face like a nest of adders. Her nose, long and thin, curled under like the beak of some foul bird of prey. But it was the witch’s teeth that gave him pause. Long, sharp, the teeth of a carnivore, yellow and black stained. Vainamoinen had long heard the tales of Bony Legs’ terrible appetites, heard the tales of the oven, forever hot, which awaited unwary visitors in her hut.
Though he was a visitor, he was, by no means, unwary. Nor was the kantele his only weapon.
Rolling quickly to his side, Vainamoinen smoothly freed his sword, Kantelvala, from its sheath hidden among the folds of his red and black cloak. The old man’s breath came more rapidly than he would have wished and his voice, when he spoke, was not so firm as he would have liked.
“I’ve no wish to fight you, Crone,” he said, struggling to control his breath. “I’ve come only to make a request, nothing more. Will you hear me?”
“A request? Foo, what could the great wizard possibly want of Baba Jaga?”
“I seek the Water of Life, to undo a great wrong. Allow me this, and you shall see me nevermore.”
Behind Vainamoinen the skulls chattered.
“Foo, shall that be all you offer?”
“What more would you have?”
“I would have you speak of the great wrong, the terrible deed that brought you to me. The night is eager for the tale.”
A pause. “And if I do this, if I tell you, you shall allow me the Water? On your word?”
“I shall consider it, word-mage, seek no more of me than that!”
For a moment Vainamoinen, too, considered. Then, over the bitter wind and blowing snow, sword leveled, eyes unflinchingly on the witch, he began his tale.
“It was the winter past. I traveled to my homeland of Wainola, having finished work on a ship I’d been fashioning. Tursas pulled my sleigh across the snow-topped heath when we came upon a bridge. Just as we began to cross, a second sled, also pulled by a single horse, stopped on the far side. A voice called out: ‘I am Joukahainen of Lapland, come seeking the sage of the North.’
‘I am he,’ I answered. ‘For what reason do you seek me out?’
‘I am the mightiest wizard in the world!’ Joukahainen declared, ‘yet, wherever I go, I hear your tales recounted! Though my great deeds far outweigh your own, though my power is without peer, still can I not escape your name. So, I am come this day to enchant you, to sing you down into the snow and ice forever, that I might at last be free of your long shadow.’
‘Sing what you know,’ I said, in answer to his challenge.
“Joukahainen began to chant then, into the wind, composing a song to show that he possessed a wizard’s understanding of the world. But the black-bearded youth, so arrogant and young, sang of nothing, surfaces and common places.
‘Sing of deeper things,’ I challenged, ‘show me your knowledge.’
“The boy’s voice grew louder in anger. He said that he himself plowed the seas, raised the sky. His hand it was that flung the infinite stars into the night.”
Vainamoinen shook his head at the memory. “Such arrogance. ‘You lie,’ I said.
“Joukahainen bridled at the rebuke. ‘If I cannot battle you with words, let our swords decide who is the mightier!’
‘No,’ I answered. ‘Go back to your land; learn and grow. You are unworthy.’
“Ach,” Baba Jaga said, “a terrible thing to tell a boy.”
Vainamoinen had trouble meeting the witch’s gaze. “Indeed,” he said. “At my words, the boy grew angrier still. ‘If you will not fight, I shall sing you into a swine, into a filthy, grumbling, muck-dwelling swine!’
Baba Jaga laughed. “Foo, foo! The boy has spirit! Mightily must you have bridled at these words!”
For a moment, Vainamoinen closed his eyes, lost in memory. “Yes,” he said quietly, shamefully. “At this last, I finally grew angry. Drawing forth my kantele I threw back my head and began to sing.” Sensing his diminished spirit, his weakening will, the wind, no longer so impotent, slipped curling fingers down his neck, and all around him the shadows encroached. “It was…a powerful song. As I sang the boy cried out, ‘Enough! I yield!’ But in my own arrogance, I did not heed his words. I sang him down into the frozen earth.”
“Ho!” Baba Jaga cackled, “the Wizard of Light! Ho, ho!”
“Down the boy sank. First his feet, then his knees; past his waist and chest. Only when the frozen earth lapped at his bearded chin did I heed his cries. ‘Mighty sage, reverse the charm and spare my life. Pray you, let me pay ransom!’
‘And what will you give me, boy, in exchange of your life?’
“Gold and boats, stallions and land, all these things, he offered me. ‘I’ve all that, and more,’ I cried, and once again the boy began to sink.
‘My sister, great wizard, I pledge to you the life and hand of my sister, Aino.’
Vainamoinen hung his head, whispered: “And it was done.”
“So, the mighty wizard, fearing age and loneliness, took from the youth the only thing he himself did not possess: a young life.” Baba Jaga’s laughter split the night like a streak of gangrenous lightning. “Shall the world stop spinning, I wonder, to hear of your evil?”
He ignored the taunt, like he ignored the barbarous wind; both were his due. “You are correct, witch,” he said. “I accepted Joukahainen’s offer and freed him from his doom. Then I left with him, that I might claim my prize.”
“Blind, arrogant fool,” Baba Jaga said. “Did you never once think of the girl?”
The weight of his shame threatened to pull him down into the cold earth. “No,” he said, “I did not. When we arrived at Joukahainen’s home in Lapland, he took me to his sister and told her of our deal. She cried and raged at the unfairness of it all. I swore kindness to her, promised to care for and protect her, but she would have none of it.”
Vainamoinen shook his head and raised his eyes, stared hard at the witch. He would not turn from this. The burden was his to claim, and he would not shrink from it. “She was in love, you see,” he said, his voice hard as old ice, “with another, though I knew it not at the time. Before I could speak more, she ran from the house, mounted a steed, and fled into the woods. For hours the boy and I searched for her. We found her at last, at the bottom of a river, a large rock tied about her left foot.”
“Ach. Knowing that if she refused you she dishonored her brother, she knew as well that if she did agree, she dishonored her true love. Foo! What choice save death? And now you seek my Water to return her to the world she was so unjustly released from, that you might ease your own torment. How truly noble, foo-foo! But I wonder, wizard: will she want your help?”
Vainamoinen stared at the hag. “The Water, Bony Legs. I have upheld our bargain, I have told you my tale. May I use your water?”
Baba Jaga’s eyes did not leave Vainamoinen’s. “You have spun a good tale wizard, but one thing more will I have of you, before I allow you to visit my beautiful pool.”
Vainamoinen flinched at the words, his sword at the ready.
“You shall compose for me a song of your deed that I might sing it each night. A reminder to the world, forever, that there is darkness, even in light. That is my price, sorcerer. Pay it, or die.”
The wind and wolves howled through the trees. Behind Vainamoinen, the skulls chattered incessantly, eyes aglow.
Vainamoinen trembled with rage, his sword point quivered. But he had learned his lesson, pushed his rage, his pride, aside. For Aino. This time.
“Very well, Crone,” he said at last, “I agree to your price. A song, for the Water.” Slowly, Vainamoinen lowered his sword. He took a step toward his kantele, lying on the frozen ground.
“Ach,” the witch said, “you’ll not need that to sing.”
Vainamoinen turned. “As you wish.” He raised his voice and began to sing.
Under the stars and the uncaring moon, over the driving wind and the whipping snow, Vainamoinen the Wise, hero of his people, sang of his shame. His words shaped a sadness in the night, a soul-wrenching grief. They carried far and high, deep into the heart of shadow and beyond. The words were a catharsis, a cleansing, offered to the night openly. They were a gift, bestowed by a tormented heart upon the shadows that mocked him.
When he was through, when his song was ended, the shadows were silent.
Baba Jaga stared at him. “It was well done, old man,” she said.
Vainamoinen looked up to meet her gaze. “It is not yet done.”
One more time, Vainamoinen raised his perfect voice. The words were different this time, the cadence altered. Of origins did he sing, of beginnings, of the birth of earth and stone. Before the wizard’s words, Baba Jaga reeled. In her hand, her pestle, so ancient and strong, split wide down the center before changing into dust that was carried away by a startled, panicked wind. Baba Jaga cried out, sought a spell that would destroy the wizard where he stood.
Was too late. Below her waist, her mortar cracked with the sound of the world breaking. The witch screamed, the terrible, nightmare sound echoed by fence and hut. An instant later, the stone of the mortar, hewn from the rock of Golgotha so very far away, shattered into a million pieces. And Baba Jaga Kostianaya Noga, the Dancer on the Gravestones, tumbled from her lofty height to land upon the frozen ground like a broken thing.
As the witch fell, the fence of bones collapsed, reduced to a heap of ivory, then to dust and at last, to nothing at all. Beyond the fence, the single leg that held the hut began to wither. With a sharp crack, the leg snapped, the weight of the hut suddenly too great. With a terrific crash the baneful shack settled, for the first time, upon cold earth.
Casting his hooded gaze about the clearing, silence as thick as the muffling snow, Vainamoinen quietly approached his kantele.
“Shall I sing for you as well, precious?”
The black cat, hackles raised, claws extended, met the adamantine eyes of the sorcerer, then bolted into the shadows. Stooping to recover his instrument, Vainamoinen turned to the witch. She lay upon the cold ground, arms twisted and bent, unable to rise. Her legs were gnarled, knobbed. Tufts of cadaverous flesh clung to them in places, but those diseased limbs could never support even her spindly form. They were the reason for the mortar. As he approached her prone, pitiable form, Vainamoinen felt nothing. For centuries, Baba Jaga had gorged herself on the life’s blood of the innocent, had devoured the souls of the pure. And now, at last, she had been made to answer for her crimes.
As he drew near, Baba Jaga shifted her head, peered at him through rheumy eyes.
“I shall take my Water now, Crone,” Vainamoinen said, “and leave you with my song. Sing it through the long nights, let the shadows rejoice in its telling. But know this: I’ll not flee the darkness, ever. Even if that darkness is my own.”
On the ground before him, the witch muttered words he could not hear. A moment later, from out of the night, the swans came. Gracefully, they swept down, and with the very last of her strength, Baba Jaga Kostianaya Noga clung to their sable necks. As one then, the swans took to the air and hovered in the clearing.
“Foo, I’ll remember, wizard,” she promised, looking down on him from between the swans. “The Water is yours. A bargain struck is a bargain kept. And know, foo, that I will sing your song, for as long as light casts shadow. We will meet again, Vainamoinen Kaleva, foo, foo! I shall wait for you in the night.”
And carried by her swans, cackling through the sky, Baba Jaga rose, higher, higher.
“The pool, Crone,” Vainamoinen shouted, “where is the pool?”
From out of the darkness Baba Jaga cried, “It is in the hut, of course, foolish man!” And Baba Jaga, her fell laughter ringing through the night, was gone.
“No. No!” Panicked, Vainamoinen stumble-ran to the teetering hut. Hurtling across the threshold where the bone fence once stood, he reached the door. Creaking, dangling, held in place by a single hinge, he gripped the iron handle and pulled. The door came free in his grasp. Casting it aside, the wizard stepped inside. Frantically, he cast his gaze about. Inside, a small table still stood, across from a huge, cold brick oven. A putrid stench permeated the wood of the hut. Broken jars and smashed vials littered the cracked and rotted floor. Everywhere collapsed shelves and cupboards lay strewn in broken piles.
“What have I done?” Feverishly, the great sorcerer scanned the wreckage called down by his song. Then he saw it, at the very back of the small, crumbling shack; a round basin.
“No,” he said, spying the thin crack that ran from the basin’s lip to the floor. In his haste to reach the pool, Vainamoinen stumbled. Pain lanced up his arm from his hand. A broken bottle on the floor, blood welling from a terrible wound. Ignoring the pain, on hands and knees, the mightiest wizard in the world crawled. As he drew nearer, the precious Water pooled on the floor beneath the stony vessel, seeped through the crack, blood from a wound far more terrible than his own.
“Please,” Vainamoinen pleaded to the unheeding night, “not like this, not like this.” Vainamoinen rose, looked in the basin.
His heart threatened to burst with relief.
“Ah.” Reaching beneath his cloak, his aged hands trembling, he pulled free a small, glass vial. Dipping the translucent spout into the water he filled it, slowly, taking care not to spill any more of the precious liquid pooled at the bottom of the basin. Capping the flask, placing it deep inside his robe, well away from his own water, he stood.
Life forbidden, where Death and Entropy are all.
“I am coming, Aino,” he whispered. “At last, I am coming.”
Gathering his kantele, Vainamoinen plucked at the strings. A moment later, Tursas thundered out of the woods.
Trembling, the mighty beast of war shied from the wizard’s gentle touch.
“Oh, my great, great friend. Come to me.”
Reluctantly, shamefully, Tursas lowered his frothing head. Vainamoinen hugged the huge horse, held it until its fear was past. “She was a terrible foe, Tursas, but she has gone now, and we’ve work left unfinished. Shall we ride together, you and I, one more time into legend?”
Tursas reared tall, his answer ringing through the forest.
Vainamoinen laughed. With more difficulty than he would have liked, his arm and leg still aching from his fall, he climbed atop Tursas’s back. “Outside Juskazero we shall find what we need.” Carefully, Vainamoinen reached one hand into a deep pocket inside his cloak. Withdrawing the sprig of withe, he nodded, then a jerk of the reins and they were off.
To find a dead man who would lead them into the Land of Eternal Shadow.
In silence, from the darkness, the wolf watched all.
The sound of the cart bursting forward as the horse bolted drowned out the taut snap of the rope.
When the horse came to rest, the hanged man’s gurgled cries were prominent among the silence. Twitching, convulsing, arms wrenching to be free of the cord that secured them behind his back, the dying man dangled from the broad branch of the long-dead birch, his body silhouetted against the setting sun.
The last of the man’s ragged breath poured out into the chill air, and goose flesh crawl along his naked body. The man’s eyes bulged in death the way they never could have in life, the blood from the visceral brand on his forehead—the murderer’s mark—pooled in them, fell from his quavering lip to the icy ground below.
A cheer went up from the dozen or so witnesses when the man’s bowels released. A moment later the twitching stopped, and the breath.
From the shadows, Vainamoinen sighed. “Now,” he said to Tursas, “we wait.”
They did not wait long. It was nearing twilight and Vainamoinen knew even a crowd of armed men would tempt fate only so long. To those who listened to such things, twilight was said to be an in-between time, indefinable and fey. Some said at twilight the dead walked the woods and the warriors of the Tuatha roamed free.
Vainamoinen knew this to be true.
When the last of the men had disappeared from sight, Tursas carried Vainamoinen into the small clearing. For more than a hundred years, men had died here. Some, as the murderer dangling in the wind before him, deservedly so. But not every man hanged was so deserving. The clearing was an angry place, where for decades unjust and cowardly acts were perpetrated against good and fair men. It was a place one could only see truthfully from the corner of an eye, where a shadow was not always a shadow, a whisper not always the wind.
And so as he entered the haunted clearing, Vainamoinen quietly sang. He sang of sorrow, deep and profound, for those good men whom humanity and fate had wronged. His was a song of hope lost, and love, of regret and bitterest grief. Over the keening wind, his radiant, quiet words carried across the clearing and the night, across the distance that separated stars and worlds; that those so wronged in life might know there was one who was sorry.
And on that night, it was enough.
Still singing his quiet song, Vainamoinen, atop Tursas, reached the hanged man. The wizard sensed the ghosts of the place, the victims of murder and unjust violence, felt their spirit eyes. Knew they would suffer him, this time.
“Thank you,” he whispered.
The wizard stared up at the dead man hanging from the dead branch above him. He reached into his cloak and withdrew the sprig of withe. As he did so, one more time, he began to sing. The night resonated with the force of his words, their power as deep and old as the earth. All around him the ground began to tremble—nature and the world struggling as one to preserve an ancient, forbidden secret.
Yet still did Vainamoinen sing, the cadence harsh, dissonant, the words guttural and rife with unfettered might. Above the wizard, the dead man twitched. Singing still, Vainamoinen reached up, tied the cord-like withe to the dead man’s icy toe. The wind swirled and raged, tore at the snow and ice that covered the forest floor. Then, just as the sun set, just as the last of its red-orange rays dwindled into darkness, Vainamoinen stopped.
And the dead man stared down at him through open, hollowed eyes.
Calm fell upon the clearing, a resigned silence, as the twisting shade waited.
“Show me the path to Tuonela,” Vainamoinen commanded the swaying lich.
The dead man blinked albino eyes, crusted blood cracking, flaking.
Vainamoinen felt the dead man’s hatred, felt him fighting his doom.
“By my words and my deeds are you bound,” Vainamoinen roared, rising in his stirrups, holding that wicked gaze. “I command you—show me Tuonela!”
The dead man’s cry was harrowing, ripped from some deep, unholy place. When it finished, when the last of its terrible echo faded, the murderer turned his head, pulled his dead gaze from the wizard.
Vainamoinen sighed and followed that gaze. Across the clearing a path, winding and stark, stood revealed through the skeletal trees.
The wizard stared up at the dead man. “Thank you,” he said.
A single red tear trickled down the murderer’s cracked cheek.
As Vainamoinen reached up, he sang once more, the soft words simple and kind, an easing out of the world. Above him, the shade closed its bleached eyes a final time. Gently, singing still, quietly, Vainamoinen untied the withe from the dead man’s toe and fell silent.
Then, amid the quiet of the clearing and before the hollow-eyed dead, the wizard cut the murderer down from the tree and buried him as best he might.
When he was through, he mounted Tursas’s broad back, and horse and wizard followed a forbidden path to the Land of the Dead.
The path to the river was long, winding its way first through snowy thickets, then through thicker woods and finally through deep, deep forest where the snow had all but vanished.
Vainamoinen had been this way once, long ago. A fool’s quest for words had brought him to the river where Tuoni’s daughters met him. For the price of a song they had carried him across to Tuonela, the Land of the Dead, where Tuonetar, the terrible queen of the Damned, received him.
‘And for what do you need these precious words?’ Tuonetar had asked from the height of her black iron throne.
‘For a song,’ he had answered, terrified, ‘I need them to fashion a song.’
He would never forget her laughter.
‘Silly child, can it be that you have traveled all this way to seek out words of creation?’
‘Yes,’ he had answered, more the fool, ‘words to create a song, a bright song, of water and wind, that I might give life to the greatest ship of all.’
More laughter, loud and long. ‘Arrogant demigod, has your mother not told you? Creation is anathema to this place, life forbidden, where Death and Entropy are all. Your quest was doomed before you arrived. And now, so are you.’
And had it not been for Tuoni's crooked‑fingered son, Surma, foolishly plucking at his kantele, Vainamoinen knew very well that the Queen’s words would likely have been true. Long ago he had charmed his instrument and any who played it, died. With the death of the Black Queen’s son, the palace became chaos and Vainamoinen escaped to the river’s edge. There, in sheerest desperation, he had changed his form into an otter, his kantele becoming the slick fur on his back, and braved the malignant waters.
He nearly died that day. Lying on the shores of that horrible river, he had thought he would die, wished, almost, for the release that death would offer.
But he had lived, lived to grow wise and strong.
Lived to return to the place where only he, of all those who had gone before, had ever returned.
Such is wisdom.
As before, the daughters of Tuoni waited for him at the water’s edge. This time, Kiputytto and Loviatar.
Thin and bent, Kiputytto, the Diseased, whose every breath released a hundred plagues, was a wretched, misshapen thing. One arm, her left, ended at her elbow where a tiny, gnarled hand worked hard to open and close. Her right arm, long and thin, ended in a huge, swollen hand with six thumbs, the thick, callused knuckles of which dragged in the mud. Her face, hidden behind seaweed hair, hung down to the withered nipples of her emaciated breasts.
At her side stood Loviatar, Mother Pain and Origin of a Thousand Scourges, the most despicable of Tuoni's daughters and, some said, the source of all evil.
She was also the most beautiful creature Vainamoinen had ever seen. Knowing better than to look at her, her beauty the insatiable beauty of all that is forbidden, Vainamoinen turned.
Loviatar laughed. “Am I so ugly, sorcerer?”
Beside her, Kiputytto barked laughter. “We have been waiting for you wizard,” the diseased hag said, her voice a rusty sword drawn from a metal sheath. “Mother and father knew you would return, eventually.”
“Indeed,” Vainamoinen said, stepping down from Tursas’s broad back. “Wait here, my friend,” he whispered. “If I am able, I will return to this bank. For now, rest easy. Your work is done.” Stroking the great horse’s head, the mightiest wizard in the world secured his kantele upon his back and turned to the sister goddesses. “I am ready,” he said.
“It shall make a fine trophy, that harp.” With that, Loviatar turned to face the river. Slowly, she raised her hand.
A moment later, the surface of the water was shattered by the vast, enormous bulk of the One-With-No-Name. Young yet, said to be the unholy offspring of Loviatar and Water, the Nameless was the secret guardian of the river. Huge, black waves crashed over the creature’s enormous back, preventing Vainamoinen from seeing the monster whole.
“We, too, have grown wise, wizard,” the Temptress said. “An otter, indeed.”
Over the mocking din of Loviatar’s laughter, the Nameless cast its monstrous, mottled tail onto the shore and the wicked sisters stepped across, onto its vast, barge-like back.
“Come, sage,” Loviatar said. “Your steed awaits.”
Like a prisoner resigned to the gallows, Vainamoinen joined the terrible sisters. Fate or Doom commanded he do no less.
Once across the river, free of the whims of the Nameless, Vainamoinen followed his guides along a path of bones through a forest of dead trees. No breeze stirred the cool air and the only sound in the whole of the world was the constant crunch-crack of bone beneath booted heel. Above, in the forever-twilit sky, not a single cloud drifted, no star gazed down on them, no uncaring moon—just vast, merciless emptiness.
They walked for some time, through muted twilight and maddening stillness. Vainamoinen concentrated on the sounds of breaking bone.
Then all at once, vast walls loomed out of the dead woods like an ocean, like a world of shadow. Black, windowless iron, brutal, unyielding.
Citadel of a God.
Vainamoinen had thought himself steeled. Over and over again in his long life, he had faced and conquered despair, time after time had chased away the icy touch of fear. He was named Mightiest Wizard in the World, Hero of Light, and in his heart he knew these things to be true. He had even escaped, once, from this place. But for all these things, he was human still, mortal. And this, this was so much more. Centuries had muted his memory, had made things less than they had been. Staring upwards now at the jet towers that raked the sky, Vainamoinen marveled at the whim of chance that had allowed him his freedom, wondered at the magnificent pride that had led him to believe he might wander this land with impunity.
Led him to believe he could do so again.
“Can you have forgotten?” Mother Pain asked from behind. Laughing, Loviatar led him through the clearing, through the vast, impregnable gates of the tower, and on, into the very heart of Death.
“And so, at last, you have come back to me, little wizard.”
Tuonetar, Black Queen of Death, rose from her throne of iron, her words carrying easily, effortlessly over the gurgling stream of water that passed through the chamber to the left of the dais. This too, Vainamoinen remembered, a tributary of the river. From the raised platform, the Queen stared down at him.
Tall, regal, very, very beautiful, Tuonetar was every bit the Queen. Her robe of diaphanous green matched exactly her verdant gaze. Upon her brow she wore a tiara of woven rose stems, the drawn, thorned stems long browned and dead. Her sable hair cascaded down her back in billows, brushing the cold iron floor of the dais. At her rising, the throng of assembled damned come to bear witness to the wizard’s return, fell to their collective knees.
Vainamoinen remained standing.
Then Tuoni rose. The Lord of Death was tall, lean and very pale. His own black hair fell past his waist and his black, pupil-less eyes seemed to take in things that were beyond other men. Or Gods. Laying a pale, slender hand upon the shoulder of his wife, the God of the Dead said, “My wife has missed you, sage.” His sonorous words reverberated off the pitiless walls of the tower. “She had such plans for you.”
Before the Gods, Vainamoinen remained unbowed.
“I have not come to bandy words, great Lord,” Vainamoinen said, his own voice strong. “I have come to ask a boon.”
Tuonetar’s brow rose in surprise. “Can it be? Does your arrogance truly know no bounds?”
Around him the dead murmured, a hollow, vacant sound. Vainamoinen turned to them, those who had come to see his shame, to watch as he was broken. They looked like live men whose color and spirit had been drained. Ashen, bent, hideous wounds unhealed, they stared at him through lifeless eyes. Vainamoinen sensed their longing, their longing for life. Turning from them, pushing aside their despair, he faced Tuoni. “There is one here who should not be here,” he began. “Slain by my cowardice, she was taken too soon. I would have her back.”
Tuoni stepped forward. “Interesting. And what do you offer, in exchange for this wronged soul?”
Vainamoinen drew a breath. “I offer myself.”
The dead around him gasped, empty eyes wide.
“SILENCE!” Tuoni roared. And silence fell. “A worthy prize. But you know such a deal is forbidden. Life is not mine to give.”
“I do know,” Vainamoinen said, reaching into the deep pocket of his robe. “It is why I brought this.”
Tuoni’s gaze narrowed as he stared at the small translucent flask.
“The Water of Life,” Vainamoinen cried, holding the flask high for all to see. “Brought into the Land of Death that Aino might live again, in exchange for my own soul.”
Around him the dead rose like a tide, groaned and flowed toward him. “Life,” one of them said, then another, and another. Slowly, hands began to grab at him, at his robe, his hair.
“Enough!” Tuoni raged. “Away from him—now!”
Slowly the surging wave of dead fell back. When they were kneeling once again, Tuoni said, “It is an interesting offer wizard. But I am afraid you are too late.”
Vainamoinen stared at the Death God. “I…don’t understand,” he began, confused. And for the first time, afraid. “How could I be—”
“We have already had a better offer.” Tuoni turned then, smiling, and from behind his massive throne, in the company of the largest wolf he had ever seen, Aino strode forward.
She too, smiled.
Vainamoinen staggered, reached out a trembling, disbelieving hand. “Aino?”
Tuonetar laughed, then the Black Queen crossed the dais, gently brushed Aino’s blonde hair with a sinuous movement of her hand. Standing behind her, both hands on Aino’s shoulders, Tuonetar stared at Vainamoinen. “Is this the reason you came?” she taunted, and beside her the wolf rumbled, a deep, terrifying sound that seemed to make the walls of the tower shudder. More frightening still was the expression on Aino’s face. She smiled still, poisonous, hateful. Vainamoinen felt her loathing from across the chamber. It reached for him, sought his open heart.
And why should she not hate him? What had he expected? Was she to be thankful he came for her? He had driven her from her love and killed her!
Did you never once think of the girl?
The witch’s words. True when she had spoken them, true now. Was there no end to his arrogance?
“I still don’t understand,” Vainamoinen said, turning from the grinning Aino, his voice harsh.
“No?” Tuonetar mocked. “I thought you wise.” More laughter.
Appropriate, as he played the role of fool so well.
“But then, how could you know? Louhi, explain to the wizard.”
And everything came clear.
At the feet of the Black Queen, the monstrous she-wolf shimmered, its fur shifting, blurring, until the wolf was gone.
And Louhi, Dark Mistress of the North from whom he had stolen the magical Sampo so long ago, stood revealed. Then it was her turn to laugh.
“Oh, Vainamoinen,” Louhi said through the laughter, “blind to so very much.”
Anger began to burn, hot, uncontrolled, deep inside the wizard’s heart. “It was you,” he said slowly, understanding blossoming like a blighted rose, “you led me to the witch, and the water.” He glared his rage at her. “Were you so confident that I would succeed? Had Bony Legs slain me, what would you have done? There are other lands that might lay claim to a soul.”
Louhi’s smile faltered.
“Ah, I see. You didn’t know. Baba Jaga was a more formidable opponent than you surmised. Fortune smiled on you, Louhi, for she might well have slain me, and all your plans have gone for naught. But she did not, and I found the Water and came.”
Vainamoinen shook his head, turned to Aino. “Ah, Aino, beautiful, wronged Aino. Has she promised you freedom, has she promised you life?”
“Both,” Aino spat. “She promised me the life you drove me from. Coward! Now you will rot in this place, as I would have rot, and I shall return to love and the world.”
For innocence lost, and shame, Vainamoinen wept. “Oh, my dear. You are a pawn. Louhi cares nothing for you. She has used you to lure me here.” Vainamoinen shook his head. “Without the Water, Aino, the dead are forbidden life. She has lied to you. It is what she does.”
For the first time since her appearance on the dais, the baneful, icy smile that polluted Aino’s otherwise pristine face, faltered. She turned, grey eyes wide, uncertain, to the Sorceress of the North.
“And Louhi,” Vainamoinen said, his words chilling, “what is your reward? For luring me here, for your lies, what payment is enough?”
Louhi met Aino’s bewildered gaze, stroked the dead woman’s hair. “Vengeance, Vainamoinen. Vengeance is my reward.” The sorceress cried: “The Sampo was mine! You gave your word! Its never-ending magic would have let me bring my people out of the darkness, would have made me Queen of the World! But you took it from me, stole it, a thief in the night, and destroyed it! Did you think I would forget? Did you think I would ever forget?” Louhi seethed, shook her head. “And so, it has come to this. My precious Aino, I offered you a chance at freedom. Now I give you that chance.” The merest gesture, a spoken word, and Aino was no more. In her place upon the unforgiving iron of the dais a great pike thrashed, gills suppurating, fins screaming for purchase.
“No!” Vainamoinen cried, throwing himself toward the dais.
“Hold him!” Tuonetar commanded, and the dead obeyed.
Vainamoinen struggled beneath the cold hands that held him fast, knew they were too many, sought for calm. Began to chant.
“His mouth!” Louhi screamed, pointing. “Seal his mouth, quickly!”
And fingers, long dead, laced themselves across his face, tangled themselves in his long beard and sealed his mouth.
Silence then, but for the struggles of the dying fish. Louhi stared down at the suffering, terrified creature. Then gently, like a mother, Louhi stooped and lifted the pike, held its suffocating form before her and all those in the chamber. “Beautiful, pitiful Aino,” Louhi said, mock sadness in her voice. “A pawn in life, now the same in death.” Louhi shrugged.
Vainamoinen fought again for freedom, struggled furiously, mightily, with a hero’s pride. But deprived of his greatest weapon, held fast by the damned, his struggles, for all their nobility, were doomed. Bound by the dead, he watched the Dark Lady of the North walk over to the edge of the gurgling stream and release Aino into the black waters.
“Farewell, gentle Aino,” Louhi said.
“Farewell, fish,” Loviatar said, smiling. Then she turned and stared at Vainamoinen. “Give our regards to my son, when you see him.”
Vainamoinen’s eyes fell, and as Aino disappeared amid the deadly waters, his valiant struggles ended.
Tuoni turned to Louhi. “Our deal is done, sorceress,” he said, “and Tuonela is no place for the living. Even you.”
Louhi bowed low to the King of the Damned. “Your will, great lord.” Then she turned to Vainamoinen. “And to you, my great and implacable foe, I bid a final farewell, for we shall not meet again.”
At her words Vainamoinen’s head rose, and rage seethed behind his eyes.
For a moment, amid the shadows of the dead, the Dark Lady of the North knew fear. Quickly, Louhi nodded to the God who nodded in turn, and with a single step toward the rushing water, Louhi was gone.
Vainamoinen was the last.
“Release him,” Tuonetar said. “Even your mother’s words will not be enough, not here, in this place which is ours.”
The Goddess spoke truth. He could not have overcome one of them, not here in their home, let alone both.
But he had never planned to. “So, your vengeance has come, Tuonetar,” Vainamoinen said. “Through the trickery of a mortal you have claimed me for your own. I wonder, though,” he said, reaching inside his robe, “shall you keep me this time?”
With that, Vainamoinen drew free the Water of Life. In one fluid motion he unstoppered the vial and poured a tiny amount of the precious liquid into his aged hand. Turning to the nearest of the dead, he cast the Water, baptizing the lich with Life.
Stunned silence reigned in the chamber, all eyes focused on the damned soul who staggered back, as if struck, only to stand, after a moment, frozen and dumb. The pitiable creature stared at Vainamoinen, hope manifest in its dead gaze.
Then a miracle. All at once color returned to the soul’s grey skin, life to its dead eyes. In silence, they watched a sort of rapturous peace descend upon the dead man.
“Thank you,” he whispered, an instant before he collapsed into dust; free at last.
Holding the bottle high amid the silence, Vainamoinen stared at the shocked Goddess. “Who shall be next?”
The dead surged forward as one, uncontrolled and uncontrollable. For an instant Vainamoinen was lost to sight beneath the deluge. Then in a voice that had shaken mountains he cried, “Look, here! Here is your Water! Take it if you would!”
And Vainamoinen, amid the ocean of damned souls, tossed the stoppered bottle on the dais, where the God and Goddess stood.
The legions of the dead surged forward, a desiccated, rotting tide that flooded the raised platform.
Before he turned and fled, her voice rising even as Vainamoinen’s form began to shift and flow, the ancient wizard heard Tuonetar scream, “Back, get back! How dare—”
Her last words were cut short by the moaning, eager cries of the dead.
In the form of a wolf, Vainamoinen flew from the iron tower and out, into the waiting darkness. Over the din of battle the God’s voice roared: “You’ll not escape me wizard! Not again!”
In front of Vainamoinen, the shadow-woods changed. Where a moment before there had been one path, now there were dozens. Where trees had been, thorns now stood in their place. But worse, by far, than all of that, than the world changing to challenge and trap him, was the moon that rose from beyond the edge of the wood. It burned in the empty sky, a desecration of the void. Baleful green, it hovered like an opaline eye, and Vainamoinen knew he could not run fast enough, far enough, to escape its odious gaze.
Then, from behind him, a shape emerged out of the roiling chaos of the tower, a huge shape, vast and jet, lumbering towards him.
Vainamoinen turned, lupine fangs bared.
“You are, indeed, your mother’s son. But you’ll not need those fangs, not yet.” As the creature drew close, Vainamoinen recognized the dead wolf from the forest, the arrow that pierced its neck livid and stark under the cancerous light of the moon.
“I am Naaki, messenger of great Ilmatar.”
“Mother?” Vainamoinen said. “You were sent by my mother?”
“Yes, in an effort to warn you of Louhi’s treachery and of the Death God’s desires. But on my way to warn you, Louhi treacherously slew me, and my message was lost.”
A rumbling shook the land then, bone-deep and resonant. Something old finding release.
“With the rising of the moon,” Naaki said, “Kalma shall again walk the land. We’ve little time. Though I failed you once, I’ll not do so again. Change back, quickly, and climb on my back. Even in your wolf form your speed is no match for mine. I’ll get you to the river. This I swear.”
Somewhere in the baleful night, the world broke. In the distance Tuoni cried, “Find him, Kalma! Find him and bring him to me!” The answering roar was terrible to hear, and for the first time in a star’s age, Kalma, Soul Scourge and Life Grinder, loosed on the world.
With a word, Vainamoinen changed once more and climbed aboard the broad back of Naaki. “Can we outrun him?”
“We can try,” Naaki answered. “We can try.”
The Soul Scourge surged through the night unfettered, and the Land of the Dead trembled at its passing. Had any being seen the beast, they might have described it as a huge, endlessly black lion, eyes gangrenous, mane wispy, serpentine shadow. But no soul, living or dead, had ever, in all the long, long history of the Universe, met Kalma and survived. The consummate hunter, the nature of Kalma had been the subject of long debates among mortals and immortals alike. Some claimed Kalma was the daughter of Tuoni and the Night, a forbidden union that resulted in the darkest creature of all. Others say Kalma existed before Tuoni's rise, and only suffered Tuoni's claim to Tuonela knowing that the day would come when it would be released from its infernal prison. And murder the Universe. Others did not dare believe Kalma existed at all. After all, if the Gods themselves did not know the nature of the beast, who could?
In the end, the origins of the beast mattered little enough. For Kalma was free now, and Vainamoinen was its prey.
A harrowing plunge through emerald darkness brought them at last to the forest’s end. Beyond the final clearing, surging black-green billows roaring like a gale, lay the river. Behind them, Vainamoinen heard Kalma’s inexorable approach.
The Life Grinder free? Vainamoinen could not long think on that, on its meaning. He still had to cross the river.
Without a word, Naaki thundered forward to the edge of the world.
Over the roaring river on whose shore they stopped, over the thundering approach of Kalma Soul Scourge, over the anger and outrage of the forest they had escaped, Vainamoinen heard Tuoni’s maddened cry. It split the green-black night like a bolt of emerald lightning and echoed through the infinite void above.
Naaki turned from the river, looked up and back at the wizard who sat astride his broad shoulders.
Vainamoinen reached into his robe. “The Water,” he said, pulling forth a small glass vial, a self-deprecating smile playing at the edges of his mouth. “Simple sleight of hand. It was not the real Water.”
Beneath him, the huge wolf shook its head.
Vainamoinen shrugged. “It took them longer to determine than I would have thought.”
“A clever ploy.”
A small laugh. “Perhaps. Though for naught if we fail to cross the river.”
Behind them, distant thunder, an approaching storm, Kalma drew closer, always closer. Among the rolling swells of the river, Vainamoinen could see a monstrous shape, mottled and looming; waiting. “I fear my previous method of escape would prove…less than effective this time.”
“Indeed,” answered the dead wolf. “But the Nameless can only reach you if you are in the water.”
Puzzled, Vainamoinen said, “Yes, but there is no way to by-pass the river without Tuoni’s blessing. We must cross over it, or through it. It is the only way.”
“No,” Naaki said, “there is another way. The answer is in your hand.”
“The Water of Life? How—”
“How matters little. It is enough to know that before us courses the river of Death. In your hands, you hold the Water of Life. Pour the Water, Vainamoinen, empty it into river. Then I shall speak words, and you shall sing them. Sing them Vainamoinen, as you have never sung words before.”
Naaki carried Vainamoinen to the very edge of the rocky shore, where he unstoppered the vial and poured nearly its entire contents into the black river. As the Water of Life tumbled forth to mix with the river of Death, Naaki whispered and Vainamoinen sang.
It was a song unlike any Vainamoinen had ever sung. A song unlike any sung, by anyone, ever. It was a celebration of Life amid Death, sublime, majestic, a song that contained secrets of the kind unknown to mortal man. Profound, immeasurably powerful, Vainamoinen sang the words of a God. For he knew, more than he had known anything in his life, that these were his mother’s own words, his mother, whose aid was forbidden but allowed because Tuoni and Louhi, God and mortal, had made a deal. As he sang, tears of joy welled in his eyes, streamed down his weathered, haggard face. Never in all his life had he sung such words, unleashed such power. He reveled in the might, took pride in the song that was an unfettering of his bright, bright soul.
And at the edge of the world, under the brutal, baneful light of an emerald moon, with the thunderous, incessant approach of the Soul Scourge drawing ever closer, Vainamoinen, with his soul’s release, parted the river of Death.
When his song was ended, Vainamoinen stared at the passage through the river fashioned by his words, held secure by a power he could not fathom.
“Mother…” Vainamoinen whispered.
Behind them, Kalma exploded from the woods.
For a moment, Naaki stared at the leonine creature with its mane of shadow, took its measure. Knew they were lost.
“Go!” Vainamoinen cried. “Go!”
With a primal, bestial roar, Naaki’s ancient muscles rippled and he surged forward between the towering walls of water and along the path that Life had fashioned.
Kalma followed, over the clearing, to the river’s edge.
From Naaki’s back, Vainamoinen turned. “He waits,” he said, “at the edge. Uncertain. I think he shall not—”
Then Kalma too, braved the path of Life, the distance between them closing, closing.
Beneath him, Naaki stopped, said, “Here is where we must part.”
Behind them, Kalma roared.
Vainamoinen stared at the wolf. “But we are so close! Look,” He said, lifting the small vial, “I saved a single drop of Water. Once across, I will use it and you will live again. We can—”
“No,” Naaki said, “we cannot.”
Vainamoinen knew the wolf spoke truth.
“Shift your form and run. If I am able, I shall hold the beast long enough for you to cross. But you must go. Now.”
“I don’t understand,” Vainamoinen said, his heart breaking, “who am I that you would do this thing for me?”
“You are your mother’s son, whom I was sent to ward. And because, once, when I was slain, you sang for me, at the end. Now go.”
For a moment only, Vainamoinen held the beast’s gaze. Then a word and Vainamoinen was gone, the form of the aged wizard replaced with that of a great, grey wolf.
“Good,” Naaki said, before he whispered a final word in the wizard’s lupine ear and Vainamoinen fled, surged through the impossible passage; strove for Life.
Naaki turned, teeth bared.
The Soul Scourge approached like a storm, like a primal force of the world. At its passing the walls of water rippled and shook, the floor of the river trembled. Kalma stopped before the wolf, towered over him, looming like the fall of night.
Ahead, as he ran, Vainamoinen became the first living being to hear the voice of the Soul Scourge.
“You cannot stop me, little god,” the great lion said, “you could not even stay alive! Step aside. My battle is not with you, it is not your soul I seek this day.”
“No,” Naaki said. “I’ll not stand aside. Though you are more than I, though your might runs deeper, still shall I fight. For Life.”
A growl, soul-shuddering in its fierceness, answered the wolf’s challenge. “You’ve courage godling, but it shall never be enough.”
“We shall see.”
And so it came to pass, amid the towering walls of water, upon the floor of the river of Death, that wolf met lion in a battle for Life.
The sound of battle was terrifying.
Far ahead of the battle, Vainamoinen ran. But as fast as he ran, as far, he could not escape them. He was close now, so close to the shore. To Life. Surely it would be all right to look, surely it was safe.
So he turned then, and bore witness to the battle.
Across from him, on the far shore of Tuonela, Tuoni and Tuonetar also watched. Behind them, a rotting sea, the legions of the damned were arrayed, spread out as far as eyes could see. They would not brave that path, forged as it was by the powers of Life, but still had they come; to bear witness to the battle being played out on the borders of Life and Death.
He had heard the tales of the enigma that was Kalma, knew that no being, ever, had withstood it. In the back of his mind he knew that Naaki too, would fall. Had to fall. No being, ever. And still, knowing that and more, Vainamoinen was not prepared for what he saw.
The wolf was torn, not a piece of fur on his immense body remained unscarred. Blood, black in the green light, matted its thick fur, flew from its ragged, shredded body. Even Louhi’s murderous arrow was broken. Naaki limped badly, the beast’s right front foot smashed and useless. Slowly, painfully, the wolf circled the lion, head low, neck hidden.
The lion that was so very much more than a lion, was more even than the Gods knew. But even with what it was, with all its deep, deep power, the lion was not unscathed. In its massive flanks white scars were torn, gaping wounds that would have surely slain a lesser creature. Great gaps in its shadow-mane let through the emerald light of the moon. And it, too, circled, slowly, wearily.
The lion charged again, merciless, pitiless as time.
Vainamoinen’s heart broke and tears sprang to his wolf-grey eyes as he watched noble Naaki continue to fight, eluding, darting, attacking where he could, summoning an endless courage that was torturous to behold, so gallant was it and so doomed.
Again the lion backed away, a fresh scar, livid in the moon’s unnatural light, across the side of his neck and face. Well struck, that blow, driving the lion back.
Giving Naaki time, time to look at Vainamoinen. “Go,” the wolf said, then the lion too, turned. “Go, now! Let this not have been in vain!”
For one endless moment, Vainamoinen met the wolf’s gaze. “I shall never forget,” said the wizard. “I shall never let the world forget.”
It was too much, the pain, Vainamoinen could see it in the eyes of his friend. The wolf could not answer, could only watch as Vainamoinen, with a final glance at Tuoni on the far side, flew for the shore, where Life waited.
Behind him, Vainamoinen heard the lion roar, felt the world shook as Kalma and Naaki met for the final time.
Heard the snap, the triumphant cry of the dead. Knew that it had come too late, that Naaki had succeeded, had won for Life. Surging up the river’s edge, hatred unlike anything he had ever known in his heart, Vainamoinen reached the shore. With a word, he was a man, once more Vainamoinen the Mighty, Wizard of the North. He turned slowly, for he could hear the lion, could hear the urging, pleading cries of the dead. He was smiling as the lion came for him, not so fast this time, not so strong. Naaki had given account, had fought, so very bravely, a battle that would live in legend for eternity.
But this battle was his to finish. With Naaki’s help. And his mother’s.
Upon the shores of Life, Vainamoinen sang Naaki’s final words.
And brought the river down.
The water fell like a mountain into the void, crashed and roared and swallowed Kalma whole. For a moment, the Nameless reared its frenzied head. He had denied the beast, cheated it, broke and separated its world.
“There is an invader still, in your water,” Vainamoinen whispered. “Find him.”
Then the Nameless dove, broke the waters that were his own and was lost. Kalma and the Nameless lost forever.
For a long time, Vainamoinen stood at the edge of the world, watching the Gods retreat into darkness, staring out at the black waters that separated Life from Death. He thought of Aino and of Louhi, of Naaki and his mother. So much lost, gained, so very many layers of grief. He had come seeking redemption, a light in his darkness. He had found scorn, treachery, and nobility that would endure for eternity.
The wisest man in the world was at least wise enough to know, that for now, it was enough.
From behind him Tursas nickered. Vainamoinen turned, stroked the horse’s head gently. “Ah, my friend. Take me home.”
And humming, composing, quietly searching for words, the Wizard of the North climbed atop the back of his friend, and Tursas took him safely home.