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The Berzerkers

Attend me now, young Úlfhéðnar, and hear the doom to which you were born. You will learn many things. You will learn of the pain and suffering that mothered us, and the bloodlust that fathered us. You will learn of the Great Wyrm and its subtle poison. You will learn how your power was forged, and why the cost to wield it is so great.

In the eons before the Piercing, when the Old Gods still walked the land, our people grew to love the bitterness of war. Our ancestors traveled fearlessly, conquering and raiding by land and sea. We fought for gold and plunder, certainly. But our true love was the taste of battle: Our husband the ringing of steel, our wife the smell of blood, our children the bodies of the glorious dead. To this day, we look to Ragnarök for answers, and the crashing of spear on shield thunders in our hearts.

The mysterious storms from the heavens changed our hearts forever.

When these Veilstorms first spread through our lands we rejoiced, hoping that the time of Ragnarök was upon us at last. We sharpened our blades and sang the old songs, ready for the final battle.

However, the wild storms did not bring about the doom of the gods. There was no poetry, no rightness in the land; the storms were spawned by enigmatic powers from far away, beyond even Ásgarðr the great.

The tale I have called you here to tell you concerns a family that was caught in such a storm.

It was a dark day, and the children’s play was subdued. The hills looked on as the winds rolled over the grass, bringing long and sinuous clouds that crackled with magic and stained the sky in endless streaks of darkness as they rushed overhead. The children stood in awe and watched the storm come.

Their mother Embla was inside the great farmhouse she had built years ago of tall oak trees, sorting the plunder from her last voyage. Their father Askr was at the lumber mill, planing the boards of a mighty longship. Neither one of them saw the storm clouds gathering. Neither one could hear the cries of the children as the thunder made the hills tremble and the air shudder. Neither of them knew when the terrible storm coalesced, and a huge stream of cloud slithered down out of the sky and plucked their children up like a hungry serpent.

In the Cursed Lands, they call this a Malevolence, the most terrible storm from the pit of beyond.

The storm shook the walls of her house, and Embla ran to the door to call her little ones inside. She peered out into the rain that burst from above, feeling the terrific forces of magic pull at her skin. The children were nowhere to be seen: from the fence to the vegetable garden, from the old stump to the woodpile, there was no sign of them but a few wooden toys scattered on the ground.

Screaming for Askr, she ran out into the tempest, reaching up to the sky as if pleading for help. But the wild storm only howled louder, destroying her house behind her and tossing the trees into the sky. Embla ran hither and thither, searching and calling out as the wind and the magic tore at everything around but left the woman untouched, as though it were cruelly mocking her.

Askr found her sobbing in the black rain. When Embla told him that the storm had taken their children, he screamed with grief, shouting into the darkened sky. He swore revenge and swung his axe in rage, but there was nothing to fight. He called upon the strength of the war-god Týr, but there was no answer. He searched for signs of his children, desperate for anything, but Embla had already looked. Like a raiding party, the storm had swept down and taken their most precious possessions.

The couple watched through tear-stained eyes as the swirling tempest spent its malice and billowed away. The darkness slithered through the sky. A pair of eyes burned white-hot from the center of the storm as it went, taunting their weakness from afar.

They were parents; their children were gone. Askr and Embla wept for hours, pouring their pain into the earth. They held each other fiercely, two figures alone in the blasted landscape. It was the way of our people to take from others; they did not know how to bear such a loss.

When their tears were spent, Askr and Embla begged the Allfather for the wisdom and insight to seek out what was lost. They swore an unbreakable oath to search the world until they could reclaim their missing children. With nothing but Askr’s axe and the unfamiliar sorrow in their mouths, they set off across the twisted land.

They wandered for many years, finding nothing. They walked until their feet dragged, their shoes crumbled away, and their clothes were worn to rags. They passed with barely a scratch through the Veilstorms that tore the land apart, and through joyous battles their people waged for glory.

Askr and Embla grew numb to the desolation around them. They felt too much pain to lend a hand to the other folk they passed, whose lives were decimated by storms or war. They never found word of the Scornful Storm, or of their children. Yet they went on, impelled by bitter grief and forlorn hope.

One day, the couple came upon a tiny settlement that was caught in the grip of a violent Veilstorm. From high above the village on the slope of a mountain, they watched blankly as the clouds became darker and darker, crackling with magic. The Veilstorm was becoming what they call a Malevolence. The winds ripped at the buildings as black rain fell, and magic forces blasted the earth. The villagers ran for cover and screamed for help beneath the swirling clouds, but Askr and Embla were too weary to respond.

The clouds pulled away for a moment to reveal one red-haired man standing tall in the central square of the village. As the wind whipped at his clothes, he raised his arm to defend a small boy by his side. They had the same bright red hair: the boy was his son. Bolts of black lightning struck down around him, but still the man held his ground, defending his boy with everything he had.

At this sight, something shifted in the hearts of the weary travelers. A father defending his child from the storm would do everything in his power, even give his own life, for his son. They felt his fear, his suffering for his child as if it were their own. Pushed forward by the wrenching horror within their breasts, Askr and Embla stumbled down the mountainside.

Below, the darkness gathered as the Malevolence began to writhe and take shape. Two white-hot eyes glowed within the thundering clouds, and a terrible hiss washed over the earth like a vast wave, leveling buildings. The red-haired man still stood. Shaking, he drew a bright sword and held it high, shouting defiance into the sky that drowned him out.

Askr and Embla’s eyes widened and they hurried faster as the storm clouds gathered still more. A vast serpent began to take solid shape, coils wrapped all the way around the town. Its vast head swept down to face the little father in the square, a tongue of lightning flickering in and out.

The running couple looked at one another. They knew they would be too late.

Crying out to the silent gods, Askr and Embla felt rage fill their souls. They saw there was no help coming; there was no escape for the boy below; there was no mercy in the storm. No pain is like the pain of parents that lose their children. They knew at once and for all time that the world is chaos and noise, and no meaning can be found anywhere. Their fury screamed white-hot in their minds and burst out of them in howls of wrath. Their hearts beat faster. Spittle plumed from their mouths, and their eyes started from their sockets.

The storm crackled back, its magic reacting to the mighty will of the bereaved parents. Whether Odin Allfather finally answered their prayer or the Scornful Storm’s magic changed them, the speed of Fenris himself entered their limbs. Askr and Embla swept down the slope like an avalanche, and the land shook under the force of their footfalls.

In the village square, the red-haired man braced himself and swung his sword at the monstrous serpent. He was no match for its power, and the blade shattered as it struck the scales of the terrible beast. The snake’s head split wide in a vast grin as its mouth opened and it swallowed the brave man up in an instant.

Unafraid, the boy now stood alone. He reached for the haft of his father’s broken sword and heaved, but he was too weak to lift it, and the edge of the mighty weapon dragged along the ground. With cold hunger in its eyes, the storm-born snake heaved its coils and raised its head for another strike. The boy only stared up at the creature in defiance.

It was at this moment that Askr and Embla reached the village square and came between the snake and its tiny prey. Askr raised his old wood-axe and roared. Magic flowed over and around the couple, and they were greatly changed, appearing as mighty warriors instead of aged wanderers.

The beast’s lightning tongue flickered and it knew their scent immediately. Hissing with scorn, it opened its mouth and unleashed a flood of dark magic that ripped through the air toward Askr with all the power of the Veilstorm itself. The spell would have torn him apart had not his wife reacted instantly. She knew no words of magic, only that the storm sought to take him from her; Embla’s fury channeled power into her soul. She threw up her hand, magic curled from her fingers, and a clever spiderweb of power glowed in the air above Askr.

The dark magic rebounded harmlessly from the web, which shimmered bright in the darkness. Alarmed, the beast struck at Embla in a sudden rush. She leaped nimbly away, and would have escaped the beast entirely but for one of its gleaming fangs, which nicked her ankle through her worn-out shoe.

Askr turned as the snake’s head crashed down to the earth. Through the fog of rage, he knew he was alive and unharmed thanks to his wife’s magic. He lifted his axe and howled. The sound that ripped from his throat thundered over the maelstrom in a keening call, filled with mourning for the losses of his people, and they were many: the countless children devoured, the villages and farms blasted to bare stone, and the red-haired father who died defending his son.

Caught in a breathless moment of wrath beyond measure, Askr stood tall and strong as a bear. The bereaved father brought down his axe on the beast’s neck with all the strength of the thunder-god himself.

Though the colossal monster tried to rip free of the earth and escape, it was too late. The serpent’s scales splintered as Askr’s axe smashed through, severing skin, flesh, and bone. He split the Great Serpent in two.

However, that was not quite the end. The thing’s flesh shifted and changed, though Askr tried to hack at it again and again. The black rain hissed to a halt as the serpent’s body melted into mist beneath his axe and slithered away to rejoin the clouds. A high shriek rang through the air, higher and higher until it passed out of hearing. As though battered by the rays of a hot sun, the storm faded away to nothing.

With the monster defeated and the storm gone, Askr and Embla collapsed to the ground, exhausted. It is said they slept for a week there on the blighted earth.

The red-haired boy stood guard over them, keeping other survivors away. He held on to his father’s broken blade though he could not wield it, and kept up a constant vigil.

When they finally awoke, the couple was refreshed in both body and spirit. They knew they had reached the end of their long quest. Askr and Embla appeared years younger, as if their long mourning had been washed away.

They told the red-haired boy that they would make a life here and rebuild the village. If he desired, he could live with them and they would teach him all that they had learned. However, once the boy was certain they had recovered, he explained that he must depart. With the passing of his father, the well-being of our people was now his to guard. As he left, dragging the broken sword behind him, he told the couple, “I am Sigurd, son of Sigmund, who should have been our king. I will remember this village.”

Askr and Embla lived on for untold years, and eventually they had many more children to fill their days with joy. All were born with the marks of the storm in their blood, and were taught to know the pain of others. They learned to control their power, to unleash anger only when needed.

However, the Great Serpent left its mark as well: The tiny scratch on Embla’s ankle had a dark poison that seeped into her blood, and stayed there. All of their children, and their children’s children to this day, are also heir to the darker face of fury; to scorn, and to unbridled bursts of temper that some say make our gift into a curse. But so long as we see Ragnarök before us and the lessons of wrath behind us, we know who we are.

We are sacrifice, loss, and pain. We are the wolf-skinned, that no blade nor fire can defeat. We are the anger born of strongest love. We are the Úlfhéðnar, who fight for our king until the day of the last battle.

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