Chapter 96:

Sheol

Elyon - Gods among us


—Where am I?— a voice echoed in a white, featureless world.

—Ah yes, I remember now, Anath split me in half— the voice contemplated, as its body continued to drift through the void.

Epona's nude body floated slowly in the nonexistence.

—I guess this is the last shred of consciousness left in my brain before I become part of the void and my body turns to dust— the goddess pondered, looking around melancholically.

—I wish I could've said goodbye to Rodrigo and the others; I suppose, in the end, I could serve some purpose, unlike all those poor horses they stole from my father for sacrifice— she thought, closing her eyes.

Yet, before she could completely lose consciousness, she felt a presence nearby. When she opened her eyes, what she saw filled her with terror.

It was something immense; in fact, so vast that its dimensions were beyond comprehension. Creatures like Jormundgander would seem like mere insects compared to 'It'. Its form was indescribable, seeming to be born from millions of nightmares. Everything she had witnessed in her long life was insufficient to depict the horrors radiating from the entity.

—My God, My God, please save me— Epona prayed, as she felt herself drawing nearer to the monstrosity.Epona, ironically, found herself praying to a concept she'd never truly pondered before: 'God'. She was so terrified and appalled that she couldn't stop herself from seeking solace in a higher power.

—Is this Sheol? Is this what lives outside our existential plane? My God, help me, please!— she began to shout in horror, scratching her face as she felt her sanity slipping away with each glimpse of 'It'. She tried to scream, but there was no sound in this place, only 'It' and her.

Suddenly, faintly, she heard the voice of a child in the distance. She couldn't discern the words but felt the sentiment.

This flower crown was made for me by an angel when the inn exploded and my parents died. I pray every day to God that she's alright

Then, another voice, this time a girl's.

Mom, dad; I pray every day to the blonde angel who cared for us when you left. She brought you to His glory

Epona started to hear the voices of many children. They were the children she had aided in Horsens.

She also heard young women speaking in Occitan.

They said they were from Ireland, but I know they were angels from Jesus Christ who rescued us

Thank you, my God, for the angels that protected us that day

Lord, thank you for watching over us with your angels

Epona began to cry, and for a moment, she could forget about the abomination looming closer. A glow emanated from her chest, and she heard a voice whispering,

—Just this once—

The celtic goddess opened her eyes and saw Loki, eyes wide in horror, looking elsewhere. His face was wet with tears, kneeling, shouting,

—Father Odin! Thor! What's happening!?—.

Then, Epona felt excruciating pain and saw herself torn in two. The pain was so intense that she felt consciousness slipping away again. She let out a deep moan to withstand the injury.

Loki turned to Epona and noticed her stirring.

—Girl, are you alive?— he shouted, rushing towards her. He brought forth some mead and poured it into her lips as she continued to groan in pain.

Her body started to mend, and her wounds healed. She closed her eyes and fell into a deep slumber. Loki touched her forehead, sensing the warmth returning.

—Did I just witness a miracle? She was dead for several minutes— he pondered.

He shook the thought from his mind.

—No, I must attend to the others injured in the battle— he thought, and, with Epona on his back, teleported to where the battle had occurred.

He gave all the ambrosia he had to the Asgardians, Ana, Menrva, and Odin. They all began to recover. Their injuries had been so severe that they would take time to regain consciousness, especially Odin, whose healing was notably slow. Loki blamed himself for his weakness.

He searched everywhere for Thor but couldn't find him. Using his energy sensor, he tried to detect any trace of Thor in case he'd been blown to bits, but found nothing; only Thor's hand lying next to Mjolnir on the ground. When Loki picked up the hammer, he saw Thor's hand turn to dust and vanish. He realized Thor had sacrificed himself elsewhere.

Dzelarhons, along with a group of Haida gods, arrived where Loki stood.

—Is everyone alright?— the goddess asked, her body bearing minor wounds.

—I'm sorry, but we've run out of ambrosia to heal you— Loki replied remorsefully.

The Haida gods laughed.

—These injuries are nothing; the beings we fought were merely at the level of Sgana quedas. Strong, but limited— Dzelarhons responded.

—Sadly, the village is lost, and thousands become homeless. Plus, we need a place to tend to the wounded from this fateful battle— the Haida goddess continued.

The Haida gods set up an improvised camp in the forest. Thankfully, no humans were injured. Norse gods, along with Ana, Menrva, and Epona, slept soundly.

Later that night, Loki stood guard outside the camp. Freyja, Freyr, and Tyr were the first to wake up. They felt a brief relief seeing Odin sleeping beside them, but soon realized Thor was missing.

—I don't know what happened. By the time I got there, both Anath and Thor were gone— Loki explained as Freyja rushed out to ask about Thor's whereabouts. Realizing the worst, Freyja dashed back to the camp.

—Brother, do you still have the communication sphere?— the blonde goddess inquired.

—Yes, little sister ♬— the handsome god replied, conjuring the sphere with his right hand.

Freyja approached the sphere and spoke into it.

—Heimdall? Heimdall? Can you hear me?— she asked with a distressed face.

—This is Heimdall. How can I assist you, Freyja?— the white-haired god's face appeared in the communication sphere.

—Did... Thor use the portable Bifrost bridge you gave him? Is he in Asgard?— the goddess asked.

Heimdall remained silent for a moment, then, without changing his serious expression, he uttered what everyone dreaded:

—Thor died while sealing Anath in Jotunheim—.

Freyja felt her legs giving way, and Freyr clutched his head in anguish. Tyr merely closed his eyes and turned away.

—I had suspected something like this— Freyja said with eyes that were on the verge of tears, but she held back. She was a warrior goddess, after all, and the death of her companions was something she knew was a possibility.

— I always thought Thor would die battling the serpent Jormungandr, but he fell to a worse and more venomous snake— Tyr added with annoyance.

—Heimdall— Freyja said, —we confirm that Father Odin is safe, though he's still unconscious. As soon as he recovers, we'll send him to Asgard as swiftly as possible—.

—Understood, Freyja, and I apologize for the bad news— Heimdall replied with his usual emotionless demeanor. He then ended the transmission.

—We saved Father, but we lost Thor— Freyja mused, her tone melancholic. —How ironic life can be—.

—I'll inform Loki of this ♬— the handsome god remarked, but Freyja stopped him.

—I think he trusts me more. I'll tell him— the goddess replied, to which Freyr nodded.

Freyja then left the makeshift tent and saw Loki staring at the stars in front of the tent where the Orniskem goddesses slept.

—I thought they wouldn't make it through the night— Loki sarcastically quipped.

—We're too strong to die... well, not quite so— Freyja replied, trying to be humorous, though her spirits quickly sank.

—That bitch from Lel really kicked our asses— Loki said, laughing yet melancholic.

Freyja took a deep breath and finally spoke.

—I spoke with Heimdall. It seems Thor took Anath to your old prison and sealed her there—.

—Ah, I see. That's why I couldn't find him anywhere— Loki mused.

Then, he looked into Freyja's amber eyes.

—And is Thor alright?— he asked.

Freyja fell silent for a moment, and after a pause, she said: —Y... yes, he's alright—

Loki recalled seeing Thor's hand turn to ashes and understood that the goddess was lying.

—Is she trying to deceive me? The god of lies?— Loki thought.

—I'm glad for him— Loki told the goddess, turning his gaze back to the starry sky.

Freyja felt guilty for lying to Loki, but she believed it was the right thing to do in that moment.

Meanwhile, Ana woke up in the other tent where she had slept and looked to her side, finding Epona. At first, she thought the goddess was still dead, but as she got closer, she heard Epona breathing.

—Am I still dreaming?— Ana wondered, touching her friend's forehead and feeling warmth.

The Irish goddess felt overwhelming emotion. She wanted to scream and hug Epona, but she refrained from waking her.

—Could it be a miracle? Did Odin bring her back to life?— Ana pondered.

Epona continued to sleep. Suddenly, in her mind, she heard an indiscernible voice. It wasn't human or animal, it was a nonsensical mantra repeating over and over.

Epona woke up startled, and to her horror, the voice grew louder and louder.

—Epona!— Ana shouted in excitement upon seeing her friend, but her joy was short-lived as she noticed Epona's expression of terror.

—It's coming for me! 'It' is coming for me!— Epona screamed in alarm, trying to flee, but Ana held her tight.

—Calm down, it was just a nightmare— Ana reassured her.

But Epona's horrified screams continued, waking Menrva, who was also sleeping nearby. Loki and Freyja entered the tent to see what was happening.

Epona remained unresponsive, her screams growing louder. Menrva awoke, her expression one of horror.

—Epona, Epona, we're here with you, Epona— Ana tried to console the Celtic goddess.

—Please! Make it stop!— Epona pleaded, her eyes filled with immense panic as she continued to hear the haunting and mournful voice, though only she could hear it.

Epona was so nervous that she began to scratch her arms vigorously, drawing blood.

In that moment, Ana remembered her first encounter with Epona.

—Never in my life had I seen Epona like this— Ana thought, watching the goddess weep. Ana then sensed that Epona had wet the bed out of fear.

Using his staff of mistletoe, Loki chanted: —Draumaland—.

Gradually, the Celtic goddess began to calm down, eventually falling asleep once more. Ana lifted Epona to prevent her from soaking in her fresh urine and thanked Loki for his help.

—What happened?— Menrva asked, still horrified.

—The girl miraculously returned to life, and I healed her with ambrosia— Loki explained. —But I suppose something happened in her mind during the minutes she was dead—

At that moment, Freyja interrupted.

—I think you should discuss this with Father Odin— the goddess suggested, her face showing signs of fatigue.

The following morning, Ana bathed Epona in the forest's waters to cleanse her, then let her sleep in the makeshift tent with clean sheets.

The Irish goddess went to speak with Odin, who was already awake and sitting on the bed. He wore a broad-brimmed hat and dark robes, which reminded Ana of Myrddin.

—I'd like to personally thank you for supporting my children on their venture in these lands to find me— the god said, his voice soothing and calm, briefly lifting Ana's spirits.

—Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned, due to what happened to your son— Ana replied sorrowfully.

—Thor made a choice and placed his faith in you, so as sad as it is, I'll accept his sacrifice as an act of valor and faith for the future— the god responded, though melancholy shone in his eyes.

A silence ensued. Ana wanted to ask about resurrecting the dead and about Epona's condition, but Odin spoke first.

—Freyja told me about what happened to your friend— the wise god finally said.

—I... she... seems disturbed. I've never seen her like this before— Ana answered. —It's as if she experienced something she wasn't meant to experience—

—Freyja also told me that she discussed my ability to retrieve souls from Hel, or as you call it, Sheol— the wise god continued.

—Yes, in fact, I even thought you had resurrected my friend— Ana replied sadly.

—No, unfortunately, I didn't do that. Moreover, it's possible that I couldn't do so here due to the barrier. Your friend resurrected on her own, something I had never witnessed in all my thousands of years of life— Odin responded.

—Epona... she resurrected herself?— Ana asked.

—It seems so. However, there's something you need to know, young one— Odin continued, rising to his feet.

The god was quite tall, even taller than Anpiel. He must have been over two meters in height.With his hands behind his back, Odin began to speak about his son Balder. Ana realized that these memories brought him much pain, especially now that he had also lost Thor.

—When Loki killed my son Balder, I wasn't by his side— Odin continued. —However, when I stood before his corpse, I did what any father would do, I attempted to resurrect him even though hours had passed since his death—

—And did Balder return like my friend?— Ana nervously asked.

—No, my son returned to life, but he had lost his consciousness. His heart beat, but his mind had been destroyed; he was like an empty shell— Odin explained. —His mother and I decided to turn him into an idol rather than keeping him in such a pitiable state—

Ana fell silent for a moment.

—Young one— Odin continued, —nobody knows exactly what happens when we die. Our souls are separated from our bodies and stored in Hel, Sheol, Hell, or whatever you call it. Both humans and gods follow the same rules of life—

—I know— Ana expressed.

—If the soul desires, it can become an idol and be carried by its loved ones. However, what happens to its consciousness is unknown to all— Odin commented.

—Are you saying that Epona resurrected just seconds before her consciousness was destroyed by something she saw on the other side?— Ana asked.

—Once in my life, I heard a man, specifically a human, who was close to death. The man said he had seen a monstrous creature on the other side of life. However, his sanity was never restored afterward. I believe your friend saw something similar— Odin concluded.

—A creature? Yes, she mentioned something that was talking to her, but I couldn't hear anything — Ana said worriedly.

—When I return to Asgard, I will drink from Mimir's well to see if I can find a cure for your friend's condition. In the meantime, I recommend that you stay by her side and support her as needed— Odin said as he watched the sunrise from the entrance of the makeshift tent.

—I think I'll go check on my friend then. Thank you for everything— Ana said with a bow and was about to leave when she was interrupted by the father of the Norse gods.

—Wait, young one. I've heard that there's a man in Orniskem who has died twice. I believe his name was Asclepius— the god commented.

Ana then remembered that this man was Rodrigo's master. However, her mood grew sadder.

—Thank you, Lord Odin, but Pallas has ceased to exist. I'm not sure of the whereabouts of its members either— Ana replied with a sad expression, also thinking about her own mentor, Athena.

—That's a shame, Ana, especially when we had formed an alliance with you— Odin said with melancholy. —I hope that with the capture of Anath, we can have some time to reorganize—

—Did I tell you my name?— the goddess asked.

—I know many things, Goddess Anand, and if you need Asgard's help to fight against Lel, you can ask me if you wish— the god responded.

—I appreciate that, Father Odin— Ana said and withdrew to the makeshift tent where Epona was sleeping, with Menrva watching over her.

—Did he tell you anything?— the Etruscan goddess asked.

—Yes, but it seems we'll need to look after her for now— Ana said and fell silent.

Ana then recounted everything Odin had told her about life and death.

—Listen, Menrva— Ana commented when she finished the story. —I won't be able to go to Tula. I'll stay with Epona to take care of her—

—I understand— Menrva replied but quickly added. —Why don't we seek help here to see if someone can heal her? Perhaps in these lands, they've discovered ways to forget traumatic events or repair consciousness—

At that moment, Epona woke up, saw the goddesses, and smiled at them with a melancholic gaze.

—Epona, are you feeling better now?— Ana asked when she noticed that the goddess had started to cry.

—I'm so scared, Ana, Menrva. Please don't leave me— the goddess cried, and Ana quickly embraced Epona.

—I'll be by your side, Epona, always— she promised.

—Please, Ana, I don't want to die. I'm so afraid of that creature. Don't die either— Epona continued, clutching Ana with tears streaming from her eyes. The goddess of horses was devastated and had lost all her fighting spirit.

—We'll find a cure, Epona, I promise— Ana reassured, smiling at her.

—Please, stop Rodrigo, Anpiel, and Tania... if they die, I don't know what I'll do... I don't want to see Rodrigo like that, please. Don't leave me— Epona sobbed.

—It's alright, Epona. Try to rest. It's alright— Ana said as she gently laid Epona back on her improvised bed.

—Epona, don't worry, no one will die— Menrva said, standing up and smiling at the Celtic goddess.

Epona closed her eyes and fell asleep once more.

—Ana— Menrva said, —you stay with her. I'll go talk to the Haida gods to see if they know of a cure for Epona. And don't worry, I'll go alone to Tula to meet with Rodrigo and Tania—

—It's very dangerous to go alone— the Irish goddess commented.

—Now that we've lost Pallas, it's just us left, and we must support each other in every way— Menrva said sadly.

—So, do you really believe Pallas was destroyed?— Ana asked.

—Athena had told me that they would likely invade Pallas, so they sent us here for protection, but... I couldn't even protect Epona— Menrva commented, tears welling up in her eyes, though she held back from crying.

—No one knew Bitchanat would come— Ana replied.

—No, I suppose there were spies within Lel, even ones my master didn't know of, and they were the ones who informed us that we would come here, and also the gods of Asgard— Menrva replied.

—I'm sorry that happened just as you joined— Ana replied.

—Don't worry, Ana. We're warriors; we must be strong— Menrva responded, and with that, she took her leave from the tent.Ana took Epona's hand and knelt down beside her friend on the floor.

—Now it's just the two of us— the Irish goddess said, looking melancholically at her friend and holding her hand with both of hers.

—Unfortunately, we are a warrior people and not specialized in medicine— Y'aahl said, who was on Haida Gwaii overseeing the reconstruction along with Dzelarhons.

Menrva thanked them dejectedly, considering returning to Adlivun to seek help there.

—However, to the south, there is a very wise tribe, the Hisatsinom— Dzelarhons commented.

—They build massive structures and have considerable power. They are led by a very wise woman who is skilled in medicine. They call her Gogyeng Sowuhti or Spider Grandmother— he concluded his explanation.

—To the south? Aren't those the territories of the Mississippi?— the Etruscan goddess asked, puzzled.

—The Mississippi kingdom is to the east; the Hisatsinom people are to the west. But I must warn you, that tribe is surrounded by warrior peoples like the Diné and Aztlán, and it's very likely they won't be willing to negotiate. Moreover, I don't think you three can go very far on your own— the Haida goddess confessed.

At that moment, Freyja approached Menrva from behind and knelt before her.

—You won't travel alone. I, Freyja, will wield my spear against your enemies— the Viking goddess said to Menrva.

—But Freyja, aren't you accompanying Odin to Asgard?— the Etruscan goddess asked, surprised.

—My brother and Tyr are enough for helping Father Odin— Freyja responded. —And I've decided to temporarily join your group to support you in any way I can—

—I... I appreciate that— Menrva replied.

—Furthermore— the blonde goddess added, —Loki also doesn't have a place to go, so he'll be coming with us as well—

Loki then appeared behind Freyja, crossed his arms, and looked away.

—But remember, it's only temporary— the god said.

Menrva smiled and thanked them for their support.

—With them, we'll be able to reach that Spider Grandmother and help Epona— she thought.