Telling the others to rest for a minute, Viktor waved his hands and muttered a few syllables in Corrupt Etruscan. He winced against a brief wave of dizziness as the ancient magic expanded his perceptions. The dizziness passed, and Viktor could see himself far below, a tiny figure in the vast jungle. The trail wound among a series of low hills and long, straight ridges. It's all invisible from the trail, thought Viktor, but from up here you can see the spine and the wing-bones. And it looks like we have only another mile or two to go.
"Take some water, my children, then we'll hike some more," Viktor told the others on the trail. The teenagers traveling with Viktor unslung their backpacks and got out snacks and water, chatting amiably among themselves. Viktor stood apart, studying his fellow travelers from his aerial perspective. They seem fit and in good spirits. Ah, the resilience of youth.
Viktor and his charges had traveled far over the last month. Two hundred volunteers from high schools and colleges headed into the New Mexico mountains to unearth the Ixecudor of Ymog. Then Viktor took them to the desert ruins of Petra to conjure a screaming star-spawn. Now a dozen survivors had come with him to Brazil.
Viktor ordered the youths to don their backpacks and resume the march. After another hour on the trail, Viktor halted the hikers again. "Machetes, my children. And you won't need your backpacks anymore," he said. Grinning, the youths rifled through their packs for their sharp blades, drew them, then started hacking a path in the direction Viktor pointed. Such enthusiasm. Oh, to be a true believer again.
Twenty minutes of hard work carved a path to the serpentine ridge hidden behind the jungle vegetation. "This is it, my children. Get out your candles, then climb the ridge," Viktor said. As the teenagers sprinted up the ridge, Viktor broke into a run to keep pace. Just as they'd practiced countless times, they arranged themselves in a circle, then began to sing as they lit their candles, one by one. Their song was a wordless cry, deliberately discordant and confusing. Viktor permitted himself a smile of satisfaction. The song's discordance would draw out his quarry within minutes.
When the song finished, Viktor spoke to the singers. "Well done, my children! Raise your candles high, and prepare your minds to meet eternity!"
A voice rose from beyond the far side of the ridge. "Meet eternity? That's a pretty obvious euphemism, don't you think?"
Viktor whipped his head around to see a blond-haired man stride over the ridgeline to stand near the circle of teenagers. One beefy arm hung casually from the shotgun slung over his shoulder. A few of the youths turned to look at the newcomer, anger in their eyes, but most continued to stare at the candles they held aloft.
"Good afternoon, Viktor."
Viktor narrowed his eyes and nodded curtly. "Agnar."
"I'm surprised you'd travel so . . . unprotected. No abomination today?"
He's right, but I'm not answering that one. "The reason you're here, Agnar?"
"You don't get to end the world, Viktor. No one does."
And with that gun, Agnar could make sure of it, Viktor thought. There's no way I can nail him with sorcery before he gets a shot off.
"And you're going to stop me? Like you stopped Gilman?" Lead him a little . . .
"Like you stopped Neferhe?" I'll bet he knows who Neferhe is by now.
"Neferhe, well . . ."
"Or like you stopped Minerva and Xihouto?"
"That was you, not me."
Now I flip it around. "That's my point, Agnar. I'm doing your job for you. I stopped Minerva and Xihouto. I know what Neferhe's up to, and that's why I'm trying to create a new abomination. I'm going to stop her next.
"If you kill me, I can't tell you about the endbringer who worries me more than Neferhe." It's a bit of a gamble, but I bet he doesn't know about Omega yet.
Agnar paused, staring hard at Viktor. "Nice try, Viktor. But Gilman used the same 'keep me alive' line, and it didn't work. First, let's ruin this ritual."
Agnar yanked the shotgun from his shoulder, held it to the head of one of the teenagers, and pulled the trigger. The teen's head exploded in a pink mist, and the shotgun roar echoed through the jungle.
Viktor suppressed a grim smile as the other youths flinched but kept staring at their candles. Keep him talking.
"You've brainwashed yourself some committed fanatics, Viktor," Agnar said. With a boom, he shot another teen.
"They aren't brainwashed, Agnar. They know they have a small but important role in making the world end, and they're pretty rational about it. You of all people should be able to relate."
Agnar aimed at a third teen, but then lowered the shotgun a few inches. "Me of all people?"
Wait . . . that means he doesn't know. "Ever wonder about the horn you always carry, Agnar? No matter what happens, it somehow always finds it way back to you, doesn't it? Ever wonder why you don't get old but everyone else does? Ever wonder why you run around the world chasing down endbringers?"
Agnar raised the shotgun again, this time pointing at Viktor. "You know about the Gjallerhorn?"
"I know more about it than you do, Agnar."
Viktor paused. Let him come to me.
Agnar sighed, then lowered the gun. "For five hundred years, I've had this horn. I've buried it, I've dropped it in the ocean, I've locked it in vaults, but it always shows up a few days later. You know why the Gjallerhorn and I seem to be immortal?"
"I have exactly one reason to keep what I know secret: The fact that you're shooting my cultists," Viktor replied.
Agnar threw his head back with a short, sharp laugh. "Okay, Viktor. You tell me what the Gjallerhorn does and give me another endbringer to chase. I leave you alone to make your monster and chase down Neferhe. Deal?"
"But that's as far as the deal goes. If our paths cross again, if you persist in trying to end the world . . ."
"I'd expect nothing less, Agnar."
"So what does the Gjallerhorn do?"
"It's pretty simple, Agnar. If you blow it, the world ends."
To be continued...
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