The Amazing Adventures of Sara Corel
A novel by Toomey

Chapter Thirty-eight: The Final Battle

        Sara accompanied Odin back to Asgard. He told her, "You must return to your people. There is much to be done ere dawn."
        "I just want you to know, I was serious about what I said back there. I'm not going to fight. Maybe it's something that has to be done, but not by me."
        "Nevertheless, your place is with them, Sara," he told her. "To them you were sent, by them you were raised, with them you have lived. You have been to their Hell and their Heaven. Their destiny and yours are entertwined."
        She was stubborn. "I don't care. I won't fight. Not just because I don't believe in it, but because I know it's between them and you. If there is a meaning to it, then it's something they have to accomplish for themselves. I don't even know what I'm doing here, frankly."
        "They will not ask you to fight, Sara — but they have need of you nevertheless. They know not what they face and you can give them vital intelligence. They will need the unity that only you can give them. If they become fragmented by their inability to communicate with each other, they will be hard pressed. You cannot deprive them of that."
        "Why are you telling me this? If you're so set on having a battle with humanity, wouldn't you want them to be kept in the dark? It's to your advantage to keep mankind separated and ignorant."
        "And we will try to accomplish that, Sara. It will be your task to prevent us. It is the reason for your being here, and your being here is the reason that the time for this struggle is at hand."
        Sara sighed. "I just don't get it."
        Odin smiled at her, "Please honor my daughters by saying goodnight to them ere you depart." He slowly disappeared into the shadows of Asgard's halls.
        The Valkyries were waiting for her when she arrived. They were in battle dress and saluted her as she entered. The sight of the twelve mighty sisters arrayed in haughty military splendor, long blonde tresses waving wildly with every ceremonial gesture, was thrilling and dramatic in spite of Sara's mood.
        "Hail, Sara," they shouted in unison. "Cousin, foewoman, comrade, companion and most noble adversary. May honor make us worthy and duty unite us."
        What's all this about? thought Sara. "Uh, hail, I guess."
        They broke ranks and clustered about her excitedly, bouncing up and down in gleeful anticipation, all talking at once.
        "At last…"
        "…can't wait."
        "Won't sleep tonight."
        "…so excited…"
        "This is it."
        "Watch for me…"
        "…and me!"
        "…all we've learned."
        Sara was confused. "Wait a minute. You mind telling me what's going on?"
        "Tomorrow," said Brunhilde. "The battle. You and us…"
        "Hold on," Sara protested. "I told your father, I'm not fighting. And if I was, it wouldn't be against the humans. I couldn't do that."
        "No, dear Sara," Brunhilde said patiently while the others giggled. "We understand all that. Nevertheless, we shall give you a splendid fight."
        The others cheered.
        Sara shook her head, "You're gonna fight me? No way. I'm not fighting anyone, especially not you."
        They laughed. "But you must — you will. And it will be wonderful, a sight never before seen, and never after. The very stuff of legends."
        "But…" said Sara plaintively, "Why?"
        "The Allfather told you, Sara. You must be the eyes, the ears, the voice of all the sundered bands of humankind, lest they be cast back into Hell for naught. And we shall put you to the test."
        They cheered again in enthusiastic anticipation. Sara was simply dumbfounded.
        "Let us embrace you, dearest Sara, and bid you swiftly away, for we know you have your duties to attend to, as we have ours."
        Brunhilde gently took the girl into her powerful arms and kissed her tenderly. "For when tomorrow we meet again…"
        The Valkyries shouted in unison, "We fight!"

        Sara flew slowly through the starless night, her mind in a turmoil. Below her, stealthy preparations bustled frantically throughout the valley. All around on the surrounding plain, the campfires of the humans blazed. There would not be much sleep this Armageddon's Eve on either side.
        Although there was one place that showed no particular concern. As she passed the camp of the hunting god who'd killed the deer, she kreened a peacefulness that stood out from the surrounding flow of movement. She dipped lower and saw him sleeping on a deerskin beside the comfort of his small fire. His simple possessions surrounded him — some handmade stone and wooden implements, the food stores of a hunter-gatherer, a few trophies, little else. It was all he needed.
        He slept untroubled and unconcerned, unashamedly naked to the night sky, still somehow alert and instinctually aware of his surroundings. Sara slowed to a feather's pace, wrapped her cape around her tightly and held her breath so as not to rouse him. His effect on her was, if anything, more powerful than it had been the first time she beheld him.
        He had no obvious godly attributes or aspect, but — as before — there was an unseen radiance that surrounded him that she hadn't noticed in the other gods. He had only animal strength and cunning, and an undefinable pureness and unity with nature that had disappeared with the emergence of civilization. His people had spanned the entire world for uncounted generations before farming and domestication made everything about human existance so complicated, and in places had persisted unspoiled until technology managed to shrink the globe into insignificance, taming and tainting the last wild places.
        Perhaps the essential primitivism he represented had its own problems, and the simpleness more sophisticated later cultures looked back to with longing never really existed. After all, his people were on the plain, too. But their conception of a godly being had a greatness that had somehow diminished in his successors.
        She lingered over him as long as she dared, though not as long as she wanted. He stirred, stretching slightly and shifting subtly. Some sense long forgotten by modern men made him open his eyes. But Sara had vanished.

        Sara told the senior commanders at Supreme Headquarters everything she knew, projecting pictures to support her narrative. She emphasized her unwillingness to join the fight, but — as Odin had said — they didn't ask her to. She would be far more valuable to them as a vital linkage between armies who otherwise would be fragmented and alone against a foe that was still largely a mystery. The generals had no previous relevant experience to guide them in formulating strategy and tactics and would have to improvise as they went along. Waging such a war as isolated units would be catastrophic.
        She was conflicted about assuming any role. Even her support of their communications was a combat role by extension, but she couldn't bring herself to turn her back on them.
        The Valkyries worried them. Sara explained as best she could about Velorians, and tried to reassure them that they couldn't harm her. At least, she told them, if they make good on their promise to try to engage her, then the rest of the army wouldn't have to worry about a dozen flying, invulnerable, immensely strong, death-ray equipped supergirls.
        They wondered how many other mythological superheroes they would have to face.
        Sara finally got to what was bothering her. "I still don't really understand why everybody decided to go through with this. I'd think that putting this off and trying to work something out would be a lot better idea. Going up against the gods seems to me to be suicidal."
        "We've had enough time in this half-existence to figure some things out, Sara, and I don't mean just among the leadership. I think it's obvious to everyone in the human armies that this whole situation isn't right."
        "This is not the kind of heaven my people expected."
        "Nor mine. It can be nothing other than a waystation, a brief stop on the way to the real afterlife."
        "If we are now experiencing a life after death, then it seems reasonable to expect that it is something we can look forward to again."
        "If we bear true faith and allegiance to our duty, we have faith that things will be made right — the same kind of faith that made us die for what we believed in in the first place."
        Sara objected. "But the city down there — so what if the gods want something in return for living there? Believe me, it's as close to some kind of Heaven as you can imagine. Nobody really knows what'll happen if you die again. Why take a chance?"
        "There's a reason there aren't any souls there."
        "For one thing — maybe there's plenty of ice cream, but there aren't many women."
        "And no proper employment, no reason for living."
        "We know what a Faustian bargain is, Sara. Selling your soul to the devil is a part of every folklore."
        "It's just a prettier version of Hell."
        "And, having heard from the gods, we no longer trust them."
        "They have already betrayed our beliefs."
        Sara was surprised. "That's quite a leap of faith — or whatever you call the opposite."
        The war-bonneted old Chief spoke up. "The Great Spirit does not talk to me on the radio. I am a simple man, and this is what I believe — His home is in the sky, and sometimes I think I see a little bit of Him in the red sunset or in the early morning mist. When He wants to tell me something, His voice is the wind and I hear Him with my heart.
        "I do not think I know what God is really like. Nobody does. These demons who tempt us have taken the names that we have given to our poor imaginations. They deserve to be cast down, and we do not deserve to endure their illusions.
        "They offer war and hardship to end the reign mankind has given to them, or ease and comfort to take the coward's way. We are warriors. We know what path we must take.
        "My people have a saying for that time before a battle when the choice is clear. 'It is a good day to die.' Tomorrow I will say this again, and then if I die once more, maybe I will truly see the Happy Hunting Ground."

        Sara made the rounds of a few of the commands around the perimeter of the valley, attending to last-minute details. Whenever she could, she had a few brief words with the some of the soldiery, all of whom had gathered 'round the radios. To a man, they knew the afterlife they were in was bogus. Those who had expected a Heaven filled with loved ones felt cheated. Those who had lacked expectations had their own reasons to be skeptical of voices that purported to be divine.
        There is probably nothing worse than the betrayal of trust and belief. Their present situation was a blow to every man on the plain, and it had the effect of making them angry. Whatever these creatures were that had robbed them of the rewards of a valiant death, they would pay dearly for their disrespect and treachery. One way or another, these men would strike a blow for all mankind, and their souls would be released from this mockery.
        Not that there was unanimity about risking death again. There were plenty of men who would just as soon pass this bitter cup and take any way out that was offered. There was the practical matter of not having any place else to go, since anyone could see that the city was not going to be very safe during the battle, and the desert was no place to hide. The demons who came in the night made no distinctions concerning conscientious objectors. In any event, few of them would abandon their more determined comrades. With the exception of scattered units and even a minor army or two, a grim consensus had emerged. There were an awful lot of these particular dead who were the kinds of men who had stood with Leonidas at Thermopylae. The Theban deserters had not been mustered.
        As far as battling the gods was concerned, they'd take their chances. Most of them didn't have any particular respect for someone else's gods anyway, and their own had been seen to have feet of clay. Everything about this afterlife was tangibly physical, including deities who gave radio addresses. Defeating such 'gods' simply required a tactical solution.

        The Ninth Kentucky was still bivouacked at the oasis they shared with other Union troops. They greeted her warmly and with great respect, offering the best of their victuals, which she accepted greatfully. For the most part, they almost seemed to be eager to have a chance to finally bring this whole affair to some kind of conclusion.
        It was late and she apologized for disturbing whatever sleep they could get. They would need it, she said, and they settled down as best they could. Sara rolled herself in her cape and, like everyone else, pretended to sleep for a while, but finally got up and sat beside Nate, who had the watch.
        He was tense, simultaneously sweating and shivering. Sara needed no special senses to see that anxiety poured out of him like a dismal fog.
        "You alright?" she asked him concernedly.
        "Sure, ma'am," he lied. "Guess I been thinkin' too much is all."
        "I know what you mean," Sara sighed, trying to make him feel a little more comfortable by sharing his burden. "I wish there was some way to make all of this go away."
        "Ye ain't a-skeered, are ye, ma'am? From what I heared, ye don't have too much t' worry 'bout."
        "Except for Brunhilde and her gang," she replied wryly, "and the wrath of the gods."
        "Well, I shore am, an' I don't mind ownin' up t' it. I wasn't so 'fraid b'fo I died, 'cause I guess I reckoned I'd live ferever, like most young fools. An' I s'pose it ain't 'xactly that I'se skeered o' dyin' this time. Could be a blessin'."
        "I think I know what you mean. Nobody who's suffered a lingering death should ever have to face that again. That's been my main concern…"
        "Beggin' yer pardon, ma'am, but it ain't even that. We all agrees that we won't none of us allow no sufferin'. They ain't no medics t' speak of, an' we all don't mean to linger in these here parts anyhow. If'n I'm hit, my friends'll put me outta m' misery, an' I'll do th' same fer them."
        Sara was shocked. This was something she hadn't considered. "You mean, you'd…" She couldn't say it.
        "Yes'm. Quick an' merciful. We'll all reserve our last rounds fer that."
        She didn't know what to say.
        "I s'pose what it is," he went on, "is that I hope I don't let nobody down. I want so bad t' find a hole to bury m'self in. I don't know if I can stand up with the rest, if'n my fingers will work, if'n my knees won't buckle, if'n I won't lose m' water — beggin' yer pardon, ma'am. An' I really don't know if I can do m' duty by my friends if they go down. How can I face that?"
        He sobbed quietly in the dark as Sara held him. He gradually worked his way through his agony.
        "I'll be alright," he finally said, with quiet determination. "I jist wish, by all that's holy — if there is anything that's holy anymore — that I'm the first one t' fall. And if I am the last, I swear that there will be Hell to pay."

        An hour before what passed for dawn, the demons attacked in force. This time, the humans were ready for them.
        Headlights scavenged from thousands of vehicles, great bonfires, star shells from the ships, phosphorus bombs and flares dropped from planes launched in the darkness — every kind of illumination available to them lit up the onrushing hordes. For the first time, the faces of their enemies could be seen.
        This was no mere raid. It was a massive assault. Everything that mankind feared was rushing headlong upon their trenches and barricades: imps, great scaly things, nightmarish creatures, the undead, trolls, ice giants, gremlins, monsters, tax collectors, Gestapo goons, hellish abominations, Klansmen, gargoyles, lawyers, aliens, shapeless wraiths, avenging angels, dragons, ex-wives, grotesqueries, serpents, ghouls, goblins, saboteurs, devils, guilty consciences, and things that went bump in the night.
        For a moment, fear froze the hands of men. The terrifying host was nearly upon them when they finally got a close enough look at what they had been dreading to realize how fucking silly they all looked in the glaring lights. They began to fight. The demons went down, falling in droves as humans faced up to them.
        Nevertheless, the enemy exacted a heavy price. It took more than the realization that these creatures were the products of their own imaginations to send them back to Hell. Cold steel was needed, and true aim and a steady trigger finger. They did not die easily, and some revived when doubts resurfaced. Nevertheless, the lines held and the attack foundered.
        When daylight finally came, man's demons had been vanquished. There was loss and grief and the bloody work of ending the pain of the perhaps fortunate ones who had suffered grievous wounds, but when it was over, humans had discovered a newfound confidence. They did not fear the gods. They were ready to face the hosts of Heaven.
        They didn't have to wait long. At sea, the war had begun in earnest. After a quick conference by radio through Sara, the humans began to move out in response.
        And from Valhalla, singing, the Valkyries issued forth to do battle.

Chapter Thirty-nine: The Angel of This Place

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© Patrick Hill, 2000