A lonely shopping cart. Random refuse, some bagged, mostly empty soda cans. A slowly decaying copy of Stranger in a Strange Land. These are the baraka of a human life, all that Soren Himmler will take with him beyond the Western Lands. The people of Eightieth Street know Himmler as the Ragman, the Starving Artist, sometimes even le pauvre cheri, if you hear it from Miss Vierge at number 54. Eightieth Street is not by any means an upscale neighborhood, and Soren Himmler is as downscale as they come.
Himmler makes a pretty picture, all right. Right now, midday of a gray April 21st, a line of drool is fixing to weave out of his wispy beard and plop onto the concrete. A formless burlap coat wraps his skeletal form, showing clear as day a set of ribs you could climb up. Behind mannequin eyes burns only the determination to keep pushing the Kroger cart in his hands. This, dear reader, is one of the last stages of malnutrition, and Soren Himmler is this stage's avatar. The collective roar of New York City rings a deaf note in Himmler's ears; there isn't any reason to listen anymore.
But this isn't the tale of the Ragman's death, not some poignant heartstring marionette. No, this is a story of transfiguration. "Lazarus, come and walk upon the earth!"
Suddenly the ambient roar of the streets is punctured, and a haunting sort of note slices through the deaf ears of one Soren Himmler. This note is a siren song, a Pavlovian dinner bell; in short, this note is a message that the time is nigh, although which time depends on who you ask. This note digs a hook in the Ragman's spine and climbs as a visceral "yes" shudders up his form to lodge, ringing, between his ears.
The Starving Artist runs a desiccated tongue over lips unused to speaking, and whispers, "Home."
Suddenly, the shopping cart is in motion, rusty wheels only skimming the ground. A quicksilver blur streaks around a street corner onto a main sidewalk, and Himmler slaloms his Kroger cart between unknowing pedestrians. They don't know, they don't know like Himmler does! This is change; this is drive; this is new! So dumbfounded stock characters only give a puzzled look as the Old Man Who Saw the Universe Move careens down the concrete. A stray chunk of asphalt sends the cart airborne for a few seconds, bursting away from gravity like the soul of our Ragman struggling to burst its fetters.
The sheep are beginning to see now. Within the nebulous blur-mass of the people around him, Himmler begins to pick out upturned faces some that hear the call of Asgard. They will come, the Ragman knows, but not as he, for he is the Forerunner, this is his wyrd! He was promised the right, long ago, to see the war of Asgard and Hel, and to carve his place in that war. And no simpering mortal would steal that fate from him.
Buildings move faster, now, and the world is gray blur and ambient roar, gray roar and ambient blur, cut only by a single note, a clear sweet reveille. The Kroger cart turns a sharp corner, nearly tossing a plastic bag of empty Vanilla Cokes, and there there THERE is the Ragman's redemption. The air in the ally ripples like it would above hot asphalt, a mirage willing itself to linger. Himmler's face twists. One of the unworthy ones, a nondescript fleshsack human, is reaching toward the Slip. A cry escapes this Soren Himmler's throat, and he twists his cart so that is goes into a tailspin. The front end, complete with HAPPY KROGERING advertisement, knocks the infidel flat on his back. Cart twirling like a mad calliope, Himmler plants his rag. Wrapped feet on the bar just above the wheels, and later on, when asked, onlookers would report that the Ragman cackled and rode that cart like a prize bronco, and all of a sudden he wasn't there.
He was the first.
All agreed that his last words on Earth were "Wakey, wakey."
And barreling into the far wall of The Happy Bouver flies a bat out of Hell-or even worse, out of Earth.
Himmler smiles, tears in his eyes. "Home!"
The Bouver is full of Unman; that is, men born of the realm and not from the glorified-dirt-clod Earth. Most of them are armored; supremacy in the New Realm is based only on money and not being dead. One of them laughs drunkenly at the disheveled new arrival, but a companion breaks a mug over his head. "Shut up! He's one of the Forerunners."
The Ragman collects his shapeless coat around him. It had fallen in a puddle of liquor and was damp and musty. Himmler drinks in the realm with his eyes, new life pumping in his veins. He has seen this place in his dreams. It is Asgard, or something very close. Here would the battles be fought, here would the Great Culling call the mortals to play out the squabbles of gods.
A burly man holds out an enormous hand to help Himmler up. The middle finger of this hand is capped with a ring set with a marble-sized garnet. "Lemme' help you up. You must be one of the Forerunners."
Himmler knows this man. "As promised," he rasps.
Himmler dreamed this man's face. "Did you bring any capital?" this man asks. "If not, then I suppose you could work in the factories for gold."
Loki showed Himmler this man. "I bring iron, "says Himmler. A gnarled hand offers this burly drinker a paper bag full of Vanilla Coke empties. The Ragman's other hand cradles the dying Heinlein novel. "It's lightweight, but durable."
The nameless drinker peeks inside the bag. "There must be thirty cans in this bag alone!" he says with a whistle. "And you have two more bags like this?"
Soren Himmler nods and smiles, his tongue peeking through where a tooth is missing, "What'll it fetch, stranger?"
"Two thousand gold coins."
"All right." Himmler nods. The drinker pressed a weighty gold coin into the Ragman's palm.
Himmler takes exactly ten steps, as Loki told him when he spoke of this man.
Loki spoke of himself as a deity of balance. The monstrous Saint and the hellish Demon had seen fit to bring Earthmen into their wars. Loki existed to keep them in balance, lest they destroy the NewAge realm.
The man, the nameless drinker, was whom Loki had said he must kill.
"Hey! This is aluminum, you bastard!" the drinker bellows, and raises a clenched fist. As he was told, Himmler chucks the Heinlein novel-corpse into the man's face, and it bursts into sci-fi novel confetti. The drinker bellows and casts a fiery burst from his garnet ring. As Himmler was told, the fire catches on the slowly-falling pages, and the Starving Artist rolls under a barstool, relieves a man of his pulse blade, and impales the drinker as an entomologist pins a butterfly. The man falls sputtering to the ground, bleeding through the slats in the floor.
People would remember the picture of the Ragman: frozen in time in a rain of flaming torn pages, ready to face destiny head-on, smiling madly.
Himmler returns the be-thieved drinker his blade. "Sorry." Then he sits down on a bar stool, and the Buveur goes back to business. You see, this sort of thing is common. "Meat," Himmler says, slapping down the two-thousand gold piece. "I haven't eaten in a very long time."