WRATH OF THE VALKYRIE
Reginleif held her sword in a high guard as she descended further down the dismal corridor. She tread carefully but was not overly worried about a stealthy approach as the walls of the tunnel bled with the tortured screams of the souls of the underworld.
Wraiths of men, women, and even children protruded from the stone walls, their ghastly arms as gnarled as demonic tree branches and open sores for mouths bellowing a crescendo of everlasting suffering. Reginleif kept her neon blue gaze fixated on the darkness ahead for any sudden movements, the light from the blade of her enchanted sword illuminating the macabre tunnel. Her iron clad leather tunic chafed with sweat from the unrelenting heat and the sword wavered in her grasp but despite being surrounded by death, Reginleif had never felt more alive.
In times long past Reginleif recalled her sword training under the dutiful eye of her lover Gunnar. Though they had always used wooden stakes in place of steel they sparred with a ferocity that would make Tyr proud. In whirlwinds of feigned bloodlust and devilish eyes they stabbed, parried, slashed and dodged one another. Gunnar always got the better of their exchanges, the black and blue welts across her body a testament to his triumphs.
"When are you most vulnerable in a fight?" he would ask her, his boyish face flushed with sweat and mischievous glint in his eyes. "When you are attacking you have committed yourself to the strike you are going to use against your opponent and in doing so exposed yourself to their counter. Always remember to stay one step ahead of yourself in combat because the person you were in the last battle is just as much an enemy as the one in front of you."
His advice had served her well in more than one encounter but that had been against men of flesh and blood on the distant shores of foreign lands, not in the bowels of the underworld against unimaginable horrors. How she wished Gunnar was still by her side, to feel his warm flesh against her own and drown in his storm grey eyes. The man she had given her life to was trapped in this festering, nightmarish abode, his soul held captive by the goddess of death, Hela. Reginleif was not leaving this place empty handed.
The tunnel descended sharply which slowed Reginleif's progress lest she lose her footing and become ensnared by one of the many wraiths seeking salvation but finding none. Her sword, Gramr, shone true however, its light a shining beacon revealing the steep path ahead. There was nothing outwardly remarkable about the blade; a simple longsword with a cross guard and leather bound hilt to improve its grip. However, its legendary origins belied its mundane appearance as it was the same sword the hero Sigurd used to slay the dragon Fafnir with. After the heroic deed the sword was thrust back into the trunk of the Barnstokkr tree where it awaited another hero worthy enough of wielding the only blade capable of killing a god.
The ground leveled as the tunnel expanded into a cavernous area. The larger cave was mercifully free of the encroaching dead, its walls instead honeycombed by dozens of openings. From each of the cavities the incessant wails of the tortured souls emanated in a cacophony that made Reginleif's skin crawl with gooseflesh. The enormous cavern appeared to be a central hub, each tunnel a potential dead end or passage that led to Gunnar.
Reginleif had no way of choosing the right tunnel but luckily for her Gramr knew the way. A tremor reverberated in the swords hilt before traveling up the blade and compelling her towards a tunnel to the left. Reginleif stepped into the chamber, the light from Gramr illuminating the festering darkness ahead. Beneath the undulating cries of the damned she could hear something else, a ferocious growl that sent tremors through the ground and into the marrow of her bones. Something shifted in the darkness ahead, its movement causing a cloud of dust and dirt to envelope her in a fetid embrace.
Slowly, Reginleif backed away from the tunnel. Through the swirls of dust something lurched forward on limbs as thick as tree trunks, its bulk covered in patches of dark fur and rotten, sinewy flesh. The creature snorted from an elongated snout rimmed with razor sharp teeth, its bulbous and yellowed eyes searching the length of the tunnel until they focused on her in a look of pure bloodlust. Its claws, viciously sharp and almost the length of her sword, dug into the ground, the colossal yet lithe body hunched in a pouncing position and Reginleif knew she had mere seconds to get out of the way before the creature attacked.
Reginleif leaped to the right as the creature surged out of the tunnel. Here in the openness of the cavern Reginleif was able to take in the monstrosity before her in stark clarity. The wolf Fenrir had once been a beautiful and sacred creature, but when the Gods discovered its true strength and purpose it was bound and cast into the furthest depths of the underworld where it awaited the end of times.
Now the beast stood before her, horrifically resplendent in rot and death as it tossed its skeletal head back and unleashed a howl thick with blood curdling torment. Reginleif would have loved nothing more than to escape from the beast and continue her journey but she knew she was not fast enough to outrun Fenrir.
She would have to fight.
Reginleif raised Gramr overhead and shifted her weight onto her back leg. The light from the sword spilled over her in a radiant halo and she could almost feel Gunnar's presence beside her. At least she was not going into this battle alone.
Fenrir charged forward and Reginleif mirrored the movement as she lunged towards the beast off her back leg and slashed diagonally downward in the strike Gunnar called Munnin's Claw. Time itself seemed to slow as Fenrir barreled past her, the tip of Gramr slicing through rotten flesh and bone. A fraction of a second later the creature shrieked, spun towards her and reared back on its hunches to ready another charge.
Reginleif readied Gramr in a defensive guard, the blade stained red. Fenrir hesitated, its plan of attack forgotten as it skulked out of the swords light and into darkness. The wails of the dead grew louder, almost deafening, but Reginleif ignored them as best as she could and focused on keeping track of the beast as it skirted between the contorting shadows. Another ear-splitting howl pierced through the deluge of tortured screams and the beast emerged from the right, its claws a pendulum of death as it swiped at her. The first blow shuddered the sword in her grasp while the second raked against the breastplate of her armor, sending her crashing to the ground.
Instead of pouncing Fenrir backed from its attack as Reginleif stumbled to her feet. The beast slithered back into the shadows, its tactic now clear. Reginleif held Gramr at arm's length, the blade facing up. She emptied her mind, let all her thoughts and feelings flow into the tip of the blade which began to strain in her grasp. In her minds eye she could feel Gunnar behind her, his strong arms clasped about her shoulders and breath a stark breeze in her ear.
Gods, give me strength. She whispered a silent prayer as Fenrir charged from behind. Reginleif spun on her heels and leveled Gramr horizontally at the beast gaping maw. She felt as much as she heard the terrible clashing of steel on fangs that sent shockwaves throughout her body. Reginleif managed to wrench the blade free of Fenrir's jaws as the beast rose on its hind legs, placing her within reach of its forelimbs and their vicious claws. Reginleif did not back away however. Instead she raised Gramr and stabbed at the beast exposed stomach as its claws pierced through the chainmail of her armor.
The pain was excruciating, icy tendrils digging into the flesh of her chest and shoulders, but Reginleif gritted her teeth and forced the blade through the beast gut and up into its rotted ribcage. Brackish fluid rained from the eviscerated wound along with thick, blackened entrails. The vice grip of the claws loosened and Reginleif fell away from the dying beast, bruised, bleeding.
Fenrir reeled on its limbs, mouth agape as if in shock. The Famine Wolf, scourge of the River Van and devourer of the sun, slain by a mortal girl! Reginleif was no ordinary mortal however, she was a chooser of the slain, one of the hosts of Valhalla who would lead the souls of those killed in combat to the Great Hall in preparation for the final battle.
She was a Valkyrie.
With a final guttural whimper Fenrir toppled to the stone floor. Reginleif approached the beast carcass. The mouth hung open, the once fierce eyes now unseeing orbs of amber. Now that this battle was well and truly over the war for Gunnar's soul was only just beginning.
Reginleif gazed around the catacombed tunnel, each opening leading everywhere and nowhere. She willed the sword to show her the correct path and true to its nature Gramr strained in her grasp like a dog on a leash and compelled her towards another opening in the cavern. Shadows scurried away like fretful animals as Reginleif made her way down the serpentine tunnel, Gramr lighting the way. As she trekked further down the path the anguished cries of the dead receded and was replaced by the gentle weeping of a woman. Her cries languished on the shadows of the tunnel, distorted and mournful. The light sobbing soon melted into a joyless mirth that sent shivers down Reginleif's spine. Her every step was haunted by the sly, sensuous voice, and when the voice finally spoke Reginleif recoiled in horror when she realized it was her own voice.
"What are you doing here?"
"Turn back now while you still can."
"He never loved you…"
"Shut up, just SHUT UP!" the taunts and insults assailed Reginleif from all directions, clawing at her very sanity but she trudged on against the tide of voices.
"You're going to die here little girl…"
Reginleif emerged from the tunnel and found herself in a world unto itself. The land here was raised by vast mountain ranges and roiling mounds of dirt littered with cave mouths and the sky above – if one could call it that – loomed boundless and unclean, the color of rustic metal and blood. What passed as the sun overhead was nothing more than a nexus of sharp light edges, beyond its threshold the other eight worlds of Yggdrasil lay contently on the roots of the mighty oak tree. This was a land of cold and death, a nightmarish realm where the souls of the dead spent an eternity trapped.
To the north a massive hill formed a steep ziggurat that stretched towards the bloody sky. Giant stone megaliths encircled the hill top and Reginleif spotted a lone figure amongst the pillars. The figure was on their knees, arms outstretched as if in devout reverence to some unholy god.
Reginleif stumbled across uneven terrain towards the ziggurat. Her mind refused to adhere to any rationale: maybe she was running into a trap, maybe she was going to die here, a little girl alone and afraid, unable to rescue the one she loved. Reginleif pushed all doubt aside, fought through the sharp pain that gnawed at her body and ascended the hill.
The climb was arduous and made even more cumbersome by the pain in her sides, but she eventually made it to the summit, flushed and exhausted. What she saw as Gunnar was nothing more than an illusion of her lover. His body rippled and contorted like the smoky glow of a torch but even the mirage of his everlasting soul still bore the wounds of his mortal death. Deep, ragged cuts exposed the torn loops of his intestines and his back was carved open, the bones of his ribcage plucked forth and splayed like bloody wings.
Once more Reginleif was forced to relive the senseless slaughter. Memories of that fateful day threatened to consume her from the inside out – the raiders from the North, her village razed to the ground, the sight of Gunnar's bloody wings poised in grisly flight as scavengers tore at his lifeless body –
"Get away from him…"
The voice was discordant and as menacing as a snarl. The woman to whom the voice belonged to peered from behind one of the giant stone pillars. She stood obscured in shadows, the left side of her body hidden by the megalith but from what Reginleif could see the woman was strikingly beautiful, the smooth surface of her naked skin an immaculate ivory and cascades of raven dark hair hung about her perfectly sculpted, regal like face. Her eye was the pale shade of emerald as she scowled from her half hidden visage.
Reginleif raised Gramr in a defensive position. "Who are you?" she demanded. "Show yourself!"
The woman slithered from behind the pillar into the light. The left side of her body was the grey and mottled texture of a bloated corpse, the face a half grinning grimace of a blackened skull where an unblinking and rotted eye regarded Reginleif.
"You know who I am child…" the woman said, her voice dripping with malice. And Reginleif did know. Like the fleeting passage between life and death the woman who stood before her was the embodiment of beauty and revulsion, the queen of the deepest and dark places and ruler of the dead from all nine worlds.
Hela smiled in a crooked half grin and pointed to the sword in Reginleif's hands. "Where did you find that?"
"It is mine," Reginleif said, meeting the Goddesses gaze. "And it is the only weapon powerful enough to kill a God! Give me passage from this place with Gunnar and I swear that you will not taste its blade!"
Hela laughed, a mirth caught between joyless humor and the rattling of bones. "I sense great power within you. You have defeated the great Fenrir Wolf, still you are no match for the true power of a God."
Gramr twisted in Reginleif's hands, eager for more blood. "Try me."
Hela stalked towards Gunnar and embraced him in her cold grasp, silken smooth and rotted hands gliding over his tortuous wounds. "Foolish child, you come into my domain seeking respite for your loved one, but you forget that this is the place where only the dead dwell. Gunnar's soul is mine. Forever."
"No! You have no right to his soul! Gunnar was murdered in cold blood, his death a sacrilege to Valhalla and all which the Gods hold dear!"
Hela sneered with half a mouth. "Fuck the Gods, they are nothing but liars. You speak of all which they hold dear but gaze upon the one you hold dear. His scars bare the bloody mark of your precious Allfather, his death nothing more than a sacrifice to the petulant cowards you pray to."
"You liar!" Reginleif screamed, but the words choked in her throat for at that moment she was able to truly see the arcane runes of the Allfather carved into her beloved like a visceral tapestry. Reginleif thought herself mad, sadness ebbing into confusion which finally boiled over into a seething hatred for Hela, for the Gods and for herself for living a blind life of servitude.
Hela spread her arms embracingly, triumph radiating in her seeing, emerald eye. "Come now child, I shall grant you a swift death. It is the only way you will ever be reunited with Gunnar."
Reginleif charged, all form of strategy and reason thrown to the wind. A terrible, anguished scream filled the gulf between them and Reginleif knew it was her own. With all of her might she brought Gramr down on Hela in a two handed slash. The light from the sword illuminated fury and bloodlust, the vacuous and radiant eyes concealing a fleeting look of surprise before her immaculately crafted hand seized the blade of Reginleif's sword in mid strike.
Hela's eyes bore into the shocked face of Reginleif. Blood seeped from the Goddess's grasp down the sword blade as she tightened her grip against the shuddering of Gramr. With a powerful thrust Hela plunged her blackened hand through the breast plate of Reginleif's armor. The rotten fingers carved through her chest like living things. Cold, oily slickness slithered around her very heart along with the sickening heat of her blood. The pain was unbearable, the scream forever entombed in her throat as blood erupted from her mouth. Even as the bitter realization of impending death crept over her she could not help but stare into Hela's lustrous eye and see the beauty in the Goddess. The Gods move in unfathomable ways and here Reginleif was, a little girl wielding a sword she was unworthy of in a futile attempt of defiance at the divine plan. Would she finally be reunited with Gunnar? Or was she resigned to a more grim fate?
The encroaching darkness held no answers and soon Reginleif found herself weightless, adrift in a sea of blackness that was utterly perfect. There was no pain. No sorrow. No regret. The revelation of death was more profound than anything Reginleif had ever known, more grand than the dining halls of Valhalla, more vast than the fields of Folksvangr, it was the feeling of being strewn asunder into the world of mist, before time was time, before the folly of the Gods.
Or perhaps Reginleif was not yet ready to know.
The perfect darkness was disturbed by a tremulous flickering of lights. Effervescent sparks danced in the darkness like scattered fireflies and as Reginleif's senses rushed back to her she found herself sitting beside a raging camp fire, embers of kindling drifting into the deep and star filled night. Hela was nowhere in sight, the pain she had inflicted upon Reginleif's very heart nothing more than an oily remembrance now. As Reginleif stared around her surroundings, a stranger in a strange land, she recalled many nights like this from the dredge of her memory. Nights spent cuddled in the warm embrace of the man she loved. When they weren't sharing sweet mead and even sweeter secrets between them, they made love under the shimmering heavens, their passion for each other more fierce than the flames before them.
O' Gods, why am I here?
Movement to her right. Reginleif instinctively reached for Gramr, the sword nowhere to be seen. She tensed, ready to lash out, prepared for another one of Hela's tricks, only to come face to face with the boyish smile of Gunnar.
The tension sluiced from Reginleif's bones and was replaced by a tidal wave of relief so profound it compelled her unquestionably down into his arms. They fit together like two long lost pieces of a puzzle and as Reginleif explored the hardened contours of his flesh, smelled the scent of the Aegir Sea within his hair and tasted the familiar flavor of honey upon his tongue she knew that if this was her afterlife then her death was but a small price to pay for an eternity of happiness.
She pulled herself away from their embrace, the kiss tingling on her lips and questions burning in her mind.
"It's you," Reginleif breathed. "O' Gods, it's really you?"
"Aye, but what are you doing here? You shouldn't be here Reginleif."
"I-I tried to free your soul from Hela's grasp. I won't let her take you away from me, not like this."
Sorrow clouded Gunnar's storm orb eyes. He sighed. "I love you, but I can't stand the fact that my death has put you on this path of vengeance. I never feared death, not once, because a life without loss is a life without love."
His words bore into Reginleif's heart, her motives, her actions, all falling away like embers in the night. "But your death was a sacrilege from the God's, Hela holds no dominion over your soul. It is you who doesn't belong here!"
Gunnar shook his head. "We all die Reginleif, and when our time comes it doesn't matter how, when, or why, all that matters in the end is that we look death in the eye and embrace it as a friend, because if you turn your back on death all you will see is the shadow it cast."
The light of the campfire seemed to grow stronger, the brightest of flames passionately licking the air and casting the blackest of shadows in their wake.
"The longer you hide from it, the darker the shadow grows until all that's left is the darkness. Can you feel the darkness Reginleif? Can you feel it seeping into your skin, pouring into your heart?"
The shadows twisted and conspired against the raging flames, a shapeless mass that coalesced into figments of darkness blacker than ink, more grotesque than the most fevered of nightmares, and Reginleif could feel the darkness arching across her skin in thick, invisible currents.
"I can feel it," she breathed. "O' Gods I can feel it!"
"Then you must let me go! I've accepted my fate long ago, and it's time you do the same. Please, the darkness will not stay back for much longer. If you don't let go, she will consume you."
Inch by inch the darkness grew closer, a malignant cancer threatening to snuff out the only light she had left. But Gunnar was right. Every step, every breath, had led her to this moment but would any of it be worth it if she died as well? As deep and foreboding as the shadows were, they were not dark enough to snuff out the flame of memory, to erase a lifetimes worth of unquenchable love. She would have to live on and carry his name, because a life without loss was truly a life without love.
"I can't lose you again…" a final desperate plea, tears staining her eyes and voice thick with grief.
"You will never lose me." Gunnar said, wiping away her tears. "I'll always love you."
"And I will always love you…"
The words seemed to hang in the air along with the whispering scent of honeyed mead and salt before disappearing forever. Gunnar was gone, the second time Reginleif had lost her beloved, but this time the hollow ache of her loss was replaced by the memories of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow.
Slowly, Reginleif rose to her feet, neon eyes awash with the glow from the flames. A cold yet familiar weight pressed against the palm of her hand, a ravenous hunger reverberating from the sharpened tip of her sword Gramr down its edge and into her very bones. The darkness seethed, tendrils of shadows snaking against the night air, what could have passed for claws slowly stalking towards her. Reginleif raised Gramr in a two handed stance, imbued by its insatiable craving and the glorious flames which shined brighter than the sun but did not burn.
Without warning, the darkness finally charged.
And so did Reginleif.
Like the wind whispering across barren fjords, like the current of quick silver, she struck fast and true. The enchanted steel tore through the darkness as if it were parchment, a thousand forms of blackness severed by the glorious flame of life. A scream ripped from the darkness, long and keening, Hela's final lament as the shadows evaporated like a dying miasma, leaving Reginleif alone atop the ziggurat.
Reginleif slowly lowered Gramr, its hunger now sated. She looked up towards the nexus in the burnt out sky only to find it filled by a portal of a pure blue sky, deep and perfect, crowned by a bridge of glittering gold.
The bridge snaked its way across the leaden sky and stopped before Reginleif. It was time to leave this vile place, and even though she was leaving alone she was buoyed by a renewed sense of purpose.
No, not alone…
Gramr trembled in her grasp, eager for more bloodshed, or perhaps, like the woman who wielded it, longing for the thrill of more adventure. Gunnar's story had come to an end, but a new chapter was just beginning for Reginleif, the nine worlds filled with stories of endless possibilities.
"Come with me my friend," Reginleif said, sheathing her sword. "There are more stories for us."