Hel is a Four Letter Word. Chapter One.

James Carol is a private detective who lives in a world where the gods wander the earth, often just to torment him. His latest case will take him to Hel and back...

4 years ago

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She ran. The dark city streets passed almost silently under her feet as she stole her way through the night, always aware she could spotted at any moment. Up ahead a small lantern filled the empty quarter with dirty amber light. She quickly ducked into an alleyway to hide under the cover of darkness. Her heart beat furiously in her chest as she weighed up her options. There was no turning back now, it was much too late for that. The pungent smell of sulphur constantly filled her nose, the lighting the city used reeked of it. A background scent she had known all her life, yet now it was all she could smell. The acrid gas burned the inside of her nose with every ragged breath she took.

Time was running out, soon people would begin to wake and notice that she had gone missing, there was only one chance and it was now. Inhaling, she pushed all her fears deep down into her chest and lifted the thick black hood of her cloak over her head before heading out quickly into the square. It took only a few seconds to cross back over into the relative safety of darkness, yet it seemed like forever exposed under the orange sulphuric glow. Back in darkness she started to run again.

The cloak she had stolen from a shop on her way did well to hide her strong frame beneath it’s warm folds. She pulled it close as a faint wind picked up through the sleeping streets, the rough fabric scratched at her exposed skin but she didn’t care, there was only escape on her mind. Leaving this place was all that mattered, the time for comfort would come later. Her feet padded quietly down the cobbled streets, the soft leather straps of her sandals that spiralled up her shins bit into her with every stride, but the pain only drove her onwards towards her goal. The concept of time had lost all meaning long ago so she was unaware how long it would take to reach the far side of the town where she knew the road to freedom began.

Unable to help herself, she shot a look backwards, the large town surrounded an imposing castle lit up by the glow of hundreds of the sulphur powered street lamps. The imposing outer walls of the castle rose up and around the twisted ironwork of the main gates. While it looked foreboding, she had been in the castle many times and no harm had come to her, yet it still sent chills down her spine. She kept her head down and pushed on, if she didn’t make it out tonight there would never be another chance.

Finally she saw the road up ahead, a dark forbidding path that would take her to where she needed to be. Its gloss black flagstones glistened in the night air, almost shimmering as it wove its way around the huge mountains that bordered the town. She pushed with all her might and made the final sprint out of the relative safety of buildings and into the exposed night. She had made it out of the town but by no means was it over, the path was long and the night would lift soon enough. She pulled the hood around her head tighter as she stepped onto the obsidian paved road and began her journey proper. It wasn’t long before a thick mist began to close in around her from seemingly out of nowhere. She had known they would come and make the trail dangerous but this was a path she had walked before and knew it well.

The path wove its way around forever and the bitter cold air that pushed constantly against her stung her face. All the while, the mists slowly crept into her lungs and caused her to take short, shallow breaths lest she be overcome and collapse in a coughing fit. She was generally unaware of how much time normally passed, but the black road took this to a whole new level. In the town she had houses and shops to mark her progress, but on the path there was only the mountain peak that stayed the same distance away no matter how many times she circled it. The bridge could be miles away or just around the next bend, she would never know till she was on top of it.

Dawn had begun to break some time ago. Its achingly slow accent over the valley threw hints of light scattering over the polished stones under her feet. She threw an arm up to shield her eyes from the reflected light that bounced up and caught her eyes, and then she saw it. The first group of travellers. Slowly they marched towards her. Their heads bowed as they wearily trudged down the black path towards the town from which she had escaped. From just looking at them, they seemingly had no connection to each other a mixture of the young and old alike. Some wore the finest suits while others wore what rags they had managed to scrape together. Some walked arm in arm, others lost and lonely their eyes searching the distance for some glimpse of familiarity. It was a long walk down to the land below and one that was only just beginning for them.

She knew they would be welcomed in town. Old friends meeting again for the first time in years, others creating new bonds that would be forged over time. Silently she wished them all well in their new lives and pushed off again, calmly pushing against the downward stream of bodies. It was easy to move through the crowd, they sensed her presence and adjusted to create a moving pocket of space around her, there was no pushing or fighting against them, only relaxed acceptance of this intrusion. She was a rock in the path of a river and it didn’t care about her, it simply flowed ever onwards towards the lowest point, and there was no lower point than where they were headed.

Onwards she walked, the sun glowing brightly behind her as it lit up the edge of the world, bringing with it a subtle warmth to the cool dawn air. She drew back her hood exposing her face to the new day. Long straight hair fell around her shoulders, split distinctly in middle by the meeting of two colours, black and white. Light danced through the pure white strands of her hair that fell to the right, while her midnight black side kept to the shadows. She began to feel a curious warmth spread across her pale face. The tingling sensation grew stronger as she neared the covered bridge, her ultimate goal. Her hands also grew warm and as she looked down at them saw the stark white alabaster skin she had always lived with become warmer and warmer till it hit a colour that could be loosely associated with a pale shade of tan. She noticed the same transformation occur in the river of people around her but in reverse, they flowed in warm, covering a wide and varied spectrum of shades from tans and dark browns to pale white. As they walked down the path behind her their colours began to fade. To an outside observer it would look as if the colour was being drained from the world as it flowed down the mountain.

She was close enough to the covered bridge that its golden roof sent sunlight dancing across her path. The closer she came the more alive the people around her started to look. Some were even talking to each other, a stray wave or handshake came through the crowd as they recognised each other. As they walked this would fade, they would lose themselves, stripped of external influence and begin to focus inwards. The journey down took as long as it took, everyone was different. For some it was days, others years. Again, for an observer like herself it was not something you could notice. The mind was a powerful tool and given the chance will exert torture or love for centuries. Occasionally, they did both. She knew all to well the world of her own mind and its untold depths.

As she closed in on the bridge, the sound of running water grew from a faint background noise to the full rush of a flowing river. The river cut deep into the side of the mountain and ran almost vertically down its sharp banks, fed from the crisp white snow caps above. Here the mists churned with the running water, filling the air with vapour and the fresh scent of life. The large wooden structure sat bolted to the side of the mountain, bridging the gap over the rushing liquid. Here the stream of people also began, coming through the golden roofed bridge and onto the mist covered black path. A lone figure stood guard, her ancient armour glistened in the full sun, matching that which she guarded.

It was clear she had been seen before she was even aware of the guard’s presence. A curious expression crossed the guard’s face as she walked through the crowd of travellers towards the bridge. Head down and silent she passed in front of the guard. No words were exchanged. No eye contact just a curious interest and feeling of unanswered questions. She breathed a long held sigh as she entered the relative safety of the covered bridge, the river flowing on forever beneath her feet. She looked up and ahead for the first time since nearing the bridge. Light poured through the exit, blocked only by the passing travellers coming from the other side, their silhouettes cutting the light into spears. She paused, seconds away from the light and wordlessly looked back. From here she could see the flow of people heading downwards forever and the faint glow of the town she left behind, a lifetime away. The guard stood at her post, still watching, still silent. Her black lips spread into a smile as she turned and walked through the light, into the world beyond.

An unnatural silence befell the normally noisy river as the woman with black and white hair crossed over the threshold of the bridge. The guard looked up at a midnight black raven that had perched itself on top of the bridge’s golden roof. Its brown eyes scanning the scene before it, watching and observing everything in the finest detail. The guard and the raven exchanged a worried look between them, before the bird cawed loudly and alighted from its perch. As the bird flew off into the still rising sun, the guard watched as the raven spread its black wings and shimmered into nothingness. The guard shrugged and brought her focus back to the job at hand, her many queries and concerns gone unspoken. After all, it was not her place to question the will of the gods.

Header image by Aleksey Ihnatov from Pixabay.

Edward Shaddow

Published 4 years ago