I awoke upright and on my feet, not quite sure where I was. My legs were moving under me and I was being propelled forward down a long black path that was covered in a slow moving fog. I struggled internally against my own body trying to stop or slow down, yet my legs kept walking step after step down the long road. My head and eyes responded, albeit slowly, as I attempted to look around at my surroundings. The world around me was bleak and monotone. Large fields either side of me were vast shades of grey stalks flowing gently in some unfelt breeze. Up ahead in the distance I could make out a small city, it was the only colour I could see for miles around me, a dull orange glow on the otherwise grey horizon.
My mind screamed at my frozen, zombie like body to do anything other than trudge down the path but I was trapped within myself. A walking nightmare that I couldn’t wake from. After what seamed like hours I eventually gave in, my mind exhausted from resisting, and let my body continue on its inevitable way with me locked in for the journey. The strange yet somehow familiar landscape offered little in the way of entertainment or distraction forcing me to look towards what seemed to be my destination, the town. Time has a funny way of working in dreams, it doesn’t behave the same way as it does in reality, minutes can stretch into hours, a lifetime skipped in seconds. I could feel it slipping away from me independent of my mind, the orange hue of the town grew larger and larger in weird fits and jumps like someone fast forwarding an old VHS tape. Eventually I was close enough to work out features of buildings not dissimilar to my own neighbourhood or that of the London I left behind. Large apartment buildings sat towards the centre of the city, rising high above everything else. A mixture of smaller flats and town houses spread out from the centre and wove around cobbled streets that connected everything together. The one constant was the black path. Its straight line cut through the dense urban environment, dividing the city clean in two.
I continued walking onwards. The first of the outer houses and buildings were almost upon me, and I strained to look back the way I came but saw only the thick grey mist concealing everything. My body walked onwards down the path and through the town. I thought it strange that I felt neither tired nor worn out, usually I couldn’t walk two blocks without collapsing in a heap, lungs on fire. Ness, my on-again, off-again significant other, tried every now and then to get me to eat better and exercise more. She never took too kindly to when I said I’d rather die a happy old fat man than a thin sweaty one. Self improvement wasn’t one of my strengths as a person, which probably contributed to the current off again status of our relationship.
As I continued along the path and pondered my shortcomings, I noticed a distinct lack of life around me. While most homes had window dressings I could occasionally see a fully furnished lounge or bedroom inside, yet there was not a soul to be seen. The streets were void of people, or animals. Despite this fact, the whole place felt a little like home. Not your childhood or adult home, but the feeling you have of that place you just can’t describe but you know it’s out there. Just being here in the glow of the strange orange lamp lights that lined the street, put me at ease like I’ve never known. Being stuck in my own wandering body should have been scaring the absolute hel out of me but after a while it just felt, normal. The sudden and not unwelcome tranquillity that flowed over me let my mind wander as my body did the same. Step after step I inched closer to what I hoped was my final destination.
I was close enough now to see where the path ended. Like an invisible sword, it cut a swath through the town before me, opening up the view ahead to reveal a large gated wall, black as the path that ran up to it. From what I could see, the massive structure ran a large circle around the centre of the town. Thick, black iron gates looked to be the only way in or out from this side, regardless my body was heading right for them. The massive walls loomed over me as I approached and the gates stood unmoving before me. As I neared, I could begin to see intricate patterns woven in the dark ironwork. Mostly trees and animals but there were distinct Norse runes etched between leaves and wolves, saying something in a language I couldn’t understand. When I was mere meters away the gates slowly started to rise. Their seemingly heavy frame making almost no noise as they receded upwards into the towering wall. Momentum carried me under and through the archway into the inner circle.
The theme of black upon a slightly darker black continued once I was inside the wall. My trusty black path stretched and ran into what looked like a large stone hall that sat alone, encircled by the too high walls. My body continued walking along the path towards the hall. Its high peaked roof thatched with grey straw was supported by massive, charcoal black wooden beams. The hall itself was huge, stretching backwards for at least a few kilometres and about half as wide. Gazing over this massive structure a thought struck me and I suddenly knew where I was. This was Hel’s domain. The lack of mists in the town had thrown me but I had always suspected that the ‘land of the mists’ was just a name rather than an accurate portrayal of the realm. I did however expect there to be far more people about, or souls, or whatever they are. This was supposed to be the land of the dead, for Zeus’s sake it should at least have some dead people in it!
That’s when my stomach sank down in to the pit of my gut and a wave of nausea rushed over me. How sure was I that this was a dream and not the real underworld? Had someone offed me just as I returned to the room, and I’d finally used up all of my luck? Was I the dead guy? I had to laugh to myself, jokes on them. Round about now some minor god would be on his way to make their last moments on earth a living nightmare. A long time ago I had done a favour for someone and his god ‘cursed me’ in return. Well, technically cursed the person who would eventually kill me that is. Gods have a strange sense of what a good gift is, I would have been much more than happy with the fee I had asked for but there’s no arguing with deities, as I’ve found out often and repeatedly. It wasn’t till I approached the small steps leading up into the hall that I began to feel sad. It would be a while before I saw Ness again, I thought to myself, and can you even get a decent drink down here?
While I was mentally recounting all the little things in life I would miss, control over my body slowly returned to me. By the time I had reached the enormous yet simple, rustic doors I was in complete control once again. Signed, sealed, and delivered I guess. Able to look around freely now I turned to survey the path I had travelled. The gates had shut silently behind me and bared any chance of retreat, while the slick black walls surrounding the hall gave little hope of alternative exits. I’d come this far untouched so figured the only place to go was into the hall. I was fairly sure I was dead anyway, what’s the worst they could do to me now? I tried hard not to think of all the horror stories of various underworlds that were preached in the world today that suddenly came flooding into my mind. Swallowing hard, I brought up my reserves and pushed on the cold wooden door.
As swift and silent as the iron gates behind me, the door swung open with ease. The lack of noise and resistance threw me as I half stumbled through the entrance. The large stone tiles, black as midnight echoed my lone footsteps around the vast and empty drinking hall. I may have been brought up as good Grecian boy but I still knew the stories of the halls of Valhalla. Long tables running down huge spaces, mead and boar flowing forever feeding the souls of the highest of warriors, waiting for the end of all things. Ragnarök. Where the fighters will come down with Odin, the All Father, and slay his enemies. Alternative to this was the halls of Hel, where those who didn’t die a hero ended up. The sick, the old, and the lame all are taken in to the arms of Hel and are given eternal rest. This was clearly the latter.
Sparse and empty the long tables sat, no horns of mead waited to be drunk, no roast boar cooking over an open fire. The only light in the hall came from large wooden torches jutting out from the walls. Their flames burnt orange like the street lamps, and made little difference to the pure black setting. I cautiously made my way towards the rear of the enormous hall where a large, ornate throne sat in the distance. Carved of the same wood as the hall itself, it resembled a collection of skulls and bones heaped together and dumped into a makeshift chair. Despite this, it didn’t look at all comfortable. The only noise in that long empty hall, apart from my own hollow footsteps, was the sound of the torches roaring quietly to themselves. It made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
I eased my way between the two closest long tables that ran the entire length of the hall. Dream or death logic allowed me to cross the massive distance in a few paces, my mind either blocking out the long walk or the hall itself was an elaborate illusion. As I came closer to the throne I saw a single place setting at the end of one of the otherwise empty tables. It stood out being the only other colour I had seen since I had woken in this realm, despite technically being an absence of colour. A pure white drinking horn sat waiting, filled to the brim with some type of amber liquid. Laying beside it was an equally white bowl full of some type of piping hot stew, a matching wooden spoon sat in its proper place completing the table setting. Despite not feeling hunger or exhaustion during my long journey here I wanted nothing more than to sit down and partake in this humble meal before me, although a rather loud internal voice told me better. I looked down at the table setting, it’s white glow juxtaposed against the black table and hall, it was more out of place than I was. I continued forward till I had reached the throne. This close I was less sure they were carvings of skulls and bones, and beginning to suspect they were the blackened remains of some poor lost souls. I reached out a cautious hand to touch the jaw less skull that sat at the end of the left most arm rest when the doors behind me slammed open against the walls.
An imposing hooded figure floated in the space between the open doors and literally screamed towards me. A blur of pitch black robes flew above the ground aiming directly for me, while a deep pitched growl emanated from where it’s face should have been. Once again I found my body out of my control and frozen solid on the spot. Inside my mind I yelled at my body to move but it was no use, my arms and legs were stuck and I was going nowhere. My eyes focused on the spectre speeding towards me, dull red eyes shone out from under its hood and bore into my very soul. I desperately wanted to throw my hands up to protect myself but all I could do was shut my eyes as the creature quickly crossed the vast distance between us. If I could speak I would have screamed as the figure’s cold hands entered my chest, not slowing down as it passed right through me. I could feel my very soul being ripped away and my body collapsing in a heap behind me as my mind left it. My consciousness floated high up through the roof of the hall, carried by the unstoppable dark spectre. We passed through the grey thatching and soared upwards into the orange tinted sky.
Below me I watched as the large hall and it’s equally large walls grew smaller and smaller. The colourless town spread out around the circular walls in large concentric circles expanding ever outwards. The solid black line of the long road, still visible from this height, split the buildings in half as it disappeared into the mists of the far distant mountains. While fear should have overtaken me I remained oddly calm, content to just go along for the ride and watch the land unfold beneath me as grey fields flowed into hills and mountains.
As we flew ever higher, the orange hue of the town faded into little more than a splash of colour on the dull landscape. Over in the distance, against the backdrop of pitch black sky a glimmer of light came from high up on a mountain side. I strained to see what it was but my hooded spectre doubled its speed and in a moment the world below me was but a black dot on an even blacker background. Even without a body I could feel the extreme speed we were travelling at and it was nauseating. My world once more began to blur and as I strained to look up I made out a tiny point of light high above us. The closer we flew the harder it became to keep awake. Even in this incorporeal form I started to black out. My head began to swim in what was becoming a far too familiar feeling, and the universe spun in rapid circles around me. Before I knew it I had passed out completely.
The screaming caw of the spectre echoing in my hollow mind. Again, a sound of feathers and I was lost.
Header image by Aleksey Ihnatov from Pixabay.