As we walked down the hill it became quite obvious that the town surrounding the temple was strangely devoid of people. I wasn’t sure if they were huddled in their homes keeping safe indoors like an old western film, or that the entire town had been deserted. Knowing all the godly forces that were potentially at play here I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the latter. A lot of very confused people could have potentially been relocated at a whim. Regardless, unhindered by people we made good time through the streets and we soon arrived at the vast empty area in front of the temple, its pure white gravel shining in the sun. Its massive white edifice towering far above us into the midday Icelandic sky.
As my neck craned upwards to take it all in I turned around and saw the mass of ravens perched along the rooftops on the buildings around us. They had followed us in with more arriving all the time, but now they had come to perch in a rather menacing situation around us. I turned my back to the temple entrance to face the birds and get a better view of the situation. As far as I could see they were perfectly normal, everyday ravens, there just happened to be a lot of them. It made me uneasy, especially since I knew Odin’s power animal was the raven. He also had wolves but I hadn’t seen any around, and I was quite happy to deal with one animal species at a time thank you very much. The ravens began to call to each other and the long drawn out caw echoed around the empty streets and off the temple walls, reverberating through my skull. The incessant noise soon became unbearable and I used my hands to protect my ears.
Hel pulled on my arm and we moved towards the entrance of the temple. The ominous noise of the bird calls echoing through the desolate town set my anxiety on high alert, my chest felt like there was a demigod pushing on it trying to keep my pounding heart from escaping. We had only crossed the half way mark between the street and the temple doors when all Hel broke loose behind us. All at once the raven’s fell silent, giving the world an eerie stillness. As my ears adjusted to the absence of sound I suddenly wished for the cawing to come back. We stood still waiting to see what had caused to birds to stop, our eyes meeting in a confused look when the sound of beating wings erupted at our backs. I didn’t need to look to know we had to run for it. Both of us sprinted across the white gravel of the entrance way. I slipped and tripped as the loose stones slid under my shoes and I raced to the relative safety of the temple entrance. Behind me I could feel the push of a thousand wings beating air against me, the strange smell of feathers strong in my nose.
With less than a meter to go the first ones swooped, their claws aiming for our backs. I heard Hel scream out in pain as her hands flew up the fend off the avian attackers. My back felt like it was being torn to shreds but I kept on running. My shoulder smashed into the bright red double doors with force as I half leaped at them. They sounded with a mighty thunder but didn’t budge, held in place by two large iron bars. A fury of black wings and sharp claws flew around my face as I struggled to open the wrought iron locks. I chanced a look next to me and saw Hel trying to protect her head as the ravens swooped continuously at her. Her eyes were bright red as panic and anger danced across her face. The beautiful dress she wore had become shredded by their claws and the white polkadots stained pink with blood.
With a satisfying thunk the large bars relented, sliding back and allowing the doors to give way. I reached out and grabbed wildly for Hel, managing to find her arm and propel her through the open portal, I followed closely behind slamming the heavy doors shut and leaning up hard against them. With my back to the door I could feel the birds attacking still, their bodies slamming against the door, but they were no match for the thick wood. Hel reached above me and slid the internal bolt in place, allowing me to relax a little sliding down to a seated position on the floor. I looked up at her as she leant over me, her dress torn and bloody. The goddess’s skin was looking warmer and the black had started to fade around the edges of her lips, replaced with a thin line of pink. She looked like she’d had a very rough night and forgotten to take her makeup off. The only otherworldly part of her that gave away her godhood was the now fading red glow of her eyes. Soon she’d be totally vulnerable and Hel would lose it’s queen.
Breathing heavily I looked around surveyed the temple that lay before us. Like the city we locked outside, the massive hall was completely empty. Modern lighting had replaced the exposed flaming torches but the similarities to Hel’s hall in the afterworld was striking. A large statue of Odin filled the back of the hall, he was seated upon a great throne and stood watch over the long tables that filled the space. Carved into the marble were two large wolves sitting as his feet, while two ravens perched on his shoulders. Old one eye looked straight at us, his marble smile the smuggest of them all. I offered a hand up to Hel and she dragged me to my feet. I looked at her arms, they were a bloody mess, I probably didn’t look much better either as I began to notice sharp pains spread over my back. I waved her onwards towards the statue and we silently began to walk down the hall, the noise of the ravens muffled outside.
There was nothing else of interest in the hall apart from the standard religious artefacts and images that hung from the halls. They had gone with a minimalist look which reminded me of some of the more traditional Greek temples back home. We walked single file between benches that ran directly down the centre of the great hall. The solid oak tables showed signs of being well used, stains and worn patches in the varnish added to the mental image of vocal worshippers toasting mead to their god and thanking him for the bounty of the hunt. It was a stereotypical view but to be fair most Norse cultist believed us Greeks ran around in togas, so fairs fair. There was some truth to their image of us, temple priests and priestesses did wear the traditional togas but everyone else was encouraged to wear normal clothing, unless it was a special occasion. I’m assuming the same went for our Norse friends.
‘Where are the priests?’ I asked out loud. My voice cracked and echoed around us sounding louder than I had meant. Hel ignored me, she was fixated on the statue of Odin as she walked purposefully towards it. The larger than life art piece became extremely imposing as we neared. There was an optical illusion from the entrance that tricked the eye into thinking the statue was of a normal size. This close it became clear that my head only came up to the top of Odin’s knee. I stood looking up at the All Father, taking in the detail of the statue along with Hel, an impressed whistle escaped my mouth as I contemplated the amazing workmanship. Hel seemed fixated on the statue, but couldn’t workout why. The statue, while impressive was just that, a statue.
I gave up looking and turned around to get a different perspective on the great hall. It was just as empty as when we arrived. The sea of tables and benches spread out around us and the faint smell of mead wafted along the stale air.
‘Are we too late?’ I asked as my eyes tried to find any sign of Baldr. ‘He should be here shouldn’t he?’ I heard the goddess sigh as she let herself fall to the floor in a slump. I turned to find her sitting cross legged on the floor, her dress covering her legs like an island in a sea of white marble. She hung her head and picked absently at the hem of her clothes like a frustrated child. Her hair fell over her face hiding it from the world.
I knelt down in front of her. Reaching out my hand I gently lifted her chin upwards so I could see her eyes. They were tired and sad, the red glow fading into a pale grey. ‘What’s wrong?’ I asked. ‘We’re too late aren’t we? Baldr’s already been reborn into Asgard.’ She sadly shook off my hand and grabbed it between her own, looking up at me with sad eyes.
‘Oh sweet mortal.’ She said, I watched her lips, they were faded almost entirely to pink now, only the hint of a grey tinge across them. ‘Don’t you see, Baldr was never here. It was a fools errand. A trick.’
I was lost, more so than ever. ‘A trick?’ I questioned. ‘Is he somewhere else? I can get you there goddess.’ I tried to stand up but she pulled me back down.
‘He was never here, never would be either. He’s most likely back in Niefilheilm wondering where I’ve gone.’ She put her head to my outstretched arm and almost wept. ‘It was all a trick to get me to leave, to come out here and die.’
‘But you can’t die, right? You’re the goddess of the underworld.’ I said not quite completely understanding anything at this point. ‘Surely that’s got to count for something?’
‘The underworld is where I reign. Out here, and in any of the nine worlds, I’m no more powerful than you. He knew that, and he knew I’d go looking for Baldr if he went missing.’
I looked at her confused. ‘Who?’ I asked.
‘Him.’ She said, pointing at the statue.
‘Odin? Why would he want you dead?’ It made no sense to me. Anything Odin ever did was to help him survive Ragnarok, everything else was superficial. Sure, he missed his son, there were enough poems about it but inevitably it didn’t help him win the war against the end of the world so he didn’t do much about it. Hel shook her head.
‘Not him. Him!’ She pointed up at the statue. I was more confused than ever until I saw the statue wink at me.
I took a step back as the entire marble edifice came to life. The huge arms pushed the massive body up out of the stone throne. It’s head only just fitting under the the roof as it stooped over. Hel seemed unfazed by the whole thing but I was the complete opposite of calm about it all. I had seen some powerful gods grow as large as two stories before which suggested this not-Zeus had a huge power base. We were dealing with a top tier god here and I don’t think either of us were prepared for it. I had to quickly dodge out of the way as the statue moved about the hall to face the sitting Hel. I ran behind her, squatting down next to her hoping that she might protect me a little.
‘What does the All Father want with us?’ I said watching out for the gods giant feet. Hel shook her head.
‘That’s not Odin, you idiot.’ She said, annoyed that I couldn’t see it. ‘It’s Loki. The trickster.’
The huge Odin statue started to smile and cracks formed in the marble around its face. Quickly they spread like spider webs and large slabs of stone started to rain down in the hall. I grabbed Hel and pulled her back and under the nearest long table. The hall echoed as the marble fell to the ground shattering, sending dust and shards flying. The statue kept walking towards us as pieces fell from its body. From under the table I watched as one step left behind its foot, snapping clean off at the ankle. The next step caused the entire edifice to collapse forward. There was no time to run to safety, I threw myself over the goddess and hoped for the best.
The feeling of being crushed under a giant slab of stone never came and it took me a moment to realise we were still alive. I relaxed my grip on Hel and peeked out from under the table. There was no crumbling statue waiting for us, neither were there shards of marble or dust at all. I hauled myself out from under cover and into the once again empty hall. The statue of Odin was back in its original position. Still and unmoving, like nothing had happened. I spun around looking to see if I could find the trickster god but we were seemingly alone again. A noise next to me was Hel crawling out from under our hiding spot. She dusted off her ruined dress despite there being nothing to dust off. She looked sad and the fool inside me thought for a second it was because of the ruined dress, but I knew better.
‘What exactly just happened?’ I asked, unsure if I could comprehend an actual answer.
‘Loki happened.’ She said as if that explained it all.
‘Oh well that solves that mystery.’ I couldn’t help the sarcasm. You would think by now I would learn to control myself around the gods. One day I might.
‘He set this whole thing up. I’m not sure how or clearly why but I do know that he’s behind everything. Bastard.’ She cursed. I expected her to trail off in a string of Norse curses but she composed herself.
‘Baldr isn’t here then?’ I asked again, still not quite getting it.
‘So Baldr is still in the Land of Mists, probably hidden by Loki’s power somehow?’ I asked, trying to piece the puzzle together in my mind. Loki wanted Hel out of her realm for some reason and out into the mortal world. Tricking her into believing one of her biggest prizes had left was the key. ‘But you thought he had gone so you came here, I kind of understand that part but it’s the whole why that I don’t get.’
She turned away from me, looking up into nothing. ‘He want’s me mortal. He want’s me to die.’
‘You can’t kill death.’ I said. Obviously I was wrong as she shook her head.
‘I’m not death, James. I’m Hel. I rule the underworld, the land where Odin’s leftovers go. I watch over those unworthy of fighting in Ragnarok on the side of the All Father. People will always die, I just give them a place to go.’ She picked at her fingers and sighed heavily.
‘What will happen now?’ I asked, walking over to her. I placed my hands softly on her shoulders, comfortingly. She leaned back into me.
‘I don’t know. I could live out a full mortal life or I could die tomorrow just like any of you.’ She sounded sad at the prospect of having to actually live.
‘I mean, what will happen after you die? Will you become a god again, will you go back to rule in Hel?’
She turned in my arms and looked up at me. ‘I have no idea.’
I looked at her eyes, there were only flecks of red amongst the grey now, her lips were almost human as well. There was no way we could get back to the hotel before she was completely mortal, even with divine intervention. I cursed Loki’s name out loud.
‘Tisk, tisk, tisk. Such language, James.’ Came a voice that echoed powerfully through the hall. Both Hel and I turned to see the owner. The black haired man walked calmly from the front doors, taking his time to admire the hall.
‘Odin’s followers get all the good architects don’t they? All the money too I bet.’ We watched him like ravens as he made his way towards us. The well tailored, dark green suit jacket he wore contrast against the black dress shirt and pants. His slightly curly black hair ran to just above the open collar, framing the same smirk I had seen on the statue moments before. Hel pushed away from me to meet the god head on. She was covered in dried blood from the hundreds of scratches from the raven attack and her black and white hair flowed messily about her head. A thick polkadot strap from her dress had slipped down her shoulder but it just added to the ‘I don’t give a shit any more’ attitude she exuded. Goddess or not, this was a powerful woman.
Loki all but ignored her standing in his path, opting to neatly side step her without breaking his stride. It was me he was interested in it seemed. He walked up to me and cast a judging eye over my appearance. I was unsure what kind of impression I would make on the god of lies and if I should be happy if he took a shine to me or not?
‘You mortal, impress me.’ He said walking past me with a nod. To be honest, it seemed like a backhanded complement coming from him. I wasn’t the best guy in the world but I did occasionally try. I twisted round to watch Loki take up a leaning position against the now still statue of Odin. He put out a hand and stroked the head of one of the wolves at Odin’s feet. ‘Did you like the statue? I thought I was a nice touch, very Greek with the whole marble thing they have going on.’ He waved his arms dramatically about him. ‘Our old bugger wouldn’t even know we were here unless he sent one of his bloody ravens out to spy for him.’ He scoffed as he looked up at the All Father.
I didn’t bother mentioning the flock of raven’s outside the temple. Once he had revealed himself I figured it was Loki’s doing, a bit of a show, but now I was having second thoughts, maybe the birds were a warning not an obstacle. I could tell a similar thought flashed through Hel’s mind as she shot me a look. I put my attention back to the trickster god before I gave too much away. Loki continued to talk in a casual drawn out way.
‘I thought you had figured it all out back at the stone circle.’ He said turning to look at me, an accusing finger waggling in my direction. ‘When you shot her I was sure you knew I was behind it but then you two teamed up! Oh I couldn’t have been more proud of you Mr Carol. You are exactly the man I pegged you for. Strong and silent with a heart of gold.’
I scoffed outwardly. ‘My heart isn’t that shiny.’ The god shimmered and appeared inches away from my face. An outstretched finger pushed into my chest as he looked me in the eyes.
‘I know Mr Carol, but you want it to be. You so desperately want to be on the right side of things, looking out for those you pretend not to care about. That’s what makes you such an easy mark.’ His breath smelt faintly of incense and I struggled not to look away from his face, pure green eyes boring a hole in my head. He broke the stare himself after a wordless minute and placed a not unfriendly hand on my shoulder as he walked behind me. Slowly, the hand ran down my chest and was joined by a second over my other shoulder. The god of lies was hugging me from behind. The casual intimacy, coupled with his breath on my neck both repulsed and slightly aroused me.
‘You so want to please others James, even to your own detriment.’ He whispered softly in my ear. I could feel the untapped power flowing through his arm as it lay slung casually around my fragile mortal neck. If he chose to, he could kill me from across the hall but being this close, this intimate, made me very aware of my mortality. Cuddling up to powerful gods seems to elicit this not entirely unpleasant feeling, but I’m not sure it’s something I wanted to make into a habit. I could feel his warm breath on my ear as he spoke.
‘How miserable will you make yourself to put a smile on someone else’s face? How far are you willing to go James? To Hel and back?’
He laughed and relaxed his grip, pulling away from me. Slapping a hand playfully on my back that almost knocked me over. ‘You’re hilarious detective. The icing on this wonderful cake.’ His attention was now aimed at the goddess. I was glad to no longer be the centre of his attention, and being able to breath properly once again. I slowly turned around to watch him pace in a circle around Hel. Her hands balled up into fists hung uselessly by her side. You could see the anger flowing through her, had she her powers I would doubt very much that Loki would come out looking pretty. The trickster god noticed the pure seething rage she held inside and judging from the smile on his face, I think he enjoyed it.
He reached out and stroked the white side of her hair. Instantly her hand shot up and grabbed the tricksters’. Both gods locked eyes in a silent stand-off, till Loki chuckled quietly. ‘You’re lucky my dear. I would usually kill a mortal for even thinking about doing something like that you know.’ She held onto his arm and continued to look him dead in the eyes.
‘I’m still a goddess, Loki. Don’t write me off too quickly.’ She said with a fiery attitude.
It was good to see those centuries of ruling the underworld didn’t fade like her godhood, Loki was in for a fight even if she’d eventually lose. Hel’s hand still gripped Loki’s but you could see she wanted to do more. Eventually he got tired or bored and pealed back her fingers from his wrist without effort.
‘Next time I’ll break everyone of those pretty little fingers Hel and you’ll have to enjoy the pleasure of the pain that I bring.’ He let his hand drop from her hair but not before planting a soft kiss on top of her head. She made a disgusted noise but the god ignored it.
‘Well, this has become boring. What ever shall I do with you two? I’m not entirely used to a plan coming together this easily. Don’t get me wrong, my plans work out, it’s just I usually need to revise them or nudge them along towards the end. You two seem to have done a good enough job of that yourselves.’ He smiled, pleased with himself. ‘No, all I had to do was get rid of Hel’s cultists at the stone circle before they could give the game away.’ He looked at me with a huge grin on his face. ‘It’s no fun unless you get your hands dirty. Isn’t that right James?’
I started to move slowly towards Hel. I figured we were moderately safe for the time being, what ever Loki’s ultimate goal was he needed Hel alive if only for a little while longer it seemed. I was less sure about my own security in that matter. She reached out a hand towards me and it brushed against my back guiding me. I placed a comforting arm around the middle of her back, avoiding the scratches from the ravens. We exchanged a look, both of us were out of ideas. Powerless and trapped in a Norse temple with an unstable god, surrounded by ravens that may or may not be on our side and not a gun or whiskey bottle between us. There were better ways I could think to spend my day, all of them preferable to being here waiting for death.
It struck me that quickly. The single most stupid and brilliant idea of my terrible life. I whispered in Hel’s ear. ‘Kill me.’
She looked up at me like I was an idiot. Not untrue in general but in this instance I was trying to be intelligent for once. ‘He said it himself, how far was I willing to go? To Hel and back?’ I smiled. ‘I can get us out of this. Fix everything. I just need a hero.’
‘What are you talking about?’ She hissed at me, confused. I looked to see where Loki was but he was busy monologging about how great he was or some such. I said it again. ‘Just kill me. Use what’s left of your powers or something. I’ll explain later.’ I closed my eyes and braced myself for the rush of death but it never came. I opened my eyes to see Loki standing in front of me.
‘Kill you, Mr Carol? An interesting prospect, although I’d much prefer to make you suffer first. Does that fit in with your wishes?’ He said grabbing me by the shoulder.
‘Actually…’ I said as he started to drag me across the floor, one handed. I could feel my shoulder start to pop as his hand tightened and my feet fell out from under me. Agonising pain shot up along my body and I screamed as my shoulder came out of its socket.
‘Save your breath Mr Carol, there will be plenty of time to scream later. We have a big night ahead of us.’ He laughed. Despite the pain I was still able to focus enough to call out to Hel. My pained voice called out to the goddess, stuck standing frozen on the spot.
‘Kill me, Hel! It’s the only way.’ I screamed again as Loki lifted me up and threw me down at the base of the statue.
‘You Greeks are always partial to a little sacrifice aren’t you? Usually it’s someone or something else you’re trying to martyr though.’ Loki put a heavy booted foot on my chest. The pressure he exerted crushed my rib cage, I could feel my bones bending under the weight just waiting to snap. The worst of it though was that he kept talking.
‘Why do you think our brave detective wants you to kill him, goddess? Could it be he’s seen the light and knows it’s all worthless. Is he repentant and wants to pay for his mistakes? Or, and this is more likely, has he some how figured out a way to stop me?’ The boot pressed down harder and I heard the sickening wet snap as one of my ribs caved under the pressure. I was vaguely aware of someone screaming in the background and wished they’d shut up. It wasn’t until I opened my eyes that I realised the sound was coming from me.
My chest was on fire as I struggled to breathe through the pain and the enormous weight on top of me. Still the trickster god wouldn’t shut up.
‘Tell me, James. What could you possibly gain through dying?’ His terribly smug smile bore down on me. I sucked air through my clenched teeth in an effort to reply.
‘What…do you gain in…killing, Hel?’ I said through ragged gasps. I felt a second rib snap and tear through my chest. I could feel warm liquid start to run down my stomach. I hoped to Zeus that it was only blood from the rib and not the remains of some internal organ being squeezed from my chest.
‘That’s a very good question, but one you’re only going to find out once it’s happened my soft, squishy friend.’ He cracked another rib and pushed all the air from my tired lungs to punctuate his point. ‘I ask you again James, and I don’t like to repeat myself. It’s an ego thing you understand. Tell me why you want to die?’ He lent down closer, putting more weight on me. I struggled for air but replied anyway.
‘Go. To. Hel.’ I almost passed out but I was laughing as best I could. Loki wasn’t as impressed with my sense of humour. He kicked me hard in the side before walking away. I crumpled over, instantly regretting it as my busted ribs screamed in pain. I uncurled and lay in a world of hurt. I’d be too lucky to think that he’d have killed me accidentally, the god was far to smart for that kind of error.
My mind flooded with pain and I struggled to stay focused and awake. I needed to get to the underworld and quickly an if Hel wasn’t able to help me then I was going to have to do this on my own. It hurt too much to move even an inch and my lungs screamed in pain with every breath but I had to do this. Slowly I propped myself up on my arm trying hard to ignore the excruciating agony from my ribs. I promised myself it would be over soon and I could rest as when I was dead. It took more effort than I thought but I called out to Loki swinging his attentions back onto me.
‘It kills you that I know how to beat you doesn’t it?’ I wheezed as I struggled to bring air back into my lungs. ‘The wise and cleaver Loki can’t work out what a stupid mortal came up with in a few seconds. Pathetic.’ I spat out the blood that had started to fill the back of my throat. Great, one of the broken ribs must have punctured my lung. I physically needed to cough but resisted knowing the pain would be more that I could bare. If I passed out now then it would be too late to do anything, and if I didn’t die soon my plan wouldn’t work.
Before I knew it there was a shimmer of divine light and the trickster god was kneeling next to me. His face twisted in a condescending sneer.
‘What you think you know mortal, isn’t worth my time.’ He pressed a single finger into my sternum. It took all my strength to keep myself upright against his force. I grabbed at his arm to hold myself up. Blood smeared on his pristine jacket sleeve but I didn’t care.
‘What I know is more than you ever will. When I eventually die, at least I’ll know that I was smarter than the mighty Loki.’ I tried to laugh but it came out as more a sickening gurgle that only worsened the pains in my chest. Loki started to smile. His down turned face slipping into a smug grin as he placed his hand over mine. I heard the snap before I felt it. The arm holding me up gave way and my now limp hand slid off Loki’s jacket. My back hit the marble step and blood and pain rushed into my head pushing me to the limits of consciousness. I wanted to scream but nothing came out of my mouth, just wordless noises as I struggled to hold on to the waking world.
The god stood over me, that stupid, smug grin still on his face. I thought I heard him laugh but my ears were full of the rushing sound of my own heart as it struggled with the overload of adrenaline and pain swirling through my system. Never had I felt so close to death, yet so far away. Silently, I begged Hel to kill me, end it all now. As I danced on the edge of consciousness I heard her shout. ‘Stop!’ The world sounded muted in my ears but they managed to pick up the tones of her commanding voice. She was still a goddess despite being powerless.
‘Father, stop.’ She said, quieter almost defeatedly. I was only vaguely aware as she walked over to me. She knelt down next to me as Loki stood up, his face a blur that far away but I could see the smile on his face. Hel lent in close, unsure of if she should touch me or how to fix me. I forced a smile through the pain as I looked up into her grey eyes.
‘I forgot he was your father.’ I said. If I lived through this I was going to have to brush up on my Norse mythology. ‘Your family is screwed up, kid.’
She looked down at me, her face full of sorrow and kindness, but I didn’t think that it was for me specifically. You spend an eternity ruling the dead and I would imagine that your ability to care about one dying individual would diminish significantly. I chose to take it as her best effort though, and that was enough.
‘Do it.’ I said quietly, looking up into her sombre face.
She placed a gentle kiss on my forehead. ‘Hamingja.’ She whispered softly into my ear, just before she snapped my neck.