And so I will conclude this chapter with a piece of advice. Run away from all this. From Mort City, from any demon who turns a mean spirited eye in your direction, from the monsters and the pain. Find yourself a quiet piece of land somewhere in the far reaches of hell. Yes, such places exist – are infinite, in fact. And make a life. Find a few to be your family, and be good to them. Visit Earth as you must, and take only what you need from the living, and remember the suffering of life. Build a house, make a fire, and be content. In this way only can you find peace in hell. All other roads lead to chaos and evil. I know, for I have walked them all.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 5 (Hell’s a Bitch, and Then You’re Damned)
The strangest thing about them was how human they appeared. The men were battle-scarred and each had a unique feature: one had a cavity and a black gaping hole where his chest should have been; another had a mouth that took up half his face; the one who’d pulled Calvin from the abyss had eyes like emeralds. But besides these oddities, they still looked like men and women. Hard, tough and lean, and as pale as the ice itself, but human nevertheless.
Calvin sat with his knees pulled to his chest on the far side of the cave, close enough to the fire to receive its blessed warmth but as far as he could be from the rest of them. A large pot bubbled over the flames, and it was the only sound to be heard. Every one of the Vikings – and that was undoubtedly what they were – stared stone-faced at Calvin, as if enraged that such a thing as him should exist at all. They’d saved his soul, but he was already beginning to wish they hadn’t. Now he would have to face what he’d done.
The leader – him with the emerald eyes and the largest frame, sat opposite Calvin on a wooden chair draped with the same leathery material that clothed them. One arm was draped over the shoulder of his beautiful mistress – a grey haired Valkyrie with fangs – and the other rested on an ancient sword. His oversized lower jaw worked beneath his red beard, teeth grinding audibly.
Eventually, Calvin couldn’t take it anymore. ‘I appreciate the shelter sir, I do. But if I’m what’s going to end up in that pot, I’d just as soon be back out in the blizzard. I’ve got an appointment with the Void.’
The Chief grunted. ‘It speaks.’
‘It’s not a Draugr,’ the fanged woman said.
‘Let’s eat it anyway.’ This last came from one with the enormous mouth. He had a gap in his front teeth, which were as white and square as the Cheshire cat’s. ‘I haven’t had anything with flesh on it for centuries.’
‘You’d eat a dog’s arsehole, Kjell,’ The Chief said, and they fell silent. At length, he addressed Calvin directly. ‘What are you, Thing? Where did you come from and how did you die?’
Calvin opened his mouth and then closed it again. The truth, he realised, was not going to get him anywhere he wanted to go. It seemed impossible that these people could exist at all. It was rare to meet a demon older than a hundred years, but if these were Vikings in the historical sense – and it seemed from their appearance and weapons that they were – then they had survived here in this hell-within-a-hell for over a thousand years. It struck him that they would be tightly knit. Perhaps telling them that he had betrayed a friend and been thrown off a ship in return was not the right way to go about it.
‘Out with it, or we’ll have you in the pot and be done with it,’ The Chief said, one finger tapping the hilt of his sword.
Calvin had never told Dale – or anyone, for that matter – much about his life. He’d been dead for so long, after all – since the summer of 1958 when he’d died an old man in his bed, tired and even looking forward to the peace and quiet. He’d left five children and thirteen grandchildren to mourn him back in France, a grand estate and sizeable inheritance in Switzerland, and eighty years of pleasant memories to lull him to sleep, but none of these was who he was. No, what had defined him for all his life were stories. In his time he’d written screenplays, novels, scripts for the theatre, short stories, epic sagas, masterpieces. He was willing to bet the humans read them all to this day. They had been everything, once upon a time. His lifeblood and legend.
And so now, when he opened his mouth to tell them another story – the story of who he was and where he’d come from – he slid so easily back into the fiction, back into himself, that it was almost frightening. The words fell out of his mouth as if they’d been waiting there for years, and perhaps they had. Characters announced themselves, a plot emerged, and as he warmed to his old familiar craft Calvin found his voice rising to fill the enormous cavern, commanding the attention of every suspicious eye.
At one point a woman – thin lipped and muscular – got up to fill cups from the big pot, which she passed around. The liquid was rich and steamy, and Calvin demolished his portion between sentences, hardly daring to stop in case he lost momentum. There must have been some souls mixed in to the broth, because as he reached the end of his tale his joints were humming with warmth.
‘So when I realised that I had let my old friend down by failing to reach him in time, I could not live with myself. I threw myself over the side of the ship, and would have gone to the Void when you arrived. I was mad with grief.’ He sighed, downcast, though inwardly he was celebrating. Now that was a tale! He’d cast himself as a bold explorer, searching hell to help a friend find the long lost love of his life and, tragically, failing, though not without plenty of success along the way, as far as fantastical adventures went.
In the brief silence that followed, Calvin was glad to hear the blizzard dying down outside. The first spark of hope, kindled by the delicious soup, lit up inside him. If he played his cards right, perhaps he could get off this iceberg after all…
The Chief was the first to speak. ‘Your story is a strange one, demon. I am not sure I believe it all, but you do not seem a liar. Such a man would not have admitted to failing his friend, as you did.’ The others muttered agreement. Calvin had been careful to weave some truth into the story – the best lies were always half true, after all. He’d made himself flawed, but ultimately heroic. Too capable to eat, human enough to gain their sympathy.
‘I am Lord Halvar, and this is my woman, Ingrid,’ the Chief said, and then proceeded to introduce the other Vikings circling the fire, each one nodding in turn. ‘He with the hole in the chest is Jarl Egil. The one so intent on crunching your bones is Kjell. She who gave you soup is Gull, and him with the axes for hands is Asmund. There are eleven more who live in the shelters in the valley nearby, sheltering from the blizzard. We are warriors, all of us, and all but Gull and another named Frida were slain in battle. You can share our shelter for the time being, but you must help with hunting and building, or you’ll find us less welcoming.’
Calvin nodded slowly, trying to hide his irritation. Weren’t they listening? He’d have to choose his words carefully. ‘I am very grateful for you offer, Lord Halvar. Very grateful. But perhaps you did not understand my tale completely. This land, Niffleheim, is only one small part of hell. There are entire cities, countries, worlds out there, and plenty of souls for the taking. Now, you seem to have many things here, materials, metal – even houses, you say? I can help you build a ship – we could all leave this place together. You could conquer lands beyond your wildest dreams…’
‘Enough!’ Halvar’s voice boomed surprisingly loud in the cavern. ‘It is you who does not understand, demon. Do you truly believe that we have lived here all these centuries by choice? We are brave warriors. We died in battle. We should be in Valhalla!’ There was a somewhat bitter cheer at that. Calvin felt the beginnings of something unpleasant churning in his gut.
‘Not Niffleheim, this place for traitors and cowards. We know about ships. In my life I built the best ships in the world by my own hand. But there is nothing here to make so much as a rowboat, let alone a thing to carry seventeen men and women. We have explored every inch of Niffleheim we could reach, and found its far boundaries, and we lost many souls in the process. This sheltered valley is the only place we may survive and keep from joining the snakes that squirm through the snow. The three spinners of fate have decided ours.’
He stood now, addressing the whole room, an imposing figure with a powerful chest that was more scars than skin. Yet, Calvin noted again, still so human. ‘But we are Danes! And death does not stop us from fighting. We will fight hell itself! Hundreds of years we’ve been here, and we will be here hundreds more. Already we have carved out a home in this evil place. We feed ourselves, we warm ourselves with fire, we hunt. In time, we will feast in a bright hall and have wars and rich souls by day. We will take this Niffleheim and make out of it the Valhalla we deserve.’
He sat down to more spirited cheers, face as red as his beard with zeal, and Ingrid slid her hand down his leg appreciatively. Gull refilled all of their cups and passed them around once more. Since this batch came from the bottom of the pot it was thicker with soul, hotter and full of bone chunks. When the noise faded, Halvar directed his attention back to Calvin. ‘And you will help us, demon. However long it takes, you will live here and labour alongside us. We can always use more hands.’
I’d be better off in the damned void. The words were on Calvin’s lips before he realised there was something else Lord Halvar had not mentioned, but which he read clearly in the eyes of the watching men and woman, and especially in the piercing look that Gull fixed him with now: the Void was no longer an option. They would not let him leave because if he refused to do his part for the good of their damned ‘Valhalla’ they could still eat him. I haven’t had flesh in centuries, Kjell had said. Calvin was valuable to them either as a helper or as food.
All eyes were on him now, as he stared into his hot wooden cup at the milky liquid. The wind outside was nothing but a dull whistle now, accompanied by the light patter of hailstones in the snow.
He looked up at them, and smiled with every one of his razor teeth. ‘To Lord Halvar!’ he said, raising his glass, and the cavern erupted with cheers and laughter.