The lack of books in Mort City has long depressed me, and it is largely the reason I have written this one. Ink and paper are not hard to come by, after all. I will not say what I suspect may be the cause of this censorship, but I will say this much: those in positions of extreme power tend to suppress free speech rather than encourage it; Slaves cannot criticise their masters. Books there are, however, if one knows where to look. Thankfully creative people and scientists all die equally, though their ambitions do not. There have been tyrants and wars and suffering beyond measure. There have been mass Turnings, plagues of Monsters. But there have also been Heroes. And there has even been – for a short time – peace, though that was before the rise of The Angel.
– Blood Dweller’s Guide to the Underworld, Chapter 7 (A Brief History of Hell)
It was the strangest thing Calvin had ever seen in all his years of afterlife. No demon could sleep, but in the warmth given by the fire and the broth that boiled comfortably in their bellies, the Vikings – for that was how Calvin called them in his mind – sat around the cavern with their backs against the icy stone and with an arm over their neighbour, and dozed with eyes half open and unseeing.
Calvin himself was completely alert, and he watched them closely, marvelling once again at their humanity. Beside their most obvious features, they looked so much like people: Pale skin, blue eyes, blond or brown hair grown long and platted, symmetrical features. He felt a horrible pain in his chest, but it was only when his eyes met Ingrid’s, as she leaned into Halvar’s embrace, that he realised what it was: Nostalgia. He missed humans. He missed humanity – the living. He missed being in love, and getting drunk on something other than souls, and having a family like this one waiting out a blizzard in this icy spot, living in a place that was considered too harsh even by other demons and subsisting off the bones of rotten souls. A miserable existence, maybe, but they had something he did not. Not since Dale had made him walk the plank.
She winked at him and then closed her eyes before he could respond.
He smiled, for the first time in much too long.
When the blizzard died, Halvar stretched and grunted, rousing the others. Calvin realised as he got stiffly to his feet that he’d dozed a little himself, his mind drifting so far away it did seem as if he’d been dreaming.
But the cold bit hard as they filed out of the cavern, and he was wide awake and shivering within a minute. Halvar nudged him playfully and grinned. ‘What’s the matter, demon? Has hell spoiled you with its heat?’
‘He must have been a sinner,’ Ingrid said with a sly smile. ‘The Christians always said it was the sinners that burned hottest.’
Calvin gave her his best toothy grin and was about to make a snide remark when someone tackled him at full force from behind and he found himself rolling down a soft embankment. When he disentangled himself from his assailant he saw it was the ever-grinning Kjell of the big mouth, who leapt to his feet with arms spread wide. ‘Don’t be so miserable, you bony bastard! The blizzards gone. Look!’
So Calvin looked, and was awed. The centuries had not gone by idly for these Vikings.
The valley in which they lived was large, and surrounded by tall peaks and slopes on all sides but one. Through the clear air Calvin could make out the horizon and the black void, but it was impossible to tell how far away. But the view Kjell pointed out to him was not of the bleak landscape but of the village they had built: Tall structures had been built with bricks of packed snow, like long igloos scattered around the plain. Beyond that, the valley curled around the mountain which housed Halvar’s cavern. Stone blocks marked pathways through the snow, and one of these curled that way, a main road out of the village.
As he watched, people emerged from their houses draped in skins and bearing amulets and weapons, talking and laughing. Calvin saw friendship and warmth, but he also saw a brutality, a hardness that came from endless years of this unforgiving place. The weak would not do well here.
No sooner did they notice his presence than they came flocking towards him until Halvar had to step forward to stop them from swamping him completely. Yet they were not as curious about him as he might have expected. None of them wanted to know about the rest of hell, or even cared that such a thing existed. Their attitude suggested that whatever else there was couldn’t be very different to here, that he had nothing to offer them. One of the women – Frida – pinched his skeletal arm at one point and remarked that he’d better be a good hunter or he was destined for the pot.
He was intensely grateful when they finally dispersed – contented that they had a new member and otherwise disinterested. Halvar pulled him aside and walked with him through the valley. Ingrid moved to follow, but he dismissed her with a wave of his hand.
‘I think they like you,’ he said when they were out of earshot.’
‘I’ll take your word for it.’ Calvin said. He took in the surrounding ice and chipped cliffs, breathed the chill air. Had he really been so close to throwing himself into the void so recently? The warm souls were working in him, and the exuberance of these hardy people was infectious. Perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad here, after all. And maybe in time, if he could flag down a passing ship…?
We are simple people,’ Halvar went on, draping an arm over his shoulder. ‘We want nought but souls, fire, war, and women.’ At the mention of that last, Calvin realised he’d seen almost every one of the village women on the arm of a man. ‘Ha. Yes,’ Halvar chuckled when he mentioned it. ‘Ah, well. Those who couldn’t kill the husbands were killed by the husbands. Us Danes don’t do well without a sheath for the sword, eh?’ He threw his head back and laughed, and Calvin couldn’t help but join him. Murderous they may be, but at least they were honest about it. There was something appealing about that simplicity.
As they followed the rocky pathway through the fresh snow, Halvar explained how things were run in Valhalla.
‘We get our nourishment from snakes and draugr. Snakes you’ve seen: they’re the souls of cowards and traitors, and they taste like shit. draugr are better, much more filling, but they also taste like shit.’ He laughed again and slapped Calvin on the back. ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it. They are fun to hunt, draugr. They’re the lost souls that stumbled on Niffleheim accidentally or died and woke up here. They are what you’d have been if we’d let you Turn.’
Calvin smiled gratefully. ‘And I thank you for that. But, Halvar…’ he paused for a second. They were away from everyone else now, the mountain obscuring the village, and only the tall hills on either side of the stone path they were one keeping them from the bitter wind that still soared above them. ‘What do you do here, besides survive? You cannot… you cannot have children. You cannot leave here, as you said. There is nothing to conquer. Why do you go on?’
Halvar gave Calvin a sideways glance, the smile fading a little from his face. Then, to Calvin’s surprise, he pulled him into a rough embrace with his one arm, so he could whisper into his ear. His surprisingly warm breath made Calvin shiver, though that wasn’t all that did it.
‘We kill each other, demon. We kill each other with every passing of the Red Star. We make sacrifices, we feast, and we kill each other, and we are born again.’ And then as he released him, he spoke the words that would haunt Calvin from that moment on: ‘And when the star returns, you will join us in the Bloodbath. And then you will be one of us.’ He grinned. ‘Forever.’