In the beginning, there was darkness.
But that's how all creation stories begin.
There was no sight, no sound, nothing to differentiate or identify what was there, because there was no way to do so.
Slowly, consciousness stirred into being and began to ponder itself in the space that could not be comprehended. What was it? Did it have purpose, a reason to be? It didn't know, and so it continued its self-comprehension until it became aware of itself fully.
With self-awareness came more questions, but with every new question consciousness spread further to find the answers. In time it realized there was more to itself than just thought, things itched and twitched away from itself with new sensations that it found it could control. These new parts it determined were part of a whole, and it called this extended self a body.
Soon, it began to move. Not much at first, but as it made those first writhing motions, it could feel the extent of what its body was capable of as well as begin to process more information about what was around it. Something hard and chill was below it, unmoving even as it moved, steady. It called this ground. It was pleased.
Effort brought it to a position that it determined would be beneficial to motion, as it wanted to move and understand more, and ran a part of its body at the end of another part of its body across the ground. Smooth and cold. Each new sensation was carefully examined as it was comprehended.
Wriggling became crawling, crawling became the desire to stand. New information flooded its mind with new desires for more understanding. With every success, it wanted more. With every fall, it understood more.
Eventually, it began to walk. Not well at first, there were many false starts as what it called a bottom met the ground and created new sensations it wasn't so fond of, but every step brought with it more confidence and awareness of its own potential. So, it walked.
It had no concept of time or space as it walked. It simply went in the direction it had begun in and kept moving. It had no fear as it moved. Nothing impeded it, nothing was before it. It grew strong as it wandered, sure in its motions. This pleased it very much.
A new sensation began to make it a bit uncomfortable. It quickly filed this new thing as sound. Buzzing suddenly began to fill the air around it, even though it knew there was nothing tangible in its presence. As it shifted its position, the sound ebbed or grew. Sound was new, and even if it wasn't pleasant to its senses, it was something that had to be identified and stored.
It had no concept of time as it wandered, heading unerringly toward sound. It moved forward, the sound grew louder. It understood that was good, even if the steadily increasing sound was not good to its newly determined ears.
Before it, another new sensation grew along with the sound. It gave sense to its surroundings, allowing for perception and a new kind of understanding. This it decided was more pleasant than sound, and called this new thing light. It wasn't too pleased though, as the light and sound both grew stronger in the same direction it wandered. But it craved knowing, and followed both.
Around it as the light grew in strength, it saw shapes and forms flowing from the ground in a direction it determined was up, to a height it could barely perceive. More things were stored and categorized as it moved, perceptions slowly making sense in a thing it called reality. Its reality consisted of light, darkness, sound, touch, and things, and the categories were steadily increasing as it moved.
Looking around and attempting to understand its own self better, it looked at the appendages that it knew it possessed. It could feel them, control them. Everything around it had shape, so it must as well. It had multiple long things sprouting from a central thing, and it paused as it more closely examined itself. The central thing was not as slender as the rest, nor as long, but clearly supported the others. It called that central thing a very strange name. Torso. Somehow it knew that was correct. The two longer appendages that dangled down at the base of its torso it called legs, and had strange little stumpy things it named feet at the end. The other that were higher up had similarly stumpy things with longer things at the ends. It called them arms and hands. It seemed to be a complete thing.
Self-awareness grew even more upon inspection, and as it resumed wandering towards the light and sound, its hands touched various parts of its whole. Everything had the ability to sense and feel, some areas more sensitive than others, and it shied away from those areas. It wasn't unpleasant, but it wanted more knowledge. It now understood that it was a thing that was separate from where it was, and that knowledge allowed it to continue forward.
Without warning, it found itself in the presence of another. This other seemed to carry many of the same things it had noticed in itself, and it wondered if it was also like itself, wandering. This new thing, though, gave it some trepidation and made it pause. One half of itself seemed to have many of the same things it had noticed on itself, the other half was different. It tilted its head as it considered this new thing, and it seemed to do the same.
“I was not expecting you to be so calm about your situation. This may be a first in the long line of my Valkyries.”
It tilted its head to the other side, hearing the sounds that came from the new thing, and as its awareness spread, it grasped that this new, clear sound was communication. Words.
Suddenly, it understood.
“You died. Now, you are here in My Hall. You did nothing in life that would bring you to Me in a way that would either have Me place you in the Wastelands, or force Me to throw you into the Void. You died a dishonorable death at the hands of fools. Young, innocent, with a pure heart and soul.” The new thing leaned forward as it, no, She, looked down at it with a curious glint in Her eyes. “In spite of the torment you suffered, your spirit remains pure and as sharp as the finest steel. So I shall grant you this chance.”
It didn't flinch as Her ruined hand reached out and gently held its chin, forcing it to look up into Her eyes. It didn't know fear, but it was learning very quickly this one was to be respected and venerated. It found its own voice as it stared into Her eyes. “What chance?”
She continued to hold its gaze and chin, weighing every nuance displayed. “To be My servant in the mortal world. To spend your days seeking out and retrieving the errant dead for judgment of their lives. You would have great power and be respected by Those like Myself. You would be feared by the enemies of the natural order. A Valkyrie.”
As it pondered this, not fully comprehending what the offer was but knowing enough that it was not something to be taken lightly, a new thing appeared from behind Her. This new thing didn't look like either it or Her, having six legs, a very uncomfortable-looking body that had things protruding from its torso, and blue-hued... light... coming from the long thing it determined was its neck, and staring down at it from a head that seemed to be only partially covered with what it decided was hide. “Will she make a strong partner? The last one didn't work out so well.”
“Once she is fully aware, yes. There is something to her spirit that is familiar and strong. That strength will be needed.”
It wondered what She and the new thing meant, but it was more interested in what the offer could mean for it. Knowledge, understanding? Would it be able to obtain these? With its limited awareness, it determined that yes, these things would be available to it.
And it so desperately wanted them.
“I accept the chance.”
She smiled at Her new Valkyrie, and in an instant, the newest addition to Helheim's Halls found her mind flooded with more information than she could handle, and as the ground rose to embrace her once more, her new Lady smiled. “Welcome, Julian. Hel's Valkyrie.”
Hearing my two partners bickering on the plane about our last assignment was nothing new to me. It had become almost a normal background noise in a world where the background noise grew in volume each year. And that was just the normal audible sounds. There was an entirely different range of hearing that few could hear that was also on the rise.
We were returning home after clearing out a pocket of that.
Yet the noise didn't diminish. It remained, a buzzing in the back of my brain that was ignored for the most part. I guess one can get used to almost anything after three hundred years.
“Well, that's one more nest cleared out, so why can't you admit that what we're doing is actually working, you damn stubborn mule?!”
And now come the insults. If Jeff and Reinhold's colorful squabbling usually didn't drum up more business to fill in the gaps between our... employer's... requests, I would find ways to muzzle them both. Instead, by the time we deplaned, I already had a hunch we'd have at least three possible investigations. We were already internet famous, the trio of ghost hunters that actually did the job instead of making things worse for whoever reached out to us. Their arguments only added to that fame. We were known, recognized, and sought out.
But then again, that's why Reinhold and I were here.
Reinhold is a son of Sleipnir. Yes, Odin's eight-legged steed and son of Loki. As his partner, that makes me a Valkyrie, a guide of sorts for the dead.
We are not what you would imagine though. We are not under Freya's command, we are not a part of Her flight, with an easy job that is glorified and sought after.
Their role is rather limited. Go to battlefields, seek out the honorable and glorious dead, and divvy them up between Valhalla and Freya's own personal gardens. At the end of the day, get drunk and enjoy the easy task. Be the pretty, prissy, remembered demi-goddesses.
No, our boss is Lady Hel. Half beautiful, living woman, half rotted corpse and skeleton. The Queen of Helheim and lands of the dead. The one who takes the rest of the dead and dispenses judgment on their souls. She is one of the Forgotten, as most, even back in the heights of the nordic beliefs, feared Her and would choose not to acknowledge Her existence as they should.
Which explains Her bouts of crankiness. It isn't a pleasant thing, being the one who has to decide where souls go when we round them up and bring them to Her, when even the firm believers of your pantheon won't acknowledge your existence.
Odin long ago realized that the world needed Valkyries to round up the souls of the fallen and bring them to where they needed to be. It might have been determined by all of the pantheons about that same time, seeing as nearly every belief of humans had some form of after-death guides, although Odin just had to be the odd one. He assigned multiple to Freya for the warriors, but only one to Hel for the rest of the population.
So She gets the lion's share of the judging, and I and my predecessors get the lion's share of the collecting.
Loads of fun for us.
I tilt my head a bit to listen to Reinhold and Jeff again. Reinhold's been with every single Valkyrie since our task began, much longer back than even the Norse who gave the Gods Their currently known names, so he's got thousands of years worth of knowledge in his head that, given an opening, he loves to share. Usually with the subtlety of a six-legged horse in a china shop. Which I've seen a few times in the past, it's a rather amusing sight. Jeff is a recent addition to our team, a normal, almost blasé human. Don't let the glasses fool you, there's a wickedly sharp mind behind them that's a trap for even the most obscure information.
Added bonus for me? He can see spirits, same as we can. So recruiting him wasn't all that hard to do.
“Why can't I admit that it isn't working? We may clear out a nest and give peace back to the individual, but as of yet we haven't been able to locate the cause for so many nests suddenly appearing in the first place. There has never been such an outbreak before, and with no further information on them other than location and severity, we have little chance of getting to the bottom of it. So at best, all we are doing is... how you say, putting a band-aid on a knife wound.” Reinhold almost snorted in annoyance, turning his head back towards the window. “Whatever is causing these must be found and dealt with.”
Jeff rolled his eyes in irritation, and I almost had to grin. Almost. “You don't think we get that? I would love to hang around these sites and get more readings and data, but it's not like our primary employer isn't up to Her neck in assignments for us. We may get a few days break from one, but there's a good chance we'll be taking that break after we land to tackle the next job.” Jeff turned light hazel eyes to look at me. “When was the last time we had a break, anyway? Five months?”
I shrugged. “More like seven. It's not the longest run of hunts we've had, Reinhold and I went nine years before without a break. Those were not pleasant times.” Even as I said that, some of those memories returned. I was never one to turn away from my task, I had a job to do and I have always taken that seriously, but even I have to admit that the mess of World War II was catastrophic. I'm still trying to play catch-up from that while still handling the day to day tasks.
The woman next to me raised her eyebrow, having heard the entire discussion like probably even the pilots with how loud the other two got. “Nine years? Excuse me, but you don't look like you're over the age of twenty-five!”
“Good genetics, I guess. My mom doesn't look a day over thirty-five, and she's quite a bit older than that.” I wasn't about to tell this stranger about my boss. She'd meet Her or one of Her mirrors in another pantheon soon enough, anyway. Pallid complexion, sickly shade to the whites of her eyes, and her breath carried the scents of disease and medications that had clearly stopped working. The waning glow of her aura was also indicative. She didn't have a month. I just hope she chooses to leave this life quietly and peacefully. I hate having to grab the stubborn ones.
“Must be nice.” I heard her muttered comment as I closed my eyes, feigning sleep, and sighed. Yep, she was not going to be an easy transfer to her God, the cross around her neck a definitive affirmation of where her faith lay. Chances were, we'd get the call to round her up and present her to Yahweh. His angels were more lax about rounding up His dead than the other Valkyries were about helping with the overflow for us. Trust me, that's pretty bad.
The rest of the flight back into Louisville, Kentucky went off without any more loud outbursts from the peanut gallery, and as I suspected, we had requests to come and give our professional opinions about seven different hauntings, possessions, and creepy feelings. Reinhold handled that with his usual flair, his stunning looks as a human more than enough to steal the show while Jeff beat a hasty retreat for the van and I rounded up our luggage.
None of these people realized that, save for Jeff, they were begging the supernatural to take on the supernatural. If they really knew how much of their myths were actually real, I think more than half of the world population would settle down and start playing nice. Myth and monster walked alongside them, and they had long ago lost the ability to recognize them.
That only made it easier to work in plain sight most days, with any leak-overs and videos being written off as elaborate effects. It worked just fine for us.
“So, what do you think Hel will have waiting for us this time?” Reinhold turned his head to glance in the back seat at me after we cleared the immediate area around the airport and began to head back home to Morning View, a delightfully boring little town south of Louisville.
I glanced out the window, watching the green roll by over the hills that surrounded us and considered his question. He could just as easily, if not easier, get the information himself. He was, after all, a demigod in his own right. I think he asked me to query the Lady myself as a courtesy. If not that, then he was feeling lazy and was shucking work onto me. “Well, the subject you both were battling over in the plane is a legitimate concern. We don't know what's causing these concentrations of spirits like we've been seeing, nor the aggression they've been displaying. In all my time as a Valkyrie, it's a completely new phenomenon. So that is something I will make mention of to the Lady. As to what She may have waiting for us?” I closed my eyes from the bright light of day. “Your guess is as good as mine. If She's feeling secretive, we won't know until we get home.”
Jeff groaned and let his head bump the van's headrest, cautious enough to do so when there was a break in the traffic flow and that momentary lapse couldn't get us snarled up in an accident. Gods know these drivers aren't the best. “Just so long as we don't get sent to another backwater town whose residents want to try and burn us at the stake after we clear out their problems that they called us in to handle. I don't want to have a repeat of Andersonville, Georgia. That was a hot mess in more than one way!”
“You don't have to remind either of us on that front. Even though the wards held securely and kept the chances of accidental or intentional interference from the locals at an impossibility, someone there had to know that we were more than we appeared to be.” Reinhold looked at the road ahead, his deep blue eyes offset perfectly by his jet black hair. I wish every day I had his coloration. I have the same shade of black hair, but pale grey eyes aren't the best to try and get hidebound holier-than-thous to trust you. Therefore, he's the face. Not the one who really works to get things taken care of. “I feel it may have been that one pastor. Harris, was it? His aura had an unusual shape to it, grasping like tentacles, and trying to probe and hook into those around him.”
I sighed. Loudly. “He wasn't right in the head and spirit, and thinking of him makes me want to vomit. So, let's not discuss the creature, and have a relatively peaceful ride.”
“Alright, alright, I get the message.” Jeff quirked a corner of his mouth into a grin, and thankfully devoted more of his focus on the road ahead. Good man, I thought, not too bad on the eyes with his sandy brown hair cut in a businessman's haircut that had gotten a bit overgrown, alert to what goes on around him and reading cues others might miss, and as invaluable to the team as either the old nag and myself. He could just be far too stubborn at times, like on the plane. He was good though at knowing when it was best to drop a subject for the time being.
Music began to filter through the van, and I closed my eyes once more to the sometimes ear-twitch grating of classic country singers.
Jeff and I needed to continue the discussion on his choice of music.
A fishing boat moved quietly through the fog-enshrouded coast off Maine, the crew intent on making the best time out of the local waters as they could. The captain had scoffed at their fears, saying he was tired of hiring crew that were scared of old fishwives tales. Yes, there had been ships lost in those same waters since as far back as that area of the coast first had settlers, most of which had foundered and sunk before the original lighthouse had been built. But ghost ships and devils in the fog? Any good sailor nowadays knew those were simply stories told to scare the new blood. Ghosts weren't real, after all.
With the fog thickening, the captain ordered the automatic radar plotting aid turned on and the course plot laid out to confirm their course. With their heading confirmed and no targets registering ahead, the captain felt fully confident in following their usual route to their fishing grounds.
He never got to comprehend that sometimes, myths are based on reality.
Our home in Kentucky looked just like any other in the small town. A typical ranch, mid-seventies architecture, neatly kept lawn, and two cars in the drive. Nothing at all on the outside or even in a cursory inspection of the inside to alert anyone to what we really are and what we really do. That became part of the agreement with Lady Hel once the advent of photography was born. Mind, Reinhold and I always did our best to blend in as best we could as we moved around between Europe and America, but cameras made caution even more paramount.
A quick visual as we pulled into the drive assured all three of us that nothing was out of place and all previously set wards were intact and operating as they were designed. When did I start using such terms to describe the act of magic? I thought about that as the back hatch of the van opened up and I grabbed the first of my bags. “Guess it was when the modern industrial revolution kicked off...”
I didn't realize I had spoken aloud until Jeff cleared his throat by my right shoulder. “Did you say something, Julian?”
Not the smartest move I've made. I shook my head a bit. “I was just wondering a few things about the past, that's all. When language could alter in meaning to describe certain things.” I stepped away before he could stop me, he always had to know the latest and greatest of my musings, especially when they weren't relevant to anything we were working on. The last thing he needed to think about was taking odd turns of phrase in one's own head and re-purposing them to describe ancient rites and wards. I had enough on my plate as it was to give that thought nothing more than a cursory consideration.
“I've learned when it's best to leave the lady be, I'll take the equipment into the back room to get it ready for the next location. Go hop in the shower and the do what you do best. We'll be ready for your return.” Jeff gave me the thumbs up as I headed to the front door, Reinhold simply nodding to confirm he'd at least heard what was said as he began walking the perimeter, assuring his senses that all truly was well. One good thing about repetition: the neighbors still may look at him odd for doing it after every trip, but they finally stopped the gawking.
Cool air hit me almost like a wall once I opened the door, the muggy heat from being so close to the river making my body forget what air conditioning could feel like even in the few moments I was between the van and the house itself. If it wasn't for more repetition on my part, I probably would have fallen right there to make my face hit some rather nice, dense hardwood flooring. Instead, my feet went forward and to the left towards the bedrooms, toeing open the door to my own, and guiding me to the bed where I dropped two bags near the foot of it. “One definite improvement for these days, central air and heating.” I flexed a little as I looked around, making sure everything I would need after getting freshened up would be precisely where I needed it to be. Nothing ever varied, but it wasn't a bad idea to keep certain personal daily 'rituals'. It made things flow so much easier.
Jeff said it showed I had obsessive compulsive behaviors and that I was a control freak.
What does he know? I prefer smooth sailing when I can get it in comparison to the madness we find ourselves in too often. And if being a tough, overbearing, bitchy drill sergeant personality type was what I needed to be to get what I wanted and complete each mission with all bits intact? Oh well. Perk of the job.
One shower later, another argument settled between the two males in our well-hidden library, and I found myself sitting comfortably in an antique wingback chair that didn't need a descriptor of having seen better days, it still looked as good as the day I purchased it two hundred years ago in England. Hey, I take care of what's mine. And even then, this chair was worth a small fortune.
Mostly in paying for the utter silence of the craftsman as to the source of the leather. It's not like he could have gotten wyvern-hide, and he really wasn't about to buy the concept of a very large South American snake with particularly tough skin and tougher scales. Nope, this chair was worth a fortune.
I let the heat of the leather soak into my muscles as I closed my eyes and relaxed. Breathing slowed and evened out, heatbeat following shortly after. Within a moment, my spirit was cast out of my body and entering the cool halls of Helheim to stand before the Dread Queen. I always found it strange, even when I first awoke in the realm of the dead and was offered this opportunity, how so many still feared Her. I crossed the main hall to begin approaching Her inner sanctum, keeping a close eye on all those nearby. This was another situation where, if the living truly understood their Gods and their beliefs, there would be far less dread and more anticipation.
A few recognized me as I approached the great black doors that signified Her personal rooms, and I returned the friendly greetings. The souls that wandered the halls were normal folk, moms and dads, aunts, uncles, grandparents, grandkids, all walks of life and ages. They had been good folks in life who didn't have the required dying in battle to be possibly picked by one of Freya's overblown flirts for the Golden Hall or Freya's realm. No, they populated here, if they were good folk who tried to lead good lives, where they could rest or maybe get reborn further down the road.
The not-so-good and the vile? I didn't want to think of them as I pushed open one of the doors into Lady Hel's chambers. I already had a few collected souls I was going to have to expunge into the outer areas as it was. I wanted a bit more of a mental respite before dealing with that.
The Lady sat in her usual position at the center of Her outer room, the ruined side of Her face hidden behind a silver mask I knew someone had gone to the Dwarves and had made. Oddly enough, the mask had the opposite effect for me than what was intended. I found the too-perfect half that moved as a normal face might more than a bit repulsive. I knew She saw my fidgeting each time I stood in Her presence when She wore it, and even though She is generally not cruel, I'm fairly certain She enjoyed that discomfort. It reminded me of Her place, and why She had been banished to the last-most world in Yggdrasil's sphere.
A small amulet appeared in my hand that glowed fitfully in the dimly lit chamber, and with a deferential stance, I offered it to Her. “These are the souls reclaimed after this last hunt from Ireland. Five of them are innocents, tortured and cut down during the tyrannical hold of Patrick. They were not easy to locate or bring to You, but the others...” I dared to look up at Her, the red hue of Her hair visible as it fell around Her whole shoulder. “My Lady, there may be an issue in the world that we should be looking in to. Something that is-”
Hel lifted Her hand and held it out to take the amulet, which I deposited neatly into Her palm. “A corruption that is creating a more violent form of spirit? Yes, I am aware.” She held it up and examined it closely, taking note of every pulse and whorl from the souls within. “There is something that is not correct in the natural and supernatural fields of Midgard that are beginning to have echoes in the rest of the Nine Worlds, which would also be felt in the other pantheons. But what it may be...” She paused as if something in the glow of the amulet caught Her attention far more tightly than our conversation for a long moment, before setting it into a small box by Her skeletal elbow. “As of yet, none can say for certain what precisely is occurring. All I do know is that it is world-wide. My dearest brother Jormungandr has confirmed that even His dead are acting in ways that are unlike anything before. Therefore,” She leaned forward and locked my gaze with Hers, “you and your team have a new mission. Travel to the American state currently known as Maine, a town called Jonesport. There has been an occurrence there that may be able to point out a beginning of this riddle.”
Settling back into a chair that bore a striking resemblance to my own, Lady Hel nodded to me, a quiet dismissal if ever I had seen one, and with a small twist of thought, I found myself opening my eyes back in Kentucky with the sun barely above the horizon to the west. “So, an entire day this time. She must have had something to say about what's happening?”
I rubbed at my eyes, they always felt dry after I slipped into Helheim, and shrugged. “She said as much as She usually does, which is laced with vagaries and grey areas. She wants us to head back out soon, although She wasn't specific on time, just that She wants us to go.” Their groans were a rather adorably matched whine in complaint. “We can take a couple of days before heading out. Lady Hel gave no specifics, but Her hints make me want to research before we book the next flight out. I do not want to be caught without proper history on the area and a clue to the current situation. Agreed?”
Again, their stereophonic whine. Lazy brats. I still love them.
“So, what lovely slice of the world are we heading to this time?” Jeff braced his chin on this knuckles, elbow resting on a small side table as he sat and watched me closely.
“A fishing town called Jonesport, Maine. We'll leave in two days time. And yes, if we sense that there is more to the situation than just a rampaging monster or the usual ghostly issue, we're to see if an underlying cause may be there. Much like the nests we've been encountering as of late.” Reinhold raised an eyebrow slightly as I nodded. “Even Lady Hel's noticed and wants to know more. I'm not sure if She's been withholding Her knowledge of this to see if we noticed, or if She was trying to increase Her knowledge on Her own, but now that I've informed Her, we are tasked in not only stopping whatever is in Jonesport, but to find any possible clues if it fits the pattern we've been seeing.”
With a grin, Jeff leaned back, placing his hands behind his head. “If nothing else, we'll get some stellar fishing done! Count me in!”