I shudder awake to shouting that echoes a few meters in front of me. The words are indistinguishable as they reach my ringing ears. I am unable to assess my surroundings due to a coarse cloth impeding my vision. Any attempt to move is hindered by the restraints linking me to the beam that I am firmly pressed up against. A sense of dread begins to overcome me, and I can feel my breathing becoming irregular. I twist my body frantically. Shoving my back against the pole and digging in my heels to break free of my restraints. I only achieve a slight shift in the cloth giving me a limited view in front of me. My newfound ability of sight is confronted by a line of bows and the owner of the unknown voice exclaiming, "FIRE!"
A flurry of arrows shoots toward me but feel as if they are moving in slow motion. Slowly dancing towards me ever so lightly as the sun reflects off their tips. Sharp pain pierces my body in several locations and a bubbling heat overtakes me. The arrows that are protruding from my body, are capped with a stiff, beautiful red feather, matching the blood staining my clothes. A deep black begins to seep from the outskirts of my eyes blurring my vision. My head begins to slowly sink, for my neck can no longer support it. My heartbeat overtakes my attention as my senses begin to fade along with the heat flowing through my body. I can only focus on its rhythmic beating going thump-thump... thump-thump... thump-thump...
The smell is what overtook me the most when I woke up for the second time, laying uncomfortably on a cold, uneven surface. The smell was that of rotten meat, continually besieging my nose. Almost enough to make me vomit. I could feel the frigid touch of water hit my feet and continue flowing until it rose to my waist before receding. Staring straight ahead reveals a pitch-black sky with nothing obstructing my gaze. All I can see are the grey clouds expelling from my mouth with each breath.
My body feels stiff and frostbitten as I sit up. My joints creak and cry with every move while icicles break off my frosted body and shatter around me. How long have I been lying here?
Before me is a colorless, endless sea with a thin layer of ice that is cracked and torn from the motion of its waves, elegantly pushing to shore. My hands glide to my chest, anticipating the touch of arrows and are instead greeted by the frosty feeling of armor.
"I don't remember wearing this," I say softly as I place my hands on the armor.
My fingers fumble across the iron rings of the chain mail, which is clasped tightly to my body, getting numb from the continued exposure to the cold. Large iron gauntlets grasp my forearms with animal fur sewn within, providing much needed warmth. Light brown leather straps entangle my armor and following their path with my hands leads me to two axes attached to my back, worn from their repeated use in battle.
Steadying myself with my hands, I push myself off the ground. My legs struggle to hold the weight of my body that aches as if I haven't moved for days. The smell from when I awoke still bites at the edge of my nose causing me to turn around. I follow the scent and am confronted by a vulgar display of corpses that are piled and strewn about on the shore of the sea. Some piles so large they seemed to have no end.
Run. Run was the only thought spiraling -through my head. My eyes anchored for what seemed like eternity on the sight before me. The feeling of danger rampaging inside of me. Every fragment of my body demanding to flee.
I step back, fearful from the image my eyes are witnessing. All the bodies looked to be clad in armor with varying degrees of decay. Some piled high enough to tower over me. My heartbeat increases and knots turn my stomach as my eyes dart from face to face. Their faces now permanently scarred in my mind.
I continue stepping back until my heels feel the rush of water. Its cold kiss signaling to my brain that there is nowhere else to go. There is no escape from what is before me.
What do I do?
Why in god’s name am I here?
How could they even let an atrocity like this to even occur?
These thoughts tear through my head as I look to either side of me, unable to discern a clear path away from the corpses. If moving forward is my only choice of escape, then I’ll just have to find the strength to do so. I will not perish here!
I step closer towards the piles of men laid before me, the smell worsening as I get closer. I carefully step through the bodies and notice the armor worn by my fellow warriors all having different insignia. How can so many different bands of vikings and warriors be in the same place? I even recognize some from old stories told in my home village dating back over a hundred years ago. The story of how they met their end lost somewhere in the ground before me.
I continue distancing myself from the shore, tripping through the fallen corpses, searching for a beacon, a destination, a direction of hope out of the crisis I find myself in. I walk for what feels like miles and I am only embraced by the same scene of bodies continuously scattered in every direction. My nose and mind going numb to what lays around me as I continue to walk on.
It begins to snow lightly; snowflakes flowing from the dark sky with no cloud in sight until they collect on the ground and bodies around me. The snow crunches beneath my feet and I stay determined to not join the dead that lay ominously still. If I don't find a way out soon, then I am just going to freeze to death.
Suddenly, I can hear faint footsteps scraping against the snow, coming from the pile of bodies to my right. I position myself against the pile and unstrap the axes previously attached to my back, gripping them firmly. I don't know what is on the other side, but I'll be damned to not be prepared for the worst.
I lean around the pile only revealing part of myself and can see a young man clumsily swaying a spear in the air around him. I can see the fear in his eyes resembling mine when I first glimpsed the faces of the dead. The fear protrudes with each advance he makes as he spins around, taking in what lies around him. I attempt to lean in for a closer look but my hand slips on the snow that has piled up, pushing one of the bodies loose. A loud clash of metal follows its descent to the floor causing the kid to turn and lunge the spear towards me.
"Hey!" I shout, as I sidestep and block his initial thrust with my axe. His spear wedged into the pile behind me.
The young man before me is no older than sixteen. He wears leather armor that is two sizes too big for him and hangs from the straps around his body. He has short, brown hair and stands roughly 5 feet from the ground. He isn't built like a typical viking, but neither was I at his age. Underneath the armor is sweat stained black clothing, which match the boots on his feet. The clothing he wears seems to be lined with animal fur for warmth, but is nowhere near adequate for the harsh conditions of the environment we find ourselves in. His eyes switch from fear to desperation as he releases the spear and draws a dagger from the sheath around his waist.
"If you come any closer, I'll pour out your insides! You hear me!?" He yells as he crouches slightly ready to make his second attack.
"Hold it son," I say, trying to calm him down and not get a knife tickling between my ribs. I understood the fear he was feeling. Like a wounded animal that had been backed into a corner in an unfamiliar environment. If he was the one who ran into me, I may have been the one to attack.
"I'm not here to hurt you. I just woke up here moments ago and from the looks of it, that is the same for you. Do you know where we are?"
"Isn't it obvious?! Can't you see that we are in Nifflheim! Here to suffer for our sins for all eternity!" He shouts, dropping the dagger and falling to his knees. His hands covering his ears as he mumbles softly to himself.
"Why me? H-How can I be here? I was always..."
He continues with incoherent mumbling while he shivers from the cold. His previous words hit me like a punch to the gut as I take in what I have seen since waking up. My mind carefully trying to explain what is going on, but mostly ignoring everything I have seen thus far. I never pieced it all together, hoping this was all some terrible nightmare I would soon wake from. The numerous corpses, the frozen climate, the arrows... wait, that means I must have... "Dammit," I say under my breath. Cursing the gods for their cruel and unjust punishment they have bestowed upon me.
I look down at the cowering child before me and reach out my hand toward him. His hesitant eyes staring up at me. I wanted to... no, I needed something to focus on. I needed something to protect and someone to trust if i was going to hold myself together and make it through this ordeal.
"Come on son. This is no place to lay down and die."
"We are already dead so what's the point!?" He bites back.
"Is someone over there!?" Another voice calls out a few meters away.
I'd hope the thought of more people in this situation would be comforting but it mostly worries me. Instead it adds more questions than answers. Why am I still breathing with many lying dead around me? Why can't I remember anything before the flurry of arrows that sent me to this dreadful place? With no end to the maze of bodies, a scared child in front of me, and an unknown voice around the corner, what is my next step? Is the unknown voice even a friend or is it more likely a foe? All I know is that staying here is not an option and the cowering child before me is all I have for the time being.
I bent down and grab the knife that the kid dropped on the ground and hold it by the blade, attempting to hand it to him. "You can either choose to fight and come with me, or you might as well slit your throat and join the bodies around you." The words roll coldly off my lips, hoping to kindle his survival instincts.
He looks up to me, no longer shaking. "I... I don't want to become like them," he says as he grabs the dagger from my hand.
"Let's go," I tell him while helping him to his feet. We only take a few steps until the unidentified owner of the voice is before us slamming the tip of their sword on the ground to steady themselves.
"Can either of you boys tell me where in the gods we are?"
The voice belongs to a woman wearing armor more elegant than what both the boy and I wear. It's silver chic which is paired nicely with gems encrusted around its edges. She most likely rules over a town or a small profitable village at the least. She has long golden hair and fair skin, that is even paler from the cold unrelenting around us. She holds a large sword that is garnished not unlike the armor and it looks even heavier than I would handle effectively. Even still, she holds it firmly with a commanding presence. She stands tall and stoic, seemingly unaffected by the world we find ourselves in.
"Got nicked from these uglies on my way here." she says gesturing to her forearm that possesses a small gash slowly trickling blood.
"Followed the clanging of metal here and I'm relieved to have found others, but honestly, you are a sad lot." She laughs as she inspects the boy and I.
"I guess you will have to do. Come with me." She orders over her shoulder as she begins to walk away from us.
"How can we even trust you?" The boy shouts, speedily walking to catch up with her.
"Because if I wanted you dead, you would be," she answers stopping the boy in his tracks.
I smirk slightly and begin to follow her pushing past the kid who quickly follows behind me. I hope my hasty decision to follow, and trust her, doesn't come back to bite us. She would be a troublesome foe, I think to myself. My eyes fixated on the large sword she holds effortlessly. All I have to go on is my instincts, and I trust those.
"The kid says we are in Nifflheim, and I for one believe in his words. I can't find another explanation to –," I start to say but am quickly cut off.
"Impossible, if I have fallen then I certainly died honorably in battle. I commanded my men flawlessly in every campaign and led my people to great prosperity. If I died, then I should be in the great halls of Valhalla! There must be some other explanation!" She quickly grasps her slip of composure and quickly tightens it again. She continues walking without saying another word.
We start walking again, silent. The only thing to be heard is our breathing and the crushing of snow beneath our feet. The silence slowly drives me mad and I get the feeling as if a thousand eyes stare at me from every direction. We trudge on as the snow fall begins to worsen and the cold pierces me to my core. Each step heavier than the last. I look down to keep the snow from scraping against my face as the wind howls angrily. I begin to notice some of the same insignia I saw previously. Their designs now almost completely covered in snow. We are moving in circles. I open my mouth to disclose my findings to my companions, but I am interrupted by shouting to my left.
"Where have you taken me?!" An angry voice bellows as heavy footsteps rush toward me.
I turn to see a massive man steamrolling towards me, his face twisted in rage, plowing through anything in his path. He too is covered in chain mail, which is hemmed with gold, indicating he is most likely a respected warrior. He wears a red striped rag tied to his forehead keeping his blond hair out of his face, its ends flowing in the wind. He has a thin goatee around his mouth and easily stands over six feet tall. His presence towering over me as soon as he reaches me.
Air rushes past me as he slams his foot down a few inches in front of me and winds his arm back, his hand clenched into a fist. His unrelenting speed catches me off guard and I am unable to react to the behemoth before me. His gigantic fist collides against my ribs sending me spiraling into the air, slamming into the ground several meters away.
I struggle to pull air into my lungs as yelling and the clash of metal sounds ahead of me. Blood stains the white snow below me as I cough, gasping for air. I push myself onto all fours and can see my companions struggling to overpower the man. Each of them desperately swinging their weapons against the large hammer clenched in his hands. He blocks each strike effortlessly and quickly swings the hammer around him, knocking the boy and woman off their feet. Their bodies now lying motionless.
I yell. I muster all the air my lungs can hold and shout loud enough to tear my throat. I scream to tell my body to move, to fight, not wanting to watch my companions die before me. It's true and foolish to believe that after such a short time and only silent remarks between us, I call them friends, but being alone in this place terrifies me. If by some chance we can find answers and escape this place, I know it can only be done with them.
Adrenaline taking over my body, I run towards the man with both axes in my hands. The snow whirling around me as I run. The man quickly turns to meet me, our weapons colliding as I reach him. My axes reverberate in my hands from the massive swing of his hammer. I quickly duck, dodging the next stroke of his hammer. I grasp my axes tightly and thrust them upwards gashing his forearm and a part of his shoulder. The man is unfazed as he lifts his leg and kicks me straight in the chest, sending me backwards until I slam against a pile of corpses. Some of the bodies fall on top of me pinning my body and arms from moving.
The man slowly steps forward, lightly laughing to himself as he drags his hammer on the ground. His other hand wipes the steadily flowing blood from his arm. I struggle against the bodies lying on top of me as he approaches, each second as important as the last as the bodies gently shift with each nudge of my arms. I struggle until I feel his large hand grapple around my neck. He lifts me up forcibly, liberating me from the bodies and holds me with one arm above him.
I desperately pat my body looking for anything to use as a weapon as it gets increasingly more troublesome to breath. I begin pounding my fist into his hand and forearm, hoping to cause him to loosen his grip slightly.
"This is all your doing," His voice booms, unflinching from my repeated strikes to his arm.
"I didn't do anything," I choke out.
A feint whistling can be heard in the air as a dagger pierces the man's back. I look behind him to see the boy, barely standing, with blood trickling from the side of his head. I feel the grip on my neck release a bit and I will not let the opportunity the boy gave me go to waste. I twist my body to break out of his hold and kick upwards, the tip of my foot connecting with his chin. He stumbles back dazed as I pick up my axes lying in the snow. I step forward to begin another attack, but I am halted by the ground trembling fiercely.
The bodies to my left begin to shift and start tumbling to the floor. In their place a large blue eye sits, staring at me. I stand, paralyzed as the being lifts itself up, the snow and corpses being shed from its body. The head of a dragon glares down at me with rows of dagger-like teeth as its long snake-like body shifts the ground beneath it. Its body made up of perfectly carved, black scales that look stronger than the toughest metal. The being continues growing upwards making it almost impossible to see its head in the harsh snowfall, except for its bright, glowing blue eyes. The creature lets out a powerful screech that echoes around me.
Ahead of me, everyone begins running, quickly discerning that there was no hope in a confrontation with this beast. I follow suit, hurriedly bounding through the bodies tossed along the ground. The monster notices our escape and starts rushing towards us, gradually catching up as it destroys everything in its path. I can feel the creature's eyes pressed against my back as I continue racing away, careful of the snow now piling a few inches high.
Another howl resonates from the creature and it slams its head into the pile to my right, debris flying several meters in every direction from the impact. Smoke and dust blur my vision as I turn away from where the monster's head crashed, now separated from the others. The monster rapidly recovers and attacks again several piles to my right, and then again slightly behind me. I continue running, using the piled bodies and dust for cover. I start to breath heavier and heavier as my injuries from earlier catch up to me. My lungs unable to get enough air from the ribs that are most likely broken. I crouch behind a pile in a desperate attempt to catch my breath. The cold air slitting my throat like blades as I breathe. I go to stand up as another screech pierces my ears, followed by the creature slamming into the pile I was using as a shield.
I soar away from the impact, hitting the ground painfully, once again lying on a cold, uneven surface. I stare calmly into the black sky, only now being obstructed by the face of the monster and its cold eyes of death peering down at me. Blood drips from both my arms and head, and pain circulates throughout my entire body. I attempt to bear the pain and stand, but my body refuses to listen to my brains plea to escape. I collapse to my knees.
"I'll live. I'll live even if I have to crawl," I say slamming my hands into the snow and dragging myself forward. This can’t be all there is to my story. This can't be all the gods have planned for me.
The monster pulls back with another shriek, poised to strike the finishing blow. I close my eyes, anticipating the blow but suddenly feel two sets of arms grab either side of me and hoist me to my feet. I open my eyes to see the boy and woman on either side of me, carrying me as they run.
"If I knew you were going to be this much trouble, I wouldn't have taken you on," the woman scoffs as she looks ahead with determination.
"We are still breathing, can't give up and join the dead yet can we?" The boy says as he smiles at me. His smile comforts me as we continue to press ahead while the monster continues attacking haphazardly in a desperate search for its victims.
We advance into a clearing, finally free from the piles of corpses that surrounded us. The feeling of freedom quickly fades as I realize the vast openness now around us, and the lack of cover for us to escape to. The snow is piled even higher here and the wind blows harshly, impeding our movement. We travel slowly as the creature bursts into the clearing and catches up to us rapidly. I can feel the breath of the creature as its head closes in on us, its mouth opens wide enough to swallow several horses in one bite. The rows of razor-sharp teeth now inching their way towards us to finish us off. A cruel twist of fate to wake up in this horrid world to only then be eaten by a beast even more foul.
The creatures mouth moves to close around us, but it is met with a large metallic arrow that pierces the beast's mouth and knocks it away from us. The creature lets out a horrific cry of pain and its body slams the ground around it, knocking all of us forward. We all slide in the snow several meters away from the beast who continues to howl in agony.
I move to stand and look up to see a man in full silver armor standing above me. The silver armor sparkles as the snow falls and quickly melts on its surface. Each piece of armor delicately crafted and covered with beautiful, chiseled designs. The man holds a large iron bow that stands taller than himself and looks down with protective, caring eyes as he looks upon us.
"You fellas in need of some help?" Says the man as he draws another arrow into his bow.