Original Fiction: ‘Entombed in Ice’ by Gavin G. Smith
The speakeasy was a shithole. Sabin had found it through an anonymous door and down a set of rickety steps in a basement under a butcher’s. It stank of misery and the barely flavoured methanol they were trying to pass off as gin. Blood dripped through the floorboards from the butcher’s above. The customers looked like the dregs of humanity, desperation frozen onto worn drooping faces, the people who’d been cut off from what they needed by Prohibition. They were the end result of what, up until recently, had been Sabin’s stock-in-trade. On the other hand, the speakeasy was the sort of place where you could leave a pair of Browning semi-automatic pistols on the table and nobody would blink an eye. Besides, the elf felt like drinking until he did himself some serious damage. It was just good luck he’d found a speakeasy before he’d found an opium den. He poured himself another drink from the bottle and tried not to think too much about how filthy a bathtub his ‘gin’ had been made in.
The door at the top of the stairs opened, letting in a flurry of snow. The first torpedo walked in and stepped to one side, surveying the speakeasy. The cold weather gave the man an excuse to wear a heavy coat, but it didn’t quite conceal the Thompson sub-machine gun. None of the clientele even looked up, though the one-eyed dwarf behind the bar may have mumbled something about closing the door.
Sabin watched as the second torpedo came down the stairs and took up position against the wall. Another heavy coat concealing another Tommy Gun. Then Old Man Kennedy walked in flanked by a third gunman. Tall, thin, his beard shot through with red, his green eyes almost bright enough to make Sabin want to question his lineage. His suit, coat and hat were dark green. Sabin often wondered if Kennedy was trying too hard to be Irish, but the Irish/American connection gave him a lot of influence in his native Boston. He made his way over to Sabin’s table, a look of distaste etched onto his craggy features, his nose wrinkled at the eye-burning chemical stench of the speakeasy.
‘You look like shit,’ Kennedy told him. Sabin hadn’t seen a mirror in a while but he suspected the statement had some truth to it. His nearly white, blond hair was in disarray, strands of it hanging across his face, obscuring bloodshot blue eyes. His skin, normally pale, was sickly and taut, covered in barely scabbed over cuts and scrapes, and he stank, he could smell himself. He hadn’t changed the partially rotted clothes that just about covered his slender frame since he’d started his current bender.
‘God damned pointy-eared nance!’ the torpedo next to Kennedy said. He’d managed to say it through gritted teeth, hadn’t even opened his mouth. Sabin didn’t recognise the gunman but he looked young enough to have something to prove, and dumb enough to try and do something about it. The disgust in his voice told Sabin the gunman had heard about him. The elf was in the mood for a fight right now, but he was drunk and with three Tommy Guns in the room, it could get futile quickly. Instead, Sabin looked at Kennedy and pointed at the torpedo.
‘That’s enough now, Doyle,’ Kennedy told his pet gunman, never taking his eyes off Sabin. ‘Why am I in Detroit, Mr. Revere? I don’t like this town.’
‘Loads are going to get lost, it’s the cost of doing business,’ Sabin told him. Old Man Kennedy nodded. He pulled a chair out and sat down opposite the elf. Kennedy clasped his hands together, resting them on the table.
‘I accept that. I always have. There are no guarantees, but that was a particularly valuable load. And I see you, here,’ he made a show of looking around, ‘my man, Harry, nowhere to be seen, and the charming Mr. Odedra also not present, and you two are normally inseparable.’ The mention of Jared, in all his myriad forms, but always beautiful, was like a spike of ice through Sabin’s heart.
‘Fucking degenerate,’ Doyle muttered, earning an irritated glance from his boss.
Sabin leaned towards Old Man Kennedy and pointed at Doyle again. ‘If he opens his mouth once more, I’ll hurt him.’
Doyle’s palms slammed down on the table.
‘How the hell is a faggot like you—’ Words became screams as Doyle staggered back holding his right hand, which was now missing four fingers. There was a finely wrought hand axe embedded deep in the cheap wood of the table. The symbols on the steel blade and polished wooden haft suggested the weapon was magical in nature. The other two torpedoes went for their Tommy Guns but Sabin was on his feet, a Browning in each hand leveled at both the gunmen. Doyle was staggering back from the table clutching his wounded hand, still screaming. None of the clientele of the speakeasy seemed to be paying the slightest bit of attention, though the one-eyed dwarf serving the drinks had her hand under the bar. Sabin idly wondered whose side she’d join if bullets started flying. Old Man Kennedy raised his hand.
‘There’s no need for…’ he started but it was difficult to hear him over Doyle’s high-pitched screams. ‘Doyle, be quiet. You’re embarrassing yourself.’ He turned to the gunman at the top of the steps by the door. ‘Flynn, take Doyle out of here, get him to a hospital.’ Flynn hesitated, glancing at Sabin, clearly uneasy about leaving his boss with the elf and only one other guard. ‘Mr. Revere is of no threat to me, I assure you.’ Reluctantly, Flynn let the Tommy Gun drop back under his coat on its sling and came down the steps. The other gunman lowered his weapon as well and Sabin put both his pistols back on the table. He picked up the bottle of ‘gin’ and took a swig from it.
‘My fingers,’ Doyle squeaked. Flynn cast a wary eye towards Sabin as he picked up the severed fingers from the table and pocketed them. Sabin took another swig from the bottle and watched them both leave before pulling the dripping hand axe out of the pitted table top and returning it to its leather sheath in the small of his back, next to its twin. He hadn’t remembered much of where he came from, but he knew the axes were called the Siblings. They had served him well.
Old Man Kennedy gestured for him to sit down. Sabin did so. The elf tensed as Kennedy reached into his coat but he just removed a silver hip flask engraved with knot work, and two small, similarly engraved silver cups.
‘Perhaps we can have a civilised drink and you can tell me what happened,’ Old Man Kennedy said as he poured whisky into the two cups. He slid one of them across the table and took a good look at Sabin’s partially rotted clothes.
‘What in Daghda’s name happened to you, boyo?’
Sabin lifted the silver cup to his lips and took a sip.
‘Old Man Kennedy is not a leprechaun!’ Sabin managed. He was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. So was Jared. Sabin was worried that his lover, who was driving, was going to put the armoured car into a fishing hole and plunge through the ice into the dark, cold depths of Lake Erie.
‘The red beard, the green coat, c’mon!’ Harry said from the armoured car’s turret, his thick Brooklyn accent mangling the words. The big orc wasn’t part of Sabin and Jared’s crew. He was one of Kennedy’s men sent here to keep an eye on his boss’s precious cargo. When he’d first met Sabin and Jared, he’d told them he couldn’t care less that they were a pair of swishes as long as they had his back. This had endeared the orc to Sabin, who understood what kind of people most torpedoes were, and how they talked. Jared, understandably, was sick of being singled out. Harry had grown on him, however, because the orc was funny. At well over six foot and powerfully built, he only just fit in the cramped environs of the armoured car’s turret. Harry was huddled in his greatcoat and hat to try and protect him from the cold. Sabin knew that under the tusked, flat-featured orc’s coat and thick winter suit, Harry’s torso and arms were covered in intricate runic designs. The tattoos were a tribute to the Aesir gods the torpedo and many other orcs venerated.
‘He’s a human,’ Jared protested between wheezing, trying to catch his breath from the laughter. Sabin glanced over at him. At the moment he wore the face of a beautiful, young dark-haired elf. Jared always used to tell him that the victims whose faces he stole were deserving. Sabin absently wondered for a moment when he’d stopped asking about them, when he’d stopped caring where his lover’s faces came from. Sabin would kill when he had to, but there was no denying it, Jared was much more ruthless than he was. The faces he stole were always beautiful, male or female, but that didn’t matter to Sabin. Nor did his lover’s real face, Jared’s greatest secret. Sabin loved him for who he was, not what he looked like.
‘It’s glamour, I’m telling you!’ Harry insisted. This seemed to strike Jared as particularly funny and he doubled over the armoured car’s steering wheel, laughing. The heavy vehicle swerved and Sabin actually cried out as he felt, and then heard, the ice shift beneath them. They all went quiet for a few moments, listened to the crunch of the ice over the armoured car’s muffled engine, and then they burst out laughing again. This was why Harry rode with them in the lead car of the convoy. He was funny. The laughter helped keep their minds off the fact that the only thing between them and plunging to a cold, watery death was several feet of frozen water. There were certainly easier ways to run booze into the Union States of America. They could have brought it across the border from the distilleries and breweries that had sprung up in the Indian Nations since the start of Prohibition, or they could have brought it in on speed boats from all the ships anchored on the ‘Rum Line’ up and down the Eastern Seaboard just beyond America’s coastal waters. Running the high-end booze – single malt whisky from Scotland, champagne from France via Montreal – across the frozen lake in a snowstorm when the Treasury’s planes were grounded, that was a thrill however. Most of their crew in the three armoured cars behind them were dwarves, or orcs. A few were half-elves and there was one other elf, people who could see well in darkness, because the convoys ran at night with their lights off.
‘So where’s his pot of gold, then?’ Sabin asked as he shifted the Thompson sub-machine gun to make himself more comfortable in the passenger seat.
‘Now, that we could steal,’ Jared said after a few moments’ consideration. There was more laughter.
‘Hey, hey…’ Harry warned between the laughter. The orc was nothing if not loyal to his boss.
Through the slits in the armour, Sabin could make out the lights of Toledo to the southwest, and Detroit to the north. They were heading for a secluded bay between the two cities where trucks, owned by Detroit’s Purple Gang, were waiting to pick up the booze to transport down to Boston. Harry would be going with the trucks whilst Sabin and Jared took the armoured cars back across the frozen lake to Canada.
‘There’s no such thing as leprechau—’ Sabin started and then Jared slewed the armoured car hard right. A tongue of flame illuminated the ice close to the shoreline. Something whistled past their car. Behind them, the second car in the convoy exploded. Sabin froze, just for a moment; someone had just fired a howitzer at them. The force of the shell hitting the second armoured car sent the heavy vehicle tumbling backwards across the frozen surface of the lake. Water surged over the ice under their wheels from the hole the explosive round had made. The third car in the convoy was too close to avoid it. A fortune in booze sank to the bottom of the lake, and three more friends died as the third armoured car plunged into the newly made hole in the ice.
Then the flare went up, bathing the icescape of the frozen lake in a red glow. Between the remaining armoured cars and the shore they could see the howitzer and the line of men. Soldiers, judging by their uniforms, and doubtless there would be Treasury agents amongst them. But between their vehicles and the soldiers, something else: bodies fused with the tortured ice as though it had frozen around them. It was an image from the abyss, tortured souls from Dante’s daemonic twisted imagination. Sabin assumed these were the members of the Purple Gang they were supposed to rendezvous with. The other remaining armoured car had turned to follow them, both vehicles running perpendicular to the shore. Sabin heard garbled words shouted through a loud hailer. Harry answered them with a burst of fire from his Browning Automatic Rifle. Hot shell casings rained down on Sabin as he slid one of the firing ports open and added the sound of the Tommy Gun to the thunder of the BAR. The ringing sound was nearly deafening in the armoured car’s interior, which was suddenly filled with hot flying shell casings. Sabin used the tracer rounds arcing towards the soldiers to guide his aim, but at this range he knew the .45 caliber rounds would be of little use. He saw tracers arcing in towards the soldiers from the other armoured car as well. Then the soldiers and federal agents returned fire. The armoured car was wreathed in sparks as they were hit by rifle and machine gun fire. Sabin was pretty sure he was screaming, fear as much as anger, as he fired burst after burst into the freezing night air, but he couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the guns and the ringing from the bullets impacting the car’s armour.
For a moment he couldn’t work out why a bonfire suddenly burst into burning life close to the shore. All it would do was illuminate the soldiers and agents and weaken the ice close to them. Then, the flames were gathered up to form a spiraling writhing snake of fire: a python, the symbol of Apollo, the Olympian god of the sun. Now the bodies in the ice made sense. The federal agents had a priest of Apollo with them, one who had sufficient favour with their god to wield significant fire magics. Flame rolled across the sky, making the ice glow from the reflection, and then became a rain of arrows made of fire. There were explosions of steam where the arrows hit the frozen surface of the lake, and ice was suddenly water. Sabin thought he heard the crash of the other armoured car going through the ice but he was too busy with his own terror to pay much attention. There was fire and steam all around them. The interior of their armoured coffin was suddenly humid. He felt the ice crack under their wheels; the car shuddered and then plunged forwards, black water rushing up to meet them. He caught a momentary glimpse of Jared. He couldn’t make sense of it. His lover was repeatedly stabbing and slicing at the left side of his beautiful stolen face, wounding his own flesh beneath, turning half of his face red as he shouted out words in Old Norse. A sacrifice, Sabin realised and then the cold waters engulfed them. Then, suddenly, they were no longer sinking. Instead, they were falling.
Sabin would have screamed if he’d had the presence of mind but it happened too quickly for him to make sense of it all. The armoured car was plummeting down a crevasse, the heavy vehicle tearing huge sheets of deep blue ice from the walls. Sabin tried to brace himself against the dashboard as the bottom of the crevasse rushed up to meet them. Then he found the presence of mind to scream. He was vaguely aware of Harry doing the same. There was the scream of tortured metal and for a moment Sabin thought the armoured car was going to be crushed, but then it lurched to a stop, jammed in between the ice walls. The bottom of the crevasse, some twenty feet below, was a smooth curving slope that disappeared under a gap at the base.
‘Fuck,’ Sabin managed, the subsiding panic still making it difficult for him to breathe. He cried out again at the sound of more tearing metal, and the armoured car dropped another foot.
‘Fuck!’ This time it was Harry. The orc’s cry echoed around them and Sabin heard the unmistakable cracking noise of shifting ice.
‘Harry…’ he whispered. Then he looked over at Jared. He was slumped across the steering wheel, the entire left side of his face a bloody mess.
‘Where are we?’ Harry asked. Sabin had seen the orc face down four of Capone’s men in their hometown once. He was in no way faint-hearted, but Sabin could hear the same terror he felt in Harry’s voice. It was religious terror.
‘I think Jared opened one of the wyrd paths,’ Sabin said. The wyrd paths were the hidden ways between places that those with gods-given magics could sometimes access.
‘I never heard of no wyrd path of ice,’ Harry said. The orc was right. The Red Paths were the path of flames, the Green Paths the path of earth, and so on.
‘Ice is just frozen water. Perhaps it was one of the Blue Paths,’ Sabin said, trying to convince himself.
‘That needed him to cut off half his face?’ Harry asked, hinting at the same fear Sabin had himself.
‘Let’s get out of here first,’ Sabin said. He looked Jared over as best he could. He was definitely still breathing. The face wounds, whilst deep and bleeding a lot, looked superficial. Sabin was more worried about broken ribs from where his lover must have hit the steering wheel hard.
‘Okay, Harry, listen to me. I’m going to climb down the bonnet—’
‘The hood, I’m going to climb down the hood, hang off it and drop. Then, when I say, you’re going to get Jared out of his seat, try and angle him as close to the curve of that ice wall as possible and drop him so he slides down, okay?’ He turned around and looked up at the orc. The hardened torpedo, a member of a species with a ferocious warrior history, looked scared, but Sabin had no doubt he could trust him.
Sabin shifted his weight, bringing his foot up onto the armour above and below the windscreen slit. Looking down, he saw rust seeping across the metal like blood spilled on a table. His foot went through the suddenly badly corroded armour and the rest of him followed, the rusted metal tearing at him as though he’d just fallen through a huge pair of jaws. He bounced off the bonnet of the armoured car, cracking his head. He hit the ice hard, the breath knocked out of him, and then slid under the base of the crevasse.
Sabin felt like he was sliding forever, too busy fighting to breathe again to register the pain from all the scratches and cuts. Finally he slowed, still not quite able to draw breath. For a panicked moment, he wondered if he ever would again. He was aware of a faint, cold blue glow. Then came the shriek of tearing metal and an almighty crash. Sabin managed to roll over onto the cold ice and look back the way he’d come. Clouds of powdered ice exploded out of the gap in the base of the crevasse, obscuring the armoured car as it rolled out, heading straight towards him. Once again Sabin froze, his brain trying to make sense of what he was seeing before he had the presence of mind to roll. The wheels of the armoured car narrowly missed him as it trundled by.
Sabin finally managed to take a gasping breath as the clouds of powdered ice subsided, coating him where he lay. He was staring up at the walls of a huge cavern formed of ice. Something about it reminded him of the more grandiose cathedrals he’d seen. This, however, looked naturally formed, though the ice was too blue in colour and glowed with a faint crystalline light. Fear threatened to overwhelm him when he saw the roof. The roof of the cavern looked like a section of an enormous root structure for what must have been a staggeringly huge tree. Burrowed into the flesh of the enormous roots, like a maggot in a festering wound, Sabin could make out the coils of a huge serpent, each one of its scales the size of a battleship. He was sure of only one thing now: they were no longer in Michigan.
Sabin pushed himself into a sitting position. He was on a plateau of ice overlooking a broad frozen plane that made up the floor of the cavern. A number of tunnels emptied into the cavern, some little larger than an elf, others large enough to fit a skyscraper in them. Spikes of ice sprouted from the floor and the walls. Some of the clusters reminded him of thin jagged rock formations, others of plant-like growths. And there were people here. Or the shadowy forms of them. All of whom seemed to be looking his way.
‘That would seem indicative of the day I’m having,’ Sabin muttered. The plateau curved down towards the floor of the cavern and already he could make out the indeterminate forms of the shadowy ‘people’ staggering up towards them.
‘Sabin,’ Harry whispered, his voice full of urgency. The armoured car had rolled to a stop against one of the clusters of ice spikes. Harry was trying to pull an unconscious Jared from the vehicle. The armoured car was so badly corroded it looked like it had been left to rust for a hundred years. Sabin ran over to help.
‘How’d your plan work out?’ Harry asked, smiling weakly when the elf reached him. Sabin’s laugh had little humour in it; any appreciation of the orc trying to lighten the mood was overcome by his concern for Jared. They laid him on the ice. Harry looked down the curve at the approaching figures. He actually flinched when he looked up at the ceiling.
‘This ain’t right,’ the orc muttered and then went to retrieve their weapons from the armoured car.
Sabin checked that Jared was breathing. He was starting to feel the pain of the cuts and scrapes he’d received falling through the rusty metal of the armoured car. The knock to the head was making him nauseous.
‘Sabin!’ The elf looked back towards the car. Harry was holding the Tommy Gun and the BAR. As Sabin watched, the BAR collapsed into a rain of rust flakes. The Tommy Gun wasn’t in a much better state.
‘Well, that makes sense, doesn’t it?’ Sabin muttered. He was sure he’d had worse days but he couldn’t immediately bring them to mind.
Harry rushed back and knelt down next to Jared.
‘He going to be okay?’ the orc asked. Sabin was touched by the concern in the orc’s voice. Jared had probably saved their life, but he was also the architect of their current situation and unable to provide answers. Harry was clearly petrified, which Sabin was finding very easy to identify with, but the orc was also genuinely worried about Jared.
‘He’s just out cold,’ Sabin said. It was as much a hope as a diagnosis. Sabin had opened Jared’s suit and unbuttoned the shirt, the material practically rotting away to the touch. He’d found a bruise where the steering wheel had caught his lover but Jared’s breathing sounded regular, if a little shallow.
Harry glanced past the wreck of the armoured car. The first of the figures was quite close to them now, but even so, the figure was difficult to make out. Not because they were translucent as ghosts, but because the figure seemed to shimmer and vibrate. Sabin wasn’t sure, but the uniform and the spiked helmet the figure wore made him think of the Kaiser’s soldiers from the Great War. It had no mouth, eyes or nostrils, but even without a mouth it looked like it was trying to scream through the membrane of its own skin. It stumbled towards them, one arm outstretched. Sabin resisted the urge to pray to Jana, his matron goddess of secrets, to beseech her for magic, to become unseen. He was certain they were in the realm of another god now. It was unwise to pray to your god in another god’s temple; it was suicide to do so in another god’s home.
Harry drew his .45 from inside his jacket. The pistol fell apart in his hands. Behind the first figure, more figures staggered towards them. Some wore suits, others armour, some were dressed as peasants from more than two hundred years ago, humans, dwarves, elves, and others. All of the figures looked agonised despite their lack of facial features.
Harry and Sabin both stood over Jared as the figures approached, seemingly drawn to them. Perhaps they’re jealous of our faces, Sabin thought and then had to suppress the urge to giggle hysterically because he didn’t think he’d be able to stop if he started. Even as he drew both his Colt Army revolvers he knew it was futile. He tried to thumb back the hammers on the single action weapons and the hammers snapped off as the pistols crumbled. Even through the mounting terror he was disappointed. He’d had those guns for more than forty years.
The closest figure, the soldier, was little more than ten feet away as it shambled towards them. Sabin hesitated. He almost didn’t want to draw the Siblings, his paired hand axes. They were enchanted in the name of some god that Sabin had either never known, or forgotten a long time ago. The Siblings were his most precious possessions. They felt like part of him. They came from the same place as he did, his home realm long since stolen from memory. If they were to just rust away in front of his eyes then it would take his last connection to his forgotten home. Hesitantly, he reached behind him and unsheathed them from their stiff, moulded leather holders. They were a comfortable, familiar weight in each hand. He could make out the slightest hints of rust on the normally spotless steel axe heads, but they were otherwise unaffected. The strange symbols on the steel and haft of the axes glowed, and just for a moment the approaching soldier hesitated.
‘Get behind me,’ Sabin said. He heard Harry move.
‘Gimme one of the axes,’ Harry said. More of the figures were shuffling around them. Somewhat reluctantly, Sabin passed Harry one of the Siblings. He was grateful, however, when the orc stood over Jared, ready to protect Sabin’s lover.
‘I’m sorry to break this to you, Sabin. I like Jared, but I can’t help but think that he opened the way to one of the Black Paths, the forbidden ones.’ Harry had given voice to one of Sabin’s fears. At the back of his mind, he hadn’t been able to shake the feeling that this realm was either Anathemic or Daemonic in nature. It was somewhat academic now. He raised the axe to bury it in the soldier’s shade.
‘No!’ Jared brushed past him. His lover clutched the blade of his knife in one hand, squeezing blood from his clenched fist as he prayed and chanted in Old Norse. Where the blood hit the ice it burst into flame. Jared made a circle of vibrant, crimson, living flame that drew in the shades but burned them when they touched it. Sabin didn’t so much hear their screams as feel them. Pale, shaking, Jared sank to his knees once he had finished making the circle of fire around them. More and more shades crowded around them.
‘I opened a Grey Path,’ Jared managed. A path of the dead, Sabin knew. ‘I was only able to do it because we were on the ice and this is a place of ice. I had no time to prepare, so the tribute had to be extreme.’ He pointed at the ruined left side of his face. ‘It was the only thing, I could think of.’
From what little Sabin knew of necromancy, this made sense. When the living travelled the realms of the dead they disguised themselves, painted themselves like a corpse, or drank poison, because undisguised life would act like a beacon to the envious dead.
‘Where are we?’ Harry asked, looking between Jared and the shades that surrounded them, his knuckles white on the haft of one of the Siblings. Sabin had already worked out the answer. Jared looked up at the orc.
‘Helheim,’ he told him. Sabin watched the orc’s eyes go wide. Most orcs had embraced the Aesir and Vanir gods when the Norse had settled the orcs’ homelands of Orkney and Shetland. In Harry’s eyes, the honoured dead, those who had lived life to its fullest, went to sit with Odin in the shield halls of Valhalla. The disgraced dead, the cowards and betrayers, the weak, everything that orcs feared to be, were sent to Helheim. It was a place for those who did not embrace life, for those the Valkyries had passed over.
‘Well, you got us here. Get us back!’ Harry all but shouted. Sabin could hear the panic in the orc’s voice.
Jared, still on his knees, looked down, shaking his head. ‘It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. This is not a place that is travelled to lightly.’
‘Odin save—’ Harry started.
‘Don’t!’ Jared shouted but it was too late. Sabin knew enough about the Aesir to know that Odin had cast down the ruler of this realm. It was entirely the wrong god’s name to say in this cavern of ice.
The howl felt like it pierced his very soul. It made him want to sink to his knees and weep. Harry did just that. Sabin thought he heard the orc mutter something that might have been ‘sorry’. They heard hoof beats; their rhythm sounded all wrong. With the sound of the horse came renewed terror. He could make out the silhouette of the somehow off-kilter steed back-lit in one of the tunnels. The shades managed to convey faceless terror as they turned and started to shamble away from the circle of blood-fire. Sabin glanced up at the impossibly huge roots that formed the ceiling of the cavern.
‘Is that the roots of Yggdrasil?’ Sabin asked, the merest fragment of a panic-induced plan starting to take shape. A terrified Jared pushed himself to his feet.
‘The World Tree, yes,’ Jared said. Sabin knew the tree was supposed to support the Nine Realms of the Aesir and Vanir gods in its branches. This included Midgard, the realm of man, or Earth. He felt sickened as he watched the coils of the huge serpent bury deeper into the roots. Meanwhile, the hoof beats were growing louder and the monstrous shadow was growing larger in the flickering light coming from the adjoining tunnel.
‘Is that the Midgard Serpent?’ Sabin asked and straight away knew that didn’t make sense.
‘You both have magics. Can’t you do something?’ Harry begged.
‘No,’ Jared said, ignoring Harry. ‘That’s Níðhöggr, the Malice Striker. It gnaws at the roots…’
Then the ruler of the realm rode out into the cavern on her monstrous steed. The huge horse only had three legs and Sabin could see most of its ribcage and part of its skull, its viscera trailing out behind it on the ice.
The horse’s rider must have been at least twelve feet tall. She wore a simple fur-trimmed dress and a fur shawl, neither of which would have been out of place in some Viking long hall. Her hair was long and grey, worn in a complicated braid. One half of her face was a deep midnight blue. On that side she was staggeringly beautiful in an alien and terrifying manner. The other half was a mess of scar tissue that gave her a corpse-like visage. Thoughts of climbing Yggdrasil fled from Sabin’s mind in the face of awe and terror. At her passing, the shades sank to their knees. It looked less like tribute and more like they had succumbed to some malady and died on the spot. Her passing was like a scythe through wheat. Once more Sabin felt the shades’ screams of fear and pain rather than heard them in the echoing silence of this realm. He was worried that Jared too had succumbed as the queen of Helheim rode her steed up onto the plateau, but in his case he was offering tribute. After all, it wasn’t every day you met your matron goddess.
The horse stank of death as the goddess reined it to a halt by the circle of blood-fire. A cold wind brought the smell of rotting meat and the flames flickered and died. Hel climbed down off her horse and stood over them. Sabin noticed Harry was shaking like a leaf, then realised that he was as well. Jared had his eyes closed and was praying.
‘Do you fear to tell me your prayers to my face? Am I so… ugly?’ She spoke with two voices, one hoarse and old, the other the insinuating, arousing whisper of a lover.
Sabin glanced down at Jared. His lover was looking up at his god now. Sabin hoped that in the unlikely event he ever met Jana there wouldn’t be such terror on his own face.
‘Nothing to say?’ Hel asked. ‘Odd. I hear you begging me for all manner of nonsenses when you are not in my presence.’
‘S..s…sorry,’ Jared managed. Hel stared at him. Something told Sabin that the goddess of death was not impressed with what she saw.
‘Who is it that comes screaming the name of the one-eyed gallows god in my realm?’ she demanded. Sabin knew she meant Odin.
‘I didn’t scream…’ Harry started. Sabin closed his eyes.
‘I heard a scream.’ Her voice was low and menacing, full of the promise of suffering.
‘Please,’ Sabin said, opening his eyes again. Hel’s head twitched round to look down on him. ‘We did not mean to come to your realm…’
‘Few do.’ She made an expansive gesture. ‘And yet somehow, so many end up here for squandering their gifts. But what of you? You have lived many lives.’ Sabin had little idea of what she was talking about. He felt Jared watching him.
‘Will you let us go? Return to Midgard?’ Sabin managed.
‘Why?’ Hel demanded. ‘Somehow I don’t think that all things in the Nine Worlds, living or dead, will weep for you, but what use have I for the living?’
‘All the more reason for letting us go,’ Jared managed. Hel looked down at him.
‘You bargain for my magics,’ Hel said.
‘We… I honour you,’ Jared said in a shaking voice. Hel snorted.
‘Honour is cheap coin spent by fools who lie to themselves. All things have their price.’
Sabin glanced at Jared’s half-ruined face. He did not like the way the conversation was going. He looked back at Harry. The orc was rooted to the spot, his skin so white it looked like bone. Sabin didn’t think he was ever going to be able to prise his axe out of the orc’s death grip.
‘One of you I will take,’ Hel told them.
‘But you said you had no use for the living!’ Sabin protested.
‘That is true.’ She had an awful smile on her face.
‘One of us has to die,’ Jared said quietly.
‘No,’ Harry said. Sabin looked back at him again. The orc was backing away from Jared and himself. Sabin knew what he could see. He was the odd one out. There was no way the two lovers would kill each other.
‘It’s okay, we’ll find another way out,’ Sabin told him, and in that moment, he believed it. He turned back to Hel. ‘There must be another way. A quest, something you want, you need…’ Even to his own ears he knew he sounded ridiculous. He was a criminal, a Rum Runner, not some elven knight from a storybook.
‘I have everything I need here… I sleep in my Sick Bed, I cut my meat with a knife called Famine, I eat off my plate Hunger, and have cold for company,’ Hel told him. Sabin shook his head. It was clear that he and the goddess lacked a common frame of reference. He turned to Jared.
‘We could climb Yggdrasil…’ Sabin started as the switchblade came to life in Jared’s hands, catching the blue light. Too late Harry saw what was happening. He raised the hand axe to defend himself. The orc was tough, a good fighter, someone to have at your back in a tight situation, but Jared had been murdering for hundreds of years. Sabin watched as his lover plunged the blade into Harry’s eye, pushing it in up to the hilt and twisting before pulling it out. Where the orc’s eye had been there was now only a red mess. For a moment Sabin was reminded of Harry’s one-eyed god. The orc staggered forwards, but Sabin knew he was already dead. Harry fell face first onto the ice. Sabin rounded on Jared, appalled.
‘He was our friend…’ Sabin managed.
‘We don’t have any friends,’ Jared told him.
No! Sabin wanted to scream.
‘Sooner or later he would have tried to kill us,’ Jared continued.
Sabin just staggered back from him. He’d known his lover was a ruthless murderer, but it had been easy to ignore when he hadn’t seen it. He’d believed it was a necessity for Jared to remain hidden. All those stolen faces. He’d believed the comforting lies his lover had spun; that his victims were all bad people. But they were always beautiful. Just how many beautiful, utterly irredeemable people are there in the world? It wasn’t the first time he’d had these thoughts, but he’d always managed to suppress them with wishful thinking, believing what he wanted to believe.
‘You see how ugly he is now, don’t you?’ Hel asked as she stroked the scarred corpse half of her face. ‘It’s a mirror.’ Somehow, and he had no idea why given what had just happened, Sabin felt very sorry for the cold, lonely goddess.
‘We serve you!’ Jared screamed at his goddess. Sabin knew Jared was talking about his own people. ‘I serve you! We fell doing your bidding!’
‘And now you lie with a ljósálfar!’ Hel spat. Sabin could hear the hatred in her voice, and like that, his sympathy was gone. A light elf. It had been a long time since he had heard himself described as such.
‘My people are not from Álfheimr,’ Sabin told her. She all but shuddered at the name of the original home of the elves who now lived in Midgard. ‘I came from another realm beyond the Nine Worlds.’ He wondered why he bothered. There was no reasoning with the kind of hatred he’d heard in Hel’s voice. In fact, he suspected there was little reasoning with gods.
‘In the end, all things are the same. In the end, everyone is punished,’ Hel told him.
Sabin was starting to understand the true nature of the sacrifice they’d made for their freedom. He could barely look at Jared, at the frozen tears on his lover’s face.
‘Everything comes to me eventually, but few things taste as sweet as dead love.’ Her laughter was like dry twigs snapping.
Harry’s shade was staring at Sabin. Skin covered his screaming mouth and one of his eyes. The other eye was a hollow socket so dark it looked like a bottomless pit.
Old Man Kennedy stared at Sabin. Blood dripped off the table onto the sawdust-covered floor. Kennedy took another sip of his whisky.
‘Ridiculous story,’ he finally said. Sabin tried not to tense, but he couldn’t help glancing down at the two pistols lying on the table. ‘Probably true. Where is Mr. Odedra?’
‘Last I saw of him he was on a beach on the lake shore,’ Sabin said, pleased that his voice didn’t crack as he said it. Kennedy nodded.
‘Might be best that we never cross paths with him again.’
Sabin just shrugged. Jared was a master at hiding. Sabin himself didn’t expect to ever see his lover again. That knowledge felt like a pit inside him. He tried not to focus on it. He needed to numb it somehow. The alcohol just wasn’t quite enough.
‘So what now?’
‘I don’t know,’ Sabin said. Because all your plans involved Jared. ‘I think I’ll maybe head south.’
‘The Confederacy? Why?’
‘The Freedom Railroad. Maybe I can do some good.’
Kennedy studied him for a moment. ‘Trying to salve your conscience?’
Sabin didn’t answer. He also tried not to think about the trail of bodies Jared and himself had left in their wake. Kennedy finished his drink.
‘I liked Harry,’ Sabin said and downed his whisky. The soft mellow burn was inconsequential after the paint thinner he’d been drinking earlier. He handed the silver cup back as Kennedy stood up.
‘So did I,’ Old Man Kennedy said as he pocketed the cup and the hip flask before turning towards the door.
‘Harry had a funny idea about you,’ Sabin said. Kennedy stopped but didn’t turn around. ‘He was convinced you were a leprechaun.’
‘There’s no such things as leprechauns, Mr Revere,’ Old Man Kennedy said. Then he looked back and grinned at Sabin.