Chapter Two: Blood and Feathers
The small boy dashed through the wall as my soul collecting jar snapped shut. The wail of an old lady who had passed on from dementia finally ceased. The boy nearly made me drop the precious jar in shock. I hadn’t encountered many souls doing the usual ghost trick of walking through solids, even in the spiritual plain. He stopped with a jerk when he noticed me. It was then that Kate came tearing into the ward. Even from a distance I could tell she wasn’t impressed with this soul child’s behavior.
“Stop him!” She charged forwards, her boots thudding on the floor in a stampede of movement.
I turned as swiftly as I could, whisking the jar away into the enchanted depths of my cloak pockets but all I saw was the back of the boy running literally through the other set of doors, his laughter echoing in his place. Kate continued straight past me without even a backwards glance. I followed after her, weaving around the frozen images of the living and down the stairs to the central corridor. From what I could see the boy very much believed he was playing a game of tag or at least having a very cool dream. He showed no sign of bother when his soul passed through any living person in his way. In the living world each person his soul made contact with, would for a few seconds, feel a pressure upon their lungs and heart, as if suddenly compressed gently between two concrete slabs. It would pass and they would shrug it off with some vague but logical excuse and maybe the odd person would use the phrase ‘felt like someone’s passed over my grave’.
“Ben! Please, stop!” Kate called out to him yet he continued to run ahead, swerving to the right and out through the doors to the front car park. He glanced back before hurrying behind a white transit van which was parked at the furthest end. I staggered to a stop beside my mentor. “Autism.” She said, looking at with me a smirk as I was nearly out of breath, she of course was not. “I told him we were going to play to find his Mum. He believed me a little too much. We must be slow and gentle. You fly over to the van, quietly; I will walk over and keep him focused. He doesn’t yet know what we can do.”
Ben in the mean time had begun counting random numbers, but surprisingly in numerical order. I think he had started the game of hide and seek. It was hard to decide who was seeking who.
“Ben, come and see my toy fire engine, I’ll let you play with it. You like playing Fireman Sam, don’t you?”
I jumped up into the air, using my cloak to take me as high as the first floor before heading out towards the van. Ben did stop mid count for a few seconds longer but resumed when he noticed Kate walking steadily towards his hiding spot.
“It’s ok Ben, your Mum says it’s ok for you to play with me, I can take you to her if you like?”
I was hovering over the van roof by that point, ready to plunge down and grab Ben. The boy stood up and peered round looking Kate firmly in the eyes and said with a nervous voice, “Mum?”
Kate gave an eager nod. “Yes, your Mum, Karen is her name, isn’t it? She’s in the coffee shop inside getting us both a milkshake; she wants us to be friends.” She added a quick wink at the end which I presumed was the signal to spring the trap.
I swooped down like a falcon, my arms outstretched to take hold of him but just as my shadow passed over and was nearly within reach, he turned round, screamed and fled. His soul disappearing through cars and his feet pounding the concrete and tarmac.
“Damn him! Why didn’t you use your spear tip to stun him?”
“I thought I could catch him.”
Kate groaned again. “Souls are like spider silk, thin and slippery, you need to stun and catch them like you tickle the belly of a trout. In the words of Yoda, you have much to learn young Padawan.” She looked on and we both saw Ben standing in the middle of the road, unsure which way to go before speeding away to the right and into the open grassy space beyond. “Come on, we can’t spend all day doing this.”
I followed behind her, my spirit feeling bruised with embarrassment and shame. This incident had shown me up as a poor student. Making me realise again why after three years of training the Elders still did not deem me fit to collect souls alone. Why I was still requiring Kate’s presence in all such matters.
Things however took another unexpected turn for we caught up with Ben a lot quicker than I thought we had. He had put some distance between us but he hadn’t gotten much further than the middle of the green land. The reason for this was, we noticed upon shuddering to a halt, his soul was experiencing some kind of paralysis, or what seemed to be similar to electric shock. Every strand of his soul’s essence was vibrating, making his body blurry and jagged. I could only deduce this effect was caused by a tall, broad shouldered figure wearing a long black and purple robe with a cowl hood casting the person’s face in shadow. Even I could sense this being had no rightful place in the spiritual plain, every instinct I had told me something about this person was not right, on any level.
“It’s going to be ok Ben, trust us.” Kate quickly tapped his head with the tip of her own spear and he collapsed backwards into her arms. She looked up at me with a stern gaze. “Take him out of here. Now.”
I began gathering Ben up against my chest. “What is that…”
“Now Jennifer! You’re not trained for this.” She snapped at me mid sentence, with a quick flex of her arm to unleash the full length of her spear.
“Ah, I see you’ve met my new friend.” A cruel voice announced the presence of another unwanted and unexpected and detested figure as Jake strode across the grass towards us.
“Since when did Hel let you have pets?” Kate hissed, standing in front of me and Ben protectively.
“Pets? Oh no, she would never let Garm out here! He has plenty to chew on down below. No, no, this is my companion.” Jake retorted, slowly circling the three of us, his eyes permanently focused on poor trembling Ben, like a kestrel on the hunt.
“She doesn’t believe you can snatch anymore, does she?” Kate somehow managed a smirk, her own eyes locked on his.
Jake’s grew large at such an insult to his pride, soul snatchers values their success rate as much as Valkyries did as soul guardians. He stopped to the right of the mysterious ‘companion’ and brushed back his wavy chestnut hair which looked bright against his cloud grey skin. I knew we were not in a situation to worry about which sad soul he had possessed to make this appearance.
I looked down at Ben and gave him a soft smile, to try and settle the fear I knew he must feel when around such cursed beings that come straight from Hel. It was as I looked back up that I caught a tiny spark of white. A second appeared to form within Kate’s right hand which was also holding her spear. She was summoning the power of the rune Is, meaning Ice and using the power held within the spear to conceal it. I knew it wouldn’t be enough to stop both Jake and the ‘companion’ rushing at us both upon any movement from us. I braced myself, with Ben held tight in my arms, for Kate’s move.
“You haven’t actually been introduced yet have you?” He sneered, resting his hand upon the ‘companion’s’ shoulders. “Ladies, meet Vasir. He was a great warrior long ago, but sadly got involved in a drunken brawl and had his head smashed open with a few wine jars. Hence the hood, he’s not a pretty sight. Even I don’t like to look at him.” He laughed bold and loud. A growl was the response Vasir gave for Jake’s remarks causing him to snatch his arm away quickly. “Ironic thing is he hasn’t lost a fight since, drunk or not.”
“Let’s see if he can still hold the right to such a claim.”
Vasir gave the roar of a wild bear and whirled out a large battle axe from behind his back. In the couple of seconds that one swift movement took Kate had already made hers. She had whirled her spear tip down and thrust it into the ground, forcing the combined energy of whatever runes she had summoned along with Is into the small point of impact. The resulting mix destabilized the runic energy creating a combusting force that struck out at all around. Ben and I were a few seconds ahead of the wave of the energy, soaring skywards with all I could pull from my cloak, Kate not far behind to my left. The maelstrom of dust and crackling lightening bubbling up below us into the air. The pressure helped propel me further, I thought we were going to make it as the eruption of power was slowing when I heard something like a series of fast metallic clinks. Something thin and black struck out of the dust and hit Kate in the back of her head. It shocked her enough to lose her focus causing her to fall away into the clouds of chaos beneath me.
I was preparing to dive after her, not concerned with what had hit her or what was waiting hidden in the dust, when Ben whimpered, his arms wrapped around my neck. I realised I had no choice but to get him to safety first. I hoped Kate would be ok until I returned.
I flew as fast as I could between the rows of houses and local shops to the nearest portal to Asgard. That flight is a blur in my mind; all I can recall is Ben crying for his Mum as I pushed him through. The next thing I remember is the heart shaking sound of my silver horn and of three Valkyries rushing to my side from across the skies. Apparently they couldn’t quite understand a word of my explanation but judging from my panicked state they agreed to follow me to the source of the problem.
When we landed the horror that marked the scene brought me to my knees. All around the grasslands were feathers, white feathers, torn, burnt, battered and many with blood on them. They lay as if a large pillow fight had taken place and I wished it was what had occurred. Yet the most disturbing part of it all was the shattered remnants of Kate’s spear which lay broken in a more focused area. The ash wood shaft was cut, scratched and scorched and the golden spear head was bent and twisted and tainted with blood. The sight of the gleaming substance made me wretch. One of the Valkyries, I never did catch her name, escorted me away as the others surveyed the area of any trace of Kate before summoning one of the Elder Valkyries to make a decision on what was to be done. Nothing else of my mentor was found on that patch of grass. Nor was anything discovered to identify that Jake and Vasir were there, only my words.
I was taken back to the portal I had summoned help from, two Valkyries supporting me on my feeble flight. When I was about to step through and reach the warmer, sunnier atmosphere of Asgard, home, the truth that Kate, my mentor and friend was gone, fallen in battle closed around my heart. A deep rage of blackness rushed up my body and overwhelmed my mind before I even stepped from one plain to the other.
The sound of my breath going in and out, in and out, was the only proof that I had of my existence in a world that was empty and black. I had stopped calling out for help, guidance, any form of contact, but I couldn’t say how long ago. I had no sense of time passing. There was no light, not even a dim glow. There weren’t even different shades of shadow. I seemed to be alone and somehow alive in a place where nothing else lived. I was too afraid to move around for I could not see anything around me. Even then I didn’t know where I was so I had no idea with which way to turn. Direction was impossible. So I curled myself up, hugging my body tight, relishing the touch of my skin and what I knew as clothing but couldn’t say if it was coloured or not. Despite being lost in an endless night and completely alone the worst thing was the silence. A silence so strong and thick it even made the air feel heavy when I breathed. I would hold my breath and remain still for who knows how long, straining to hear noises of other beings in this dreadful place. The only thing I heard was myself.
I found comfort in a strange place, in sleep, within my dreams. In my fits of sleep I would descend into dreams full of life, colour and light. All that didn’t exist when I was awake. In my dreams I wasn’t alone, I was with friends, family, lovers. In my dreams my eyes allowed me to delight in all the colours of the rainbow from the green of the grass to the blue of my mother’s eyes. In my dreams the warmth of sunshine made my pink skin glow and my mousey brown hair shine. In my dreams I was happy.
It was when I jolted awake out of such bliss that I noticed the light. I had to rub my face with my hands to make sure I wasn’t still in a dream version of the waking world. Although I could never tell which of the dreams or the black world was more real. But I wasn’t dreaming. There was an orb of soft white light hovering not far away from me. It cast small shadows on the ground revealing it to be dark gravel and stones. I put out my hand against its glow, noticing my broken and filthy nails, cut and grazed skin. As I took it away the orb erupted in a dazzling flash causing me to shield my eyes. When I looked between my fingers there was now a woman standing before me. She had curly long blonde hair, grey eyes which were staring down upon me and appeared to be wearing what I recognized as some kind of business suit with a pink tie. The striking thing was though she was wearing a cloak that seemed to be made from white feathers. The woman still emitted the soft glow of light but her cloak shined pure and white.
She knelt down to my level and gave me a smile. She said something to me but I couldn’t understand.
“Can you help me? Where am I?” The reply I got was a look of worry proceeded by a frown. She couldn’t understand me either. She looked around, at what I still could not see, before giving me a fresh smile as if to say it’s ok. She then held out her hand, gesturing for me to do the same.
I didn’t know where she was offering to take me but I didn’t want to be left alone. I hoped she would take me to where there were others. So I copied her action and our hands touched.
The moment contact was made between my skin and hers, a hot sizzling sensation rushed up from my finger tips and swept into every part of my being. It made me gasp and instinctively pull back but the woman gripped my arm tight and muttered something in her strange words. I had no choice but to endure the intense warmth. When I was beginning to feel it recede my eyes began to tingle. Sparks began to zig zag across my vision and the light surrounding the woman spread out from her like water, forcing the black environment away. Buildings, trees, a road, and a tall street lamp were revealed. I looked up in simple wonder and beheld a sky filled with twinkling stars and the face of a full moon. It was beautiful.
“There you are. Couldn’t see you hiding in the shadows.” In this whole new world I found myself in, I could understand. She gave me a big smile and untied her cloak to lay it over my shoulders. With the heat finally gone I realised how cold it was.
“Where am I?” I stuttered, wrapping the soft, warm feathers tighter around me.
“Don’t you know?” She stood up, the worry returning to her face.
“No. I was, I was, somewhere else, not here. I was alone. There was nothing else, no one-else. Then you found me and now I am here.”
“What’s your name?”
“It’s…” In the blink of my eyes faces of those I knew as friends and family flashed and flickered but I could no longer recall their names. My mind seized the one truth I had left. “My name is, Jennifer, Jennifer Wallace.”
“Nice to meet you Jennifer, my name is Kathryn.”
The creek of a door as it opened. Footsteps quick yet quiet. A small gasp and then a sigh of pity.
“The poor soul. How long has she been like this?”
“Since yesterday, just before she passed over.”
“Any news from the hunting party?”
“None. There is time yet though.”
“Has Freya informed the All-Father?”
“Has he spoken to Hel yet about this?”
“I can’t say. I’ve been watching over this one.”
A hand laid itself across my forehead. My eyes fluttered briefly open.
“Where am I?”
“Don’t stir Jennifer, you are safe. Back at Shield Maiden Halls. You’ve been in some kind of coma.” The blurry face of Elder Mist came into view, she tucked my duvet tighter around my body.
“Kate, have you found her?”
Mist shook her head and moved out of the bedroom. I could just make out the sound of the tap being turned on in my small kitchen. I looked to my left and found Elder Geirölul sat beside me. “How long have I been lying here?”
“Nearly two full days and nights. Frigg gave you what remedies she could but your soul had become weak quite rapidly. You were so faint, almost a shade…”
“Sorry.” I mumbled and rubbed my eyes.
“Do you think, Kate is…”
“We can’t say anything for certain yet Jennifer, but you must understand the type of creature Kate did battle with makes its living from bringing down beings like us.”
“We can’t say anything for certain yet Jennifer, but you must understand the type of creature Kate did battle with makes its living from bringing down beings like us.”
“That beast shouldn’t have been out in the first place. Certainly not with Jake as an escort.” Elder Mist commented venom and rage shaking her usually sensitive tone as she passed me a mug of herbal tea. “Drink, it will help revive you and bring back more strength.”
“What do you mean it shouldn’t have been out?” I took a tentative sip, feeling shivers as the hot liquid seeped down my throat.
Both Elders exchanged a glance before Elder Mist sat on my bed. “Let’s just say in Asgard we follow certain rules, and so do other beings from other realms. The beast that harmed Kathryn broke several rules just by appearing in the spiritual plain with Jake and assisting him in any such manner. There has been more damage done besides the obvious harm and loss of a Valkyrie.”
“But don’t worry about such matters; they are no concern of yours. Your task is to recover, then we will discuss rearranging your work routine.” Elder Geirölul added with a serious and deep gaze into my eyes.
“Will I be given a new mentor?” It felt wrong for me to ask, like replacing Kate was officially removing her from existence and memory.
Again the two Elder Valkyries exchanged looks. “Let’s just see how well you recover Jennifer, go back to sleep once you’ve drunk that tea. I’m sure you’ll feel much better after a proper rest.” Elder Mist held me hand and stroked it with her soft finger tips.
I felt a deep warmth bubble up through my veins. I found myself wriggling deeper into the soft mass of the mattress. My eyes began to feel heavy.
“That’s it…sleep….be at peace.” Elder Mist cooed to me. I felt the bed lift as she stood up. “Keep the darkness at bay, sister.”
“I won’t let it claim her Mist, don’t worry, go find Freya and see if there is any more news. Maybe they’ve finally caught the worthless life forms…”
Elder Geirölul’s voice faded as I let my mind slip into a black ocean of warm, gentle currents which glistened under a midnight sky with an aurora of flickering faces from my past.
It was three days of being restricted to my petite flat, resting in bed or on the sofa and being observed day and night by one of the Elder Valkyries, before I even took a step outside into Asgard, let alone the mortal realm. I don’t know why I was restrained and observed the way I was, I felt a lot better after the second day and wanted to join the hunt for Jake but after forty-eight hours Freya made the decision to call it off. Jake and whatever creature Vasir was had long retreated back to places even Valkyries can’t reach.
“We need to at least try and find what they did with Kate’s body?”
“Jennifer, you’re forgetting something.” Elder Skögull replied, arms crossed as she barred my attempt at storming out of the flat when she broke the news to me.
“What? What am I forgetting?”
“You are already dead. Katherine was already dead. We may appear to have bodies but when a soul is destroyed there is no body to claim and mourn over. We crumble into dust and fade.” My anger dropped and I felt empty and uncomfortable at the mention of such death. Elder Skögull guided me back to the sofa I’d spent so many hours thinking and weeping on. “I’m sorry Jennifer, but at the moment there is nothing we can do. Except wait.”
“Wait for what?” I gulped, the possibility of Kate’s return receding before me as if sucked into an invisible black hole of impossibilities.
She sat down beside me. “We wait for Jake to re-emerge. We wait for our time to get answers. We wait for our chance to reclaim Katherine’s honour. If the Norns weave it.”
“What am I meant to do now? Who will guide me?”
“For the time being no one is yet free to mentor you, but that doesn’t mean we’ll leave you to sit here and weave baskets. We will let you return to work but on strict conditions. First you will be given an intermediary mentor whom you will meet upon your shift every hour to report any difficulties and successes. Secondly you will only be working the night shift and your collections will be primarily those of who’ve passed on from old age and associated conditions.”
“What’s with all the rules?”
“We want you to feel comfortable, strong and safe in your role again. You must learn to crawl before you can run.”
We both knew that the souls dying of old age tended to be the easiest and quickest to judge and collect. It was a beginner’s job, I’d already spent my first two years working with such souls but I didn’t hold a grudge against being put back to such work. In a small way this was my chance to prove I had indeed learned from my experiences and training under Kate’s guidance. I held a small hope that after a few months of handling the elderly without any major problems they might see me fit enough to not need a mentor after all.
“Ok. I accept the terms. When do I start?”
Elder Skögull smiled seeing my spirit set with determination. “In a few more days. We are still deciding upon the intermediary mentor but that should be resolved soon. Look at it this way, you have the weekend free to relax and have some fun with your friends. They have all been asking after you.”
The fond memories of previous girly weekends brought a smile to my face too. “Do they know what happened?”
“Yes, the whole core does, so we have more eyes with which to watch for Jake’s return.”
“I might take a stroll in the forest then, stretch my legs and get some fresh air at long last.”
She walked with me to the door, kindly passing me my fur cloak which hung nearby. “One more thing though Jennifer.”
“If you do come across Jake or if he makes an appearance before you, do not try to take vengeance by yourself. No matter the strength of such a wish or how he goads you into acting. Blow upon your silver horn like you did when Kate fell, none of us, including Kate, would wish you to be claimed in the same manner. We take retribution as the family we Valkyries are. Please remember that.”
I nodded, seeing the care in her eyes as she spoke. “As long as I can strike the first blow.”
“It will be the first of many Jennifer, for many love and miss Kate as much as you.”