Karl Goes to Hell

by Justin Markland

 

Karl hawked a fat one into his hand, smeared back his flaring red hair, and smoothed his beard. “I swear to Thor, young Regin, the longer I’m here, the crazier Valhalla gets.”

“I am forced to agree with you,” said Regin, his youthful face contemplating the oncoming army of restless Vikings.

“For instance, take Grimnir over there.” Karl pointed to a crazed man with long blonde hair, screaming naked at the wind. “Old timer. We’ve since learned the value of clothing.”

“Yes, but he is Berserker.”

“Can you not berserk with clothes on?”

“Hm. I suppose you’re right. I’d much rather not see that flaccid piece of flesh flapping in the wind, nor the wrinkled prunes it shelters.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

A great horn blast pierced the morning air, long, wailing, and vibrating with the anticipation of thousands of warriors. A thunderous cry rose from the ranks on both sides of the field.

“Ah, the horn sounds,” said Karl, fitting a pointed helmet on his head.

“Yes, let us thank the great tree for life and the gift of everlasting combat.”

To either side, the line of warriors stretched over only a small part of the infinite plains.

The horn blasted again, and everyone charged.

The two men moved together, flying over the short grasses, and a tidal wave of steel and flesh swept towards them. “Have you your man?” asked Karl.

“Yes, the bald one, straight ahead.”

“Ah, I know him well. He’ll initiate with a low spin move. I’d stake my life on it.”

“Thank you.”

Masses of bodies clashed, and the air was filled with screaming and sounds of metal on metal. Sure enough, the bald man spun and swiped his sword low. Regin would have lost his legs had he not expected it. Instead, he hopped over the blade and came down with his sword, chopping easily through the surprised face.

Karl was already on his second man. “Stay away from Grimnir, lad, he can’t always distinguish friend from foe.”

Regin turned to see the naked man foaming at the mouth and charging with a large axe. He took his cue and dove aside. Grimnir continued past, hacking at the next body in line.

Something flickered in the sky. Arrows stuck into the fray, jutting from necks and torsos. Regin raised his shield. Karl had only a large sword, and instead picked up the nearest body. An arrow struck the corpse where his heart would have been. “Lucky bastards!”

Another wave flew threw the air. Another arrow planted itself next to the first. “Best of five!” he shouted. The reply was another arrow in the same spot. Karl grunted, dropped the body, and charged in the direction of the shooter, shoving, hacking, and climbing his way through. At last he broke through enemy lines. There were a few archers scattered a short distance away, firing into the crowd. But then Karl made eye contact with his assailant. The archer’s eyes went wide as he realized that his target had found him instead. Karl sprinted, and the archer drew. The arrow zinged straight into Karl’s shoulder.

“Goat-mongering son of a whore!”

The archer decided that he would not have enough time to draw again, so he ran. The man was tall and long legged, and moved far faster than Karl could ever hope to. But Karl chased him nevertheless.

They ran through the infinite field, and the battle behind them got smaller and smaller. Every now and then, the archer would have enough distance to turn and fire, though Karl would simply turn and take it in the arm. Eventually, the archer’s entire quiver of arrows was bristling from Karl’s shoulder and bicep, so he stopped a good distance from the swordsman.

“Truce,” shouted the archer.

“There is no truce in Valhalla. Only death and victory!”

“I will keep running, and this battle will never end. Accept my forfeiture, and you may have your victory for the day.”

Karl tried a burst of speed to catch him off guard. It didn’t work, so he slowed to a stop. “Come here and offer me your head if you wish to forfeit.”

“Thank you, but I’d rather enjoy the delights of the hall this evening.”

“Losers may not partake in the evening festivities.”

“Says who?”

“Odin.”

“No he doesn’t. This isn’t even real battle. It’s training for Ragnarok.”

Karl slumped. “You’re not supposed to say that.”

“Well, I did.”

“Damn it.” Karl took a deep breath. “Fine, I accept your forfeiture.”

Three omnipresent horn blasts echoed through the plains, and distant cheers met them.

“It appears that your side claims victory,” said the archer.

“Indeed.”

“Shall we return?”

A smile crossed Karl’s lips. “Sure.”

“If you wish my company, you will have to throw your sword.”

“Absolutely not.”

The archer shrugged, “See you tonight.” He ran off.

“I forget nothing, archer! I shall remember and smash your face in tonight!” Karl looked about, and saw nothing but grass on all sides. He grit his teeth and started running.

The hall was crowded when he finally entered, and he met with debauchery of every sort. Not a single man stood without his mead. Some were sparring to the death, many were singing and carousing with their comrades in arms. Karl picked out Regin from the masses and approached him with a grin. “Regin! I see you’ve made it through the day yet again!” The two men threw an arm around the other’s neck.

“Karl! Where’ve you been?”

“I’d rather not speak of it.”

“No matter. Here, this will cure what ails you!” Regin grabbed a horn from thin air, and filled it with a pitcher.

“Your wisdom exceeds your youth, young man.” The horn emptied. “I hope that we shall share the same side yet again on the morrow.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

They each downed another horn.

“And if you see an archer tonight, a long-legged hawk-eyed man, I’m going to pull his eyeballs from his head.”

“Aye.”

* * * * *

In the morning, Karl blinked his eyes and pulled himself from drunken stupor. Men lay about the hall in every manner and place, from face down to upside down. He stood and squinted at his surroundings.

Something was wrong.

In his hundreds of years in Valhalla, he knew only one thing was for sure: the hall only got fuller as time went on. But this morning, he could see bare spots on the floor that should have been occupied.

“Regin.”

Snort.

“Regin, get your worthless arse up!”

The man stood quickly. “Wha.” He rubbed at his eyes.

“Tell me, young one, is there anything odd about the hall this morn?”

He took a good look. “Why, yes. Yes there is. I do not have a mead horn in my hand.”

“No, dullard. Look at the count.”

Somewhere outside, a rooster crowed.

Regin’s lips moved silently as he counted bodies, though it became more difficult as everyone began to stir. “Yes. Yes, I suppose you are right.”

The puzzled looks and murmurs of the other warriors confirmed the suspicion. It wasn’t long before the entire hall was alive with gruff chatter and bewilderment. Then, the voice quieted all. It rumbled like thunder, and shook the walls.

“SILENCE! The great and powerful Allfather has decreed that combat shall be delayed indefinitely. No one is to leave the hall at any time, except for the four I have chosen! Disobey, and I shall have your skin flayed daily!”

There was silence in the hall. Suddenly, Karl felt the touch. “Young Regin, I feel that I have been chosen. For what, I know not.”

Regin paused. “I too, have been chosen.”

Karl’s face brightened, and he extended a hand. “Then I would have none other were I to choose myself.”

The two strode with great importance to one of the entrances, but they stopped the moment they stepped out. There was only one other time when Karl had seen Odin, except that then he was disguised as a frost giant who was by all means the most imposing character he had ever seen. But here, in his natural form, Odin was the only figure to ever compel him to soil his britches. Somehow, he managed to overcome the urge, and the two of them rushed before Odin to take a knee and bow low. The great king of Asgard towered above them, dark cloak and wide brimmed hat flowing in the wind, spearhead glinting. He sat upon his steed, Sleipnir, which snorted and flexed its eight legs. Two black birds circled in the sky.

Karl heard rushing footsteps nearby. He glanced to the left and saw Grimnir, no longer naked but wearing animal skin. Next to him was a man he did not recognize. Footsteps on the right. Karl glanced, and his eyes opened wide.

“Foul beast!” He shouted.

The archer shied away.

“SILENCE!” The voice cracked through air and slapped each of the men into submission. “Did I not say four?” Odin’s voice boomed.

Silence.

“Am I speaking to myself?”

The eager cries of the five men met Odin’s ears. “No, Allfather.”

“I didn’t say four?”

“Yes, Allfather.”

“YOU!” Odin raised his spear and pointed it at one of them.

All five men glanced up to see if it was himself. Four of them sighed with relief.

The man Karl did not recognize rose to his feet.

“Did you not hear my order?”

“Yes, Allfather, but I wished to help.”

“Well, faithful servant, helping shall be difficult… WITHOUT YOUR SKIN!”

“But—Nooooo!” Two monstrous ravens swept from the sky and carried the man away, his screams dying in the wind.

“Now, on to business. I need you four to run an errand for me.”

“Yes, Allfather.” They said.

“I need you to go on down to Eljudnir and get me a little something I forgot.”

The four looked up.

“Look not upon your Master!”

They looked down.

“It’s a funny story, really. You see, just the other night, me and Hel had a few, and we were playing bones, and she won some, and I won some, and then she says, ‘Hey, how about we make this interesting’. So I says, ‘what exactly are we talking about here?’ And she says, ‘well, if—DON’T MOVE, MORTAL!”

The archer stopped scratching his neck.

“And so she says, ‘well, how about if I win, the losers of your battles in Valhalla stay down here, and you get no more warriors for Ragnarok. But if you win, I’ll let you have, oh say, another one hundred thousand for the final battle’.

“And if there’s anything I know, it’s how to play bones so, obviously, I take the offer. Well, of course, she cheats and wins, and now everyone that died in battle yesterday is stuck in that whore’s castle.” Odin took a deep breath. “So what I need you to do, is go on down there, find my rune, and bring it back so we can keep on fighting. I’d get it myself, but I’m bound from entering her domain. Anyhow, before I send you, I will grant you three questions.”

Karl stood. “Oh great Odin, grant me this first question. What is this rune you speak of?”

Odin sighed: an immense rushing wind. “Though I have told no one, I will tell you four. It is my eighteenth rune, and it gives me the ability to raise those that die in combat, so that my warriors may fight day after day in preparation for the end times. Tell no one, or I will reserve for you the greatest torment which, on the pain scale, is a ten out of ten. Your friend back there is getting a four out of ten. Got me?”

Karl grimaced. “Yes, Allfather.” And he kneeled.

The archer stood. “Why us, great Odin?”

“I have chosen you because you four are my second best warriors. In case you all meet with doom, I will still have my first best for the end times.”

The archer stood with his mouth open for a moment before kneeling.

Finally, Regin stood. “Allow us to take your steed, Sleipnir, oh great Allfather, so that we may hasten to our destination.”

Odin squinted, and his head danced from side to side. “Mmm… No. Last time I let Hermod borrow it to go to Eljudnir he brought it back tired out and it had a scratch on its side.” Odin twisted to the side and started lifting tufts of fur on the horse. “See… it’s right… around here…” He turned back. “But this is of no consequence. You will be taking a shortcut on Yggdrasil’s root, and will not need the swift hooves of Sleipnir.”

“Thank you, Allfather.” Regin knelt.

“And now, my companions will take you to the beginning of your journey. And remember, fear not failure, for my greatest warriors will still survive to Ragnarok if you do not return.”

The four looked up, stupefied. There was a great wind, and the ravens snatched them up, one in each claw. The fields flew by beneath them, dotted by the halls of the gods. They could see the rainbow bridge and the great wall, and beyond, far below, Midgard.

Already the world tree appeared monstrous, and only grew larger at their approach. When the ravens finally dropped the four at its base, all they could see was an unending red wall and a green sky. There was wood everywhere, except for forward. They stood bewildered on a road, which wound downward, over the side of Asgard, past Midgard, and into oblivion. The road before them was one of the tree’s three roots.

“By Thor’s hammer,” whispered Karl, “have you fellows ever seen the likes?”

“I’ve scarce seen anything but Valhalla,” said Regin. Three of them stared. Grimnir began to relieve himself over the side.

“It’s a rainy day in Midgard,” said the archer, with a smirk.

The others couldn’t help but smile.

“What’s your name, archer?” asked Karl.

“Svipdag. Svipdag son of Iving.”

“Well, Svipdag, we may be on the same journey, but we have yet to be on the same team.”

The archer waved him off.

Regin interjected. “This is Karl, I’m Regin, that’s Grimnir, though I doubt I’ve ever seen him talk.” They looked at Grimnir, who snorted and wiped his nose. “If we are to die together, we should at least know the names of our comrades.”

“Though old Svipdag here, would rather run like a coward than meet his fate,” said Karl.

“If I had met my fate yesterday, I would not be here today.”

“I’m sure the third best archer in Valhalla would have sufficed.”

An arrow zipped through Karl’s beard.

“Dung eating beast!” Karl’s flashing sword accentuated the curse. Svipdag was already jogging down the road, laughing. Karl screamed and chopped at the road with his sword. He eventually sheathed it, red-faced and sweaty. “Let’s go.”

Hours later, the four were nearing Midgard, chewing at the air to clear their ears, lulled into complacency by peaceful surroundings. And that’s when Svipdag saw the beast. A tiny squirrel came scampering up the road, and zipped right between the archer’s legs. “Hello, little one, having a nice journey?”

The squirrel stopped and looked up at him. “Vomitous puss bag! Vomitous puss bag!” The voice was high and musical.

Svipdag froze, eyeballs locked on the squirrel.

“Pay him no mind, it is merely Ratatosk, who runs between the dragon and eagle delivering insults,” said Regin.

The squirrel turned to him. “Eater of feces! Motherless son of two fathers!”

Grimnir looked at the squirrel and grunted once, grunted twice.

“Uh oh,” Regin watched as Grimnir became agitated. “Someone should shut that squirrel up. Now.”

“Wretched bile-filled mucous chewer! Mucous chewer!” The squirrel began to clean itself.

Grimnir began to shake. Regis and Karl backed away.

“Coward! Coward! Coward!”

Apparently, that was all it took. Grimnir tore the clothes from his body and charged like a rabid animal. His axe sank deep into the road as the squirrel bounded away. He growled and screamed as he yanked the blade out of the wood and took off after the bolting fur ball.

“What do we do?” asked Regin.

Karl shook his head. “Wait until he tires.”

They all nodded and watched as Grimnir arched his massive weapon through the air in great, eager chops, always missing the small creature by at least a foot. It may have been hours by the time the first signs of fatigue began to show. The swings became fewer and farther between, and Grimnir’s breath came in great gulping gasps. Soon, his eyes drooped, and the axe swung in lazy circles just above the ground. At last he simply spun and collapsed in a sweaty, naked heap. His snoring was the only indicator of life.

“Well, what in Thor’s name are we supposed to do with that?” asked Svipdag, motioning with his hand.

“Shall we leave him here, Karl?”

Karl rubbed at his beard. “No, I think not. His slumber will last only so long, and I suspect he’ll be of use later.”

“How, then, would you suggest we carry him?”

Karl whipped off his cloak and laid it on the wooden ground. He grabbed the remainder of Grimnir’s clothing, and threw it on top for padding. Then he pulled the sleeping berserker onto the pile. “Drag him.”

Regin nodded.

Svipdag did a double take. “What? I’m not dragging him.”

“My cloak, your work.”

“I’d have used my cloak if I had thought of it first.”

“Well think more quickly next time.” Karl stepped off down the path.

Svipdag and Regin each held a corner and began to move. The sleeping man jostled with each bump, snoring soundly nevertheless.

Eventually the four of them leveled with Midgard, and admired the sparkling fjords, broad mountains and shimmering plains. They watched the people move like specks of dust rolling across a table. But as the sun was rising, they continued to descend, and eventually they were looking up at the rocky underbelly of middle earth. And even as the light fades in the murky depths of the sea, so it did as the men dropped steadily towards the underworld.

The sky about them took on a bruised purple, and the stars flared up from mid air, floating in clusters only a stone’s throw from their path. Soon the space about them succumbed to the looming darkness, and dimmed to a whispering dark blue. Karl could barely see his own feet, until a strange thing happened. A horizon began to take form, a sickly, dripping green, outlining the black hole of land far below. And finally, they stopped. The great root that the group had traveled on finally narrowed and then dipped suddenly into a great, bubbling pool of water.

They surveyed the roiling circle. The shore lay only a minute’s swim away, dark, barren, and lumpy.

Svipdag crossed his arms. “I don’t swim.”

“Not even doggy-paddle?” asked Regin.

“Not even float above water.”

“This is no problem,” said Karl.

They turned to look at him.

Grimnir floated spread-eagle, face up and snoring, as Regin and Karl held his arms and towed him to shore. Svipdag hugged Grimnir tightly about the waist, eyes scrunched as he kicked spastically. In moments, Karl felt his fingers dig into the coarse, volcanic sand, and he pulled himself onto shore. When the others shook themselves off, they joined him in staring.

Corpses stretched off into the darkness, buried to varying degrees, body parts jutting from the ground at every angle. Mossy weeds grew on them, in them, and around them. Karl approached the nearest: a head and a left arm.

“What in Thor’s name…” He reached out to poke the thing with his sword and, of course, it looked at him. But that was not the astonishing thing. The astonishing thing was when a blast of air knocked Karl back, and a pair of leviathan jaws snapped down on the corpse, pulled it free, dragged it into the sky, tossed it, and swallowed it in a gulp.

The three men stood rigid, and craned their necks toward the dragon. The shining black scales whisped upwards in elegant curves, silent and breathing. All the men could make out for sure were the eyes, smoldering like coals, the fiery outline of the great maw, and smooth trails of smoke running from its nostrils.

Finally, Karl whispered. “Fear not, it is only Nidhogg, the eater of corpses. We should fare well as long as we are moving.”

Svipdag wrinkled his face, and turned between the dragon and the shore before he finally spoke. “What of Grimnir then?”

Almost as if the great beast had read his mind, it whipped around and glared at the unconscious man lying in the sand.

“Damn. Damn it.” Regin began to bite his lip.

“Quickly, pick him up. You two get his arms, I’ll get his waist.” In a moment, Grimnir was upright, and flopping around.

Karl wrapped his arms around the chest, buried his face behind the man’s neck, shook him slightly, and began to shout. “Hello, I’m okay. I was just taking a nap there, dragon.” Regin lifted Grimnir’s arm and waved it at the beast. “Yes, I am not food. I am very, very alive. No food here.”

The three men grunted as they pranced the body across the sand, tripping now and then on a head or a leg. At last, they had moved clear of the dragon’s suspicious stare, and collapsed in a pile.

After they caught their breath, they resumed dragging the man as usual. Eventually, the bodies in the earth became sparser, and the going was easy, until they approached the great wall that surrounded Hel’s lair. Karl grew agitated as they approached the towering fence, which consisted of rusting spikes decorated with impaled body parts. At his touch, one of the spikes cracked and tumbled over. He turned to his comrades with a thin stare.

The others shrugged.

After they passed, they could smell the palace before they could see it. It was an inky blotch, even on the surrounding night. It sat moldering like a pile of fungus-covered squash left in a closet corner. And the vapor it emitted was oily, filling the air about them with a thick, gag inducing reek. Even Grimnir, in his state, had trouble catching his breath.

They passed through the wide entrance, which blew gusts of hot air at them in breaths between giant, yellowed teeth. They traveled down the convulsing throat, and passed a well that drew in and out, gasping like an infected windpipe. They threw aside the wood and iron door and stepped through. Everything went still, and the cold seeped back into their bones.

Dust shimmered in the air, falling through wisps of blue light, settling like snow on cracked stone floor. Decaying, mottled corpses plastered the walls like papier-mache, and their faces contorted and pulled back as they laid eyes on the four intruders.

“It appears that we’ve made our destination,” said Regin.

“Indeed,” said Karl.

Svipdag whisked his eyes about. “So, what now?”

Karl shrugged. “Ask her.”

The others followed his finger to the throne before them, built high from human bone. They had not noticed the thin figure at the top until she moved and stepped from her place. It was hard to tell what stood out more, her beauty or her sullenness. Her cheeks were sunken, and icy blue eyes stared back at them. Her hair, silver blonde, was pulled back tight behind her head, and her clingy black dress glimmered as it slithered along the stone behind. But then, as she neared, they saw her leg for just a glimpse as the fabric flapped, and saw flesh the texture of burnt chicken. Svipdag gagged, and the others had to look away.

“Why have you come to disturb the realm of the dead?” The statement held no emotion

Karl affixed himself upon her, and knelt graciously. “Oh great Hel, Daughter of Loki, we have come to reclaim the rune you have won from Odin, Father of Battle.”

“And what have you brought for barter?”

Karl licked his lips. “Only an appeal to your mercy, our mistress.”

It is best she did not smile; her face may have shattered. “What care have I, that I should give up what is rightfully mine?”

“Ragnarok. The three worlds must have all they can muster in the end times, lest darkness overcome us.”

“Warrior, I am darkness, and I am wondering if I should let you leave here, let alone give you my rune.”

Regin stepped forward. “Allow me then, dark mistress, to assume service in your name for eternity, in exchange for the rune.”

Hel squinted. She turned to look at two dark individuals who stood by the throne, moving almost imperceptibly. “Although it is true that Ganglati and Ganglot are not the most responsive servants, they do have loyalty, which I doubt the lot of you could muster.” She clasped her cold hands around a small bag hanging from her neck. “My price is this: if you can get everything in the three worlds, rocks, trees, animals, and people, to weep for Odin and his lost warriors, then I shall deliver the rune.”

Karl flared his nostrils. “Huddle.”

The three men wrapped their arms around each other. “You two realize that Hermod tried to do the same thing and failed, correct?”

Svipdag and Regin nodded.

“Right. And that was on Baldur’s behalf. Think of how many less will weep for Odin, the Terrible One.”

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

“There’s only one option. We’re going to have to take this bitch out.”

“Aye.”

“What?” Svipdag blinked hard.

“Well, we can either fail Odin and be skinned alive for eternity, or we can try to steal the rune, where the worst that’ll happen is we’ll be plastered to one of these walls.”

Svipdag threw up his hands. “Well! The choice is simple, then!”

“One more word and you’ll feel the back of my hand, archer.” Karl’s finger floated just before his nose. “Anyhow, I’ll snatch the thing from her neck. You two drag Grimnir out as fast as you can.”

“Brilliance,” muttered Svipdag.

They broke, and the frosty mistress of the underworld met their glances. Karl stroked at his beard, and sauntered towards Hel. “So, it comes to this, mistress. We shall return to Odin and ask him to… wait a second, you have something on your…” Karl stared at the side of Hel’s neck as if a bug was perched there, and raised his hand slowly to flick it off. But then he whipped his hand, snatched the small bag from Hel’s neck with all the force he could muster, and spun about with a concentrated burst of adrenal energy. “Go men!”

Grimnir bounced and flopped on the cloak as they sprinted to the door. They grasped the daunting iron handles and yanked with grunts and growls. It didn’t even think about budging.

Hel spoke in her usual monotone. “Give it back.”

The men struggled at the door.

“Come on. Give it back.”

Finally, Karl turned around and drew his sword. “Or what? You’ll fetch the molasses twins on us?” The two figures by the throne finally completed turning their heads from when the four men had first entered.

Hel sighed and then swept her hand from left to right, and something passed through the chamber. One by one, the corpses on the walls began to shimmy down, fall, and crawl to the floor. Some could only walk on their hands because their legs were gone. Some brandished their own arms as weapons. Some brandished weapons as weapons.

“Gentlemen, may we die honorably in combat.” Regin pulled out his sword.

Svipdag shot a corpse through the face, and it began to strike out at the ones around it.

“Technically, we’re already dead, dear Regin,” said Karl.

“Yes, but, you know what I mean.”

“Aye.”

Another bolt through a face.

“Thor!” Karl shouted. He charged at the wall of desiccated flesh with Regin right beside. The corpses were neither agile nor quick, but their sheer numbers pressed in on the two men as Svipdag fired shot after shot. Already, the men were being pressed towards the door. The charge never gained an ounce of momentum. Karl hacked a limb and chopped a head, and saw Regin beside doing the same. Then Karl saw someone else in the corner of his eye. He turned his head for a glance, and saw Grimnir facing the door, yawning and stretching.

“Damn it, Grimnir, take to your axe!”

The naked blonde man looked at him for a moment, and was immediately clubbed in the head by a corpse’s arm. He grunted and turned to the creature, pushing it back. He made noises like a disturbed ape, until the arm hit him again. Then he screamed. In an instant, the axe was in his hands and flying. Karl only caught glimpses of a flashing axe blade as it swam though waves of the dead. Chunks of flesh and body parts sailed into the air like chaff as the wild man charged through. His path could only be traced in the crowd by the carnage on the surface, like a gopher burrowing through the earth. Again, the three of them were left alone to fight the masses.

“What do we do now?” shouted Svipdag.

“Fight!” Regin replied.

Karl backed up a step and cupped a hand around his mouth, shouting over the crowd. “Grimnir’s mother eats Jormangund’s feces!” The turbulence in the pool of corpses paused.

“She can’t get enough!”

Again, corpses flew, but now the trail of destruction led to the three men. Karl put two spread fingers to his mouth and flicked his tongue in mockery. Grimnir exploded from the fray just in front of Karl, and the rage of Odin’s chosen flared in his eyes. Karl dodged the axe so narrowly that it shaved off his left eyebrow, but the crushing blow continued through the air and shattered the thick wooden door into kindling. Grimnir continued charging into the darkness. Karl shouted, “Run!” but the other two men were already gone.

The hot breath assaulted Karl once more, and the throaty walls flew by. He stepped over some large shattered teeth where the entrance had apparently closed and was finally free of the fortress of eternal damnation. Still he sprinted, and when the palace was far in the distance, it was not far enough.

* * * * *

“So, inconsequential mortals, have you returned with my rune?”

Three of the men knelt before the fear-inspiring visage of Odin. The fourth snored fitfully.

“Yes, great and terrible Allfather,” they chimed.

“Then show it.”

With great care and dignity, Karl rose, never looking the ruler of Asgard in the eye. He held the pouch with both hands, and lifted it up. Odin snatched it away, and dumped the contents into his hand. “Yesss.” The god of war punched at the air. Karl returned to kneeling. “So, mortals, as a reward for your service, I shall grant you each the power of any one of my runes. Except for this one. And the eighteenth.”

The three men exchanged wild glances. Karl spoke, “Oh great Allfather, I request only one question of you first.”

“Fine. What.”

“If that is not the eighteenth rune, which is it that we sought?”

Odin licked his lips and looked about. “Okay, look. I wasn’t completely honest with you. None of our warriors went to the underworld. I just didn’t resurrect them today, you know, for effect. This rune is my favorite though. It’s the one where, you know, a white-armed woman can’t resist my charm, et cetera, et cetera. But it matters not. I’m pretty much god here. I do what I want.”

Karl’s eyes bugged, but he bit his lip, and spoke. “Then I choose the fifth rune, so that if an arrow speeds towards me, I may catch it.”

“Granted.”

Karl made an obscene gesture to Svipdag.

“Then I choose the third,” said Svipdag, “so that I may blunt the weapon of my enemy so that it does not harm me.”

“Granted.”

The vein in Karl’s forehead throbbed, and he balled up his fists.

Regin looked at his companions. “I shall have the eighth then, oh great Allfather,” he said, “so that if hatred takes root in men’s minds, I can uproot it.”

“Granted.”

All three men instantly relaxed.

“And what of the Berserker?” asked Odin.

“Give him the second,” said Karl, “so that he may heal those that he wounds on accident.”

“Granted.” Odin looked around. “Well, I have to go make sure my rune still works, so… that’s it. You may leave.” He turned his steed, and in a flash, the great beast hurled him into the distance.

The three stood and looked at each other.

“Well, I suppose we’d be off to the hall then,” said Karl.

“Aye.”

“Aye.”

Three of them stepped off across the plains, patting each other on the back and laughing. One of them snored peacefully in a small patch of grass.

 

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