The air is fouled with the smell of death and corruption, a charnel odor with an undercurrent of something else, something sinister but not quite definable. Hrolff likes it not, but there is little to be done. They have committed to this enterprise and, short of contact with overwhelming opposition, withdrawal begets ill omen.
He lowers himself to one knee to contemplate the body of the Morgh stretched on the floor before him. It is not much different from killing a thing of living flesh and blood to destroy such an abomination. The thing had been a fierce opponent, but not much of a match for them. In the last, he and Inakai had squared off against it, he with Sturmhämmer and she with her axe that sings death and spits crazed lightning. Swinging its huge claw-like, black nailed hands and lashing its terrible tongue, the thing had come at them hard, its eyes burning like ghastly embers. But to no avail. The Northman and the half-elf had unleashed a rain of iron blows upon it, a storm of rent flesh and shattered bone, to drive it back to whatever hell it called home. Hrolff cast a sidelong glance at Inakai. She’s a good fighter, this ruby-eyed sea-spawned lass, and Hrolff likes her. Despite their adventures together, he knows so little about her.
The Morgh presents a ghastly sight. An axe blow has cloven its jaw almost entirely from the rest of its face. Hrolff is familiar with the spells used to invoke such apparitions though he does not traffic in them himself. He mouths a silent prayer to Thor and traces a rune of good fortune in the air. Good fortune indeed. By the hoary beard of Tanngrisnir, they will likely need it. Ever since childhood, he has disliked and feared these living dead, though he now knows that those who work in death-craft savor our fear as normal folk do mead and spiced wine.
His mind wanders and, for a moment, he remembers his now distant homeland, Northgaard, land of deep fjords and mist shrouded peaks that soar in the winter-sparkle of the northern night. Ǽskill’s garth, where Hrolff was raised, lay at the end of a long, sheer sided inlet. It was a good place, large with many halls, barns, and work sheds. Cattle and sheep grazed in the rocky hills overlooking the fjord and Ǽskill’s bee pastures were envied by settlements for many miles along the coast. During the short summers, most of the men would leave to go viking, joining one of the many crews that powerful chiefs gathered unto themselves.
As a boy, he had longed for such adventure and, as a consolation, had lost himself by training in the use of the hammer and its deadly art. He had also enjoyed more than a few dalliances with a variety local maids, free and thrall alike. Ah yes, he had been a handsome lad and he soon became quite adept at wielding a hammer of a much different sort. Pleasant and numerous had such days been. And during the long, iron winters, families gathered in the great halls to tell tales and sing songs of their ancestors, while the hearth blazed and the animals dozed in their stalls.
Beyond the garth, inland from the coast, the land rose majestically to meet lofty Mount Jotunsprak, a towering edifice of stone, cliff, and ice that assailed the nickel-grey sky like a giant’s fist.
Somewhere on those slopes, far above them and miles in the back country, was a temple that was seldom spoken of except in whispers. A black place it was. The priests who dwelt there, who had not come down from the mountain for many years, worshipped Hel, the hand-maiden of death, daughter of Loki the accursed. These men, it was said, knew how to carve the black runes, how to work the most forbidden charms, how to speak the dark words and craft the spae that can twist and un-knot the very laws of life and death themselves. Very few travelled into Jotunsprak’s shadow to make blót at such a place, but more did than one might at first think. The outcasts, the bitter, the ones whose hearts had been gnawed by the worms of ill fortune until naught remained but the dearest wish for vengeance, such were the souls that trekked the twisted paths and threaded the treacherous gorges to lay offerings at the feet of Hel, black bitch of the north.
The priests who tended her shrine also knew how to call forth spirits from beyond the grave, immaterial things that rode the air, shrieking with rage, hateful for being wrested from their eternal slumber and forced into such thralldom. Sometimes, on certain January nights, when the cold came down like a hammer and the sky above Jotunsprak writhed and twisted with the blue-green elf fire of the borealis, these spirits rode the night in force. On such nights, the family of Halvard would gather in its hall and attempt to work the ancient warding charms, passing a stallion’s penis wrapped in linen from hand to hand while Hrolff’s mother, Freda Bandersdaughter, would sing songs of past glory in a voice that ran clear as snow-melt in spring. All the while, the undead spirits swirled high above their roof, laughing and howling their hate in the brittle winter starlight.
Years later, after he had offered his life to Thor, Hrolff learned how to make the runes of power that blasted such things and drove them away, often unraveling their tenuous foothold on the land of the living completely. Priests of the Southern Gods sometimes referred to these prayers as the “Turning,” a good word for such god-craft. “Turning.” Yes, Hrolff likes it. Such things should always be turned back from the lands of sunlight and those that call them should have their heads turned round sharply on their necks with a sudden hammer blow.
Hrolff sighs, thinking of the home that he has forsaken.
Quickly though, he turns his thoughts to the task at hand and glances at the ceiling. What further black witch-work awaits them in the floors above? He finds that he is sweating despite the clammy chill in the air. He rises and checks his war kit, making a small adjustment to his shield straps. To his right stands Alayna, wrapped in silent contemplation of some horror that lies preserved behind the glass that lines the chamber. He lays a hand on her shoulder and whispers a word of encouragement.
Hrolff traces one more rune in the air and prays that if death does come, let it be a good one.