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A Man Named Death


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(This story is a bit older, wrote it last year, but I felt like posting it bc why not~ Hel is a real Norse goddess, so she isn't my character, but this specific iteration of her is my own, if that makes sense)

  Winter cut through Vilhelm Olofsdotter like a knife.
  He was a tall, lean man with pale, freckled skin. His red hair was braided neatly into a ponytail that went down to his chest. It ended with a metal bead with an Uruz rune and intricate patterns, a prayer for strength. A menacing scar ran across his neck. His nose was slightly crooked and his lips were full. The lack of beard made him stand out a bit, but he was otherwise almost completely average looking for a Norseman. He wore a weathered cloak – it was once black, but sunlight had bleached it to a gray. 
  The wind blew in hard breaths, going straight through Vilhelm’s tunic and pants. He shivered, his boots crunching the snow underfoot. “Damn winters,” he muttered, his destination visible. He trudged into the local tavern, Torgeir’s. Togeir himself was manning the bar, serving mead. Togeir’s wife, Kjellfrid, sat at a table, reading runestone fortunes. There were not many people inside yet as it was morning. 
  Kjellfrid, a large redheaded woman, looked up from her fortune at the sound of the opening door and smiled. “Ay, Vilhelm! Good morning!”
  “Good morning, Kjellfrid,” he greeted. “Has Tatiana been in today?” Tatiana was a local boatbuilder and often came by Togeir’s. 
  “Not yet.” Kjellfrid began clearing the runestone spread and shooed the current customer away. “Come, come, let me read for you!”
  “Bah, don’t listen to the crazy old witch,” Togeir shouted from the bar teasingly.
 She laughed. “Call me a witch all you want, I still bring in customers.” She motioned for Vilhelm to sit. “Come on now!”
  Kjellfrid could not actually tell real fortunes. Most humans had at least a little bit of magic potential in them, but she had absolutely none. Despite this, Vilhelm enjoyed getting his future told by her. It made her happy, and it was entertaining to see what she came up with. He drew up a chair and sat down. She shook up her bag of runes and he picked three, putting them in the simple spread they always did. 
  She scanned the spread: Ansuz, inverted Wunjo, and Jera.
  She pointed at the first rune. “In the past, you have received the word and intervention of the gods. They have guided you to where you are now.” She motioned at the second. “Now, however, those gifts have led to a lack of joy and feelings of stagnation in your life.” She picked up the last rune. “However, you are close to reaping the benefits of your effort.”
  Vilheim stared at the stones. That was an actually accurate read. Vague, but accurate. He shivered a bit, despite knowing that his own magic had probably interfered with the reading. “Wow.”
  “Maybe the reward will be a nice new man?” she said with a smirk.
  Any sense of awe left him. “You say that every time. I see no nice new man appearing out of thin air.”
  Kjellfrid winked. “You never know.”
  He snorted and turned to Togeir. “When she comes in today, can you give this to Tatiana? I need to head out of town today.” He tossed him a box.
  He shook it. “What is it?”
  “Just something I borrowed,” Vilhelm replied, brushing a hand through his hair. “I promised her I’d get it back to her.”
  Togeir put it below the bar. “I’ll make sure she gets it.”
  Vilhelm smiled. “Thanks.” He looked outside. “I should head out before the storm gets worse.”
  Togeir sighed. “At least take a proper cloak. That one’s practically just ruined fabric.”
  “I’ll keep this one.” He tugged it. “It’s full of memories.”

  Vilhelm walked for hours before reaching the middle of the dark woods, where a giant stone dais sat. He hopped up onto the dais and unclipped a bag from his leather belt. The pouch was made from sheepskin and had a bronze button with an Ansuz rune carved in it. He dumped the contents onto the stone – runestones made of sunstone, each about three inches in diameter. He removed the Ansuz, Kenaz, Isa, Eihwaz, and Tiwaz stones from the pile and pushed the rest aside. He put each of the selected runes around the edge of the dais, forming a pentagonal shape. He went to the middle, closed his eyes.
  “Mæli til mik, oh goddess ór andlát, svá ek Mayberar út þinn worð.”
  Mist began to swirl around. The wind became stronger, so Vilhelm raised his voice.
  “Mæli til mik, bane ór gods, svá ek Mayserver þú!”
  A whistling noise sounded from behind him, and giggles swirled in the wind. A dim green glow was visible in the thick fog.
  “Komtilr mik fran jrinnörð ór andlát ok block earanórr Odin's hrafn!”
  The giggles came in front of him. The sound of footsteps coming towards him echoed through the forest – click, click, click… A woman, cackling, appeared from the mist. She was five-foot-two and had long, blonde hair that curled at the ends around her waist. The left side of her was beautiful – plush lips, a high cheekbone, the shimmering blue eye, and an hourglass figure. However, the right side of her body was only a skeleton. She wore a long, dark dress that was fitted above the hips but flowed dramatically in the skirt. She looked at her skeletal arm, still laughing.
  “It feels so good to be in a corporeal form!” She flexed her fingers a bit, then turned her attention to Vilhelm. “Ah, Ruin of Midgard. How nice to see you!”
  He flinched. “Don’t call me that.”
  She grinned. “But it’s the title the snows of Helheim wished you to have. That’s a big deal.”
  She sat on a throne-like chair that had not been behind her mere seconds before, still smirking. “Okay, Death Vilhelm. It's time for the monthly report. Let’s hear it.” She placed her chin on her fleshy hand.
  He scratched the back of his neck. “All targets were dispatched to Helheim. No major complications, and my identity as a Death still is unknown to the other villagers. They haven’t become suspicious of my lack of aging yet either.” He adjusted his cloak. “The only one I’ve really been concerned about is Tatiana, since she knew me before, but she hasn’t said anything, Lady Hel.”
  Hel sighed. “Boring. You never have anything interesting to share.”
  “It’s Midgard.” Vilhelm shrugged. “You want excitement, go check on Alfheim.”
  “Fair enough.” A blue leather-bound book appeared in her hand. “Here are the people that need to be sent to Helheim this month.”
  He stared. “That’s a lot of people for one month.”
  “Have to keep up with quota, it got raised.” She picked at her nails. “Damn control freak Odin.” She handed Vilhelm the book. “Try not to be late on your first delivery this time, Death Vilhelm. I can retract our deal at any time.”
  He turned his head away to hide his fear. “Yes, Queen of Helheim.”
  She tapped her neck. “Don’t forget that you’re walking dead.” She smirked. “Well, I must get back before Odin’s ravens realize there’s a blind spot here. See you next month, Coward Death.” She faded into the mist, along with her chair.
  He gripped the volume tight enough to turn his knuckles white. He examined the fat spine. I have to keep this up, he thought. I only have ten years left – if I stop now, I go back to Helheim. He shuddered, remembering his time there. I can’t go back.

  That evening, Tatiana walked into Togeir’s. She was an older woman, her red hair mostly faded to gray and wrinkles creasing her face, but she was still strong. She sat down and ordered a horn of mead from Togeir.
  “Ah, there you are. I was starting to worry you wouldn’t come,” Togeir said, filling Tatiana’s drinking horn. “I have a delivery for you.”
  “A… delivery?” she asked, confused.
  He handed her the drinking horn. “One second.” He bent down beneath the bar and grabbed something. He handed it to her – a wooden box with a short message engraved on it: Something I’ve been meaning to return for a long time. She recognized the handwriting as Vilhelm’s.
  Vilhelm, huh? Tatiana turned the box around in her hands, suspicious. That man felt off to her. He looked too much like a good friend of hers back when she was young. He was also just strange in general. Too quiet. 
  “What is it?”
  Togeir raised an eyebrow. “You can find out by opening it.”
  Well, fair enough. She sighed. “It’s weird though. I don’t remember lending anything to Vilhelm.” She looked down at the box. Did he steal it from me?
  Togeir shrugged. “Don’t shoot the messenger.” He smiled. “I like Vilhelm, though. He’s a little strange, but he’s kind.”
  “Kind?” She looked up at Togeir skeptically. “How so?”
  “He always helps if someone’s having trouble,” he explained. “He always gets a reading from Kjellfrid, even though he doesn’t believe them, because reading runes makes her happy. Small things like that.”
  Tatiana considered. “Yeah, I suppose.” She looked down at the box. “Doesn’t make this less odd.” She opened the box. Inside was a bracelet made of sunstone with a golden key and screw on it as charms. She gasped, recognizing it, and dropped the box in shock.
  “What?” Togeir asked. “What is it?”
  She didn’t answer and picked up the bracelet. She flipped the key charm over in her hand and found the runes inscribed down it. It was definitely the same one. “Aron…”
  “Tatiana, are you okay?”
  She put the bracelet on her wrist. “I haven’t seen this thing for thirty five years.”
  Togeir smirked. “Don’t you think you’re exaggerating? Vilhelm can’t be more than twenty three.” No one was actually sure of Vilhelm’s age, since he had moved to the village a few years prior, but it was a good estimate based on his appearance.
  She touched the charm. “Togeir?”
  “I don’t think his name’s Vilhelm.”

  I’m trapped.
  I can walk, but I’m chained to a tower with others. It’s freezing, so cold that I feel like I’m burning. A special kind of pain. The freezing iron of my bonds dig into my ankles as I try to walk a bit further. I try to sleep, but whenever I awake I’m just as exhausted, every rest plagued with nightmares. I eat the food I’m given, but I’m just as hungry. Garm, the massive beast of a wolf, watches those of us with the misfortune of being here. 
  This is the afterlife for cowards. This is Helheim.
  I can’t breathe. How did I come back? I’ve done everything I’ve been told and it’s dark and I can’t breathe and I can’t breathe can’t breathe can’t breathe cantbreathecantbreathe…
  “HELP!” I try to scream. But no one is listening.
  There are thousands of others here, but I am alone in my misery. The freezing stone below me slices up my feet, leaving them in ribbons. It’s so cold. It’s hopeless. It’s over. I am gone…

  Vilhelm woke up gasping for air. “LET ME OUT!”
  He looked around. Log walls. A fire in the hearth. A stiff bed. Home. “Just a dream,” he whispered. “Just a nightmare. You’re out now. You’re not going back. You just have to work.”
  He tied a cloth to his chest to bind his breasts and went out on his doorstep in his nightclothes. It was cold and snow peppered his cheeks, but it was thousands of degrees warmer than Helheim. He could still practically feel the iron against his skin, freezing and rough. He ran his hands through his hair.
  “-crap-.” He began to laugh. “-crap-.” Tears fell down his cheeks. He sat on the doorstep, sobbing and laughing. “-censored- Helheim!”
  Vilhelm snapped his head upwards. Who knew that name? He hadn’t been Aron in–
  “Aron, is it you?” Tatiana asked. “A-are you okay?”
  He looked away. “Never call me that again.”
  “Never say that name again!” He began to shudder uncontrollably. “I can't go back, can’t go back…” He got up and turned to go inside.
  “Ar– Vilhelm, what’s going on?” She grabbed his wrist. 
  He didn’t look back at her. “Let go.”
  “If you ever loved my brother at all, tell me!”
  A heavy silence grew between them.
  He turned back to stare her in the eyes. He tapped the scar on his neck. “Aron Farrukh has been dead for a century.” He clenched his fist. “Vilhelm Olofsdotter has taken his place. Knut has been dead for, what, forty three years now? I don’t owe you anything, Titi. I loved him, but that doesn’t mean there’s some great debt I have to pay you.” He averted his gaze. “I should’ve never revealed that name. Leave.”
  This time, she let go, shock and confusion crossing her face. Vilhelm didn’t look back as he went inside. He laid down and cried, memories of Helheim still swirling in his brain.

  “Aron Farrukh has been dead for a century.” What in Helheim is that supposed to mean?
  Tatiana cut some wood for her next project as she thought. It was going to be a warrior longship to replace the one that had been destroyed in the last storm. Working helped her think, and thinking helped her work. Sitting around made her mind idle as well. She hummed a tune as she cut, something that she did out of habit, just like how she bit the right side of her upper lip while measuring.
  I knew Aron Farrukh for five years, maybe forty or so years ago. It’s impossible that he’s been dead for that long.  She moved the piece of wood along to make another incision at a different angle. But, how hasn’t he aged? Maybe the Aron I knew and the Aron he was talking about are both dead. How would he know Aron’s surname, though? I never mentioned it. She sketched a few marks on her plans. And how would he know that nickname? Only Aron and Knut called me Titi. She sighed. Maybe he was being metaphorical? That still doesn’t explain anything though… 
  She groaned. “It doesn’t make any sense!”
  “Everything okay in here, dýrr?” Gerda, Tatiana's wife, asked. “I heard yelling.”
  She turned around. “Yes.” She hesitated. “No.” 
  Gerda smiled. “Want to talk about it?”
  Tatiana bit her lip. “Kind of?”
  Gerda beckoned her to the main room of the house. She poured some warm milk for Tatiana and they sat together on the bed.
  “So?” Gerda prompted.
  Tatiana described the situation. She left out Vilhelm’s name, however. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Gerda; she was afraid Gerda would confront him herself. 
  Gerda nodded. “Are you sure it’s him? Maybe the guy you knew had a kid?”
  Tatiana shook her head. “Why would the surname be different? And he spoke as though he was the person I knew. He seemed to be Aron but…”
  “...but he hasn’t aged at all,” Gerda finished. “That’s really strange. Maybe he’s a ghost.” She smirked and waved her arms. “He’s haunting you for that time you stole his wool undershirt.”
  Tatiana rolled her eyes. “Be serious.”
  Gerda snickered, but didn’t press it. “Didn’t you say he was muttering something about not going back somewhere? Maybe figuring out where that is will help.”
  “How in Helheim would I do that? He hardly talks about himself.”
  “Get him drunk?”
  Tatiana raised an eyebrow. “You’re being rather unethical here.”
  “You love me anyways.”
  “Indeed I do.” She shrugged. “Maybe that would work.”
  “Only one way to find out.” Gerda smirked. “If he’s a ghost… Can we keep him?”
  Tatiana laughed. “Gerda!”

  Vilhelm wiped his face. It was time to get to work. He put on his cloak, the rough, ruined fabric scraping against his neck, and his armguards. Pulling the hood up, he grabbed his bag of sunstone runes and his special dagger from Hel. He couldn’t send souls to Helheim without them. He secured a sword to his belt along with the runes and dagger, just in case, and then opened his book.
  “Tonight’s due souls…” he murmured. He stared. “Sheesh, that’s a lot! Fifteen thousand people!” He bit his lip. “Since when do this many people die in my region?” The world was split up into different regions by death gods, and each death god had one Death operating in Midgard for their region. “Quota my butt, that’s ridiculous.” He sighed, and pulled out his Raidho rune. “Takmikr.” Mist swirled around him, and he dissipated from the spot, his vision turning black.

  Jarl Isaken was going to die.
  He had known this for a while. He was nine years old, quite old enough to understand such things. He was very sick; he had heard his parents whispering about how they were worried. He had to see a new doctor every week. But it’s okay if I die, Jarl thought, as long as I get into Vahalla. However, only worthy souls that died in battle got to go to Vahalla, not people who died in a sickbed. So Jarl decided that today, he was going to go to battle. He took his father’s dagger and stomped out into the woods.
  “If I find a wolf, I’ll battle it!” he declared. “I’ll either go to Vahalla or be a super great warrior!” He marched on and on in the woods until he reached a cave. “Wolfs! Come here!” he shouted.
  A blur went across his vision. There was sharp pain as the wolf bit Jarl in the shoulder. It wasn’t the majestic creature he was imagining – it was mangy and thin enough for you to count its ribs – but its bite hurt all the same. He screamed. The wolf prowled towards him. 
  “St-stay back!” Jarl said, waving his dagger around. “I-I’m the great warrior Isaken the Incinerator! I will tear you to pieces and make mead of your blood!” That was a line from one of his mother’s stories, but it felt good to say. “Stay back, beast!”
  The wolf didn’t stay back. It pounced and went straight for Jarl’s throat.

  Vilhelm appeared in the woods. He blinked a few times to clear the residual magic from his vision. The forest was dark and gloomy, moonlight shimmering through the few open spots of the canopy. Snow coated everything, and the pond nearby was iced over. He sighed. He hated places like this. They reminded him of how he died. He wandered a bit, trying to find the corpse that he needed to extract the soul from. He soon reached a circle of evergreens next to a cave, where a wolf was feasting on something. Well, that’s probably it, he thought. Another hunter, maybe?
  He shooed the wolf away from the body and turned it on its back. It was a frail little boy. His ginger hair was tangled and matted with blood. His stomach was opened up from where the wolf had been eating, some of his intestines peeking out. Blood was splattered everywhere. A deep bite mark maimed his shoulder. His clothes were in tatters and he gripped a dagger even in death. Vilhelm flinched away from the sight. This job never got easier. He wanted to just leave this little boy – as long as a Death didn’t collect his soul, he would never have to see the afterlife.
  You let him live, you go back to Helheim. 
  Vilhelm got to work. He pulled out three runestones and placed them on the corpse: Mannaz on his forehead, Ingwaz on his throat, and Eihwaz on what was left of his torso. He removed the dagger from his belt and ran his fingers down the blade. 
  “Kommitr mér, smár einn.” 
  He stabbed the boy’s corpse through the mouth. A silvery form of the boy rose up from the corpse, screaming. He looked down at his hands.
  “Am I dead?” he asked.
  “Yes,” Vilhelm said quietly. “You’ve died.”
  “Oh.” The boy didn’t seem upset by it. “Am I going to Vahalla?” he asked hopefully.
  Oh gods. He thinks he’s going to Vahalla. He couldn’t do this. He couldn’t crush this boy. He had dealt with things like this before, but this felt different. 
  I can retract our deal at any time. Hel’s voice echoed in his head. Fear spiked through him. 
  I can’t go back.
  The boy’s face crumpled. 
  “I’m sorry.”
  “B-b-but I went out in the woods and did this so I wouldn’t go to Helheim!” he cried. “I-I-I died fighting a wolf!”
  Vilhelm looked away. “The decision isn’t in my hands. I’m sorry.”
  Tears ran down the boy’s cheeks. 
  “What’s your name?”
  He looked up at Vilhelm. “Jarl.”
  Vilhelm kneeled down to be on his level. “That’s a good name your parents gave you.” He smiled. “I promise, Helheim isn’t as bad as it sounds, Jarl. They give you lots of food and you can sleep as much as you want.” It was terrible. They did give you food and sleep but it did nothing.
  Jarl looked hopeful. “Really?”
  No. “Really.” Vilhelm smiled. It made a bitter taste appear in his mouth. “Are you ready?”
  Jarl sniffled a bit. “Okay. Let’s go.”
  Vilhelm offered his hand. Run, Jarl. Don’t take it. 
  He held his hand.
  Vilhelm wanted to cry.

  A week later, Tatiana came to his house and invited him to have drinks at Togeir’s. He couldn’t find a good reason to say no, so he accepted begrudgingly. He planned to pass his shouting before as drunk rambling. Don’t mind the fact he had no alcohol that entire day. He entered the bustling tavern, sighed, and tried to find Tatiana. 
  “Ay,” she called from a corner. “Over here!”
  He strolled over. “Hi.”
  She handed him a horn of mead. “Anything interesting the past few days?”
  Are we just pretending it didn’t happen? That works. “Eh, just work. You know me. Uninteresting.”
  “What do you do again?” 
  “Um… hunting?” He never had made a fake career for himself. “Lots of hunting. All the hunting. Tons. Hunting. Yes.” Could you sound more idiotic, Vilhelm? Stop talking! “Uh, how’s making boats?”
  “Good.” She smirked. “You know, lots of boat building. All the boat building. Tons.” 
  Vilhelm snickered. “Yeah, I earned that one.”
  “Indeed you did.” She smiled. “So, down to business.”
  He decided to play dumb. “Business?”
  “What and who are you, Aron?”
  He sighed. “-censored- Helheim.”

  Tatiana let Vilhelm lead her away from any crowds. She had brought a dagger with her, so if he tried anything, she could fight back. Hopefully. She wasn’t the same as when she was younger. He stopped near the woods, but he didn’t say anything.
  “So?” she asked. “Are you going to answer me?”
  He glared at her. “Don’t keep poking around, Titi. Forget I ever said anything. It’s better that way. We’ll keep on living as we did before. No one gets hurt. If you learn too much, you won’t last.”
  Startled, she crossed her arms. “What in Helheim is that supposed to mean?”
  “It means that if you learn more, if people find out you know as much as you do, you could be killed.” He looked up at the sky. “And I could be sent back.”
  She knew she should stop, but a small part of her couldn’t leave this along without knowing everything. Maybe the part of her that remembered the moment when a mysterious cloaked man brought Knut’s corpse to her doorstep with an apology on his lips. “I deserve an explanation, Aron.”
  “I said don’t -censored- call me that.”
  She stood her ground. “You say you don’t owe me anything? How about this: Knut died searching for you after you disappeared. He refused to come back home until he found you, and he was eaten by wolves.” She growled. “He’d be alive if not for you.”
  Vilhelm stayed silent for a moment. “You don’t think I know that?” He clenched his fists. “I know all too well. To know it’s my fault, to see the body of the one person I allowed myself to have feelings for since I died torn apart by vultures and crows? To be the one to condemn him afterwards? That hurts much worse than you could imagine.”
  “Condemn him?” Tatiana asked. 
  He blinked. “-crap-.” He laughed a little. “I’ve said way too much as it is. Leave. Please.” The last word had a desperate note to it. “I don’t want you to be hurt because of me. That’s what I owe Knut.” He looked away. “He always wanted you safe. Which is why I left in the first place.”
  “Aron…” She touched his shoulder. “I don’t care if I have to die. I need to know the story. All of it.”
  He shuddered. “I can’t.” 
  She smiled sadly. “If I die after, I can just bring your story with me.”
  He looked away. “I highly doubt that you could remember my story in Helheim. And it would be rendered insignificant in Vahalla.” He shrugged. “I’m just a small speck on this planet; I’ll live and die without making much of a difference. I’m a coward who can’t save a little boy from his fate because of my own fears. Don’t try to be my hero, Tatiana. I’m already damned.”
  She shook her head. “I will remember. I swear on Thor’s hammer. And I’ll make sure Knut hears it, too.”
  “I’ll have to kill you if I tell you.” Vilhelm’s voice broke.
  “I’m not afraid to die.”
  He hesitated before starting. “I guess it all began the day I died.”

  I was twenty one then. I had been born in a mostly peaceful village, a long way north from here. Just like any other Norseman, I had big dreams of glory and battle. I had been on voyages before, but I hadn’t seen real battle before. That all changed when our village was raided. Tales of battle always make it seem organized, and beautiful in a way.
  This was bloody chaos.
  The screams of the dying echoed all through the streets. Blood splattered everywhere. There were no battle lines, or organized strategy, or heroism. There was just chaos and death and pain. So I ran. I ran and ran and ran, all the way into the woods, just trying to escape the sound of my dying friends and family. I couldn’t find it in me to fight, or to stand my ground. I was a coward. I did nothing for no one when it mattered.
  One of the raiders had found me in the woods. He had tried to behead me when he killed me, but he couldn’t manage to get more than halfway through my neck. I guess he had the angle wrong. It hurt like Helheim. I didn’t fight back. I couldn’t; I was paralyzed with fear. I watched my own blood spill everywhere.
  Next thing I remember, I was in Helheim. I hated it there. It’s cold and dark and terrible. They let you wander, but they have you chained to a tower so you can’t escape the realm. They give you food but you’re always hungry. They let you sleep but you’re plagued with nightmares and are always exhausted. No one speaks to each other; no one helps each other. It’s a place where hope has been gone for a long time, or maybe it never existed at all.
  I was desperate to get out. There were others like that, but I was especially loud. Every day, I would scream for someone to help me, to remove the chains digging into my skin and take me away from the stone slicing my feet to ribbons. I begged. I prayed. I tried to kill myself once, but that didn’t work for obvious reasons. And one day, I somehow said the magic words. “I’ll do anything, just let me out.”
  Lady Hel had me brought to her. Apparently, my whining had caught her interest. You need to keep in mind that Hel isn’t the cold, refined goddess we depict her as often. She’s playful. Manipulative. Cruel, yes, but because everything is a game to her. So, she found me entertaining. That’s how she picks the ones under her. You see, Titi, I’m Death. I carry souls to Helheim. I only cover the Scandinavian region, though, and I don’t go to other realms very often either. I have to go to the freshly killed corpses, take the souls from their bodies, and carry them to the gates of Helheim so they can be sorted. Lady Hel usually chooses her Deaths – she has five, one for each realm except Helheim itself and Asgard – by if they seem like they’ll amuse her.
  When I was presented to her, she said, “You said you would do anything to be spared from Helheim?”
  “Yes,” I said. My voice was hoarse.
  She smiled. “Absolutely anything?”
  I nodded eagerly. Anything to get away from the towers looming over me, the stare of Garm.
  She told me that the Death of Midgard had recently retired. It was a big job to run Helheim, she said, so she didn’t have time to collect all the souls herself anymore. I had entertained her a bit, so she was willing to sign a contract with me: I cheat out of Helheim in exchange for a hundred years of service as Death.
  I had agreed to it. I would spend a hundred years walking around unchanging in a reconstruction of my corpse, carrying out the duties of Death. As long as I operate properly until the end, she will allow me to continue living in this body, then put my soul in an unborn child so I can be born again. Part of the contract is that no living human can know I’m Death or that I’ve returned from Helheim, so if anyone gets the information, they have to die. I’ve regretted all of my actions since taking this job, but my fear of Helheim is stronger than my guilt.
  I met you and Knut in my fiftieth year, if I remember correctly. Forty years ago. I hadn’t meant to stay – I was planning on passing through to live in the nearby port town. However, I met your brother. He was the strongest, kindest man I’d ever met. I looked up to him a lot, and I fell for him. He didn’t mind that my body was female, either, which had been an issue before. For the first time, I let myself feel. But as I let myself love him, I realized that staying could only put him, and you – I had began to think of you as a sister – in danger. 
  So I packed up and left. I tried to explain to Knut, but you know how he was. Stubbornness runs in your family, I think. We… didn’t leave off on a good note. A couple of times while he was looking for me, I tried to get him to go home – I would approach him in disguise, trying to convince him to go home. My last attempt, I went as myself. I had gotten on my knees and begged him to go home. He refused to return without me.
  I left. He was killed the next day.
  I was devastated. I had to bring his soul to Helheim myself, watch his expression as he realized what was happening. The betrayal in his eyes. I apologized so many times. I doubt he forgave me. If I were him, I would despise me forever. I hate myself for it – for every person I’ve brought to that world of torture, but especially him. So I vowed that, with my remaining time as Death, I would try to bring some small amount of comfort to the people I had to bring to Helheim, just like Knut did for me. I promised I would be kind to the living, too, to replace my avoidance and rudeness. I’ve tried my best.
  I don’t think it’s done much, but trying is all I can do. Between then and now, I’ve mostly gone from town to town, living in each a little while until it would become noticeable that I don’t age. I have ten years left in my contract now. I know it’s selfish to keep doing this job despite how much it hurts everyone. I know I’m a coward. I know that I’m horrible. But I can’t go back. The cold world of Helheim still haunts me every night. I’ll go crazy if I have to go back down there.
  So, with all my heart, I’m sorry, Titi. I tried. I tried to get Knut home. I tried to be an okay human. I tried to make up for everything. But I’m still the same scum.

  Tatiana was silent, the words heavy. She had no words. In fact, it didn’t feel right to say anything. So she just grabbed him into a hug. Patted him on the back.
  His tears dripped onto her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”
  “You tried. You aren’t scum. You’re only human.”
  He broke down in sobs. “I-I-I can’t kill you, Titi. But if I don’t, I-I have to go back…” He swallowed. “It’s so cold there. The air is so thick with mist it’s hard to breathe. Nobody can hear your begging, and if they do…” He sniffled. “I-I–”
  She hesitated, biting her lip. “Kill me, then.”
  He flinched. “Titi…”
  “I’m the one who kept pushing. It was my choice, and this is my price.”
  He stayed silent for several long moments. 
  “Please, Aron. Do it,” she whispered.
  “No.” His voice was firm. “I won’t.”  He looked her in the eyes. “This has gone on too long.” He clenched his fists. “I can’t stop death. I can’t stop Helheim from being horrible. But I can stop being a part of this damn cycle. Last week, I had to drag a little sick boy who wanted to be a hero into Helheim. This job is evil. If I can’t destroy it, I can at least stop doing it.”
  “But you’re so close!” Tatiana begged. “You’ve suffered for ninety years to escape. You can’t throw it all away now.” She shook her head. “I was ignorant and I hurt you by pushing. I’m sorry. I was just so angry and–”
  “It’s not your fault.” He smiled. “Nothing is your fault.” He took a runestone out of his bag. “You can’t die yet. You have your wife to take care of. Boats to build. Seas to explore.” He turned away. “Try not to forget me while you’re living.”
  He held the runestone in the air: Raidho. “You’re a good woman, Tatiana. In another life, I think we could’ve been really close. Keep living, and don’t be like me. Okay?”
  Her eyes stung with tears. “Okay.”
  He nodded. He turned his attention back to the rune in his hand. “Takmikr til andlát.” 
  Mist swirled around with dim green lights shining in it and a whistling sound began . By the time it dispersed, Vilhelm was gone. Tatiana felt tears fall onto her cheeks.
  “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

  Vilhelm appeared in Hel’s throne room. It was the only place in Helheim that could have fire, and therefore the only warm spot in the realm. He approached the throne and kneeled. “Lady Hel.”
  “How odd of you to visit, Ruin of Midgard.” She smirked down at him. “I hope you come with something entertaining.”
  “I wish to step down as Death,” he said. “To end our contract. I’ve read through it all, and I’ve chosen a successor.: Jarl. The little boy I brought last week.”
  Hel, for once, looked shocked. “Oh.”
  He nodded. “Pleasure doing business with you, Godsbane.”
  She summoned the contract and set it on fire. “It’s a shame. You were my favorite, Vilhelm.”
  He returned to the piercing Helheim cold. He screamed.
  I’ve returned.
  But he was okay.

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