Ryan let out a sigh of relief as he closed the door to work.
The time was 6:50pm on a Thursday evening and the February weather was the coldest it had been in Melbourne in five whole years.
Since Ryan’s boss asked nicely Ryan agreed to stay behind.
He didn’t mind that. He embraced the stillness of the empty space of the office.
As he locked the office doors and started to move up the pavement, an ache in his forehead started to make it known to him, almost as if it were waiting for him to leave before announcing its throbbing presence.
Ryan ran his thumb and his index finger along his eyes, squeezing gently as he walked along the path.
Home, the place he was currently renting by himself was a ten-minute walk from his choice of work, the local newspaper The West Weekly.
He was looking forward to sinking into a bath and soaking the increasingly annoying headache away. Maybe catch up on some reading.
Bachelor life, it seemed, had suited Ryan. He had lived a quiet life of minimal friends; quiet nights in with Netflix, for the past two years, ever since he had split with his girlfriend of three years amicably.
She wanted to move to London, he knew his place was in Melbourne, with his family, his minimal friends and the city he had lived in his whole life – Geelong.
The split was hard at first but time worked with him to heal, work too. And now that that was behind him, he had settled into something of a life writing for the town he grew up in.
Ryan turned the corner, passing by the local estate of houses, all carbon copies of each other in neat little rows.
That was when he heard it.
It was manic. Female. Coming from the park before him that separated the rows of house cloning.
Before he could process, he found himself running in the direction of the scream.
He hopped over the log fences that acted as some sort of park decoration – and the scream became louder.
Up ahead he could see two figures, one a lighter colour and one shrouded in the darkness.
“What did I say about making noise, hm?”
It was a male’s voice. Deep. Gruff. Angry.
There was a smacking noise, skin against skin, as Ryan arrived towards the source of the scream.
The woman, dressed in a light blue dress, the lighter colour Ryan saw, was sobbing hysterically, straining to keep her voice quiet so there was no more noise for the man to punish her for.
Ryan felt the man turn to him in the darkness of the evening.
“This doesn’t concern you, mate. Get out of here”
Ryan came to a stop before the man. He couldn’t tell if the man had a weapon in the poor light of the park.
“I said back off, are you fuckin’ deaf?”
It all happened in an instant.
Instincts, you see, are fickle instruments. As Ryan found himself stepping forward in an attempt to calm the man, the man found himself also stepping forward, his blade in his hand.
The effect here was that the reaction, the instinct of the man, was that he felt he was being attacked. His instinct was to attack back.
The knife slid into Ryan’s stomach with ease.
Ryan let out a drawn out wheeze as he felt his stomach was on fire.
Somewhere very far away he heard an agitated voice curse out loud repeatedly.
He felt his legs betray him as he fell to the ground.
There was sobbing in the distance as well, echoing back all around him.
It was deafening.
Something was running down his leg, it felt unpleasant and warm.
Ryan made a mental note to –
There was something comforting about floating through the darkness.
A voice was calling out to him through the darkness.
It was female, sweet and soothing.
Ryan opened his eyes weakly, to the blinding light of his surroundings.
It took him a few seconds for his eyes to adjust. He found himself blinking repeatedly as the voice continued to call his name.
His ears were ringing. They were adjusting to the sound of his surroundings just as his eyes were adjusting to the light.
“You’re okay now. It’s alright but I need you…”
The ringing in his ears drowned out the voice.
Ryan sat up, still blinking. He could sense the light through his closed eyes.
“Easy now” The muffled voice said gently.
Ryan begin to speak but he felt his mouth give way to the delicious idea of sleep.
“You’re disoriented.” The voice answered to him through the darkness. “Can you open your eyes?”
Ryan opened his eyes; feeling like it took all of his strength to do so.
Kneeling before him was a kind face, with soft features. The smile upon it was warm, curved into a half smile.
When Ryan blinked, he saw that the reason why the woman glistened was because she was in a magnificent suit of armour.
The armour covered the woman’s arms, chest and legs in a dazzling mix of the colours silver and gold, with not a scratch to be seen on any part of it.
The woman was bent over Ryan, looking down at him with a look that Ryan perceived to be curiosity.
Her eyes, which darted back and forth to meet Ryan’s gaze, were a faded grey.
She wasn’t wearing a helmet, Ryan noticed as he looked at her, for her light auburn hair was free flowing in the wind.
That was when he noticed the object towering behind her.
Her wings, pure white and stretched out beyond her, from the left side of her body to the right.
They seemed to expand further as he laid eyes upon them.
The woman saw his eyes go wide and went to speak, went to say that everything was okay, that she wasn’t going to hurt him.
Ryan screamed, loud and long.
The woman winced at the noise, a terrible feeling of guilt built up within her as she saw the panic behind Ryan’s eyes.
Ryan finished his scream, sucking in air in huge gasps. Then he fell back, fainting.
The woman sighed, a sigh that was borne out of sadness at frightening him.
“They always scream the first time,” She said to no one in particular.
The first thing that Ryan saw when he came to was the blade of grass scratching against his forehead.
Panic seized him and he jumped upwards, brushing the grass away from him.
He was lying in a field of it, stretching miles out before him.
Ryan’s mind was in a stutter, like a record skipping on the one note. It was trying to make sense of where he was, what happened to him.
He went to feel for his wound and that’s when he realised he was shirtless.
The realisation swept over him like warm water from a shower – he was completely naked. No work uniform, no socks with holes in it that he had to replace.
With a racing mind, he went to sit up but that was a mistake.
His legs wobbled uncontrollably and he fell back on the soft grass below him.
“Don’t move, you’re in shock” Came a voice from behind.
He flinched at the voice, scrambling backwards, his hands clawing at the dirt.
“It’s okay! It’s okay!”
“Get away from me” Ryan found himself saying, as his hands gave way to the ground. He fell backwards, craning his neck.
“I’m not going to hurt you…I’m not..”
The woman came to a kneel in front of him, her face was dirty and glistening with sweat, her eyes fixed on him.
Ryan couldn’t take his eyes off her wings, which to his wonder retracted back under her arms.
His voice, which was low, wavered as he spoke.
The woman’s armour glistened in the sunlight as she watched him for an expression, all the while thinking and hoping that he wouldn’t pass out again.
The thought made something within her stomach knot up.
To her surprise, Ryan laughed. It was strange and unstable to the both of them.
“I’m dreaming. This is…no, I’m dreaming…”
“There’s no easy way to tell you this, Ryan Kennedy, but you’re dead”
The woman, who spoke to Ryan with a voice as smooth as honey, spoke directly, matter-of-factly. And with a straight face.
She didn’t smile. Her face didn’t even threaten to smile, she just watched him closely, unblinking.
Ryan stared at her for a moment, his grin vanishing in light of what she said.
He mulled it over. He thought he must’ve dreamt everything – leaving the store, finding the woman being harassed. He’s probably still back in the backroom, on his break.
Someone’s bound to wake him up for his shift. Jeffery, probably.
He found himself repeating what she was saying to him.
The woman nodded, still looking at him unblinking.
Behind her, her wings expanded outwards again, darkening the two of them in its shadow. They seemed to have a mind of their own, contracting and retracting as if alive.
Chills travelled up Ryan’s arms leaving behind Goosebumps and in that moment, Ryan remembered.
He remembered the taste of blood, the warm uncomfortable feeling.
There was a sinking sensation, like falling into the depths of the Earth.
Like falling asleep.
He looked into the eyes of the woman kneeling before him, her wings blowing gently in the wind.
Her eyes told him everything.
The woman explained everything; answering all of his questions in the same matter-of-factly way she had used to say that he was dead.
His sudden death at the hands of the mugger drove him away from the young woman and into hiding.
The police found him the next day at sunrise, holed up in an abandoned farmhouse just out of town.
The young woman, who was just on a jog that evening, would require months of therapy, the woman had said, but in time she would come to feel normal again, though her jogs now took place during the day and not a night.
Ryan had listened to her tale of how she had witnessed the whole exchanged quietly, feeling as if he wasn’t really; as if none of this was real.
He had died, she had said. So where was he now?
The woman smiled and without saying another word, turned from him and moved through the tree line behind her, disappearing.
Ryan’s legs moved for him and he followed, as if there were a greater force pulling him with her.
He pushed through the trees, ducking under and weaving out of the way of the leaves that threatened to smack back into his face.
After a moment of pushing through the heavy trees, that’s when he saw it.
The woman was standing on the Cliffside, overlooking a vast forest that stretched on for as far as Ryan could see.
The woman explained the reason why she knew all about the events around his death was because she is a Valkyrie, watcher of the battlefield, and minder of the souls.
“You see, Ryan Kennedy, you are in…”
She moved beside him and raised her hand and pointed to the space before her.
Ryan followed where her arm was pointing, coming to rest his upon something that made me stumble backwards in disbelief.
There it was, off in the distance, resting on a Cliffside and surrounded by shimmering bonfires: Valhalla.
Ryan had to squint to get a better look, but it wasn’t good enough. It was too far away.
His legs were shaking, his chest tightening.
Valhalla was surrounded on either side by a forest, richly green, that stretched out far from view.
Valhalla itself looked like something out of a dream – an ancient temple, grey, lit by brilliant fires, stretching against the length of the cliff on either side.
Standing tall before the ancient structure were what looked like from where Ryan stood, for it was hard for him to make out, two statues.
Ryan looked down past Valhalla, past the Cliffside, and into the pit between him and the Valkyrie and ancient structure. He saw the great darkness looking back into him. How far it went, he did not know.
He gazed back at Valhalla and for the longest time, his mind was skipping over the concept again and again, trying to process it.
“You have been chosen, Ryan Kennedy…”
Ryan turned to the woman beside him. “Chosen?”
The woman nodded, smiling.
Ryan found that the smile was enchanting. He hadn’t taken her appearance in too deeply, he suppose that had something to do with the idea that he was dead! But now as the two stood by the cliff side looking at each other, he seemed to see her first time.
She had short auburn hair, styled in the form of an undercut.
Her face, which was regarding Ryan, was twisted into the same crooked smile he woke up to, her light steely eyes searching his for a reaction.
As they stood there in that moment, Ryan noticed markings on her upper arms – little slits where she had been cut that had now scarred.
“Yes. You have been chosen for this place, like the others.”
“Others? You mean my friends and family? They’re here?”
The woman’s smile was gone in an instant.
“I only take those All-father selects himself, as I am his slave.”
She bowed her head and knelt down, extending one out and pointed to the ground with the other arm against her chest, her fist on her chest closed tightly.
“I am sorry.”
Ryan watched the gesture feeling lightheaded. His mind kept coming back to the idea that he was dead, that he could never see his family or friends again.
Not until they died themselves, a thought came out loud and clear.
The idea made him feel sick to the stomach. He fell back against the tree trunk behind him, feeling nauseous.
When the woman rose back to her feet, she smiled at him that same enchanting smile.
The woman bowed her head. “My name is Eira.”
The woman named Eira was still smiling as she extended her hand past him back the way they came.
“Come. There is a spring past the field we arrived in. A bath will do you good. I have some new clothes for you”
This caused Ryan to look down. He had been so caught up in the idea that he was here; in Valhalla – dead – that he completely forgot he was completely naked.
Eira couldn’t hide her smile as she began to walk past him, causing Ryan to duck out of the way of her wings.
Ryan had no choice but to follow her. He still had more questions about his death, about his family, about her.
To Be Continued…
Chapter Two (Or #2) is out April 19th. So if you enjoyed this, know there’s more coming!
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