(Like past Halloween collections (although this one doesn't mention the holiday itself directly), this Codex fic is a small set of stories under the umbrella of a larger one, in this case, stories of Hela's life, and stories of Death Herself. Because of that, these stories talk about issues of death in a relatively frank way. While there is no major gore or violence, or major character death, death is naturally the core topic. Chapter 2 will show Hela at war, though without gore. Chapter 3 will discuss an alien view of assisted suicide.
While the story is ultimately meant to talk about the value of life and change, and is gently written by someone that has Very Frank Issues and fears with the topic herself, please bear in mind your own comfort, and if you ever want someone to talk to, I'm here, and for god's sake, I love you and don't lose yourself to despair.
There is also a less than serious philosophical warning in play as I'm dragging out some of my own fears and using these characters to talk about them, so, yeah.)
The Queen's Gambit: A SHIELD Codex Halloween
I have been for a long time at your side. ~ The Seventh Seal
. . .
1. Final Destination
The desert plains of Helheim were a dusty off-white, a grainy soup filling the cauldrons formed by the black stone mountain ranges that honeycombed the small, mostly empty world. Wind spun the sand up into smooth dunes that recalled echoes of the bodies that fell here - a dune like a shard of hip bone, jutting up against a spearlike scrap of obsidian, there the smooth cabochon of some massive skull. And why not, for that off-white sand was the remains of eons of bones lost in a world too dry and violent for gentler decomposition.
There were oases pockmarking the world, places where water gone red from algae and stagnation were still relatively safe enough for its residents to drink. Too fetid to be miracles, they were better described as places to ensure a life was lived in punishment alone. Mostly it served those hardy, eternal bugs that picked new bones clean, and the worms that burrowed back deep into hidden soil, and tough, cactus-like plants that looked like rotting fingers and flowered only once a century, at deepest night. And one humanoid figure.
It rained only occasionally on Helheim. Its silent Queen had witnessed this three times during her reign thus far. She thought she might finally go mad before the fourth. Hela, the mad queen of Death. It had a certain poetry to it, a finality of self. Certainly there had been those who thought her mad before her exile to this place, her prison, her kingdom, her entire world.
She preferred to stay near what she thought of as the Valkyrian Plains, although to say there was something of nostalgia to this would gain the questioner a hiss and a slap meant to kill. The sand here held bones not yet quite lost to time and predator, and the feathers of long-gone Pegasus cavalry still fluttered dustily in the pits of the stained stones. It made for a fine enough place to consider her throne and palace, a shadow in the lee of a great stone wall where she had long ago taken the bones of some long ago beast and dead man's steel and built herself a shelter to withstand centuries in noble privacy. Its tattered curtains rattled in the rare breeze, and that morning she flung them aside with the same practiced irritation that marked almost every other morning.
There was a bucket in her other hand, hammered together from some ancient Alfheim shield. There was a unicorn painted on it, or had been, once. She barely recalled. Now flecks of white paint threatened to leave as she gripped its haphazardly curled lip. It was a water day, as marked by a mental schedule that kept her busy and sane, and the things that preyed at the nearest oasis knew not to trouble her. She traveled there and back like a machine, knowing the path her boots scuffled through the bone sand would disappear instantly, whether there was wind to stir it or not. It was the way of Helheim, a world meant to be an oubliette. One only went there to forget, or to be forgotten. As all dead things eventually were.
Her magics kept her vital enough, pulling protein from what few things lived there, culling energy from scant light and the other rare things that came there to die. She supposed she was a little like a vampire herself, now, though she thought such undead legends were a monstrous mockery of the perfect silence of death itself. Another crime against her, or better described as punishment. Depending on the point of view, she might haughtily allow.
Anger was her only lasting companion, a seething but consistent shadow that stood closest to her when the veils between the Nine Realms went thin and she saw glimpses of the universe without her. It had been a day like that where she had seen a little boy in the Asgardian woods and did her best to choke the life out of him, magic calling old helpers to her side to frighten and help wound him. She hadn't even fully understood why then, why she'd almost killed what she later realized was another prince to replace her - just that she hated.
She thought of that child's face now and then. It was oddly like hers, and that had helped drive her anger. Pale with grey-green eyes, and under the skin she'd sensed the secret of him. In his terror it had been hard to hide the cold energy that pulsed along his soul, trying to keep him alive. An adoptee, then. Chosen to replace her, and in the distance somewhere was a sleeping boy that looked like what she dreamed Baldur, her lost elder brother, might one day have become.
That had been the worst part of it. Not that the boy was taken from that enemy race, it fit Odin's ridiculous treason against the nature of both father and noble daughter, but that he had finally unseated her so neatly in the family tree. The child had even worn a tunic cut from the dark green Elvish fabrics she'd favored once. She hated him, that little prince, but more than that, she hated Odin for what he'd done to them all. But she spent little time thinking about these greater things, Hela told herself. Odin was not worth the focus.
Of course, that was a lie.
. . .
Hela noticed the unusual shadow out of the corner of her eye, but assumed at first it was some mirage or a flicker from the occasional swarm of bone mites. She had quickly learned to ignore the hope of visitors, for they were always revealed as such lies. Whatever wars had ravaged this world had been long ago. Her exile had been the last such skirmish. Only silence since. Silence and slow death. So she ignored the shape and stepped back into her shelter with that brackish, lukewarm water. Magic would clean it the rest of the way, and she left the bucket aside. Breakfast was next, and she preferred the air for that, if stagnant and old. So she puttered a moment inside and then stepped back out.
She stopped with a cold, calculating frown. The shadow was still there. Stranger than that, the shadow had a person attached to it. She narrowed her eyes, giving the mirage or ghost or hallucination a forbidding stare, willing it to go away.
The figure was humanoid, like her, but smallish and brown skinned and the dark eyes were light and lively. She wore a dark blue wrap over her head in a way that was like nothing Hela had seen before, over a slim black dress that she supposed might be new Asgardian. "Hello," said the shade that was increasingly not an illusion.
Hela regarded the girl. The language was clear enough in her ears, by virtue of magic and the gifts of her birthright, but unusual. She considered what it told her. This was a human, perhaps? Such small and brief creatures had never been of much interest to her. A datapoint in books, as pointless as a children's fable about dancing mice. "You tread in strange and unwelcome lands."
The girl laughed, cheerful and lively. "Oh, Hela. Nothing about this dead and dry land would be strange to me." She cocked her head at the Queen of Helheim, who had once been named for it as a way of placating the dead that had gone before her - Hela, a gift meant for the lost. A superstition that had perhaps painted her future. "Does it not suit you? I wonder, then, what other questions you hold deep inside."
Something tightened in Hela's throat, and she didn't care for the sensation at all. It was not for her to feel fear, and yet something inside her reacted instinctively to the girl. "Who are you?"
"I am Death, Hela." The girl smiled, and Hela wondered if the visitor was mad. Something glinted in those dark eyes, cold and full of something she couldn't recognize, and for another moment, Hela wondered if she could possibly be telling the truth.
The fear threatened her again and she forced it down, summoning her old friend back to her side. She spat her words at the girl, hot. "Death, the child says. I am the Queen of Death, for I am Hela, Queen of Asgard, Queen of Helheim, and I command the living and the damned with a crook of my finger."
The girl looked around them, a bemused expression on her lips. "I see no armies, Hela, and no kingdom that kneels to you, and your command over life and death is currently constrained to a limit of one singular soul." Another quick and cheerful smile. "Which isn't nothing, of course, by rights everyone holds that one and it's worth cherishing."
"You're a madwoman, lost somehow in the currents of the universe, and found your way here to die." Hela sniffed and began to turn away. She would eat inside, after all. "I won't be caring for you. There's food if you can bear it, and water if you can cleanse it. I will not be sharing my shelter. Good luck."
"Oh, I thought it was meant to be your palace. Queens and all."
"If you'd care to mock me, mad girl, I can make your stay on this world vastly more pleasant - by shortening it to seconds." Hela didn't turn around as she made her threat.
"It was not meant as an insult," said the girl, her voice clipping merrily through some unknown accent. "Palaces are what we make of them, and their real treasures we keep close inside. Inside that little lean-to - you did well on it, not that you want my praise - are your memories and dreams, Hela. Your past. Your stories. And your mistakes. I wanted to talk to you about them."
"They're not yours, child. Go away."
"I've never left, Hela. I was with you when you were small." The irreverent voice turned somber and melodic both. "I was there when your whole world was warm and dark, and the last whispers of your brother's soul danced for a while with you. You still dream of him. The prince that never was, not really. Brief lives all, and his, so much briefer than most."
Hela's body had gone stiff despite herself, her hands curled like claws against the scraps of plant matter that passed for a haphazard flatbread. Her voice came out ragged with tangible fury. "Tell me again you do not mock, little thing. Do tell me your lies, please."
"I never lie, young one. Look at me. Look and see."
Hela felt the presence change behind her, felt something great and terrible and final, like a shadow cast across the dark side of some broken moon, and that fear threatened to scrabble against her throat. Again she grasped at her old, angry shade and forced herself to turn, to look at this mad little human child, and she saw.
Oh, gods and stars, she saw.
"I am," said Death, and she was still the smallish human woman, still in a black dress with what Hela did not know was a hijab draped prettily over her brow, but the face, Hela stared, the face was something grand and immortal. In the eyes was the mystery, on the curved, smiling lips was the secret. The light seemed to gleam through the girl's brown skin and for a second Hela saw a wall of skulls, all of whom would never speak of what they knew. Behind that face was the door to eternity, and one hand was raised, as if to beckon her across that final threshold.
For a second Hela saw them. Helheim was a world as if in stasis, and its brief lives were those of worms and bugs and strange, hidden things that lived deep under the bone-sands, but Death was everywhere all at once, and as her hand reached out, millions of souls stretched back to take it. A rush of finality, wrapped around her like a dance of veils, and on that mouth was that smile that said nothing, gave away nothing. What Death knew, said that smile, Hela could never understand.
Fury and fear warred within her, tempered by shame. How could she claim dominion over this? And yet - the hate and anger burned alive within her. "So. Perhaps you are Death, after all," said Hela, curt, as if she had not been staggered to the core of herself.
The presence waned, if slightly. Death searched her face, the eyes human and amused again. "You work to sound unimpressed. Your moment is at hand, Hela. Wouldn't you take this chance to challenge me for the title you believe is due yourself?"
"There's a trap. A ruler who begs and champs for their crown will be no fit ruler."
"I didn't suggest beggary, I suggested that since you have wanted to lay claim to Death's dominion, that you have styled yourself Queen in my name, your time stands before you."
Hela swept a hand to indicate the dead world around them. "A fitting kingdom for a fitting ruler. I am just and merciful here." She smiled without it reaching her eyes. "But the souls of the dead will not come to my hand the way they did yours."
"No, Hela." The voice of Death turned quiet. "You reached out to take them, instead." Death lifted her chin, still engaging in her piercing study of the exile Queen. "Tell me. Is that what you think our role is? The dance of death and nothing more?"
"Ours?" Hela laughed. "Do you tempt me with a shared throne?"
"On the assumption that, as you are now, you would one day attempt to claim it all? Not really. I am playing along, Hela, and you may feel as amused or insulted by that as you see fit." Death's study of her ended, and she looked towards a spire of bone instead, some long ago mystery turned nameless landmark, all but uninterested now. Her voice had taken on an air of coolness. "In the end it wouldn't matter much to me."
"So you came to toy with me." Hela snorted, crossing her arms against herself, her posture one of dismissal. "Have you nothing better to do?"
"I came, young Queen, to ready a debt's payment. To offer a bargain." Death sniffed, mostly to herself. "I pay mine willingly, and this one's been long waiting for its turn. Another such receipt has come due and been paid well, and that is the moment I waited for. To turn an hourglass of my own into motion."
"A debt. To me." Hela sounded disbelieving, ignoring the jibe despite the urge to let that sense of insult strike bone deep. There might be another trap there. One did not play with immortals without care, and Hela, much to her dismay, fully believed the girl now. This was indeed one of those first great eternal forces, there at the birth of this universe, the one who would one day officiate over its disintegration.
Death laughed. "Not to you. I owe you nothing, Hela. I am granting you my time on behalf of another's future. You have not yet earned my kindness. You brought me souls unending, for their loss served your benefit and no other. You acted without thought for life, only death. Is that what Death is to you?
"Think carefully on that question and do not speak an answer yet. The game is at hand, Hela, and you will play a round with me. What will be won is my secret, what will be lost is everything. No debts between us, Hela, but at offering is the bargain. The game, Hela. Will you play, or be played?"
Hela stared at immortal Death, unsure for the first time in a millennia. "And what is our game? I ask the nature of the board and the boundary of its rules before I can answer."
"A game of you, Hela. The game of stories. Tell me yours and I'll tell you mine. The score will be kept by truth, the goal is an understanding. I'll make it fair, Hela. For you to win, I won't ask you to understand the indicia of eternity, the basal nature of my role in the universe. I will grade you on a simpler scale, and I will tell you fairly if you win. It is to my benefit that you win, Hela, even moreso than it is to your own."
Hela shook her head with a bitter laugh. "Immortals speak in riddles but talk about fairness."
"Parse my words as long as you like, they're clear enough with no traps held within them." Death looked around and found a stone to sit on as Hela continued to stare soundlessly at her, her black dress pooling around brown sandaled feet. She clasped her hands on her lap and took a breath. "Once alone I will repeat: We are going to tell each other the story of life, Hela, and about death, and they will be our stories. The game is to try and understand each other. I will understand you, surely, when such few scraps of your tale is told. To win, you will answer my waiting question when I have told you mine. What is death, and Death, to you? The answer you hold now may not be the same answer you give when we are done. Or perhaps it will not change. We will see."
"And to win, you seek the right answer from me."
"No, I seek a truthful one. The difference is slight but crucial. Perhaps you will understand when our cards are laid bare on the table." Death's smile returned, faint but genuine. "For my sake, you'd better."
"Then I've no choice but to play along." Hela still didn't move, didn't look to take a seat of her own. Her meal went forgotten. "You want a tale from me, then."
"I do." Death smiled. "Begin at the beginning. Or the end. Or at the place that is both."
"Is it?" Death cocked her head. "Interesting that you think so." She gestured to another rock formation nearby, this one worn smooth along its top. Hela's throne, there to study distant stars faded by the eternally gloomy skies. After a moment, Hela claimed it. Her eyes never left Death's.
"Let us begin," said Death. "The board is yours."