It was supposed to be a milk run.
Eric had known that something was wrong, of course. When the village of Scarsgrove – named for the blasted trees that surrounded it, survivors of a magical duel at the time of its founding – had stopped sending messengers or traders to its neighbors, there had naturally been worry. The first supply run had contained essentials and soldiers, but the report back revealed that the citizens of the village had turned cold towards outsiders, harsh of speech and short on welcome.
The second supply run hadn’t come back.
Eric was an old hand at danger. As a youth he’d adventured for fame and profit; now as a musher he still faced danger every day, with his dogs and his partners beside him. His official duty was to bring in a load of furs, firewood, and essential supplies to Scarsgrove; his unofficial one was to investigate the village and discern the reason for their sudden shift in behavior. It was thirty miles from Axeheim to Scarsgrove, a well-known route with few complications and no known monsters. A milk run.
Five sleds, carrying fifteen men and pulled by forty dogs, none of them new to the business, but from the onset of their trip there was an uneasiness in Eric’s team. Guns were kept at the ready, and as they drew closer to Scarsgrove the sensation of being watched crept in around the edges of their perception. More than one small animal lost its life to the mounting paranoia of the mushers, shot for the crime of moving in their peripheral or bursting from the snow at the wrong moment.
Only a mile out from their destination, they came upon the bodies.
The sled path was strewn with them, each humanoid corpse almost perfectly preserved by the cold. Many had their hands outstretched, as if pleading for mercy or aid, and all had been savaged by deep bite marks that marred their armor or faces. All had obviously died in pain; one of his men caught sight of a body with its cheek laid open to the teeth and had to turn away, lest he vomit. The dogs whined low in their throats and shied back from the dead.
Eric took a hand axe and his rifle from the side of his sled and stepped off into the snow. “We should leave a marker, come back with the tools to give these poor bastards a proper burial.”
“What did in for them?” Signe – Eric’s most senior partner, and a mid-ranking priestess in service to Ullr – asked. “These bite marks look almost human, but look how they shear through metal. Vampire, maybe? They get sloppy when they’re mad.”
“What I don’t get,” a man inspecting the bodies said, with a small frown, “is how they got this buried when it hasn’t snowed in three days.”
A single, crystal-clear bell note split the air, silvery and sweet.
Then the illusion faded away in strips. The corpses – far more of them than had been visible beneath the false snow – jumped to their feet with feral snarls, lunging for the warmth of the living. Eric cursed and smashed one aside with the butt of his rifle before tossing the unloaded weapon aside. The undead creature went staggering away with its jaw broken.
The single bell note was soon followed by many more, a chorus of melodious notes like a Yuletide carol. Eric looked around frantically for the musician, trying to ignore the desperate struggles of his men and dogs against the horde of corpses, and saw her, not ten feet from him.
She walked towards him without hurry or comment, a half-elven beauty with white hair that framed a solemn face. She wore tough winter clothes over some kind of armor – chain, Eric guessed – with a red, hooded cloak trimmed in white fur. Her black boots stepped on top of the snow without sinking in or leaving a trail, and in her hands were silver bells that danced and swung to her tune, their notes floating across the battlefield and cutting through the din of death and agony.
She tipped a sideways smile at Eric and flicked the bell in her left hand. A greataxe of red and green energy shimmered into being at her knee height, floating and dancing to the music. Eric pulled a round shield from the side of his sled, thrust his arm through the straps, and touched the hammer pendant at his neck.
The half-elf stopped her advance, her body cocked at an angle and her lips still curled in her sideways smile. “I think I like you,” she said softly, her voice almost as musical as her bells. “Are you prepared to feast at Odin’s table, son of the north?”
Behind Eric, Signe raised her voice to cast a spell, only to be tackled from behind. The ghoul tore her throat out with both claws, leaving the priestess to choke to death in a pool of her own blood and snow. Eric winced and turned to face his opponent. “Gods willing, yes,” the warrior replied, his voice tight. “Who should I say sent me?”
“They call me Mistletoe,” the half-elf answered, with a touch to the mistletoe brooch that fastened her red cloak. “The Giant’s Daughter. Shall we dance?”
Eric answered with a charge, his boots giving him traction on the hard-packed snow. As he expected, the phantasmal greataxe rose and slammed down on his shield, but he spun with the momentum and chopped at the half-breed behind it – only to find that she’d anticipated him, moving with him in a whirl that ended with the two on opposite sides from where they’d started. Mistletoe’s bells rang out sweetly, their song quickening, and the axe that did their bidding followed. Eric hopped over a sweeping slash and parried the weapon’s phantasmal haft when it came for his face.
He could see his men being dragged down by the dead, bitten and hog-tied. They screamed in agony as blackened, diseased teeth pierced their flesh and let out their life’s blood.
“Ghouls,” he whispered, and Mistletoe’s smile broadened.
“Don’t look for them in Valhalla,” the half-elf sang sweetly, her axe driving Eric back with savage blows. “They won’t die in battle. They all beg for mercy, in the end. They all die cowards.”
Eric’s answer was a wordless yell; the warrior launched himself at Mistletoe in a storm of savage chops and swinging shield bashes. Mistletoe danced away from his fury, laughing like a child at play, and beckoned him onward with her bells. With a roar, Eric lunged forward –
And Mistletoe whirled out of his vision. It was only a moment, a split second in which she’d been in his sight and then past his peripheral, but a moment was enough. The blade that bit through his armor and clove deep into Eric’s spine certainly felt like steel.
“Death rages, son of the north,” Mistletoe teased affectionately. “Believe it or not, you almost had me. You can die with honor.”
Mistletoe stomped on the back of the axe, driving it in deeper. “But not with dignity.” She raised her voice, addressing the ghouls around her. “Let this one rot before you eat him. Scatter what’s left when you’re done.”
“What of Scarsgrove?” one of the ghouls asked, while others dragged away Eric’s corpse. A pair of bell notes sent the greataxe back to the nothing from whence it came. Mistletoe placed them, lovingly, into their bandolier alongside the rest of the set before she shrugged.
“What of it? They think they’ll be spared in exchange for acting as the bait for our little trap.”
“And when they are not?” the ghoul pressed.
“It will be difficult to fight back,” Mistletoe opined, “as I’ve already tainted their well with the ghoul fever. The first of them should start turning soon.”
The undead cannibal stared in awe as Mistletoe laced her fingers behind her head and walked casually towards the captives, her cheerful smile containing absolutely no warmth whatsoever.
“Let me tell you,” the Giant’s Daughter said sweetly, “about Lady Hel.”