12 - Alone

When Peter returned to the table with two cups in his hand, I started to explain what I’d read. “Odin is always looking for wisdom, so he drags this woman up from the dead to tell him what she knows.  She’s an ice giant and a powerful volva, which means a witch or a sorceress. Odin is magically compelling her to prophesize for him.”

Peter put the coffee on the table and leaned over the manuscript . “He brings her back from the dead? Does it say how?”

I shrugged. “No, but it’s not really like that. She’s still dead; he just can make her talk to him because he’s a god. The poem is mostly dialogue. See?” I pointed to what I had written on notebook paper.

 

“Wanderer, you want me to whisper

Of nine worlds, the nine of the tree

But I am corpse-hungry, hollow from death,

Brittle, worm-eaten. What can you offer?”

Peter read the lines out and shook his head. “This isn’t really what I’m looking for. Can you skip ahead? What about this section here?” He flipped a few pages in the binder and turned it to face me.

I scanned the passage while sipping coffee. “Well, the poem describes each of the nine worlds and how they are connected to the world tree. This is from a section about Muspellheim, the world of fire.”

Peter continued turning pages. “That’s not right either. Maybe we should try a different poem.”

I took the binder from him, leaving it open on a photo of a carved runestone. I pointed to the etching in the center of the stone: a depiction of the goddess Freya transforming into a hawk.  “You asked for descriptions of worlds and transformations. Is that not what you want? Maybe it would help if you told me more about what you’re really looking for.”

Peter sighed and bent over, unearthing two more binders from his backpack and dropping them heavily on the table. Then he just looked at me, his shoulders slumped, eyes red-rimmed. “I don’t totally know what I’m looking for,” he admitted. He massaged his temples with his fingers for a moment before glancing up again, his jaw set. “Duncan was studying linguistics with a focus in Old Norse and Old English, so most of the papers I found in his apartment had to do with that, but there was also research into Chinese folktales and I don’t get why. I want to find the connection. So I’m looking for references to China in ancient Scandinavian literature and I’m also looking for whatever you can find about portals, you know, like doors between worlds.”

I stared at him. “You’re looking for references to Chinese portals specifically? In these sagas?” It couldn’t be a coincidence.

Peter misinterpreted my shock. “I know it sounds crazy, but the Vikings traveled all over the place, right? Don’t you think the two cultures could have influenced each other a little?”

I drank the last of my coffee. “I’m going to get a refill. Do you want one?”

I returned to the table with more coffee and something called a gluten free rustic orange torte, which I had pointed to at random but which melted in my mouth, crumbly and bittersweet. Chewing gave me another few seconds to think before picking up the thread of the conversation. “It’s true there was a lot more trade and communication between ancient cultures than people think. There definitely could be something in here. I’ll take a look." I swallowed and stared into my cup before looking up and asking, “Why doors between worlds? Is that a theme you have found in Duncan’s research?”

Peter’s mouth twisted and he appeared to be thinking hard. “Yeah,” he finally said. “There are a lot of myths where people travel from one world to another, like when Freya visits the dwarves to get the necklace Brisingamen or when Loki and Thor go to the land of the giants. But just crossing into a new world isn’t enough. How do they know where to go once they get there?”

I shrugged. “They’re gods. They figure it out.” I watched him silently, trying to focus on the spaces between his words. Whatever he wasn’t saying loomed between us. I ate another bite of cake, washed it down with coffee, and waited for him to explain more.

Instead, he handed me another binder. “I appreciate the help.”

As I thumbed through the carefully laminated pages, I realized this would require patience. But I had a goal now: to draw Peter out, to discover his connection to the Yaoguai, and, if necessary, to obtain his help in stopping it.

It helped to have a goal, but, much as I tried to focus on the mystery surrounding Peter, my thoughts kept circling back to my own quest. I walked slowly over the dunes along Great Highway, passing surfers with their boards and couples on blankets and in each face seeing only the horror of the ghosts I had left in the Valhalla forest. I had never heard of souls who arrived in Valhalla but did not want to be there. Collecting them, I had felt the same thrill that always sparked in the back of my throat when I encountered new warriors, yet these had been too faint-hearted even to enter the battlefield.  

My hands deep in the pockets of my vest, I scuffed my feet through the sand, kicking it up in furrows. Would Odin still weigh the Einherjar against my curse if they refused to join his army? And how could I retain my honor collecting such soldiers? If I brought Odin inferior warriors, I would be failing in my duty to the gods. If I transported souls to a place they despised, I neglected my duty to the dead. In that moment, I burned to leave this strange, loud world, wanted nothing more than to sleep in my own bed with Volund’s solid, comforting frame beside me. To return to my own country where the smells of copper, iron, and peat lingered in the chilly mist, where the screeches in the air came from birds instead of machines, and where the tools made sense, smelted from leather and steel. I missed it with my whole body: Valhalla, my cold, bloody, perfect home.

My phone buzzed: a message from Octavia. Hey Sigrid! I’m back, and I guess I forgot the address to your bar because I can’t find it! I must be going crazy! I was gonna surprise you, are you at work rn?

The message sent a thrill into my chest and I found myself smiling despite my sadness. I responded with one of the abbreviations Yixin had taught me, OMW, and took off toward Eikthyrnr.

Ten minutes later, we were running into each other’s arms. For a long moment, we held each other. I felt her relax into the embrace. Her chin rested on my shoulder, and her shoulders shook gently. When she looked up, her face was streaked with tears.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m crying.” Octavia laughed a little brokenly. “It’s just good to see you, and I guess I was holding a lot in. It was a weird Christmas. I don’t usually cry like this! Ok, to be honest, I’ve always been a crier. I cry every time I watch The Lion King. I even cried reading Oedipus Rex in college.”

I took her arm and led her out of the Sunset District’s usual chilly fog and into the bar. “Can I get you something? Want to hang out on the roof again?”

She shrugged. “Water’s fine. Let’s just sit at a table; it’s cold out.” She looked back at the door and added, “I can’t believe this place was right here and I didn’t see it.”

“The sign’s kind of hard to see.” I took a pair of mugs from behind the bar and turned to my row of taps. “Are you sure you want water? You should try one of these folk beers.”

After we had comfortably ensconced ourselves on one side of a booth, I turned to Octavia. “Do you want to tell me about your Christmas? Was it weird because you missed your mother?”

Octavia sat slightly hunched into herself, her thin shoulders bent as she stared into her mug, her brown hair curtaining her face so that I could barely see her eyes. “Yeah. I can’t decide if it would have been better or worse for us all to have just acknowledged it instead of trying so frantically to pretend everything was normal.”

We sat in silence for a few moments. “What would have acknowledged it?”

“I don’t know.” She sipped her beer before adding, “Maybe just saying, ‘screw it, this sucks and we’re sad?’ It would still suck, but it’s just so exhausting to put on a brave face all the time. It’s like none of us are allowed to have emotions because we don’t want to upset anyone else, but then we’re all alone in the same house.” She leaned against me in the booth and I put my arm around her, basking in the warmth of her body. “Do you ever feel that way around your family?”

I thought about my family. It was like trying to recall a half-remembered dream. Had I ever felt alone in my own house? The longhouse of my childhood had been full of people: the master and the mistress of the house, my own parents and siblings, and everyone who worked on the farm or returned from the spring voyages. The smoke and noise had been as cacophonous as in Valhalla, and my days had been packed with chores and training. I never had a moment quiet enough for loneliness.

In Valhalla, though, as autumn became endless, as we hacked our way through the same opponents day after day and no one else seemed to notice how little was changing, I had begun to feel alone.

So I nodded and tightened my arms around her as she snuggled into me, the wooden bench cool against my back. “Yes. I know how it feels when there’s something terribly wrong, and no one seems to realize it but you. Or the feeling that somewhere down the line everyone made a pact not to talk about what’s important. When you feel that even acknowledging the problem would somehow be creating a bigger one.”

“And that one would be your fault,” Octavia muttered. She cleared her throat and added, “I know…I know talking about it won’t bring mom back or fill the house with her laughter or bring back her stupid Christmas donut recipe. But at least I’d feel less alone about it. Fuck, Sigrid, I feel like I’ve lost the rest of my family too, sometimes. We’re all shouting into the void.”

I didn’t know what to say. She sniffed, wiping her eyes on her sleeve. “It’s nice to see you again. Sorry I’m being such a bummer.”

“I don’t mind.” I hugged her and we sat in silence, sipping our beers. “I did have a question for you, though, if you want to talk about something else.”

“Sure, what’s up?”

“It’s about my character. Well, not exactly about my character, more about Valkyries in general. Well, more about Valhalla.” I was stumbling. How could I explain what had happened with the ghosts without explaining anything else?

Octavia chuckled. “Spit it out, girl. What’s on your mind?”

I took a breath. “Would you want to go to Valhalla?” I stared straight ahead, afraid to hear the answer.

“What, you mean like if I died on a battlefield?”

“Yeah. Or however you died, actually. If you died and you had the choice to go to Valhalla, would you go?”

“What would my other choices be? Purgatory, Norse Hel, Christian Heaven? Is reincarnation an option? Would my ancestors be there?”

I almost laughed. “I can see why you’re friends with Peter.”

I could hear the smile in her voice as she said, “Yeah, me and Grasshopper do like our research. So?”

“Your ancestors probably aren’t there, and you don’t know what your other options are. You have to choose: Valhalla or the unknown.”

“Then most likely, no. I would choose the unknown.”

“Why? Why would anyone refuse to go to Valhalla?”

Octavia put her feet up on the seat and snuggled deeper into my arms. “Well, think about it. Valhalla is supposed to be paradise, right? But it’s only paradise for a very specific culture. If I’d been raised in a warrior society to believe there was no greater honor than fighting, I would probably be stoked about fighting and drinking for eternity. But this is the 21st century and even soldiers know that war sucks. Violence is fucking traumatic, dude. If I died violently, I would want to go somewhere peaceful where I could heal, not to another battlefield to collect more wounds.”

“But the violence in Valhalla isn’t traumatic!” I protested, “The violence in Valhalla is like a game: you can’t die and you can’t even really get injured. It’s supposed to be fun and challenging. It’s rewarding because you get better at it. And it isn’t only fighting and drinking: there’s good food, there’s poetry, there’s even music.”

“Hey, calm down.” Octavia sat up, twisting to look me in the face. “Hey.” Her voice was gentle. “You’re really upset about this, aren’t you?”

I shrugged.

She took my hand and turned it over, tracing the lines of my palm with her thumb. “It’s ok to want to fight,” she told me. “You’re angry. You want to throw yourself into battle. That’s ok. But not everyone is going to be like that.” She held my gaze, her brown eyes warm. “There’s courage in refusing to fight, too, Sigrid. There’s honor in respecting that not everyone wants what you want.”

“I don’t know if I can respect it, though,” I realized.

“You can.” She leaned forward and kissed me.

11 - One-Way Door

After Fergus had paid our bill, after we’d taken the trap door back downstairs and, on Sam’s insistence, left the speakeasy through the lady’s tunnel, we wandered up Jones street and joined Clementine and John Henry at a quiet dive bar where dollar bills plastered the walls and a bare-breasted woman presided from a picture frame over the bar. As Clementine, John, and their friend Mary Ellen started a game of pool, Fergus and I matched each other drink for drink. 

“You’re never going to beat me,” I announced, slamming my empty glass on the table. “Alcohol brings me strength!”

He leaned over the table and laughed. “I’m a spirit of booze, darling. I’m just getting started.”

As we moved on toward the next bar, a 1930s themed cocktail lounge that Sam insisted we would love, I began to beam with feelings of joy and power. “Check out how much I can lift,” I bragged to my friends. “John Henry, you’re pretty heavy, right? Let me carry you!”

John Henry chuckled, a deep rumble in his chest. “I’m not letting you do that out here on the street, you idiot.”

“Oh come on!” I veered toward him and lifted him without warning, staggering slightly under his huge, muscled frame. “Clementine! Mary Ellen! Jump on, civilians!”

Clementine was choking with laughter, leaning on Mary Ellen as John Henry squirmed. “Let me down!”

“Oh my God,” Mary Ellen’s voice was light and genteel, her pronunciation as sharp as Sam’s. “What on earth happened to the whole SFAIS protocol of secrecy? Are we all showing off our skills now?” She grinned at us, looked around swiftly, then stepped directly through the nearest telephone pole. “Look, no hands!”

Fergus kicked me gently in the shin. “Let ‘im down, you goon.”

I stumbled as I put John Henry back on the sidewalk, nearly tripping over a prone form lying on the concrete. I stopped and looked closer: the man had his eyes closed, and his beard was matted and tangled over grey-tinged skin. As I watched, his body began to blur at the edges. I stood up. “This man is dying,” I said.

Mary Ellen knelt beside him and gently felt for a pulse. “On the contrary,” she said, her voice calm, “The man is dead.”

I looked again and saw that it was true: the man’s spirit had begun to sit up independently of his body. My heart leaped. What battle had he been fighting? Had he lost to dope, as Rufus had? I waited for the street to fade around me, but nothing changed. The dead man stood up slowly and disappeared.

Fergus touched my elbow. “That man’s not yours, is he.” he said quietly.

I faded partially into the Otherworld and looked around in a full circle, unwilling to acknowledge it.

“He’ll be long gone by now.” Sam’s voice slithered over my shoulder.

I turned. In the Otherworld, he appeared to exist only as his shadow. I glanced down at where the outline of his hat spilled across my foot and onto the pavement. “How do you know?”

“I’ve followed folks into the Shadow Land before.” His disembodied voice, suddenly somber, floated eerily in the air behind me. “It never ends well.”

“Sigrid!” I felt someone shake my arm and returned to reality to find Fergus glaring. “You went transparent.” He turned and glared at all of us as Sam reappeared sheepishly in the shadow of a streetlamp. “I know it’s Christmas Eve, and I know it’s the middle of the night, but we have these rules for a reason! Do you want to spend all of tomorrow wiping minds, erasing smartphones, and explaining to Toci that you’ve caused yet another situation?”

“Calm down, Fergus,” Mary Ellen’s voice was flinty. “We’re just having a bit of fun. No one saw anything, and if someone had, we would have taken care of it.”

Fergus’s face grew even redder. “Don’t tell me to calm down, Mistress Pleasant! Just because half of San Francisco knows about you doesn’t mean you have the right to blow everyone else’s cover.”

I gaped at them. “Do none of you care that you just witnessed a man die?”

Clementine threw up her arms, her white shirt glowing in the headlamps of a passing car. “Stop. This conversation is on hold. If you two are going to fight about each other’s legends, we need to get to the next bar and do this with a drink in our hands.” She turned to me where I crouched over the body, searching the man’s face. It was blank, nameless. “Sigrid, don’t worry about him. He’s mortal. It had to happen some time.”

A chime from my phone distracted me from answering, though I don’t know what I would have said. I had two messages. “Yixin just wrote that she’s at a bar called Bow Bow and the singing is especially good tonight,” I announced instead.

As we continued down the street, I checked my other message: a response from Octavia. Thanks. Merry Christmas to you, too! It’s kind of weird since it’s the first Xmas w/o my mom, but we’re all together which I guess is good. Plus my dad and my abuela have been cooking nonstop so I’m constantly eating and also drunk, which helps. How’s yours?

I’d forgotten how recently her mother had died. She would have to be strong this Christmas to help her family through that grief. Strong like her mother had been, like she had said all cancer patients had to be.

I almost stopped walking in the middle of the street.

Of course. The hospital. The oncology department. How could I have forgotten her advice to my “Valkyrie character”? Had I been that lost in those sparkling, ale-colored eyes?

I nodded with fresh determination as I hurried down the street to catch up with my friends. I had a new plan for the next day. For that night, however, the future was simple: drink Fergus under the table and sing as raucously with Yixin as the merriest berserkers in Odin’s hall.

*

12 hours later, I walked down a wide white hallway, inhaling the scent of death. In rooms and behind curtains, patients slept, visited with family, watched television or read. Some spoke with doctors. There was a fierceness in the air alongside the smells of blood and disinfectant, an anger that only added to the sense of urgency as professionals rushed back and forth, checking machines and bags of liquid. I felt it as I walked faster with no clear destination. My wings, safely hidden in the Otherworld, felt heavy with dread, and I had to pull them forward as if through heavy branches. I didn’t notice quite how hard I’d been pulling until I gave a great yank and felt a pressure suddenly give way. I stopped, startled, and looked around for a place to hide, my gaze catching on an unused cart in the corner. I ducked behind it, eyes on the corridor, and pulled myself fully into the Otherworld.

This version of the hospital had dingier floors and narrow corridors bereft of machines and wall decorations. Most startling, however, were the people.

The hall was packed with ghosts. A few had arms out in supplication. A few had feathers caught in their hands. At the same moment that I realized they had been pulling on my wings, I also wondered: Were these my Einherjar? Had Octavia been right?

The ghosts seemed as surprised to see me as I was to be facing them. They shuffled silently backwards, and I carefully furled my wings, checking briefly that my spear and wing-sheath were intact.

It occurred to me that I should have expected this. I’d been comparing the hospital to a battlefield since I’d arrived, and a battlefield neglected by Valkyries always has its fair share of spirits. I surveyed the ones before me: barefoot and in socks, with disheveled hair and sunken eyes, old and young. The group included no children, for which I felt grateful. I did not intend to take any child to Valhalla.

The spirits shuffled and whispered among themselves before pushing a stocky woman to the front of the group. Despite the frost threading her hair, her face had few lines, and her eyes blazed like the reflection of sun on a black sea.  She straightened her spine and looked me up and down: my modern clothes, my wings, my spear, and my elaborately braided hair. “Are you an angel, come to free us?”

I shook my head. “I’m a Valkyrie, sent by the old gods of Scandinavia. I am here to collect those of you who died fighting and take you to Valhalla, should you wish to go.” I held out my hand and clasped the woman gently on the shoulder.

She shuddered at the touch but then leaned into it as if starved for contact. “What is Valhalla?” she asked.

“It’s where Odin, the chieftain of the gods, trains his army for the end of days. It’s an afterlife of fighting, drinking, and honing your warrior spirit.” I spread my wings and stared each of them in the eyes, hoping it would make me seem grand and mysterious. “Well?”

The ghosts burst into a cacophony of questions and whispers. “What about loving? Is there love in this world too? I want peace, not war,” called a long-haired, bearded man whose guitar was still hanging from his shoulder.

“This sounds like pagan nonsense. The devil’s in it, and no mistake!” A woman with severely tied-back hair muttered.

Two emaciated young men stepped forward, one dark-skinned and long-haired, the other pale and bald. They held hands, their knuckles huge against their thin fingers. “We’d like to come. We’ll fight for you, if we can go there together. If our love is respected in Valhalla.”

I nodded, knowing their names as I saw the warrior spirit bloom in their faces. “Alexander, Mateo, welcome. I know you died fighting, and that before your deaths you fought for love. Valhalla would be honored to have you.”

The two of them smiled, still clutching each other’s hands for support. “Anyone else?” I asked.

In the end, I took ten of them to Valhalla. In addition to Alexander, Mateo, and the woman I’d first spoken to, I collected a young woman in a blood-soaked hospital gown, a drawn-looking man in modern clothes, two ragged looking gold miners, two black-haired men with terrible injuries, and a frail woman whose face looked like it had been wiped off and redrawn with paint.

*

I had not carried so many souls at one time since my youngest years as a Valkyrie, and, like I had in those earliest days, I staggered heavily across the moss at the edge of Valhalla, grabbing a tree for balance. My charges seemed to manage slightly better: several of them landed almost gracefully. The frail woman, Agatha, crouched to touch the mossy ground in wonder. The others took a few careful steps, gazing at the trees and the mist drifting past their knees.

“It’s beautiful,” whispered Olivia, the stocky woman. Her curly hair drifted gently in the breeze as she reached down and gathered a handful of pine needles and ash leaves, bringing them to her face.

As Lee Shao, one of the injured men, turned to inspect the area, his arm untwisted with a jerk. He gasped in pain and gingerly reached for the back of his head where skin had begun to knit itself closed over a hole in his skull.

The spirits examined each other in wonder. Alexander and Mateo stood straighter; they’d filled out and their heads no longer looked too big for their bodies. The young woman in the bloody gown felt her abdomen and legs carefully, a smile blossoming on her face. She did a little jump, then twirled and held out her hand to Hong, the younger injured man. Though his arm was still missing, he no longer limped, and his torso showed smooth skin underneath his torn shirt. He took her hand and spun her, laughing. For a moment, the whole group reveled in their strong, energetic bodies and the sudden release of pain.

The sounds of the battle magnified as we emerged from the forest until we stood at the very edge of the battlefield. I took a moment to soak in the glorious slaughter: the comforting smells of iron and blood, the carefully orchestrated chaos of the fight. Instead of a free-for-all, the Einherjar had formed two opposing armies, and one army had begun to retreat toward the trees, inching the battle closer to my little group.

I heard a whimper and turned to see all ten ghosts huddling together at the edge of the trees, their faces slack with horror. Alexander, white-faced, bent over Mateo, who vomited into the heather. The man in modern clothes put his arm around Agatha, who was shaking violently. The rest of the group backed carefully away from the fighting. After a quiet, hurried discussion, Olivia beckoned me toward them.

“We want to leave,” she whispered, her voice strained. “This isn’t the right place for any of us. It’s too violent.” The others nodded.

I shook my head, shocked. Who would want to leave Valhalla? Couldn’t they feel the excitement in the air? Didn’t the blood and madness make them feel alive? “I can’t,” I told them. “This is your afterlife.”

The girl in the bloody gown touched my arm lightly, and I peered into her eyes to see her name. Lucy. “It’s ok if you can’t take us to heaven,” she whispered. “Just take us back to San Francisco. We’ll haunt the hospital again. Just take us back. Please.”

I kept shaking my head. “I can’t. No one leaves Valhalla. There’s nothing I can do about it.”

Mateo wiped his mouth. “You left, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, just take us out the way we came in. We ain’t even properly arrived yet,” said one of the ragged-looking gold miners.

“Tom’s right. No one saw us. No one’ll ever know,” his friend added. Both miners seemed calmer than the other ghosts; perhaps they were more accustomed to violence.

Hong nodded in agreement. “This is no place for young girls,” he said, his arm around Lucy. “At least let Lucy and Agatha go.”

“I wouldn’t be any help to you, anyway,” said Olivia. “I’ve never been in a fight in my life. You can’t possibly expect me to start hacking people to pieces. It’s absurd.”

I stood silently, arms crossed, waiting for them to have their say. After they had all voiced their complaints, I spoke. “I’m the only person who has left Valhalla in over a thousand years, and I don’t have any control over it. I couldn’t take you away from here if I wanted to. I’m sorry. I thought you had the warrior spirit. Valhalla accepted you, so you will learn to fight. You will come to enjoy it, in time. I promise.”

“No.” Olivia spoke with a quiet finality. “You can keep us here, perhaps. But I won’t fight for you.” The others gathered closely around her, facing me as a united group.

I threw up my hands. “Fine. Stay in the forest. Refuse to fight. Dinner’s at sunset. You can try going to the hall to see if they’ll waste the meat of Saehrimnir on cowards.” I stalked away, spear unsheathed, aching to release my frustration on the battlefield.

*

Hours later, I sat in a San Francisco coffee shop with a hot mug in my hands, remembering the afternoon’s battle. Peter interrupted my thoughts when he stalked past the self-serve area and dumped his backpack onto the table. I raised my coffee in greeting.

“Hi. Thanks for coming.” He shuffled around in his bag and pulled out a notebook filled with documents; as he flipped through it I could see that some of the papers were each encased in a clear, hard material, presumably for protection. Finally, he found the page he wanted and pushed it across the table at me. “How would you translate this?”

I glanced over the page then read it more slowly. It felt odd, almost unreal, to read my native language, the language of Valhalla, in this incongruous setting. The words settled themselves in my brain, but I found myself actively unable to rethink them in English despite the knowledge of English that Odin had given me. Instead, I read them aloud in the original Norse. Peter leaned over the table to hear.

“It’s a contest between Odin, the chief of the gods, and a giant to see who is wiser,” I explained when I had finished.  “Such contests were quite common back then, especially between gods. If you like, I can take it home and translate it properly.”

“I’d rather talk about it here,” Peter moved his bag off the table to clear space. “Translation is a really subjective art. I’d like to you to tell me when there’s more than one way of translating a word, and how you decide to choose.”

I shrugged. “That’s fine, but we might be here a long time. What exactly are you looking for?”

“Specifically, references to different worlds.” He leafed through the binder, his shoulders hunched. “Like here, in this Chinese folktale, when the man stumbles into a house full of ghosts and then when he goes back, everything’s gone. Transformations like that.”

“Huh.” I returned to the Norse pages, looking over it again. “Maybe you should show me some more examples, or I could just explain this to you word by word and you can tell me what jumps out.”

Peter nodded, his mouth quirking into an almost-smile before falling back into its usual morose expression. “I’ll get more coffee and we can get started.”

10 - Christmas Cocktails

“And you’re sure it’s a Yaoguai?” Toci’s voice was crisp, but the look she gave John Henry and me, mouth pursed and brows furrowed, radiated concern.

       John Henry nodded and gestured toward the large screen on which we could see a picture of the portal. In the searing light of his camera’s flash, the white symbols stood out starkly against the wood fence and the gaping black maw leading to the Otherworld. “As you can see,” John Henry continued, “someone made this gate by writing a bunch of Chinese characters around it in chalk and invoking some kind of magic. It looks just like those gates the Yaoguai left layin’ around last year, right? Like it could even be the same one.”

       Yixin looked pale. “It can’t be.” It came out too loud in the quiet conference room. She swallowed and, seeing everyone looking at her, continued, “We took care of that spider Yaoguai last year; she’s definitely dead. Clementine and I both saw it.”

       “Could this one be connected to the Spider somehow?” Clementine asked. “Maybe it learned magic from her or they both gained their powers from the same place.”

       “That’s possible,” admitted Yixin.

       “But bad,” added Toci, “because that would imply that whatever created the Spider is still out there and continuing to create monsters. Yixin, you told us last year that it was a fluke circumstance, but it looks like we’re going to need to reopen this case.”

       Coyote stood up and ambled toward the laptop in the front of the room. He bent over it and the screen changed to show a photograph of a different gate. Although this one was smaller and appeared on the painted wall of an alley, it also had the characters, chalk lines, and swirling black void. When the two images were placed side by side, the similarities were unmistakable.

       Coyote brought up a third picture. This one had been taken in daylight, and depicted a gate on the yellow wall of a house. Instead of a black void, a misty, marsh-like shore glinted through the hole. A distant figure in what looked like a blue uniform stood alone among the scattered brush. I leaned forward, fascinated.

       “This is our worst case scenario,” Coyote explained. “When gates are left open like this in the daylight, it’s actually possible to see the Shadow Land from this world, which makes mortals much more likely to investigate. At night, the lights shining through from this world can also tempt Shadow Land creatures through the gate, but that is less common because it’s relatively sparsely populated.”

       “The pixies at the shipyard said they would spread the word down to Bayshore and Candlestick and up the Embarcadero. They’ll alert us to any more gates left open,” John Henry added in his rumbling voice, “But with only one example, we can’t be sure if this Yaoguai is operating along the bay or if this gate was an anomaly.”

       Toci sighed. “So, you are telling me that we will have to do a thorough search of the city. Then we will do that. We will double patrols. I want every patrol team to have at least one member who knows how to close these gates. That would be Yixin, Sigrid, Coyote, and me. Fergus, Clementine, and John Henry, you will have to partner up with one of us for the moment. I’ll go to San Bruno Mountain and talk to Naigu, and we’ll also alert the little folk in our respective areas. Clementine, will you inform the Telegraph Hill fairies?”

       Clementine nodded vigorously, shaking her mass of orange curls.

       “Excellent. Yixin will send out an email with the new patrol schedules. In the meantime, Feliz Navidad, everybody!”

       As everyone began to move to the door, Fergus gave me a nudge and offered his flask. I grinned and took a sip as he asked “What are you planning to do on your first Christmas in the city, Sigrid Spearthrower?”

       I shrugged. “I am pretty confused about this holiday, actually. People are saying it marks the birth of Jesus, but the celebrations are very similar to Jul, which is what we had back in Gotland in midwinter. But it also isn’t winter! In fact, I meant to ask you about that, too, because I have never seen such a long autumn as this.” Except in Valhalla, I added silently, and felt a shiver of fear. Had I brought the endless autumn with me?

       Fergus laughed. “You’re not the only one to wonder about that! Let me assure you, first of all, that it is indeed winter. In this climate, winter and fall feel almost the same. In the winter we usually get more rain, but because of the drought there hasn’t been as much this year. And before you ask, spring and summer in San Francisco also feel like fall.”

       I sighed, relieved but a little disturbed as well. In a land without winter, spring, or summer, how could people tell that time was passing?

       “You’re also quite right about Christmas,” Fergus continued. “It’s actually a holiday that has combined many of your Norse traditions with doctrine from the Church. Some countries still call Christmas Yule-tide or Yule.”

       I shook my head. “I can’t believe that a thousand years later, on the other side of the world, people are still decorating pine trees and waiting for Old Man Winter. It’s a part of my childhood I never thought I’d see again.” My thoughts drifted back to winter evenings with my mother and sisters, watching the Jul log crackle in the hearth.

       Fergus must have seen something in my face. He clasped my shoulder gently. “Hey now, don’t get all maudlin on me, doll. Wait until tomorrow. You’re joining me on my annual Christmas Eve bar crawl, aren’t you? I want to know definitively if you can out-drink me.”

        “If you’d bothered to ask, you’d know I can out-drink Odin himself,” I boasted. Fergus cackled.

      

The next evening, I met Fergus on the corner of O’Farrell and Jones streets in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, where he knocked on an unmarked door. A young, good-looking man with a clipboard opened it partway and looked us over suspiciously. “Password?”

“Elf,” Fergus announced.

“Right this way.” He handed us off to a tall, slim woman with skin a few shades lighter than John Henry’s and perfectly wine-colored lips. When she caught sight of Fergus, her face lit up.

“Fergus! I was hoping you would come by again this year.” She bent down to give him a hug, and he hugged her back, beaming.

“Sienna, this is Sigrid. She’s visiting from out of town and I want to give her the full Bourbon and Branch experience.”

I held out my hand, and the smile Sienna trained on me was no less sincere than the one she’d given Fergus. A moment later she had led us through the red-tinted corridor along the bar and seated us at a narrow booth. I looked around, fascinated at the bulbous icicle-lamps hanging from a ceiling carved by giants into leaves and roses.

Fergus started leafing through the menu, which appeared to have at least twenty pages. “Moment of truth,” he said, “We’re starting with a cocktail. Then we’ll have some of their top-shelf whiskey, then perhaps another cocktail.”

“What’s the point of a cocktail?” I asked, dubious. “Isn’t that just watering down good alcohol?”

“Oh, darling, not this time! These cocktails mix different alcohols together; they’re stronger than your mead and tastier than my grandmother’s apple cake.”

“You have a grandmother?”

“Only metaphorically.” He grinned and turned to Sienna, who had appeared at our table with a small notepad. “What would you recommend for a true Viking warrior like my friend here?”

Sienna smiled. “Something to prepare you for battle? How about the Heavy Artillery? It’s a rye-based drink with rum, green chartreuse, vermouth, and bitters.”

“See?” He winked at me. “No watering down here. Sigrid will have that and I’ll have the Club Cocktail.”

       When our drinks arrived, Fergus raised his short-stemmed glass to my tall one. “Here’s to a true celebration,” he said. “Cheers and Merry Christmas!”

       “Skål and God Jul!” We sipped in blissful silence, and I felt so invigorated I wished I were actually preparing for battle. Feet tapping, I gazed around at the clusters of drinkers out in their pearls and button-down blouses. Weeks of hiding my identity had put me in the habit of comparing my appearance with my surroundings, and I suddenly felt self-conscious in my leather pants and torn sweater.

       Fergus stood up, interrupting my thoughts. “Ready for the tour?”

       I grabbed my drink and followed, stopping in surprise when he pulled a lever, parting a bookshelf to reveal a staircase. As the shelf closed behind us, we followed the stair into a spacious, dimly lit basement lined with shelves. Fergus extended his arms and spun in a slow circle, causing his red coattails to flap. “This, my dear, is why I wanted to give you a proper Christmas.” I gazed open-mouthed on the hundreds of bottles lining the shelves, each dustier and more golden than the last. Even without Fergus’s prompting, I could tell I was in the presence of master craftsmanship.

“Hand me that bottle behind you, will you love?” Fergus was beaming, his red nose practically its own joyous beacon.

       I chuckled. “There are about twenty.”

       “Up…up…a little to the left…yes, that one, with the black label. The Bruichladdich Black Art.” He cradled the bottle as if it were a child. “Ah, what a beauty. This stuff goes for $100 a glass upstairs.”

       “And you don’t think they’ll notice if we just take it? I thought SFAIS frowned on theft from mortal establishments.”

       “I think you’ll find that SFAIS is a little less strict than we claim. Anyway, I’ll still pay for it. I wouldn’t want the lovely Sienna or one of her colleagues to get in trouble for my crimes. In the meantime, finish your drink. We have a visit to make.”

       I followed him past the bar as he told me the place’s history. “This used to be a speakeasy during the old days of Prohibition. Those two doors open to escape tunnels that still work today ­– they lead to two different hotels in the neighborhood.” He led us up another staircase and through a trapdoor, opening into a dusty, empty room with a counter toward the back. “This is Russell’s. It used to be a cigar shop as the front for downstairs. Ah, that was a tough and beautiful time. The password for the speakeasy was ordering a particular cigar.. I never liked smoking, but I collected so many of those things. I was giving them to John Henry and Clementine every Christmas for years.”

       He led us to a bookshelf to the left of the trapdoor and pulled another lever. This time, when we stepped through the door, we stepped into the Otherworld.

       This particular piece of Otherworld had been curated. It felt a lot like stepping into my own bar, but the air was stamped with a strange presence, and I found myself looking around at the black and white velvet wallpaper, the counter that seemed less like a bar and more like a desk, the way the streetlights shone through the blinds and left striped shadows on the floor, and hardly registering any of it as I tried to locate what felt off. Were the shadows deeper than they should have been? The mist, thin as it was, smelled like smoke, and smoke rose from behind the desk as my gaze rested on the shadowy figure of a man who I was certain hadn’t been there moments ago. In fact, he seemed more shadow than man until, as I watched, he exhaled a vast plume of smoke that wreathed him in corporeality.

       “Fergus Laughland. I wondered if I would see you tonight.” His voice was gravelly, with an accent I couldn’t place: sharp and slightly long in the vowels. “Who’s this fine-looking dame you’ve brought? That’s a hefty-looking spear she’s got, too.”

       Fergus looked startled. “Sigrid! What are you doing, letting your wings out like that?”

       “We’re in the Otherworld, Fergus. What do you want me to do, move them into reality to float around in front of humans?”

       Fergus chuckled. “I forgot. Sam, your transitions have become so gradual I didn’t even realize I’d passed between worlds.”

       Sam nodded at the compliment and offered me his hand, which I shook warily. “Sam Spade. What can I do for you, ma’am?”

       “Sigrid Spearthrower.” Almost despite myself I realized I was imitating his brusque form of speech. “You can offer me one of those cigarettes.”

       “A lady of taste.” He took his time shaking out the tobacco and lining it up on the thin brown paper.

       I moved back to the door and tried stepping back to Russell’s Cigar Shop. Immediately, my wings disappeared and the noise of the bar settled around me. When I returned, however, I could feel myself fade more slowly even than when a warrior takes several minutes to die. I tried it again and was unable to rush the process.

       Sam kept his eyes on the cigarette as he rolled with a gentle, practiced motion. “Having fun, sweetheart? Never seen a gate like that, have you?” He handed the cigarette over, and I leaned forward to let him light it for me. The motion gave me a sudden, intense memory of Octavia on the roof.

       Fergus raised the bottle of Bruichladdich. “Got any glasses?”

       Half an hour later, the three of us had finished the bottle and meandered our way back into Bourbon and Branch, where Sam and I debated a final round of cocktails while Fergus handed Sienna the empty bottle and somehow added it to our tab. “I’ll try the imperial eagle,” I told Sam. “Look, it has peach bitters and whiskey and it’s called the imperial eagle.”

       “Sure thing, darling,” Sam pulled on his ubiquitous cigarette. He was the only person smoking in the bar, and thus far, no one had noticed. “An eagle drink for an eagle of a woman.” He nodded to the space where my wings had been. “You take those off a sea eagle?”

       “Yes, an osprey. Good eye!” I glanced over at Fergus, who was still talking with Sienna. “So, has your office always been in the Otherworld?”

       “You mean what the Association calls the Shadow Land? Yeah, doll, since I opened for business back in ‘29. People don’t notice when they walk in because I anchor it to the living world. You noticed, though.” He looked at me, his eyes shrewd. “You became larger the minute you walked in there. I ain’t just talking ‘bout the wings. It was like you got more substantial. You belong in that place, huh?”

       I nodded. “I think it has to do with my being what Coyote calls a psychopomp. I like the in-between places. You seem like you understand that.”

       Sam winked, but didn’t say any more until we had ordered and Fergus had sat back down with another bottle. “You have the look of a man who wants to talk business,” he said.

 Fergus filled our empty tumblers and raised a glass. We followed suit. “Cheers.”

“Cheers.”

       “Cheers.” We sipped.

       Fergus continued. “Toci asked me to hire you on. You remember that Yaoguai last year?”

       “You mean that Chinese sonofabitch that kept leaving portals all over the place? Sure.”

       “Well, it’s back. Or something like it is. Sigrid and John Henry stumbled across another door the other day.” He passed his phone across the table and showed him the picture.

       Sam inspected it as he sipped. “You sure it ain’t left open from last year? This looks like a damned hidden spot.”

       “The pixies told JH it had only been there a few days. Make of that what you will.”

       “I can talk to ‘em again. Might as well. Is the association going to pay me what I’m worth this time? I want three thousand dollars a day plus expenses.”

       “What expenses? Beef for the pixies? We’ll give you a thousand.”

       “You shitting me?”

       Fergus sighed. “Fifteen hundred and a boon from Toci.”

       “To collect whenever?” Sam pondered this. “All right. Fine. I’ll start tomorrow.” They shook hands and the three of us drained our cups. The night was only beginning.

 

 

9 - A Gate to the Otherworld

My phone buzzed, but I didn’t have the hands to dig it out of my pocket. I was hanging off the side of a huge metal structure in an abandoned shipyard. “Are you sure this is right?” I called to John Henry. “It doesn’t look like there’s room for anything up here!”

“’Course I ain’t sure!” he called back in a stage whisper that did nothing to disguise or lower his voice. “Damn pixies! They’ve got about a thousand hiding places!”

I took a moment to hang from my knees and admire the view. The water, black in the darkness, lapped at the concrete below me. Across the bay, the Oakland shipyards twinkled.

I watched with interest, lulled by the peaceful night air, until another twinkling light zoomed directly in front of my face, startling me so much that I jerked upright. My stomach muscles spasmed and my arms flailed as I attempted to catch myself with wings I could barely sense through the boundary between worlds. For a moment I felt utter panic before I grabbed a rusty bar to steady myself.  

The spark of light drifted on a bar just above my head, coalescing into a tiny, filthy winged man. He gestured at me frantically.

“We’ve been looking for you,” I told him. He nodded. “So where is it?”

He pointed at me and then pointed down at John Henry. Then he leaped off the structure and dove toward the chain link fence on the other side of the lot.

I cursed and followed more slowly. If I had been alone, it would have been difficult to resist the temptation of simply flying down, but with a member of SFAIS present I felt compelled to keep up the charade.

When I reached the bottom, my hands numb from the chill metal bars, John Henry had already followed the pixie to a section of chain link fence that, on investigation, appeared to have been cut and loosely reattached.

“Huh.” I said. “You think something’s on the other side?”

“Only one way to find out,” said John Henry. He took a pair of bolt cutters out of a pocket in his cargo pants and matter-of-factly cut through the reattached links before raising a piece of fence. “After you.”

On the other side of the fence, we found ourselves in a vacant, dusty lot. Without the reflection of lights on the water to brighten it, the space was dim and gloomy. John Henry and I stood for a moment, looking around us and waiting for our eyes to adjust.

The pixie was joined by a trio of flickering lights, and the four of them zoomed in a quick circle around our heads before heading to the far end of the lot. A peeling clapboard fence marked the boundary with the road, and I could hear an occasional car pass as we walked toward it.

John Henry took a flashlight out of his pocket and shined it around us, turning as we went. I caught a glimpse of something white.

“There!” I said. “Stop. To your left, on the fence.”

The pixies danced excitedly in the air as we surveyed the circle-shaped hole in the fence. It was just the right size and height for a person to step through, and it led into a misty blackness devoid of the streetlights or reflective paint we should have been able to see on the road. In fact, I couldn’t see the road at all.

John Henry hesitantly approached the hole, shining his light into it. The beam of his flashlight seemed to get sucked into the blackness. He backed up and turned his light to the edges, where we could see graffiti in white chalk. That explained the flash of white I’d seen.

“It’s some kind of gate,” I said.

“Seems so. We should check out what’s on the other side. Give me a hand?” He handed me the flashlight and took a firm grip on the edges of the hole before stepping carefully over. “It’s solid ground here, at least.”

I followed him. Once through, I didn’t need the sudden weight of my wings to tell me that we were in the Otherworld. I could feel it in the way the mist cuddled up to me like an old friend and in all the connections to the past around me. I let out an involuntary sigh.

“You know this place?” asked John Henry. He scanned the rocky ground and low shrubs, which were barely visible through the fog.

“It’s the Otherworld,” I explained. “What Coyote calls the Shadow Land. I go here when I collect souls.”

“Interesting. Collected any souls around here?”

“No, not at all. Anyway, I wouldn’t leave a gate like this open. I don’t even use gates.” I bit my lip, understanding that John Henry was right; I was the most likely suspect. But John Henry had already moved on to exploring the hole: walking all the way around it in the Otherworld and then stepping through to inspect it again in the empty lot. He’d taken out a notepad and pen and begun jotting down notes, but he glanced up at me briefly when he noticed me watching.

“Check and see if the hole is visible from the other side of the fence,” he suggested. I obeyed, switching to the living world to examine the area from the road. As I expected, the fence on that side seemed completely intact. I switched back to the Otherworld to find John Henry grinning at me. “It’s pretty goofy to see your wings just floating around like that,” he said.

I grimaced, though I doubted he could see my expression in the dark. “It’s not an ideal fix, but nothing in the Otherworld has bothered me so far. Anyway, the gate’s not accessible from the road.”

“I figured. In the Shadow Land it’s only visible from one side, too.” He sighed, looking up from his notebook. “Well, that settles it. It looks like another Yaoguai is loose.”

“What is it?” I asked, startled that he had managed to close the case so quickly.

“It’s a minor Chinese demon; usually an animal or even a corpse that has managed to gain some powers. We had one running around Chinatown about a year ago opening gates like these. Yixin can help us hunt it down later.”

I nodded, relieved to no longer be the object of suspicion. “What should we do now?”

He stood back and surveyed the scene. “We’ll have to close the gate as quickly as we can. I’m not sure what would be worse: humans wandering into the Shadow Land or whatever’s out there,” he waved his hand, “wandering into the city.“

We stepped back through the hole and gazed at again it from the lot. John Henry tried rubbing away some of the chalk markings around the edges to no avail. He turned to me. “You want to try?”

I surveyed the gate, reaching out with my mind to feel where the Otherworld had been pulled into the gate. It should have been easy, but although I could feel where the space wasn’t right, I couldn’t seem to grasp it. There were no anchors for me to pull.  Could the air itself have been moved? Sweat began to roll down the side of my face as I tried and failed to grab hold of the slippery Otherworld air.

I paused, swaying slightly, and felt a heavy hand clasp my shoulder. “Try and use me as an anchor.” John Henry’s smile gleamed reassuringly in the dark. “I don’t have your knowledge of the Shadow Land, but I can lend you my strength.”

I took a breath, brought my wings back, and tried again, this time with John Henry’s strength anchoring me, letting me reach deeper into the Otherworld. Suddenly I could feel the air itself, its particles and the spaces between them, and I could feel how wrong that space was within the gate. I reached out and grasped John Henry’s huge hand and felt it close around mine. His strength poured into me, and I pictured a net finer and more expansive than the fishing nets of my childhood sweeping through the gate, enfolding each particle of Otherworld air and letting any residual Midgard air slip through its cracks. With one hand firmly in John Henry’s for balance, I found I had enough traction to pull the net with both of our combined strengths. The gate shrank to a pinpoint and disappeared. I dropped John Henry’s hand and staggered back, my wings automatically unfolding to catch me. Legs buckling, I did a slow, flapping somersault in the air before landing on my ass in the dirt.

John Henry laughed.

I scowled up at him.

“Oh, come on,” he squatted down and offered me a hand. “That was great! Last time it took at least three of us to close one of those gates. Even Toci couldn’t do it on her own, and she is older than the hills and twice as solid.”

I felt weakness shivering its way through my body, and my head ached. “Just leave me here while I get my breath back. I’ll catch up with you,” I told him, putting my head in my hands. I was almost sure I would never move again. This kind of magical exhaustion felt utterly different from my usual satisfying muscle-ache after a day fighting. I felt almost insubstantial, as if the mist swirling gently around us might drift straight through me as I dissolved.

When I looked up a few moments later, John Henry was still standing there. He shifted from one foot to another. “I’m waiting for you,” he admitted. “We still have to talk to the pixies.” He held out his hand. “You want help?”

“No, no, I can do it. Just give me a minute.” I sat up with a groan, trying to work some feeling back into my hands and feet. “I don’t suppose you have any alcohol on you? It helps my accelerated healing.”

He surprised me by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a flask of Fergus’s whiskey. I drained it and curled up on the ground wrapped in my wings, letting the mist, alcohol, and soft feathers revive me.

A few minutes later, the two of us walked to the shipyard. John Henry took a pair of pliers out of his pocket and closed the chain link fence back up. Then we stood next to the metal structure (he’d told me it was called a crane) and waited.

After a moment, a light once again materialized into a pixie.  John Henry reached into his pocket and brought out a plastic baggie, which smelled strongly of blood. “Are you in charge?”

The pixie danced in what appeared to be a triangle formation. John Henry nodded. “Good. Get a few of the others.” The pixie shot into the air and returned almost immediately, followed by a shower of sparks. They hovered around John Henry’s head, periodically diving and speeding off as if afraid to get too close. John Henry addressed them.

“On behalf of the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals, thank you for bringing this matter to our attention,” he began, sounding absurdly formal.  “I would like to request that you continue to keep watch and alert us with any information you find about these gates. I’ve brought you a gift as a token of appreciation for your service.”

A pixie of indeterminate gender with an enormous feather in its ragged waistband dove to just in front of John Henry’s nose and hovered briefly beside his ear. John Henry nodded, and after a moment, two more pixies joined and the three of them zipped into a complicated triangular flight pattern. John Henry watched patiently. When the three pixies finished their dance, he bowed carefully and removed a raw, dripping steak from the baggie. He tossed it into the air.

It never hit the ground. The cloud of pixies tore it apart so quickly and silently that soon only a few drops of blood remained on the poured concrete of the wharf. I felt ill. John Henry grinned at my expression.

“Not a fan of raw meat?”

I grimaced, suppressing a shudder. “I didn’t realize they had such sharp claws.”

As we walked away from the miniature carnage, I checked my phone and found a text message from Octavia. Back in Ann Arbor, and the Rivera Xmas prep is in full swing. This shit is gonna be real! How’s the Valkyrie act? Send me pics!! XOXO

I smiled, already thinking about my reply as we headed back to the bar.

 

8 - Robertson

“Hey, no worries,” Octavia smiled at my stricken expression. “You look good in street clothes.” She winked and handed me a five-dollar bill. “Can I get one of those house meads?”

For a while, I busied myself behind the counter as Octavia leaned on her elbows, staring into her glass and watching the mead swish in the candlelight. I kept opening my mouth to speak then clamping it shut as I remembered my oath to SFAIS. I felt my eyebrows furrowing.

Octavia gently nudged my elbow across the table. “You look very serious. What are you thinking about?”

“A poem.” The words escaped my mouth before I had time to think them through. At least it was better than where my real thoughts lay: with my enforced secrecy and failing quest.

Octavia looked delighted. “What poem?”

I cast about, and a few lines from the story of Helgi came into my mind. “Late will you have hoard of rings, battle-tree fierce or shining fields,” I recited, amazed at the way the words appeared in English as easily as my own thoughts. She kept quiet, so I continued. “The eagle screams soon if you never speak. Though hero, hard your heart will cry.” I bit my lip, feeling awkward as she continued to stare at me. “It’s part of a saga my friend Bragi used to perform,” I explained. “A Valkyrie appears to the silent hero Helgi and tells him he must start commanding his destiny.”

“I like it. It reminds me of that poem by Auden: ‘Look if you like, but you will have to leap.’” She recited a few lines, and I felt the arm ring tingle as my own breath caught at the unfamiliar words. Octavia smiled at my reaction. “It always makes me feel like that, too,” she said, “As if I’m standing on the front step of my mom’s old house, waiting to step off into my destiny. Thrilled and terrified.”

“That’s Tyr,” I said. “The warrior spirit. The fear and excitement combining into purity of purpose.” I traced the rune on the bar’s surface with my fingertip, finding comfort in its strength. I looked back up at her, suddenly curious. “Do you feel that way often?”

“Not often. Occasionally, I guess. Before I perform with my band when I have a solo. Sometimes when I would speak at LGBT panels in college.” She pondered for a moment. “I have a memory from when I was a kid, back in Michigan with my sister Maggie. We were standing at the top of a slope so steep it was more like a cliff, and below us the woods were spread out like an ocean but all deep greens and little white flowers. I remember Maggie looked at me, and I looked at her, and she asked, ‘Can we?’ and I said ‘Yes.’ And then the two of us just took off as fast as we could into the trees. We were grinning so big, we felt like we were flying.” I could see her whole face light up. “We were out on our own, exploring. I couldn’t have been more than nine or ten. It felt like we were leaping into a new world.”

I nodded. “I love that feeling. I usually just get it when I’m fighting. Sometimes I think it’s what the moment after death must feel like.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, nobody knows for sure what happens after you die,” I said, realizing as I spoke that it was true even for me. I used to think I knew where the dead went: Valhalla, Folkvangr, or Hel, but since my arrival in San Francisco I found it less and less likely that those were the only possibilities. I continued, “Whatever it is, it’s got to be something different from anything we’ve known so far. Imagine a warrior dies in combat and is taken to Valhalla. Don’t you think that’s the feeling they would have? The terror and excitement, the leaping off into something new?”

“Huh. I never thought of death that way. That makes it sound more like a beginning than an ending. Of course, to the people left behind it certainly never feels that way.” For a moment, her eyes looked bleak. Then she smiled at me. “Is that how your Valkyrie character finds her souls on the battlefield? She searches out the ones who leap into death with wild abandon?”

I thought about it. “Actually, no. I’ve always thought Odin’s warriors were chosen because when faced with great danger, they held on to life the hardest.”

“In that case, your Valkyrie should check out the oncology department of UCSF.” Octavia laughed bitterly. “I don’t think I’ve seen anyone fight harder than cancer patients. I didn’t think it was possible to survive some of the stuff my mom went through. I guess it wasn’t, in the end.”

That bleak look was back in her eyes, her jaw clenched. I shivered, then reached out and awkwardly patted Octavia on the shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Thanks.” She sat silently for a moment before draining her glass. “I think I’d better get home. We should hang out again, though.” She pulled out her phone, glancing at me sidelong. “Want to exchange numbers?” she coughed uncertainly and added, “So we can get in touch.”

I nodded, beaming. “I’d love that.” I pulled out my brand new phone and turned on the display the way Yixin had showed me. Then carefully, reverently, I found the right screen and plugged in the number as she recited it.

“All right, I’ll see you later then.” She hopped off her stool just as a couple of new customers approached the bar. I waved and got back to the business of pouring drinks.

 

At first I struggled to fit my new SFAIS responsibilities into my daily rhythm. My new ability to hide my wings did not extend to changing my clothes, and Yixin helped me purchase some shirts, trousers, and vests that could pass for ordinary or what she called the “NOT renfaire” look but still help me feel a little protected. I felt naked without my armor and strangely light all the time, as if, even wingless, I might accidentally leap too high and become untethered from the earth.

After my first shirt destroyed by reappearing wings, I insisted on cutting wing holes into all of my shirts and vests. I utterly refused to wear a bra. I didn’t even want to imagine those uncomfortable straps cutting into my wing joints.

As the weeks went on, the members of SFAIS relentlessly trained me for the modern world. Nearly every day someone would show up at my bar for the purpose of taking me out on patrol. I walked the length of the Mission with Toci and Coyote, ambled along the Embarcadero with John Henry, and patrolled my own neighborhood with Fergus. I began to accept not just the technology and noise of the city but also the magic curled in its corners. With John Henry, I visited an elderly woman in the Bayshore who had the power to twist luck.  Later that week, Coyote and I spent a day exploring Pier 39, and I ate a hot fudge sundae from Ghirardelli Square while he spoke with the chief of the sea lion clan.

At the Kabuki Theater in Japantown, I saw my first movie with Yixin. She challenged the Kitsune fox-spirit behind the counter to an exchange of insults that would have impressed even Odin, and which somehow resulted in all of us sharing beer as we watched trucks explode on the huge screen. I watched characters paint their mouths silver and shout about Valhalla, feeling both shocked and pleased at the strange way my home had been coopted into this modern story, and at the same time, feeling lost. I kept waiting for that tug to pull at my spirit, waiting to step into the Otherworld and offer my hand to these dying warriors. I knew they were only characters in a play, that they were not really dying. But where were the real warriors? Each time I wandered the city with one of my new mentors, I found myself twitching at noises and shouts, guiltily, desperately hoping for a death.

One afternoon halfway into December, it finally happened. Fergus and I were walking our usual downtown route from Union Square to Market Street. Bicycles zoomed past us, taxis and ride-share cars blocked lanes and honked, trucks backed up, and strangers asked for change or complimented each other as they wandered into the street.  The air smelled like urine and car exhaust, and Fergus had turned to gawk and snort at a shouting match between a bearded cyclist and a driver when I felt it: that perennial tug. I whipped around, staring each stranger in the face. Was it the ragged woman sitting on the curb with a pipe in her hand? The red-faced cab driver?

I felt as if the world had stilled. “If you have to block the bike lane, at least watch where you’re going!” screamed the cyclist, waving his hand in a rude gesture I had only recently learned from Yixin. The taxi driver gestured back and leaned on his horn until the light changed and the cyclist started pedaling. He was still looking toward the taxi when a huge brown vehicle with no side door veered into his path.

At the screech of truck and bicycle colliding, I jumped back to the sidewalk, heart thudding in anticipation. I watched both bicycle and rider fly into a parked car and land with a clatter of steel and a crack of breaking bone. The driver of the truck swerved too late, hitting a telephone pole with a crunch and a splinter of glass. The taxi remained unscathed.

I stepped carefully over the wrecked bicycle to examine the man. He looked to be in his 20s, and, despite his slim build, might have been indistinguishable from many of the warriors already in Valhalla. “Robertson Harris?”

“Holy shit!” The ghost of Robertson Harris was on his feet, already shaking his fist at the deliveryman in the dented truck. “Watch where you’re going! Christ, man, you almost killed me! What the hell is wrong with you?” He stepped over a piece of metal and looked down, his face slowly blanching as he took in the sight of his own broken body.

I laid a hand on his shoulder and repeated his name. “Robertson Harris, your time on Midgard has ended, your thread snapped by the Norns.” He stared at me, bewildered, so I clarified. “You’re dead.”

He bent, trying to lift the body below him, but succeeding only in passing his hands through it. He squinted up at me. “No shit.”

I kept my face stern, attempting for regal, though inwardly I wanted to laugh. We were both fading quickly into the Otherworld, and the chaos of the road had slipped into mist. I felt my wings settle comfortably around me and pulled my spear from my new wing-sheath. “You have a fire in you, Robertson. You died fighting and furious. Will you come with me to Valhalla to join Odin at his table? To fight until the end of days?”

Robertson started to giggle.  Soon he was leaning over, hands on his knees, tears streaming down his face as he gasped for breath.  I watched him, a little concerned. After a couple of minutes he sat down on the misty Otherworld tarmac and sobbed.

I stood awkwardly, my joy receding a little. I might have to get used to this, I thought. In a world that didn’t know about Valhalla, not everyone would be happy to see me, and most would not joyously face their deaths.

When he looked up at me again, though, I could see a wry almost-smile peeking through his bloody, matted beard. He took a shaky breath. “Honestly, this is not the afterlife I was expecting.”

“Do you want it?” I asked, trying to sound impassive.

He hesitated. “Is my granddad there? Do I have other options?”

“Your grandfather will not be there,” I said. “I can offer only one path. If you refuse it, I do not know what other paths may be available to you.” 900 years before, it had been possible, though rare, for a warrior picked by Odin or Freya to choose the cold grey world of Hel instead.

Now, I watched Robertson’s face, my jaw clenching. This man was only my third soul in nearly two months of searching. At this rate I would never collect nine nines in a year, but each death still reinvigorated my dedication to the quest. I needed him to accept my offer so that, instead of wavering between hope and despair, I could inch a little closer to the hope side.

Robertson sighed and pushed himself to his feet. “Ok,” he said, holding out his hand. “There’s no going back, right? Let’s go. You think I can get a new bike in Valhalla?”

 

We arrived less than an hour before sunset. The Einherjar had already collected themselves and disappeared into the hall. The blood had sunk into the boggy ground, and the battlefield was almost picturesque as we walked across it, mist twining silkily around our ankles. We squished our way across the usual muddy hillocks and approached one of the massive doors.

I turned to Robertson. We could already hear the roar and clamor of the party inside. “I might not get a chance to talk to you again for a while, but don’t worry. Look for Olrun—she serves the mead—or Signy the golden-winged.  They’ll take care of you. And find Volund Smith; he uses a combat wheelchair and he’ll be able to make you a bicycle if you ask.” He gaped at me, but before he could ask any questions, I pushed open the door and gestured him inside.

The crowd swallowed us immediately. I almost lost Robertson in a swarm of excited warriors clapping him on the back and shouting unintelligibly, but I managed to spot Thorstein the Red and wave him over to help. With his massive frame and wild red beard, he looked like a Norseman from one of Midgard’s cartoons. He gestured to Gloria, who tapped Signy, and the two of them found a space at one of the long tables while Thorstein cleared us a path through the crowd.

As Robertson and I reached the table, Gloria startled me by jumping up and giving me a quick hug and a kiss on the cheek. I hugged her back, feeling something in my chest unknot slightly when I saw her wide smile. Olrun and Rufus glided through the crowed as smoothly as swans, each bearing horns and a pitcher of mead. After passing out the drinks, Rufus gave me his own big grin and a warm handshake.  “Everybody’s listening to my stories” he told me, “And Olrun here’s been teaching me some of what she sees in the bowls. I never knew you could use beer like a crystal ball!” He grinned at Gloria and added, “We’ve been training hard, but I don’t know what the hell’s in the food here because I don’t even get tired!”

Gloria nodded and clinked horns with him before draining hers dry. True to her new name, she had dried blood splattered across her tunic and the bloody fur of a lynx draped over her shoulders. Signy noticed my look and snaked her arm around my shoulders. “I took Gloria hunting a couple of days ago,” she explained, “and I’ve never seen such patience. She’s planning to make a fur cloak. Speaking of which—“ she looked me up and down “—what in the nine worlds happened to your clothes? Where is your armor and shield?”

I had just opened my mouth to respond when the table, the crowd, and even Signy’s arm began to dissipate. I shrugged at my gathered friends, new and old, and let myself fade away.

 

“You know, at some point you should travel across the bay and meet me in my neighborhood,” said Octavia. “If you can fly, I don’t know why I’m always coming to you.” My phone had buzzed with a message from her just as I’d landed on the Eikthyrnir roof, and now we were sitting comfortably at one of the tables. For once, we had the whole bar to ourselves. “So, what do you think?”

“About Peter? I’m still not sure what he wants.” I sipped from my mug as I thought about her proposal. “If he finds documents in my language I can help translate them, but I don’t know what he’s looking for. I’m not exactly a scholar. I didn’t even learn how to read until I was older.” In fact, I hadn’t learned how to read until I was already dead. Odin and Olrun had taught me to read the runes because it was required for most magic in Valhalla.

Octavia shrugged. “That’s OK. You can read now, right? English and Swedish?”

“Yes, of course.” I had no idea if this was true.  

“Can you read the Viking runic writing, too?”

I nodded.

“See? You must have studied for years back in Sweden. Are you sure you don’t have a PhD? You’re a total scholar. Anyway, Peter’s been trying to finish his brother Duncan’s mythology research, like I told you. You’ve probably done a ton of research for your Valkyrie act. Maybe you could offer a new perspective.”

I frowned. “Possibly. Is he studying Scandinavian legends?”

“In part, yes. It’s kind of a macro look at cross-cultural myths that involve portals. I know it sounds nuts. But neither of us have a conventional understanding of crazy, and I think you should give him a chance.”

I stared at her. “Cross-cultural what?”

She laughed. “I knew I wasn’t clear enough. Peter explains it better, so you’ll have to ask him for more details, but I’ll do my best. Do you know the many worlds theory?”

I shook my head. “I know that there are nine worlds connected by Yggdrasil, the world tree. In Norse mythology, at least,” I added hastily.

“Sure. That’s different, but it’s a little similar. The many worlds theory is a physics theory that also shows up in a lot of fantasy and science fiction. Basically, it’s the idea that there are an infinite number of parallel universes and an infinite number of possible timelines. Every time you make a decision that changes the course of your future, a new world branches off where you made a different decision. So, there are worlds where you stayed in Sweden and never came to SF, for instance, or worlds in which your parents never met or in which America never got colonized, even worlds where life didn’t form on Earth at all. It’s called the multiverse. Peter’s brother was studying references to the multiverse in various mythologies and folklore. He was looking for clues that people in the past had found ways to communicate between universes.”

I took a moment to digest this, but felt more bewildered than ever. How could there be an infinite number of choices when our fate was laid out by the gods? Were there an infinite number of gods also? “Do you believe in this multiverse?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Octavia shook her head and added, “I go back and forth on it. Duncan used to insist that he’d seen another world, but he was also doing a lot of drugs before he died. Sometimes I think Peter’s on to something, other times I think he just focuses on the research to honor his brother’s memory. Either way, he has read some really interesting stuff, and I know he’d appreciate another perspective.”

I thought about it for a moment, leaning in my chair and savoring the odd feeling of the wood against my wingless back. On the one hand, I felt that SFAIS would probably want me to speak with Peter about his mythology research just in case he stumbled upon some actual magic. On the other hand, perhaps my involvement would endanger my own identity, a secret I’d already proven to be pretty terrible at keeping. Then, of course, there was Volund’s armring. How would I know if it had reacted to Peter if I didn’t spend more time with him?

In the end, my own desire to learn about Peter’s research trumped my awareness of the possible risk. It wasn’t the first time my curiosity overcame caution. Nor would it be the last. “That sounds pretty fun, actually, “ I admitted.

Octavia grinned. “Awesome. I’ll give him your number and he can text you.”

We clinked glasses and the conversation moved on to other things: poetry, the jazz group, the antics of Octavia’s sillier undergraduate students. Yixin had showed me how to collect music on my phone, and I was excited to show Octavia some songs from a band that combined traditional Norse music with what I had learned was called electronica. Octavia, in turn, jumped up, propped her phone in an empty glass, turned the volume on high, and held her hand out to me. The phone rattled and the music filled the small space with a joyous, bouncy beat. “This is Janelle Monae. Come on, dance with me!” Her hand still held out, she began swinging her hips to the music. As soon as I stood up and took her hand, she spun me in a circle. I laughed and tried to follow her lead.

After just a few minutes of sweaty, dancing laughter the song changed and I found myself in Octavia’s arms, swaying gently. Her hands were warm around my shoulders, and her cheeks glowed. My breath caught suddenly, but she only moved closer and rested her forehead against mine. For a long moment, we just looked at each other, our breaths matching. Then slowly, tenderly, she placed her hands on either side of my face and kissed me.

 

7 - Patrol

I groaned loudly and threw myself back onto the sofa. Yixin laughed. “Come on,” she said, “I swear you’re getting it! One more time!” It had been two hours, and the only progress I had made was to make my white and brown patterned wings slightly darker. I kicked my legs up onto the coffee table and panted.

“Look,” I said, “I understand what you’re doing, and I can almost do it. But it take so much energy I can’t sustain it.” Again, I took a deep breath and focused my awareness on the shadows in the room. In the dim lighting, they were everywhere. I tried to pull the shadows toward me, using them to cloak my wings. Again, I succeeded only in making my wings darker and my head spin. I closed my eyes.

Yixin pushed a glass of something cool into my hands. “Take a break,” she suggested. “You’re trying too hard. Maybe if we talk about something else, you can come back to it with fresh eyes.”

I nodded, eyes still closed, and took a sip. I almost gagged. “Seriously? Water?”

Coyote looked up from his computer and laughed. “Water’s the most life-giving substance there is. What were you expecting, more of Fergus’s fire-whiskey?”

“Water’s fine, if you’re lost in the woods,” I scoffed. “In Valhalla, we offer ale and mead to our guests.”

Yixin looked nonplussed, but Coyote just laughed harder. “You’ll have to get used to it,” he said. “No one in SF is going to offer you a beer at six o’clock in the morning.” He yawned. “Speaking of which, we’ve been up all night and I don’t think any of us are making progress anymore. Let’s catch some sleep and get back to this in a few hours.”

“What have you gotten so far?” asked Yixin. “Did you find any videos?”

“Yeah, a few.” Coyote sighed and stretched. “I managed to catch a lot of the witnesses last night, but obviously some of them had uploaded to the cloud already.”  

Yixin reached her arms out toward him from the sofa and yawned. “Gimme.” Grinning, Coyote walked over and seated himself between us.

“These tabs are the videos that had already been uploaded by the time I found the witnesses last night. So, if you can mess with them on the cloud, our job is done.” He moved a finger on the track pad and a different box filled the screen. “These videos are new. Once you’re done with them, we’ll have to track down the originals.”

“Got it.” Yixin took the computer from him and started to build an illusion. Using the training I had just learned, I could barely see her gather shadows over the keyboard. It took several minutes, but when she was done, the video in front of her no longer depicted a winged woman landing in Union Square. Instead, a thick shadow drifted across the screen before a brawl inexplicably broke out on the ground. 

Coyote replayed the video. “Nice. That could be the shadow of a plane, or a really blurry flock of pigeons. It’s unclear, but it doesn’t look censored or pixelated. Do that with the rest of them and we can go hunt down the originals after we get some sleep.” Yixin nodded and I took that as my cue to stand up.

“Sigrid, you can sleep in one of the guest rooms—up the stairs to the right,” she said. “I’m really sorry, but we can’t let you out on your own until you’ve got the illusion down.” 

I was so exhausted I could not muster the energy to object. I could only hope that after a few hours of sleep, I would finally master the illusion. I staggered upstairs and collapsed on a bed in a room I was too tired to see.

It felt like seconds later when I woke to Coyote shaking my shoulder and full sunlight streaming into the room. I stumbled downstairs and into the table, which, luckily, was sturdily built. Yixin handed me a piece of toasted bread and a mug of coffee.  “Drink up,” she said, “And we’ll get started on patrol.”

The first time I had drunk coffee, someone had handed me a tiny cup outside a newly opened café with the words, “Free sample?” and I had lifted it to my lips immediately, entranced by the smell. Since then, the bitter, rich, nutty taste had become one of my favorite new flavors in San Francisco. I folded my hands gratefully around the mug.

Coyote took out a small notebook and flipped to a page about halfway through. “Ok, our first stop lives pretty close to here on Bush Street. Jennie Salinas. I found her address on White Pages, and her Facebook says she works from home. You two ready?”

Fifteen minutes later, we were standing in the hall outside of Jennie Salinas’s apartment. Coyote had shifted his appearance, shortening his hair, lightening his skin and eyes, and adding long sleeves and a collar to his blue shirt. Yixin looked the same as she had when I’d first seen her. She had insisted on changing the appearance of my clothing in addition to hiding my wings. Although I could still feel my mail and the comforting weight of my shield, when I looked down I saw blue jeans and a simple red jacket similar to Yixin’s. Coyote knocked and winked at Yixin and me. After a moment, we heard shuffling and a young, dark-haired woman in grey trousers opened the door. 

“Can I help you?” She looked skeptically at the three of us for a moment before her face changed abruptly and she grinned Yixin’s dimpled, mischievous grin. “Piece of cake,” she told us, giggling, and took a phone out of her back pocket. She held it out to Yixin, who took it, fiddled with it, and handed it back. The two bodies moved with an uncanny symmetry.

“Let me check her computer,” said Coyote. Jennie/Yixin stepped out of the doorway so he could reach the computer sitting open on the counter. He stared into the screen for a few seconds, fiddling with the mouse and typing into the keyboard, before stepping back into the hall. “Nothing there. I’m done, go ahead.”

Jennie/Yixin took the same position she had had earlier, with one hand on the open door. From her place in the hall next to me, Yixin whispered, “Three, two, one. Go!”
Coyote flashed a huge smile at Jennie. “Hi! I hope I’m not intruding. I’m watching my friend’s apartment this week and he forgot to tell me where to take out the trash. Is it by the lobby somewhere?”

Jennie’s frown melted into a smile as she gazed at Coyote. “No problem! It’s in the basement. Just take the elevator all the way down and turn left. It’s the last door on the right in that hallway.” She watched us turn back down the hall before retreating into her apartment, the smile still on her face.

Yixin nudged Coyote with an elbow as we returned to the street. “Didn’t even turn on the charm for that one, did you?” 

Coyote shrugged. “I can’t help it if people find me endearing.” 

“It must have been difficult for you to walk away from a cutie like that.”

“I like to think of it as walking toward all the beautiful people I have yet to meet.” He grinned, and Yixin shrieked with laughter. 

“Good thing new mortals are born all the time or you would have run dry long ago,” she said, still giggling. 

“Look who’s talking!” Coyote turned to me and added, “This girl goes to high school just to hang out with teenagers. She’s crazy!” He added, turning to Yixin, “And gross. Do you even know how old you are?” 

“Hey, I don’t see you hooking up with any hundred-year-olds.”

“Sure, but at least I’m not cradle-snatching.”

The two of them bickered like this all the way through the neighborhood, stopping only to repeat their photo-erasing routine with two other mortals, one in a tall, peeling townhouse and one in a decrepit building optimistically labeled “Golden Sunset Hotel.” I shuffled after them, weaving like a drunkard. In this part of town, I could never decide where to look: at the tall buildings piercing the sky like the spears of giants, at the cars and buses screeching and shifting, at the ragged people pushing shopping carts or lounging on the sidewalks, or at the men and women in suits rushing across the streets. 

A flock of pigeons took off as I walked into it, scattering dust in a rush of flapping and hooting. When I had recovered, I found Yixin and Coyote waiting for me in front of a café that had a line of young people and bicycles stretching out its front door.

“More coffee?” Coyote asked me as I caught up. “One of our marks works at this coffee shop and another one comes here almost every afternoon.”

“Sure!” I dug in my belt for money, but Yixin stopped me. 

“I got it,” she said. “I’ve got the SFAIS credit card.”

I leaped at this. “Credit card! People are always asking me about those at the bar. Can I see it?”
“Of course.” She began to explain the concept of credit as we moved toward the row of baristas. Ahead of us, I saw Coyote lean over the counter and smile at a woman with blue hair. She smiled back, and the two of them began talking. Yixin broke off her explanation to nudge me and say, “That’s the chick. Annie Yates. Coyote doesn’t need magic to get her phone; you’ll see.”

We had reached the front of our line, and I spent the next few minutes talking to the barista and learning the particular rules of the establishment: each cup of coffee made individually according to preference. I explained I wanted something rich and bitter, and he made me something he called “the corpse reviver with cream.” I smirked as I brought my drink to the table where Coyote had claimed a spot. 

“Did you get it?” Yixin asked, joining us as I carefully leaned my still-invisible spear and shield against my chair. He grinned and waved a phone in our faces. Yixin frowned. “That’s your phone.”

“I know. I deleted the video and got her number. We’re meeting for drinks later.” 

She laughed. “You’re hopeless.”

I watched the two of them as I sipped my corpse reviver. They both seemed to overflow with life: Yixin, mischief dancing in her eyes, constantly fiddled and shifted in her seat while Coyote burned with a quieter and somehow more mysterious energy, a coal to her candle flame. They’d spent most of the morning arguing, yet I could see their mutual regard in the attention they gave to each other’s movements and the joy they found in watching each other work. “Is this what you always do for SFAIS?” I asked, curious. “You search for and erase evidence of magic?”

“More or less,” answered Yixin. “That’s what Patrol is about, anyway. Every member of SFAIS has to keep an eye out for things that might expose us. It’s usually some mortal who stumbles into something they don’t understand. We also watch for new supernaturals in town who need help getting settled. Like you.” She raised her paper cup of tea. “A toast, to your first Patrol.”

Coyote and I raised our cups solemnly. “And many more to follow,” he added. “Speaking of which, I ‘ve been pondering your illusion problem, and I have an idea.” I raised my eyebrows at him. He continued, “You mentioned at the meeting that you restored your bar from the past. You also said that when you collect souls, you go into the ‘Otherworld.’ Was the bar you restored also in the Otherworld?” I nodded. “So, it’s like a ghost world, parallel to our own, that you have access to.” 

“Exactly.”

“You can pull things in and out of it, and when you go into the Otherworld, you are invisible in this one?” 

I nodded again. “Sort of. It’s more like I have no physical presence in this world when I’m in the Otherworld. I’m not still here and invisible.”

“Good, that’s what I meant. Here’s my idea: what if, instead of using shadows for illusions, you move just your wings into the Otherworld. Then, in this world, they would disappear.”

“Oh, that could work!” Yixin bounced up in her seat. “It would be even better than invisibility because they would also be impervious to touch!”

I shrugged, massaging my sore shoulders under my chainmail as I thought about it. “I’ve never sent just part of my body into the Otherworld before. I’m not sure I could do it without also dividing my consciousness. I suppose I could try.” I took a deep breath and expanded my awareness of the room. Before I could go farther, Yixin grabbed my arm. 

“Stop! Don’t be a dumbass, Sigrid. Wait until we’re in private! If it doesn’t work, you’ll disappear in the middle of a crowded café.”

I sighed. I really was not used to hiding my powers. “All right. We can practice later. I have a couple of spots I like to practice combat that are pretty secluded—” I broke off as Coyote stood up.

“That’s our guy!” He stretched lazily and added, “Anyone want a scone?” He grinned at us as he sauntered over to the baked goods counter, arriving in line just behind a tall, bearded man. He peered at the collection of rolls and cookies and said something to the man, who laughed. By the time they had reached the register, they were deep in conversation and had already handed each other their phones.

“Is he using some kind of magic?” I asked Yixin as we watched him.

“It’s a little complicated.” Yixin took another sip of her tea. “The short answer is no. The long answer is that, when you’re a magical person, almost everything you do is magic in some way. Coyote’s had hundreds of years to perfect his charisma. He’s always been skilled at manipulating people and getting them to do what he wants. Right now he’s using years of knowledge combined with charm and sexual energy that have always been a part of him. Whether that’s magic is hard to say.”

I nodded. “It can be hard to draw those lines. It’s like if I ask: how much of my fighting ability is magical because I’m a Valkyrie? I can fly and I am unnaturally strong. However, a lot of my combat skills also come from centuries of practice. If a human were to spend centuries on a battlefield, they also would have learned this.”

“For sure! But then again, being able to live for centuries is also magic. After all, I started life as an ordinary fox, and now look at me!” She smirked, striking a pose and tossing her black hair over her shoulder. I grinned. As the day had progressed, I had found myself letting go of something in Yixin’s presence: a heaviness, a loneliness perhaps, that had long ago settled on my heart. I had smiled more in the previous twelve hours than I had in all the rest of my time in San Francisco.

Coyote rejoined us, waving a paper bag in one hand and a scone in the other, and the three of us gathered up our things and walked back onto the street. “Back to the center?” Coyote sprayed crumbs as he spoke, causing Yixin to choke with laughter. 

I took a breath, feeling my heart thud in my throat as I considered how to word my request. “I know the center is private,” I finally began,  “But can’t we find a place outside with some privacy and some trees or bushes? I sometimes practice combat on the cliffs called Fort Funston, and no one has spotted me.” Somehow, I knew I wouldn’t be comfortable exploring my magic the way I intended inside a concrete building. I wanted to breathe the salty air and feel the particular, fluctuating timelessness of the ocean.

Yixin bit her lip. “Fort Funston is a little far. Maybe the Presidio? I’m concerned about possible witnesses, though.”

“You could do an illusion around a few bushes.” Coyote gently elbowed her in the side. “It would be good practice for you. Get you closer to your fourth tail.”

Yixin scoffed. “You always say that when you want me to do something.”

“It’s always true!” He winked at me as Yixin considered it. Finally, she nodded, and I smiled, relieved. 

“Can you spin an illusion while I fly us there?” I looked at them hopefully, but Yixin and Coyote both started laughing. 

“Girl, you need to learn how to live like a mortal!” Coyote pointed down the street as a huge metal monstrosity wheezed past us like a dragon on its last legs. “We’re taking the muni.”

An hour later, the three of us stood in a clump of trees off of Park Trail. Yixin had let the illusion around my clothes dissipate to concentrate instead on keeping the three of us hidden from surrounding passers-by. I looked down and felt gratified to see familiar chainmail, leather trousers, and throwing axe tucked into my belt. I leaned my shield and spear against a tree and spread my wings wide. Salty sea air filled my lungs and my heart swelled in response. 

Even in a young city like San Francisco, I will always find physical connections to the past. As I slowly released my connection to the ground and air around me, I could see the landscape change. One of the roads disappeared, the scrubby trees shrank, and the Otherworld’s familiar fog rolled in. The sounds changed, too: the chirps of birds and the distant rush of cars disappeared altogether, and I could hear the faint clang of metal on metal.

Before I could take off to investigate, Coyote stepped forward. “I thought this might be the Otherworld.” Though he now sported a dog-like head with canine incisors, his voice sounded the same. In fact, he looked surprisingly comfortable in the swirling mist. “We call this the Shadow Land in my language, although it’s really the beginning of the road there.” He glanced in the direction of the battle-sounds. “That’s just the soldados from the army base. Ghosts. Let’s focus on what you came here to do.” He gazed at me steadily with his yellow eyes. “Now, we are both fully in this land. We are invisible to Yixin—“ he pointed at an orange glow in the fog where she had been standing “—although we can see her magic. Can you return to the living, leaving your wings behind?”

I tried it. At first I could only fade back and forth between both worlds. Then, I thought of bringing my spear and shield with me. Eventually, I was able to move the spear and shield independently into the Otherworld and even move myself back and forth while holding them. Yixin recoiled but gave me a thumbs-up when she first saw me return without my weapons. I realized, looking down, that my right hand and left arm had vanished at the wrist and elbow. I crowed with triumph.

The sun had begun to set when I finally launched myself back into reality, wingless. I grinned, exhausted, and wiggled my shoulders experimentally. I could still feel my wings, but they felt lighter. When I lay down on the grass, the ground pressed against my back with a sensation I had not known since my human life. I faded back and forth a few more times, then turned to my new friends with my arms wide and my smile huge, spinning in a slow circle. They clapped.

“Can you still fly?” Yixin sat cross-legged on the ground, leaning against Coyote, who lay sprawled next to her. 

I tried to launch myself into the air and failed. “Huh.” I grimaced, unable to hide my disappointment, and decided I would go for a surreptitious flight later that night to reassure myself.

Yixin and Coyote accompanied me home, in part so Yixin could keep my mail and weapons hidden. By the time I had set myself back up behind the bar, served them drinks, and sent them on their way, I felt nauseous with exhaustion. I sipped a pint of beer to settle my stomach and leaned against the back wall, savoring the unfamiliar feel of the wood against my skin. I would have to try wearing some sweaters without wing holes, I decided. I closed my eyes, letting the beer and the muted sound of customers soothe my aching head. When I opened my eyes, I found myself face to face with Octavia. 

“Hey there, Valkyrie girl,” Her face was alight with mischief and something else I could not name. She smiled at me, and my heart gave a painful thump as she continued, “What happened to your wings?” 

    

6 - SFAIS

I sped toward the city. The wind thrashed against my face and I could see the twinkling lights of houses begin to appear in the bluish dusk. I felt a moment of intense joy as I stretched my wings, ducked my head, and sliced my way through the fog. There is something almost transcendent about a fast solo flight. I aimed upward and emerged into clear air, laughing out loud as I rolled and dipped.

At some point in my journey I accepted that I was already hours late for the meeting. I had probably missed all the SFAIS members entirely, and a few moments would likely make no difference, so I let myself revel in the freedom of the open air. I even showed off some tricks I hadn’t practiced in months, diving and spinning, letting the wind ruffle my hair and wings. By the time I arrived at Union Square, I had stopped worrying.

I circled the buildings trying to find the right address. I would find the location of the office, meet whatever magical persons were there, and promise to attend their meeting the next week. Maybe I would even invite them back to Eikthyrnir. After a couple of minutes I spotted the building Fergus had described, a pale green painted townhouse hidden among the larger buildings. The door would be right in front, facing the square.

I felt invigorated after my long flight and thrilled by the mystery of bringing a shieldmaiden to Valhalla, and I couldn’t contain myself from a final ebullient flip as I descended. I didn’t even notice the people staring at me until my feet touched the ground and I found myself at the center of a sea of startled faces. Lights flashed from every direction, blinding me. People held up their little rectangular phones and waved them in my face; they shouted and surged toward me.

“Did you see that? That lady was flying!”

“Nice wings, lady! Where are the wires?”

“That was real, Devin! Did you see that flip? No way you could use wires to do that!”

“Bro! I got it on video! Check it out!”

A man in an orange jacket grabbed one of my wings, and I lashed out, slapping him away hard. He fell heavily, but someone behind him had already reached out to touch my feathers. Someone else grabbed my arm, and I panicked. I should not have done this. I know better than to use battlefield tactics against civilians, but it had been a long time since anyone had violated my space outside of combat. I flipped my spear around and swept the blunt end in an arc that must have broken several people’s ribs, trying to create a clear area so that I could take off. Wings flapping wildly, I launched myself into the air—

—And found that I could no longer move my own body. My wings tangled and I crashed painfully onto the concrete. My eyes rolled wildly to each side as I fought to regain control of my limbs and keep an eye on the feet and legs surrounding my head. I expected to be trampled at any moment, but instead the shouts faded away and the mass of people began to disperse. After a few minutes, I found myself lying on an empty patch of concrete, apparently alone, until a head popped into my field of vision.

The head belonged to a tiny, black-haired girl who looked about fifteen years old. The moment I saw her I realized she was the reason I couldn’t move. The same presence that had somehow inhabited my body and frozen my muscles stared out of her smirking face. Her eyes were so dark they seemed all pupil, and I could see my reflection in them as she leaned over me.

“You must be Sigrid,” she said, beaming merrily. “I’m Yixin. Welcome to the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals. Fergus wasn’t kidding. You really don’t know the rules, do you?”

I grunted.

“If I let you go, you have to promise not to make any sudden movements.”

I glared at her and managed to make a growling sound low in my throat. My teeth ground against each other, and I struggled even harder.

Yixin stood up and leaned on one leg, then the other. “Listen, I know you probably feel attacked, but my illusion is what’s hiding you from the crowd, and I had to stop you flying around or it wouldn’t have worked.”

The enchantment holding my head loosened, and I found I could speak. Naturally, I began to spit out all the curses I had been silently repeating. She sat down beside me and patiently allowed me to tire myself out.

“…cleave your shoulder-cliff from your neck, crush you to marrow, and feed your bones to the eagles!” I finally finished.

Her smile did not dim. “Feel better?”

I scowled.

“Come on,” she said. “This is my shift. I could sit here all day. But it would be more fun to invite you inside. It’s more comfortable there; I could heat up Toci’s hot cocoa. It’s totally delicious.”

She looked at me hopefully, but I remained silent. She continued, “I honestly am sorry about possessing you without your consent. It was the only thing I could think of to keep you hidden while I scrambled people’s memories. You obviously don’t realize this, but showing off your magic to humans is really dangerous! If I hadn’t been here, you would have been in real trouble.”

I continued to lie silently on the concrete. Yixin must have realized I had stopped fighting her curse on me because she let it go, and all at once I could move again. I sat up slowly, my fists clenched. I was not happy. I would have liked nothing more than to respond to this chatty teenage girl with violence, but she was obviously a strong Völva, and I had never encountered her kind of power. My body had been taken from me, and I shook with terror and rage.

I took a breath. I had come to this part of town for information, and the logical next step was to get that information. Still trembling slightly, I followed Yixin into the building.

We went up a set of stairs and entered a cozy-looking room with a table, several couches, and a big counter with a spigot and some black circles. Yixin opened a small door to reveal a large pot and a blast of cold air. She put the pot on one of the circles and, seeing my stare, explained slightly disdainfully.

“This is a refrigerator. It keeps food cold so it lasts longer. That’s an electric stove.”

“I know,” I said defensively. “They have refrigerators at the store where I buy food.”  I sank onto a couch. Yixin puttered around and eventually brought me a hot mug that smelled amazing: sweet and full of spices. I inhaled the steam and sighed, feeling my shoulders begin to lose their tension as I watched my host.  At some point without my noticing, she had changed her appearance to include two reddish, furry ears poking through her hair. As she turned back to the stove, I noticed with interest that she also had what looked like three fox tails emerging through a hole in her jeans.

A handsome, young-looking man with long black hair in a ponytail and a bulky pair of eyeglasses leaned into the room calling, “Yixin? That you?” He stopped at the sight of me and grinned. “Sigrid?” He stuck out a hand, and I took it cautiously. “I’m Coyote.” His smile was wide and infectious, and his eyes seemed to sparkle with mischief. “I hear you’ve been causing some trouble. I love trouble.”. He turned to Yixin and added, “Looks like you’ve got your hands full. Do you need help with the cleanup?”

“Maybe,” said Yixin. “Homegirl was flying around in front of everyone. I took care of the memories but I’m not sure if anyone got it on camera.”

Coyote frowned. “So, there are probably a few hipsters with some incriminating video and no idea how it got on their phones. Ok, I’ll go patrol until the meeting starts and keep an eye out for people who look confused.” He clattered down the stairs toward the street.

Yixin waited until he was out of hearing before sitting beside me on the couch with a look of pure longing. She pretended to fan herself. “Watching that guy walk away! Am I right?” She peeked at me from behind her hand.

I shrugged. I was focused on a different part of his conversation. “He mentioned he would patrol until the meeting starts? Is there a meeting tonight?”

Yixin nodded. “A new supernatural in town is a big deal, dude. When you didn’t show up this morning, we decided to give you the rest of the day and then meet again.” She sipped her cocoa and looked me over, measuring up my wings, my armor, my spear and shield. “It’s lucky you actually showed up. I’d definitely prefer to have you as an ally than an enemy.”

I sighed. I could feel the adrenaline leaving my body, and my limbs felt as heavy and slow as encroaching frostbite. Yixin’s sorcery had been the final blow of a long and exhausting day of combat. I sipped the sweet, spicy drink and tried to focus on my situation. This tiny girl had captured me effortlessly, and she implied that the rest of her group had similar abilities. Much as I hated to admit defeat, it seemed I had no choice but to try and convince these people to accept me. Yixin’s veiled threat was doubly true from my perspective: I needed allies, not powerful enemies who could potentially prevent me from completing my quest.

So, I decided to ask Yixin questions about herself and this organization to which she belonged. Although she looked barely 15 years old, she told me she had come to San Francisco from China 150 years ago, and had lived in Guangdong Province for a couple of hundred years before that. “I’m almost 350 years old,” she told me proudly. “I’ve got three tails already! When I left Guangzhou I only had one. The longer I live, the stronger I get. It’s awesome.” She giggled, sounding exactly as young as she appeared, and then took out her phone and fiddled with it, holding it out in front of us. “Smile!” I scowled automatically. She laughed harder and showed me the exact likeness of us that she had captured on the device.

“Is that what people use phones for? In the bar, I’ve only seen them send messages!” I couldn’t conceal my amazement.

“Girl, you’re worse than Toci! I’m gonna have to seriously teach you about today’s technology.” And, for the next hour, she did. She explained her phone and its myriad functions, went over all the devices in the kitchen, explained the electric lights, talked about the history of telephones and the Internet, and gave me demonstrations of Instagram and Tumblr. At first I felt utterly confused. I kept asking her where the Internet was kept and whose documents we were spying on. But Yixin, as she explained to me, had years of practice teaching modern technology to the ignorant. It was her job both in the association and outside, in the modern world, where she picked up extra cash teaching computer skills to the elderly.

Finally, she rummaged in a desk drawer and brought out another smartphone. “This is yours,” she informed me. “I’ve convinced everyone else that they should have one, too. Some of our members are a little resistant to change, so I got a bunch of phones set up and paid for out of SFAIS funds to make it easy. Just take it, play with it, and see if you can get comfortable. The phone number is taped onto the back, here.”

I took it, intrigued, and turned it over in my hands. It was small and surprisingly light, and, like hers, it had no buttons, just a single screen that responded to touch. This was yet another kind of magic, and I couldn’t help wondering what Olrun would think of the device. Would it still work in Valhalla if I brought it there?

Just then, the door burst open and Fergus stomped inside, followed by a short, graceful woman with grey curly hair and skin like tree bark. When he saw me, Fergus’s smile took over his entire bulbous face. “Sigrid! I am glad to see you, my girl! I’ve a gift for you.” He produced a large bottle of amber liquid from somewhere on his person and handed it to me. I unscrewed the top and sniffed: it was strong. “That’s my third favorite whiskey, in thanks for all the beer I took from your bar,” Fergus announced proudly. I took a sip from the bottle. It tasted like fire and wood, with a sweetness that warmed my chest.

More people began to clatter inside, and as they entered the office they began to change. Fergus’s face became rounder and more bulbous, his nose grew, and he shrank in stature, going from about my waist-height to barely the height of my knee. Coyote entered and stretched, in one smooth motion becoming a large, dog-like animal with tan fur and yellow eyes. He grinned at me, tongue lolling.

Yixin stood up, all three of her tails wagging back and forth in her excitement. She introduced Toci, the short woman, who now sported a headdress made from spools of thread and black tattoos on her face. Toci inclined her head slightly, and I did the same, raising my spear in salute.

Finally a stout, red-haired woman and a muscular man as dark-skinned as Rufus entered together and introduced themselves as Clementine and John Henry. Clementine’s feet were each as large as her head, and as John Henry entered the room his chest and arms exploded with muscles.

Fergus ushered us all into an adjoining conference room where we sat around a long table. My exhaustion dissipated as I felt everyone’s eyes on me. Anxiety buzzed through my bones.  I’d left my spear and shield in the corner to show my peaceful intent, but I still felt attacked. Finally, when everyone had settled into their seat, Toci began the meeting.

“First of all, has anyone heard from Naigu? Is he planning to show up today?”

Yixin raised her hand and said, “He’s in one of his moods. He hasn’t left San Bruno Mountain in weeks.”

Toci nodded. “We’ll catch him up later, then. We’re all aware that we currently have a visitor, the Valkyrie Sigrid Spearthrower,” she announced. “Welcome, Sigrid.” Everyone in the room turned to stare at me.

Fergus cleared his throat. “Let’s keep in mind that Sigrid has not yet been informed of our rules. We cannot expect her to follow codes of behavior she does not know.”

The room was silent for several heartbeats. Toci said, her voice sharp, “Then we will inform her. “

She turned to me. “This association began when Fergus and I realized that humans in this city were becoming less and less willing to accept magic. The danger we noticed back in the 1870s has only become more extreme with time. As technology has advanced and the world has become smaller, humans are less inclined to accept what they don’t understand and more inclined to dissect and study it.” She unfolded her arms and leaned over the table toward me. “I say this to give you some context for the rules that we live by. You seem to come from a place and time where magic is accepted as ordinary. In this world, that is not the case. Our existence is a secret, and we work very hard to keep it that way.”

I nodded. “OK, I understand that. But I’ve been living here for almost 60 days and people never behaved that way before!”

“Tell us what you have been doing and how you’ve adjusted to life here,” Fergus suggested. “Perhaps you’ve been hiding your magic without realizing it.”

“I am here to collect the souls of those who die honorably and in battle and shepherd them to Valhalla, where they may fight and feast until the end of days,” I explained. I found myself wanting badly to justify my presence and minimize whatever harm I had done. “I have wandered the city often, searching for fallen warriors, yet I always do so on foot, on the streets. I do not believe that anyone has noticed me use magic or fly except for two very drunk customers at my bar.” I thought about Octavia and Peter, and for the first time felt relieved at their unwillingness to believe my story. Then I thought of something else. “I thought winged people were well-known here! I have never hidden my wings. People often comment on them. They even say they’ve seen similar ones.”

Toci frowned, the line between her eyebrows deepening. “Are you sure? That doesn’t make sense. Naigu’s our only winged member, and he hardly ever leaves his mountain.”

Coyote and Yixin exchanged glances. “They must assume it’s a costume,” said Coyote. “This is San Francisco, after all, and we’ve still got plenty of freaks and angel-headed hipsters, right?” He winked at John Henry, who grinned back. “Did they mention where they’d seen other wings? Folsom, maybe, or Pride?”

“Oh, or Comic-Con!” Yixin added, giggling. “SF’s just getting nerdier with time. They all just assume you’re a cosplayer!”

“Even if that is the case,” cut in Toci, “we cannot assume that people will take Sigrid’s appearance in stride.” She turned to me, and her voice had become so grating I could have used it to sharpen an axe. “You have been very lucky to remain under the radar. I’m going to have to insist that you get rid of the wings and stop flying in public. In addition, you injured several people in the middle of Union Square, and if Yixin hadn’t been on the scene you could have exposed all of us. There will still need to be significant cleanup and monitoring of everyone involved.”

“Hold up,” said Clementine, propping an enormous foot on one knee. “We seem to have skipped a step. Who says Sigrid gets to stay in the city? She’s caused a ton of trouble, and she’s basically here to kill people, right? Or collect dead people? Either way, it sure ain’t a good omen. If she came from some other world, why can’t she just go back there where she won’t do us any harm?”

“I’m not here to kill people!” I objected. “I help people who are already dead.  Also, I need my wings! They’re part of me; you can’t get rid of my wings!” I stood up, glaring around the table.  Toci had begun to speak, but I couldn’t seem to focus on it until Yixin patted my arm and spoke into my ear.  “Calm down, Sigrid! Can’t you hear her? We’re not going to get rid of your wings. Calm down and listen!”

“Ok.” I said, trying to slow my breathing. “I’m listening.”

Toci chuckled, her hair-bobbins shaking. Normally I would have spit in her face, but it was a kind laugh and actually lightened the mood in the room. “You’re a fighter,” she observed, “but there’s no need for this fight. If you agree, Yixin can teach you an illusion that will hide your wings from mortals.”

“What about the dead people?” asked John Henry. “Won’t the cops notice if she’s a witness to all these violent deaths?”

“When a warrior dies, I go into the otherworld to shepherd his spirit,” I explained, sitting back down. “When I’m in the otherworld, I’m invisible to the living.”

“She’s a psychopomp,” Coyote said suddenly. “Like Raven. She brings the dead to the afterlife.  It’s been a long time since I met one in the city.” He winked at me and smiled a broad smile at the table. “The presence of a psychopomp is a good sign for a place. They ease the transition between life and death and mitigate scars left by trauma and violence. A battlefield visited by ravens always has fewer ghosts.”

“The city has a lot of hatred,” John Henry said thoughtfully. “Y’all know I gravitate to places with a strong suspicion of technology, and right now in San Francisco it’s practically a war.”

Toci nodded. “Coyote, if you really think Sigrid’s presence would dispel some of the city’s tension, it would be a shame to make her leave.”

“I’d like to propose that we allow Sigrid the Valkyrie to stay in the city under certain conditions,” Fergus agreed. “Namely, that she join the group for a probationary period and go through the proper training.”

“Seconded!” Yixin nudged my shoulder and grinned at me. “I talked to her earlier. She won’t be a danger to us once she learns the rules.”

In the end, they voted five to one to let me stay in the city, with Clementine the only dissenter. Toci nodded gravely at all of us. “Good. Sigrid, you’ll start working with Yixin and Coyote immediately to monitor the damage you’ve done. I don’t want you out of our sight until we can trust you not to expose us. Everyone, thanks for your input. The meeting is adjourned.”

Clementine and John Henry immediately stood up to leave; I could hear her complaining to him in fierce whispers as they headed to the door. Toci and Fergus were quick to follow. When it was just the three of us, Yixin turned to Coyote and me and grinned. “Let’s get started,” she said.

5 - Gloria

A few days later, I found myself walking through the Inner Sunset close to dawn on my way to the first meeting of this so-called Association. As I walked, I glanced at the broad, delicate ring around my forearm, wondering about its powers. Since that night when it had pulsed around Peter and Octavia, I had patrolled the city faithfully but with little result. Perhaps I simply hadn’t yet come across any warrior spirits; perhaps Odin was right and there simply weren’t very many left in Midgard. Yet Volund hadn’t said that the bracelet reacted to the dying, only that it reacted to heroes. Surely, among the thousands of people I seemed to have to physically dodge every time I went out on the street, the people crowding streetcars and cafes, the people living under eaves, sleeping in doorways, walking briskly with their black leather satchels, shouting, burping, eating, driving cars, surely among all of this huge variety of people there must have been a hero somewhere?

I tried to remember what Octavia and Peter had been doing when the bracelet reacted. It hadn’t pulsed most of the time I’d been around them, so it must have reacted to some kind of behavior. I could hardly describe either of their reactions that night as heroic: startled maybe, a little fearful, disbelieving perhaps, but not heroic.

Suddenly, a scream sliced through the chilly air. I’d been lost in thought, trusting my admittedly fuzzy inner map of the city, and I’d wandered into a small residential alley. Bursts of garden – lemon trees, small sequoias – peeked over fences that encircled tall, narrow houses with spacious yards. The houses leaned elegantly toward each other, and behind each one I could just distinguish the well-painted, cared-for building in its past. Run down now, but grasping for that former dignity, the houses looked benevolently down over dusty brown yards filled with broken bicycles, old water cisterns, a spare tire or two. If it hadn’t been for the sense of urgency filling my soul in the predawn quiet, it might have made a cozy scene. Instead, the scream ringing in my ears, I found myself tugged past the rusty dumpsters toward a medium-sized, otherwise unremarkable brown house.

My wings spread without thought, and I rose into the air over the houses. Windows had begun to light up all over the block as a second piercing scream bit the air and a huge clang, followed by a silence far eerier for the noises that had preceded it. The back door to the house, leading into the garden, swung open, and a woman staggered out, bleeding heavily from her chest. A frying pan hung loosely from her fingers. She walked a step, two, then fell to her knees, her arms outstretched. The frying pan fell onto the dead grass of the yard with a barely audible thump, and as the man stalked out after the woman, the noise of his heavy breathing, the woman’s gasps, all filled the air like the kind of snow that is almost mist, that swirls thick in all directions and slows down the whole world for its dim brightness.

“I told you you’d never leave me,” said the man in a voice so faint it was almost a whisper. “Didn’t I say I’d kill you first? Why didn’t you listen?”

The woman said nothing. I could see her outline begin to shimmer, and despite myself I realized I wanted desperately to intervene, to reach out and change the events all three of us saw so clearly and inevitably unfolding. Blood streamed from the man’s forehead into his collar, and his pale eyes had almost disappeared under his swollen brow. The woman grasped the frying pan a second time, and as he stepped forward, raising the bloody knife in his hand, she turned as if in slow motion and swung the pan with all her might. It connected with the man’s kneecaps as he descended the final step of that rickety wooden staircase, and he dropped like a stone, wailing a high, thin, note. As if that single blow had taken the last of her strength, the woman, too, toppled onto her hands and knees. Her dark brown hair was damp with sweat and the blood that had soaked her chest and now drenched her hands as she curled herself into a ball, breathing slowly, shallowly, and, far too soon, not breathing at all.

I stood over her and held out my hand. She turned her head and looked up at me. Tears streamed down her face, but her jaw was set and hard. She didn’t get up.

“I’m dead,” she told me. Her voice, quiet but steady, did not break the silence so much as enter and inhabit it, the cold, pre-dawn silence of a terrifying and violent death that had seemed to happen without anyone really noticing, as if she had stumbled out of her house and fallen quietly into a crack, just disappeared like a pool of water in sunlight, with little noise and no fuss. She didn’t even look at the living man who had dragged himself to her side and was now holding her body in his arms, sobbing openly. She looked only at me and stayed curled into herself and entirely still as the man, limping terribly, began to drag her body away behind her through the yard. “He’s killed me. I never really thought he would, you know. Or perhaps I always knew it. It’s hard to say.”

“Gloria Johnston?” I asked her, uncertain because I couldn’t quite find her name in that still, empty face.

“No,” she said, suddenly decisive. “No, not anymore. It’s Gloria Ruiz. That’s the name my parents gave me. My mother’s name.”

I reached down to her, solemn and dignified, as I had been with Rufus and all of the Einherjar I had collected centuries earlier. “Gloria Ruiz, you have died fighting, with courage and strength, as befits a shieldmaiden. My name is Sigrid Spearthrower, and I am honored to witness your final battle. Please allow me to escort you to Valhalla, the afterlife for fallen warriors.”

She frowned for a moment, her eyes far away. Then, finally, she reached up.  Our hands met. As we rose into the sky, she kept her eyes on mine until the pale, dusty yard, the limping man, and the dim neighborhood with its blinking lights and distant sirens had vanished in the gloom, and I began to smell the clear, mossy swamp of Valhalla.

When we arrived, Valhalla was just waking up and starting the day. We could hear the distant clamor of the Einherjar feasting on bacon, bread, and beer before a long day of fighting, but few people could be seen out on the marshy fields. Volund was chopping wood in front of his cabin, his muscled arms flexing beautifully as he swung the axe. I turned to Gloria and saw her lift her head, carefully and cautiously surveying the mist rising through the thin trees. Her mouth twisted at the sight of Volund and the sound of his axe slamming through the wood. Her eyebrows rose at the long, glittering hall roofed with shields and fenced by spears and pikes. Still, she didn’t say a word, but seemed to shrink, looking smaller and smaller as she followed me toward the great hall of Valhalla proper.

Until, with a clatter of steel, her blonde braid whipping behind her, Signy strode out of the woods and caught sight of us crossing the field. A look of confusion crossed her face, but she broke into a huge smile as she locked eyes with Gloria, who, startled, began a timid answering smile of her own.

“You’ve returned!” Signy leaped into the air and coasted the final fifty yards between us, landing in a flurry of golden-brown feathers and steel. “Is this what I think? Have you really brought us a shieldmaiden?”

I nodded at her, grinning. Signy had always wanted Valhalla to accept women, but female warriors have traditionally gone to Freya’s realm, Folkvangr. Signy looked as if she were about to take off again with excitement, as if only the clouds could contain her joy at this new development. 

She peered into Gloria’s eyes, and seemed to sense automatically that a lighter hand was needed for this particular Einherja. The way she had been standing, her wings still spread behind her, her throwing axe in hand, seemed almost guaranteed to intimidate, and Signy proved equal to that realization, tamping down her excitement, reducing her aggressive demeanor, and visibly shrinking to something closer to Gloria’s height. Her wings folded back behind her. She put out a hand and clasped Gloria gently on the shoulder. “Welcome, shieldmaiden,” she told the frightened woman, and her voice had moved from the eagle screech to a quieter, more melodic pitch, with just a hint of Signy’s usual angry scratchiness. “I can see you have suffered at the hands of men, and that you died without fully realizing your revenge. Your mind is still back there, isn’t it? Still trapped in the violence that formed you. Isn’t it?”

Gloria’s face had become stone. Even the worry lines around her mouth seemed carved and immutable; her dark eyes flint, her disheveled hair offering little softness to counteract the set of her lips. “It wasn’t just him,” she said bleakly. “And now they have all won, the ones who hurt me. He has killed me, you know. I am gone now. I will never be free.” Her lower lip quivered as she spoke, but her eyes remained stubbornly dry. “They taught this to me,” she said. “James did, and the one before him, and my stepfather. They turned me into this person, who can only keep going back to be hurt, who lives in fear. Why? Why would they do that?”

Signy’s entire face darkened with the rage I have seen her battle every day of all the years I have known her; the rage that comes from a lived helplessness, from a life distilled out of terror. I know that rage, too. I could see in Gloria’s sunken eyes and in Signy’s grinding teeth a matching terrified vulnerability, and it made my heart shiver in compassion.

Signy’s voice was rough when she finally spoke. “You have learned more than just pain,” she said. “What is your name?”

“Gloria Ruiz.”

“You have learned more than how to be hurt, Gloria Ruiz,” said Signy. “You have learned intimately the possibilities of violence, and that rage inside you has given you power. Your life of fear has taught you to create a well of courage within yourself. You are a weapon, Gloria, with the ability and means to channel that pain and direct it elsewhere. You have been broken and reforged into something stronger than you once were.”

Gloria stared at her. “So what?” She took a shaky breath and continued, “What’s the point of that if I cannot go back and free myself, if I will never receive justice for the crimes that were committed against me?” She stood straight as a sapling reaching for the sun in a wide meadow, with no larger trees to block its shadow and a well of rich earth beneath its roots. She raged, and I could see her draw the rage into herself, valuable as water and soil to a tree, strong as minerals surging into her veins.

Signy smiled a sharp, cruel smile. “If you want justice, you will find a way,” she said. “In the meantime, I will train you for the end of days. You have entered into a battle more dangerous and farther reaching than anything you have known. Does that frighten you?”

Gloria shook her head. “I got no fear left,” she said. “I must have left it behind. I seem to have only anger and grief now.” She closed her eyes.

“You are only the second warrior to enter Valhalla in the past 800 years. We are still learning how the world has changed in our absence, but the training we can give you would be a worthy occupation for a woman as strong and wild as you. We can take your anger and hone it into a guiding force.” She held out her hand to the smaller woman and asked, “Do you want to learn how to fight demons and kill giants? To learn the way of the spear?”

Gloria opened her eyes and stared at Signy. Her voice was barely a whisper, but her back straightened and her fists were clenched. “Yes.”

Signy smiled. “Good.”

I left the two of them to get acquainted and walked over to where Volund had just finished chopping wood. He waved at me, beaming. “Did it help?” He gestured at the arm-ring.

I shrugged. “I’m not sure.” I told him about the bracelet’s reaction to Octavia and Peter, and he looked thoughtful.

“This was just after you startled them by flying? But they thought it was an elaborate trick. Denial is not courage.” He shrugged, his deep voice comfortingly growly. “I am not always sure how my magic will work in practice. We will wait, and find out.”

I nodded and then looked at him again, this time really appreciating the sight of his craggy face, wild red beard, and strong, delicate hands. He saw me looking and winked, adding, “We have some time before today’s battle. Do you want to come to my cabin?”

I grinned. “I thought you’d never ask.”

 

*

 

An hour later, in his cabin, I rolled off of Volund and collapsed with my head on his bicep. “Oh, that was good. I missed that.” I ran my hand along his chest and up to his cheek.

He rubbed his cheek on my fingers, then kissed them. “It’s good that you are back.” His arms came back around me, and he drew lazy circles around my belly button.

We had lain there for only a couple of minutes when we heard the clang of iron on wood. “That’s the battle starting!” he raised his head and his eyes sparked with energy. “Are you going to join?”

After hundreds of years of this life I could still feel the thrill of battle in my blood. I wanted to be out there on the field, swinging my shield, blocking and bashing, numb to the exhaustion in my arms as I kept my spear level and prepared to respond, react, defend and attack in an endless, instinctual dance. “Yes!” I propped myself on one elbow and gazed into his eyes, letting him see the bloodlust in my face as I grinned, showing all my teeth. He laughed.

“San Francisco doesn’t have enough fighting for you?”

I shrugged. “It’s not the same at all. Let’s go!” I rolled out of bed and began pulling on my clothes and armor as Volund dragged himself to the edge of his bed to dress. As usual, I wanted to stop and watch the powerful, graceful way Volund swung himself around the room on the bars he’d set up when he built the house. I especially love watching him when he’s nude and doing his morning gymnastics.

Volund is quick, though, and in just a couple of minutes we were both dressed and he was leading the way in his combat chair. I savored the marshy air of the field as we marched through the trees toward the sounds of battle. I could already smell blood. As we approached, I spread my wings and launched myself into the fray.

For the next several hours, I lost myself in the grinding exhilaration of combat. All around me soldiers clashed blades and shields. From the corner of my eye, I saw Signy with Gloria in tow. Together they fought their way through the field toward me, their progress punctuated by gasps and shouts as the warriors of Valhalla realized they were looking at the first female Einherja in Valhalla. Gloria seemed too busy to fully notice the attention. Once the warriors got over their shock, they all wanted to face the new shieldmaiden in battle. They flocked to her corner of the battlefield, and she and Signy had to constantly fend off their attacks.

I retreated for a moment to watch the two of them from the edge of the field. Gloria’s face, at first pinched and cautious, began to show flickers of amazement as she hacked and blocked at Signy’s side. I knew how she felt, remembered the thrill of learning my own capacity for violence. After enough training, she would lose herself in it and let the bloodlust and muscle memory take over.

Signy took a moment to wave at me as I fought my way over to them. “Get out of here!” She shouted at me. “What if you get sent back to Midgard and you’re injured?”

I laughed as I swung. “Who cares? I’ll heal!”

Signy and I fought back-to-back with Gloria between us. The faces around me blurred as my spear slashed and blocked. A little while later, Signy tapped my arm and guided the three of us out of the main area of combat. We stopped under a nearby tree, gasping for breath.

“You two look good out there,” I told them. “How was it?”

Gloria smiled hesitantly. She was soaked in blood, but none of it appeared to be hers. “Cathartic. That’s the word I’m looking for. I feel strong.” She hefted her axe and glanced at Signy. “Can you teach me some of those things you were doing? Like when that guy came up behind you and you brained him with your shield? I had no idea you could attack with a shield.”

Signy grinned. “That’s one of my favorites.” She glanced around. Bodies littered the field. The early afternoon sun broke through the clouds occasionally to reflect on filthy armor. I knew exactly which moments the sun would come out: these moments were the same every day. A sizable number of Einherjar continued to hack away at each other over the bodies of their fallen comrades. Others had retreated to the trees to rest or refresh themselves, while still others had gathered into groups to share their knowledge.

I noticed Rufus standing at the center of one of these groups, gesturing to at least 30 warriors. Curious, I nudged Signy. “Do you see that group over there? Is that Rufus talking?”

Signy nodded. “He has been teaching a kind of mind-magic in which he disassociates himself from pain. He can withstand terrible injuries. I’ve never seen anyone with his type of endurance who wasn’t a berserker.”

My very first modern Einherja was already contributing knowledge to Odin’s host. I beamed with pride, my tired wings expanding.

Signy slung a casual arm around my shoulder. “Let’s get a drink before you leave.” She tilted her head toward the field, where a few warriors had begun to march toward us. “We can avoid the whole introduction for a bit. Gloria?” Gloria nodded, carefully buckling her axe into her belt. She followed us to the hall, where Olrun and Iarni were staring into a bowl.

“They’re scrying,” Signy explained to Gloria. “You can watch if you’re careful not to disturb them.” The two of us sat back with our mead as Gloria approached the seers.

“Did you wonder, when you found Gloria, if you would end up in Folkvangr?” Signy asked.

I hesitated. “I wondered when I first left if I would run into a shieldmaiden and find Folkvangr. When I found Gloria, though, I just came here instinctively. I didn’t think about it at all. I don’t think the path to Freya’s hall is open to me.”

Signy and I looked at each other for a long moment. At last she whispered, “I wonder what happened to them. And I wonder why, in all these years, I never thought about it before. Thrudh is over there. So are Eir the Healer and Olrun’s two sisters.”

Suddenly, I remembered Rota, the Folkvangr Valkyrie I had once befriended. How long had it been since I’d thought of her? My mind felt thick and full of mist. My mother had been a warrior; my mother had died a noble death and gone to Folkvangr. I stared back for a moment, stricken. My voice was barely audible. “Signy…”

Signy reached out and gently touched my cheek. Her green eyes burned into mine. “I think we’re under a spell,” she whispered.

I nodded. “It has to be a part of the Break.”

She raised her eyebrows, perplexed. “The Break?”

“The stasis, you know, when time stopped. When we broke off from the world tree. That’s what I’ve been calling it. As far as we know, time only stopped here. But if I didn’t go to Folkvangr, maybe it’s been cut off from the worlds, too.”

Signy shrugged. “I don’t think time actually stopped, Sigrid. There just weren’t any warriors on Midgard any more. Now that you’re finding warriors again and everything will go back to normal.”

I stared at her, appalled. “Normal? If this were normal, I would have collected souls that died in a real battle. Odin would have sent me to a war zone, not a city full of lightning-magic and smoke! If this were normal, I would have taken Gloria to Folkvangr.”

She shook her head uncomfortably, her wings drooping. Then she covered her face with her hands. “You’re right,” she whispered, “but I don’t want to believe you. My head feels like it’s being hammered by Thor himself. We need to stop talking about this.”

Groups of Einherjar had begun clattering through the main doors as we spoke. Two of them peered at us as they set the huge hog on the spit. Three others had been busy collecting pitchers of ale and setting them onto tables. Their task finished, they headed toward us, staring openly as Olrun and Iarni cleared their bowl and Gloria brought her mead to us.  

“We’ll join you,” announced Ori as he led his two companions to our table. He bowed to Gloria and declared, “I am Ori Ironhelm and these two are Thorstein the Red and Bjorn the Tradesman.”

Gloria stood and bowed in return. “Gloria the Bloody,” she said, her voice harsh, with a crackle that set my teeth on edge. Signy and I looked at each other, awed, and I suddenly knew that if Gloria were a Valkyrie, her wings would be the glossy greenish-black of a carrion crow.

For the next few hours, men crowded around our table introducing themselves to Gloria. They offered everything from horns of mead to battle-axe tips to performances of Skaldic poetry. Gloria declined to explain her death or her choice of name. However, she seemed to enjoy hearing accounts of betrayal, lost battles, and revenge.

As I watched her preside over the crowd, I suddenly remembered where I’d been going when I found the shieldmaiden. I found my attention straying to my missed meeting in San Francisco and the magical people I had planned to see. Because of this, I actually felt relieved when I noticed the hall begin to fade around me and the mead vanish from my hand. I found myself drifting above the Pacific Ocean once again. This time, I refused to waste a moment. Flying low and fast, I headed straight for the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.

4 - Octavia

I was still reeling with new information after the drunk Irish spirit had gone, though in many ways he’d given me more questions than answers. I didn’t really understand what this association of supernatural creatures actually did. What was their purpose? I thought I’d better ask Olrun or Volund for some good warding runes if I made it back to Valhalla a second time. Obviously, the ghostly nature of the building, though effective at hiding my bar from humans, did little to dissuade other non-humans from finding and entering it freely.

In the meantime, I finished cleaning up the mess and flipped the metaphorical sign out front, allowing Eikthyrnr to fully emerge into the world of the living. As I dragged my furniture back up the stairs, I felt exhilarated. Thoughts of Rufus, my first collected soul in centuries, percolated at the back of my mind and added even more questions to my already substantial list. I worried that, despite my confident words to Odin, I was missing something essential about Rufus, some aspect of his personality or life that held a clue to the changes Olrun had seen her in her scrying-bowl. I studied the new, delicate band around my forearm and wondered if Volund’s gift would have helped me find Rufus sooner, if it would lead me to more warriors like him or to different souls altogether.

One of my regulars, an elderly man with a small, shaggy white dog, came in and set himself up at one of the small tables before walking up to the bar and ordering his usual beer. After that, people began trickling in: a few surfers, a couple, and a pair of older women with a chessboard. I watched their game, fascinated, and absentmindedly wiped the bar as a group of young people walked in the door, chatting loudly, and made their way to a corner booth. After that, the place picked up considerably, and I lost myself in the simple pleasure of serving ale, discussing my beer and mead list, and even occasionally clearing tables. It was a familiar routine despite its appearance of chaos, and I felt myself calm as the night progressed.

“Do you ever feel, no, no, seriously, do you ever feel like the world is just an inherently incredible place?” The woman leaning over my bar had long brown hair, light brown skin, and the most beautiful liquid brown eyes I had ever seen. She was slurring her speech slightly, and I found myself drawn to her wide, expressive mouth as she spoke. “I mean, every day I read about atrocities. I read about human trafficking and increasing wealth disparity and systemic racism and the prison industrial complex. It’s a lot, man. You know.”

I nodded, even though I had no idea what she was talking about. After all, I’m a bartender at heart. I don’t need to understand what people are saying to have a conversation on the human condition.  “People can be cruel,” I said, guessing. “Out there in the world, they are harming each other every day. It’s not always on purpose, but it never changes.”

 “Yeah. Don’t I know it. But on a night like this, with the wind blowing right up the street and all my friends around, it just makes me feel like, like…” She waved her hands around aimlessly.

“Like what?”

“Aw, I dunno. Maybe like there’s real good in the world. Like there’s a well of joy we can somehow all just tap into.” She smiled at me broadly and looked right into my eyes, and I found myself warmed by her gentle manner. She was wearing a leather jacket, and she leaned her arms on the bar as she spoke, oblivious to a puddle of beer by her elbow.

“Maybe there is,” I suggested, half-serious. “We create happiness inside ourselves, don’t we? But it needs fuel. The fuel comes from places like this. Loved ones and lighthearted evenings are the wood for its fire.”

The girl burst out laughing. “That’s perfect,” she finally said.  “Cheesy and ridiculous, which is the exact mood that I’m in. What’s your name? I’m Octavia. Can I have another of those honey-birch beers? They’re bitter, but strangely delicious.”

“Of course,” I said, “That’s three dollars. Sigrid is my name.” I busied myself filling her drink and wondered at this woman and the actually palpable sensation of lightness that she seemed to instill. I found myself smiling without noticing, and actually humming a tune from my childhood as I passed her the glass.

“Sigrid, huh? That’s cool, almost as cool as my name. Your wings are awesome! I saw someone wear a black pair just like that to Folsom last year, but yours are such neat colors. They look like they came off a real bird!”

I grinned at her. Signy has the brown-gold wings of an eagle and Olrun and her sisters’ wings are swan-white, but mine are the grey and white of an osprey, full of patterns and streaked with brown. I can be very vain about them. “They’re based on osprey wings,” I told Octavia proudly. When she looked confused, I explained, “That’s a big seabird that used to hunt fish where I grew up. I’ve always liked them. It made sense that when I got wings, they would match my favorite bird.”

“Totally. God, it must have taken you forever to put those together. I can see why you like them so much. If I could make wings like that, I would show them off constantly.” I glowed with pride as she continued, “So you grew up near the sea? Where are you from? You have an amazing accent.”

An hour later I knew that Octavia was studying for her doctorate of ethnic studies at a nearby university called Berkeley, that she had a brother and sister and came from a much colder place in America called Michigan, that she loved hiking, that she wished she had the time and stability to own a dog, that she played the bass in a student band but her real passion was piano, that she came to a studio here in the Sunset once or twice a week to learn jazz with a small music collective, that she loved this bar but was surprised she hadn’t noticed the building before now, that she used to hate her name but had grown attached to it, considered herself a social nerd, loved reading science fiction and fantasy, and believed in ghosts and the chupacabra.

In turn, Octavia knew that I was from Sweden and that I was not very good at discussing myself. If she hadn’t drunk two more pints of mead during our conversation, I’m sure she would have given up in frustration and walked away. Instead, she kept talking, and I found myself relating to her story of caring for her ill mother, nodding in recognition at her description of sexism in the university (“It’s way worse for my sister Maggie, she’s an engineer and there’s almost no women in her department at all! Ethnic studies is actually mostly women, but we don’t get any respect from the other departments.”), and genuinely fascinated at her description of her large, Mexican-Polish family. “The only thing I have on both sides is alcoholism and Catholic guilt,” she said, raising her third glass.

“Christianity is common, then?” I asked before I could stop myself. When I was alive, I had been certain Christianity was a minor cult that would fade into obscurity.

She stared at me. “You’re weird. But yeah, Christianity’s everywhere, thanks to European colonialism and the forced conversion of native peoples. I can tell you all about it some time. I considered writing my thesis on the way religion has been used as a method of self-policing among sub-altern populations, who ended up becoming more religiously conservative both as a survival mechanism and a way to prove to the oppressive regimes that they were civilized and capable of self-government.”

“I do not understand a single thing you just said,” I admitted. “It sounds serious.”

She laughed. “It is, but it’s also an example of me being an obnoxious academic. Sometimes I spend so much time in my own small intellectual world that I forget how much of this terminology is specific to my area and I come off like a jackass. Forgive me? I can explain it all if you want.”

“Maybe let’s just start with the history of this area,” I said. “I have a lot to learn since I just moved here.  You’ll have to go slow though. To be honest, I am not very smart. My skills are more in the physical realm than the intellectual.” I flexed a bicep and winked. 

She laughed again, this time a slow chuckle that brightened her whole face. “Nice,” she said. “I don’t spend nearly enough time with the brawn over brains crowd. Anyway, I don’t need to be giving a lecture right now. Let’s move the conversation back to you. Tell me more about your wings. Do you wear them a lot?”

I nodded. “Of course. They’re a part of me,” I told her. “I couldn’t take them off if I wanted to. But why would I want to? I love being able to fly.”

Octavia laughed. “I respect a girl who can commit,” she said. “You must fly pretty often. Where do you go?”

“My favorite place in this area is just to the west, where the land meets the sea. I think it’s called Land’s End—just beyond there. When there is a storm, I fly low, just over the waves so that the air and water mix and I feel like I’m part of both.” I looked her in the eyes carefully, feeling inexplicably nervous. “Do you know what I mean? Right there on the edges of things, so you’re not one thing and not the other.” I felt brighter, somehow, as we talked, as if I could explain some of my feelings in ways that would make sense and would not make me feel ashamed of this strange openness. “There hasn’t been a storm in a while, but there was a true cliff-basher the day after I arrived, and I lost myself in the violence of it, for a while.”

Octavia smiled back at me. “Normally I avoid the weather as a topic of conversation at bars,” she said, her eyes sparkling with humor. “It’s so overdone. But you have a way with words.” She shifted her arms on the bar, leaning toward me, but turned suddenly as a gangly, thin young man approached to perch on the stool beside her. “Hey, Grasshopper!” She slung her arms around his shoulders and turned to me, grinning. “This is my new friend Sigrid! She’s from Sweden and she loves storms, too.”

The young man inclined his head in a surprisingly graceful acknowledgment for his gawky frame. He had a shock of blond hair sticking up from his head. “Peter,” he said curtly, his eyes solemn. “Nice wings. Were you at WonderCon this year? I think I saw a pair just like that.”

I shook my head, wondering if these other winged people Octavia and Peter had seen might be members of the association Rufus had told me about. I’d find out soon enough. I returned my attention to Octavia, who was talking.

“We call him Grasshopper because he’s so skinny and a straight up genius on the violin,” She explained. She pointed at his glass. “Refill?” He nodded, and I topped it up with the same pale ale he’d been drinking earlier.

Octavia’s arm was still around Peter’s shoulders, and she gave them a squeeze before she let go. “You sounded great today,” she told him, “I’ve never seen your fingers move so fast. I still think you need to play ‘The Devil Went Down to Georgia’ for us, because I swear you could beat Lucifer himself.”

He grinned. “Girl, you don’t have to keep buttering me up.” He turned to me and added, “Tavy always showers me with compliments when she thinks I’m having a hard day.”

“Doesn’t mean they aren’t true!” Octavia protested.

I smiled at them as they bickered, marveling at my own pleasure in the conversation. I found I had to take a step back and watch myself acting like a modern human, interacting with mortals in this lighthearted fashion. These bartender conversations felt effortless despite their still unfamiliar context.

Octavia rummaged in the pockets of her leather jacket. “I’m gonna smoke a cigarette. You in, Peter?” He nodded, and she glanced back to me. “Want to join us? How long is your shift?”

I looked around the bar. Midnight had come and gone, and we were now in the early hours of the morning. There were only a few people left at the tables, none with drinks over half-full. I nodded at her. “Go ahead; I’ll meet you out back in a few minutes. If you take that door right there—” I pointed “—you can get a beautiful view from the outdoor stair.”

She wrinkled her eyes at me. “You mean the fire escape? Sure, sounds good.” Sliding clumsily off her bar stool, she sauntered out of the room, followed by Peter.

I watched the door close behind them and then took a deep breath, feeling around me for the invisible hooks tethering the building. Yes, here are the edges, I thought, testing them. I could sense the parts of the building that remembered it should have been intangible, that it was more memory than reality. Still, the tethers held strong. In fact, I seemed to have anchored this building to the living world with a lot more strength than I recalled being capable of in my old days as a Valkyrie. Perhaps my powers had grown in the interim? I filed the thought away to look at later and loosened the hooks slightly, letting the building fade just enough for the remaining customers to feel restless and uncomfortable, as if something unnameable about their environment was unstable, even precarious. Without quite knowing why, they found themselves deciding to finish up, pay for their drinks, and move on.

I let myself out the back door into the alley without bothering to clear the remaining tables. It would wait. Octavia and Peter were out of sight, but a small light flickered distantly near the roof of the building so I assumed they had climbed all the way up the fire escape and settled down on the roof.

Spreading my wings was a relief after a night of keeping them furled. This time, I rose to the roof slowly, savoring the ache in my sore muscles as my wings flapped in search of an updraft. I came eye-level to Octavia just as she was taking a drag on her cigarette, and she immediately started coughing. She had been sitting on the edge of the roof with her legs hanging over the side, and as I alighted beside her she threw herself backward off the ledge of the fire escape, crashed into Peter and scrambled away onto the roof. Her eyes were huge.

Peter rolled over where he had fallen and climbed to his feet in front of his friend, staring at me. “What the hell?” He sounded dazed.

I had messed up. I slapped myself on the forehead and hunched down a little, trying to make myself smaller and less frightening. “Baldr's blistering balls! I am so sorry! I forgot that people don’t interact with legend anymore. Freya’s farts, I’m thoughtless. Seriously, I am so, so sorry. Even in my old Valkyrie days I usually knew better than to land in front of people outside of a battlefield, and they would have at least recognized me. It’s just, you seemed so unsurprised by my wings and my story about flying. And today I learned about the San Francisco Society of International Supernaturals, so I figured you knew about them, too.” Octavia was still on the ground, and strange choking sounds were coming out of her mouth. What had I done? I hunched further into myself and tried to approach as cautiously and unthreateningly as possible. “Do you need medical attention?” This just caused further choking sounds.

Finally, she sat up, gasping, and I realized she wasn’t in pain or panicking. She was laughing.

“Oh my god.” She managed a few words between snorts of laughter. “Of course. Of course you’re some kind of Viking god Valkyrie thing. Of course your wings are real. What else would they be?” She laughed again and added, “Your face! You thought you’d killed me or something. Jesus! You scared the crap out of me. That is a nice trick, though. Do you have wires or something? Way more convenient than the fire escape. You have got to teach me how to cuss like that, it sounds absolutely ridiculous. Do you always use that much alliteration when you swear?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” My heart was hammering against my ribcage, and I found myself laughing, too, out of sheer relief and confusion. Why had my reaction been so extreme? Why had I felt so panicked and concerned when nothing was wrong? I noticed, now that I felt calmer, that my left forearm was throbbing above the wrist. I glanced down in time to see the bracelet Volund had given me pulse with heat and light. My heart, which had just calmed down, skipped a beat as I stared at Octavia with new eyes. Sitting on a roof in jeans and her jacket, her legs splayed out in front of her, holding her sides with hysterical giggles, she didn’t look like a warrior at all. But then, what did I know? I’m going to have to pay attention to this woman, I thought. If she dies, I want to be there. If she doesn’t, she might still give me a clue as to what kind of warrior I’m looking for.

I glanced at Peter, who was leaning over the edge of the roof.  Perhaps the bracelet was responding to him. As I stepped toward him, it faded back to its usual brassy color. He turned around, his eyebrows furrowed.

“I’m not seeing any wires here. Impressive.” He looked at me thoughtfully, and I shivered a little. I sat down next to Octavia, and the two of us stared out into the fog as Peter continued his inspection of the fire escape.

She fumbled in her pocket for another cigarette and winked at me. “Grasshopper used to be a programmer, and he’s never encountered a puzzle he couldn’t solve through brains and sheer stubbornness. He’ll probably be a while figuring out your trick. So, tell me about being a Valkyrie. Are you really from Sweden?”

“I was born in Sweden, yes,” I responded, thinking of how best to explain it. “But ever since I died, I’ve been in Valhalla. What I told you before was the truth. I’ve only lived in San Francisco for a couple of months.”

Octavia thought for a moment. “So, you lived before, a long time ago, and then you were dead for a while, and now you’re back. Why are you here? Aren’t Valkyries supposed to swoop over battlefields on flying horses collecting the souls of heroes?”

I laughed delightedly. “How do you know that? That’s marvelous.”

She shrugged. “I’m a PhD student in Ethnic Studies. That means reading a lot of mythology, even hella white Nordic mythology. A lot of my undergrad was in the English department and I took a lot of classes on old-ass European literature. But I’m guessing,” she looked pointedly at my wings, “that a winged horse would be overkill in your case.”

“I’ve never been much of a horse person anyway.” She offered me her cigarette, so I took it and imitated her, pulling air through the little tube. It made me cough. When I got my breath back, I said, “I don’t know why I’m here in San Francisco. I’ve wondered that myself. It would have made more sense to send me to a real battlefield. I know there are wars going on elsewhere in the world.” I looked at her curiously. “Why are you so calm?”

Octavia smirked at me. “Oh, sweetheart, I don’t actually believe you! I mean, don’t get me wrong, I think it’s very impressive, all the work you’ve put in to this persona. But you aren’t the first dedicated cosplayer I’ve met. I’ve had a few drinks, it’s been a long night, and I’m having a good time playing along. For tonight, I might even pretend this is real for an hour or so.”

I nodded. I should have been relieved, but instead my wings and shoulders drooped in disappointment. This woman had been honest with me all evening and I badly wanted to return the favor. But how could I, when she couldn’t believe the truth?

She leaned her head on my shoulder. I held myself still, aware of the fragility, the sweetness of this quiet moment. We watched Peter disappear down the fire escape, searching for an explanation he would never find. As I sat on the rooftop with a gentle, irrepressible human in my arms, for the first time in a long while I felt free from my usual constant desire to move, to change, to make something different. For a fleeting moment, I was content.

 

3 - Fergus

I took my time on the way home, crossing easily back into the air above the Pacific and alighting on a large rock just off the coast of the city, in sight of Land’s End and the Sutro Baths. Nestling in a hollow in the great, craggy rock, I lost myself in the crashing of the waves and the salt spray. The cold wind and rough stone reminded me of my childhood haunts on the coast of Sweden, but now that I was no longer human, the chill affected me differently, and I found a comforting nostalgia in allowing the cold to creep into my chest and numb my body. The elements cleared my mind, replacing my worries with a thundering backdrop of sea and spray, fog and gray skies. The afternoon dimmed toward evening. The sun began to set unseen behind the clouds. As the wind whipped strands from my braid and ruffled my wing feathers, I imagined myself dissolving, opening my mind to the sea’s power, and I understood the rock as a kindred spirit, a barrier between land and sea, water and sky, solid and yet totally transformed by those opposing worlds. I let my mind drift for a long time.  Finally, I stretched and worked some feeling back into my limbs before taking off toward the Sunset District.

My bar is named Eikthyrnir, after the stag in Valhalla whose horns create the rivers of all the worlds. I knew when I made the sign that few people would recognize it or pronounce it correctly. I wanted something familiar to come home to in this strange, modern city, so I made myself a bar near the sea, with the ale-rune over the door, where, even if I found no souls to reap, I could at least fill my Valkyrie-inspired need to serve beer. So far, I’d served mostly the occasional surfer and a few neighborhood regulars. Eikthyrnir only offers beer and mead, all with names I either copied from popular modern beers or made up. I’ve done my research, tasting beer all around the city and recreating the ones I like most. I have them all on tap, connected to the Pacific Ocean right next door by way of the Otherworld, the misty alternate space which the bar and my own upstairs apartment also inhabit.

The advantage of my own interworld existence: when I first found myself on the streets of San Francisco, fully armored and still a little drunk, I walked until I found the sea. A few streets away, near the corner of 46th and Irving streets, I found what I was looking for: the ghost of an old wooden building, destroyed a century ago. The tall, narrow, two room structure, coexisting with a windy alley, took almost a full day to pull just a little farther into my new reality. It took energy to drag an Otherworld ghost into a living street and energy to keep it there. Luckily, the street still contained stones beneath the surface that had existed back in the time of the building. I was able to anchor the house to the stones, keeping it constantly in the world of the living without undue exhaustion on my part. When I left, I would loosen those anchors just enough that passing humans felt slightly uncomfortable about the place. I remembered from my years as an active Valkyrie that most humans instinctively avoided places on the border between worlds.

I changed the house in stages as my time in San Francisco continued. I found, wandering the city in search of souls, that people often left perfectly good furniture on the sidewalk. After the first few stares and comments about my strength, I stopped carrying heavy furniture during the day and kept those expeditions to late nights and early mornings.

In the evenings, I kept the building fully anchored and  watched customers trickle in, mostly neighborhood old-timers whose memories of the building felt fuzzy but who liked the coziness of the dark wood paneling and crackling fire on foggy nights. They paid for their mugs of beer with strange cloth money, which I learned represented different amounts of gold somewhere else. It was a bit like magic, that, and as time had passed, I’d learned to think of many aspects of San Francisco that way. The machines that trundled and screeched down the streets like great beasts; the little squares people used to speak to each other across distances. I wished I’d paid more attention to Olrun’s mead-scrying; her stories of how Midgard had changed. Yet, those early days walking the streets, listening to conversations in dozens of languages, taught me something I could not have divined from afar: the anxiety, the rush, the joy and pain of people’s lives emerging in a familiar anthem through all the crowded strangeness of the city.

I unlocked the door with my old skeleton key, flipped the sign, and headed upstairs to exchange my soaking wet armor for some cozy civilian clothes: a white wool sweater with slits for my wings, some soft brown leggings, warm socks and boots. I was so tired I almost didn’t bother putting my armor away properly. Only the years of training and living with Volund, who has a severe hatred of rust, caused me to carefully dry and wax my helmet and shield and oil my mail shirt before hanging them on the rack. Signy and Volund would never describe me as fastidious, but there are some rituals that have been drilled into me so often and for so long that I could do them in my sleep and probably have. A warrior needs her weapons to be clean, functional, and available. She needs to be aware of her environment and capable of using it to her advantage. I knew all of these things intimately. They’d been drilled into my bones even before I died, ever since my mother taught me to fight as a young girl. All of which made what happened next more or less inexcusable.

I didn’t even notice the mess in the taproom until I stepped in it on my way back downstairs. Broken glass littered the bottom stair and crunched under my boot. I peered around the corner, through the door that led to the main room. A puddle of beer and mead seeped out from behind the bar, two of the taps still running onto the floor. I froze in horror, appalled not just at the invasion of my space, but also at my own total obliviousness to it as I’d puttered around upstairs.

With my protections, an intruder shouldn’t have been possible. I’d felt so safe, so complacent, that I’d left my spear hanging next to my helmet and shield and swaggered downstairs without a care in the world. I crept back up the stairs, grabbed the spear, and flew down, adrenaline making my wings unfurl almost without my noticing. A growl sounded behind the bar, a growl and a strange whistling whine that raised the hair on my arms and neck as I hovered closer, spear in hand. I reached out with one hand and turned off the taps. In the sudden silence, I heard another wheezing growl, and possibly a snort. I leaned over the counter. Curled up in a puddle of beer with his mouth still open lay a tiny man in a red coat and buckled shoes. As I watched, he let lose another long, multi-part snore.

I nudged him with my spear, hard. The little man sputtered and rolled onto his side. I nudged him again, and this time he blearily opened his eyes.

“Yes yes, darling, gimme another whiskey,” he mumbled, and shut his eyes again.

Enough was enough. I reached over the counter, grabbed him by the collar, and lifted him into the air. My voice went cold. “What are you doing in my bar?”

He sputtered, opened his eyes again, and giggled soggily. Drool dripped onto his shirt. He didn’t reply.

It was time to take drastic measures. I took off. My wings sent gusts rustling the broken glass across the floor. In my fury, I barely noticed the energy it took to loosen the building’s anchors and let the walls become ghostly and thin. My upstairs furniture fell through the floor with a crash as I rose through both ceilings, dragging the little man up into the wind.

Clouds blew around us as grey-purple mist. The intruder gasped and shivered. I shook him, bringing his head close to my face, and snarled. “Well?” My voice was thin and creaky, needling its way into his skull. “What are you? How did you get in to Eikthyrnir? What kind of powers are you hiding? Are you a muspelsmeg? A dwarf? What?”

“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, put me down!” the man squawked. By this time, his legs were thrashing wildly but his eyes had cleared significantly and he seemed able to pay attention to what I was saying. I thought I could even detect a gleam in his eye as he protested, “I can’t explain a thing up here, I’m freezing to death! You could drop me at any moment!” He gave a violent shiver, and I didn’t think he was faking it. Of course, seeing through falsehood has never been one of my skills, but in all honesty, his lips and fingertips had gone blue.

“All right,” I said, “but hold on. I don’t do this slowly,” and with that, I folded my wings and dropped.

We hurtled down through the winds and clouds until, just as the roof surged into sight, I spread out my wings and dragged at the air, landing lightly on the sticky, catastrophic floor of the bar. I put the still shaking, sweaty burglar on the counter in front of me and let the house fade back into existence. He stank of alcohol and fear, and something else I couldn’t quite identify, that could have been metal one moment and moss the next. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he became calmer by the second now that we had reached solid ground. He was already breathing almost normally as I glared at him and demanded, “Ok, creature, explain yourself. I know you’re no human. Even if a human could get inside the bar in the first place, they’d be dead from all that beer you drank. You’ve taken gallons!”

He looked surprised. “How can you tell?” He asked. “Those taps are limitless. It’s quite a trick you’ve got going on there. And don’t call me creature. I’m a clurichaun. I came here for a reason; I came to help you, if you must know. ” He stood up straight and puffed out his chest, looking extremely dignified and a little absurd with his beer-soaked white whiskers just starting to dry in the same haphazard position the wind had pushed them into. “I’ve come here to introduce you to the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.”

I stared at him, feeling slightly dumbfounded. Whose tail had I stepped on here? It seemed I had set up camp in an unknown cave, fully believing it was unoccupied, only to light a torch and find eyes reflected all around me. I found myself repeating him rather stupidly. “The San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals? Could you have picked a sillier sounding title? And, what do you mean, help me? Help me with what? What in all the nine worlds is a supernatural?”

“Oh sweet Medb, did you think you were the only magical person in San Francisco? That’s all a supernatural is, love, is a magical creature, like you, like me. We aren’t human, but we exist around the human world; we grew up with humans. Some of the lads in the society claim humans created us; some say the other way.”

“So, you’re like a Valkyrie or an Einherja? Were you a living man once?”

He grinned. “Oh, no. I was born from the minds of living men, though. I leapt and swaggered into existence through hundreds of drunken songs and dances; I growled and thumped my way out of bars and back rooms, out of the grind and sweat of drunken love-making, and the tears of men drinking their lost comrades,” He did a little jig – a jig of such utter insobriety that I was sure he would topple onto his face at any moment, yet he did not. “I’m the essence of wild fists and choked laughter, the god of drink in a world without gods!”

Apparently, there was no limit to how astonished I was able to become. “What do you mean, a world without gods?” I asked. “What world has no gods? Even Hel has a goddess. The gods go everywhere.”

“I haven’t seen a god in centuries. I came here from New York, and before that I was in the old country, Ireland, and I haven’t seen one of my own gods since about a hundred years before that, miss -?” He looked at me with both eyebrows raised. “What was your name?”

“I never told you my name. It’s Sigrid Spearthrower. And yours?”

“Fergus Laughland.” He grinned again, and despite his merriment, I could see something dangerous beneath that grin, a glint of mischief in his eyes. Hmm…I thought. Fire spirit. Better take care. Yet, my impressions of Fergus Laughland seemed to change by the minute. No sooner had I noticed that strange look than I had a different, equally convincing impression of absolute sincerity in his bulbous, cheery face. I filed them both away for later, and finally invited him to sit down at a booth. I filled two pint glasses with strong mead and set them lightly on the ancient table.

“I’ve decided to trust you,” I told him, and didn’t even know myself if this was the truth or a bald-faced lie. “Tell me about the San Francisco Association of International Supernaturals.”

“It’s easier if I show you,” said Fergus, “but to put it simply, we’re a collection of spirits that have gathered here in San Francisco over the centuries. We arrived with our people. There have been Irish people in San Francisco since before the Gold Rush, for example, and when they traveled they brought their legends with them; they continued to share those legends for long enough that I was able to follow them here. Of course, not all of my power comes from the telling of my stories; I thrive around raucous drinking, singing, and laughter, which have always abounded in this city. It was, frankly, a good place for me to come, and I’ve been here for a good two hundred years now.

“But some of us have been here longer than others. Coyote, perhaps, has lived here longest of all, though he never stays in the same place long enough for anyone to be sure. Toci, too, has been here for centuries under many names.”

I tried the names out experimentally. “Coyote? Toci? They are magical people like me, and they live in San Francisco already. And they know about me; I’ve strayed onto their territory. Do they want to challenge me? I could fight them!” I grinned a manic, toothy grin, letting the bloodlust appear in my eyes. I hadn’t fought a new opponent in centuries!

Fergus recoiled visibly from my expression. “No, no! It won’t come to that! You just come to our meeting tomorrow at dusk, and they can all meet you and explain the rules of living here. That’s all. So. I’ll tell everyone to expect you, shall I?”

I nodded. “Yes. I’ll come meet everyone.” I may have been a little disappointed with the lack of foreseeable violence, but I was still curious to meet these residents of my new city.

Fergus handed me a card and downed the rest of his mead in one smooth swallow. “That’s the address. It was a pleasure, Sigrid Spearthrower.” And with a tip of his hat, he swaggered out the door into the night.

2 - Signy

A knock interrupted the quiet, and Signy poked her head around the door mid-shout. “Sigrid! I knew you were in here!” She grinned evilly, jumped backward a couple of steps, and threw a dagger directly at my head.

I snatched it out of the air and slammed it into Volund’s old workbench, where it lodged to the hilt. “Really?” I said. “You really want to —” and I launched myself at her mid-sentence. I’d hoped to take her by surprise, but she was ready for me, and the two of us flew through the doorway and landed in a pile on the swampy ground. I leapt to my feet for barely a moment before Signy kicked my legs out from under me, and then we were wrestling, rolling through the mud, fists and hair and feet and elbows lashing out wildly. Signy finally found her feet and tossed me into a tree so hard I felt my wing crunch. Pain knifed through me. I rolled, gasping for breath, and kicked out at empty air. I scrambled to my feet just in time to dodge her next kick. From that crouch, I rose up to punch her in the jaw with the force of my whole body. The punch whipped her around, but she grabbed my shirt and used my momentum to throw me bodily over her hip. I landed rolling, and she kicked me in the back, right next to my broken wing.

I screamed, a simultaneous expression of pain, adrenaline, and joy. For the next few breaths, I simply lay on the ground, gasping. Signy leaned with her hands on her thighs and panted. She grinned at me. I grinned back, and the next moment I had leapt to my feet and was hugging her tightly, nearly crying in joy at seeing her again. She hugged me back and hummed happily as we rocked back and forth, alternately laughing and crying, holding each other at arm’s length and then throwing ourselves into each other’s arms again.

After some time, the two examined each other. We were covered in mud, blood, and rapidly darkening bruises. One of my wings hung awkwardly, sending shivers of agony down my spine and into my shoulders, and I could see that the left side of Signy’s jaw had swollen to the size of a plum. She grinned at me again with one side of her mouth, and winced. “I think it’s dislocated,” she said mushily, though broken teeth. “That was a hell of a punch, Sigrid. Nice one.”

“I missed you, too.” I smiled back and took a couple of careful steps as the adrenaline left my body and I started to actually feel my injuries from the fight. “Do you want help with that?”

“No, I can do it.” She waved a hand at me and then massaged her jaw, sliding it back into the proper place with an audible crack. Immediately, the bruising around it started to fade and turn greenish with accelerated healing. “You’d better let me reset that wing bone before it heals wrong.”

I sighed, turned around, and gritted my teeth as the pain in my wing, which had faded to a persistent ache, seared through my body. I could feel Signy’s fingers reaching through my feathers, forcing the bones straight, and a moment of sudden relief as the pain crested and alleviated. I breathed again, and spread my wings experimentally. The right one felt tight, but functional. I itched where I could feel the bones knitting themselves back together.

“Thanks,” I said, “You set it just in time.” I turned back to her just as Volund came rolling over the marsh-ground from the main hall, followed by Olrun and Signy’s brother Sigmund. My voice trailed off as I watched them approach. The way Volund’s thick, sinewy shoulders contracted and relaxed as he pushed his wheels, his full, scraggly beard, the way his ears stuck out slightly, his still muscular thighs clenched around a large bucket – I hummed quietly in appreciation.

Signy laughed, then winced as her jaw cracked. “Yes, I know, it would have been a pain in the ass to rebreak the bone. See something you like?”

“Of course she does,” rumbled Sigmund. “We have beer. Are you two finished clawing each other like bears or should we come back another time?” He strode by and unfolded a wooden table from the side of Volund’s cottage, then started pulling up a bench as Volund rolled up and ever-so-gently placed the bucket on the table with five drinking horns that he pulled from somewhere in the side pockets of his chair. A little beer sloshed over the side onto the table; it smelled divine; like bark and honey and bitter moss. After all that time trying to imitate the beer in San Francisco, I’d forgotten how much I missed that smell.

I sat on the end of the bench next to Volund and gave him a big, sloppy kiss. He tasted like beer. I didn’t object in the slightest. Signy handed out the horns and then raised hers. “To battle!” she said, “and to a new story, for once! We missed you, Sigrid; it’s been strange not having you here nagging everybody with your restlessness and dumb ideas all the time. I wouldn’t have thought it, because as time goes it’s been barely a blink, but there you are. It’s the biggest change we’ve had in ages, you leaving; at least, it was the biggest change we’d had until today. We have some catching up to do.”

Volund squeezed my shoulders and added, “You have to tell us what Midgard is like now, and why you went to such a strange part of it. Olrun could follow you a little, but it was hard for her to explain what she saw. Are you serving mead to regular men, like a thrall? She says that in the place you are now, there are more people than we’ve seen together in even the greatest battles, and yet fights happen between only a few people at a time, that they ride iron serpents around their city, and that all the streets are made of a strange stone.”

Olrun smiled. “Well,” she explained, “You know I can’t hear when I’m scrying – I only see the pictures in the bowl. I’ve been seeing those metal serpents for years. Now you can answer all of my questions: you can tell me what they are called and what they sound like; you can tell me how people speak down there. I want to know how music has changed! I want to know what San Francisco smells like, and how the sea tastes, and what that strange little rolled up food is made from, and what the drinks taste like, and if they are strong or weak.”

She gazed at me with such avid and intense curiosity that I had to laugh. “Olrun, what’s gotten into you?” I asked. “You said that the world was too different for us to understand now, that people no longer had the warrior spirit, that the reason we became trapped here was because we were no longer needed. You called me Sigrid the Restless, Sigrid the Eternally Unsatisfied. Were you just dying to go down there the whole time?”

Sigmund took Olrun’s hand and looked at me with that dour, bad-natured look he got when he was particularly certain and particularly thoughtful. “Sigrid, Olrun’s wanted to go down to Midgard for longer than any of us. Even before the break, she hadn’t gone down in centuries. While you were fighting, killing and collecting warriors on the fields of Gotland she was still here, serving mead and beer and watching everything that went on below.”

Signy nodded. “She’s the oldest of us. You know that. She can’t leave the Great Hall with no one to stand watch over it. Her code would never allow her to take off without any ability to return. That’s what you did, Sigrid, in your loud, drunk, reckless anger; even Odin didn’t believe you would return.”

Throughout this, Olrun remained quiet. I looked at her, and wondered what it had been like to watch Midgard change over centuries, never being able to touch it, never knowing the smells or sounds or textures of those visions. I had misjudged her. I’d thought of her as stoic and unambitious, content simply to watch the world from afar. Now I realized that, all this time, her desire to explore that world had grown and festered into a hard ache inside her, a lump of amber trapped in her chest as she poured drinks for warriors with her strong arms and checked on Heidrun the celestial goat. As she swung her mace across the daily fray, she had dreamed of reaching through that film of foam in her scrying bowl and touching the world in which she was born.

I drained my horn in one long gulp, refilled it, and shook myself like a dog. All this insight was making me feel a little uncomfortable, even guilty, and I wanted to return to those feelings later, when I was alone. 

So I grinned at all of them, my friends and lovers over the long years, and said, “Well, I did return, didn’t I? And I’m still as drunk and reckless as ever. Do you want to hear my story or not?”

They wanted to hear my story. So I told them. I talked myself hoarse explaining the things I thought I now understood: cars, buses, huge vertical halls called apartment buildings, the strange clothes, and the stranger vegetables at the market. I talked about the endless number of people with different skin colors and accents, about bicycles and baseball, about the flat boards the surfers used to skate over the ocean like snow. Olrun contributed, telling us a little about how our descendants had moved across America like a low-lying storm, some following the English as they conquered and killed, but most arriving later, when their home countries had succumbed to famine. She told us all about airplanes, which I had occasionally flown beneath, and asked me a thousand questions about the smell of every possible machine.      

Eventually I had to stop. My friends stared at me, waiting for me to continue. I stared back. Finally, Sigmund spoke up. “So? How did you find this warrior, Rufus Dopeslayer? What is dope, and how does a person kill it? Was he in a battle when you discovered him?”

I realized, with a shock, that in my fascination with the minutiae of modern Midgard I had completely forgotten the point of my story: that I had indeed returned to Valhalla, contrary to even my own expectations, and that I had yet to explain or even understand myself how that had happened.

“You know how I left here,” I began, and my friends nodded.

“You were drunk, you were shouting that this could be a new era, that if Odin could take his head out of his Ymir-sized asshole and remember the wanderer he had once been that Valhalla would no longer be a stinking swamp fermenting under 800 centuries of shit,” reminisced Volund, chuckling, before his expression sobered. “I remember exactly what he said,” he told me. “How could I forget? There was a huge rush of wind, and Odin grew as tall as the tree over my house and cursed you. He was furious, but his voice became quiet. It sounded like the creak of a noose.” Volund gave himself a moment to remember the words and timbre and began, “What drunk creature is this who crawls and stammers, snarling and snapping, forever dissatisfied? Sigrid, you take no thought of your tongue, you bring down your own bright doom. You wish to wander, then be warned: it is hard on earth, and only nine nines of heroic dead will open your way home. You have one year.” He shook his head, returning to his usual demeanor. “That’s 81 souls, Sigrid! Yet you have returned bringing only a single warrior.”

I winced a little at the memory. That curse had left me a headache as bad as any hangover I’d ever had in my human life.

“Then you just disappeared,” Signy said. Her smile vanished, replaced by a cruel twist of her lips as she told me, “Honestly, I didn’t think you’d be back. Even before the stasis, Valkyries could only enter and exit Valhalla with the direction of a warrior’s heart. Odin threw you out at a time when we all thought no warriors were left.” Her pale eyes smoldered with rage as she recalled that moment, and I wondered if Odin had stuck around to face her fury. Signy is, without exception, the most terrifying resident of Valhalla. Her brother Sigmund has half her ruthlessness. When she was alive, she witnessed her own husband murder most of her family. Her revenge swathed a decade and left a trail of bodies across western Gautland, including, eventually, her own. Not that any of us is a stranger to revenge. Nobody travels to Valhalla on a path of kindness.

“Rufus is definitely different from the einherjar preceding him,” I mused, “and not just because of his lack of experience in our style of warfare. It seems as though he has fought a battle of the spirit. This “dope” he mentioned is a substance they have in San Francisco, like cursed alcohol. It enslaved his mind and stole his family and even his ability to care for himself. When I looked in his mind, I could see that parts of it had physically been eaten away, and he could no longer access whole swaths of memories and abilities. Yet, he seemed excruciatingly aware of his own dependence on the substance. Its absence and his desire for freedom killed him mid-stride. He had fought for so many years that he did not at first realize his own death, but continued his fight unawares as his spirit strode in my direction.”

“He appears skeletal and weak,” Signy said doubtfully. “I wonder if he can even lift my spear. What sort of weapon could he possibly wield against the Jotuns?”

“That’s more or less exactly what Odin said,” Olrun told her, “But I think Odin knows more than he pretends. I could sense the magic of that curse: it was like nothing I have felt in centuries. 81 is a powerful number, especially for him. He may have needed to use it to counteract whatever has been keeping us here.”

I turned and stared at her, surprised, and slightly bemused that I would miss something so obvious. After all, Odin is the Allfather, the Plan-Maker, the Deceiver. He discovered the runes and drank from Mimir’s Well. Of course he was keeping secrets. “Have you noticed anything in particular?” I asked Olrun. “Do you think he knew I would be back?”

“That’s not how foresight works, not even for the Allfather,” explained Olrun. “There are no certainties in it, you all know that. Though your revenge was foretold, Signy, it only happened because of the choices you made. It’s the same with all of your stories. And Sigmund, if Signy’s husband hadn’t killed your brothers the way he did, perhaps you and Sinfjotl would never have found those cursed wolfskins, and that strange lycanthropy certainly led to your marriages, the birth of Sigurd, and all the strange and epic sagas to follow. It’s the same with you, Volund. Your captivity and torture, your escape from slavery, and your vengeance were an integral part of everything that has happened since then. Sigrid, you, too. Your mother knew you would be a warrior from the moment of your birth, but she did not know it would result in her death. We don’t always understand how events are connected.”

“Well, you don’t have to always remind me that Sigurd is the only reason my name continues on Earth,” objected Sigmund, only partially in jest.

“But that’s my point exactly!” continued Olrun. “We simply can’t predict which of our lived experiences end up immortalized in the sagas, in the knowledge of Midgard or the tales of the Aesir, and we certainly haven’t a clue what they will lead to. But I’m certain. At this point, there’s a feeling I’m not sure I can explain—a shiver in my bones, a smell of snow from the bowl—honestly, all I can say is I know that what I’ve been seeing now, Sigrid, is leading to a greater story. It’s been centuries, and it’s as if we’ve been trapped in time. I think Rufus is the pebble that diverts a river. I think that, with the right collection of events, the sun will start moving again over Valhalla.”

We stared at her. Volund peeked surreptitiously over his shoulder at the last bits of escaping twilight. I looked, too. The length of the days had not changed since the last einherja crossed our threshold.  For 800 years, we’d been reliving the day after Autumn Solstice, fighting daily in the same chill, damp air. As far as any of us could tell, today was no different. So why did I feel a shiver in my spine as Olrun spoke? Why did I glance toward the northeast expecting a different quality of darkness?

I sipped the last of my beer slowly and reached for Volund’s hand, expecting to find comfort in his familiar blacksmith’s calluses and firm grip, but instead his forearm dissipated, smoke-like. Lurching to my feet, I found that all of it – the table, the faded twilight, and the dark eaves of Volund’s shack – had all vanished in the swirling mist. I was drifting on an updraft somewhere far out over the Pacific Ocean. I circled higher on the wind, reaching out as far as I could into the worlds of the living and the dead, and I felt nothing. Valhalla had disappeared.

1 - Gambling with the Gods

 

 

 

For Helen Higuera

 

 

 


 

An ancient, familiar pull in my chest nudged me closer to the chaotic intersection of San Francisco’s 16th and Mission streets. No flaming arrows here, filling the air with smoke, no dragons either, no thump of axes on flesh and no choked screams of men in battle, and yet I could smell blood in the air. Something flickered at the corner of my vision, something ragged and white. I barely breathed. Mid-way through a Saturday afternoon, and I’d been living in San Francisco for nearly two months without a glimpse of death. Some nights in the bar I even considered starting a fight myself, in the faint hope that a foolhardy, valorous soul might clamor and flail into view. But that would be cheating, and nobody cheats the gods.

Odin’s eye, Sigrid, I told myself. This is what you’ve been looking for. Somewhere close, someone is valiantly fighting for life. And yet, despite the noise all around me: the screeches of tires, the burping exhaust, the mumbles and shouts of passers-by, I heard no violence. My wings vibrated, straining to unfold, and for what? I paused, turning in the street, scanning the crowd.

I recognized the dead man moments before he fell, as he stumbled barefoot and emaciated towards me, as the invisible heartstring that had pulled me to that place finally trembled and snapped. Slowly, almost gently, he began to waver and double in my vision, his soul and body diverging before flickering back into place, his tenuous grasp on life weakly dragging them back together. This man did not lie down to die. He died standing, one arm stretched out and forward, a grimace on his face and words on his tongue, a muttered invocation of rage that broke off only when his heart burst and his body toppled gently to its knees. His image wavered again, splitting in two as the man's spirit, unaware of his own death, continued to stagger forward. What caused him to pause was not the sudden lightness that he felt, nor the almost meaty thwack of his own face smacking the sidewalk behind him. It was me. I stood blocking his way with my wings spread high and my spear raised, banner-like. My eyes flashed smoke. My armor reflected a cloudy sky from another world.

I found his name in his face. “You died bravely, Rufus,” I told him, taking care to appear formal, even severe, though I positively fizzed with joy. “Even to the last moment, you struggled and fought for life. You battled your addiction with courage worthy of the ancient sagas. I am here to take you to Valhalla, the hall of warriors and kings.”

Rufus swayed a little, out of habit, then looked down at his suddenly strong legs and realized he didn’t need to. He looked up at me again, baffled, but calm with the detachment of the newly dead. “Am I dead?” he asked. “Are you an angel?”

I grinned. “Yes,” I said, “And I’m a Valkyrie. I’ll explain on the way.”

 

*

 

The sounds of the city—shouts, tires squealing, the groan of the 22 bus faded into the gentle hum of bees and the distant clash of swords and axes as we arrived, hovering, over the edge of Valhalla. The whole journey had taken only a moment, but my wings ached unexpectedly. I hadn't made this journey with a passenger in a very long time. My companion blinked in the dimming light, his dark eyes reflecting the clouds. It was late afternoon and Valhalla was overcast and windy, just as it had been every day for the past 800 years, ever since the Valkyries had finally given up and become little more than glorified barmaids. I landed gently, but Rufus staggered a few steps on the boggy ground at the edge of the forest, shivering and turning to stare around him, his arms crossed tightly to his chest. I let him breathe the clear, thin air and adjust a little to the strangeness before striding across the bog toward the battlefield and the hall of heroes.

Rufus followed me effortlessly, his thin legs and bare feet belying a sudden easy strength. We weaved across ground littered with dismembered bodies. Only a few savage outliers at the edges of my vision continued to hack at each other; I glanced at them, hoping to see Signy's flailing braid or the grimy iron of Voland's combat wheelchair. No such luck. The wind stank of blood and sweat, earth and iron, and I felt the tension I'd kept in my shoulders, just beneath my wings, begin to ease at the familiarity. This kind of combat felt right, felt understandable to me. I was home.

I watched Rufus gulp and step carefully around a lone arm hacked off at the elbow. He let out a choked gasp when the arm began dragging itself, leaving bloody fingerprints in the moss. He stood frozen, chest heaving, until I reached out a hand and clasped his elbow.

"It's ok," I soothed, keeping my voice firm and confident, trying to remember how shocking all this must be for someone unfamiliar with Nordic mythology. "This is the field of warriors, and the day is ending, so those who have died in battle today reassemble, rise, and join their comrades for food and ale." All around us, bodies in various states of dismemberment began to gather themselves together and help each other off the ground. "This is our afterlife," I ventured, "And yours too, now, if you choose it. Every day begins a new battle and every night we feast and celebrate. It's a good afterlife; rich and satisfying. We prepare for the world's final battle, and it gives us purpose, helps us find meaning in death." He followed as I approached one of the longhouse's enormous doors. "I'll introduce you and get you settled. Come on!" I grabbed his arm again and pulled him bodily into the vast hall.

Olrun stood behind the counter, filling pitchers with ale and mead and sliding them down the long bar toward the tables and benches. Saehrimnir, Valhalla's great hog, rotated slowly over the roaring fire-pit, dwarfing the hunched, one-eyed old man who turned the spit.

My stomach lurched. I should have been expecting him. I took a breath, and then another one. There was no point in trying to conceal my anxiety—Odin the Allfather would have been impossible to trick—so I paused for a moment, letting it wash over me, indulging it for the barest second before approaching the chief of the gods.

Behind me, Olrun handed Rufus a horn of mead and gestured him to the bar, grinning, her excitement palpable even in my peripheral vision. Odin then turned to me, lip curling in a mix of curiosity and contempt. "So, Sigrid Spearthrower." He gave me a slow nod. "Battle-swan, sun-on-blood, warrior bearer," he listed my titles with a sardonic smirk. "You have brought the first soldier to Valhalla in 800 years. But is this a warrior?" He glanced skeptically over Rufus's skinny arms and legs, saw his mouth twisted with confusion and fear. "What kind of fighter is this?"

"He is a mind-fighter who battles his own body for the free will it has taken from him. I saw his mind as he died, Odin Allfather, Flame-Eyed, Battle-Wolf, Father of Song, and even to his last moment he was fueled by rage. His strength of will is second only to his need for a fight that will not crush him. Already, the poison that drove and destroyed his life has been left behind on the streets of San Francisco. He stands lightly and tall, waiting for the fight."

The Allfather regarded me, his single eye sending shivers down my back. "You speak of him as of a fighter, yet he wields neither axe nor sword, nor even his bare hands as weapons. What good is such a man in the battle to end all things? Will he defeat the frost giants with his mind, Sigrid Unsatisfied, Sigrid Bargainer, Sigrid One-Horn-of Mead-is-too-Much?" Olrun snickered quietly at the last, probably remembering my state the last time I'd bargained with Odin, but I held back my customary stream of insults. I recognized his challenge as a distraction.

"Chieftain, Hanged One, Teacher of Gods, Wanderer: is not knowledge a massive part of your own strength? Did you not come by that knowledge only through great perseverance and suffering? The axe, the spear, even magic can be learned on the battlefield, but the rage, the knowledge of deep suffering and unrelenting will to survive, these things we do not teach. We should recognize this man as the unforged blade, the raw iron, that he is."

Odin observed us both silently until Rufus turned from his conversation with Olrun and walked over to face the god. "Well?" Odin asked him. "Are you willing to join my army, Rufus, to train with my warriors for the battle at the end of all things?"

"Well, fuck," said Rufus, the ragged 20th century heroin addict, to the ragged 9th century god. "I always wanted to join the army—thought it might get me away from the city. And now this lady," he gestured at me, "tells me this is heaven for soldiers, with fighting all day and drinking all night and no hangovers to speak of. Well I don't know what other afterlives are out there, but I figure if she's gonna show up glittering with those wings like an avenging angel or one of those elves in some video game and bring me here, there's gotta be a reason. So, yeah. Ok. I'm in, sir. When's this final battle coming? Do I gotta sign?”

Odin smiled a jagged grimace almost guaranteed to send people running, but Rufus held firm. He held out his hand to shake and the god, surprising me with his seamless acceptance of the modern ritual, calmly and firmly shook it.

A clatter interrupted the moment as warriors began streaming in from the battlefield, shouting and laughing with the same comrades they'd eviscerated only hours before. They became even rowdier at the sight of Rufus and me, nudging each other and pointing at the first new face they'd seen in centuries.

"Warriors!" Odin roared over the chaos, and the voices quieted. "As you can see, our youngest and most reckless Valkyrie, Sigrid Spearthrower, has returned to us.” The Einherjar shouted and stamped their feet in approval until a glare from Odin once again quieted the hall. He continued, “And she has not returned alone! I present our newest soldier and pupil in the art of war!" He turned to Rufus. "What is your warrior name?" He asked. Rufus looked blank. "Well? What did you battle when you were alive?"

"Dope, mostly," said Rufus, "And speed sometimes. And the cold, and the heat, and the cops, too."

Odin turned back to the crowd. "Rufus Dopeslayer!" He roared. Rufus blushed and smiled, a deep, slow smile that transformed his face and straightened his shoulders. His teeth flashed in his weathered face.

"Dopeslayer, huh," he said, and drained his mead, taking another horn as it was passed to him. Someone in the crowd began a chant: "Rufus! Dopeslayer! Rufus! Dopeslayer!" and other warriors took it up until the whole hall rang with it.

I moved toward the door, nodding and grinning as each sweaty, bloody warrior I passed clapped me on the back enthusiastically. I watched Rufus disappear into the mass of excited bodies. Should it be this easy? I wondered, letting the massive door close behind me, breathing in the salt-iron smell of the Valhalla swamp and still listening to the chanting, now muffled by the door. Does 21st Century American tragedy really translate across centuries and ocean into divine Scandinavian warfare? As I walked along the side of the building, I became aware of myself as a bridge, spanning two worlds I barely understood: San Francisco with its sleek, titanium facade and grimy underbelly, Valhalla with its constant, unchanging reenactment of death: stasis and metamorphosis intertwined.

 

*

 

I was so lost in thought I nearly crashed into Volund as he careened around the corner in his combat wheelchair. He lurched in surprise, his forearms bulging as he grabbed his wheels and skidded to a stop. An uncharacteristic grin split his face and softened its contours. “Sigrid! You’re back already! Miss me too much?” He rolled closer and added, “Did Odin recall you? Don’t feel bad, love, everyone knew it couldn’t be done.” He swung me sideways onto his lap and wrapped his arms around me, and, for just a moment, I allowed myself to lean into his embrace and breathe his scent: smoke, iron, sweat, and something so particular to him it made my heart leap. He buried his face in my wing feathers and whispered, “Why don’t you let me cheer you up?”

I turned Volund’s face with my hand so I could smile into his eyes. “What makes you think I need cheering up?” I cocked my head toward the great hall and the faint cheering still emanating through the wall. “You’ve underestimated me again.” His eyes widened.

“You really did it. You reaped the soul of a new warrior.” He looked skeptical. “Can he fight? Olrun tells me that on Earth now they fight with great machines, and that soldiers drop fire from the sky in flying carts. Is your warrior one of those?”

“No.” I sighed, fidgeted, and decided to tell the truth. “To be honest, I’m still not sure what drew me to this man, Volund. He has none of the physical strength or skill I would expect from one of the Einherjar, yet I felt the same pull I used to, back in the old days. It was faint, but it was there. There is some kind of spark within him, a kind of desperate courage I have never seen. Still, I can hardly imagine 800 of him marching with Odin into war.”

Volund looked thoughtful. “I will have to meet him to properly understand what you mean. I’m sure he will need training and weapons, and then he will come to me. In the meantime, I want to show you something.” He turned abruptly and wheeled us around the corner and along a small path, rattling and jolting over the uneven ground. His workshop stood beneath a massive yew a short distance from the hall. Like every building in Valhalla, it appeared to have simply evolved as part of the landscape, but while the great hall’s golden shingles and pale wood evoked a stand of tall autumn birches, Volund’s cottage crouched beneath the tree like a hulking, weather-worn stone.

I hopped off his lap and watched him open the door: the door handle, like everything else in his workshop, had been built lower to accommodate his reach, and as usual I found comfort in watching my old friend navigate a space that so entirely suited him. He led the way to a sturdy chest along the wall and lifted out several sheets of mail, which jangled in the spell-enforced silence of his cabin. Leaving the mail on the workbench, he pulled a box from the bottom of the chest and handed it to me.

“Things happened so suddenly we didn’t have time to talk before you left. But while you’ve been away I’ve thought about the world you went to and what you might need there.”

I opened the box and lifted out a metal bracelet, deceptively light for its size, an intricate masterpiece of woven silver and brass. Volund watched as I held it up to the light. “You have all your own armor already,” he explained, “And I figured you’d need guidance more than protection anyway. I connected this mail with an inverted runic pattern - the light shines through it in the shape of the warrior rune, see?”

I looked and, sure enough, the rune Tyr sparkled at me through the twisted metal. No matter how I turned the bracelet, the rune moved to the center of my vision, somehow remaining clear despite being made out of air, existing only in the space between metals. Like all jewelry made by the warrior-smith, the bracelet seemed to have a life of its own, sparkling even with no sun and slightly warm to the touch. The detail was awe-inspiring. As a child, I had once seen a famous armring owned by our local chieftain. Etched with battle scenes, it was said to make the wearer impervious to pain. That armring, while impressive, would have looked like a piece of scrap iron next to this one.

“I don’t know what kind of warriors you might find or how you’ll find them; I don’t even know what dying in battle means to you anymore.” Volund looked somber, his eyebrows drawn together in a tight, anxious line. “It worried me at first. I thought you were weakening us, trying to turn Valhalla into something it isn’t meant to be. I still think that a little. How can warriors who know nothing about us and don’t understand our weapons help against ice giants and the world serpent? I thought you might not find your way back, that you were on a fool’s errand and you’d never find a soul that allowed you to return.”

“Slow down, you’ll overwhelm me with your confidence,” I said drily, leaning against the workbench. “So you assumed I would fail and you made me a warrior bracelet to console me?”

Volund made a growling sound of frustration and shook his head. “Let me finish. The bracelet is strong and flexible, it can stop a blade, and its gaps, the spaces between the rings, are shaped to imitate a warrior’s spirit."

I nodded to show I was listening, but didn’t interject. I still didn’t quite follow, but knew Volund well enough to know he’d get to the point faster on his own.

“It contains a longing for the type of person who excels here,” my old friend continued. “It will respond to the presence of heroes and poets, those who belong in sagas.” He looked at me. “I’ve been stuck in my ways for a long time, Sigrid. Everyone here has. This is a peace offering. I don’t fully understand your mission, but I’ve realized it’s important that you try. I can’t be the only one here who has wondered what’s going on with the gods. 800 years ago the last new Einherja crossed our threshold and still there has been no war. Fenrir has not attacked. Loki hasn’t been heard from in years. Why? What has happened to the world in our absence? Now you’ve returned and changed all of it. Even if you never find another soul, you’ve created real doubt that this endless repetition is right for us. Maybe you’ll even come back with some answers.”

I handed him back the bracelet and held out my arm to him. A smile broke across his face as he slid it over my wrist and to its place halfway up my forearm. I still hadn’t

responded to his gift, and I honestly didn’t quite know how. Since that fateful night when, sloppy with mead and frustration, I had bragged to Odin that I could change our afterlife, no one in Valhalla had treated me as anything other than a deranged fool too stubborn to go back on a drunken bet. The weeks in San Francisco had led me to doubt myself - I’d entered the modern world insanely ignorant and still barely understood my place there, yet without souls to collect, I couldn’t cross between worlds. As I stood there, gazing at a man I had loved for centuries and whose arrogance had infuriated me since we’d met, the fear I’d kept suppressed began to drain away. I was home. I hadn’t exiled myself. If I could find one soul, if I could return once, I could do it again. And if I wanted anything in my life to change, I would have to.