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.