Thunderstruck

I have planned very far ahead, and sometimes I get impatient. Rather than “This takes place somewhere around the book that isn’t published yet,” this one honestly happens a fair amount into the future. As far as stuff that’s planned, Lucy is eventually going to face a fallen Angel who still wields the sword he had as an un-fallen angel. And afterward, it’s going to become her sword. It gives her more options than simply shooting things, and becomes kind of an issue in other ways, because there aren’t many angel weapons floating around in circulation. So here’s one of those other “issues” that can come up when you’ve got something cool that everybody wants. Also, it’s an opportunity to feature a really popular mythos that I haven’t really mentioned before.

This story takes place quite a while after Blood Hound. For the people who have been beta reading and playing with me, this takes place between Domain Game and Mourning Prayers.

In the cold reaches of night, the Fury and the Vampire met for dark business. Megaera, an impossibly ancient being of vengeance and hellfire. Myself, a vampire over eight centuries old. The contents of our dark, secretive business laid assembled on the table before us, and we plotted.

“Dammit, I can never get this thing to work,” Megaera said.

“It’s easy” I said. “You’re just not balancing the cage right.”

“It’s too loose,” she said. “It falls off every time I bump the table.”

“Well, it has to be loose,” I said. “Otherwise when the ball lands on the seesaw and launches the old man into the bucket, it wouldn’t be enough to drop the cage down.”

“I still think it’s broken,” she said.

“It’s not broken,” I rolled my eyes. “Come on, just keep your hands steady.”

“I swear, Lucy,” Meg said. “We’ve got to be the only people in recorded history who’ve actually tried to play Mousetrap.”

“Nah, it’s a popular board game,” I said.

“That’s because people just want to play with the trap,” she said. “And then they get frustrated when it breaks, toss it in the garage, and dump it in a yard sale.”

“I don’t have a front yard,” I said. “Not gonna sell anything.”

“You hoarder,” she teased.

“Am not!” I said.

“Am too I’ve seen your office,” she said.

“I need that stuff to work,” I shook my head, and began to set up the board game again. Sure, the plastic cage was a little tricky, but it wasn’t that hard to balance. It fell again with a rattle.

“Come on, when’s the last time you used those ritual candles?” she asked.

“Last week,” I said, balancing the cage properly this time. “Rolling brownout at three in the morning.”

“You got lucky,” she said, and nudged the table, messing up the trap again.

“Meg!” I shouted.

“I am Vengeance,” she said. “I am Fury. Rawwr.”

In her true form, Megaera was a terrifying monstrosity, blood and blades and purifying fire. In her human guise, she was an adorable redhead with an amazing smile. It was hard to stay mad at her, though heaven knows I had done just that in the past. We had gone through a few ups and downs over the years, and our most recent dust-up had been over a Sumerian god gang war. But that was in the past. Right now, the issue was getting that damn board game to work.

In life, I was a small, innocent girl, victim of one of the purges that ravaged the Medieval Jews all across Europe. In unlife, I fought other monsters to protect the small and innocent. Not everyone with fangs is bad. Most are, but not all of us.

“Come on, Meg, let me do this,” I said. “Then we can get started.”

“I don’t think you’re supposed to set up the trap before the game starts,” Meg said. “You build it as you go across the board.”

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“I think so,” she said. “I mean, it’s not like anybody ever really plays this game.”

“Hey, I offered Monopoly,” I said.

“I told you, not without a referee,” Meg said. “And since it’s just the two of us, that ain’t happening.”

“Yeah, Marky’s out spirit-communing,” I said. “Or whatever it is that he does. Probably running around the dog park.”

Marchosias, a former demon in the shape of a winged wolf, had become sort of a housemate in recent months. The company was wonderful, though it gave me less time alone with people like Meg.

“Trollin’ all the rescue shelters, hittin’ on all the bitches,” Meg said.

“Hey!” I said.

“Hey, not my fault that’s the actual word for a female dog,” she said.

I rolled my eyes, and went back to setting up the plastic Rube Goldberg machine again. Actually, I knew what Marchosias was doing – sitting at the gates of Heaven, awaiting to hear if his status had changed in the least. He didn’t know if it could happen overnight or would take centuries, but once every week he was there, patient and faithful. And regardless of the news, he’d just try harder the next week.

Redemption was a bitch sometimes.

“Hey, I think you’ve got it,” Meg said.

“Don’t jinx it!” I said, stepping back from the board. It was all in place – the marble, the chutes, the bath tub, the little plastic man, the cage – we were finally ready to begin!

“Don’t forget that we have to actually play on this board,” Meg said. “And roll dice without knocking everything down.”

“We’re fine, this game uses a spinner,” I said.

“No, it has dice,” Meg said.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

She reached into the box and tossed a die onto the table. It bumped into the trap, dropping the cage again.

“Dammit,” I muttered.

Megaera laughed at me. I shook my fist at her

“This is more fun than actually playing the game,” she said.

“We’re not leaving until we make this work,” I growled.

“Says who?” she stuck her tongue out at me.

“Says me,” I said, an was about to continue when something slid under my front door.

An envelope sat there on the floor, just within the threshold.

“That’s weird,” Meg said. “Does the mail ever come in this late?”

“No,” I said. “And my mailbox is downstairs, anyway.”

She frowned. “I guess somebody wanted to reach out. Well, there it is.”

“Yeah,” I said. “There it is.”

“Are you going to go look at it?”

“I don’t really want to,” I said. “It feels like the kind of thing that’s going to ruin our night.”

“It’s probably going to ruin your night whether you read it or not,” Meg said. “Might as well get it over with, right? Just rip off the band-aid?”

“And find out who knows where I live,” I said.

“Yeah, someone tracked you down, but they’re being pretty passive-aggressive about it.”

“The point is that someone tracked me down,” I said, and approached. The envelope was mostly blank of course. What did I expect, a return address? I bent down and picked it up. It did have one marking – a wax seal, stamped in an ornate design of three intersecting triangles.

“What’s it say?” Meg asked, looking over my shoulder.

“Dunno yet,” I said, and turned it around in my hands. “Cool seal, though.”

“Dammit,” she muttered. “It’s a valknut.”

“A what?”

“A valknut,” she said. “A symbol of Odin.”

“Oh, cool. Thor and stuff?” I asked, and opened the envelope. There was a simple letter inside, impeccably handwritten:

Lucia December,

I, Gondul Wand-Wielder, Wælcyrge and Oskmey of Allfather, have chosen you to serve on his behalf as Einherjar until the day of Ragnarok. You have been selected for your mighty deeds, and the Blade of Heaven that you wield. Seek me out now, and comport yourself bravely for your entrance into Valhalla. If you neglect our appointment, I shall seek you out at my earliest convenience.

I speak in the name of Odin the Allfather, who is Fjölnir, Ein sköpuðr Galdra, and the mighty Arnhöfði. May he be forever honored.

“Well,” I said. “I can pronounce maybe half of that.”

“Shit,” Meg said. “It’s a Valkyrie.”

“They’re the ones who bring the dead to Valhalla, right?” I asked. “Kind of like an angel?”

“No, not ‘kind of like an angel,’” she shook her head. “They’re the Choosers of the Slain, to become Einherjar.”

“English,” I said.

“The Einherjar are the spirits of departed warriors,’ Meg said. “They live in the halls of Valhalla, and celebrate and drink and fight and train in paradise until Ragnarok, at which point they will fight alongside Odin against Fenrir the Wolf.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What a Valkyrie does is pick who will become Einherjar, and then bring them to Valhalla personally.”

“Okay,” I said again.

“Any questions?” she asked.

“Okay,” I said.

“Lucy, you’re not listening,” she said.

“Okay yeah, kinda.”

Megaera sighed. “This is important, Lucy.”

“Yeah, so’s a lot of stuff,” I said, idly tossing the letter onto my table. “It’s not like she’s waiting in the street, right?”

“Well, is she?”

I went to my window and looked out the blinds. At this hour of night, my street – mostly residential, none of the few businesses still open at this hour – was usually empty. And now, it was dead – except for one sole figure, wrapped in an overcoat, whose silhouette stood out starkly in the night.

“Oh.” I said.

“Lucy, they choose who goes to Valhalla,” Meg said from behind my shoulder. “It doesn’t just mean that if someone dies, they take him. I mean that if someone they choose doesn’t die in battle, they will actively kill him to take him to Valhalla. Do you understand?”

I frowned and looked out the window again. It was probably a female standing out there. “So basically, I just got challenged to a duel,” I said.

“With your angel blade,” Meg added. “The letter was specific.”

“Yeah, it was,” I said. “I wonder why?”

A little while ago, I had beaten up a demon who happened to have a magic sword. Turns out it’s mine now. Turns out it’s a lot more special than I thought. It could block magical spells and stab demons real good, but I kept having the feeling that there was something more behind the scenes.

“Angel blades are rare,” Meg said. “People are going to want one of their own.”

I muttered. “That letter made it pretty clear that if I don’t walk out right now to challenge her, she’ll ambush me on her own time.”

“Yeah, pretty much,” Meg said.”

“So it’s better to get it over with,” I sighed, shaking my head.

She patted me on the back. “It’s okay, Lucy,” she said.

“No, it’s not,” I said. “We were having a pleasant evening, you know? And now a not-angel is trying to kill me. Again.”

“Again? Who was the last one?” she asked.

I grabbed my overcoat from the rack, and my sword from the umbrella stand. It was an odd thing, really. It looked fairly nondescript, nothing flashy, but felt good in my hands. I had no trouble slashing, chopping, or stabbing things with it, as though the weight shifted to adjust to whatever style I was using. And it was mine now, I understood that on an elemental level. I had claimed it when I used it to destroy the demon’s physical form, and not a moment before then. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, like how he had been able to duplicate it – we had fought each other with the same sword, essentially – but the Sword of Andras was now essentially the Sword of Lucy.

Okay, enough pontificating. I strapped the sword belt to my waist. I looked like a total poser with it on, but hey, that’s life.

“Hey Lucy, before you go out there,” Meg said. “One more thing.”

“What?” I asked, putting on my hat.

“She won’t fight fair,” she said. “None of them do.”

I frowned. “What do you mean?” I asked.

“What I mean is, they all fight dirty. The Aesir, The Vanir, the Jotnar – all of them. The only reason why Loki’s treated like a bad guy I because of who he tricks. Craftiness and deception are highly valued qualities. Think of it like that game we were just playing. Trap her before she traps you.”

“I see,” I said, and then grabbed my sidearm. I loaded the gun and holstered it under my coat. “Well, it’s not like I’m used to people playing fair. What do you know about this ‘Gondul’ person?”

“A little bit,” Meg said. “It’s not much, but she’s known for manipulating kings and starting wars with her beauty.”

“How is that not much?” I asked. “That’s kind of huge.”

“Because it doesn’t tell us what else she can do,” she said. “Just watch out.”

“I can try,” I said as I opened my front door. Meg followed me, and we walked out together.

“I’m coming along to keep her honest,” she said.

Megaera changed. The cuteness was gone, replaced by the horrible, hellish, bloody-eyed, razor-winged… forget it, I still thought she was cute. Might have been some bias on my part. Megaera the Erinyes bled from her eyes, had wings and talons of razor-sharp bronze, and wielded the Flames of Purification.

“You’re cute,” I said.

Again, I may have been biased.

The woman still stood across the street, partly obscured by the shadows just outside of direct streetlight, though from ground level I noticed that she held a rod of some sort. I crossed the street to her.

“Are you Gondul?” I asked.

The Valkyrie stepped forward, into the light. Meg had said that she was beautiful, the word was insufficient to describe the woman. Flawless. Transcendent. It wasn’t a matter of sexual attraction, not purely, though I’d wager even straight women and gay men would have a hard time ignoring her (and of course, vampires were attracted to everybody – it came with the curse). She held herself with undeniable strength and authority, a golden emissary of the gods who had descended upon the earth. Her flawless features were just icing on the cake. I could see how anyone would want to fight for her, to die for her, to tear down whole kingdoms for her. Hell,just gimme a kingdom to toss around, and I’d have joined in, too.

“Lucia,” she said, and oh man, that voice. “So you have responded to my summons. Are you prepared, then, to join me in the glories of Valhalla?”

Her eyes. Piercing, as blue as tanzanite, deep and enrapturing… and focused entirely on my sword.

“Yeah, about that,” I said, stiffening a bit. “I know I’ve been alive for a long time, but I think I’d like to be around a little while longer.”

She responded with the briefest, subtlest of nods. “I see. So you have chosen to face me, instead. A fitting final test of your abilities as a warrior.”

“No, I’d just rather stay alive,” I said. “Valhalla sounds cool and all, but it’s not my religion, you know?”

“And yet you ally yourself with a pagan Greek,” Gondul said. “I challenged you to honorable combat, and you brought a lackey to double-team me.”

“She’s my friend,” I spoke for Megaera. “She’s here for support, not cheating. And to be honest, I’d rather not get into a fight right now. Meg and I were just playing a board game – you wanna come in? Make friends?”

“Lucy, be careful,” Meg said softly.

“She may fight,” Gondul said. “But if she does, I reserve the right to call my sisters into battle. All of them.”

How many Valkyries were there? Hundreds? Thousands? Right. I shook my head, and kept my eyes on the Valkyrie. Her gaze remained on my sword even as she removed her coat, letting it drop to the sidewalk and revealing a breastplate of sky-blue mail. A pair of bright, feathered wings unfurled from her back, and she brandished the rod she held. It extended to the length of a full staff, the end tapering into a spearhead.

“Is that a no to the board games?” I asked, and drew my sword. “Because there’s still time to take me up on that offer.”

“You and your angel blade will serve the Allfather,” Gondul said, and lightning crackled from the tip of her spear. “One way or the other.”

“Yeah, it sounds like you’re more interested in my stuff than in me,” I said. “Don’t make it too obvious.”

I began to circle around her. Meg stayed in place, watching us both, the faithful referee. I kept my eyes on the Valkyrie, watching her movements, her slight adjustments in posture, and the intimidating weapon she held. A lightning spear – where had I heard of that before? I kept moving, eventually with my back to a narrow alley filled with garbage. The dumpster was near-overflowing, and several full cans had been piled up next to it. Maybe the smell would deter her a little bit.

I saw a slight shift in her wings, and sidestepped just as the Valkyrie charged at me. A bolt of lightning burst from her spear as she approached, barely missing me and striking a dumpster in the alley. As she passed by, I hit her on the backside with the flat of my sword. She stumbled a little bit toward the garbage.

“Too slow!” I joked. “So, what do you say? We can call it, go inside, I’ll pop some popcorn–”

The bolt of lightning struck me square in the chest. If I had been a mortal human, it probably would have stopped my heart. The blast sent me sprawling into the street, and I only held on to my sword because of the tensing reflex. My vision blurred, but I felt Gondul leaping at me while I was down. I rolled, hearing her spear strike the pavement, and drew my gun to fire at her quickly.

Another one hit me, and I learned something. When lightning strikes a person holding a gun, one of several things could happen. The electricity might ground itself through the human body, leaving the gun undamaged, although the metal could heat enough to cause some extra burning. But on the other hand, if the electrical current goes through the weapon itself, there is a chance, albeit slight, that it could ignite the gunpowder. Low chance. Astronomically low. Not even worth considering.

My gun mangled my hand when it blew up, sending me to the ground. Luckily, cut and torn flesh heals faster for a vampire than burns, and I knew it wouldn’t be a permanent handicap. I dropped my sword on impact and rolled, trying to ignore the pain and get my bearings. Gondul’s lightning spear missed me, striking the pavement with a spark, and I shot my leg out to trip her. I hi her in the shin and she stumbled, but did not fall. I grabbed my sword in my good hand and swung it around, forcing her to back out of its radius. That gave me time to scramble to my feet, holding my injured hand close.

“First blood,” the Valkyrie said, her wings adjusting subtly. She grinned at me.

“Rambo,” I said.

“What?” she gave me a confused look, and then I slashed at her. Gondul was taken by surprise and dodged clumsily, the blade of my angel sword cutting into the edge of her wing. She shrank back at the hit, pulling the injured wing close to her body as she pointed her spear at me again.

“First Blood Part Two,” I said, and winked.

More lightning surged out, but I brought my sword up to meet it. The bolt split when it reached my sword, parting around me like the Red Sea. I loved that little feature of the angel blade.

“Give me that sword,” she said, flexing her wings briefly, testing them. A trickle of blood marred the one I had struck, but not deeply. My hand was in worse shape.

“I think I’ve already answered that,” I said, testing my wounded, bleeding fingers. They were beginning to knit, but I’d still have to one-hand it for a bit. Meg stood off to the side, her body tensed, holy fire held in her claws. Girl had my back. Loved her.

Gondul tossed her golden hair over her shoulder and rolled her shoulders, cracking them. I stared her down, looking into her eyes. Buying time for my hand to heal as we faced each other.

She pointed her spear again, and a bolt of lightning shot above my head, dissipating into nothingness.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I hereby sacrifice you in the name of Allfather,” Gondul aid. “your body and your blood as an offering to his greatness. Your life is forfeit. Your soul is offered. You are property, and shall serve Valhalla in its time of need.”

“Wow,” I said. “Melodramatic much?”

“It means you are already dead,” she said, and glanced briefly toward Megaera, checking her flank. I charged as soon as I saw Gondul’s attention waver, aiming a low, lunging thrust of my sword – hoping I could take her down, kind of hoping that it wouldn’t kill her outright. Hey, I had band-aids and bacteria in the apartment. She’d be fine.

I didn’t take her by surprise. She must have been feinting. As soon as I neared, Gondul dodged out of the way of the sword, sliding next to me during my follow-through, and grabbing me by the waist. She hooked the shaft of her spear behind my back to pull me close.

“Welcome to Valhalla,” she said, and then the entire world shattered around me.

Swirling color filled my senses, a rainbow subsuming me, overwhelming me in the Valkyrie’s arms. Motion. Rushing, like I a roller coaster. The streets vanished beneath us. Through the scintillating color, I saw only darkness.

“Ginnungagap” Gondul said in my ear. “The Yawning Void. The Great Nothing between the Nine Realms. I could let you go, drop you from the Bifrost. Would you fall through eternity? Would you land in the Realms, lost and abandoned? You are in my arms, vampire.”

I held on to her. She wasn’t shocking or stabbing me, right? My grip tightened on my sword, just in case, but I made sure to hold the Valkyrie tightly enough to keep her from trying anything, or at least make it more difficult.

And hey, no complaints about being kissing distance from her.

We landed. A rush of brightness drove out the color, forcing me to shut my eyes. My feet found solid ground, and Gondul pushed me away, sending me stumbling back a bit. I opened my eyes, letting them adjust to the light, and held my sword in front of myself reflexively.

Golden light. Golden light everywhere. I was in some sort of old-fashioned medieval hall, though it was less ”thatched wood” and more “pillars of glorious golden opulence.” Shields lined the walls, coats of mail stood on racks, spears hung from the rafters. Gondul and I stood in between rows of long tables and benches, filled with the biggest feast I had ever seen.

The scent of roast, juicy pork filled the room, steaming up from the massive platters of meat on display, and even with my kosher sensibilities, I felt sorely tempted. Like it was ambrosia from the gods. I had smelled bacon before, and it was an attractive forbidden fruit, but this was different. Everything that was good about meat sat on those platters. And then there was the booze – I was familiar with mead, of course, and kind of ambivalent on it under normal circumstances. But the mere hint of it in the air was enough to turn me into a mental alcoholic. For a moment, the thought crossed my mind. Why not just give up? Why not join them?

Men sat on the benches, a veritable army of them. Big men, warriors, most of them immediately obviously Nordic, though I could see people from all nations, tribes, and ethnicities scattered here and there. They lifted their mugs and cheered at my arrival. It was hard not to get caught up in it. And hey, let’s be honest, none of them were hard to look at. Apparently “Norse” secretly meant “eye candy.” Not complaining.

“Welcome to Valhalla,” Gondul said, standing tall in front of me. “Your future home. Here, the Einherjar feast and celebrate, training themselves for their final glorious battle on the Day of Ragnarok. Here, there is meaning, purpose, and value. Here, the pain and desperation of your former life is gone, replaced by the one true reality of combat. To serve Allfather is an honor, vampire. Embrace it now, and peacefully.”

You know, maybe she had a point. What did I have back on earth? For all my flailing attempts at faith, did it really help me? I played at following kosher, but I had to drink blood. I couldn’t keep any holy days. I couldn’t even read the Torah without pain. But here, I had assurance. Odin would accept me. I could look forward to bliss, to paradise. A long rest from a lifetime of labor. And it was practically forever, right?

“And as the Valkyries serve the Einherjar, I would be pleased to attend to you,” Gondul said, a glimmer in her eye. “To your every need.”

She did it. She went too far. That one line ruined the illusion for me, made me realize the trap I had been falling into. Valhalla was pleasure, hedonism. Immediate physical joy. And yet, empty and temporary. The Einherjar celebrated, yes, but they were fated to die in Ragnarok, to fall again the jaws of the wolf Fenrir. It was fleeting joy, an extended last meal. An anesthetic before the end. Torah was not written to give people brief, temporary fun. It was written to align us with our Creator, to prepare us for an eternity of well-being. To join the Einherjar would be to throw away everything I believed in, all for a few brief moments of pleasure.

I gripped my sword.

“It’s tempting, I won’t lie,” I said. My hand felt healed, well enough to hold my weapon with both hands. “But you know what it reminds me of? ‘Eat this fruit, and you’ll be just like god.’ And frankly, my dear, you’re a terrible Satan.”

Several of the Einherjar laughed, and Gondul’s eyes narrowed. I felt the chill of her mood cross the hall to me.

“Fine, then,” Gondul said. “You have made your choice.”

She charged me, and I brought up my sword to meet her spear. The lightning arced, splitting before it could reach me again, but the impact of her weapon rang against my blade, pushing me back. I kept my feet planted and held my ground against her.

Electricity sparked from her spear again, and this time it surged directly into my blade. I felt the full force of the shock, the heated metal burning into my hands, the sudden stop-start of my heart, and my legs weakened. Gondul took advantage of the opening, forcing me to my knees.

“I’ve defeated your sword’s defense,” she said, grinning. “Submit!”

I strained, forcing myself to act through the pain. I let go of my sword with one hand, and drove my fist upward into Gondul’s stomach. The breath left her lungs in a gasp, and the lightning stopped zapping me as soon as I hit. I shoved my body forward, shoulder-checking her in the gut and flinging her with my arms, toppling the Valkyrie over and behind my back. I scrambled and turned around, pointing my sword down at the fallen warrior.

“Submit?” I asked.

Gondul looked up at me, frowned, and then closed her eyes.

“Einherjar!” she called out. “This interloper is hurting me!”

Benches squealed against the floor as the crowd of warriors stood up, reaching for weapons in their grasp.

Oh holy hell, I was screwed.

“Don’t you dare threaten the Lady Gondul!” a deep, booming voice shouted from my right. It belonged to a Nordic man built roughly like a professional wrestler, and brandishing a bearded axe.

“I thought this was a duel,” I said, looking back at Gondul. Another Einherjar began to approach, and I took a step back.

“But you are in my world now,” Gondul said as she stood to her feet. “I will duel you, but I can’t be held responsible for the actions of my friends and allies.”

Could I turn into a bat? Maybe, but I had a feeling that a bat getting struck by lightning wouldn’t be much better than letting the Einherjar dogpile me.

“Hey, guys,” I said. The faint scent of sulfur wafted through the air. “The lady challenged me. She can stand down if she wants, but we’ve got business to finish up.”

“That doesn’t matter,” said the big guy. “To harm the Lady for any reason is an unforgivable offense.”

Wait, sulfur?

“Well, then she can take me home,” I said. “And we can forget all about this.”

The Einherjar laughed. It wasn’t reassuring.

A fireball crashed through the roof of the hall, landing in front of me in a sulfuric blaze. Megaera stood up, celestial flames blazing in both of her clawed hands.

“You!” she shouted at the Valkyrie. “You trapped her here, fully knowing that she has no way to return on her own!”

Gondul gave a cold, smug smile. “Einherjar,” she said. “This beast who has invaded Valhalla and violated the sanctity of our hall, in defense of a vampire interloper. What say you all?”

An entire army of Einherjar surrounded us, and their tone was less conversational than when it had just been against me. The ones not immediately next to us began to pick up weapons.

“Uh, Meg,” I said.

The fires in Megaera’s hands blazed and her wings extended out, the sounds of metal feathers scraping together echoing through the hall.

“The first one of you to try anything,” she yelled. “Will be missing from the roster on Ragnarok!”

They hesitated. Swear to heaven, they hesitated. The standoff must have been brief, but it felt endless, an eternity of tense silence. The warriors of the Norse, generations of soldiers, jarls, berserkers, captains, and kings. Versus two people who couldn’t set up Mousetrap.

Their battle cry came in unison, echoing through the halls of Valhalla. Meg threw both handfuls of fire as they began their charge, and the explosion obscured all my vision. I closed my eyes to shield myself, and then my ears picked up the crackle of lightning. I turned and raised my sword just in time to defend against Gondul’s bolt, meeting er charge with a swing of the angel blade. Metal clashed against metal, and I shoved forward into her, pushing her back away from myself and Meg.

We were able to clash. That was the thing. The Einherjar should have rushed me en masse, but Meg was bringing the fire and the fury, leaving the two of us to our duel.

“Submit or your friend dies!” Gondul said, her spear clashing against my sword again. A couple of daggerlike metal feathers flew above our heads, lodging in the rafters.

“I don’t trust you to keep your word!” I said, feinting to the left and cutting in low when she fell for it. My sword glanced off the armor on Gondul’s hip, and she stumbled for a second, allowing me to strike at the side of her spear before she could counter. Her bolt of lightning went wide, hitting her crowd of allies and allowing me in close again. I hit her cross the face with my sword hand, the weight of the hilt striking the Valkyrie across her temple. She kneed me in the gut and brought the butt of her spear around, smashing me in the cheekbone.

I stumbled as the palm of her hand hit me in the ribs, knocking the breath from my lungs. Gondul caught my sword-holding wrist under her arm, and hooked her spear behind my back again.

“This place is too crowded,” she said, and the Bifrost rainbow activated around us again. Swirling colors overwhelmed my senses, and I clung to the Valkyrie for dear life as the halls began to fade around us.

“Shall I burn you in Muspelheim?” she asked. “Or freeze you in Niflheim? Or perhaps we can land in Helheim, in the cold reaches of the Underworld. Where would you like to–”

One of Meg’s fireballs hit us at the last moment, shattering the Bifrost like glass. Gondul and I flew apart, and I fell through the fading surface of Valhalla, plummeting into the darkness.

Ginnungagap. Void. Empty nothingness. I drifted in the space between space. Falling? Flying? Floating? It was all relative. I had been lost. I was nowhere. Would I be here for eternity? Or would even my vampiric longevity fail someday?

I felt myself falling. Rushing. Approaching something, somewhere. Leaving the Void? Already? Perhaps nothing was really lost in Ginnungagap. But where was I heading? Where would I end up? It didn’t feel like a complete freefall, so maybe I wouldn’t splatter completely.

I landed on a hard surface, almost like stone. I opened my eyes, trying to take everything in. I still had my limbs. I still had my sword. Good.

The ground was flat and rough, reddish, not like any surface I had walked on. It felt more like thick plastic than stone. It continued on, and I could barely see that the color changed in the distance, almost like patchwork. I looked up, and instead of sky, there was a rippling, reflecting surface. Water? Above my head? Where the hell was I?

Behind you.

The feeling was so strong that I couldn’t help but turn slowly around. There was a snake behind me. No, that was insufficient – there was SNAKE behind me. The head of the serpent took up the whole horizon, my entire field of vision. If there had been a proper sky, it would have blocked it out. I had to be miles away from the snake’s head, yet it loomed as high as I could crane my neck, unless I looked directly above. In a moment, I realized what I had been standing on. Scales. A scale. A single scale of this titanic serpent filled almost the entire visible horizon.

Where the hell was I?

“Jormungandr,” came a soft voice from behind my shoulder. “The World Serpent. His tail encircles the whole of Midgard, and it is here beneath the oceans where he rests until the day of Ragnarok. Do not worry, the serpent cannot see you. You are like a germ to it.”

I turned around. Standing before me was an elderly man, his long beard reaching to his chest. He was dressed in a dark traveling cloak, a wide-brimmed hat obscuring most of his face.. he held a staff in his hand, and two ravens sat on his shoulders. A single eye gleamed out at me from beneath the hat’s brim.

“Oh hi, Gandalf,” I said.

The figure frowned. “You have very little time before Gondul tracks you here. Do you want to waste it with immature humor?”

I frowned, and nodded. “Okay. Odin, right? Mr. Allfather?”

A slight grin touched the corner of his mouth. The ravens on his shoulder stirred. “Yes, child. You perceive the obvious.”

“Yeah, well, one of your people is out to get me,” I said. “And I really don’t appreciate it.”

Odin looked up at the serpent’s head. “Yes, the Valkyries and the Einherjar do enjoy their battles. Jormungandr is fated to face my son in Ragnarok, you know. They will slay each other. I suppose the question is, will Thor grow to match the serpent, or will the serpent shrink? Or perhaps this is a foolish question, and modern, American logic does not apply.”

“I’m not really thinking about it,” I said. “Right now, there’s a Valkyrie trying to kill me.”

“Yes, yes,” he waved it off. “But Ragnarok concerns all of us. My Einherjar train for it. Jormungandr and Fenrir wait for it. It is the end, you know.”

“Yeah, I’m familiar with it,” I said. “The Norse end of the world, when all the gods and giants kill each other.”

“So do you think you know everything?” he asked. “Interesting. Do you know what Ragnarok means?”

“It’s the end of the world,” I said.

Odin shook his head. “No, child. Not at all. Depending on how you translate it, Ragnarok may mean ‘Doom of the Gods,’ or ‘Twilight of the Gods.’ But really, it is the latter. Tell me, what does ‘twilight’ mean to you?”

“That book was awful,” I said. “I mean, sparkling?”

Odin scowled, and the two ravens cawed at me. “Enough with your humor,” he said. “No more.”

“Sorry,” I sighed.

“Twilight comes before night,” he said. “And night before dawn. It is not an end, not a ‘doom.’ Twilight is merely part of a cycle. Night to day, day to night. On and on for all eternity. Do you understand me?”

“Reincarnation?” I asked.

He shrugged. “Do not try to impute foreign religions onto me,” he said. “But it is a cycle, yes. After Ragnarok, there will be a new beginning for the nine Realms. New gods, new world, a rebirth. Ragnarok has come before, and will come again. The cycle shall always continue. Death is not to be feared, it is only another step in the process.”

“Where are you going with this?” I asked.

“Today might be your Ragnarok,” Odin said. “But then you would move on to the next part of the cycle. Perhaps tomorrow is your Ragnarok, it does not matter.”

“But I think it does,” I said. “I have a lot to do back home. And no offense, sir, but it isn’t in your personal army. I think they’re fine without me.”

Odin chuckled, and shook his head. “Of course, of course,” he said. “And you have important work in front of you. I have seen it. If I rescue you today, you will go toward a different Ragnarok. Quite soon, in fact.”

“Well, will you help me?” I asked. “Look, I’m tired. It’s been a long night, and I’m in the middle of nowhere, standing on a big ass snake while this blond angel chick is out to get me.”

“I quite agree,” Odin said with a grin. “Gondul wants your sword, you realize. A petty move, and one that she does on her own, without support from me.”

“No support?” I asked.

“None,” Odin said, taking a step or two as he began to walk around the scale. “It is not egregious enough for me to rebuke her, but I have no stake in her success.”

“If you’re not supporting her,” I said. “Then why is she using your lightning spear?”

Odin stopped walking. The two ravens glared at me. When he spoke, there was a menacing chill in his voice that told me just how badly I had screwed up.

“Do you really think that the tiny weapon she wields can be compared at all to the might of Gungnir?” he asked. “Do you think me so low as to lend the weapons of divinity to children?”

Odin lifted his staff, and the lightning didn’t just surge through the air, it filled it. The flash was almost blinding.

“I am the Allfather!” he declared, and began to rise off the ground. “Wise One, Creator of Magic Songs, the Head of the Eagle! To me is all glory and honor! I am no mere man, that I may be bargained with or tricked! Perhaps you will survive this battle. Perhaps you will fail. But your disrespect makes this none of my concern.”

The crackling lightning coalesced into a single bolt, surging into the head of the serpent far off in the distance. Jormungandr twitched once, and then its head began to rise.

“Farewell, vampire,” Odin said. “Meet your Ragnarok with dignity.”

And then he disappeared, leaving me alone.

Well no, not alone. The ground beneath my feet began to shift slowly, surely in the world’s most gradual earthquake. The snake was waking up.

“I don’t think I can stab this thing,” I said.

Another bolt of lightning struck the scale, and Gondul descended with it. She made a three-point superhero landing in front of me – one foot and one knee on the ground, as well as one hand. Her golden hair settled around her face and shoulders, and her wings folded again behind her back.

“We need to get out of here,” I said. “Big Snakey is waking up.”

“Silence,” the Valkyrie said. “Submit or fall in battle!” She leapt in the air, her wings giving her a boost.

The ground began to tremble as the serpent’s movement began to increase. Its huge jaws opened over the horizon. I stumbled, catching my footing as I lifted my sword to deflect another lightning bolt. She swooped in, slashing her spear at me at its maximum distance, using her reach advantage to keep out of my range. I ducked, rolling.

“Your time is up!” Gondul declared. “You have no hope! Submit!”

The coils in the distance began to shift, rising to obscure more of the horizon, now covered in snake scales. I stole a quick glance over to Jormungandr’s face. Was that eye focusing on us? Could I even tell?

She backed up in the air, preparing another swooping strike at me. I concentrated and transformed into a bat, banking on our distance for my safety.

She began to send lightning at me as soon as I took off into the air, and I flapped my batty wings as hard as I could to dodge. I made it past the first two shots without any problem, but a third bolt came within an inch of striking me. The Valkyrie soared in immediately after, and I tumbled through the air, the tip of her spear just barely nicking a wing membrane. I latched on to the hem of her chain mail before I could fall, and held on for dear life as she soared through the air. It gave me breathing room until she noticed me, a chance to regroup and plan something.

Gondul punched herself in the gut to get at me. I had to admire her tenacity. And her knuckles, which hurt like hell as they smashed me into her armor. I let go and dropped, letting the jet stream carry me away from her. Because ow ow ow.

Another bolt almost nailed me as I fell, forcing me to flap my batty wings and take an active role again. This wasn’t working. I plummeted back down to the ground and shifted into my normal form, landing. I broke into a roll immediately to avoid the lightning again, but a second bolt struck me squarely on the chest. My heart stopped, and I fell to the ground as my system went into shock, my curse trying to adjust and heal me. I still felt every burn from the fight. Only the other wounds had healed. I held on to my sword with all I had, and lifted it protectively in front of my body with all my remaining strength. I felt another bolt split, deflected by the blade, and dragged myself to my feet, putting everything I had into not looking as hurt as I felt. I’m sure it was a great performance. The fact that the entire ground was moving underneath me certainly added to it.

Gondul still hovered above me. The face of Jormungandr loomed behind her, filling the horizon. It opened its jaws, the titanic fangs folding out miles away. A droplet of venom the size of an ocean beaded from one tip. How much time did we have? Minutes? Seconds?

“Look at you!” Gondul declared. “You’re beaten. Broken. And you are out of time. You have nothing left. What do you say now?”

The scent of sulfur wafted through the air.

“I’ve got just one thing to say,” I said, looking up at her. Then I flipped her off.

“Immature as well as disrespectful,” Gondul said. “We will solve both for you on the training grounds of Valhalla. Once you have learned proper obedience, only then will we reforge you into a warrior worthy of Allf–”

And then Meg shoulder-checked her in mid-air, while encased in a fireball. The Valkyrie went flying, dropping her spear as she fell.

“Meg!” I called out. “You’re okay!”

Megaera swooped down to grab me. She was a little bloodier than before, but the Einharjar had apparently not done much to her.

“We need to get out of here,” she said. “The world serpent’s waking up!”

“Yeah, I know,” I said, wrapping my arms around her. “Take me home.”

Meg’s form of planar travel was fiery, unpleasant, a jarring feeling mixed with intense heat. But holding on to her made it far more pleasant than riding the Bifrost with that Valkyrie. And you know what? I’d take the fanged, clawed, bloody-eyed monster from the Inferno any day over Gondul’s stupid supermodel face.

Megaera took us back to the streets at home – that same garbage-filled alley, in fact – and touched down gently, letting me find my footing again. Even after the banquet of Valhalla, that garbage never smelled more like home.

“Well,” I said. “I guess that’s that.”

“Wait a second first,” Meg said. “She just humiliated herself in front of all the Einherjar. I’ll draft a letter to the Norse deities, and make it all diplomatic. You’ll be fine.”

The bolt of lightning struck her before I could even react, flinging Meg against the far wall of the alley. She hit the bricks headfirst and crumpled just as Gondul descended into the mouth of the alleyway.

“This isn’t over!” she said, looking a little scorched, but not much worse for wear. She folded her wings against her body when she landed.

I lost it. At the sight of Meg being shot down – even though I knew she’d be all right – I launched myself at the Valkyrie sword-first, swinging once to knock her spear out of the way, and then again at her torso. She sidestepped the attack without trouble, and struck me in the chin with the palm of her hand. I stumbled back, but grabbed Gondul by the collar, yanking her forward and smashing my forehead into her nose. She squealed in pain and kneed me in the gut.

“You hurt Meg!” I shouted, giving my sword a wide swing at her body again.

This time she intercepted it with the middle of her spear shaft, twisting the weapon to redirect mine. She caught my wrist between the shaft and her arm, and then twisted once to catch the crossguard and pull it out from my grasp. Then she brought the shaft up to my chin again. I bit into my tongue, my head snapping back. I stumbled, and another heavy bolt of lightning struck me in the chest before I could recover, followed by a strike with the spear against my temple. I spun, dazed, and began to fall, holding myself up only because I grabbed a trash can to steady myself.

“It’s over,” Gondul said. “You have fought well, and run well. But now you are disarmed. Burned. Injured. You have no allies to rescue you. You have nothing ahead of you except the reality that is me. Submit. Valhalla awaits.”

I could barely catch my breath. I remained there, hands braced against the lip of the trash can, trying to gather enough will to keep going. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to tell that she was standing behind me, raising her spear for one final blow.

The annoying thing is, I could have beaten her. On even ground, I got the better of her consistently. But she kept ambushing me, taking me to different worlds, fighting on the back of a snake, flying out of reach – Meg was right, the Valkyrie fought dirty.

All right, you want to fight dirty? Fine.

I turned myself around, swinging the trash can in both hands with all my vampiric might. Gondul’s eyes widened a moment before it struck her full on the jaw, snapping her head to the side. She dropped the spear and stumbled back in a daze, her wings and arms slumping jut enough for my next move.

I upended the trash can over the Valkyrie’s head, and then jammed it down hard over her shoulders and torso. It pinned her wings and arms, and let me ram her into the wall of the alley, and start punching her in the kidneys. She tried to fight back at first, but then her footing began to give away, and she struggled to merely stand as I hammered my fist into her gut again and again.

When Gondul’s knees buckled and I felt her begin to turn into dead weight, I wrapped both arms around her waist and flipped back, slamming her down in a suplex, trash can first. The metal rang across the alley like a gong.

I sat up to my feet, and took a look. Gondul’s legs and wings stuck out from the trash can, but she wasn’t moving. Fine. I stood up, grabbing my sword, and considering the next best move. You know what? I didn’t want her getting back up again. It needed to be over. I lifted my sword and got ready.

A hand rested on my shoulder. I turned to see Meg, in her human form.

“Lucy, don’t,” she said. “It’s over.”

“But–”

“But if you kill her, then she dies a glorious death in battle,” she interrupted me. “However, if you just kick her ass and leave her in a garbage can, then she’s humiliated. Let’s go, Lucy. It’s over.”

“How do you know that?” I asked.

Meg leaned past me, and crimped the edges of the garbage can around Gondul. “Because she’s ass-deep in trash right now,” she said.

“Well, you’ve got a point,” I said, and then sighed. All the pain from those burns and blows came rushing back at once. Some of it would be healed by the end of the night, but not everything. My body was a monument to pain.

“Then let’s go back home,” Meg said, giving my shoulder a squeeze. “We’ve got a game of Mousetrap to finish.”

I gave her a weak little smile. “Yeah, we do, don’t we?”

“Then let’s go,” Meg said, and we began to walk.

I turned and looked over my shoulder. “Last call if you want to join in,” I said to the trash-canned Valkyrie. “Or not. Y’know, up to you.”

Meg laughed, and led me back home.