“Einherjar!” his voice boomed. “Tonight, only one fallen warrior has joined us, but I’m told the story of his death is quite impressive.” He scowled at Samirah al-Abbas as if to say, It had better be. “Rise, Alex Fierro, and dazzle us with your glorious deeds!”
What’s a Guy Gotta Do to Get a Standing Ovation?
ALEX DIDN’T LOOK excited about having to dazzle us.
She rose, tugging at her sweater-vest, then scanned the crowd as if challenging each and every warrior to a duel.
“Alex, son of Loki!” Helgi began.
“Daughter,” Alex corrected him. “Unless I tell you otherwise, it’s daughter.”
At the end of the thanes’ table, Jim Bowie coughed into his mead cup. “What, now?”
Ernie Pyle muttered something in Bowie’s ear. They put their heads together. Pyle brought out his journalist’s notepad and a pen. He seemed to be drawing Bowie a diagram.
Helgi’s face twitched. “As you wish, daughter of Loki—”
“And don’t feel obliged to mention my dad,” Alex added. “I don’t like him very much.”
A ripple of nervous laughter went around the room. Next to Alex, Samirah clenched her fists as if warming up her strangling muscles. I doubted she was mad at Alex—Sam didn’t like Loki either. But if for any reason the thanes decided Alex wasn’t a worthy choice for Valhalla, Sam could get kicked out of the Valkyries and exiled to Midgard. I knew this because that’s what had happened when she’d introduced me.
“Very well, person who is the child of some parent.” Helgi’s voice was as dry as Odin’s empty eye socket. “Let us watch your exploits, courtesy of Valkyrie Vision!”
These Vikings today and their new-fangled technology…Around the trunk of the Tree of Laeradr, huge holographic screens winked into existence. Footage from Samirah’s Valkyrie body-cam began to play.
Sam was an expert at trigonometry, calculus, and aviation, so you’d think she could figure out how to use a camera. Nope. She always forgot when to turn it on and off. Half the time her videos came out sideways because she’d clipped the camera on wrong. Sometimes she recorded entire missions where the camera showed nothing but her own nostrils.
Tonight the video quality was good, but Sam had started recording way too early. Time stamp 7:03 that morning: we were treated to a view of her grandparents’ living room—a small but tidy space with a low coffee table and two suede sofas. Over the fireplace hung a framed piece of Arabic calligraphy—a swirling gold ink design on white parchment. Proudly displayed on the mantel underneath were pictures of Sam as a toddler with a toy plane, as a middle schooler on the soccer field, and as a high schooler holding a large trophy.
As soon as Sam realized where the video had started, she stifled a yelp. But there was nothing she could do to stop it.
The video panned left to a dining area where three older people sat drinking tea from fancy gold-rimmed teacups. One guy I knew: Abdel Fadlan, the owner of Fadlan’s Falafel. There was no mistaking his mane of silver hair and that tailored blue business suit. The other two must have been Sam’s grandparents, Jid and Bibi. Jid looked like Santa Claus or Ernest Hemingway—barrel-chested and moonfaced with a snowy beard and lots of smile wrinkles, though today he was frowning. He wore a gray suit that had probably fit him twenty years and twenty pounds ago. Bibi wore an elegantly embroidered red-and-gold dress with a matching hijab. She sat with perfect poise, like royalty, as she poured tea for her guest, Mr. Fadlan.
From the angle of the camera, I guessed Samirah was sitting on a chair between the two sofas. About ten feet away, in front of the fireplace, Amir Fadlan paced in agitation, running his hands through his slick dark hair. He looked as dashing as always in his skinny jeans, white T-shirt, and stylish vest, but his usual easy smile was gone. His expression was anguished, like someone had stomped on his heart.
“Sam, I don’t understand,” he said. “I love you!”
The entire crowd in the feast hall went “Ooh!”
“Shut up!” Samirah snapped at them, which only made them laugh. I could see that it was taking all her willpower not to cry.
The video fast-forwarded. I watched as Sam flew to meet me at the Thinking Cup, then got a message on her phone for a possible code 381.
She flew from the coffee shop and sped across the park toward Downtown Crossing.
She spiraled down and floated over a dark dead-end alley between two dilapidated theaters. I knew exactly where it was, right around the corner from a homeless shelter. Heroin junkies liked to shoot up in that alley, which made it a great place to get beaten, robbed, or killed.
At the moment Sam arrived, it was also a great place to get attacked by vicious glowing wolves.
Against the back wall, three large beasts had cornered a grizzled homeless guy. The only thing between him and certain death was a Roche Bros. shopping cart filled with cans for recycling.
My dinner congealed in my gut. The wolves brought back too many memories of my mother’s murder. Even if they hadn’t been the size of full-grown horses, I would’ve known they weren’t regular Midgard wolves. Blue phosphorescent mis
t clung to their fur, throwing aquarium-like ripples of light across the brick walls. Their faces were too expressive, with human-like eyes and sneering lips. These were the children of Fenris. They padded back and forth, snarling and sniffing the air, enjoying the scent of fear coming from their prey.
“Back!” the old man croaked, jabbing his grocery cart toward the animals. “I told you, I don’t want it! I don’t believe in it!”
In the feast hall, the assembled einherjar muttered with disapproval.
I’d heard stories about some modern demigods—sons and daughters of Norse gods or goddesses—who refused to accept their destiny. They turned their backs on the weirdness of the Nine Worlds. Instead of fighting when monsters appeared, they ran and hid. Some decided they were legitimately crazy. They took meds. They checked themselves into hospitals. Others became alcoholics or junkies and ended up on the streets. This guy must have been one of them.
I could feel the pity and disgust in the feast hall. This old man might have spent his whole life running, but now he was trapped. Rather than come to Valhalla as a hero, he would die a coward’s death and go to the cold land of Hel—the worst fate any einherji could imagine.
Then, at the mouth of the alley, a voice yelled, “Hey!”
Alex Fierro had arrived. She stood with her feet planted apart, her fists on her waist like Supergirl—if Supergirl had green hair and sported a pink-and-green sweater-vest.
Alex must have been passing by. Maybe she heard the old man shouting or the wolves growling. There was no reason she had to get involved. The wolves were so focused on their prey they never would have noticed her.
Yet she charged the beasts, morphing as she moved and launching herself into battle as a German shepherd.
Despite the size difference, Alex managed to knock the largest wolf off its feet. She sank her fangs into its neck. The beast writhed and snarled, but Alex jumped away before it could bite back. As the wounded wolf staggered, the other two attacked her.
As quick as flowing water, Alex changed back to human form. She lashed out with her wire, using it like a whip. With a single flick, one of the wolves lost its head.
“Ooh!” the audience said with appreciation.
Before she could strike again, the other wolf tackled her. The two of them rolled across the alley. Alex changed to a German shepherd again, clawing and biting, but she was out of her weight class.
“Turn into something bigger,” I found myself murmuring. But for whatever reason, Alex didn’t.
I’d always liked dogs—more than I liked most people, and definitely more than wolves. It was hard to watch as the wolf tore into the German shepherd, ripping at Alex’s snout and throat, matting her fur with blood. Finally, Alex managed to change form—shrinking into a lizard and skittering out from under her attacker. She turned human again a few feet away, her clothes in tatters, her face a horror show of slashes and bite marks.
Unfortunately, the first wolf had recovered its wits. It howled in rage—a sound that echoed through the alley and ricocheted off the surrounding buildings. I realized it was the same howl I’d heard from across town while I fought the goat-assassin.
Together, the two remaining wolves advanced toward Alex, their blue eyes flickering with hatred.
Alex fumbled with the sweater tied around her waist. One reason she wore it became evident: it concealed a hunting knife at her belt. She drew the weapon and tossed it toward the homeless guy.
“Help me!” she yelled. “Fight!”
The blade skittered across the asphalt. The old man backed away, keeping his shopping cart between himself and the battle.
The wolves lunged at Alex.
Finally, she tried to change into something larger—maybe a buffalo or a bear, it was hard to tell—but I guess she didn’t have enough strength. She collapsed back into human form as the wolves tackled her and brought her down.
She fought ferociously, wrapping her garrote around the neck of one wolf, kicking the other, but she was outmatched and had lost too much blood. She managed to choke the larger wolf. It slumped over, crushing her. The last beast took her by the throat. She wrapped her fingers around its neck, but her eyes were losing focus.
Much too late, the old man picked up the knife. He edged toward the last wolf. With a horrified shriek, he drove the blade into its back.
The monster fell dead.
The old man stepped away from the scene—three dead wolves, their fur still glowing in faint clouds of neon blue; Alex Fierro, her final breath rattling in her chest, a pool of blood spreading around her like a halo.
The old man dropped the knife and ran away sobbing.
The camera zoomed in as Samirah al-Abbas descended toward the fallen warrior. Sam reached out. From the broken body of Alex Fierro, a shimmering golden spirit floated up, already scowling at the unexpected summons.