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SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA PRESENT DAY, LATE DECEMBER
Anna Stangeland woke abruptly, clutching the pendant so hard that the worn edges nearly cut into her fingers. The sheets were halfway off the bed as if she'd been thrashing, though she knew a person didn't move when she dreamed.
Orn hopped down from the headboard and settled on the bed, cocking his head so that one bright eye was fixed on hers. She shivered, expelled a shuddering breath, and released her hold on the flat piece of stone, letting it fall back to her chest.
"Another one," she whispered to Orn. "At least this time wasn't bad. But sometimes…"
Sometimes it didn't matter if it was bad or not. She still felt she was living someone else's life.
And she was.
She threw her legs over the side of the bed and peered at her alarm clock. Only four a.m. She felt as if she'd hardly slept, and all the dreams she'd had before seemed to march through her mind like an army of ghosts.
Leading that army was Mist Bjorgsen. The dreams about her had always been vague before she'd come here, filtered through the weave and weft of time and memory.
She didn't want to believe what she saw in those dream-memories.
Half-blind with lack of sleep, Anna stumbled to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Orn rode on her shoulder until she sat at the small table, the mug cupped between her hands a spot of comforting warmth in the chilly apartment, and then hopped down to the table top.
"Yes," Anna said wearily. "You were there. You usually are, except—"
Except when Mist strode through her dreams.
Anna dropped her head into her hands. The dreams were becoming more and more nonsensical and bizarre, and here she was, unemployed and just moved into a very small and expensive sublet apartment in San Francisco. She still had no idea why she'd taken it into her head to leave New York, where she'd had a perfectly good job and a very decent life.
"Okay?" Orn croaked.
"Fine." She reached across the table to stroke his breast feathers. "I'm going to have to look for job leads today. No one'll be hiring during the holidays except the stores, and I have enough to tide us over until January. But at least I can check things out and see what might be available in the new year."
Orn bobbed his head as if in approval, and once more Anna wondered how much he really understood. He was smart. Very smart. But he was still a bird, even if he was the best friend she'd ever had.
With a sigh, she finished her coffee and braced herself to face the very thing that scared her the most. Orn in his usual place on her shoulder, she dragged herself to the small second room she'd set up as an office and opened the desk drawer.
The photograph was buried underneath a pile of unsorted papers, as if Anna could somehow forget it had ever existed. Until the end, Oldefar had never spoken of the young woman who stood beside him in the snow, both of them armed with Sten guns, determined and relentless. Geir had kept the photograph hidden until Anna's great-grandmother, Helga—once called Horja—had died in a boating accident.
Anna knew why he'd kept it to himself. Mist had been a remarkable woman. She was beautiful in a strong way, with her bold, high cheekbones, firm chin, and direct gray eyes. Very Norse, and very much a warrior.
Geir had loved her very much, Anna thought. He had hidden that love deep in his heart during all his faithful years with Helga, though Helga and Mist had also fought side by side and regarded each other as sisters. So Anna's dreams had told her.
Orn nibbled at her ear, his powerful beak as gentle as a mother's caress. She closed the drawer, fingering the pendant with its crude etching of a raven and the Runes inscribed above. The etchings were almost invisible now, rubbed away by the caressing fingers of those who had worn it.
But the stone still carried a heritage of unflinching courage and dedication to freedom and the good. Anna had tried to live up to that heritage, but she had never done anything heroic. A computer programmer generally didn't get many opportunities to perform acts of daring, gallantry, and valor.
Discouraged all over again, Anna returned to the small living room and turned on the TV, soothed by the drone of mindless infomercials as she dozed on the couch. It was still an hour before sunrise when she surrendered to hunger and made a breakfast of yogurt and toast, puttered around on the computer and prepared to wait until a reasonable hour to venture out—if there was such a thing as a reasonable hour in a city that still hadn't adapted to heavy snowfall and single-digit temperatures.
Another stupid reason for moving here, she thought, when New York was having something of a warm spell.
She was blearily examining her two business suits when Orn flew in to settle on the brass footboard of the bed and chirruped like an inquisitive cat.
"Find Mist," he said.
She swung around, doubting what she'd heard, certain that she'd misunderstood Orn's cartoonishly squeaky voice.
But she'd been with him too long. She hadn't imagined it. Orn simply stared at her, and for a moment she felt as if she were gazing into the eyes of a very intelligent and determined human being.
"Find Mist," he repeated.
Anna jumped back into bed, covered her head with the blankets, and pretended she'd never woken up at all.
* * *
Mist paced out the perimeter of the battered chain-link fence that surrounded the factory compound, considering where she ought to place the reinforcements. They wouldn't be literal in the physical sense; with luck, they'd be much stronger.
Since the sudden and unexpected arrival of Mist's sister Valkyrie, Bryn—along with Bryn's biker club, the Einherjar—Mist had been helping the newcomers set up camp in the abandoned factory and adjoining warehouse across the street from Mist's loft. It was up to Mist to make the place as secure as possible, especially since the Jotunar, Loki's frost giants, would be watching for any weak spots in Mist's defenses. And she still had to set up another barrier ward to prevent her neighbors from noticing how weird things were likely to get in the vicinity of her loft. As long as they could be hidden.
But after the energy she'd expended in fighting Loki Laufeyson—gods, was it only twenty-four hours ago?—and especially since she hadn't been consciously aware most of the time she'd been using it up, Mist wasn't sure she'd be able to handle even the most basic magic.
The prospect of failure scared her, but not nearly as much as the threat of Loki's ultimate victory. She put her doubts out of her mind and drew on the tools of her former trade as a swordsmith and knife maker, recalling how she'd used the same images to dispose of certain frost giants' bodies after the savage battle with Loki's Jotunn lieutenants in the gym. It took surprisingly little effort to create and fix the images of the weapons in her mind and inscribe their blades with the appropriate Runes, tracing the staves with imaginary fire.
Once each one was complete, she chanted a spell that pulled steel from the wires themselves, turning them molten and fusing the blades into the fence. Soon there was no indication that the Rune-blades had ever existed, but they were there, invisible and potent guards against intruders—at least, of the human variety. And, if she was lucky, the Jotunar as well.
If the Einherjar tracking her progress were impressed, they didn't speak a word as she traced a careful path around the fence to the section directly surrounding the factory. By then she was beginning to feel the strain of the prolonged use of her abilities. The price for this kind of magic was relatively minor: increasing exhaustion, exacerbated by her lack of sleep, and the feeling that she was running on fumes that were about to evaporate. She wasn't in any danger of entering the fugue state that had consumed her when she'd made use of the ancient magic—the elemental forces that she couldn't yet control—but she knew she couldn't keep it up much longer.
Still, she managed to finish just as her strength was beginning to give out. She completed the final Bind-Rune that would permit the single gate to open and sat on a broken piece of concrete. A red-headed biker called Vixen offered her a canteen full of lukewarm water, which Mist took gratefully. The others maintained a respectful distance.
Mist gulped the water down and returned the canteen with gruff thanks. She didn't feel ready to deal with the other Einherjar when she'd barely had time to absorb the monumental changes in her life—the changes that had engulfed her since the elf Dainn had appeared to warn her that everything she'd believed about her former life was wrong.
At the moment, all she wanted was hot coffee and a fire in her living room hearth. And the discussion with Bryn that couldn't be put off any longer
* * *
"I saw the world changing," Bryn said, taking another sip of cold coffee. "It wasn't just the weird weather. I could have put that down to global warming, but I knew that wasn't the problem."
"You always had a talent for sensing weather changes," Mist said, nursing her own coffee as she sat on the couch facing Bryn in the armchair.
"Hard to miss that these days," Bryn said, glancing at Rick Jensen, her devoted lieutenant. "But like I said, it was more than that. I'd already been hanging around biker clubs for years, joining one for a while and then dropping out to find another one, moving all the time. I didn't have the Cloak anymore, but I couldn't settle. Until about eight months ago, when I started looking for anyone else who seemed to sense the same changes I did."
"I guess you found them," Mist said wryly, listening to the roar of gunning engines across the street.
"Sorry about that. I'll have a word with them. Wouldn't want to upset the neighbors."
They'll have a lot more reason to be upset before this is over, Mist thought grimly. "So how did it happen?" she asked.
"Rick was first," Bryn said, setting her mug on the end table beside the chair. "We both happened to be in the same bar at the same time. The weird thing is, this strange old lady dressed like a rag doll was responsible for our meeting. She just sort of walked up to me, dragging Rick along with her, and said we had to meet."
"Weird old lady?" Mist repeated. "Who?"
"Never got her name. Guess I should have found out, huh?"
Mist clasped her hands together, uneasy down to her bones. Was it possible the "lady" had been Freya, pushing help in Mist's direction?
No, that didn't make sense. The goddess could have found all the Valkyrie herself if she could locate Bryn. And she couldn't take physical form, in any case.
"Rick and I hit it off right away," Bryn said, "and since neither one of us was hooked up with clubs, we decided to ride together."
"As friends," Rick pointed out hastily.
Bryn snorted in amusement. "After that, we kept picking up more men and women every couple of weeks. I only named us the Einherjar when I figured out why we were all coming together."
"A name of significance," Dainn said.
Mist started, amazed that she'd briefly forgotten the elf was there. But he'd been listening attentively all the while, standing with his back against the wall near the door. He'd cleaned himself up, and most of his minor wounds had pretty much vanished, but he was still far from his usual handsome self. She doubted she looked much better.
A nasty fight with a deadly enemy, involving all kinds of magic Mist was only beginning to understand, could do that to a Valkyrie. Or to an Alfr who'd been cruelly manhandled by the godling who'd betrayed him.
More than manhandled, Mist thought. Humiliated, abused, shamed. And Mist knew Dainn hadn't forgotten a moment of it.
But he'd hidden important things from her and behaved stupidly, putting everything they'd worked for at risk. It had been his own fault, hadn't it? Or was it really hers?
"Worry only about what you have the power to change." Dainn's words, and excellent advice. It was cursed hard not to worry when she felt she ought to have the power to change everything.
Kirby poked his head into the room, eyes wide.
"Here, kitty kitty," Bryn said softly, rubbing her fingers together. Kirby hissed, tail puffed nearly to the size of his body, and squirmed into the small space behind the sofa, where he remained safely ensconced.
Lee was watching it all from the top of the bookshelf at the back of the room, aloof and unafraid. Kirby, Mist thought, was the smart one.
"Don't take it personally," Mist said. "He's shy around strangers." She sighed and fought to keep her eyes open. "Go on, Bryn. Why were you all coming together?"
"Well, I finally figured out that every one of them had some kind of ancient Norse blood. My guess is that a few are even descended from the gods, or elves—"
"Alfar?" Dainn asked. "That would have been a rare occurrence."
"Maybe," Bryn said, flashing a frown in the elf's direction. "But everyone knows the gods didn't always keep it in their pants where mortals were concerned."
No kidding, Mist thought, her mind turning again to the battle with Loki, Freya arriving in all her glory to help her Valkyrie daughter defeat the Slanderer. But her victory had been brief. Mist had little memory of the fight, but Dainn had told her that Freya hadn't completely materialized in Midgard. Loki had sent the goddess away, leaving Mist with Odin's Spear, Gungnir, in her possession once more.
Freya should have been back in touch—of the mental kind—quickly enough, but Dainn had been unable to make contact with her, or even sense the Shadow-Realm of the gods in the great Void, Ginnungagap.
It might be only a temporary communication problem. If it wasn't …
Mist closed her eyes. She might have to be the leader of Midgard's resistance to Loki's scheme of conquest, but she was not the hero Dainn thought she—
"I figure all those Norse heroes and kings and such, the ones who had close dealings with the Aesir, they passed on some kind of understanding maybe ordinary folk didn't have," Bryn said, interrupting Mist's shamefully self-pitying train of thought. "My Einherjar were feeling whatever I sensed months ago. Not that they have magic like you or the elf, but I think they always knew that something big was coming."
Something like the very real possibility that Midgard was about to become a bloody battlefield.
"And how did you find me?" Mist asked.
"One was that weather business again," Bryn said, raising two fingers. "It was getting bad in a lot of places, but it had turned truly bizarre in San Francisco and the West Coast with all the snow. The only way it made sense to me was if the center of the change I felt was in this city." She shook her head. "Freya's daughter. I can still hardly believe it."
"Neither can I," Mist said.
"And what was the other thing?" Dainn asked.
"Well, that weird lady in rags said I had to find my family. Since I don't have any family except the Sisters I last saw over fifty years ago…" She looked at Mist. "I did a little research. Since you didn't bother to change your name, and it's not exactly a common one, I put those two facts together and brought the Einherjar to look for you."
Mist nodded, but she wasn't completely convinced. She couldn't be sure it wasn't her own inherited glamour that had brought her Sister to her—the glamour that could compel other people to fall under a spell of love and lust, or even summon them from far away.
"You okay?" Bryn asked, leaning forward. "Hel, after what you went through last night, maybe you need some rest."
"I can't afford to rest now," Mist said, glad she hadn't filled in all the details of the battle with Loki.
"If you do not," Dainn said, "your magic will suffer. And you must eat."
"You're not my mother," Mist snapped.
"I assure you that I do not aspire to that role," he said, with a trace of his familiar, acerbic humor. "I hope I would treat my offspring better than your own mother has you."
Better than ignoring one's offspring until the time came when one had no other choice but to acknowledge the theoretical "child" for reasons that had nothing to do with love.
As Freya had treated Mist.
"Please," Mist said with a rough laugh. "As if we needed more Dainns in the world."
"I quite agree," Dainn said softly.
Bryn looked back and forth between them with an expression that made Mist wish she and Dainn had a big chunk of the Great Void between them.
She wondered how Bryn would feel about Dainn when she learned who the elf really was. Dainn Faith-breaker, traitor to the Aesir.
But Mist wasn't about to mention that now. She caught her Sister's ear. "Listen. I want to make sure your people understand what they're riding into. We have to find the other Treasures, keep Loki from getting too far ahead of us, and be prepared to fend off attacks at any time—all while we try to reestablish our connection to Freya and Ginnungagap."
"That's a pretty tall order," Bryn said. "You do expect other mortals to help save their world?"
"I'm counting on it," Mist said.
"How do you plan to get them?"
"They'll be coming for the same reason you and the Einherjar did," she said, trying to convince herself that what she said was true. "I'm working on buying a few warehouses that can be set up as dormitories. Meantime, we need to put your people through their paces, find out what battle skills they have and what they need to be taught."
"One benefit of being descended from gods, elves, and heroes," Bryn said, "is that they all have excellent reflexes and natural fighting ability."
"With knives, maybe, and hand-to-hand," Mist said. "But I'm not talking about bar brawls or fistfights. Since we're still confined to ancient weapons—"
"—because firearms and bombs and such won't work for either side in this fight," Bryn said, confirming what Mist had told her earlier.
"Right. Your people will have to be good with swords, spears, and axes, and learn how to use them both to kill and disable. The most important thing is to get them up to speed quickly."
"I'll take care of that," Bryn said.
"You'll be covering a lot of ground alone." Mist rubbed her gritty eyes. "I won't soft-pedal this. It's going to be tough, and even though it was something of a draw the last time we fought, Loki still has the advantage. He just can't bring any more Jotunar over from Ginnungagap, at least not until—if—the bridges open for our allies in the Shadow-Realms."
"But you think Freya closed the bridges?"
"We're still not sure. One way or another, you're going to be facing all kinds of magic from Loki and the giants he already has. People are going to die."
"We know that," Rick said, running his hand over his perspiring pate. "We have from the start."
Mist nodded. "Okay, then. We'll need regular patrols to keep an eye on the Jotunar and whoever else Loki has crawling around the city stirring up trouble," she said, "and we'll need to keep on top of the local news, papers, and Internet for any strange goings-on. San Francisco is at the center of this, so at least we won't have to be scouring the whole world or even the entire country for signs of his influence. Loki's going to look for followers who are easily corrupted, who want money or power or both. If any of your people have dealt with street crime—"
"You think we'd naturally know people like that, huh?" Rick cut in. "Just because we ride bikes? Because maybe we're not pretty, like your boy here?"
"I'm sure that's not what she—" Bryn began.
Rick got to his feet. "Bryn says we're supposed to follow you without asking any questions. You want to test us. What if we want to test you?"
Copyright © 2014 by Susan Krinard