I have a headache when I wake up to my daughter, Maya, pounding on my bedroom door.
“Dad! Our boss called. She says we have a new case. I made coffee.”
“Coffee,” I groan appreciatively and sit up, sending an empty fifth of vodka to the floor. The clock on my nightstand says it’s four PM.
Two years ago I was a happy, married, sober college professor in a new city, Salem, Massachusetts.
Then The Event cracked space-time, magic became real, gods started showing up to play games, and my wife, Kira, vanished.
But that was only the start.
Maya and I walk into the office an hour later.
Laufey, owner of Anything Investigations, and our boss, is sitting behind her desk, looking as out of place as a supermodel in a 7–11.
She can manipulate her appearance to mortals at will, but she’s never less than stunning, and today, she’s going with something like an Ororo Munroe circa 1996 look, if Storm had ever done a stint as a terrifyingly radiant librarian. Even though she’s only sitting in an office chair, it seems like she’s probably holding the universe together.
When she smiles, I have to shield my eyes.
“I didn’t imbue you two with divine power so you could make me wait around,” she says, holding out a piece of paper. “Here’s the name and address of our new client. They own Maria’s Pizza and Roast Beef. Get over there. Now. You’re already late.”
“You could have texted all this to us, and saved us coming in,” I say. “You didn’t need to summon us here.”
Laufey’s tone turns icy, imperial. “Do you start every day by forgetting who you work for, Champion?”
“Not every day,” I say on my way out, “but it’s how I end most nights.”
Maya takes the paper and follows me without a word.
Twenty minutes later, we’re sitting in the Fiorellas’ small living room. The home on Rainbow Terrace, near Salem University’s Campus, isn’t fancy, but it is in one of the safest neighborhoods in the city.
Safety has been in short supply since The Event.
“You have to find her,” Mrs. Fiorella, Nancy, says, keeping her eyes on mine. “Maria didn’t come out when the forest materialized. One second, we were talking on the phone, and then,” she rubs away a tear. “It’s been two days, but Salem PD keeps telling me magical forest portals are outside their jurisdiction.”
“So a forest showed up on Norman Street and swallowed your wife’s pizzeria? That’s a bit weird, even for Salem. Surprised it hasn’t been on the news.”
Maya nudges me with her elbow. “It has been on the news. You’ve just been busy. Some cops flew a drone in there yesterday, and it showed those woods are way, way bigger than they look from outside.”
“Oh,” I smile at Nancy apologetically. “Sorry. Please continue.”
She nods. “Maria built that restaurant from scratch and put everything she had, we had into it, but our bills were piling up. Then Mr. Givth appeared and saved the day. But now, I’m sure that elf had something to do with this.”
“Why?” Maya asks.
“They’d been arguing a lot about some deal Mr. Givth wanted Maria to sign off on, and he hasn’t so much as called to ask me if she’s okay or if we know what happened.”
Nancy gets up and goes to a big secretary’s desk, returning with some staple-bound papers. “I have their business contract here. Neither party can unilaterally make any major changes to the property. Well, I think moving our restaurant into a Mirkwood TARDIS dimension counts as a major change, don’t you?”
“Okay,” I say, “but I’m not sure what you want us to do. This seems more like a search and rescue job, something for a ranger, or — ”
Maya’s cell phone rings, interrupting me.
She pulls it out from her pocket, looks at the screen, and grimaces. “It’s the boss.”
She steps outside without another word while Nancy continues pleading her case. Finally, Maya comes back in looking serious. More serious than any sixteen-year-old girl should ever look.
“We’re on this,” she says. Then to me, “Come on. The boss says we don’t have much time.”
“Well, I guess we’ll be in touch.” I get to my feet and head out.
The company car is an ancient, rusty, impossibly reliable Isuzu Pup pick-up, with locked and warded bed boxes for our miscellaneous emergency kit.
Once upon a time, it had been dark blue, but these days, between rust spots and replacement body parts, our Pup is a calico.
I’m driving us back toward downtown, on Lafayette. It’s slow going these days. Traffic is down to one lane by Ocean Avenue, where Sprawlcom hazmat units and city maintenance workers have been trying to plug a sinkhole that opened last year.
At least they’ve managed to contain the carnivorous, raccoon-sized slugs. Mostly.
Maya says, “Hang a left on Norman.”
I shake my head. “We’re going straight there? Shouldn’t we at least do a little planning? I don’t love the idea of blindly walking into a magic wood created by an elven mage. Also, the sun is going down.”
Maya shrugs. “Laufey was pretty clear. She said we need to find Givth ASAP and ruin his day by any means necessary. Then she said something about ox entrails and stopping things from getting any worse. Also, Nancy — Mrs. Fiorella — just texted me a photo of Givth and Maria. He’s not just an elf.”
She holds up her phone where I can see. Sharp features, white hair, blue skin. “Svartálfr. That’s not encouraging.”
“Totes. Anyway, ‘Fey claimed she couldn’t see what was going on in there — someone or something is messing with her ESP or whatever. But she’s sure whatever’s going on won’t be great for Salem, so we need to shut it down. And save the girl. Also, ‘Fey thinks this is connected to Mom and Sprawlcom.”
“Sure she does.”
My wife, Kira, had been a VP in Sprawlcom’s research department for almost a year when she vanished. The job was actually why we’d moved out here from California.
Then one day Kira called me from work saying she’d found something, something that proved Sprawlcom was responsible for The Event. That it had been part of a larger plan.
We never found out what she was talking about. That night Salem PD found her car, abandoned, down by Collins Cove.
A week later, Laufey showed up on our front porch with an offer to become her emissaries. In return, she would grant us powers beyond those of any mortal, and help us discover what had happened to Kira.
It was too convenient, but she was also the only one offering us any help. And then Maya said yes before I could stop her.
That was how my daughter went from being a high-school student to a Valkyrie, how I went from being a cryptobiology professor to being her Champion, and how Anything Investigations was born.
I sigh again. I sigh a lot these days.
We park by the post office. This area used to be pretty nice. We are barely a block away from Chestnut Street and some of the most beautiful and historic homes in New England.
Now it might be the city’s most haunted district, and that’s saying something. People, or at least human people, don’t hang around here after dark unless they have a good reason.
“You know,” I say, “maybe the city council should have let our damn mayor have his way, and sold all this to Sprawlcom. A new industrial park couldn’t be any worse than this mess.”
Maya looks at me. “Screw Sprawlcom.”
I start unloading our gear. Maya pulls on a heavy sweatshirt — with two slits in the back — and a leather vest with similar cuts. Then she straps a short seax to her waist.
My kit is less minimal, but then I’m also less divine: one IIIA rated tactical vest, one chain-mail shirt, one sheathed spatha, one short battle ax, and one two-stage folding knife.
Then I retrieve my .44 magnum and two speed loaders from a separate lock box I keep under the driver’s seat. After checking the safety, I put the gun in my hip holster and the loads in my belt pouches.
Maya has been keeping her head on a swivel the whole time, scanning for anything that might be hunting for trouble, but the streets are dead quiet.
We put each other through a series of quick checks and head toward a patch of wood as dense as anything you might find in a Grimm’s fairy tale. Gnarled and sprawling trees reach claw skyward through a dense leaf and vine-covered floor.
We walk along the edge, going down Norman before turning right on Crombie.
“I thought this neighborhood was creepy before,” I grumble as a fog starts to roll in.
Maya snorts. “Creepy is good, Dad. Creepy pays our bills.”
By the time we’ve covered perimeter, I’m starting to think these woods are going to be impenetrable unless we want to come back with an enchanted bulldozer, but Maya stops two feet from where we started and sniffs the air.
Experience has taught me the meaning of that look.
“Glamour?” I ask.
Maya nods, and her eyes start to glow. A second later her wings materialize in a burst of light. She reaches out toward the forest, and suddenly there’s an obvious path where none appeared to exist before.
“The woods are creepy, dark, and deep.” I muse.
“But we have promises to keep.” Maya smiles. “Better get going.”
By the time we’re ten feet in, a symphony of low-level chittering replaces the familiar urban background drone. I can’t see the sky through the canopy. Even the air feels alien.
That’s why I’m surprised when I realize we’re walking the familiar concrete footpath that used to lead from the sidewalk to Maria’s front door. I’m about to say something when Maya interrupts my thoughts.
“This is no ordinary patch of trees.”
“No kidding,” I stoop down and take a handful of dirt from the edge of the path, feel the cool grains sift through my fingers.
“I don’t mean it’s basic strange,” she snaps. “This is something else, a shard of Svartalfheim. A breach this big and this stable shouldn’t be possible.”
“How do you know that?”
“Special weird Valkyrie knowledge,” she says, and I know she isn’t kidding.
“I studied for years and ended up a former college professor turned cut-rate Odysseus. Meanwhile, you’re barely sixteen, but now thanks to a goddess with questionable morals you have half of Valhalla in your head. Hardly seems fair.”
“Dad, shush,” Maya says, grabbing my shoulder.
The woods have gone silent.
Two viscous strands shoot down from above, stick to my shoulders, and yank me up toward the trees as a massive spider, the size of a V. W. Bug, drops like a nightmare.
Covered in glassy urticating bristles, it rears up and stridulates. The sound — like a thousand nails getting raked across a chalkboard — is even worse than the view as it brandishes two monstrous, dripping fangs and claw-tipped forelegs.
“Köngurváfa!” Maya roars.
Before I’m consciously thinking about it, I’m slashing through the webs with my knife. Then my spatha and ax are in my hands. There’s a split-second where I can feel the once quiet professor part of my brain cringing in terror.
Charging forward, I feint right and manage to get the Kong to over-commit; it thrusts a foreleg into the spot where it expected me to be, piercing the ground like a pike. Before it can adjust, I bring my ax down on the joint connecting its tibia and femur.
The blade sticks as the spider jumps back, dragging me off my feet. An enormous weight stabs down on my spine, once, twice, but my armor holds. I roll over in time to dodge another strike; then I drive my sword into the underside of the spider’s cephalothorax. It stumbles away and falls, unmoving. I get back to my feet.
There’s a flash from behind me like the sun suddenly came up. Maya is blazing, wings unfurled, dispatching a Kong with her seax. She sees me staring dumbly and shouts, “It’s a horde! We need to get out of these woods!”
Then we’re running side by side, deeper into the wild. We’ve only gone fifty feet when another Kong drops down in our path.
Without slowing, I plow forward and jam my spathe into the spider’s maw before it has time to react. But these things are tough. It lashes out and catches me in the thigh with a tarsal claw.
I drop to one knee involuntarily, pull out my .44, and put four shots into its belly. The resulting splatter isn’t pretty, but it gets the job done.
Maya keeps running, not waiting for me. I take a second to retrieve my spathe and start hobbling after her, away from at least a half-dozen Kongs swarming through the trees in our direction.
We burst into a clearing — the parking lot and building that housed Maria’s look like they haven’t been touched, even if the lights are out, the sky overhead isn’t Earth’s.
Maya reaches the door first and tugs.
“Locked,” she says.
I turn back. The Kongs are emerging from the trees, tentatively heading toward us.
Maya hands me a packet of clotting powder and points at my torn pant leg. “How bad is it?”
Blood has dyed my pant leg from hip to knee. I’d probably be curled up in the fetal position and screaming like a bag of cats without the Champion’s power — and an unhealthy amount of adrenaline — running through my system. I rip open the packet and dump its contents on the wound. “I’ll be fine. I think.”
“Good. I need a minute,” Maya says. “Can you hold them off?”
“I’ll do my best.” I lean against the wall, sheath my spathe, and reload my gun, trying to keep my weight off my injured leg.
Her wings flash into existence again and a halo forms around her. The Kongs are close enough now that I can hear their chittering.
“Got it!” She says as the lock clicks. She pulls the door open and drags me inside as the lead spider comes within striking distance. I slam the door shut and step back, expecting it to smash through the glass, but instead, it falls back and lets out a snarl of frustration.
It and the other Kongs go stalking back toward the trees. “What happened? Why’d they give up?” I look at Maya.
“Someone warded this whole building. I had to open a hole that would let us through, but still keep the bugs out.”
“And you did so with impressive haste,” says a calm, low voice from a booth near the counter.
The dark elf lights a cigarette. Its tip glows like a flare, revealing his angular, burnt-charcoal face, golden eyes, and thick dark hair.
“My apologies,” says Givth. “I didn’t mean to startle you, whoever you are. Still, you are not the company I was expecting.”
Maya takes a quick look around and points up. “Summoning circle on the ceiling tiles.”
Givth makes a few arcane gestures and conjures an orb light, illuminating the parlor in a blue-tinged glow.
“Anything Investigations,” I say. “You’re Givth?”
He nods. “If you’ve come on behalf of my business partner, I’m sorry to say you’re on an empty errand. Our contract is quite clear, and I’ve done nothing to change the property. It is hardly my fault if this building is sitting on a weak point between your broken world and my ancestral land.”
“Seriously.” Maya laughs. “You’ve opened up a dimensional rift around the best pizza place in town. Pretty sure that constitutes a modification. Also, have you heard of kidnapping? Unlawful detainment?”
Her eyes start to glow. “Where’s Maria?”
Givth shrugs. “My business partner had a little too much to drink after closing a few nights ago and is still sleeping comfortably behind the counter. Please, feel free to check on her.”
Cautiously, I lean over and confirm that Maria is, in fact, curled up on the tiles and sleeping like a debauched princess, her arms wrapped around an unlabeled wine bottle.
“You hit her with magic roofie?” I glare.
“Her decision to imbibe an entire bottle had nothing to do with me.” Givth smiles innocently. “I merely suggested a glass. I even warned her she should slow down.”
“Sure you did, creeper,” Maya says. “So we’ve got a breach of contract, kidnapping, assault, and who knows what else. You should probably quit now and hope our clients are willing to settle for your share, plus damages.”
Givth laughs. “We both know this matter is never going to reach any human court, and besides, I am about to sell both my portion of this anchor and this patch of land.”
“Who wants to buy a business in spider town?” I ask.
“Exterminating spiders and clearing trees is not difficult,” Givth sneers. “Especially here. Svartalfheim has no annoying city council, no meddling zoning board or silly citizen groups.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I say. Then the summoning circle powers up and an impeccably clean looking suit joins us in the parlor.
Givth stands and bows. “Ms. Morecomb, my apologies for such humble hospitality.”
Morecomb gives a stiff nod. “And who are these individuals? There’s a scent to them I don’t like.”
“Again, my apologies. I believe these two are acting for the individuals who own the other half of the physical structure we are currently inside.”
“Hold on a second,” Maya blurts. “Who the hell are you, lady?”
She looks at my daughter like a wolf looking at a rabbit. “Louise Morecomb. From Morecomb, Underhill, Epstein, Smith, and Oakenshield.”
“The best law firm you’ve never heard of,” Givth says, looking at Maya and me.
“Sprawlcom wants to expand into Svartalfheim, and you’re here to negotiate a deal,” I say. “That’s it, isn’t it?”
Maya nods. “Sure. Givth bought a stake in Maria’s because it was on a weak point, a spot where he could anchor a gate to his native forest. He probably already told you about his köngurváfa infestation, right?” She smiles at Morecomb.
Morecomb’s eyebrow rises a degree. “Is this true?” she says to Givth.
“A minor issue, I can assure you.” He shoots an acidic glance at Maya. “I have no doubt they will vacate as soon as your bulldozers start moving in.”
“Bulldozers in Svartalfheim?” Maya laughs. “Seriously?”
“Bulldozers, then streets, an office park, maybe even some luxury condos,” Givth says smoothly. “The old rules are falling everywhere, and I, for one, say good riddance.”
“Tell that to Maria and Nancy,” Maya says.
Morecomb shakes her head. “Mr. Givth, am I to understand that you and your partner are not in agreement regarding this deal?”
“The dispute is hardly worth concerning yourself with.” Givth lights another cigarette. “I am sure you will be able to reach an amicable arrangement with them.”
Morecomb is looking at the elf skeptically. “This deal is proving to be less straightforward than expected.”
“And it grows more complicated still.” A voice booms from behind us. Everyone turns to look at the tall, handsome, ripped, shirtless man who walked in like it was an ordinary day.
I hear Maya whisper. “Freyr.”
Everyone is bowing, even Maya, so I take my cue.
“Please, let this parlay continue,” says the shirtless god. Then a woman walks in behind him. Despite her ivory skin, cobalt hair, gold eyes, and dark leather armor, I recognize her instantly.
“Kira!” Sword drawn, I’m moving before I can think, but my body freezes in mid-step. Freyr locks eyes on me.
“What fools these mortals be.” He’s grinning like a wolf.
“Let me go,” I yell.
In response, Freyr gives me an amused look and says, “It is not I that holds your advance and keeps you among the living, Champion.”
I look at Maya, and she scowls. “That’s Freyr, Dad. A god. You know, I am sooo tired of being the adult in this relationship. Ever since Mom disappeared — ”
“That is you Mom, right there,” I try to point with my spathe but my arms aren’t working. I can feel my heart pounding like a taiko drum — everything inside me is bursting, straining, demanding to be let loose so I can cross the room and touch the transformed wife I thought might be dead.
Maya is rubbing her eyes with both hands, trying to look unfazed and failing. Then, as if possessed, she takes a breath and steps forward. “Lord, allow us, two humble emissaries of the Fiorellas and Laufey, to offer you the blood of the spider, still on my Champion’s blade, fresh from battle. I only ask that you release she who accompanied you to these lands, for though bewitched, she is my mother in another form.”
“Where did that come from?” I say. Maya looks equally startled and confused, but then we both realize.
I growl, “Really, really going to have a long talk with our boss after this one.”
Kira looks around in obvious confusion, wraps herself around Freyr, and says, “What is this child talking about, my love?”
I see Maya flinch as my heart implodes like a small star.
“Shush.” Freyr holds up a hand. Then he looks at me. “Strong words, but a weak offering, Valkyrie. Still, I am partial to blood,” it steams up off my sword, leaving my blade clean. “As for my consort, the one you claim is your mother; perhaps we can reach an accommodation.”
Givth steps forward. “You honor us, Lord of Alfheim, but you have no claim on this land.”
Freyr scowls. “True, but my realm is adjacent to Svartalfheim, and therefore so are my interests. You would abet the polluting of this ground, and further the unraveling, which already threatens all. I would not let such things go unchallenged.”
“I propose a bargain,” Freyr says to Maya. “As emissaries from those who have a claim on this anchor, you are within your rights to contest this transaction. According to the laws in this realm, a trial by combat between equal mortals would, I believe, be sufficient to resolve this dispute. Do you agree?”
Freyr turns toward Morecomb, who purses her lips and nods reluctantly. “I do, but obviously this rules out the Valkyrie.”
“Agreed. Then, I ask her Champion to challenge this sale.” He beams at me. “Should you prove victorious, and sufficiently entertaining, I might consider parting with my consort.”
“Might?” I seethe. “How did this even happen? How did Kira end up your, your— ”
“Property?” Freyr sighs. “It hardly matters right now. Do we have an accord?”
Givth snaps his fingers, dismissing the glamour he was using to disguise a suit of silver mail and nasty looking long sword. “I will agree, provided a prohibition on Valkyrie tricks — when I stab this mortal, I want to know he is going to die.”
“Dad?” Maya’s asks, a tremor in her voice.
“It’s fine. I’ll do it. A straight up physical fight. No magic tricks.” I keep my eyes on Kira.
“Don’t be a fool,” Givth says with mock concern. “Save your wounded Champion, Valkyrie. Walk away.”
“It is sound advice,” Morecomb says. “His chances are poor. Let this anchor go.”
“No,” I say. “This isn’t an anchor; it’s a pizza joint. Just like that woman,” I point at Kira, “isn’t an elf. So, enough of this nonsense.”
Maya’s hold vanishes. I lift my spathe.
“Very well.” Givth unsheathes his blade; it gleams like it’s already wet with blood.
As a svartálfr, Givth is faster, stronger, and more familiar with swordplay than I could ever hope to live to be, and I’m wounded. This isn’t a duel; it’s an execution.
That’s why he’s showing off, brandishing his sword, twirling it around in nice, fancy little circles.
Finally, Givth takes his stance. “Let us get this over with.”
“Sounds good.” I say through gritted teeth, and pull out my .44.
The roar from the shots doesn’t even register. Givth crumples against the front counter with two holes in his chest, and doesn’t move. Ears still ringing, I try to blink away the muzzle flash and look over at Maya, afraid of what I’m going to see on her face.
We’ve spent twelve months dealing with beasties and otherworldly nightmares, but this is the first time either of us has dropped a fellow humanoid. What I see hits me harder than any revulsion would have.
She’s smiling like an avenging angel.
Freyr, however, is not. “What? What was that? You have violated our agreement!”
“I did no such thing,” I say, holding up my pistol. “Nothing magic about this, just good, old-fashioned human ingenuity. It’s not my fault if Elven chain-mail is crap at stopping large-bore cartridges.”
I walk over to Givth and give his corpse a nudge with my boot. Then I check on our client’s wife. Maria is still snoring peacefully. I grimace. That’s going to be some hangover.
Morecomb is scowling. “The human has a point. While he might have violated the spirit of the contest, the rules remain technically unbroken.” Morecomb stares daggers at Freyr. “You should expect to hear from my employer regarding your role in this deal’s unraveling, especially after she bestowed such a gift upon you at your last meeting.”
Freyr smirks. “If your master wants her gift returned, all she has to do is ask, though I think these two might have something to say about that. Until then,” Freyr vanishes. With Kira.
“Gift?” I roar at Morecomb and realize I’m still holding my gun. “Are you telling me Sprawlcom gave my wife to that — ”
“I said no such thing. I need to update my client.”
She disappears with a pop, leaving Maya and I standing alone in a dark parlor with a dead elf and a passed-out Maria.
“On the plus side,” Maya says, “now we know where Mom is. Let’s get home and figure out what comes next. Yeah?”
Escaping Svartalfheim turns out to be almost suspiciously easy. As dawn breaks the forest goes pale until there’s nothing left but downtown Salem’s comforting dinginess.
We walk across the parking lot to where Laufey is waiting. I open my mouth, ready to let loose with a string of complaints, but she’s holding a cardboard tray containing two huge cups of coffee.
I snatch one with a gruff nod and a grunt worthy of any classic hero.
Then, knowing how I really like my coffee, she produces a silver flask and offers it to me. Before I can accept, Maya says, “No thanks. He’s trying to quit. Now that we know who has Mom, he needs to level-up. Also, Givth is dead, and Maria’s asleep in there, drunk on elven wine, I think.”
“Is this true?” Laufey is clearly amused.
“Which part?” I snap, giving Maya a dark look.
Laufey pockets the flask. “Well then, allow me to say excellent work, my underlings! Without Givth to hold his door open this breach has closed, and Salem is marginally safer.”
“Anything you can do about Givth?” I point over my shoulder.
“I suppose I could talk to Hel. She might be willing to part with his soul and — oh, you mean his corpse!” She snaps her fingers. “Done. Now, tell me what you learned.”
“Freyr has Kira, Kira’s an elf, and Sprawlcom’s CEO gave Kira to Freyr as a gift. Also, you knew.” I’m snarling by the end.
“Seriously,” Maya says. “Programming me like that — not cool.”
“I only suspected and wanted to prepare you.” Laufey’s smile widens. “My child has always enjoyed a good transformation. Obviously, we shall address that situation, eventually, but first I believe I should reunite your clients. Also, I suspect you need sleep. So, I’ll return Mrs. Fiorella to her bed, and — ”
Maya and I are suddenly standing in our apartment.
“Wonder if she moved our truck, too,” Maya says.
Two days later, we’re at Maria’s, enjoying a meat lover’s, when our boss walks in. Today, she looks a little like Sean Young from her Blade Runner days, down to the double notch blazer and ridiculous shoulder pads.
“Want a slice?” Maya asks.
Laufey doesn’t acknowledge the offer. “We have a job, and should you both survive I think it will get you one step closer to Kira. Here is the address.”
And she’s gone. Nancy comes out from behind the register, her brow furrowed. “You didn’t tell me you knew her.”
Maya cocks her head. “How do you know ‘Fey?”
“That,” says Nancy, “was the woman who introduced Maria to Givth.”
William’s work has previously appeared in The Arcanist, Daily Science Fiction, Little Blue Marble, and many other fine venues. When he’s not busy writing, William can often be found on Twitter at @DelmanWilliam, or on the mats at Fenix Brazilian Jiu Jitsu in West Peabody. Or making coffee. William drinks a lot of coffee.