A Deal With Deal Death
Dying has never been pleasant. It’s never been painless, never been gentle. It’s no sweet surrender. In fact, I’ve pretty much gone kicking and screaming each of the 752 times that it’s taken me. This time was no different.
“Oh great. It’s you.”
From my position, bloodied and skewered shish kabob style to the dusty cement floor, the being who had spoken looked almost angelic. Of course, I would never tell him that. Thanatos, the Greek Pantheon’s version of the Grim Reaper, didn’t really get along with his Christian counterparts. Also, from experience, I knew that the brilliant white light that seemed to emanate from his general direction was nothing more than a chemical reaction mixed with millions of neurons misfiring in my brain as my body shut down. Well, that and he happened to be standing directly in front of the mostly shattered windows of the abandoned factory where I had tracked my mark. Thanatos let out an exasperated breath and bent closer to me. His pale arm reached inside and touched the thread that held me to my body. There was a tugging sensation, a pull before the pain faded away and my soul detached.
Than held on for a moment while I reoriented myself. This part was always a bit tricky. The soul is a flighty thing. When it’s not anchored inside of a body, it tries to attach itself to any and everything around it. If Than or others like him weren’t around to haul the newly dead to the Other Side, their essence would fracture, and millions of tiny bits of soul would seep into the living things of this world. There would be no heaven, no hell, no Hades or Valhalla. There would be no afterlife for that person at all, just an endless existence without the proper use of their mental faculties. It’d be like multiple personality disorder on steroids. Thank the Gods a being like me never had to worry about that. Than let go and I braced myself. A thousand buzzing bees began to jitter uncontrollably inside of me.
“Hey! I wasn’t ready.”
Than rolled his piercing blue eyes at me.
“I do have a name, you know.”
He gave me a look.
I took a breath and quelled the snarky comeback that clung to the tip of my tongue. The Lamia that had drilled my body into the ground like a stinking corkscrew belonged to his Pantheon. The odds weren’t great, but it was possible that he’d help me out. The paperwork involved in a death like this was enormous. I’d have better luck if it had been Keres, his sister, who had come to collect me instead of him. She wasn’t really one to follow the rules. That line of thinking got me to turn back to my body.
“Wait, where’s Keres?”
Than, who now held a golden clipboard and an honest to God quill in his hand, didn’t look up when he answered.
“Keres only responds to violent deaths, not routine ones.”
His tone hadn’t been contemptuous. Than didn’t care enough for contempt. Hell, I didn’t think Than cared enough for apathy. I eyed my body. A small, curvy woman with pale skin and freckles stared back at me. The eyes were hazel, an icy gray encompassing a ring of fiery amber. I’d always liked my eyes. They were my best feature. My hair, however, was another story. Too red to be brown and too brown to be red, my hair was unruly, curling out in all directions when I didn’t braid it down tighter than Fort Knox in a gold crisis. Even then it rebelled against me, escaping into jettisoned strands which made me look like I’d had an unfortunate encounter with one of Zeus’ lightning bolts.
This was how it looked now, only my battle with the Lamia had resulted in large portions of it being wrenched violently from the braid. It hung down, covering most of my face, but not enough to hide the broken nose or the swelling bruise under my left eye. It even partially covered the steel tubing which pierced my heart and the floor beneath it. The Lamia’s sharp talons had desecrated my favorite black tank top. Patches of white speckled in garnet shown through the slashed material. It was my arms and legs that bore the brunt of the attack, however. Large chunks of skin had been ripped haphazardly from my limbs, leaving gaping crevices with jagged edges pooling in blood. I blinked at Than.
“I look like I’ve been through a meat grinder. What exactly is your definition of a violent death?”
Than deigned to let his eyes rove over my remains before returning his attention to the clipboard.
“Valkyrie deaths are always violent. Therefore, routine.”
“Yeah, they’re routine. Because we’re constantly tracking down all of the other Pantheon’s evil goons.”
Than made a sound in the back of his throat, but I couldn’t tell if he was agreeing with me or just stuck on a particularly lengthy question.
“Some of your no-no creatures are nasty little things.”
Than still said nothing.
“Like Lamias, for example.”
At this, Than blinked slowly. His six-foot frame seemed to deflate even deeper into itself if that was possible. Letting out an aggrieved sigh, he flicked his wrist, and the clipboard and quill vanished from sight.
“We’ll have to take care of the paperwork at the office.”
He walked towards me, no doubt in an attempt to shuttle the two of us to the Other Side. I sidestepped him.
“You know,” I said calmly, “we don’t have to go to the office.”
Than’s lips thinned.
“Yes, we do.”
He came towards me again, this time with a bit more determination. I sidestepped.
“No, we don’t.”
Than pursed his lips at me.
“For love of Zeus! Valkyrie, do NOT make me chase you!”
I smiled sweetly at him. He straightened, eyeing me carefully. In an instant, his form dematerialized. My senses immediately went on high alert. I knew this game. It was the oldest trick in the book. I waited for my body to react. It was a skill I had honed after dealing with his kind for thousands of years, a tingling sensation that would tell me the precise moment he chose to reappear. My right shoulder prickled, and I smiled, ducking down before deftly spinning away from Than’s newly visible hands. He took in a deep breath and stared forlornly at the ceiling.
His eyes bore into mine.
“Skena, I have others that need my attention. Quotas that need to be met.”
I nodded, sympathetically.
He relaxed, mistaking my tone for acquiescence. He started towards me again. I backed away.
“It’s just that,” his body froze, “well, I have quotas too, and that Lamia wasn’t even supposed to be here.”
It was a half-truth. I’d known I was tracking down a savage fiend, one that wasn’t from my own Pantheon. I’d thought it was a Kherty, an Egyptian ghoul-like creature. While not necessarily easy to deal with, a Kherty could be killed a hell of a lot easier than a Lamia. Kherties were corporeal, flesh-eating brutes. A simple beheading would do the trick with them. Lamias, on the other hand, were the Kherty’s older, stronger, less corporeal big brothers. Less corporeal meaning that they required certain specialized equipment to deal with, equipment I hadn’t had on me. Thanatos didn’t say anything. He just looked at me blankly. I took this as a sign to continue our negotiations.
“So, you see, we both have quotas. Tagging a Lamia would put me up,” I bit my lip, “fifty points? Maybe fifty-five?”
Than arched a brow at me.
“And I care about that because?”
I grinned. He was interested. The fact that he was speaking instead of stalking towards me convinced me of this. I motioned to my body.
“How long would it take you to do the paperwork on this, an untimely death caused by a Lamia?”
Than glanced at it and clenched his teeth.
“But what about a, oh, I don’t know, a car accident?”
Than’s head jerked to me.
“A car accident?”
I held a neutral expression on my face, but just barely. Than was practically chomping at the bits for a car accident. His eyes were actually sparkling.
“How would you pull that off?”
“I’ve been around a long time. I know a few people who could make that happen.”
I watched Thanatos closely. His expression said he was contemplating it, but he couldn’t quite hide the slight lean forward my words had caused or the loosening of his shoulders. I had him.
“So, what? I put you back in your body, heal you, then what? Am I supposed to take you at your word that I’ll be back to collect you from a car accident later?”
I shook my head.
“Of course not.”
I unlaced the sword tied around my hips. It was my most precious possession, a gift given to me by Odin himself. A Valkyrie’s weapon is extremely valuable. It is both corporeal and non-corporeal. It stays with the soul, not the body, and it is one of the only things that can do any real damage to a God. Each Valkyrie sword is unique. Each one has its own abilities, its own persona if you will. Mine was fierce, a sleek beauty inscribed with powerful runes which glowed crimson when it came into contact with the magick of my enemies. I handed my baby to Than.
“Take good care of Kettlingr while I’m away.”
Than stared at my offering reverently. He unsheathed her, admiring her glossy form. His hands traced the scrolling symbols, and I could tell from the twitch of his fingers that she was letting him taste her power. After a few moments, he slid her back into her scabbard and turned to me.
“You named your sword Kitten?”
As if in response, Kettlingr hummed, a subtle purring sound which belied the true strength of her power. Than blinked.
“I see. Okay Valkyrie, you have a deal.”
His eyes hardened.
“Should you not fulfill your end of the agreement, then not only will your sword remain with me, but I will also ensure that your name is stricken from the record.”
I winced. He meant that the next time I died no one would be around to escort me to the Other Side. I wouldn’t shatter into pieces like most, but I’d be stuck on this plane forever. That seemed a bit harsh, but, since I didn’t plan on breaking my word, I shrugged.
He approached, and this time I let him. Than’s touch was much cooler than before. One moment I was standing, sans body, in front of him. The next, I was being plunged into an icy world of pain and torment. I took a breath, gasping in air, unable to believe the amount of agony I was in. Every inch of my body ached, and I felt heavy as if a million pounds of invisible bricks were perched on each of my shoulders. On the plus side, my body was no longer pinned to the cement by a steel bar and, as far as I could tell, I was whole again. I steadied myself and tried to stand. It didn’t work. I swayed, stumbling into an iron support beam. I used it stay upright and let out a pathetic groan.
“Gods that hurt.”
My voice echoed in the cavernous room, which felt strange to me. Speaking without a body doesn’t have the same effect. When you’re in the spirit world, everything is quieter, less chaotic. There’s nothing the sound has to go through to get to the other person. There’s less clutter, less static. Now my voice bounced around the room and threw itself back at me, the sound harsh and piercing. My head pounded, my ears rang, and I squinted against cacophony.
I took as much time as I thought I could afford before hightailing it out of there. It wasn’t likely that the Lamia would return. Their run-ins with my kind were never food related. Like most of the monsters I hunted, they preferred humans. Still, better safe than sorry. I did not want to be caught off-guard again, especially since my sword was around Thanatos’ waist at the moment. Not that it had done much good last time. Lamias can only be killed by a weapon made of cypress. Those aren’t that difficult to find. The larger issue with Lamias is the fact that they aren’t visible to the corporeal and cypress can’t be wielded by the incorporeal. The Greek Pantheon is full of beasts with such catch-22 scenarios. It’s one of the reasons us Valkyries hate dealing with them.
I made it safely out of the building and found my bike parked in the alleyway. She was a gorgeous thing, an Icon 1000 New Jack Suzuki Katana, all chrome. Valkyries hadn’t had wings in over a thousand years, but when I got on the back of Kat, it was the closest thing to flying there was. I drove Kat straight to the occult shop in the middle of downtown. Purely Pagan was a quaint boutique on 13th Avenue. Sandwiched in between a large industrial style bank and one of those mega-chain bookstores, the shop stood out with its teal painted exterior and cottage design. I parked in front of the store and smiled at the large white pentagram centered on the door. Maggie Thompson, the owner, and my favorite witch had been at it again. The bell jingled as I entered. I was greeted by a petite elderly woman with bushy white hair and slim purple spectacles which hung from a silver chain around her neck.
“Skena, dear! How lovely to see you.”
I gave her a warm smile and pointed at the door.
“Been having trouble with the neighbors again?”
Maggie swatted at the entrance and tisked.
“Nosy little gossip mongers, the lot of em. Would you believe they actually tried to kick me out of the Chamber of Commerce?”
My smile widened.
“I’m sure that worked out well for them.”
She gave me a sly wink.
“Unfortunately, quite a few of them came down with a nasty case of the flu before it came to a vote.”
I let out a chuckle, shaking my head.
“And I’m guessing the artwork on the door was an attempt to deter them from making that mistake again?”
“It’s purely decoration. It’s not my fault if they don’t know that.”
I embraced the slight woman, hugging her gently.
“You would’ve made a great Valkyrie.”
She hugged me back.
“I know that.”
When she released me, her expression went distant for a moment.
“You’ve been dead recently?”
“Yep, I have a Lamia to track down.”
Without a word, she spun away, walking briskly to the back.
“You’ll be needing some Vassilikos then.”
My eyes studied the wall of shelves behind the counter. Vials of effervescent liquids took up most of the top rows while various herbs and spices were stuffed into jars in the middle section. The bottom rows held the most interesting materials: lidded bins filled with everything from feathers and smudge sticks to bone fragments and dried animal husks. This is where she kept the safe stuff. Anything needed for powerful magick was in the back with my Vassilikos. The oak floor creaked as I wandered towards the aisles of candles, books, and talismans.
At the far end of the shop, nestled in a small grove, stood my favorite part of Purely Pagan. It was an enormous spherical cabinet that stretched all the way to the ceiling. Inside, were crystals of every kind. The back window, curtained in a dainty lace, allowed the sun to shine through and strike the stones, cascading the entirety of the back wall in brilliant prisms of pink and yellow. I placed my hand in the light and smiled, watching as the rainbow of colors transformed my skin. As a child, I’d often played in the caves near my home. The light had dazzled there too. This small section of Maggie’s shop reminded me of the girl I’d once been, lifetimes ago. The witch in question returned a moment later. In her hand, she held a glass jar filled with a greenish sludge.
“Mix it with some tea. It won’t help, but you might be able to keep it down that way.”
I took the jar from her and popped the lid. A sharp, tangy scent filled the air. Pinching my nose, I dumped the contents down my throat and regretted it immediately. The sludge was thick, clogging my mouth and windpipe, refusing to reach my stomach. I chewed. Grimaced, then chewed some more. The stuff was like peanut butter; only it tasted like rubber tires and old socks. Twice it nearly came back up, but eventually, I won the battle. Maggie was waiting for me a bottle of water. I took it gratefully and washed the slime down. When I was finished, I looked up to find Maggie with her arms crossed.
“My apologies. I forgot who I was dealing with.”
Her tone suggested that the person in question was a few crayons short of a full set. I cleared my throat, chagrined.
“Do you have snake’s blood?”
She narrowed her eyes at me.
“What do you need snake’s blood for?”
I bit my lip. I had to be careful here. Maggie knew a lot about the Other Side, more than most humans, but she didn’t know everything, and I couldn’t tell her much without painting a giant target on her back. Humans that know too much are dangerous. They dabble in powers that aren’t meant for them, powers that aren’t meant for this world. When that happens, beings like me are sent to ensure those humans and their knowledge get buried. Maggie was okay, though. I’d been visiting her bloodline for generations. She was the closest thing I had to family on this plane. I wouldn’t put her in danger, but in order to keep my end of the bargain, I needed to die in a car accident today. It couldn’t be self-imposed. That would be suicide, and that was against the law for Valkyries. No, it had to be a legitimate accident, which meant that I needed someone upstairs with enough juice to orchestrate it. Luckily, a God of chaos happened to owe me one, God of Chaos who required snake’s blood in order to summon. I let out a breath and decided to tell a lie so blatantly untrue that she would know not to ask questions. It was kind of a code we used in situations like these.
“I need it for the Lamia. They hate snake’s blood.”
Maggie’s eyebrows shot up, and she nodded.
She disappeared around the corner and came back a few seconds later with a handful of jars.
“I’ve got Hasslesnok, Gotlandssnok, and Huggorm.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, thinking.
“Better make it the Huggorm. You got two vials?”
She plucked at the glasses around her neck.
“It’ll cost ya.”
I almost smiled. She knew I had more than enough to pay, but she enjoyed haggling. I pursed my lips.
“Hmm… how much?”
She put her glasses on and moved to the cash register. Her bony fingers punched in a few keys before she turned back to me.
“Well, it should be $700, but I’ll throw in the Vassilikos for free since you’re doing us, humans, a service.”
“What can I say, Maggie? You drive a hard bargain. $575.00 it is.”
She gave me a pleased nod and held her hand out.
I laughed out loud at that.
I reached into my satchel and pulled out a wad of cash, handing it all to her. Neither one of us counted it. We both knew it was well over the asking price.
“Come back soon.”
I gave Maggie a little wave and made my way back to Kat with my wares. The Vassilikos would take another hour or so to kick in, which gave me plenty of time to make arrangements. I drove to the tiny apartment I rented when I was on this plane. It wasn’t much to look at, a crappy brick building in a crappy section of town, but all that meant was that no one would bother me here. I did re-draw the protection runes on Kat when I parked her though. All the thieving humans who lived in the area would see when they looked at her was a beat-up Chevy with busted windows. If that didn’t deter them, the jolt of electricity they got when they touched her would do the trick. I took my bag of goodies from Maggie inside apartment 2B and set them down on the counter. After sifting through the large wooden trunk of weapons in my bedroom, I found the cypress stake I would need for the Lamia. I also pulled out a golden goblet, athame, and five red pillar candles. They’d do for my little office call.
After grabbing the snake’s blood, I pushed the coffee table which sat in the center of the living room off to the side and tossed aside the large rug hiding the intricate pentagram and runes I had carved into the floor. After lighting and setting up the candles, I took a moment to center myself. When I was ready, I took the athame and sliced two double-serpent sigils into my palms, reciting the ancient Norse summoning from memory. I continued reciting the guttural prose as I emptied the vials of Huggorm into the sigils. Once the blood made contact with mine, the flames from the candles exploded out, dancing along the lines of my pentagram. Heat surrounded me, warming my skin until it was almost unbearable. My voice grew louder as I grabbed the goblet and held my palms over it. The mixed blood dripped into the golden cup, and my body felt the effects of the magick. I swayed, eyes closing as an emerald smoke began to fill the chalice. A hissing sound filled the room, seeming to echo my words.
Energy coursed through me, spilling out of my palms and into the cup. With it, came sharp spikes of pleasure, followed swiftly by stabs of pain. I could feel the snake inside of me; its life force shrewd and cunning, smooth and sensual. Our energy combined and I could almost see the two of us: gold and green spinning and twisting around each other, climbing up from my palms to the rest of my body and then out again. I began to get dizzy. Sweat pooled at my temples, and my breath quickened. I nearly tripped over the words as I sang as I hissed. I finished my chant on a piercing note, and my eyes snapped open. The goblet was half full, a green vaporous mist rising from it. I didn’t recognize myself in the reflection of its shiny surface. My pupils had turned to slits, the snake rearing its head from inside me. I set the chalice down and stared at the ceiling.
“Anytime now would be fine, big guy.”
In an instant, the flames extinguished. A tall, golden-haired man appeared in my circle. His amber eyes sparkled, gleaming with mischief. He gave me a small wink and took the chalice from my hands. As he drank, the snake slowly left, returning me to normal. He hummed in satisfaction when he was through. His lips curled into an artful grin and, when he spoke, the sound was light and airy, but held a crafty undertone which tipped his words towards deceit.
“Ah, if it isn’t my favorite Valkyrie.”
I stood and gave him my own smile.
“Hello, Loki. It’s been a while. You’re looking just as wily as ever.”
Loki winked at me.
He looked around my shabby living room.
“Is this is a social call or have you finally decided to come and work for me?”
He exited my circle and plucked one of the gray throw pillows off of the couch.
“For the love of me, Skena, is Freya no longer paying her Valkyries?”
I ignored that last comment. I didn’t care for the couch either, but I didn’t spend enough time on this plane to worry about decor.
“Sorry, Loki. I’m actually calling in my favor.”
This got his attention. He turned to me, eyes shrewd and calculating.
I nodded, then explained the deal I had with Thanatos. The grin on Loki’s face when I finished made me nervous. A pleased Loki was never a good thing.
“Well, I could whip up a nice car accident for you, no problem.”
His eyes sparked.
“Or, I could just grab your sword from him and return it.”
I narrowed my eyes at him.
“Than would take me off the list, remember?”
“Not if he isn’t around to do so.”
I blinked at him. I swear, I would never get used to the way Loki so casually suggested creating Inter-Pantheonic wars.
“No, that’s okay. Just the car accident please.”
The God of Chaos leaned towards me.
“You sure? Could be fun.”
No, it wouldn’t. I was around the last time the Gods decided to fight each other. They had nearly destroyed the Other Side.
“Maybe next time.”
Loki pouted for a moment, then sighed. “Fine, but after this, my debt to you is paid. No more summons. The next time you do so, I’ll rip out your heart and turn your soul into putty.” His eyes turned to flames, and the nonchalant demeanor switched to something sinister. I swallowed.
“Got it. No more summons.”
The menacing aura left him in an instant, and he grinned.
“Good. Unless, of course, if you wish to switch sides. My door is always open to talented Valkyries like you.”
My heart was still beating furiously at the image of him tearing it from my chest, but I managed a weak smile.
“It’s done then. Good luck with your Lamia.”
With that, Loki let out a merry chuckle and disappeared. I shivered. Dealing with Loki was always a bipolar mess of confusion.
The Vassilikos kicked in not long after that. The world around me went misty, the edges blurring at the seams. I grabbed the cypress stake and went to hunt. It didn’t take me long to track down the Lamia. It was hanging around outside of a seedy club less than five miles from where I’d run into it last. It was hunting too. From the looks of it, the Lamia had already tagged a slim blonde who was stumbling away from the crowd. She was more than drunk, barely staying upright and singing aloud a combination of bad ’80s songs. The Lamia began to follow her. I followed it. Both of us shuddered when the blond hit a particular high note. I was surprised the shrill sound didn’t shatter the windows of the shop she’d passed. I made my move when she turned a corner. I reached out, tapping the Lamia gently on the shoulder. The creature paused, probably confused, or shocked. Being invisible to 99 percent of the things on this plane, it was no surprise that it took a second for my touch to sink in. I thought for a moment that the ghoul wouldn’t turn around, but it did.
“Hi! Remember me?”
The look of utter shock on its face when I twisted the cypress stake into its chest was priceless. There was a pop, a hiss, but I ducked out of the way before its form exploded. It may have been incorporeal, but ectoplasm was a thing, and it didn’t wash off easily.
Satisfied, I walked off humming the same 80s tune that the blonde had been murdering earlier. Maybe I would grab some food. A nice greasy cheeseburger sounded good. It’d probably be a few years before I made it back to this plane and food on the Other Side wasn’t all that great. I guess the Gods figured since we didn’t need to eat, it didn’t really matter what it tasted like. I had just stepped off the sidewalk, visions of beefy cheese in my mind, when a car slammed into me. I went airborne, cursing Loki in my mind. By the time I hit the pavement, Thanatos was there, Kettlingr in hand. He pulled me from my body and handed me the sword.
“Pleasure doing business with you.”
“But, I didn’t get my cheeseburger.”