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Tecate for Hecate

Kevin Andrew Murphy

When you could turn into smoke and slip through keyholes, you wouldn’t think it would be particularly difficult to break into a blood bank. Then again, there was a reason why they called it the Red Cross.

A white cross in a red heart made a potent ward, an ancient symbol against the undead, and as one of the not-exactly-living, Bryce was effectively blocked.

Fortunately, Bryce was not your average vampire, revenant, or blood-sucking ghost. He was a draug, one of the favored Helleder of the Norse goddess, Hel. Getting the favor of Hel was no mean feat (and thereby hung a tale, if not two), but suffice it to say, it involved being a magician with a near death experience that the Mistress of Niflheim had decided to make permanent, giving him an eternal gate pass to Sleet Cold, Her otherworldly manse—along with an insatiable hunger and an unslakable thirst. And while most of being a draug was a drag, it did come with a few perks. Being exceptionally strong was nice, even if not particularly useful at the moment and dirt common among the undead. Being able to grow to ten feet tall? Weirder, but neat, even if still not applicable to the task at hand. Being able to piece yourself back together after being ripped limb from limb? Surprisingly useful, especially if you’d spent the past few months living (so to speak) in the basement of a fraternity of rowdy collegiate werewolves. But keeping the rest of your magical abilities from life? A definite plus. At least if you’d started out as a magician, not that this was helping much at the moment. It was the first night of the dark of the moon, a perfect time for all sorts of interesting magic, and here Bryce found himself trying to break into a blood bank.

But any good magician, or even a reasonably competent wicked one, had more than one trick up his sleeve. Such as, for example, a familiar.

Of course, having a familiar was its own challenge.

“Do I look like a dog?” Matabor asked pointedly.

Bryce had to admit that Matabor did not. As a manticore cub, Matabor looked like a cross between a monkey and a kitten, with bat wings, a scorpion’s stinger, and a triple-row of shark’s teeth thrown in just for fun. But nowhere in the magical mishmash that made up his familiar was there anything slightly canine.

“I do not ‘fetch,’ ” Matabor stressed. “I am a magician’s familiar, a beast of legend, not some mere witch’s puke to suck out blood and regurgitate it at her mistress’s whim.”

“It comes in plastic bags now.”

Matabor’s monkey eyes looked askance. Obviously modern convenience was not an improvement.

“Well, how am I supposed to get blood then?”

“Kill someone?” Bryce’s familiar suggested. “I believe that still works, doesn’t it?”

Bryce gritted his fangs. He was doing his best to be a good, or at least somewhat less harmful, undead person, but it was spring break and he no longer had the luxury of a house filled with extremely resilient regenerating lycanthropic frat boys who thought that brawling, biting, and turning into a wolf to lick someone’s wounds was perfectly normal behavior. Of course, some of his bros at Gamma Rho Rho were starting to think Bryce was gay (untrue) or at least that he had some weird blood fetish (true, but not like they thought), so while they were away at the beach soaking up the vamp-killing rays, it was time for Bryce to pick up alternative methods.

Not that he knew what those were.

Bryce drove home before sunrise. Or, at least, to his dad’s place, which counted as home for the break.

There seemed to be an unwritten rule, probably some underlying rule of magic, that when your parents wanted to have one of those talks, you couldn’t avoid one short of being dead.

Even undead didn’t cut it.

“Bryce, we need to talk,” his dad said waiting, ironically, in the living room.

Bryce didn’t need to talk. What Bryce needed to do was go to the undead room, also known as the basement, and crawl into the overcurtained trundle bed that passed for his crypt. But that’s not what the phrase meant. “We do?”

His father nodded. “I know you’re used to keeping your own hours, but since you’ve come back . . .”

Bryce knew he meant “from college” and not “from the grave” but some explanation was needed. “Uh, I’ve just been going through, uh, stuff,” he said lamely.

Bryce Arthur Pierponte,” his father intoned, “I need you to level with me, so you are going to stay here and you are going to answer some questions and you are going to answer them now. Do you understand?”

Bryce froze. His father had used the dreaded Threefold Naming. It was usually bad enough when a parent used all three of a child’s names, but with a magical being—such as, for example, a draug or bloodsucking ghost—the Three Names created a potent binding. Usually you also needed to have some of their blood and recite a few generations of ancestry for good measure, but this nicety was waived if the Threefold Naming was being done by a direct ancestor and blood relation. Such as, for example, your father.

“Yes, father.” Bryce had a natural knack for magic, stumbling into it once by saying just the right words. Now he knew where he got it. “What do you want to know, father?”

“Don’t you ‘father’ me, Bryce. ‘Dad’ will do just fine. But answer me, honestly: Were you out buying drugs? Because I’ve been to college and—”

“No,” Bryce broke in quickly, honestly.

“Then where were you all night?”

Bryce didn’t want to say he’d been attempting to break into the blood bank. But he didn’t have to say what he’d been doing. Just where: “The blood bank . . .”

His father swore and Bryce winced. This was another part of the drag of being a draug: Instead of being repelled by garlic or roses like the more common Romanian vampyr, he was repelled by repellant language. The blue streak his father proceeded to swear would usually have sent him screaming off into the night, but the Threefold Naming had also forced him to stay where he was, so instead, he was left a cowering wretch. “The blood bank, Bryce? The blood bank? I know I’ve been tapped out since the divorce—you can thank your mother for that—but if you needed money . . .” His father swore again and Bryce cringed. “Those damned vampires! You look like death warmed over. When did you last eat?”

“Two nights ago.” That was when he’d bit Stewie goodbye.

Again the swearing. “Okay, I understand—new house, new refrigerator, nothing in it. But while we may be in the wilds of suburbia, we do at least have a twenty-four hour grocery.” Dad took out his wallet, cursing softly as he fished out a twenty. “Did you get gas?”


Bryce cringed, then his father said, “Give me the keys.” Bryce did, his dad replacing them with the cash. “The office is having me come in early again, and I’ve got a hell of a commute. But once you get some rest, I’m ordering you to walk to the store and find something to eat. And while you’re at it, get some food for that poor mangy cat of yours.” He gestured to Matabor and the cat illusion Bryce had masked his familiar with.

“Yes, dad.”

His father hugged him briefly. “Love you, son. I’ll be back tonight.”

With that, his father left, leaving Bryce with a few bare minutes to pack himself into the basement before dawn.


Bryce had a hell of a commute as well, but a faster one. Everyone knew that the dead traveled quickly, and nothing is quicker than thought. With dawn, his had slipped into Niflheim.

In the heart of the misty realm of the Norse dead was Sleet Cold, the Hall of the goddess Hel. Bryce had been a part-time resident ever since he’d drunk from Her bowl, Hunger, and eaten with Her knife, Starvation. Sleet Cold was like an earlier incarnation of the Hotel California, but without the pink champagne or tacky seventies ceiling mirrors: Bryce could check out any time he liked, but he could never leave.

Not quite true, my honored guest, Hel corrected graciously, Her voice echoing inside his head. She was decked out in Her latest Cruella de Vil finery, a dalmatian-skin pantsuit with a matching pillbox hat. A lesser goddess could not have pulled it off, but it complemented Her complexion, white on one side, black on the other, bloodless pale and the bruised hue of a frozen corpse. If you wish to leave Niflheim for Midgard on a more permanent basis than the arrangement we have now, I would be a poor hostess were I to not offer you the same bargain as the most honored of all my guests. She gestured with Her one white hand to a man who was fairer still, His blond hair shining like a torch in the misty dimness of the hall.

He sat there, more beautiful than a hundred teen idols, more glamorous than a thousand Hollywood stars and starlets, and evidently more drunk than all of them combined. Who’s Thok? He muttered, a horn of golden mead clutched in one perfect masculine hand. Never heard of Thok . . . ​Never met Thok . . . 

Hel patted Him on the shoulder. There, there, sweet Baldr. I’m certain that were Thok to have ever had the privilege of your acquaintance, she would have cried a river for your death. Even if all it would take to ransom you from my hall would be a single one of her tears.

Baldr looked at Hel blearily. I heard Thok doesn’t even exist, he said drunkenly. I heard she was just your father in drag!

My father? In drag? Perish the thought! Hel dimpled. Loki may be guilty of countless crimes, but cross-dressing? You must have him confused with Uncle Thor . . . 

Baldr chuckled. Had to get that troll pretty drunk before he thought Thor was Freya . . . 

Bryce bit his tongue, not bringing up the origin story of Sleipnir. He watched as Hel gestured for Her maidservant to pour Her most honored guest more mead. The woman did, spilling it everywhere, but Baldr didn’t seem to mind. He drained His horn then fell asleep in the freezing puddle on the table, slurring out, Thok thuks . . . 

Hel turned to Bryce. I offer you the same bargain I offered dear Baldr all those years ago: Were every creature in the nine worlds, the quick and the dead, to cry for your passing, then you could return. Indeed, as you are only half here in Niflheim, I would gladly accept half: the tears of the dead, the tears of the living, or any combination of half the tears of the worlds.

“You are nothing if not gracious, Lady Hel.”

She smiled a disturbing smile. Care to play some chess? I do so love a good game . . . 

Bryce still wondered what Her chessboard was called, what the pieces were made out of, but as with everything it Hel’s hall, it was half black and half white.

Bryce nodded and chose white.

By the time the sun set and Bryce’s consciousness returned to the world of the living and the vacationing undead, Lady Hel had beat him more times than he could count. His last match was taken over by the shade of Bobby Fischer, who had died in Iceland, so his presence in Sleet Cold made as much sense as anything metaphysical. Bryce hoped the legendary chessmaster would do a bit better, but he wouldn’t bet on it.

Bryce was also starving, which was to say, more starving that usual. The baseline for any hungry ghost was hunger, but you could get around that so long as you occasionally fed.

Of course, there was also the matter of a magical binding and his father ordering him to go to the twenty-four hour supermarket and find something to eat. But what? The bag boy? The stock clerk? A couple checkers and late-night shoppers?

Thankfully, his father had ordered him to find something rather than someone and Bryce could turn into grave mist and back again. In rather short order, the meat locker had become a scene from “King Henry”—the Child Ballad as opposed to the fat guy with the multiple wives and the turkey drumstick. Though it was pretty close to that, too.

There was something cathartic in swelling up into a ten-foot-tall monstrous draug and noshing on sides of beef like they were Slim-Jims. Cathartic and somewhat disturbing. More meat! More meat! More meat ya bring to me! It wasn’t quite the same as human—or, at least, werewolf—blood, but it still hit the spot, like filling up on a lot of empty calories.

Bryce didn’t know where he put it all—conservation of mass was a concern of the natural world, not the supernatural—but he was at last picking his enormous teeth with a rib bone when he noticed an eyeball sitting on the floor in the corner.

It was not a mislaid cow eyeball. It was a human eyeball. A very pretty brown one, in fact, except for the fact that it was not in anyone’s head and was staring at him.

It spun like a marble and rolled into a ventilation duct, the same ventilation duct Bryce had snuck in through himself in the form of mist. Bryce took the form of the Niflheim fog and followed, reforming on the other side. He watched as the eyeball rolled across the linoleum of the meat department and into the hand of one of the checkout clerks. She stood up, polished the orb briefly, and popped it back in its socket. She blinked and smiled. A very sharp-toothed smile. “Were you planning to pay for that?”

Bryce grinned weakly in return.

She rolled her eyes, independently for a moment which was truly disconcerting, but then they settled down and simply looked pretty again. Bryce sniffed. There was a smell of death about her. The same smell he had himself. “What are you?”

She laughed lightly. “I was about to ask you the same thing myself. You’re obviously not an ordinary vampire.” She sidled up to him, craning her neck, and Bryce realized he’d reformed a bit larger than his usual. He brought himself back under seven feet. “What are you?” she asked.

“I’m a draug. Scandinavian.” She looked perplexed so Bryce explained: “A sort of Norse vampire. We do all sorts of magic, but we still drink blood. And eat stuff.”

“You’re not all into liver like those freaky Filipino vampires, are you?”

“They guys with the pop-off heads? Not particularly,” Bryce said, failing to mention that he could take off his head if he really felt like it. “I just eat. A lot. But I’m not into liver.”

She looked relieved. “I’m also not the usual sort of vampire. I am a lamia, from Libya,” she stated proudly. “I can take out my eyes, as you saw. And rather than the usual bats, I can take the form of the python, the lioness, and the shark.”

“Oh? I do wolves and jaguars.”

She nodded then paused. “They have jaguars in Scandinavia?”

“It’s a long story,” said Bryce. “Could you show me where the cat food is? I do have money for that.”

She did the disconcerting independent eyeroll thing again, but then took him by the arm. “Let me show you.”

Her name was Anissa, and she’d been undead for a very short time—a very short time as the undead measured these things, which was twenty-three years. That was longer than Bryce had been alive, or undead, or even alive and undead put together.

“Then there was Hop Sing,” Anissa recounted. “He was over three hundred years old, and one of those hopping vampires from China. Came over during the Gold Rush when they had all the Chinese working on the railroad. The hopping I could sort of get used to—it was kind of like a weird limp—but then someone spilled a bag of rice on Aisle Five and, I kid you not, he had to stand there and count every last grain. It was like dating the vampire Rain Man or that guy from Sesame Street. It was over after that.”

Bryce nodded. The Litany of the Previous Boyfriends was a ritual with a lot of girls on the first date, but with a lamia, it was to be expected. Bryce had remembered one other detail Anissa had failed to mention: The lamians were man-eaters, figuratively as well as literally. And Bryce realized he’d somehow become this one’s latest catch.

“Then there was this Greek guy. Did you know that some Greek vampires bite noses? Freakiest thing.” This said by a woman who could pop her eyes out and turn into an animal selectively. She was currently a giant python from the waist down, coiled halfway around him on the couch.

There was the sound of a car in the driveway. “About that,” Bryce broke in. “That would be my dad. He doesn’t know about the whole vampire thing.”

She blinked. Or, at least, that’s what he guessed it meant when the eyeballs on the coffee table bounced where she’d set them down the same way a regular girl might take off her glasses. “You’re that young? Oh, I hadn’t realized!” The note of pleasure in her voice made Bryce aware that he’d just been upgraded from Nice Catch to Prize Catch, but what he was more interested in was the fact that Anissa picked up her eyeballs and popped them back in her head and turned her snake tail back into legs and feet. He was so flustered by the sound of the key in the door that he almost forgot to change back from Super-Monster-Basketball-Star–Size Bryce to regular under-six-foot Bryce. But he did, and that was what was important.

His dad came in, quickly noticing Bryce standing beside the couch, Anissa lounging on it, and put two and two together. “You’re Anissa, aren’t you?” dad said. “You work at the supermarket. You have the night shift, right?”

The Rule of Three was strong, and while inviting a vampire into your house made you lose all power over them, there were ways to take it back. Such as, for example, a variant on the Threefold Naming.

“Why, yes,” said the lamia, getting up from the couch. “I was just . . . ​helping Bryce home with his cat food.”

“Meow,” Matabor said from the kitchen on cue.

Dad turned to Bryce. “Did you get something to eat yourself?”

“He ate at the supermarket,” Anissa explained. “He was . . . ​very hungry.” She smiled conspiratorially at Bryce.

Dad nodded. “Good. I ate on the way.”

“I should get going,” Anissa said. “I need to finish my shift.”

“Thanks,” dad said, opening the door for Anissa.

“You’re welcome.” She glanced back flirtatiously. “See you, Bryce.”

Dad shut the door, looking to Bryce. It was a man-to-man look, but he didn’t say anything more than, “I’m going to go to bed. Sorry for being such a poor host, but I’ve got another early day tomorrow.”

“No problem, dad.”

Dad went upstairs, leaving Bryce the downstairs, the basement, and the trouble of being undead which was getting more troublesome by the minute.

He went down to his room, unzipping his backpack and getting out Master Seidel’s formulary, the grimoire and magician’s workbook that had started this whole adventure, along with finding his familiar. There was the section on Immortality, with Master Seidel’s tart opinion about being undead: A problem, not a solution. Tell me about it!

Looking further, Bryce found the Lesser Bath of Hebe, Medea’s invocation to the Greek goddess of youth. The ritual looked deceptively simple on the surface but, as Bryce knew from previous experience, it had all sorts of possibilities for complication if you made a few seemingly harmless substitutions. Then there was Medea’s other spell, the Greater Bath of Hebe, a much more dangerous procedure, but one which could not only restore the aged to youth but the dead to life as well.

Bryce wasn’t aged, but he was dead, or, at least, undead. Looking over Seidel’s translation of Medea’s original Greek, and translating a little of the Greek while he was at it—who knew that freshman Intro to the Classics could be so useful?—there was a bit of misnaming going on, since the Greater Bath of Hebe would more properly be translated as the Greater Bath of Hebe and Hecate, Hecate being the Grecian goddess of ghosts, witchcraft, and assorted necromancy who predated Hades as Ruler of the Underworld before getting a golden parachute into Her current position as Queen of the Night.

Well, he’d already met Tezcatlipoca, Fenris, and Hel. He wasn’t being a proper magician if he didn’t round things out and visit a few more gods and goddesses.

What’s the worst that could happen?


Hecate was analogous to the Roman Trivia, goddess of the crossroads, and a whole lot of the Greco-Roman pantheon was the same gods moving to new digs, getting different names and redecorating to suit the times.

Suburbia was more of the same if you just knew what to look for. The three-way intersection of Lady’s Mantle Drive, Willow Tree Place, and Shadowdale Lane looked like something from any other subdivision, a sleepy three-way stop unlikely to get any traffic at the tail end of the witching hour. And even if you noted that this night was the second night of the dark of the moon, the true night of the new moon, the most propitious time to contact the Queen of the Night, you would not consider that spot terribly auspicious as a portal to the Underworld unless you thought about those names, the sacred herbs and trees, and how they might pertain to Hecate, aka Trivia of the Crossroads. Drawing a circle in the middle was also unnecessary, as there was already a convenient one set there, a dark moon forged from iron, mist curling slightly from the vents.

Placing the goddess’s symbols was the first part: a key, a torch, and a serpent. Keys were easy, and a flashlight worked for a torch. And while finding a serpent might usually be a bit more difficult, Bryce had just met one.

“So I need to turn into a snake?” Anissa asked.

“It’s the third symbol for the circle,” Bryce said, chalking a triangle in the middle of the manhole cover. “You need to stand here.”

“I’ve never done ritual magic,” Anissa hissed silkily, her lower half already coiling into a python’s tail. “It makes an interesting second date. This something all draugs do?”

“A lot of them,” Bryce said, but was only going from legend. He was the only draug he’d ever met, at least outside of Hel’s Hall.

The traditional libations and offerings were a bit more troublesome. According to the Iliad, Hecate’s sacrifice of choice was a Hecatomb, one hundred cattle slaughtered in honor of the goddess, then roasted and eaten by her followers with lots of singing and drinking.

Bryce had started the evening with a few sides of beef, so hopefully the current offering would suffice: the 100 x 100. It was from In-n-Out Burger’s secret menu: a hundred beef patties and a hundred cheese slices stacked together into one ginormous burger, the closest suburbia came to a Hecatomb short of a Labor Day picnic. Plus a dozen baskets of fries.

The Iliad also listed barley and fermented beverages as traditional, but there wasn’t an all-night barley takeout unless you counted beer, which Bryce thought should satisfy both. He had four cases of Tecate, chosen because the name rhymed with “Hecate,” he was underage as well as undead (and Anissa had scored them), and, finally, because with his draug’s allergy to dirty words, his options for drinking songs were severely limited. But he did know how to sing “Ninety-Nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall” in classical Latin.

The python coiled up alongside Matabor and watched as Bryce popped a bottle and began the invocation: “Io Hecate!” He poured the first taste onto the black iron circle, letting it pool, making it an even truer mirror of the dark moon above, the domain of Hecate. “Nonaginta novem solum crapula parietis! Nonaginta novem solum crapula!” Bryce watched the libations dribble down the holes into the Underworld below. “Si unus illorum solum contingo cado . . .” He swallowed a patty from the In-n-Out Hecatomb and a handful of fries, chasing it with the rest of the beer. “Nonaginta duodeviginti solum crapula parietis!”

Bryce popped another bottle and began the next verse. It sounded much more impressive and magical if you didn’t understand the words. But counting out a sacrifice was old magic, and four cases of beer made for a pretty substantial altar to the gods even by frat house standards.

The trouble with suburbia was that it was hard to find a completely deserted crossroads even in the middle of the night. A car stopped at the stop sign. Then, the next moment, red and blue lights started flashing atop it.

Bryce may have been a magician’s draug, but he was also a teenager and a college student and had no interest in getting arrested for underage public binge drinking, regardless of whether he could turn into mist and escape or not. He grabbed his key and the flashlight, scooped Anissa up onto one shoulder, then ripped off the manhole cover with one hand, tossing it aside like a Frisbee. He heard the crash as it smacked into the roof of someone’s McMansion.

Sirens wailed as Bryce jumped down the sewer, falling down, down, down, Matabor fluttering on little bat wings around him and Anissa the lamia. It seemed like they fell for an eternity, or half of one, and Bryce realized somewhere in the descent that he was not reaching bottom and had just started another secret journey into the Underworld.

At last he touched down. It was very much like Niflheim, a realm of mist and smoke, except where Niflheim was cold as ice or sleet, Erebus was merely foggy and damp. At least Bryce hoped it was Erebus, rather than some deeper, darker region, such as Hades or Tartarus. It was also wetter, and he was standing in a puddle of water, leaking into his shoes.

He shone the flashlight around. The fog swirled and cleared a bit, and he saw that he was at the juncture of three tunnels, all alike. Well, almost all alike. The keystone of each arch had a symbol: the first, a key; the second, a torch; the third, a serpent.

Bryce didn’t know if he was in an adventure game or a fairytale. Three paths. Three choices. Three symbols of knowledge. If this were a game, each of the paths would have some plot token he’d need to complete the quest. If it were a fairytale, two paths would lead to doom and only one would lead to some happy outcome. But since this was a secret magical mystical journey to supplicate the ancient Greco-Roman titaness of death, magic and the dark moon?

If it were, said an echoing voice in his head, you might have brought all the libations you promised.

“What?” said Bryce.

You sang of nine and ninety, yet I only see six and ninety here.

Bryce thought. Six and ninety. Ninety-six, exactly how many bottles there were in four cases of Tecate. Or any other beer for that matter.

And your Latin is atrocious, said the voice in his skull. However, points for attempting a Hecatomb. And bringing a lamian sibyl as your third token is done far less often than I might like. The mist swirled and reformed and Bryce was looking at a tall, elegant woman flanked by six wolves. Her long titian hair was held up with a fine silver comb and She was garbed in a flowing gown, like midnight dusted with stars. In one hand, She held a Tecate. In another, a hamburger patty. And in a third, a basket of french fries. These fried tubers are lovely. I started as an earth goddess. It would be nice if more supplicants thought to remember such trivia.

Hecate/Trivia drank the beer, ate the burger, and nibbled the fries, all three at once. It wasn’t so much a case of watching a three-headed six-armed goddess as watching three identical goddesses superimposed on each other, a triple-exposure of the divine.

At last She finished Her meal, tossing the scraps to Her wolves, who ran through one another as they snapped up the treats, superimposed in the same manner as their mistress. They at last settled down into two wolves, each of them occasionally having three heads. And so, the goddess(es) said, how do you invoke us? Tender-Hearted Hecate? Bright-Coiffed Hecate? Night-Wandering Hecate? The last three phrases were said all at once, each face of the goddess talking over the others. She reached out Her hands and collected Her tokens: the key, the flashlight, and Anissa the python.

This was a test, and Bryce realized the trial of the tunnels had merely taken another form. Then he remembered what his father had done earlier, the Threefold Naming: “I call upon Tender-Hearted Hecate, Bright-Coiffed Hecate, and Night-Wandering Hecate—all three. How could I honor one face of the goddess and slight the others?”

It happens more often than not, said the goddess’s first face, gesturing with Her key.

Those seeking illumination are often blind to it, said the second as She shone the flashlight in his eyes.

People are idiots, the last said simply, draping the snake about Her shoulders.

So then, said Trivia as one, why have you sought us out?

“I’m in a bit of a bind,” Bryce said in the understatement of the year. “I’m undead. I’m caught between life and death, and while some of it’s fun, most of it sucks.”

That is unfortunate but true, said Tender-Hearted Hecate, the Key Holder.

Yet the same can be said of Life, remarked Bright-Coiffed Hecate, the Light Bringer.

And Death, finished Night-Wandering Hecate, She of the Serpent. Consider yourself lucky. There are some hungry shades who bite noses.

This wasn’t the answer Bryce wanted to hear, though it was all very true. “But could You help me? Please?”

The goddess(es) cocked Her/Their head(s), considering.

The Light Bringer spoke first: Lady Hel’s realm is not our realm, but it is on the same level, and we do hear gossip.

Your reputation is getting around, agreed the Key Holder. But we hear good things!

From wicked gods, finished She of the Serpent. Lady Hel is quite taken with you, hence her gambit to keep you in her realm. But from what I’ve heard, she has offered you an out.

“Half the tears of the world,” Bryce said. “I’ll have some trouble pulling that off.”

The first offer is never the only offer, Bright-Coiffed Hecate pointed out.

Hades originally wanted Persephone for the whole year, said Tender-Hearted Hecate. He settled for half.

After Demeter went on strike, finished Night-Wandering Hecate. That was politics more than anything.

It’s all politics, said Bright-Coiffed Hecate. We gods use the laws of magic to our own ends, but are bound by them as well. Eating the food of the Underworld puts you in that Underworld god’s power, but it is up to the god how long you stay.

We could return you to mortal life, said Night-Wandering Hecate, had you eaten the fruits of Tartarus while it was under our administration. And even with the current one, we have some influence due to our good friend Persephone. But Niflheim? Ten Hecatombs aren’t worth an interplanar incident.

Which is not to say that we won’t help you, said Tender-Hearted Hecate, because we can. We gods are bound by laws, even more so than mortals. We love games. And if you beat one of us in a game, you can ask for anything in our power. Anything at all.

In Tartarus, we usually just roll the bones, said She of the Serpent.

The Light Bringer held the flashlight up to illuminate Her face. But we are given to understand that Lady Hel has a passion for a game called chess . . . 

Beating Lady Hel at chess was easier said than done. Bryce could go to the goddess Athena and beg for a measure of Her wisdom, but given Athena’s opinions of mortals who challenged the gods (and the fate of Arachne) this was an amazingly dumb idea. Bryce could likewise stop by the Well of Mimir en route to Niflheim and try to get a sip of wisdom, but the last person to do that successfully was Odin, the Allfather, who’d lost an eye in the process, and since Mimir himself was now dead and decapitated, this was again, a recipe for disaster.

Hecate’s advice was far simpler: watch, learn, play, and lower your sights.

Lady Hel was a grandmaster of chessmasters, as one might expect of the half black/half white daughter of Loki. It was an honor to play against Her, and an even greater honor to not be checkmated in three moves. Bryce learned a great deal from the Lady of Niflheim.

Baldr, on the other hand, was the most beautiful of the Norse gods (excepting Freya, but that depended on your sexual preference). He was the most beloved of the Norse gods (not that it had done him much good). But He was not the most clever of all the Norse gods. Plus He’d spent His centuries in Sleet Cold drowning His sorrows in enough mead to souse Jormungandr, aka Lady Hel’s other brother, the Midgard Serpent.

Even so, Baldr beat Bryce twice until Bryce followed more of Hecate’s advice, keeping his eyes on the board, only the board, focusing on the game, and not allowing himself to be distracted by the god’s beauty and magnificence. Bryce moved a black knight, exposing a bishop and springing the trap for the white king. “Checkmate.”

There was silence in Sleet Cold after he said the word, and Lady Hel looked up from Her latest game with the shade of Bobby Fischer. She then looked at the board between Bryce and Baldr, the position of the pieces, black and white, and nodded with the finality of a chessmaster. Well done.

Baldr looked as well, at the board, at His drinking horn, then at the board again. Well done indeed! He laughed and clapped Bryce on the shoulder, and only the strength of the undead kept Bryce from being knocked off the bench. Been a while since any mortal has bested me, if ever. The sorrow then showed plain on His beautiful face. You have made me laugh, and for a brief moment, I forgot. I would gladly grant you any boon it is in my power to grant, but I’m afraid since coming here, I’m a much poorer god than I was.

Bryce steeled himself, remembering Hecate’s advice, the thing to ask for: “I was told that on Your deathbed, O Baldr, Your father Odin came and whispered something in Your ear. This is something known only to You and Him, a great secret and a greater riddle, something skalds whisper of as an unknowable thing. Could I ask to hear this?”

Baldr turned paler than His usual snowy whiteness and was sober in an instant. You could ask to know this thing, He said gravely, but it would be better for you if you did not.

And, by the same token, you could ask that dear Baldr tell me this dear little secret, this small confidence shared only by him and the Allfather until now. Lady Hel stood, regal in an ermine cloak. I would give much to know this small thing, clever Bryce, and your freedom from Niflheim would be but a start. Ask. Ask anything.

She had said it. She had said the word Hecate had told him to watch for. “Then I accept Your bargain, Lady Hel, and in exchange for Baldr whispering to You His Father’s confidence, I ask for one solitary trifle that is in Your power to grant: a single tear from the Giantess Thok for Him.” He stabbed the air with his finger, pointing to Baldr.

For what may have been the first time in Her very long existence, Lady Hel blanched, Her black half changing to dark grey, her white as yellowed as old ivory. But then She recovered. Clever. Very clever, little runeskald. Probably too clever for a mortal by half, even a draug. But Thok never cried for Baldr before. What makes you think she would do so now?

“Because by now she is either a shade in Your domain and thus Yours to command, or because She is Someone Else who never truly was Thok, but is still in Your domain, and would do this one small thing because Her Daughter begged Her.”

Lady Hel said nothing for a long while. You had gained my friendship because you aided my brother, Fenris. Now you would gain my enmity while still spending half your hours in Sleet Cold, which can be a far less pleasant place than it has been for those who have drawn my ire.

Bryce remembered Hecate’s words. “Even so, I ask this. For Baldr.”

Baldr stood, crossing to Lady Hel in two strides across the black and white tiles. Checkmate, Loki’s Daughter. He caught Her by the shoulder and whispered something in Her one white ear, and for what was likely the second time in Her long existence, Lady Hel blanched. But before you go to ask for my tear from Thok, there is something else. I recall you offered Bryce his freedom from your realm if half the world would give him their tears: half the living and half the dead or any combination thereof. Well, we now stand here in Niflheim and I ask all the shades, “Will you cry? Will you cry for my friend Bryce!?”

There was a wailing then. A howling of voices and moaning and sobs and laughter and tears of joy. Drops like warm rain fell through the halls of Sleet Cold, melting the ice of the tables and chairs, rotting the tapestries of spun misery, the walls collapsing like a glacier calving into an ocean of tears and bearing Bryce away like a tidal wave . . . 

Bryce awoke. He was cold, and his toe hurt. And there was something on his face.

He sat up, coughing, pulling the sheet from his face and taking great ragged breaths for the first time in months.

Someone screamed then someone swore and Bryce flinched, but only on reflex. “We’ve got a breather! Someone call ICU!”

Bryce looked around. He was in a morgue, next to a dead body, and the smell of blood in the air wasn’t appetizing at all. He was alive.

“Calm down, sir,” said the frantic coroner. “What’s the last thing you remember?”

Bryce thought. There were a lot of things he remembered. Most of them wouldn’t sound sane. “Um, falling down a sewer?”

“That’s right. Don’t worry. You had hypothermia. You were in shock. And your blood alcohol content is through the roof.”

Bryce let them hook him up to all sorts of monitors and widgets and strange doctor contraptions and drifted off to sleep. Normal sleep for the first time in months.

Sleep was bizarre. Something about Hieronymous Bosch designing a Japanese gameshow with talking woodmice and an orchestra made of ukeleles and fluglehorns. In the middle of it, Anissa stepped through the Gate of Horn and told him not to mind all of this—it was just the Gate of Ivory working through its backlog and she’d talk to him when he woke up, something about him owing some ladies three beers for a game of Trivial Pursuit.

Bryce awoke again, finding himself in a hospital room. There was a flower arrangement, and his father, asleep in a chair. There was also a python who rose up and turned into a young woman. Anissa put her finger to her lips, gesturing Bryce to silence, then put her hand to his cheek. “You’re alive . . .” she said softly, a flash of shark teeth in her mouth. “That was an extremely interesting second date . . .”

“What do you remember?” Bryce whispered.

“You drank a lot of beer and then jumped into the sewer. But you’ve come back to life. And you won’t believe how intriguing and sexy that is.” She paused. “And I had a dream about three women telling me that they wanted me to work for them as a lamian sibyl and you still owed them three beers.”

“That and a lot more,” said Bryce. “A lot more.”

K.D. Wentworth has sold more than eighty pieces of short fiction to such markets as Fantasy & Science Fiction, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, Witch Way to the Mall, and Return to the Twilight Zone. Four of her stories have been finalists for the Nebula Award for Short Fiction. Currently, she has seven novels in print, including The Course of Empire, written with Eric Flint and published by Baen. Her next book (also co-written with Eric Flint) is Crucible of Empire, published in March 2010. She serves as Coordinating Judge for the Writers of the Future Contest and lives in Tulsa with her husband and a combined total of one hundred sixty pounds of dog (Akita + Siberian “Hussy”) and is working on another new novel with Flint. Website:

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