Authors: Karissa Laurel
Table of Contents
The Norse Chronicles™
Copyright © 2016 by Karissa Laurel. All rights reserved.
First Edition: May 2016
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to locales, events, business establishments, or actual persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.
For my Myrtle Beach Girls
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
—Robert Frost (1874-1963)
neida Lake looked almost the same as I remembered. The water was dark and glassy, the perfect mirror for a giant or a god. Late fall had come to northern New York. The surrounding trees had shed their fiery fall cloaks and encircled the lake as skeletal sentries, silent witnesses to what happened there all those weeks before. A blast of wind sent the trees swaying, and they creaked and groaned but gave away no secrets. They told me nothing about what had happened to Skyla.
The bits of detritus scattered throughout the Ramirez family’s cabin maintained the silence as well. Our sleeping gear and luggage lay undisturbed. Empty wine bottles adorned the counter, and dishes collected dust in the drying rack. I ignored the cooler squatting on the kitchen floor. The ice had certainly melted over the past five weeks, and whatever was left inside had probably bred several mold cultures I was happy to never know about.
If only mold could talk
. Then again, the stuff growing inside that cooler probably could.
Outside, in the front yard, a smear of burnt grass indicated the place where I had gone stellar, transmuting into that
state, but no rusty stains showed where Inyoni had bled out from a fatal cut to her throat. No remains proved Khalani, the Valkyries’ Mistress of the Blade, had existed. No ash pile signified the gravesite of Hati, the mythological wolf who’d killed my brother. No monument to my vengeance, no memorial to commemorate the place where I’d fulfilled my promises.
I had found Mani’s killer and brought him justice. Still, a hollow place lingered inside me: the hole that had formed after Mani’s death. Killing Hati had not healed it. Perhaps it restored some sense of balance, though, because I no longer felt so much like a broken-keeled ship, listing to one side.
I had never killed anything other than the occasional spider or mosquito. Hati was a man, a wolf, a monster, and I had snuffed his animating spark, or his spirit, or whatever it was that had brought him to life. Did it matter whether he was myth or real, magic or flesh and bone? I had wanted him dead, and the result was the same. I kept asking myself if I regretted killing him, if I felt bad about it, but I never did. I still don’t. Was that wrong?
At the end of the day, I managed to look myself in the face without cringing. Nothing else mattered.
I crouched in the yard and studied my hands, my smooth palms, which had held fire and flames and bent them to my will. The transmutation had drained me, and in the days since, I had managed nothing but a pitiful glow from my fingertips. A
cold ball of dread resided in my gut and would likely stay there until my fire returned to its full potential. I had no idea how long that would take, how long I would be vulnerable and defenseless.
Not a question you can answer today, Solina. Quit wasting time. Every minute you stay here, you’re putting yourself in more danger.
To satisfy my need for diligence, I circled the lot one more time. I didn’t want a doubtful voice whispering in my ear when I left the lake:
Are you sure you didn’t miss something? Are you
After my second inspection, I realized the big black truck was gone, the one Thorin had left at the Aerie for me, the one Skyla, Inyoni, Kalani and I had driven on a cross-country sprint from Mendocino to Oneida.
In the end, Thorin had provided resources, supported my decisions, and honored my wishes. A cooperative Thorin was hard to dismiss and even harder to resist. Letting him get close meant trusting he wouldn’t compromise my independence or manipulate my plans in ways that best suited him. It meant believing he had not only his own interests at heart but mine, too.
Not sure I’m willing to take that chance on him. Not until I know myself better. Not until I can stand on my own and face him as an equal.
Maybe Nate McNairy had taken the truck to remove evidence. Maybe Thorin had managed to track it, despite having insisted the truck was a ghost, untraceable. Maybe Skyla had used it to escape from Nate, and she was on the run, same as me. The idea of Skyla as a fugitive was a hopeful one, and I clung to it because it meant she had survived.
Other than the absence of the truck, I found nothing worth noting. After shushing the questioning voice in my head, I returned to the driveway and climbed into the backseat of the cab that was waiting for me—meter running, of course—while I conducted my investigation. A rental car would have been more economical, but it required identification and paperwork. Coming back to Oneida Lake was dangerous enough, but Skyla was worth that risk. Coming back to Oneida Lake and leaving a trail would have been suicidal. Sacrificing myself to save the world was a noble idea, but dying because of lazy mistakes was just plain wasteful.
And I don’t want my life—or my death—to be a waste.
“Where to now, miss?” the driver asked.
“Take me back to where you got me,” I said.
The taxi had picked me up from a bus station in Syracuse, the closest depot on Greyhound’s route.
The cab driver fiddled with his GPS and said, “Okee dokee. You got money to burn, I guess?”
“Not a lot of money. Just a whole lot of worry.”
Five weeks later…
he sour odors of alcohol and sweat infused my work shirt. My deodorant and body wash had fought gallantly on my behalf, but the arrival of a celebrating men’s softball team and a spilled glass of cheap gin had struck the conquering blows. Spills and stains had defeated me before and probably would again unless my fairy godmother showed up and worked a miracle on my behalf. In my experience, magic was rarely so benevolent. I was better off relying on myself.
The bar smelled nothing like my family’s bakery with its signatures of vanilla, yeast—the bread kind, not the beer kind—cinnamon, butter, and warm sugar. Even the cleaning solutions and rubber floor mats supplied their own distinct notes. I missed my bakery, but not as much as I probably should have, considering I had once been resigned to spending the rest of my life there, pinned under the weight of my parents’ expectations. A lot had changed since then. Metamorphic things. Immortal things.
I swiped a rag over the old wooden bar top, clearing smudges and spills. Then I reached for a nearby mop and bucket to do the same for the floors, another chore added to a long and exhausting day of doling drinks, fencing grabby-handed advances, and placating obstinate drunks. A glance at the overflowing tip jar cheered me up, though.
“Hey, Sabrina,” Nikka said as she passed me on her way to the front door.
Her casual use of my false name felt like nails on a chalkboard, but the precaution was necessary for not just my safety but hers, too.
“You gonna be much longer?” she asked.
“Nah,” I said. “Just finishing up.”
“Five, ten minutes?”
“Something like that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Then what are you going to do?”
“Uh.” I racked my brain for items on my to-do list that I might have overlooked, but mopping up and totaling the register receipts were the last chores in my nightly routine. “Then, nothing, I guess. I’ll go to bed.”
“You always go to bed.” Nikka pursed her lips into a pretty pout.
“I don’t think the boss would be too happy if I passed out from sleep deficiency during my shift tomorrow night.”
“The boss isn’t happy that you go home rather than going out with her when she asks you to dinner.” Nikka winked, and her bright smile contrasted beautifully against her Mediterranean skin.
Nikka’s father had bequeathed Stefanakis Spirits and Suds to her before his death several years before. As far as I could tell, she kept the bar alive and thriving with a little know-how and twice as much hard work.
“The boss should get used to disappointment.”
Nikka’s smile drooped. “C’mon, Sabrina. Today makes a month since you came to work for me. We should celebrate. I mean, what’s the big deal?”
The big deal was the hundreds of pounds of psychotic baggage I lugged around. If Nikka knew about the hot mess that was my life, she’d run away screaming. I was doing her a favor. I was an anathema to friendships. Skyla would have testified to that if I could find her.
“Bacon and waffles at that all-night diner down the street, my treat,” Nikka said. “We don’t have to do any friendship bonding rituals or anything.”
“Nikka—” I started.
She raised a hand to stop me. “Don’t say it. I’ve heard it already. See you tomorrow, Sabrina.” Nikka started for the door.
I almost let her go, but regret and loneliness welled up from the empty places in my heart. The emotions were so overwhelming that I responded before my common sense could kick in and counteract them. “Wait,” I said.
Nikka froze but didn’t look back.
“Just breakfast, right?”
“And a coffee or two.”
“They do chocolate-chip waffles?”
Nikka pivoted on her heel and let loose a brilliant smile. “They will if I have anything to say about it.”
At the diner, Nikka sat across from me and guzzled her coffee. She set down her mug, burped, and patted her stomach. Then she smiled in a self-satisfied way.
“Okay,” I said, laughing, “I totally apologize for not agreeing to this sooner. I think I needed a good sugar high.”
Nikka leaned forward and grinned. “You should trust my wisdom more often.”
“Oh, I trust your wisdom.”
“Of course. Anyone who gives a homeless girl a job without any references or proof of experience must be a really wise woman.”
“You proved yourself,” Nikka said. “What you lacked in experience, you made up for in effort.”
“But you didn’t know that I wouldn’t just rob you blind and head for the hills.”
“This isn’t my first rodeo, and I also have great intuition.”
If that were true, she wouldn’t have wasted her time trying to befriend me. But for whatever reason she wanted to attribute, Nikka had provided a much-needed job and a place to lie low while I recovered my powers. Nikka didn’t ask for a driver’s license or social-security card. She set me up in the apartment over her bar for next to nothing. I told her my name was Sabrina Moody—close to the real thing so I would remember to answer to it—and Nikka never asked for proof. She paid me in cash and respect. I hated lying to her, but what other choice did I have?
Nikka probably suspected I was running from a bad relationship. She was right if one could call the thing between Skoll and Helen Locke and me a relationship—an apocalyptic hate triangle, more like.
“It’s only been a few weeks, Nikka. I could still make my getaway.”
“Nah,” she said. “You got Pacific Ocean in your veins, I can tell. Just look at you—blond hair, that bronze skin. You look like an advertisement for the ideal California Girl.”
“Maybe. I do like it here. A lot.”
Nikka nodded in a knowing way. “So, you’re hooked, and you’re not going anywhere, which brings us to the next question: What are you doing for the holidays? You worked through Thanksgiving, and I thank you for that, but I always shut down the bar for Christmas. So, you’ll have no excuse. You
spend Christmas alone.”
“Don’t tell that to this crowd.” I motioned to the ragtag group of late-night diners around us. “Besides, I was looking forward to a grand-slam breakfast with Joe.”
“Who is Joe?”
“I don’t know for sure, but if you wander around Chicano Park long enough, you’ll probably find a guy named Joe camped out under the Coronado Bridge. And I bet he likes chocolate-chip waffles at least as much as I do.”
Nikka rolled her eyes upward and talked to the ceiling. “She’s been in San Diego four weeks, and she’s already as cynical as me.”
I laughed and sipped coffee from my cup. Outside the restaurant, San Diego was waking up. The rising sun had turned the sky from black into an enchanted lilac. The gloaming hour suggested weakening barriers and the surge of possibility—as though anything could happen. I closed my eyes and imagined that when I opened them again, I would see my brother standing on the sidewalk outside the diner. He’d be laughing about something with a buddy or tapping his foot, impatiently waiting for me.
When I opened my eyes, my gaze fell not on Mani, but on a tall, dark-haired stranger standing under a streetlight near the front window. He stepped out of sight before I got a good look at him, but something about the way he suddenly turned away—or the way the hairs on the back of my neck stood up—made me think he had been watching me.
“He was checking you out the whole time you had your eyes closed,” Nikka said.
“Who?” I drained the rest of my coffee.
“That guy out there.” She flung a hand in the direction of the stranger, who had disappeared. “Don’t act like you didn’t notice.”
“Hmm.” I shrugged and looked away.
The incident made me uneasy, but Nikka didn’t need to know that. She might have asked why I was so jumpy, and that was not a story I wanted to tell.
Nikka leaned forward, intent on making her point. “Totally intense. Like he knew you or something.”
“I don’t know anyone here except you and Tre,” I said, naming the San Diego police officer who worked security for Stefanakis in his off-hours.
“Maybe you just look like someone he knows. Or maybe it was love at first sight. You should go after him. Give him your number. If you’re going to make new friends, you could definitely do worse than him. He was… spectacular.”
Cold waves rippled over my shoulders. I shivered and shrugged off the chill.
No making friends with handsome strangers
. Letting Nikka into my life had been risky enough.
Nikka must have sensed my mood change. She frowned and tossed a couple bills on the table, enough to cover my check and a tip. We slid out of our booth and headed for the door.
“We should do this again,” she said. “Soon.”
No. No, we shouldn’t
. Routines and habits and friends made a person comfortable. Comfortable people made mistakes like letting down their guards and trusting. Trusting opened the way for betrayal and broken hearts.