Everything Dead After a Time is copyrighted 2011 by R. Earle Harris
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
The door banged open like the Crack of Doom
My head imploded. Earlier, I had been drinking.
"What?" I said, trying to sit up. My head wasn't having any of that. I lay back down and squinted sideways at my tormentor.
"Breid," I said, "stop yelling."
I tried sitting up again. No good.
"I'm not yelling," Breid said.
"You are from where I'm sitting," I said, squeezing my head and wondering how to make him go away.
"You're not sitting," said Breid. He smiled, leaning one muscular hand against the open door jamb. "You've been earning your rent money again."
"Yes," I said, finally sitting up. "Close the door."
He banged it shut and I winced.
"Is there some reason you don't just pay your rent and everything else with what they give us," he asked. He leaned a big shoulder against the door.
"I don't like the gold exchanges," I told him. My eyes were focusing better now. "They sell you futures. Or they take a big cut. I hate middlemen."
"You 'are' in Midgard," said Breid.
"Yes," I said, "and I don't like it. And don't tell me again that I could get a job like Snot. I prefer my monthly drinking bouts."
"Wagers," I agreed. "It's what I do best."
I put my head back on the pillow. I could hear Sleep calling me.
"Breid, tell me again why you came here to torture me with loud questions."
"Maggots," he said.
He looked very happy saying it. Breid loves a fight. And maggots would probably give him one.
I sat up again. Too fast.
"You are kidding, right?"
Breid shook his head happily.
"No, Snorri. Maggotmen. Here. In our city."
"Breaking the truce?" I asked.
I shook my head in disbelief. Mistake. Breid laughed.
"My pain is not funny," I whispered.
"It is from where I'm sitting," said Breid happily.
His good humor was getting on my nerves.
"How many?" I asked, standing up and making an effort to pull myself together.
"Snorri." Breid took me by the shoulders. "Lay back down. There's only two."
"What are they, lost?" I asked.
I let him sit me down on my worn-out couch. He remained towering over me, healthy and happy.
"I'll check it out and come back. Klur is watching them now."
He held up his cellphone. What kind of Heimdaller carries a cellphone?
"He's going to call me if something happens. We'll figure out what's going on and come back here. Try to sober up while I'm gone."
"I am sober," I said. "Just hung over."
"Like the All-Father from the tree," he said. "Get some rest. When Klur and I get back, you can decide what to do."
"Thanks," I said, clearly not meaning it.
"Hey," grinned Breid. "You're in charge."
"You carrying?" I asked.
He pulled the corner of his bag from his big field jacket pocket. We all carry bags of holding. Bags of holing, more like. In the little bag is a hole and our trunks in Asgard are on the other side. You reach in the bag and pull something out of your wooden trunk. Nice. Be nicer if you could crawl in there sometimes and go home. It doesn't work that way.
Breid opened the door and turned to go.
"Careful," I said.
"Always," he said as he waved goodbye. Breid's not a bad guy. He didn't even bang the door on his way out.
I lay back down on my pillow and examined my head from the inside. Some of the pain was hangover. Some was lack of tobacco. I reached under the couch for pipe and pouch and Zippo. I love my Zippo. Alright, okay. Humans do some things well.
I went over to the window and opened the heavy blinds.
Just after sunset. I'd come home with my winnings before dawn. So I'd slept the day away. And still felt like hell. I'm getting too old, no, hardly ... but too something to drink for a living. Maybe I could rob banks. I lit my pipe and opened the high casement that faced the street of this ancient brick rooming house.
Maggots. Svartalven. Loki on a stick, what were they doing here? I filled my lungs with heavy Danish tobacco. Why couldn't they show up in Denmark? Or Djibouti? Why maggots here? I hate maggots. Worse than men, even.
My head had one of those pain twitches and my shoulders spasmed. Rob banks, I thought, and climbed out on the fire escape. The woman next door who smoked too much of something too awful to think about smiled her rotten teeth at me and took another pull on her little glass pipe. The balconies are for smoking, I guess. I waved back. To be nice. And thought about going back inside.
I sat down on the window ledge instead and looked down through the metal grid of the fire escape platform.
I felt guilty. I was, in fact, in charge. Of nothing, mostly. In this case, in charge of finding out what maggotmen were doing, breaking an ancient truce by appearing in Midgard. Middle America Midgard, to be precise. And instead of taking my charge, I was sitting here, hung over, feeling worn out, while Breid and Klur were doing their jobs.
Breid was okay. Better than okay. Especially if it came to a fight. But, O Your God -- Klur. The human knuckle. A doorstop. A big doorstop, I'll admit. I hoped nothing bad enough would happen that Breid would need to rely on Klur to do something active. I almost wished I had a cellphone, could find out where they were, take charge.
I went back to bed instead.
The door banged open like the second Crack of Doom. Which wasn't due for some time.
No one yelled my name even though I was feeling better and my head wouldn't have imploded if they did. It was darker than Breid's first dramatic entrance had been and no one turned on the lights. And I remembered having locked the door after he left.
So I was out of bed, on my feet, pulling my long axe out of my bag, when something bumped the couch behind me. I cut the sound with my axe, continued its arc in a complete circle, and stepped to the side in case anyone clever was quick enough to aim something at the sound of my riposte.
So I stood very still, listening and wishing I could see in the dark. And hoping that whatever else was in the room or in the doorway couldn't see better than I did.
So either nothing was there or something was waiting for me to make a noise. I waited a while so they could make one first. If they closed to attack, I would hear them. But making a noise would give someone with a missile weapon something to shoot at and I wasn't keen on that.
I'm not worried about guns. At close range, guns don't work on Aesir. They make fizzling noises, the bullet gets stuck, the shooter makes panicky noises as he tries to clear the chamber as you approach with the axe. Then he throws the gun at you just before the axe splits his head. At least that's what happened last time.
But longbows and crossbows work just fine and kill everything in the nine worlds that isn't made of stone like the giants are or isn't carrying a rune against flying pointy objects. I wasn't carrying anything like that.
Fortunately, nothing shot me.
Not having any furniture except for an old couch, a floorlamp and a Bowflex, made it possible for me to reach the doorway of my bathroom noiselessly. I switched on the light and moved away, fast and low, at what I hoped was blinding speed.
Just a burlap bag, the size of your head, over against the couch. I took a quick look out into the now empty hallway. Whoever had busted my deadbolt out of the woodwork and thrown a bag at my couch must have left while I was still spinning around with my axe. Or was invisible, which wasn't so likely that I was nervous about it. So I went over to see what was in the burlap sack the Fates had sent me.
It was Breid.
He didn't look so good. I mean, apart from being dead and the awful stuff dangling from his neckhole and dripping on my already dirty carpet, he looked like he had had a hard time of it. If Breid had died in a plain vanilla stand-up fight, he would have had a big (dead) smile on his face from dying happily. Breid did not look happy. He looked as if something truly bad had gotten him and the sight of him looking this way made me feel guiltier than I had before.
If I had done my duty, hangover and all, and led the charge, Breid would still be okay. Or my head would be wrapped in burlap. One of the two. Having survived so much violence already, I was pretty sure I could have made a difference when whatever nasty thing it was had come after Breid.
Where was his head? Who could kill Breid and not kill Flur? Unless Flur had run away. Which would never occur to Flur, who would stand in one place until nothing killable was in reach and then move to the next killable thing in sight. Or wait in place until either something killable showed up or someone with a brain thumped him in the helmet and told him where to go.
So either Flur had been gone when Breid got there and got gotten by whatever got him. Or Breid got got somewhere else and Flur was still watching maggots and waiting for his cellphone to ring. Or something got both of them and only had one sack. Or one of nine hundred other possible things had happened.
I needed answers.
And I needed to close the door before someone came by and found me holding Breid's sad face up in front of my own. I set him gently on his sagging burlap sack and went and closed the door. Then I looked at the stump of my little finger and thought about the rune in my bag of holding that was left from the time I cut that finger off.
Everyone knows there are eighteen runes, the runes that were given to Odin when he hung himself by the neck from that branch of Yggdrasil. Some people, like Balder who now sits on Odin's throne, can have runes whenever they want them. I have to cut a finger off. Then I get two runes. And not the runes I want. Just the runes I get. So except for the bit with the fingers, runes are like everything else in my life.
When I was just a boy, and things were going bad for us at Ragnarok, I didn't hesitate to cut off a finger for a couple of runes. I'd have cut off three more, without thinking about it, just to get a useful one. As the Fates would have it, I got the one I wanted right off the bat. And I used it to preserve someone else in battle, even if she still doesn't know it yet. I'm sure not going to tell her.
It's been a while since Ragnarok, not that long really as time goes, but years and years anyway. And I still had that other rune. Just the rune I needed. Makes you wonder about the Fates. Do they like me? Are they looking after me in their uncomfortably weird timeless way? Or are they just setting me up? Not that I would ever bad-mouth the Fates.
I took out the rune, polished by years of rubbing against the lining of all my pockets. The Twelfth Rune. The Hanging Man.
And if ever there should be a dead man hanging from a tree, this rune the scaffold shall unman and place his knowledge in my hand.
I needed to talk to Breid.
"Snorri. Hey, you don't look so good."
I smiled at that and Breid grinned back.
"I was worried about you."
"I'm okay. I mean, apart from being dead and whatever that is dripping out of my neck, I'm doing alright. Finally using that rune, eh."
I held up my clenched fist.
"Right here," I said.
"I'm honored. Does you-know-who know you used the first one on her?"
"No," I said.
"Then we won't tell her, right?"
"Right. Breid, I need to know what happened."
"Sure. Well, I left Flur to watch the maggots and I came here to tell you about it. But you had been doing your monthly amazing drunk act. So--"
"Breid. I already know about that."
"Who told you?"
"You did. And then I was here when you slammed my door open and woke me up."
"I don't remember that."
I thought about the finger I had cut off.
"I'm a little light headed," said Breid. "Turn me over."
"Turn you over?"
"Yes. All the blood is draining from my head."
That made sense. So I turned him upside down.
"That's better," he said. "Now put me down. Your holding me feels weird."
"On the couch?" I asked.
"Sure. Prop me up against the cushions."
I settled my friend's head, upside down, in the corner of my old couch. It might have been better for him. But now I could see down his neck hole. I sat down on the floor so that our eyes were on the same level.
"Comfortable?" Breid asked.
"So what can I tell you?"
"What happened after you left here to meet Flur?"
This was starting to give me a bad feeling. Maybe I should have gone for Snot and let her use the rune. She was much better with magick than I was. Breid was frowning now. Upside-down.
"Breid," he said finally.
"How can you live like this?"
"Look at your room. An old couch. A lamp. An exercise machine. How can you even bring women up here?"
"I don't bring women up here."
"What about Snot?"
"I don't bring her here either. We go to her place."
"Snot lives in a cardboard box. Or a homeless shelter."
"We use the cardboard box."
"And she has a job. Why does she live in a cardboard box?"
"I don't know, Breid. Why am I living in Midgard at all? Why are we even talking about who I sleep with and where? I need to know why your head is upside-down, on my couch, and what I need to do about it next."
"Okay, Snorri. Sorry. I'm not myself right now. Obviously. I meant to ask you about your furniture and Snot and all that before I died. I didn't expect to die today."
"I should have been there."
"No, Snorri. I'm glad you weren't there. They would have killed you too. I can remember now."
"Go ahead, Breid." Tears were coming to my eyes. I loved Breid. We were Aesir. "Tell me. And tell me about Flur. What happened to him."
"Flur wasn't there."
"He wasn't where you left him."
"I don't know. I mean, Snorri, I never got to where I left him. I was close though. Travelling down the alleyways. I was ready for trouble too. Even though I wasn't expecting any.
"It was maybe two hours after I left here. Dark. No moon. I would have been there earlier. But I had a premonition. I looked for Hreim. And Kreggi. I couldn't find anyone. So I decided it was my Fate and went alone."
"You could have found me. I was here."
"I know. But I wanted to handle it without you."
"I understand," I said.
"Good. So it was dark. Two hours after gloaming, when it started."
I put my elbows on my knees, my head in my hands. I was feeling really bad about not being there, even if I would have died. Not so bad, death. I'd come back at the next Ragnarok. Like Breid will now.
"Can I have a drink of water?" Breid asked.
"It will just run out of your neck," I said.
"My throat is dry and this isn't that short a story."
I got a glass of water and sat down on the couch. I picked Breid up and put his bloody neck on my thigh and helped him take a drink.
"Thanks," he said.
The water ran out on my leg. I didn't care. I put Breid back on the couch, upside-down.
"Listen," he said. "I don't understand all this. So I'll tell it as it happened and you can figure it out."
"Okay," I said. "Go ahead."
"I was moving down the alley. In the dark. I was thinking about the premonition I'd had. A sense of doom approaching. I mean, no details. Not a vision. Just a feeling. A premonition."
"Sure," I said.
"And then something big moved out of the shadows ahead of me."
"Maggots aren't big."
"It wasn't a maggot. At first I thought it was a troll. But as the distant light hit it. I could tell it was something worse. First thing I thought was: I wouldn't want to meet that thing in a dark alley."
Breid grinned his grin. I smiled back.
"Like a joke, you know," he said. "If you'd been there, I would have said it out loud."
"And I would have laughed."
"You never laugh."
"I would have smiled."
"I know you would. I had my axe head out of the bag already. And my armor on under my jacket. So I pulled out my helmet, strapped it on, and drew out the axe. Whatever the thing was, it just watched me. And, you know, somehow I felt like it despised me. Like I wasn't any danger. Just an annoyance."
"Go on," I said.
"Then it cupped its hands and a flame rose up from them. Not like a fire flame. Like a Surt flame--"
"Are you saying?"
"--No, listen. I'm not saying Ragnarok is coming. I'm just saying the fire had that, that pattern of burning. That swaying thing."
"Go ahead. I'm listening."
"The flames were swaying. And the thing was watching the flames. That's when the maggots came."
"The two you told me about."
"No. More. Lots more. I couldn't count them because they were trying to kill me. And I was busy trying not to get killed."
"How many did you kill?"
"Snorri, listen. Not a one. I didn't kill a single Svartalv. Listen. My blade hit them. It hit them a lot. But it never cut."
"Odin's Eye." I whispered the curse. "The third rune. Sword Blunter."
"The third rune," Breid echoed.
"But where did the maggots get all those runes? How does a Swartalv get even one rune to begin with? We'd have to give him one."
"Wait," said Breid. "Let me finish. It wasn't the Svartalven that had runes. It was the troll-thing. It had a rune. Just one. I glimpsed it in the flames. And that shook me more than my axe not biting. I felt the doom of my premonition then."
"And then what happened?"
Breid gave me a look which, even upside-down, made me feel stupid.
"You died," I said.
"I died. It was bad."
I let my head sink into my hands and closed my eyes. A thing worse than a troll. With the third rune in its fiery hands. O Your God, what Aesir would give him that? Well, Loki would. Obviously. But he died in Ragnarok and wouldn't be back until the next one. That put him in the clear. And Odin always had a bit of that self-destruction thing going. But he wouldn't show up again until Loki did. So then who--
I opened my eyes.
"Snorri, I think I'm fading here. I think I have to go."
I reached out quickly and turned him right-side up. I put my hand on his forehead.
"I'll miss you, Breid."
"I'll miss you, too, Snorri."
Then I told him again I was sorry. But I don't think he heard me. Or ever would again.
I cleaned up a little in the bathroom to give myself time to think. Breid dead. Flur missing. Hreim and Kreggi also missing, maybe. Breid couldn't find them when he looked. Six Aesir in the city minus those four, left two: me and Snot.
I decided to go get Snot. The two of us could go looking for Hreim and Kreggi. And we'd play it from there. I looked at my face in the mirror. Some leader I was.
Coming out of the bathroom, the first thing I saw was Breid's head, right-side up, on the couch. Just as I had left him after I closed his eyes. I leaned on the bathroom door-jamb and looked at my friend and the stain he was leaving on my couch and decided I couldn't leave him there. Snot and I would have to cremate the head on a pyre.
Not an easy thing to do in the middle of the city.
I walked over, picked up the burlap sack, and gently wrapped it around Breid's head. Then I used my bag of holding to put him safely in my chest back home. A good place for him until we could figure out the pyre bit.
I arranged the other things in my chest so that I was sure where everything was. No good reaching in for a backup weapon during a fight and pulling out your underwear. When I was satisfied, I locked the casement windows, turned out the lights, and locked the door behind me.
Snot's bar, Tres Amis, was on the other side of the financial district in the older part of downtown. I walked through the night with my hair tied back, a heavy leather jacket on in spite of the heat, cargo pants with bag of holding in one of the big pockets, and boots.
Dressed like that, I looked like one of the human motorcycle men, or one of their ex-soldiers, turned homeless and wandering through downtown. The other homeless people avoided me, businessmen leaving their offices late moved a little quicker to the safety of their cars when they saw me, and the police slowed as they drove past hoping to see the tell-tale bulge of weapons.
No such luck.
I waved at the nice policemen and thought of the nice weapons they would find if they could search my bag of holding. Which made me think of Breid's bag of holding.
Did Breid have any runes back in Asgard? I couldn't remember him ever saying he did. But most of us wouldn't talk about something like that. I only talk about those things when I'm really drunk and someone has to carry me home. Which Breid often did. So he knew all about my runes and who I'd used the first one on and any other really personal secrets I may have had. I'm not much good with secrets.
What if he had something else enchanted in his chest back home? What would the thing with the fiery fists be able to do with that. I started walking faster, impatient to get to Snot. I may be our fearless leader but Snot is smarter than I am. Especially about magick. I walked as fast as I could.
Tres Amis is a really old bar. Dark. Wooden. Big long bar. Snot says the name means, Three Friends. The first three people I saw inside were two friends and a Fury. The first guy was sitting on the floor in his sport coat and polo shirt, boxer shorts and socks. Orange and brown socks. I could see one of his shoes lying next to him and the other one in his hands. He looked a little dazed and was watching his friend, the second guy, with what I can only call sympathy.
His friend was lying on the bar, one boot on and one boot off. In the instant I saw him, the Fury wrenched off his other boot with one hand. With the other, she cancelled his effort to get off the bar with a smack that winded him. Then she took his pants off.
I waited for her to finish.
When she had the pants, two pair now actually, draped over her arm, she gave both men a look and pointed at the sign behind the bar. It read:
Make fun of my name And I'll rip your pants off --Snot
She shook her hair back from her eyes and smiled. I smiled back. The two young men without pants made can-we-have-our-pants-back noises. Snot gave them a quiet snarl and jerked her thumb at the door. I should point out that the regular customers had been quietly enjoying the show and now went back to their drinks. Snot had another rule about not making fun of people who learn the hard way and the patrons respected her.
Snot was the bartender. The regular waitress, who was pretty enough to be Aesir, gave me a nod, Snot a thumbs-up, and went back to work.
"Don't you have enough pants?" I asked Snot.
"You can never have enough pants," she said.
I should tell you that Snot is very skinny for an Aesir and she is sensitive about it. So she wears three or four pair of mens pants. At the same time. Which I don't understand because she wears those men's undershirts, without sleeves, that she dyes the color of Sif's blue eyes, on top of them. And ever since she came to Midgard, she wears her hair cut short but with long bangs that won't stay out of her eyes.
I'm crazy about her but I don't understand her at all.
She had walked back around behind the bar and I followed her. She gave me that gesture that means I'm not allowed back there. But I took her by the arm and leaned in close.
"We have to go," I said. "Breid is dead."
"Tell me about Breid," Snot said.
I shook my head. I wasn't ready to talk about that. Snot slipped her arm through mine and leaned against me as we walked through the old part of downtown towards the worst part of downtown.
"Why is it," I asked, "you don't get fired for ripping the pants off your customers?"
"I own the bar," Snot said.
"What? You never told me."
"I never tell anyone."
"So why are you telling me now?"
"Because Breid is gone. And I know what he meant to you."
Tears came to my eyes, so I looked away.
"These humans, they sue each other over everything," I said. "Tell me why one of them hasn't sued you."
"They have." Snot smiled. "My regulars testified for me."
"Last time, a prosecutor asked one of them if I had taken the pants off his client--"
"Which you had."
"Which I had. And he said: 'Oh, sure. Just look at her. She lifted that big man off his feet, laid him on the bar, and ripped his pants off."
"So he told the truth," I said.
"And the judge?" I asked.
"He laughed and warned the witness to be serious in his court. So the witness apologized and the case was thrown out."
She tossed the hair back from her eyes.
"You know what the funny thing was?" she asked.
I shook my head.
"I was wearing that witness's pants in the courtroom."
I smiled at that. In spite of Breid.
We got off the streets and walked down the empty alleys. Aesir like open spaces. Tundra. Snowfields. Expanses of bare rock. Alleys are the closest to open spaces you can find in a city. Parks always have too many humans: light humans in the day, dark humans at night.
"So why is it I've never seen anyone making fun of your name? I've drunk enough stout in your bar to float it."
"Yes, you have," she nodded. "But when you are there, they can tell you are with me. And you are a scary man."
"I'm not a man," I said. "I'm an Aesir."
"You're my man."
"Don't say that."
"You're my man," she said again but used the Aesir word.
I nodded at that. Walking down the alley made me think of the thing with the fiery hands.
"You have your bag?" I asked.
She patted her back pocket.
"Always," she said.
"Let me see," I said and patted her pocket. Squeezed it actually. Anything for an excuse.
She gave my thigh a quick squeeze in return.
"Breid wanted to know why you live in a cardboard box," I said.
"None of his business," she said.
"But you own a bar," I said back.
She gave me a look and for a moment I thought she would tell me it wasn't my business either.
"Sorry," she said. "I didn't mean to be mean."
"I just like the open. I don't want to sleep under a roof."
"And when you sleep in the Shelter?"
"Sometimes the police tell us to," she said.
"You could tell them to leave you alone."
"And they would," she said. "The Aesir command--"
"--and Midgard obeys. Odin's bargain."
It's true. We can order the humans around and they behave like obedient thralls. But they're not good for much. So why bother?
"Are you ready to tell me about Breid?" Snot asked me.
"Almost," I said. No tears in my eyes. Just an ache inside me. "How far to your box?"
"Just around that corner up there," she said pointing.
"Breid would probably think your wanting to sleep in the open was okay--" I said.
Snot raised a eyebrow.
"--since you used your gold to buy the bar. He gave me a hard time about not using mine for anything."
"You could have told him you were saving it up for your dowery," Snot said.
"Men," I used the Aesir word, "don't pay doweries."
"You will when you marry me," she said.
"I'll tie my scrotum to a goat first," I said.
"It's been done before," she smiled. "It could happen again."
"The dowery or the goat?" I asked.
"The goat," she said, "as you very well know. And I have the rope. Whenever you're ready."
"Is there some reason we're talking about tying my nether parts to a goat?" I asked.
"You brought it up," she said.
"You brought up marraige."
"Are you turning me down?"
"Women," Aesir word again, "do not propose marraige."
"Do I need to find you a goat?"
We rounded the corner.
"Which box is yours now?" I asked.
"What is that dog doing there?"
"That's my dog."
"You don't have a dog," I said. My voice had a little whiny note in it I didn't like.
"I always know you'll be coming. So I hide the dog."
"You don't always know when I'll be coming."
"I always have time to hide the dog."
"And this time?"
"I had to take care of you."
I nodded, still looking at the dog.
"I 'am' upset about Breid," I said. "It's my fault."
"I doubt that," said Snot. "Come on. We'll talk inside."
I hesitated. Snot shook her head. Pretty, how her hair moved.
"When are you going to get over your thing about dogs?" she asked softly.
"My thing? I was savaged by a wolf at Ragnarok. I was twelve years old."
"My dog is not a wolf," she said.
"Your dog is bigger than a wolf." It was. Much bigger actually. "Where did you find a dog bigger than a wolf?"
"I needed a dog that could protect my stuff. And Ragnarok was a long time ago."
"That wolf almost ripped off my manly bits," I said. "Some memories stay with you."
"Manly bits," Snot laughed. "Is that what you usually call them?"
"I don't usually call them anything. I just -- Owww."
She backhanded me in the manly bits and said: "Stop that. I'll move the dog."
Snot brought a can of dog food out of her box and led the dog over a little ways down the alley to feed it. She came back to the box and motioned for me to join her inside. I walked over and found her sitting cross-legged inside.
"This is smaller than your last box," I said. "I don't think I can sit up in it."
"Then lay down," she said, "right here and tell me about Breid."
So I did.