As a student of Runic Magic, Mary had written her triple-checked Spell of Greeting next to Loki’s name on her wrist, and when she arrived at his shop, she traced a Welcome rune in the winter condensation on the glass door. A wooden sign, carved letters spelling Trickster Shop, banged the siding with each burst of wind. As a two-toned whistle announced her entrance, she wiped slush on an art-deco doormat. The mat shuddered and flew off, flooring her.
A man with wire spectacles and a corduroy jacket leaned against a glass counter. “Need to be careful with those lucky charms.”
She used the door handle to heave herself upright. A faint mist collected in the corners and along the molding of the shop. Shelves towered over her, blanketed by dust and dividing the room into three aisles, each fading into gloom. A pale face peeked out, giggled, and vanished. Metal clattered, and wood groaned deep in the corners. Spicy incense clung to the air as if she stood inside an empty temple.
“Got to cast runes on a solid surface.” He pointed at the door. “Not something drippy.”
A dirty streak of water split the rune into something resembling a Loose Footing Curse.
She smoothed her long coat. “Loki, ykkarr andskoti dúði innan hel hjá yakkarr—”
He drummed his fingers on the countertop. “No, no, you just said let my enemies be tossed into hell beside me—not the best blessing.”
“But I’ve checked this with my professor—”
“A god, is he? Getting lunch with Odin this Sunday, huh?” He waltzed around the counter, hands on his hips.
“He’s head of the Mythic Magic Graduate Department at—”
“And regurgitating books like a mother penguin counts as learning these days? Good gods, we’re lost worse than Odysseus.”
She unbuttoned her coat. “Loki, I’ve been hired by the—”
“Hired? You’re too young. And short.”
“Height has nothing to do with age. I’m twenty-four. Now, I’ve been—”
He clicked his tongue. “Grew women taller in my day.”
She took a notepad from her back pocket, a pencil stub threading the rings, and scribbled a circle combined with a triangle, weathervane shapes sprouting from the corners.
Loki massaged his throat then wagged a finger at her.
“I’ve been hired by the Mythopoeic Bureau of Investigation to be a consultant once I complete graduate school.”
He loped behind the counter and pulled a wooden box from a shelf of wide-spined books.
“My professor, Dr. Finch, sent me here in hopes of learning some useful runes from you—preferably for Invisibility, Discovery of Mischief, Lie Detecting, Escape, et cetera.”
The box held rows of paper squares ordered by lettered filing cards. He thumbed through the C section, plucked one, licked it, and slapped it on his wrist. He peeled off the waxy paper, revealing a black compass design. “While I applaud your usage of a Silence rune, you could use more practice since I just counteracted it with a children’s tattoo.”
She pulled a slip from the D section. “I doubt even you give out Death by Blood Poisoning Curses to children.”
He snatched it and shut the box. “All the time. Like candy.”
“Then you won’t have a problem helping me with my runes.”
“You can get all the help you desire from The Golden Bough. You don’t need me.”
“It’s more than runes. I want to catch tricksters.”
He shook his head. “Got to be one yourself. Too straight-laced, and you can’t get into their beady little brains.”
“If you help me, I’ll have my own bag of runes to match whatever they’ve got, and—”
“And what? You’re the good guy? My kind have been running circles around you for centuries.” With his thumb, he erased the rune to a black smudge. “It would be interesting, though, if you learned the master’s secrets. Wouldn’t be quite as boring.”
He rolled his shoulders, and a rust colored tail grew beneath his jacket like an unraveling thread. “It’d keep the others on their toes.” Fox ears sprouted from his dull hair. “Well, before I sign you on as a full time worshipper, you have to run the shop for the rest of the day.” He wrapped his arms around his knees, his reddening body shrinking like a deflating balloon. “I’ll be observing, of course. Can’t let a repeat of Pandora happen, or Odin will hack off my lovely tail.” A fox now, he perched on the counter and licked his leg twice. “If you can finish my list, I might keep you.” He padded along the dim center aisle.
Mary stepped over the returned doormat and flipped a switch by the door, but the shop remained in twilight even after she sketched an Illumination rune. Behind the counter, a to-do list, several items already crossed off, stuck to the cash register keys. Sign for package, Exterminate ghosts.
She tore it free and ambled down the middle aisle. Masks hung on pegs, shining with facial grease. She ran her finger down the sloping nose of George Clooney, realistic as a tabloid photo. Another shelf displayed batches of gloves, perfect right down to the fingernail polish. A dangling tag read Political Handshake (priced at one vial of witch’s blood).
The two-toned whistle sounded.
She strode out of the aisle. “How can I help you?”
A UPS man waited just behind the threshold, shifting from foot to foot and half hidden behind a tall cardboard box. He clutched a clipboard like a shield. “Just sign—here.”
She signed, and he wrenched it back, hurrying to his truck.
The box pinned the flying doormat, which stretched and twisted like a cat with a trapped tail. Mary eased the box up, the contents shifting with a whimper and a snuffling noise. She flipped open her pocket knife and sliced the packing tape.
A wolf’s gray muzzle pointed at her. Light silver thread encircled his jaws and body until it bound his tail flat as a tied Christmas tree. A piece of parchment stuck from a leather collar, and she snatched it.
He tried to kill me again. —Odin
The wolf put his paws on the edge and lifted his head, ears flat. A collar tag identified him as Fenrir. He tipped the box and stumbled out. Silver thread shackled his hind legs, but it had unraveled around his front paws and trailed on the floor.
She backed off, her hands extended. “Loki! It’s your son.”
Metal clashed, and a spear rolled from the shadows of the middle aisle. Giggling ricocheted around the corners.
Fenrir crouched, snarled, and bit at the thread then scratched at the collar. His tail wagged.
Another crash echoed, and she shuddered. “Stay.” She jogged past the spear. Piles of knives, lances, and swords waited below an empty shelf like a game of pick-up sticks.
Feet pattered, and something slapped her pant leg.
She took a pen from inside her jacket and sketched onto her hand a different form of the Illumination rune meant to divine ghosts. A pale figure shimmered into focus. He crossed his arms over a broad chest, feet spread wide. His hair was slicked back, and he wore dark clothes—maybe leather—grayed by his ghost light.
He swaggered forward. “Hey, doll.”
“The owner of this shop has asked me to remove any ghosts from the premises. There’s an abandoned apartment building next door, which you may occupy.”
He withdrew a small block of wood from his jacket. “But here we have so many gizmos.” He pried the wood apart, the block growing larger in his hands like a puzzle cube.
“If you don’t vacate the premises, I’ll use magical force.”
“What are you, a fairytale cop?” He tossed the wood onto the floor, already the size of a travel map. It clacked and snapped, curling like a wave. A long plank, inscribed with Skíðblaðnir, extended and toppled a shelf. A dragon figurehead clicked into place. Green scales replaced wood, and the dragon shook its head, scales clinking. Its neck dissolved into the hull of the newly formed ship, which listed between shelves while the mast poked through the ceiling. A salty breeze billowed the wide sail. The dragon roared, and flames glowed deep in its throat.
Mary sprinted for the store front when heat singed her. She dove between shelves and pressed against one, her shoulders hunched and pen held tight as smoke billowed down the aisle.
“Take that, ghostbuster!” The words sounded far off, as if over water.
With a puff of dust, Loki nosed past a bronze statue on a shelf across the way. “Loki, one; Mary, zero.”
She wrote in her notebook, balled up the slip of paper, and walked into the ship-wrecked aisle. She bounced on her toes.
Loki leaped off the shelf. “Are you trying to barbecue yourself?”
Fire dripped from the dragon’s horned nostrils, and long spikes bumped along his neck until he blended into the hull with a collar of splinters. The greaser ghost steadied the ship’s wheel while three other specters solidified beside him.
Mary tossed the paper ball at the dragon figurehead and lunged aside. It snuffed the wad with a burst of flames. The ship paled like a setting moon, sail thinned to spider web. A tide of mist cascaded around the hull, and the bow rocked as if at port. The dragon snorted, sprinkling ashes instead of sparks.
“Gather your people and sail off,” Mary said. “The winds will bring you good fortune.”
Dozens of transparent figures zipped past. Next to her, Loki morphed into a man. He squeezed her wrist and pinned her against a shelf. Scents of cinders heated his breath. “That ship wasn’t yours to give.”
She twisted away, his fingers leaving red marks. “You shouldn’t have possessed it in the first place.”
The ship nosed forward, the greaser straddling the dragon’s neck. “Hey, man. Off the little lady, or do I have to haunt you again?”
Loki bowed with a sweep of his arms. “May I offer a gift for your journey?”
“We’re not that stupid.”
The ship pivoted right, passing through shelves until it pierced the far wall, a string of mist in its wake.
Mary pocketed her notepad and tucked the pen behind her ear. “I inverted a Reincarnation rune and combined some runes from an Animation spell so the ship would become like them.”
Loki kicked a shield on the floor. “I know how you did it! I’m a god as your insubordination seems to imply you forget.” He fingered a rough pot shelved among three others. “I was going to give them one of Gideon’s lanterns, too—fighting amongst themselves through eternity on a ghost ship.” He pointed at the wall. “That ship was how I planned on escaping this half-life-hell-of-humanity before Odin tries to end the world again.” He slipped into guttural Nordic tongue, scooped up a spear, and hurled it at Mary.
It halted, tip trembling and catching the threads of her jacket. She side-stepped, and it continued along the hall with a swoosh.
“Not much gives Gungnir pause,” he said. His anger had physically changed him. Some of his hard wrinkles had smoothed, and he’d lost the spectacles. His shoulders filled his suit more—no longer corduroy but a dark grey. “Gungnir isn’t perfect, but your Bodily Defense runes must be rather spectacular.” He prowled forward. “Where’s the mark?”
She untucked and lifted her shirt. Rootlike tattoos wrapped around her waist and hips. “I have more—all the original eighteen Norse runes.”
Loki paused, glancing sideways. He slumped into a fox and scaled three shelves to disappear through a hole in the molding.
“Hey, what’s wrong?”
A shelf exploded, splinters pricking her neck and clinging to her coat. Fenrir’s head shattered the backboard, jaws snapping and flinging spit. No silver thread tied him.
Mary zig-zagged between shelves. Fenrir’s stride vibrated the floorboards. After a final sprint, she paused behind a shelf to scribble a knotty rune then tossed it to the floor. Thorns erupted from the paper, corkscrewing until the aisle became dense with points.
In fox form, Loki slinked across a shelf of goblets. “That won’t stop him for more than a minute.”
She ran past rows of vases, woven baskets, and pottery. “I told you he was here.”
Loki padded along the shelving. “Oh yes, we had a chat. He still, well, blames me for the whole tied-up-for-centuries ordeal, and really, that wasn’t me. Tyr came up with that one, but Fenrir won’t listen.” He flicked his tail.
Mary paused, huffing, at a selection of Japanese weapons and leather Samurai chest plates. She rooted behind mustached helmets and took a sword labeled Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (priced at three Wind Dragon scales).
A yelp filled the store, followed by snarling and crunching twigs.
“Even after I untied him,” Loki said, “he still wanted to rip out my throat.” With a head shake, he leapt over the other side of the shelf.
She shoved it, helmets rolling to the floor. “Come back here! This is your problem!”
Fenrir howled, and Mary hurried one shelf down where cloaks, breastplates, chainmail, and helmets hung from pegs. One empty hook was entitled Fafnir’s Helm (priced at a day pass to the Underworld). Beneath the tag, she traced the outline of a large circlet with a centered rune. She slipped it onto her shoulder, and her body vanished.
She padded to the store front, pausing every few feet to listen. The fading afternoon sun reflected off the glass counter where the silver thread lay coiled. She wound it around her wrist then scribbled several Summoning runes, leaving the paper on the countertop.
The glass counter rattled, and the cash register drawer opened with a ching. She pressed against the far wall, still invisible even with the Samurai sword drawn. Fenrir bounded from aisle one, long thorns falling from his muzzle as he swung his head, sniffing.
Mary crept forward, sword extended. Fenrir’s ears flattened.
A wisp of incense crept over her shoulder. “Don’t kill him for godsakes! He’s my son!”
With a snarl, Fenrir whipped around, jaws clamping onto her sword hand.
Her wrist cracked. She screamed and twisted—her arm ended in splintered bones and flesh hanging like loose threads. Still invisible except for a red trail, she crawled, breathing hard through her nose. She traced a rune on her wounded hand, and the blood slowed to a leak and the pain dulled.
Fenrir licked blood off his lips. Ears perked, he nosed the floor. She crawled around him, stiffening at every paw shuffle and tail flicker, unwinding the silver thread and sketching hieroglyphs with her blood. After encircling him, she stood and whistled.
Fenrir lunged but rebounded into the circle. He smacked his muzzle again then paced, banging his shoulder against the invisible wall every few steps.
She moaned and collapsed against a shelf. The invisibility circlet slipped off her arm, and she tucked it inside her coat. Loki waltzed down the aisle in human form.
She gasped, body quaking. “You—you did this.”
“And you’ve proved your ability to handle the problems of a god, a necessary skill here.” He waved at Fenrir, who rammed the invisible wall. Loki slipped her arm through his and led her to the counter. This time, he’d changed to a slender man with white teeth, blond hair, and a pinstriped suit. He sat her on a stool. A wooden box rested on the counter, and runes decorating the lid translated to “leavings of the wolf.”
After wiping clean her stump with a handkerchief, Loki lifted the lid, revealing a hand, blood still oozing from the ragged wrist. “This should fix things.”
She jerked, but he dug in his nails. “I don’t need someone else’s hand. Stop it!”
He placed the still-warm flesh against her splintered bones. “You’ll need it to work at my shop, and I can teach you a rune to hide it.” He released her, flicking the blood from his fingers.
The hand, too large and boney, felt awkward as a manacle dangling from her wrist, but the throbbing pain had ended. Her serrated skin matched the man’s hand like a key in its lock. “Whose is it?” she asked.
“I’m not your mythological encyclopedia. Besides, all you’ve been doing is asking questions. It’s my turn.” He nodded at the invisible wall. “I thought you were a runic expert.”
“Egyptian hieroglyphs was an elective. I combined a Mummy Containment Curse with the strength of the Gleipnir thread.”
He massaged her new hand, and her skin tingled. “Impressive. Now, about your hours—”
“Who says I’m staying? You got my hand bitten off.”
“And I gave it back. You want to enter the field, correct? Better get used to some wear and tear.” He sidled closer. “I’ll make you a great magician and place you among the gods.”
“I’m going to work as a field agent. That’s all. I want to remain human, Loki.”
He patted her new hand. “Too late. You’re already a part of my world.”
She pressed her hands together. The other fingers were longer than the originals. “Not completely.” She buttoned her coat, testing the hand’s dexterity.
He waved. “We’ll see.”
Mary slogged through slush to her car. With a glance at the frosty shop windows, she reached inside her coat and brushed the invisibility circlet. She’d return it tomorrow.