Sunday, April 15, 2018

Fragile Gods by Melissa Snark

Sawyer Barrett grew up far from his divine birthright, raised as a hunter of monsters in Phoenix, Arizona. But he failed in his duty as slayer and guardian...

Now he pledges to protect the people he wronged, from enemies lurk on all sides—shape changing shamans, an ancient witch, and the Norse Fates. Ultimately, Sawyer's downfall may come from within, when the woman he's deceived for so long learns the truth about his murderous past...

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Early Saturday Morning 

Blood stained his hands and his soul. Sawyer Barrett gripped the edge of the coarse blanket and scrubbed his callused palms in yet another of countless attempts to wipe them clean. Then, he held his splayed fingers against the fiery halo as dying coals smoldered amongst the blackened ashes. He'd constructed the fire pit out of smooth river rock he'd hauled from the manmade beach along the lakeshore. He blinked to focus his blurry vision, but it did no good.

Dark red, wet gore still clung to his skin—Jasper's blood.

"It's not real. It's been proven that sleep deprivation causes hallucinations. It's a sign of madness." So is talking to yourself. Get a grip, man. Sawyer squeezed his eyes shut and folded his hands on his chest, mirroring a body laid out to rest. And the wistful thought persisted—if only... He never slept anymore. Unrelenting insomnia crushed him in its merciless grip, exacting its mental and physical toll. Right then, he wouldn't have minded dying if it meant eternal slumber. But nothing good, nothing peaceful, awaited him in the afterlife.

Quiet... shush. Sawyer breathed deeply and struggled to clear his troubled thoughts. He needed a few moments of blessed blankness, but his body ached to the bones. Even the hard steel of his shotgun pressed against his side proved distracting. Laboriously, he filtered out the disturbances and built a mental wall brick by brick. His turmoil eased but Lady Sleep spurned him, refusing to take him into her soothing embrace.

As dawn crept closer, hundreds of disagreeably cheerful birds launched into song. As grumpy as a bear, Sawyer turned over with a labored grunt. He might as well get up. He had work waiting for him. Today, he planned to raise the walls on the woodshed he'd spent the past forty-eight hours constructing.

He sat up, pulling on his boots, and settled his shotgun's carry strap across his shoulder. As a matter of habit, he fell into his morning routine: feeding the fire and making coffee. While it brewed, he performed the daily ritual of cleaning and checking his weapons, starting with the matching 9mm pistols he wore in a double shoulder holster. Blades in their scabbards: one secured to each forearm in a quick draw sheath, one on his belt, and tucked into each boot. He strapped a six-piece throwing knife set to his left thigh over his beaten jeans and a concealed revolver on his calf beneath his pant leg.

A soft rustle alerted Sawyer to an intruder behind him. He hesitated, a splitsecond glitch, in the act of reaching for his machete. Cold sweat ran down his back. Conditioned fight instincts kicked in. He dropped his hand to the shotgun and seated his finger on the stout trigger. As he pivoted, he brought the shotgun up, aiming it straight at his dead mother.

"There's no need for that," Sarah Barrett said, and Sawyer flinched. Her voice stung. It summoned painful childhood memories: the soft strains of lullabies and crooned reassurance. Her familiar scent—rose and sandalwood—flooded his nostrils, provoking a paralyzing surge of nostalgia and yearning.

"Mom?" Sawyer staggered. The muzzle of the shotgun dipped and slipped from his fingers. He caught the firearm and jerked it up again, but not at her. His instincts screamed this must be a trick, but he couldn't bring himself to point a loaded weapon at his mother... or her likeness.

"It's really me, Sawyer." Sarah offered a small, sad smile. An ethereal halo suffused her. She was as radiant and beautiful as she'd looked before the chemo treatments had taken their toll.

"It can't be. You're dead." He stepped back.

"Regardless, I'm here." She opened her arms, offering a hug, but left the decision up to him. It took everything he had not to rush to her.

"My mother died." Sawyer clung to the simple, stubborn defense. Inwardly, he fumed. Why did these sort of supernatural shenanigans always strike before he got his first cup of coffee?

"I'm a goddess. Only my mortal incarnation died," Sarah countered with an enigmatic smile. Mistress of Mystery—his mother had a singular talent for making any answer, no matter how obscure or inane, sound reasonable.

"How do I know it's really you?" More than anything, he wanted this to be genuine. Hardened suspicion held him back.

"You don't believe it's me?" Sarah tilted her head. Hurt flitted across her face and she dropped her arms. Guilt dropkicked him in the gut.

"Let's just say this isn't the first time I've met the likeness of a deceased family member at this damn lake. Daniel tried to drown me." Reflexively, he tightened his grip on the gun. It wasn't magical. In his experience, however, a double-barrel shotgun unloaded at point-blank range solved all sorts of threats, mundane and supernatural.

"That wasn't Daniel. Your bother would never hurt you."

"I know that." Sawyer's gut cramped. Daniel's murder had been properly avenged, but Sawyer still lived in the shadow of grief.

"It is offensive that Daniel's likeness was used against you." She stiffened, and her tone acquired a flinty edge. "However, that isn't what truly angers me."


"No. It's not. I am incensed that Freya dared demand my son be sacrificed in her name." Wrath burned in Sarah's gaze, but she wore the icy composure of a queen. She ruled her rage, and she was downright terrifying. His doubt regarding the truth of her identity toppled like a row of dominoes.

"Freya did that?" Sawyer asked, knocked off kilter.

"She did exactly that on the night Den Valgte attacked you and your friends."

"I was unconscious." Technically, he'd croaked. In keeping with the complex, contradictory rules that governed his life, he could die. It merely put him out of commission, however, while runic magic healed his injuries. Sawyer could slow or speed the process—to a limited degree—but he couldn't stop it. Unless his heart got destroyed; then he died and stayed dead.

He preferred not to nitpick.

"Freya ordered her priestess to cut out your heart and offer it to her."

He didn't know what to say, so he stood there in shocked silence while the implications sank in. Oh, he'd known something had upset Victoria. This explained everything—why she refused to look him in the eyes. Up until that moment, he'd clung to a shred of doubt. He told himself comforting lies—the Den Valgte attack had exhausted Victoria, and she needed time to recover. The truth was uglier, harder to swallow. Sawyer had dreaded the day Victoria learned about Jasper... and he yearned for it. Ironically, his worst fear remained unaddressed. Had Victoria only spared Sawyer's life because of the promise she'd made to Jake to forego revenge? She must've hungered to avenge the slain boy. Nausea churned in his gut.

"Do you understand what it means when one god is sacrificed to another?" Sarah asked in a soft voice.

"Yeah, I get it." He jerked his head in a curt nod. Abruptly, he got good and worried, though not for himself. He released the shotgun.

"It would've destroyed your immortal soul, Sawyer. This offense cannot go unaddressed. Freya must be held accountable. She will pay." Sarah raised her fist like a general about to order an army to war—not a casual analogy for a queen who had the might of Asgard's military at her beck and call.

"Mom, you can't blame Victoria. She refused, or I wouldn't still be standing here. Promise me you won't harm her." He caught Sarah's hand, hoping if he held on tightly enough, it'd drive home the force of his conviction.

Sarah lifted her brow. "Daniel already exacted that promise from me. Who is this woman that matters so much to my sons?"

Mortification turned Sawyer inside out. Sometimes, he forgot Victoria and Daniel had been lovers long before Sawyer entered the picture... Sometimes, he preferred to allow that awareness to lapse because it was easier. Now, beneath his mother's discerning gaze, he was an overturned snail. All his gooey, vulnerable innards exposed... He didn't care for the sensation in the least. But he wouldn't back down, not with Victoria's welfare at stake.

"I care for her and I owe her. Promise me." Sawyer braced himself; he'd use the L-word if he had to. Most people considered Odin to be a harsh and merciless monarch, but the old man had nothing on the queen.

"What do you owe her?" Sarah made the question into a demand.

A terrible tightness constricted his chest so it hurt to breathe. He gathered his strength, pushing against the oppressive weight. Truth must be told. His voice sounded harsh to his own ears. "When Daniel died, I blamed Victoria. I believed she'd murdered him. I went mad with grief and rage, and I wouldn't listen to anyone. Not Dad, not Skinner... My thirst for revenge was vast and all-consuming. I destroyed everything and everyone who got in my way. Innocent people got killed— hunters, wolves... It's a long, complicated saga, and I suspect you already know most of it."

Light glinted in her eyes—confirmation. "All that is settled. Your father has paid the blood price. But that's not what you truly mean when you say you owe her."

"There was a boy, Jasper. He was maybe fifteen or sixteen... He was a member of the Storm Pack and under Victoria's protection. This was after Adair and Katherine died, and she assumed leadership." He glanced over her shoulder, noting the encroaching dawn. Once, he'd thought of Jasper as "the kid he'd shot". Living with—belonging to—the Storm Pack had changed all that.

"I met the young man once when he was a child," Sarah said.

"We picked him up in Albuquerque. Dad wanted to use him as leverage to force Victoria to surrender to us. He wanted to talk to her but I—"

"You needed to kill her."

Sawyer twitched and clenched his jaws. Hearing it that way cut deep, but his mother would forgive his sins whether he warranted it or not. More than anything, he despised the thought of how he'd failed her. He wanted to be good and worthy in her estimation. Not a coward or a child killer.

"Jasper made a break for it and ran. I shot him in the back. Just killed him in cold blood. Silver ammo, point-blank range. He died immediately." He hiccupped, a snotty inhalation.

"Oh, Sawyer..." Sorrow washed over Sarah. She reached for him, perhaps intending to brush her fingers over his cheek. He evaded her touch. He refused to accept her sympathy because he didn't deserve it.

"I have blood on my hands. Do you see?" In desperation, he shoved his redstained, shaking hands into her face.

"Oh, my darling boy, I do see." Sarah looked down, staring, and caught his wrists. Tears shone bright in her eyes. She swiped her fingers across his palms. Where she touched, a pure blue X formed upon the crimson field. Gebo—the rune of love and forgiveness. It shone with sapphire brilliance, but then the hard edges eroded. The sigil fractured; blood filled the cracks. In a blink, it submersed beneath the ocean of blood. Even Frigg with all her immense influence couldn't remove the blight.

"I also perceive your father has awakened the runes within you," Sarah added in the tone she reserved for expressing criticism. She leveled a look that reminded him of the summer he'd stolen the keys to the Chevelle and gotten into a wreck.

"Dad said you wouldn't approve." Perspiration beaded on his upper lip. Agitated, Sawyer scrubbed his hands across his jeans but the ickiness remained.

That earned a frown from his mother... just as Sawyer had expected. His parents subscribed to old-fashioned parenting: the united front, et al. Even the suggestion of division—hence, weakness—displeased Sarah. It wasn't a trick he used but once in a blue moon. Every now and then, however, redirection proved highly effective.

Sarah pursed her lips. "Before we started a mortal family, your father and I agreed our children should live full human lives. Tell me, what else did Jake say?"

"That it was necessary—if we're going to live at all, we have to be able to die." As soon as he spoke, Sawyer regretted his vehemence. He should've softened his tone.

"You agree with your father." Sarah raised her brow in clear skepticism. Hardly surprising—Jake and Sawyer had a grand tradition of discord.

When it'd come to the runes, however, father and son had reached a swift and total accord. To start, Jake had lit the spark, igniting the magic dormant within the souls of Sawyer and his brothers, JD and Gage. Then, like tykes on trikes, they'd received a crash course in Runes 101. The most important takeaway had been the warrior's prowess bind rune, which heightened both physical and mental attributes and facilitated accelerated healing.

Sawyer didn't want to get trapped into playing he said/she said with his parents. From his lifetime of experience, this game never ended well. He would rather bare his soul in the hopes his mother could find some way to help him.

"You want to know the worst of all this—the really fucked-up part that doesn't make any sense no matter how hard I try?" Sawyer asked. "Murdering a kid isn't the worst of it. It's that Jasper's soul was condemned to Niflheimr because he got shot in the back. He died a coward's death."

Niflheimr: a land of mist and ice from which eleven rivers flowed. Home to the dragon Nidhogg; it bordered Helheimr where the goddess Hel ruled over the adjacent lands of the dead. While cold and dark, Helheimr wasn't a punishment, unlike Niflheimr where the damned suffered eternal punishment.

"Jasper's cowardice isn't on you," Sarah shot back.

"The hell it's not." Out of respect, Sawyer tried not to swear in his mother's presence, but this time anger overrode his inhibition. He tore free from her grasp and turned away, raising his fists. He desperately needed to kill something. "Tell me, Mother, what kind of value system punishes a kid for running away? What kind of gods are we?"

A thoughtful silence ensued. Sawyer started to wonder if she'd left but he couldn't quite muster the courage to turn around and face her. After a pronounced delay, Sarah replied in an even tone.

"Children are never sent to Niflheimr," she said. "But those laws were set down in a different era. Then, a sixteen-year-old was considered a man and expected to conduct himself as a warrior. Worth was measured in wisdom, cunning, and courage. I'll concede, many of the ancient edicts for how things are have outlived their usefulness... That isn't a cop out."

Sawyer sealed his lips. She'd beat him to it.

"It's simply how things are," Sarah continued. "I'm sorry. If I could save Jasper, I would do so for your sake, Sawyer. However, it's beyond your father's or my ability to change. Fair or not, it is what it is."

He spun. "You just reduced the hereafter to a platitude."

"If it's any comfort to you, I promise no harm will come to your Victoria by my hand or my deed."

"Thank you."

She nodded.

Overcome with relief and exhaustion, he lacked the strength to stand. He strode over to the stump he used for chopping firewood and sank onto it before his rubbery legs could betray him. He heaved a tired sigh. "Why are you here, Mom?"

"I'm afraid," Sarah said in a trembling voice.

"Afraid." That made him sit up straighter. What could scare his mother? "Of what?"

Sarah clasped her hands together before her heart. "I'm a seer."

He grunted. "More powerful than Dad."

"Your father might disagree." Sarah smiled, but it faded fast. "I have seen your future. I have seen a future where you are trapped in the underworld."

Fear clenched his heart until it struggled to beat. When Frigg prophesied death, be it man or god, the question wasn't if—only when.

"We all die in the end," Sawyer said, striving for composure. He wasn't sure he wanted to know, but he was compelled to ask. "How will I die?"

"I am unsure..." Sarah frowned and gnawed her lower lip. "I have been unable to perceive your actual death, even though I have tried. When I look, I always see past the crux to the future of your soul."

"Not good, I take it?" Sawyer had a powerful premonition of his own, but he still hung on the hook of anticipation.

"Your soul will be lost to Niflheimr."

Ironic and apropos... Sawyer nodded in glum appreciation. "Maybe Niflheimr is where I belong."

"No! Don't talk like that, Sawyer. I forbid it." She flew across the clearing to grasp his shoulders with inhuman strength.

He gritted his teeth, enduring the pain. "I'm sorry. If it's any comfort, I don't intend to kill myself. What would you have me do?"

Sarah eased off, releasing him. "Come back to Valhalla with me. You'll be safe there where I can protect you."

"No!" Sawyer exploded to his feet.

"Sawyer, please. Daniel is there, as am I. You wouldn't be alone." Sarah paced, wringing her hands. "Now that I've talked to you, I'm more certain than ever. Guilt is destroying you. I fear Niflheimr will become your self-fulfilling prophecy. I've already lost one son to Hel's realm. I cannot lose another."

Baldur the Shining, Baldur the Beloved, had been Frigg's favorite son. To Sawyer, Baldur was just a name—the older brother he'd never met, who'd died centuries before his birth. His parents, however, still grieved for Baldur, their vanquished child.

"I'm not Baldur." Sawyer pressed his lips together to stop from adding, I deserve whatever's coming to me. To say it aloud would be cruel.

"No, you're not," she said, weeping. "For one, Baldur was never thick-headed or stubborn..."

"Now you're channeling Dad." Sawyer grimaced. It pained him to cause his mother grief but... "I can't return to Valhalla with you. I have to stand and fight."

"Now who sounds like his father?" Sarah pinned him with a beseeching stare. "Can you please tell me why?"

"Because..." Sawyer struggled to speak through gritted teeth. Anger overwhelmed and drove him. He fought but the words burst from him. "I'm a lot of things, but I'm not a coward. I won't run away and hide. I won't ever abandon the people I love!"

His shout blasted over them and on through the clear morning. Abrupt silence followed. Wide-eyed, Sawyer and Sarah stared at one another.

"Is that what you think? That I abandoned you and your brothers?" Sarah blinked, releasing a flood of tears. She pressed her hand to her mouth.

The depths of his resentment shook him to the core. Until he'd said it, he hadn't realized he harbored such a sentiment toward his mother. Sarah Barrett hadn't just gotten sick and passed away. As she'd pointed out so succinctly... she was a goddess. She'd allowed it to happen. She'd refused the magical intervention that would've cured her cancer. In essence, she'd chosen death over her husband and her sons...

Sawyer choked back a sob. He clung to his anger to keep grief at bay. "Dad needed you. Daniel and the twins needed you. I needed you, and you left."

"Oh, my baby. I'm so sorry." Sarah raised her hands to frame his face but didn't touch him. She shed enough tears for them both. "I didn't want to go. Leaving broke my heart, but it had to be done. Your father needed to learn how fragile and precious mortal life truly is. He is about to endure the greatest test he'll ever face."

"Dad is your excuse?" Sawyer barked with harsh laughter. His audacity shocked them both.

Sarah's ire sparked; a fuse with a slow burn. "Mock me, but know this. The fate of Yggdrasil and the Nine Worlds depends on your father."

Mother and son stared at each other. The breeze rattled the trees and an intrepid squirrel skittered boldly through the camp in its quest for pine nuts.

Sawyer hung his head. "I'm sorry. Please forgive me."

"Of course I forgive you. I'll always forgive you, but it's not my forgiveness you need." Sarah wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. "Will you forgive me?"

"Yes." It shamed him that she even found it necessary to ask. He hugged his mother in return. "I love you."

"I love you, too." After they parted, she made one final plea. "You won't return to Valhalla?"

"I can't. I won't. Dad is counting on me. The twins have already lost so much. There are people here who need me..." He'd sooner hop the express train straight to Niflheimr than run out on Victoria, the Storm Pack, and his family. The prophecy of his death brought everything into sharp focus. "If I'm going to die, I want it to serve a greater purpose."

A sacrifice that mattered.

"Very well, I respect your decision." Shrouded in grief, Sarah squared her shoulders. "If you must follow in your father's footsteps, then do so in style."

"What does that mean?" Sawyer suspected he was a fool to ask.

"I brought you a gift." Unceremoniously, Sarah thrust a solid object, which appeared out of thin air, against Sawyer's chest.

"Uh, thanks. You know my birthday's not till October." He grabbed it on reflex, wrapping his fingers around the smooth edges, and staggered under the impact. Defying appearances, his mother packed quite a punch.

"I know when you were born, Sawyer. I was there. Of all my children, your birth was the most difficult. You were breech." Thunk—the arrow struck the bullseye.

"I'm sorry." Sawyer winced, and delivered a mental slap to the back of his skull. Stupid—he should've known better than to fall into that trap.

"You're forgiven." His mother narrowed her eyes, her smile mean.

"I love you too, Mom," he said, groaning.

With a sigh, he held the gift up for inspection and pulled back in a double take. His goddess mother had brought him a round shield constructed of wood and steel. It measured thirty-six inches in diameter, and must've weighed at least sixty pounds. The hand-hammered center boss served as the hub for a black Helm of Awe upon a field of red. Sawyer had to bite his tongue against the impulse to shout, "It belongs in a museum."

Jokes aside, Sawyer had no idea what he was supposed to do with it. He never fought with a sword or an axe. Daggers and knives, sure, but firearms were his preferred weapons. A clunky, heavy shield would only slow him down in combat.

"Mom, you're aware this is the twenty-first century?"

"Don't get smart with me."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Kappiskjǫld was made by Thrust Tusk Ironforge," Sarah explained. "The wood was harvested from a Jötunheimr ironwood and the ore was smelted in the lava pools of Múspellsheimr. It is impervious to both cold and heat."

"Is it magical?" Sawyer's estimate of the artifact rose.

"Not yet."

And sank.

He frowned. "Not yet?"

"Take Kappiskjǫld with you to Arizona when you go."

"When am I going to Arizona?" Sawyer asked. Despite his incredulity, he tucked the warning away in the portion of his mind reserved for serious matters. Only fools and dead men failed to heed Frigg's warnings.

"Do you still have Gnýrhorn?"

"Gnýrhorn?" he echoed with a start of surprise. The tangent threw him for another loop. How had they gotten from Dwarven shields to enchanted ram's horns? 

Gnýrhorn—when blown, the curved ram's horn summoned the Wild Hunt... or so the story went. Sawyer kept the Norse artifact packed away in an old captain's chest that he'd hauled halfway around the country and back. Ironically, but not coincidentally, Gnýrhorn was another gift from his mother, presented to him years ago on the eve of his high school graduation. No one had been more surprised, other than maybe Jake. Just a glance at his old man's face had told Sawyer his father disapproved.

"Where is it?" Sarah demanded.

"It's at the hunter's cabin here in Sierra Pines. Why?"

Sarah gripped his wrist. "You're going to need it soon. Remember, this is important. When you sound Gnýrhorn, stand at the center of a wide road and don't step off."

Sawyer's heart jolted with a heavy thud. "Or?"

"Or the Hunt will consume everyone in its path."

"You said when, not if. Is it a done deal?"

"Nothing is a done deal until you choose." Sarah stiffened. She jerked her head sharply aside, cocked as though listening to something.

"What is it?" Sawyer turned with her. He strained his ears but detected nothing amiss. Only the rustle of leaves and birds in the trees.

"There are strangers in the woods, Sawyer. Your pack is in danger."

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