CHAPTER ONE - COMING HOME
My name is Liam Blake and I come from a line of warriors. I did not know that until I died and lost my mortal life and earned my immortal one as a Valkyrie. But it should have been obvious to me all along.
My father was the sheriff of a small western town in the United States called Holten in New Mexico until he was killed while off-duty trying to save a convenience store owner. My mother then took my father’s place as defender of the innocent and criminals have been known to cry in fear of her. My grandfather was a soldier. He met my grandmother on the front lines of a war where she was bandaging desperately wounded men while bombs fell all around them. “Gun fire and explosions were our love songs,” my grandfather had said.
We have artists in our family, too. Writers, painters, and sculptors. They create art of startling intensity that haunts people. My younger brother Cameron is of this line. He was drawing before he could talk. His sculptures made me believe there was something more to this life when I didn’t believe in anything. And he was only ten when I died. At twenty-one, I wonder how great his talent must be now.
We also have madness in our family. Relatives who rave about darkness and danger and old gods. Great uncles, far removed aunts, and distant cousins that whisper about some terrible being called The Gash and then, when the thunder and lightning comes, they cry out for Thor and Odin. When the madness is fully upon them they scream for Loki to save them. I thought all of this was just insanity, not real, the ramblings of the mad and lost.
But it wasn’t.
Valkyrie Liam Blake’s wings transformed as he passed through the clouds and fell towards the two-lane highway that cut through the desert night. The wings that allowed him to soar between the mortal world and the immortal one became a Valkyrie motorcycle, sleek, silver and black with an immensely powerful engine, that settled between his muscular thighs. The tires touched silkily down on the black ribbon of asphalt that led to Holten, New Mexico. In the past the wings would have transformed into a horse, but times had changed and it had been Liam who had suggested the Valkyrie motorcycles instead. Fitting considering the name.
He heard the soft hiss of Valkyrie Nafari’s motorcycle’s wheels landing beside him. He turned his head, his long blond hair, obscuring his vision of his best friend and brother in arms, Nafari, for a moment. Nafari wore all black leather and with his midnight black skin he looked like a figure made of onyx. Liam saw the flash of his white teeth as he sent Liam a grin, which had Liam grinning back even though his stomach was twisting with anxiety.
I’m going home. Mom will be there. Cameron …Cameron will be there, too.
He remembered his little brother’s tousled blond hair, the pale as milk skin and adoring smiles Cameron had always sent his way. Even before their father’s death, Cameron’s world had revolved around Liam. And Liam’s sole focus had been to keep his little brother safe and happy. He had accomplished the first part of that equation at least. He hoped Cameron was happy, but a part of him doubted it was so. After all, why would his brother still be in Holten and not at art school where they’d always planned he’d go?
Liam focused on the highway before them. There were no other vehicles on the road that wove through the desert past mesquite trees and endless waves of sand. He turned the bike to avoid a tumbleweed that decided now was the moment to dash across the highway. Moonlight backlit many of the hills and the arches and buttes that were left behind after the wind had scoured away the soft stone and left the bones of the Earth exposed.
“What does it feel like to be home?” Nafari called to him as he drew his bike even with Liam’s. His voice had a musical, smoky quality that made most women and men wish to hear it all night long.
“Not home yet. Holten is still twenty-five miles ahead of us,” Liam responded.
“This place -- this crazy, beautiful desert - is your home. I can see it on your face. And though you are as tense as a bow, once we touched down there was a moment where there was joy in your expression,” Nafari said with a slight nod of his bald head.
Liam flashed him a grin and shook his own head. “You see too much.”
“And you will get to see Cameron.”
This time his heart twisted as well as his stomach. “Yes, but it won’t be the same as before. He won’t recognize me.”
That was part of the deal of the immortal life. No one who had known them as a mortal would recognize them as an immortal Valkyrie even though their looks had not changed. Liam Blake had died. Cameron and Mary, their mother, had buried him ten years before. There was a body in that coffin. His old body. Now he was something other. Valkyrie Lihua Chang had theorized that their mortal forms were like cocoons and death released them to become a further evolved form. Though Liam heard Odin’s words far more often and for more clearly than all but Elda -- and some whispered he was spoken to even more than her -- did not know if Lihua was right. He never thought to ask the old god these things when they spoke. His mind was too full of wonder and all his questions melted away as if they had never been.
There was a sharp cry upon the wind and Liam glanced above them. Two ravens streaked across the night sky and disappeared behind a butte. Nafari tracked them, too. Ravens were some of Odin’s animal companions. Liam would not have been surprised if these two ravens were Huginn and Muninn who brought Odin information from all over Midgard. Neither he nor Nafari spoke Odin’s name. For to speak it was to call the old god and they would need his favor in their battle against The Gash later, better not to test his attention now.
“Will you recognize Cameron when you see him?” Nafari asked and his voice startled Liam after the passing of the ravens. “It has been eleven years. He is not the little gap-toothed boy that you always tell me about after we have too much mead in the Hall of Heroes.” Nafari laughed.
Liam shook his head and his golden hair flew back behind him like a silk banner. “I haven’t kept up with him at all. I don’t know that I would recognize him if he walked right up and spoke to me.”
“And why do you not keep up with him? If any of my family were alive I would be standing over their shoulders and watching everything! I would give them unwanted advice. I would lecture them on whatever foolishness that they intended to get into. I would laugh at their weddings and cry at their funerals. I would be that friend -- that favored uncle -- that they all spoke of with a smile and a shake of their heads! For I would always be right in what I advised them and they likely would only listen to me a quarter of the time!” Nafari’s immortal life had begun nearly three-hundred years before and though his tribe, the Fang Tribe from Southern Gabon, Cameroon, still existed, his family had died out a hundred years ago. “So as you see, no one could keep me away from them yet you tell me that you do not even know what your beloved little brother looks like now as a man?”
There were so many answers he could give his best friend. They would all be truthful, but they would not be the full truth or maybe the core of the truth. He tried not to lie to Nafari if he could help it.
“It’s too painful to see him and not to be … not to be the big brother he adored,” Liam answered. “Besides, Elda is clear that once our immortal lives begin we can no longer try to hold onto our lost mortal ones. My brother is off limits to me as your family would be to you.”
“I know the rules very well, but sometimes there must be … exceptions,” Nafari said.
“You and Elda on the same page on that? I thought as the second-in-command of the Valkyrie you had to be in lockstep with our leader.” Liam grinned at him.
Elda was the first Valkyrie to be raised to immortality. She was their leader and the most incredible warrior that Liam had ever seen. It was Elda who had explained to him the truth behind the world after he had died and been raised up as a Valkyrie. She told him of the eternal battle between the light and dark, between Odin and his people and The Gash. The Valkyrie were Odin’s foot soldiers in an eternal war.
Nafari let out a brilliant laugh. “We are in agreement, Liam.”
Liam frowned, his heart pounding a little, as he asked, “Elda thinks that I should be involved in my brother’s life?”
He couldn’t quite believe that. Beautiful and distant like the frosty peaks of mountains, Elda had no truck with “useless emotions” as she called anything that got in a Valkyrie’s way of fulfilling his or her duty in battling The Gash.
Nafari sighed. “She believes the world of you, Liam, but she thinks that you have not embraced your immortal life, because of who you left behind.”
“I have embraced --”
“This has nothing to do with your skills in battle against The Gash,” Nafari smoothly interrupted. “There is joy in battle. There must be for us to do it forever. But for you there is no joy in anything.”
“Not true?” Nafari shook his head. “You are still so deep in your grief for your old life that you do not see it.”
“And what is your and Elda’s suggestion for me to overcome that grief?” His heart twisted once more.
“We do not know yet, but we …” Nafari cut a glance towards him and then away.
“We do not think it is a coincidence that The Gash is back in Holten,” Nafari said carefully.
“You think -- you think it will go after Cameron again?” Liam tried to keep the rage and fear out of his voice. “You and Elda said that The Gash only came to Holten because of me! That it sensed I would be a Valkyrie, but my -- my brother had nothing to do with it!”
“That was before we saw the connection you have to -- to him.” Nafari tipped his head up towards where the ravens had disappeared.
Odin. Liam closed his eyes for a moment. Odin calls me like he would a favorite son. He has hinted that his blood runs through my family’s veins, but I -- I did not think on what that could mean for Cameron.
Nafari continued, saying what Liam was only thinking, “Now we believe that your family has connections that would -- would draw The Gash.”
Liam felt a fool. Holten was only a city of 25,000. While the war was eternal and everywhere, it would be rare for The Gash to appear twice in such a small location within a decade. It was unheard of actually. He had known that. But he had not wanted to look into it more closely.
“So Cameron is its target?” Liam asked through gritted teeth.
“Lihua thinks so.”
Lihua Chang was the best tracker of The Gash the Valkyrie had. She sometimes seemed to know what its next move would be. If she thought that Cameron was its target yet again then he likely was.
“When were you going to speak to me about this?” Liam asked.
Nafari gave him a sad smile. “None of us thought we would have to. We assumed you would know.”
“I didn’t want to know,” Liam breathed, feeling bleakness flow into him.
“I won’t let Cameron be killed by that thing! He’s only twenty-one, Nafari! He’s just starting his life!” Liam slammed a hand against the handlebars of his motorcycle.
“Just like you were when you died facing off against it to save him,” Nafari pointed out.
Liam’s jaw clenched. “I don’t want Cameron walking in my footsteps.”
“If his blood runs through your veins --”
“There is no way to know if Cameron would be raised up!” Liam shouted. “You know that! Our father was not raised up! Nor were our grandfathers or grandmothers! And yet I know that they encountered the Gash!”
“But they survived those encounters,” Nafari pointed out gently. Dying in battle with The Gash was a requirement for being raised up to be a Valkyrie, which had always seemed strange to Liam. If one fell one wasn’t as strong as those that had survived. Yet it was always so.
“My father didn’t,” Liam got out though. This was an old wound.
“We do not know for certain that his death was related to The Gash. There is plenty of evil in the world without it being all connected to that being,” Nafari reminded him.
“The man who shot my father was named Luis Valder. While he had always been a little shady, you know things falling off trucks that he sold, he had never been violent. Never even gotten into a fistfight let alone owned a gun. But, suddenly, he decides to hold up the local convenience store owner.” Liam nearly shook as he went over the details of his father’s death. “He kept the store owner at gunpoint for over thirty minutes until my father came into the store. It was only then that Luis decided to kill the store owner and my father jumped in front of that bullet.”
“It is a strange and pointless death,” Nafari agreed. “And who is raised and who is not, is not altogether clear.”
“If O -- he wants warriors, my father would have been an excellent one,” Liam gritted out.
“Yes, as would have mine.” Nafari stared forward implacably and Liam felt an ass.
Liam hung his head. He was taking out his anxiety on Nafari and it wasn’t fair and wasn’t right. “I’m sorry, my friend. I’m not in my right headspace. I didn’t mean to suggest that … I know we all have lost much.”
Nafari was smiling again, forgiving him even before the words were fully out. “I know. Perhaps we should get a drink before meeting with the others? To calm down and focus ourselves?”
Nafari indicated with a nod of his head a little dive bar with a flashing neon sign that read, “Fenrir.”
“That has to mean something,” Liam said with a laugh.
In Norse mythology, Fenrir was said to be a monstrous wolf and the son of Loki. Whether Fenrir -- or even Loki -- existed was unknown to the Valkyrie. The old gods had long ago been restricted from Earth. Whether the mythology was all real or only some of it was, was still uncertain. None of the mythologies ever mentioned The Gash and it was very, very real.
“Perhaps they will have mead that tastes even half as good as that served in the Hall of Heroes.” Nafari’s eyes glowed with hope.
“I hate mead. Give me a cold Corona anyday.”
“Heathen!” Nafari laughed.
They pulled off the highway into the cracked asphalt parking lot. There were about a dozen vehicles in the lot already. A few trucks, some sedans and even some motorcycles They throttled down their bikes and got off of them. Liam could already hear the dull thump of bass coming from the closed door of the bar. The windows were all tinted red and wavy so one could not see inside. Liam could almost smell the stale beer soaked into floorboards and the faint remembered scent of cigarette smoke even though smoking wasn’t allowed indoors any longer.
“I take it this bar is new since you were here?” Nafari asked as Liam hesitated with one hand on the doorknob.
“The name is new. I think it was just called ‘Bar' back in the day, but I never came here. It was for bikers,” Liam said.
“And you weren’t a biker back then?” Nafari grinned at him.
“I rode bikes. I built bikes. But I wasn’t a biker. Most of the bikers around here are in gangs that sell drugs and people. Not my scene,” Liam explained. “Besides my mother would have killed me if I hung out at a place like this.”
“Then you shouldn’t be worried that there will be anyone inside there that you will know,” Nafari said.
Liam went through the list of people he had been close with back in Holten. There had been Steve and Rose, his best friends, but they had been drifting away from him even back then. They had wanted to leave Holten as fast as possible. He had planned on staying. Cameron was only ten so he had intended to work on bikes and cars until his brother was going to leave to go to college. There was never any doubt that Cameron would be going to art school. Liam would then move wherever Cameron was. They would room together and … And his mind always stopped there. While he liked to think of Cameron being an adult, of them sharing things like a house and a life, wouldn’t his little brother eventually have wanted a life outside of him? At ten, Cameron wanted to be with no one else, but Liam. But at eighteen, nineteen, twenty or twenty-one? There would be girls -- or guys, for Liam it had only ever been men -- that Cameron would wish to build his life with. Not his brother. Just because Cameron had been the center of Liam’s world didn’t mean he would have been the center of Cameron's world forever, too.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to follow his life. See him moving on from me as I cannot from him.
“Cameron is not going to be in there, Liam,” Nafari said gently. “You said already that your mother would have killed you if you went to a place like this, what do you think she would do to Cameron?”
“True,” Liam said with a half smile, which quickly died. “But my brother should not be in Holten at all. He should be at art school. Not here.”
“He was ten when you last spoke to him about his hopes and dreams, Liam. Those change,” Nafari pointed out.
“He was gifted -- is gifted. He has to create art or -- or he’ll wither away. That wouldn't change,” Liam explained. “There are not the opportunities for him here.”
“Well, when you do see him perhaps you can find out why he is still here and whether art still moves him,” Nafari said. “Not that he will be here in this very disreputable bar. So let us go in and relax.”
Liam nodded and pushed open the door. Nafari was right that Cameron would not be there. No one he knew would likely be in this place. Steve and Rose wouldn’t be caught dead in a bar like this.
He stepped inside and the smell of alcohol, sweat and old smoke wrapped around him. The interior of the bar was dimly lit. Most of the light came from a jukebox, offset blue bulbs above the bar and a few tacky neon signs advertising various beers and liquors that dotted the walls. There were two old pool tables where beefy guys in plaid and jeans were playing a few games. There was throaty laughter coming from a woman at the bar as she touched her companion’s leg suggestively. There were a few other men at the bar with gray hair, potbellies and grim expressions, drinking their liquors of choice while ignoring everyone else. There was no one in there that he knew, no one that could even potentially have been a friend. His shoulders relaxed and Nafari clapped him on the back.
I don’t know anyone here. Freedom from old memories still.
The two of them strode over to the bar and got up on two barstools. There was a leather bumper along the edge of the bar that felt spongy beneath his forearms as he leaned against it. The bar itself was surprisingly clean and neat. Whoever the bartender was he kept things spic and span around his station at least.
“Where is the bartender? I am very thirsty,” Nafari said, echoing Liam’s thoughts.
At that moment, the door behind the bar opened and a young man came out, balancing a box of beer on his shoulder. Liam caught sight of a halo of blond curls around an almost angelic face. If anyone deserved to have wings it was this young man. Liam’s reaction to him was visceral and it could be summed up in a few words ...
Him. He’s the one for me.