I'm going to be busy for the next few months, pounding out my third mystery. I won't have time to write anything new to post here, so I thought I'd go WAY back to books I self-published--my urban fantasies--and post chapters from EMPTY ALTARS. If you followed me that long ago and you've already read it, I'm sorry. But I like the idea of giving Diana and Tyr another chance. Diana is one of my favorite Greek/Roman goddesses. And even though Thor has become famous because of the comics and movies, I liked writing about Tyr--an older god. Anyway, I hope you like EMPTY ALTARS. Here goes:
The runes on the side table called to her. Diana sighed. Why now? She was stretched on her green, leather sofa, gazing out the bank of windows that overlooked Central Park. A glass of red wine sat on the coffee table, untouched. Noir had jumped beside her, curling his body to fit hers. She stroked his smooth, black fur, rewarded with his purr. Their favorite time of day—when the sun blazed on the brink of the horizon, painting the sky deep hues of rose. The runes’ hum intensified. Part of the goddess gig.
She pushed herself to her feet and went to throw the bones. The minute she touched their pouch, air rushed past her. Everything blurred. Her condo's khaki-colored walls bled into cities, then forests. The temperature dropped, making her shiver. She landed on her knees in a meadow, disoriented, and turned in a slow circle. Where had the runes sent her? To the back of beyond? No lamps blazed in windows, no smoke curled from chimneys.
A hillside stretched before her, dotted with rocky outcrops. She saw the shadows of trees in the distance and a bridge beyond that. The bridge glowed with many colors. Fire danced across its surface. Diana stared. A burning rainbow? What next? Follow the Yellow Brick Road?
A sliver of moon glazed grasses that thrust through thin soil, their blades thick and coarse, almost sharp. And a scent… She inhaled deeply. Fecund. Strong. And something else. Something foreign.
She squinted, straining to see. Where were streetlights when you needed them? What were the runes thinking? She tucked their pouch into her jeans pocket, then wrinkled her nose. The stench of sulfur accosted her nostrils.
Something prowled out there, and she didn't think it was friendly.
Diana crept behind a pile of rocks. Whatever preyed moved with stealth, each paw planted with care. Grasses swayed, but no breeze stirred. Interesting.
She focused on one spot. Shadows rippled across the meadow, blending with their surroundings—nearly invisible. An obscuring spell—a clever trick Diana knew well. She was the mother of magic. All spells began with her. She chanted a string of words, and beasts took form.
Hellhounds. She'd trained many of her own. She never guessed she'd have to battle someone else's.
No matter. She stretched to her true size—her huntress form, discarding her mortal guise. When she reached to remove a fistful of arrows from the quiver on her back, the beasts sensed her movement and broke into a run, ready to attack.
She notched five arrows. At the touch of wood and string, the shafts flared with brilliant light, illuminating the entire area. The arrows' tips burst into flames. She gritted her teeth and held her ground. When the hounds closed on her, she fired.
Each arrow found its mark, but she'd notched only five. Two more hounds leapt at her. No time for niceties. She yanked a pair of long, curved knives from the sheaths on her belt and gutted the dogs in midair. A spray of blood dyed the grasses crimson. Her hands were coated a slick, sticky red that dripped down her bare forearms. She wiped them on her tunic, wrinkling her nose. This blood stank worse than usual.
One last hound cowered. It tucked its tail between its legs. It took a few steps backwards, hoping to retreat.
Diana reached to her quiver—in goddess form, always with her, always full—and pulled out a single arrow. Another kill. She listened for whimpers or whines. Silence permeated the area. It pressed on her ears. Her hands trembled. She lowered the bow and took deep breaths. No huntress panicked when faced with danger, but now that the battle was done, she sagged with relief. Eight hellhounds! Who'd sent them? And why?
She notched wood to string once more to light her way. The gutted hounds sprawled closest. Diana went to the nearest and stooped to study the corpse. Yellow eyes stared vacantly. A mustard-colored tongue lolled in the grass. A double set of gleaming fangs rimmed its mouth, its bulk too large to be a regular breed.
Water splashed in the distance. She glanced up. Someone was crossing the river under the rainbow bridge.
She placed one knee on the ground to brace herself and raised her bow. Her target towered over her with bulging muscles and wild, red hair. A Viking. One of the old gods. He carried a giant hammer in his right hand.
"You there." He stopped when he saw her weapon. "Explain yourself."
He was almost as rude as the hounds. It was clear she was a goddess. He should show some respect. "Were the beasts yours? Did you set them on me?"
He sniffed, dismissing her. "You're a girl, a Roman one at that. We'd have stopped these." His voice rumbled when he spoke.
"The runes differ." She considered the Norse a fractious lot, but they could care for themselves. Not this time, or the runes wouldn’t have sent her.
The Viking bristled with temper. Thunder rolled overhead. Like that would scare her! Jupiter had thunder and lightning too. They caused her no harm. "We were on guard," he snarled. "No enemy gets past us on the bridge."
"You wouldn't have seen these."
The Viking poked his toe at a nearby body. "A little hard to miss."
"They were under an obscuring spell. They'd blend with their surroundings."
"Witchcraft?" He stroked his fiery beard, surprised.
"My specialty, but you're mistaken. They weren't heading to the bridge. They were going in that direction." She pointed.
"To the village?"
"I didn't ask."
A second Viking crossed the bridge, every bit as powerfully built as the first. He gave the impression of age, even though his appearance belied it. He carried a huge shield in his left hand, and when he stretched out his right arm to greet her, Diana bit back revulsion. His wrist ended in tattered, mangled flesh. This one took a minute to silently study her. "We thank you for your assistance and offer you godspeed home."
He, too, was trying to get rid of her—the sooner, the better! She pushed herself to her feet and tilted her head to meet his piercing gaze. "I've heard of you—Tyr, the sky god. You stepped aside to let Woden reign. No Roman gods would give up their power without a struggle."
Tyr’s lips tilted in irony. "Our religion's not as optimistic as yours. Every Norse fights the good fight, but ultimately, we know we'll lose. The Earth and heavens will be no more. I know who'll kill me, and how I'll die. So does Donar."
"Impossible. Gods are immortal." Weren't they? Roman gods were. Why would Norse be different?
"It's our destiny. It's foretold." He shrugged, accepting the inevitable. "Power seems less addicting when you're aware it's futile."
Diana waved off his cynicism. "Fine. Have it your way. Lose in the end, but I didn't come here to suffer defeat." Clearly, these gods had enemies. The mortals who lived here must too.
Before he could respond, a small buzz of energy caught their attention. An unnatural darkness gathered and grew, multiplying rapidly. The dark chaos gusted toward the village.
Diana smelled magic in the air, the dark kind. "Screw that!" When Tyr's brows furrowed in confusion, she said, "Modern lingo. Don't ask."
She raised her bow and waited. When the black energy was directly overhead, she shot a dozen arrows—one for each major deity—straight into the sky. Sparks sputtered. Explosions of light bounced from cloud to cloud. The heavens trembled, and the clouds dispersed.
"Heid." Tyr readjusted his shield, clearly troubled. "One of her spells."
"Who in Hades is Heid?"
"A Norse witch of black magic." Tyr's gaze swept the meadow. Diana searched too, her eyes finally adjusting to the dim light. As far as she could see, only five longhouses dotted the rugged landscape. A village stood near the rocky shoreline, a high, log fence surrounding it. A steep cliff dropped in all directions, making the meadow a floating island of sorts.
She returned her attention to the Vikings. They gleamed with vibrancy—sky-blue eyes and skin tanned to shades of gold. Diana swallowed a knot of jealousy. She felt drab beside them with her own woodsy coloring of chestnut hair and hazel eyes.
"Where are we?" She slung her bow over her shoulder. "What country?"
"We're between Asgaard, land of the gods, and Midgard, the land of mortals," Tyr said.
"The world of modern men." He frowned, glancing toward the tree line, at the spot the magic storm had come from. "Heid's here. If we try to find her, she'll be gone before we reach the trees. Three times we killed her and burned her on the pyre. Three times she rose, reborn, like your Phoenix."
"You know of the Phoenix?" Diana asked.
"I study many religions, including the new ones. Mankind may have deserted us, but we haven't deserted them."
Curiouser and curiouser. Diana spread her hands at the barren surroundings, confused. "Why would anyone stay here? Nothing's changed. Where are the modern conveniences? Electricity? Plumbing?"
"This is our kingdom. It's protected from the rest of the world, the modern times. The few mortals who remain stay to serve us."
Donar answered, his square jaw rigid with temper. "This is where the final battle will start."
At Diana's look of bewilderment, Tyr explained, "When the giants storm the bridge and destroy Asgaard and the World Tree, we’re all doomed."
"Like the two trees in the Garden of Eden?" For the first time, Diana wondered if they still existed somewhere, guarded so that mankind couldn't reach them.
"Two trees?" Donar growled.
"The tree of life and the tree of conscience." Tyr knew his stuff. Diana was impressed.
She chewed her bottom lip, thinking. "So what happens if Asgaard falls? Your race is destroyed?"
"Ragnarok, the final days. Similar to the Christians’ Armageddon. The end."
"Of everything?" Not likely. How could a Norse myth affect everyone?
"Unless this is just a play for power." Tyr stopped to consider that. "Heid might be vying for control. If she and her allies defeat us, people will pray for death."
Was he serious? Why were Vikings and Christians so pessimistic? And if he was serious, why was she standing here, willing to help, arguing with two Norsemen who clearly wanted to be rid of her?
A ball of energy flew toward them. Tyr raised his shield, reflecting the magic skyward. His biceps bunched, and his expression set in anger. "Enough!" He started to the tree line.
A horse whinnied. Hooves sounded in the distance.
Tyr stopped. "She's leaving."
Diana jammed her hands into her jeans pockets. Why in the hell was she here? Tyr had just reflected magic with his shield, so the Norse gods could defend themselves.
She gave the pouch, filled with bones, a frustrated squeeze. She'd be seriously peeved if the only reason the runes summoned her was to battle eight hounds.
"Leave." Tyr's one word sounded final, jolting her from her thoughts. "This is our battle. The giants have birthed more wolves. They've bred them with Hellhounds and created these." He motioned toward the monstrous corpses that littered the ground. "They're readying. Heid has joined the giants, along with her followers."
"And your reason for sending help away…?"
"We have magic of our own," Donar said, interrupting her. "We don't need you!"
"We might have lost some of our warriors, but we'd have won this battle." Tyr lowered his shield and ran his one, good hand through his shoulder-length, white-blond hair. An act of frustration, she could tell. Unlike his friend, he strove to be polite, but Diana guessed he was more accustomed to giving orders.
"Our enemies will not cross this bridge, and we'll help protect the meadow," Donar insisted.
"I take it Heid's tried this before?"
Tyr exchanged a glance with Donar. He sighed, struggling for patience. "Are you always this persistent?"
"I take my job as seriously as you take yours. The runes sent me. You'd better have a damned good reason I should leave."
"Would you die, defending mankind?" Tyr asked.
"I'm a Roman. I don't have to." She spread her hands, hoping to mollify him. "Humor me, will you? Convince me my work here is done."
Tyr gave it his best effort. "This time, instead of might, Heid is resorting to trickery. Greeks appreciate clever tactics, I've been told."
“Greeks?” Donar frowned. “I thought she was Roman.”
“Her origins are Greek,” Tyr said.
It was meant as an insult. She took it as a compliment. "When strength fails, wits prevail. The Trojan horse worked when Achilles' sword didn't."
"A coward's way." Donar balled his fingers into fists. "There is but one entrance to Asgaard, woman. This is it. We'll guard it."
Diana pulled her pouch out of her jeans pocket, fingering it. "Not good enough." She walked to a large, flat rock, knelt beside it, then emptied the pouch into her hands and tossed the twenty-four bones onto its rough surface. "Should I leave this meadow?" she asked.
Both gods looked over her shoulders, searching for an answer. Twenty three bones landed, face down, hiding the letter of the runic alphabet carved on each. They would tell her nothing. The one remaining, face up, sang to her.
"Thurisaz," Tyr said. "Destruction and defense. Conflict."
"So you know the rune's answer.” She gathered the bones and returned them to their pouch. “I stay."
"We don't want you." Donar's face flushed with fury. She was surprised sparks didn't bounce off him and shoot to earth as lightning.
Tyr held up his handless arm in warning. "I would interpret your reading another way."
"They're my runes, my question—when they sing, my interpretation. They said stay, so I’ll stay."
Donar reached for her. Did he really think he could toss her out of the meadow? Words tumbled from her lips. Sparks jumped up and down the Viking's arms. He spasmed, trying to pull free. When his red hair stood on end, she blasted him away. He dropped to one knee in the grass, panting hard, his hammer slammed onto the ground to support himself. He stared at her, his surprise evident.
Tyr looked at his friend's hair, standing on end. He glanced at Diana, and then, to her amazement, he laughed. Clouds scudded across the sky. A breeze stirred. "Remind us not to anger you again, goddess. You've made your point. You're to be taken seriously, but we must still ask you to leave."
"Are you people just stupid?" Hands on hips, she glared.
"If indeed there will be destruction and conflict," Tyr's expression went grave, "Norse work and fight as a unit. You'd slow us down, change our rhythm."
"Who says I’d fight beside you?"
"Gods and mortals have lived in this place a long time. A new, single woman would be a distraction." Tyr smiled. It changed his entire appearance. The deep creases carved into his lean face disappeared. "You're far too attractive."
His compliment both annoyed and pleased her. Diana pushed herself to a standing position, not that it gave her an advantage. The top of her head didn't reach his shoulder. "Your men can't put aside lust in dire times?"
"You're goddess of the hunt. What male won’t fight for mates and territory?"
She shrugged. "You're turning away a willing ally."
"I know, and we thank you for your offer."
Stubborn, obstinate man! The Norse did things their own way and meant to keep it that way. But she started as a Greek, and Greeks were more flexible. Pink tinged the horizon. Birds chirped. Diana looked to the east to see the sun slowly rising. She turned to leave, waiting for them to rethink their mistake. It didn't happen. She started walking away, aware Tyr's eyes followed her until she reached the bottom of the hill.
"It was a pleasure meeting you, huntress!" he called.
Screw him! She made one last curve, out of sight, then jerked with surprise when a woman fell into step beside her.
Damn it! Was everyone tall and golden in this foul land? A necklace of unnatural beauty circled her slender throat. "They're wrong, you know. They do need you. We all do."
"Freya, goddess of love and beauty. I, too, have magic, but of a different kind."
"A magic mirror?" Okay, she was being a smart ass, but she wasn't known for her patience. These people obviously wanted to suffer more than they had to. Let them.
"I use seidr—trance magic, illusions—and the gift of divination. I foresaw your arrival."
"A big lot of good that did me." Diana picked up her pace. She was tired of Vikings.
"They resent you," Freya said, easily keeping stride with her. "You come from a land of abundance and warmth. Your fellow gods and goddesses can be fickle. We, the Aesir and the Vanir, have made many sacrifices to help mankind."
"Aesir and Vanir?" Why didn't that surprise her? Clearly, the Viking gods couldn't get along with one another, let alone with someone from the outside. But, okay, she'd bite. Supposedly, they were grumpy and uncouth because so much had been demanded from them. "What sacrifices?" she asked.
"Tyr let the wolf, Fenrir, gnaw off his right hand while we tethered the evil brute."
Diana stopped, interested in spite of herself. Tyr had no clean wound, but a ragged, ugly mess. "That's how he lost his hand?"
"Woden, Donar's father, gave his eye at the well of Mimir in trade for inner wisdom. He hung himself on the World Tree to learn the secrets of the runes."
Diana touched her jeans pocket. "No wonder Donar doesn't like me. Runes might have started with the Norse, but became part of my magic. They brought me here."
"That wouldn't please him." Freya gave a wry smile. "Asking for help would please him less. We're simply not used to it. We're an independent breed."
"So am I." Diana started to walk again.
"You're not what I expected." Freya fell into step beside her once more.
Diana gave her a sideways glance. She was every bit as beautiful as Venus, but somehow, she didn't come off as quite so fickle. "Is that another insult?"
"Hardly." Freya's golden beauty didn't detract from her intelligence. "You have what’s known as grit. We respect that."
A backhanded compliment. Just what she needed. "And you don't come across as a dumb blonde." At Freya's look of alarm, Diana chuckled. A little tit for tat, but the goddess took it with grace. "A human joke," Diana explained. "You guys don't keep up, do you?"
“I used the word grit.”
Diana laughed. “Not a part of everyday slang anymore.”
"Mortals no longer have any use for us."
Diana shrugged. "My altars are empty too. New gods have replaced me. But I still have duties to see to, and I intend to fulfill them."
Freya gave a quick nod. "Then trust your runes, Roman. Hard times are upon us. Donar and Tyr might refuse your help, but they're wrong. If Heid and her troops cross our bridge, mankind will suffer. So will we. I'll do anything I can to help you."
"Look. Let me make myself clear. I don't involve myself with the daily struggles of mortals. As for Norse gods, you're not all that easy to work with."
"This isn't about coddling. It's about insuring mortals' existence, and that, I think, does interest you."
"In this meadow?"
"In this world. Think about it." With those words, Freya turned to leave, but her footsteps faltered. She turned back, a sly smile on her lips. "You could have touched your runes and been transported home. But you’re still here. You never really said you're leaving, did you?"
The Norse goddess was too clever. "I told you, you're on your own," Diana repeated.
"Not the same thing. Welcome to our world, friend. We’ll make a great team." Still smiling, Freya dimmed with each step until she disappeared.
A team? With a Norse goddess of love and beauty? Zeus help her! Diana shook her head. What had Freya said? Mortals' existence depended on them. But this was only one meadow. One bridge. She wondered what lay on the far side of the rainbow. She was pretty sure it wasn't a pot of gold.