BLOOD & MEMORY
The Island of Svalbard
Colt’s snowmobile picked up speed as he revved the engine, racing north across the vast glacier. Even with the Arctic wind stinging his cheeks and his cold fingers numb on the handlebars, he couldn’t stop the excited smile that crept across his face.
After all, out of the hundreds of gods he’d hunted down throughout his many lifetimes, Mnemosyne was always his favorite goddess to kill.
Still, he couldn’t help but gaze at the endless tundra around him and think, This? This sparsely populated island, this barren wasteland is where she chose to hide from me?
He’d hunted her down twice before in fact—once in 1829, and then again in 1924—but apparently this time Mnemosyne thought if she tucked herself away at the end of the world, he’d never find her. The goddess honestly believed she could outsmart him.
Well, she should have known better than to try to out-trick a trickster god.
The thrill of the hunt grew in him as he saw the lone structure appear on the horizon.
For nearly forty miles Colt had seen nothing but snow, rocky outcroppings, and the occasional silhouette of a reindeer darting through the polar night. Now, through the darkness, he could see the outline of the log walls, the acute triangles that made up the roof. Up this far north the winter night lasted for more than four months, but the golden cross atop the impressive steeple still glinted in the low twilight spilling over the horizon.
Colt was so transfixed on the church and the target lurking inside it that he never saw the ambush coming.
The first arrow slipped into his shoulder with a sickening shick sound. The second tore a bloody line along his jawbone, but it was the third that struck him dead-on in the heart.
He toppled off the back of the snowmobile and onto the unforgiving glacial ice. The snowmobile slid to a stop thirty feet ahead, where a figure in a fur-lined coat emerged from her hiding place—she’d been lying in wait for him beneath a special tarp that had camouflaged her amid the ice and stone. She tossed her crossbow to the side and advanced on the trickster with a serrated hunting knife, ready to finish the job.
Even with two arrows protruding from his body and blood pouring out of his chest, Colt sat up.
He climbed to his feet.
He wrapped his hands around the shaft of the arrow in his shoulder, and with a savage scream he jerked it out of his flesh.
With an even louder howl he ripped the second arrow out of his heart.
But then he smiled.
It was enough to make the huntress pause in her tracks.
Beneath his parka his regenerative abilities worked their magic, rapidly repairing muscle and arteries, and finally sealing the flesh over what should have been mortal wounds. When the process completed just seconds later, there wasn’t even the faintest scar peeking through the holes in his parka.
Colt tossed the bloody arrows to the assassin’s feet. Now that he could get a good look beneath her hood, he recognized her as Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt. “So Mnemosyne hired you to protect her from me . . . without warning you that I can’t be killed?”
Artemis circled around him, a lioness stalking her prey. “She told me all about your healing abilities. But she also told me that you’re not as immortal as you pretend to be. That you have . . . a weakness.”
When her eyes darted to his chest, he knew she was talking about his heart. The only way he could die—the
only way he’d ever died—was to have his heart ripped right out of his chest or otherwise completely destroyed. Still, he would show her no fear. “Weakness? Was she talking about my fondness for chocolate?”
Artemis didn’t take the bait. “I’m going to carve you up like a pumpkin, trickster. But don’t worry—I’ll keep your heart on ice for you.”
Artemis lunged for him with superhuman agility, closing the space between them in a single bound. Her hunter’s knife arced down, aiming for his heart.
But Colt, no stranger to battle, intercepted her in midair and held her by the wrist. Before she could break free, he withdrew the stun gun he’d been concealing in his pocket, pressed it to her exposed neck, and pulled the trigger. A heavy electric current racked her body for several seconds, until Colt let her drop to the ground.
He wasn’t done with her yet, though. He dragged the convulsing huntress over the ice, and with quick work he tied her to the back end of his idling snowmobile. Using a second length of wire, he jammed up the throttle. The snowmobile’s engine roared as it lurched forward, and Colt watched with unbridled glee as it took off, riderless, across the glacier, dragging Artemis behind it.
Five minutes later, when he pushed open the heavy teak doors to the church, he half-expected Mnemosyne to be in hiding. Instead she was kneeling at the altar with her back to him. Beyond her a small gap in the back wall must have either collapsed or never been finished, because the
church simply opened out into the sharp cliffs of the fjord beyond. The polar twilight spilling through the opening and the chandelier overhead combined to give the church an eerie purple glow.
“Beautiful Mnemosyne,” Colt called out in a lyrical, singsong voice. “Greek Titan of memory, and bane of my many existences.”
Mnemosyne turned her head to the side and gazed at Colt over her shoulder. Between her shorn haircut and her dark robe, she had a monastic look to her. “So,” she said calmly. “You’ve come for me again.”
Colt rolled his eyes. Some gods always had a penchant for dramatically stating the obvious. “You know, last lifetime, when I told you that I’d hunt you down to the ends of the earth, I had no idea you were going to take me so literally.” He toed the coal stove that she must have been using for cooking and warmth; it clearly didn’t heat the room very well, thanks to the drafty hole in the rear of the church. “You could have at least lived out your short life in luxury—maybe a Manhattan penthouse, or a jungle loft. This is just . . . depressing.”
“I wasn’t hiding from you. I was waiting for you,” Mnemosyne said. “Besides, I like it here.” Mnemosyne turned back to the beautiful scene through the open wall. The sounds of the Arctic Ocean lapping at the ice and stone a hundred feet below were just barely audible. Finally she pointed to something on the eastern wall he hadn’t noticed before. “They like it here too.”
It was a painting, so crudely done it could have been some Paleolithic cave drawing. Rough as the artwork was, Colt recognized the image in the painting.
The dark, pitch-black body of a massive creature.
Its gray, bear-trap teeth.
Its single blue flame of an eye.
“The Cloak . . .” Of course the ancient, monstrous bastards liked it here. In their home netherworld they were hyper-intelligent and all-knowing. But they had a weakness: They were allergic to hate. It was like radiation to them—exposure to hatred and violence slowly devolved them into something vicious, bloodthirsty, and wild. Enough exposure could actually kill them altogether.
It was a fatal flaw that Colt planned on exploiting soon enough.
“They were right, you know,” Mnemosyne said. She was on her feet now, leaning against one of the wooden pillars. “When they took our memories from us. Being able to remember lifetime after lifetime, accumulating centuries of history and wisdom—it should have made us wiser, more compassionate, more capable of creating a better world for humans and gods alike to share. Instead the weight of all those memories created monsters like you.”
Colt used his fingernail to scratch a big X through the Cloak’s blue flame eye in the painting. “Funny you should say that, since when you think about it, it’s their fault I have to keep killing you in the first place.” From
Mnemosyne’s crestfallen expression, Colt knew she realized that in a twisted way, he was right. When the Cloak had tinkered with the brains of the gods to deny them access to their old memories—to give the gods a fresh start every time they were reborn—the procedure had only failed on two of them: the goddess of memory and the Hopi trickster whose regenerative abilities healed the amnesia.
The two of them alone had full, unfettered access to their former lifetimes.
And that’s exactly why Mnemosyne had to die. Only she knew all about Colt’s millennia’s worth of deception and manipulation and murder. Only she could warn the other gods and goddesses of the webs this trickster was spinning. Without her, his monopoly on the old ways was complete.
A lifetime spent in hiding and isolation had clearly taken its toll on Mnemosyne. Her eyes had sunk in, and her body looked so frail from malnutrition that a strong Arctic wind probably could have blown her off the edge of a fjord. Still, her gaze remained resolute. “You’ve got all the gods on your payroll convinced that if they help you exterminate the Cloak, it will bring their old memories back. . . . But it’s just the opposite, isn’t it? If the Cloak die, they can’t undo the brain damage, and the amnesia will be rendered permanent forever.”
Colt just smiled. “Part of being a good trickster means telling people exactly what they want to hear. A few false
promises and they eat right out of my hand. Hell, some of them are so stupid that I could take an apple from the supermarket and convince them that it was the forbidden fruit of knowledge if I wanted to.”
“Knowing you,” Mnemosyne said, “it would more likely be a poisoned apple.”
“You know,” Colt went on, “I might have found it in my heart to let you live your cold, sad existence here a little while longer . . . but then you had to try to warn Ashline Wilde that I was coming. If I hadn’t intercepted your messenger before he got to her, you could have put a real damper on my love life.”
“You leave that girl alone,” Mnemosyne snarled, her caved-in cheeks drawing taut against her high cheekbones. It was the first time she’d shown any real emotion since he had arrived at the church.
“You know I can’t do that.” Colt bent down, opened the door to the stove, and plucked a hot, burning coal right out of the furnace. He held it out to Mnemosyne, and even as much as she hated the trickster, she still flinched as she watched his palm blister under the smoldering stone. “I crave her fiery touch,” he said, closing his eyes and tightening his hand into a fist around the stone. As the odor of smoke and burning flesh hit his nostrils, he was momentarily lost in reverie, fantasizing about the volcano goddess, Pele, who had first captured his heart five hundred years ago. He’d loved her when she was an outlaw in 1920s New Orleans; he’d loved
her when she was a protectress of the Hawaiian islands a hundred years before that.
“The volcano goddess that you once loved is gone,” Mnemosyne said.
His eyes snapped open. “Because they took her from me!” Colt raged, stabbing a finger at the painting of the Cloak. “They had no right to break her the way that they did.” Two lifetimes ago, after deciding that she was too powerful and too volatile, the Cloak had split Pele’s soul into three pieces, three goddesses: a conjurer of fire, a summoner of storms, a wielder of explosions. Colt had pledged to put the pieces of her soul back together at all costs, and then he would be reunited with his beloved once more.
Ashline Wilde was one of those pieces—his favorite one—and soon she would love him again.
Colt finally dropped the hot coal to the floor and then held up his hand for Mnemosyne to see. The deep burns and festering blisters all vanished before her eyes, replaced with smooth skin. “All I want is to heal her. To make her whole again. Do you know what it’s like to love someone so intensely that you’d tear the heavens down just to find her again?”
Mnemosyne just shook her head, and the look of borderline pity she gave Colt made him feverishly angry. “You’ve confused love with obsession. If you truly cared for Ashline Wilde, you would let her go, let her blaze a new life for herself, with no memory of you. Instead you
see her as a toy that keeps being taken from you. And you dare to call that love?” She pointed to his chest. “No, there’s no love left in that heart of yours. Just the faintest, crippled shadows of it.”
Colt quaked with seething anger. “I’m going to enjoy hanging you from the rafters.” He unslung the length of rope that he’d coiled around his shoulder; his trembling fingers struggled impatiently to tie a hangman’s knot.
With a resigned sigh, Mnemosyne wandered over to the opening in the back wall and clasped her hands behind her back. There was nowhere for her to run, so Colt allowed her to take in the scenic view of the fjord and the frozen bay one last time.
“There’s a lot that you can learn from the Arctic, Kokopelli,” she said, using his true godly name—the one his people had given him thousands of years ago, before he’d forsaken them. “Up here the polar night lasts all winter. Suddenly the constant darkness makes the days bleed together until time loses all meaning. After weeks of this, months of this, you start to honestly believe that you’ll never see the sun again.” She tilted her head toward the horizon. “But then one morning, when you’ve lost all faith, you look out to sea, and there it is—a sliver of gold peeking its head over the eastern waters.”
In response Colt started to stalk slowly toward her, holding out the noose.
Mnemosyne turned bravely to face him as her
executioner marched forward. “Even the longest darkness has an end,” she said, “and yours is almost over, Colt Halliday. You just don’t know it yet.”
With that, before Colt could dart the last few steps to secure the noose around her neck, Mnemosyne dropped backward through the gap in the church wall, down the steep cliff face of the fjord. Colt rushed forward just in time to watch the Greek goddess of memory leave a crimson smear on the ice and rocks below, before the Arctic waters swallowed her body.
“Always a dramatic exit,” he muttered.
In her stockpile of equipment to forge a living up in the bitter north he found a torch, which he ignited in the coal furnace. Then he wandered over to the painting of the Cloak and held the burning end against the mural until the wall went up in flames.
As the inferno climbed into the rafters, and the firelight danced around him, Colt let the intense heat wash over his face, once again imagining that he was back with his fiery beloved. With Mnemosyne gone there would be no one to stop him from reuniting with her.
Together, trickster and volcano goddess, hand in hand, they’d light the fuse.
And they’d watch the world burn.