One thousand years later...
Glass shattered as a grown man threw himself out of a fifth-story window. Will Yager closed his eyes and turned his head to protect himself from the spray of glass. He knew the man threw himself out that window because that's what any sane person would do in a similar situation.
"You can run, David," a female voice from the man's apartment taunted as the man landed hard at Yager's feet. "But we'll find you."
"Don't leave, sweetness! I wasn't nearly done!" another female voice laughingly added.
The man at his feet--"David", Yager guessed--struggled to crawl away. The only reason the man's back hadn't snapped like a twig when he landed was due to the little item he'd recently stolen. Which was the only reason Yager and his team were even here on a Saturday night.
Why people insisted on stealing from gods, Yager would never know.
Reaching down, he grabbed David by the neck and lifted him to his feet. "Where exactly are you crawling away to, little man?"
"Trust me." Yager's protégé, Mike, chuckled behind him. "We're much nicer than the women you just ran from."
That was true. The Gathering didn't do rescue missions or help those in need or involve themselves in the politics of gods. In fact, The Gathering only answered to one god. A Fate called Skuld, the Veiled One. A goddess who once rode with the Valkyries when she got bored, Skuld knew the future, could bring the dead back to life, and believed in wisdom. She'd created The Gathering more than a thousand years ago when Yager's people still raided monasteries for sport. Like Odin, she wanted her own warriors, but unlike Odin, Skuld didn't choose from the finest Nordic stock. Instead she chose from the descedents of the girls his people had stolen. Girls thrown over warriors' shoulders and carried away to a cold and foreign land they knew nothing about. Mike probably put it best when he observed of the two groups, "The Ravens look like an ad for Hitler Youth while the Crows look like a big box of crayons."
In the early days, when Skuld rode with the Valkyries, she would choose among the slain who would go to Valhalla. And now that she chose her own warriors, nothing had changed. For those who wanted to commit their lives to her service and to The Gathering ... they had to be taking their last breath.
"Give it up, little man," Yager ordered as he took firm hold of David's hair and held him in place like he used to hold his childhood teddy bear. Yager hated chasing anybody. "With us you'll get a quick death. But I can promise you won't get that from them."
David shook his head but didn't speak.
"I'm not even going to ask why you're here, Yager," a female voice calmly stated.
David squealed as strong female hands gripped the man's shoulders and yanked him away from the dubious safety of Yager's men. Of the Ravens.
Yager winced in sympathy when he realized David definitely lost hair and some of his scalp in that little transfer.
"This one is ours, Yager."
Odin help him. The delectable Neecy Lawrence. Second-in-command to the Jersey Crows, Neecy was lethal with a blade and her talons. She was also stubborn, tough, brutally honest, and the hottest piece of ass on the East Coast. Neecy also made his life a living hell because she wouldn't admit the truth--they were perfect together.
"I didn't say he wasn't yours, Neecy. We're just here to help ... and to get Odin's rune. Which I believe is somewhere on him." Yager snatched David back.
"We're not doing this again," Neecy promised.
As always, she and her team wore the requisite Crow fighting gear: black jeans, black steel-toe boots, white racerback tanks so their wings were unencumbered, and the brand of their goddess burned deep and black onto their necks. And because it was the middle of January, tightly fitted wool sleeves that went from the palms of their hands to their upper biceps.
The Ravens' fighting clothes were similar except for the sleeves. Viking males just had to deal with the freezing Northeast coast cold. Otherwise the Elder Ravens called them pussies.
"Besides, he's already used the rune and given a sacrifice," Neecy continued. "His tongue specifically. And you know the rules--once they use it, the prey belongs to us. And Skuld gave me orders to bring that rune to her, so I guess you're shit out of luck, huh?" She again yanked the man to her.
"Actually you are, baby." Yager grabbed hold of David by the neck and pulled him back. "I don't care if he's already used the damn rune. I'm returning it to Odin. You can have the carcass for all I care."
"And Odin can go to hell for all I care. And stop calling me baby." Neecy took David back, ignoring the whimpering sound he made.
"Why do you always have to be so difficult?" he asked, because really ... couldn't they just get married and work the rest of it out in bed?
Neecy gave that tight smile of hers. The one that told him she was losing her patience. "You haven't seen difficult, Yager. But trust me when I say I can get difficult." She wasn't bragging or uselessly threatening either. Neecy Lawrence didn't need to. Her reputation preceded her.
She'd come to Skuld early. Only sixteen when she woke up at the Bird House, the name for the Jersey safe house many of the Crows called home. She woke up from dying. The last thing she probably remembered was her drug-dealer boyfriend pulling the trigger. Six bullets to the chest--a gift for warning two undercover cops they'd been made.
Fifteen years later and she ruled the Jersey Crows. In fact, only one woman stood between Neecy and Skuld. Didi handled the politics while Neecy handled everything else. Always so serious, always so determined, Neecy never took her oath to her goddess lightly and she demanded the best from all the Crows. A ball-buster she may be, but a fair one.
He took a step toward her. "Neecy."
"Back off, Yager." Her wings, glistening blue-black from the streetlight, spread dangerously away from her body even as she remained outwardly calm.
Man, he'd never known a woman more beautiful than Neecy. Short, short straight black hair she'd lately let grow long in the front. So long, her bangs nearly covered her gorgeous black eyes. Neecy was brown-skinned and tall, but no one really knew what she was. Even Neecy. Rumor was someone found her in a Dumpster when she was barely a day old. She could be black, Brazilian, Cuban, or a mix of all three or a mix of something completely different. Yager didn't know or care. He only cared about one thing when it came to Neecy Lawrence. Making her his.
Sighing, he said, "I don't want to fight you."
"I know, Yager," she responded softly. "I know." Then she punched him in the face.
Dammit! He should have seen it coming. The calmer she got, the worse the damage. She only managed to snap his head to one side, but that gave her enough time to use her wings to lift her body into the air so she could slam both her feet into his chest, sending him slamming into his men. The momentum of her attack sent her body flipping back in midair. But when she landed, she did it silently and firmly on two feet.
"Katie," she barked.
"Got him." Katie Clark. A vicious little redhead, who'd died when she tried to stop a knife fight between two friends, took firm hold of poor, growing-balder-by-the-moment David. Talons burst from Katie's hand and she ripped his side open with one swipe. Then she dug her hand into his open flesh, snorting at his unintelligible screams of pain.
"Oh, quit whining, ya big baby," she snapped. "You brought this shit on yourself."
She pulled her hand out of his body, the rune he'd given up parts of himself for held tightly in her bloody fist. Katie dropped him to the ground like old garbage. Now that the rune was gone, Yager knew that David felt every ache, every pain ... he felt it all.
"Got it!" Katie cheered.
"Good," Neecy barked. "Go!"
Katie spread her wings and her feet left the ground. But Mike charged past all of them, grabbed her around the legs, and slammed her back down.
A second of stunned silence followed. Yager never expected him to do that. Actually, none of the Ravens expected Mike to do that. They watched as he reached down and snatched the rune from Katie's hand. Mike shrugged. "What did you expect me to do?"
Quick to recover, Katie slammed her foot into his knee. She didn't use her heel--a six-inch metal spike--so Yager could only guess she didn't want to permanently damage him. Mike still dropped to one knee, though, with an angry grunt of pain.
Katie rolled back and out of his way, quickly coming to her feet.
"You're going to get your ass kicked, little boy," she growled.
"Oooh. A chick threat," Mike mocked, still kneeling in front of her. "I love those." The kid never knew when not to push it, did he?
Mike waited for Katie to make her move and that was his mistake. He didn't see Connie Vega, who'd died when a drunk driver hit her bicycle, standing behind him. She kicked him between his shoulder blades, slamming his big body to the ground. She put her knee against his back while she wrapped a chain around his neck and pulled.
Mike gritted his teeth and tossed the rune to Yager, who caught it easily and stared down at Neecy.
She held her hand out. "Give it, Yager."
"I'll let Connie have fun with him if you don't give it to me now."
He rolled his eyes. "You wouldn't hurt Mike and we both know it." Believe it or not, the Ravens and the Crows were on the same side.
"That's where you're wrong. I wouldn't kill Mike, but I wouldn't think twice about hurting him."
He couldn't help but smile. Mike drove everyone crazy, but the Crows still treated the twenty-seven-year-old like their baby brother. "Neecy, come on..."
"Exactly how many times do you think I've had that conversation with one of my young sisters, explaining to her that the reason Mike didn't call was because he'd already fucked her and was done?"
Yager winced. Goddamn horny Mike. Out of principal, he should leave Mike Molinski to the not-so-tender mercies of the Crows.
"Trust me when I say I'd have fun making him cry ... So, give it." She still had her hand out and now she wiggled her fingers.
He shrugged. "Okay."
He placed the rune in her palm. As she started to close her hand around it, Yager caught hold of her wrist, quickly turned Neecy around, and dragged her against his body, both his arms holding her tight.
"Get Mike!" he barked at his team.
Now Neecy was pissed and she showed it. She struggled to get out of his arms. "You son of a bitch!"
"You've never even met my mother." How come the angrier she got the calmer he got?
The Crows and Ravens all dived at Mike and Connie at the same time, creating a rather interesting "pile on" while Neecy struggled in Yager's arms. She moved one way, then another. And that's when they both froze.
Through gritted teeth, she said, "Yager, get your damn hands off my tits!"
"I'm sorry ... I'm grabbing your tits? I didn't even notice." Liar! But he just couldn't resist. Calm, cool Neecy angry? A rare moment and one he planned to savor.
What he didn't love ... her slamming her booted foot against his instep while yanking her arm away and bringing her elbow back to his chin hard. Yager's head snapped back as she turned to face him.
Neecy's wings lifted her a bit, and she brought her leg up to kick him in the chest. He caught her foot before it could touch him, spun her over, and slammed her down onto the pavement.
Yager struggled to ignore her yelp of pain, but he still wasn't about to let her up.
When she couldn't get him to release her leg, she looked up at the sky, and he knew exactly what she planned. Man, he was starting to know this woman better than himself.
"Don't you dare, Neecy Lawrence!" he ordered.
"Come to me," she bellowed, her voice ricocheting off the alley walls.
Both sides froze in midattack, immediately looking up at the sky. Silence descended because now they were waiting for something worse than all of them put together.
"Don't yell at me, Yager. You started this shit." She yanked her foot away and stood. Her team pulled themselves out of the body pile and moved behind Neecy while the Ravens helped Mike up.
Neecy folded her arms across her chest, calm and cool once again. "Guess you better get your men out of here, Yager. I'd hate for anything to happen to them."
"Fine," he snapped. "Ravens ... go." His men stared at him. "Now!"
Three took off, but Mike wouldn't leave. Pulling the chain from around his throat, he walked up to Yager. "Bro, let's go."
Neecy grinned. "You heard him, Yager. You better go."
But he didn't go. He simply stared at her.
Mike again looked up at the sky. "Yager. I hear them. We have to go."
Yager heard them too, but he wasn't going anywhere. "Then go."
"Without you? No way."
"I said go."
Sighing in annoyance and resignation, Mike spread his wings and took off. Leaving Yager, the Crows, and poor dying David.
At the moment, Neecy looked bored, but he knew better. "Yager, I'm not kidding. They're coming."
"I know," he said simply.
Her smug smile wavered a bit. "Look, you've got Odin's rune ... so go."
He continued staring at her, his arms folded in front of his chest, mimicking her stance.
"Yager," she pushed, the tiniest hint of panic finally easing into her tone.
He took a step toward her. "Ask me nice."
The other Crows passed surprised glances, but Neecy shook her head. "Are you high? I will not!"
He shrugged and stood there.
"Yager, I'm not calling them off."
Still, he didn't move, even though he could see David trying to drag himself away. The guy shouldn't bother. He'd never leave the alley alive.
Finally, Yager heard it. The flapping of wings. Many, many wings.
"Neecy," Janelle McKenna, another one shot to death at an early age, muttered softly as she stared up at the sky.
"Seriously, Yager. Go. They won't hurt my girls, but you..." Neecy tried to keep her usual calm demeanor, but it wasn't working. He could see right through it.
Something black sailed by him and he felt pain rip across his neck. He knew there'd be blood. He didn't care. Another came by, tearing past his cheek. Another line of blood, he bet.
"Jesus, Yager," Neecy whispered.
"Ask me nice, Neecy," he ordered. "Ask me nice or I'm staying right here until they're done."
Through gritted teeth, she barked, "Fine. Go." This time another emotion crossed her face. The emotion of annoyance. "Please," she spit out.
Yager smiled. A grin that had Neecy Lawrence glaring at him. "I knew it," he sighed happily. "I knew you liked me."
Then he unfurled his own wings and took off.
He pushed through the flock of real crows--and even some ravens--that Neecy commanded. They were heading toward David and would leave nothing remaining of the man but his shredded clothes.
And, as Yager headed back to the Ravens' Jersey safe house, he could hear Neecy yelling at him from that alley.
"I hate you, Will Yager! And the longboat your ancestors rowed in on!"