Turns out that when you kill a god, people want to talk to you. Paranormal insurance salesmen with special “godslayer” term life policies. Charlatans with “godproof” armor and extraplanar safe houses for rent. But, most notably, other gods, who want to first congratulate you on your achievement, second warn you not to try such shenanigans on them, and finally suggest that you try to slay one of their rivals—purely as a shenanigan, of course.
Ever since word got around to the various pantheons that I had snuffed not one but two of the Tuatha Dé Danann—and sent the more powerful of the two to the Christian hell—I had been visited by various potentates, heralds, and ambassadors from most of the world’s belief systems. All of them wanted me to leave them alone but pick a fight with someone else, and if I successfully lanced the immortal boil that vexed them, I’d be rewarded beyond my wildest dreams, blah blah barf yak.
That reward business was a giant load of shite, as they’d say in the U.K. Brighid, Celtic goddess of poetry, fire, and the forge, had promised to reward me if I killed Aenghus Óg, but I hadn’t heard a word from her in the three weeks since Death carried him off to hell. I’d heard plenty from the rest of the world’s gods, but from my own? Nothing but the chirping of crickets.
The Japanese wanted me to mess with the Chinese, and vice versa. The old Rus sian gods wanted me to stick it to the Hungarians. The Greeks wanted me to knock off their Roman copycats in a bizarre manifestation of selfloathing and internecine jealousy. The weirdest by far were those Easter Island guys, who wanted me to mess around with some rotting totem poles in the Seattle area. But everyone— at least, it sure seemed like everyone—wanted me to slay Thor as soon as I had a free moment. The whole world was tired of his shenanigans, I guess.
Foremost among these was my own attorney, Leif Helgarson. He was an old Icelandic vampire who had presumably worshipped Thor at some point in ancient history, but he’d never told me why he now harbored such hatred for him. Leif did some legal work for me, sparred with me regularly to keep my sword arm sharp, and occasionally drank a goblet full of my blood by way of payment.
I found him waiting for me on my porch the night after Samhain. It was a cool eve ning in Tempe, and I was in a good mood after having much to give thanks for. While the American children had busied themselves the night before by trick- or- treating on Halloween, I had paid plenty of attention to the Morrigan and Brighid in my own private ceremonies, and I was thrilled to have an apprentice to teach and to share the night with. Granuaile had returned from North Carolina in time for Samhain, and though the two of us were not much of a Druid’s grove, it was still a better holy night than I had enjoyed in centuries. I was the only real Druid left, and the idea of starting a new grove after such a long time of going it alone had filled me with hope. So when Leif greeted me formally from my front porch as I came home from work, I was perhaps more exuberant in my response than I should have been.
“Leif, you spooky bastard, how the hell are ya?” I grinned widely as I braked my bike to a stop. He raised his eyebrows and peered at me down his long Nordic nose, and I realized that he was probably unused to such cavalier address.
“I am not a bastard,” he replied archly. “Spooky I will grant you. And while I am well”—a corner of his mouth quirked upward a fraction—“I confess not so jocund as yourself.”
“Jocund?” I raised my brows. Leif had asked me in the past to call him on behaviors that broadcast how much older he was than he looked.
Apparently he didn’t want to be corrected right then. He exhaled noisily to express his exasperation. I thought it amusing that he employed that, since he had no need to breathe. “Fine,” he said. “Not so jovial, then.”
“No one uses those words anymore, Leif, except for old farts like us.” I leaned my bike against the porch rails and mounted the three steps to take a seat next to him. “You really should spend some decent time learning how to blend in. Make it a project. Popular culture is mutating at a much faster rate these days. It’s not like the Middle Ages, when you had the Church and the aristocracy keeping everything nice and stagnant.”
“Very well, since you are the verbal acrobat who walks the tightrope of the zeitgeist, educate me. How should I have responded?”
“First, get rid of ‘well.’ Nobody uses that anymore either. Now they always say, ‘I’m good.’ ”
Leif frowned. “But that is grammatically improper.”
“These people don’t care about proper. You can tell them they’re trying to use an adjective as an adverb and they’ll just stare at you like you’re a toad.”
“Their educational system has suffered serious setbacks, I see.”
“Tell me about it. So what you should have said was, ‘I’m not stoked like you, Atticus, but I’m chill.’ ”
“I’m ‘chill’? That means I am well—or good, as you say?”
“But that’s nonsense!” Leif protested.
“It’s modern vernacular.” I shrugged. “Date yourself if you want, but if you keep using nineteenth-century diction, people will start to think you’re a spooky bastard.”
“They already think that.”
“You mean because you only come out at night and you suck their blood?” I said in a tiny, innocent voice.
“Precisely,” Leif said, unaffected by my teasing.
“No, Leif.” I shook my head in all seriousness. “They don’t figure that out until much later, if they ever figure it out at all. These people think you’re spooky because of the way you talk and the way you behave. They can tell you don’t belong. Believe me, it’s not that you have skin like two-percent milk. Lots of people are scared of skin cancer out here in the Valley of the Sun. It’s once you start talking that people get creeped out. They know you’re old then.”
“But I am old, Atticus!”
“And I’ve got at least a thousand years on you, or have you forgotten?”
He sighed, the weary ancient vampire who had no need for respiration. “No, I have not forgotten.”
“Fine. Don’t complain to me about being old. I hang out with these college kids and they have no clue that I’m not one of them. They think my money comes from an inheritance or a trust fund, and they want to have a drink with me.”
“I find the college children delightful. I would like to have a drink with them too.”
“No, Leif, you want to drink of them, and they can sense that subconsciously because you radiate this predatory aura.”
His affectation of a henpecked husband sloughed away and he looked at me sharply. “You told me they can’t sense my aura as you do.”
“No, they can’t consciously sense it. But they pick up on your otherness, mostly because you don’t respond like you should or act like a man of your cosmetic age.”
“How old do I look?”
“Ehh,” I appraised him, looking for wrinkles. “You look like you’re in your late thirties.”
“I look that old? I was turned in my late twenties.”
“Times were tougher back then.” I shrugged again.
“I suppose. I have come to talk to you about those times, if you are free for the span of an hour or so.”
“Right,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Just let me go get my hourglass and my freakin’ smoking jacket. Listen to yourself, Leif! Do you want to blend in or not? The span of an hour? Who says shit like that anymore?”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“No one is so formal! You could just say ‘if you’re free’ and end it there, though it would have been better to say ‘if you ain’t doin’ nothing.’ ”
“But I enjoyed the anapestic meter of ‘for the span of an hour’ followed by the iamb—”
“Gods Below, you compose your sentences in blank verse? No wonder you can’t carry on a half hour’s conversation with a sorority girl! They’re used to talking with frat boys, not Shakespearean scholars!”
<Atticus? You’re home?> It was my Irish wolfhound, Oberon, speaking directly to my mind through the connection we share. He was probably on the other side of the door, listening to us talk. I told Leif to hold on a second as I spoke with him.
Yes, Oberon, I’m home. Leif’s out here on the front porch, acting his age.
<I know, I smelled him earlier. It’s like Eau de Death or something. I didn’t bark, though, like you said.>
You’re a good hound. Want to come hang out with us?
I have to warn you, it might be boring. He wants to talk about something for a while, and he’s looking particularly grim and Nordic. It might be epic.
<That’s okay. You can rub my belly the whole time. I promise to be still.>
Thanks, buddy. I promise we’ll go for a run when he leaves. I opened the front door and Oberon came bounding out, oblivious to the fact that his wagging tail was delivering steady blows to Leif’s upper arm.
<Let’s go down to Town Lake after the dead guy says good- bye. And then Rúla Búla.> He named our favorite Irish pub, from which I’d recently been banned.
The management of Rúla Búla is still mad at me for stealing Granuaile away from them. She was their best bartender. <Still? But that was ages ago.>
It’s been only three weeks, I reminded him. Dogs aren’t all that great with time. I’ll let you run around the golf course and you can keep any rabbits you catch. Flop down for your belly rub. I have to talk to Leif now. Oberon promptly obeyed, rattling the timbers of the porch as he thudded heavily onto his back between my seat and Leif’s.
<This is the best! There’s nothing better than belly rubs. Except maybe for French poodles. Remember Fifi? Good times, good times.>
“All right, Leif, he’s a happy hound now,” I said as I scratched Oberon’s ribs. “What did you want to talk about?”
“It is fairly simple,” he began, “but as with all simple things, vastly complicated.”
“Wait. You sound too accomplished with adverbs. Use really and very for everything,” I advised him.
“I would rather not, if you will forgive me. Since I am not trying to disguise my true nature with you, may I speak as I wish?”
“Of course,” I said, biting back the observation that he should use contractions more often. “I’m sorry, Leif, I’m just trying to help, you know.”
“Yes, and I appreciate it. But this is going to be difficult enough without running my words through a filter of illiteracy.” He took a deep, unnecessary breath and closed his eyes as he slowly exhaled. He looked like he was trying to center himself and find a chakra point. “There are many reasons why I require your aid, and many reasons why you should agree to help me, but those can wait a few moments. Here is the short version,” he said, opening his eyes and turning to look at me. “I want you to help me kill Thor.”
<Ha! Tell him to get in line!> Oberon said. He chuffed as he always did when he found something particularly funny. Thankfully, Leif did not recognize that my dog was laughing at him.
“Hmm,” I said. “Thor certainly tends to inspire murderous thoughts. You’re not the first person to suggest that to me these past couple of weeks.”
Leif pounced. “One of the many reasons you should agree to help. You would have ample allies to secure what ever aid you needed and plenty of grateful admirers should you succeed.”
“And plenty of mourners should I fail? If he’s so universally hated, why hasn’t someone else done the deed?”
“Because of Ragnarok,” Leif replied, obviously anticipating the question. “That prophecy has everyone afraid of him, and it has made him insufferably arrogant. Their line of reasoning says that if he is going to be around for the end of the world, then obviously nothing can be done about him now. But that is poppycock.”
I smiled. “Did you just say Ragnarok is poppycock?” Oberon chuffed some more.
Leif ignored me and plowed on. “Not all of the prophesied apocalypses can come true, just as only one of the creations can possibly be true, if any of them are. We cannot be tied down by some ancient tale dreamed up in the frozen brains of my ancestors. We can change it right now.”
“Look, Leif, I know you have a saga full of reasons why I should do this, but I really can’t internalize any of it. I simply don’t think it’s my duty to do this. Aenghus Óg and Bres both came to me and picked a fight, and all I did was finish it. And, you know, it could have easily gone the other way. You weren’t there: I nearly didn’t make it. You’ve seen this, I imagine?” I pointed to my disfigured right ear. A demon that looked like the Iron Maiden mascot had chewed it off, and I hadn’t been able to regenerate anything except a mangled mass of cartilage. (I’d already caught myself singing, “Don’t spend your time always searching for those wasted ears.”)
“Of course I’ve seen it,” Leif replied.
“I’m lucky I got away with so little damage. Even though I haven’t paid a huge price for killing Aenghus, I’ve had several unpleasant visits from other gods as a result. And that’s only because I’m still small potatoes. Can you imagine what the rest of the gods would do if I managed to knock off someone big like Thor? They’d all take me out collectively just to remove the threat. Besides,
I don’t think it’s possible to kill him.”
“Oh, but it is possible,” Leif said, raising a finger and shaking it at me. “The Norse gods are like your Tuatha Dé Danann. They have eternal youth, but they can be killed.”
“Originally, yeah,” I agreed. “I’ve read the old stuff, and I know that you’re after Thor version 1.0. But you know, there’s more than one version of Thor out there now, just like there are multiple Coyotes and various versions of Jesus and Buddha and Elvis. We can invade Asgard, kill Thor 1.0, and then, if we manage to avoid getting creamed by the rest of the Norse, we could come back here to Midgard only to have the comic book Thor smite the hell out of us like the naughty varlets we are. Did you think about that?”
Leif looked utterly bewildered. “Thor has a comic book?”
“Yeah, how did you miss this? There’s a movie about him based on the comic too. He’s a heroic kind of guy here in the States, not nearly so much of a dick as the original. He’ll ignore you unless you draw attention to yourself, and storming Asgard will probably get his attention pretty fast.”
“Hmm. Say that I can put together a co ali tion of beings willing to participate in the physical assault on Asgard and accompany us back to Midgard. Could I count on your aid in such a scenario?”
I slowly shook my head. “No, Leif, I’m sorry. One reason I’m still alive is that I’ve never gone toe-to-toe with a thunder god. It’s a good survival strategy, and I’m going to stick with it. But if you’re going to do something like that, I recommend avoiding Loki. He’ll pretend to be on your side, but he’ll spill his guts to Odin first chance he gets, and then you’ll have that entire pantheon coming after you with a wooden stake.”
“That might be preferable to me, at this point, than continuing to coexist with him. I want revenge.”
“Revenge for what, exactly?” Normally I don’t pry into vampiric psychology, because it’s so predictable: The onlythings they tend to get exercised about are power and territory. They enjoy being asked questions, though, so that they can ignore you and appear mysterious when they don’t answer.
Leif never got the chance to answer me, though he looked ready enough to do so for a half second. As he opened his mouth to speak, his eyes flicked down to the base of my throat where my cold iron amulet rested, just as I began to feel the space between my clavicles heat up—even burn.
“Um,” Leif said in perhaps his most inarticulate moment ever, “why is your amulet glowing?”
I felt the heat surge like mercury on an August morning, sweat popped out on my scalp, and the sickening sound of sizzling in my ears was a little piece of me frying like bacon. And even though I instinctively wanted to peel off the necklace and chuck it onto the lawn, I fought back the urge, because the smoldering lump of cold iron— the antithesis of magic— was the only thing keeping me alive.
“I’m under magical attack!” I hissed through clenched teeth as I clutched the chair arms, white- knuckled and concentrating on blocking the pain. I wasn’t working on that only to silence my screaming nerves; if I let the pain get to me, I was finished. Pain is the fastest way to stir up the reptilian brain, and once awakened, it tends to shut off the higher functions of the cerebral cortex, leaving one witless and unable to function beyond the instinctive fight-or-flight level—and that would have left me unable to communicate coherently and connect the dots for Leif, in case he was missing out on the salient point: “Someone’s trying to kill me!”