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TRICKED

Chapter 1

The best trick I ever pulled off was watching myself die. I did a respectable job of it too—the dying, I mean, not the watching.

The key to dying well is to make a final verbal ejaculation that is full of rage and pain but not tainted in the least by squeals of terror or pleas for mercy. This was my father’s wisdom—about the only shred of it that has managed to lodge firmly in my mind all these years. He died while trying to steal somebody else’s cows.

It would be an ignominious end today, but before the common era in Ireland, it was honorable and manly to die in a cattle raid, as such theft was called. Before he left to meet his doom, my father must have had some dark premonition about it, because he shared with me all his opinions about dying properly, and I will never forget his final words: “A man’s supposed to shit himself after he dies, son, not before. Try to remember that, lad, so that when your time comes, you won’t make a right girly mess of it.  Now fuck off and go play in the bog.”

Like many silly codes of bravery and manliness, the meat of my father’s instruction on how to die well can be distilled to a simple slogan: Die angry at maximum volume. (Dying silently is out of the question; the world’s last Druid should not go gentle into that good night.)

During infrequent spates of morbidity, I used to speculate on my eventual manner of death. I figured it would happen on a city street somewhere, cut off from the power of the earth, unable to summon a magical mulligan that would let me see the sunrise. But at the same time, I hoped it would be in a cool city with a bitchin’ name, like Kathmandu or Bangkok or maybe Climax, Michigan. I never thought it would be in a dried-up place called Tuba City.

Situated in the southwestern portion of the Navajo Nation in Arizona, Tuba City rests on a red sandstone mesa with no visible means of economic support. The first question I asked when I saw it—besides “Where are all the tubas?”—was, “Why is anybody living here?” The red rocks may have a stark beauty to them, but beyond that Tuba City is nearly treeless, dusty, and notably lacking in modern amenities of dubious worth, like golf courses and cafeteria-style dining. It does have a reservoir and some pastures nestled into a canyon, but otherwise it’s puzzling why nine thousand souls would adopt an address there.

On the north end of town, where the BIA Road intersects with Indian Route 6220, a large white water tower juts out of the desert. It overlooks a few dilapidated trailers on the very edge of the city, and then there is naught but a rocky mesa with scattered shrubs gamely trying to make a living in a few inches of sandy soil. I’d flown to the top of the tower as an owl, carrying a wee pair of binoculars in my talons, and now I was camouflaged in my human form, lying flat, and peering northeast into the barren waste where I was about to die.

The dying had to be done. The Morrigan had seen it in a lucid vision, and she doesn’t get those unless it’s really dire and inevitable, like James Earl Jones telling you in his Darth Vader voice, “It is your desss-tiny.” And, frankly, I probably deserved it. I’d been very naughty recently and, in retrospect, epically stupid. Because I couldn’t bear to break my word, I’d taken Leif Helgarson to Asgard to kill Thor and he managed to pull it off, but we killed a few extra Æsir in the process and turned Odin into a drooling vegetable. Now the remaining Æsir were slavering for me to shuffle off my mortal coil, as were several other thunder gods who took Thor’s demise as a personal affront to all things thundery.

After building flaming funeral ships for their dead and resolving to avenge them—for some people approach vengeance like an all-you-can-eat buffet—the Æsir sent Týr and Vidar after the surviving members of our company. I had no idea where Perun or Zhang Guo Lao were hiding, and I hadn’t an inkling of whether Hrym and the frost giants ever made it out of Asgard. Leif was safe, because they saw Thor smash his skull with Mjöllnir; thanks to the peculiar regeneration capabilities of vampires and the dutiful attentions of Dr. Snorri Jodursson, Leif hadn’t quite died, but it would be some time before we knew if he’d make a full recovery.

I, on the other hand, wasn’t safe at all, because I had people to look out for. Perun could spend the next century as an eagle and they’d never find him. Zhang Guo Lao, I’d heard, was capable of true invisibility when he stood still; since he could go full ninja, they’d never get him either. I could go to a nice plane somewhere and be safe—I could even take Oberon and Granuaile with me—but without true contact with the elementals of earth, Granuaile wouldn’t be able to advance her training as a Druid, and the world desperately needs more Druids. So my choices were to stay on earth and die or leave earth and let the world slowly die of neglect—which wouldn’t truly help, since all planes connected to earth would die at the same time.

I decided to stay and die.

Loudly. Týr and Vidar found me quickly enough once they knew who to ask for. I’d blown my cover somewhat spectacularly some months earlier by killing Aenghus Óg, so by now almost anyone paranormal or supernatural could have pointed them to Arizona. They chased me up to Tuba City, towing along five thunder gods for backup: Ukko from Finland, Indra from India, Lei Gong from China, Raijin from Japan, and Shango from Nigeria. All of them are very powerful gods and quite beloved by their people, but few are the tales in which we hear of their wit or perception.

Indra was quite the character, for example, and undoubtedly the most powerful of the lot currently. He had a reputation for lovin’ the ladies, a tendency I couldn’t criticize myself, but he got himself into some awful trouble for it once. He chose to lay down with the wife of a magician, who of course found out immediately that Indra was “in da house” and assigned him a punishment worthy of Dante: Since the thunder god could think of nothing but vaginas, the cuckolded husband cursed Indra with a thousand vaginas all over his body. Indra had to walk around like that for a while, until Krishna took pity on him and commuted the sentence by turning all the vaginas into eyes. Still, think of the optometrist appointments.

The Morrigan observed, “They may be sharing the brain of a nuthatch between them.” She was perched on the water tower beside me in the shape of a battle crow, making sure that I “died” precisely as her vision foretold. We’d both been worried initially about her vision of my death—she because it meant she’d break her oath to keep me alive, and I for obvious reasons—until I remembered the Plan. I’d conceived the Plan before the Morrigan shared her vision with me but realized only later that the Plan could fulfill her vision of my death without me actually having to die for it. Now we watched with faint amusement as someone who looked like me cursed the circling thunder gods and asserted that they all were spawned from the puffy red asses of baboons. The gods sent bolt after bolt of lightning at him with no apparent effect as he stood in a puddle of mud.

“Give them a little credit, Morrigan,” I said. “They found me here, after all.”

“Only after you allowed them to by parading around this foolish copy of yourself. It still took them a week, but, very well: They are sharing the brains of two nuthatches.”

The Atticus O’Sullivan they assaulted was a near-perfect replica. The tattoos on his right side were a precise copy of mine. The slightly curly mane of red hair would have shone luxuriantly in the sun had it not been pouring rain on him, and the goatee blazed with character on his chin. He was foulmouthed and had his Irish up, and he had my wallet and my cell phone in the pockets of his jeans. There was an iron amulet on a silver chain around his neck, with five square charms on either side of it and a fulgurite talisman in the back protecting him from the lightning. The fulgurite was real, but the amulet and charms were little more than costume jewelry. He did, however, carry Fragarach in his right hand—the real Fragarach, not a facsimile—for extra special verisimilitude.

Yet a clever enemy would not have been fooled. He didn’t have Oberon or Granuaile by his side, for one thing, and he wasn’t casting a single Druidic binding—not that this bunch would know it if he did. They were still trying to fry him electrically.

“What are they thinking?” the Morrigan asked. “If the first hundred lightning bolts don’t work, the hundred-and-first one will?”

“That strategy would require them to count,” I said, “which is improbable if they’re sharing two nuthatch brains.”

“Good point,” the Morrigan conceded.

Týr, the Norse god of single combat, waved off the thunder gods to approach my double with a shield and an axe. Vidar, Odin’s son, armed with a long sword, followed close behind. The thunder gods floated down to the muddy earth behind the faux Atticus to cut off any escape.

Poor Týr clearly didn’t know anything about Fragarach. The only people who saw me use it in Asgard died immediately afterward, and thus he’d never been told that my ancient Fae sword cut through shields and armor like a chainsaw through mozzarella. Týr crouched behind his shield as my double charged, thinking to take the blow and then strike back quickly with his axe. He took the blow all right. He took it right through the center of his body, as Fragarach sliced down through his shield, his forearm, and his torso. Everyone—including my double—was startled that Týr was now half off. Literally.

But Vidar, the god of vengeance, recovered first. Yelling, “For Odin!” he thrust his long sword into the unprotected left side of that handsome Irish lad’s rib cage, definitely stabbing a lung and maybe the liver too. The man who was supposed to be me cried out his pain magnificently—“Garrl! Urk! Auggh!”—and tried to raise Fragarach for another blow, but the strength wasn’t in his limbs anymore. Vidar yanked out his sword with a slurping noise, and the Druid poseur collapsed in the mud.

They apparently knew enough about Druids not to leave it there. They didn’t want me healing from a wound that would be mortal to anyone else. So they all descended on the body and chopped it up into pieces with whatever gigantic, godlike phallus-weapon they had, far beyond my capacity to heal.

“Yeesh. What a mess,” I said. “Cue the Chooser of the Slain.”

“Yes, let’s finish this,” the Morrigan said, leaping off the tower and flapping through the rain as Vidar finally ceased his butchery and shook his fist at the sky.

“Vengeance is miiiine!” he roared.

I snorted quietly at him from my vantage point. “Dream on.”

The Morrigan is a spooky creature by default, but she can turn up the spookiness to eleven whenever she wishes. Her eyes glow red and minor harmonics creep into her voice, vibrating on a frequency guaranteed to produce shuddering fits, liquid bowels, and tiny screams of fear. At least that’s what her voice o’ doom does to normal people. Gods are able to take it a little better. Still, they  flinch. The Morrigan shifted to her human form about twenty yards away from the cluster of gods, a svelte seductress with milk-white skin and coal-black hair, and advanced toward them.

“I have come for the Druid,” her voice boomed and scraped, and the gods jumped at the sound, crouching into defensive positions. They didn’t relax either when they saw that the Morrigan was unarmed—she was naked, in fact—so maybe they each had a brain after all. She didn’t need to be armed or clothed to do them serious harm. Indra’s thousand eyes were busy, presumably searching her for weapons.

“Who are you?” Shango demanded. It was pretty easy to hear them, despite the distance and noise from the storm. They were all trying to intimidate one another, so they were using GodSurround Sound and scored a little reverb off the ceiling of clouds.

“I am the Morrigan, the Celtic Chooser of the Slain,” she said, approaching them fearlessly. “The Druid’s shade is mine to claim, as is his sword.”

“His sword?” Vidar spluttered. “That is mine by right of conquest!” He was a little late to claim it. The Morrigan was already picking it up.

“It is the rightful property of the Tuatha Dé Danann. The Druid stole it from us.” She left out the part where she helped me steal it, I noticed.

“And I won it of him. It belongs to me now,” Vidar said.

“Be careful, little god,” the Morrigan’s voice grated, menace crackling in the charged air. “Do not mistake me for one of your Valkyries. You have slain the Druid and avenged your people, as was your right, but you may not tread on the rights of the Tuatha Dé Danann.”

Vidar bristled. He didn’t like being scolded by a naked woman in front of all the macho thunder gods. If he let it stand, he would lose major testosterone points. Was he smart enough to let it go? He clenched his jaw, held out his left hand, and beckoned. “Give me the sword, woman, or I will take it.” Nope. Not smart at all. The Morrigan’s smile was wide and wicked as she settled into a defensive stance, Fragarach raised behind her head. “Come and take it, then.”

Now he was neatly trapped in a prison of his own devising. Yet he still had the key; all he had to do was laugh at the Morrigan and say, “I was only joking. Begone with your faerie sword, I care not,” and he’d get to return to Asgard a hero, maybe even take over the joint. He could walk into Gladsheim and tell the remaining Æsir, “I slew the dude who slew Freyr and Týr and crippled Odin,” and then they’d fete him and praise him and he’d definitely get laid. The last thing he should do is listen to the voice of machismo and give battle to a goddess whose primary power is to choose who dies in battle. Did he think he was invincible somehow? Did he not understand that all the Norse prophecies were null, the Norns were dead and so were many of the gods who were supposed to fall in Ragnarok? He was no longer fated to kill Fenris in the final gore-spattered brouhaha. If my trip to Asgard and the butchered remains of Týr showed anything, it showed that the Æsir could now die at any time.

But no, the dumbass charged. “For Odin!” he cried, thinking perhaps it was a lucky thing to say since it had worked so well against the fallen Druid. But the Morrigan wasn’t off balance and out of position like the faux Atticus had been, and she had all the power of the earth at her command in addition to the powers of a goddess. As Vidar swung at her, she darted quicker than the eye could track to her right, out of the path of Vidar’s sword. She spun around in a blur, past his shield, and swung Fragarach from behind him with two hands, shearing his torso in twain and sending the top half sailing fifty feet as the bottom half staggered another step and collapsed. The Morrigan reset herself facing the thunder gods as Vidar’s head and shoulders smacked wetly to the earth. Her posture dared them to attack, but they had no such intentions. They collectively said, “Ahhh,” and gave her a round of golf claps for the spectacular slaughter.

“An excellent swing,” Shango said.

“You warned him but did not toy with him. I approve,” Lei Gong added.

“Flawless form, worthy of the finest samurai,” Raijin said.

“Marvelush dexterity and wondrous strength,” Indra opined before belching thunderously.

“That shit was awesome!” Ukko said, smiling through his beard, and I decided I liked him, even though he wanted me dead.

“No one else will object if I take Fragarach with me?” the Morrigan asked. The thunder gods all shook their heads and assured her that they thought it best she keep it.

“I mush be going,” Indra said. “But before I do, can you assure us that thish man is, in fact, quite dead?” He gestured to the chunks of flesh on the ground that used to look like me. The motion caused him to sway unsteadily on his feet, and I realized that his slight speech impediment was due to inebriation. A few of his thousand eyes were already passed out or blinking rapidly in an effort to stay awake. So the legends were true; Indra liked to hit the soma hard. “He casht ashpersions on my—urp—parentage,” he added, as if that explained why they’d practically diced the faux Atticus. Indra had pummeled bits of him to paste with the  mighty club he carried.

“He is thoroughly dead,” the Morrigan replied. “His shade has already left this plane.”

“Then I am shatishfied that justish is done,” Indra said. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Morrigan. Perhapsh in a happier time, you and I could—”

The Morrigan’s eyes flashed red, daring him to finish. Indra’s thousand eyes blinked.

“Never mind,” Indra said. He took his leave and rose into the sky. The other thunder gods quickly followed suit, offering quick pleasantries before ascending to the thunderheads above, leaving the Morrigan alone with the carnage of a winter afternoon. She surveyed it, rain sluicing the blood off her body and Fragarach’s blade, and laughed.