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Scourged

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Scourged

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Author: Kevin Hearne
Publisher: Del Rey, 2018
Orbit, 2018
Series: The Iron Druid Chronicles: Book 9
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Mythic Fiction (Fantasy)
Urban Fantasy
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Synopsis

Unchained from fate, the Norse gods Loki and Hel are ready to unleash Ragnarok, a.k.a. the Apocalypse, upon the earth. They've made allies on the darker side of many pantheons, and there's a globe-spanning battle brewing that ancient Druid Atticus O'Sullivan will be hard-pressed to survive, much less win.

Granuaile MacTiernan must join immortals Sun Wukong and Erlang Shen in a fight against the Yama Kings in Taiwan, but she discovers that the stakes are much higher than she thought.

Meanwhile, Archdruid Owen Kennedy must put out both literal and metaphorical fires from Bavaria to Peru to keep the world safe for his apprentices and the future of Druidry.

And Atticus recruits the aid of a tyromancer, an Indian witch, and a trickster god in hopes that they'll give him just enough leverage to both save Gaia and see another sunrise. There is a hound named Oberon who deserves a snack, after all.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

I had a cup of wine with Galileo once. He remains one of the greatest examples of human genius I've ever seen over my twenty-one centuries of life, and one of the bravest. Think of the giant, hairy stones he must have had to stand up to the Catholic Church back when they routinely toppled monarchs and killed people for the glory of their god (who let me buy him a shot of whiskey in Arizona once, by the way, and who did not feel particularly glorified by any murders, let alone the ones committed in his name). To look at the whole of Christendom and call bullshit on their geocentrism despite their threats took some iron guts. And he didn't give a damn that nobody wanted to believe him at first. "I have math," he told me over the rim of his cup. He gestured to it as he spoke. "And the numbers are like this fine vintage we are enjoying. Verifiable, observable, existing independent of us, and caring not one whit about human faith."

Stellar guy, that Galileo! Ha! My puns remain execrable, alas.

Eventually the Church had to admit that Galileo was right--and admit also, long after his death, that his life and work had been a fulcrum on which the world pivoted. The flourishing of the ences that used his methods brought many wonders to humanity. Many evils too.

I am beginning to wonder now if I might not also be such a fulcrum for good and evil, even if I have labored to remain anonymous. I have endeavored for much of my long life to keep myself out of histories, all the while putting more and more history behind me. For much of my two-thousand-plus years, I did not feel I was building to some grand climax or accomplishing anything but my continued survival, but recent events have caused me to reevaluate.

According to a nightmarish visit from the Morrigan, Ragnarok will begin in the next few days, and it won't end well for anyone, because apocalypses tend not to include happy endings. Perhaps I can still do something to minimize the damage; no matter what I do, though, it cannot erase the fact that it wouldn't be happening at all had I not slain the Norns and unchained the Norse pantheon from their destinies. I am almost entirely to blame, and the guilt is already a nine-ton albatross about my neck. I don't think I'm going to get an easy gig afterward like Coleridge's Ancient Mariner did either. Telling your tale to random wedding guests is a pretty mild punishment for economy-size cockups.

It is fortunate that I have a friend able to shoulder such burdens and make me forget for a while that they are there.

<So tell me more about your plans for this meat and gravy bar, Atticus,> Oberon said as he placed his paws against a bound tree in Tasmania prior to shifting home to Oregon. My Irish wolfhound was expecting a proper feast before I went off to battle gods and monsters and assorted demons from the world's pantheons, and he'd challenged me to supply a meat bar for him, Orlaith, and Starbuck, our new Boston terrier, in the style of salad bar buffets. We'd adopted Starbuck during a stint of crime-fighting in Portland that Oberon pompously called "The Case of the Purloined Poodle." <Is it going to include all of the meats I will one day include in The Book of Five Meats, or are you going to just have the traditional stuff?>

"The five meat categories will be represented," I assured him.

<And the gravies? There will be more than one kind, right?>

"Of course. Didn't you have a maxim about this?"

<Oh, it's the best line from The Communist Manifesto, by that guy Karl you told me about. "From each according to his ability, to each according to his meat.">

"Uh... I think you're misquoting, Oberon. It's supposed to be 'to each according to his need.' "

<Well, I need that quote to be about meat, Atticus, so I fixed it.>

Choosing to keep Oberon carefully insulated from double entendres has proven to be endlessly entertaining. "An excellent job too. It can't possibly be interpreted to mean anything else but what you meant. Here we go."

I shifted us home to our cabin near the McKenzie River in the Willamette National Forest, and Oberon immediately shouted mentally to the other hounds once we arrived.

<Hey, Orlaith! Starbuck! We're home, and guess what! Atticus is going to make us a meat and gravy bar!>

Starbuck's higher-pitched voice replied immediately with his limited vocabulary. <Yes food!> he said.

<This sounds like one of the best human inventions since the sausage grinder!> Orlaith added, and both of them exploded through the doggie door to greet us, Orlaith trailing behind because she was very pregnant and close to delivering.

I had to spend a while getting slobbered on and trying to satisfy three dogs with only two hands while they demanded details on the meat and gravy bar. I confessed that I didn't have sufficient information to provide details.

Oberon was incredulous. <Okay, Atticus, wait now. What information are you lacking, exactly? Surely you are aware of the basic conditions of houndly existence? All the meats are out there, like the truth is out there, and we want to eat them all! Is that sufficient?>

"All the meats? Oberon, that's impossible."

<Is it, though? Is iiiiiiiit?>

"It is. At least in the time I have allotted to me. Maybe it could be a squad goal for later. But right now we have to limit ourselves to what we can pick up in Eugene. Is Earnest here?"

Earnest Goggins-Smythe was our live-in dogsitter, whom we'd been depending on rather heavily in the past few weeks, especially as Orlaith's delivery approached. He had a standard poodle named Jack and a boxer named Algernon, or Algy for short, and they'd remained inside with him.

<Yeah, he's here,> Orlaith said.

"I should probably say hi and make sure he's okay with Jack and Algy participating in this smorgasbord. But after that, would you three like to come with me to Eugene to go shopping for the meats, so you can advise me on what to get?"

<That would be wonderful!> Orlaith said.

<Yes food!> Starbuck shouted.

<I advise you right now to get everything,> Oberon said.

"Do you want to go or not?"

<I do. My advice isn't going to change but I want to smell the wind on the ride over and slobber and shed on your upholstery.>

"Okay, give me a minute to talk to Earnest." After confirming that Jack and Algy could participate in at least some cautious meaty debauchery, my hounds piled into the blue '54 Chevy pickup I'd acquired during an escapade that Oberon had dubbed "The Squirrel on the Train." Oberon looked out the back window at the truck bed.

<I'm not sure you have enough cargo space for all the meat we're gonna need, Atticus.>

"It's more than enough, Oberon."

<But leftovers, Atticus! Leftovers, for the time you'll be gone!>

"I'm not promising anything at this point beyond an assortment of meats and gravies. And maybe a story about a famous hound for the drive, since you're way too pumped up right now."

<Famous hound?> Orlaith's ears perked up.

"More of a tiny hound--a beagle, in fact."

<Oh, I like beagles!> Oberon said. <They're good at sniffing out rabbits, and then I can chase them.>

<What was the hound's name?> Orlaith asked.

"It was Bingo."

<Oh, like the song about the farmer had a dog?>

"Exactly like the song. I can tell you the true story of the actual Bingo who inspired that song."

<He had a story?> Orlaith cocked her head at me as we pulled out onto the road. It was crowded in the cab--the hounds barely fit and Starbuck had to sit on my lap, all aquiver with excitement. <The song just says that Bingo was his name-o and that's it.>

"Oh, but there were earlier versions of the song, which hint at some heroic deeds. And I know the details of that heroism."

Oberon stopped looking at the truck bed and trying to imagine it filled with meat. <Okay, Atticus, you hooked me. Tell us about Bingo.>

* * *

In the eighteenth century, just before the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions, there was a cabbage farmer in the Southern Uplands of Scotland--that's the region closest to the border with Britain. His name was Dúghlas Mac Támhais, the Gaelic form of Douglas McTavish. In addition to his hillside of cabbages and a hayfield, he had a barnyard with some animals in there--a dairy cow, a plow horse, and, most important, a henhouse. Because chickens--those humble descendants of dinosaurs--are so delicious, they needed protection from foxes. And because cabbages are likewise delicious to some animals, they needed protection from rabbits and the like. That was where Bingo came in: Half his job was to protect the farm, and the other half was to be adorable. Bingo was outstanding at both halves of his job.

But he worried about his human. Dúghlas, you see, had taken to drinking quite a bit of ale after tragedy struck: He lost his wife as she gave birth to their first child and then lost the child soon after to fever. He was heartbroken and descending into alcoholism, and Bingo worried that he'd never recover.

One night, as Dúghlas was scowling at a potato and cabbage pie he'd made for dinner--a dish called rumbledethumps--Bingo let loose with a tremendous racket outside, and Dúghlas assumed quite rightly that they had an unwelcome visitor. He was already pickled as he grabbed up his musket, which he kept loaded and primed in case of emergencies like this one.

There was a fox trying to get into the henhouse, and Bingo was chasing him off, headed toward the property of the neighboring farm. They had a stile over the fence, for they were good neighbors, and the fox actually used the stile and Bingo leapt after him. That was the first verse of the original song: "The farmer's dog leapt over the stile, his name was little Bingo." The second verse had to do with the farmer's drinking habit, and that was immortalized because Dúghlas was inebriated to the point where he shouldn't be attempting things like steep steps over a fence. He managed to climb up to the top okay, but coming down was disastrous. He slipped on the first step, fired the musket into the air with a convulsive jerk of the trigger, and wound up hitting his head on the bottom step pretty badly. He was unconscious and bleeding.

Well, Bingo left off chasing that fox right away when he heard that gunshot and realized his human had stopped hollering. He ran back to Dúghlas and tried to wake him up, even slobbered on his nose, but it was no good. So he hightailed it to that other farmhouse and barked his head off until some humans came out, and then he kept running back and forth until they got the idea he wanted to show them something.

They followed Bingo to Dúghlas and brought him inside and cleaned him up, bandaged his head. These were the Mayfields, and at that time a cousin of theirs was visiting, young Kimberly Mayfield, and she thought Dúghlas handsome and Bingo adorable. She gave Bingo some sausage topped with gravy, in fact, for being such a good hound. And when Dúghlas woke up, he found Kimberly to be kind and beautiful and clearly well loved by his dog, so there was no hope for it: He fell in love again. The next verse of the old song went like this: "The farmer loved a pretty young lass, and gave her a wedding ring-o."

And it provides few details after that, but he also stopped drinking and became his old happy self again. So that's why Bingo got immortalized in song. He protected the delicious chickens, saved his human's life, and helped him find love once more. But much of the original story's been lost over time until we have the bare-bones song that children sing and clap to today.

* * *

Orlaith had questions. <How do you know all this? Did you know Dúghlas?>

"No, I met his son--one he had with Kimberly--years later in America. Lots of farmers came across the ocean during the Lowland Clearances, as they call it now."

<Atticus, I'm seeing some pretty significant parallels here,> Oberon said.

"You are?"

<Well, yeah! I'm good at protecting you and I'm also very handsome. Right, Orlaith?>

<He's right, Atticus. He is very handsome.>

<See? I'm just like Bingo! Except I don't have a song about me yet, and I think that's a gross oversight. Maybe we can make one!>

"Maybe. How would it go?"

<"There was a hound named Oberon,

And he loved sausage gravy!

G-R-A-V-Y! G-R-A-V-Y!

G-R-A-V-Y!

And he loved sausage gravy.">

<Yes food!> Starbuck said by way of applause. They amused themselves by making up additional verses and then taking turns sticking their heads out the window for the rest of the drive.

When we got into Eugene, the hounds agreed to stay in the bed of the truck while I went to get the meats and necessary gravy ingredients. I sent them mental pictures of what was available and they chose what they wanted, and I did make them choose instead of buying everything. That was for practical reasons; I didn't have all the time or sufficient kitchen space to make everything. But I did want to spend some time giving them a memorable meal, since I didn't know when I'd next be able to come home. I lost some time staring at the ground beef, packaged in red undulating waves, realizing that I might never come home and might lie somewhere beyond the aid of my soulcatcher charm to help, food for worms, packed up in some skin instead of Styrofoam and cellophane but otherwise little different from the 90 percent lean on sale. Oberon had made clear that he wanted to go with me, regardless of the danger, but I told him I couldn't bear it if he was hurt. I needed a home to come back to. I teared up at the mere thought of him living without me or me without him; we'd be so lonesome and hangdog, not to put too fine a point on it. And neither of us would be thinking of a feast like this. We'd probably not want to eat at all without the other one around to enjoy it with.

<Atticus, there may be a slight drool problem developing in the truck,> Oberon said, interrupting my maudlin reverie. <You might want to pick up a roll of those paper towels. The super-absorbent kind. Hurry up.>

<I have puppies to feed, you know,> Orlaith added. They really are the best hounds.

Earnest pitched in once we got home, and we had five hounds underfoot in the kitchen until I demanded that they vacate to the perimeter, where they could slobber and comment on the smells without tripping us up. We had a pot roast going, Cornish hens roasting, dry-cured sausages to slice, ribs on the grill, and four different gravies simmering on the stovetop. We had fish cooking in lime juice for a ceviche too, swordfish steaks sharing grill space next to the ribs, and charcuterie sliced thinly and layered on cedar planks.

When it was ready, we set it all out on the dining room table, lacking an actual bar, and put the gravies in tureens. Earnest and I had the hounds sit before it, their hungry excitement plain, and took some pictures. We then fixed each hound a plate, giving them the option to choose but knowing they'd try everything once and then come back for seconds of whatever they liked best. <Oh, wow, Atticus, this is just the best day of food ever,> Orlaith said.

<I agree. Yes. There was that bison bonanza we had one time in South Dakota, but this even tops that.>

<Yes food!> Starbuck chimed in.

Cleanup was a major chore but Earnest and I got it done, and I managed to catch a few hours of sleep before giving them lazy belly rubs in the wee hours of the morning and kissing them on the head and telling them they were loved. I slipped out the back door, relieved to know that they were safe as I began to work on cleaning up my mess. I had a nine-ton albatross about my neck to remove.

* * *

The Morrigan had been less than specific during her visit to me; she'd said only that Loki was going to act soon but hadn't said precisely when or where. I needed more details to counter him effectively, and I knew precisely where to get them. Casting wands wasn't going to get me the specifics I needed; I needed a seer without peer who could read details in the future. Mekera the tyromancer had helped me on a couple of occasions before, and I hoped she could do so again.

She had most recently been living on Emhain Ablach--one of the nine Irish planes, and nominally ruled by Manannan Mac Lir--since I'd helped her escape from the attentions of some vampires. That threat was over with now, the vampires in question all sent to their final deaths, and she could return to earth if she wished.

She certainly wished it. She looked a bit harried when I found her. "What's the matter?"

"There are ghosts here. I mean they've arrived recently. Very strange."

"Are they attacking you?"

"No, but they don't need to attack to creep me out."

"Hmm. It might be because Manannan Mac Lir has given up on his duties as psychopomp. The Morrigan has as well, so the dead are going wherever they can instead of where they should."

"Well, I want out."

"I've come to offer that very thing. And ask for a cheese."

Her shoulders slumped. "Of course you have. What is it you want to know this time?"

"I've been told Ragnarok is about to begin. I'd like to know precisely when and where the first attacks will occur."

"All right," she replied, her voice deadpan. "Something nice and light as usual. Where do they make great cheese these days?"

I shrugged. "Lots of places. How does France sound? Ever been there?"

Mekera's face lit up. "Ah, the fromage of the French! Let's go there. I think I'd like to learn from them and maybe teach them a thing or two."

I helped her gather her few belongings and we shifted to a small stand of trees outside Poitiers, in the goat-cheese region of France. Mekera might prefer a different region in the end, but I thought the area winsome and it would be a good place to find what she needed without the madness of Paris to deal with. She was used to being a hermit, after all; Poitiers would be a mighty shock to her system as it was.

"My French is somewhat rusty. Perhaps very rusty."

"It'll come back to you. And you'll be able to get along in the meantime with English."

"You think?" She looked doubtful as her gaze wandered around the streets. We were heading for a supermarket where she could purchase some basics for cheese-making. "I don't see anyone who looks like me. This might have been a bad idea."

I grinned because I'd expected her to have second thoughts. "Let's go to the store and make a cheese, at least. If you don't feel more comfortable by the end, I'll take you elsewhere."

Mekera agreed to this, her eyes darting around and her arms hugging herself. Once inside the store, however, with a basket in her hand, some of her social anxiety drained away as her professional interests took hold and she searched for ingredients. She also noted the faces of some other shoppers who weren't white, and she exchanged tight nods and smiles with them as she passed. But at the dairy case she had cause to do more than that. She had pulled a few quarts of goat milk out of the refrigerator and turned to discover a woman dressed much like her, in Eritrean fashion, wearing a light tunic with a gold-and-black embroidered neckline that then fell in a vertical line down the center to her midriff. Mekera's was embroidered in blues and blacks, but otherwise they were almost identical. Recognition flared in their eyes. The other woman, whose skin was a deep umber with cool undertones, like Mekera's, spoke first.

"Are you from Eritrea?" she asked in French.

"Oui," Mekera said. "Vous?"

The newcomer responded affirmatively and flashed a brilliant smile, then they promptly switched to their native language, which I did not speak. I stepped away out of Mekera's sight so that she would not feel she had to introduce me. That worked perfectly; she forgot all about me, so excited to meet someone from Eritrea this far from home.

As the conversation extended and I pretended to read the ingredients of some crackers nearby, I thought I detected something in their voices and risked a peek at their auras. Yep: A touch of arousal there. They were into each other. Cool.

The other woman asked a question that startled Mekera into remembering that she hadn't come alone. She looked around for me and I gave her a tiny wave. Somewhat abashed, she introduced me as her friend Connor Molloy. Her new acquaintance introduced herself as Fiyori.

"Pleasure to meet you," I said in French. "Please take your time chatting. I am in no hurry." I backed away again and chose to make a more thorough examination of the crackers.

Some while later Mekera found me, her face shining with joy. "Fiyori gave me her phone number! You know what this means?"

"She likes you."

"No! I mean yes, but it means I need to get a phone!"

"I agree. Let's do that and get you set up."

We took our purchases to an extended-stay hotel with a kitchenette and rented it for a month. The unspoken, understood agreement we had was that I'd get Mekera started here--or anywhere--in exchange for her tyromancy. That would give her time to get her assets transferred and find something a bit more permanent.

I did my best not to pace or look impatient as Mekera set about making a soft goat cheese. As the world's finest tyromancer, she would be able to see details of the future in the patterns of its curdling and coagulation, far more accurately than any divination I could practice. I wrote down a single question for her, though it was composed of many parts. When she was ready for it, she read it aloud: "When and where will Loki, Hel, and Jörmungandr appear to begin Ragnarok?" She gave a tiny shake of her head and sighed. "All right. Here we go." She squinted at the goat milk in her stainless steel pot as she added rennet and it began to posset and curd.

I had a hotel pad and pen ready to go.

"Jörmungandr first. Off a small peninsula south of Skibbereen. Near one of those fort hills."

"When?"

"Thursday morning is the best I can do."

Thursday. Thor's Day. Of course Loki would choose to begin then. That was only three days away.

"And the others?"

"Loki and Hel will appear together the same day, in midafternoon. But up in Sweden. The northern edge of a lake?"

"I know the place. Yggdrasil's root is bound there. Damn. I need to make some calls."

"And I need a phone," Mekera reminded me, "so I can make a call myself."

"Right. I'll go get you a burner phone. Be right back."

It didn't take long to find a convenience store that sold burner phones. Once I got one and activated it for her, I gave it to Mekera with my thanks and best wishes.

"Call Fiyori soon," I said.

"Why?"

"Because she likes you. And because of Thursday. I'm going to do my best, Mekera, but it might not work out well. Don't start any cheeses that need to age."

"That's not funny, my friend."

"No. No, it's not."

Copyright © 2018 by Kevin Hearne


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