Home > Hexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles #2)(14)

Hexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles #2)(14)
Author: Kevin Hearne

“Look, they’re not fully human anymore,” I explained. “They’re more like walking disease vectors, spreading madness amongst the hoi polloi. They have absolutely zero chance of becoming the persons they used to be, now that they’re thralls to Bacchus.”

“But that doesn’t mean they’re monsters, does it? It sounds to me like they’re victims of Bacchus or his magic, and they shouldn’t be punished for that.”

“They may have been victims at one time, but what you have to focus on is what they are now, and what they are is a dozen superhuman women immune to iron weapons and fire. They can turn a dozen more women into creatures just like them tonight and ruin whatever human potential they possess. And the madness will spread exponentially if someone doesn’t stop them.” I thought of a modern analogy and laid it on her: “It’s kind of like those zombie movies. The humans in those movies don’t look at a brain-eating zombie and let him go because he’s a victim.”

“Okay, fine, but these aren’t zombies, right? There has to be a better way to stop them than killing them,” Granuaile persisted.

“Like what? Put them in prison? Can’t happen. Police either get swept up in the frenzy themselves or they die trying to resist.”

“Well, can’t you work some of your own magic on them?” Granuaile asked.

“Yes, Mr. O’Sullivan, what about your own magic?” Laksha said with great interest.

“My magic is earth-based.” I shrugged, eyeing a succulent bite of burro. “They will be in a completely artificial environment, and I doubt my ability to resist catching their madness. I would be as susceptible to it as any other human. And, besides, even if that weren’t the case, I don’t have a spell up my sleeve to turn a Bacchant back into a normal woman.”

“Well, then, can’t you talk to Bacchus or go over his head to Jupiter? You talk to the Morrigan and Flidais, why not these other gods?”

I took a bite of the burro and shook my head sadly at her as the beef, green chiles, and tortilla melted in my mouth. “Bacchus is the Roman god of the vine, and the Romans hated Druids like no one else. They and the Christians killed us all, actually, yours truly excepted, and they would have gotten me too if it weren’t for the Morrigan.” I put my fork down and leaned back in my chair, dabbing at my mouth with a napkin. “So I think Bacchus would roast me on a spit before he’d have three words’ conference with me. And if he thought I even existed, much less got myself involved in killing his Bacchants tonight, he might decide to show up personally.”

“Won’t he show up anyway?” Laksha asked.

“I doubt it very much,” I said. “His worshippers fluctuate like no other’s. Their numbers swell like viruses until they madden someone with a large army—or, more likely, magic users protecting a territory like this one—and then they’re ruthlessly snuffed. He binges on a glut of worship and then deals with the hangover, just like his worshippers have to deal with the aftereffects of their debauchery.”

“So, if we are going to do this thing,” Laksha said, “we must discuss payment.”

“Wait.” Granuaile held up her hands. “I’m still not sure why we’re even discussing it. You’re talking about killing people for money.”

“Not for money.” Laksha shook her head.

“For whatever. It’s wrong.”

“I thought we’d settled this,” I said. “It’s like killing zombies.”

“But zombies are already dead and they want to eat your brains. Bacchants are living people and they just want to have drunk sex on the dance floor. That’s a significant difference. Make love not war, you know?”

As Malina had done to me, I explained to her the far-reaching consequences of letting even one night of bacchanalia go unchallenged in what was now our territory. I also explained to her the Druidic belief that the soul never dies; killing the bodies would actually free their souls from Bacchus’s slavery. The combination of these arguments did not fully soothe her, but she subsided and allowed for the possibility that I had chosen a reasonable course of action.

Laksha followed the reasonable argument with an unreasonable demand for payment. “Since I am performing a service for you that you cannot perform yourself, I want you to do me a service in kind,” she said.

“Is this a service to be named later, or did you have something particular in mind?”

“Oh, yes, I have something very particular in mind.” She smiled, circling her finger around the rim of her water glass. “I want you to bring me the golden apples of Idunn.”

I laughed. “No, seriously, what do you want?”

“I’m quite serious. That is what I want.”

My grin slid off my face and crashed into my burro. “How is that a service in kind? It’s on a completely different scale.”

“I think not. A dozen frenzied Bacchants silenced for you in exchange for a few apples—that is not so much.”

“It is when the apples are in Asgard!”

“Asgard?” Granuaile gaped at me. “You know how we can go to f**king Asgard?”

“Yes, Druids can walk the planes; that’s why she needs me to—hey, look, Granuaile, there’s no ‘we’ in this scenario.” I turned back to the amused Indian witch. “Laksha, this is between us only. My apprentice is not involved whatsoever in this deal, and my debts do not accrue to her under any circumstances, is that clear?”

Laksha nodded lazily. “That is understood.”

“Good. Now, as I was saying, these services are not of equal value nor of equal risk. You can kill these Bacchants with little fear of reprisal from Bacchus, but I cannot steal the golden apples of Idunn without certain reprisal from every member of the Norse pantheon. It’s not just Idunn who’d be after me,” I said, ticking off gods on my fingers, “it’s Freyja, it’s Odin and his damn ravens, and it’s Mr. Tall, Blond, and Lightning himself.”

Laksha smiled conspiratorially and leaned forward. “You know what Baba Yaga calls Thor?”

I leaned forward. “I don’t care. You’re missing the point.”

Granuaile leaned forward. “You’ve met Baba Yaga?”

“She calls him that muscle-cocked goatfucker!” Laksha slapped the table, leaned back, and laughed heartily while we stared at her bemusedly. At another time I might have found it amusing—especially since I used to pick fights with Scotsmen by calling them something similar—but not when I was trying to keep “Raid Asgard” off my honey-do list. Granuaile seemed to be having the same difficulty with the comic timing, focused as she was on the revelation that Baba Yaga was a real person familiar with Thor’s intimate life.

An elderly diner from a neighboring table had been dying for an excuse to stare at the exotic woman with rubies around her neck, and now Laksha had provided her one by laughing so loudly. She noticed the woman’s stare and waggled her finger between us and explained, “We were just talking about goatfucking.” The woman’s eyes bulged in shock—and so did those of her dinner companions—but rather than scold Laksha for being so rude, they hastily returned to attacking their enchiladas with their dentures, eyes studiously contemplating plates of melted cheese and red sauce.

“You seem a little impatient, Mr. O’Sullivan,” Laksha teased when she turned her attention back to me. “I would think one so wise and learned would have cultivated an appreciation for the many branches of a conversation.”

“This is the sort of conversation where I’d like to stick to the main trunk, if you don’t mind.”

Laksha drummed her fingers on the table a couple of times and then grimaced in disappointment. “So be it. I will dispatch your Bacchants tonight if you give me your word you will get me the golden apples before the New Year. If we cannot agree to this, I will thank you for the meal and the visit and return to my husband, who is undoubtedly worried about his precious Selai by now.”

“Why do you want the golden apples specifically?”

Laksha executed a facial shrug with a twitch of her eyebrows and a tilt of her head. “I like this body I am in. I don’t want it to age; I don’t want to have to change bodies every few decades.”

We paused while a white-shirted man refilled our water glasses. “There are other ways to prolong life besides the golden apples,” I said quietly when he had disappeared.

“Ah, yes.” The witch nodded knowingly. “I have heard of these vitamins, and they may prolong life, but they will not halt the aging process.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. I mean truly miraculous brews.”

Laksha raised an eyebrow. “Such as?”

“The ale of Goibhniu,” I said. “Brewer of the Tuatha Dé Danann. His brews confer immortality.”

“Ah, this is one of your gods, and you feel it will be easier to procure.”

“I am owed a reward for killing Aenghus Óg.” I nodded, thinking it was time Brighid followed through on her promise.

“Congratulations, but it is not an acceptable substitute. This brew of Goibhniu is almost certainly one that I must drink repeatedly to maintain my youth, which means I would be dependent on one of your gods for my continued vitality. I cannot trust myself to such an arrangement.” I supposed from that comment she would not be interested in my Immortali-Tea either. It was just as well; I didn’t want to brew it for her in any case.

“With the apples it is different,” Laksha continued. “Once I have them, I can grow my own tree from the seeds.”

I was gobsmacked. “You think you can grow a tree of Asgard here in Midgard? It can’t be done. We’re talking two completely different sets of soil chemistry.”

“Bullshit, as you Americans say.”

“He’s Irish,” Granuaile pointed out.

“The Irish say bullshit too,” Laksha retorted, “and he’s pretending to be American now anyway.” She pointed a finger at me and said, “Don’t try to talk me out of this with Druidic word games. The ontological nature of a mythical tree does not include details on soil chemistry. It is a magical tree, and so it will grow magically regardless of soil chemistry.”

Clever witch. “It may grow magically anywhere, I grant you, but most likely only at Idunn’s behest.”

“That is a distinct possibility.” Laksha shrugged. “But we will never know until I give it a try.”

The temptation to get up and walk away nearly overwhelmed me: This wasn’t my fight. It was Malina’s. And if her covern couldn’t hack it, then Leif could tear them apart, or Magnusson would sic his boys on them once they screwed enough of his clients. I hadn’t lived for 2,100 years by volunteering to take point in every magical scrap in my neighborhood. Besides, I had an apprentice to protect and teach now. Granuaile and I could go anywhere and set up shop under a new identity, leaving these covens and other creatures to claw at one another for the privilege of drawing comfortable consulting salaries and living in glass towers. I almost did it; my leg twitched and my shoulders tensed.

But.

There was the dead land around Tony Cabin to resurrect. That was definitely my fight—a vitally important one—and no one else could fight it for me. It would take care of itself in another thousand years or so, but healing it now would erase all traces of Aenghus Óg’s work in the world, and I couldn’t let it lie when I’d been indirectly responsible for it happening. Its very existence nagged at me; I felt it through the tattoos binding me to the earth. It was like a necrotic wound on the back of one’s hand that might allow the limb to function but slowly poisons the sense of health and harmony a soul needs for peace. Still, it would take me years to restore that land, which meant I’d have to stay in town and guard the proverbial castle.

It also meant I’d have to play nicely in the sandbox and pitch in when Malina needed help. She at least was willing to live peaceably with me, while die Töchter des dritten Hauses had forcefully demonstrated they were not.

Another thing to consider was the likelihood that I was under surveillance and could not disappear as easily as I had in the past. Father Gregory and Rabbi Yosef certainly seemed to be watching me closely or were in close contact with someone else who was. Like it or not, I had raised my profile considerably by killing Aenghus Óg, and if various beings decided they would like to test themselves against me, I’d be better off defending myself in a place where I’d had years to build up wards.

But why did Fortune seem to be pushing me into a street fight with Thor? Stealing the golden apples of Idunn would rouse him as surely as would sitting down on a porcupine.

“Have you been talking to my lawyer, Leif Helgarson?” I asked Laksha. “Pale, spooky bastard with blond hair and an English business suit?”

“No.” She shook her head and frowned. “I thought your lawyer was the werewolf we rescued in the mountains.”

“He is. I have two lawyers, but they both hate Thor. Did either of them put you up to this?”

“Most of the world hates Thor.” Laksha smiled. “But, no, they have not spoken with me about this.”

“Is this your way, then, of getting me to fight him? It seems like everyone wants to put us in the Thunderdome and buy front-row seats.”

“No, this is my way of preserving this body so that I avoid further karmic debt.”

I sighed to release some of the tension in my muscles and rubbed my eyes with my knuckles. “All right. Let’s think this through. If your goal is to grow your own apple tree with the super-duper fruit of eternal youth, you don’t actually need all of Idunn’s apples, right? You only need one for the seeds.”

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