Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five) (10 page)

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
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The Thracian groused, “If you are so interested in décor, why do you come with a sword and a giant dog who growls at me?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes people in caves are impolite. But I can tell you are civilized.”

The bear threw back its head and laughed an ursine laugh.

“Knife to the throat now,” I told Granuaile, and she had thrown it before I finished the sentence.

Go
, I told Oberon, and he charged around the creature’s side. I charged too, straight toward the outraged roar as the knife sank into his throat. I didn’t want him lumbering after Granuaile. Her staff would be of little use against such brute strength in close quarters, and her knives, however accurately thrown, were probably not enough to bring him down. Bear hide is tough, and the layers of fat serve as a sort of biological Kevlar.

When Agrios lowered his head and charged me, Oberon was behind him. Instead of biting the creature in the back of the thigh, Oberon caught an ankle and yanked, stretching Agrios out until he did a face-plant in front of me. The fall drove Granuaile’s knife deeper into his throat and left me an ideal opportunity to take
a free strike. I hacked down with Moralltach, expecting to end it there, but he rolled out of the way in a very human move and tore free of Oberon’s jaws. He ignored the hound and me and launched himself after Granuaile, who had nothing but wee irritating needles and a staff that he’d treat like a toothpick. I didn’t have an angle to cut him off in time.

Oberon was faster than I was, and he snagged the guy by the ankle again. It didn’t halt his charge, but it slowed him down a bit, giving Granuaile a chance to toss another knife. It hit right between his eyes but didn’t penetrate into the skull and mess with his brain. Roaring, Agrios lunged at her again, dragging Oberon with him, but Granuaile twisted away and chose to tumble down the hillside, out of his claws’ range. That helped me, because now I could swing Moralltach without worrying about clipping her; the enchantment on its blade would spread necrosis through friend as easily as foe. Diving toward the creature before he could follow my apprentice downhill, I thrust Moralltach desperately at his side and managed to open a shallow groove in his flank. He bellowed and yanked his leg free of Oberon’s jaws again, trailing tendons and flesh. He wanted Granuaile more than anything. Using the three limbs that Oberon hadn’t savaged, Agrios grunted and leapt in a frantic attempt to break free of us. Victory erupted from his muzzle as he fell over the lip of the cave, but it cut off with a surprised yip once he landed on the steep hillside. Moralltach’s necrotic enchantment had reached his heart, and he could no longer control his fall—or, indeed, anything at all. He rolled in a growing billow of dust down to the bottom, a blackened ruin. Granuaile, who’d found the trunk of a young tree to cling to, watched him in horror.

“Well, go, team!” I said, trying to distract from the fact that he’d been much faster in action than I’d anticipated. “Is everyone all right?”

Oberon said.

Granuaile was staring at the corpse splayed at the bottom of the hill. “I didn’t know they were all real. I mean, the gods I knew about, but the mythological creatures too?” She tore her eyes free and looked up at me for an answer.

“Well, the Greeks’ more than anyone else. Their tales keep getting told and reinforced.”

“So the manticore? Bellerophon? The chimera? Pegasus? They were all real?”

“Oh, heck, yeah. They had much more press than this guy did.”

Granuaile shook her head. “Please tell me I won’t be bound to the earth here.”

“No. We’ll find someplace else.”

“Then let’s go. Now.” She turned and began to pick her way gingerly down the hillside. I resheathed Moralltach, vowing to clean the blade as soon as I could.

Oberon said.

I know. We need to find a safe place for her to yell at me
.


Yeah, but it stinks, see
.


Yeah
.


I caught up with Granuaile at the bottom of the hill and flashed a grin at her. She gestured for me to lead the way and said nothing, a bleak expression on her face. I resumed picking a thorny path through overgrown bushes. There was no peace in the valley because there was no peace between us.

And so of course the bloody Norse chose that moment to swoop in and make everything worse.


Where?
I looked up and saw that most of my view was obscured by scraggly trees.


North?
I turned to my right and saw the ravens after a moment. They were huge and familiar. They were Hugin and Munin, Odin’s ravens. Hugin was new; I’d killed the first one in Asgard years ago, but Odin had eventually hatched a replacement—or rather, Munin had. As they circled nearer, a rainbow arced down from the sky and terminated a few feet from us. I wasn’t surprised there was no pot of gold, but I was faintly disappointed anyway.

A serene woman floated—or, rather, seemed to float—down the rainbow to meet us. Her long blond hair, gently curling, blew softly in the wind, and a dress of muted oranges and reds completely concealed her feet. The dress was tied underneath the bust and billowed somewhat, giving her a disturbing resemblance to a Dalek as she moved. Still, her bearing spoke of peace and quiet strength, and the tiny smile on her face made it up to her blue eyes once she reached the end of the rainbow and stepped onto the earth.

“Well met, Druids,” she said.

“Indeed. A good day to you, Frigg,” I said. Granuaile’s eyes were only slightly widened as I introduced her to Odin’s wife.

“I’m honored,” Granuaile said. She tried to curtsy but remembered too late that she wasn’t wearing a dress to do it properly, so her gesture turned into a sort of awkward bow with a flourish.

“As am I,” Frigg said. She turned her gaze back to me. “Odin sent me to visit you.”

I squinted up at the sky. Hugin and Munin circled
overhead but didn’t look as if they had any intention of landing.

My adversarial relationship with the Norse had been blessed with a truce about six years ago when I returned Odin’s spear and admitted that I owed them something for the slaughter I’d brought to their door.

A blood price was mentioned, but it wasn’t my blood they wanted. As ever, Odin was concerned most with preventing or delaying the onset of Ragnarok, and he recognized that I could be instrumental in addressing those concerns. I had agreed to help if I could, since I had been the idiot who’d kicked off the apocalypse by slaying the Norns, crippling Odin, and aiding Leif Helgarson in his quest to slay Thor.

That didn’t mean everything between us was now Kool and the Gang. Frigg was simply better than any other surviving member of the Norse pantheon at concealing her urge to kill me.

“I expect you’ve heard something about Loki?” I said.

“We have heard and seen much,” she said. “May we speak for a time?”

“Sure.”

“Good. Events are moving toward the cusp of disaster, and we need to make our move soon if we want to avoid the worst.”

I steeled myself for unpleasant news. Regardless of what Loki had been up to, I was at least partially responsible for setting events in motion. Frigg reminded me of this immediately.

Shortly after your raid on Asgard twelve years ago, Hel realized she could freely travel the nine planes of Yggdrasil, for that had been forbidden her until then. When Odin had cast her into Niflheim long ago and given her control of the nine realms, her authority extended
to only the old and infirm and those unfortunate enough not to be called to Valhalla or Fólkvangr. She could never leave her frozen land on her own, not without the Norns telling Odin and him casting her down again.

Once freed, she spent much more time on Midgard than we’d originally thought. Odin missed much while he was recuperating, and Hel took advantage of this. She returned to Niflheim with several conclusions, no doubt, one of them being that she needed to learn English, the new dominant language, just as many of the Æsir did some centuries before. We can infer she thought it best that Loki learn it as well, for she sent a shade, one gifted with speech, to teach him the language. We had guards posted at the entrance to Loki’s cave, of course, but they could do nothing to stop the shade. Seeing that it could not possibly set Loki free, and seeing also that it was providing him a welcome distraction from his captivity, we let the shade remain. However, we increased the guard at the cave—fifty Einherjar, outfitted and trained in the use of modern weapons—and also installed some … observers inside. These were sort of like Odin’s ravens.

We began to receive reports that Hel was building forges in her realm and trading for raw materials from the Svartálfar. The dwarfs, bless them, refused to do so. Hel had learned from her time in Midgard that swords and shields would not be enough to carry the day. About nine years ago she started to manufacture weapons in earnest and to train her
draugar
in their use. She now has a massive army of soldiers with automatic weapons, who cannot be killed unless their heads are destroyed or struck off from their bodies.

Odin has been preparing the Einherjar to meet them, but even with modern body armor, they are at a disadvantage. The dwarfs have chosen to cast their lots with ours and have likewise been making preparation for the
final battle. They have new transports and weapons unlike any I have seen.

According to our estimates, Hel could have begun Ragnarok during the past year with a fair chance of success, especially once Surtr and the sons of Muspell got involved. With no Thor to meet Jörmungandr, and no one to stop Fenris, her victory seemed assured—at least on paper.

What has prevented her seems to be a psychological inability to proceed without her father, Loki. She could have the world for her own right now, she could lay waste to Midgard and shape it howsoever she wills, but instead she craves his favor.

Some days ago, she made her move. She brought two thousand armed
draugar
to the cave against our fifty Einherjar. She stepped over their honorable corpses and entered the cave, wearing the form of a bent old woman.

Sigyn, Loki’s wife, recognized her and demanded that she leave.

“You have no cause to be here!” she cried. “Is not Niflheim enough for you?”

Hel ignored her and spoke in her sepulchral voice to Loki, as the snake dripped its venom into the bowl Sigyn held above his face.

“Father,” she rasped, “we can leave this place today and win Ragnarok. The old prophecies are null. The Norns are dead. Heimdall, who was fated to slay you, is dead. Freyr is dead. Týr and Vidar are dead. Even mighty Thor is dead, and my army is ready.”

The god of mischief did not stir until he heard the name of the thunder god. “What?” Loki said. “You say Thor is dead? How?”

She told him of your party’s invasion of Asgard and how you surprised us with defeat. She named your party:
the werewolf, the vampire, the alchemist, the Druid, the wizard, and the thunder god.

“What thunder god?” Loki wanted to know.

“Perun. The Slavic god. He has disappeared.”

“But he is not dead?”

“I do not know, Father,” she said. “He may be dead.”

“I know how to find out,” Loki said, grinning in such a way as he had not for centuries. “Set me free, daughter.”

“Father, I cannot unbind you. Only you can do this. But I can make you do it sooner rather than later.”

“How?”

“Answer me first: Do you still love this cow?” Hel jutted her chin toward Sigyn, who had protected Loki as best she could from the snake’s dire venom all these years. But she was not Hel’s mother. Loki’s monstrous children were all borne by a giantess.

“Her?” Loki sneered. “No, I hate her. She has neither killed the snake nor erected a roof over my head, despite my pleading that she do so. She is thoughtless, worthless.”

“And so I set you free,” Hel said. She sloughed off her human visage and appeared in her true form, sprouting like an unwholesome weed to the roof of the cave. She pulled the wicked knife, Famine, from its scabbard in her exposed rib cage and plunged it into the neck of the faithful Sigyn.

Loki’s wife gurgled her last breath, and the bowl of caustic venom toppled full into Loki’s face. He screamed and writhed violently, and still the snake dripped on, under the goddess Skadi’s command to continue. Loki jerked and pulled at his restraints, and the earth shook underneath Hel’s feet. He cursed her. He swore vengeance upon her. And then, as the venom continued to eat at his eyes and chew at the substance of his flesh, he begged her for mercy.

But Hel had none. Mercy was an empty room in her
heart, where nothing at all was sacred and no living creature, not even her father, could cry so piteously as to make her take heed.

BOOK: Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles, Book Five)
4.96Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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