There’s an old joke among the Northerners:
How do you kill a god?
Nail him to a tree and wait three days.
I didn’t get it and wasn’t even sure it was very funny. But it seemed effective, if the body in front of me was any indication. Someone had nailed Grennach, god of wonder, to an old sycamore. His body, still divine, refused to rot. Worse, his eyes refused to close, one blue, one green, and he stared at me from under a mop of curly blonde hair while I pondered the demise of a deity.
It was better than thinking about my own trauma, which insisted on hanging around like cheap perfume. It got into your head, that pain, insisted it was home. I hated it. Hated the implications of its residence. Guilt and shame and sorrow. I pushed them away and regarded the dead god.
The problem was that Grennach was also the god of mischief, meaning he was implicated in everything from spoiling milk, impregnating lonely housewives, harassing chickens, impregnating lonely housewives, then spoiling their milk, and everything in-between. In short, he was a bit of a bastard, and the list of people who might want him dead included not just jilted husbands, but his own brothers and sisters.
Each had a reason to be annoyed, or I suppose in this case, deeply annoyed, with him. There was Shannock, goddess of beauty. Grennach had replaced her mud mask with honey and dung, and before long, bees homed in on that mask, stinging her til her face puffed like a gourd. Craddock, god of war, who Grennach had talked into riding a donkey into battle. The donkey didn’t survive, and Craddock was short one leg now. There was also Hevatch of the forge. Grennach had replaced his anvil with one of painted wood. The first time Hevatch struck it, it shattered, throwing splinters into his eyes. In addition, there were a host of lesser brothers and sisters, cousins, and even parents who had not escaped the god of mischief’s cruel jokes.
On top of it, we already knew who the killer was. A man named Diarmund ap Rennoch. They’d caught the man etching words—nonsense, mostly—into Grennach’s skin with a hand scythe. On the ground nearby there was still a handful of iron spikes and a hammer. The man had confessed to the first Ordo agent on the scene, and even helpfully translated most of the writing, which as it turned out was just the word ‘fucker’ in different languages.
What we didn’t know was the why. Not that it mattered. It was likely the man had caught Grennach balls-deep in his wife. Open and shut, you’d think. But these kinds of things never happen without consequences. A god was still a god, no matter how vulnerable, and now the world was short one divine being, and no matter how much of a pain in the ass he was, that meant imbalance.
Already, a river in Oustriv ran backwards. A flight of ravens in Gret fell right out of the sky, several beak-first, impaling a small dog. In Halleach, a mage exploded, imploded, and turned into a cactus while attempting to light a candle. In short, things were fucked, and only going to get worse.
That’s why they sent for me. There are varying degrees of dead, from mostly to completely. For a god, the scale’s a little wider and a lot weirder. But when you’re a necromancer, dead is a temporary situation. Providing someone can afford for you not to be. I rarely work pro-bono. Sometimes, for love. Sometimes for justice. Mostly though, I don’t, and bringing a god back was going to make me a shitload of a money.
Why me? Why not any other necromancer in the world? Surely there were cheaper, smarter, closer. But the fact was, there really weren’t. Not everyone gets to raise the dead, and very few worship, let alone work for the goddess of death. Thing is, it takes a special sort of person. One who’s already been dead. For me, it was a Northman’s spear through my chest. Nicked my heart. I died, briefly. The healers brought me back, but I’d already spent three days near the Lady of Bones, and she’d marked me since then.
So, here I was, set to raise the god of mischief, set to make a purseload of cash. The Ordo didn’t much care the cost, as long as balance was restored. They did care however, that I was even there. People like me made them uncomfortable. Truth was, they were a bit puritanical. The formerly dead, the poor, and the downtrodden made them uncomfortable. Unfortunately, you really don’t get a choice when it comes to who upholds the law. If it weren’t for the backwards rivers and the falling birds, I’d be willing to bet the jackbooted idiots would be more than happy to leave Grennach nailed to a tree indefinitely.
I glanced back at the Ordo agent standing at the perimeter of the clearing. He was busy facing the other way, keeping the riffraff out. Or whatever he thought of as riffraff. Even Grennach had his disciples, and they’d be along before too long, looking to either wail in grief or cause some sort of shit.
I picked the hammer up from where it had fallen and walked over to Grennach’s body. He smelled of pine and woodsmoke. I stared into his eyes, looking for some hint he was still alive. It didn’t do to be wrong about these things. All I saw was the forest reflected, tall trees and fronds of ferns wavering in the wind. I tapped his body on the breastbone with the hammer.
“Let’s get you down, eh, brother?” I asked.
One by one, I pulled the nails holding him up, wrapping my arm around him as the last came out, his body sagging into me. I dropped the hammer and dragged him over to the middle of the clearing, laying the body out neat, hands on chest, feet together, a rag over his business. I didn’t need to look at that proverbial elephant trunk while I worked.
I stood over him, inspecting the body one last time. None of his wounds bled. If you didn’t know better, you’d think he was a mannequin, an approximation of humanity made as a joke. Which this probably was. Even gods bled, but it wouldn’t surprise me if Grennach’s last jape was a bloodless end.
I started scratching out the circle that would contain Grennach’s corpus when footsteps interrupted me. I looked up. Hennagh, the Ordo agent, had come over to watch me work.
“Can I help you, Agent?”
He had a piece of dried meat in his fist, and he took a bite, then gestured with it. “You really gonna bring him back?”
I nodded. “I’m really gonna bring him back.”
“What if you can’t?”
I shrugged and finished the last few feet of the circle. “Then he stays dead. Shit falls apart.”
The Agent swallowed, spat a hunk of gristle on the ground. “Fantastic,” he said, and walked away.
I watched him go, then turned back to my ward. The body had shifted a little, one hand falling off the chest. I placed it back and muttered under my breath.
“You’d better be dead, you sneaky cock.” For a moment, I swore I saw a smirk on the old bastard’s face, then the leaves shifted, and the shadow on his face receded.
I blew out a breath and sat back on my heels, easing myself into a cross-legged position. I pulled a copper blade from my bag, a piece of salt, and a piece of bread. I placed the salt on his chest, pressed the bread to his lips, and cut myself with the blade, quick and shallow across my forearm. I dripped blood onto the salt, then ate the bread and closed my eyes.
First, the Pattern. A mishmash of color and light behind my eyelids, rotating and burning. Then, the Black. I felt the world shift, felt myself come unmoored as I chased the sense of his spirit across the Divide. A lurch, a sudden spinning of the Black, and I fell across the Divide into the Deadlands.
I came to a stop in a chair in a tavern. Across from me, a big man, his hands shuffling cards, the scar crawling its way across one empty socket puckering his eye in a permanent wink. He grinned at me and dealt. I picked up the hand I’d been given.
Two cups, a star, and a tower. What a load of shit. Gods always cheated, and this was no different. I flipped the cards back at the big man and cut my arm, dripping blood into the bowl on the table. It splashed against the coins nestled inside, and the big man nodded and threw his good leg up on the worn surface. His other cocked out at an angle, a peg leg carved to look like a horse’s, hoof and all.
“Craddock,” I said.
He nodded again and let out a chuff of a laugh.
“What’s the brother of the most infamous asshole in history doing in a dive like this?” I asked.
“Persuading you to quit.”
It was my turn to laugh. “And the balance? Who fixes that?”
He took a slug of his beer, then made circles in the condensation ring on the wood. “Me and the others were thinking maybe it was time to start over. Without that prick’s energy in the world. Tell you what. You pass our tests, and you can have him back. No harm done.”
“And if I don’t?”
Craddock shrugged. “Then he stays down here, and the world moves on.”
I thought about it. If I didn’t get Grennach back, there was sure to be some upheaval. How bad, I didn’t know, but it seemed proportional to his place in the pantheon. He was one of the major deities, not a petty one like Zebbach, god of grasses, or Jennach, goddess of small lizards. Worse, to my mind, I wouldn’t get paid, and the failure’d probably follow me around like a bad rumor.
I rubbed my eyes and sighed. “Fine. What’re these tests?”
Craddock brightened up. He pulled his boot from the table and leaned forward, chair scraping as he moved.
“Challenges three!” he crowed.
I did my best not to roll my eyes. The gods loved their contests, nearly as much as they loved drink and fucking. Instead, I nodded and tried to look excited.
“Okay, shoot. What’ve you got?”
“Firstly, the rules. You can fail one challenge. Two out of three ain’t bad, as the bards say, and you’ll still be allowed to make off with that shit-stirrer’s soul. If you cheat, don’t get caught. If you’re caught, you forfeit that challenge.”
Craddock rubbed his chin. “Think so.”
“Okay, then.” I sighed. “Let’s get this over with.”
“More’s the pity for you,” Craddock said. He winked, and the lights went out of the world.
The light filtered in a single point, then a wide beam. It filtered down from above, a divine spotlight illuminating a pale man in a green suit, a bowler perched atop his blonde curls. His eyes were of differing colors, one blue, one green. He winked. To me, it looked like Grennach was alive and well down here.
“A riddle,” he said, raising three fingers. “What’s brown and sticky?”
“A uh…” This seemed too easy. “A stick?”
He smiled and folded down one finger. “Just warming you up,” he said with a wink.
“How do you kill a god?” He asked.
“Nail him to a tree and wait three days.”
The second finger folded down. “Well done. Now, the big brain bruiser. You ready?”
“As ready as anyone’s gonna be in this place,” I muttered.
“Good. Cynicism. I like it. How do you kill a man?”
“I…” was this a riddle? You could kill a man a hundred thousand ways. I hesitated. Somewhere in the distance, a rhythmic ticking started. How do you kill a man? Boil him, bake him, put him in a pot? By hook or by crook? That ticking drew closer, and I turned to look. A soldier, Northern, holding a long spear coalesced from the dark. His boots clacked against the flagstones. I took a step back, but too late. He jabbed his spear at my chest, and I stumbled. Felt the point prick my chest. Burst through the thin flesh there, crack through bone and cartilage. Felt it nick my heart.
Pain, like a sun ignited in my chest, burned through me. I gasped in agony, reeled back. Felt the spear slip free. Felt my blood, running freely down my stomach. I fell to my knees, tears standing in my eyes. I’d been here before. The siege of Konnistad. Sixteen thousand men. Dirt churned to mud. Cholera in the water. Shit in the trenches.
The solider raised his spear, and I looked up to meet my death. He puffed away into smoke, laughter from behind me tearing the vision apart. The pain in my chest faded. My shirt, dry, free of blood. I stood, turned to see Grennach grinning.
“You stab him in the chest!” He said and evaporated.
I stood there in the dark, as the light from above faded. I hated this bastard already, and I’d only known him for a few minutes. Worse, I was down one challenge, and wasn’t sure if I’d passed or failed.
“Fuck,” I muttered.
The darkness swirled, moved like fog. I felt myself pulled along, like a twig on a current. The light winked out again, and I slid through the dark.
Light cut through the dim, slicing it into shards and prisms. I sat in my chair, the old, upholstered thing stinking of mildew and dust, a pattern of leaves crawling over the cream fabric. A teak table sat to my left, a small lantern cold on it, a glass of whiskey beside it. My chest hurt again, though there was little I could do for it. I’d seen my goddess, the Lady of Bones, the summer before, and she was in me even now, chilling my flesh.
The rest of the room was spare, little more than a salt box filled with knickknacks. Against one wall, a bookshelf. Beside it, another chair, empty for now. A throw rug, threadbare, covering worn floorboards. Somewhere in the house, a tiny cough, and a soothing voice.
I wanted to get up, to go to that cough, to that voice. Instead, I looked over at the no longer empty chair. Felt the bandages on my chest tighten with the movement. Grennach sat there, looking severe. The cough came again, and he tilted his head toward the doorway leading deeper into my home.
“And how, do you make a man live?” He asked.
The coughing intensified. I rose from my chair as it rose into a skirling cry, a child in pain. I staggered to the doorway, wounds flaming agony, and stood there, watching Cintrach soothe our child. The babe cried until she was blue in the face, then coughed again. Coughed and coughed, the sound like a hammer in my aching chest. I stumbled over the threshold, took the child from her mother and cradled her in my arms. She shivered, tried to squall. Her breath caught in her throat. I leaned in, breathed my breath into her tiny mouth even as her small fists clenched, sharp nails cutting half-moons into her palms.
I pulled away. The baby had fallen still, eyes staring, face blue. My wife, my Cintrach, clutched at my shoulder, even as the cough took her breath as well. This was the wage of war, the thing we had bought with the blood of men. Poisoned wells, bodies rotting in fields, clouds of flies and carrion birds—disease found wings as easily as fire found wood. I laid the child down.
“Cintrach. Fetch my bag.”
She shook her head. “You can’t mean to.”
“I do. It is my child.”
She beat at me with her small fists, collapsed against me as the cough took her again. “It’s unnatural! The gods lied to you! You don’t bring the dead back. You bring the lie of life!”
The child faded to smoke, Cintrach’s grip loosened. I sat at a campfire, Grennach across from me, now in a doublet and leggings.
“How do you make a man live, then?” He asked again.
I didn’t care for the answer, could only feel that same cold emptiness in my heart. That thing I had promised myself I’d never feel, even if it meant cutting out bits of me to make it so.
“Remind him he still feels pain,” I said.
The wind blew, sending sparks up among the stars. Silence grew between us. Finally, Grennach spoke.
“Are you ready for the third?”
“I should cut your throat. Leave you for the underbeasts,” I said, as if I hadn’t heard him.
Behind him, the sound of surf on sand. Over his shoulder, a moon rose, pale and cold in the ocean spray. It lit the waves, sending them glowing in flowing ribbons of frothy lace. He stood and walked toward the sea, lifting his arms to each side. I rose as well, took a step after him.
“Then here. Cut my throat. Feed the waters. Let the world sink into chaos.”
I stepped behind him, hand on the hilt of my knife. I considered it. Had it halfway out of the sheath. The world would go on, broken, but broken in a new way. He stepped away once, arms still out.
“Well?” He asked.
I slipped the knife back in its sheath. Took in the water, the moon, the waves. The sound of my child still crying in my ears. The pain in my chest. And I knew. He was a coward. The answer to his riddles was simple. How do you kill a man? How do you make him live? Bravery. And Bravery wasn’t the absence of fear or pain but acting in spite of it. Whatever Grennach was, he was deeply afraid. Afraid of what he was, afraid of the anger he engendered. He was afraid of consequences. Afraid to live. It was why he ran from each thing he did, never taking responsibility.
I doubted Diarmund had acted alone. More than likely, Grennach had already committed assisted suicide once. If it was up to me, and it was, he wasn’t running this time. I didn’t know what was to stop him from doing it again, but I’d come back if I had to every time and stuff his miserable spirit in his ungrateful body. Because if I had to live with the pain, so did this fucker. A thankless job, but sometimes you have to accept responsibility when no one else will.
I moved behind him, wrapped my arms around him, and heaved. He struggled, fought. Tried to stay rooted in one place. But I pulled us toward the light, toward life. The Divide parted, the Black receded. I drifted out, past the Pattern, and slammed his spirit into his body, falling into my own.
I opened my eyes. Grennach blinked at me, groaned.
“Fucker,” he muttered.
“Coward,” I replied.
“I owe you,” he said.
I didn’t know if that was a threat. I opened my mouth to say something to the god.
Behind me, the Ordo agent snorted, and spat a wad of gristle. I’d only been gone a few minutes. It felt like a lifetime. Grennach got up, dusted himself off, no small feat for a naked man. He gave me a wink and disappeared.
I sat back on my heels as the Ordo agent approached.
“Good job, that,” he said.
I snorted. “I doubt it.”
I got to my feet, gathered my things, and left the clearing. I knew my payment would be forthcoming. I could collect it in a week or so. In the meantime, I needed a drink, and a warm bed.
The apartment was small, a single bedroom over an apothecary. Quiet, but for the occasional stink of brewing potions. I cracked the door, laid my bag inside. Weariness hung on me like a hundred weight. I stood in the doorway. On the wall, someone had left a note. It read simply: “How do you make a man live?”
I pulled it from the wall, crumpled it. I wasn’t in the mood for games, especially from spiteful gods. A noise alerted me to an intruder, and I put my hand on the hilt of my knife. Stepped in a few paces. The sound became clearer.
From deeper inside, the cooing of a child, and I closed the door behind me, my heart beating like a hammer. For a moment, I considered whether I’d been wrong about Grennach. Then the child cried, and I went to her.