“Klaudia, stop that,” Malina said. “Now is not the time to tease Mr. O’Sullivan.”
My head cleared immediately, and I shuddered at Klaudia’s knowing smile. She had enchanted her lips like Malina did her hair.
I was glad the ride would be brief; Klaudia had discovered a loophole in our nonaggression treaty already. It was the second time an attraction charm of the Polish witches had worked on me. My amulet had eventually shut down Malina’s, and I had no doubt it would have done the same to Klaudia’s, but in each case it had worked long enough for them to do me harm if they had wished it.
“It’s all right,” Klaudia said brightly. “I think he and I understand each other.” She patted my chest with the hand that had been caressing my jaw. “Don’t we, Mr. O’Sullivan?”
I nodded and turned my gaze to the darkness outside. She was letting me know for future reference that she was every bit as dangerous as Malina.
A quarter mile east on Pecos, we found a charred and blackened Leif facedown on an empty expanse of gravel, next to a trench of violently churned earth. He’d obviously managed to quench the hellfire engulfing him and drag himself a short distance away, but now it appeared he’d reached the end of his strength.
“He’s not dead,” I said to the witches assembled around his body.
“Yes he is.” Berta begged to differ.
“Well, yes, you have a point, but I mean he’ll be okay. Still dead. But fine.”
“What about you?” Malina asked. “Your face looks like someone took a meat tenderizer to it.”
“I’ll be fine too,” I assured her. I was already feeling marginally better now that I had contact with the earth. “Just help me get Leif back to his car.”
Parts of Leif flaked off and blew away when we moved him. One of his fingers crumbled and fell like the tightly packed ash of a hand-rolled cigar.
“Eep!” Kazimiera cried when she saw this.
“It’s okay,” I said. “It’ll grow back. I think.”
We fished Leif’s keys out of his burned jeans and decided, for his own safety and mine, that he should make the return trip to Tempe in the trunk. Klaudia volunteered to run back and get his car. “Don’t ever tell him we did this, though,” I said as we stuffed him into the ass end of his Jaguar. “I don’t think he’d take it well.” Berta tittered.
I bade the witches farewell and expressed my hope they would prosper and grow strong again. It was the language of diplomacy and we all knew it, but it was the proper language in that time and place.
Dr. Snorri Jodursson was already at my house, watching The Fellowship of the Ring with my apprentice, so it wasn’t tough to find someone to take charge of Leif’s recovery. Snorri said he’d simply raid the blood bank, and he was nice enough to put my teeth back in place for me before I lay down to heal in the backyard. Said he wouldn’t even charge me this time.
As I stretched out gratefully on the familiar grass of my lawn with a worried Oberon nestled against my side, I hoped the near future would bring me a small portion of peace. I was tired of these constant distractions and the alarming rate at which I seemed to be losing my ears, and if the chaos would consent to desist for a while, I would heal and mourn and focus properly on what to do next.
There was a parcel of wilderness that needed my attention, which I had neglected for far too long.
It’s rare that I take the form of a stag. Though it’s the largest shape I can take, it’s still a bit lower on the food chain than I would like, and rare is the occasion when one of my other forms will not serve me better. But when the job at hand was lugging fifty-pound bags of topsoil miles across rugged terrain, it was the best option I had.
Granuaile and Oberon followed along and hauled a few things of their own as we hiked out to the blighted zone around Tony Cabin. They were carrying tools, our lunch, a set of clothes for me, and a five-gallon blue agave plant. I had a harness and travois hooked up to my shoulders so that I could drag 450 pounds of rich topsoil, teeming with all sorts of bacteria and nutrients, along the ground.
When we reached the edge of the blighted zone, my heart nearly broke; we were still four miles away from Tony Cabin, and there was so much to heal. If the cabin was at the center of a perfect circle, that meant we had fifty square miles to mend. The trees were little more than standing dead wood, and the cacti were lumps of desiccated tissue stretched over dry wooden ribs. The brush was all kindling now, lifeless and essentially petrified: There were no ants, no beetles, no bacteria or fungi to break down the plants and nourish new growth in the spring. But we had to start somewhere.
I unbound myself from the stag form and put on the clothes we’d brought along. Using the shovels Granuaile had carried, we dug up a few dead plants just off the trail and resolved to compost them. Then we excavated a small trench that led from living land into the drained area, much deeper than it was wide, and filled it with all the soil we’d hauled in. We spread the dead soil we’d dug up across the living, so that leaves and bugs and grasses and so on would fall or crawl upon it and gradually reinvigorate it.
We planted the agave in the trench and had to satisfy ourselves with pouring a couple of bottles of water on it to help it make the transition and take root.
"So is that it?" Oberon asked, sniffing at the plant. "It looks kind of lonely, sitting there alive all by itself when everything else is dead. All that work and you hardly made a difference."
“This is just the beginning, Oberon,” I said aloud so that Granuaile could hear. “It’s an important first step.”
"Should I pee on it to make it feel at home?"
“Maybe next time. That might be too much of a shock right now.”
"Can’t you do some cool Druid stuff and heal the land magically?"
“Eventually I can get the earth’s attention and help it along, but there’s nothing for it to work with right now. Life is its medium, and there’s no life in that area, not even bacteria. We need to keep bringing in the raw material.”
"Well, I think you should get some heavy equipment and a couple hundred dump trucks."
I laughed. “How would I get heavy equipment here? There are no roads to this place. You know what the trail is like. It’s too rough. And most of this land is wilderness—completely untamed bush.”
Oberon looked down the trail toward Tony Cabin, still some four miles distant, then considered the lone agave near his feet. "This is going to take a long time, isn’t it?"
“Yeah, it’s a big job, but I won’t feel well again until it’s finished. When I stand here and call to the earth, nothing answers.”
"Oh." Oberon looked up at me. "I know that has to make you sad. But call to me instead, Atticus. I’ll always answer. Your fly has been open all this time, by the way, and Granuaile hasn’t said a thing."
Thanks, buddy, I said silently as I tried to surreptitiously zip up my jeans.
"See? I got your back and your front. I deserve a treat."