Read an Excerpt
Everything is true, especially the lies. That’s the trick.
Every tale ever told, every whisper, every song, every single string of words ever uttered by mortal mouths or carved in rocks or scrawled on paper. It’s the ultimate human trait, this endless urge to speak and name and label. To attach sounds to things and meaning to sounds. To make language.
Sometimes, when a sound refers to nothing, something comes in to take its place. Pulled up from the black void behind the world, shaped into form and given story.
This is the thing we call the Wyrd, and it’s the place where gods are born. Well. Gods and monsters, and sometimes the line between the two is thin.
Humans might not believe in the old gods much anymore—they don’t venerate our deeds or perform our bloody rituals—but that doesn’t mean that we’re forgotten. Not with our tales recorded in bestsellers and played out on film and collected in the bits and bytes of libraries that span the globe. That sort of repetition ensures our survival more readily than any sacrifice or prayer, and with less effort on our part, too.
It’s good to be retired, even for a god.
Not that we’re all living the life of worship-free leisure. More humans and more things mean more gods and more monsters; and for every gnarled, thousand-year-old sky father, twenty bright young memes spring up in his place: the Liberal Media, the Wisdom of Crowds, the Random Number Gods.
The Start-Up CEO.
Some of us don’t fully retire, don’t pack our things and drool out our dotages in some eternal old folks’ home. We go consulting instead. Pick new roles, part-time gigs, a little extra belief to trickle in over the top of our stagnating day jobs. The New World is crawling with us, and not just the United States.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, set not long ago on an isle far, far away. A wild place of danger and mystery; of deadly beasts and rugged men; of old clichés and biting irony.
This island called Australia.
A little over two hundred years ago—and much to the consternation of the locals—white men from Europe arrived and didn’t leave. They turned the land into a prison, the place to send the chaff they didn’t want back home—the poor and the Irish, the whores and the thieves—crammed onto stinking boats and abandoned in a hell of endless, burning deserts.
I heard someone once say that a country founded in the gutter has nowhere to go but up. And Australia did, more or less, dragging itself kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. When it went, we came with it.
Because mortals weren’t the only ones to make the long voyage across the sea into the present. The old gods have always been here, of course. Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, drives cross-country in a battered Land Rover. Waa and Bunjil make trouble down in Melbourne. And the kurdaitcha and illapurinja roam the sands, nursing old wounds beneath the blistering sun. A thousand gods from a thousand peoples, all fighting for space in the crowded cities and rural ghost towns of this new century. When they fight, they fight us, the exiled gods of Europe, come to languish in a new prison, one fitted out with shining beaches and reasonable Internet.
In Sydney, a fallen angel makes deals with politicians, promising good front-page press in exchange for souls. In Perth, the wife of a bound titan runs open-cut mines that dig deep beneath red earth, searching for a way to free her imprisoned in-laws. And, somewhere in between, an old trickster hides from death by crafting little altars in aluminum and glass.
That’s the country. Pinch and zoom, and end up in a city.
Its name is Pandemonium, but the locals call it Panda. It’s inland, temperate, surrounded by mountains and bush, its population three hundred thousand or so. Back in the 1800s, it was founded on dreams of gold. By the 1950s, it’d settled on mining coal instead. Nowadays, it oversees a global web of technology. Cell phones, computers, video games. That sort of thing.
This is where we start. There’s a house here, an unassuming white-collar relic from the 1970s, located in a suburb that’s largely the same.
Inside the house is a boy, standing just beyond the threshold of adulthood, metaphorically speaking. Literally speaking, he’s standing in his bedroom, wearing faded black briefs and not much else. He’s staring at a pair of crisp brown slacks, and his mind is thinking of the tattered jeans he’s only just kicked off, left in a pile on the floor, atop a T-shirt that threatens darkness with the spell of magic missile.
Stop me if you know this reference.
The boy does, and knowing that he does will tell you almost everything you need to know about him. These are the other things: He’s twenty-two; his skin and hair and eyes are cast in shades of brown; he wears glasses; no one would ever call him handsome; he’s somewhat overweight. If you asked him his greatest talent, he’d laugh nervously and tell you it was slaying dragons. On the Internet.
No one ever asks. Which is why the boy never mentions the final detail. It’s about lying—or rather the lack thereof—and, if squinted at in bright light, it could be considered a kind of magic. We’ll get back to it later.
For now, know that the date is late December, and the time is evening. It’s a Friday. Tonight, the boy has his first official Office Christmas Party.
He doesn’t want to go.
His father, David, says he has to. Both father and son work for the same company, Lokabrenna, Inc., nowadays mostly rebranded as just LB. Once upon a time, Lokabrenna mined for coal. Now, LB’s computers sit on every desk, its smartphones in every purse and pocket.
The boy’s father is an accountant, the boy works in IT. Internal IT, of the have-you-tried-turning-it-off-and-on variety. His father believes in old-fashioned corporate progression, of starting in the mail room and working up the ziggurat with sweat and dedication. The boy knows this idea is a rusted relic of the past, a scratched record in an era of MP3s and online streaming. Because privilege is born, not made, and talent is scouted from abroad, not recruited from the basement. If the boy ever gets his name in the credits for any Great New Thing, it will be buried down at the end of a very, very long list.
He doesn’t want to shake hands and make small talk at the party. He’s young, has posters of dragons on his walls, and would rather spend his Friday playing games on the Internet with his friends. He resents the crisp brown slacks and nice new shirt, and he resents his father, just a little, for buying them. Mostly, he resents the arguments and awkward silences that won over his acceptance of David’s secondhand aspirations.
The boy dresses and heads downstairs. His father gushes and tries in vain to smooth his son’s hair down into something fit for corporate consumption. In the end, he gives up, but pretends he’s satisfied with the results. He is so, so proud of his boy, for whom he dreams great things.
He has no idea.
David drives them to the party. It’s outside, in the center of the city, in a place called Osko Park. The gleaming edifice of LB’s corporate temple looms large across the street, the grandest and most imposing building in the state.
It’s hot, and bright, because that’s what December evenings mean in this part of the world. The boy nurses an imported beer—a Corona—and worries that his sweat stains will show on his new shirt.
After an hour or so of misery and too many small spring rolls, the boy detaches himself from his father’s watch and retreats behind a large and ugly piece of public art. He sits down on the grass, fends off mosquitoes as best he can, and pulls something from his pocket.
It’s a Spark, a handheld gaming console made by Pyre Computers, a subsidiary of LB. The boy uses it to work on a game played by only two other people in all the world. Those two others are his friends, and the game is a project the trio makes together. One does art, one writes. The boy cuts code.
They have the first half of a level for an isometric dark fantasy RPG. The boy knows every part of it and also knows how progress has been stalled for over a year. Knows that, soon, the console in his hands will be obsolete, taking with it both their game and their hope for breakthrough indie success.
Being adults got in the way of crafting dreams. It happens.
The boy plays his game. As he does, he’s transformed in the way of mortals inspired by love and art. His lips purse, his brow furrows. He’s not handsome but, in that moment, someone might imagine that he was.
Someone almost does and, lost in concentration, the boy misses the approach of soft footsteps. He doesn’t miss the voice.
The boy looks up.
“Um . . .”
For one terrible, ceaseless moment, the Wyrd—fate—turns upon its gyre.
Then: “Shit, man. Didn’t see you. You escaping, too?”
The boy blinks. He suddenly feels foolish, sitting in the dirt in ill-fitting slacks and a sweat-stained shirt.
Looming over him is a stranger, wearing jeans and an LB tee beneath a trendy-ugly jacket. The boy is jealous of the casual attire. He’s not so jealous of the unlit cigarette hanging from the stranger’s mouth.
“Yeah,” says the boy. “Yeah, it’s a bit much.”
“It is, isn’t it? Mind if I smoke?”
“Actually, yeah. Kinda. Sorry.” The boy winces, but the stranger shrugs.
“Shitty habit. Picked it up before public health became a thing, now just can’t seem to drop it.” He tucks the cigarette behind his ear and takes a sip from the glass in his other hand, wine swirling rich and dark and red. Then the stranger leans forward, pointing toward the Spark. “There’s a new one of those coming out in April, you know.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard.” April. The boy figures that’s when childhood truly ends.
“What’re you playing?”
The boy looks down, then looks up. The stranger is peering at him, all odd green eyes and chin-length hair. His skin is olive; his hair is black. He has a goatee. He is very, very handsome.
“Uh.” The boy knows he’s blushing. He hopes the stranger doesn’t notice in the dusk. “It’s, uh. Nothing really. Just . . . something I made. With my friends.”
The stranger’s eyebrows hike. “You made it? Cool! Can I see?” And he sits down on the grass.
The boy panics, just for a moment. He doesn’t want the stranger to see his game. It’s his heart, his soul. Not something he can give to someone he only just met, someone he doesn’t trust. What if they don’t like it?
He hands over the Spark.
“What’s it called?”
“Well. Um. We kinda hadn’t decided. Em—she’s our writer—she wants to call it Gangleri.”
The stranger looks up. For a moment, his green eyes burn brightly in the gloom. “‘Gangleri’?” He has a strange emphasis on the word. An accent.
The boy nods. “It’s, um. It’s one of the names of Odin. Y’know, the Viking god?”
The stranger nods, just once.
“He’s, uh . . . man. I don’t want to spoil the plot.” The boy tries a laugh, realizing how foolish he must sound.
But the stranger asks, “And what do you call it?”
The boy bites his lip. “Um, well. Gangleri’s cool but it’s a bit of a mouthful, you know? Not very marketable. So I was thinking something simple. So, like. Um. Saga?”
“Saga,” says the stranger.
The boy laughs, or tries to. “Too simple?”
The stranger looks down at the glowing screen. “Show me how to play,” he says.
The boy does.
That’s how his father finds him, over an hour later. Lost deep in conversation with his odd new friend. (Despite Saga’s flaws, the stranger loves it. If that doesn’t make him friend material, the boy doesn’t know what could.)
“Sigmund! There you— What are you doing back here? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
The boy winces at his father’s voice; the stranger sees it.
“Sigmund, this is Mai Vo. She works in the CFO’s office, and—”
The boy tries not to die. He’s sure Mai is a lovely woman. He’s sure he has absolutely no desire at all to meet her.
The stranger stands.
“I was telling her about your accounting degree. She says they’re always looking for— Oh.”
Because the stranger extends his hand, and the boy’s father has seen his face. He’s recognized it, in fact, in exactly the way his son did not.
“Hale,” says the stranger. “Travis Cameron Hale, CEO. But I’m sure you know that already.”
“S-sir . . . Uh. David, sir. David Sussman. It’s an—”
“Is this your son? He’s been showing me the game he’s made. It’s pretty cool.”
The boy’s name is Sigmund. Sigmund Sussman. Right now, sitting on the grass, Corona in one hand, Spark in the other, he wants to die. Wants to die because he’s just spent the last hour showing the CEO of the ***king company that he works for—the CEO he didn’t f***ing recognize, despite the fact that the man’s f***ing face is splashed on every f***ing magazine—his shitty little two-bit game.
Sigmund’s life, welcome to it.
This is his story. And mine.
Stick around. You’ll see.