“Wow.” Ryan sounded almost awestruck.
“Not bad.” Kyra covered it better, but I could tell she was impressed.
“The display is impressive,” Ash allowed. “However, it strikes me as being slightly excessive.”
“Probably so,” I admitted, wandering over to the table of stored spells and assorted other toys. I keep the armory OCD-level organized. The way I look at it, when you need a weapon you really need a weapon. You don’t want to be digging through clutter trying to find the one you want. Granted, our house was an incredibly hard target, but if you only prepare for the problems you expect to happen you die quickly. Redundancy is the most important part of emergency preparations.
“I don’t even recognize most of these models,” Ryan said, looking over the gun rack. It was fairly sparsely occupied; just three shotguns, a carbine, a couple hunting rifles, a military-grade sniper rifle, and around half a dozen pistols of various types.
“A lot of them are custom makers that cater to our crowd,” I said absently, scanning the room. I grabbed a bag of anti-nasty dust from the table and dropped it into a pocket, followed by a short length of chain and a ball of twine. After a moment’s consideration I added a couple bits of crystal, a pair of rune-inscribed steel disks, and a small spool of wire. “I can have a few of them give you a call if you want. Would you toss me that carbine?” Aiko hadn’t brought it to the meeting, because that was a wee bit more openly hostile of a look than we’d been going for, but she would want to have it on hand.
“No problem,” he said, doing so. “These things aren’t loaded, right?”
Kyra broke out laughing. “You’re joking, right?”
Ryan looked offended. “Of course not. Why would I be joking?”
“You do realize we’re talking about Winter here, right?” she said, still laughing. “Winter ‘Paranoia’ Wolf? Mr. Have a plan to kill everything in sight? The guy who booby-trapped his own house on the off chance that someone might make it through his ridiculously extreme exterior defenses? Of course the guns are loaded.”
“Well, yes,” I admitted. “Speaking of which, the ammo’s in the cabinet to your left, if you would…?”
Ryan gave me a look suggesting that he was in no way amused by this. He then removed an appropriate box of ammo (we kept them all clearly labeled, for obvious reasons) and handed it to me with exaggerated care.
“Thanks,” I said, dropping it into my pack and slinging it over my shoulder. “You two are good for gear, right?” Both werewolves indicated in the affirmative. “Good. Ash, do you have a weapon?”
The girl smiled her most disturbing smile and gently stroked the stuffed cat, which she was still carrying. “I highly doubt that will be necessary, jarl.”
“Call me Winter. And you should at least carry a knife.”
She shrugged, the motion almost invisible. “If you insist,” she said, walking over to inspect the available choices. The swords had their own rack, but the shorter blades were set out on tables. The tables were padded with plush emerald-green velvet, and each knife nestled into its own spot in the lineup. The result was surprisingly decorative.
I’ve got a lot of knives—like, a whole lot. I’ve never done a count, but I think it’s somewhere between fifty and a hundred. There’s a lot of variety in that. I mean, I’ve got something for just about everyone. But Ash picked one of the strangest of the items in my collection. It was modeled on the classic Italian stiletto, about eight inches long, narrow, and very sharp. The blade was round in cross-section, and had no cutting edge at all—a purely thrusting weapon.
All of that was fairly normal. What set this particular piece apart was its choice of material. Rather than metal, the dagger was made from what seemed to be bone or ivory, except that it was incredibly strong, difficult to damage, and inflexible. I have no idea what kind of magic was involved in its production. I’d originally purchased it as a curio of sorts, from a stranger in Pryce’s whom I’d never seen before or since.
Ash looked over the dagger with surprising competence for someone who didn’t like weapons, then looked up at me and nodded.
I considered that for a moment, then shrugged. I grabbed the matching leather sheath from a drawer and tossed it to her. The girl promptly sheathed the weapon and tucked it away under her jacket. “Okay,” I said. “Everyone ready?”
Everyone indicated that they were. I smiled with satisfaction. “Good. Oh, one more thing. Alexis, I want you to stay here.”
“What?” my cousin said indignantly. “Why?”
“Because I’m responsible for your safety and this is a really horrible way to go about that. Also, there are enough of us that one more is unlikely to make a significant difference. On the other hand, I really want someone in town to keep an eye on things and let me know if things start going south—which, given that I’ve gotten myself mixed up with the fae and the mages, they will. I trust you, you know your way around this house, and your local contacts are current. That makes you the best choice for that.”
One of the things I’d learned about Alexis over the past year or so was that she really hated being told what to do without an explanation, but once she understood she didn’t have a problem with taking on a subordinate role. She looked upset when I mentioned the safety thing, but her expression cleared when I got to the part about her having an actual job that I needed done. Alexis also hates feeling like she’s standing by while other people do the dangerous work, which was why I’d phrased it that way.
That left just me, Kyra, Ryan, Snowflake, and Ash to go meet Vigdis. It was comforting—the weight of numbers can accomplish a lot, after all—but also kind of disheartening. It seemed like most of what I did these days was give orders for other people to carry out; I would much rather go back to the days when the team consisted of just me, Aiko, and Snowflake, and people weren’t depending on me.
Which, really, probably just goes to show how dumb I am.
Vigdis, as planned, met us outside Pryce’s. She was wearing a light blue sundress which, although incredibly inappropriate to the weather, was a lot less likely to attract attention than her previous garb. She could also get it out of the way equally quickly if she decided to change shapes. That was the plan if we got into a fight, since carrying around a pair of axes would pretty much negate any blending in she might otherwise do. If shifting wasn’t an option for some reason, she would have to fight barehanded or hope that someone could throw her a weapon.
You might think it was unfair of me to insist on Vigdis blending in, when the rest of us were so conspicuous. But we were actually less obvious than you might think. Kyra, between her apparent youth, casual dress, and backpack, mostly looked like a college student. Ryan was a little worse, but the trench coat covered pretty much everything. Suspicious, but not ridiculously so. Ash just looked like a teenage girl who happened to be carrying a stuffed animal. A little odd considering the company, but we could always pass her off as my little sister or something. I was wearing armor, but the helmet and gauntlets were in the pack. The rest was covered by the cloak, and the leather boots looked more expensive than martial. I could probably pass myself off as another college student from a wealthy background—an art student, maybe, to explain the odd dress.
Amusingly enough, Snowflake was probably the most visually remarkable of the bunch. She was wearing a plain black leather eyepatch and matching leash, but you just don’t see that many one-eyed huskies. The extremely pierced ears, one of which was deeply notched, and heavy leather collar covered in semiprecious stones and bits of bone just added to the effect. I really wasn’t sure how to pass that one off as normal. I suppose I’d just have to explain it with the “art student” bit and hope nobody reported me for animal cruelty or something.
A short while later, the whole gaggle of them waited while I opened the portal to Inari’s Wood in the alley out back of Pryce’s. It wasn’t fun—there was an enormous difference between this place and the destination, metaphysically speaking, and that always makes things both difficult and unpleasant. I didn’t feel like trying to find a better location, though, so we’d just have to cope.
We came out in the same small clearing by the river that we had passed through on our way to Wyoming. I only know one location in Inari’s Wood well enough to gate to it, which made that a pretty much foregone conclusion.
“About time,” a disgusted voice said before I’d managed to get my eyes open. “You’re ten minutes late.”
“Yeah, I know. Took a little longer to get my stuff than I was expecting.” My voice was a little slurred, but not as much as I would have expected. I forced my eyes open a moment later (fortunately, it never got very bright in Inari’s Wood) and sat up. “Grabbed these for you,” I said, tossing Aiko her carbine.
She snatched it easily out of the air and spent a moment petting the weapon in a moderately unsettling way before slinging the strap over her shoulder. She caught the wakizashi I tossed her a moment later with equal adroitness and clipped it to her belt.
Those of us with more available concealment potential would have to carry them for her once we were out in the “real” world, of course. But I didn’t blame her for wanting to have them on her person as long as possible, particularly on the Otherside. You don’t want to look vulnerable there.
As before, Ryan and Kyra were the worst affected. It was nearly another five minutes before Kyra started stirring. Ash seemed immune to the effects, and Vigdis was only a little worse off than Snowflake and I.
“So,” I said, once everyone appeared to be in adequate condition to understand spoken English. “Aiko, you know a spot in Germany, right?”
“A couple, actually,” she said. “But Leipzig is the closest to Munich. It’ll be, oh, maybe three hours’ drive?” She shrugged. “Somewhere in there. Add a little to rent a car.”
“Three hours?” I said indignantly. “You couldn’t come up with anything closer?”
“What can I say, I’ve never seen a need to go to Munich all that often. Look, it’s about five thousand miles closer than you’d get otherwise, are you really going to complain about the last two hundred?”
“I suppose not.” It was a bit hypocritical of me to complain, really, given that I wouldn’t have been able to get us to the same continent. I keep meaning to establish a couple portal destinations in Europe, but I never seem to have the time for it.
“Good,” she said, starting to spin magic out into the appropriate shape. “You did grab the money, right?”
“Of course I did.” I’d run up to the bedroom and grabbed it while we were at home. We keep about ten grand worth each of dollars, euros, pounds, and yen on hand, because why not? At this point, my expenses were pretty near to zero, and my income was in the half-million range.
It’s sort of bizarre, really. A couple months after I started the jarl gig, people started paying me for it. I’d say it’s a protection racket, except I never even asked them to. Pryce alone gives me five thousand dollars or more every month for no apparent reason, and he’s far from the only one. In addition to that, thanks to my moderate notoriety, the things I make fetch obscenely high prices these days. The result is a surprising amount of income. Add in that I didn’t have to pay for housing, taxes, or food, and it adds up fast. I can’t even keep track of the money anymore; Tindr basically runs my finances. I have no idea what he does, except that it involves several shell corporations, stock accounts, and investments, and that somehow his laundering regularly returns more money than I put into it.
I find it difficult to think of things I can do with that kind of cash. For the most part, I’ve already got everything I want that money can buy. More would just be an annoyance. So I stash money, buy the occasional indulgence, pay for the upkeep of the housecarls (they don’t get wages, as such, but I’m expected to arrange for food and other necessities), and give the rest to various charitable causes.
As far as I know, I’m the only person who’s ever needed to establish a money laundering system for the cash I’ve accidentally extorted from people, for no other reason than so that I can give it to charity without them reporting it to various federal agencies. The irony is rather amusing.
Aiko led us through two more Otherside domains on the way. The first was a layover in Faerie, and the second was El Dorado. Aiko goes further out of her way than I do to avoid more difficult, unpleasant crossings, for some reason. It’s almost like she doesn’t enjoy mind-numbingly horrible experiences or something. Finally, after a fairly decent hike, she came to a stop in a tight alley between two skyscraper-like structures and started work on the last portal.
It took around fifteen minutes—longer than Aiko normally needs, but she’d opened a lot of them today, and that was the sort of thing that fatigued a person. We all waited for her to finish with almost unsettling patience—no talking, no complaining, hardly any fidgeting. When the oval of nothingness finally formed, we trooped across in an orderly manner.
I was starting to get worried by now. If something didn’t go catastrophically wrong soon, I didn’t know what I would do.
I came to in a small, twisty alley. This wasn’t much of a surprise; Aiko has a real fondness for small and twisty alleys, and most of her urban connection points seem to involve them. This one was a little smaller and twistier than most; it was fairly crowded with all of us there. I’m just glad nobody happened to be passing. I don’t even want to imagine what they would have made of that.
“Welcome to Germany,” Aiko said. She sounded a little tired, and was leaning against the wall. She was also the only one except me (and Ash, naturally) who was conscious, though, so I didn’t think she was feeling that poorly. “Where to first?”
“Food,” I said decisively. “I’m starving.”
“Gosh,” she said dryly. “How did I guess.” Which, in all fairness, was a valid point. Aiko has been known to comment that if I (or most any other werewolf, really) were to miraculously recover at my own funeral, the first thing I would do was raid the buffet. She’s being facetious, obviously, which doesn’t change the fact that she’s probably right. “Gonna have a hell of a time getting this crowd in the door.”
“You know you’ll enjoy it, though,” I pointed out. “I mean, come on. How often do you have this many people around to make up stories about?”
“Good point. Oh, hey, it looks like they’re waking up.”
They were indeed. Snowflake was already slumped across my feet, moaning slightly; she hadn’t enjoyed this trip. I’ve never yet figured out why the experience is so variable, and I frankly hope I never do. Some questions you just know you don’t want answered. Other than that, Vigdis was sitting upright, and both Kyra and Ryan were making inchoate noises. It took only a few minutes to get them gathered up and moving; like I said, werewolves will do most anything for food, and jötnar are hardly any better.
Lunch (technically it was late dinnertime, because we’d jumped a few time zones, but subjectively it was a late lunch, so whatever) was at a small restaurant that just so happened to be within walking distance of Aiko’s connection point. It was an interesting neighborhood, mostly dominated by a large and impressive church. There was a lot of old, stone architecture, spotted with entirely modern buildings.
I’m not entirely sure what Aiko said to the waiter to get us all inside. I mean, this wasn’t the sort of party you got wandering in around ten o’clock every night, or at least I sincerely hope not. It took her quite a bit of conversation in German, which the rest of us apparently weren’t expected to contribute to. He was smiling by the end of it, though, and didn’t say a word about Snowflake coming in with us.
“I wish I knew what story you just told him,” I grumbled once he was out of earshot.
“I’d tell you,” Aiko said. “But whatever I said would almost certainly be a lie.”
“Well, obviously. That’s why I didn’t actually ask you to.”
“She said that she’s home from college for her birthday,” Ash said in her usual calm, quiet way. “You’re her American boyfriend. Kyra and I are your younger sisters. Kyra is dating Ryan, and Vigdis is his cousin.”
I blinked. “You speak German?”
“Languages are considered an important area of study. I am not as practiced with German as with some languages, but I have studied it for several years.”
Aiko pouted. “That’s no fun. How am I supposed to mess with Winter’s head if you tell him what’s actually going on?”
“My apologies for spoiling your entertainment,” Ash said, sounding like she genuinely meant it. “However, in this case, I considered the amusement you gained insufficient to justify lying.”
“What, because lying is wrong?” Aiko scoffed.
“On the contrary, I see no moral obligation to tell the truth in this situation. My objection was predicated upon entirely practical reasons. A deception of the sort you are performing requires the active participation of everyone involved. It would be difficult for your confederates to play the appropriate roles if they were not aware of the scheme’s details, making it likely that the intended victim would become aware of some discrepancy in your story.”
That stopped all conversation for a while. There’s just something very strange about a teenage girl giving you pointers about constructing elaborate lies using legalese vocabulary and sentence structure.
You know, Snowflake said, that girl kind of scares me. Also, I think I smell blood sausage. Think you could get me one of those?
No. But I can ask Aiko to.
Aiko ordered for everyone except Ash, because generally speaking it is not a good idea to try and order food in a language you don’t speak. I didn’t ask what I was getting, either, because it is never a good idea to find out what was in a foreign dish until you’ve already completely digested it. Particularly where Germany is involved. If there’s one thing Germans love more than beer it’s sausage, and you do not want to know what went into making a sausage. Ever.
In my case, sausage wasn’t involved. My food appeared to be some sort of fried schnitzel, in a tomato sauce of some kind. It tasted pretty good, and that was all that I wanted to know about it. We kept up a lighthearted conversation, on the off chance that somebody was overhearing us, and the meal generally appeared to be going fairly well.
That lasted up until we were just about finished eating, at which point Snowflake suddenly said, Shut up for a second.
I relayed her instruction immediately, because when Snowflake says something in that particular tone, you act now and figure out what’s going on later. What do you hear? I asked, glancing warily around.
Some sort of…whispering or…something? She glared around in frustration. And I could swear I just saw something out of the corner of my eye. What the hell is going on?
I didn’t see or hear anything. A moment later I did, however, smell something familiar and very much unwelcome. It was too faint to be sure, but I wasn’t inclined to take chances. “Shit,” I said out loud, standing up. “Aiko, please pay and then meet us outside.”
Aiko is neither stupid nor suicidal. She gives me a lot of crap, and under ordinary circumstances she wouldn’t be happy about me acting like I could give her orders. But when shit gets real, she’s all business. She nodded tersely, without question or complaint.
Granted, I would probably suffer for my peremptory attitude later. But she would save it for when there weren’t any pressing concerns.
The rest of us filed quickly outside. “Vigdis,” I snapped as we reached the street, looking around. There was nothing unusual in sight, and the smell seemed to have decreased in intensity. “I want you out of sight and ready to move on my signal. I think four-footed is best for this task, but use your best judgment.”
The jotun snapped to attention. “ Já, minn herra!” she said, moving quickly down the street and behind a construction barrier where one of the buildings was undergoing renovation. The street was blocked off in the other direction, where they appeared to be replacing a sewer line or something. Fortunately all the workers were already gone for the night.
“Kyra, Ryan, stay here. These people can probably screw with your heads in all kinds of ways, so if you see something weird tell me. Do not go chasing after them; you probably won’t get lucky enough to wake up in Kansas twice.”
“Gotcha,” Kyra said. Her voice was level, and if I didn’t know her so well I would have thought she was quite calm. “Should I start changing?”
“Too overtly hostile,” I said. A moment later I saw a familiar face, and sighed. I’d really been hoping this was just my paranoia acting up. “We don’t have enough time anyway.”
The changelings and half-breeds were moving slowly down the street, perhaps expecting a trap of some sort, and Aiko emerged from the restaurant shortly before they reached us. She immediately tensed upon seeing them, and took her wakizashi from me gratefully. (The carbine would probably have been a better choice, tactically, but it would also have attracted more attention. Besides, this was shaping up more like a brawl than a duel, and I didn’t want her shooting anyone on our team.)
“What do you want?” I said to the half-breed leader. I didn’t really feel very hopeful—these wackos hadn’t seemed too big on telling me what was going on the last time around—but I wasn’t sure what else to say. I mean, nobody ever really told me how to most appropriately interact with a gang of armed lunatics following me around. Unless you count violence, I suppose, but they seemed like they were still willing to talk and I’m trying to cut back on the murder. It’s high in sodium.
Her reply was measured and calm. “I,” she said, “want to watch you bleed.”
“I got that, thanks,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. Nobody appeared to be sneaking up behind me, which was a relief. I was starting to wonder whether these six or so were all the people they had. It seemed crazy, but I couldn’t come up with a better explanation. “You mind telling me why?”
“You killed him.” Her expression didn’t change a bit, but she was literally growling. That was more impressive than you might think. I mean, have you ever actually tried to make growling sounds with a human throat? Not as easy as you’d expect.
Winter? Snowflake said hesitantly. I think we’re about to have a problem.
Hang on, she’s starting to actually communicate. “I’ve killed quite a few hims,” I sighed aloud.
“I’m not surprised,” the half-breed said, taking another step closer. She was maybe eight inches out of knife range now, with her coterie not far behind. “You seem like the type.”
Winter, I think the problem is getting closer.
Okay, hang on one second and keep an eye on it. I think I can talk her into—
These people are not what I was hearing, now look the hell up!
I repeat: When Snowflake takes that tone, you do what she says and ask questions later. I looked up.
There was something on the building at the end of the street.
At first I thought it was just, like, a really creepy gargoyle or something. I mean, the lighting was poor, and the architecture in this neighborhood was of the sort where a gargoyle or two wouldn’t have been out of place. Then it dropped to the ground and started walking towards us.
The thing was roughly humanoid, but built on a very different chassis than any human. It must have stood nearly seven feet tall and about as wide. Its neck was as thick as my waist, and three or four people could have stood side-by-side on its shoulders. I couldn’t see any real detail—the thing was wearing a freaking cloak, why do people keep copying my style—but I really didn’t need to in order to know that I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.
“Aiko,” I hissed. “How fast can you hotwire a car?” I’d never learned the trick myself, but I knew that she was pretty good at it.
“Sixty seconds.” She sounded almost as spooked as I felt, and I had no idea why. I mean, sure, there were six psycho fae beasties within five feet and a small mountain walking down the street, but that was pretty much par for the course. Things like that normally make her excited at the prospect of imminent violence, not freaked out.
“Go. I’ll stall the lunatics and we are skedaddling.”
“You realize I can hear everything you say, right?” the ringleader of said lunatics said in a disgusted tone.
“You know,” I said conversationally as Aiko took off in search of a fast, easily stolen automobile, “this is an interesting position. I mean, I never thought I would really need to say this, but in all seriousness, you should look behind you. Now.”
She sneered. She opened her mouth, likely to say something snide. And then the thing walked into them from behind.
I realize that makes it sound rather casual, but it’s also the only accurate way to phrase it. The thing did not speed up. It did not slow down. It did not vary its speed or gait in any way. It didn’t even look aware that they had gotten in its way. It simply kept walking.
The hindmost of the fae turned around just in time to catch an idly swinging arm in the chest. It quite literally sent him flying through the air, his feet six inches off the ground, to impact a streetlight almost ten feet away. The thing did not break stride. A moment later it reached out, picked up the ringleader by the scruff of the neck in one hand, and flicked her aside. The handful of remaining half-breeds and changelings scattered, presumably trying to figure out what had just happened.
Up close, the thing did not look any more pleasant. It was every bit as massive as it had looked at a distance, the size of two or three big people put together. It had skin the color of toffee and small, piggish black eyes. They went well with its nose, which would have looked quite at home on a wild boar. The left side of its face was covered in an ugly blue tattoo of some sort, and the right side was pierced in around thirty places with bits of bone and metal. It reeked of musk, sweat, urine, and dried blood, an overpowering stench so thick you could see it. I wasn’t sure how much of the miasma was physical and how much magical, but either way it was not going to be winning any compliments.
This thing did not look interested in talking. It didn’t look like it knew how.
And its attention was obviously and fixedly directed towards me. Clearly today was not my day.
I didn’t wait to see what it was going to do, because by that point it might well be too late to do anything about it. I backed away from the thing immediately, summoning Tyrfing, and stumbled over Snowflake. I didn’t quite fall, but I was off balance for a half a second or so. As you might expect, the thing took advantage of said lapse, reaching out and grasping my right hand.
I didn’t think I’d ever encountered a grip that strong in my life. It crushed my fingers so hard to Tyrfing’s hilt that I heard little popping noises, and when it tugged it jerked me into the air with no struggle at all. Its other hand drew back and clenched into a grotesquely oversized fist.
Ryan, who was apparently quicker on his mental feet than the rest of us, stepped up from the side and stabbed the thing in the arm that was holding me. He sank that nasty little trench knife in its forearm to the hilt, adding a tone of fresh blood to the mix.
The thing did not seem to notice, or at least not to mind. It grinned, exposing flat blocky teeth that were somehow much more disturbing than fangs would have been. Its fist started forward, a deceptively ponderous motion which I was sure would soon become very quick indeed. Judging by how strong it was, if this thing hit me my face would resemble a shovel in the worst way possible.
Fortunately for me, before it could do so a wolf landed on its back. It was a lovely specimen of the breed, roughly the size and shape of a Great Dane and silvery-grey in color. It was also Vigdis, who excelled at both timing and vertical leap.
The transformed giant started tearing at the thing’s back and shoulders, biting and kicking and clawing and generally shredding its flesh. The injuries were probably not serious—relative to the sheer bulk of the thing, Vigdis’s claws and teeth just weren’t big enough to inflict more than shallow wounds. But they were painful and distracting, and her position was such that it couldn’t easily remove her. It was too heavily muscled to easily reach behind its own head.
She distracted it from punching my face in, giving me time to switch gears from talking to fighting. It shouldn’t have taken as long as it did, but apparently there’s a certain point at which your train of thought refuses to resemble a roller coaster any more closely than it already does.
Anyway, I drew my heavy Bowie knife left-handed (it was slightly awkward, but that’s why I practice) and stabbed it into the back of the thing’s hand. I seriously doubted that it did any real harm, but it loosened its grip enough for me to pull my hand away and stumble backward.
At about that point, the thing finally managed to get a good grip on the scruff of Vigdis’s neck and pull her off. Ryan was standing there, having just pulled his trench knife back out of the thing’s arm. Kyra, who wasn’t armed, looked like she couldn’t decide between changing to the wolf and going at the thing barehanded, neither of which was likely to be particularly useful. Ash was holding that stuffed cat in one hand and the bone stiletto in the other, but looked disinclined to approach the thing any more closely. I didn’t blame her for that; this was not her fight, and asking her to get involved in it would have been incredibly unfair. Aiko was shouting something but I wasn’t sure what.
Wait a second, what?
I risked a quick glance backward and saw Aiko leaning out of the window of what looked like a delivery van parked around ten yards away. She couldn’t get any closer because of the road construction. The engine was running, and it seemed clear this was our escape car. Just in the nick of time, too; I didn’t like our odds in a protracted battle with this thing. So far it was kicking our collective ass, and we couldn’t afford to attract too much attention if we wanted to get to Munich tonight.
“Run for the car,” I snapped, turning back to the fight and drawing Tyrfing. Ash, showing entirely characteristic calmness under pressure, did so immediately. Kyra hesitated for a couple of seconds before Snowflake, who seemed uncharacteristically eager to leave a fight, managed to drag her into motion. I do mean that literally, too; the husky got Kyra’s jeans in her teeth and just started pulling until Kyra had to move or fall down.
The thing grinned wider, dropping Vigdis unceremoniously, and took a lumbering step forward. Ryan stabbed it again, in the side of the ribcage. It backhanded him away and kept advancing.
Just the two of us, then.
I was armed and it was not, but it was still a fairly even fight. I couldn’t afford for this thing to get its hands on me, even for a moment, which meant I had to play it defensive. Even with its freakishly long arms the sword gave me the advantage in reach, but I couldn’t afford to trade hits with it. That left me pretty much dancing away from it, waiting for an opportunity to strike a lethal blow, while it kept advancing and waited for an opportunity to close with me. It was a high-intensity, low-action sort of duel.
“Ryan,” I said, as evenly as I could manage. “Can you move?”
“Yeah,” he said, slurring slightly.
“Good. Get up and go for the car. We’ll be right behind you.” I ducked away from another grab, barely escaping. I managed to slash at the thing’s hand on the way by, but didn’t do any real damage. It was starting to get close.
Glancing back again, I saw that I’d managed to back away to within around fifteen feet of the van. Close enough. I took a last slash at the thing’s legs and the turned to run, shouting something more or less coherent at Vigdis as I did. She must have gotten the idea, because she passed me within three steps. Four legs can be convenient that way.
We got lucky. The thing didn’t catch us. Vigdis dove into the open back of the van, which Ryan promptly slammed shut. I scrambled into the passenger seat, and Aiko was back out on the road before the door was closed.
“Looks like we lost it,” Ryan said a few seconds later, staring out the back window. “What the hell just happened?”
“No idea. The first group’s been following us around for a couple days now. It sounds like they’re upset because I killed some dude, but I don’t know what they’re talking about. The second guy, well.” I sighed. “I’ve got no clue. Any of you recognize him?”
“Half-troll,” Aiko said, casually running a red light. “They aren’t fast enough to catch us.”
“Wonderful,” I groaned. “Just wonderful. That would make him a Midnight guy, then.”
“Not necessarily,” she said. “They’re pretty common muscle. They grow up faster than real trolls, and they aren’t as vulnerable to iron. Much more tractable, too. They don’t have anywhere to go. Makes ’em desperate. A lot of people hire them as thugs.”
“How do you know all this?” Kyra asked, sounding slightly disturbed.
“I used to hang around with a guy who bred them. It’s pretty big business, actually. He had to kidnap women off the streets to keep up with demand.”
“And you hung out with this guy?” Kyra sounded both shocked and disgusted now.
Aiko shrugged uncomfortably. “I…haven’t always been a very good person. Plus I spent most of that decade drunk out of my mind, and it turns out I make really bad decisions when I’m drunk. If it’s any comfort, the relationship devolved rather spectacularly. I ended up stabbing the guy in the kidney when he tried to get in my pants, and then he almost broke my fucking neck before I cut his throat. Good times.”
“Oooookay then,” I said. “That was actually a little more information than I needed. Moving along. Will this thing get us to Munich?”
Aiko shrugged. “Should. We’ve got a full tank of gas. I dunno how long it will be before they call it in stolen, though. We might want to ditch it for a rental at some point.”
“Up to you. We shouldn’t have to worry about them catching us, though, right?” I was more than slightly concerned by that. It’s hard enough to investigate something like this when there isn’t some freak about to try and kill you.
She shrugged again. “I don’t know how the half-breeds are tracking us, so I don’t know. The half-troll, well, he can’t run fast enough to catch us. But whoever hired him can arrange for transport, and they probably know where we’re going. So no guarantees on that one.”
“Fair enough. Wake me when we get there, then.”