“You’re a hell of a heavy sleeper, you know that?” said a male voice I didn’t recognize. “I mean, I was just going to wait for you to wake up, but this is getting ridiculous.”
I went from a dead sleep to actively freaking out pretty quickly, for reasons which should be pretty obvious. I mean, I don’t care if you’re the least paranoid guy around, if you wake up to a stranger in your bedroom—your incredibly well-defended bedroom, where no stranger should ever be—you freak.
I sat bolt upright, grabbed Tyrfing, and launched myself out of bed, landing in a crouch and growling softly. Or, at least, that’s what happened in my head. In reality, Aiko had at some point wound up draped across my chest. That was a pleasant enough state of affairs, except that she woke up at the same time I did and had about the same reaction. The end result was that we thrashed around a bunch and, rather than badass fighting poses, ended up in an undignified tangle of limbs.
“That was pretty good,” the stranger said, chuckling. His voice was low and rough, evoking images of a lifetime spent exposed to the elements. “Do you guys do parties?”
I managed to disentangle myself enough to twist my head around and glare at the intruder. He was of average height and build, with heavily tanned skin and dark eyes. His features were sharp, with an aquiline nose that had clearly been broken at some point, and an inscrutable expression. He was wearing jeans, a plain black cowboy hat, and a leather jacket covered in intricate geometric quillwork.
I had absolutely no idea who the hell this was.
“Who the hell are you?” Aiko asked, sounding understandably hostile. She’d also managed to contort herself enough to get a clear look at him.
“Friend of a friend,” he said, which wasn’t actually terribly informative. Then he laughed. “Come on, get out of there. I don’t bite. Much.”
There didn’t seem to be much point in arguing, so we untangled ourselves and got out of bed. Fortunately, neither of us was particularly modest. I snatched my cloak of shadows off the floor and threw it on anyway. I might not have issues with nudity, but there were still all sorts of toys in my cloak from last night. Most of them weren’t weapons, but I could make do with what I had.
“What did you do to Snowflake?” I asked, glaring at the intruder. Snowflake has a reaction time that makes a snake look slow and a territorial instinct that makes me look welcoming. Ordinarily she would have been chewing on this guy’s spine by now. It didn’t even look like she was awake.
The stranger rolled his eyes. “Your hound’ll wake up in an hour or two,” he said, not seeming to notice my hostility. “I wanted to talk to the two o’ you a bit, and I reckoned it’d be simpler doin’ it this way.” He nodded toward the door.
“You still haven’t told us who you are,” Aiko said. She was holding a small, plain knife, and making no effort to hide it.
“Some people got no patience,” he sighed. “I s’pose if I told you I was God you’d laugh, right?” Not waiting for an answer, he grinned broadly, showing teeth that could have featured in a toothpaste commercial. “So I guess you’ll just have to call me Coyote, instead.”
I stared. “Coyote. You mean, as in, Coyote Coyote? That Coyote?”
“Oh shit,” Aiko said. “Oh shit.”
Coyote looked offended. “I ain’t that bad. Hell, you’re workin’ for Loki, you’d think a person like you’d be takin’ this in stride.”
“Winter’s the one working for Loki,” she said in an offended tone. “I’ve never even met him, and frankly I’d be freaking ecstatic if it stays that way.”
Coyote snorted. “Bullshit. I don’t think anybody in this room’s buyin’ that line.” He pointed one finger at Aiko. “You’re in deep with Mister Wolf, and he’s got trouble like a dog’s got fleas.”
“I don’t get your point.”
“I reckon you do, and I don’t particularly care. Now come on and walk with me. I got some things to say that you ain’t gonna like, and it’ll sound better in the sunshine.”
The sun was indeed shining outside. It was about nine in the morning, and already shaping up to be a hotter day than I would prefer. A bit of a change from the rain of the day before, but that, generally, is Colorado.
“So what’s this bad news?” Aiko asked, glaring suspiciously up and down the street. She’d taken the time to get dressed and throw her armor on before we left; Coyote didn’t seem to care, and I could tell she was feeling more than usually antsy.
Not that I could blame her. I was wearing armor, too.
“It’s about this job Loki’s got you doing,” Coyote said, ambling along down the sidewalk. He seemed totally unconcerned; anyone watching him would have thought he was just out on his morning constitutional. “More to the point, the thing he’s got you looking for.”
“You know about that?” Not that I was surprised—this was Coyote we were talking about, after all, and he could probably hang around in the same general class as Loki—but it would have been nice not to feel quite so obvious.
He snorted. “Son, let’s get real here. Everybody knows about that.” Lovely. In case I wasn’t feeling quite exposed enough already.
“So what do you have to say about it, then?”
“Well,” he said, “I think you could maybe stand to know just what it is you’re after. True?”
“It couldn’t hurt,” I allowed.
“Well, that’s where you’ve got problems. See, Loki don’t think you oughta know. He thinks you can’t handle it.” Coyote shrugged expansively. “Normally I’d trust his judgment. Loki’s a hell of a sharp guy, and he can judge a fellow’s character better’n most. But when it comes to people close to him, he’s got a blind spot an inch wide and a mile deep. I reckon that’s what’s happening here.”
I blinked. “Loki? Close?” I asked incredulously. “You’ve gotta be kidding me! I can’t even count all the ways he’s screwed me over!”
“Whatever you say, Mister Wolf,” Coyote said with a smirk. “If that’s what gets you to sleep at night, you go right ahead. What matters is I think Loki’s sellin’ you short. I think you’re ready to see this, and I can show you.”
I waited a moment, then sighed. “And?” I prompted.
Coyote glanced at me slyly. “And,” he said, “I’m thinking maybe you could do me a favor in return.”
“Oh God,” Aiko said. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”
“Seconded,” I agreed. “I’m in deep enough already, thank you.”
“Now hold your horses. I ain’t talkin’ about a debt to carry the rest o’ your lives. I got a favor to ask, you do it for me, and we’re even. That sound a little more to your likin’?”
“First,” I said dryly, “I’d have to know what the favor is.”
He laughed, a high sound that resembled the yip of a coyote. I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t already known his nature, but it was unmistakable now that I knew what to listen for. “That’s cause you ain’t entirely stupid, Mister Wolf. It’ll take a bit of explainin’, though.” He was quiet for a moment, presumably deciding where to start, then nodded. “You’ve read that book the Bible thumpers get so worked up about, I’m guessing.”
“Yeah,” I said.
At the same time Aiko said, “Hell, no.”
Coyote snorted. “Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Hell. See, a thousand years and change back, a few of us got to thinking that was pretty funny. So we decided to make it.”
I blinked. “Wait a second. Are you telling me that you made Hell?”
“Yup. Took a while to get it right. Then when Alighieri wrote that book of his, we went back and changed it up a bit to match.” He chuckled. “Let me tell you, that guy was all kinds of messed-up. We’d a never thought of the shit he had those bastards going through.”
“So, when you say we,” Aiko asked, “who are you talking about?”
He shrugged. “I did a little, and Loki pitched in on some of the details. He’s almost as twisted as that Italian guy, you know. Xmucane helped us get the atmosphere right. It was Iblis’s idea from the start, though, and he did most of the work on it.”
“Iblis,” I said. “He’s…Arabic, right? The lord of the djinn.”
“Hey, you ain’t bad at this game. And yeah, he’s a genie. Little on the crazy side, but in a good way. This one time we were out in the desert, this was the Mojave, and there was this guy out wandering around with a bucket—”
“Not,” Aiko interrupted, “that stopping you from finishing that sentence isn’t enough reason to interrupt you in itself, but could you get to the point of this story?”
Coyote cleared his throat. “Yeah. Right. So anyway there’s this Otherside domain modeled on Hell, right? So we decided to make some demons, ’cause you can’t have Hell and no demons. There’s this one succubus—the demon kind, not one of those saps on the Vampires’ Council—anyways, she’s not all that experienced. A week or two ago she screwed something up pretty bad.”
“And you want me to kill her?” I guessed.
“What? No! Why the hell would I want you to kill her?”
I shrugged. “You’d be surprised how often the favors people ask me for boil down to that. So what do you want?”
“I want you to give her a job.”
I stopped and stared at him. So did Aiko. Coyote took about three steps, realized we weren’t following, and turned to glare at us. “What?”
I cleared my throat. “Um…not to be impolite or anything, but…are you kidding me? You want me to hire a literal succubus who messed something up badly enough to get thrown out of Hell? Are you insane?”
“It’s not like she stabbed someone,” Coyote said testily. “She was between assignments up here. Her boss was showing this guy around—they give tours sometimes, for wannabe dark lords and whatnot—and he decided she should tag along. Well, Hell has this whole fire-and-brimstone thing going on, right? And this guy wasn’t used to it, so he sneezes. And she said ‘God bless you.'”
Aiko had started choking about halfway through Coyote’s retelling, and was currently having such a hard time restraining laughter that it looked more like a seizure than amusement. I, on the other hand, was fondly remembering a time when I could make all my problems go away by hitting them very, very hard.
“Coyote,” I said slowly, “in ten words or less, kindly explain why I would ever want this person working for me.”
He thought about it for a moment. Then he thought about it some more. After about thirty seconds, he finally came up with something. “She’s really good at poker?” he hazarded, sounding less than confident.
Aiko physically collapsed laughing.
I closed my eyes and counted to ten before I trusted myself to respond in a way which wouldn’t get both of us smote by quasi-divine fury. “Does she have any skills that are actually relevant?” I asked hopefully.
Coyote snorted. “Look, Mister Wolf, girl’s a succubus. She ain’t gonna cut shit up, and let’s get real here, if you need more o’ that than you already got you’re in deep shit anyway. You want somebody to sweet-talk a mark? You want to run a honey trap? She can do that, and I don’t think you got another minion as can.”
“Well, that’s something, anyway.” Not that I really thought I’d ever need that particular skillset, but hey, I wouldn’t have guessed I’d get into politics either. It wasn’t impossible. “Does she want paid?”
“I reckon room and board should do for her,” he said. “Maybe kick her a little somethin’ every now and then.” He narrowed his eyes. “She wants more than that, you tell her to talk to me.”
I sighed. Damn, but I am a sucker. “Fine,” I said reluctantly. “It’s a deal, with the condition that I get to fire her if it doesn’t work out.”
Coyote smiled in a way which really reminded me of all the stories where he swindles some sucker out of everything they own, and then gets them to pay him for the privilege. “That sounds pretty good to me, Mister Wolf. I reckon we can make this work. I’ll send her around.”
“Um,” Aiko said, having recovered enough to form intelligible speech. “Not to intrude, but why do you want Winter to help this demon in the first place?”
He glared at her. “I think that’s a touch intrusive, now, don’t you? And besides, I’ll have you know I’m doin’ this out of the goodness o’ my heart, and that’s all the explanation you folks need.”
I stopped. “Actually, Coyote, I don’t think it is. I don’t mean to renege on our deal, but I can’t hire someone I can’t trust, and that answer really makes it sound like there’s more to the story than this.”
He switched his glare to me, then looked away. He mumbled something under his breath which I couldn’t quite make out.
“Um, sorry, but I couldn’t quite make that out.” Which, considering my hearing, pretty much meant that it hadn’t been audible.
“She’s my granddaughter!” he shouted, loud enough to hear from across the street. “Christ on a crutch, get a clue already! I hate when people need everything spelled out for them!”
“Your granddaughter,” Aiko said blankly. “And…she’s a succubus.”
“Yeah, that was a fun month or two. Succubi really know their business, let me tell you.” He paused and glared at me some more. “That being said, you even touch my granddaughter and I’ll hang you by your toes for the next hundred years.” Judging by his tone, I didn’t think he was exaggerating.
“Don’t worry,” I said dryly. “This whole conversation is so freaking bizarre as to make the idea physically nauseating.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “So what’s this super important secret you have to tell us?”
“It’s more of a ‘show’ than a ‘tell,’ really,” he said, stopping. “I reckon you two oughta close your eyes for the next bit.”
When a god tells you to do something, you don’t ask too many questions. It doesn’t matter how inane what they’re saying is. Even if it isn’t important, and in my experience it’s usually safest to assume that it is, they’re liable to just smite you for not listening to them.
I closed my eyes.
An instant later there was…well, it’s hard to describe it. It might be the most peculiar sensation I’ve ever had. It was an intensely uncomfortable, full-body sort of thing, not like anything I’d ever experienced. It was a little like pain, and a little bit like numbness. It wasn’t particularly intense, but it was strange and unpleasant and entirely unfamiliar, and hard to ignore.
“You can open your eyes now,” Coyote said. His voice was strange, louder than it should have been and with an odd echo. It sounded, at least to my ears, as though the yipping and howling of coyotes underlay the words. I’d heard a similar effect with Fenris and, occasionally, my own voice, albeit with different sounds.
I did so. What I saw was a bit like the tactile sensation, but a thousand times stronger.
Go down into a cave sometime. I don’t mean a small cave. I’m talking about a real cave, the sort of place where there are thousands of tons of rock overhead and it’s a twenty minute hike to the surface. Go down there, into the dark, and turn out your light.
It’s hard to understand what you see, at that point, if you’ve never had the experience. It’s not just dark. It’s this total, overwhelming darkness. It’s not that you can’t see anything, it’s that you can’t see. The black is so deep, so total, that your brain starts making stuff up to fill the empty spaces. The experience is terrifying. I suppose there are some people who get a thrill out of it, but I’m mildly claustrophobic and the prospect of blindness scares the shit out of me. Not my idea of a fun time.
Looking out at…whatever I was looking at…was like that, but worse. There was this void, stretching out on all sides into infinity, the way you might imagine the vast emptiness of space to look. It wasn’t just black; it was that same total, mind-breaking darkness of a cavern that had never seen the light of day. Every few seconds a streak of color moved across my field of vision, moving very quickly and leaving a vivid afterimage. The colors were vibrant, intense.
Not all of them were natural colors, either, which makes it hard to describe. It’s an interesting philosophical problem, really; how do you describe a color that doesn’t have a name, because nobody’s ever seen it before? There’s no meaningful comparison you can make. It’s like asking what sound green makes.
The only contrast was an area about ten feet in diameter, filled with air. It was a bit like standing in the middle of a soap bubble, the surface clearly visible against…whatever was out there. Coyote, Aiko and I were all standing in this bubble, with no visible surface supporting our weight.
“What is this place?” Aiko whispered, staring out at the swirling lights with a strange fascination.
“Ah,” Coyote said. “See, that’s where we’re gonna run into some problems. This ain’t a place, exactly. It’s what comes before place.”
“You’re going to have to explain that one to me,” I said.
He grunted. “I can try, anyway. How much do you know about entropy?”
I blinked. I’m used to non sequiturs—seriously, I live with Aiko—but this was a pretty good one. “You mean, like, chemical entropy?”
“Closer to mathematical. Think information theory.”
“Pretty much nothing.”
He made a frustrated noise. “You’ve gotta broaden your horizons, Mister Wolf. Don’t do a lot of good to know who Iblis is if you don’t know shit about science.” He muttered a few additional things under his breath, which I suspected were less than complimentary, then sighed. “Fine. The short version is, think of it as randomness. The harder it is to predict something, the higher the entropy. You with me so far?”
“I think so,” I said. Aiko just nodded, still watching the mad, chaotic dance of color against the void.
“Good. So, and I’m not going to bother explaining this one, entropy always increases in the long haul. So that means that the eventual state of any system is maximum entropy. Except that, by definition, perfect entropy is entirely unpredictable. It could turn into anything, including perfect order. So what you get is a dynamic equilibrium, with orderly structures being produced at the same rate as other structures degrade into a state of chaos.”
I was starting to get a headache. This was starting to sound a lot like the advanced magical theory Alexander used to lecture me on, and that involved way more math than I was comfortable with. “What does this have to do with anything?”
Coyote laughed and spread his arms wide, spinning around madly. “You’re looking at it, Mister Wolf! This, right here, this is chaos.”
“That can’t be right,” Aiko interrupted. She seemed to be following along a lot better than I was. “Infinite randomness can produce anything. This is just a bunch of lights moving in a sort of random way.”
Coyote smirked. “At least somebody’s paying attention. And you’re right, this ain’t really chaos, per se. I’m toning it down for you two quite a bit. You ain’t up to lookin’ at the real deal. From in here it should just be a touch uncomfortable, but you don’t want to go stickin’ anything out of my bubble. That stuff could turn you into anything, and the chances of that ‘anything’ being you are pretty slim.”
My head was definitely hurting now. “Not to rush you or anything, Coyote, but just what does this have to do with what Loki’s got me doing?”
“Ah,” he said with a satisfied smile. “Finally you ask a smart question. That’s going to take some explaining. This is the bit that Loki don’t want you two hearing about.” He looked at each of us in turn, and he was suddenly not smiling at all. “I don’t reckon I need to tell you,” he said, his voice gone very flat, “that this ain’t the sort of thing you ought to share with all your friends. I can’t say as I know what’ll happen to you if you were to talk about it, but I wouldn’t bet on your surviving the experience. Savvy?”
“Quite,” I said sourly. I couldn’t say I was particularly happy about it—as death threats go, it was far from the best I’d received—but I wasn’t planning on ignoring him, either. When a being like Coyote gives you an ultimatum and implies that Loki is backing it too, well, it would take a moron of astronomical proportions not to pay attention.
I’ve met a couple of people like that. They have a tendency to die in horrible ways.
“Savvy,” Aiko said, still watching the lightshow rather than Coyote. “Hurry it up already.”
He snorted. “I like you. So. This,” he gestured broadly at the chaos around us, “this is reality. You could think of it as the bedrock everything else is embedded in. Earth, the Otherside, everything you’ve ever encountered, we made it out of this.”
“Who’s ‘we?'” I asked promptly.
“I’m getting there,” he said testily. “See, the chaos is old. Eternal, really. Now, what I was saying about infinite chaos producing order? That ain’t just a hypothetical.”
I was starting to understand what he was getting at. “Are you saying,” I asked slowly, “that you came from this?” I gestured vaguely at the chaos surrounding us.
Coyote smiled toothily. “Ah, he’s getting there. Yeah, I was there for this. Like I said, this stuff’s eternal. Now, if something’s infinite, eternal, and infinitely random, eventually it’ll produce everything, including things capable of manipulating the randomness.”
“Is that where gods come from?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Not really. I mean, in principle, yes, but….well, look at the Olympians. Sure, they came from chaos, but that was, like, a hundred generations back or something. Most of ’em, I guarantee you they’ve never even seen it with their own eyes.”
“But you were here,” Aiko said suddenly. “And somehow I doubt you were alone. How many of you are there?”
Coyote shrugged again. “Twenty or thirty,” he said. I was pretty sure he was telling the truth, and entirely sure he knew the exact number. “Really, though, there’s only two you need to worry about. Me, and Loki.”
“Wait a second,” I interrupted. “Are you saying that Loki spontaneously generated out of this?” That was a terrifying concept. I mean, I’d always known Loki was nine kinds of bad news, but I’d never even imagined something on this scale.
“Um,” he said. “Not exactly. Most of us didn’t create ourselves. I did, obviously, but Loki can hardly hope to compete with me. No, Ymir made him. But he’s old enough to have developed out here, so in that sense, yes.”
“Yup,” Coyote agreed happily.
“Okay,” Aiko said, “I like making fun of Winter’s poor decisions as much as anyone, but you still haven’t actually, you know, found a point.”
“I’m getting there,” he snapped. “Shit and onions, you people really have no patience at all, you know that? Fine, you know what, screw it. Short version. We made the world out of this, because we’re the fucking gods and we get shit done. We made you sons of bitches to put in the world, because we were bored. If you let what’s out here into what’s in there, shit happens and it’s hard to put back together afterwards. There, you happy?”
I blinked. I’d seen a lot of things, but a god having a tantrum was a new one. “So…are you saying that someone’s bringing this chaos into the world, and that’s what Loki wants me to deal with?” I hazarded.
“Finally he gets it,” Coyote said, sounding distinctly exasperated. “And yes, that’s what I’m saying. It isn’t quite that direct, though. There are…things out here that want to destroy what we made. They can’t get in very easily on their own, but occasionally someone’s stupid enough to open a door. That’s what’s going on in your town.”
“Okay,” I said. It was bizarre and inexplicable as hell, but that was nothing new. “So why do they want to destroy things?”
He shrugged. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t reckon anyone does, really,” he said. I noted with some amusement that, with the return of his good temper, his hokey accent was firmly in place again. “You gotta realize, Mister Wolf, these things ain’t like us. Me and my like, we made you, so you got some stuff in common with us. These things took a different choice way back when. We don’t even share the same basic concepts with them.”
“So what you’re saying here,” Aiko said, “is that someone randomly decided to summon an ancient, eldritch horror from beyond the bounds of space and time?”
“You do seem to have an admirable grasp of the situation, yes.”
“Sounds like fun. Maybe we should hang out sometime.” Aiko paused, her expression suggesting that something unsettling had just occurred to her. “So,” she said a moment later. “If they’re summoning those things from here, that suggests that there are more of them out here.”
“What happens if one of them finds us?” she asked. “Are they, like, a threat to you?”
Coyote scoffed. “To me? Don’t be ridiculous. Of all the gods, I am clearly superior. The strongest and bravest, the quickest and cleverest. The only way the likes of them could injure me would be for me to hurt myself laughing at the ingenuity with which I defeated them.” He paused. “You, on the other hand, might not fare so well.”
Aiko looked like she was seriously considering the pleasures of deicide. “Suddenly,” she said, “I understand why people always seem so upset when I do stupid, random things without thinking about collateral damage.”
“And with that in mind,” I interjected before Coyote could reply, “could we continue this conversation in a locale with slightly fewer rampaging monsters?”
“Pussy. Fine, close your eyes.”
I closed my eyes. Aiko asked, “Why do we have to close our eyes?”
“We really don’t have time for a metaphysics lesson,” Coyote sighed. “Now stop being difficult and close your damn eyes.”