Astonishingly, we were still alive when I opened my eyes again. We appeared to be in Colorado Springs again, right where we’d left from, rather than a random desert on another continent. And Coyote was still present. All things considered, it was quite the unexpected hat trick.
“Okay,” I said, once I’d adjusted to not feeling or seeing creepy, bizarre things. “There’s something from outside of the world running amok in town, and it’ll be bad if it stays here. Okay. I can deal with that. What happens if I don’t find it?”
Coyote glanced at me, then started walking down the street again. “It would be good if that didn’t happen,” he said, his voice unwontedly serious.
“What happens, Coyote?”
He sighed. “Whoever summoned it, they did it thinking it would give them power. That’ll work, but it can’t last. Sooner or later, something’s gonna break, and it ain’t gonna be the thing from the outside. It’ll get loose, and when it does things will be bad.” There was a heavy, ominous pause. “Loki ain’t gonna let that happen.”
Something about that phrase was deeply worrying to me. If it were that simple, Loki would never have hired me to find the person in the first place. “How would he stop it, exactly?” I asked.
Coyote glanced sidelong at me and smiled mirthlessly. “You ever heard of Pompeii?” he asked.
“Wait a second,” Aiko asked. “He set off a volcano on them?”
“That one was Shiva’s work. But yeah, that’s the gist of it.” Coyote shrugged. “We’ve been trying to stay out of things on earth lately, ’cause it’s kinda fun to watch you bastards fumble around without us. So he’ll probably try to make it look like an accident. No volcanoes here and it ain’t by the ocean, which makes it a little harder. He’ll probably do it as an earthquake or a fire or something. Maybe a bomb, those are popular right now.”
“If I don’t catch them within a week,” I said weakly, “Loki’s going to destroy the city?”
“He gave you a week? Damn, that’s more than I was guessing. Oh,” Coyote said as an afterthought, “and yep, that’s the score. He’ll let a few people get away, but we like to be thorough with this sort of thing. Can’t take chances with things from outside. They don’t play by the rules.”
“No pressure or anything,” I muttered.
“That’s the spirit!”
We walked for a few minutes in silence. I was trying to process the sheer magnitude of what I’d just heard. I think Aiko was doing something similar; she could be destructive, but killing half a million people to deal with one fool was in another realm entirely.
Coyote, presumably, was just going for a walk.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I think I’ve got my head wrapped around that. So can I ask you one more question?”
“Well,” Coyote said slowly, “that’s a tricky one. I mean, I could pull your tongue out. But that would remove a lot of your charm, and I can’t think of another way to stop you. So in that sense, yes, I suppose you can.”
“Why are you telling us this?”
“We had a deal,” he said offhandedly.
I snorted. “Yeah, right. Because casually employing a relative is totally worth as much as the deepest secrets of the universe. Oh, and you couldn’t find any more prestigious, rewarding jobs to bribe her way into. Right, of course.”
“You’re not very trusting.”
Aiko broke out laughing. “Holy shit, Winter, we’ve found the god of understatement.”
“Right,” I said sourly. “Come on, Coyote, stop trying to change the subject.”
He sighed. “You realize that I have a vested interest in this world, right? I like this world. I don’t want to see it damaged any more than Loki does.”
I rolled my eyes. “How dim do you think I am? You told us way more than was necessary to do the job.”
“Fine!” he snapped. “I owed it to your mother. You happy now?”
I groaned. “She was screwing you too?” I said disbelievingly.
“Yeah, that was a fun few nights. She wasn’t as hot as the succubus, but ten times the creativity, and let me tell you, that counts for a hell of a lot.”
Lovely. That brought her count up to several dozen werewolves, at least five faeries, a vampire, three literal wolves (one of which was actually descended from the Fenris Wolf, but she hadn’t known that at the time, so I thought it scored as a wolf), and two gods. “Isn’t there anyone who hasn’t had sex with my mother?” I asked aloud.
“I haven’t,” Aiko offered.
“Actually,” Coyote interjected dryly, “I wouldn’t say that if I were you.”
Coyote nodded. “Oh, yeah. You were definitely at that party. This would have been, oh, around thirty years ago. It was a Daylight Court gig. You came with a changeling and then ended up stabbing him in the liver.” He chuckled. “Good times.”
“Wait a second. That werewolf was Winter’s mom?”
“Well, shit,” Aiko said after a few moments. “I guess I did have sex with your mother once.”
“Oh, man,” Coyote said, chuckling. “Talk about awkward. Man, the looks on your faces right now are priceless.”
I glared at him. “Speaking of which,” I growled, “I think this conversation has wandered rather far from anything resembling relevance, and I’m on a rather tight schedule. So unless you have something to say worth hearing, please piss off.”
Coyote grinned and swept into a low, mocking bow, holding his cowboy hat in front of him. It appeared to have sprouted a peacock feather at some point. “Sayonara,” he said cheerfully as he straightened up, tossing his hat casually through the air.
It landed on my head, in front of my eyes. By the time I’d gotten it off, Coyote was gone.
“So,” Aiko said as we made our way back to the house. “Um. This is really awkward, you know?” She was quiet for a few steps. “I had no idea that was your mom. I would have told you if I had.”
I sighed. “Aiko, as nontraditional as it is, let’s think this one through before we go jumping to conclusions, okay? First off,” I said, marking it off on my fingers, “the only source for this is Coyote. It’s a plausible story, sure, but it’s also plausible that he’s just making it up to screw with us. Second, my mother had sex with anything that moved, up to and including a raccoon. A significant proportion of the people I’ve met have screwed her. I’m pretty much used to the awkwardness.”
“Wait a second,” she said. “A raccoon? How?”
“I try not to think about it too much. Oh,” I added as an afterthought. “Third, and most importantly, I love you. For your sake, I would set the world on fire and dance in the ashes. Next to that, what happened at a party before I was born means very little to me.”
Aiko was silent for a long moment. “You know,” she said finally, “I think that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard you say. A little heavier on psycho-killer than adorable, but romantic.”
She shrugged. “Hey, I like psycho. Psycho’s a lot of fun.” A few seconds later, she grinned. “So were you serious about setting the world on fire? Because that would be a pretty cool show.”
I sighed. “Aaaaand the mood is dead. You made it longer than I expected, honestly.” I didn’t say anything for a few steps. “More seriously,” I said quietly, “what did you think of Coyote’s story?”
She shrugged again. “Believable, I guess. Really doesn’t matter much to me. Sure it’s cool to talk to somebody who was there when the world was made, but it’ll never matter for the likes of us.” She paused. “Also, Coyote’s a jackass and I wouldn’t trust him to give me the time of day without lying just for the hell of it. So there’s that.”
I snorted. “Yeah, that’s about what I thought. If he’s serious about Loki destroying the city, though….” I shook my head. “That’s kind of hard to grasp.”
“You’re backsliding towards adorable now,” Aiko informed me. “I’ve always thought it was really cute the way you take responsibility for, like, everything. I don’t see that it matters any, though. You were already committed to finding the guy. The only thing that’s changed is that we know to get out of Dodge if it doesn’t look like it’s working.”
“True enough,” I admitted. “But it does raise the stakes. I might take a few measures I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.”
“Calling in favors?” she guessed.
I grimaced. “Yeah. Maybe even giving a few away, much as I hate the idea.” I was quiet for a moment. “I think I’m going up on the mountain first,” I said eventually.
Aiko looked like she’d bitten an onion, and then discovered it was rotten. “Makes sense,” she admitted reluctantly. “Probably better if I stay at home for that one. Kitsune tend not to get along with tengu very well.”
“Last I heard your cousin was still working for them,” I pointed out.
“True. But then Kimiko’s got a stick so far up her ass she’s most of the way to a birdbrain herself. They probably get along fine.”
I laughed. “Good point. I’ll see you when I get back, then. Try not to blow anything up.”
She sniffed. “You never let me do anything fun.”
Of the two groups I share dominion over the city with, I much prefer the tengu. Part of that, I can’t deny, is prejudice; I don’t like vampires, and nothing Katrin has done has given me reason to change that attitude. More of it, though, is that Kikuchi Kazuhiro takes a much more hands-off attitude towards dealing with me. As far as he’s concerned, the city’s mine and the mountain’s his, and that’s all that need be said. It cuts down on my roaming territory, because I don’t go onto the Peak without a good reason anymore. But I vastly prefer that to my constant, petty power struggles with Katrin.
It was late morning when I parked the car at the base of the mountain and started up the trail. By agreement, people on the official trail up the mountain had safe passage. I had insisted upon that when Kikuchi and I first made our deal, but I think the tengu agreed more for his own convenience than anything. Pikes Peak gets a fair number of visitors, and if he had to vet all of them individually it would drive him crazy.
I hiked up the trail for about an hour. It wasn’t terribly difficult—I’m in excellent condition, and it was a groomed path. Heck, I wasn’t even carrying a pack. It was getting pretty hot out, though, and I was wearing a long cloak over a suit of armor. Now, my armor has a great many beneficial qualities, and I value it highly. But no one’s ever accused it of being excessively breathable. So by the time I decided I’d gone far enough, I was sweaty, irritable, and resentful of the time I’d lost.
Finally, once I was a good distance up into the trees, I turned off the beaten path along a game trail. It was narrow and indistinct and, most importantly, empty. Most of the relatively few people that came this far didn’t leave the path, and prey animals tend to avoid me. More so than normal people, even. I saw some birds and a couple of squirrels, but nothing larger.
I ambled along that trail for a while, in no particular hurry. I was decidedly on their turf now; the tengu wouldn’t take long to find me.
Less than ten minutes later a fog came up. It was a strange, distinctly unnatural weather phenomenon. To the sides it was a dense curtain, obscuring all but the most shadowy glimpses of the forest around me. The trees themselves loomed out of the fog in a way reminiscent of a horror movie, all skeletal branches and reaching twigs. Straight ahead, though, the fog was more of a pale mist, drifting idly across the path, soft and inviting without revealing anything more than twenty feet ahead.
I glanced backwards, once. The fog was thicker there, a wall of white no more than five feet from my back. It moved with me, at a steady walking pace. I considered stopping, to see if it would continue moving and swallow me up.
Something told me that wouldn’t be a very smart thing to do.
There was no birdsong now. No sign of life at all.
I shrugged and kept walking.
A few minutes later, a pair of tengu loomed up out of the mist, one standing just to either side of the trail. They were strange-looking creatures, a little shorter than a man with limbs slightly too long for their bodies. They were covered with corvine feathers from head to toe, and disdained any other garment. Long black beaks sprouted from their faces where a nose would be on a human, between large, gunmetal-grey eyes. Other than that, they had no distinguishing features. Presumably another tengu would know the difference, but to my uneducated eyes the two were identical.
Oh yeah, and they were both holding a plain, undecorated katana. It looked extremely casual, almost more like a fashion accessory than a weapon, but I wasn’t fooled. I’d seen tengu fight before, and while presumably these guys weren’t on a par with Kikuchi, they were still extremely dangerous. I was probably stronger than either of them, and Tyrfing was more than a match for most any sword. But tengu could be blindingly fast, they probably had at least a century of experience on me, and we were on their turf. In a fight, I wasn’t sure I could handle either of them. Both would take me to pieces.
Not to mention whatever might be out in the fog that I hadn’t seen.
“Halt,” said tengu on the left. Its voice was harsh, closer to a raven’s croak than a human voice. “Identify yourself.” It sounded more bored than anything, and looked at me with a casual condescension that transcended species barriers.
Considering that I was in a strange place, probably surrounded by…not enemies, exactly, but certainly not friends…and I’d already determined that any trouble was extremely likely to end in my messy death, you’d think that I was a little nervous. And you’d be right, albeit guilty of criminal understatement.
But this was a make-or-break moment. How I dealt with the gatekeepers would determine how the tengu perceived me.
Winter Wolf, perpetually broke carpenter, would have liked to be polite, even diffident, and avoid causing a scene. He would have liked to keep things civil, not assert any claim of dominance, and generally be a nice guy.
Winter Wolf, jarl, didn’t have that option.
“I am Winter Wolf-Born,” I said, faking a confidence I didn’t in the slightest feel. “Jarl of Colorado Springs, here to see Kikuchi Kazuhiro, dai-tengu.”
The tengu on the right scowled at me. It had a pretty good scowl. “We have not been given instruction to conduct you to our lord,” it said.
I raised one eyebrow (a trick which took forever to figure out, by the way). “Do you propose to stop me?” I asked, as deliberately nonchalant as I could manage. They could, of course—even if they believed every ridiculously overhyped story I’d heard about my capabilities, I was pretty sure they could still figure out who had the advantage here. But it would be an action with some fairly serious political fallout, and these guys were just minions. I was gambling that they would rather pass the buck than take the possible backlash for this decision themselves.
I felt bad for ruining their day like this. But as far as they knew, I had a heart of ice.
Twenty minutes later, I walked into a small clearing, the edges of which were shrouded in fog. The two tengu were still flanking me, but their attitudes of confused deference made it seem more like an honor guard than an armed escort. Neither of them seemed entirely clear on how they’d wound up doing what I said rather than the other way round, and they were clearly not happy with this state of affairs.
Kikuchi was lounging in the center of the clearing in a throne seemingly carved out of an enormous tree. Or possibly grown; I was pretty sure the tree was alive.
Well, I hoped it was Kikuchi, anyway. He was wearing armor of a style similar to mine, and I hadn’t seen another tengu in that ensemble. But given how much difficulty I had telling tengu apart, it could have been an impostor and I would have never known the difference.
I bowed deeply at the edge of the clearing. “Dai-tengu.”
Kikuchi looked at me for a long moment, his expression alien and unreadable, then nodded. “Jarl.” He looked at the other tengu. “Leave us.”
They hastened to comply, leaving me alone with their boss. Except, of course, for all of the hidden watchers who, I was still convinced, were waiting out in the fog to pounce at my first wrong step.
That wasn’t really Kikuchi’s style, I was pretty confident. But I usually find that it pays to assume that everyone is secretly plotting to kill you until proven otherwise.
“Winter,” Kikuchi said, sounding much more pleasant now that the witnesses were gone. “You were a little harsh on my people.”
I didn’t bother asking how he knew that. In my experience, asking how a powerful person on the spooky side of things knows something is pretty much never a fruitful avenue of inquiry. Besides, I was in his house. It was safe to assume that nothing much happened here without Kikuchi knowing about it.
So, rather than play dumb, I just shrugged. “It seemed the most efficient way to do things,” I said honestly. “And the matter I have to talk with you about is too urgent to permit much politeness.”
Kikuchi stared at me for a long moment, and I got the distinct impression that he wasn’t happy. At all. “When you say that,” he said at last, “I get a very bad feeling. Why is that?”
“Because you’ve met me?” I suggested.
Kikuchi seemed to actually consider it. “That may be it,” he said at last, very seriously. “What is your problem?”
This was the tricky part. I didn’t for a moment think that Coyote had been joking when he threatened me with death and dismemberment if I shared the secrets he’d told me. Telling Kikuchi what was really going on was, therefore, out of the question. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to lie to him. There was a very good chance he would catch me if I outright lied, and doing so in this setting was rude enough that I couldn’t predict what the consequences of such an action might be. Getting around both of those problems was going to require some quick talking.
“It has recently come to my attention,” I said carefully, keeping my tone as deferent as I knew how, “that a dangerous entity has been summoned into my city. The presence of this entity has been attracting…unfavorable attention from very high places.”
Kikuchi treated me to a remarkably cold look. “Are you implying,” he said, enunciating very clearly, “that I have broken our treaty?”
“What?” I said stupidly, genuinely surprised that he would get that message out of what I’d said. Then I replayed the past several minutes in my head and wanted to slap myself. In retrospect, it probably would have been a little smarter not to approach the topic quite like this.
“Honored dai-tengu,” I said, laying the submissive attitude on even thicker, “I would never question your integrity in that manner. Indeed, the thought had not even occurred to me; I would as soon imagine the sun failing to rise as you breaking your given word.” When in doubt, ridiculous flattery is always a good bet for damage control.
The tengu looked at least slightly mollified. “In that case,” he said, leaning back in his living throne, “why have you come to tell me this?”
I tried to think of a polite, roundabout way to get my point across. Then I sighed. As usual, the only thing my attempts at polite diplomacy had succeeded in was digging me into a nice, slick-sided hole. Personally, I blame so much time spent around werewolves as a child. Granted werewolves have plenty of political games of their own, but generally speaking they’re pretty straightforward. It was poor preparation for clever word games and subtle double meanings.
“Look,” I said, abandoning etiquette entirely. “It might be in your best interest to care about this particular event. I’m not trying to threaten you, or anything like that. I’m just sharing some information that I think you might find helpful. Loki wants this situation dealt with, posthaste. He gave me a short deadline, and I have it on good authority that if I don’t meet it my city is going up in flames, probably literally. I don’t want to presume, but it seemed to me that this was something you would want to know about.”
Kikuchi spent a few moments absorbing that. He didn’t seem upset at my bluntness, at least, which was a relief. “And you’re confident of this?” he asked at last, his voice noncommittal. That’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid Kikuchi; dude is incredibly hard to read.
I took a moment to consider the question. “Loki isn’t the most trustworthy of gods,” I said eventually. “But to the furthest of my knowledge, he’s never actually lied to me, either. And some of his actions this time….” I shook my head. “No, I don’t think Loki is fabricating this. And I don’t in the least doubt his willingness to destroy the city, if that’s what it takes to resolve the problem.”
“I see,” Kikuchi said. I still couldn’t get a solid read on what he was thinking. “How much information do you have on this…entity?”
“I know that it was summoned into this world by a deliberate action,” I said, carefully not mentioning where it was summoned from. “And I know that it’s powerful enough to worry gods. Beyond that, I have no information on its capabilities.”
“It was summoned,” Kikuchi said, latching onto that detail like a pit bull with a particularly tasty bone. “Do you know who summoned it?”
“I know that it was someone in the city,” I said, shrugging. “Beyond that your guess is as good as mine.”
Kikuchi frowned, an expression which was much more intense on a tengu’s face than a human’s. “I see. It would seem that it is in my best interest to assist in investigating this matter.” He nodded firmly. “I will instruct my kin to help you identify the guilty party,” he said, in the manner of a king graciously bestowing aid upon his least loyal peasant. “And send a representative to facilitate coordination of our efforts.”
I bowed deeply. “Thank you, dai-tengu. I will likewise inform you if I discover any information relevant to the investigation. With luck this problem can be resolved quickly and without harm.”
Kikuchi nodded decisively. “It is settled, then. I will not delay you from this urgent task any further.” He waved one hand casually, and the fog poured in with such speed and inevitability that I was, for one brief moment, vaguely surprised that it didn’t make a sound like a crashing wave as it rolled over my head.