We made it almost halfway to the portion of the city which Kyi had tentatively marked out as Kikuchi’s turf before we ran into trouble. Specifically, we ran into an improvised barricade in the form of a couple of overturned cars in the middle of the road, with a few people standing behind it brandishing weapons. More people stepped out behind us, trying to trap us there.
They weren’t serious or practiced fighters. If they were real thugs, they would have been casual, excited, indulging in shows of bravado. If they were professionals, they would have been calm and coordinated, everything precisely in order.
Instead, most of them looked scared, uncertain. More than just a couple had the drawn features, broken-down postures, and shaky coordination of addicts. Most of the weapons on display were less than impressive, either small-caliber pistols or knives that were meant for show more than use.
There was no way they were associated with one of the major players on the scene. A street gang, I was guessing, something too trivial to have been brought into Pellegrini’s criminal empire, too localized to be a part of a national or global gang. They’d probably never really done anything before, but the current situation would bring all kinds of things out of the woodwork.
“You want to deal with these bozos?” Aiko asked, coasting to a halt. “Or should I just keep driving?”
It was tempting. It really was. None of them were displaying a weapon that could pose even a minor threat to the magically reinforced armor of the truck, and their barricade wouldn’t slow us down much. This was the sort of vehicle that had been designed to be damn near impossible to pull a heist on, and that was before I got my hands on it.
Then I sighed. If they tried to stop me, they’d stop other people too, and the next guy might not have a military-grade armored truck. “We’d better deal with them,” I said to Aiko, picking up my helmet and pulling it on. She nodded and grabbed her carbine from the backseat.
I didn’t need magic to know that Snowflake was excited, even thrilled to have a chance to fight. She started squirming in my lap the moment we saw the hoodlums, and when I said that we were going to fight them she actually barked, something which was very rare. She was out the door before I even had it completely open, hitting the ground with an expression intermediate between a snarl and a smile on her lips. The rest of her face was hidden behind the helmet.
I followed at a more reserved pace, and took the time to close the door before walking over to join her a short distance from the vehicle. “Oi,” I shouted, looking around. “Which of you bozos is in charge?”
There was a brief pause, during which Aiko walked up next to me, before one of the guys in front of us stepped forward. He was whiter than me, and looked like he spent way too much time at the gym. “I call the shots here,” he shouted back.
“Then you’re a freaking idiot. You see the armored car? You see these guns?” I brandished my shotgun casually by way of emphasis, causing several of them to flinch. “You think these things are toys?”
“We have guns too,” he shouted. “And there are a lot of us, and only two of you.” Snowflake snarled at that, and he laughed. “Three.” I liked him a little more for that.
Aiko snorted. “You call those things guns? Please. And it doesn’t really matter how many of you there are. I could take twenty of you morons before breakfast, and it wouldn’t even be a challenge.”
“I’ll bet you could,” one of the punks said, gesturing obscenely.
Silence instantly fell over the scene, a silence that was more than just the absence of noise. This was an ominous silence, the sort that came before things that weren’t at all peaceful. Even the gang leader seemed to feel it, blanching and slapping the offending guy on the back of the head.
“Okay,” I said cheerfully. I was smiling, a little, and if they could have seen that smile they probably would have been more afraid than they were. “You made a few mistakes, here. The first was trying to set up this kind of gig when you clearly aren’t competent to run it. The only people coming through this part of town are going to be poorer than you, scarier than you, or both. Not good targets.”
He started to say something, but I cut him off. “The second mistake,” I said, with relentless cheer, “was trying to stop me. I mean, even you losers should have known that wasn’t a good move. I don’t know what made you think we were something you could handle, and frankly I don’t care.”
Beside me, Snowflake was almost shivering, swaying gently side to side, and growling low in her throat. Even I thought it was a little creepy to watch, and that was saying something.
“Even that,” I said, lowering my voice and dropping the pleasant attitude, “even that you could have recovered from. You could have written that off as a stupid mistake, you could have made reparations and we all would have gone on with our lives. But then you made your third mistake, which was insulting my girlfriend. That, gentlemen, was not the sort of mistake you can recover from.”
One of them pointed a .22 at me with shaking hands and pulled the trigger. They missed, not that it mattered much; a .22 round probably wouldn’t penetrate the steel of my armor, never mind the Kevlar backing.
It was a decent starting gun, though, and all the signal Snowflake needed to bolt toward them, moving at a pace that even a well-trained husky would be hard-pressed to match. They tried to shoot her, but the vast majority missed, and those that hit her found that her armor was more than a match for their bullets.
A moment later, there was screaming, and the smell of blood. Aiko raised her carbine, and while I couldn’t see her face, I was confident she was grinning.
I sighed, and turned to deal with the thugs behind us. I didn’t bother calling Tyrfing. My sword was an ancient weapon, cursed to leave death and tragedy in its wake, designed for the killing of things that couldn’t be killed in almost any other way. These guys were common street toughs. The application of the one to the other seemed…a little disproportionate.
Maybe five minutes later, we were driving down the road again. We’d left most of the punks alive behind us, although some would probably need to spend some time in the hospital. Either way, I was confident we’d scared them badly enough that they wouldn’t be trying anything like this in the near future.
The guy that had sparked it all off with that obscene gesture was dead, having bled out after Snowflake bit his leg off. Honestly, I had a hard time caring. There was stupid, and then there was terminally stupid.
We didn’t run into any more trouble on the way, and a few minutes later we parked at the base of the mountain. “Okay,” Aiko said. “So how do we find them?”
“In my experience,” I said, getting out of the car, “that’s not really a problem. Once you’re on the mountain, they’ll find you.”
Normally, the trail up the peak was fairly quiet. There were usually a few hikers, but most of them didn’t make it very far. By the time you got up into the trees, the path was almost empty.
I was a little surprised that it was relatively busy today. It wasn’t swarming, by any means, but there was a decent assortment of people, and most of those who were there were from the more extreme end of the spectrum, fit climbers carrying enough gear to last for days. I supposed that made sense; the current tensions would discourage recreational hikers, but to a certain type of person, the idea of getting well away from the city right now would be tempting. There were plenty of people who watched apocalypse movies and thought that the biggest problem was other people, not the disaster. Getting out into the woods on your own, or with a handful of trusted friends, might seem like a good way to avoid danger.
I could have told them not to bother. Werewolves were far from the only critters that liked to hunt the wilderness more than the city, and not remotely the least friendly.
It meant I had to change my plans a little, though, since the tengu weren’t likely to approach me while there were others around. So once were into the trees, and on the mountain proper, I left the beaten path, following game trails into the forest. It was a little harder going, between rough terrain, bushwhacking, and backtracking.
To my surprise, Aiko didn’t even gripe about it. Apparently we’d finally found something so serious that she actually took it seriously. I hadn’t thought that was possible.
It was maybe twenty minutes before I noticed a sort of fog around us, somewhere between mist and cloud, thick enough to cloud vision without quite obscuring it. That fit with my previous experiences with the tengu, so I kept walking, not worrying too much about where I was going. Directions were fairly meaningless in their realm anyway.
“So overblown,” Aiko sighed, looking around at the fog. It was thickening now, and out of the corner of my eye I could see things at the edge of the path, flickers of movement among the trees that I couldn’t resolve into a clear image. “The birdbrains just don’t appreciate subtlety.”
“Be nice,” I said. “We’re here to find allies, not piss them off even more.”
She huffed, but nodded.
A hundred yards or so further on, we ran into a pair of tengu standing by the path. The bird-men’s expressions were as inscrutable as always, but I thought I saw a certain tension in their posture. The guards on this path always kept their katana in ready positions, but today they did it like they meant it.
“I am Winter Wolf-Born, jarl of the city,” I said. “Here to seek audience with Kikuchi Kazuhiro, dai-tengu.”
One of them glanced at the other, then nodded. “Follow,” it said, in a voice which resembled a crow’s as much as a human, and which might have been the tiniest bit feminine. “The dai-tengu will see you.”
The tengu led us further down the path, leaving its—her?—fellow to stand guard. A few minutes later we came to a small clearing, shrouded in fog so that the edges were just barely out of sight. The only feature was a smallish throne in the middle of the clearing, grown from a single, apparently still-living tree.
“Wait here,” the tengu said. “You will be met.”
Well, great. Because that wasn’t ominous at all.
With that, we were left alone in the fog to wait for our audience. Aiko and I stood in silence, or sometimes paced. Snowflake tried to amuse herself making up dirty limericks, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it, and after a few minutes even she fell silent.
It was hard to say how long we stood there. Waiting, especially under circumstances like that, has a tendency to make the time drag. But at a guess, it was almost half an hour before another figure walked into the clearing from our left, a tengu wearing samurai-style armor and carrying a sword. “Jarl,” he said, crossing briskly to the throne and sitting in it. “What business brings you here today?”
“Dai-tengu,” I replied, nodding to him. “We’ve always gotten along rather well. I leave you alone for the most part, and you’ve been gracious enough to pretend that my position is as something more than just a figurehead. I appreciate your respect, and I hope I’ve treated you with comparable respect.”
“Yes,” he said, although to which statement wasn’t clear.
“But Loki’s broadcast, that changed things.”
“It changed everything,” he said. “Great and small.”
I nodded. “Yes. Exactly. And that includes our relationship. I need to be more than a figurehead right now. I need to actually have the power I’ve been pretending to have all this time.”
He cocked his head to the side curiously, the gesture driving home the corvid resemblance. “Are you attempting to assert dominance over me?” he asked. There was no bravado there, no hostility. He was just asking a question.
“Not at all,” I answered. “I’m happy to maintain our current position. You rule the mountain, I rule the city; that’s just fine with me. But I was thinking that we could make it more of a partnership. I was hoping that you might lend some material assistance now, during these troubled times for my city.”
“And you would assist me in turn, I suppose?”
“If a situation arises that you require help with? Yes. I would deploy my resources to assist you in that case.”
He nodded slowly. “It’s an interesting offer you make,” he said.
I swallowed. This was the iffy part; I really didn’t know how Kikuchi would react to what I said next. We were on decent terms, but the dai-tengu had a proud streak to him, and between that and how damnably hard to read he was, the next part of the conversation was going to be dicey.
“With respect,” I said, “it’s not really an offer.”
He regarded me for a moment, then sighed. “It’s like that, is it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Begging pardon, but the situation in my world is very uncertain right now. In order for my city to be safe, I need for it to look unassailable. My position has to look so strong that nobody is even willing to try to attack it. And that means that anything, anything at all, that might be seen as weakness has to go.”
He nodded again. “And having a powerful neutral party on your borders could be interpreted as such a sign of weakness.”
“Exactly,” I said. “Especially because, well.” I spread my arms helplessly. “I’m a werewolf. We’re supposed to be dominant, to be asshole control freaks who insist that everyone does what we say. That’s the reputation, and whether I like it or not, I’m stuck with it. So if I have allies, that’s fine, that’s just politics. And if I have enemies, that’s fine too; it’s inevitable that people in my position have enemies. But if there’s somebody who doesn’t fall in either group, and I don’t tell them what to do, people will think it’s because I can’t tell them what to do.”
“And if I don’t agree to your proposal,” he said, his croaking voice gone flat. “Then what follows?”
I swallowed again. “In that case,” I said, “I suppose I would have to declare war on you. And I really don’t want to do that.”
“You do not think you could win such a war?” Again, there was no particular emotion in his voice. I couldn’t tell whether he was mocking me, or he was surprised at my lack of confidence, or he was bored and mostly thinking of lunch. Any of them would have been plausible.
“Dai-tengu,” I said, “I think I can say with confidence that both of us would lose such a war, regardless of who emerged the victor.”
“You make an interesting argument,” he said. “Allow me a few moments to ponder it.”
I wanted to keep trying to convince him, but something told me that pushing now would just undermine my own cause. So we stood and waited. And waited. And waited.
Almost ten minutes had passed in total silence, and Snowflake was starting to get antsy, when he suddenly nodded. “Jarl,” he said solemnly, “you have presented an excellent case, and we have often been allies in the past. I would be honored to make that relationship more formal. I will let it be known that we have an alliance, and I will send what forces I can to aid you. These are troubled times in my lands as well, however, and I must keep the bulk of my people here.”
I bowed. “I understand completely, dai-tengu, and I thank you. As I said, if you need assistance, you have but to ask and I will provide what help I can. In the meantime, I expect we both have much to do, so unless you have further business I will depart.”
He nodded, and gestured slightly, and the world went black.
When I opened my eyes again, I was leaning on the truck back in the parking lot. Aiko was sitting on the ground next to me, her head between her knees, and Snowflake was lying on the ground moaning. Oof, she said to me. That was worse than a normal portal. How is that even possible?
I scratched her ears sympathetically, then reached down to help Aiko to her feet. “Okay,” I said. “You about ready to get moving again?”
“Depends,” she said. “Where are we going?”
I frowned. “Back home, I guess, to start with. I’ve got an idea for what to do next, but I don’t think you’ll like it.”
She asked me what I was thinking of. I told her, and she groaned. She didn’t propose an alternative, though, so we went back to the mansion, there to take a nap and get ready for my next harebrained idea.
At that point, I’d dealt with most of the major factions. Kikuchi was on my side, and from his reaction to my offer, I thought he might actually help me, rather than just staying out of my way. The police, similarly, were a nonissue. Frishberg was currently, and very unofficially, one of the more important members of that group, and they were confining most of their efforts to a limited area; between the two, I wasn’t terribly concerned about them. I might have to deal with them on a more permanent basis later, but right now it wasn’t a priority.
The military presence was more concerning, but I was hoping that problem might solve itself. If I could keep things in town peaceful enough that they didn’t need to step in, they should just stay in their enclaves and we could leave each other alone. I was really hoping that was the case, anyway, because if I had to take action against multiple units of the military, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. That was unlikely to end well for me, no matter how it went in the short term.
That left three groups that needed to be addressed. The first was Katrin and her people. The second was Pellegrini’s organized crime syndicate. The third was the independents, small-timers, and minor talents who made up the bulk of the local supernatural community, in numbers if not power.
The first two were, for various reasons, off the table right now. Katrin almost certainly wouldn’t be as amenable to presenting a united front as Kikuchi had been, which meant that negotiations with her were likely to dissolve into violence. I didn’t want that to start until after all my reinforcements had arrived, which was likely to take a few days. The situation with Pellegrini was similar, although in his case I was waiting for results rather than numbers. The crime boss had always struck me as the practical type, and I was confident he would be willing to side with me if it looked like the best option for him. But it would take more evidence than I had available yet to convince him that it was the smart move.
That left the independents, and I thought I’d be wise to get to them as soon as possible, before someone else did. On the surface, it didn’t seem too hard. They had apparently settled into a territory of their own, at least to some extent, and even if they hadn’t I’d have known where to go. Pryce’s had been the geographic center of that community for a long time, and that wouldn’t have changed for a little thing like the end of the world as we knew it.
Unfortunately, I was also banned from Pryce’s. There were various ways I could get around that, most of which would upset people to one degree or another. That bar was one of the few things they had in common, and breaking the rules there would make a lot of them rather angry. Pryce’s was neutral ground, and Pryce himself was a notoriously neutral party. As a result, when he actually did take a side, it meant something. If he spoke against me, it would sway a great many people who were otherwise on the fence.
All of which meant that the situation was volatile. Approach it wrong, and I could kiss any chance of getting the independents on my side goodbye. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would make things harder going forward.
So I was feeling understandably nervous as I left the mansion.
It was late afternoon when I reached Pryce’s. I’d napped a little longer than I’d intended, but not much, and I’d made up the time traveling by Otherside portal rather than car. There were practical reasons for that, as well; it wasn’t too likely that someone would see my vehicle and recognize it as mine, but it wasn’t impossible.
I felt almost naked as I walked the last block or two to the bar, mostly because, by my standards, I might as well have been naked. I wasn’t wearing armor. I wasn’t even wearing my cloak. I couldn’t; this whole plan depended on me not being recognized.
When you wear scary-looking armor, and you wear a black cloak, that’s what people see. Show up again in a Hawaiian shirt and tacky sunglasses, and they probably won’t realize it’s the same person. For much the same reason, Aiko and Snowflake were staying behind for this trip; they were both too instantly recognizable, by too many people.
Entering the bar, I found that it was fairly quiet, as I’d hoped. This time of day was always slow, and while there were more people than usual today, it still wasn’t crowded. A couple of people were playing chess, and Rachel was standing by one of the billiards tables. Mac had apparently taken over the other to use as an infirmary. People were lined up, waiting to get injuries tended to. Most of them were minor—a sprain, a bruise, a cut. Others weren’t. It was a little strange, for Pryce’s to smell like blood.
I was a little concerned that Mac would look up and see me, because she would definitely know who it was, and probably not be inclined to keep my secret. We’d never been on the best of terms. She seemed entirely focused on her work, though, and I slipped by without being noticed.
I sat at the end of the bar, well away from any of the other customers, and waited. Pryce had been glaring at me since I walked in—I’d known there was no point even trying to keep him from recognizing me—but he seemed willing to take his time about getting to me.
Eventually he walked up, and glared at me from a closer range instead. “Told you,” he said, his voice very quiet, but so deep that it was as much felt as heard. “Don’t come back.”
I nodded. “Give me a chance to talk first?” I asked, keeping my voice equally quiet. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted overheard.
Pryce didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t beat the shit out of me, so I kept going. “I know you told me to stay out,” I said. “And normally I would. But things are crazy out there, Pryce. People are getting killed. I’m trying to do something about it, but I can’t handle this on my own.”
He grunted. “And?”
“And I’d heard that the community was organizing,” I said. “Mobilizing, maybe. People getting together and working to protect themselves. And if that’s true, you know about it. Maybe they’re customers, maybe they’re not, but either way you know about it.”
He nodded, once, and waited.
“I need those people on my side, Pryce,” I said. “They’re smart, they’re tough, they’ve got some talents that can be damn hard to deal with, and they know the area like nobody else. I need them.”
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Nobody’s neutral. Not this time. Things are falling apart, and that affects everyone. Look, I’m not trying to recruit you for my army or anything like that. I don’t even want you to try and convince them to help me. I just need to know who to talk to.”
He grunted and walked away, grabbing a bottle off the shelf on his way to a group of guys further down the bar. It was an “I’m thinking” sort of grunt, rather than a “get out right now” grunt, so I sat back and waited.
A few minutes later, after taking care of his other customers, Pryce walked back over to me. He set a steak sandwich and a glass of iced tea in front of me, saying, “On the house.” Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. I unfolded it and found three names written on it in surprisingly delicate copperplate script. I didn’t recognize any of the names.
“Thanks, Pryce,” I said, folding it again and putting it in my pocket.
He opened his mouth, then shrugged and grunted instead, before walking way. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I was welcome here again or not.
Either way, there was food in front of me now, and I was starving. That was a situation that I knew how to deal with, and I did.