The staircase was steep, dark, and narrow enough that we had to walk in single file. I went first, with Aiko behind me and Kyra behind her. The werewolf was in fur, and handling steep stairs on four feet was tricky enough that everyone involved would be happier in the back.
It occurred to me that might not have been the best idea. Kyra had plenty of experience in fur, and she was generally better off that way in a fight, but it also tended to bring out the more instinctive parts of a werewolf’s personality. That might well leave her more vulnerable to Blind Keith’s influence.
Too bad, if so. It was a little late to stop so she could change.
I thought for a moment that the door at the top was locked, but it turned out to just be stuck, the wooden door warped in its frame by the years. I pushed a little harder, forcing it, and it popped open with a groan.
Through the door was an apartment, dimly lit by the light coming in the windows. The floor was carpeted, relatively clean, but cluttered, like the person who lived here had a tendency to just set things down wherever was convenient and then not bother to pick them up again—not a slob, exactly, just someone who didn’t necessarily feel a need for the space to be open and tidy.
There were no lights on in the apartment that I could see, but I could hear a quiet, regular creaking from the room to my left. I walked that way, moving carefully and ready to fight or run at any moment. I didn’t see Blind Keith being the kind of guy to set up an ambush at a peaceful meeting, but I’d been wrong before.
The other room appeared to be a living room of sorts, small and cozy. Blind Keith was sitting in a rocking chair, and the creaking noise came from the chair as he rocked back and forth. The movement was precisely timed, one cycle every three seconds, like clockwork. It was hard to say in the dim lighting, but I was pretty sure he looked exactly like the other time I’d seen him, a grey figure that was only vaguely humanoid in its shape, with a heavy grey bandage wrapped around its eyes.
I wasn’t aware of us having made a sound, but he knew we were there. Of course he did. “Hello, Shrike,” he said. “Come in, have a seat.”
I stepped into the room, still expecting something to happen at any moment, but nothing did. “Hello, Keith,” I said, walking to a small love seat across the room from him. “You wanted to talk?” Kyra and Aiko stayed by the door.
Blind Keith didn’t seem to care; his attention was all for me right now. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been looking into you since our last meeting, Shrike. You piqued my interest.”
Oh, man. That couldn’t be good.
“You’ve accomplished impressive things, for your years,” he said. “I want to see for myself whether your skills are as great as they say. I think you and I should go hunting.”
I opened my mouth, then paused. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. “I’d have to know a few more details,” I said cautiously.
“We shall hunt. What more is there to know?” Blind Keith asked curiously.
I tried to gauge his expression, but it was too dark. In fact…I glanced around the room and confirmed it. Things actually were darker than they had been just moments before, and it wasn’t because there was less light coming in the windows than there had been. It was like Blind Keith somehow made it harder to see, by his presence alone.
It made sense, I supposed. He was an embodiment of the hunt, and he inspired terror by his very nature. Darkness went along with that, isolating people and removing the comfort of knowing what was around them. Still, it was annoying.
“Well,” I said, hoping I wasn’t making a very bad mistake, “what would we be hunting?”
He grinned, showing teeth sharper and longer than belonged in a human mouth. “I hadn’t decided,” he said. “But I am sure we can find worthy prey.” He stood and held his hand out to me. “Come.”
I hesitated again. I knew that it might make me look weak to someone who I really didn’t want thinking of me like that, but I couldn’t help it. I’d come into this expecting something like the Sidhe, a clever conversation where I had to watch for hidden traps and shades of meaning. Blind Keith was nothing like that, no subtlety or illusion. He was what he was, and he was about as in-your-face about it as it was possible to be.
What had Gwynn ap Nud said about him? He wasn’t Sidhe, wasn’t a part of any of the groups or factions, but he was still fae. I could use that.
“A day and a night,” I said.
He cocked his head to the side, looking at me curiously. Well, sort of. For a certain value of looking.
“I have obligations to fulfill,” I said. “Commitments. Give me twenty-four hours to take care of those first.” I smiled a little. “Surely you wouldn’t force me to default on the commitments I’ve made.” I was concerned that I might be laying it on a little thick, but better that than the alternative.
This time it was Blind Keith’s turn to hesitate a moment. He obviously didn’t want to wait, but he was fae, and the one thing that you could say with confidence about the fae was that they were good to their word. They bent the truth, but they didn’t lie. They exploited any loophole you left them, but they didn’t actually break their word. And, naturally, they respected the same qualities in others.
“Of course not,” he said, letting his hand fall back to his side. “I shall collect you in a day and a night, then. Now go carry out your duties, and take those two with you.”
Back in Colorado, I checked in on things first. Snowflake was still in surgery, which was good and bad. If she hadn’t died yet there was a good chance she’d pull through, but to have been under the knife for so long…well, it wasn’t exactly reassuring.
I’d seldom felt so helpless. I wanted to be there with her, helping her, but I knew that I’d only get in the way. She was hurt, maybe dying, and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.
I channeled that frustration into action instead. Back in the north side of the city, I set the werewolves to tracking down Katrin and her vampires. I had Kyra, Daniell, and Ryan to look for scents, with Unna there to do any necessary talking. I doubted the selkie’s ability to smooth things over with the police, but at the moment that was a minimal concern.
I couldn’t help with that either. I was middling useless as a tracker, never put the time in to really learn. That was the whole reason I’d gone to get the werewolves for this.
That left me with nothing to do but pace around my office while the work went on around me. Most of the housecarls were either patrolling the area or making sure the hospital Snowflake was in was secure, but Selene and Tindr were at the house, as were the mages and the new, human recruits. The work going on right now was passive in nature, support and logistics, but still absolutely vital. And, again, nothing I could help with. Having the warlord making coffee and running papers back and forth would be more distraction than it was worth, even without the hit to my image it would entail.
All of which meant that over the past thirty minutes I’d gotten better acquainted with that office than I’d ever wanted to be. Ten steps, turn. Ten steps, turn. Rinse and repeat until I thought I’d lose my mind.
When Selene stuck her head in, it was a relief, but I was so full of pent-up frustration that I almost snarled at her anyway. “What is it?” I snapped, turning to face her.
She didn’t seem to care. “Someone here to see you,” she said. “One of Kikuchi’s people.”
“Send them up,” I said, moving over to my desk and sitting. I tried to relax, let the frustration fade. By the time the door opened, I thought I’d done a pretty decent job of pushing that aimless anger away from the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t calm—I wasn’t likely to get calm until this was all settled, one way or another—but I thought I could carry on a conversation without making the other person think I was about to kill them.
“Hi,” Kimiko said, walking in. “Am I interrupting something?” She smirked.
I stared. I’d been expecting a tengu, not the only kitsune in Kikuchi’s employ. “He sent you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she drawled. “Apparently we’ve got a working relationship, whatever that means. Plus we’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands right now, and he didn’t want to send one of his soldiers to get you. About that, by the way…he said to tell you he didn’t intend to fall back on it so soon, but this is the sort of thing your deal should cover, so if you could give us a hand, that’d be great.”
I thought about it for maybe half a second. “Fine,” I said. Anything to be moving, to be doing something, anything. “Where are we going?”
“So the thing is, we’ve been helping out where we can,” Kimiko said, lounging back against the seat of the limo and sipping from a water bottle. “Nothing obvious, nothing people could point to and say that we were doing your job for you, but we’ve been active. Feeling people out, pushing on them when we thought they were a little more resistant to the new order than we wanted them to be, spreading the word to the people that would listen to us. That kind of thing.”
They had? Interesting. I hadn’t heard about anything like that, but it was a hard sort of thing to verify, and under the circumstances it wasn’t unlikely that I wouldn’t have heard about it.
“So what’s the problem?” Aiko asked. She and Kimiko had taken one look at each other and made an unspoken agreement to pretend the other wasn’t there, apparently. They were cousins, but neither one was terribly fond of her family. You’d think that would give them some common ground, but apparently the opposite was true.
“Well, a while ago Kikuchi noticed that some people were responding weirdly. Like, they seemed really passive, but they wouldn’t actually listen. Show up, tell them how it’s going to be, and they don’t argue, but they don’t adjust, either. Like they’re only listening to get you to go away. Except it seemed like they wanted to agree with him, but they didn’t. And they were all in a certain area, too.”
It wasn’t hard to put that together. “Another faction,” I said. “One that’s playing the long game. They don’t want to make a move yet, but they’re ready to.”
“That’s what he said,” she agreed. “So he decided to move on them, see if he could force them into the open. And now…well, we’re almost there. You can see it for yourself.”
The car coasted to a stop less than a minute later. I reached for the door, but Kjaran was opening it before I could, stepping out of the way and bowing.
I blinked. He’d been driving. How the hell had he stopped the car, gotten out, gotten back to the backseat door, and opened the door before I could move my hand a foot?
I got out, suppressing a shiver. Bloody hell, that guy creeped me out.
It wasn’t hard to see what situation Kimiko had been talking about. A trio of tengu were standing in the road about a hundred feet away, looking like humanoid crows, and carrying swords. That was normal enough for them, but something about their posture made me think they were being more serious about it than usual. There was a tension there, a tautness that made me think of a cat about to pounce.
Standing opposite them were half a dozen other figures. These things were harder to categorize or identify. They looked human, generally, but each of them had something wrong about it. One was grotesquely fat, its frame loaded down with so much excess flesh that it shouldn’t have been able to stand. The next was better than six feet tall and skeletally thin, with a tiger-striped beard and his hands tucked into his sleeves. A third looked almost like a ghoul, with limbs too long for its body and the suggestion of a muzzle, with paper-white skin covered in intricate tattoos.
There was no commonality there, nothing that I could point to as a unifying feature. There was something oddly familiar about them, though, something that made me think I should recognize them. I felt a vague sense of foreboding, and hurried my pace a little.
“Ah,” the creature in the center said. This one looked perfectly human, even normal, but his shadow was that of a hulking, predatory monstrosity. “And there’s the man of the hour now.”
The tengu turned to face me. “Jarl,” one of them said, dipping his head slightly—not a bow or a sign of subservience, more a salute between equals. “I am glad that you could come.”
“Dai-tengu,” I said. “I feel similarly.” Then, to the other creature, “What’s going on?”
His smile spread, and the shadow smiled as well, showing teeth that were easily large enough to dwarf those of a werewolf, easily six or seven inches in length. “It’s quite simple, really,” the thing said. “We owe the both of you a rather serious debt. I’d planned on waiting a little longer before we moved, but I think this will work just fine.
A moment later his body melted and flowed in a burst of spice-scented magic, jasmine and ginger with hints of cardamom. He took on the shape that his shadow had suggested before, a vaguely tiger-shaped creature that stood easily eight feet tall, with massive claws and obscenely oversized teeth. His shadow, though, looked human now.
At that moment, I realized several things. The first was that there was a reason these things had seemed familiar. I’d encountered that vaguely floral scented magic before, and it had belonged to things that looked much like these, strange and warped. The second was that I’d accidentally advanced too quickly, leaving Aiko, Kimiko, and Kjaran a ways behind me. The third was that more of the creatures were pouring out of the alleys and doors around us, surrounding me and the tengu, and they didn’t look friendly.
With a cacophony of roars, screams, and whistles, the rakshasas charged us.