“You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked, for maybe the fifteenth time.
Aiko rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sure,” she said. “Still. I’m fine, Winter. It just hurt a lot, it didn’t break anything.”
“Okay,” I said. Turning around, I found myself about eighteen inches away from Kikuchi, and flinched away a little. “What the hell,” I said, maybe a little more loudly than I’d intended. “What are you doing?”
“She is uninjured,” he said. “We must go. Matsuda Kimiko requires assistance.”
I eyed him. “You do realize they only took her to use as bait to lure you in, right? I mean, she’s probably already dead anyway.”
“I know,” he said. “But they chose their ploy well. I cannot ignore this.”
I sighed. I could probably back out of this—it wasn’t like I had any personal responsibility for Kimiko. But I wanted to earn some goodwill with Kikuchi, and ditching him when the going got rough wasn’t the way to do that.
And besides. I’d seen some of the things rakshasas did to the people they took. Death, even a slow and nasty death from peritonitis, was a kindness by comparison. I didn’t know Kimiko that well, but I still liked her too much to leave her to that.
“Fine,” I said. “Can you track her?”
He narrowed his eyes slightly. “No.”
“Agh,” I said, almost growling, and pulled out my cell phone. Thanks to a high-quality impact . “Fine. Give me a few minutes to get some people down here.”
Maybe fifteen minutes later, a limo pulled up and disgorged a large pile of fur. The werewolves stood up and started sorting themselves out, looking around.
“Rakshasas,” I said, while they were still getting their bearings. “They’ll smell like humans, for the most part, but with weird tones. They started down that road, moving pretty fast. I want to know where they went, soonest.”
Watching werewolves tracking prey was always impressive. This time, the rakshasas hadn’t made any attempt to hide their tracks, and it was even more impressive as a result. The three of them raced down the middle of the street, moving at almost full speed and only occasionally pausing to sniff at the ground. Occasionally one would bark at the others, using a mixture of sounds and the pack bonds to communicate surprisingly complex ideas. On the rare occasions that one of them lost the trail, one of the others would bring them back on track within seconds.
All in all, it took barely fifteen minutes for them to track the rakshasas to their lair a couple of miles away, and the only reason it too that long was that they had to wait for us.
And that was when the problems started.
“A shelter,” I said, staring at the building. I was feeling a peculiar, cold and remote sort of anger. It was not a feeling that heralded good things. “They’re in a homeless shelter.”
“Looks like it,” Aiko said cheerfully. “Not a bad move, if you think about it. Easy to hide, easy to defend.”
“Kikuchi,” I said, “do you remember the humans they had in their lair last time? The ones who decided to kill themselves rather than surrender?”
“Do you think there’s any way to fix them?”
The tengu looked thoughtful, to the extent that I could read any emotion on his face. “I researched the matter afterwards,” he said. “In some detail. I could not find any documented cases of the condition being repaired or reversed.”
I nodded slowly. “Okay,” I said. “And you’re sure they’re in there?”
Kyra barked a strong affirmative, and one of the other wolves bobbed its head in a nod.
“Okay,” I said again. “New plan. We get Kimiko out of there, and then we level the place. Any objections?”
“None,” Kikuchi said. “But I am curious how you plan to achieve either of these objectives.”
“First step,” I said, “is for Aiko to call and tell Pellegrini that we would appreciate any explosives he can spare. You take care of that; I’m going to see if I can get an idea of the layout of this place.”
I fell into my magic without waiting for a response. It felt easy, easier than normal, even, and strangely calming. There was something about that disassociated anger that I was feeling that made it oddly easy to take the next step and dissociate myself from my body as well.
They must have had some idea what I could do, because an effort had been made to clear the building of animals. There were no dogs, no cats, no foxes or raptors. But the shelter hadn’t been maintained very well, and there were plenty of food scraps and garbage lying around. No amount of effort could totally clean the place from rodents, and they hadn’t thought to cover all the windows.
I drifted through the various rodents, the rats and mice that were hiding in the walls and closets of the building, trying to get an idea of what we were dealing with. I did, sort of, but it was frustratingly limited. I had a picture of the layout, where the walls were, where the closets were, but the creatures were trying to hide, staying away from the rakshasas and their human slaves, when those were the places I needed to know about the most. I could see a little more through the eyes of a handful of pigeons and gulls looking in through the windows, but there were still large sections of the building that were totally unknown to me.
I didn’t know, and I needed to know.
This kind of magic had always had some odd effects on my mind. It made me feel disconnected, from both the passage of time and my own emotions. Thus, although only a few seconds passed, I had plenty of time to consider what was happening. I found myself thinking again about how the world just didn’t want to cooperate with me. It was one step forward, two steps back.
Had this been arranged? Set up with the intention of forcing me into the exact position I was in? It seemed plausible. Loki or his ilk interfering to force me to this point, to the choice. Or it might have been coincidence. The universe had never needed help to screw me over, after all.
Either way, the facts were the same. I needed to know, and I didn’t know, and my usual approach wasn’t good enough. The answer was obvious, and I normally wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it, but it would work, and I was desperate.
Cold comfort, that. Was there ever a monster that didn’t start out with that justification? But then again, I’d hardly feel any better if I quit now. If the sacrifices I’d already made were for nothing. There was just no winning this game.
At that thought, I felt a distant stirring of that same anger from earlier, cold and remote.
At the same time, I slid my mind more completely into one of the rats in the building. Look around, blink, try to get used to a radically different set of perceptions. I was accustomed to working with scent as much as sight, which made it easier to adapt.
I urged the rat out of its hiding place, pushing it out into the open. It resisted, refusing to do something so obviously detrimental to its own health, but I pushed harder, putting more magic into it.
The rat’s resistance shattered, and I slid further into its body, taking control. I felt its fear in the back of my mind as I moved us out, a little unsteady on our feet. I left enough of myself drifting to maintain a mental map of the building, using that to guide our steps through the hallways. I did take care to keep us to the corners of the rooms, places that we weren’t as likely to be seen. I was willing to take a risk with the rat’s life, if that was what it took to get the information I needed, but I was going to do everything I could to minimize that risk.
We passed rakshasas, and I tried to remember their locations, mapping them out within the building. There were a lot of them, and it was hard to keep track of them all. My memory wasn’t that good, especially when I was already managing so many tasks with my magic.
There were humans, as well, in large numbers. As I’d suspected, they were only technically still alive. All of them that we saw had the stiffness, the wooden, puppet-like manner of the rakshasa-enslaved humans I’d seen before. They were barely even people, at this point, and from what Kikuchi had said there was nothing whatsoever I could do to fix them.
Finally, after far too long of searching, I caught the scent I’d been looking for, blood and feces with a hint of something odd to it, something other. I pushed the rat to follow that path, and at the end of the hallway we found a small room that was the source of the odor.
The door was closed, but I wasn’t about to be stymied by that, not when I’d already gone so far. At my direction the rat started chewing at the wall. It was cheaply constructed, as might be predicted, and we managed to get a hole opened fairly quickly. It wasn’t large, not large enough to move through, but it was enough to get a look inside.
Kimiko was tied up at the far side of the room. Her hands were tied behind her back and fixed to a ring in the wall, just below her waist height. I knew from experience how uncomfortable that position was. You couldn’t stand without having to bend over backward, and you couldn’t lie down or kneel without pulling your shoulders out of socket. That left you with the choice of either standing up and arching your back to an uncomfortable position, half-kneeling and putting your legs under the strain, or lying down and letting all your weight dangle from your shoulders.
Under normal circumstances that was a stress position. It was torture, not a showy kind of torture, but torture all the same.
In Kimiko’s condition? It was worse. Much worse. I wasn’t sure how she was able to maintain the posture, and it was obviously putting her in agony to do so. It wouldn’t be much longer until she couldn’t do it at all.
There were a handful of rakshasas standing in the room, standing around and conversing quietly in a language I couldn’t place. There were a couple of humans as well, standing quietly without reacting to what was happening.
If I’d had any doubts before, that settled them.
Maybe five minutes after that, I slipped inside the building, wrapped in my cloak of shadows. Aiko would have been the better choice for this, for a variety of reasons, but I was the one who knew where to go. My understanding of the building’s layout was solid, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could translate into a map or a description.
I knew where to go, which hallways I could take without alerting the rakshasas. It required me to take a meandering route, but that was more of a feature than a bug, all things considered.
I did pass human slaves occasionally, lugging heavy loads around, for the most part. They didn’t react to my presence. There wasn’t enough personality left in them to have initiative, and evidently their instructions hadn’t covered what to do in case of an intruder. That was good. I could have dealt with it if they had responded, but this was…neater.
Then, as I’d known I would, I reached a small, out of the way closet with two rakshasas in it. I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I recognized the attitude. People shirking work had a certain attitude, even when one of them was an anthropomorphic tiger and the other could have passed for the Elephant Man’s cousin.
They weren’t in my way. Not exactly. But I had to walk by that closet to get where I was going, and that meant there was a chance I’d be seen.
I hesitated for a moment. Just a moment. I’d killed, a lot, but usually it was in the heat of the moment. I wasn’t accustomed to this kind of work. It was…cold.
Then I remembered what they’d done to Kimiko. I remembered their slaves, burned so badly that they could hardly be recognized as human, but still moving, desperate to serve their masters.
Yeah. All things considered, I could be cold.
I stepped into the closet. From their perspective I suspect it was just like watching an animate shadow move through the door, a vague silhouette that hinted at metal and suggested at the wolfish mask of the armor, but showed nothing clearly.
Except the sword. That was very clear.
I cut them down both down in instants. The tiger-shaped rakshasa almost managed to stand before I took its head off; the other didn’t even manage that. I stood over the bodies for a moment, my hands dripping with blood, before I sheathed Tyrfing. The cursed sword was clean. The sword was always clean.
Moving on, I reached the door I had been going for this whole time. I had managed to avoid causing any alarm thus far, but the time for stealth and secrecy was done. I kicked the door and continued inside without pausing.
There was a brief pause as the rakshasas tried to adapt to what was happening. I didn’t allow them the opportunity. As soon as I was inside I darted at the first one and ran it through with Tyrfing. I preferred decapitation when I could get it, but the way the thing was standing made that awkward this time, and stabbing something through the center of mass with Tyrfing was almost as good.
The next tried to create a kinetic barrier, using magic to keep me at bay. It might as well not have bothered. Tyrfing cracked its shield, and then took its head off on the backswing.
The third went for a preemptive attack instead. Claws and teeth hit hard, bruising and eliciting a burst of pain from the broken ribs, but it wasn’t able to actually penetrate the armor, and it wasn’t smart or informed enough to go for an attack that would actually be effective. I stabbed it, coming in from the side under its ribs. It collapsed on the ground in a rapidly-spreading pool of blood when I took the sword out, and I removed its head on the way by.
The fourth ran rather than fight, bolting for the door. I ignored that one, the same as I ignored the humans. They weren’t important right now.
Making it to Kimiko, I found her barely conscious, almost dangling from the ropes. She was still supporting enough of her weight to keep from dislocating her shoulders, but it was obvious that she was in bad shape.
I cut her down and caught her before she could fall, holding her up. I was scared that I might be exacerbating her injuries by moving her like this, but it was better than the alternative.
Holding her in one arm, I turned to face the door, keeping Tyrfing drawn in my spare hand. Standing like that, I started to pull magic to myself, forcing it into the shape I wanted.
About a minute before I could finish, the door opened again. This time the leader of the rakshasas stepped through, in his humanoid form. As before, his shadow was hideous, something that by all rights should belong to a monstrosity ten feet tall with claws and teeth that put a tiger to shame.
He was carrying a young woman in one hand, holding a knife to her throat with the other. She was maybe nineteen, and unlike the other humans I’d seen here, she wasn’t wooden or emotionless at all. On the contrary, she was obviously terrified, crying and choking.
“Hello, jarl,” the rakshasa said. “I thought you might try something like this. You see my pet here? There are more like her in this building. Seven of them, in fact. Unless I tell my associates otherwise, they will all die in pain over the course of the next, oh, five minutes, now, I believe.”
“Let me guess,” I said, sheathing Tyrfing. I continued to focus most of my attention on the spell, weaving the last few strands of magic into place. “This is one of those ‘unless I give you the kitsune’ ultimatums?”
“No, you can keep her,” he said. “I just want you to leave us be. My primary conflict is with the tengu, not you or the kitsune. Quite a bargain for you, I’d think.”
I looked at the girl. She was terrified, hurt, lost. Alone.
How many of the rakshasa’s other victims would be just as scared and hurt, if they had the choice?
“Not worth it,” I said quietly.
After that, several things happened almost simultaneously. The first was that I finished my spell, an Otherside portal snapping into existence right in front of me. At about the same time, the rakshasa dragged his knife across the girl’s throat, smiling the whole time.
I pushed the button on the device I’d grabbed when I put the sword away, and then stepped through the portal, pulling Kimiko with me. The last thing I saw before I crossed over was the girl lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, twitching a little as her life flowed away.
I ended the flow of power to the portal as soon as we were both across, drawing Tyrfing and cutting through the magic as well just for good measure. I wanted to be very sure it was closed.
Five seconds later, the detonators which had been inserted into the blocks of C-4 which I had scattered in and around the building went off.