It took a minute for people to catch up to me. Most of them couldn’t casually drop twenty feet from the window to the street at the bottom of the hill, after all. They had to go back to the door and then circle around.
Aiko was the first to reach me. She was breathing hard, more so than I would normally have expected to be the case from such a short run, but at the moment I thought it could be forgiven. “Is it dead?” she said, slowing to a walk.
“Pretty sure,” I said, not looking away from the skinwalker. “I cut his head off with Tyrfing; that’s usually fairly reliable. All things considered, though, I’d rather not take any chances.”
She snorted. “You never want to take chances,” she pointed out. But on this one I’m with you.”
I nodded and kept watching for any sign that the corpse wasn’t quite as dead as it was supposed to be. I’d sheathed Tyrfing, since I’d already been exposed to a lot more of its curse than was healthy in the past few minutes, but I was ready to hit the skinwalker again at a moment’s notice.
Unsurprisingly, the canines were the next to catch up. Kyra stopped not far from me and sat down; she was limping a little on the last few steps, and I knew her maimed leg was hurting her. Even with the assistance of the Wild Hunt’s magic, she still wasn’t fully healed. Snowflake circled around to stand on the other side of the corpse, staring at it with her iron teeth bared; if it sprang back to life and tried to run in that direction, she would be ready. Anna was even more direct, walking straight up and biting one of the skinwalker’s arms completely off at the shoulder.
I couldn’t really blame her for that. She was still missing some toes thanks that freak. Besides, it was helpful. When the body didn’t even twitch during its violent amputation, it was probably dead.
Probably. I still wasn’t looking away from it.
“Okay,” I said, as the housecarls and ghouls started catching up. “We need to be back in Colorado Springs soonest. Before I cut his head off, the skinwalker said something about ordering an army of demons to attack the city if he died.”
“You think he was telling the truth?” Aiko asked.
I shrugged. “Hard to say. On the one hand, he was an untrustworthy bastard who’d absolutely lie about something like that to save his own skin. On the other, he was a vicious bastard who’d actually do it.”
She snorted. “Good point.”
“Anyway,” I continued briskly. “Most of us will be going back to Colorado. Thraslaug, I want you to stay here and deal with the corpse. Can you do that?”
She nodded sharply. “Yes, jarl.”
“Good,” I said. “I have very specific instructions. Listen carefully, because I’ll hold you personally responsible if this doesn’t get done the way I want it to. I want this body dismembered, into pieces weighing no more than ten pounds each. I want each piece to be burned separately, and the ashes stored in separate containers. Mix the ashes with at least ten percent salt by volume and keep them in airtight containers. Have the ashes blessed by at least three different priests, from different religions. Once that’s done, dump a third of them in the ocean and bring the rest back to the city with you. Do you understand?”
She nodded again. “I understand, jarl.”
“All right, then. Take two of the mercenaries and two of the mages and make it happen.” I grunted and stretched, feeling my shoulder pull a little where I’d cut it with Tyrfing. It wasn’t bleeding much, at least. Probably plugged with more ice. At the rate I was going, it wouldn’t be long before I was more ice than flesh.
I felt a twinge of dread at the thought. It felt like a tangible indicator of what I’d been feeling for a while, that I was moving further and further away from what I was and what I wanted to be.
As usual, though, there wasn’t time to really worry about it. For now I could just be grateful that I wasn’t bleeding out, since wounds inflicted by Tyrfing were ridiculously difficult to heal.
“Okay,” I said. “Portal time.” I took a deep breath and started gathering power.
“I’ll do it,” Aiko said abruptly. Her voice was still a little hoarse, but she was breathing easier.
I shrugged and let the magic go. “All right,” I said.
She was faster than I was, as always. She was a lot better at this kind of magic. I wasn’t sure how much it really meant that she had two tails now instead of one, but I was reasonably confident that she was even quicker and more efficient about it now than she had been before. It barely took two minutes before a hole appeared in the world in front of her.
The two of us went through first and moved out of the way as the others came through. It was always interesting to watch from the outside as people went through an Otherside portal. They weren’t conscious, but the way they moved wasn’t random, either. They were clearly in control of themselves, and on some level they were aware of their surroundings, even though I knew from experience that most people had no conscious experience of what happened during that time.
There was a sizable pile of bodies on the ground by the time everyone made it through. I checked it over enough to make sure that the worst anyone would have to deal with was intense awkwardness, and then turned to start on the next portal.
To my surprise, Aiko was already working on it, spinning the first tendrils of magic between a pair of enormous trees at the edge of the river.
I frowned. It was a pretty typical place for her to put her portal, but normally we traded off when we could. Not to mention that we were using Inari’s Wood as a layover, and Aiko almost always took a few moments to just appreciate it when we passed through there.
“Hey,” I said, walking up beside her. “Is everything all right?”
She turned her head towards me a little. I couldn’t see her face behind the foxlike mask of her helmet, but her voice was tight. “I was useless back there,” she said.
I snorted. “You were the only one who stayed standing when that demon hit us with the psychic bullshit,” I pointed out.
“Yeah, but then the other guy took me down like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Just totally thrashed me. Not even a fight.”
“We all have off days,” I said gently.
“You don’t get it,” she said. “I always told myself I wasn’t going to be this person. I’m not the fucking damsel in distress, you know? I don’t need anybody to come and rescue me. Except that apparently now I do.” She turned her attention back to the half-formed portal, and for the space of a long breath nothing more was said. “I’m not good enough,” she said at last. “You deserve better.”
I took a few seconds trying to think of what to say.
Then I sighed. I never had much luck trying for clever wordplay. It always ended poorly for me. Better to just say what I meant.
“You know I love you, Aiko,” I said. “But if you keep talking like this, I might have to smack you.”
She looked at me. “What?”
“You’re seriously going to whine about not being good enough for me?” I asked. “Seriously? Because, what? Scáthach kidnapped you and then there was one fight where you didn’t do quite as well as you wanted to?”
“It does sound a little stupid when you phrase it like that,” she admitted.
“Is there another way to put it?” I asked. “And yeah, I came to bail your ass out. Because that’s what we do. If you think that makes you a damsel in distress, then I guess I have to join the club too, because by my count I’m still at least two or three kidnappings ahead of you.”
“You know,” she said, a little testily, “it makes it pretty hard to have a properly dramatic scene when you keep being all logical about it.”
“You’re just upset because I’m right,” I said smugly. “Now come on. Let’s go and kill a bunch of demons. That’ll make you feel better.”
I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Well, when you put it like that how could I say no?” A moment later, she said, “Thanks.”
I grinned. “Any time.”
Snowflake made a gagging sound in the back of my head. God, you two are syrupy, she said in a disgusted tone. If I wasn’t feeling nauseous anyway, I would be now.
“Okay,” I said, walking up to the door of the house. “Selene, Kyi, I want information. Talk to the scouts, talk to Luna’s network, talk to anyone who might know what’s going on in town. I want a full report ready for me in an hour. Make sure all our people hear about what might be happening.”
Kyi nodded and hurried off, barking orders in a tangled pidgin of English and Norse. Selene was slower to react, and when she did move she stumbled.
I hurried to catch her and keep her from falling. “Hey,” I said. “Are you okay?”
She grimaced. “I should be fine,” she said. “I’m pretty sure my physiology is already unnatural enough that I should be able to get over what that thing did to me without any permanent effects. It just hurts for the moment.”
“If you’re sure,” I said, holding her steady as the crowd cleared out around us. After a few seconds, I quietly asked, “If this is for real, how scared should I be?”
Selene sighed and shrugged. The succubus must have been feeling better, because the shrug did things to her anatomy that made Aiko whistle appreciatively and reminded me rather forcefully that we were currently in close physical proximity.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “I mean, it’s always possible that he meant the spiritual kind of demon, like your familiar. If that’s what it is, you’d know better than I what to expect. If not, it’s still hard to say. It really depends on what kind of demons he brings in.”
I nodded, letting go of her. “The ones we fought earlier,” I said. “Where do they fall in the hierarchy, roughly speaking?”
She shrugged again. “Middle of the road?” she said. “They aren’t bottom feeders, for sure. They’re higher up than I ever was. But they aren’t the strongest there is, for sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “That’s…well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now get me that report.”
Selene nodded. “Will do. What are you doing?”
“Sleep,” I said. “I’m exhausted, and I don’t think things are going to get easier any time soon.”
“I’ll come with,” Aiko said. “I could use a nap after being, you know, mostly strangled.”
Selene smirked. “And here I thought the point was to get some rest,” she said dryly. “Well, I’ll go get started on that. See you in an hour.” She nodded to me again and then walked off.
About ninety minutes later, I was sitting at my desk hearing a rather disappointing report.
The good news was that it appeared that either the skinwalker had lied or else his army of demons was pretty slow off the mark. Thus far none of them had shown up that anyone had heard.
The bad news was that the situation was still pretty terrible. The fire was already contained, which had to be a new record, but it had done a lot of damage in the meantime. Vandals and looters had taken the opportunity to wreak havoc in the part of the city Kikuchi had been keeping more or less pacified; there were ten dead that we knew of, and probably more that we didn’t. Several residential areas on the west side of the city were burning or reduced to ashes, and while almost everyone had managed to evacuate in time, it was proving difficult to find places for all of them to stay.
And I was the only one in a position to do anything about it. The local government was still in shambles; apparently the mayor had been killed by a particularly nasty-minded fae of some sort, and no one was sure who would replace him. State resources were doing better at recovery, but mostly focused in Denver; the local werewolves there were doing a lot to keep things intact, but they were still struggling with the much larger population.
I arranged to commandeer a few hotels that still had functioning water and power to house the refugees, then turned my attention to the vandals. I didn’t have a lot of pity for anyone who would take advantage of the current situation to serve their own ends. If they’d just been stealing to feed themselves, I might have forgiven them. Given that they’d taken to raping and murdering innocent people, I sent a group of housecarls and didn’t tell them too much about what to do, beyond that I didn’t want to hear about this problem any more.
Then someone knocked on the door.
I looked at it. Kyi looked at it. Selene looked at it. Aiko looked at it.
They knocked again. I said, “Well, somebody better answer that.”
Kyi leapt to obey. The person on the other side staggered in and collapsed into her seat.
He looked like a person. But he…wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t think of any better way to phrase it than that. His features were warped, his face asymmetric in a way I couldn’t quite place. The muscles under his skin did strange things when he moved.
It took me several seconds to recognize him as one of my housecarls. Nóttolfr, his name was. One of the few new recruits that Kyi had respected.
He sure as hell didn’t look like this the last time I saw him.
“What happened?” I asked.
“I was patrolling to the east,” he said. His voice was slurred and warbling, barely comprehensible. “Heard a noise inside an abandoned building and went inside. Saw something weird. Tried to kill it, didn’t get close. It did this to me.”
I glanced at Selene. “Demon?”
She nodded, her lips pressed together into a thin white line. “The same one that got me earlier, or one very similar to it,” she said.
I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay,” I said. “Did you see any others with it?”
“No,” Nóttolfr slurred. “Just the one.”
“Okay,” I said again. In a lot of ways, it didn’t matter. One, a dozen, either way it meant the same thing. It meant the skinwalker hadn’t been bluffing, not entirely. Besides which, if it was comparable to the three he’d summoned earlier, one was a threat in itself. One had been enough to incapacitate everyone I had put together.
“Selene?” I said quietly. “How hard would it be for me to get in touch with Iblis?”