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“Okay,” I said, grabbing Kyi’s good arm and hauling her to her feet. I wasn’t as polite about it as I might have been another time. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been gone for two days, yes?”
“A little more,” she said. “Fifty-two hours or so.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. “So can you please explain to me just how the hell you let things get this bad in two freaking days?”
“Most of our allies started backing out as soon as you left,” she said. Her voice was crisp and professional, although I could tell she would rather have eaten ground glass than described just what had gone wrong here. “They were more your personal allies than associated with your people as an organization, and most of them didn’t expect you to come back. Most of them assumed that you were going to get slaughtered by Scathach; the rest figured it was all a cover and you were taking the money and running.”
“I hope you have a list of who was saying that,” I said.
“Selene does. She kept very careful note.”
Kyi nodded. “We were able to keep the situation under control at first,” she said. “I kept the housecarls loyal, and most of the mercenaries you hired stuck around. Some of the mages, some of the ghouls. Then, about a day ago, someone started a fire in the forest west of town.”
I winced. “Oh.”
Wildfires are a perennial danger in Colorado. Most of the forests are full of standing dead, and it’s often so dry that even a simple spark could set things off. I couldn’t remember the last year we didn’t have some kind of fire.
Usually, though, there were resources in place to fight those fires. There were people ready to limit the spread, and keep them away from populated areas. It was rare that a fire got anywhere near the city, and when it did, it usually got dealt with fast.
But now those resources were in shambles.
“How bad is it?” I asked.
Kyi looked away. “Bad. Very bad. The fire’s already spreading through the forest, and it’s getting close to the city. Maybe in the city by now, in places. I don’t know for sure.”
“Okay,” I said. “That explains the smoke. But why are you guys injured? What happened?”
“After the fire started, Kikuchi pulled his people out of the city,” she said. “He has all of them working on fighting the fire. Keeping it from spreading into their territory, mostly. That took our main ally out of the picture, and then someone told the police that the fire was your fault. Selene managed to talk them out of attacking us, I think, but they completely withdrew their support, and they took the military with them.”
I groaned. “Leaving us overextended and isolated,” I said.
She nodded. “Precisely. The attacks started almost immediately after that. They attacked us here, targeted our people out on patrol, attacked shops and associates under our protection. We’ve been holding our own so far, but it’s taking a toll.”
“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Who’s attacking?”
“That’s the thing,” she said. “We aren’t sure.”
I considered her for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go over the details upstairs.”
A few minutes later, I was sitting in my office upstairs. Aiko was sitting half in the chair next to me and half in my lap, and Snowflake was lying across my feet. Kyra was sitting in another chair, looking slightly uncomfortable to be there. She’d been the Alpha in this town for a while, though, and she probably knew the city at least as well as I did. I’d have been a fool to ignore her opinions.
Selene and Kyi were standing on the other side of the desk. I’d offered the jotun a chair, since I knew she had to be in a good deal of pain, but she’d refused without even considering it. Selene, for her part, was totally uninjured, and seemed as poised as ever.
I looked at the map between us with a certain amount of distress. It wasn’t good news. It wasn’t even a little bit of good news. There were pins stuck in the map to show the extent of the recent problems, red for the fire and black for attacks.
There were an awful lot of pins in the map. An awful lot.
“Okay,” I said. “Start with the fire. How current is this estimate of the size?”
“Very,” Selene said. “I’ve been keeping the reports as current as possible. Kikuchi has also been providing us with regular status updates, and his people have a very good idea of what’s going on with that situation.”
I grunted. “Looks like it hasn’t really dropped into the city much, then. That’s good.”
“Kikuchi’s people have been doing very good work,” the succubus said. “Extremely good. My understanding is that he’s brought in multiple people from outside his core group to help. Kappa and kitsune for the most part, although the rumor mill suggests that he might have a dragon assisting as well.” She shook her head. “It was unfortunate to lose his military support so suddenly, but it’s likely worth it to keep this fire under control.”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, thinking that through. Then my eyes went wide. “Contact him,” I said. “Now.”
“On it,” Selene said, standing. “What should I tell him?”
“His people aren’t safe out there,” I said. “And his territory isn’t safe either.”
“I think he knows that,” she said dryly.
I shook my head. “Not what I meant,” I said. “They’re going to be attacked. Maybe already have been. This fire, I think it was planned. It was meant to draw us out, leave us vulnerable. I don’t know whether it was targeted at me or Kikuchi or both, but I’m sure that it’s a setup.”
“I’ll tell him,” Selene said. “Excuse me.” She got up and left.
“Okay,” I said, looking back at the map. “Tell me about these attacks.”
“They’ve been coming frequently,” Kyi said. “Not consistently, but frequently. They started less than an hour after you left; there have been eighteen of them so far.”
“That’s just it,” she said. “There’s no consistency. These four were constructs. Cheap ones, something that anyone could buy. Here, here, and here, these were all demons.”
“Whoa,” I said. “Hold up a second. Demons? You mean possessed people?”
She shook her head. “Not that kind of demon. More like Selene, except not as nice as her.”
I blinked. “Okay,” I said. “So somebody literally summoned demons out of Hell to attack us. Keep going.”
She nodded. “These three were fae. Ogres, trolls, that kind of thing. Another three were humans. Trained humans, with assault rifles. The last five were…I don’t even know what to call them. Animals, maybe, dogs or something like it, but…wrong. Twisted somehow.”
“Got it,” I said, looking at them. “Of all of these, how many of the attackers got away?”
The jotun gave me an offended look. “Jarl. Please. I recognize that this situation does not inspire great confidence, but give us some credit.”
I snorted. “Sorry. So we’ve been winning so far?”
She shrugged. “So far, yeah. But they’re wearing us down. You saw the shape we’re in. The ghouls and the mages have taken over for the moment to give us a chance to recover, but they aren’t a whole lot better off. We’ve all taken some licks.”
I nodded. “Yeah, I saw that. What happened to the eye, by the way?”
“I was sneaking up on a demon,” she said. “Nasty one. It was actually holding its own against Haki one-on-one, if you believe that. I put a knife in its spine, but it tore like half my face off before he finished the job.”
Aiko whistled. “You snuck up on a major demon and knifed it in the back? Badass.”
Kyi grinned briefly. “I know, right? Wish you could have seen it, jarl.”
“Congratulations,” I said dryly. “I hope it was worth it.”
She nodded. “Totally.”
“Well, that’s good. Back to business, though.” I looked back at the map. “What I’m seeing here,” I said, “is minions. These are all very anonymous, very disposable troops. I’m guessing you haven’t been able to take any of them alive?”
“We got a couple of the humans,” she said. “But they killed themselves before we could ask much in the way of questions.”
“Figures.” I shook my head. “Somebody’s willing to throw a hell of a lot of resources away just to wear us down.”
“Yeah,” Kyi said. “That was about the read I got on it too. You think the fire’s part of that?”
I shrugged. “Well, it fits the pattern. The fire wears us down, it takes resources and energy, it makes us overreach ourselves if we want to deal with it. Even if it isn’t the same person responsible, I’d bet they’ll jump on the opportunity.” I looked at Kyra. “You know those neighborhoods better than I do,” I said. “Is there anything in there that would make them particularly valuable targets?”
“I’ve been out of the city for years,” she protested. “How would I know?”
“You lived on the west side for years,” I pointed out. “You know that area, and you spent more time in these neighborhoods than I ever did. The kinds of things I’m looking for wouldn’t have changed, I don’t think.”
She sighed, but leaned forward to look at the map more closely. “These are mostly more expensive districts,” she said after a moment. “Gated communities and such. I used to run through them every now and then.” She wrinkled her nose. “They ran their sprinklers all night,” she said darkly. “Even in the middle of a drought. Stuck-up assholes.”
“How enlightening,” I said dryly. “You don’t know anything else about them? Nobody important that lives there?”
She thought a moment longer, then shrugged. “Nobody comes to mind,” she said. “I mean, there were a few wolves that lived over in that area, but they’re all gone now. Jack went to New Orleans, Daniell came with me to Wyoming, Dave and Mikey moved to San Francisco, Chris is in Texas…I don’t think any of them even have any friends or family still around there.”
I sighed. Well, it had been worth a shot.
“Okay,” I said. “As I see it, the only way we can really settle this is to find the person sending these minions at us and confront them directly.”
“I already tried that,” Kyi said. “I haven’t been able to track them down at all. I even got the werewolf out to see if she could follow the trail. Nothing.”
I nodded. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, after all. Everyone who was likely to be targeting me knew that I’d bring in werewolves to try and hunt them down. They’d have a way to deal with that.
“That’s fine,” I said. I was smiling again, and my voice was a little bit too cheery considering the circumstances. I was just as glad, though. A little too happy was well within my normal response to this sort of thing, vastly better than the disconnected numbness and psychotic rage I’d been feeling earlier.
Kyi looked at me warily, though. “Jarl?” she said. “What are you planning?”
“Well,” I said, “Anna couldn’t find them, and we don’t have the time or resources for a large-scale manhunt right now. So I’m going to have to call out the big guns.” My smile faded. “Clear the room, please.”
The jotun nodded and left without another word. Kyra looked considerably less happy, but she did stand and walk out.
Aiko didn’t move, and Snowflake just settled in on my feet a little more comfortably. That was fine. I hadn’t been expecting either of them to leave. Realistically speaking, it just wasn’t going to happen, and there was a limited amount of harm that either of them could come to as a result. They were both screwed enough already that a little bit more was unlikely to matter.
I took a deep breath, making sure I was ready for this. Then, in a clear and authoritative voice, I said, “Loki Lie-Crafter. Loki Sky-Traveler. Loki Laufeyjarson, I call you.”
There was a sudden noise, something like a clap of thunder six inches behind my head. Snowflake and I twitched, and Aiko actually jumped, ending up mostly in my lap.
A second later the door burst into bright, piercing golden flames that burned it away to ashes without touching anything else, not even scarring the doorframe with heat. A similar flame erupted from the floor between the door and the desk, although that one didn’t even burn the carpet, just flickered and danced in the air above it.
Loki swept through the doorway with a grin. The fires on the floor rolled away from his feet, something like a red carpet laid out just for him. He came to a stop in front of the desk and dropped into a low, elaborate bow, pulling a Robin Hood-style bicorn from thin air over his head as he did. He straightened with a snap and settled the hat onto his head and grinned at me.
“Hi,” I said dryly.
“Aw,” he said. “You two are so cute now that it’s actually you two again. It’s adorable.”
Aiko stuck her tongue out at him and nestled in more comfortably in my lap. I just looked at him in a not particularly happy way. “And why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t actually us two before this?” I demanded.
“Then I wouldn’t have gotten to see the cutesy lovey-dovey moment when you got together again,” Loki said. He smiled his twisted smile, pulled out of shape by the scars around his mouth, and leaned back against a wall that didn’t exist. “Or the delightful action scene when you went in for the rescue operation. Nine out of ten for that one, by the way. Wonderful performances all around. You should have seen what they did to her after you left.”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was, in a way, fair enough. I’d known Loki wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t like it came as a surprise that he’d screw me over for the sake of a good show. Not that I seriously believed his motives were that innocuous, but I believed he would have done it for no more reason than that.
“Okay,” I said. “I want to take another of my questions.”
“So soon?” He shook his head disappointedly. “You’re so needy,” he complained. “Always asking me for help. Well, go on. Out with it.”
“Someone’s been attacking my people and my interests recently,” I said. “They know how to hide from me, and I’m guessing that if I don’t take them out they’ll keep pulling this hit-and-run crap until they eventually bring me down.”
“He will,” Loki assured me. “At this point, there’s basically zero possibility of a nonviolent resolution there. That one’s a freebie.”
“I figured as much,” I said. “So where should I go to resolve things violently?”
He grinned again. “Let’s find out,” he said.
I blinked, and the world changed.
When I opened my eyes again, I was standing on a city street rather than sitting in my office. Aiko was standing next to me with her arms around my neck; she stumbled a little in surprise as the new situation resolved itself, and I ended up holding most of her weight for a few seconds while she got her feet under herself again.
Snowflake, for what it was worth, was still lying on my feet.
I looked around as Aiko got her footing again and unwrapped her arms from around my neck, grabbing my hand instead. It was hot and muggy here, the air humid and calm. I could smell salt, and between that and the humidity I was guessing the ocean was within walking distance. I glanced up and saw that the light was slightly wrong, late morning instead of early afternoon the way it had been in Colorado.
“Honolulu,” Loki said, walking briskly past us. “Not far from the coast. It isn’t a part of town that most tourists visit, but I think there are things here you’ll appreciate more than nice views and shopping malls.”
“What are we doing here?” Aiko asked, still holding my hand as we followed him. She didn’t sound happy.
“I was asked a question,” Loki said. “I am answering that question in the most efficient way available to me. I fail to see how this is confusing to you.”
“I think a better question is what the hell this jackass is doing in Hawaii,” I said. “Usually the people that are starting problems for me are at least in the same state as I am, not on an island three thousand miles away.”
“That’s because the people starting problems for you are usually either local threats or else looking to take your territory,” Loki said. “Whereas this time he’s really only interested in destroying your territory and your organization. It’s a rather important distinction. You don’t need to be on site for that, and if you want a secure place to plan your attacks, this isn’t a bad one. Especially now, since this city is one of the safest just now. You’d be surprised how many people around here still remember the old charms and protections.”
“So why does he have it in for me to that degree?” I asked. “That’s a hell of a lot of resources he’s put into this just to bring me down.”
“I suggest you ask him yourself,” Loki said with a twisted grin. He gestured at a nearby shop, somewhere that looked like it had once been a restaurant. Now it had a FOR LEASE sign in the window, and the parking lot out front was deserted. “Just in there,” Loki added helpfully.
I looked at it, committing the building to memory, then nodded. “Got it,” I said. “Will he still be there in a few hours?”
“I’m guessing so,” Loki said. “Now, I believe I’ve answered your question satisfactorily. I’ll be going, then. Have a pleasant day, try not to get your spine torn out, and all that.”
He disappeared with another crack of thunder, leaving us standing alone in the middle of the street. I looked at where he’d been for a moment, running through my usual list of curses on Loki’s name.
Then I turned to Aiko. “Well, here we are,” I said. “You in the mood for a fair fight?”
“Never,” she said.
“Well, that’s good. Neither am I.”
She grinned impishly. “Well, then,” she said. “Let’s fight dirty.”
About three hours later, the three of us were standing outside the abandoned restaurant again. This time, though, we were very much not alone. About half of the housecarls were there, along with a couple of the mages more suited to this kind of work than patrols and open spaces. Some ghouls lurked and waited, most of them already distinctly inhuman in their appearance. Kyra and Anna were there, both of them already in fur and wearing heavy armor. Half a dozen human mercenaries with body armor, grenades, and assault rifles rounded out the group.
Selene was standing next to me. She was wearing a suit of skintight black armor made out of an odd, almost chitinous material. I’d never seen her wear armor before that I could remember, but she wore it as well as she wore everything else.
There was something odd about her bearing, though. Selene’s incredible, stunning beauty had always been more a matter of attitude and bearing than her physical features; she knew how to carry herself, how to walk and behave, to make herself into an object of admiration and lust. It was second nature for her, something so habitual that I was certain she typically didn’t even know she was doing it.
And, in some ways, she was still doing it, even dressed in armor and about to go on a raid. But there was something different about her, something lithe and predatory. It made me think of watching a leopard, beauty and grace and speed all wrapped up in a lethal little package, utterly without mercy.
Looking at her now, I was reminded of why I didn’t bring Selene to fights, even though she had volunteered a few times. She scared the crap out of me when she got like this. She was pleasant, and entirely reliable, and I didn’t hesitate at all entrusting my fiefdom to her hands. But she was still a succubus out of Hell, or the closest thing there was to it. She might work for me, we might even be friends, but that would never change the fact that she had been designed and trained to tempt, seduce, corrupt, and destroy people just like me.
I imagined it was something like a normal human found out their best friend was a werewolf. Sure, they’re friends. And they know he isn’t going to eat them. But on some level, they’ll always be aware that he could.
But this guy’s attacks had included demons out of the same version of Hell as Selene, so I sucked it up and brought her with us. If he summoned more of those demons, she was the only one who had any real idea of what to do about them.
Aiko and I stood and watched as the last few preparations were wrapped up. Signý was chanting in Norse, a constant cyclic chant much like the one she’d recited while preparing to curse Jimmy. The volva was breathing somewhat toxic smoke from the fire again, too, although this time she had a broad dish laid out in front of her rather than a nithing pole. The mercenaries were checking their weapons and conferring with each other, making sure everyone was ready to go. The jötnar did something similar, although their pregame ritual involved less quiet conversation and more drinking; some of them were also chanting along with Signý. The ghouls mostly just chewed on hunks of meat.
The volva picked her dish up off the ground, still chanting, and grabbed a horsehair brush with her other hand. The jötnar walked up and knelt before her one at a time so that she could mark their foreheads with her brush. She painted an algiz rune on each of them, three quick and confident brushstrokes per person. I wasn’t totally sure what she’d done to the water in her bowl, but it seemed to sparkle a little more than it should have, and I could smell the dark, quiet magic in it.
I thought about asking what she was doing. Then I got my own rune instead, pulling my helmet on over it. I might not understand how Signý did what she did, but I could respect her skill, and I wasn’t going to say no to any kind of protection right now.
Once everyone was marked, including Snowflake, Aiko, and even some of the mercenaries, Signý stopped chanting and set the bowl down again. “I am ready,” she said, standing a little uncertainly. Thraslaug was there almost instantly to support her until she was steady on her feet again.
“Great,” I said. “Let’s do this.”
I drew Tyrfing and walked up to the building, kicking the door in. I rushed in, jötnar and werewolves and ghouls following me, growling and snarling and brandishing all manner of weaponry.
At first it seemed like it was a ridiculous amount of overkill. There was only one person even in there, a tall slender man standing by the windows on the other side of the room, looking out over the ocean. For a second I felt pretty smug.
Then he turned, and I saw the vivid urine-yellow color of his eyes, and I smelled his rotting-meat magic, and suddenly I wished I’d brought rather a lot more firepower. A tank battalion, maybe.
“Finally,” the skinwalker said, sounding rather bored.
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