The car I had handy was a rather bland SUV, rather than Aiko’s high-powered sports car. Which was probably a good thing, since I doubted Crimson could really handle the Lamborghini, but I still found myself wishing for it. We were in a hurry, and the difference in speed between the two was rather substantial.
She made decent time in the SUV, though, certainly much better than we could have managed on foot. The empty streets helped a lot. With almost no one out and about after dark, little things like “speed limits” and “traffic signals” weren’t so much rules as casual guidelines.
While she was doing that, I grabbed my phone. It was still intact despite the falls, bites, and fire, for which I was once again grateful for the magically reinforced, industrial-strength case I had on it.
Some people can send text messages faster than they can talk. I’m not one of them—it just isn’t something I do often enough, and it’s not like I learned it as a kid. They barely even had cell phones when I was a kid.
But I was in a rush, and Crimson had already heard and seen enough suspicious things from me that one more wasn’t the end of the world. So I dialed a number from memory and tried to pretend that this wasn’t a terrible idea.
Kyi answered on the first ring. “Jarl?” she said.
“Three suspects fleeing on foot from my location,” I said. “Two human, one something else. Take the humans down if you can, preferably without killing them. The other one is fast and tough; don’t engage with it, but try to keep aware of its location.”
“Got it,” she said instantly, hanging up a moment later.
And that, essentially, was what I liked about Kyi. She could be a bit of a hassle at times. She could be obnoxious and even a touch disrespectful, though she never went so far that I had to do something about it for the sake of my reputation. But when things were serious, she was all business.
I frowned, trying to think of who else was in the area, then called another number.
Selene, also, answered on the first ring. “Boss?”
“There’s a nonhuman entity in this area,” I said. “Moving west, fairly quickly. I want to know where it is and where it’s going, and I want the option to bring it down if necessary. Call Kris for surveillance, and see if Jibril has people in the area. Once you’ve contacted both of them, send a car this way with a group of thugs and Jack.”
“For what I’m paying him,” I said irritably, “you can wake him. Clear?”
“Crystal, boss. I’ll send them your way.”
“Okay,” Crimson said, a couple seconds after I put the phone away again. “That wasn’t David.”
“Nope,” I said. “Something like this, I think we’re better off not bringing the others into it.”
“Why?” Her tone was a little harsh, maybe even accusatory.
Because David would want to take control of the situation, and the others are about as much use here as minnows fighting a shark, I thought.
That was very much the wrong thing to say right now, though. So instead, I just looked at her and said, “They’re impulsive, and she obviously isn’t that stable. Putting the two together doesn’t seem like a great idea.”
“I suppose,” she said reluctantly. “What about David, though?”
“I don’t know him well enough to trust him to do the right thing here,” I said. “Whatever we decide the right thing is.”
Crimson looked like she wanted to argue, but she didn’t. “So who were you calling?” she asked instead.
I shrugged. “Just some people I know,” I said. “Friends, guys that owe me favors, that kind of thing.”
“What kind of friends are we talking about?”
I sighed. “Crim,” I said, “there are questions you don’t want to ask. You don’t want to think too hard about this, understand? We’ll all be happier that way.”
“No,” she said. “No, I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Who are you, why don’t you trust the other Guards, and why the hell do you have an army on speed dial?”
“There are two ways this can go,” I said. “The first is that you can take this at face value. I’m Jonathan Keyes, also known as Shrike. I’m a violent, antisocial guy with severe paranoia and multiple other psychological disorders who joined the Guards as a form of work release. Anything you hear or see which suggests otherwise is either a trick of your imagination or an elaborate deception on my part.”
“I don’t like that option much,” she said. “What’s the other one?”
“You keep asking inconvenient questions,” I said. “Sooner or later, one way or another, you’ll learn some things you really aren’t supposed to know. The Guards will be pissed at me, but they can’t really do a whole lot about it, so they’ll take it out on you. Between that and the fact that you’ll have taken a nosedive onto the ‘liability’ side of the fence, I’d bet dollars to donuts that something happens to take you out of the picture. Maybe you have an unfortunate accident, or something goes wrong in a fight, or you just disappear one day and we never find out what happened. Something.”
“You’re making it sound like there’s some conspiracy or something,” she said. Her fingers had tightened on the wheel, though she was still driving quite competently.
“No,” I said. “I’m spouting insane conspiracy theories, because I’m a paranoiac and I’m enough of a sociopath to get off on drawing other people into my psychosis. I’m nuts, remember?”
She laughed, though it sounded a little uneasy, and she hadn’t relaxed her grip on the wheel.
I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, and stuck my head out the window to get a better look. Sure enough, there was a hawk perched on a building nearby. As soon as I saw, it took off and flew across the street, disappearing behind the garage to my left.
“We’ve almost caught up with her,” I said, pulling my head back into the car and rolling the window up. It was a cold night out there, and while I registered the cold breeze only as mildly refreshing, I knew Crimson would find it uncomfortable. “Turn left at the next intersection.”
“How do you know that?”
“Because I’m crazy, remember?” I said lightly. “Although I’m also right, so do take that turn.”
She snorted. “If I can keep all of this straight,” she said dryly, “I think I’ve got a future in politics. This is too much doublethink for any other line of work.”
I laughed, and she was grinning as she turned at the next intersection. But there was still a tension in her posture that she couldn’t quite cover up, and the silence after I stopped laughing was deep, and ugly.
This lie that the Guards wanted me to tell had a limited shelf life. I couldn’t realistically keep this mask up indefinitely; I wasn’t a good enough actor, and doing my job without the people I was working with realizing that there was something strange going on wasn’t possible. The Guards were smart enough to have realized all of that, too. Guard hadn’t fallen off the truck yesterday.
I was more than a little concerned by the implications of that.
Kris led us further west, and slightly north, towards the outskirts of town. It seemed clear that our quarry was trying to get out of the city. I doubted that she knew the layout of the city, but there were enough lights towards the center of town that she surely knew where the population was concentrated.
She was moving fast, but Kris was a bird, and we had a car. She wasn’t fast enough. Kris mostly stayed out of sight, high enough to track our target easily; she only dropped down occasionally when we needed a course correction.
The streets started to feel more and more familiar, as we got back into a part of the city that I knew very well indeed. I wasn’t surprised when I saw the Lamborghini parked at the side of the road. It figured that the chase would end here.
Crimson parked next to the Lamborghini and we got out. I could see figures in front of us, and hear voices, so I started walking that direction.
Crimson stumbled a little as she started to follow me, reminding me that she couldn’t see in the dark. It was after midnight, with a cloudy sky, and there were no streetlights around here; it was more than dark enough to cause problems for her. She was, after all, only human.
I offered her a hand to help her. She didn’t seem too thrilled, but she took it. She was too practical to turn down help just because she didn’t like me very much at the moment.
The people were gathered on the spot my house had stood on, once. It took me a second to recognize it. It had been a lot of years since my cabin burned to the ground, now. At first there had least been a scorch mark to show where it was, but that had faded long ago. If I hadn’t known better, I wouldn’t have guessed that a structure had ever stood there.
Crimson fell behind a bit as we walked up to them, letting me take the lead. There were around a dozen people there. Most of them were ghouls in their human masks, spread out in a loose semicircle. There were three people standing in the center. Closest to us—and furthest from the ghouls—was the creature we’d chased here. Aiko was standing across from her, fully armored; next to her, Jack looked surprisingly good in his tailored suit, considering that he’d been asleep not that long ago.
“Hi,” I said, walking up to them.
The creature Crimson had summoned spun to look at me. I was impressed at the speed of her movement. Even though I’d seen very well just how quickly she could move, it still seemed strange to watch. She looked like she should be slow.
“Leave me alone,” she said, in that strange, slightly stuttering voice.
“Can’t do that,” I said. “Not without knowing what you’ll do. You’re obviously dangerous, when you choose to be. I can’t just let you loose in the city without some assurance that you won’t turn into a menace.”
She frowned, with a creak of breaking stone. It was a fairly intimidating expression, all things considered. “I just want to be out,” she said. “Just want to not be there.”
“The Badlands,” she said, shuddering slightly.
I glanced at Aiko, who shook her head. It was a small enough gesture that I doubted anyone else had noticed it, but I knew what it meant. She didn’t have any idea what the Badlands might be, either. Not that that was so surprising. We’d both been around a while, but the Otherside was pretty incomprehensibly huge. For every domain that either of us knew, there were probably a dozen that we didn’t.
“And you can’t get out on your own?” I asked. It seemed like a natural conclusion, but I was still trying to get a grasp on how Crimson’s magic worked.
She shook her head. “Never out,” she said. “It wants me back. I can feel it pulling me back down now. I’ve gotten this far before, but eventually something happens and I’m back there. Can’t leave, can’t even die. I just wake up back in the Badlands.”
“I could probably kill you permanently, if you’d like,” I said. I started to call Tyrfing, then remembered that I wasn’t supposed to have it as Shrike and stopped. I got lucky; it didn’t decide to come anyway.
She shook her head again, more vehemently. “Don’t want to die,” she said. “Just saying. Can I stay here for a while?”
“How long is a while?” I asked suspiciously.
She shrugged. “A while.”
“She doesn’t have the best grasp on time,” Crimson said. “She understands the concept, but she doesn’t really get it. I don’t think she fully understands the idea of the future, or intervals of time.”
“How do you know that?”
“This is what I do,” Crimson said. “I’ve got enough of a connection to her to get some idea of what she is.”
“Okay,” I said. “Are there other concepts she doesn’t get?”
“Self-consciousness, for one. You know how you’d feel awkward having strangers talk about you like this right in front of you? She doesn’t have that reaction. There are others, but I don’t have enough of a grasp on them to put them into words yet.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. I had a killing machine who was seemingly made of stone and lacked basic concepts in her mind that would make interacting with humans nearly impossible. How special.
I eyed her, considering how to take her down. I wouldn’t be using Tyrfing, for numerous reasons, but I was guessing that at least one of the knives I was carrying could make an impression on that skin. The ghouls could hold her down with sheer numbers, and Jack could probably ensure that nobody was injured. It was a basic plan, but I thought it should work.
About a second before I could give the order, Aiko suddenly said, “Sure, why not. You can stay at my place for however long you end up being here.”
I grimaced, but I didn’t want to openly contradict her. So instead I just said, “All right, then. Well, if you don’t cause problems for the people of the city, that should be fine.”
“I thought you wanted her dealt with,” Crimson hissed at me.
“This is dealt with,” I said, not bothering to keep my voice down. I was guessing it didn’t much matter; this creature gave the impression that it could hear a heartbeat, let alone a whisper. “The situation is resolved and she has a place to stay.”
“How am I supposed to explain this?”
“Don’t,” I suggested. “Tell them it was a totally routine patrol, and any doors you happen to have opened were closed shortly thereafter, the same as usual. In fact, if anyone other than David asks, we never ran into those two to begin with.”
“I don’t like this,” she said.
“I’m not exactly thrilled about it myself,” I replied, looking at the creature from the Badlands. “But we work with what we’ve got.”