Ull and his band of oddly-assorted hunters search for a notorious dealer in stolen children - valkyries and wolf-elves, anyone? Some language and violence
*Chapter 1: something dead at the end of this
The frozen silence of the night was broken only the sound of Tenshi's muttered chanting. He seemed to be making his way through the heart sutra for the dozenth time, filling in the parts he'd forgotten with gibberish and the occasional Finno-Urgic curse word.
Ull was so used to this that the low drone had become almost ambient, as much a part of the night as the groaning of the shifting ice all around them.
As a contrast, the twins, Vidar and Vali, were silent and almost completely still, their silver eyes and white hair reflecting the moon. They seldom spoke and then usually only to each other, in a soft language they had apparently invented as children. They were astonishingly fierce and heedless fighters, as if they knew they were fated to survive any encounter. They followed orders - more or less - and Ull regarded them as he would have regarded a pair of poorly-trained Siberian wolves rescued from a Russian circus. Which was, after all, near enough to the truth.
Every group needs its dumb muscle, and Ull had Ingborn, who was, luckily, sitting downwind. He looked, and smelled, as if he'd been raised by aquavit-addicted bears in a particularly revolting pit. He had a perpetual smile and two small reddish eyes glowing out of a mass of dark face-fur. Ull found him more tolerable than the rest because he didn't have to waste valuable energy trying to figure out Ingborn's thoughts. The man simply didn't have any. This accounted, Ull suspected, for the smile.
Smaller, and nearly invisible in the black bulk of Ingborn's shadow was the last member of the party. He'd probably had a real name once, but now he was Jul, and no one remembered why but Ull. He sat slightly bent over, one hand pressed to his left side over the wound that never seemed to heal entirely. Tenshi said Jul had been injured with a cursed demon spear, which was exactly the sort of thing Tenshi would say - the halfbreed wore lunacy like a string of red beads. Ingborn was convinced he'd been gut-shot - everyone knew how long a good abdominal wound took to develop the kind of scar a man could be proud of. The twins kept their speculation to themselves, only smiling a little when their sharp ears picked up the ragged edge of pain in Jul's breathing. Ull let everyone think what he wanted. It didn't matter.
The moon was high now, and bright.
"All right," Ull said, getting up. "That's enough rest. Everyone on your feet."
Ingborn stood obligingly and began kicking snow over the fire. The twins rose, shook themselves and shouldered their weapons while Tenshi unwound himself from his chakra-stretch and tucked his mala back into his sleeve. Jul tried to straighten, and made a hissing sound between his teeth.
"Oh," said Vali, in his soft growl, "Jul's bleeding again..."
"Mmmm....ja," murmured Vidar, with a sharp smile.
"Faen," said Ull. "Ingborn, take the packs off the pony and carry them yourself - Jul can ride."
"The fuck I will." Jul pulled himself upright, then stumbled.
"Moron. Get on the pony or I'll let Ingborn carry you. i want to get to Frosness before dawn, and you'll slow us down if you're dragging along bleeding all over the fucking place."
Ull frowned, thinking that travelling with an undying demigod was a real pain in the ass. If he'd been all human, he would have died weeks ago, they'd've chopped him a suitable hole in the permafrost, Tenshi would have chanted something, and they could have moved on at a proper pace. As it was...Ull wished the freak had never left Asgaard.
Jul, who was now seated on the yellow pony, turned his head and looked straight into Ull's face, his eyes glittering through the dark hair falling over them. The glance said he knew exactly what Ull was thinking. It was like having the Midgaard serpent flick its tongue in your ear, and Ull snorted with what he hoped sounded enough like derision to pass.
"Move," he said. There was an odd, compensatory kind of pleasure in being able to push a deity around, after all.
They were about an hour out of Frosness when Sju, the pony, began to throw his head around nervously, a dark sweat coming out on his corn-coloured neck. Ull could almost make out something in the air; a faint, metallic smell, and smoke.
The twins were quicker. They froze simultaneously in that disconcerting way they had, their heads turning slowly as they worked to identify the direction and origin of the scent. Sju came to a dead halt and Jul slid off, trying to coax the animal into moving forward. The pony refused, rubbing his nose against one of his striped forelegs.
"It's close," said Jul. "And whatever it is, Sju knows it's bad."
Vali leaned close to Vidar and said something in his ear. Without warning, the two wolf-elves raced away towards the east, their easy stride apparently unhindered by the snow-shrouded ice underfoot.
"Fucking rabid alvarger," said Ull. "At least we know which way to go. Ingborn can track them. Come on."
Tenshi stuck one of his brown roll-your-owns between his teeth and lit it. "Huh, should've made sure they had all their shots. And you know what? Let's not hurry. My guess is there's something dead at the end of this, and I personally would prefer not to see what the twins do when they find it. If we walk really slowly, they might be done by the time we get there."
"And what about Sju?" Jul asked. "He won't move, and I don't think even Ingborn can carry him."
"Leave him," answered Ull, checking his flamethrower. "Or stay with him here, if you care that much. I'm going. Tenshi?"
"Coming." Tenshi took another thick brown cigarette out of his pocket and pushed it into Jul's hand. "Light that, take a big mouthful of smoke and blow it up his nostrils. Do it a couple of times. I'd avoid inhaling it myself, though, if I were you. Unless demigods don't get wasted."
"What.." began Jul, but the halfbreed had already started after the others, the upturned toes of his boots ploughing ridges in the snow.
"You told him to get the horse stoned. What's that, some arcane piece of eastern wisdom?" Ull glanced over his shoulder as Tenshi caught up to him, the silver skull-bells on his Tibetan hat jingling.
"No. I only thought it would relax both of them. They can have a few laughs, get to know each other better, share those insights that only seem to occur when you've got some smoke drifting around in your head..."
"Just remind me again why they threw you out of the monastery?" Ull jeered, his lip curling derisively. He had no patience with what he saw as a weakness, a flaw, particularly one that might make his job more complicated.
"You think they expelled me for a little dragon-chasing? don't be ridiculous - enlightenment's enlightenment, Kommandant. It was for groping novices. During zazen," the halfbreed added, placidly.
Ull's fingers tightened around the flamethrower's handle, remembering how conveniently flammable Buddhist monks had proven in the past. Given his choice, he'd fry this one right now, on the spot. Aggravating pervert.
"You're an aggravating pervert, and hurting you would be fun," he remarked, through his teeth.
Tenshi grinned. "Hey....if you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha, Kommandant. But that would be killing yourself, of course."
"Why don't you save that shit for your dumbass novices. You're boring me."
The ex-monk gave him a swift, assessing look then subsided with another smile, and the two men plodded on through the snow in silence, watching Ingborn range ahead, following the tracks the twin alvarger had left.
Ten minutes later, Tenshi coughed and said, "Smell's getting stronger. Something burnt. Petrol. Metal. You think you know what we're going to find, don't you?"
"Damn. I do, too. Can we walk more slowly?"
Ull didn't even bother to answer.
A little distance in front of them, they saw Ingborn reach the top of a small rise and stop suddenly, as if something had frozen his enormous body. Then he turned and signaled them forward. Without speaking, Ull and Tenshi broke into a run.
It had been a long time since anything had shocked Ull, but the nasty way in which the burnt-out hulks of the tractor-caravans violated the perfect whiteness of the landscape offended him very much. The remains of the Saami nomads that had once inhabited them were scattered around the site like spent matches, and half a mile away, their reindeer herd milled in uneasy circles.
Ingborn had found the twins curled up together in a snow-den they had apparently dug for themselves in the lee of one of the caravans. Blood and black grease streaked their faces and clung to their hands. They were so deeply asleep that Ull had to kick the nearest one awake. Vali jumped to his feet with a snarl; more blood was clotted in the damp white hair that hung in his face. Tenshi stepped back, but Ull fended the alvarg off with the butt of his flamethrower.
Vidar was now awake, but he remained crouched in the snow, watching his humans warily.
"Tell me," Ull said.
Vali dropped back down to his haunches. "Deaders were too cold, too hard. Been out maybe three days. Longer and the reindeer would have gone. They were there, so we took one of them instead of the deaders."
"Vali brought it down brutal," murmured Vidar, licking a smear of blood off his brother's jaw.
''Do you know how much I hate it when you do that?" Ull said, even though he knew they weren't listening.
Tenshi was gazing at the alvarger, eyes half closed. "Oh, I don't know...they're actually rather...beguiling...in a feral sort of way..."
"Don't even think about it, because if I so much as suspect that you're thinking about it, I WILL kill you. And get that disgusting look off your face."
Ull stalked away, fuming. Yeah - wouldn't that be an amusing little complication? Of course, if Tenshi ever DID try anything, Vali would rip his face off. Ull wasn't so sure about Vidar, though...it was kind of hard to tell with alvarger...one minute they were trying to eviscerate you, and the next they were squirming around in the snow at your feet, smiling adoringly up at you. Ull shook his head to derail that particular train of thought.
He needed to focus on the site, to let his mind make order out of the chaos. He went back the way he had come, with the twins at his heels and Tenshi a little farther behind.
He found Ingborn dragging the bodies into a pile, humming to himself, the look in his eyes suggesting that he'd gone somewhere else inside his head. Ull brought him back.
"Nine. four men, five women."
Tenshi took out his mala and began to run the beads through his fingers.
"Set the vans on fire, then shot the Saami as they came out. Or clubbed them," Ingborn said. "Like a bunch of fucking sealhunters."
"They killed the dogs first," murmured Vali. "They were doing their job."
"No one cut, no one been done?"
"/Nei/...but this one's been chewed a little," answered Ingborn, shooting a look at the twins, who ignored him.
"Look at her," Ull said, nudging one of the bodies with the end of his flamethrower. The woman's head had been beaten in, and both of her arms were broken.
"She's a wreck. She must have fought back. Hard."
Ingborn shrugged. "Saami women are crazy."
Vidar bent his head over the woman, appearing to taste the air around her. "Not crazy. She fought for her child."
Tenshi was staring at something by his foot. "And guess what's missing?" he said, and with the toe of his boot dug into the trampled snow, turning up a cheap, Chinese-made robot toy, scorched and dented. "Their kids."
"Igoslav," said Ull, and spat.
Chapter 2: A god's sigh
"You know anyone else who would go through nine adults just to steal their kids?"
The halfbreed took out his makings and began to construct a cigarette. "No." He licked the edge of the brown paper and twisted the ends carefully. "He killed five of our monks when he took Saruji. We were - they were trained...we thought...."
Uh-huh. they /thought/. What did monks know about Tiberios Igoslav?
Tenshi's lighter flared in the dark. "The boy's person was...the boy's person is sacred."
"Ja, well - there's always someone ready to pay a high price for a little desecration. You might not want him back when you find him. If you find him." Ull watched Ingborn splash petrol over the piled bodies - in the light of the lantern they looked like nothing more than crude carvings, hardly resembling the humans they had been.
The ex-monk rubbed his reddened eyes. " I have to find him."
"Or what?" Ull ignited the flamethrower as Ingborn tossed the gasoline can away. "Or the abbot will rip out your earrings and smack you with his fan? Now there's a threat. Stand back." A fifteen-foot rod of flame erupted from the muzzle of the gun, and the petrol-soaked remains of the nomads caught fire with a sound like a god's sigh. Ull cut off the flame and shouldered the gun. "Or maybe you've got another reason you want to find this kid, freakjob?"
Suddenly he was on his back with an unexpected view of the stars overhead. Blood was running down over his chin, which was also unexpected. What the fuck? He heard Ingborn laughing and pulled himself up into a sitting position. Tenshi was examining his left glove, and the alvarger were shifting uneasily, looking at Tenshi, and then back at Ull, their eyes wide.
"Poor bastards can't decide which of you's alpha now - they don't know who to suck up to," said Ingborn. He leaned down, grabbed a handful of Ull's parka and lifted him to his feet. "Fucking monk laid you out, boss."
"I'm not a monk," Tenshi said, "I've got too much hair...I can't remember the sutras, I can't remember the sutras..."
"Did you just HIT me?"
"And I hit people...."
The flamethrower was a few feet away, melting down into a snowdrift; Ull drew the Todentanzer nine-millimeter from his belt holster and fixed on a point between the halfbreed's eyes. Funny how much smaller and more manageable everyone seemed when you looked at them along a gun barrel. "Do it again and I'll kill you."
No one moved. Vidar began to keen anxiously, and Vali's low growl developed into a snarl.
"Don't do that, boss," said Ingborn. "If the twins go totally fur, you know I won't be able to stop them."
Tenshi appeared to break out of his trance. "And that would be very, very bad..." He pulled the collar of his coat open and threw back his head. "Come on, Kommandant - you know the drill..."
Ull lowered the gun. "Damned alvarger...more trouble then they're worth..." He stepped forward, took the ex-monk by the throat, pushed him down to his knees then braced himself.
The wolf-elves slammed into him, almost knocking him off his feet; their hair was in his mouth, their blood-sweet breath on his face, and he felt something warm and rough scrape across his jaw. "All right, all right, I'm alpha again. You're happy... now stop licking me and get the fuck away."
He shoved the alvarger off of him and they dropped to the ground, their grins almost more disturbing than their threats had been.
"Every time I lose my fucking temper we have to go through this, and I end up covered in alvarg drool."
Tenshi said something Ull couldn't quite hear, and Ingborn snorted. Ull had opened his mouth to curse both of them when Vali suddenly spun around, his face pointed into the wind.
"Jul," he said. "and Sju. Another animal and something female...we don't know what it is. Never smelled it before." The alvarg's grin widened out into an impressive display of pointed teeth. "Smells very good, though."
Chapter 3: A girl likes to have her divinity recognized
"That would be the leather," someone said from the darkness, "and the armour polish, and blood, and...huh, looks like someone spilled mead all down the front of this jumper..."
There was a chuffing noise, as if steam-train was approaching, and an enormous black horse stepped into the firelight. A woman slid off its back, carefully avoiding its folded wings.
"Kanzeon Bosatsu," said Tenshi, his mouth falling open.
"Wrong religion, angelcake," she answered, surveying them all with her hands on her hips, "but a girl likes to have her divinity recognized, so tusen takk anyways."
She was even taller than Ingborn and dressed in boots, a long leather coat, a hairy sweater with reindeer knitted into it (a size or two too small for her), chainmail riding trousers and a pair of ex-Luftwaffe flying-goggles. Her hair was so short it lay like a glitter of frost over her handsome skull.
"We're dead," Ingborn breathed.
"Close," said Ull. "What do you want, Gry?"
The valkyrie rubbed at a stain on the front of her sweater. "I've got a job in the area and I saw your little bonfire - when I smelled human smoke I knew it was you...you gutter got any extra marshmallows?" She pushed the goggles up on her forehead. "Woah hey, you've got wolf-elves! Twins...that's so fuckin' hot. can I have one?" She strolled over to the alvarger, picked Vidar up like a puppy and began to scratch him vigorously behind the ears. Vidar went slackjawed and made a determined effort to get his hands under her sweater.
Gry buried her nose in his hair. "Oooh ja - this one smells like bloodsex..."
"Shit," said Ull.
"Yeah, maybe a little of that, too. No, no - bad boy. What's the matter, Ull? you know alvarger are total slutpuppies. You're not telling me you never had one get nasty on you?"
"Not like that. No." Ull took a deep breath and tried to hang on to some sense of reality, as well as his temper.
Tenshi was staring. "So THAT'S how you do it..."
Gry turned to look at him and grinned. "So you're the freaky one, huh? Should've known. You Jap boys all got that jade thunderbolt thing going on..."
Ull took another deep breath. "Now that you've fucked with everyone's minds, would you mind telling me what you're here for?"
"Hells yeah - I almost forgot." The valkyrie kissed Vidar and dropped him into a nearby pile of snow. "Another time, spunky. I've got something of yours, Kommandant - well, something that's both of ours - and I'll trade it for what you've got of mine."
The black horse snorted, its red eyes glowing softly.
"That's right," said Gry. "Snowball here found a new friend, and I found an old one. Come on, precious." She whistled, and the yellow pony picked its way forward. Slung over its back like a gralloched deer was Jul, unconscious and smiling.
"Yeah, the two of them were about half an mile west, walking around in happy little circles, trying to duet on '"Love will keep us together." Whose bright idea was the opium?"
"Right. well. don't do it again. That stuff's not good for horsies and demigods." She pulled Jul's head up by the hair. "And HE smells interesting, too." She looked into Jul's face, ran a finger over his cheek and let his head drop again gently. "We kind of miss Resurrection Man back home over the rainbow...want me to take him with me when I go? He looks a little rocky."
"You know he can't go back until the solstice. And we haven't finished this job...he's supposed to be helping."
"And is he?"
Ull grimaced. "He's helping the enlightened one over there with that problem he's got down the front of his pants."
Tenshi stuck his fingers in his ears. "OMMANIHATSUNEI'MNOTLISTENINGTOYOUOMMMMMM...."
"Awww...he always was a bad boy - you should see the look Heimdall gets on his face when Jul's name's mentioned...every fucking gold tooth showing..." Gry shook her head. "I guess you're keeping him, then. Try to get him back to us in one piece, though, ok?"
She reached into a pocket and drew out a pair of heavy gauntlets. "You get Rez, and I take what I came for. Good thing you gutter have strong stomachs."
She pulled the goggles back down and walked up to the blazing pyre. "SIIRI KALLIOLA!" she called. "THIS IS GRY VALKYRIE SUMMONING YOU TO THE HEROES' HALL! God. that always sounds so gay..."
"Siiri? You're taking a woman to Valhalla?" Odd.
Gry turned her head and studied Ull. "Yeah. You got a problem with it? There's been a few changes to the door policy, you know. It's not 'no shirt, no spear, no dick, no service' any more, Kommandant. She fought like hell, and that's dying in battle as far as i'm concerned."
"You saw what happened here?"
"Saw it? Ully, i've got it on video." The valkyrie patted her pocket. "In case there's a problem with the review board."
"Did you see him? Tiberio Igoslav? Was he here?"
"Big bastard with a bad haircut? Sure. Miss Siiri broke his nose for him. Of course, that was before he hammered her skull in. You're on the right track...but you knew that. Now, do you mind if I get on with the job? I'd like to take her out of there before she's completely crisp...that's so nasty."
Wrapping her coat more closely around her, the valkyrie walked into the fire, stirring up a wake of embers that swirled away into the darkness. In a moment she reappeared, a wavering shadow against the flames, carrying what looked like a charred scarecrow, the long bones blackened and twisted from the heat.
Beneath the sound of the fire, Ull thought he heard Tenshi say,"I can't remember the sutras..." as Gry lifted the smoking effigy towards the sky for a moment, then cradled it again, one gauntleted hand curved around the skull.
"Come back, sweetheart," she said, bent her head and blew into the gaping lipless mouth. The body seemed to shimmer and writhe, the bones straightening, reclothing themselves in flesh. In less than two minutes, the valkyrie was holding a woman, complete, unharmed, and still; an ordinary-looking sami woman with pale blonde hair beginning to silver and wind-roughened skin pulled tight over broad cheekbones. as they watched, she shuddered in Gry's arms, gasped like a diver reaching the surface and opened her eyes.
Surprisingly, Ingborn crossed himself.
"Atta girl, Siiri," said the valkyrie approvingly. She took off her coat and wrapped the woman in it. "We're gonna take a ride on my nice horse over there, and when we get where we're going, you can have a bath and use the heroes-only sauna, then I'll introduce you to everyone..."
The woman stared at her blankly. "Tomas?" she said, as if trying to remember something.
Gry escorted her to the horse and boosted her aboard. "Don't worry about your baby any more; you've done all you can. We'll just have to trust the rat pack here to do their jobs." She climbed up behind her passenger. "And they'll enjoy every sanguinary moment of it. Hey, Ully."
"What?" Ull walked over and stood beside the horse. Gry leaned over so far she nearly slid off of it, and kissed him. "See you again, Kommandant."
"Oh yeah. I'm your ride home." The valkyrie put her arms around the Saami woman and hammered the horse's sides with her heels. It crouched, fanning out its wings, and then leapt into the air, its blackness almost immediately extinguished among the fading stars.
Ull stood and stared at the sky until his lips were cold again.