Thorn Queen (Page 5)

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I fully intended to make good on my promises, and in Tucson the next day, I began acquiring an odd assortment of goods that I hoped might improve the Thorn Land's situation. Admittedly, they were kind of lame, but I figured I had to start somewhere and was rather proud of my attempts when I finished.

I was sitting down in front of the TV with an early dinner that night when Kiyo walked in, clad in his white vet's coat. Naturally, all the animals lifted their heads or actually walked over to him in greeting. If I hadn't been balancing a plate of ravioli on my lap, I would have leapt up and run into his arms. Instead, I gave him a dazzling smile, one that grew larger when I saw he carried a bouquet of flowers.

“I would have been here sooner,” he said, tossing the coat onto a chair. “But I had an afternoon shift.”

“Hey, I'm just happy to see you at all. I figured you'd still be busy with baby stuff.”

“Nope.” He sat down in a chair opposite me and laid the bouquet down on the coffee table. “You were amazing there, you know.”

“If by amazing, you mean shoddily dressed and leading on gentry princes-then, yes. Yes, I was. What are those for?” I gestured with my fork to the flowers-an arrangement of brightly colored gerbera daisies.

“Do I need a reason? Aside from you being awesome?”

I swallowed the piece of ravioli I'd just chewed. “Of course there's a reason. There's always a reason. We've talked about this before.”

He gave me a lazy, dangerous smile, propping his head up on his elbow as his dark eyes assessed me. “Right. Standard practices in courtship and mating. Gifts given as subtle suggestions. 'Here, take these plant sex organs.' Hint, hint.” It was an old joke between us.

“Fortunately, in your case, you don't need to be that subtle. I already know you want sex.”

“True, but I wanted to clear up any doubts. Besides, you've been so great lately…I don't know. I just wanted to do something nice. Figured we could have a fun night-although, you're dashing my dreams of taking you out to dinner with the way you're inhaling that ravioli.”

“Sorry,” I said through a mouthful of food. “I've got a job tonight, so I had to eat early.”

His eyebrows rose. “What kind of raw deal is this? I get off work so I can take you out on the town, and you've got to go into work now? Why can't you have Lara schedule you day jobs?”

“Because I was busy today with Thorn Land business.”

Kiyo gave me a wary look.

“Hey, don't judge me,” I warned. “I wasn't actually over there. But I kind of found out recently that people are starving and going without water.”

“Yeah. I've heard that.”

Now I was the one with the incredulous look. “You knew and didn't tell me?”

“Don't jump all over me! I figured you had people to deal with it. And probably those people had people.”

“Yeah, well, all of those people are having a little trouble. In fact, I've got to go back tomorrow to help round up some brigands.”

“Did you just say 'brigands'? That's very…I don't know. Very 1683.”

“Well, whatever they are, they're a pain in the ass and possibly abducting girls.” I gave him a quick recap. “You want to go with me and help?”

He shook his head ruefully. “You know, I came here hoping to spend time with you. Instead, I find out you've got a job tonight and are playing sheriff tomorrow.”

“Would it help if I wore a cowgirl outfit?”

“It might.” He came over to sit beside me and kissed my cheek. “And yes, I'll go tomorrow. I'll even go tonight, if you want the company.”

“You see? We are spending quality time together.”

“I just hope there's some quality time in bed later to help make up for it all.”

“Well,” I said haughtily, setting my plate on the table, “that depends on you, huh? I have no doubts about my quality.”

He put a hand on my thigh and brushed his lips against my neck. “Oh, Eugenie. Don't push your luck here,” he growled, “or you might be late for work.”

I grinned and answered by way of a long, deep kiss that probably would have turned into more if my appointment hadn't been so close. That, and we also heard Tim coming in the back door. He never took it very well when he found Kiyo and me in a compromising position.

The two of us drove over near the university, to a quiet residential neighborhood that was split evenly between single-family residences and crowded houses shared by students. As we pulled up in front of a narrow two-story home in need of a new paint job, Kiyo frowned.

“That microbus looks really familiar,” he said, eyeing the driveway.

“Really?” I asked innocently.

We got out of the car and approached the house. When we'd cleared the microbus, Kiyo paused to look at its slew of bumper stickers. Question Authority and Roswell or Bust! were only a few. He gave me a sharp, accusing look.

“Eugenie, did Wil Delaney move?”

“Nooo,” I said slowly. “But this is a friend of his.”

Kiyo groaned. “If I'd known this, I would have stayed home. That guy is insane. And wait-did you just say he actually has a friend?”

“A friend with a legitimate problem. And you can always go wait in the car.”

Kiyo said nothing, merely steeling himself as we approached the door. Wil Delaney was a former client of mine. He was a conspiracy theorist who almost never left his home and whose sole income depended on a blog he ran that furthered his ideas on the government, aliens, mind control, genetic manipulation, and a whole host of other wacky premises. He was quite possibly the most paranoid person I'd ever met.

He was also Jasmine's half-brother. It was how we'd met. He'd been the one to hire me to go find her in the Otherworld, long before I'd known anything about Storm King and the prophecy. Apparently, Wil and Jasmine's mother hadn't been so virtuous and had cheated on Mr. Delaney a lot-even with gentry warlords.

About a dozen locks unclicked before we were allowed into the house, which was almost as many as Wil had at his own home. The person who greeted us was a woman, a very young one. She was short with plump cheeks, cropped brown hair, and pink cat-eye glasses. “Is this her?” she asked.

A moment later, Wil's head peered around the doorway's side. He looked the same as last time: pale blond hair in need of cutting, glasses, and skin that never saw the sun. “Yup.”

“Who's the guy?” asked the woman suspiciously.

“Her boyfriend. He's cool. Cairo.”

“Kiyo,” I corrected. I held out my hand to her. “You must be Trisha.”

“I prefer to be called Ladyxmara72,” she said. “Because really, we're all just anonymous faces in this society, as far as the government is concerned. Plus, Ladyxmara72 is one of my World of Warcraft character names. Ironic that a virtual society like that can be more honest and egalitarian than our own. Or maybe…” She paused dramatically. “It's not so ironic.”

Wil stared at her adoringly. Beside me, Kiyo made some sort of strangled noise.

They led us inside a home nearly as dark as Wil kept his. I guessed Trisha-I refused to call her Lady-whatever-worried about the same issues with radiation that he did. Her home was neater, however, and bore slightly more feminine touches, like furniture that matched and a few scented candles. The candles appeared to be homemade, undoubtedly so they wouldn't poison the air with artificial scents or be laced with trackers that the government could use to listen in on Trisha's conversation.

“So,” said Trisha as we entered the living room. An episode of The X-Files was paused on the TV. “You're here to take care of the alien problem.”

“I'm here to-what did you say?” I looked back and forth between Wil and her.

“Aliens,” she said. “My house is infested with them.”

I peered around, half-expecting to see E.T. hanging out on the loveseat. All was empty and still. “I don't really understand. Didn't Wil tell you what I do?”

“We don't know for sure that they're aliens,” he said hastily. “But there is something here.”

“Of course they are!” she exclaimed. He cowered a little under her glare. “I've seen them looking in the windows-just like on that documentary.”

Immediately, his chagrin turned to outrage. “Oh, come on! You know that's a hoax. The evidence is overwhelming.”

“The hell it is! There's no way anyone could fake that kind of-“

“Um, hey, you guys?” I said. “Can we just get this taken care of? Tell me more about the ali-whatever. Have you both seen them?”

They nodded. “They're short with big eyes,” Trisha said triumphantly.

“But they wear paisley suit coats,” added Wil. “And they do chores at night.”

“Doesn't sound so bad to me,” murmured Kiyo. “Why get rid of them?”

“Kobolds,” I said after a moment's thought. “You've got kobolds.”

“There is no known planet by that name,” argued Trisha.

I sighed. “Just take me to your basement.”

Trisha led us through the house, and Wil drifted over beside me. “Isn't she amazing?” I swear he was on the verge of swooning.

“Your first girlfriend?” I asked.

“How'd you know?”

“Instinct.” Engaging Wil in conversation was always dangerous, but seeing as he never left the house or had much social interaction, I just had to ask the next question. “How'd you guys meet?”

“On a forum. We were both in this thread and kept arguing about whether there was a government connection between the overdoses of Marilyn Monroe and Heath Ledger, and then we-“

“Okay,” I said, grimacing. “That's enough. Really.”

We reached the basement door, and Trisha started to go down. “Don't,” I warned. “You guys need to stay up here.” I gave Wil a stern look. “Don't let her down there until we're done. You of all people know I'm not fucking around.”

Wil blanched further-if that was possible-and gave a hasty nod. Wil had traveled with me to the Otherworld and fully understood the perils of my job. I could hear Trisha arguing with him as Kiyo and I descended the stairs, yet somehow, Wil managed to do his job and keep her away.

“I never thought it was possible,” said Kiyo, once we were out of earshot. “He's found and fallen in love with someone exactly like him. I guess there really is someone for everyone.”

“She's a little more assertive than he is, I think.”

“Good. He needs it.”

“On the bright side, this'll be cake. Kobolds aren't an issue.”

Kiyo nodded his agreement but wrinkled his nose when we reached the bottom of the steps. “They're bad-smelling ones, though.”

The basement wasn't finished and bore the usual clutter one found in such places. Lots of hiding spots for kobolds. I pulled on a hanging chain, and a bare bulb offered meager illumination. Taking out my wand, I extended my arm and swept the whole basement.

“By the earth and fire you serve, I command you to reveal yourselves.”

Shamanic magic tingled from me, through the wand and its gems, and into the room. A moment later, three forms materialized. They were about three-feet high, male, and hardly resembled the big-eyed aliens popular in modern culture. These guys were wizened, with patchy yellow hair. Wil's comment about the paisley coats wasn't entirely accurate either. One wore plaid.

“Why did you call us out?” the one in plaid demanded in a high-pitched voice. “We haven't done anything to you. We haven't done anything to anyone.”

“You guys, you can't stay here,” I said. “Not in this house. It's not yours. This world isn't yours.” I was a stickler for world ownership.

“We're helping,” argued one of the paisley ones. “Do you know how messy these people are? Books and paper everywhere.”

If Trisha's house had resembled Wil's before the kobolds arrived, I could well imagine it. Kobolds were kind of like benign goblins, originating in northern Europe and rarely given to maliciousness unless provoked. My hope was that they could simply be talked into leaving.

“That's really nice and all, but I mean it: you can't stay here. I've got to send you back to the Otherworld. Give me a hard time about it, and I'll make it the Underworld.”

The plaid one scowled. “You're as cruel as they say, Eugenie Thorn Queen. We've done nothing to deserve this.”

I tried not to scowl right back. Before learning about my gentry blood, I'd often conducted shamanic business under the pseudonym Odile Dark Swan. It was what Otherworld denizens had known and feared me as. I wasn't thrilled to know that no part of my identity was a secret anymore.

“You guys, I am not screwing around. You know who I am. You know what I can do, so stop wasting time.” Wand still in hand, I began to channel an opening to the Otherworld. “You can't take on both of us, let alone one.”

“No,” agreed the other paisley one. “But he can.”

“He-ahh!”

Furry hands reached around from behind me just seconds after Kiyo exclaimed, “Eugenie!”

Kiyo was normally on high alert but had been as cocky as me about dealing with the kobolds. His attention had been on them, and he hadn't sensed the other threat lurking in the basement. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Kiyo had scented this creature, if the odor emanating from its hands and arms was any indication. He just hadn't made the connection.

I still didn't have a good look at my furry-armed captor, seeing as I was still struggling to break free of its grasp. Kiyo was on it in a flash, needing no weapons save his own brute strength. His hands closed around the creature's arms, and he managed to pull them loose enough for me to slip out of its grip. Once free, I was able to get a good look. It was a…

Huh.

I wasn't really sure. It was furry, brown, and tall, with rounded ears like a mouse or bear and hooves like a deer and a whole other assortment of random animal parts. It gave a strangled roar of displeasure, and I braced for it to turn back on me. Usually, that was how it worked. Creatures who came after me usually had one of two goals: either rape me on the spot or kill me to prevent me from fulfilling the prophecy.

But Smokey the Bear, or whatever it was, was going after Kiyo, ignoring me while the kobolds watched gleefully. Kiyo socked the creature hard in the chest, and I noticed a faint ripple of light spread through it that faded quickly. Smokey then returned with a punch that took Kiyo hard in the face and sent him toward the wall. It was hard, too-that punch had been meant to kill. Kiyo's reflexes were too fast, though, and he caught himself before his skull could smash against the solid concrete.

I leapt into the fight then, pulling out my Glock. I'd loaded it with silver bullets earlier and was glad I'd done so. I got off a couple of shots into the monster. Each time, I saw its form ripple, but it still didn't come after me. It was too intent on killing Kiyo. The two grappled further, and I continued firing, knowing I had to be weakening it. Nonetheless, one lucky blow knocked Kiyo off his feet and onto his back. The kobolds cheered when he remained still.

Me, I screamed in rage, taking my wand in my other hand and facing the furry monstrosity head-on. It attempted no killing blows on me and merely kept trying to get a hold of me as I fired and began the banishing words. Suddenly, Kiyo was on his feet again, thrusting himself between us.

“Stay the hell away from her!” he snarled. I saw all the muscles in his body tense and had a feeling he was on the verge of shape-shifting.

Smokey looked angry and turned into full assault mode again. “Get out of the way,” I said. “I've got him.”

“I'm not letting him lay a hand on you,” retorted Kiyo, eyes fixed on his foe. A flash of gold glimmered in Kiyo's eyes. Gold like a fox's.

“He's not trying to kill or rape me,” I argued, as Kiyo dodged another crushing blow. “He wants to subdue me-you he wants to kill.”

But Kiyo was dead set on protecting me, and I finally decided he'd be safest if I hurried up and just finished the banishing rather than attempt to protect him. Firmly channeling my power into the wand, I again began opening a gate to the Otherworld. As I did, though, I kept thinking about those ripples I saw when I'd attacked the beast, like it couldn't quite stay together. An idea struck me, and rather than direct the banishing magic into ripping open the fabric of this world, I directed it toward Smokey-or, rather, toward the Otherworldly magic holding Smokey together. Kiyo sprang away from the fight, realizing what I was going to do.

Sure enough. A spiderweb of light suddenly covered the monster, fragmenting his form. With the wand, I destroyed the magical bonds, and suddenly-he exploded.

But not like Aeson had exploded. It was more like he fell apart. Gone was the large, hulking, furry form. Instead, scuttling on the ground was a swarm of woodland creatures: mice, rabbits, a deer, and a couple of ducks. The mice and rabbits immediately scurried into whatever nooks and crannies they could find. The ducks looked confused. The deer ran up the stairs.

With the banishing magic already started, it was easy to complete the actual opening to the Otherworld and send the kobolds through. Just before they vanished, Kiyo leaned toward them-keeping out of the magic's way-and fixed them with a dark, angry expression. The blood on his face from the fight only added to his fearsome appearance.

“Tell whoever sent you here to leave her the hell alone, or I will come after him myself and rip him apart limb by limb. And I'll do the same to you guys while I'm at it. None of you are ever going to lay a hand on her again,” he growled.

The kobolds' faces reflected true fear as they disappeared from this world. Silence fell, aside from the quiet and confused quacking of the ducks who still didn't know what to do with themselves.

“Well,” I gasped. “That was one of the more convoluted schemes I've seen yet.” Would-be rapists often did attempt to distract me with a seemingly ordinary banishing and then would swoop in unexpectedly. This person had sent the kobolds to lure me out and then that woodland conglomeration to actually subdue me and bring me back as a war prize. Kiyo, as an obstacle to that plan, had had to be eliminated first. I took in his ripped shirt and blood. “Are you okay?”

“Fine, fine,” he said, wiping his face. “It's superficial. What the hell was that?”

“Some monster that a gentry put together with magic. Bound all those animals into one stronger form and ordered it after me.”

“Will it come back together?”

“No. I broke the bonds, and they're all spreading apart anyway.”

“Um, Eugenie?” Wil's voice suddenly rang down the stairs. “Is everything okay down there? A deer just ran through the living room….”

Kiyo and I both decided later that it was a good thing Smokey had disbanded like he had. Otherwise, if they'd seen his full form, Trisha and Wil would have had enough Bigfoot material for their forums to last until the next century. Goodness only knew what kind of threads and rumors this event alone would start.

Trisha paid me in cash once we frisked the deer out of the house, and I told her she was on her own for the other animals in the basement. As we were leaving, Wil briefly caught me alone, his goofy, paranoid expression replaced by a much grimmer one. “Have you found Jasmine yet?” he asked in a very soft voice.

I bit my lip. No matter how absurd I thought Wil was, whenever I saw how much Jasmine's disappearance grieved him, it broke my heart. I'd never told him the truth of her heritage. The only information I'd given him was that she was on the run and hadn't been kidnapped. I thought he'd take comfort in knowing she wasn't being held against her will, but it hurt him to think she didn't want to be with him. He truly loved his sister, no matter how much she despised the human world. It was really quite sad.

“No, I'm sorry. I really am.”

His face fell further, and he gave a weak nod. “Yeah. I figured. I know you'll keep looking, though. And you'll let me know if you find her?”

I tried to give him a reassuring smile. “Sure.”

The truth was, I didn't know if I would tell him. It all depended on what state I found her in. If I found her pregnant and bent on conquering the worlds…well, I wasn't entirely sure what I'd do then, but one thing I felt certain of was that there was no way I was ever going to let her return to this world.