(NOTE: This is hopefully not the final version. But the content will not be much different in the end. I'm just posting this so we don't miss the deadline.)
"Fuck me," AJ sighed, pulling out her hairband. A week in Budapest, no running water. At least now she was in the back of a limo. With leather seats, no less. "When I get home, I'm gonna take a bubble bath." She glanced at Drac, who was sitting perfectly still. "Isn't that what people do? Bubble baths?"
Drac shrugged, which, for him, was as much as writing a novel.
AJ sighed again and slumped against his shoulder. "And let me guess. You're gonna go back to your apartment, sit down, and wait." Drac looked out the window. "How long's it gonna take you to decide she ain't coming back?" Her voice wasn't gentle. AJ had two settings, even around Drac: rude and ruder.
Drac's answer was always the same. "At least one more day."
Lukas had made some bad decisions in his life. Chiefly? Making a deal with Hel. Although going to Minos's Labyrinth to try and get an edge on the competition was a close second. He'd almost thought that experience won, since he'd spent the last few days of his time there subjected to experimentation.
Except that Minos was dead and the Labyrinth destroyed, and Hel was still very much a factor.
"I understand there is a situation in the world of the dead," said Lukas, trying to keep his anger under a lid. "Everyone's heard of it, and even if I hadn't, I saw what Minos did to Hades. There's a power vacuum. I fail to see how this is my problem."
Hel glared at him. Lukas was intimidating: he was well-built and tall, and he had enough berserker in him to be unafraid of murdering anyone who got in his way. He had spent years perfecting the skill of silencing someone with a look.
Next to Hel, though, he was a toddler. "I'm making it your problem. It doesn't matter what happened to you down there—you still owe me. I still own you. And I am saying you have to go down there and find Baldur for me."
There was no arguing with her. Lukas tried anyway. "May I remind you that the terms of our bargain were that you would aid me in making my company flourish? Again, I fail to see how that can happen when I'm dead."
"I own you," Hel growled again, leaning forward in her chair. She trembled with anger. "I don't think you understand what that entails."
Lukas looked at his right hand briefly, flexing the fingers. It had taken weeks to get full functionality back in the hand that had been possessed by Hel's magic, and he still dreamed of the things he'd done with it.
Now was not the time. He looked evenly at Hel. Pretending to be unaffected wouldn't work, but it would make him feel better later. After Hel got what she wanted. "I understand exactly what it entails, since I still have the contract. I owe you much, certainly, but that doesn't make me your—errand boy." His lip curled in disgust. "I'll do what it takes to repay my debt, but I'm not dying for you."
"Where is that bastard, anyway?" AJ muttered. "I want to give him his shit and go home." Drac raised his eyebrows at her and jerked his head in the direction of the camera room. "Good idea."
Every room in the building was on display. AJ frowned. "What's he doing down in the basement? And who's that woman?"
The camera showed only the back of the lady in the wheelchair. Lukas's cameras came in full color, but the woman's appearance, although odd, said nothing about her. Lukas attracted those harmed by the Labyrinth, so he got plenty of strange callers. Drac shrugged. "Maybe we should wait," he said, his voice quiet as always.
"No, look." AJ frowned, leaning forward. "Look how she's distorting the camera." The woman was clearly shouting now, and the more agitated she got, the fuzzier her picture became. "If that ain't a goddess, I'll eat my hat."
Drac frowned, crossing his arms over his chest. His experiences in the Labyrinth hadn't left him with an axe to grind, but they hadn't been the best part of his life, either. "We should leave them alone."
"No way. He wants personal deliveries? He gets personal deliveries." There was no use trying to talk AJ out of it, so Drac followed her to the bottom level.
AJ didn't bother being quiet when they arrived—for a thief, she sure liked to make an entrance. "Knock, knock!" she shouted, leaning against the doorframe.
Lukas and the unknown woman froze. The woman turned her head, her eyes narrowed with hatred. AJ stared back insouciantly; Drac looked at the floor. "Some of your muckrakers, eh, Lukas?" said the woman, looking back at him.
Lukas looked at her; his eyes widened only slightly, but it was the most emotion Drac's employer had ever shown. "Is there something you need, Drac, AJ? I'm a little busy right now." His voice was polite, but his face was adamant: leave, now, if you value your lives.
Which was a stupid threat. AJ sauntered forward and dropped her backpack on the table. "Sorry, boss man. Just wanted to give you the goods." She flipped him a two-fingered salute and walked back to Drac. He offered her his elbow—this was a trick she'd had to teach him, but he'd taken to it because it added to the chaos and frustration AJ left in her wake—and the two of them walked out.
"Well," said AJ, letting go so she could stretch her arms over her head. "That went well, don't you think?"
"Excuse the interruption," said Lukas between gritted teeth. "That particular team seems to enjoy making me want to tear my hair out."
"My heart bleeds," said Hel, her voice dryer than the Sahara. "One way or another, Lukas, you're coming with me."
"Dammit, Hel, I'm not—"
"Now, now, really," said a voice from the door. Lukas froze. He didn't recognize it, but there was a very short list of people who would speak that way with a goddess in the room. A glance at the speaker narrowed the list down to one.
Loki walked into the room, slowly, feeling his way with his cane. He found a chair and sat down, smiling. It reminded Lukas of AJ; it took all his self-control not to clench his hands into fists. "Is that really any way to speak to each other? I thought you had a nice little working agreement."
Hel scowled. "Father, leave. I'm busy."
"I know you're busy—busy bullying this young man." Hel blinked. Her face contorted into angry indignation, but before she could start, Loki put his cane on his knees and sighed. "Hel, daughter, what have I told you about making bargains? You can't just go changing the terms whenever it suits you. That doesn't work."
Hel growled. "You forget I'm the one holding all the power in this arrangement. Ansgar owes me—"
"Yes, but not that much. Anyway, darling, you're missing an important point." He reached over and tapped her temple gently. Hel grabbed his wrist as though she would break it; Loki smiled like—well, like a doting father, and she let go. "Why do you want Lukas, dear? Tell me that."
It was an odd thing to be ignored in favor of a family squabble. Lukas wished there was a way out, but he couldn't even try the window, since they were underground. And it wouldn't get him away from Hel. She was in a wheelchair, but that had never stopped her from catching him before.
Hel's scowl only grew at every endearment. "He's ruthless, an excellent fighter, and a genius. And indebted to me. What else could I want? I don't have to worry about him getting mixed up in sentiment, and he won't stop til he has what he wants."
Loki clucked. "And look how well that worked out for him in the Labyrinth. Your genius was nothing more than a lab rat at the end." Lukas could not help the snarl that crossed his face now, but Loki payed him no mind. "You're not thinking, Hel. Look at him now. He's as crippled as you or I—maybe he doesn't wear it so obviously, but you can't send him down there in this condition. He'll get eaten alive."
Lukas stared at his desk, counting prime numbers backwards from one hundred. If he spoke, he would be killed, and all this arguing would be for nothing. Arrogance got you nowhere when dealing with gods.
"He'll be dead," said Hel, but with less vehemence than usual. A wrinkle had appeared between her brows. "What does it matter then?"
"It matters because he'll make the same mistakes as before, and then where will you be? I'm sure you have other aces to play, but any daughter of mine should stake her luck on a better bet than him." Loki put on a simpering smile. "No offense meant to you, of course, Mr. Ansgar. I'm sure you want to die about as much as I want my daughter to kill you."
Lukas swallowed. At least he didn't have to control his face in front of Loki, although he was certain the god could sense his tension. "None taken."
Hel sighed in disgust, rubbing one of her temples. "Fine, Father. I'll bite. What do you suggest instead?"
Loki smiled. "Wasn't that easier?" Hel said nothing, glaring. "Mr. Ansgar has plenty of lackies at his disposal. I suggest you kill one of them. I'm sure he could offer you some suggestions."
Wheels began turning in Lukas's head. He didn't like the way his thoughts led him, but he'd done plenty of distasteful things before. Better to do one more discourtesy to the world and be done with it than spend the rest of his life bound up with this crazy bitch.
Hel considered her father's words for a long moment, frowning. "...What do you suggest, Ansgar?" she said, turning her eyes to him.
Lukas put his fingertips together. "I have a better idea. I will give you two of my operatives—two of the best, actually—for your quest. In exchange, you will dissolve my contract altogether."
Hel snarled at him. "You dare try to dictate the terms—"
Her father laid a hand on her arm. Hel shut up, but mostly out of surprise. Loki turned that simpering smile on Lukas again. There was danger in that smile, maybe even more than in Hel's hatred. "Now, then, daughter. We ought to congratulate the boy, not scold him. You've got some solid brass balls, don't you, Mr. Ansgar? I think that sounds fair. Two for the price of one."
"And they've never failed me," said Lukas. It was the right thing to say, even though he did not consider his time in the Labyrinth a failure. "I can show you their record if you wish."
Hel studied him; Lukas stayed still. Finally, she scoffed and put her hands on the wheels of her chair. "Done. You get them downstairs, I'll burn your contract, we'll be shot of each other."
Before she could push away, her father touched her shoulder. "Now, now, daughter. Is that any way to conclude a bargain? You should leave in friendship, not animosity." Her eyes narrowed, but she did not stop her father as he got up and began to dig in her backpack.
His blindness did not seem to be an impediment: he produced three plates and cups. The plates were plain blue china; the cups were pink, with pictures of bouncing kittens. Lukas stared as Loki placed a plate and cup in front of him. He put a plate on Hel's lap and the cup on the arm of her wheelchair. The third plate and cup he held against his chest. He snapped his fingers, and a steak appeared on Lukas's plate, as well as a knife and fork. The cup filled with shining red wine.
God of lies. God of tricks. There was no question—if Lukas ate this, trouble would come. Who knew. Maybe it was poisoned, and all this bargaining had just been an elaborate lead-up to Lukas's death.
Loki smiled. It was just as cheerful as before. "Eat up, Mr. Ansgar!" For his part, he had a plate full of french fries; the cup was apparently full of ketchup, because Loki dipped a fistful of fries in the contents before shoving them all in his mouth at once.
Hel had a grilled cheese sandwich. Eyes narrowed and fixed on Lukas, she took a bite of the sandwich.
Lukas looked down at his steak. It was rare, just like he liked it, and the smell was intoxicating. Both gods were watching him. Lukas picked up the knife and cut into the steak, then took a bite. It was as perfect as it looked, like every excellent steak Lukas had ever eaten condensed into one. He could not help but close his eyes in pleasure, just like he couldn't help eating every bite in quick succession.
"See," said Loki, his mouth full of french fries, "this is how we do business. Now. Both of you drink your wine, and we can be finished."
Lukas could still taste the steak in his mouth; he almost didn't want to wash the flavor away. But he lifted his kitten cup to Hel in the most polite toast he could manage and drank his wine at a go. It, too, was exquisite. When he lowered his cup, both gods were gone, and so was the plate.
Lukas set the cup on the edge of his desk. "What have I gotten myself into now?" The kitten made no reply.
"I can't believe he's got another job for us," AJ muttered, pulling her hair back. "Didn't even make it home. I smell like a sewer."
"You smell fine," said Drac. He was sharpening his knife without really listening; AJ was just talking to talk.
AJ blew a raspberry at him and slouched in her seat.
AJ had seen her fair share of drab corporate buildings in her line of work. The mob had liked them, and Lukas's rivals liked them even more. They all looked the same, they all smelled the same, they all had the same stupid wallpaper.
AJ rubbed her jaw, looking up at the building. "Something doesn't smell right. And it's not my armpits. I'm going in first." Drac frowned, but AJ put her hand on her hip. "Who's in charge here?"
"Lukas," said Drac, still frowning. "Not you. We're partners, AJ."
AJ tossed her hair, which wasn't all that impressive since she'd tucked it underneath a black cap. "All right, who's the one who's good at getting in and out of buildings without getting caught? Something's off. I don't like it, and if we're being fucked with, I don't want both of us mixed up in it."
Drac kept frowning. AJ shrugged. "Look, we've done this before. You give me five minutes. I don't come out, you come in swinging. Easy peasy. Just like always." Before he could object, she patted his cheek and darted around the side of the building.
Long waits are easy. Short waits are hard. Drac counted off each minute. He was not given to fidgeting, but he walked up and down the block, because his instincts were ringing the same warning as AJ's. Lukas's voice on the phone had been—off. Drac couldn't put his finger on anything, but that didn't matter. His instincts were the only thing that kept him from getting killed on a daily basis.
That was five, and nothing from AJ. Drac shoved his phone in his pocket and broke down the front doors of the building. If AJ hadn't already signaled to him, she'd been caught, which meant there was no point in being subtle.
And he wanted them to know he was here, anyway. Nobody fucked with the two of them.
He loosened his knife so it would slip out quickly when he needed it and walked through the lobby. It was early afternoon, and the building was empty, but that was nothing queer: places like this were almost always a front for some kind of underground lab. Something like that. AJ would have headed straight down.
Drac wasn't given to hurrying, either, but he took the steps two to the basement at a time. Something in his head had gone off the moment he saw that goddess on the security camera. He and AJ could deal with anything human. Anything divine…
The steps ended in a door. Drac slowed to a walk and pressed his ear against the wood. He heard nothing, but that meant nothing. He took a spare knife from his boot and shoved it into the door, then pressed his ear to the handle. Movement. Someone there—probably a few of them—but they were trying to be quieter than him.
Fat chance. Drac pulled out his knife, put it away, and took out his good knife, the black ceramic blade. He picked the lock—a trick from AJ—and opened the door, slowly. Someone was standing behind it, waiting for him. Drac pretended he didn't notice. Then, at the last moment, he slammed the door forward into the man.
A second figure lunged at him from the shadows. Drac grabbed his arm and flipped him down, then stomped on his knee. The man shrieked in agony, but it was a ruse to cover the noise of a third man coming down the stairs. A heavy body slammed into Drac; he let the momentum knock him down so he could flip the man over his back. He was done with being nice; in the moment the man was stunned on the floor, Drac slit his throat. He got up without touching the man—he didn't want to use his ability on someone who was there to kill him.
Before the other two could recover, Drac ran on. He didn't care if they came after him; by the time they caught up, he'd have found AJ.
The basement of the building was a maze of badly lit hallways and storage rooms, but Drac turned at the first chance he got to get to the side of the building. An open window told her she'd been this way, but where next? He tried the first door he saw, because that's what she would do, and saw nothing inside. But she'd been here—someone had scrawled an obscenity in the dust on the floor.
Drac tried the next door. And the next. The third opened on a cavernous, dark garage. AJ was leaning against a car. She lifted her head when Drac opened the door; her eyes were sharp and focused, empty of all the bullshit she hid behind around other people. "Don't you come near me," she said, her voice breathy. Drac's hand clenched on his knife. He didn't like the way she clutched her side. "I got the guy, but there's somebody else here." She let out a noise of pain, and her legs gave out.
Drac caught her before she could fall. She tried to shove him away, but the movement made her suck in her breath. "Get out of here," she hissed. "It's a fucking set-up, you—"
"I know," said Drac, scanning the room. The only light came from the emergency bulbs in the ceiling; there were too many places to hide. He bared his teeth in frustration. AJ opened her mouth. "Shh!"
"Don't you fucking shush me!" What should have been a shout came out between gasps; her grip on his thigh was loosening. "I'm not gonna—die quiet—"
He looked down at her then to tell her she wasn't going to die, because how could she? She seized his free hand and pressed it against her face.
And there it was: the click in his mind, the doors opening in her eyes. "Yeah," she whispered. "Come on, Drac. Do that… that thing. You know I…"
"You love it, yeah," he whispered. He did not think of Lukas's betrayal; he did not think of the assailant waiting for him to let down his guard. He leaned down so he could whisper in her ear. Her breath was hot on his face. His powers had him in their grip: there was only AJ, and her short, sharp exhalations, and the words she needed to hear. "You will find a person who understands you."
Her mouth crinkled, as though she was going to laugh, and then she was gone. Before Drac could even really understand it—and he wasn't even sure he could, because death was impossible to wrap your mind around—there was a pair of muffled thumps. It was like being punched in the chest, only deeper inside. Drac died before he could put a word to the pain.
AJ was somewhere dark. Before she could take stock of her surroundings, Drac appeared beside her. "What—"
A light came on. The goddess who'd been shouting at Lukas was sitting in front of them, scowling. "Took you long enough."
AJ was not used to being confused; she was not used to not being in control. She had an idea of what had happened and where they were, but it was too great, too terrible, so she couldn't look at it clearly. Time to bullshit. "Who the fuck are you?"
"Doesn't matter," said the goddess. She snapped her fingers; a document appeared in her hand, which she shoved at Drac. "Here's what does. You're dead, I own you, you are going to find Baldur for me. He looks like this." A second piece of paper appeared; she shoved that at AJ.
A generic, handsome young man stared up at her. AJ almost started studying the written description, because her mind was scrambling, searching for something else to hold on to. AJ clamped down on her feelings—they had never gotten in her way before, so why now?
Drac had been reading the other paper the entire time. "Lukas sold us to you," he said, looking at Hel. His face was flat, as it always was when he worked with new information. "That's why we died."
AJ did not like that word, died, but if Drac wasn't bothered by it, then neither was she. "And why should we help you if you had us killed? Seems like piss-poor motivation to me. Don't they teach you this kind of shit at seminars or something?"
The goddess's scowl grew. "You are dead. I am ruler of the Norse dead, and I own your souls. Therefore, I can do whatever I want to you, and if you don't find Baldur, what I want will be to perfect every form of torture I have ever learned on the feckless remnants of your minds. Remember that."
Before AJ could snap at her again, she vanished, and they were suddenly standing in a huge stone cavern. There were thousands—maybe millions—of people around them, all talking or fidgeting or praying. Off in the distance, there was a massive gate, but it was closed.
Drac rolled up the contract and stepped around AJ so he could put it in her backpack. She handed him the picture of Baldur, and he put that away too. "So what do you think?" he said, his voice low by her ear.
"I think fuck that lady," said AJ, crossing her arms.
AJ let out a slow breath and let her mind go where it wanted. As usual, the part of her with no connection to anything, the part that was always looking ahead, had something for her. "That's not all there is to this story," said AJ, turning to face Drac. "Look at all these people. Shouldn't they be in their own underworlds? I don't know if you saw Hades while you were at Minos's, but I did. He was fucked up. Something else is going on here. I say we figure out what that is before we do anything else."
Drac nodded, his face serious as always.
AJ shoved her hands in her pockets. "And if there's something we can do to get back at Lukas, I say we do it. I don't know about you, but I was not planning on being down here so soon." Drac shook his head. "We'll stick together, we'll keep our ears to the ground—we'll get along. We always do."