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Authors: Leah Cutter

Tags: #mystery, #lesbian, #Minneapolis, #ragnorak, #veteran, #psyonics, #Loki, #Chinaman Joe

Poisoned Pearls

BOOK: Poisoned Pearls
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Poisoned
Pearls

Leah Cutter

Poisoned Pearls

Leah Cutter

Copyright © 2014 Leah
Cutter

All rights reserved

Published by Book View
Café

by arrangement with
Knotted Road Press

www.BookViewCafe.com

www.KnottedRoadPress.com

 

ISBN: 978-1-61138-426-0

 

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.
All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events
portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or
incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be
reproduced in any form without permission.

 

Prologue

Odin Val-Father (
oak-strong,
shield-strong
) strode angrily down the length of his long hall, thumping
his staff against the stone floor. Sparks flew, arcing up and away, silver and
gold. Each solid strike gave him little comfort. He wouldn’t break the stone,
though—Frigg would have his head, or maybe his other eye, if he did.

And he was already in enough trouble with her.

With a wave of his hand, Odin set the flames of the long
fire in the center of the hall sparking and hissing, reaching toward the
towering, pine-timbered ceiling. Proud banners in red and gold, counting Odin’s
many victories in battle, lifted off the solid walls, waving as if in a
sail-filling breeze. Even the snakes carved into the wide columns moved
sluggishly, circling and looping continuously, making a hollow sound, like sand
blown against an empty hull.

Odin’s ravens,
Hugin
and
Munin
(
clear-eyed,
sharp-beaked
) perched on the back of Odin’s great chair
Hlidskjalf
at the far end of the hall. Odin angrily waved at them, but they
remained placidly undisturbed.

“I will not be defied!” Odin shouted. He slammed the butt of
his staff against the solid stone. An ear-splitting crack of thunder filled the
long hall, followed by the familiar smell of ozone.

Hugin
and
Munin
flapped and squawked appropriately before settling down again quickly.

Had they really been affected? Or were they just putting on
a show for him?

Odin threw himself into his great chair. His long gray robe
folded gracefully around him, the white collar, placards, and cuffs still
dazzling. His staff found its place standing beside him. He looked down the
fire-brightened length of his hall, his domain, his
rule
.

It was all dark, except for the one bright light. Just as
the All Worlds were.

With a sigh, Odin reached for the table sure to be to his
right, on his good side, where a pitcher of the sweetest mead should be
sitting, waiting for him, with a fine goblet to drink from.

His hand reached out to nothing.

By
Mimur’s
left ball,
was
everything
set to
defy him that day?

Odin turned, ready to blast the table and mead to bits.

Loki stood at his side, calm and cool, the table pushed behind
him. He held the pitcher in one hand pouring a honeyed draught into the goblet.

Today, Loki wore a black tabard edged in red, with a fine
white shirt from the Renaissance period. Why he persisted in dressing from
times other than his own age Odin had never been able to guess. Loki’s strong
legs were covered in hose decorated with large black-and-red diamonds, and soft,
ankle-high black boots.

“I am in no mood for your conniving today,” Odin warned as
he took the heavy gold goblet from Loki. The first sweet sip soothed his
tongue, but his rage still pricked him.

“And when are you ever?” Loki asked, amused as always.

Odin didn’t know what would permanently remove that smirk
from Loki’s face. He suspected that even after death, Loki would still be
laughing, as if all the worlds held jokes and riddles that only he could see.

At least Loki understood enough to let Odin drink for a
while in peace, the fragrant mead calming Odin’s sparking rage. The heavy
liquor coated Odin’s throat, making his limbs heavy and replete.

Finally, Odin felt as though he could hold a hospitable
tongue in his head, at least for a while—it was Loki, after all. “Why
have you come to bother me today?” Odin asked.

Mostly hospitable.

“Why do you presume I am here to cause you grief?” Loki
asked. He sipped his own mead from a goblet just as splendid as Odin’s, though
a ring of rubies circled the full cup. “Perhaps I came to see what was
upsetting you. To see if I could help.”

“Though I have turned to you, in the past, for aid,” Odin said,
“I’ve usually regretted it.” He knew that was an exaggeration. Loki had helped
out the gods more than once. And sometimes the price hadn’t been too high. Like
with the man building the wall around
Asgard
, and
Loki distracting his horse.

It still always paid to be on his guard against the
trickster.

“Then at least let me hear what ails you. Let me counsel
you. You can decide whether I have a wise or foolish tongue in my head,” Loki
said. He turned his face to Odin. Half of it was scarred that morning—the
poison from the snake above his head showing through. The other half was fair
and clear, with a sharp cheekbone, thin smiling lips, and searing blue eyes.

They existed in the All Time that morning, when all the
myths and battles had yet to happen; however, at the same time, they’d all
already occurred as well.

The only fixed point was Ragnarok, sometime at the twilight
of things. It was yet to come, always looming, that ever-present Fate that Odin
had given his eye to prevent, only to be told it was unstoppable.

“So you show me your betrayal as well as your cunning?” Odin
asked. For the first time that morning, he felt a smile threatening.

Loki shrugged. “I show you what your hall demands.”

Odin didn’t believe him. It wasn’t his hall that changed Loki.
Loki was too conscious to let his environment dictate his appearance. He was
the trickster, and would show the face most likely to get him what he wanted.

Still, it was an interesting choice. Half beautiful god,
half scarred demon.

“Tell me, Val-Father, what disturbs you today?” Loki
persisted. When Odin didn’t reply, Loki continued. “It’s Frigg again, isn’t
it?”

Odin looked at Loki sharply. Was it that obvious that he was
having problems with his wife?

Loki sighed and shook his head, gazing down into his cup of
mead. “That’s the problem with women. You try to please them, do everything
they ask, and yet it turns out what they want is something different.”

Odin found himself nodding, then hastily took a swig of his
own mead.
By Hel’s black teat,
he wasn’t
going to say another word to Loki about his marital problems.

But oh, how his loins ached at the thought of Frigg turning
him away. Again.

The crackling of the fire in the center of the hall filled
the silence between the two gods. The soft slithering of the carved snakes slid
into the gaps. Odin let the light in the hall fade as he morosely contemplated
yet another night alone.

“How long has it been since you’ve had a real battle,
Val-Father, father of the slain?” Loki asked suddenly.

Odin pressed his lips together.
You mean besides the royal fight I just had with Frigg?
Even in the
All Time, it seemed as though it had been an age ago.

“Women like their men to be leaders,” Loki confided. “How
can they have confidence in us if we don’t show them our force now and again?
Not in the bedroom, no, that is merely a man not in control of himself. But on
the battleground. There isn’t anything more sexy than a victorious leader.”

Odin stopped himself from nodding this time. Maybe that was
what Frigg had meant that morning, insisting he be more forthcoming.

The silence grew again, but this time, it pricked at Odin’s
conscience instead of his ready rage. “So what would you have me do? Go declare
war on the frost giants? Again?”

Loki gave a mirthless laugh. “No. Not that. You need a real
challenge.” He looked at Odin over the edge of his goblet. “A serious
contender.”

“You mean yourself, I suppose,” Odin said. Of course Loki
thought he was the only one fit to challenge him.

Loki gave a one-shouldered shrug, the scarred side of his
face tipping as well, as if all the skin was connected and strained. “You could
do worse.” He walked from next to Odin and stood in front of him.

“I can raise an army like no other. And I would battle you,
too, to the last Valkyrie standing.”

Odin stirred uneasily in his great chair.
Hugin
and
Munin
also shifted
restlessly from foot to foot. “You’re talking about the end of days, Trickster.
The Twilight Battle.”

“Do you think you wouldn’t win?” Loki challenged.

“It isn’t as simple as that,” Odin said. “No one wins. And
all for what?”

“The glory of battle,” Loki said, raising his goblet high,
his tone pompous. “Or some such nonsense,” he added with a sly grin, taking
another sip.

Odin took a drink in response. He knew better than to start
the last war with Loki. The trickster was just too damned slippery.

Still, his proposal had some merit. “Tell you what,” Odin
said. “I think maybe,
maybe
, we could
start with a small skirmish. Just to keep our hands in. To make sure our troops
are still trained to the highest capabilities.”

Loki gave Odin a wolfish grin. “And the winner of this
battle gets what?”

Odin paused. This was where it always got tricky, didn’t it,
when he dealt with Loki? “Winner gets the other’s horse for a day,” he
proposed.

Loki snorted. “Really? That’s so generous,” he said
sarcastically.

“Take it or leave my presence,” Odin said coldly. Giving up
Sleipnir
for a short while wouldn’t be too dangerous, would
it?

“A month,” Loki bargained.

“A fortnight,” Odin replied.

“Done,” Loki declared. “Look for me on Thor’s day, three
days before the
Jól
winter festival.”

Odin shivered abruptly. This year, the longest night of the
year would be blessed with the tiniest moon. It would be a dark time, when it
would be easy to lose hope.

Still, he wasn’t likely to lose.

“Done,” Odin declared, his word ringing true through all the
worlds.

After the trickster had left, Odin sat long in his hall,
wondering if he’d just been played, if Frigg would join his bed now, if the
world had just been made better or worse.

It didn’t matter. Odin could always break the deal.

He wasn’t known as an oath-breaker for nothing.

***

Hunter lay on his back on his cot, the desert heat already
flitting under the edges of the canvas tent and stealing away the coolness of
the night. He wondered just how fucked he and his unit truly were. It was still
early days in the War Against Terror, and no matter what the leaders might say,
it wasn’t going to be over in month. Or even a year.

Something had awoken him, setting all his senses tingling.
His pre-cog abilities were all on high alert.

Something bad was coming. But for the life of him, he
couldn’t figure out what.

Hunter expanded his awareness, like how they’d taught him at
P-Camp. He imagined himself just a small, blue blip (why blue was important, he
had no fucking clue, just that there had to be a color and no other color
worked) and then extended his awareness out from that dot in ever-increasing
squares, hunting for whatever it was that had awoken him.

First, his cot; easy enough, really. Sheets that always
grated, desert sand never washed clean, a mattress not really comfortable but
better than the hard ground.

Just beyond his cot, expanding outward, the square taking up
most of the tent, Hunter found everything normal. Inside the tent,
Hyperman
lay breathing shallowly on the other cot, too
aware like all of them. Outside, the wooden walkway that had been set up for
the times the desert turned into mud.

He continued his hunt. Outward, taking in the full camp, the
two hundred and eight souls among the warrens of tents, the sandbags piled
against every wall, the plastic corrugated roofs.

A dark cloud hung over the command center, but it wasn’t
deadly. And it wasn’t what had awoken him.

Hunter pushed outward again, taking in the sand on three
sides, the muddy water on the fourth, the dried hills and scrub, the sky that
was already starting to pale in the heat, the emptiness of the region with no
fucking roads or people and yet they were fighting, still.

Then his awareness stopped. He couldn’t push out anymore.

Hunter walked the interior of his blue-lined square, testing
the edges, pushing.

Nothing.

He couldn’t increase his awareness beyond a city block of
space—about a tenth of a mile. And there wasn’t anything wrong in that
space, nothing to wake him out of a dead sleep like that.

So something was coming. And it was past his diminished area
of knowing.

This wasn’t good. As November Company’s pre-cog, he should
have at the very least two city blocks’ worth of area that he’d keep his
awareness in, where he’d be able to judge if something was going to happen.

That the radius of his area of knowing had been effectively
cut in half meant something had gone very wrong indeed.

Had the enemy (and which one was it? The locals? The
Taliban? Some new force?) managed to find a dampening agent for pre-cogs and
hide it around the camp without alerting Hunter to what they were doing?

Unlikely.

Or the latest dose of PHS-370 (Psychic
enHancement
and Stimulant), the drugs that had increased his pre-cog abilities, had failed.
He hadn’t detected anything wrong with the pills, each round and glowing with
its own light, like a huge pearl.

Either way, they were quite possibly truly fucked.

Hunter was going to have to report to his CO—to tell
him that something was coming and Hunter didn’t have a fucking clue what it was
and oh, by the way, he was no longer as effective, either—a conversation
Hunter didn’t want to have without some sort of fortification.

Which meant hauling his ass off his cot, going into the
command center where that crazy-assed black cloud of simmering something
floated, and possibly dealing with that before getting the sludge they served
instead of food—100% nutritious and 110% vile.

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