Russell had never seen an underwater volcano erupt, but he imagined it must look just like that on the surface: a wide, boiling wave shooting up, carrying the stern of the ship with it. What burst from the water with the ship, though, was not a fountain of lava but Kailani’s head and shoulders—much, much larger than they had been. One of her hands had wrapped around the boat’s stern.
At that distance, it was challenging to get an accurate sense of scale. She could be a normal-sized otter woman twenty yards out rather than a giantess three hundred yards out, a normal-sized otter woman grasping a large toy boat, bigger than her body, clawing at it with her other hand. But he knew the ship had to be at least a hundred-fifty feet long.
The sound of that clawing, though, could only come from a real ship—one now under stress it had never been designed for. Bone-rattling screeches, scrapes, rips, steel shrieking as it tore like foil. When the otter let go, the barge listed toward her, taking on water quickly. The crewmen on the deck were too small from this distance to make out, but Russell saw a lifeboat drop into the water, pull away from the ship. As soon as it did, Kailani dropped a huge webbed hand onto the deck, tilting the ship sharply, and cargo began tumbling into the water. Pallets cascaded off the side of the barge, at first one at a time, each sounding like a cannonball. Then it became an avalanche. The spray of water obscured the sight of the boat. Now it sounded like standing a hundred yards from Niagara Falls.
Bennett stared open-mouthed. “No. She isn’t—she can’t—”
The otter disappeared in the cloud of water, diving back into the sea. The lifeboat rowed toward shore, left unmolested.
The rabbit whirled on the king, his voice shrill, far less controlled. “Your daughter is a size-shifter!”
Aremana rose to his feet. “She is.”
“You brought her into America! You lied to our port authorities!”
“I am afraid I did, yes.” The otter furrowed his brows. “But in your own wise words…” He leaned forward, looking into Bennett’s eyes. “So what?”
The rabbit spluttered, and grabbed the closest bodyguard. “Get the ships on the radio!”
“We don’t have no radio,” the wolf snarled. “And what’m I gonna tell ’em, ‘Look out for the angry giant otter girl?’ No shit, boss.”
The water exploded by the next ship as Kailani’s head and shoulders burst from the surface once more. She curled both hands over the ship’s railing, bending the metal as if it were thin wire, then remained still, looking down with an impassive expression.
Danny nudged Russell. “What’s she doing?”
“I think she’s waiting for them to abandon ship.”
Sure enough, the moment the lifeboat hit the water and started to row away, the otter woman lifted out of the water far enough to expose her entire torso. Her hands smacked down flat on the barge’s deck, and the whole vessel dropped lower in the water. It almost seemed as if it would support its new passenger for a few seconds. Then water started pouring over the railings.
Even the islanders had looked shocked at the first sinking, but now they began cheering. It wasn’t a cheer like a sports game or a concert, but an ululation, almost a chant. Russell couldn’t keep his ears from folding back momentarily. It might have been a joyful noise, but it surely wasn’t a peaceful one.
“Stop her!” Bennett jumped in place, waving his fist, roaring at the top of his lungs. “Stop her!”
Several of the guards around the fence just stared at Bennett as if he’d lost his mind, but a dozen of them began to run to its sides and up the beach, brandishing their rifles.
“No!” The king snarled. “She is my daughter!”
“She’s destroying tens of thousands of dollars of my material! Endangering six crews of a half-dozen men each!” He waved at one of his men. “Bring me a megaphone. Hurry.”
Russell stalked angrily toward the rabbit. A wolf stepped in front of him, fists raised. “Back off.”
Two of the four remaining barges had been abandoned by their crew, lifeboats paddling frantically away from the giantess as she loomed over the next boat.
Rifle shots rang out.
Kailani’s head whipped around to stare at the shore. She hadn’t been hit; they were warning shots.
“Stop!” The rabbit shouted into the megaphone. “Stop at once!”
She cupped her hands about her mouth to project her own voice. “Order the remaining barges to turn around.”
Bennett looked even more apoplectic. “You’re in no position to give me orders!”
She remained still for several seconds, then raised her hands over her head, laced her fingers together, and brought both fists down on the abandoned ship in front of her.
In both noise and effect, it might as well have been a bomb. Both the stern and bow of the ship rocketed out of the water, cargo launched dozens of feet into the air.
“She smashed it in half.” Danny stared as the debris began to rain down, then up at Russell.
The cougar barely nodded, running a hand through his hair. He’d read how powerful giants were—including the measurements that proved they didn’t follow the square-cube law, that Kailani was less dense, less strong, more fragile than math would predict a woman of her size to be. But don’t let the scientists fool you, one article had jauntily concluded. They’re still much stronger and much tougher than you are!
Shots rang out again. This time, Kailani shrieked—but that was surely not the right word. It had the cadence, length, even the pitch of a shriek, a feminine wail that might send gentlemen running to help were it not for the resonance, the subvocal harmonics. The volume. The way you felt the noise in your bones.
The crowd of otters made angry chirps and growls, and half the mercenaries turned around to point their rifles toward the islanders. “Stay back.” The commander sounded calm, controlled, threatening.
Kailani sank underwater, an abrupt drop rather than a graceful dive this time.
Russell stared at Bennett, still trying to process what he’d seen. “You—you asshole. You shot her!”
The rabbit stared at him like he was stupid. “She’s destroying my—”
“Your ships that you could have ordered back. Yes, she is.”
The noise from the islanders sounded even angrier, but they were dispersing—
Russell narrowed his eyes. No. They weren’t running back to their huts to hide.
“Bennett, for God’s sake listen to me.” He stepped forward, reaching for the rabbit’s shoulder.
One of the wolves immediately interposed himself, shoving the cougar away. “We said stay back.”
The other abandoned barge abruptly capsized, rising high on its port side and toppling forward, hull up. Kailani hadn’t even surfaced this time. The message to the remaining sailors couldn’t have been more clear: the giantess wasn’t going to sink the remaining ships in a way that left grace periods. The other two lifeboats were in the water in seconds.
Russell pointed out at the sea. “Do you really want to get into a battle with her?”
The wolf sneered, although the way his tail curled between his legs belied the bravado. “A dozen guys with rifles can take down a giantess if they gotta.”
The cougar jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Yes, but the several hundred angry otters back there are on her side, not yours.”
“What are you—” The wolf’s ears followed back as he looked at the islanders charging out of their huts again now. Many were armed. Carved staffs. Knives. Hammers. Pitchforks. And their own rifles.
“Shit.” The wolf spun around. “Boss. Boss!”
“What is it, you—” Bennett turned and his words died in his throat as he took in the scene.
Prince Tua led the mob, carrying a wicked-looking knife. “If you fight with Princess Kailani, you fight with us all.”
Russell walked toward the otters, painfully aware of the rifles trained on the islanders—and now on him—at his back, as well as Tua’s stern gaze. He didn’t pause, though, moving to stand behind the prince, with the rest of the otters.
Tua’s eyes stayed locked on his a second longer, then he nodded fractionally. He turned back to the sea just in time to see the fifth ship flip upside down.
“I’ve paid for good soldiers,” Bennett growled. “They can hold off a mob as easily as holding off a giantess.”
Tua snorted. “I do not think they can hold off a mob and a giantess at the same time.”
Bennett swallowed, finally starting to look nervous. “We’ll ask her to stand down. Then we can all stand down.” He gestured at the commander, who nodded. The rat took off in a sprint, pointing at his men in turn and yelling. Eight formed a line facing the mob, rifles at the ready, Bennett behind them. The other four stood facing out to sea.
The sixth ship flipped over on its side, its cargo sliding down into the sea in a curtain of ocean spray. By now, all but the last two lifeboats had come ashore.
Russell looked past Bennett and his riflemen. The barge hadn’t turned completely upside down; it remained balanced on one edge, no doubt by the otter giantess behind it.
Grimacing, Bennett picked up the megaphone again and faced the sea. “Come ashore peacefully. Return to your normal size. We’ll hold our fire.”
Russell’s eyes widened. The barge was moving forward toward shore, slowly, still on its side.
“Drop the barge and stand up. We will hold our fire.” Bennett’s voice more tense.
The ship picked up speed.
“Do you hear me? We’ll hold our fire if you drop the barge!”
“It appears she no longer trusts your word,” Tua called. “You drop your weapons. Now.”
The ship was only a couple of hundred feet out now and moving fast, water spraying to the sides twenty feet into the air. Even for a giantess, that had to be a hell of a strain. What was she—
“She’s not stopping,” Russell barked to Tua. “Run!”
Tua yelled something in his language. The otters began scrambling back on the beach. The soldiers scattered toward the side, too, as their commander yelled. “Fall back! Fall back!”
“Stop!” Bennett shouted through the megaphone. “Stop—” His bodyguards grabbed him, running after the soldiers.
The barge hit the beach like a derailing freight train, skidding on its side until it tumbled forward, rolling onto its hull with an ear-shattering crash, rolling again onto its deck. It continued to slide upside down, spraying sand like water, pieces of ship flying off in all directions. Russell couldn’t tell where all the screams came from. Probably everyone. Including himself.
The barge hadn’t fully stopped when the ground shook again. And again, followed by the sound of rain. Russell looked up and his breath caught in his throat.
Kailani had stepped up onto the shore in a half-crouch, water streaming off her body in torrents, her closest foot sunk into the sand a half-dozen yards from where Russell stood. As he stared, she straightened up to a full—it had to be at least eighty feet. Maybe more.
In all the years of fascination, of fantasizing, he’d never been this close to a shifter on this scale. He’d seen shifters in real life, of course. In school, a police officer talked to every fifth-grade class, a friendly fellow who grew up to twelve feet high. Size-shifters nearly three times that high appeared in parades he saw when growing up, as tall as most municipal regulations permitted them to be on city streets. They’d looked so—so massive.
And they wouldn’t have reached Kailani’s thigh.
As she stepped forward, a foot far larger than all of Russell’s body swung overhead, stepping down with more force than a junkyard car crusher. If she noticed him standing there, gaping up as the salt water running off her body drenched him, she gave no notice. He could barely see her face. He felt—he felt—he didn’t know what he felt. Yes, she was beautiful. Yes, he was still attracted to her. Yes, he’d always known that the appeal of giants was tied up with fear in some no doubt Freudian fashion. But it wasn’t until this moment that he saw how much of the fantasy depended on knowing, deep down, that no matter what you might imagine a giant doing with you—or to you—it was at your whim, not the giant’s. In your fantasy, you set the terms. The reality would be—
Somewhere very close by, guns went off. Kailani shrieked again, hands covering her face.
Her yell had been frightening hundreds of yards out to sea. Right overhead, standing by her feet, it was as close to literally bloodcurdling as he hoped he would ever get. She whirled around, and he could see her face, pain and fear and rage. The shriek ended as a roar, the kind of sound only a creature with lungs bigger than delivery vans could make.
Russell froze, trying desperately not to pee himself.
Then, as Kailani pounded forward, the yelling began—and the return gunfire. The otters had charged forward toward the soldiers, and in the length of a breath the beach had transformed into a battlefield.
The cougar spun wildly, trying to locate familiar faces. Tua. Aremana. Danny. Hell, even Bennett. One of the islanders ran into him hard enough to make him stagger. When he put his hands on the shorter otter to steady him, one of them came away with blood.
Kailani had leapt—no, simply stepped—over the high construction fence and dropped to all fours, ripping up pieces of the structure and hurling them behind her at the beach, the crashing of splintered wood and drywall louder than the surf. He hoped to God there hadn’t been anyone back there, but he couldn’t help watching in awe. He’d seen a wrecking ball brought to bear on a condemned office tower. It had been slower, less efficient, less…directed. To her, did it feel like destroying a toy, breaking something not quite real?
Russell hurried toward the fence, nearly tripping over a fallen mercenary. Was that Tua, ten yards to his left, holding a hand to his own side and grimacing in pain? “This is madness.”
“No!” someone had begun yelling. “No! No! Stop this!” The king, climbing onto a fallen section of fence. Russell headed toward him, the seemingly lone figure of sanity.
Abruptly Aremana toppled over.
All the noise died, an awful, pregnant pause.
“Father?” Kailani’s voice became frightened, small, hardly giant at all. She crawled through the debris, focusing on his fallen form, where Russell couldn’t see.
Then she screamed, slamming both fists down on the ground hard enough to knock people yards away off their feet. Her eyes focused on the closest soldier, and her fist slammed down again.
Russell winced. The rat soldier had gotten away, though—just barely. The otter’s expression had become frenzied. As she raised her fist again, shots rang out in a fusillade, and red spots blossomed along Kailani’s arms and front and hips. She put an arm up to protect her face, drawing back with another shriek, then snarled, sweeping her other hand through the crowd. Two mercenaries went flying, but others kept firing.
Oh, no, no. Even as more bloody spots appeared on her, she rose to her full skyscraper height, towering over the battlefield, and walked—no, stomped—forward at the closest knot of mercenaries. Despite the training Bennett had talked up, they turned tail and ran frantically.
Oh, god. She’s going to kill them, or they’re going to kill her, or both. Russell put his hands to his head. He had to stop them—her—dammit, he had to stop them all at the same time, and he couldn’t. He couldn’t. But that figure huddled against the fence closer to the ocean, holding the megaphone. “Bennett!” Russell almost hurled himself at the rabbit. He was the only one who could stop—
Another shot, this one close enough to nearly deafen him. He didn’t realize he’d been the one shot until he tumbled down against the rabbit.
“Keep away,” Bennett croaked, looking like he wanted to scramble back but glancing up at Kailani. She hadn’t noticed him yet, but if—when—she did he’d be lucky if he ended up as a bloody grease spot.
“Bennett,” Russell gasped. “People are going to die. Maybe they already have. You’ve got to stop this.” His leg hurt. It was starting to hurt a lot. He hoped he hadn’t been punctured somewhere truly serious. He hadn’t let himself look yet.
The rabbit had lost all of his gruff bluster. He sounded frightened, childlike. “She started it.”
Russell grabbed his shoulders, looking into his eyes and doing his best to ignore the pain. “For God’s sake! You’ve lost the hotel. Don’t lose yourself.”
Kailani had been driven backward, back toward the remains of the building. Then she fell down onto her knees across the construction fence—very close to both rabbit and cougar. It was like watching a shapely building collapse. A cascade of timber rained down from what would have become the hotel’s main building. One of her hands landed a bare two yards away from where him; Bennett made a strangled noise. The sounds of fighting once again came to a temporary pause.
Russell reached down and took the megaphone, shoving it against Bennett’s chest.
Taking a ragged, defeated breath, Bennett lifted it up. “Hold your fire.” He staggered to his feet and repeated it more loudly. “Hold your fire! Do you hear me? Stop!” He hung onto the fence with his free hand, sagging. “Stop. Please.”
Neither mercenaries nor islanders lowered their weapons. But no one fired.
Kailani took a ragged breath, wincing in pain, but when she spoke her voice was steady—and, far more than her father’s, imperial. Her gaze met the commander’s. “Drop your weapons.”
He looked up at her, around at the islanders, around at his men—only seven standing, but Russell could see three others on the sidelines, too injured to continue—and back at her. He dropped his rifle. The rest of the mercenaries did as well.
“Now leave my island.”
Ears folded back, the rats marched away, single-file. Bennett’s men followed. Bennett himself started to, with his bodyguards, until Kailani growled. “Not you.”
The rabbit froze, looking up at her fearfully.
“Is my father alive?”
His voice came as a hoarse wheeze. “I-I-I don’t know, your highness.”
“Yes!” an otter called.
Kailani nodded, wincing again, then abruptly fell to all fours, gasping. Bennett screamed, scrambling back.
Her eyes focused on him again, with difficulty. “If he dies…I will take my thumb and forefinger…and twist your head off. Do you understand me?”
“Yes,” he squeaked.
“Good.” She collapsed. So did Bennett.
Russell shook off his transfixion at the scene and held his hand against his leg, squeezing over the wound. Maybe it was worse than he thought, but he could walk. Maybe. “Danny? Danny!”
The mongoose pushed his way through the crowd, scuffed up but otherwise unharmed. When he saw Russell his eyes widened.
“We’ve got to get help for the king and Kailani.” The cougar winced, but remained focused. “Can you get doctors here? Radio on the plane, fly back, something?”
“We’ve got to get you help. And a lotta other people. I’ll radio.” He scampered away.
Russell started limping toward Kailani’s head, and made it five steps before his knees buckled.
Someone caught him. Tua. Whatever injuries the prince had sustained hadn’t seemed to slow him.
“She’s got to change back to normal for the doctors,” Russell wheezed.
“We may have to get the bullets out first. I do not know. Sit down.”
“You are bleeding. Sit down.” Tua turned his head and barked something in his own language to a nearby otter. Russell did as commanded, finally looking at his leg. He immediately wished he hadn’t. He guessed it hadn’t hit his femoral artery because he was still conscious, but it certainly didn’t look good.
Someone poured water on his leg, directly on the wound, and he sucked in his breath. By the time he focused on the otter—a middle-aged woman—she’d wrapped a cloth around his leg twice, three times, four, then tied it up with a short stick, turning it several times to tighten it. “Does that hurt?”
“Not more than the wound,” he got out.
She nodded, and turned it again, then tied it in place.
She smiled, then got up and walked toward the princess. He stood up and hobbled after.
“You should not move,” Tua said warningly.
“I know.” He raised his voice as he approached the giantess’s head. “Kailani?” She still hadn’t moved. “Kailani!”
The otter made a soft, rumbling moan, tilting her head slightly. An eye larger than his body focused on him. “Russell.” Even at a murmur, her voice vibrated his body. “My father.”
“He’s being looked after. Danny’s calling for more help.” He looked back to Kailani and smiled as reassuringly as he could.
Tua nodded stiffly in assent.
“Did I…kill anyone?”
Russell swallowed, running both hands over her nose, trying to focus more on her eyes than the sight of her teeth. “I don’t know.” In addition to the people he’d seen her literally throw into the air before she’d fallen, he couldn’t be sure she hadn’t managed to step on anyone in her fury. “Truthfully, I’m more worried about you.” One of her legs was soaked with blood—her own blood—from the knee down. He hoped to God it wasn’t as bad as it looked. More of her fur looked bloody now than it had a few minutes ago. How many places had she been hit? Dozens?
She closed her eyes. A tear the size of Russell’s hand rolled down her muzzle, then another. Biting his lip, he walked up past her muzzle, kneeling—very awkwardly, thanks to the tourniquet—and wiping at her fur.
“I am sorry for doubting you,” she whispered.
“Don’t apologize. I’ve doubted myself a lot recently.”
One of her hands came down very close to him, fencing him in against her muzzle. He tried not to quiver as her fingers curled, blunt black claws bigger than tomahawks coming within a foot, inches, until the soft pads of two fingers touched him. She trembled with the effort, and the slight motion unbalanced him. The pads felt familiar and alien all at once, and he became acutely aware of her body heat.
After a moment, he pressed himself against the fingers, lowering his head to give one a kiss.
The giantess made a soft, pleased noise, and the trembling stopped.
She gave no response.
He slid forward to put a hand in front of one of her nostrils. Was she still breathing? He could feel a little breeze, couldn’t he? It couldn’t just be wishful thinking.
Russell stood and walked around her hand, trying to hurry back to a spot where he could see more of her, see any movement, see if her huge chest still rose and fell. He staggered again, though, and let Tua guide him to sit on the ground. “Stay put,” the prince said firmly. “The doctors shall be here any minute. I am going to check on my father.”
The cougar nodded.
After Tua left, Russell looked around the beach. There were too many people lying on the ground, it was too easy to see injuries, too easy to see blood. The upended barge remained where Kailani had shoved it. Very little of the hotel’s framework remained intact: a handful of squares of almost-complete wall, and random pieces of lumber jutting up at odd angles.
Bennett had recovered enough to sit up, just a few yards away. He remained alone; even his bodyguards seemed to have left with the mercenaries. His eyes met Russell’s, and he tried to think of something appropriately withering to call to the rabbit. But he couldn’t.
“Will she live?” Bennett’s voice sounded more business-like again, but tired.
“I don’t know.”
“I think we may have…I may have…lost people.”
“We might have, too.”
Bennett looked away, gaze growing distant. When he spoke again, his tone was plaintive, bewildered. “It was all supposed to have been…beautiful. Everything was supposed to be beautiful, Rittenhouse.” He looked down at the sand, cane across his lap. “Beautiful.”
The cougar turned away again, watching Kailani’s huge, motionless form, feeling numb.
Perhaps ten minutes later, Tua reappeared by his side with two vixens dressed in white. One of them examined Russell’s leg, took off the tourniquet, cleaned the wound with hydrogen peroxide. “The bullet just grazed the edge of your leg.”
“That’s a lot of blood for a graze.” He clenched his teeth against the pain.
“It cut a lot of smaller blood vessels. But it looks much worse than it is.” She turned to her companion. “Stitch this up, then come join me by the giantess. She’s going to be—work.”
“How’s the king?”
“He’s being flown to a hospital.” She stood up and hurried toward Kailani with Tua.
“Hold still,” the vixen who’d stayed behind commanded, trimming away the fur around the wound with a straight razor. She wiped the razor clean after a few seconds, then soaked a gauze pad in—something—and rubbed it over the wound’s edges. “We’ll give this a minute to numb the flesh. This will still hurt, though.” She pulled out a suture needle from her bag and started counting backward from sixty.
Russell looked away. It hurt, but at least it didn’t hurt as much as he was expecting.
When he looked back at Kailani, a half-dozen villagers were crawling over her, taking commands from Tua and the other vixen.
The vixen by him re-bandaged his leg. “Keep your weight off this as much as possible for the next few weeks. You’ll have a scar, but when your fur grows back it should cover it.”
She rose to her feet and walked toward her companion. Russell got to his own feet, gingerly, keeping his weight on his good leg as much as possible and hobbling forward.
The otters were all cleaning Kailani’s wounds, some digging out bullets. All of their hands were bloody up to their forearms. He tried not to feel queasy.
The lead vixen walked toward him, still giving orders to her makeshift crew. “Be very careful around her neck. That looks like just a graze, but—” She stopped and looked at him. “Why are you standing here rather than resting?”
“I’m a terrible patient.” He grinned weakly. “Will she…?”
“Her wounds are minor, but they’ve overwhelmed her. She’s passed out from exhaustion. Our biggest worry now is removing all the bullets. If she changes back to normal size and they remain the same size, they might cause a great deal of extra damage. And we have to monitor for signs of shock. It’s easier to trigger in giants, and more dangerous for them.”
“Unless they can change back to normal, it’s untreatable.”
His ears folded back and he nodded.
“Now sit down.”
He did, right by Kailani’s muzzle.
Russell remained there through the afternoon, after the doctors departed, after Danny consented to fly Bennett back to Honolulu. The otters mostly returned to their huts; no one wanted to be on the beach tonight apart from Russell and Tua, the prince pacing back and forth slowly in front of his fallen sister.
He didn’t realize he’d started to finally fall asleep until something touched him, bringing him back to wakefulness with a start. It took him another few seconds to realize the huge black thing in front of him was one of Kailani’s finger pads.
Grunting, he pushed himself to face her, letting his back rest against her hand. Her eyes were open now. “I was—I wasn’t sure you would…” He trailed off.
She smiled, just a little, eyes partially closing. “It takes more than that to kill a goddess,” she whispered.
He moved forward to hug her muzzle, kissing her upper lip. Kailani cupped her hand behind him and returned the kiss, very lightly yet electrifyingly—her lips held his sides and her tongue’s tip touched his chest for just a moment. The kiss was just like he had imagined it would be, and nothing like it at all. It was frightening. It was glorious. He sank down against her with a whimper, and they kissed one another again.