I don’t know if I can adequately express how absolutely, utterly screwed I was. I mean, it’s hard to really grasp the furthest extent of it unless you have a really solid idea of who and what Loki was. I didn’t, but I knew enough to be freaking terrified.
Granted, Loki isn’t quite the demonic figure that most of the modern interpretations seem to see him as. In the source material, he was a great friend of the gods. He went on adventures with both Odin and Thor, and if it weren’t for him both of them might have been in a very bad way.
But the fact remains that he’s Loki. The Trickster. The Sky-Traveler. The Lord of Lies. He was the God of Fire, and if you made the mistake of standing too close he would burn you.
They say that when monsters and giants come to overrun the gods and burn the world, Loki will be at the helm of their ship, and laughing all the way. That is, really, all that needs to be said.
And I owed him a favor. I mean, seriously.
He looked at me, and I know he saw the fear in my eyes.
It made him grin even wider.
“Come on, Winter,” he said easily. “There’s no need to look at me like that. Didn’t I get you the opportunity you wanted? I just saw you conversing with a most excellent source of information. Why, I’d be surprised if you don’t already have the answers you were looking for. Now you’re free to enjoy the party for the rest of the evening. And there is quite a lot to enjoy, isn’t there.” He smirked and ate a roasted grasshopper. I had no idea where he had obtained the thing.
“Yes,” I said slowly. “But you are the god of liars. I think I have a certain right to be concerned.” I gave him a hard look. “Aren’t you supposed to be bound?” Imprisoned far beneath the earth and slowly tortured until the end of days was more like it, but I wasn’t going to say so.
Who says I have no concept of diplomacy?
He grinned, seeming to take no offense at the question. “That was wishful thinking at best,” he said. He nodded in the direction of the departed Blaze. “You should be careful around that one, you know,” he said conversationally. “He really is what most of the people here only pretend to be. So what do you think of the party?”
“The food’s not bad,” I said. “But the company could be better.” I gestured vaguely at the Sidhe in the rest of the room. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see that most of those not dancing were slowly milling about the room, conversing for a few minutes at a time and then moving on. Making deals and alliances as they went, no doubt. That was what the Sidhe did.
Loki grinned at me. “They can be a little overwhelming, it’s true. Especially the first time. But I shouldn’t monopolize your time when there are so many interesting people around to talk with.” He started to stand, then said as an afterthought, “One more piece of advice. Don’t talk to our host.”
I frowned. “Why not?” I asked, although I had a feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer.
Still grinning, he leaned closer, until his lips were only inches from my ear. Even so, when he spoke it was a whisper almost too soft to be heard. “Because I forged that invitation.”
I didn’t actually say anything, but I know my mouth shaped the words “oh shit.” Unsurprisingly, by the time I recovered enough to look around, Loki was gone without a trace.
It wasn’t until then that I thought about Aiko, who had left to introduce herself. I looked over at the throne, desperately hoping I wasn’t too late to stop her. Anything that might happen to her if she didn’t talk to Ryujin would be small change compared to getting caught with a forged invite.
It was a long ways off, but her vivid green hair was easy to follow. My heart sank when I saw that she was already talking to Ryujin. Of course. Loki had timed it perfectly.
As I watched, she waved one hand in my direction. I couldn’t possibly hear what they were saying, but you didn’t have to be a genius to imagine the conversation. “I’m pleased to see you, niece, but I didn’t realize you got invites to Sidhe parties.” “Oh, I don’t. I’m here with my friend Winter.” “Really? I must not know him. Where is he?” “Over there by the food. Would you like me to introduce you?”
I sighed. Damn it. I knew making deals with Loki would get me screwed.
Aiko slapped me. Not a gentle ladylike slap, either; she really put her back into it. It stung. A lot. Then she stalked over to the other side of our cage, glaring out through the bars.
I don’t mean that metaphorically, like if we were in a cell. No, it was a literal cage, about ten feet square. The bars, made of iron with a tracery of silver on them, were spaced about eight inches apart. The room we were in was dark except for the interior of the cage, but I got the impression that Ryujin’s dungeons were almost as big as his ballroom. Not surprising, considering that we were on the Otherside; space, like other physical properties, was a much more fluid concept there than in the real world.
“You are such an asshole, Winter,” Aiko snarled, turning back towards me. “You might have told me that we weren’t actually allowed to be here. It might have changed how I reacted just a little bit, you stupid raisin-crapper.”
I chuckled. “Raisin-crapper? That’s a new one.”
“I like it too,” she agreed. “Picked it up from a German friend of mine. Now don’t try and change the subject.” She pointed one finger at me accusingly. “I admire the kind of balls it takes to crash a party like this. But don’t you think you should just maybe have told your escort the plan?”
I sighed. “I would have,” I said wearily. “Except I didn’t find out my invitation was a counterfeit until about twenty seconds before you did. The person I got it from didn’t exactly explain things ahead of time.” Although I probably should have known. I mean, even before I’d realized it was Loki I was dealing with, I’d known he was motivated largely by his own amusement. Why would a person like that give me an actual invite, when it was so much funnier to fake it?
She stopped pacing and frowned at me. We’d been in there for several minutes already, but this was the first time she’d calmed down enough for me to explain. “Wasn’t that against your deal?” she asked.
“It should have been,” I muttered. “But technically the bargain was that he would get me into a position where I could obtain certain information. He never said that I would actually be allowed to be there.”
Aiko stared at me for a moment. Then she sighed gustily and collapsed onto the coral floor, leaning against the bars. “Damn,” she said. “You must be the unluckiest bastard I know.” She shook her head slowly. “What did you need to know that badly?”
“Um. I would be delighted to explain it to you, but this might not be the best place.”
She nodded. “True. So who was it? You think you could explain that you weren’t at fault?”
“Doubt it,” I said glumly. “I don’t even have proof that he was the one who got it for me. It’d be my word against his, and I doubt the judge would rule in my favor against Loki.”
She stared at me, her expression gone to one of horror. “Loki?” she said. “Loki? You made a deal with freaking Loki?”
“I didn’t know who it was at the time,” I said defensively.
She looked at me like I was a total idiot. Which, I admit, totally justified at the moment. “You made a deal with Loki,” she repeated. “Without knowing who he was.” She shook her head slowly. “I stand corrected. If this is the worst that happens to you, you’re the luckiest bastard I know.”
“How bad is it likely to be?” I asked with a sort of morbid curiosity.
“I’m not sure,” she admitted. “Probably not too bad for me. I can always just say you didn’t tell me, and he likes me anyway. I’ll probably get off with a lecture about being more careful in the future.” She grinned briefly. “Which no one expects me to pay attention to, anyway. I am a kitsune, after all.”
I grunted. “It’ll be worse for me, though. Right?”
“Yeah. Ryujin’s sort of a traditionalist. Probably why he gets along so well with my mother. He won’t like it that you insulted his hospitality.”
“What am I looking at?”
“My guess is he’ll go with the traditional answer. A hundred years of service, probably.”
My guts twisted at that. It’s a pretty common thing to do, legendarily speaking. The way the Otherside works, even a normal human can live for centuries over there without aging.
Time still passes, of course. It just doesn’t pass in quite the same way as it does in my world. There are tons of stories about people who, intentionally or otherwise, go to the Otherside and stay for a few days, only to find that years or centuries have passed in the world they left. Others stay on the Otherside for years, but return in practically the same moment they left.
After the insult I’d paid him, I didn’t think the Dragon King would let me off that easy. I would return from my hundred years of unpaid menial labor to find that at least that much time had passed in my world—if I returned at all. All of my friends, with the possible exception of the immortal ones, would be dead. I probably wouldn’t even recognize the world I had left.
That wasn’t a very good option for me.
“What would happen if I escaped?” I asked idly after a moment.
She frowned. “I’m not sure. He might be so impressed that you got away that he lets you go. Or he might decide it’s an even worse insult and kill you for it.” She shrugged. “No way to know for sure.”
I nodded slowly. “Honestly, I think I’d rather die than serve for a hundred years anyway. Guess that’s what I’ll do.”
She stared at me for a moment, then laughed. “Ambitious. But you might find breaking out of the Dragon King’s dungeons isn’t that easy.”
I frowned. “Yeah, I’m still working on that one.” A moment later I said, “The way I see it, you have two options here.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “You can stay here and take your chances with his mercy. You can always explain that I escaped against your advice—I could maybe knock you out or something, if you want help selling it. You’ll probably get off scot free.”
“Or?” she said. She tried to sound bored, but couldn’t quite contain her grin.
“Or you come with me. We make our dashing escape from right under the Dragon King’s nose and laugh at him once we’re back in the mortal world. He’s so amazed that he applauds us for our courage and ingenuity. And we still get off scot free.”
She snorted. “Sounds like I might as well stay then. It’d be risky trying to leave, and riskier counting on him to be impressed instead of pissed.”
“Maybe, but come on,” I wheedled. “Everyone would know you’d escaped from the Dragon King. How many people can say that?” I paused, then added, “Besides. You know as well as I do that it would be way more fun than waiting.”
She laughed. “You….” She shook her head, still laughing. “Winter, I think you might be crazier than me. Fine. I’m in.” She paused for a moment. “I’m sorry I slapped you,” she said apologetically. “I shouldn’t have reacted like that.”
I shrugged. “It’ll heal.” Actually, it just about had healed; I was recovering even faster on the Otherside than normal. I could hardly even feel the bruises from when Ryujin’s guards had thrown me in here. “Besides. You had reason.”
“Doesn’t make it the right thing to do,” she said firmly. “And the food was worth getting thrown in here, anyway.”
I chuckled. “True.” I paused meditatively. “It tastes better, knowing that we weren’t actually allowed to eat it.”
“Yeah. Stolen food always tastes sweeter,” she told me. “So have you come up with an idea for getting out of here?”
I examined the bars again. “Maybe.” I pointed at the gap. “You could fit through this, right?”
She looked at it. “I don’t know,” she said doubtfully. “I’m thin, but I’m not that thin.”
“You the fox,” I clarified. Then paused. “You can turn into a fox, right? I mean, I thought that’s what a kitsune was….”
“Yeah,” she said, “but it won’t do much good. The whole cage is surrounded by a barrier.” She reached out and knocked on the seemingly empty air between bars. Her knuckles rebounded with a sound similar to that you might get rapping on hardwood. “Maybe if I were a four-tail or so I could get around it, but as it is….”
“Huh,” I said, reaching out to feel it myself. The air became solid at about the same point as the outer surface of the bars. It felt like stone, cold and incontrovertibly solid. “How many tails do you have, anyway?” I asked absently. It was incredibly rude to ask how much power a person had, which among kitsune was measured by how many tails one had. On the other hand, Aiko had never seemed to care too much about politeness anyway.
“Just the one,” she said. “I’m only forty-three.”
Middle aged to a human, but barely more than an infant by the standards of kitsune. According to the stories I’d heard, they only grew one tail a century, and the most powerful of them have nine. You can do the math.
I closed my eyes and focused on the spell I was feeling. The first thing I got was aromatic in nature, as usual. The magic smelled somehow dry and leathery, the way I imagined a snake would smell. Under that was the tang of salt, which fit with a sea dragon’s palace.
As I kept concentrating, I picked out more details. It’s hard for a mind designed for normal sensory input to really grasp magical data, but I’d been doing it for most of my life, and practicing intensely the last few months. I got a pretty good idea of how the magic was constructed. The air was locked into stasis, held in place by geometrically ordered magic.
A stable spell like that was all about order, you see. In some ways magic itself is. You have to bind the naturally chaotic energy that makes up magic into a shape that will actually do what you want it to. That’s why a strong will is important; the magic wants to go back to its original disordered condition.
Anyway, the important thing is that the spell was an extremely orderly structure. Interestingly, though, the power bound into that form was itself not stable. It flowed through the shape of the spell from one structure to the next like a slow-motion waterfall.
That was a clever trick. It meant that you couldn’t just batter the barrier down with main force, the way a more rigid shield could be broken. By the time you’d done enough damage to deplete the magic, it would have been completely refreshed with new. The structures of the spell itself slowly shifted and moved around, too, so that you couldn’t even hope to damage them enough that they no longer supported a distinct spell.
It was ingenious, a working quite a bit beyond anything I was capable of. However, if you were clever and you knew what was going on, it was also uniquely vulnerable.
I knew what was going on. I was only hoping I was clever enough to get it done.
I lowered my hand and opened my eyes. Aiko had sat back down and was watching me curiously. “Would our host be working to imprison us personally?” I asked her, sitting down as well and leaning back against the walls of our cage. If he was, we were done before we started.
She thought for a moment, chewing on her bottom lip. “Not during the party,” she said eventually. “He’ll want all of his attention for his guests.”
I nodded. I’d expected as much.
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “I think I can bring down a section of the barrier long enough for you to get out. It’s tied to the door, so if you can get it open from the other side I can get out that way.”
She nodded slowly. “Right. How do we get out of the palace?”
I didn’t have an answer for her. We sat there for a few moments, staring at each other with dismay. Then she suddenly brightened. “The portal we came in through,” she said excitedly. “It’ll still be open until the party’s over. That way the guests can use it to get home.”
I grinned. “That’s great news. Do you think you can get us there?”
She frowned doubtfully. “Maybe. I’ve been to the palace a few times, but I haven’t seen this part of it before. Do you know how to get back to the room we came in at?”
“Not really,” I admitted. “I lost my way in the dark.”
“Okay,” I said after a second. “You’re sneakier than me. How about you scout out a way to somewhere you recognize and then come back for me? From there, hopefully we can make our way back to the exit.”
“Might work. How long should I take?”
“Um. We need to get out before the party ends. Otherwise the portal will be gone. And if the Dragon King gets involved personally, we’re done. You have any idea how long that gives us?”
“Three to six hours?” she guessed.
I grimaced. “We go with three then. If you haven’t found something in about forty minutes, come back and we’ll try to figure something else out.”
She nodded. “Right. Guess that’s about it, then.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “Go ahead and get changed. I won’t be able to keep that gap open long. Maybe a few seconds at most, so be ready to move at my signal. I don’t know what’ll happen if you get caught in the barrier when it comes back up, but I suspect it would be bad.”
She nodded again. “Understood.” Then, without saying anything more, she did her thing.
It was sort of interesting to watch. I’d never seen Aiko change before, and I had to admit a certain amount of fascination at how the process might work.
At first it wasn’t much different from watching one of the werewolves. She stripped out of her clothing, as casually as anything, then tore off one of the patches of her jeans. That revealed a small hidden pocket, from which she took a small leather case. She set it next to one of the gaps between the bars. I saw glinting metal, and realized that it held a small but perfectly serviceable set of lockpicks.
She’d come prepared. And that trick with the patches was clever too; I wondered idly how many other tools she’d brought like that. Clearly I had underestimated the kitsune. That was good. It meant we might have a chance of pulling this trick off.
At that point, any resemblance to a werewolf ended. She didn’t have to spend long minutes in agony as her body twisted from one form into another. She just took a deep breath and, faster than blinking, she was gone in a subtle rush of magic, more fox now and less spice. In her place was a fox, watching me with intelligent eyes. Unlike the werewolves, she was absolutely indistinguishable from a normal animal. Her smooth fur was a bright orange-red, touched with black at her nose, tail, and paws.
Most of the time I would have said that was crap as far as camouflage goes. Against the coral walls and floor of the palace, it was perfect.
I realized I was staring and turned to face the barrier instead. “I’m only bringing one section down,” I said. “And it’ll come back up very quickly. Don’t stop until you’re well past the outer edge of the barrier. You ready?”
The fox twitched one ear in what I took to be assent.
I took a deep breath and then let it out slowly. I hadn’t ever attempted something like this. Even a handful of months ago I would have said with perfect confidence that I couldn’t do it.
But it was my turn. And I’d be damned if I was going to let Aiko down. Or myself, for that matter. I really wasn’t looking forward to a hundred years of slavery.
I closed my eyes and focused on the world around me. Alexander thought of magic as the manipulation of basic forces, and I could understand that. But it wasn’t how I saw things. To me, magic is just a part of how things are. It’s a part of the world.
I’ve always been amused at how arrogant people are, as a rule. I mean, most people somehow think that they’re special. That they’re separate from the world. Superior to it.
How the hell could you think that? I mean, come on. You’re a part of things. A part of the world, of the things around you. What you do affects it. What it does affects you.
I don’t understand people very well, I guess. I don’t get how they can think that way. In any case, the important thing here is that I don’t think that way, and that’s reflected in how I approach magic. I think of magic as being a part of the world and a part of everything in the world, inseparable.
So now, while I was preparing to do some big-time magic, the first thing I did was let go of myself. That’s the best I can describe it. I sort of detached my awareness, my sense of self, from my actual body. I spread my consciousness out, through my surroundings. I anchored myself like that, making sure that I wouldn’t lose track of where or who I was.
Aiko’s mind pressed against me, all vibrant energy and curiosity and impatience, more vivid to my senses now that the fox was dominant in her. It was a distraction. I blocked it out.
I brought forth power, my power, my magic, filling me in a sudden rush of energy. The magic inherent in the stone—er, coral—and air around me stirred as well, called by my power and my presence. Then, bringing with me as much of that as I could, I twisted my awareness into a more ordinary alignment with my body.
I can drift like that, but it’s really hard to actually do anything while I do. Think of it as being like swimming. If you’re a decent swimmer you can move around in water way deeper than you are tall. It lets you go places and encounter things you otherwise never could. And that’s awesome. But I defy you to, say, bench press while you do. You have to have a firm foundation for that. You need leverage, something to push against.
It’s sort of the same with magic. If, for lack of a better word, you diffuse yourself, you don’t have the leverage or concentrated strength to lift the metaphorical barbell. When you’re concentrated in one place—like, for example, a body—you can exert the same amount of force, but in a concerted, unified way. Plus that body anchors you so that you have something to push against.
So why bother with the first step? Simple. There was a lot of magic moving around in the barrier spell. Like, a lot of magic. More than I could muster, guaranteed. I was targeting a weak point, and I wasn’t even trying to actually counter their spell, but it would still take a lot of power to do.
When I returned to my body, I brought a certain amount of power back with me. Not a lot; the process I had used to gather it was ridiculously inefficient. But some, and I wanted everything I could get.
Holding the power I had summoned like an indrawn breath, I found the spell and the power running through it like water. And then I expelled the magic, forcefully, against it.
I wasn’t trying to make a spell. I take way too long about a complicated spell for that to work. I wasn’t even trying to damage their spell, either. Even if I could, it would be very noticeable. I was simply trying to stop the magic energizing it from moving. Think of the barrier as a waterwheel. I didn’t need to destroy the wheel. I just had to stop it turning. To do that, I essentially built a dam upstream from it so that the water—or magic—couldn’t get there.
At first it wasn’t enough. The power slowed, but didn’t stop its motion. I pushed against it harder, expending magic recklessly. The borrowed power was gone within a few seconds—but the flow stopped.
I held it, straining. I was using my own magic now. Every person has a sort of well of power, power which is uniquely flavored with their own personality. Some people naturally have a lot; mostly those people are the ones that become mages.
I forced my eyes open, watching the section of barrier I was depriving of power. Now that I knew what to look for I could see it as a slight haze in the air. I had removed its energy source, but it still had enough lingering power to continue operating for a little while. To continue the analogy, the wheel’s inertia was enough to keep it spinning, and the barrier wouldn’t fall until it had well and truly stopped.
I held back the flow of magic for one second. Two. I started seeing little, dancing black spots at the edge of my vision. I narrowed my focus until nothing existed but my will, forcing out more and more power. I reached deeper, maybe deeper than I ever had before, and pulled out all the magic I could find.
At five seconds the barrier wavered. At seven it collapsed.
“Go!” I grunted at Aiko. I kept up the pressure; I had no way to know whether the spell would take as long to start up again as it had to stop.
The fox fairly flew out of the cage. I saw her sweep the lockpicks out of the cage with her tail as she passed. She touched the ground about three feet outside the walls of the cage, at about the same time as I finally let go of my dam. Power surged down the newly opened path with the force of any dammed river, and the barrier slammed back into existence.
I sagged against the bars. Like a lot of things, you don’t feel the effects of serious magic use until after you finish. It took me a couple seconds to work up the energy to stand up and open my eyes.
Aiko was safely on the other side, watching me with an expression of concern. That last bit might have been my imagination, but I didn’t think so; I’m better at reading animals than people, partially because of so much time around werewolves and partially because my magic meant that I had spent a significant amount of time inside of their heads.
“Good luck,” I said quietly. Aiko continued to stare, and I realized that she couldn’t hear me.
Duh. The barrier. It wouldn’t allow anything out of the cage—including sound waves. I smiled and gave her a thumbs-up instead. She twitched her head in a tiny nod and then turned and vanished into the darkness.
It wasn’t until then that I realized she had a certain amount of reason to look concerned. The floor around me was covered in a thin layer of frost for six inches in every direction, cut off where it intersected the barrier.
Wow. That hadn’t ever happened before. I wasn’t sure why it should have happened now, either. I glanced at myself and realized that my fingertips were coated in frost, too, and I hadn’t even felt it. I’m not sensitive to cold, but normally I would have noticed that.
This wasn’t the time to do anything about it, either. I sat down to wait for Aiko instead. On the other side of the cage from the circle of frost.