I woke up at seven the next morning feeling, if not as entirely rested as I might like, still pretty good. The way I saw it I was finally starting to make real progress. The Sidhe I had bargained with would be getting me information soon, and I didn’t even owe on it. Furthermore, I was starting to get an idea of what was going on. Which worried me.
Here’s the thing about the fae, and the Sidhe in particular. Every person I’d ever talked to about them—every single one—had the same piece of advice. If you think you got the better side of a deal with one of them, it’s because you got played and you haven’t even realized it yet.
I was in too deep to back out now, though. I’d already run over the edge of the metaphorical cliff, and like Wile E. Coyote, I was moving too fast to turn around. So I’d probably better just keep moving and hope I found solid ground on the other side before I realized I was falling.
There was a message on my phone from Val which had been left about two hours before. He asked me to meet him ASAP at an address that was unknown to me, and come alone. That, obviously, was suspicious as hell.
If I hadn’t trusted Val as much as I did, I probably wouldn’t have gone, or would at least have brought a metric ton of backup. As it was, I armed myself to the teeth and started walking.
On the way I added one bear trap and a set of stairs covered in ice to my tally. I left off the open manhole cover, though, because it might have been coincidence and I couldn’t bring myself to believe that anyone would seriously use that as an assassination weapon.
I found myself, after quite a pleasant walk, at a garage not entirely unlike the one Val and I worked out of. It was a great deal more dilapidated, though, and seemed to have been abandoned for years.
An abandoned garage in a quiet part of town. If I were a suspicious sort of person I might think that being asked to meet somebody there alone was a setup of some kind. Good thing I’m not one of those or anything.
The door was unlocked, which it probably shouldn’t have been. I pushed it open, but the interior of the place was totally dark. I couldn’t see, here, or smell anyone inside.
“Hello?” I called, not going in and keeping all my senses focused on detecting anyone sneaking up behind me to do something nefarious.
There was a brief pause, then a light flicked on inside. “Winter,” Val said, relief unmistakable in his voice. “Come inside.”
I stepped inside, closing the door carefully behind myself, and keeping one hand on the knife in my pocket. If this was an ambush, now would be the ideal time for them to spring it. Nothing happened, though—darn it, how many opportunities were the bad guys going to waste like this?—and I relaxed somewhat, proceeding farther into the empty garage.
The light wasn’t especially bright, just a simple work lamp. It illuminated a small, worn table and two wooden chairs. Val was sitting in one of them, and looked nothing like I was used to seeing him.
Most of the time Val wore work clothes—he was a repairman of sorts, after all. They were usually simple—jeans, a sweatshirt, that sort of thing. Clean, always, and nothing like as battered as my clothes, but still just work clothes.
At the moment he was in grey silk and black leather. It looked more expensive than anything I’d ever owned in my life, and I was willing to bet that it was hand-tailored.
I stared at him for a moment. Then I sat down in the other chair.
“Nasty business,” he said without preamble. “Glad you made it out.”
That’s when I finally caught on. Val had been at the party that night, and he was still wearing his party clothes. “You know how much I pissed off the Dragon King?” I asked. I still didn’t really believe that Erin’s caution about names was entirely justified, but I also wasn’t planning on using his any time soon.
He ignored my question completely. “You were seen talking to the Sky-Traveler,” he said grimly. “And the Son of Wolves.”
Son of Wolves, eh? Interesting. That explained the cloak, then. And I suddenly had a much better idea of what had really been going on with that deal. Erin had referred to a Wolves’ Son as one of the Twilight most responsible for the treaty with Conn. If it was the same person, and I was willing to bet it was, he probably had a lot invested in its success. Which made that bargain much more understandable as well. From his perspective, he’d made me that much more likely to do what he wanted and preserve the treaty, and gotten a little bit of information into the deal.
I didn’t say any of that. I just looked at Val. He had a point he was getting at, or he wouldn’t have said anything.
He grunted and looked away. “You’re in over your head.”
“Yep,” I agreed. “I am so deep in hot water I fully expect to pass a kitchen thermometer anytime now. Unfortunately, nobody’s been lining up to offer me the easy way out.”
“Take the hard one.”
I grimaced. “Can’t. At this point the only reason I’m still breathing is that some of the people watching me have kept the rest from killing me. Backing out now would piss them off.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Damn.” He sighed and shook his head. “I cannot interfere directly in this matter, Winter. It is against the rules. But I might be able to help you in another way, if you so desire.”
Wow. I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard that many words out of Val all at once before. I’d certainly never heard him take that formal of a tone.
“Depends,” I said cautiously. “What is it?”
Rather than answer, he stood up and walked away. I’d been in the light long enough that my night vision, normally much better than human, was essentially worthless, and as a result I couldn’t tell what he was doing, but I could hear it. He rummaged around a bit, muttered a handful of curse words, and then he was back.
With him he brought a sword. It was ornate, with a golden handle and a fine leather sheath, but also simple. Just an ordinary broadsword, about three feet long. It wasn’t an elegant weapon, like a rapier or saber; it was the sort of sword that was meant for killing, and made no pretense otherwise.
There was one other immediately notable feature about the sword. It was held in its scabbard with a leather strap not unlike the restraining strap on a gun, fastened with a very modern-looking snap. It was bound tightly enough that you couldn’t have drawn the blade even half an inch without undoing the strap first.
“What is that?” I said softly, staring at the sword. There was something fascinating about it, something I couldn’t put my finger on but which was definitively there. I couldn’t look away, and I didn’t know why, and that scared me.
“A sword,” Val said, stroking the hilt gently with one finger. “My sword, long ago.” He looked at me. “You are involving yourself in the affairs of Twilight Princes,” he said quietly. “Dangerous people. Nothing you have could hope to protect you against the likes of them.” He nodded at the sword lying on the table. “This might.”
“Are you saying…that thing could kill a Twilight Prince?” I asked.
He stared pensively at the sword. “I cannot say,” he said eventually. “Very little can kill beings such as that. But this sword has killed a great many things in its day, some of them quite powerful.” He looked back at me. “I do not know whether it is enough to destroy them. But it is more likely to do so than anything else I possess.”
I gulped. That was…really scary. I was pretty sure that at least a few of the Twilight were beings like Loki—old gods, powerful beyond mortal ken. Killing an entity like that is…a challenging proposition, at the least. “How long would I be holding this sword?” I asked him.
“Until death do you part.” His voice was quiet and absolutely dead serious.
“At what price?” That was the dicey part. To hold a weapon that powerful for the rest of my life….it was the kind of thing that could cost your soul.
“From me? None. As to what the sword itself might cost you, well,” he shrugged. “That I cannot say.”
I took my time thinking it over. I was scared of what this deal might mean, and I thought my fear was entirely reasonable. I also thought that, given I was already in over my head, having a way to protect myself might not be a bad idea.
“Deal,” I said. “And thank you.” I felt a strange frisson of power as I spoke the words, magic unlike anything I had ever felt crawling over my skin like ten thousand tiny spiders for an instant before vanishing.
Val bowed his head briefly. His expression held some emotion I couldn’t name. Perhaps it was one that humans didn’t share. “So be it, then,” he whispered, the same emotion making his voice sound almost choked. “Do not thank me yet, Winter. But take the sword with my blessing, and may the hand of Týr watch over you as I cannot.” He stood and left without another word, steady and resolute.
I sat and watched him go with a feeling of deep unease. After he was gone I continued to sit and wondered, for the too-manyth time in the past few days, just what I had gotten myself into.
After Val left I spent a little while examining my new sword.
The hilt was made of two ropes of gold twisted around each other. The pommel was more gold, sculpted into the shape of a snarling wolf’s head with black stones for eyes. I sighed when I saw that. I mean, come on. Did I really need another thing to link me to wolves? You’d think I had enough already. It was getting ridiculous.
The scabbard was black leather, with fittings of some metal that looked like silver but didn’t burn me the way silver should have. Now that the light was better I saw that the leather wasn’t actually perfectly smooth; there was a very subtle ripple pattern to it. I could barely see images of snowflakes, more wolves, and ravens, all of the pictures partially obscured.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant. They were all symbols of death.
I took a deep breath. Then, slowly and very carefully, I undid the strap and slid the blade free. As I did the scent of its magic, previously contained by the sheath, filled the room like stone and freshly spilled blood. In case it wasn’t ominous enough already, you know. The weight of the sword was odd; I couldn’t have said whether it felt heavier than it should or lighter, but it didn’t feel quite right.
The blade was mirrorlike. I don’t mean that it was shiny; it was literally reflective, a perfect and unmarred polish that I could see my reflection in. The only discrepancy was a series of runes in jet black along the entire length of both sides of the blade. I wasn’t sure how they had been made; the edges were perfectly smooth, and I couldn’t tell the difference by feel between them and the rest of the blade. I recognized most of them as Norse, but there were several that were unknown to me, and I couldn’t find any meaning in them at all.
I stared at it for a moment. Then, very carefully, I tested the sharpness of the blade with my other hand. When I pulled my thumb away, it was bleeding; the sword was not only so sharp it had cut me just touching it, it was sharp enough I never felt it.
As I watched, the blood seemed to fade into the silvery surface. I felt a strange, satisfied pulse of magic as it did, as though the sword were literally drinking my blood—and it liked the taste.
I frowned. After a moment’s search I found a block of wood maybe a foot thick lying around. I set it up on the table and tested the blade against a corner of it. It lopped the corner off, perfectly smooth as though it had been cut with a high-performance saw. I thought a moment, and then swung the blade at the center of the block.
I swung it one handed, and not all that hard. It still went through the entire piece of wood, and the table under it. I barely felt any resistance at all, as though I had been cutting butter instead of hardwood.
Clearly, this sword was more than it looked like. Clearly, I needed advice. I sheathed the sword, being very careful not to touch the actual blade with my hands. The scabbard, for whatever reason, seemed immune to its edge.
Then I had my next unpleasant realization. I couldn’t let go of the sword. My hand wasn’t stuck to it or anything. I just couldn’t, physically could not, make my fingers let it go. I eventually had to peel them off with my other hand, and even that was difficult.
I stared at it, and was genuinely frightened of the sword itself for the first time. Then, with shaking hands, I did up the restraining strap again. The instant I did the subtle, dangerous magic that had filled the room vanished as though I’d turned off a light switch.
Val had left a sword belt, too, thick leather with steel studs. As I fastened the sword to it and wrapped it around my waist, I had to admit that the weight of the sword at my hip made me feel…confident? That’s not the right word, but I can’t think of a better one.
That feeling was only slightly perturbed when I tripped and fell on my face walking out the door.
Roughly an hour later, I was wearing the sword concealed under my trench coat and knocking on Alexander’s door. We went through the standard routine, enlivened slightly by the fact that he hadn’t been expecting me until next week, and I followed him down to the lab.
He immediately walked over to his favorite workbench. “Sorry, Winter,” he said, “but you caught me right in the middle of a time-sensitive experiment.” Sitting on the workbench over a Bunsen burner was a small, bubbling beaker of….
“Is that blood?” I asked incredulously.
“Werewolf blood,” he corrected. “From your friend’s payment.”
During the Garrett incident, as I was coming to think of it, Dolph wound up trading a quart of his blood for information. “How do you keep it fresh for that long?” I asked.
“Preserving spell on the beaker,” he said absently, watching the blood boil. “Pain in the ass, but worth it for some things. Excuse me.” He turned the burner off and carefully removed the blood and carried it to another table, where he had what looked like very expensive sciency things set up. He doled the blood out into test tubes and started doing things I didn’t understand to it. None of them seemed to involve magic.
“What are you doing?” I asked, curious even though I knew I had better things to be thinking about. It’s one of my numerous character flaws.
“I was wondering whether a werewolf’s regenerative abilities continue to function outside of their body. And also whether their blood is materially different from that of a human.” He squinted at one of the machines and turned a few knobs minutely. “As it turns out the answer is yes to both. The erythrocytes are repairing themselves, which is quite unusual, and remarkably quickly at that. And the combined blood count shows exceptionally high levels of erythrocytes and thrombocytes, and a decrease in most leukocyte varieties. Quite interesting.”
And I had exactly no idea what he was talking about. I was a liberal arts major, okay? Science, although a fine thing and not intrinsically opposed to magic the way some people seem to think it is, isn’t my thing.
So I stood there and tried not to fidget too much for about twenty minutes while Alexander did whatever he did. Eventually, he turned to face me. “What’s up?” he asked.
“I recently came into possession of an enchanted item,” I said. “One which I suspect may be quite powerful. I was wondering what you could tell me about it.”
“Really? Let’s see it, then.” Alexander doesn’t get animated about much, but magic items will do it every time.
I carefully pulled the sword out and laid it on the table. He examined it, picking it up and rolling it about in his hands. Occasionally he muttered something under his breath that, even with superhuman hearing, I couldn’t make out clearly.
That went on for about five minutes before I prompted, “Well?”
He glared at me. “Don’t rush me, Winter. I’m still trying to figure out how many enchantments are even on this sword.”
I blinked. “It’s that good?” I asked stupidly.
“Possibly better than anything I’ve ever encountered before. I once held a brooch that was apparently made by Merlin himself, and this work puts that to shame. Do you know anything about it?”
“Um. The man who gave it to me said that it was a sword which might be powerful enough to kill a Twilight Prince. That’s about it.”
“Narrows things down a bit,” he muttered. He examined it again, although I got the sense that he was looking for something specific now. He trailed his hands over the hilt briefly, then blanched and set it down very quickly. “Winter, this is very important. What else did he say about it?”
Wow. Alexander hadn’t sounded this serious since I’d met him—including when we were working with energies powerful enough to kill. I recited my conversation with Val as best as I could remember it, which meant nearly word for word. When I finished, Alexander looked at the sword as though it were a viper that might bite at any moment, and took a couple steps back from it.
“I take it you know something,” I said dryly.
“I can’t say I know for sure,” he said grimly. “But from what you’ve said I think this might be Tyrfing.”
“Tyrfing?” I asked blankly.
He gave me a disgusted look. “You don’t know what Tyrfing is?” he asked.
I frowned. “The name is familiar, but I’m not sure why.”
He sighed. “What’s the good of being able to recognize a kitsune at a dozen yards if you can’t even….” He trailed off, shaking his head. “Well, there’s good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”
“The good news is this,” he gestured at the sword, “is powerful. Extremely powerful. I would say it’s most likely on a par with any other weapon in the world that isn’t actually divine in nature.”
I blinked and stared at the sword. “Are you telling me that I’m carrying around freaking Excalibur or something?”
“Well,” he said, “that’s the bad news. Excalibur was created as a weapon for good. It’s meant to protect the weak, defend the innocent, destroy evil, that sort of thing. Right?”
I nodded. “Let me guess,” I joked. “This is the exact opposite, right? Meant to corrupt and destroy everything it touches?”
Alexander looked at me. He didn’t laugh. He didn’t smile. I felt my grin start to slip.
“Pretty much,” he said quietly. “Yes.”