I felt like I’d been gut-punched. I stared at the sword for a long moment, but I wasn’t really seeing it.
Everyone who knows anything about them warns you to never, ever trust the fae. I had ignored those warnings. I’d trusted Val absolutely, a level of trust I extended only to a handful of people in the world.
And he’d betrayed that trust.
I wanted to think there had been some kind of mistake, that he hadn’t realized what he had, but that was wishful thinking and I dismissed it almost instantly. Val wasn’t an idiot. He had known exactly what he was doing.
“It’s one of the most famous cursed swords in history,” Alexander continued. He was still staring at the sword—at Tyrfing—as though it might attack him at any moment. “It’s been wielded by a number of rather infamous people. They say Mordred carried it into the last battle with Arthur, although that might just be because it’s thematically pleasing—you know, good versus evil, godly sword versus pagan, creation versus destruction, all that. Other than that it’s known to have been used by Attila when he laid waste to the Roman Empire. Most other accounts are unsubstantiated. Hitler, of course, but if Hitler had a tenth of what’s attributed to him he would have won the war. Robespierre supposedly carried the sword for a time and then either lost it or voluntarily gave it up. Rumor claims it’s also been used by Vlad Tepes and a handful of highwaymen and pirates, most famously Bartholomew Roberts.”
I blinked. “Damn. How old is this sword?”
He grimaced. “Can’t say for sure. Reliable information about Tyrfing is extremely hard to find. Most of what I just told you is hearsay, and I’d be surprised if a quarter of it is true. It’s safe to say at least fifteen hundred years, though. Possibly much more. It’s attributed in one Eddaic poem which has survived in relatively good condition. Other than that there are accounts—”
I held up one hand to interrupt him. “That’s fascinating,” I said, “but I kind of have a full plate. Could we maybe stick to the short version for now?”
“Sure, sure. You want to start with the bare bones and then hear the most common interpretation?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
“Okay,” he said. “The creation of the sword is described in the poem. There was a king whose name I forget, whose grandfather was Odin. One day he found two dvergar—dwarves,” he added, seeing my look of confusion. “Being a generally greedy bastard, he imprisoned them and made them swear to make a sword for him. I believe his specific request was that it would never rust and would cut stone like cloth.”
I nodded. That fit with the almost unbelievable sharpness of the blade.
“They made the sword and brought it to him,” Alexander continued. “And it was everything he wanted. As they gave it to him, though, they pronounced three curses over the sword. The first, that it would kill someone every time it was drawn. The second, that it would be the king’s own death. The third, that it would cause three great tragedies.” He paused. “I’m guessing you’re not interested in all the sordid details of what was done with it?”
“Some other time,” I promised.
“All right, then. Suffice to say that a mercenary betrayed the king, stole the sword, and killed him with it. He eventually died as well, and the blade passed to his daughter, who was a notorious brigand and used it to terrorize most of the country. She married a foreign prince, and one of her sons inherited it. He used the sword to murder his brother and a number of other people, and rose to prominence. Eventually he tried to kill Odin, who was in disguise. It went about as well as you’d expect.”
“And?” I asked.
He shrugged. “And that’s it. Nobody knows for sure what happened to Tyrfing after that. The only sighting since then that I’m absolutely sure of was Attila. I’d wager all of the rest are false.”
“Most modern scholars are convinced that it’s mythical, and as a result pay relatively little attention. However, some people who are aware of the supernatural have examined the legend, and there are a few reasonably solid conjectures. The reference to the original wielder being Odin’s grandson is usually taken to mean that he was a mage of some kind, since Odin was the god of magic and you’d have to have some fairly serious power to imprison two dvergar even momentarily.”
“About that,” I said. “How serious are we talking? I don’t know much about the dwarves.”
“They’re a splinter group of svartálfar who broke away a long time ago—prehistory at least. I don’t think anyone really knows what they disagreed about, but they’ve not agreed on it yet. They’re generally considered to be the finest smiths and craftsmen in existence, along with the other álfar.”
“Okay. And the curse?”
“Was significant. They meant for it to cause him the greatest suffering it possibly could—dwarves are not known for generosity, and they never forget an insult. I don’t know whether the curse was meant literally or not—”
“Not,” I said. “I drew it earlier. Nobody was killed.” I paused. “Although I did have a very difficult time resheathing it. Maybe that’s what they meant.”
He frowned dubiously. “Maybe. Would you mind drawing it again?”
I shrugged. Then, carefully, I undid the restraint and slid the blade out about three inches. As before, the scent of magic flooded out into the room.
Alexander closed his eyes and stood there for a moment. “Interesting,” he said. “Put it away, please.”
I did. It wasn’t any easier to let go of this time, although I was sure that the effect was psychological rather than physical. I got the sense that all Tyrfing wanted, really, was to be used. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it, after so many years confined to that scabbard. Just use it a little bit and it wouldn’t bother me any more, it really wouldn’t….
I shuddered and snapped it back into place.
“Did anything bad happen after you drew the sword last time?” Alexander asked.
“I nicked myself on it,” I said. “Oh, and I tripped on the way out. Nothing serious.”
He nodded as though he’d expected as much. “Right. That makes sense.” He glanced at the sword again, with less distrust and more curiosity this time. “I think I know what they meant by that,” he said conversationally. “There’s an entropy curse on the sword.”
“Probability magic. It’s an extremely difficult field. This particular application is designed to influence things for the worse. It makes any possible event which is harmful, dangerous, or destructive more likely to occur.”
I’d never heard of anything like that. Magic is typically pretty direct; you can do subtle things with it, but the actual process of casting a spell requires that you have a clear idea of what you’re doing. This seemed a lot more nebulous.
“How common is this sort of spell?” I asked.
Alexander smiled. It was not a friendly smile. “I’ve seen entropy curses twice in my life. Neither one lasted more than a minute. If you’d asked me yesterday, I would have said that creating a permanent one was impossible.”
“Oh,” I said, shivering a little. It was easy to imagine all the worse things that could have happened to me. It was also easy to imagine how seriously I had underestimated the danger this sword posed. I was starting to get the impression that I had made a bad mistake. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
He shrugged. “Of course, but not to a great extent here. Very little in my lab happens by chance, which is the only thing that curse can affect. Besides which, I expect it takes a certain amount of time to build up to anything really nasty. Probability magic isn’t renowned for efficiency.”
I mused on that for a moment. “Probably explains the tragedy bit too. If bad things happen everywhere the sword goes.”
“More than likely,” he agreed. “In fact, I’d say that’s probably the only curse on the sword.” He paused. “Although it’s more than enough, really. I imagine if you stayed within its area of effect for any length of time it would kill you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Guess I’d better get rid of the thing.”
I glared at him. “What do you mean I can’t? Why not? It isn’t worth the power to be carrying around the embodiment of bad luck and destruction.”
He looked at me with something like pity in his eyes. “You can’t, Winter. Literally cannot.” His voice was unlike I had ever heard it. Calm, and perhaps a little bit sad, as though he were explaining something obvious and tragic to a child.
“I don’t understand,” I said. The truth is that I did understand, perhaps had understood since I first saw the sword, but I was desperately hoping that I might be wrong.
“It’s not that easy,” he said in the same tone. “It’s never that easy.” He shook his head slowly. “Leave it if you want to. Throw it away. Drop it in the ocean. It doesn’t matter. Eventually the sword will find its way back to you. That’s how these things work.”
I laughed bitterly. Of course it was. I stared at Tyrfing, just now beginning to realize what it had meant when I accepted it. In my memory I could hear Val saying, grimly, “Until death do you part.” It hadn’t occurred to me at the time quite what he was saying, but I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.
There wasn’t much to say after that. I stood, belted Tyrfing back around my waist, and turned to leave.
And then the trapdoor exploded in and a huge, emerald green dog fell into the lab after it. It hit the ground and, never pausing, turned to face me. Its face set in a wide, mad snarl, it flung itself at me with all four legs, landing on a worktable about halfway between me and the exit. It tensed its muscles for the leap that would take it the rest of the way to me and, in all probability, end my life.
I should explain something. I had, in my twenty-seven years of life, been in a lot of fights. Generally speaking I came out on top. I had survived encounters with gunmen, werewolves, demons, and fae. I wasn’t hugely powerful, but I wouldn’t say I was a lightweight either.
That said, it’s important to recognize why I survived and they, for the most part, didn’t. Most of the time it’s because I was more prepared. Not more powerful, or skilled, or fast; just more paranoid.
See, in those fights I had made use of a staggering variety of tools and weapons. My magic, of course. Guns, usually using specially prepared ammunition. Occasionally more exotic things, including grenades, knives, and even water balloons. In other words, I had cheated. I’d hit the enemy with things they weren’t expecting and pressed the advantage ruthlessly. I’d taken full advantage of the element of surprise in most of those fights.
Take away those advantages and I’m not all that tough. Oh, more so than the vast majority of people—but not more so than most supernatural players. Surprised in Alexander’s lab, I had none of those things. I’d disarmed myself before coming there, as always—I didn’t want him to feel either threatened or insulted by my bringing weapons into his home. All I had brought were the magical foci I occasionally used there. My bronze ring and new leather bracelet, neither of which was really meant for fighting.
I went for Tyrfing first thing, the action feeling perfectly natural. The restraining strap got in my way, though, and that dog was faster than any mortal beast. It would close with me before I ever drew the sword.
It launched itself into the air. I finally cleared the strap and started to draw Tyrfing. And then I saw something I hadn’t ever seen before, and everything changed.
I saw Alexander angry.
I should make something else clear, as well. The old wizard was vastly my superior in magic, but I have to admit I had occasionally thought that in an actual fight, I would take him. Most of the things he had shown me were slow, subtle manipulations of forces and energies that had no place in a quick, frenzied battle. As a result I thought that, aside from his extensive wards, he wasn’t all that dangerous in immediate terms.
I was wrong.
While the hound was still in the air, Alexander barked a single word in a voice of absolute authority. The dog stopped, midair, and was snatched straight up with terrible force. It hung there, writhing against the force that held it without success, and stared at us. It’s coal-black eyes were eerily intelligent.
Alexander looked at it for a moment. There was nothing of pity in him now. And then he spoke another word.
There was a flash of light, intensely bright and so pure it was almost painful to see. There was a hollow thump unlike anything I’d ever heard. And then, when my vision cleared, there was no green hound.
Just a mound of fine grey ash slowly drifting down to the floor.
Alexander turned to me, and there was something terrifying about him. He wasn’t shaking with rage. Nothing like that. He was calm, his expression neutral, his movements perfectly controlled. His voice, when he spoke, was the same. Only his eyes betrayed a fury that frightened me to the core.
“Winter,” he said. “Did you bring that thing in here?” Something in his voice promised that, if I had, I would shortly meet the same fate it had.
“No,” I said hastily, making sure my hands were nowhere near the sword. “I’ve been the subject of several assassination attempts in the past few days, but this was the first one that involved an actual attacker. I swear to you that if I had known it were following me I would never have brought danger to your home.”
He looked at me for a long, nervous moment, then relaxed. Tension seemed to flow out of the air in a tangible wave. “I believe you,” he said.
I let out my breath and fastened Tyrfing back into its sheath. That had been entirely too close for comfort.
“Still,” Alexander said thoughtfully. “That’s odd. One Cu Sith isn’t much of an assassination squad. Even for you.”
I wasn’t sure about that. I mean, it had looked like a dog, more or less. There was a chance that, if it had attacked me alone, I would have fallen back on my magic to communicate with or dominate it. I could do that to about any animal—but if this thing was fae, as I expected it was, it wouldn’t have worked. It might well have ripped my throat out before I even realized what was happening.
I was pretty sure I’d seen its work before, too, or that of something very like it. It seemed to me that those huge paws and teeth were an excellent candidate for the werewolf imitator which I had, in some sense, been chasing for some time now.
“Cu Sith?” I asked.
“Faerie hounds,” he explained. “Also called barghests. They’re part of the Sidhe Courts. This one was Seelie.”
“How can you tell?”
“Color,” he explained briefly. “Seelie hounds go mostly for green. Unseelie prefer black, white, or dark blue.”
Huh. Good to know. “There has to be a simpler nomenclature,” I muttered absently.
He smiled, seemingly back to his normal self. “There is. Several, actually. At the moment the preferred terms are Daylight and Midnight.”
“So it’s the Daylight and Midnight Courts?” I said. He nodded. “I take it Midnight is Unseelie?” He nodded again.
I thought for a moment. So if that was what they called the Sidhe Courts….
I broke out laughing as I finally understood a joke I’d been hearing for years. Alexander stared at me. “What?” he said.
“The Twilight Court,” I choked out through the laughter.
He frowned at me severely. “I don’t get it.”
I got myself back under control. “The Twilight Court,” I repeated, wiping tears from my eyes. “This whole time I thought they called themselves that because they rule the fae, and the fae are in decline.” I shook my head. “But that’s ridiculous. The fae are doing just great. It’s a joke. The whole concept of the Twilight Court is a joke. Halfway between noon and midnight. Twilight.”
“Congratulations,” he said, unimpressed. “You have explained the obvious. Excellent work.”
I looked at the pile of ash and sobered up. “I thought the Seelie were the good guys.”
He shrugged. “Good and evil are imprecise words when applied to the Sidhe. The Seelie aren’t the type to hunt you down and kill you for sport. But even if they were inclined to help humans, which most of them aren’t, they seldom understand us well enough that we could distinguish between their blessings and their curses. And if you get involved in their business, they can be every bit as ruthless as the Midnight Court.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I sighed in answer to the unspoken question. “I’m involved. And you don’t need to tell me how dangerous that is. I’m getting out of it as quick as I can.”
He smiled sadly. “Oh, Winter,” he said, his voice once again reminding me of a mother explaining to her child that every fire, however lovely, burns. “It’s not that easy. It’s never that easy.”
About ten minutes after I left, my phone started ringing. I pulled it out, glanced at it, and answered. “Hello, Kyra.”
“Christopher’s dead.” Her voice was blunt and matter-of-fact.
Probably I should have been shocked and horrified, or at least acted that way. I’d been expecting this for a while, though, and instead I sounded almost cheerful. “Let me guess. He was apparently assaulted by the same thing that killed that man at the bakery. Wounds are consistent with a werewolf attack, but you can’t find a scent. You may have found at least one print, though, which also seems like a werewolf track. There’s very little sign of a fight. You were the one to find the body because he’d called you, probably less than fifteen minutes before the apparent time of death, and asked you to come talk to him in person. He might have said something about knowing the message we were actually supposed to get from that murder, but in any case he wasn’t willing to speak about it over the phone.”
There was a shocked pause from the other end of the phone. “How did you know that?” Kyra said eventually, awe and suspicion about equally mixed in her voice.
I felt myself grinning. Damn, it’s nice to be right sometimes. “Lucky guess,” I said. “Listen, there are a few things I think we need to talk about. Can you meet me at my house in twenty minutes? Oh, and best not tell the rest of the pack about this. They’ll want to get all formal and we don’t have time for that right now.”
Not too long after that, Kyra, Erin and I were sitting around my old kitchen table. Aiko wasn’t there, because although she was many things, a werewolf wasn’t one of them. And this was werewolf business.
“You know,” I said, setting my glass of iced tea on the table, “there’s something that’s been bugging me for a while about Garrett. Why here? I mean, he was from Boston originally, right? So why attack here? Well, when I asked him about why Christopher didn’t know about the murders sooner, Conn told me that the pack was in a bad way because he wasn’t dominant enough to really be Alpha.”
I grinned and took a drink of tea. “At the time we assumed that Garrett knew about it and that was why he picked Colorado Springs. Because he knew it was vulnerable. Even then, though, something bothered me about that explanation. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that isn’t common knowledge. ”
“So?” Kyra asked impatiently.
“So who told him about it?” I asked. “It was someone who had an interest in keeping the Twilight Court from coming to an agreement with the Khan. And it was someone who likes to do their work indirectly.”
“We were already pretty confident it was a fae backer responsible,” Erin said dismissively. “That doesn’t help us with what’s going on now.”
I grinned. “Ah,” I said, “or does it? Consider the following. One,” I said, counting it on my fingers, “that doesn’t explain why this pack, specifically, was targeted. This pack wasn’t perfectly stable, but they weren’t that bad, and I know they aren’t the only target that would have worked. Two, everything I know about the fae says that they don’t do things for obvious reasons, and they like to achieve multiple goals at once. Three, Christopher has been involved in a disproportionate number of problems related to the Twilight Court recently.”
“So have we,” Kyra pointed out.
“Have we?” I challenged. “Think about it. The thing with Garrett, sure, but neither of us was targeted specifically. And then this time, the fae mercenary told us to give a message to Christopher. Think about it. Not the pack. Not the Khan. Christopher, personally. Doesn’t that seem suspicious to you?”
“Maybe,” Erin said doubtfully. “You think this was targeted at him specifically?”
I nodded. Then I suddenly noticed a plain white envelope sitting on the table. It hadn’t been there when we sat down, which meant that someone—or something—must have dropped it off while the three of us were sitting right there watching. And none of us noticed. Gulp.
I picked it up and found, unsurprisingly, that it had no marking of any kind on it, although it was securely sealed. I opened it and pulled out a few sheets of paper. They were typed, and although there was nothing to say who it came from, I knew.
“What’s that?” Kyra asked.
“I bargained for information on that mercenary,” I said absently. “Looks like he delivered.” I read a little more. “Says here he’s a high-ranking Sidhe of the Midnight Court. Made himself useful to the Queen and she gave him permission to work independently. He’s been active for about ninety years.” I whistled. “Expensive, too. Looks like his last contract was bodyguard work for a witch who pissed off a vampire lord. Cost him seventy pounds of gold.” I did a little quick math in my head and realized that that came to about two million cash. Damn.
Erin frowned. “If he’s Midnight, his employer probably isn’t Seelie after all.”
“Not necessarily,” I said. “He’s done jobs for the Midnight Court, but it says he’s primarily freelance. Works for anyone willing to pay. Prefers to take payment in kind; he’ll accept cash but his rates are even more exorbitant then. Even if he is Midnight, he has an excellent rep. Not too unlikely that the other Court would hire him.”
“That’s awesome,” Kyra said dryly, “but how does it help us?”
I flipped over the last page and showed my teeth in a feral grin. “It helps us,” I said, placing the sheet of paper in the middle of the table where they could clearly read it, “because I know where he’s going to be tonight.” My grin grew even wider. “I think maybe we should have a chat.”
Blaze’s dossier specified a location way out on the eastern edge of the city, where the merc would apparently be around dusk. I was glad for that; dusk is a good time of day for me.
Here’s the thing. Magic isn’t restricted to arcane laboratories and mystical forests. It’s everywhere, all the time, and everything that happens affects it. Take the moon, for example. Have you ever walked outside one night and looked up, and seen the full moon hanging in the sky, and felt a sudden rush of some emotion you couldn’t quite put your finger on? A longing, perhaps, for something you couldn’t name?
That’s what the werewolves feel; it’s not a compulsion, but that energy calls to them, tells them on a subconscious level that it’s time for the chase and blood in the night. Sometimes humans can feel an attenuated version of the same thing.
The point is that there are all kinds of energies like that. Sunrise is a time of beginnings. If you want to create something, dawn is a good time to do it; that’s when things start. Spring is full to bursting with the energy of new life.
And there are, of course, grimmer things as well. The dark of night is a dangerous time, a time of stealth and secrets. It’s no coincidence that the Unseelie, who are often dark and vicious, call themselves after Midnight. Winter, although I love it, is still the season of death, when the nights are long and cold and it’s a struggle just to survive. There’s always a balance; that’s how magic works. For every action there is a reaction.
Dusk is an interesting time, magically speaking. Although people tend to think of them as opposites, it’s actually very similar to dawn. Like sunrise it’s a time of change, of one thing becoming something else. There’s a period, too, when the world is hanging between day and night, neither one holding full sway. Dusk and dawn are the in-between times.
They’re also, like the moon, associated with the hunt. Most predators are especially active at dawn and dusk. They’re when you see the most shadows; at noon things are too bright, and at midnight there isn’t any light to cast them.
As you may have noticed, predators and shadows are the things that call most strongly to my magic. I wouldn’t say that I’m more powerful at dusk; that’s an oversimplification. It’s more like the energies I’m manipulating are more in line with my nature, so that I don’t have to work as hard to exert the same amount of power. A small difference, maybe, but in my neck of the woods a small difference is often the deciding factor. Going in at dusk wouldn’t give me much of an advantage, but I was happy to take whatever I could get.
That gave me several hours, which I spent getting ready. I had no particular desire to fight the mercenary—we weren’t really on opposite sides, and in fact I was counting on his employer to help me out.
But he didn’t know that. From where he was standing, he had offered me a serious insult, the kind of thing that would make plenty of supernatural beings absolutely furious beyond words. If he saw me, he would probably assume I was there to fight. And, if he was anything like I thought, he would react with the same merciless practicality as he’d shown before.
Which is to say that he would strike first, and strike to kill before I could fight back. I wouldn’t necessarily get a chance to explain. And, thanks to how I had worded my request for information, the dossier hadn’t included any other way to contact the mercenary.
So, because I wanted to survive long enough to prove that I wasn’t interested in a fight, I came ready for one.
Smell the irony there, eh?
My preparations were pretty simple. I called Enrico first thing, and asked for photos of the crime scene.
“You learned something about that?” he asked immediately.
“Maybe,” I hedged. “We’ll know after tonight. Can you get me those pics?”
“Maybe,” he said. “If you agree to bring me in when you bust them.”
“It’s likely to be dangerous,” I warned him. “Lethally so. And we aren’t exactly sticking to the letter of the law.”
“Not the first time I’ve encountered those conditions,” he said dryly. “Promise me.”
I sighed. I couldn’t say I was happy about it, but he was an adult. If he wanted to make a stupid choice, and he’d been informed, it wasn’t my place to tell him no. “You’d just be a liability tonight,” I said bluntly. “But if I can arrange for you to be there for the main event, I will. You have my word.”
“Fair enough. The pictures will be there within an hour.”
One step down. After that was what I thought of as my standard procedure before a fight. Sharpening knives that were already sharp. Cleaning guns, loading them, and then changing my mind and unloading them again. Filling my numerous pockets with about a dozen tools that would be of varying amounts of use if it did come to a fight. Then, because I still had a couple of hours to burn, I did it all again.
It was only an exercise to keep me distracted, after all. I’m always too high on nervous energy right before a major fight to focus on anything else anyway. If I didn’t have something to keep my hands busy I’d start thinking about all the things that might go wrong again, and that doesn’t help anyone.
Finally, a little less than an hour before sunset, it was time to get ready for real. I slipped on the heavy, beat-up leather jacket I use in place of actual armor. I belted Tyrfing on, with my Bowie knife on my opposite hip, and then shrugged into my trench coat so that it wouldn’t show. I grabbed my ten-gauge and my 9mm and checked all my pockets one more time before heading out.
Erin was already waiting for me. She was wearing a jacket not unlike mine, which isn’t surprising considering she’s where I got mine in the first place. She was carrying the sniper rifle I’d acquired from Loki, which she’d apparently had no difficulty finding ammo for. She was leaning against my trailer with her version of a jo stick next to her.
If you’re not familiar with what a jo is, suffice to say that it’s a contender for the simplest serious weapon in the world. A traditional jo stick is about four feet long and half an inch thick, weighs about a pound, and is made of oak. It doesn’t look like much, but a skilled person can do some very impressive things with it. I’ve never had the patience to really learn.
Erin’s was made of steel. It had to weight fifteen or twenty pounds, but to watch her use it you’d think it was no heavier than a newspaper. Oh yeah, and she’s had a couple hundred years to practice.
How she got it to Colorado on a commercial flight I have no idea. Some lines of inquiry are simply not worth pursuing.
Kyra, already in fur, came around the corner of my trailer about the same time Aiko pulled up. Neither of them had made any obvious preparations, although I knew the kitsune owned a full set of literal armor and at least one military-grade gun.
Aiko’s car was a bit crowded with all of us in it—Kyra, in particular, took up a lot of room—but we made it work. Nobody said much on the way out; we all knew the plan, and none of us was in the mood for chitchat.
Oh, theoretically, this wasn’t all that dangerous. Not by our standards, at any rate. But, as anyone who’s had experience with violence knows, when the shit hits the fan there’s always a certain amount of risk involved, simply because you can’t predict what’s going to happen. You can make some fairly decent guesses, sure, but you can’t account for randomness, and you can’t account for unknown factors.