Back in the real world I blinked a few times, trying to get used to having an actual body again. It felt strange, limiting and comforting at the same time. I couldn’t tell, just by looking, whether a given tree was doing well or poorly, couldn’t smell the emotions a person felt from a mile away. I’d lost a ton of sensory input—and felt marvelous for it.
I stretched gently. Judging by how stiff I was, I must have sat there for at least three hours—long enough that the moon was low in the sky, and the frost produced by my magic had melted in the warm night air.
“I’m okay,” I said—or, more accurately, rasped. I hadn’t actually, physically been chanting, but my throat was still dry. I swallowed and, in a more normal voice, called out “I’m okay. It worked.”
Nobody shot me, so I must have sounded reasonably convincing. I reached out and found the power in the circles, taking it back into myself. I broke the circle around myself physically as well, picking up the bit of wood and the amulet, then walked over to examine the skeleton.
It looked the same as before, unless you knew exactly what to look for. Given that I did, I could see the thin layer of dark fog around some of the bones, almost too subtle to see. Without the energy of the circle blocking it I could smell, too, the distinct aroma of decaying leaves. Legion had successfully possessed the dead bones. I picked up the key and unlocked the padlock, holding all my power ready. If, against my expectations, the demon attacked me, this would be the time.
It didn’t, and I picked up the other anchors. I carried them back to where Aiko, still a fox, and Snowflake waited for me near the packs. Behind me Legion heaved his new body upright and followed, making no sound at all.
“Hey,” I said. “How’d it go?”
Aiko, who was watching me closely, made a noncommittal sound. Snowflake, who was looking over my shoulder, said and did nothing.
Until, a moment later, she came to her feet with a snarl. I could feel her anger, her sudden and violent hate, and shivered. A moment later I realized that what I was feeling came from the wolf inside her, and Snowflake herself was almost as confused as I was.
Oh, shit. I looked back and saw that yes, it was Legion he/she was staring at. The demon made no noise and hadn’t shifted his position at all, but somehow it was obvious that while he felt no particular animosity to the dog, he wasn’t backing down either.
I thought, idly, that if this was his normal means of expression we might have some issues in the near future. It was fine when I was a spirit, but now that I was back in my normal frame of mind I preferred more…explicit communication.
“Stop it,” I told Snowflake. “Stop. He means no harm.”
She didn’t look away, but I heard the wolf speak within my mind. No harm? How can you say that after what he did to me?
Then I jumped as I heard Legion the same way. Technically speaking I did nothing to you. Was I not bound, much as you were? And, after the werewolf died, did I not specifically leave you unharmed? Did I not maintain that host long enough for you to remove yourself?
Huh. I’d always thought that I had done that.
The wolf felt unconvinced. “Look,” I said. “You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to tolerate each other long enough to get out of here. Once we’re home I promise you don’t have to see him again.”
The wolf continued to stare at the demon for another moment. Then, abruptly, it retreated, almost palpably, from the forefront of Snowflake’s mind. The dog, in control once again, rubbed against my knees and whined softly, looking for comfort. She was upset, and I understood why; while she’d always known that the wolf was there, in her, and they had fit together well, this was the first time it had really made itself known, taken control away from her.
Aiko looked amused by the whole thing. When I looked at her, though, I could see the concern and almost-fear beneath the surface, and wow. The leftovers of my sojourn in the spirit world were clearly going to be more of an issue than I’d thought.
I got to work cleaning up. I put the fire out, then piled the dirt back in over the pit until it looked almost the same as it had before I’d been there. The water I dumped out, and the pile of gravel distributed. The vase, stone, and chimes all went back in the bags. Then I scattered the markers for the second circle, and swept the salt mixtures up and placed them in a trash bag. I could have just left them, but it wouldn’t have been good for the grass—somehow, most plants don’t seem to like salt very much.
Once that was done, I put my various tools and toys back into their pockets and slipped my jacket back on. The pistol, unloaded, was returned to its holster. Tyrfing I left where it was, because I was absolutely not concerned about what would happen to it. Tyrfing was the kind of sword that happens to other people.
“I need to think for a few minutes,” I said once everything was picked up. I directed my attention to Legion. “You will remain in this location until I return. You will take no action nor attempt to communicate with anyone.”
He conveyed agreement, with faint undertones of amusement. I sighed and walked away.
I stopped on a short rise about fifteen minutes’ walk away. There was a little hill with some boulders on top of it, and when I’d climbed to the top of the rocks I was about level with the tops of the trees on the ground below. I lay back, the cool granite a comforting presence against my back, and watched the moon for a few minutes.
Mostly what I was doing was just getting my head back together again. The bizarre senses I’d had in the other world were, mercifully, not coming back, but that didn’t mean I was quite right, mentally. My magical senses were working overtime, whether I wanted them to or not, and it took me almost ten minutes to get them back to normal.
About the same time I did I heard quiet footsteps behind me. It wasn’t the kind of quiet you get when somebody’s being furtive; it was more like the near-silence people seem to adopt in holy places, regardless of whether they share the faith in question.
I smelled fox, even though Aiko was in human shape, and lilacs. Under that was a tone of spice, nutmeg predominating, which I knew originated in magic rather than any physical trait. Her power isn’t spectacularly strong, but it is distinctive, and she uses it well.
“Hey,” I said quietly as she sat next to me. I didn’t look away from the moon.
“Hey. How’d it go?”
I shrugged wearily. “Not bad. I don’t know. It worked, I guess.”
“You don’t sound very happy about it.”
“No,” I said wryly, “I guess not.” I glanced at her, half-seen in the moonlight, then looked away again. “I…understand why most mages don’t go to the spirit world very often, now.”
She nodded, looking unsurprised. “Was it bad?”
“Not as bad as it could have been, I suppose. I…saw some things, that maybe I would rather not have seen.”
She winced. “Ah. You want to talk about it?”
I thought for a moment, and found to my surprise that I did. Most of the time I’m not exactly the sort that likes to talk about a problem, but this time I actually thought it might help. It might make me feel better, if nothing else. “Maybe,” I said. “But…some of the things I saw were about you.” I looked away again, feeling oddly ashamed.
She went totally, utterly still in a way that humans generally don’t. “What kind of things?”
“The scars behind the mask,” I said quietly. “A smile worn to hide the blood. Crying in an empty room, with the scent of cherry blossoms underneath.”
She relaxed and stared at her hands for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “That kind of things.”
“I’m sorry. For intruding. I wouldn’t have looked, if I’d had a chance.”
She looked at me squarely and I realized that she was as uncomfortable as I was. “Winter. I…care about you. That’s not something I’m in a position to say often. It’s not intruding for you to want to know who I am.”
I watched the moon for a moment. “Maybe not, but it was still….” I frowned, struggling to explain what I’d felt. “I saw too much. We aren’t supposed to see that much.” I thought about what Alexander had said, about how important certain mental blocks could be, and suddenly understood what he’d meant a lot better. I might not have gone on a vision quest, but I still felt like my vision had been too clear in those moments for comfort.
She was silent for the space of a deep breath. “I’m glad you did, though,” she said quietly. “It’s the sort of thing you should know about. Should have known a while ago, probably, but I have…a hard time talking about myself, you know?”
“Yeah. I do too.” I grinned weakly. “Maybe we should take turns. Clear the air a little. Ask some questions that have been bugging us for a while. You go first.” I felt like I was standing on the edge of a precipice. I knew, with a chilly certainty, that whatever she asked, in that moment I would tell her. It was a very scary feeling.
“You never talk about your family,” the kitsune said eventually. “Why not?”
“I guess I never really did the family thing. You already know about my parents.”
“Sure,” she said, “but that’s not all there is to the story. I know you mentioned being raised by an aunt, for example.”
“Yeah, but…we were never really comfortable, you know? When I was born, she was trying to put herself through college. She hadn’t even thought of children, and then suddenly she gets saddled with me. Not her kid, not even human. Then her sister, who practically raised her, up and kills herself. I think she blamed me for that, on some level. She was never abusive, but there was always this undercurrent there.”
I sighed. “Then I came into my power, and it got worse. She knew practically nothing about our world. My mother never told her. And then I started spending all my time daydreaming, sort of. I’d spend my time in something else’s mind, and it had some…very serious effects on me.”
“What kind of effects?” she asked me.
I shrugged. “Nothing too bad, at first. I was tired all the time, because I didn’t sleep well—every time I slept the magic was there, just waiting for me. Then I learned to control it, learned to make it happen when I wanted. That was worse. It was….”
I frowned and met Aiko’s eyes. “I was so weak,” I said quietly. “Not even a werewolf then. Just a normal human, physically, except that I didn’t freeze quite so easy. But I didn’t feel human. By the time I was twelve I’d felt a lot of things that humans aren’t supposed to. I knew what it was like for the cat when it catches the mouse and eats it raw in the ditch, heart still pounding with the excitement of the chase. I knew how the coyote feels when it’s running, under the moon, so happy. I knew how it feels to fly, Aiko.”
“And with all of that,” she said softly, “who wants to go back to being human?”
I smiled bitterly. “Sounds like you’ve heard this story before.”
She looked away again. “It happens that way sometimes, to kitsune. Every generation there are a few who…they turn into the fox and never come back. Never communicate, not even to the ones they loved. They’re just…gone.” Her own smile twisted a little. “They thought I might be one of them, when I was young. And that’s with just one other body to get lost in.”
I grunted vaguely. “Well. That was what happened to me, I guess. There wasn’t anyone to teach me, anyone to explain to me how to control the power or why I would want to. And there’s only so long you can spend in another mind before it starts to change you. Did you know that? I spent too long. I started getting territorial urges. Some kid stole my lunchbox and I just went at him, tried to gouge his eyes out.”
I sighed. “After that I had to drop out of school. I was too dangerous to be around other kids. By that time I’d been diagnosed with severe depression and schizophrenia, and some kind of personality disorder, I don’t remember the name. They prescribed a bunch of drugs, which didn’t work. They made things worse, actually, because I spent more and more time outside my body to get away from the side effects. I lost weight, stopped eating, because I’d already eaten, just not in my own body. And everything tasted worse if I actually ate it, like cardboard and ashes.”
“I’m glad you made it back,” she said seriously.
I smiled wryly. “Mostly. Anyway, the next time I saw her it was almost worse. I’d been gone for years, and I think we didn’t quite know what to make of each other. She was married to someone I’d never met, and the two of them had a daughter. And I wasn’t even trying to be human at that point. I think I scared them all a little. The kid with the weird eyes who never talked about where he’d been or what he’d done since the last time she saw me. The conversation was always…awkward. They’d ask me how I was paying for college, for example. And what was I supposed to tell them? That I was being bankrolled by the Khan?” I shrugged. “So yeah, I never really got back in touch with them. I’ve got a few cousins now, but I’ve hardly talked to any of them.”
“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I think that’s what I like about you. Whenever I think that my life is a single enormous montage of bad decisions and worse results, all I have to do is look at you, and think about what that must be like, and what do you know, I feel better.”
“Glad to be of service,” I said dryly. “What about you? You’ve mentioned your mother a few times, but practically nothing else. What was it like growing up as a kitsune?”
“Lonely,” she said after a moment’s thought. “There was a lot to it, of course, but mostly I would say it was lonely. I never got on with my mother too well. She’s very, very traditional, and I mostly only think of traditions in terms of how I can break them most entertainingly. She hardly even leaves the Otherside anymore, and if she does she’s in Japan.”
I frowned. “I thought you said you were born in Chicago.”
“My father,” she explained. “He’s a lot more like me. He took her on a trip, then arranged for them to be stranded long enough that I was born on foreign soil. Just as a prank.” She sighed. “I loved him, still do, but he wasn’t much better than she was. He was always…unreliable. I remember he would vanish, for hours or days or weeks at a time. I never knew where he had gone, or when he would come back.”
“Leaving you to be raised by your mother.”
“Exactly. She kept trying to mold me into someone like her, and the harder she tried the harder I fought. Eventually, when I was about fifteen, she just gave up on me. She’s barely spoken to me since.” She smiled weakly. “That’s what you saw. She has her own domain on the Otherside, where I spent most of my life growing up. I remember it always smelled like flowers, all the time. My room was empty because, when I was younger, she would take away anything that didn’t fit with her image of who I should be. By the time she stopped it was a sort of rebellion—she took away anything that didn’t fit, so I got back at her by having nothing at all. For a while I didn’t even have a bed, and I slept on the floor.”
I envisioned that, and shivered. My life might not always have been kind, but there’d always been someone there for me. My aunt, Edward, Conn and his family. I imagined what it might be like to spend your days sitting in an empty room, knowing that the only person who cared about you at all was too unreliable to ever count on.
I thought maybe I could understand why Aiko was the way she was. Not that there had ever been much doubt that she was messed up. I’d always been well aware that the reason we got along so well was that we were both broken in our own ways. I might not be happy about my psychological issues, but that doesn’t make be blind to them.
I didn’t particularly want to spend more time thinking about them, though, and I could tell that Aiko was starting to feel depressed by the conversation. I was feeling recovered, anyway, so I figured it was about time to move on.
“What a pair we make,” I said, laughing. “Maybe we should go on Jerry Springer or something.”
“I don’t know about that,” Aiko said doubtfully. “I’ve never seen the appeal of that show.”
“Me neither, but I think you can make the bucks doing it.”
“Ah,” she said, “now that I can see the appeal of.”
“Likewise,” I said, glancing at the sky. I wasn’t very good at telling time by the moon or stars, but I was pretty sure it was edging into tomorrow. “I think that’s about all the soul-sharing I can handle in one sitting.”
“Thank the vaguely godlike beings,” she said with a dramatic shudder. “I was afraid I’d have to resort to knock-knock jokes to get you to say that.”
I chuckled. “Reckon it’s about time to be heading back?”
“No, actually. That would have been about four hours ago. But this is a reasonable second choice.”