Waking up was a difficult process. I became aware, first off, that I was uncomfortable. Not like horrifically or anything, just in an awkward position. My vision was strange, dark and red, and for a moment I was terrified that I had gone strangely blind before it occurred to me to open my eyes.
When I did, I was staring straight into a bank of fluorescent lights. The glaring light seemed to clear my head a little, and I started taking stock of my situation.
I was in a strange room, alone, tightly restrained, and naked. If you’ve ever had cause to say that sentence, you have my sympathies, because I see no way that situation could be good. Also, believe me, no matter how bad yours seemed, I was worse off. At least, I hope so. If not you might want to consider seeking professional help.
I was spread-eagled on my back on what felt like a doctor’s examination table. The steel was cold against my bare skin, pushing me further into reality. My hands were cuffed somehow, above my head and at an acutely uncomfortable downward angle. If I tried to squirm I had an excellent chance of dislocating a shoulder. Not a fun time. My legs were straight, but otherwise in similar condition. The metal band around my forehead prevented me from getting a good look, but in my peripheral vision I could see what looked like a heavy-duty set of handcuffs around my ankles. Even if I could get any leverage, which I couldn’t, I doubted that even lycanthropic strength would be enough to break them.
“Okay,” I said aloud. “So he’s got you. That’s okay, man. Don’t panic. You’ll find a way out.”
I closed my eyes against the light, not that it did a whole lot of good, and focused on what I could find out with magic. The room I was in was small, barely ten feet square, and from the way the air moved I was guessing there was only one door. No window, no furnishings except for the table I was strapped to.
I discovered, to my intense discomfort, that I couldn’t figure out anything past that point. As far as my magical senses went, the rest of the world didn’t exist. There was some kind of ward in the walls past which I could neither see nor act.
Okay, that was just great. This might put some serious crimps in the plan. It seemed like a really good time to move to Plan B. Unfortunately, I’d never even got around to a Plan A.5.
“Don’t panic,” I said again, trying to forestall the acknowledgment that I already was. “Don’t panic, man. If he was just going to kill you, he’d have done it already. You can figure something out.”
I don’t know how long I lay there, growing increasingly scared and uncomfortable and trying to avoid thinking about my circumstances. As it turns out, serious discomfort, immobility, and knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do about it are nearly as good as intricate magic for screwing with your sense of time. It felt like weeks, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour before the door opened.
There was a brief silence, then a sigh. “I should have known,” Jon muttered. Suddenly the light above my head flicked off, leaving me blinking in the sudden, comfortable darkness before another, dimmer light turned on. I heard footsteps coming closer, then a faint ratcheting noise. In short order my head and hands were free, and I sat up, rubbing the kinks out of my back.
“Sorry about that,” he said. “I ordered my men to confine you, without telling them how. I should have known they would take the opportunity for a little revenge.”
I turned to look at the mage incredulously. He’d ditched the cloak, staff, and wand, but otherwise looked pretty much the same. “Are you apologizing to me?”
“Is it really that hard to believe?” he asked, leaning casually against one of the concrete walls.
“Well, last time I checked you were trying to freaking kill me, so yeah, it kinda is.”
He sighed. “Winter, if I wanted you dead do you really think you would have just woken up?” He shook his head. “I don’t have anything against you, personally. If it weren’t for your own grievance against me, we wouldn’t have needed to meet under such unpleasant circumstances. There’s no reason for us to be enemies.”
I wanted to spit and curse and laugh in his face. But…frankly…I wasn’t in a position to do it. He could kill me right now with about as much effort as it took to open a can of soda, assuming you’re not arthritic. So instead I said, “Let me guess. This is the old ‘join or die’ spiel.”
“I’m considering it, certainly,” he said mildly. “You show a certain amount of promise. You have potential. A few years study with me and you could realize it. I could teach you things that Hoffman, whatever he might claim, is too timid to ever show you.”
“Yeah,” I sneered. “Just like you taught Luke. Or Olivia, for that matter.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said, a touch of mockery coloring his own tone. “They are nothing, compared to the likes of us. They were never more than a tool in my hand. What I am proposing to you is entirely different. A partnership, of sorts.”
“Yeah? Let’s say I’m not interested in what you have to teach.”
“In that case,” he said, not seeming particularly put out, “you don’t have to. Tell me how much your friends know and you can walk away.”
I waited a moment, but it seemed that he had nothing more to say. “That’s it?” I asked incredulously. “You’d let me go?
“Of course,” he said. Seeing my expression, he laughed, a sound like dusty parchments rasping against each other. “I am not a psychopath, Winter. I do not kill indiscriminately or without reason. If I were to kill everyone who isn’t in some way useful to me, there wouldn’t be all that many people left, would there? I have no grievance against you. Granted, if you decide to continue working against me I won’t be able to protect you. But otherwise there’s no reason you have to be my enemy.”
“What about the vampire?” I asked.
“Ah. The vampire, I had a grievance against. Besides,” he said dismissively. “It was just a vampire. Not even human anymore. Killing such things is a favor to the world.”
Have you ever been talking with someone and suddenly realized that, although you don’t actually disagree with anything they just said, you are enormously terrified that a mind capable of forming those thoughts exists? No? Just me, then?
Anyway, that was how I felt right then. I didn’t really think Jon was wrong about that. Nothing I had learned about vampires made me want to keep the horribly, literally bloodsucking things safe and sound. Jon himself seemed remarkably polite and reasonable, as evil sorcerers go. Or, to use a more accurate term from the inaccurate litanies I had learned growing up, an evil witch. He seemed to have a real flair for the mental stuff.
But…how far of a trip was it from that to killing Aiko? She wasn’t human either, after all. And, from certain perspectives, she was probably a dangerous monster who was hazardous to be around. And yet, in spite of that, I liked her.
Or the werewolves. They killed people too, sometimes. There were packs that were involved in extortion, in the drug trade, packs that hired out as mercenaries for the highest bidder regardless of the worthiness of their cause. Certainly there were werewolves who I would say deserve to die. That didn’t mean that I thought the species should be eradicated.
Where did I draw the line? More important, did I even have the right to draw that line at all?
I’m not a spectacularly good man. But you would have to be an ego freak of monumental proportions to make that claim.
“Not interested,” I told Jon. I wasn’t going to help in that cause. Not even through inaction. Not even if it meant my death.
He looked down at me, his expression reminiscent of a disappointed father. “You realize, of course, that this is a futile and ultimately quite pointless dramatic gesture. All that will happen is that you will hurt a great deal. From your reputation I doubt that this will convince you to tell me what you know, but I have to try. When that’s over, I will consume you. You will die, and in dying you will make me stronger. Your friends will still die. And you will have sacrificed yourself for nothing.”
I swallowed. “I know.”
“You should be aware, as well,” he continued relentlessly, inexorably, “that I found that tracking device before we even left your house. No one will be coming to save you.”
Well, shit. There went my hole card.
“Are you sure you won’t change your mind? This is, I’m afraid, your very last chance.”
I thought about it for a moment. Then I grinned.
When in doubt, go for the dramatic finish.
“You know something, Jon? You can kill me, sure. But you won’t survive me by much. And when you go to Hell…when you’re passing me by on the way to the lowest Circle they have…I just hope they let me loose long enough to stab you on the way down.” I grinned wider, and I knew that there was an edge of hysteria to the expression, an edge of madness. “So yeah, I’m sure. You want an answer, Jon? Fuck off and die. That’s your answer.”
He regarded me. Cool. Level. Dispassionate. “Very well,” he said calmly. He turned and walked out. A moment later a pair of thugs, much like the ones I’d killed, came in and restrained me once again. They cranked everything a little tighter, this time. One of them spat on me before they left. He gut-punched me hard enough that I thought I was about to throw up, too, drawing a disapproving mutter from his partner. There was nothing I could do about it. Then they left, leaving me alone with the light and the voices that had started gibbering in my head from stark, unreasoning fear.
“Okay,” I said, once they were gone. “You can panic now.”
The gap wasn’t as long this time. It felt like only about ten minutes of terror and slowly growing despair. I searched again and again for some way out, but nothing presented itself. The blocks preventing me from projecting my power or consciousness beyond the walls of the room were too solid, too well-crafted for me to do anything about. Given several uninterrupted hours I might be able to take them down, but that didn’t seem likely to happen.
The door never opened, but suddenly there were footsteps behind me. They were quiet, but seemed to echo strangely around the room, the sound hanging in the air weirdly. “Well, well, well,” a male voice said sardonically, one that I almost recognized. “Look what we have here.”
“What do you want?” I said, unable to keep the snarl entirely out of my voice. I’m not fond of captivity, and I have an unfortunate tendency to lash out at the nearest target when I’m stressed.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said, and I suddenly remembered where I’d heard that voice before. “Entertainment, I suppose.”
My heart sank. “Of course you do,” I said bitterly. “Loki.”
He walked around into my field of view, and I saw that I had guessed correctly. He was wearing more or less the same body I’d seen him in before, with red-blond hair and a scarred mouth, along with cowboy boots and a floor-length duster. Appearance-wise, he was a little unnerving, but no more than I was.
Only the eyes gave his nature away. Where most people had normal eyes, Loki had what a charitable person might describe as freaking weird. Instead of a pupil, iris, and white, he had a mad swirl of color, orange and green like trees on fire. The colors moved and danced weirdly, distractingly. It was hard to look away from, although I knew that making eye contact with one of the scariest gods around was a bad idea.
“Excellent show,” he said, continuing to walk slowly around me. “I particularly enjoyed your chat with our good host, there. Although I must say, you’ve been using quite a lot of Christian references in your threats recently. Perhaps you should try something new. You can always drop my name, if you’d like. That seems to get a good reaction sometimes.”
“You were watching that?”
“Of course,” he said, sounding vaguely insulted. “You’re amusing enough, in your way. Better than any of the other channels on at the moment.”
“Yeah?” I said. “‘Cause I’m not seeing much entertainment in the near future for either of us. Unless you’re into that kind of thing, I guess. Which, from your reputation, isn’t terribly unlikely, is it?”
“That’s why I’m here,” he said, grinning his mad cruel grin. “Do I ever have a deal for you.”
“Yeah? That’s funny, because I almost remember making a deal with you once before. As I recall, I got utterly screwed. Ring any bells?”
“Funny you mention that,” he said. “See, last time you were imprisoned, I put you there. No point holding grudges, though, is there? You escaped, after all.”
My head was starting to hurt. “What does that have to do with this?”
“Nothing, of course,” he said, winking cheerily. “And everything. Which you should probably have guessed. Anyway, the point is that I’m willing to give you the opportunity to make a comeback appearance. I can snap those bonds for you—seen and unseen alike.”
“At what price?”
I rolled my eyes, although I doubt he saw it. He was almost behind me again. “Yeah, right. Nothing’s free.”
“All right,” he said. “If you want to put it like that…the problem with your escape from Ryujin’s palace was that it was far too tame. Better than staying put, granted, but still utterly boring. Too much help on the inside, if you ask me. I’m hoping this time you’ll put on a better show. Something worth watching. And tweak that arrogant ass’s nose while you’re at it, which would be worth it to me by itself.”
I considered that for a moment. “You can break the magic protecting this room as well?”
“Didn’t I just say that? Obviously I can.”
“Without Jon knowing?”
He looked at me disapprovingly out of eyes gone mad with motion. “I almost think you don’t trust me. Of course I can do that. I am the Unmaker, boy, the Breaker of Ties and Lord of Destruction. Don’t treat me like some petty mortal hack.”
I swallowed dryly. “Do that, then. Rip down those protections—but leave the physical stuff in place.”
“Interesting,” he noted, and I got the impression that he had seen the entirety of my desperate scheme in that moment. “A daring plan. I look forward to seeing whether you can pull it off.”
The God of Liars stopped in front of me, looking at me seriously with his inhuman eyes. He raised one hand and saluted me solemnly. Then he vanished without a trace or whisper of magic, taking all the wards with him as he went.