Do you ever find yourself harboring an intense and abiding hatred of irony? I do. Although, at least on this occasion, I thought I might be better off blaming Loki than the generalized malice of the universe. Bad timing is one thing, but there’s only so much coincidence can account for.
Generally speaking, opening your eyes right before somebody punches you in the face is not one of them.
I was even more uncomfortable than before, of course, my shoulders and knees starting to ache. I was covered in a cold, clammy sweat from the strain of the magic I’d done, which was good. With luck they would assume that it was from terror, and therefore not question why I had seemed so unconcerned.
It helped that, within a few seconds of coming awake, I wasn’t anything like unconcerned. One of Jon’s hired thugs had just slammed his fist into the side of my head, not hard enough to break anything but hard enough to hurt. A lot.
I snarled viciously and went at him like an irritated bobcat, clawing his eyes out. Or, at least, that’s what happened in my head. In reality all I managed was the snarl. When I tried to fight back I was brought up short by the sudden and intense pain in my shoulders. It felt like the joints were on the verge of dislocation.
The thug grinned. It was an ugly expression, both in terms of the actual appearance and in the sense of what it meant for my immediate future. Some mercenaries aren’t bad people. The Midnight Sidhe called Samuel Black, for example, wasn’t too unpleasant. He was cold, uncaring, and ruthless, but not evil. Evil was unprofessional.
This guy was the other type. He liked hurting people. In fact, I was pretty sure that was why he’d become a mercenary in the first place. Not because the pay was good. He just got off on inflicting pain.
I feel no great desire to chronicle what happened next. In any case, you can almost certainly imagine it. There were burns, bruises, and mild lacerations aplenty. The burns were the worst of it. I hate being burned.
Nothing that wouldn’t heal, so far. It might or might not leave a mark, scarring in werewolves being a strange and unpredictable thing. But it was painful and, almost worse, it was degrading. I’d experienced unpleasant things before, of course, that goes without saying, but this was a new and horrific flavor. Having never before been involved in torture from either end, I was surprised at how debasing the experience was.
There was no use of silver, which baffled me at the time. I mean, everybody knows that silver is painful to werewolves these days. I didn’t understand why Jon wouldn’t have some on hand. In retrospect, of course, it makes perfect sense. The effect of silver on a werewolf is, after all, magical rather than purely physical. Jon didn’t want to do anything to harm my power. He was planning on consuming it later.
Time once again seemed to stretch and twist. The experience was interminable, unending, hardly better when nothing was happening than when I was in pain.
It still has a prominent position in my nightmares, matter of fact.
Eventually, there was a pause. The thug stepped out briefly. When he came back, he had a can of soda. He leaned against the wall, drinking it, and smiling with satisfaction.
That was a minor point, though, quickly dismissed. Because I smelled something in the air, something familiar, subtle yet oddly potent. I grinned, although it made my face ache a little.
“Hey,” I said. “Nice work. You have excellent technique.”
The man stood and sipped his drink. He said nothing.
“I have a deal for you,” I said. “You take these restraints off and start running, and maybe I’ll be so happy I decide to forgive you.”
“No,” he said calmly. “You wouldn’t.”
“Probably not,” I admitted. “Still. You leave now, I might be too busy to catch you. Best chance you have, really.”
He crushed the can and carelessly tossed it into the corner. “Sounds like you need another lesson on who’s in charge here,” he said, advancing on me. There was an ugly light in his eyes.
I grinned wider. “I’m not the only one. Now would be good, if you please.”
Snowflake just appeared in midair behind him.
And she looked very, very angry.
She was already moving when she appeared, and she didn’t stop. She hit the man in the back of the head, feet first, bearing him forward and down. She kept moving, flinging her hindquarters around his head. Her flank hit him in the face, muffling anything he might have said in fur. Even as they were falling, her momentum carried her forward and around, snapping his neck like a toothpick.
It was sort of weird, seeing such a classic method of assassination adapted for a canine body. Effective, though, undeniably. And, much like the human version, it was quiet.
He was, if not dead, most certainly already dying when he hit the ground. He died quickly, and he died confused.
A moment later, Aiko’s veil flickered and collapsed. As a young kitsune (young by kitsune standards, anyway), she wasn’t very powerful. But her kind has a natural talent for illusion, and she’s good at it. If it hadn’t been for that whiff of fox-and-spice scented magic, I would never have guessed that they’d slipped in behind the goon when he came in with the soda.
“Nice timing,” I grunted. “You have much trouble getting in?”
She shrugged, coming closer. “Not so much. More tedious than anything.” She suddenly saw my various injuries and froze. For an instant, before she closed down again, her face was suffused with utter and murderous wrath.
The kitsune looked down at the torturer. “He dead?” she asked, her voice dangerously and deceptively calm.
She spat on the body—literally, I mean, and she made the gesture look serious instead of like some kind of pantomime. “Lucky bastard, ” she muttered. “I’d have done worse.”
“Look,” I said, “I appreciate the dramatic moment and all, but would you mind letting me out of here?”
She grinned. “I don’t know,” she said mock-seriously. “The situation does look sort of interesting….” Thus proving that there really is no situation too inappropriate for a kitsune to crack jokes.
I sighed. “Aiko….”
“All right, all right,” she said unrepentantly. Snowflake watched the door while Aiko undid the various manacles and bands holding me in place.
I sat up, wincing and rubbing my shoulders. My arms had long since gone to sleep, and if I were human I probably would have had to worry about long-term circulatory problems. On the other hand, just being able to move was such a relief, it was hard to complain.
Sitting up also brought the last member of the rescue party into view. Legion, as enigmatic and silent and statue-like as before, was standing in the shadows where they’d been waiting. His total stillness, coupled with the black fog around the bones, made him very nearly as hard to see as if he’d still been under Aiko’s concealment spell.
That might be useful, at some point.
“Glad you made it,” I grunted, stretching limbs long since gone stiff. “Anybody see you on the way in?”
“Please,” she said scornfully. “Nobody sees me. Or the freakish canine menagerie you’ve acquired, if they’re with me.”
“Given that you’re canine number three in the menagerie,” I said dryly, “I’d be more careful talking about it if I were you.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. In my professional opinion, something needs to be done here.”
“Really?” she shot back caustically. “‘Cause in my amateur opinion, that statement puts you in the running for ‘Understatement of the Week.’ Fortunately I came prepared.”
“Yeah, I noticed the armor.”
Rather than answer me, she just smirked and snapped her fingers. She pointed at the ground, and Legion obediently trotted forward. A cheap, small black backpack was gripped carefully between his teeth. Aiko—or, possibly, Snowflake—must have worn it in here, then dropped it when the action looked about ready to start.
“You’re awesome.” Grinning, I bent down and went through the bag, quickly.
First thing out was a set of clothes, which I immediately put on. It was just an old pair of jeans and a T-shirt, both mine, but it was still better than doing this commando in any more senses of the word than was absolutely necessary. Most of the armor was there, as well, and I couldn’t deny that the weight of it was comforting. It was probably inaccurate, considering what we were up against, but the protection it afforded still felt pretty nice.
Aiko had remembered more offensive gear, as well. There was my backup pistol, a .44. A decent gun, but most of the time I wasn’t willing to rely on a revolver in a sticky situation. I belted it on anyway, under the premise that a moderately useful weapon was better than none. Another pouch of my specially prepared dust, which I hung around my neck where I could reach it quickly. Also, a few small metal objects that I was pretty sure were….
“Hand grenades?” I demanded.
She shrugged. “I know a guy in the black market. Speaking of which, mind handing me the gun?”
I drew her carbine out and handed it to her. I didn’t bother checking whether it was loaded, because it was Aiko I was dealing with. Of course it was. She sighed happily, petting the muzzle of the weapon like a puppy. “Thanks. Thing would have gotten in the way sneaking in here, but I think I want it for the next part.” She slung the gun across her chest.
I looked in the pack, which was empty now except for the grenades. “No knife?” I asked. Her own blade, a slim one-edged Japanese model called a tanto, was prominently displayed her belt. At least she’d left the sword at home this time around.
“Nope,” she said. “I figured, if you want an edged weapon, you can just summon that sword of yours. Why carry it in?”
I frowned. “That won’t work,” I said absently, considering various options. “Tyrfing’s magic’s too strong. Draw it here, in the man’s own house, there’s an excellent chance he’ll know.”
“Oh. Oops. Uh…you want to take mine, or….”
I held up one hand for silence. “Hang on,” I said, still not really paying attention. “Something I want to try.” I concentrated on my hand, reached for power, and tried something I’d never really done before.
Recently, when I used my magic, it had occasionally generated frost. It drew water from the air, which condensed and froze around me. Ice, basically, which was for some reason generated by my use of power—or, at least once, from my simple presence.
I’d never actively tried to produce it, though. It was a trick, especially because I was deliberately not using any magic. I couldn’t think of how to reproduce the effect without doing so, but—inexplicably, undeniably—I knew that it was possible.
I thought about the first time it had happened, while we were escaping from Ryujin’s palace—and don’t miss the parallels there, God, you crazy sadist. It had been like stretching, like digging down deeper into myself than I had ever really gone before, like reaching into the depths of my soul and dragging out…what?
Power. Power and a cold, savage mentality that reminded me, to an uncomfortable extent, of Legion. Or, maybe a little more accurately, of the wolf that was Snowflake’s darker half. Ruthless practicality, cruel and feral hunger, and a disregard for those outside my pack so profound it was almost beautiful. The mind of a starving wolf. Something, I could feel instinctively, that had been born from necessity, from a crueler and colder and more savage world than I could really begin to understand.
Ten thousand years of winter, an icy voice seemed to whisper in my mind. I could, just barely, recognize it as my own. Ten thousand years of winter in your blood, the darkness and the cold and nobody to ask for help….
I shivered and cut it off, opening my eyes. What I saw was…unsettling.
My body was covered in frost. It had coated me from head to toe, spread across the floor, plugged my ears and filled my mouth like a snow cone. When I shifted my weight it made a crunching, crackling sound, like packing down snow. There were literally tiny icicles hanging from my nostrils, lips, from the edge of my shirt and the hem of my jeans.
And I wasn’t cold. Not even a little. Not externally, at least. Inside I could feel that voice, that terrible cold voice that was still mine, echoing inside my head.
I concentrated on my upraised hand, focusing my will instinctively in a way that I didn’t even begin to actually understand. Frost melted, shifted, flowed, and gathered, directed by my instruction.
A minute or so later, all the water that had condensed out of the air onto me had migrated to my hand. More specifically, it had concentrated into a single, relatively massive icicle, defying all logic by growing up out of my palm. It kept growing, until it was about six inches long and an inch wide at the base, narrowing to a literally needle-sharp point. I broke it off with my other hand.
It didn’t seem like normal ice. It didn’t slip around in my grip, for one thing. It wasn’t cold. And, most telling, it didn’t melt. Not normal ice behavior at all.
Unless, you know. It was me that wasn’t quite normal.
“Nice trick,” Aiko said, staring at the improv dagger with open envy. “You never told me you could do that.”
“I never knew I could,” I said, shrugging. “Not ’til just now. Shall we get a move on?”
“What’s the plan?” she asked, shouldering the near-empty pack.
I chewed my lip for a moment. “We can’t fight Jon and his goons at the same time. Therefore, the goons must go.”
“I’m not seeing much of a choice on that. I don’t have a way to get them all to leave, except by killing them.”
She nodded. “Right, then. This is the basement level. I’m pretty sure Jon’s on the top floor, four levels up.”
“Figures,” I muttered. “As Conn likes to say, mages are like cats. They’re never comfortable unless they’re looking down on somebody.” I gestured grandiosely at the door with my icicle. “After you, m’lady.”
She made a rude gesture and opened the door, drawing her magic into a concealing shroud around us again as she did. The sorta-dogs crowded on our feet as we left.