A little more than an hour later we were back in Colorado Springs. More specifically we were back at the Full Moon Grill. Incidentally, if you’re life ever starts including bracketing devices, I advise you to get out fast. It’s seldom a good thing. Enrico, who was there when we showed up, promptly joined us and started wheedling information out of the mages so smoothly that I doubted they would ever realize that was what he had been doing.
Once we were there, Luke seemed content to fade into the background. Then, while we were eating, I decided to confront him. Both his exceptional power and the lingering, nagging sense of familiarity concerned me, and I wanted to get to the bottom of it.
Except that, the moment I decided to act, he stood up. “Well,” he said, “I’m afraid I have to leave you. Permanently, I expect. Old friends, treasured opponents, I wish you luck.”
“Wait,” somebody said. “What?”
Rather than answer, Luke swept a mocking bow in my direction. And, when he straightened, I knew why he had seemed so familiar. Because, in place of innocent sky-blue eyes, he had two orbs of mad, dancing flames.
“Son of a bitch,” I sighed. “It’s all but your real name. Loki Laufey’s son. You never get tired of screwing with me, do you?”
Loki grinned. “Of course not. You’re so much fun to mess with.”
I suddenly realized that there was something very wrong. It was quiet. Too quiet, literally. I would have expected confusion, questions, at the very least outrage from Aiko, who knew as well as I did how dangerous Loki was. Instead, there was nothing.
I looked around at a frozen world. People sitting with their mouths open, with forks in the air, but not moving, not speaking. They weren’t even breathing. Even the dust motes seemed to hang in the air immobile.
“How…” I trailed off and looked at Loki. “Did you just stop time?”
“Technically,” he said, “that’s impossible. Time isn’t what you perceive it as, you know. Think of it as being like a road. Most of the time, you travel at the recommended speed of one second per second. I just pulled us out into the passing lane.” He frowned. “Unless it’s actually more like a roundabout. This isn’t a very good metaphor, is it.”
“To have a chat,” he said grandiosely. He ambled aimlessly about the room. “Excellent job back there, by the way. Eight out of ten for style, nine out of ten for pacing and lateral thinking. I do have to say, though, that your final confrontation with Jon was somewhat disappointing. Not nearly enough dramatic tension, and I was really looking forward to an epic battle scene. I’m afraid you get only seven out of ten for action.”
“Explains how your gang there knew how to find me, at least,” I muttered.
“Indeed,” he confirmed. “You were right about them, incidentally. ‘Those who fight monsters,’ indeed.” He laughed. “Can you believe they started applying that term to themselves without any encouragement on my part? Quite appropriate, really. As you observed, they’re already becoming the monsters they profess to despise.”
“Was there ever a real Luke?” I asked, not sure I wanted to know the answer. “Or did you invent him out of whole cloth?”
“Some of both,” Loki said, not seeming offended at all. “The person was real, but you only met him once. After your first encounter, he confronted Jon directly. The old man killed him. I took offense. The persona you actually interacted with, though, was almost entirely an invention on my part. Frankly, the original wasn’t worth imitating. I’ve no idea how he got to be the leader of the group in the first place.”
I sighed. Typical, really.
I hadn’t lost sight of what he’d said, though, and it was kind of concerning. “How bad of monsters are they?” I asked quietly. “Bad enough that I should do something about them?”
Loki grinned wider, an edge of madness to the expression. How could I ever have missed seeing that in Luke? “How would I know?” he retorted. “I have no idea how monstrous somebody has to be to motivate you.” He paused. “Of course, if you’d like, I could tell you their dark secrets. All the things they don’t want anybody to know….”
“Would you be telling the truth, though?”
“Of course,” he said, offended. “You’ve been reading Odin’s press again. I hardly ever lie. The truth is almost always harder than any lie I could tell, anyway. Besides, you should realize that telling truths that were never meant to be spoken is something of a specialty of mine. You’ve read the Lokasenna.”
I blinked. “That was for real?”
He shrugged. “There’s a difference between being factual and being truthful. And sometimes even something which is neither factual nor truthful does, nevertheless, express Truth.”
“You make my head hurt,” I said sourly.
“Get used to it,” he said, not unkindly. “You can expect more of the same, and worse.”
“What’s the cost?”
“Nothing,” he said grandly. “Truth is I feel responsible. I got them together, after all. And got you involved.”
“Yeah, right,” I muttered. I thought for a moment, then nodded. “The truth,” I said confidently. “That’s the cost. The loss of whatever comforting illusions and false impressions I might otherwise have harbored.”
“There, you see? You possess the potential to be quite intelligent. Granted you’re wrong, but that’s really a small point, don’t you think?”
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. What it came down to was, ultimately, which I valued more: my own peace of mind, or the damage that might be averted by understanding a dangerous thing.
Is that even a choice?
“Fine,” I said. “Tell me.”
Loki grinned and snapped his fingers. Bright, bouncy circus music started to play, from no source that I could tell. He took two steps and then seemed to blur, only coming into focus again when he stood directly behind Jimmy.
“James Frazier,” he said, his voice bright and happy. “Jimmy. He’s prideful. He thinks he knows best, with or without reason. Won’t let anyone tell him what to do, even if he knows it’s a good idea. He would sooner watch his fellows burn than surrender control. I had a hell of a time keeping him in line. It was his idea, you know, to attack this bar—but did he come himself? No, he did not. Because for all his posturing, Jimmy is a coward at heart.”
He spun on his heel and pointed one finger at Mac. “Mackenzie Sorenson,” he said, his voice thoughtful now, at odds with the music. “She’s the best one here. Not a monster, not even a fighter. I do believe that, right now, I couldn’t tempt her from the right-hand path. She’s afraid, you know, every time she sees her friends off to battle. Afraid that they won’t come back. Like you, she fears that the things they do will stain their souls so dark that she won’t recognize them. She is afraid of blood, and needles, but still she became a nurse so that she could help people.” Loki paused, tapping one finger against his lips. “Of course, I expect that when she does go bad, she’ll fall farther and faster than any of the rest.”
“Don’t you mean if she goes bad?”
“Oh, no,” he said, a note of sadness unlike anything I’d heard from him entering his voice. “No, that isn’t how it works. You should know that as well as anyone. The hero business is, alas, not one you can be in forever. There are only really three options, I’m afraid. You die, or you quit the trade, or you see yourself become the villain of the piece.” He smiled gently, not looking away from Mac. “I wonder which she’ll choose?”
“In any case,” he said, turning and taking another few steps that turned into a rapid blur of motion. “Matthew Fisher,” he said, snapping into place beside him. “What a grand and magnificent liar. He pays lip service to their cause, but he doesn’t believe a word of it. He’s a shapeshifter, you know.” The wolf, as I recalled.
“If he doesn’t agree with them,” I asked, “why does he help them?”
Loki smiled, and it was an ugly expression. “Wrath,” he said simply. “That’s his sin of choice. Matthew does so love to fight, you see. He loves the battle, the blood. He likes chasing things.”
I shivered again. “Does he hurt innocent people?”
“Oh, no,” Loki said. “It’s not the killing proper that he hungers for, you realize. The hunt, the chase, the fight…those are what Matthew is addicted to. Innocents aren’t nearly enough of a challenge to intrigue him. Criminals, though, vampires, why, those are interesting game. And, on some level, he does prefer doing good to doing evil. No, odd as it may seem, I think Matthew is perhaps the least worrying of the group, from your perspective.”
The room abruptly faded to black, a velvety darkness so thick I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face. The music changed, as well, from circus music to a slow, sad nocturne. A spotlight came up, slowly, illuminating Katie where she sat, water raised halfway to her lips. “Katie,” Loki said, softer now, almost a whisper from the darkness. “Katie Schmidt. She works in the shadows, to serve the light. You ever play that game? It was really quite well designed, I think.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He sniffed. “Not my fault. Anyway. Katie. A pure soul, though like most pure souls she would deny any such allegation. Not a pacifist like Mac there, but still a good person. She sees that what they do is of, to say the least, dubious morality, and it makes her worry. She knows Nietzsche as well as you do. That particular quote occurs to her more and more frequently, recently. She sees that she is willing to fight, to kill even, in the name of the cause, and wonders whether…just maybe…she’s already gone too far down that slippery slope to ever come back. She lied to her parents, yesterday, about what she was doing. She can’t stop thinking about it, even now in your moment of triumph. It haunts her. She would never believe you if you were to tell her, right now, that within a few years she will be perpetrating atrocities that…well, if the person she is now were to see it, it would chill her soul.”
“After all,” he continued slowly, sadly, inexorably, “pure isn’t the same as good. It’s hard to find someone much darker than the person who used to be so good.”
Between blinks, the world changed again. The room came back to full lighting, the music switched to the William Tell Overture (Lone Ranger music, if you don’t know the actual name), and Loki was standing next to Mike.
“Michael Adams,” he said, laughter dancing beneath the surface of his words. “Ol’ Mike Adams, going all vigilante. Who’d have thought it. He used to believe in the law. Never had a God, but then he never much needed one. Thought that the world was a cruel place, but that was okay because he knew his place in it. He knew what he was doing, and it was the right thing to do. He was making the world a better, a safer place every day.”
“Faith is a funny thing, though,” Loki said meditatively. “Some men don’t have much faith, but what they have, well, you’ll never take it from them. Others are strong in their faith, but it breaks so easy you have to wonder whether it was ever really there in the first place. Mike, here, was one of those. He started seeing the monsters hiding in plain sight, and it broke him.”
I frowned. “You mean the monsters? The werewolves, the vampires, that sort of thing?”
Loki shook his head. “Not really, no. It’s a bit like what you told Olivia, actually. Vampires are horrific monsters, sure, but that’s what they’re supposed to be. It’s so, so much worse for him when he sees a person doing things that would make your average werewolf sick. He saw that, and he realized that everyone has a monster inside of them. To know that the people he’d built his life around helping were capable of such atrocities? It broke him.” He grinned. “That gangster your werewolf friend mentioned, so casually, making deals with? Mike knows his work. And he’s seen how these people can get away with anything, anything they want, and the law can’t touch them. That’s what convinced him to join this little coterie.
“I think it’s being a shaman that’s his real problem,” Loki said thoughtfully. “Shamans make terrible warriors. They see too deeply, all the way to the heart of things. You can’t fight when you can see all the horrible things that made your enemy what they are now.” He sighed dramatically. “Let’s move on, shall we? This is depressing.”
Blink again. Loki was standing over one of the few I hadn’t been introduced to, and the soundtrack had switched to classic rock. Loki’s face was set in a broad, honest-looking smile. “Douglas Fir,” he said. “And he’s good with plants. Can you believe that? I mean, that’s his real name, even.” He paused, a musing expression on his face. “He’s the opposite of Matthew, there, you might say. He doesn’t believe in what they’re doing either, but he doesn’t do what he does for the joy of it. He’s here to protect them.”
“Because Doug here can’t stand to see a friend in pain,” he explained simply. “He’s a simple man, but good. It hasn’t occurred to him yet that he might have to protect them from themselves, but if it comes down to it he would.” He paused. “I just hope he doesn’t have to choose between his friends and the world. I think that might break him, and that would be a shame. Men like Doug are few and far between.
“Moving on, here’s his best friend Charles Moore. Better known as Chuck. Likewise a simple man, with simple tastes. Chuck’s twenty-eight, the oldest one of them. Works in an auto shop across town. The pay’s a joke, but he likes it well enough. Chuck’s never had much ambition. A lot like the bear he sometimes resembles, in many ways. All he really wants is a place to sleep, plenty of food, and a few friends to drink with. If he has time to spend chasing the ladies, something he’s never been much good at, that’s just icing on the cake. He likes a fight too, but he’s nothing like as twisted as Matthew. Or you, for that matter.”
“If Jimmy’s pride,” he said slowly, “and Matthew gets wrath, I think Chuck must be closer to sloth than the rest.” He paused. “You know, this whole ‘seven deadly sins’ idea is working out better than I thought it would. I’ll have to keep it in mind.”
“All right,” he said, turning around as though surveying the room. “Who’s left? Aha!” He took a couple long strides across the room to stand next to Kris. I noticed, absently, that now we were listening to upbeat salsa music, with lots and lots of maracas.
“Kristin Lake,” he said. “So like her fellow shapeshifters, and so unlike. An interesting conundrum, really. She doesn’t like violence, and yet she’s embraced it to a surprising extent. Did you know that no two of these people started down this road for the same reason?”
I blinked. “Really?”
“Yep,” he confirmed. “My idea of a joke, I suppose….Anyway, Kris here has the saddest reason of anyone, I think. She just wants not to hurt anymore. The first time she ever found her power was two years ago. She was sixteen, sitting and watching the sky, and thinking of how much she wanted to be free, free like a bird.” He laughed. “Got her wish a little closer than she probably expected. The next day she flew away and never went back. A runaway, and nobody tried very hard to find her.”
I blinked. I hadn’t expected that. “How’d she get from that to this?” I demanded.
“Chuck,” he explained simply. “She flew straight from…actually, I don’t think you need to know where she came from…straight to Colorado Springs. He found her about a week after she got here, in one of the bars he frequents. I think we can both imagine what she was doing there.” He paused. “I’m glad he did, actually. She deserves better than that. She would do anything for him, you know. After what he did, she would die or kill if he asked her, and never ask why. I think that will be what leads her into darkness, in the end. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.”
“Continuing with the theme,” Loki said, turning again. “We have Mr. Aubrey McArthur, our very own patron saint of envy. He went to the same school as Kris, but without the happy ending. Just one day after another of the same sad song. I’m sure you can guess most of it. Single mother, alcoholic. String of abusive boyfriends. Aubrey learned his lesson early. Trust no one…he lives it. Like Kris, he seeks not to be hurt, but his methods are very different. Where Kris finds her safety in friends and comradeship to keep away the things in the night, Aubrey relies only on himself. That, and nothing else, is why he seeks power, knowledge.”
I held up my hand, interrupting him. “Two things. One, why the envy then?”
“Because Aubrey’s talents aren’t all that powerful,” Loki said. “He has a flair for mental magic, not unlike what you do with animals. I’m sure you can imagine what a living hell that made his childhood.” I winced. “It’s not as bad as he makes it out to be, in his own mind—both Doug and Mike, for example, have less immediately useful talents. But he still looks at someone like Jimmie, or you for that matter, and he envies what they can do. A fire mage is strong, you see, can make himself safe. What is he? A glorified telephone.” Loki shrugged. “That’s what he thinks, anyway. Someday I expect he’ll learn better. Whether that will be a good thing is still up for grabs.”
I nodded. “Okay. Two, why help them if he’s so antisocial as all that?”
“Who said he’s antisocial?” Loki wondered aloud. “He’s not a bad person, per se, he just thinks everyone else is. A classical pattern for an ambivalent attachment style, really. He wants friends and looks for them, he just doesn’t trust them once he gets them, and usually drives them away pretty fast. This particular gang has stuck around because, honestly, with this much dysfunction around what’s a little more?” He paused. “Also, Aubrey is looking for enough power to defend himself. This is a good place to find that kind of thing.”
Loki shook his head like a dog shedding water. “Whew,” he said. “Okay. Next up, we have greed, otherwise known as Erica Reilly.”
I blinked. “Erica? I thought she was the one that warned Jon.”
“I made that up,” he said with a grin. “It seemed a convenient explanation for why Jon would know about your activities so soon. Although Erica did argue for contacting him, even after I persuaded the rest of them against the idea.”
“Somehow,” I said dryly, “I find it hard to believe that the embodiment of greed didn’t have any ulterior motives in arguing that point.”
“Of course not,” he agreed. “All of them had ulterior motives, that’s why they fell in with Jon so easily in the first place. She wants more, always more—not power, that’s not her addiction. Money, though, she loves money, tasteful paintings, handmade rugs….” Loki shook his head and looked at the blond woman with disgust in his eyes. “She, you see, is from the opposite side of the spectrum as Aubrey. She grew up with wealth and privilege. Her parents disowned her when her magic came in. Not that they believe in magic; they perceived the physical aspects as simple vandalism, the psychological as mental instability coupled with a drug habit.”
“I think I get it,” I said slowly.
“Excellent,” he said. “In that case, let us move on.” He snapped his fingers again. The music switched to techno, the room went dark, and Brick was highlighted with another spotlight. “Last one of my little club,” Loki said brightly. “But don’t worry, I saved the best for last.”
“I can’t wait,” I muttered.
He laughed. “They call him Brick, Brick Anderson. They don’t know his real name, wouldn’t recognize it if they heard it on the street. He hasn’t used it in, oh, more years than he wants to remember. That’s an impressive thing to say, when you’ve only just turned twenty-three. The rest have shared at least a little of their pasts with each other, but Brick here is still as enigmatic as ever. He knew more magic than they’ve ever learned before he met them, and he hasn’t shared much of it.”
“Where’d he learn?” I asked.
Loki grinned. “You’ve already guessed, haven’t you? Yes, Brick used to be in Olivia’s position. With another mage, of course, although one quite similar to Jon in many ways. He’s improved himself since then, but he still has the echo of that gluttony in his heart. He learned and did a lot of things that weren’t all that pleasant, things he regrets. He’s tried to forget it, been trying for years now, but he still has nightmares, almost every night. Eventually he decided he’d had enough and he tried to leave. Only to discover, as such people often do, that you can’t just walk away from a black mage.”
“How’d he get away?” I asked, morbidly curious.
Loki smiled nastily. “Who says he did?” He laughed. “Ah, just kidding. He made a bargain. Physically, at least, Brick is a free man, even if in his nightmares he’s still trapped there.”
I didn’t even want to know what the terms of that deal had been. “Thanks,” I said to Loki.
“Don’t know what you’re thanking me for,” he said modestly. Then, to my surprise, he kept going.
“Aiko Miyake,” he said. “As you should be aware by now, she’s the best pick for lust in this room. Not in the sexual sense, you understand, although there’s plenty of that at work as well. No, her sin was always to want all the things she couldn’t have, and discount the ones she could. As a child, even, she ignored the safety and security she had been gifted with, and sought out adventure and danger instead.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” I said defensively.
He raised one eyebrow. “No? Tell that to Aubrey. He would have sold his soul for what she had.” He shook his head briskly. “In any case. She’s an enigma, even to my eyes, and there aren’t many that can say that. She’s let you closer than anyone else, closer than anyone has ever come to the real her. She worries, sometimes, that she’s getting tied down, now that there’s finally something in her life that she couldn’t drop and run away from at a moment’s notice without any regrets. She wonders whether you’ll be the next to stab her in the back.”
“That’s what she’s been taught by life, you see,” he continued inexorably. “The opposite path from Aubrey’s, yet they converged on the same place. Don’t trust anyone wholly, because they’ll all betray you if they get a chance. Her instincts say to run away, you know, to run away from you right now before she starts to like you any more than she does now. She has to fight herself every day to keep from doing that. I expect it’ll be worse after today. For your sake, after all, she was ready to go alone into the lion’s den. Without even hesitating. There is no one else alive she extends that level of trust to, not even her own family.” He shook his head. “A priceless treasure, Winter. I hope you value it as much as it deserves to be valued.”
“And,” he said, turning to the last person sitting there. “Finally, we come to Mr. Enrico Rossi. I arranged for him to be here, just so we could have this talk.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because,” Loki said grandly. “I like you, Winter. You’re amusing. I’d hate to see you die for no reason, especially in a boring way. And you have grossly misestimated Enrico. You think he helps you out of friendship, don’t you?”
I blinked. “You mean he doesn’t?”
“Some, some,” Loki allowed. “But the man is an absolutely marvelous actor. You even know that, you’ve seen it in action, and it still never occurred to you that he might be lying to you too.” He shook his head and, with a wave of his hand, changed the background music to the kind of dramatic song that plays during boss fights in video games.
“You see,” he said, “you are to him what I am to you. The eyes in the darkness, the grim face that you can’t predict and could never trust. He fears you. He guessed that you were a werewolf years ago, not that long after you met him. You knew that already, or guessed. But did you know that, since he first guessed, not a day has gone by that he doesn’t consider killing you, at least briefly?”
“Why hasn’t he?” I whispered. Enrico—or the Enrico I knew, at any rate—was usually a decisive man.
“At first because he couldn’t be sure. As they say, an extraordinary claim requires extraordinary evidence, and he didn’t have any. Once he did, the situation became more complicated. First off, he couldn’t be sure, not really sure, that any given thing would kill you. And, as they also say, you’d be a fool to take a shot at the terrifying thing in the darkness if you aren’t planning to kill it. Plus, by that time, he’d come to know you, and he liked you. Also, he apparently wanted to be an actor, and now he thinks he’s playing Hamlet.”
“What about now?” I asked. “Is he still…considering…?”
“Oh, yes,” he said. “Very much so, in fact, even as we speak. You see, now that he is a werewolf, his perspective is somewhat changed. He still thinks of you as a dangerous monster, much more dangerous than the average werewolf—which he’s right about, by the way—but he also knows that there are even more dangerous monsters out there. So far he thinks you do more good than harm, protecting people from the worse things, and thus he leaves you alive. He follows the same course as he always has. He stays close to you, hides his true feelings, and watches. He watches, and waits, for the day that he has to kill you.”
Loki shook his head. “He likes you, Winter. But he is a defender of the people, first and foremost. He keeps his gun loaded with silver, these days, and it isn’t the pack he’s afraid of. You should be careful around your friend Enrico.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “I can live with that.” I paused. “So what do you have to say about me?”
He laughed, sadly and, for once, without that touch of insanity underneath. “Oh, Winter. You should know better. That isn’t the way it works. Why, imagine if I went around telling people about themselves all the time. The world would be so boring. I expect there’d be a lot more suicides, if nothing else.” He glanced around and waved his hand. Several things happened at once then. First off, all the plates and glasses rearranged themselves, several into truly amusing configurations. I particularly liked the glass of water upside-down on Jimmy’s head. At the same time, Loki vanished without a trace, taking the background music with him. And, finally, time started back up again.
I think the most irritating thing about Loki is his insistence on always having the last word.
“What the hell was that?” Aiko exclaimed. She was the first to get her mental feet under her again, by virtue of having an enormous daily dose of weird.
I sighed. “That,” I explained, “was Loki being himself.”
“Loki?” Mike asked. “Like, the Loki?”
“Yeah,” I sighed.
Mike swore, and the rest looked disturbed or confused according to whether they actually knew who Loki was. “Will we see him again?” Katie asked, somewhere in the middle.
“Pray that you don’t,” Aiko said heavily. “To the deity of your choice.”
I shrugged. “Not much you can do about it either way,” I said philosophically, going back to the food.
About half an hour later, Aiko stood up. “Well,” she said, “it’s been a pleasure and whatnot, but I think I’m out of here. I’m in the mood for a bit of a celebratory clicket.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Enrico asked.
Grinning, I stood up to leave, fetching Snowflake on the way. “Trust me, Enrico,” I said. “This is one of those questions you do not want to know the answer to.”