The next time I woke up for real, I was at home. More specifically, I was lying on the workbench in my lab.
It bore a disturbing resemblance to the slab where I’d left Aiko.
I tried to sit up, and was immediately pushed back down by Kyra. “Easy, Winter,” she said. “You’re, like, seriously fucked up. Take it easy.”
I muttered something deprecating, but didn’t fight her. “How long was I out?”
“Not that long, actually,” she said with the forced cheer of someone trying to hide just how bad things are. “We got back to Colorado about an hour ago.” She stood up, and returned a moment later with a glass of cold water. “Here.”
My hands were too bandaged to work right. Kyra had to hold the glass to my mouth. “How’d you get through the wards?” I asked her.
“I take it,” Kyra said dryly, “that you don’t remember waking up long enough to lower them.”
I thought back on it. “Not in the slightest,” I said eventually. I lifted my head enough to see Snowflake sleeping on my knees. “Hey, good to see you again. Glad you made it out of there.”
She must have been truly exhausted, because she didn’t respond except by shifting slightly in her sleep and making a contented sound.
“Speaking of which,” Kyra said. “What the hell happened? You were too far out of it to talk earlier.”
I frowned. “Well, I’ve got some idea what’s going on. The good news is, it was good enough to let me catch up to the guy that likes crosses. The bad news is, it was good enough that I caught up to the guy that likes crosses.”
“Who was it?” she asked.
“Some whacko working for the Midnight Court. He’s looking for the same thing as everybody else—it’s some sort of überspear, by the way—and decided to start thinning the competition.”
She grunted, making it clear that she didn’t particularly care about spears über or otherwise. “He ambushed you?”
“No. Well, yes in the sense that he set a trap and I walked straight into it. But no in the sense that he challenged me to a fair fight on neutral ground at that point.” I shook my head. “He’s good, Kyra. He might be better than anyone I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I can take him,” I admitted. I hesitated a moment. “I’m afraid.”
She knew how few people I would ever have admitted that to, and she knew what it meant that I would say it now. “Well, we’re pretty screwed,” she said cheerfully. “Oh, I called Mac. Her shift just ended, so she should be here within a few minutes.” Mac, in addition to an excellent night-shift nurse, was a witch who, although inexperienced, had a real talent for healing. She was the closest thing there was in this town to a doctor I could trust.
“Thanks. Thank you, Kyra.” I paused. “I’m sorry I keep doing this.”
“Doing what?” she asked, baffled.
“Dragging the pack into my messes. It isn’t fair to you.”
“You know,” she said meditatively, “when you’re feeling better, I think I’ll smack you one upside the head for that. You’re my friend, Winter, and the pack’s too, whether they know it or not. You don’t need to apologize for asking us for help. That’s what friends do.” She smiled suddenly, eyes bright and mischievous. “Besides, I distinctly recall getting you into a few messes too. I’d say we’re even now.”
The outer door banged open, causing Kyra and me to jump slightly and Snowflake to raise her head, and was followed a moment later by the inner. “I hate coming here,” Mac said loudly by way of hello. “I always feel like I’m about to get shanked. What’s the crisis?”
Kyra pointed mutely at me. Mac just as silently displaced Snowflake and started peeling away bandages, while I tried to ignore the little flashes of pain as she did. Kyra must have put me on some massive painkillers or something to block it out so far; werewolves aren’t immune to drugs, no more than poisons, but in both cases it takes a huge dose to have any effect.
“Ooo,” Mac said when she managed to expose my wrist. “Nasty.”
I turned my head to look, and immediately regretted it. There was a hole clear through my arm, big enough to put maybe three pencils through. The flesh surrounding it was raggedly abraded, and the skin from my fingertip halfway to the elbow was mottled black and blue, probably from the spike being pried out. Very, very nasty.
I mean, come on. When you can look straight through yourself, it’s pretty nausea inducing even for me.
Mac poked and prodded at me in what I presumed was a diagnostic way, while I winced, gritted my teeth, and tried not to jerk away from her. I knew she was only trying to help—Mac might not (okay, definitely doesn’t) like me very much, but I really don’t think she’s capable of malpractice—but ow. I mean, really, wow.
After she’d spent a few minutes at that, she stopped and closed her eyes. I felt her magic touching my skin, like the gentlest brush of a feather, and smelled it like growing grass on the air.
“Well?” Kyra asked impatiently.
Mac opened her eyes and let go of my wrist. “You’re screwed,” she said bluntly. “Ahem, that is, there’s good news and bad news. The good news is, you’re a werewolf, so you might be able to walk again someday. The bad news is, that day won’t be anytime soon.”
I winced. “It doesn’t feel that bad.”
She stared at me levelly. “In that wrist alone, one tendon is severed, half of the blood vessels are damaged, three of your carpals are broken, and I think the radius is fractured too. If you were a human, we’d probably have to amputate all of your extremities.” She shook her head. “Be grateful for what you have.”
“Oh,” I said. “Is there you anything you can do?”
She grabbed my wrist again and looked at it, but without much hope. “Probably not,” she said. “The bleeding’s already stopped, and I did what I could about the inflammation, but at this point anything else I add will probably just make things worse. The worst thing that could happen would be for you to heal with your bones where they are right now.” She looked at me curiously. “How did this happen, anyway?”
“Crucifixion,” I said glumly. “It isn’t as much fun as it sounds like.”
She blinked. “Wow. That…is a new one. Nice job.”
Before I could think of anything in the way of witty repartee, the door opened again. I hadn’t heard the outer door, this time, probably because I was busy not screaming and/or puking. “What are you doing?” Fenris asked. He didn’t sound very friendly.
Mac looked at the door coldly. “I am trying to see to an injured person, and would appreciate it if you would wait.”
He snorted loudly, the sound less human than he usually sounded. “Mortal hack.” He walked closer and looked briefly at my exposed wrist. “Move,” he said absently, making shooing motions.
Kyra bristled. “Are you telling me what to do?” she asked. Her tone made it clear that her tolerance and patience, already stretched thin over the last month, were not currently extending to that action.
I contorted around and met her eye before she could say something which, considering who she was talking to, would probably be disastrous. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t need to, given that she was a werewolf and therefore perfectly capable of seeing a message that clear in my posture even when I was lying down.
She hesitated, and then said, “Fine,” in a tone closer to snarl than language. She glared at Fenris, making her opinion of him coming in and trying to boss her around quite clear, but she moved, and practically dragged Mac with her.
Fenris just laughed, the sound of wolves howling more deeply buried than it had been last night. “Anytime you want, pup. Anytime. You’re out of your league.” He grinned at her, showing plenty of tooth and meeting her eye, his attitude making it clear that he was aware of the implications of such a gesture for werewolves. If he were anyone else, I would have said that challenge would have been the last straw for an overstrained Alpha and he was about to start bleeding.
Given that he wasn’t anyone else, not so much. Kyra was savvy enough to see some shadow of his power in those eerie golden eyes, and smart enough to not want any of that action. She didn’t quite back down—not even for gods do Alphas back down on their home turf, which probably goes a long way toward explaining why werewolves haven’t come to dominate the world—but she didn’t attack him, either.
Having put Kyra in her place, Fenris dismissed her totally and turned his attention to me. “Stuck you pretty good,” he commented, examining my wrist. He was a lot less, ah, subtle about it than Mac had been—not cruel or rough, just firm. Considering my condition, that was more than enough.
“This will hurt,” he said calmly, closing his hands around the wound.
The puncture—now there’s an understatement—started to itch and burn, and for a moment I thought it wouldn’t be too bad. Should have known better, really. The heat faded after a few seconds, and then kept fading. After another thirty seconds, it felt like I’d been stabbed again, with an icicle this time, and I had to clench my teeth, first to stop them from chattering and then to keep from making any undignified sounds.
Then the sensation peaked. I’m not sure how to describe it. For a second, that same bitter bone-deep cold lanced through my whole left arm, like my blood had been replaced with liquid nitrogen. It wasn’t numbing, the way such intense cold should have been, even for me. It was just agony, fierce and piercing and at the same time almost sweet, beautiful in its purity. My fist clenched, involuntarily, so tightly that my own nails drew blood, and my cheeks were wet with tears. And for an instant, just one instant, I felt claws circling my wrist, and I saw the darker face of the Fenris Wolf, not a pleasant if odd-looking young man but a terrible, hulking grey beast bigger than a car, his lambent yellow-gold eyes so deep you could fall into them forever and filled with a hunger that could consume whole worlds and never be sated, never even notice—
—and then the moment passed. Fenris was just a guy again, albeit one who declared in every aspect of his appearance and bearing that he was far from normal. I felt only a slight residual chill, and my hand stung only where my nails had broken the skin, and that slightly.
Wait a second. My wrist didn’t hurt.
I looked at it in amazement, but it was true. Where there had just been a gaping hole in my body, now there was nothing but a faint white dimple. It was still scarred, true—but that scar looked like it’d had a few months of werewolf-level healing to smooth it out.
Oh yeah, and my skin was fish-belly white, cold and waxy when I touched it to my cheek, and dusted with frost.
“That…how?” Mac asked, too stunned for eloquence. “How did you do that?”
Fenris grinned toothily. “Wouldn’t work for you.” He moved on to my ankle, pulling the bandages apart like tissue paper.
Long story short, the visible injuries I’d sustained were repaired in short order. It didn’t seem difficult for Fenris—rinse and repeat, and he never showed the slightest evidence of fatigue—and I, like Mac, had to wonder just how the heck he was doing it. Healing was serious, serious magic, and healing like that shouldn’t have been possible.
I kept my eyes firmly closed. I still felt wolf’s claws and not fingers, but I was just glad not to see it—especially because I was pretty sure what I was seeing was a hallucination, my hindbrain trying to interpret a power intrinsically beyond human experience, rather than bearing any real resemblance to the truth behind the mask. Fenrisúlfr was a god—a true god, a primal force that nothing in the civilized world could prepare you for. I felt only the smallest touch of that power, and it was still enough to make me want to hide under the blankets and hope that enough of my body would be found to identify it.
And the best part? This was the god that liked me.
What would happen if I ever ran up against one that didn’t? I mean, it was looking ever more likely that Scáthach would stick her nose in personally, and while the legends didn’t paint her as having the raw, terrifying power of the Fenris Wolf, she was still a deity. What could I do if something like that decided to take action directly against me? Or, worse still, if I didn’t return the Gáe Bolg to Loki. Fenris is potent, but both my own experiences and the legends say that he doesn’t hold a candle to his father when it comes to terrifying the monsters that horror films don’t dare to touch.
Which, I reminded myself, would probably not be a problem, given that it looked like Carraig was going to be killing me before Loki got another shot at it.
That is called “looking on the bright side.”
“I didn’t expect to see you again this soon,” I said to Fenris, stripping off my thoroughly befouled clothing. Strangely, Carraig hadn’t bothered to take my armor, weapons, foci, or cloak. Presumably he felt that, regardless of what I might be carrying, I didn’t represent a threat to him. I just wished I thought that was overconfidence on his part. I’d managed to talk Kyra and Mac into waiting outside, hopefully averting any diplomatic catastrophes that would otherwise have occurred.
“I told you that you would,” he said, confused.
“Well, sure, but you said the same thing the last time I saw you, and that was, what, almost a year ago?”
“Yes,” he said patiently. “And this is the first chance I’ve had to come by since. I don’t get out much.” He got up and rummaged through my cupboards—dammit, wards are supposed to keep people out. Why is it that everybody gets to go through my stuff at will? “You are living like a pauper, Winter. This is unacceptable. I’ll have to do something about this.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Are you trying to tell me you haven’t had a day off in nine months?”
“Well,” he admitted, finally coming up with a cleanish glass, “technically, I spent a weekend in Barbados in November. But Coyote would have killed me if I missed our game, so that hardly counts.”
“Coyote,” I said blankly. “You mean, like, Coyote. Like, the Coyote?”
“Do you know any other coyotes that play cards?” he asked me, sounding genuinely curious.
“Not unless you count biting or sleeping on them,” I admitted.
“Me either,” he said, disappointed. “Anyway, we get together with Anubis and Reynard every few months for a few games of bridge.” He filled the glass with water, drank deeply, grimaced slightly at the taste, and sat down at the table. Given that Kyra had cleared it to dump my unconscious self there, it was the cleanest it had been since I inherited the place.
“I’m sorry,” I said after a moment. “I don’t think I’m capable of dealing with this.” Fenris was bad enough, but at least I’d had a while to get used to the idea. Coyote was a whole new realm of crazy, and what little I knew of Reynard Fox wasn’t much better. And as for Anubis, well, my knowledge of the Egyptian stuff was sketchy at best—once I realized that there wasn’t a single decent fit for my father that I could find in the whole belief system, I sorta stopped paying attention—but even I’d heard of Anubis, and he wasn’t exactly the kind of guy you wanted around. Nothing against psychopomps, they do an important job and all that, but the longer it is until I meet one the happier I’ll be.
“You’d better learn fast, I think,” Fenris said seriously. “Coyote said he wants to meet you, and I think Reynard might as well.”
“What will you do now?” he asked after a few moments.
I shrugged. “I don’t know. I don’t suppose you can do anything to help?”
His eyes flickered with anger. “No,” he growled, sounding like nothing human. “That healing is the most I can do, and even that is flirting with the bounds.” There was real emotion there, but I couldn’t quite say what it might have been. Not anger—that’s way too simple to describe what I heard in his voice. Or, at least, not just anger; I heard that, but there was also fatalism, worn-out desperation, exhaustion, resignation, acceptance, the pain of old wounds long scabbed over—all of that and more, and even then I can only convey the smallest piece.
I was starting to catch on to what distinguished gods from men. Fenris wasn’t just stronger than me, or bigger. He was deeper, in every sense of the word. It was like the difference between a photograph of a flower and the real thing. A real lily is just so much more that someone accustomed to the static image couldn’t hope to describe the whole of the living plant.
I nodded resignedly. “I guess my first priority is information, then,” I said glumly. “If I don’t figure out what’s going on I’m going to get eaten alive.” I frowned. “I guess the worst part is that I still have no idea why most of these people are even here.” That was the real kicker, too. I could see Carraig—if somebody made off with Scáthach’s personal favorite weapon, sending her chief minion to recover it was an entirely reasonable action. Likewise, whoever was in the game on behalf of the Daylight Court wasn’t too surprising. If Midnight wanted something, Daylight tried to stop them on autopilot, if anything I’d earned about the Sidhe Courts was accurate.
But what the hell was Bryan doing here? He wasn’t Sidhe, and I couldn’t see him wanting anything as high-profile as the Gáe Bolg. It wasn’t like he needed a weapon anyway. And, even more so, what was with Humberto? He’d clearly recognized that he was playing with fire—at least, that was the only reason I could think of to hire thugs to do his dirty work—so, again, he recognized that actually having the object of the chase would be incredibly bad for his health. Why hadn’t he dropped out of the running once he caught on to that fact?
What I really needed to understand, I reflected, was the Gáe Bolg itself. What was it, exactly? There had to be something about it, some quality that made all these people want it badly enough to risk crucifixion. Until I knew what that quality was I would never understand why all these people wanted it, or for that matter who most of them were working for. If I didn’t find that out, and fast, it was only a matter of time before someone more educated than me found it. I wouldn’t be so upset about that, except that it seemed likely that it would involve killing me in the process.
Fortunately, when I needed information about ancient, horrible, powerful weapons, I knew just the guy to talk to.
Kyra was waiting outside my door when I walked out, which was not entirely unexpected. She wasn’t alone, which also wasn’t entirely unexpected, although I had presumed that once it became clear I wasn’t at immediate risk of death Mac would have bugged out like a cat fancier at a birding convention. It wasn’t Mac she was waiting with, which was entirely unexpected.
“Hey, Ryan,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
He nodded stiffly. “Hello, sir,” he said, with military-level precision. The impression was probably reinforced by the trench knife and SMG he was carrying. Just a little, you know.
I looked from him to Kyra and back again. I sighed. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, but I can,” Kyra said, deadpan but with laughter in her eyes.
“I do not need a bodyguard.”
“Not to pick nits,” she said dryly, “but apparently you sort of do. I don’t want you getting kidnapped again.” Her tone implied that I’d more than used up my allotment of kidnappings—which, admittedly, was a totally fair statement. I thought so too.
“Look, Kyra, I appreciate the thought and all, but…no. You didn’t see this guy in action. None of your wolves would stand a chance against him. No offense,” I added belatedly.
“None taken, sir,” he said soberly.
“Maybe,” Kyra allowed. “But he could have given you a chance to leg it.”
I started to protest that I didn’t want anyone, not even a total stranger, dying to cover my retreat. Then I saw the look in Kyra’s eye and elected to shut up. Sometimes it was hard to remember that I wasn’t just talking to Kyra, but to the Alpha. At times like this, on the other hand, it was hard to think of anything else. Arguing wasn’t going to get me anywhere with her in this mood. It might even make her decide to knock me out and lock me up until I saw reason, and that wouldn’t end well for anyone.
“Fine,” I said, glowering at the two werewolves. “You,” I said, pointing at Ryan. “Get a coat or something. I don’t want somebody seeing those toys.”
“Sir, yes, sir!” he barked, making me wince slightly. Snowflake, who was lying on the sidewalk patiently waiting for us to work things out, laughed at me. He reached into the open window of Kyra’s sedan, which was parked illegally right outside my front door, and pulled out a trench coat. My trench coat, as a matter of fact, which I’d “loaned” to Kyra and not seen since. What that was supposed to mean, I had no idea.
“Do you really think this is necessary?” I asked plaintively.
“Yes,” Kyra said firmly. “I can send you with a fur-form, if you’d rather.”
I pictured myself walking down the street with one-eyed Snowflake and a werewolf in fur and shuddered. That was just asking to get arrested for being too freakish for comfort. “No. Please.”
She smiled in satisfaction. “I thought so. Call if you need anything,” she said over her shoulder as she left. As though I would believe for a moment that Ryan wasn’t under orders to call her if I so much as sneezed. What kind of sucker did she think I was?
“Did she tell you what I’m doing?” I asked Ryan as he finished buttoning up the coat, slinging a backpack full of my own toys over my shoulders.
“No, sir. Respectfully, sir, it isn’t my business.”
Typical. The one time I wanted somebody to take an interest in what was going on. “Have you ever dealt with the Sidhe?”
“With who?” he asked, forgetting in his confusion to sound like he had a stick up his ass.
“The Sidhe? Faeries,” I clarified at his expression of confusion.
“You mean those are real?” Oh great. This was so not what I needed.
“Tell me you’ve at least read fairy tales.”
He stiffened. “Yes, sir!” There was a brief pause. “Although it’s been a few years.”
I closed my eyes and reminded myself that, as this was not in any way Ryan’s fault, throttling him would be a bit of an overreaction. “Your knife’s steel, right?” I asked. He nodded. “Well, if we run into something nasty and I don’t tell you otherwise, just try and hit it with that, then.” Steel wasn’t quite as good at damaging the fae as pure iron, or better yet magically charged iron, but it was decent.
Snowflake laughed some more. It isn’t funny, I told her sourly.
No, it’s hilarious. “You mean those are real?” Her mental voice dissolved into laughter.
Easy for you to say. You don’t have to deal with it. “Come on,” I said to Ryan, settling my shotgun underneath my own cloak. After our last encounter, I wasn’t relying on Tyrfing to be enough.
“Where are we going?”
I smiled grimly. “To talk to an acquaintance of mine.”