I woke up. That, in itself, came as no small surprise.
I woke up in a lot of pain. That, once I got past the initial shock of not being dead, was rather less surprising.
It took me a minute to realize where I was. There was just too much stimulation, and none of it good. My head was throbbing—probably from the, you know, near-asphyxiation back there—but that was nothing compared to the burning, stabbing ache in my limbs. It was quite simply the worst pain I’d ever experienced—a significant statement, that, as I consider myself something of a connoisseur of injury—and it made it hard to even see straight, let alone think clearly.
When I did, the view took my breath away again, for another reason this time. I had no idea where I was or how I’d gotten there, aside from the obvious. But it was beautiful, wherever it was, in a strange way I hadn’t quite run into before. I was high above the ground—how high I had no way to tell, but it was high enough that I seemed to be floating in the sky, and I couldn’t reach out and touch the earth magically. The night had the unique feel of the early morning hours in a place that never really sleeps, but the moon was practically eclipsed by the harsher tones of artificial lighting, making it hard to gauge accurately.
About that time I realized where and how I was, and for a moment pain was superseded by sheer disgust. Bad enough to be crucified. Worse to be crucified with charged silver. Even worse to be on top of a skyscraper (okay, maybe not a skyscraper, but my standards weren’t exactly high in that regard) at the time.
For it to happen in Las freaking Vegas seemed like overkill. I mean, that’s just adding insult to injury, there. I’d never visited Vegas personally, not my cup of tea, but the tackiness was unmistakable.
I took stock of my options over the next several minutes. The good news was that I had all the time I needed to do so. The bad news is that this was because I did not, in fact, have any options. The spikes—and they were spikes, no mistaking it, the same sort as those used on Humberto—were driven through my wrists and ankles, where I could feel them displacing the bones (an incredibly painful and intensely disturbing sensation, if you were wondering). Worming myself free was out of the question; even if I could work up the nerve, which I doubted, the only way I could do it would involve lateral motion. Bisecting all of my limbs with charged silver seemed like little more than an exotic way to commit suicide.
The most chilling part of that thought was, of course, that before long I might be wanting to take that route. Just to get things over with a little faster.
That left me with few other alternatives. There was no one around, making any attempt to talk my way out of things an exercise in insanity. Magic was a good idea, except that I frankly doubted I could muster the precision and power to extract the spikes, particularly when even the smallest movement would cause them to grate against my bones and leave me screaming (I’d already been doing a fair bit of that tonight, judging by how my throat felt). Generally speaking, doing magic under conditions that bad for your concentration is, again, pretty much just a cruel and unusual way to die. In any case, the presence of so much silver in my body rendered it a moot point. Werewolves are allergic to silver in an energetic sense rather than any autoimmune crap, and it would render me incapable of mustering anything more than a faint breeze.
I hung there and stared out at the neon lights, most of them little more than a blur of light against the night. I considered, briefly, screaming in an effort to attract help. I dismissed it as the idle fancy it was. The building I was on was far enough away from the Strip, and high enough, that I highly doubted anyone would hear. And even if they did, I knew humanity well enough to know that ninety-nine percent of people would dismiss it as the wind, and the last guy would probably frown slightly, tell himself that it was probably nothing and he didn’t want to get involved anyway, walk away quickly without looking back, feel guilty for an hour or two, and then forget all about it. It seemed like a waste of effort, all things considered.
It’s funny, how a thing like that makes you reflect on life. Cliché, I know, but then they do say all clichés have a grain of truth. You know that scene where the hero, on his deathbed, says that he has no regrets about life? Well, that wasn’t me. I wished I hadn’t wasted so much of my life in a haze of self-loathing. Heck, I would have settled for having a little longer after I figured that one out.
Ah well. It was fun while it lasted.
About the same time I was finishing up that train of thought and wondering whether I was supposed to get religion yet, or I was in for a few hours of whimpering first, I heard another voice—one which wasn’t in my head, I mean, I had plenty of those already. “Hello, Winter,” said a nearly-human voice from somewhere behind me.
“Hello, Fenris,” I said back as lightly as I could—not very, I might add. “I don’t suppose you’d set me free again?”
“I would if I could,” he said, walking around to where I could see him. He hadn’t changed—mottled grey hair, golden eyes that reflected the ambient light, emaciated to a state somewhere between “runway model” and “concentration camp.”
The funny thing was, he really sounded like he meant it. “You’re a god,” I said, more than slightly upset. “You want me to believe that you can’t pull out a few nails?”
“I would like for you to believe me, yes,” he said quietly, sitting on the rooftop directly in front of me. “But ultimately, it doesn’t really matter. I can’t pull those nails out. Whether you believe that or not has no bearing on the truth.”
I…well, I’d like to say I slumped but, obviously, circumstances made that difficult or outright impossible at the moment. “Why not?” I asked listlessly. I believed him, too, dammit. Fenris…well, both the legends and my own impressions of him suggested that, while he might well kill you, he wouldn’t pretend to be your friend first.
“No freedom comes without matching constraint,” he said, sounding about as depressed as I felt. “Remember that. Anyone saying otherwise is selling something.” He pulled the classic small steel flask out of his hip pocket and took a small swallow. He offered it to me.
“You know,” I said, “I don’t usually drink, but somehow at the moment it sounds pretty good.” I paused. “You do realize I can’t get up and walk over there, right?”
He nodded solemnly. “Of course. Forgive me.” I couldn’t hold the flask, either, which was more than slightly awkward, but I forgot all about it the second I tasted whatever it was that was in Fenris’s flask.
I don’t drink. But if booze all tasted like that, I don’t know that I would ever stop. It smelled of honey and tasted of fire. To drink it was…blackberries and laughter over the course of a long afternoon in the last summer of your childhood, sleeping on the rocks under the moon with your lover by your side, the exultation at the start of battle and the grief at the finish, kissing your daughter goodbye on the way to a war you’ll never come back from. It was ash and honey, sunshine and sorrow, the smell of lilies in the world’s most beautiful mausoleum, starlight reflected in the dark places underground, blood in your mouth and a smile in your eyes beneath the moon.
There are no words.
Fenris took another sparing drink and then carefully, almost reverently, capped it and stowed it back in his pocket. “Damn,” I said. I couldn’t think of anything more articulate, and besides, it seemed appropriate.
He nodded agreement, going back to his seat. “Say what you will about the dwarves, they brew some fine mead.”
We were silent for a long moment. “Sort of a depressing third meeting,” I said after a while. The suffocation hadn’t started yet, but I could definitely feel my weight hanging off the spars. “Given that I’m about to die and all.”
He smiled sadly. “Perhaps. But you won’t die tonight.” He stared off into the night. “Your canine friend is leading a rescue of sorts. They should only be another hour.”
It took a second for what he’d said to sink in. When it did, I managed a wheezy laugh. Wow. I wouldn’t have guessed that Snowflake’s ability to find me, whatever obstacles might find their way between us, would ever come in that handy. Heck, I wouldn’t have guessed she could pull it off from that far away.
“Wait a second,” I said as something else occurred to me. “Another hour? How long have I been here?”
He frowned. “Around five hours, I think? I’m not so good with clocks. It’s about even between midnight and dawn now, in any case.”
“Five hours?” I asked, shocked. “How did I lose that much time?”
He smiled…well, not sheepishly, but as close as the Fenris Wolf could ever hope to come. “I’ve been keeping you asleep. I would have done so longer, to spare you the pain, but it was approaching the point where it wouldn’t have been safe.” He shrugged. “It isn’t exactly my specialty.”
A pleasant way to say that you were more accustomed to causing death and destruction than preventing it, I thought. “What happened to not being able to help me?” I asked, genuinely curious. Fenris was possibly the only ancient and powerful being I had encountered from whom I thought I could actually get a straight answer to a question.
“I can help you,” he corrected. “I am only not permitted to oppose him who is responsible. To help you sleep is a thing between us, but to remove you from the cross would be to act against his intent in placing you there, and that I may not do.”
“You know who put me here, then?”
He nodded slowly, his eyes far away. “Yes. He is called Carraig—no one, I think, knows his father’s name anymore, perhaps not even him. He is the mortal champion of the one called Scáthach, and has been for many years now.”
“Wait a minute. You mean Scáthach”—my pronunciation was, needless to say, nowhere near as smooth as his—”the goddess?”
“She has been called as such,” he said quietly. “And in the old days she was worshipped, under another name. Yes, I think the title applies. One of the least, perhaps, but a goddess all the same.”
“But…but that’s crazy. Why would a goddess need a mortal champion? She could crush any human that’s ever lived.”
Fenris grinned boyishly, the expression gone so fast I was never quite sure whether I had seen it at all or it was the product of an overtaxed mind. “Not any, I think, but most, that’s true.” He shook his head. “You’re thinking like a werewolf, Winter, and no surprise, but that won’t help you here. The fae don’t think like men, less so like wolves.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, growing annoyed. Why is it that everyone I talk to is constantly wanting prompted?
He frowned, and I got the sense that he was grasping for the words he wanted. “An Alpha faces threats himself,” he said slowly, “because to do otherwise would lose the respect of his pack. Because werewolves, as you know, are wolfish at heart, and not to fight his own battles is the action of a weak or cowardly wolf. No pack follows a weakling or a coward.”
“But,” he continued, “the Sidhe don’t see things that way. They never do things directly, or use one plan when three would serve. For one of the Sidhe to duel herself would be an admission that she doesn’t have sufficient influence to make another do it instead. Doubly so for such as Scáthach; queens do not sully their hands with the blood of lesser mortals.”
My head was…well, it didn’t start to hurt, because it was already pounding when I woke up, but it sure as heck wasn’t stopping to hurt. “I thought Mab was queen of the Midnight Court.”
“The one called Mab is,” he agreed. “Queen, and ascendant.” He laced his fingers before his face and seemed to examine them. “Nothing is ever simple with the fae, Winter. Mab is the Mother of Night, and this is her time. But Scáthach is yet the Maiden of Shadows, and there is another who is Crone.”
I stared. “You’ve gotta be kidding me,” I muttered. “Maiden, mother and crone? Seriously?”
“You can use Lady, Queen, and Beldam if you prefer,” he said. “But I suggest you not, because I have a hard time keeping a straight face when I try to call her a beldam in person. Each is sovereign in her own dominion.” He shook his head slowly. “In truth, I don’t know why they keep humans to serve as champions. I suspect that one of them found a promising man, and then all the rest decided they needed one as well.”
“Wait. You mean they all have a guy like that?” I found that prospect more than slightly terrifying.
“Well,” he clarified, “not the Crones. They are…beyond such frivolities, I think. But the Maiden and Mother of Day and Night keep human champions, aye. Carraig is likely the eldest living, but Aodh is near as old.”
“I am so confused right now,” I groaned. “He said it wasn’t about the spear. But if he serves Scáthach, I don’t get what else it could be. I mean, it’s her spear, for crying out loud.”
“He is searching for the Gáe Bolg,” Fenris confirmed. “But this, he did for hate of Conn. I don’t know why Carraig hates him so much, but he does.”
“So let me get this straight,” I said slowly. “Carraig is Scáthach’s hatchet man, so when her spear turned up she sent him to go fetch it for her. But while he was in town, he thought he’d take the time to off me because he thought it would hurt Conn’s feelings for me to die?” Fenris nodded. “Then why the heck am I still breathing?” I asked, perplexed.
Fenris laughed, a sound like wolves howling and Nordic blizzards. “Isn’t it obvious, Winter?” he asked mockingly. “He wants to fight you again. It is all he knows, anymore.”
“You sound like you feel sorry for him.”
“I do,” he agreed. “The world has moved on, since his time, and he doesn’t know how to move with it. Bloodshed is all that is left to him, these days.” He looked at me seriously. “You are angry, at what he has done to you, and this is natural. I would worry, if you were not angry.” He shook his head. “Hate isn’t the same. Anger motivates, but hate can do nothing but poison. Nothing good can come from hating him, especially if that gets in the way of understanding.”
“I see what you mean,” I said reluctantly. Oddly enough, now that the pain was more or less a constant in the back of my mind and therefore dismissible, I was more upset by how much my back itched. Even if I could have moved to get at it, I was still wearing most of my armor, and that would make it more than a little hard to get to in any case. “I don’t suppose you know where the Gáe Bolg is now, do you?” I asked. I didn’t feel particularly hopeful—if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that it is never, ever that easy—but I had to ask.
“No. Sorry. Not my thing.” He shrugged. “I’ve never had much need for spears, in truth.”
No surprise, considering his nature. I mean, I might be wrong, but I somehow doubt the Wolf of Asgard even noticed most any weapons.
A moment later he cocked his head sideways. “I had best be going, I think,” he said. “It looks like your friends will be here sooner than I anticipated, and it would probably be simpler for them to find you alone.”
I envisioned Kyra’s likely reaction to finding me in this circumstance with Fenris standing right there and…well, I didn’t shudder, for obvious reasons, but I would have liked to. “Yes,” I agreed fervently. “Thanks for the company.”
He grinned toothily. “Any time. I’ll see you soon,” he said, and casually jumped off the side of the building. Still spooky, but nowhere near as much so as Loki’s “Now you see me, now you don’t” routine.
The pain became significantly worse, when Fenris was gone. Like, it went from noticeable-and-annoying-but-not-severely-so to the incapacitating, overwhelming agony I’d woken up with. What, exactly, he’d been doing was impossible for me to determine, but clearly “helping me sleep” was an understatement.
This is why I kinda lost track of time at that point. If you’ve ever been injured, or even seriously ill for that matter, you can probably relate. At some point the perception of time contracts down to an instant that lasts forever—not my recommended way to achieve Zen, by the way. It presumably took less than fifteen minutes for Snowflake to get there, but it felt like a couple months at the least.
When I heard the distinctive sound of a door slamming open behind me, it was all I could do to lift my head. This was followed by the sound of footsteps—I counted at least three patterns—which were quickly eclipsed by the sound of a very, very impatient husky.
You’re here! You’re here you’re here I found you you’re here! Snowflake didn’t actually say that—it was a lot less coherent, as she lost her grip on words and resorted to basic emotions and images—but that’s the closest I can come to expressing the gist of what she sent.
“Hey, girl,” I said. I was in that peculiar state where I could hear the thready waver of my own voice, but couldn’t do a thing about it. “How ya doin’?”
“Better than you,” Kyra said. “For fuck’s sake, Winter, what happened?” She was dressed in the very, very casual way that, in a werewolf who prefers the lupine shape for combat, indicates more caution and readiness for a fight than a suit of plate.
I looked at her and grinned as best I could. Given that she winced, I was guessing it wasn’t very good. “Oh, I don’t know, I’m hanging in there. The dog didn’t tell you?”
“You’re the Doc Doolittle,” said a masculine voice I vaguely recognized from somewhere behind me where I couldn’t see. “Lassie here didn’t feel like talking to us mere mortals.”
“Stop jabbering and get over here,” Kyra snapped in the tone of an Alpha who does not currently have the patience for games. “How badly off are you?”
“Me?” I thought for a few minutes. “Well, my feet are asleep, and my head hurts too.” I glanced down at myself. “And I’m sorta bloody. This was my nice shirt, too.” Something else occurred to me. “I might be a little bit drunk. Not quite sure, you know how that can be, right?”
“Fucking hell,” said a female voice I didn’t recognize. “He’s delirious.”
I grinned. “I think you might be right.” I peered over Kyra’s shoulder. “Hi, Ryan. Hi, werewolf I don’t know.”
“Come on,” Kyra said briskly. “Ryan, help me hold him. Daniell, you have something you can use for gloves?”
“No problem, Boss,” said the female, walking around to stand in front of me while Ryan went back out of sight. She was, indeed, already pulling on a pair of heavy leather gloves, the sort you think of a welder using. Werewolves treat silver the way normal people might aqua regia—you know, if they knew what that meant. Snowflake was, whiningly, displaced. I could feel concern, fear, and sympathetic pain from her.
I peered down from my perch. “Wait a second,” I said. I realized, in whatever small part of my mind was still thinking clearly, that I was starting to slur my words, whether from that single swallow of dwarven mead or simple pain I wasn’t sure. “I know you. You were one of th’ ones tailing Kyra. The one with the, the wossit, the coffee. Yeah.”
She paused. “You saw me?”
“‘Course I did,” I said, somewhat grandiosely.
“Talk later,” Kyra said brusquely. “Work now.”
Daniell nodded. “Yes, Boss. This will hurt,” she said, addressing this last to me.
This was, as it turned out, an understatement. I will skip over the next few minutes, because nobody—least of all me—wants to think about them in detail. Suffice to say that there was a great deal of pain and a reasonable amount of bleeding on my part, and awkwardness enough for everyone. I screamed, enough that after a few minutes they also improvised a gag. I didn’t feel particularly ashamed of that fact. It did, indeed, take both Kyra and Ryan to hold me still while Daniell pried the silver spikes from my flesh, and in spite of their best efforts, I landed a pretty solid kick to her face at one point. She didn’t complain, just stood up and got right back to work. I’d have to apologize for that later.
Snowflake couldn’t stand to watch, and had to go back inside the stairwell about the same time as they finished with my legs. I didn’t blame her; I would have really preferred not to be present either—and not just because, you know, if I weren’t there we wouldn’t be having these problems. Especially when Daniell had to improvise a footstool to get enough leverage on my wrists. Talk about awkward moments.
By the time I was fully extricated and lying on the ground, I was drifting in and out of consciousness. I didn’t complain too much, mostly because unconsciousness beat screaming agony. It meant that I wasn’t having much input on the decision-making progress, but considering my current condition that was probably a good thing.
My memories of the following hours are scattered, disjointed things, snapshots arranged without rhyme or reason. I remember hearing Kyra and Ryan arguing, while Snowflake licked my face and whimpered and Daniell bandaged my various wounds. I remember that the argument ended with Kyra saying, very softly but in her Alpha voice, “I don’t care,” and Ryan throwing up his hands in disgust—and defeat, because you don’t argue with an Alpha using that tone.
I remember that Daniell was the one to carry me down the stairs. It hurt—being carried over an uneven surface when severely injured typically does—and I remember that I wanted to scream, but couldn’t seem to do more than moan and whimper. She made gentle shushing noises, reminding me of that night after Aiko got shot—not an association likely to make me feel better.
It occurred to me, somewhere in there, that this was quite possibly the worst off I’d been since I first changed into a werewolf and went batshit insane as a result. The time I got shot a few weeks earlier might have been worse as far as injury goes, but I’d been too shocky to feel much in the way of pain that time around.
It’s probably a statement about your quality of life when you find yourself saying things like that.
That was the last clear thing for a while. All I got were sensory snapshots—Snowflake licking my hand delicately, whimpering in pain as I was helped out of my armor, nausea and vomiting as the silver started working its way out of my system, opening my eyes to see Tyrfing less than six inches from my face, blocking everything else from view.
It was a fever dream without the fever, and in my brief moments of lucidity all I could think of was how much I wanted it to end.