After my chat with Sojobo I went back home, at least for a while. I wasn’t at all sure what to do next, and figured it would be better to sit and think in a safe location.
I hadn’t had much of a chance to just sit back and think for some time. Now that I did, I was almost surprised at how overwhelmed I was. I felt like a man trying to tread water while holding a barbell over my head.
I’d spent the past several days running from crisis to crisis, desperately trying to keep any one fire from growing too large to handle, unable to concentrate on any of them long enough to actually extinguish it. And the hell of it was, I hadn’t really accomplished all that much. I mean, sure, none of my friends were dead, but plenty of other people were. I still didn’t know who or where my enemies were, not with any precision. I couldn’t stop the fighting.
It had been unbelievably arrogant, really, for me to think that I could. This was too big for me.
It was at around that time that Aiko walked in, guzzling what smelled like watermelon juice. “Hey,” she said. “Who’s dead?”
“Nobody, yet,” I said. “I did have a chat with Sojobo, though.”
“The Old Man of the Mountain himself?” she said, impressed. “Damn. You move in high circles.”
“You know him?”
She shrugged, the motion neither confirming nor denying. “Stories. You know. Never met him. We can’t all be like you, related to frigging everybody.”
I snorted. “Yeah, you aren’t exactly a peasant yourself. Speaking of relations, did I tell you one of your cousins is helping the tengu with their turf war?”
“Don’t think so. Which one?”
“Kimiko, or at least that’s what she told me to tell you.”
She grimaced. “Oh. Her.”
Aiko shrugged. “Not exactly. We aren’t, like, nemeses if that’s what you mean; she’s just…way, way, way too serious. Her father was a six-tail, scary dude. He was old-school, samurai style—you know, codes of honor, service without question, death before dishonor, the whole thing. Went around whacking bad guys and stuff. When I was twenty—she’d have been six—a handful of vampires decided they’d had enough of it and kidnapped her and her mother. He got ’em back, but died doing it—you know, typical goody-two-shoes sort of thing.”
“The sort of thing that might leave you with something to prove,” I mused.
She snorted. “No shit. Doesn’t help Kimiko turns into a fennec. She’s got an inferiority complex the size of a mountain.”
I could see why. A fennec fox was the smallest living canid in the world—seriously, we’re talking poodle-size, or smaller. Rather a comedown from a notorious samurai father. I mean, that was one heck of a reputation to live up to. I thought I was starting to understand why Kimiko might be willing to risk her life for a bit of street cred.
“What are you doing now?” she asked. I could hear a touch of something not quite envy in her voice. She didn’t blame me for it—she’d made it very clear, all along, that it was her choice, and she’d known there would be consequences—but I knew she resented being trapped on the Otherside while I went out and got in brawls.
“Not sure,” I said. “I’m considering throwing in with the yokai.”
She stared at me. “You gotta be shitting me.”
“Actually, for once I’m being entirely serious. I don’t have the resources to deal with this myself. I don’t think I can kid myself into believing otherwise anymore, do you?”
“Well, no, but you can get them. I mean, shit, Winter, you’ve got contacts, you know people. You don’t think any of them would back you on this?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “But think about it. You’re talking about begging help from Loki…making deals with the Twilight Court…bringing the Khan into a local conflict….” I shook my head. “You know what that would mean, Aiko. There would be a price to pay. There would be consequences.”
“What about Skrýmir? He seemed fond of you.”
“Sure. But there’s a pretty big difference between giving your great-nephew a drink and giving him an army. And there’d be political backlash if he were to stick his nose into this at this stage. He wouldn’t do it for free.” I looked at her curiously. “Why are you so upset about this, anyway? It’s your people we’re talking about.”
“Exactly,” she said grimly. “We aren’t good people, Winter. I mean, hell, you’ve seen the stupid shit I do. You know exactly what kind of irresponsible, immature, irrational imbecile I tend to be. I’m a delinquent virago, a brazen kleptomaniac, a flagrant zoophile, a recidivistic vandal, and a feckless hussy with more neuroses than a small fandom convention.”
“That was really nice,” I said. “I’m impressed.”
I know, Snowflake said, the first she’d spoken since we got home. I’m going to have to look a few of those words up.
“Thank you,” she said modestly. “But the fact remains that you’ve gotta ask yourself, do you really want a bunch of people just like me in charge around here? I mean, shit, at least I’m smart enough to recognize that I shouldn’t be responsible for anything more important than a teacup.”
“Granted,” I acknowledged. “Do you have a better idea? Do you have even one better idea? Because I don’t.”
“I hate when you get all rational,” she grumbled. “Completely out of character. How am I supposed to deal with that?”
“Beats me,” I said cheerily. “Don’t worry, though, you’ve got some time to think about it. I’m not going to act on it until I’m sure there’s not a better option. Is Alexis awake?”
“Not sure. But I strung a tripwire across her doorway, so—” There was a sudden crash from upstairs, making Aiko grin. “Well, speak of the devil. She’s definitely awake now, I’d say.”
I laughed. “Did the maple syrup get her? I haven’t had a chance to ask.”
Her grin became wider and more malicious. “Yep. You should have heard her complaining about how hard it was to get out of her hair.”
“That’s wonderful,” I said enviously. “I’m going to have to remember that one.” I frowned. “Expensive, though. Good maple syrup is spendy as hell.”
She snorted. “Yeah, like that matters to you.” She stood up. “Come on, I’m hungry. Think there’s any pizza left?”
I frowned, following her to the kitchen. “Can’t remember,” I said, and then almost ran into her when she stopped in front of me. “What is it?” I asked, edging closer.
“That wasn’t there before,” she said, walking slowly over to the table. I felt a twinge of panic at the words—it’s almost never good to be surprised in your own home—and followed her. Snowflake stuck to my heels, growling slightly. Aiko picked up a sheet of parchment maybe a foot square and read it.
“What’s it say?”
Rather than answer she handed it to me, her expression unwontedly grim. I understood why the second I saw the letter. It read:
I regret that it has come to this, but your actions leave me little option. I have your friend, the cook, in my keeping. Quit the field and leave the city immediately, and she will come to no harm. Remain, and she will die. Oppose me, and that death will be slow and horrible. The choice is yours.
Again, I regret the necessity of this ultimatum; rest assured that had you listened when first we spoke, this eventuality would not have come to pass.
There was no signature at the bottom. Instead, it had three marks of authenticity. The first was a long, dark, straight hair. The second was a drop of blood which had stained the parchment. I had no doubt that they both belonged to Anna. The third was a red wax seal, with the impression of an eagle in it. I sniffed it tentatively, and—as expected—found that the wax was shot through with the reek of magic and rot. A guarantee, of sorts. This had been sent by the skinwalker.
Are you okay? Snowflake asked, at almost the same time as Alexis walked into the room and said, “Is everything all right?”
“No,” I said. My voice was such an icy, flat sound that I almost didn’t recognize it. It was, I noted absently, almost the same tone Sojobo had used. “Nothing’s all right.” I resisted the urge to shred the parchment far past the point of recognition. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop there once I got started, and it’s never wise for a werewolf or anything like one to lose control of his anger. Besides, it wouldn’t improve anything. My motions were calm, almost gentle as I placed the letter back on the table.
Well, obviously, Snowflake said, but your shoulders are really tight and you’re breathing pretty fast and your knuckles are going white and I’m really starting to worry over here, so if you could maybe take a few deep breaths and count to ten I think it might help, all right?
I ignored her. “That’s it,” I said, in that same deceptively calm voice. “That is it.” I turned and walked towards the front door.
“Winter? What are you doing?” Alexis’s voice was shaking, and she looked like she was about to be sick.
“I’m ending this,” I said. My voice held all the warmth and kindness of a mountain blizzard, and even Snowflake flinched away at the sound. I walked out without further conversation.
I wanted to kill the skinwalker. I really, really wanted it. My instinctive, ingrained reaction to threats against my pack was to respond with swift and brutal violence. My first impulse upon reading that note was to put on my armor, buckle on Tyrfing, grab every weapon I owned, and go visit the wrath of me upon him.
However, I also knew that that was exactly what he was expecting. I mean, sheesh, could it get more predictable than that? I was known for an irrational protective streak regarding those few individuals I cared to protect; I was known for anger issues, and for preferring simple, straightforward solutions where possible; I was a werewolf, which could only exacerbate those traits. It’s no harder to predict a stopped clock than to expect violence from a werewolf under those conditions.
Rushing in blind would get me killed. Now, I’m going to die someday, and I can guess with some confidence it will be my own fault, but I didn’t want it to be because of a mistake that stupid. Furthermore, I was certain that playing right into the skinwalker’s hands would do nothing to help Anna.
Reacting quickly wouldn’t get me anywhere. I had to react intelligently.
With that in mind, I set about making certain arrangements, getting into contact with certain people. It cost me a fair amount of cash, and a couple of debts that I would normally have hesitated to cash in. At the moment, I didn’t think once about it, let alone twice.
I’d had enough of this war. If ending it meant paying a price, well, it was a price I was willing to pay, even if I didn’t know just what it would be.
Finally, at around noon, I decided I’d done everything I could think of to do, and went home to seek counsel from a demon.
It is said, by some New Age gurus and self-help books, that thought is real. Now, most of the time I have less respect for such sources than for the advice of circus performers, who at least have to have a sizable quantity of skill and knowledge to do their jobs. However, in this specific case, they actually do have a point—more by accident, I suspect, than any actual intelligence.
Thought is real. It has a weight, a substance to it which, although unlike physical objects or strength, and unlike magic, would only be discounted by fools. In thoughts—purely mental constructs, with no physical reality or reflection therein at all—like love, hope, and faith, there is a power quite undeniable.
It’s only a short step from there to the idea that some thoughts have so much reality that it doesn’t matter anymore whether someone is actually thinking them. They can, in essence, think themselves. They’re…alive, in a certain sense of the word, although it doesn’t apply precisely. They have a sense of self and a discrete nature.
That’s Legion. Except he isn’t an idea like love or hope or faith. Legion is a spirit of death, destruction, decay—and, because there is very little which is wholly positive or negative in this world, also of rebirth, strength, regeneration. The simplest way I’ve found to describe him is as a necessary evil. Not in the sense that there’s some choice between him and something worse, but because he embodies that which is unpleasant and destructive and horrible, but without which you cannot grow, and become weak.
Someone has to do it. But there are reasons I call Legion “demon”, and not the more general term “spirit.” He isn’t one of the good guys, on any level.
I didn’t see Aiko, or Snowflake, or Alexis when I walked in. Probably they were avoiding me, and with reason; I was still all but shaking with suppressed emotion. I was chafing with the knowledge that every moment of delay was probably causing Anna significant suffering—because, come on, did anyone buy that line about coming to no harm? Yeah, didn’t think so—but unable to come up with any way to do this faster that didn’t end with me dying in agony, and probably her too.
The resultant tension had me a little upset.
I walked into the lab and sat down on a plain hardwood chair at the worktable. “Legion,” I called. “I need you.”
A skeleton, tucked neatly into the corner of the room, began to quiver. It was more or less canine in shape, but larger than most any dog, and lean. Aiko had pieced it together from Cu Sith much like the ones we’d seen at the party the other night. By the time we got through with them, they weren’t in very good shape; it took her a dozen faerie hounds to get a complete skeleton. Legion, as a spiritual entity, needed a vessel to interact with the physical world, and the skeleton was it. It was more common to put a spirit into an animal host, but I hadn’t cared for the idea, for rather obvious reasons.
“Took you long enough,” he said irritably, as thick black fog seemed to boil out of the bones and cover them in a dense, shifting cloud. It was filled with sparks of multicolored light, with two larger aquamarine sparks for eyes. “It’s been four weeks since you called me.”
“You go into a state of dormancy in between anyway,” I said, relaxing slightly. Sparring with Legion was an old, familiar routine, pun most definitely intended. It was calming. “So don’t tell me you got bored. Besides, before that I took you to that amusement park, remember?”
His eyes glittered a bit more brightly. “Hell, yeah. We should do that again.”
That was, more or less, how I paid Legion. He wasn’t physical in nature, and this world was very foreign to him. There were many things I took for granted—sensory input, emotional reaction, that sort of thing—which were a source of intense fascination for the demon. Occasionally I—or Aiko, or rarely Snowflake (she has issues with demons in general, and Legion in particular)—let him temporarily occupy my body and mind in order to vicariously experience material existence. He’s a sense junkie, basically.
One of the more interesting things I’ve learned about demons is that they don’t seem to distinguish between positive and negative experiences—hell, he can’t even tell the difference. He’s equally as intrigued by hunger, pain, and fear as things like lust, pleasure, or happiness. It’s like the specific character of a stimulus doesn’t matter nearly as much to him as its absolute value.
“How much do you know about skinwalkers?” I asked him, toying idly with a pencil. I have a tendency to take notes while talking with Legion, because he mocks me relentlessly if I have to ask him to repeat a point.
Legion had a nasty habit, which I had been entirely unsuccessful at breaking him of, of conveying an impression with perfect clarity, but without giving me any idea of how it had been conveyed. This time, I understood that he had imparted the equivalent of a shrug, but the skeleton never moved, and his voice didn’t change at all. “Enough,” he said simply.
“Wonderful,” I said. “Start with the basics.”
“You da boss, Boss,” he said in an affected Chicago accent. “How familiar are you with native superstitions and beliefs regarding magic?”
I grimaced. “Not at all, beyond extremely basic stuff.” There was, as I had often been given cause to bemoan, simply too much for anyone to know it all. I’d focused most of my efforts on present-day organizations, and particularly on the denizens of the Otherside who had a tendency to interact with my world. My knowledge of historical trends and minor sects was woefully incomplete.
“Of course,” he said. His tone was the usual utter blandness, but I got the impression of disgust all the same. “Well, essentially, the native tribes had a much different attitude than most of the world. Magic was never seen as something external to everyday life, and mages were never marginalized the way most human cultures historically have. The shaman was considered a normal, if respected, member of the group, not entirely unlike a priest in that regard.”
“Clarification,” I interrupted. “Do you mean shaman as in the social role, or the definition of a skilled mage with an unusually strong connection to the spiritual?”
“The first,” he said, displaying no anger at being cut off. “Although there was an extraordinarily high proportion of shamanic magic among them, as well, presumably due to cultural background. In any case, the salient feature is that magic was seen as a tool, something which existed to serve the people. The shaman was expected to serve the tribe, often at personal expense or danger.”
I frowned. Mages were essentially just ordinary people, in most ways. And, like any group of people, that one inevitably included assholes. “Not every mage would be willing to do that.”
“Precisely,” the demon said, his manner that of a schoolteacher when a dim bulb managed to make an intelligent observation. “There will always be mages who look at a millennia-old tradition of helping, guidance, and sacrifice, and turn their backs on it.”
“That doesn’t make sense, though,” I murmured. “People like that turn up everywhere. Skinwalkers are native to North America. What gives?”
“You would learn more if you interrupted less. To answer your question, not everyone abandons tradition. Sometimes you get a person who elects instead to turn it inside out, corrupt and betray it actively. In this context, that means harming others for your benefit rather than vice versa. Thus, skinwalkers: those who sing to harm rather than heal, sacrifice others for personal gain, and reap the power of sorrow and death for their meat and drink.”
“In most accounts,” I said thoughtfully, “a skinwalker tears the hide from his victim and uses it to change shape.”
“Right,” Legion agreed. “Skinwalkers are almost never natural shapeshifters. That’s a rare talent, and it tends not to occur alongside the magics they depend upon. In essence, a skinwalker examines his victims on an extremely intimate level. By observing, both physically and magically, how the body and mind react to various stresses, he begins to understand that body and that mind. People opposed to the practice tend to characterize it as torture, but the process is actually a good deal more complicated than that. It’s as important that the skinwalker understand the subject’s responses to pleasurable stimulation as to pain. Eventually, once he understands them from the inside out, he kills them, slowly—usually he’ll skin ’em alive, but that’s not actually necessary for the ritual. They just have to die slowly, so that he has lots of time to take in the pain and the emotion and the life the victim puts off. The skin serves as a symbol that he can associate with the person it came from. Because he understands them so well, and there’s a bit of them still in him, he can use it to take on their form, right?”
I stared, caught between horror and a sickened fascination. “Holy shit,” I breathed. “Legion, that’s horrible. Even by your standards.”
The demon gave the impression of a shrug. “What can I say, Boss? There’s reasons people don’t like skinwalkers.”
“No kidding.” I rubbed my forehead and shivered a little. “Wow, that’s seriously creepy. Okay. You said there’s a part of the victim that stays in the skinwalker. How does that work?”
“I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never actually worked with a skinwalker, you understand, so this is all from talking with spirits that have. But as I understand it, the key is the process of oscillating between pain, pleasure, sexual release, and various emotional extremes. It degrades mental barriers—hell, even you monkeys have figured that out, and you’ve got nothing on skinwalkers when it comes to torture.”
I frowned. “Almost like a vision quest, then. Breaking down the mental filters we use to interpret reality.”
“Exactly,” he said approvingly. “The whole thing is a mockery of shamanic tradition, right? The same principles, just inverted and corrupted. Most skinwalkers, if they’re seriously trying to acquire a new skin, drag the process out over a couple months at least—years, sometimes. After that long you don’t even know who you are, let alone what’s happening to you.”
I shook my head. “But how does that let them change shape? I mean, drive someone crazy, yes, I can see where that sort of thing would be great at that. But how do you get from that to a skinwalker?”
“Like I said, I’ve not studied it in detail. But the theory is that they’ve forged a connection with the person, established a bond, whatever. Sort of like lovers. It’s in the opposite direction, sure, but there’s the same intimacy and so on, right? Then, when they finally die, you sort of use that connection. They’re gone, but they’ve left a mark on you, and between that and the fact that you know how their body works, you can turn yourself into some semblance of them.”
“So the shape they take on has some connection to the person they took it from?”
“Yep. That’s why most skinwalkers tend to pick their victims carefully; you want the biggest, strongest one you can find. It’s hard to have more than one skin that are really similar to each other, though; you run into trouble trying to keep them distinct in your mind. Most skinwalkers can only do one of any given animal, and they can’t turn into another human at all.”
I made a note of that. It might be useful at some point. “You know,” I mused, “that sounds almost like what Garrett did.” Garrett White, werewolf, shaman, serial killer, and all-around lunatic, had killed wolves and bound their spirits to his soul and those of other werewolves. It had been a while, but I would never forget the feel of his magics. Garrett has a special place in my heart, after all; it was killing him that put the last nail in my chances of ever having an even slightly normal life.
“Right,” Legion said. “I wasn’t there for that part, but I’m pretty sure what he was doing was based on skinwalker traditions. He was really sloppy, though, or else whoever showed him that wanted him to die. When he killed those wolves, they never really died, you know? He took the mind and personality, not just the feeling. That’s why he went batshit. A good skinwalker, the skin is just an extension of himself. The person who contributed it is dead and gone.”
“You keep saying person,” I noted. “I thought this wouldn’t work on humans.”
He snorted. “Yeah, right, ’cause there’s such a huge difference between humans and animals. You of all people should know better, Winter. The whole point of this is to target the part of the animal that is a person. Try it on something stupid, like a snake or something, it doesn’t work very well. It won’t work at all on an insect or a sponge, or anything really without a brain and some degree of self-awareness.”
I shivered again. “Right. So how many…skins? Is that the right word?” Legion, once again, indicated confirmation without any gesture or word, and I continued. “How many skins does a skinwalker have?”
“Depends,” he said, with a motionless shrug. “The thing to remember is that a skinwalker is still a mage, just a really psycho one. It takes time for them to learn these things, and most of their power comes from learning, from knowing things and studying things. The older they get, the stronger they are. And they don’t age, either; they absorb life energy when they kill, sort of like a vampire.”
“Wonderful,” I muttered. “I’m guessing the really old ones have several thousand years of experience, right?”
“Yup. Don’t worry, though, it isn’t likely you’ll run into one of those. I don’t know why, but the Conclave really hates skinwalkers, and the Council isn’t much better. They actually managed to get along long enough to do a purge around a thousand years ago, and practically wiped them out. That’s why they allied with the Pack, actually; no one else would have them, and they needed some kind of backup or they were going to be eradicated.”
“Why would the Pack want anything to do with them?”
Legion made an interested noise. “You know, I’m not actually sure about that. I was working with a necromancer in Russia at the time—he did some really fascinating work, I’ll have to tell you about it sometime—and by the time he paid any attention at all it was a done deal. They must have gotten something out of it, because no one would help a skinwalker otherwise, but I don’t know what it might have been.”
I grunted. Another mystery to look into, then. “So, assuming they aren’t one of the ancient ones that survived the purge, how scary are we talking? Ballpark.”
Legion not-shrugged again. “More than you. Not as much as a god. A true skinwalker has all the power of a witch with at least thirty or forty years of experience and no limits. They’re good at various curses. Most of ’em have a fair amount of skill with blood magic, necromancy—you know, the usual ‘evil witch’ repertoire. You do the math. The actual shapeshifting isn’t really that great, combat-wise. It’s the magic you’ve gotta worry about.”
I groaned. Wonderful. I’d gone up against witches a few times before. I’d had werewolves, the Inquisition, Aiko, and Snowflake backing me up, and the witches hadn’t even been fighting seriously, and they still thrashed me soundly. Every time I’d encountered one in anything like a fair fight, straight-up, I lost fast and hard. It wasn’t even a contest.
And I was pretty sure neither of them had been anywhere near skinwalker-scary. Let Legion say shapeshifting wasn’t a threat; I’d seen shapeshifters go at it before. They dished out a serious beating, and that was with only one alternate form and no other witchery backing it up. A polar bear with no fear of humanity was a serious opponent, easily a match for several unarmed people. Add in humanlike intelligence, and a shapeshifter could potentially represent a real danger to armed humans, or a werewolf in fur.
A skinwalker would be worse. Lots worse.
There wasn’t a lot I could do about that, though. So I pushed aside the thought of how insanely dumb I must be to voluntarily tangle with this nut, and set to preparing for it as best I could instead. I made a stored spell, with Legion’s guidance. Like everything produced with his methods, it was unstable, humming faintly with the energies coursing through it. They were stronger than I could manage with a comparable amount of effort using the techniques Alexander had shown me, but the shelf life was just a few days, which is why I didn’t really use them very often.
Of course, in this case, that wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. Besides which, this one would probably last longer than most. It was a lot more in line with my natural talents than most of the things I made, and that helped a whole lot.
That done, I sent Legion back into dormancy, and went upstairs.
I found Aiko and Snowflake easily enough, in the library on the second floor. It was a smallish room, which in this context means merely large enough to be a perfectly adequate, even comfortable enclosure for, say, a wolf. I’m not exaggerating, either; I measured it once, just for kicks, and it was a little under half an acre. And it was still on the small side, as far as rooms in that house went. Our bedroom was easily five times that size, probably more.
The library was still one of my favorite rooms, though. It wasn’t anything like the Keepers’ archives, but it still had a few thousand feet of shelf space, of which I’d filled relatively little. There were all kinds of bookshelves, ranging from lovely ebony built-ins to freestanding shelves tall enough to justify the rolling ladder. There were even a couple of heavy, glass-doored cabinets for the display of particularly valued works—or, in the case of the one with heavy-gauge wire screens, bulletproof glass, multiple locks, and heavy-duty built-in warding spells, particularly dangerous ones. That one had my handful of texts on magic, supernatural politics, and unexpurgated histories. I had one of the keys. Aiko had the other.
I considered it one of my better tricks. You see, if you have a cabinet full of dangerous, invaluable books, one complete with extremely serious protections, people expect you to keep the key on your person at all times, so I did. With luck, they would work so hard trying to steal it, it would never even occur to them that for a key to even exist would be an unacceptable security breach. I’d destroyed the real key almost immediately after moving into the house. The only way through those locks was to pick them. And they were very, very difficult to pick.
The only other display case I’d moved anything into was filled with philosophical and religious works. I had a lot of them. I’d always been fascinated with mythology—it started with trying to figure out the identity of my father, a process I’d only partially succeeded at, and grew into a near-obsession—and once Loki implied that the Poetic Edda was at least slightly accurate, I figured it would be smart to make a point of studying such sources more closely. Thus, in addition to more mainstream religious texts, I had both Eddas, a number of sagas, all four of the major Irish cycles, the Kalevala, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Theogony, the Popol Vuh, the Kojiki, the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, the Book of Coming Forth by Day, and the Principia Discordia, and I’d read every one of them. Fenris had replaced my original heavily battered collection of used books with a matched set bound in black leather with gold-leaf lettering. The result was visually striking, to say the least.
Aiko, being Aiko, had duct-taped a paper sign to the front. It read, in large block letters, IN CASE OF APOCALYPSE BREAK GLASS.
At the moment, she was sitting in an overstuffed armchair next to the fireplace, which cast a circle of cheerily flickering light against the relative dimness of the room, tinting Snowflake’s fur an eerie red. Aiko was reading a Calvin and Hobbes compilation, and occasionally reached down to turn the page in Snowflake’s book of German fairy tales. “Hey,” she said as I walked in, not looking up from her book. “Feeling better?”
“Not really, no,” I said cheerfully. “But marginally less psychotic, and significantly calmer and more logical.”
“Hardly counts as improvement, I’d say.”
“Well, duh,” I said, at the same time as Snowflake. “I do have a meeting lined up just after dusk, though.” I glanced at the clock, a mahogany work of art with a swinging pendulum that invariably made me think of Poe, and confirmed that I had a few minutes before I had to leave in order to arrive a half an hour or so early.
“You going through with that plan to sell your soul to my cousins?” Aiko asked me. Her voice was light, and she still didn’t look up from her book. I was not fooled.
I smiled cryptically. “Not exactly,” I said in my best mysterious voice—which, for the record, isn’t very good.
She rolled her eyes. “Fine, be that way. I’m guessing you want your thug back?”
I shrugged. “If she’d like to come. I need to talk to Alexis, too. I don’t suppose you know where I might find her?”
“In the kitchen,” Aiko said, while Snowflake stood and stretched. “Your cousin has a fascination with food preparation that makes me look well-adjusted. Especially given that she’s vegetarian.”
“It disturbs me too. Thanks. I’ll see you later.”
I went downstairs and did, indeed, find Alexis in the kitchen, where she was doing inexplicable things to a bunch of arugula, and possible violating the Geneva Conventions with how she was treating the celery. “Good afternoon,” I said to her.
She glanced at my face and then quickly away, her posture almost fearful. “Hi, Winter,” she said, setting the knife down.
“I’ve got to go to another meeting,” I said. “And, trust me, you really don’t want to be there. I do have something for you, though.” I held out a fine silver chain, holding it gingerly through the fabric of my cloak.
She took it and examined the pendant on it, a piece of glass that most people would assume was only seeming to glow a shade of green somewhere between grass and Gatorade, wrapped in brass wire. “What is it?” she asked curiously.
“I’ve never done anything quite like this before,” I said honestly. “But I’m not terrible at that sort of thing, and the theory is sound. It should provide a certain amount of protection if you wear it.”
She seemed to accept that explanation, and put the necklace on. I smiled. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you later. Come on, Snowflake, we’ve gotta get dressed for this.”
For the second time in as many days, I strode—not walked, mind you, but strode, which is much harder—into Pryce’s and made my way over to the bar. I did not speak to anyone on the way, and no one tried to speak to me. In fact, more than a few people drew back when I passed near, and a handful got up and walked out. I smiled inwardly, being careful not to let the faintest trace show on my face. If their reaction was anything to go by, I’d gotten the look right.
Pryce himself, of course, wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t surprised. The only time I’d seen the big guy look shaken was when the Fenris Wolf himself walked in in a bad mood, and I wasn’t anywhere near that scary. He didn’t say anything either, being a man not much inclined to small talk—or any other kind of talk, really. He just twitched his head in what might, with enough generosity, be called a nod. A moment later a waitress—fae of some sort by the smell, but otherwise unidentifiable—came and led me to the private room. She, too, was silent.
I could have found my own way, obviously—I mean, sheesh, it had just been last night—but it was just as obvious that wasn’t how it worked, and I was willing to go along with it. I, like pretty much everyone else, held Pryce in great respect.
For once, I was the first one to arrive. I made my way to the head of the long oak conference table. I sat down, being careful not to entangle Tyrfing in the chair—it actually takes a lot of coordination and practice to wear a sword on your belt without knocking stuff over and tangling in things. I arranged my cloak so that it would frame the armor without doing the least to conceal it, or the various weapons I was carrying. Snowflake, wearing her collar and a black silk eyepatch without any form of marking on it, sat on the floor just to my right and looked serious. I checked that everything was in place, and we settled in to wait.
It was a pretty long wait. We’d arrived almost thirty minutes early, so as to be sure of being the first ones there. I can be patient when necessary, though, and Snowflake amused herself with making up filthy limericks in a number of languages.
The first person to arrive was Katrin, about five minutes early—which meant only ten minutes past sunset. I’d suspected she would show up early, which was why I had set this up so soon after dusk. Early bird or not, a vampire couldn’t be there before me if I came while it was still daytime.
She’d brought flunkies with her, as I suggested, two of them. The first was a short woman looking like she was barely out of her teens, with brown hair and a face most people would automatically classify as “cute.” The other was a man going for the classic Dracula look: tall, slender, very pale with jet black hair, dressed all in black. He was even wearing an opera cloak. Seriously. Granted, I’m not in much of a position to throw stones, considering that I was also wearing a blackish grey cloak, but still.
They were both vampires, of course. Even if I couldn’t have guessed that, which I could and had, I could smell it on them. They were also clearly minions, though; they both hung back around the door while Katrin walked over and talked to me. For once, she wasn’t wearing modern casual clothing, having opted instead for velvet and silk, including a black velvet doublet, because apparently someone had gotten the “diplomatic meeting” message mixed up with “Renaissance Fair.”
“I’m here,” she said to me. Her posture was relaxed, hands hanging casually at her sides, but there was a touch of anger to her voice. Or maybe annoyance would be the better word for it; I’m not sure. “What’s this about?”
“I’d rather not explain it twice,” I said, half-apologetically. “So, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for the others to arrive….”
She scowled, and there was a trace of true anger to the expression that made me wonder how long it had been since someone offered even that much defiance to her. This was a side of the vampire I hadn’t seen before, one which reminded me why I hadn’t gone to any lengths to spend time around vampires in the past. But she nodded tightly and stalked over to a chair about halfway down the table, leaving plenty of space between us. The vampirettes followed her, taking seats on either side of hers. None of the three was visibly armed, but given that they were vampires that probably didn’t mean very much. At all.
The room had been silent before, but it was an entirely different sort of silence that settled over it now, an oppressive sort. The vampires were utterly still—not person still, or even frightened-rabbit still. They were statue still. Corpse still. They didn’t twitch, or blink, or breathe.
Gosh, that wasn’t creepy at all.
Maybe three minutes later, Kimiko opened the door. She was wearing biker leathers again, although these moved with a sort of stiffness that made me suspect they were reinforced with some sort of armor. She was followed by, presumably, the yokai contingent.
There were four of them, and it wasn’t hard at all to tell what each of them was. Kimiko, obviously, was the kitsune representative. The man following her was more hirsute than anyone I could remember seeing before. His beard covered most of his face and the upper portion of his chest, his mustache stretched from cheek to cheek, and even his eyebrows were so aggressively bushy as to cast his eyes in shadow. He was huge, towering over her, with a large belly that didn’t look like fat, and also dressed like a biker. It looked more appropriate on him. He smelled somewhat similar, too, fur and musk and a hint of citrus, although his magic was deeper, less playful in nature. That made him the tanuki.
The next through was in the form of an old man with a pinched, sour expression. He was bald, and his scalp gleamed so brightly I wondered if he oiled it. His eyes were grey and cold, and before I’d met so very many scary beings I probably would have shivered when I met them. His clothing was of a loose, simple style I didn’t recognize, the pale tan of cotton that hadn’t been dyed. He smelled wet, like slow-moving water and rice paddies, and just a hint fishy, and I immediately pegged him as the chief kappa.
The fourth person, then, had to be Kikuchi Kazuhiro, the tengu who would be chief. He was smaller than I’d expected—an inch or two shorter than me, and I’m not a tall guy. He was fairly slight of build, too, almost effeminate. He moved with the precise grace and confidence of someone who could handle himself in a fight, though, and he was wearing armor much like mine, complete with a wakizashi on his belt. I went through pretty much the same deal with him as with Katrin, enlivened slightly by the fact that we hadn’t met before. He didn’t like it much either, but eventually I convinced him to wait too. He sat a little further away than, and across the table from, the vampires, flanked by his chief minions, and the two groups proceeded to ignore each other studiously. The yokai, too, didn’t make any kind of conversation among themselves, although at least they breathed.
Sojobo walked in less than a minute later. He looked the same as when I’d spoken to him earlier in the day, although somewhat more composed. He nodded to me, nodded to Kazuhiro, and took a seat midway between us. The yokai reacted to that with varying degrees of surprise. Only the kappa didn’t so much as blink. But then, that didn’t much surprise me. He didn’t seem the sort to give anything away.
We all sat and waited, in silence. And waited. And waited. It was nearly three minutes past the scheduled time when Reynard sauntered in like he owned the place, wearing a black Robin Hood hat with a jaunty scarlet feather. He yawned deeply and then slouched into the chair opposite Sojobo, who nodded again, politely. “What’s everyone waiting for?” he asked with a sprightly grin. It was the sort of smirk the fox shoots the farmer on the way out of the henhouse, with blood already on his teeth.
I cleared my throat, drawing their attention back to me. “I think,” I said, eyeing the tension in the room, the way Katrin’s weight was centered over her feet and ready to rise, the way Kikuchi’s hand didn’t stray far from his sword, “that it might be more productive if we all agreed to a truce. Does the duration of this conversation and twenty minutes afterward sound good?” There was a chorus of nods and murmured agreement, and I nodded firmly. “Very well, then. I shall cause no harm to any of you gathered, nor permit harm to occur if it is within my ability to stop, save only in self-defense, for that time.”
Everyone else—including Reynard, which I hadn’t been sure about—swore more or less the same oath. I relaxed a bit once they had, and I wasn’t the only one; oaths were solid currency in the supernatural world, and you’d be a fool to break your word, doubly so if sworn in front of your most powerful retainers. Triply, with people such as Reynard and Sojobo there to guarantee it—which had, of course, been the whole point of asking them to come. (I could, of course, have called Loki, and he probably would have come. But I wasn’t that desperate.) “Wonderful,” I said. “Now—”
The tanuki cleared his throat loudly, cutting me off. “My apologies,” he said. “But your hound has not sworn any oath.” His voice was very polite, and I got the impression he actually did regret the necessity of interrupting me.
I tried to mimic that courtesy when I spoke. “Forgive me,” I said. “So few understand her, I forgot it completely. Thank you for reminding me.” I glanced at Snowflake, who sighed but repeated the oath. “Will that suffice?” I asked the tanuki.
He narrowed his eyes, and I got the impression he was trying to decide whether or not he was being mocked. “Quite so,” he said. “And you are forgiven, of course.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Now, I believe a round of introductions is in order?”
I think that Kikuchi would have protested my assumption of authority, except that Sojobo spoke before he could. “An excellent idea,” the ancient tengu said. “If there are no objections, I will begin.” No one spoke up, so he continued, “I am Sojobo, dai-tengu of Mount Kurama, and lord of my people. I am the eldest of my kind, and the strongest.” He said it plain, no trace of bravado in his voice. It was simply a statement of fact.
“I am Kazuhiro, of the clan Kikuchi. I am a tengu of three centuries, and the leader of my people in this place. I am a knight of the Order of the Serpent, and an honored servant of the Lord Sojobo, and soon I will be the first dai-tengu on this continent.”
“I am Matsuda Kimiko, one-tailed kitsune, the daughter of Matsuda Yasunori. I am Kikuchi Kazuhiro’s chief lieutenant in this city.”
“Kenichi,” said the kappa. His voice was much like the rest of him—colorless, watery, flat, but with the suggestion that dismissing him would be a most unwise thing to do. “Master of the Yellow River. Kappa.”
“Miyazaki Kenta,” rumbled the tanuki. He sounded amused, and was slouched in his seat in a posture reminiscent of a movie-goer. “Tanuki. I’m the birdbrain’s thug.”
Kikuchi glared at him. I had to restrain a smile. Reynard didn’t bother, and Snowflake chuckled in the back of my mind.
“I am called Katrin Fleischer.” For the first time, Katrin sounded exactly like what she was: an old, terrible monster, returned to existence by powers I wasn’t prepared to contemplate and kept there, in that state of undeath which was itself a mockery of nature as I understood it, by actions I wasn’t prepared to consider. Her raspy voice was lifeless, utterly devoid of any feeling I could recognize, except perhaps a cold, dry mockery. She and her minions were still unmoving, unblinking, not even breathing except to talk, and I found it an unexpectedly creepy tableau. “I am a vampire of significantly more than three centuries and the young of this city answer to me. More than that you need not know.”
The next to speak was the male vampire. His voice was, much like the rest of him, so stereotypically vampiric that he would never have to worry about dressing up for Hallowe’en: smooth, dark, cultured, just a touch of a vaguely guttural accent. I imagined that, between the voice and the looks, he wouldn’t have to work hard to find victims; he could just walk down the street, and teenage girls would faint across his path. “Hrafn Gunnarsson is my name,” he said simply. “I am a soldier. That is all.”
Well, I had to give him credit for brevity.
“Natalie Sullivan,” said the third vamp in a voice not nearly as drama-laden as the others’. “I’m a lawyer.” She smiled winningly. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard all the jokes before.” I found the third vampire, in many ways, to be the creepiest. Oh, don’t get me wrong; Katrin and Hrafn were both plenty spooky. But they were spooky in ways I understood, ways I could quantify and explain. Natalie wasn’t nearly as overtly frightening as the other two, but there was something subtly unsettling about her. It was like, where her compatriots flaunted what they were, she was trying to act human—and getting it ever so slightly wrong, like she couldn’t quite remember just what it was she was trying to mimic. The contrast between the bland, pleasant features and that underlying inhumanity set my teeth on edge.
Besides. She was a lawyer.
Reynard yawned. “Reynard Fox,” he said in a bored tone. Kenichi blinked his watery eyes, once. Hrafn and Kimiko both looked at Reynard with new interest. “I expect you know what that means.”
It was rather sketchy as introductions went, but no one complained. Presumably they all knew who he was already.
Now, those were some fairly impressive introductions. You might be thinking I couldn’t compete, and you would be correct. I was almost certain that, with the exception of Kimiko, I was the weakest and most inexperienced person in this room, and everybody knew it. Hell, even the kitsune was older than I was. She was younger than Aiko, but if she really did have that much to prove to herself, she might well have driven herself harder, too.
But I didn’t want them to know it, not for sure. Reynard had probably heard about me from Fenris, but the rest couldn’t be certain that I wasn’t more than I seemed. So I wanted to sound more impressive than I really was. So I modified my introduction to Skrýmir’s court slightly and used that, because it sounded terribly important without actually providing any information worth noting.
Snowflake spoiled the effect slightly by saying, Hi, I’m Snowflake. I follow this nitwit around and occasionally he lets me kill something. I’m sort of like a dog, except not really, and why am I bothering with this?
That, too, was a calculated gesture, and valuable. Miyazaki. Reynard’s smile broadened. Hrafn glanced at me as though expecting me to respond in some manner. The rest failed to react at all, meaning that either they had incredible poker faces—not unlikely—or they hadn’t heard her. Not immediately useful information, but it might be worth having at some point.
I leaned forward slightly. Those who had heard Snowflake would see this as me taking the floor again; those who hadn’t would assume I had just paused slightly, and wanted to emphasize what I said next. Both were valid interpretations. “I am a peer among the jötnar, declared so by Hrym’s own word, made jarl by no less a person than Fenrisúlfr himself, announced as such before Skrýmir and both Courts of the Sidhe. Are there any present who would like to contest that claim?”
Nobody said anything.
I nodded slightly. “Excellent. Now, as you all have some interest in what happens in this city, I felt I should let you know that I am claiming it as my jarldom.”
There was a moment of shocked silence, which was broken by Reynard’s laughter. He laughed long and hard, tears streaming down his face. “Good gods, boy,” he said, still laughing. “You’ve got a damned heavy pair on you, don’t you?” I noticed that he’d ditched the French accent; no one could have guessed from his voice that he was anything other than a perfectly ordinary college student.
“Your courage is not in doubt,” Kikuchi said. “But I have to question your judgment. You cannot truly believe yourself capable of defeating me, let alone all the other contenders in the field.”
I looked him in the eye, and spoke my next words to him personally. “Who does this fighting help, honored dai-tengu? Does it benefit you to throw away resources and lives? Does it profit any of us present to do so?” I shook my head. “No.”
“I am no coward,” the tengu said stiffly. “And your words will not sway me from the path of honor.”
“Nor should they,” I agreed. “But tell me, wise elder. Is it the honorable way to sacrifice needlessly? To fight without thought, without meaning, without end?”
He didn’t say anything, but I got the definite feeling that my words had left an impression.
“I don’t think this fight is necessary,” I said, looking around the table. “And I’ve damned well had enough of unnecessary fighting. I think that we can negotiate a peaceful solution.”
“I notice,” Katrin said in a voice which, although still rather dry, at least didn’t sound like it was being spoken by a corpse, “that you didn’t invite the rakshasas to your little summit. Or this skinwalker I’ve been hearing about.”
“The rakshasas,” I said bitingly, “bombed an apartment complex trying to kill one person. The skinwalker is currently holding a friend of mine hostage against my good behavior. I have little use for people like that.”
Hrafn frowned. “This hardly seems like good behavior,” he said. “Won’t that be dangerous for your friend?” There was something in his voice—concern, maybe, or perhaps just disappointment—which sounded honest. It made me like him more.
“I’ve never interacted with a skinwalker before,” I said honestly. “But from what I know of them, I doubt she would fare much better if I were to do whatever he asks.”
Reynard cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m afraid it’s rather worse than that. I have had dealings with skinwalkers, and I expect she will suffer more for your compliance than if you deny him.”
I inclined my head towards him slightly. “As you say, then. In any case, this represents my best chance to rescue her, or failing that get revenge upon him.” I shook my head. “I do not abandon my friends, if that is what you are asking. But it will do no good to react rashly and without thought.”
The kappa—Kenichi was his name, or at least what he wanted us to call him at the moment—narrowed his eyes and nodded slightly. I got the impression I’d just earned some points with him.
“So,” I said briskly. “You all are aware now that I have a personal motivation here, as well as more general ethical and political reasons for my actions. Let’s get down to it. What do you want?”
Katrin cleared her throat softly. “I do not particularly desire political power or recognition,” she said in a mild tone. “I have coexisted with werewolves frequently, for many years. I see no reason I could not stand in the same relationship with you.”
I nodded respectfully and turned to Kikuchi. “And you, honored dai-tengu? What do you desire?”
“The mountain is ours,” he said firmly. “That is nonnegotiable.”
“That’s fine,” I said easily. “I’m really more interested in the city itself, anyway. Would it be acceptable for the road, the cog railway, the trail, and the buildings at the summit to be neutral ground?”
He frowned. “Not neutral ground, no. It must be ours. But safe passage, that is acceptable.”
“It would mean a great many people passing through your lands,” I warned. “I expect you to leave them in peace.”
“Within those areas, yes,” he agreed. “And elsewhere, folk who come in peace have nothing to fear. But those who seek to harm the mountain—” Kikuchi frowned severely, his black eyes glittering—”that is not acceptable.”
I sighed, but nodded. “Not unreasonable, I suppose,” I said. “That makes it my turn, then. Within the bounds of the city, I would be preeminent. You would agree to come to me with any disputes you have with me or those who owe me fealty. I won’t act against you except in defense of self, vassals, or property, and will tolerate your presence within my territory. In return, you would agree to provide reasonable assistance in defending the area against intruders, and would not act to harm any personal friend of mine. Is that acceptable to you?”
“Come now,” Katrin said. “Under those restrictions, you could simply declare every inhabitant of this city your friend. I must needs feed, Jarl Wolf. I am, after all, still a vampire.” She ladled more scorn into my quasi-title than I would have believed possible.
“There are, what? Fifty of your kind in this city?”
She glowered at me. “Fewer,” she admitted.
I nodded, carefully keeping my face reasonable. “Let us use fifty in our estimates, then, to be generous. Five human chattel is enough to sustain a vampire, is it not?” Katrin nodded, her glower deepening. “We’ll call it ten, then, that you might live in comfort and security. That would give you a requirement of five hundred people for your stables, combined.” I grinned at her. “Last I checked, there were more than four hundred thousand people living in this city, not counting outlying areas. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve met that many people in my life, let alone formed lasting friendships with them. You should be all right.”
“Fine,” Katrin said, biting the word off.
“As wonderful as all this peaceful negotiation is,” Miyazaki said dryly, “I can’t help but think it’s a tempting fate to be settling the peace before the war is won.”
“And thank you for that masterful segue to the next topic of discussion,” I said. “Assuming everyone is satisfied with the agreement we’ve outlined verbally?”
Kikuchi nodded after only a brief pause. Katrin was slower, and more reluctant, but she did nod, and I was calling that a success.
“Excellent,” I said. “So. You’ve been competing with the rakshasas for some time now, and given that you aren’t dead I imagine you’ve done fairly well at it. Given that the skinwalker has so far been playing a subtle game, more inclined to scavenging and opportunism than outright assault, I assume he can’t be in much stronger of a position than they are. Both of your groups together should be capable of overcoming them. Additionally, I will be assisting, and while I am—as the respected dai-tengu said—no great power, I think it’s fair to say that I will contribute something myself. Do any of you disagree with that assessment?”
Had there been crickets available to chirp, it would not have made the silence any more telling.
“Good. As our ability to deal appropriately with our enemies is dependent upon first finding them, I would recommend that you pool your information—I, unfortunately, have little or nothing of value to add, I suspect. But if you find a target, just let me know. I’ll be happy to help you terminate them with quite extreme prejudice.”
“You will be bringing my cousin with you, then?” Kimiko asked. “She’d rather have her nails torn out than miss a fight like this, unless she’s changed more than I can imagine.”
“She would,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, at this time Aiko is restricted to the Otherside, and I doubt the fight will take place there. So probably not.”
“What, still?” Kimiko sounded incredulous.
I shrugged. “It hasn’t been that long since the sentence was passed.”
Sojobo growled something I couldn’t quite hear. “That is ridiculous,” he said grimly. “I’ll be having words with the nine-tails.”
“In that case,” I said, “she will probably be there. She hasn’t gotten to take part in a battle for quite some time. It makes her grouchy.”
Sojobo grunted with something that might have been amusement, then stood up and left. Kikuchi and Katrin followed, accompanied by their respective flocks of henchmen, presumably to go set their underlings, lackeys, and minions to the appropriate tasks. The two groups kept a cautious distance between them, but I was hopeful that there was at least a little less tension than when they came in.
That left just Reynard, still sitting in his chair. He was sipping from a goblet of what smelled like red wine, although I had no idea where he’d gotten it from. “You pushed them pretty hard,” he said, his voice almost contemplative. “There will be a price.”
“There always is,” I said calmly. “This way, there’s a decent chance it will be me paying it.” He grunted noncommittally and drank some more wine. “You didn’t have much input tonight,” I said, making sure not to sound even slightly accusatory.
“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he asked curiously. “Your message said you just wanted me here as a witness.”
“Well, sure. But since when does Reynard Fox do exactly what he’s asked, and nothing more?”
He laughed. “True, true. But I didn’t really have a great deal to add, in any case.” He shrugged. “Sooth, if anything I would soonest have you in power, of those available. You are of my dear friend’s line, you feed my kin, and you made me laugh. That’s three ways I owe you, and this was no great payment.”
“Will you be joining us in battle, then?”
“Likely not. Honestly, open combat has never been a great strength of mine.”
“You beat Ysengrim in a fair duel,” I pointed out.
Reynard smirked. “I hardly think pissing in someone’s eyes and wrenching their testicles counts as a fair dueling tactic, do you?” He shook his head. “If I beat the wolf—and I’m not saying I did; really, you shouldn’t trust everything you read—it was by cheating.”
I stared, then made a show of cleaning out my ears. “Sorry,” I said. “For a second there, I almost thought you might be implying I had any intention of fighting fair.” He chuckled, but I kept my face deadly serious. “I’ve never pissed in my tail and slapped someone about the face with it to blind them,” I admitted. “But only because the opportunity never seems to present itself. If I have a chance to do that, or some even less sporting tactic, in this fight, you can bet your ass I’m going to take it. These people don’t deserve to die honorably, and in any case I’ve never been fond of a fair fight.”
“We’ll see,” he said. “I must think on it.” He stood, draining the wine, and tossed the empty goblet over his shoulder to shatter in the fireplace. “Good evening, Winter,” Reynard said, tipping his hat to me. “And watch yourself. You think you know what cost this night will exact, but I tell you truth that you have no knowledge of just how high a price can run.” He walked out without another word. If I hadn’t been watching so very closely, I never would have realized that he didn’t actually open the door.