Balancing Act 6.4

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Wow, Snowflake said. That wasn’t strange or suspicious at all. Really.


Wasn’t exactly reassuring, I agreed.


You trust her? she asked, sounding genuinely interested in the answer.


Oh hell no, I replied immediately. Cousin or not, Alexis is a stranger. I never trust strangers. And the way she left was freaking weird. Besides, why is she so suddenly spooky, when a few years ago I’d have sworn up one side and down the other the whole family was as human as they come? No, there’s definitely something she isn’t telling us.


Good, Snowflake said, sounding relieved. I was scared, since she was your cousin and all, the abandonment issues would kick in and your brains would run out your ears.


Nah, I said confidently. I’ve never had that much difficulty with it. You and Aiko are family, then Edward, and Conn and his brood after that. Just because Alexis and I have some genes in common doesn’t make her one of mine. I stood up and left, although at a somewhat slower pace. So where to now?


Well, she drawled, I reckon first of all we might oughta see what this here note under your windshield wiper says.


Did you see who left it? And why are you trying to sound like a hillbilly?


There was the mental equivalent of a shrug. It seemed like the right accent for it. And no, I didn’t see who left it, because I was busy watching the window to assuage your ridiculously excessive, compulsive paranoia.


Right. Sorry.


The note, which was written on standard nine-by-eleven paper, was neatly folded and tucked under the wiper. It didn’t explode when I unfolded it, either, which was a great comfort; I wouldn’t have been surprised if this were another in my ongoing string of assassination attempts.


The note itself was almost too simple to justify the name. The first mark was a simple, stylized snowflake,. Then, in simple block handwriting, the message Dawn, the fire we started. It concluded with a simple pictorial signature, just three rectangles. One of them was stacked atop the other two.


So. If you assumed the snowflake was an emblematic representation of my first name, and you assumed the second picture was a way to say Brick without saying as much, this was telling me where and when to go for a meeting. It was rather clever, really; even if it had fallen into the wrong hands, next to nobody would know who the sender and recipient were. Almost certainly no one else would be able to figure out where to go.


I’d helped the Inquisition out a few times, which necessarily involved working with Brick—he was, after all, by far the most experienced and knowledgeable of the lot, even if most of them didn’t realize it. Surprisingly, though, we’d only started one serious fire, the very first time we worked together. It had actually been Loki’s doing, although I didn’t recognize that at the time, and it got to be a decently sized wildfire before they got it out. Brick knew I wasn’t likely to forget something so significant as that, which meant it was somewhere we could both find. Moreover, it was a ways away from my usual stomping grounds and he’d had time to check it out, so I wouldn’t have the advantage—but it was far enough out into the woods to be my sort of place, making it a stupid place to arrange a hit on me.


As meeting places go, this one was excellent.


Almost too much so, in fact. Anytime something seems as unlikely to be a setup as that, I immediately start wondering whether that’s exactly what they want me to think. I mean, you know what they say about things too good to be true, right?


Snowflake says I’m excessively paranoid. I’d say she’s right, except usually I turn out not to be entirely wrong, which means that I’m clearly not being excessive.


I shrugged, folded the note up, carefully ripped it to shreds, and threw it away. I hadn’t smelled any magic on it, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything when you’re dealing with somebody skilled. Besides which, while tracking spells and the like were far from a specialty of mine, I knew just enough about them to know that even something completely inert, magically speaking, could be used to target them. Whether or not Brick was actually the person who’d given me this note, I’d be an idiot not to take that possibility into account. It was hardly like I was going to forget what it said.


Okay, I said as Snowflake ambled over, slinking under and around various cars. So now where to?


Well, she said slowly, Frishberg’s corpses were probably some kind of magic, and they were almost certainly killed by magical means, right?




So they were more than likely killed as a part of this supernatural turf war, then. And it’s possible that the split between Brick and Jimmy was the same thing.


I nodded, getting in the car. Sounds reasonable. So the first thing to do is find out more about what’s going on there.


Snowflake jumped in the passenger door, and I shut it after her. Best thing I can think of to do.


I frowned thoughtfully. There were a lot of sources I could conceivably consult for that information, but most of my usual contacts weren’t very good for this sort of thing. Legion was, in his strange and alien way, quite brilliant, but his knowledge of politics was a few hundred years out of date. Things tend to change more slowly in the supernatural realms than for normal humans, but they do change, and it was probable that his information would have some major gaps in it. Alexander was more up-to-date, but he was also utterly disinterested in political dealings of any stripe. He wouldn’t be involved in anything of this sort, and he wouldn’t take it well if I tried to involve him. Conn would probably know—given that he’s pretty much the biggest, baddest, most influential werewolf in the world, there aren’t many people more into politics than the Khan. But he had a protective streak a mile wide, and he’d probably want to come help me out. At the very least he’d want to send someone to do it for him.


On the surface that sounded like a good thing, but I was pretty sure it wasn’t. Conn was big news—old, strong, enormously powerful. Conn was the sort of person who, if you were to ask him “you and what army?”, could just lean back, grin, and point at himself. What was more, if you managed to overcome his one-man army—and that would take a lot of doing—he had another hundred thousand or so people backing him up, most of them werewolves. You crossed the Khan at your own extreme peril.


He was too much power, is what I’m getting at. Calling the Khan of werewolves into a local power struggle was the equivalent of using nuclear weapons in a minor border skirmish. It was excessive, stupid—and likely to make the other side break out their own persons of mass destruction. The resulting crossfire, aside from leveling the city and likely killing me, could conceivably kick off a round of violence that would make WWII look like a pillow fight.


Granted, that was an absolute worst-case scenario. It was a lot more likely that they would simply give up on the territory, or even that Conn would be satisfied just giving me the information I needed. But it wasn’t something I wanted to risk lightly—especially when, given that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the struggle, he didn’t have an official stake in the matter. The same went for his family, although only Dolph was big enough into political scheming to help much. Conn and his children might seem omniscient at times, but they weren’t. There wasn’t a lot of reason for them to know the specifics of a territory struggle in a relatively insignificant city where none of them had a personal stake, or any minions to speak of. They were very much focused on their own people. No, it was better to find someone else.


I thought for a while. Then, grinning, I put the car into gear. I had a pretty good idea who I needed to talk to next.


I read the invitation, and the letter it had come with. Then I reread them. Then, just in case I’d gotten lucky and something was different, I reread them again. I did not get lucky.


I looked up at Aiko, who was currently drinking antifreeze—excuse me, I mean fruit soda—out of a bottle approximately as large as a five-gallon bucket and eating a plate of brownies. How she could stand to do those things at the same time (or drink the soda at all, but that’s an entirely different mystery) was beyond me, but she seemed to enjoy it, and had yet to show signs of illness as a result, suggesting that she had a metabolism in approximately the same range as the average hummingbird. Assuming the average hummingbird was on speed. “So these things just showed up?” I asked.


Aiko shrugged. “Beats me. I walked into the bedroom a few hours ago and bam, there they were.”


“God damn it,” I muttered, going back to glaring at the paper. “Why is it that everybody can just waltz in and out of this house? I thought this place was supposed to be secure.” Snowflake and Aiko both snorted. I read the invitation again. It stubbornly persisted on saying:


You are invited


To a Gathering and


Masquerade of the


Seelie and Unseelie Courts


of the Sidhe


To be held Tomorrow, All Hallows’ Eve,


From Dusk until Dawn,


In the Palace of




And to bring with you


One Escort of your choice.


The invitation looked, all things considered, almost exactly like the last one I’d received, except that some of the wording was different, and the watermark was a pine tree rather than a dragon. That would have been more reassuring, except that the last invitation I’d received had actually been a forgery, courtesy of Loki and his ceaseless quest to frustrate, irritate, and generally screw with me.


There was, in all fairness, also one other, critical difference. Namely, this invitation was signed. I couldn’t hope to read it—the rest of the card was in impeccable, almost disturbingly perfect handwriting, but the signature stood out so greatly it was obvious it hadn’t been written by the same person. It wasn’t a question of puzzling out the name. Hell, if I hadn’t seen the context, it would have taken a while to guess that it was supposed to be language.


The accompanying letter was, in some respects, almost worse. The paper was of a slightly lower quality—which still made it the most expensive I’d seen in weeks. It opened with Master Winter and retained the same bizarre medley of casual and formal throughout, which was a little off-putting.


Master Winter,


It has occurred to me that, as you have been sadly unable to participate in such events for the span of some years, it might interest you to learn that the Sidhe will be hosting another party not entirely unlike the one at which we met. Naturally, recalling as I do the unfortunate circumstances surrounding that particular event, I am aware that one might expect for you to regard this invitation to attend such a gathering in a somewhat suspect light. As such, I felt that you might prefer a certain guarantee as to the genuineness of this offer. With that in mind, I have taken the liberty of approaching our host regarding this matter; he looks forward to making your acquaintance with great excitement, and has personally affirmed that you are, indeed, permitted to attend. This is, as I believe the invitation mentions, a masquerade ball; however, as you do not hail from the Courts, you needn’t bother going to any great lengths regarding costume, as you will not be expected to compete in such matters.


As always, I remain your friend and great admirer; Sincerely,






Please be so kind as to bring the esteemed Mistress Miyake Aiko with you, if you should come. Circumstances tragically interrupted before we were able to speak, on your last visit to our realm, and I greatly desire that I should be able to converse with her, as I must imagine does our host, who has always held both your works and hers in the highest esteem.


Great. Just fucking great. The letter could only be from one person, a Twilight Prince I’d had dealings with on my last, ill-fated venture into the world of high Sidhe society. He’d called himself Blaze—or, as it turned out, Blaise; I hadn’t seen it in writing or anything like that, after all—but I’d heard him called a few other things, too. Apparently his moniker within the Twilight Court was the Son of Wolves, and he was one of the scariest people in the Courts. I hadn’t been able to find much info on him in the years since, because nobody but nobody wanted to talk about him. About all that I’d learned was that he was creepy, powerful, and associated in some nebulous way with the werewolves, all of which I could have guessed from our brief interaction anyway. The only really valuable thing that I’d learned was that, while he was Sidhe through and through, he disdained the intrigues and machinations of the Daylight and Midnight Courts, holding himself as a neutral party for the most part.


There are very few Sidhe strong enough to make a statement like that and make it stick. Very few.


At the time, I’d thought I’d gotten a lucky deal, trading useless trivia for a very prompt location on somebody I’d badly needed to talk with. Shortly afterwards, I’d realized that he had as much of a stake in my success as I did, if not more, and as a result he actually got both a bit of knowledge and some cheap muscle for very little work. Since then, I’ve come to the conclusion that the reality was that he was moving me around like a pawn on the chessboard, and doing it so smoothly that it took me months to recognize it. He got influence and recognition among his fellows in the Twilight out of the deal. I mostly got hurt, and the events surrounding that bargain led, circuitously but surely, to Enrico’s suicide.


I was not feeling particularly eager to make another deal with the Sidhe. Considering how badly I got burned the last time, I wasn’t eager at all to attend another of their parties. I explained this to Aiko, possibly using slightly stronger language.


She rolled her eyes at me. “Oh, come on. It wasn’t that bad.”


“It was exactly that bad.”


She paused. “Well, okay, it was,” she admitted. “But you gotta admit, the food was top-notch.”


I stared at her. “There’s some sort of schism within the ranks of the Inquisition, who are psycho vigilante mages with a collective hard-on for killing monsters—a group which they could easily include all three of us in,” I said, ticking it off on my finger. “Someone, almost certainly one of those mages, sent a construct to kill me the other night. A serious turf war is about to break out over this city. I agreed to help the local freak squad figure out how a number of bizarre murders, which may have been part of that same turf war, were committed. A skinwalker just told me to get the hell out of Dodge, and threatened to kill me if I didn’t. My cousin, who appears to be involved in some sort of shady dealing or other, is in town and apparently developing some portion of the same bizarre heritage I have, which is going to take a lot of thought to get used to.” I was on to my second hand by now, and that was counting pretty conservatively. “Don’t you think my plate sounds full enough already?”


It sounds like you could use a break, Snowflake told me—she was currently half-asleep and hadn’t been participating in the conversation, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t listening. Maybe you should take a day off, go to a party or something.


I switched my glare from the kitsune to the husky. “Yeah, like this party’s going to be very restful. Right.”


Aiko sighed. “Look, Winter. I know how you feel, but you can’t seriously imagine that you’re going to ignore this one. We’re talking about a personal invitation from a Twilight fucking Prince, and that isn’t something you turn down. Not to mention whoever owns this Utgard place.” She paused. “Actually, who does own this Utgard place?”


I grunted. “Beats me, but that’s jotun country. Deep in Jotunheim.”


“You sure?”


I nodded grimly. “Absolutely. It’s a named location in the Poetic Edda. Apparently Thor and Loki took a trip to the area and got utterly duped by the guy that owned it back then. Given how seldom people that powerful die, odds are good he’s still the boss.”


Aiko was quiet for a moment as she took that in. “Damn. You think it’s an accurate story?”


I shrugged. “Who could say? I’ve never had a chat with the Æsir to fact-check it, and with luck I never will. But Loki implied that the Edda isn’t entirely full of shit, so it’s probably safe to assume that at least the essentials are decently grounded.”


“Well then,” she said brightly. “Looks like we’ll get to meet some giants. Should be a good time.”


I tried to maintain my glower, and for a few seconds thought I was going to pull it off. Then I cracked, and settled for a rueful chuckle instead. “Yeah, looks like.” I shook my head. “A Hallowe’en masquerade with the Sidhe. That oughta be good.”


“Yeah,” she said, sounding almost wistful. “I did a few masquerade balls with the Courts when I was younger. They can put on a show, I’ll give ’em that.” She ate the last few crumbs, drained the bottle of soda, and tossed the detritus over her shoulder into the trash. “You got any ideas for your costume?”


“Nah, I’ll think about that later. For now, I was wondering whether you feel up for a trip to Italy.”


Aiko yawned and wandered over toward Snowflake. “Sure, why not. You wanna talk to Jacques or something?”


“No,” I said sourly. “I want few things less than anything to do with that foul, perpetually inebriated pile of refuse trying and failing to pass for a human being. But an information broker ought to know something about the upcoming internecine violence, and he still owes me a favor.”


Not bad, Snowflake acknowledged, standing up and shaking herself awake. But I don’t think most people will know what “perpetually inebriated pile of refuse” is referring to. And how many people know what internecine means? Really?


Our trip through the Otherside was, thankfully, uneventful. Granted it was still marked by several intervals of violent illness, complete with vomiting and miserable inarticulate noises, but that was more or less par for the course. There’re reasons I don’t travel by Otherside unless I’m going at least a few thousand miles, and while most of them involve the technical difficulties and risks associated, the sheer unpleasantness of it isn’t a minor factor, either.


Snowflake and I left Aiko at the last portal—she still wasn’t allowed out of the Otherside, even briefly. Thanks to the challenges intrinsic to coordinating timing between the “real” world and the Otherside, Aiko wasn’t going to be picking us up—in fact, she should already be gone, en route home. It was risky to travel the Otherside alone, but she was a native, and I was entirely aware that she could take care of herself. Besides, I knew that she would be sticking to the safer areas, given that she didn’t have her thugs along for this trip.


So the pang of worry I felt at leaving her alone there was mostly unjustified.


Snowflake and I, once we’d gotten over the moment of shared misery, took off down the Milanese alley where Aiko had dropped us off. We’d lost around three hours in transit, mostly to an Otherside domain where time passed at a slightly wonky rate relative to what I was accustomed to, and between that and the fact that Italy is in a slightly different time zone than Colorado it was now the middle of the night. From my perspective it hadn’t been an hour since we’d left, which had been early afternoon, but you get used to that kind of thing.


It’s amazing, actually, the kinds of thing you can get used to, if you pummel your brain hard enough. When you’re dealing with things freakish and terrifying and powerful beyond mortal ken on a daily basis, it doesn’t take all that long before you find yourself joking around next to something that would make a normal person run away gibbering. It’s almost scary when you look around and realize how casually you’re treating something like that. As any good demolitions person knows, the easiest way to get yourself killed by dynamite is to go treating it lightly.


But, even if I could do something about it, and even if I should do something about it—neither of which was certain—this was certainly not the time. So I shook off such thoughts, and focused on what to do in the here and now.


I knew a few curses in Italian, but that was about it. Snowflake knew a little more, but she obviously couldn’t actually speak it. I suppose that she could have prompted me with what to say, but that’s a surefire bet to make people think you’re the Terminator, which would be a bit awkward.


So, no taking a cab for us. Not a problem. I’d spent enough years walking everywhere I went in the city not to worry overmuch about a little more. Snowflake and I walked along, in that infamous wolfish lope that eats miles almost as fast as jogging, but which looks much more deceptively relaxed, and which you can keep up for hours and hours if you’re fit.


We were fit—more so, in fact, than any normal human could aspire to. I’m not as strong as some werewolves, thanks to a quirk of the magic, but I’m pretty quick when I need to be, and when it comes to endurance I’m pretty superb. And Snowflake was, well, a husky. If there’s an animal more perfectly designed for running, and running, and running, for hours on end, than a Siberian husky, I don’t know what it is. It wouldn’t take that long to get where we were going.


I’d only been to Jacques’s apartment once before, on our only other trip to Milan, but I have a pretty good sense of direction most of the time. On the two occasions I did take a wrong turn Snowflake was more than happy to correct me, while also informing me that I was a Dummkopf, Blotkopf, and Mistkopf, as well as various other amusing German imprecations. It only took us around forty minutes to travel a few miles, find the right building, and bypass the security. It was pretty decent—this was an expensive apartment building, unless they were actually condos—but it had been designed with certain things in mind. Given how far I was outside that intent, I don’t think they’re really to blame for my getting in. It wasn’t their fault that I had abilities they thought were impossible, and as such could walk through their security measures like they weren’t even there.


Jacques’s place was on the fifteenth floor, which bothered me a little. I don’t mind heights, but I get twitchy when a quick, subtle exit is difficult. I could probably get Snowflake and myself safely to the ground if we had to jump—I can’t fly, but I can prevent the splattery sort of landing when I fall. But there were enough things that could go wrong with that plan to make it not my first choice, and there weren’t any other options for a quick getaway.


I’d thought I might have a bit of trouble finding the right apartment. I didn’t. While it was true that I didn’t remember which one was his, I didn’t need to. All I had to do was follow my nose. When I got to the door that smelled absolutely rancid, I knew I was in the right place.


Suddenly, Snowflake said, I remember why we don’t come here more often. Was für einen verdammten ätzenden Scheißdreck.


I know, I sighed in response to her singularly suitable complaint, and rapped on the door. I was trying to be quiet about it, but there wasn’t any response, and I wound up having to pound fit to wake the dead before Jacques stirred from his alcohol-induced stupor. In the stillness of the sleeping building (thankfully, he’d woken up before the neighbors; I hadn’t been sure which way it would go), I could clearly hear him shamble over to the door. I could also hear him undoing seven locks and three door chains before opening it.


Jacques looked worse than the last time I’d seen him, which I would have sworn was impossible. His beady eyes were so bloodshot they looked more red than pink, and it went downhill from there. He was barefoot and wearing nothing but a stained, filthy bathrobe, exposing a lack of grooming that would embarrass a komodo dragon. He glared at me, swaying slightly on his feet. “You know what time it is?” he demanded belligerently.


“No rest for the wicked,” I chirped, causing Snowflake to chuckle appreciatively. “Come on, I’m not going to talk business in the hallway.” I pushed past him, Snowflake tight on my heels and practically mincing, she was trying so hard to avoid contact with the floor. In all fairness, I would not want to contact Jacques’s floor with my bare skin, either. Heck, even wearing boots I didn’t want to know what I was stepping in. Especially not the squishy bits.


Jacques took his time locking up, fastening the door securely before he came to join us in his pigsty of a living room. He’d at least taken the time to turn on a lamp, allowing us to pick our way through the piles of dirty laundry, old food, empty bottles of booze, and similar refuse which took up the majority of his floor space.


All things considered, I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t prefer the dark.


I didn’t sit on the couch, because it looked like I really wanted a Hazmat suit before I got within five feet of the thing. I don’t even want to think about some of the things that had accumulated in the depths of that couch. The last time we were here, Jacques had literally pulled a sizable handgun out of it, and it looked like there was enough room for another dozen where it had come from.


Of course, you’d have to disinfect thoroughly after you fired one, even if you survived long enough to find it.


Jacques wandered past, grabbing a glass jug seemingly at random off of one of the piles and shaking it. It sloshed. He opened it and poured some down his throat. I winced, and so did Snowflake. He sat down on the couch, which both creaked and squelched, and glowered at me. “What do you want, Shrike?” he asked, drinking some more.


Jacques knew who I was, of course. It was quite simply not possible that he didn’t. He was primarily an information broker, making it quite literally his business to know everything and everybody. I was becoming moderately infamous, and had been entirely too high on entirely too many radars recently. Given my distinctive appearance and the fact that Snowflake was following me around, I’d be shocked if he didn’t know me on sight. But he’d never use any name except the pseudonym Aiko had stuck me with the first time I came here. It wouldn’t be professional.


“Information,” I said crisply. As far as I was concerned, the sooner I got to leave this place the better. “I’ve been informed that a supernatural territory war is about to take off in Colorado Springs. I want to know everything you’ve got on it.”


“Expensive,” he noted, taking another drink. The bottle came up empty this time, and he tossed it aside to shatter on the ground (fortunately, it landed in a pile of filthy clothing), fumbling blindly after another in the heap of rubbish next to the couch.


“You owe me,” I reminded him. “Speaking of which…this time? Don’t tell anyone I was here. I mean it.”


He treated me to a ninety-proof snort and a fetid chuckle. “Don’t you worry, Shrike. Your secret’s safe with me. So whaddaya know already?”


“I know it’s going on. I know it’s about to pick up, a lot. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve a werewolf pack.”


“Well shit, man,” Jacques said, sniggering slightly. “You don’t fucking know much, do you?”


I’m going to need a long bath after this, Snowflake informed me. I mean, for a second there I was agreeing with this sleazebag. I feel dirty.


“Well, then,” I said, ignoring Snowflake’s comment (I’m pretty good at that, by now). “Maybe you better start talking. Who’s playing?”


He shrugged, picked something out of his nasty teeth with an even nastier fingernail, and spat on the floor. On his own floor, I might note. “Dunno,” he said. “My stuff’s a little old for that one. But I know there’s a few factions. Council’s got a vamp there, but I think there’s some rakshasas or some shit like that trying to move in too. Rumor says there’s a mage clan might want a piece of the action, but that shit’s just gossip, don’t know how serious you want to treat it. Daylight elves are making moves in the area, but I can’t say whether they’re for real or just want to fuck with people’s heads. Elves are big on that shit, right? Then there’s a bunch of yokai that want to take over the joint, too.”


I frowned. “Yokai as in kitsune?”


“Yeah, a few of those,” Jacques said, grinning knowingly. “But mostly I hear it’s the tengu want your mountain, think you’re mistreating its holy places or some such shit, crazy birdbrains. There’s a few kappa and tanuki with ’em, too, and where those four go the little yokai follow, right?”


“Wonderful,” I groaned. “Heard anything about a skinwalker in the mix?”


Jacques frowned slightly and drank some more. “Skinwalker? No, haven’t heard a thing. He can’t have Pack approval, or I’d have heard about it. That’ll change the betting.”


“Who’s your money on?” I asked curiously.


The black marketeer smiled the sort of thin, sharp smile baby crocodiles aspire to have when they grow up. “I am not a gambling man, Shrike. Was there anything else?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Who’s running operations for these people? Where can I find them?”


He shrugged. “I’ve no idea. That’s the sort of thing they’ll be keeping under tight wraps. Otherwise people will start thinking of assassination and suchlike. Obviously. Try talking to people on the scene locally be my suggestion.”


“Great,” I muttered, turning to leave. “Thanks, Jacques. That’ll come in handy.”


“Oh, naturally, Shrike,” he murmured, just on the threshold of werewolf hearing—it would have been inaudible to a normal human. “I always fill the order.”


By the time we got back out to the street, the sky—what little of it was visible between the buildings, at any rate—was starting to brighten with the promise of dawn. Traffic was starting to pick up a little in anticipation of rush hour, and we even passed a few people out jogging, most of whom were careful not to attract our attention. A handful nodded and said incomprehensible things presumably meant as pleasant greetings, to which I nodded and remained silent. I felt no particular desire to expose my lack of fluency in the local vernacular.


God, I hate that man, Snowflake muttered, pacing along at my side. She was looking around tensely, hackles raised, almost growling. I keep thinking he’s going to send assassins after us or something.


Maybe he did, I replied lightly. Do you smell anything odd?


Not yet, she grumbled. But let’s get the hell out of Italy before he can.


No argument. That alley up there looks like it should work. Snowflake assented, not bothering with such niceties as language, and we ducked into it as we passed. It was an unassuming sort of alley, far enough from the nice neighborhood around Jacques’s place that it smelled of garbage and urine, but not enough that there were bums sleeping in it. Or maybe they’d just gotten up already, who knows.


I stood facing the back door of a sporting goods store not yet open for the day’s business, my back to an old department store, while Snowflake kept watch. I took a deep breath and flexed my fingers, preparing for the effort I was about to lay out, and then started gathering power.


It was hard, this far into the depths of the city. I am not made for urban environments. That’s a big part of why I wound up in Colorado Springs, actually; it has enough population to blend into easily, but if you stick to the edges you don’t run into the densely populated, metropolitan areas that make up so much of the bigger cities, and you don’t have to travel very far to get to relative wilderness. This was exactly that sort of place that I try to avoid, where the earth is walled away by concrete and plastic, where the rhythms of nature have been all but entirely subsumed into those of the city, where even the foxes are half-domesticated. It was punishingly difficult to gather a substantial amount of magic to myself in such a place.


I managed, eventually—or perhaps it would be fairer to say that, eventually, I gave up on the task. It would have to be enough. I let out the breath I’d been unconsciously holding and began to spin it out into a careful, precisely ordered shape.


It was hard. This was a high level magic, after all, and I was far from the expert Aiko was at this sort of thing. She was a native, raised on magic; she’d taken in the mysteries of the Otherside with her mother’s milk, and that power was as much a part of her as blood and bone. I, on the other hand, had been able to safely work this particular magic for slightly less than four months. It was far from my comfort zone. Even under ideal circumstances, manipulating pure energy in this way wasn’t exactly my forte.


We were lucky that it was so early in the morning. It took me almost twenty minutes of snarling and muttering to myself before I had the shape of the spell outlined, during which time Snowflake had to warn away several people.


They went. Posthaste. I’ve found that when Snowflake warns a person away, they usually don’t argue very much.


Once I had the outline finished, I let out a sudden rush of power, filling the structure I’d outlined, putting flesh onto the metaphorical bones of the spell. I called out to Snowflake mentally and opened my eyes, blinking a little at the light after so long with my eyes closed.


The air in front of me, just over the door, was filled with blackness. Actually, no; that isn’t an accurate description. Blackness implies color—a color defined by the absence of light, but still a color, still something you can see. This was more like a void, a gap in the world where my eyes simply refused to focus. It wasn’t as neat as Aiko could make; where her portals were perfect, smoothly edged circles, this was more like a wavery and elongated oval. It was almost seven feet tall, barely three feet wide, and the borders of the gate were uncertain, flickering back and forth unsteadily. Snowflake, fearless as ever, leapt through the hole in reality almost before it finished forming, and was gone. I followed her, albeit at a somewhat lesser pace.


It was hard. Imagine dedicating one portion of your mind to holding, at one time, the entirety of the Iliad in a language you don’t know, while simultaneously performing a gymnastic routine and playing a game of chess against yourself, with both sides earnestly trying to win. That’s probably harder than what I was doing—I don’t really know, given that I’ve never actually tried it—but it’s a decent starting point.


But I had been practicing. So, while I staggered a bit, and the bounds of my gate maybe wavered a little more once I started moving, I did move. And, while I all but fell through the portal itself, I did get through.


Gates to the Otherside (or, if you want to get technical, the kind of gate that the likes of Aiko and I could make; the major players do it very differently) are never pleasant. I had been somewhat astonished to discover that it’s actually a great deal worse to use your own gate than someone else’s. Not because it’s logically inconsistent—it makes perfect sense. I just hadn’t realized it could get a great deal worse.


There’re actually a great many factors determining just how horrific any given gate is, though. It gets worse the more “distance,” measured in a few different ways, there is between your entrance and exit terminals. It gets worse the less stable the gate itself is. It gets worse the more involvement you have with the magic.


It should thus be unsurprising that, even relative to other cheap-and-dirty portals, this one sucked. A lot. There was a moment, between stepping in and falling out, in which everything felt bizarrely both stretched and compacted. It wasn’t even a matter of pain—pain and I were practically old buddies, and it takes a heck of a lot of it to really upset me very much. It was more the way I imagined it felt for a fish on dry land—not the suffocation, but the feeling of utter and overwhelming wrongness. It felt like I was intruding somewhere I was not welcome, in a place which was not only inhospitable for but outright inimical to my kind. It didn’t even feel hostile. It was quite simply that I had come to an alien place, a place so foreign to my experience and to my natural habitat that it couldn’t even be accurately described as “place.” It transcended such base notions as space and time.


It was only natural that it was an unpleasant experience. It is also only natural that the description of it is beyond the task of simple words. If it had fit into the boundaries of human thought, it wouldn’t have been half so bad.


It lasted only an instant, an interval of time almost too small to define—but during that instant time itself seemed to contract to a single point, losing all meaning, until afterward it seemed both to have passed too swiftly to take in and to have taken several eternities.


There’re reasons I don’t travel by Otherside without a good reason.


As always, I lost time on the other end of the portal. The experience of traveling is simply so horrid, so mind-numbingly wrong that my brain has to shut down and reboot afterward. The next thing I knew, I was lying on the ground, moaning incoherently to myself with my eyes tightly shut, while next to me Snowflake vomited noisily and whimpered in my head.


I hate that, she muttered a few moments later, once she’d got her head together enough to string words end to end. I don’t suppose I could convince you to shoot me now and get this over with?


Sorry, I said. I’m trying to avoid moving that much. Ask me again in a few minutes, I might feel better. I became aware that I was panting, making little pained sounds on every exhale. The thought had no particular emotional context; it was simply an observation, no more personally important than recognizing that a stranger looked tired. It was, without a doubt, the lingering effect of the magic I’d done to get here. Magic taking more than a second or two of concentration always messed with my head, altering my perception of time and disrupting my emotional reactions.


After a couple minutes of pure misery, I felt well enough to open my eyes tentatively. Squinting against the light, I glanced around and saw a few trees and a patch of sky, which was a blue so intense it was almost painful to look upon.


I sighed and shoved myself upright. The motion triggered a wave of nausea severe enough that I thought I would join Snowflake in the puking, but I choked it back down after a moment. How do you feel? I asked, standing up. I only swayed on my feet for a few moments.


Like shit, but I don’t want you to shoot me. Glass half-full, right?


Right, I said firmly, taking advantage of my newly ambulatory position to look around more thoroughly. It was a beautiful day as usual, here in the land of Faerie, and as usual it was subtly, unsettlingly off. Faerie isn’t utterly inhospitable to humans, the way some Otherside domains are—it’s entirely possible to live there for years on end, although there are relatively few people capable of doing so without getting themselves killed horribly, and I don’t think anyone could do it without going utterly batshit insane. It generally obeys the same basic laws as my world, which made it a potentially deadly surprise when it decides not to.


I don’t like Faerie. I don’t like anything in the Otherside, but I really don’t like Faerie. It makes me twitchy.


Unfortunately for me, it was also huge. Dedicated explorers who spent their whole lives trying to chart it only ever encountered the tiniest fraction. I’ve read a lot of contradictory information about the subject, but the general consensus is that the portion of Faerie known to have been encountered by human mages—and we don’t know what proportion has been kept hidden from us, either—is about as large as the Earth. And yes, I mean the entire Earth.


Now remind yourself that, while Faerie is a serious contender for the Largest Otherside Domain title, it’s not alone in that competition. Then remind yourself that it’s one of a literally innumerable quantity of domains—thousands, at the least, but there were likely millions more that were known only to a handful of people, such as the one that held my mansion.


That might give you some idea of how big the Otherside is.


Anyway, the salient thing here is that Faerie is huge, and relatively “close” to mundane reality, making it easy to get to and from. Because of those reasons, and because it’s relatively harmless, it always tops the list of domains used for traveling. Aiko once took me somewhere that got so many people passing through that it looked like an airport, with people bustling every which way as they hurried by on their way to somewhere else for something which was doubtless terribly important.


I didn’t enjoy that field trip, so I went for something a bit more secluded. The particular spot I’d chosen as my connection point was a tiny clearing, well-screened from prying eyes, so far from the beaten path that you’d have to commute to get to the middle of nowhere. I’d never yet run into someone else there.


I stretched and looked at Snowflake, who was standing up and shaking herself. You about ready to move on? I asked.


She shook herself one more time and then trotted a few feet to my side. Yeah. Where next?


I frowned. Well, would you rather do one really miserable trip or two slightly easier ones?


One, she said firmly. Let’s get this over with quickly.


Agreed, I replied, turning to the border between trees and grass. The magic of opening a door from Here to There is easier, for complicated reasons as much to do with psychology and mental perceptions as actual magic, in liminal areas, places where one thing becomes another. I took a deep breath and started gathering power to myself again. It was a lot easier here. It was more my sort of place, for one thing, as far from metropolitan as a place can be. It was always daybreak here, for another, and I’m stronger in times of dawn and dusk—like many predators, werewolves are crepuscular by preference, although they’re mostly too integrated with modern society to act on that preference.


And it was the Otherside. Magic is always easier there.


Of course, that didn’t make the working itself any less demanding. So, while I didn’t have to work as hard, it still took another fifteen or so minutes to get the shape just right—it wasn’t the kind of thing you wanted to cut corners on. Eventually I managed it, and another oval of nothingness manifested itself in the air in front of me, as I tore a hole in the fabric of reality. This one led to an alley not far from Val’s shop—a rather different location from where we were leaving, which would make this gate almost as unpleasant as the last one.


There was nothing for it but to get it done quickly, though. So we stepped through quickly, endured the momentary hammer blow of existential horror, and started the recovery process. This time it was my turn to hurl. I wasn’t conscious for most of it, at least; that was something. Snowflake, who recovered more quickly than me this time around, stood guard while I got myself together, and then we took off down the street together. We’d taken long enough traveling that it was now verging on sunset. I was starting to feel pretty exhausted, and I was really looking forward to a hot shower and a good night’s rest before my early-morning meeting with Brick.


We went a little out of our way to pick up some Chinese takeout and a take-and-bake pizza, because I really didn’t feel like cooking and it seemed unfair to ask Aiko to, given that she’d opened more portals than I had today. It smelled pretty good for instant food, and my mouth was watering pretty well by the time we made it to the front door.


Which is why it is entirely natural that my cell phone rang just as I started to turn the doorknob.


I really, really wanted to ignore it. I was tired, hungry, and really wanted to call it a day. But that is not a responsible attitude, and while I might be irresponsible by preference, at the moment there were more lives depending on my actions than just mine. So I sighed in a long-suffering manner and answered the thing. “Hello?”


“Winter,” Alexis said, an unmistakable note of relief in her voice. “Where are you?”


“What’s up?” I asked, not answering her question.


She didn’t seem to notice. “I just saw…well, I know this sounds crazy, but I think somebody’s trying to kill me.”


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One Response to Balancing Act 6.4

  1. Emrys

    Accidentally posted the fifth chapter under this heading. Sorry to anyone who was confused by the sudden jump. It should be fixed now.

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