Balancing Act 6.5

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You know, I said to Snowflake, all I’m asking is that one time, just one freaking time, I have one of these paranoid thoughts and be wrong. Just once. Is that too much to ask?


Well, she said thoughtfully, she hasn’t tried to kill you. That counts for something, right?


I think you mean to say she hasn’t tried to kill me yet. That counts for rather less.


“Winter? Are you there?” Alexis was starting to sound slightly desperate.


“Yeah, sorry. Look, where are you?”


“In my motel room.” She rattled off an address downtown.


“Okay. Stay there, stay inside. Lock the doors, close the curtains, and don’t let anyone in. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


“Should I call the police?”


“Depends. When you say someone’s trying to kill you, do you mean like a thug? Or is it something spooky?”


“Definitely spooky.”


“Then no. Just hold tight, I’ll be there soon.”


“Thanks, Winter. Please hurry.”


I hung up and continued inside. Think it’s a setup? Snowflake asked lightly.


Oh, definitely. The only question is who’s doing the settingAlexis, or the person after her? This could just be someone attacking her to draw us out.


Good point. That hadn’t occurred to me.


I dumped the food in the kitchen and went back down to the armory, explaining what was going on to Aiko on the way. She, needless to say, thought it was hilarious, and promptly went back up to get some food.


I wasn’t ignoring Alexis. It was just that one of the things I’ve learned, from experience, is that it’s much better to react intelligently than quickly. Assuming she was actually in danger, it wouldn’t do any good to go rushing out there and get myself killed before I could help her.


And, of course, if she was lying then hurrying into an ambush wasn’t the ideal response.


One of the other things I’ve learned, also from experience, is that it’s much better to be embarrassed at how overdressed you are for a fight than dead because you didn’t take it seriously enough. So far, I’d been satisfied that the various tricks and toys I was carrying, coupled with my magical foci and the concealment offered by my cloak, were protection enough.


But that was just routine wear, suitable for everyday activity. For travel, it was adequate. But at this point, it looked like I was walking straight into a fight, regardless of which possibility turned out to be right, and for that I wanted a little something extra.


Fortunately for me, I had just the thing.


Aiko doesn’t talk much about herself. She refuses to talk about her past—she occasionally tells an amusing story, or relates the odd anecdote, or casually mentions taking part in certain events, but she never provides context, explains how she got from one part of the story to the next. She flat-out refuses to be drawn into any discussion involving religion, politics, or philosophy in general—a large part of the reason we got together is that I never ask such questions, because I don’t want to know. Above all else, Aiko doesn’t bring up her family. Going from the one and only conversation we’ve had on the subject, I don’t have much doubt about why. Her family life made mine look like a self-help book. And, well, if she wants nothing to do with the lot, in most cases the feeling seems distinctly mutual.


One of the few exceptions was a rich, eccentric, and reclusive cousin. I didn’t know a lot about him, but apparently he was a rare kind of crazy, even by kitsune standards. His favorite meal was escargot-and-bumbleberry pizza, he refused to answer to anything but a nickname which changed on a weekly basis, and his idea of an April Fools’ prank was to fill the sugar bowl with salt…and then rig it to a Goldbergian deathtrap.


Needless to say, he and Aiko got along just fine.


Anyway, one of his pet projects was armor. More specifically, he made custom sets of armor—mostly for kitsune, I gathered, but Aiko had arranged one for me as a birthday gift, some time ago. It was made out of a special iron alloy that he’d developed himself, which was lighter than it had any right to be, and lined with a bunch of Kevlar for less medieval foes.


I’d walked into more than one battle wearing that armor, since then. More than once, it’s been the only reason I walked back out again. If this was going to be a similar event, the idea of putting a layer of steel between me and the world at large sounded wonderful. With that in mind, I pulled the armor off its wooden stand and buckled it on. The sleeved breastplate went on over my head, followed by ridged pauldrons and gorget. Tassets and greaves came next, then armored gauntlets and sleek leather boots. Everything fit like it was tailored, probably because it was.


Last of all I pulled on the helmet and mask. I didn’t usually wear them, because it’s harder to conceal a helmet than body armor. Much of the time the real benefit of wearing armor under my cloak is that people think I’m more vulnerable than I am, and once they see the helmet it’s a whole lot harder to maintain that illusion.


At the moment, that didn’t concern me. So I jammed it onto my head, checked all the buckles and such one more time, and swept my cloak over my shoulders again. I twisted the almost-substance of it into a true cloak, floor length and hooded. Then I brought the hood up over my head and pulled it down to touch the chest in front, where it promptly flowed back into itself. From my side the effect was like pulling on a pair of sunglasses, making things slightly dimmer but not really impairing vision. From the outside, it would be functionally impossible to see through. It wasn’t ideal—anyone who looked closely would quickly realize I didn’t have a face—but hopefully at a glance it would look like I was just wearing a cloak and the hood was casting shadow across my features. Still weird, in this era, but not enough so to make people call the cops on sight. Or an exorcist, for that matter.


Good enough, especially as the sun was going down. I raced up the stairs and out the front door, Snowflake at my side, and then we tore off down the street. My cloak didn’t flap along behind me, but only because I’d sealed it all down the front to prevent anyone getting a glimpse of my armor. It wouldn’t slow down access to any of my weapons; it was, after all, made of shadows, and it’s only thanks to my magic it had a physical shape at all. My hand would pass through it like air; the only parts that were thicker were those currently forming pockets.


I’m pretty proud of my cloak, all things considered.


My car was still parked at Pryce’s, too far in the wrong direction to be worth getting. Besides, Snowflake and I are pretty decent at running, more so than nearly any real human, and we knew all manner of side streets and shortcuts. If we were willing to work a little, and maybe break a few laws regarding property rights and right-of-way, we could get there probably as fast as a car could drive.


So we ran, she and I, down the sidewalk as the last light of the sun faded behind the mountains. I clanked a little as I ran, but not all that much, and the armor didn’t slow me. People shouted at us, and drivers slammed on the brakes and horn alike as we cut them off at intersections, but we didn’t slow, didn’t care. We were by them before they could really process what they’d seen, anyway; we had to be doing around twenty-five miles per hour, on the level of a decent sprinter. That was faster than we usually moved unless there was a crisis, and I had to work for it. I fed a bit of magic to the werewolf in me, and my breathing evened out, my strides became long and even once again. We sped up a little bit.


The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about what might be happening to Alexis. Was she in danger? Hell, she could have been killed in the time I took to get my armor. We weren’t close, and I doubt I’d have felt more than a passing sorrow if I read her obit in the paper, but that was different. If she died now, it would be my fault, my failure. I would have let her down, after she looked to me for help.


I hate it when people who’re depending on me for help die. It never gets to be any less painful.


I’d made the right choice, the smart choice. Given the chance, I wouldn’t do anything differently. You couldn’t survive in this world if you let them direct your choices, manipulate you as easily as that. That didn’t make it any easier to cope with.


Sometimes, I reflected, it really sucks being the guy who has to make the smart choice.


It didn’t take us but a few minutes to get to the right area. The motel was a little further from the downtown area than I’d thought, not that it mattered a great deal. We slowed down as we got to the right area. Snowflake was panting a little, quietly, and her presence in the back of my head felt tense, excited.


Alexis’s motel was, surprisingly enough, not a national chain. It was a little on the small side, one long building facing the parking lot. There were three floors, and Alexis’s room was on the highest. The doors opened onto a long walkway of sorts which ran the length of the building. I could see stairs at either end, and an elevator just around the corner, where the walkway continued along the shorter side of the building. I dismissed the last immediately, of course; I don’t like elevators.


For the first few moments, I thought everything seemed quiet enough. Then I recognized what that meant: Things were literally too quiet. (I was, of course, not stupid enough to say that out loud.) There were only a handful of cars in the lot, and nobody at them. There was no one on the walkway. I could clearly see traffic on the highway, only a little ways off, but there were no cars driving past the motel itself.


Now, granted it was well past business hours—but still. The place shouldn’t have looked like this.


I caught a sudden whiff of something, something odd. I’d ducked into the shadow of a parked van, dragging Snowflake with me, almost before I consciously recognized it.


It was very clearly magic, tinted with the odor of disinfectant. Human magic, the signature was unmistakable. A moment later, I saw a cloaked figure slip by, walking past me to the hotel. Whoever it was, they apparently didn’t see us. Alexis’s attacker, presumably. I slipped my hand into my cloak for a knife—


And hesitated. Did I really want to kill this person without more reason than that? I mean, sure, a mage skulking around after dark in a frigging cloak probably wasn’t up to anything good, but I could hardly throw stones in that regard. Maybe they just got lost on the way to the Ren Fair.


What? It could happen.


The first figure was ten feet away before I saw another, sliding through the shadows with eerie grace, its movements almost quadrupedal. Its front limbs were tipped with foot-long steel claws, and I caught a glimpse of lemony yellow eyes in the shadow of its cloak.


That settled it. I edged forward slightly, Snowflake pressed tight against my legs. She growled slightly as I showed her what I’d just seen, and I felt her tension fade a little, her excitement grow. We hadn’t been in a good fight for a while, and she was looking forward to the thrill, the adrenaline, the bloodshed. Snowflake’s a great person, but only a fool could deny that she’s a little sociopathic in that regard.


I would like to say I didn’t feel a little excitement myself. But that would be a lie.


Suddenly, the cloaked figures froze stock still. So did we, waiting to see what would happen next.


As it happened, what happened next was reinforcements. I counted twenty-four cloaked figures, all told, all of them with claws, all of them smelling of magic and moving in ways that suggested that the things wearing the cloaks weren’t human, not even a little bit. They were accompanied by three hard-looking men carrying rifles. All three of them were wearing what looked like modern body armor, and they had an intimidating array of guns, knives, and grenades between them. Professionals, they had to be, not mere street toughs.


Holy shit. Two dozen war-constructs and three hardcore mercenaries was so far beyond overkill for taking Alexis as to be hilarious, if only they hadn’t looked so very serious. Taking out a pair of constructs was one thing, but I wasn’t at all confident that Snowflake and I could handle this many. Skill and magic and experience were fine things to have on your side, but when push comes to shove anyone can be brought down by enough bodies. There were two of us, and a small army of them. It didn’t take a genius to see that in a fair fight, we were dead meat.


Fortunately for me, I’ve never really seen the attraction of a fair fight. And they were still too focused to see us through our veil of shadow, even though one of the constructs had passed within five feet of our position.


What do you think, I asked Snowflake, are you an ambush predator today?


You know it! she said excitedly. We haven’t gotten to do this routine in ages. The husky examined them, her one eye cold and rational in spite of her bloodlust. Especially since she lost the eye, Snowflake’s never been one to let emotion get in the way of careful thought. They’ll split up, block both staircases, she said. See, they’re already splitting into groups. A dozen constructs and one human to each side, with the last guy waiting at the bottom.


Yeah, I said. He’s the one giving the orders, so we’ll want to take him out first. Take out the other humans fast if we can, too; constructs are great at following orders, but there’s only so smart you can make them. The mercenaries are running command and control on this job. Indeed, they were clearly hanging back, letting the constructs lead the way. For coping with a counterattack by the target, an excellent tactical choice. Against us…well. The meat shields don’t do you much good when you’re between them and the enemy.


They must have had some way to track Alexis, or else already knew where she was, because they didn’t bother checking any of the lower floors. They trooped right up the stairs, leaving one construct at the base of each staircase to guard it. Snowflake and I slipped slowly closer as they did, until we were only twenty or so feet from the boss, who stood dead center between the two staircases.


Nobody saw us. They were far too focused on the action upstairs for that. Sloppy, really; if you’re keeping watch, you should bloody well watch, and trust the strike team to do their jobs. The constructs at least could be forgiven on the basis of not actually having brains, but the mercenary should have been paying more attention. Sloppy work, and it was about to earn him exactly the reward carelessness on a dangerous job deserves.


You go right, I murmured to Snowflake, palming a bit of quartz from my cloak. Take out the human, cripple or destroy any constructs you can safely, and lead the rest away if possible. I’ll kill the guy on watch and head up the left, get Alexis and run for it. Meet up back at the house.


Got it, she said tersely, her hackles up, growling softly, almost gently. Ready?


Wait for it, I said, my fingers tightening on the quartz. The leading constructs emerged onto the top level of the walkway, and I snapped my arm out, tossing the crystal away. Now!


And that’s when things started happening really, really fast. Snowflake was away, moving faster than any human could hope to match now, hardly more than a white-and-black blur in the dark. At the same instant, the piece of quartz hit the railing of the third-level walkway and bounced away. Before it could fall more than a couple inches, I hit it with a spike of power, triggering the much greater magic bound into its matrix.


Almost instantaneously, fog and mist seemed to boil up out of nowhere, an almost solid bank of cloud stretching from the roof of the motel to the ground, from one side to the other. It was thickest around the third-floor walkway, where it was too dense for you to see your hand in front of your face, fading out at the edges. By the time it reached the ground it was thin enough to see the footing easily, which let me see that it was also too dark, too full of shadows to be natural.


It took me almost seven hours to put that spell together. Just now, I was thinking it was worth every second.


Screams broke out in the fog, over to the right. They were hideous, pathetic, agonized sounds, and a moment later they cut off with terrible finality. The man on watch, who was already shouting orders that I didn’t bother listening to, instantly snapped his head around to look, and took one step that way.


And that’s when I made my move.


I rose from my crouch, abandoning any notion of stealth, and started running towards him. I had to cross twenty feet of open ground and kill him before they realized what was coming for them, or my chances would become very, very slim.


He heard me coming almost immediately. At thirteen feet, he had his weapon in line with me. This close, I could see his face. It was flat, controlled, almost calm, and showed no trace of either fear or anger. The first round missed, flying just under my arm. The second hit my left calf and failed to penetrate the steel, let alone the Kevlar underneath—he was presumably using a light round, which fit with the relatively quiet sound of the gunshots. Someone wanted this done quietly. The third buzzed past my right ear, making me feel pretty good about wearing the helmet. There wasn’t enough time for him to get off a fourth.


At five feet, I drew my heavy Bowie knife from its belt sheath. I didn’t summon Tyrfing; there was no point. In quarters this close, its greater length would only be an inconvenience. No, this was knife work if I’d ever seen it.


The mercenary’s face had gone pale, as he realized that shooting me hadn’t done anything. I took a moment to think of what this must look like from his perspective—a cloud bank had come out of nowhere, without warning, one of his men had died horribly in the fog, and then an animate shadow that bounced bullets came running at him with a knife.


It must have been terrible, for him. I pitied the man, who had probably just taken the wrong job, not having any grudge against me and mine.


I shoved that thought out of my mind. Later, perhaps, I could afford to feel terrible about the things I’d done. For now I was committed, and there was no time for regrets.


He fell back, a step, dropping his assault rifle in favor of a heavy knife in an upside-down chest sheath. His mouth was open to scream a warning, but he never got a chance, as I lunged forward and punched him in the face. He staggered, bleeding from a shattered nose, and then I slammed my knife into his abdomen with more-than-human strength. I jerked the knife back out, slashed once across his throat, and I was moving on. He dropped to the ground like a discarded toy, his lifeblood spilling out onto the asphalt.


He died fast, and relatively painlessly, and without ever understanding what had happened. It wasn’t much of a mercy, but it was pretty much all I could offer. As for me, I swept right by him, not pausing to watch him die.


The first construct, the one watching the stairs, had charged me instantly, thoughtlessly, the second shots had been fired. By the time I finished the human it was almost on top of me. Rather than fight it, I threw a stiff wind at what passed for its ankles. Rather than trip and fall the way a human would have, it threw its forelimbs out and caught itself, swinging its legs back down to the ground a moment later.


Of course, to do that, it had to bring its massive claws out of position for a moment. So I stepped right into its charge, while it was bent over, and slammed the knife home dead center in the back of its head. It collapsed, already beginning to dissolve. I kicked the thing out of my way and stepped past, its yellow eyes glaring at me balefully as I went. I broke into a run towards the stairs—I had to get this over fast, before they could regroup, before the fog cleared. My armor had protected me thus far, but I couldn’t count on continuing to get lucky—and, in any case, if they broke out heavier weapons it wasn’t going to do shit to stop them. Light arms and knives are one thing; grenades and armor-piercing rounds are another.


I sprinted up the stairs, taking them two and three at a time, throwing myself around corners with reckless abandon. I wasn’t watching where I was going very closely, and as a result barreled into the mercenary on that side before I saw him. I’m not sure which of us was more surprised.


I overbore him and carried him to the ground on pure momentum. He’d started to turn towards the noise before I hit him, and as a result we hit the deck chest-to-chest. The knife skittered away from my hand as I hit, leaving me essentially unarmed for the moment. He, on the other hand, reached for a knife immediately, his face set into an almost animal snarl.


I heard a noise from above us, and reacted without thinking, rolling over so that he was on top. Just in time; an instant later, the construct on the step above us drove those massive steel claws straight through him. It must have been terrifyingly strong, probably stronger than I could be even if I were feeding all the magic I could to the wolf; it stabbed through his body armor, then through his whole torso, then his armor again, and still hit me hard enough to knock me down a couple stairs.


It was a sobering experience. If I hadn’t rolled exactly when I did, it would have hit me rather than him, and a blow of that force would quite likely have gone right through the armor. I might be able to heal that kind of damage, but I rather doubted they would have given me the chance.


Of course, I didn’t have enough time to be scared either. So I reached out, still running more on instinct than rational thought, and hooked one arm around its leg. It stumbled when I tugged, and like its fellow before it, it bent over as though to walk on all four legs. I grabbed a forelimb, just above the claw, with my other arm, and rolled backward to pitch it over the railing.


It was stronger than a human, but that was a function of magic, rather than muscle. It didn’t weigh much more than a hundred pounds, and I was throwing it with the strength of my entire body with good leverage. It went soaring out over the parking lot, and fell probably thirty feet onto pavement.


it wouldn’t kill the thing. I was just hoping it would slow it down enough for me to deal with the rest. With that in mind, I scrambled back to my feet, drawing another knife. This one was a dagger, around eight inches long with two sharp edges, made of steel, handle and all. Blade and sheath both were covered in Roman motifs, but I was pretty sure it was a replica. I held the dagger close by my side as I continued up the stairs. Another pair of constructs attacked me within a few steps, with a bizarre mix of inhuman grace and stiff, stupid clumsiness. When I ducked the first one’s sideswipe, it stuck its claws firmly into the other’s chest. Neither one seemed to react to it, except for trying to tug them free. I stabbed them both while they were entangled and stepped on past. One tried to cut my ankles as I passed, but its strength was already ebbing away. Between that and its poor position, it failed to penetrate the armor.


I was now halfway up the stairs between the second and third levels. I darted up the rest of the way before any more constructs could attack; if one of them jumped me on the stairs, where it had the advantage of height, I couldn’t expect another lucky break. By now I was in the thick of the fog, which was only now starting to dissipate. I could hardly see the stairs, and was maneuvering more based on hearing and my sense of the air currents than vision.


I couldn’t see, and it was hard to judge precisely what was going on. I’d ended three constructs on my side, and removed another from the action. It was impossible to say how many Snowflake had destroyed, injured, or distracted, but I could feel air moving in a lot of places. If I had to guess, I’d say that there were eleven of the things on the walkway, stirring things around. Several of them were clustered around a single door, and I didn’t have to wonder whether it was Alexis’s room.


As I watched, one of them bashed the door in. The time gained by my fog bank had just officially run out.


I threw myself forward, and they never saw me coming. How could they? These constructs were oriented primarily around some sort of vision, and they didn’t have the brains to realize that they were under attack. Without a human to shout orders at them, and without a visual cue of danger, they went back to their basic directive, which was clearly to kill or capture Alexis.


I did not intend to allow them the opportunity.


Two of them, either slower than the rest or holding a rearguard position out of whatever dim intelligence they might have had, were standing near to me. I charged them, just a flickering shadow in a fogbank full of them, and I took them utterly by surprise. I stabbed the first one in the back, jerked the knife back out, and kicked it hard. It was already standing against the railing, and it must have been pretty cheaply built because my kick drove it completely through the rail and out into empty air. It glared at me as it fell, cloak whipping about it. Between the wound and the fall, that one should be finished.


Its compatriot, moving almost faster than could be believed, spun and whipped one of those wickedly sharp claws in an upward stroke meant to split me from crotch to throat and toss me over the edge. Fortunately, I wasn’t entirely unaccustomed to fighting unbelievably fast things—and it was still reacting on the instincts and reflexes that had been built into it by a mage, rather than with intelligence. I stepped back, letting the steel pass within a few inches of me, and threw a blast of wind at it.


I didn’t try and stop it. It’s hard to move around a whole lot of air really quickly, especially when you only have a minor talent in that direction, and trying to stop it or batter it into nonfunctioning was probably more than I could manage on short notice. Besides, even if I could, why do things the hard way when you don’t have to?


I didn’t try and stop it. I helped it.


It wasn’t ready for the sudden, massive tailwind, and its motion was ridiculously exaggerated from what it had intended. It came up on one foot, following the rising momentum of its claw, and tumbled over the railing. It managed to wedge one claw in the handrail as it fell, and immediately began climbing back up.


I promptly slammed it with another blast of wind, just as it dropped all its weight onto the wedged limb. Its equivalent of a shoulder joint ripped with an ugly, wet noise, and it fell away into the fog, vanishing from sight. Apparently it had wedged itself in there more strongly than it meant to, because it left one arm hanging from the walkway like a grisly flag.


Two down, nine to go.


I felt the fog stir, up ahead, as some of the constructs turned towards me, leaving a few to continue working on the door. Apparently they’d encountered some sort of obstacle in getting inside, giving me another precious few moments to work with.


Another pair came within my visual range, moving with an oddly stiff, almost insectile gait. I gave a little ground before them, and thought furiously. It was clear I no longer had the advantage of surprise, and equally clear that I needed a game changer. I’d thinned the ranks considerably, but they still outnumbered me nine to one, and that was probably at least four or five more than I could handle at once, even using Tyrfing. Besides that, whatever Alexis had done to the door, it wouldn’t take them long to get through it. I had to shake things up, and fast.


The good news is, I actually got what I asked for for once. The bad news is, I forgot to specify whose side the game changer should be on.


I’d completely forgotten about the construct I flung into the parking lot, but didn’t actually damage. And I’d been too focused on keeping track of all the things in front of me to spread any feelers through the air to my rear. Thus, unsurprisingly, it caught me completely by surprise when something suddenly slammed into my back.


I hit the deck, hard, knocking the wind out of me. A moment later the construct, which hadn’t been anything but pissed off by its thirty-foot fall, shoved those enormous claws through me. Two of them slipped aside on my armor, but the third slipped between two scales, and then through me. A sudden spike of pure agony sparked to life in my abdomen as it rammed the blade home. It entered my right flank, shattering one of my floating ribs in the process, and passed cleanly through me to emerge next to my navel. It failed to penetrate the armor in front, which was some bright side—if it had managed that and stuck the blade in the concrete I’d have been stuck like a butterfly on a pin, and it would slaughter me easily while I couldn’t fight back.


As it was, I felt a momentary tension as it started to yank the claw back out of me for another go. Then it suddenly wrenched sideways, which made my vision go white with pain for a second, and when I could think again the weight of the construct was gone. The blade was still stuck through me, which was probably a good thing; it would minimize the bleeding.


I can’t take my eye off you for a minute, Snowflake said, sounding amused. Now get up, would you? These two are starting to adjust to fighting me instead of you, and I could use a hand with ’em.


Moving hurt. It really, really hurt, and depending on where exactly that claw was embedded in my back I might be doing myself serious harm just standing up. On the other hand, staying where I was would definitely be seriously harmful for all three of us, so I pushed myself to my feet, staggering slightly and trying to ignore the screaming fire in my guts. I thought I told you to run, I said, turning to face the constructs.


Come on, Winter, Snowflake said, sounding amused. You should have known better than to think I’d stay out of the action. She faded into view like a ghost out of the mist, until she could press up against my legs. The two constructs delaying us for the others appeared just behind her. The fog must have been fading, or I wouldn’t have been able to see them from so far off. Are you okay?


No, I don’t believe so. I glared at the constructs. I think it’s about time to finish these clowns. You game?


Let’s do it, she said joyously, growling again. I called to Tyrfing, and a moment later the ancient, cursed sword was in my hand. It seemed to whisper a calm, deadly promise as I flicked the scabbard aside to fall into the mist. The constructs froze for a moment—it seemed that the appearance of Tyrfing on the battlefield was a significant enough event to strike fear even into their nonexistent hearts—and then charged.


Snowflake met their rush with her own. She took the leading construct out at the knees, with surprising strength considering her relative size, and effortlessly dodged its claws on the way down. Two quick snaps of her jaws later, it was missing both forelimbs above the claw. When it tried to rise, she ducked around it, seizing its leg in her jaws. Even without the claws it had to weigh close to what she did—Siberian huskies aren’t exactly mastiffs, after all—but she tossed her head and sent it flying anyway, where it vanished into the fog below us. The whole thing took her no more than a second or two, and she made it look effortless.


Snowflake’s kinda scary, when she wants to be.


Of course, while she dealt with that construct, the other slipped by her. It got to fight me instead, lucky bastard. Tyrfing sliced through its steel claws like cloth when I parried, and treated its flesh similarly on the return stroke. It felt like my guts were on fire, and swinging the sword was a special sort of hell, but it fell to the ground and did not rise again.


Snowflake and I kept walking forward. We’d hardly even broken stride. Another construct broke from the remaining cluster of seven and charged us. Snowflake, who was in front by reason of my not being nearly as fast at the moment as I should be, encountered it first. She slipped away from its strangely graceful, clumsy attacks, often leaving no more than an inch’s space between her fur and the blades, and made it look like a dance as she returned to where I was making my slow way forward. It overextended in its zeal to kill her, and I took its forelimb at the elbow. Snowflake instantly reversed her motion, shredding one of its legs beyond usability and dropping it hard on its back. I ran it through on the ground as we walked past, leaving a neat hole in the concrete, and then there were six.


In front of us, the construct trying to get into Alexis’s room threw what looked like the pieces of a cheap dresser out into the fog. She’d clearly made a barricade of furniture inside of the door—surprisingly quick thinking under pressure, for a civilian—and, judging by the way the lead construct was stepping inside, it was just as clearly dismantled now. There was no way I could get there in time, and for a second I thought it was all going to be for nothing.


Then, just as it crossed the threshold, there was a loud crack of gunfire. It paused. Whoever was using the gun shot twice more. The construct staggered back, gaping bloodless holes through its head and chest, and fell backward over the railing to splatter on the asphalt below.


And then there were five.


Any human force, any sentient force, would have broken by now. Attacked from every side, in the middle of an unnatural fogbank, reduced to a fifth of their original number, faced with resistance even from what should have been a helpless target, even blood-mad werewolves would have fled. But constructs, having no concept of self, also didn’t understand the concept of self-preservation, and they were literally incapable of feeling fear. They would never run.


Three of the five threw themselves at Snowflake and me, and wound up in pieces on the ground far below. Snowflake, recognizing that I really wasn’t feeling very well, was conscientious enough to do most of the work herself, and just let me act as bait and deliver the occasional devastating cut with Tyrfing. Either that, or she was just excited to get to kill and destroy and generally commit acts of mayhem without needing to feel even the slightest pang of guilt.


Yeah, probably that second one.


The other two went for Alexis. Fortunately, the doorway forced them to go single file. Coming in one at a time like that, silhouetted against the reflected light of the fog, they made a dandy target for even an amateur marksman. One of them staggered back to follow its comrade to the pavement three stories down; the other dropped where it stood.


We stood there for a moment, panting, and looked around at the devastation. The fog was starting to clear, and I could see the detritus of a dozen confrontations from where I stood. The not-corpses of the constructs were, for the most part, already gone, but they left cloaks and claws behind when they faded. I waited, all available senses straining, but I didn’t hear any more constructs, or feel them stirring up the air, or smell magic. It seemed we were in the clear, for the moment.


“Alexis?” I called. My voice sounded a little thin, and strained, but I was actually surprised at how little evidence there was in it of the foot of steel currently stuck through me. I walked slowly forward, being careful not to pass directly in front of the doorway.


There was a startled pause. “Winter?” she said, sounding scared and a little numb, as though in shock. “Is that you?”




Alexis went up another point in my estimation right then. Rather than come out, she said, “Get where I can see you. And no sudden moves, either.”


I walked slowly forward, limping a little on the right side. You wouldn’t think a wound to the back and side would interfere with walking, but trust me, it does. If you seriously damage the muscles of your torso, it screws up pretty much everything you do. Wait here, I said to Snowflake—Alexis hadn’t met her yet, and I figured it was best not to introduce any more unpredictable elements to this situation than necessary. Besides, if it turned out that this whole thing was a setup, Snowflake could inflict a lot more damage if she had the advantage of surprise. Or she could just disappear; she’s really good at hiding and sneaking around, and if Alexis didn’t know she was there she’d probably never even bother looking.


Snowflake whined a little—in the mental register only, of course—but did as I asked. She knew what I was thinking, and she could acknowledge the reasoning, even if she didn’t like it.


My cousin was sitting on the bed inside of the tiny room, pointing her gun at the door. It was a pretty light weapon, a pistol that looked like a relatively small caliber—.32, perhaps, although I was hardly the best judge of such matters. Almost certainly not a heavy enough round to penetrate the armor, although it’s best not to be too confident about that sort of thing. That’s what armor-piercing ammo’s for, after all.


Alexis glared in my direction. “Take off the helmet,” she snapped, not moving the gun. I did as she asked, still being careful to move slowly and steadily, keeping Tyrfing low at my side. The second she saw my face, she relaxed suddenly, her pistol dropping to point at the floor. “Winter,” she said, her voice rough with the release of pent-up emotion. “Thank God you came when you did.” She sounded like she meant it, too.


“Best you don’t,” I said seriously. “He might answer. Now come on, we need to get out of here. The cops will show up soon.” I supposed it was possible that no one had reported the gunshots, but I didn’t think it terribly likely. I mean, I’m just not all that lucky a guy, and even by those standards this didn’t seem to be my lucky day. I turned to leave, and tensed slightly as I did. If Alexis was going to betray me, it would be now, with my back turned. Hell, I’d even taken off my helmet for her. Itty-bitty gun or not, if she shot me a few times in the head with it I’d be down for the count.


What I got instead was a startled exclamation, as Alexis saw the spike sticking out of me for the first time. “Good Lord! What happened to you? Are you all right?”


“All right?” I said, feeling pretty amused. I made sure the two constructs she’d shot wouldn’t be getting back up again before sheathing Tyrfing. It made a low, satisfied sound as I did, and didn’t try to stop me letting go of it—it had enjoyed the violence, even if it only got to participate in the tail end. “No, I don’t think I am. How ’bout you?”


“Y-yeah,” she said, her voice starting to shake a little. “Yeah, none of them got through. Should I, like, pull that thing out of your back or something?”


“No,” I said bluntly, limping along toward the stairs. Snowflake had made herself scarce for the moment, presumably still waiting for the betrayal. “I’m not entirely sure what all it went through. Depending on where it is, it might be the only thing stopping me from bleeding all over the place, in which case I’d rather be somewhere we can deal with that before we pull it out.”


“Oh,” she said, still sounding somewhat numb. “So…we’re going to the hospital, then?”


She’s a bit stupid, isn’t she? Snowflake commented, sounding like she wasn’t sure whether to go with amusement or contempt.


She’s inexperienced, I corrected. You were a puppy once too, remember? By the way, where are the constructs you drew off?


Chasing their own tails a few blocks away, she said smugly. Of course, there’s no telling how long that’s going to last, so we might want to get out of here.


Couldn’t agree more, I muttered. To Alexis, I said, “Whoever sent these people just spent a lot of resources on them, which means they wanted you pretty bad. Here shortly they’ll know this group failed, and somehow I don’t think they’ll just give up. Do you really want to be at a hospital when the next shoe drops?” I shook my head. “My house isn’t too far. It’s one of the better-defended places in town, and I’ve got medical supplies if we need them.”


She flushed, and looked away. When next she spoke, it was in a subdued voice. “What were those things?”


“Constructs,” I said. “They’re like robots, basically.”


Around that time, the last of the fog blew away. Alexis took a good look around, and saw all the cloaks and claws scattered around. “How many of them were there?” she asked as we started down the stairs I’d just fought my way up.


“Two dozen,” I said, feeling rather tired. I realized I was still carrying Tyrfing, safely strapped into its sheath again, and set it down. I wasn’t worried about it; the sword had always found its way home before, often from worse places than this. Besides, Tyrfing isn’t really the sort of weapon which bad things happen to. Rather the other way round, if anything. We reached the dead mercenary, and I bent over—owcrouched down to look for the knife I’d lost.


Alexis stared at the dead man. “That’s a person, Winter.”


“I had noticed, yes, thank you.”


“You killed him,” she said accusingly.


“Actually, technically one of the constructs killed him. Although I did kill the one at the bottom of the stairs, and my partner did for a third.” I found the knife—luckily, it hadn’t gone quite far enough to slide over the edge—and tucked it into its sheath before I stood. When I did, I saw that Alexis was looking at me with an expression verging on horror. “What?”


“Winter,” she said slowly, “they weren’t robots or whatever. They were people. And you murdered them.”


I sighed, and kept walking. “They came here with those constructs to kill you, or worse. It was them or you—them or me, too, once the fighting started. I didn’t have any other way to get rid of them quickly.”


“And you’re okay with that?”


“Okay?” I thought for a moment. “No,” I said finally. “I’m really, really not. But I’ve done worse things than that, to people who deserved it less.” I smiled sadly, not looking back at her. “They say it never gets easier, but the sorry truth is that it does. There’s only so many times you can get worked up about something before it…just doesn’t seem worth the bother anymore.”


Alexis looked stricken, but she didn’t say anything. “Is your car parked nearby?” I asked briskly, changing the subject before it got any more awkward.


“Yeah,” she said hesitantly. “Right over there.”


“Wonderful. Snowflake!” I called, raising my voice. I could have called her mentally, of course, but I would rather my cousin not learn about that particular ability just yet. It might come in handy.


She just freaking appeared, out of what I would have sworn was thin air, under the car right in front of us. She trotted right out, her white fur almost startlingly bright under the streetlights, and butted her head against my thigh. Alexis flinched back visibly.


“Alexis,” I said, “this is Snowflake. She’s a very good friend. She’s also the partner I mentioned, so I think you owe her a thank-you at the least.”


Alexis absorbed that for a moment. Then, somewhat awkwardly, she turned to face her and said, “Thank you, Snowflake.” Snowflake, for her part, just stared at her. She made no particular effort to look friendly—and, as you might imagine, an unfriendly stare from Snowflake has been known to unnerve individuals with a heck of a lot more spine than Alexis; there’s something about it that really spooks people. They see something, in her one icy blue eye, with which they aren’t comfortable, something that makes them flinch and look away.


That’s what they tell me, anyway. I’ve never experienced it, myself. Snowflake doesn’t look at me that way. I don’t know what they see there, nor do I want to. I suspect it to be a shadow of the other being in her, the old post-dead wolf that shares her mind, or possibly her soul. It can’t be just him, though, because some of those people wouldn’t be bothered by that, in the slightest. The most common description I’ve heard is that it feels like she’s looking…not through, but into you. Like that eye sees all the way to your marrow, like she sees everything you are and isn’t impressed. I’ve mentioned it to her a couple times, casual-like, but she just laughs and changes the subject, and I haven’t pressed. She is one of the extremely few people I trust implicitly.


Alexis, needless to say, flinched under that cyclopean gaze, and continued leading the way to her car. It hadn’t been sabotaged, astonishingly, nor did it blow up when she started it (Snowflake and I were standing a safe distance away, just in case). I climbed stiffly in back, where I could arrange myself so that the claw still in my back didn’t jostle on anything, and draped my cloak over myself so that no one would see me. Snowflake jumped in after me, being careful to leave the injury alone, and immediately sprawled across my calves.


“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, glancing nervously about. Smart enough to be scared, at least. That was good.


I groaned, rested my head against the seat, and did my utmost best to ignore how I felt. “Snowflake can give you directions,” I said. I ignored the tangible silence that followed that statement, too, and after that I sort of tuned out for a little while.


I must have actually fallen asleep there for a bit, because the next thing I was aware of was Snowflake licking my face. I groaned and forced myself to a seated position, looking around.


“Is this the right place?” Alexis said, looking back at us. “Your dog seemed to think so, but it looks a little…sketchy.”


I snorted and got out. My legs were a little stiff, but not terrible. “That’s how you know it’s the right place.” I walked over to the door, where I slowly and laboriously disabled the layers of wards around it. I didn’t actually live in this squalid building anymore, exactly, but I didn’t know the details of how the mansion Fenris had built connected to this location in the “real” world. It wasn’t impossible that someone sufficiently skilled at such magics might find a way to get there using this door. So, naturally, I kept it warded heavily enough to kill a dozen charging gorillas, and the whole building was still under the misdirection spell a fae mercenary had slapped on it before I inherited the place.


Nobody’s ever broken into that building, not while I’ve had it. One local thug did try, early on. That particular incident did a lot to cement my reputation as a badass in the area. He wasn’t dead—this was before I upgraded to lethal wards, when it became clear just how many people wanted my hide for a rug, not necessarily in the figurative sense—but he does make sure to look really, really nonthreatening whenever he sees me on the street ever since, and he won’t come within fifty feet of the building itself.


I was a little tired, and it took me longer than it should have to get the wards down. Two, maybe three minutes later I undid the lock with one of my keys, then I undid the deadbolt with another key, then I opened the door.


Alexis squinted inside—she had to squint, because the interior of the building was dim, and dilapidated, and it hadn’t been cleaned for several months now. “That looks sorta dingy,” she said doubtfully. “Is it even safe to leave the car here?”


I snorted. “No. But the car thieves should be smart enough by now to avoid anything parked out front of this building.” I grabbed her arm and stepped inside—because I hadn’t keyed Fenris’s magic to her, the portal built into the door wouldn’t recognize her unless we were in physical contact. Snowflake, of course, didn’t have that concern. She’d been the first person I keyed into it.


I’ve been using that door several times daily for several months now. Still, every time I go in, it remains shocking. From the outside: squalid little house, all but falling down, and out several years or even decades of repair. From the inside: mansion. Just the entry hall/throne room was bigger than most houses, and filled with the sort of furnishings that would make the average millionaire a bit envious.


Alexis looked back and forth a few times, apparently speechless, as Snowflake followed us in and I closed and locked the door. From this side, it looked like a ten-foot-tall set of double doors, huge slabs of ebony worth several thousand dollars themselves. The locks were large, and iron, and the average battering ram probably wouldn’t even leave a dent.


I’ve never quite gotten clear on how it is that Fenris arranged for closing and locking the doors on the Otherside to have the same effect on the door in Colorado Springs. There’s a lot I don’t understand about how the mansion works. Thus far I haven’t really looked into it. I’m scared of what I might find out.


“What the hell, Winter?” Alexis asked, sounding rather subdued. “What is this place?”


“Um. Complicated answer,” I said. “The short version is, we aren’t actually in the house you saw. I’ll explain later, I promise. For now, just know that I live here, and you should be safe. Probably.” I led her into the throne room, moving pretty slowly. Now that the adrenaline had faded, I felt like I was about to fall over.


“That’s reassuring,” she said sarcastically. “Wait a second, you have a throne? Nice.” Grinning, she moved to sit in the massive ebony seat, richly upholstered in emerald velvet.


I reached out and caught her by the arm before she could. “Don’t,” I said warningly.


She glared at me, and jerked her arm roughly away. “Only you get to sit there, I take it?”


“No, actually, I never sit there. It’s just that there’s a landmine right underneath rigged to a pressure trigger. Put any weight on the cushions, and kablowie.”


“Not to mention the dart trap,” Aiko called, ambling down one of the marble spiral staircases. “Or the anvil rigged to fall on it.”


I glanced up and, sure enough, there was a sizeable hunk of steel just visible in the rafters. “You seriously set up a falling anvil?”


“Yep, put it in last week.”


I peered up into the shadows. “That cable looks a little thin. You sure it’ll hold?”


“Well, I wouldn’t stand right underneath, if that’s what you mean,” she said cheerfully.


I gulped and, very carefully, stepped back down from the dais. Alexis had already put a significant distance between herself and the throne. Snowflake, who had a surprising amount of survival instinct considering the company she kept, had wisely not gone anywhere near it in the first place.


“You’re the cousin, I take it?” Aiko asked brightly, walking over toward Alexis.


“Right, sorry,” I said hurriedly. “Alexis, this is my girlfriend, Aiko Miyake. Aiko, this is Alexis Hamilton.” They shook hands. Alexis promptly jumped, snatched her hand back, and glared at Aiko, who grinned smugly and put the joy buzzer back into her pocket.


Snowflake laughed, at least.


“So,” Aiko said, “is that a new piece of jewelry, or did you just get stabbed?”


I grimaced. “Definitely the latter. I don’t suppose you could…?”


“Sure, no problem,” she said briskly, brushing her hands off. She didn’t bother washing them; infection really isn’t a problem for werewolves, except under very specific and unlikely circumstances. “Lie down,” she told me, nodding at a wooden bench along the wall. It was intricately carved with patterns from a half-dozen cultures, but it was flat and even, which was all that mattered at the moment. I draped my cloak over the back and, with only minor difficulty, laid face down on the bench.


Aiko, as might be predicted, had some fairly straightforward attitudes about medicine, which didn’t have room for such sissy concepts as “anesthetic.” She braced one foot on my back, grabbed the claw sticking out of my back, and ripped it out in one motion.


“Ow!” I shouted, flinching hard. I almost dislodged her foot, and she glared at me.


“Stop squirming, wimp,” she said, bending over to inspect the wound. She poked and prodded a bit, and slid her fingers inside so she could hold it open and get a closer look at the interior, which wasn’t very much fun. I endeavored not to make too much noise while she did that, and tried not to move. I met with reasonable success, which I felt was really as much as you could ask under the circumstances.


Eventually, after an eon which may or may not have only lasted a few minutes, she let me sit back up. “You’ll be fine,” she said dismissively. “It’s only a flesh wound. When did you get to be such a wussy, anyway? Anyone’d think you were about to kick it.”


“Bite me,” I muttered, peeling off my armor. “You try being stabbed, we’ll see how your stiff upper lip holds up.”


“Aren’t you going to, like, do something about that?” Alexis asked. She sounded more than a little queasy.


“He doesn’t need anything,” Aiko said dismissively.


“Doesn’t need anything?” my cousin exclaimed incredulously. “There’s a hole through him!”


“Yes,” Aiko said patiently. “There is. But the blade entered at an oblique angle, which means most of that hole is very close to the surface. It pretty much just cut through muscle and fat. There’s a thin slice in the abdominal wall, nothing more. It should heal within a day.” She shrugged. “I could give you a bandage, I suppose.”


“I’ve got it,” I said wearily, wrapping my cloak around my midsection. I hadn’t actually been bleeding all that much, at least not by my depressingly low standards, but it would make Alexis feel better. “You’d better have saved some of that food I brought.”


Aiko snorted. “How like a werewolf. I swear, if you woke up during your own autopsy the first thing you’d do is ask the coroner for his lunch. Don’t worry, I saved the pizza for you.”


A short time later, the four of us were arranged around one end of the massive oak table in the dining room. I had a plate of pepperoni, Italian sausage, ground beef, and onion pizza, along with a couple of egg rolls and a little shrimp lo mein. I’d offered the same to Alexis, but she stuck to rice. Aiko, having already eaten dinner, was munching on the last of the brownies and a bottle of mango soda. Snowflake, being a dog, was eating a raw T-bone steak rubbed in garlic and pepper.


“This is horrible for you, you know,” Alexis said, prodding the sausage on my pizza suspiciously with her fork. “There’s enough cholesterol and saturated fat in this to make your arteries want to curl up and die.”


I stared. “Are you seriously trying to convert me to vegetarianism?” I asked incredulously.


“I’m just saying,” she said defensively. “And with all the preservatives and nitrates and nitrites and stuff in it, you’re basically stuffing your body full of chemicals with fifteen-syllable names. Not to mention that you’re doing seriously nasty things to your blood pressure with all that caffeine.” She looked pointedly at my iced tea.


Wow, Snowflake said, sounding awed. Are you sure she’s inexperienced, not stupid? ‘Cause that sounded pretty stupid to me. Did it sound that stupid to you?


Aiko muffled a snort of laughter—badly. “That is so adorable,” she said through a mouthful of brownie. “It’s like having a hyperactive puppy around.”


“That’s not really a problem for me,” I said hastily, as Alexis started to glare at Aiko. “Werewolves don’t have to worry about their cholesterol much.”


“What do you mean?” my cousin asked, still looking daggers at Aiko. For her part, the kitsune looked utterly untroubled, and was currently chugging Mexican soda. She’d faced down much, much worse things than Alexis, and a hard look from her was hardly going to ruffle Aiko’s feathers.


“Look at me,” I sighed. “I turned thirty-one last month, and I look younger than most twenty-year-olds. Aiko’s in her fifties and she can pass for sixteen without even trying.” I took another bite of pizza. “I’m not going to die from a heart attack.”


Alexis broke off her one-sided stare down to look at me. “Are you saying you’ll…?”


“Live forever?” I shrugged. “Pretty much, assuming nobody kills me—which isn’t very likely, by the way. But yeah, I’ve known werewolves at least a thousand years old or so, and some of them look younger than I do.” I drank some more iced tea. “Actually, for that matter, you probably don’t need to worry about cholesterol either. Even quarter-breed supernatural folk tend to live for a long time.”


Alexis didn’t say much for the rest of the meal. She didn’t eat any of the meat, either.


After dinner, we moved to the sitting room on the second floor of the house. It was furnished in more or less the same way as the rest of the house, with lots of dark wood and green fabric. The armchairs were really comfy, though, and the fireplace never seemed to die down, although I could clearly smell that it was a genuine wood fire.


“Okay,” I said, kicking back next to the fire. Snowflake was sprawled across my lap, her head, feet, and tail hanging off the edges. “You ready to answer a few questions?”


Alexis shrugged uncomfortably. “I guess, sure.”


“Great! So how the heck did you know those guys were coming in time to call me?”


“I saw them out the window.”


I raised one eyebrow. “From that far away?” I asked, not making an effort to keep the disbelief out of my voice.


“Well, I didn’t see them,” she amended. “But I saw around them. They look sort of stained.”


I paused. Something had occurred to me, a thought I really didn’t care for much. “Stained,” I said. “What do you mean by that?”


She shrugged again. “I don’t know. Things just looked stained. Like everything was covered in a layer of muck. Nasty.” She shuddered slightly. “I didn’t realize what it was coming from until I saw those…things. They looked worse.”


“I see,” I said carefully. “Alexis? What do I look like?”


She examined me closely. “White, mostly. A little bit of blue. It makes me think of snow. And your eyes are glowing.” She shivered again. “That looks a little creepy, by the way.”


“And Aiko?”


“Red,” she said promptly, looking at Aiko now. “Bits of black. And….” My cousin frowned. “What’s wrong with her teeth? They look sharp.”


I let out my breath in a rush. “Alexis? This is very important.” She turned back towards me, and something in my voice must have convinced her I was serious, because her expression was very sober. “Think about all the weird things you’ve noticed. Not the stuff we talked about at lunch, with the ice and such, but everything else. There’s probably something specific, some single thing that stood out. It might be some kind of sensory input, or maybe something that happens around you. It’s probably something small—even if anyone else noticed it, they would have put it down to coincidence. Can you think of anything like that?”


She frowned. “Well,” she said slowly, “I guess there is, yeah. Static electricity builds up around me more than other people. Like, a lot more.”


“Is that all?”


“No. I always know when a storm’s coming.” Her frown deepened. “And our house was struck by lightning eleven times last year.”


I grinned. I love being right. Except when I’m being paranoid and scared; then I hate it. But the rest of the time, there’s no thrill quite like taking a wild guess and hitting the bull’s-eye first try. “Lightning, eh? That could be a hell of a power.”


Aiko glanced at me. “You think she’s….?” she trailed off suggestively.


“Explains a lot, doesn’t it? I mean, I knew some of what I got was human, so it must have come through my mother’s side.” I frowned. “Actually, that might explain some of the things she did, too. I always wondered how she managed—”


“Excuse me,” Alexis interrupted, sounding like she’d gotten over the shock of the night enough to feel pretty annoyed, “but what the hell are you people talking about?”


“Long story,” I told her, “but the gist is that you might be a little less normal than I’d thought.” I frowned. “What time is it?”


“Quarter to eleven,” Aiko supplied.


“Shit. Look, I need to get some sleep. I promise I’ll tell you more tomorrow, okay?”


“I guess so,” she said, frowning. “I don’t suppose I could stay here tonight?”


“I was about to suggest just that. Come on, I’ll show you the guest bedroom.” One of several, actually; there were enough guest rooms in that house to sleep most sports teams. I led her to the blue-and-amethyst themed room in the opposite wing, the one over the lab side of the house (and that is how you know your house is absurdly large: when you can divide it into separate wings—better, when you actually have to do so to keep things straight). That was partially because I seemed to remember that she liked those colors, and partially because it was one of the less booby-trapped ones.


They were all at least a little trapped, of course. We turned every room we didn’t use into a deathtrap. But that particular room was far enough from the main, well-traveled areas of the mansion that any invader was unlikely to spend much time there, and as a result it was relatively safe.


“Will this do?” I asked, opening the door and preceding her into the room.


Alexis looked around with an expression of envy she didn’t bother trying to disguise. This was one of the few rooms in the building that went with pale woods—birch, ash, and maple, primarily, with accents of yellowheart and jelutong. To make sure nobody thought it was inexpensive, I guess. Yellowheart was nowhere near as spendy as ebony or rosewood, but that much of the stuff would still cost several hundred, easily.


“Damn,” Alexis said, looking at her reflection in the full-length mirror on the wall. It was, needless to say, mounted in a finely crafted, intricately carved birch frame. Someone had also taken advantage of the pale wood’s high contrast to burn an incredibly detailed floral pattern into it. “Never mind where we are, how can you afford this?”


“That’s another long story,” I said wryly. I gestured at the sturdy oak door. “Bathroom’s through there. Don’t use the dental floss, it’s coated with a contact poison. Don’t use the deadbolt, either; once you lock it, it’s a hell of a trick to unlock without setting off a landmine in the hallway.”


“Are you serious?”


“Absolutely,” I said, walking out of the room. “Oh, I’ll probably be gone before you wake up. Don’t touch any of the plants in the garden, don’t go into the basement, don’t go to the third floor. And it’s probably best if you don’t leave the house tomorrow, okay? You should be safe here, but there’s no telling whether somebody’ll try to attack you again if you go outside—and you won’t be able to get back in without me. There are books in the library if you get bored. Don’t touch the locked cases.”


“Okay,” Alexis said, sounding a little overwhelmed. “Good night, Winter.”


“Good night, Alexis.” I pointedly closed the door behind myself and went to get some sleep.


It wasn’t actually that simple, of course. It’s never that simple. I’d already ditched the armor, and been smart enough to put it away before dinner, but I still had to deal with the clothes. Flesh wound or not, it wasn’t much fun twisting around, and I wound up just cutting off the shirt, since it was going to get cut up for rags anyway. Call me crazy, but I don’t like wearing a shirt with two stab holes and a whole bunch of bloodstains. Even if it didn’t attract the wrong sort of attention, it always seems rather macabre.


Once that was done, I figured I’d better go ahead and shower before I went to bed. The master bathroom on the third floor was incredible, of course. Every bathroom in the house was marble, or something so close to it as to be indistinguishable to my untrained eye, but most of them were in stark black and white. This was a vivid green like nothing I’d seen elsewhere, accented with black. The sunken bathtub was a circle fifteen feet in diameter, the shower was its own room with more than a dozen showerheads in the marble walls, and the sink could have doubled as a birdbath for an entire flock of starlings at once.


The absurdly excessive luxury didn’t make washing the wound out much more entertaining. But hey, look on the bright side and all that. At least I had as much hot water as I could possibly want. (Literally, I mean. Not long after we moved in, Aiko decided to find out how big the water heater was. Given that we couldn’t find it anywhere, she just turned on every tap in the house as hot as possible. Three hours later, when we still hadn’t lost either temperature or pressure to any noticeable degree, we had to admit it was pretty much infinite. It says a lot about us that neither of us thought to look, until that point, and see that there wasn’t any actual plumbing connected to the taps anyway.)


Aiko hadn’t been far wrong in her estimate, though. It wasn’t a serious injury. The bleeding had already stopped, and I could feel that it had already started healing. I didn’t bother with a bandage. Once again I’d gotten lucky.


I dried myself off with a plush green towel thicker than some mattresses, never mind mere carpet, and put on a silk jacket and pants. They were forest green in color, needless to say (Fenris sort of has a single-track mind when it comes to decor, which would bother me a lot more if green wasn’t my favorite color), although the jacket had a stylized wolf’s head on the back in silver.


I can’t make up my mind whether it’s hilarious, disgusting, pathetic, or all three at once. That outfit, made out of genuine silk as it was, would cost more than a lot of business suits. And it’s just one of a full dozen outfits just of pajamas.


I never even used to have pajamas. Good grief.


I padded back out into the bedroom, making no more noise than a cat. That’s not difficult, when you sink an inch into the carpet on every step. Snowflake was already sleeping on the bed, a massive four-poster with green velvet curtains. It wasn’t a king-size bed. It wasn’t even a double king. It was, without exaggerating, twenty feet on a side, perfectly capable of sleeping ten without crowding. You could use it as a dance floor without much difficulty. Fenris must have arranged the bedding special, because I’m pretty sure only royalty uses beds that size, and not many of them. Snowflake and Aiko and I all sleep in one corner most nights, because the concept of using that entire bed was just too ridiculous to entertain.


I slid beneath the covers, wincing only very slightly, and grabbed one of the dozen or so down pillows. Snowflake made a sort of gentle whining sound, apparently without waking, and rolled over so that she was lying across my feet. I flicked the lights off, leaving the room in perfect darkness unspoiled by even the smallest glimmer of illumination (there are no windows, and none of the three of us was the sort to need any form of nightlight).


Aiko came in around five minutes later. She wasn’t loud about it—she’s too preternaturally graceful to ever really make much noise moving—but she didn’t try to hide her presence either. Probably worried I’d hear her sneaking around and overreact before I’d quite woken up, and reasonably so given how paranoid I’d become in recent years.


“So,” she murmured as she slipped into bed next to me. “How much does that actually hurt? A lot? Or just enough that you’ll be sore afterward?”


“You do realize Alexis is probably still awake, right?”


“Duh. I also realize that this room is soundproof. Besides,” and I could hear her grin even if it was too dark to see it, “I saw that you put her on the far side of the house from us.” The master bedroom took up the entire third floor, but a lot of that was the bathroom, or closet space. There were a few chairs, a couple of small bookshelves, and a significant amount of open floor. Now that I thought about it, it was true that Alexis’s room was under Snowflake’s closet, and about as far from us as it was possible to get on the second floor—although I was sure that hadn’t influenced my decision. Not consciously, at any rate.


Snowflake proved that her evident slumber had been an act by picking that moment to stand up, yawn hugely, and stalk a dozen feet away from us on the bed before laying back down. I can see where this is going, she muttered without any particular heat. Wake me when you two are finished, would you?

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