Frost Bitten 7.2

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When I became cognizant of my surroundings again, the contrast was quite remarkable. The air was cold, helped by a noticeable breeze. I could smell snow on the air. The leaves were long since fallen, but pine needles rustle pretty well in the wind too.


“I told you he’d be here,” someone said. I didn’t recognize the voice, which immediately put me on high alert—because, seriously, if someone you don’t know says that right after exiting a portal on your way to help a friend with an unspecified favor, you’d damn well better be scared.


I opened my eyes and looked around. I was leaning heavily against a spruce tree, but I at least felt capable of movement. A quick glance showed that Aiko, Snowflake, and Alexis were all present and accounted for, and appeared unharmed, which was a relief.


The bad news was that a half-dozen people I didn’t know were also present. They all looked human, more or less, but it wasn’t a perfect resemblance. There were a bunch of tiny details that just weren’t quite right. None of them were dressed for this kind of weather, for one thing, and yet none of them seemed to notice the cold or the wind. They weren’t carrying any lights. Their clothing was a bizarre mix of different styles and time periods—each individual was internally consistent, but between them they had everything from a 1920s newsboy to a modern Goth teenager.


The one who’d spoken appeared to be a male, in his late teens, in a Scottish-style kilt. But it was a slightly older-looking female with a face vaguely resembling a hatchet wearing modern thrift-store rejects who led the group towards us.


She stopped around ten feet from me, her cohorts arranged in a rough semicircle behind her, and looked us over. “You Winter Wolf?” she said at last. Her voice was unpleasant, rough and raspy. Her ash-grey eyes were hard, cold, and almost feverishly intense.


I considered my answer for a moment. I was getting a distinctly unfriendly vibe from these people, which I was disinclined to dismiss. On the other hand, they outnumbered us six-to-four, and given that Alexis wasn’t much of a fighter that effectively gave them twice our numbers. Depending on what exactly they were that might or might not be an insurmountable challenge. In any case, though, I thought we’d do better given a chance to recover from the crossing, which meant I wanted to keep them talking, which meant I had to play along.


“That’s me,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “Who am I talking to?”


They ignored my question entirely. The ringleader smiled, a nasty and unsettling smile. She suddenly had a knife in her hand, a long and simple knife of some metal that looked and smelled like silver. Behind her, the others produced weapons as well. “Going to make you pay, wolf,” she said quietly. Her voice, although superficially calm, just about made me shiver, and not many people can pull that off anymore.


I stood up straight and called Tyrfing to hand, but didn’t draw it. “Look,” I said calmly, not backing down or looking away from the ringleader. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t know who you people are. So, if you’d care to sit down for a few minutes and talk this over, I really think it would be better for both of us.”


“Don’t believe you.”


“Took him away.”


“Going to die, wolf.”


“Killed him. We kill you.”


“Liar. We know your kind.”


“Make you pay.”


I wasn’t entirely sure where the whispers were coming from. I mean, it was fairly clear that they were coming from the people I was talking to, just from thematic resemblance, so in that sense of course I did know where they were coming from. But they sounded like they were emanating from thin air, or the forest around me, with no clear source. The result was fairly creepy. The semicircle of armed, whispering lunatics started moving closer.


Aiko was suddenly standing right next to me, her wakizashi already drawn and gleaming dangerously in the moonlight. She made a sound intermediate in tone between a snarl and a hiss. The group of nutters slowed, then the ringleader spat something in a language I didn’t recognize and they started moving again.


Right about then, I heard a branch breaking in the woods. Judging by the sound it came from not far behind the ring of psychos, who froze when they heard it. A moment later the leader said something else in the same language and sliced across her own arm with her knife, holding her arms open as though to embrace someone. The effect on the rest of them was instant and dramatic. They immediately stopped advancing and put away weapons. A few seconds later a portal to the Otherside formed at the leader’s feet, looking like a bottomless pit, and they jumped through, vanishing. She gave me one last hate-filled look, then followed them down, the portal closing after her.


A few seconds later Kyra walked out from under the trees. She wasn’t carrying a light source, and appeared to be having no trouble navigating the forest undergrowth by moonlight. Werewolves are quite comfortable in the dark. “Hey, Winter,” she said. Then she frowned, seeing the weaponry. “What’s the problem?”


“Thought I heard something,” I said, which was technically true. “How’d you know where to find us?”


Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t just tell Kyra the truth. The reason for that is very simple. At this point, I had essentially no knowledge at all about what was going on, or why she’d asked me to come here, and only the vaguest conjectures about what had just happened. Given that, I’d be a fool of monumental proportions to share any information that might turn out to be a valuable secret until I had a better hand on the situation.


You might be saying that, given that Kyra was my best friend and ally, I should be sharing what info I had with her. That would be correct. Unfortunately, it also overlooks a great deal. The reality of the situation was that I’d had very little contact with Kyra for several years. At this point, she might owe loyalty to any number of people who were inimical to me. If that was the case, and at this point I had no evidence as to whether it was or not, then we might well find ourselves in opposition, regardless of our personal feelings towards each other.


I hate thinking like that. I hate treating my friends as potential enemies. Absolutely hate it. But that can’t change the fact that it is a necessary consequence of the path my life had taken. And, given that I made those choices knowing full well that there would be a price to pay, I have little room for complaint.


“I didn’t know where you would be, actually,” she said. That made sense, given that I hadn’t told her. She hooked one thumb over her shoulder. “He did,” she said.


Bryan Ferguson stepped into my field of view. He was wearing nondescript tan clothing, reminiscent of traditional Bedouin garb, but in all other ways looked exactly as he had when I’d seen him last. “Good evening, Winter,” he said in his toneless voice.


I sighed. Just what I needed. “Good evening,” I said resignedly. It wasn’t, of course, but there were certain patterns to follow. Bryan wouldn’t care about such things, but it helped me keep my mind off how much worse things had just gotten.


“Come,” he said, making no mention of the fact that I’d just lied to Kyra—and I was certain he knew that I’d lied. It was very difficult to deceive Bryan, and in any case I was confident he’d heard or otherwise sensed the weirdos. “You should speak with Edward. This is not a safe place for you now.”


I didn’t argue. Kyra looked like she wanted to ask him what the hell he was talking about, but she didn’t say anything. Alexis and Aiko both started to ask me questions, but I shushed them; this was very much not the time or place to have this discussion.


And so the lot of us followed the werewolves through the woods, which seemed a lot more shadowy than they had a few moments prior. Nobody spoke. Bryan did not look back to see if we were following. He did not need to.


Wolf, Wyoming’s a pretty interesting place—or, more accurately, I respond to it in interesting ways. It isn’t my home anymore, but there’s a certain amount of truth to the claim that what’s learned in the cradle is taken to the grave. This place had been home when I was a kid, even before I moved here, and something of that comforting familiarity would always stick with me.


Walking into town, I always get the feeling that it’s strangely insulated from the outside world. That part of Wyoming is mostly plains and rolling hills leading up into the foothills, but there’s a small, anomalous forest at the edge of town. I’ve never been quite sure whether Edward is responsible for it, or it’s natural and he just chose to settle down near it.


Whatever the cause, the result is a small, quiet town bordered by forest to the northwest and tall, steep hills on every other side. The only road in is a low-traffic two-lane highway that switchbacks along the hills in one end of town and out the other. It had been paved since the last time I’d been here, more than a decade ago, but a decent number of the roads in town were still dirt. Only a few miles away, I knew, the plains reasserted themselves, but inside the bowl of the valley, you wouldn’t guess that the topography was so drastically different a short distance away. Edward has a fairly sizable ranch out there; he doesn’t make very much money from it, I don’t think, but he doesn’t really worry about things like that.


It’s a quiet, peaceful little place, and Edward works very hard to keep it that way. Oh, not officially—but even the human residents are well aware of who’s in charge, and his unofficial directives have a way of being enforced by pretty much everyone in the community. It’s one of the few places I know of where, even before the whole publicity stunt fiasco, you could reasonably expect that anyone you talked to would believe in werewolves.


They don’t talk about it much. Living there, you learn quickly that there are some questions you just don’t ask.


It was a good place to me, when I was younger. Somewhere I could get away from a world I couldn’t cope with anymore. Strange, that it wasn’t until I reflected on it as an adult that I realized that most of the other residents were there for the same reason.


“Spooky place,” Alexis said quietly after maybe thirty seconds of walking through town. Edward’s house was on the other side of town, and while that didn’t mean too much in such a small place it was still a few minutes of walking.


I glanced at her curiously. “Oh? How so?”


“There aren’t many ways to get around. No streetlights.” She shrugged vaguely. “Besides. It just has a spooky vibe.”


“I’ve always found it pleasant,” Kyra said, demonstrating once again that werewolf ears work rather better than most humans’. “Not too many people around. Plenty of space.”


“Well, yeah,” my cousin said dryly. “You can see in the dark.” She didn’t know Kyra real well, but she’d spent enough time around her to be comfortable talking with her. I didn’t visit Wyoming, however many times Edward or Kyra invited me—too many memories, all of them tainted by the way I’d left—but she’d come back to visit a few times.


“So can you,” I pointed out. “Consider it an incentive to practice more.”


“Easy for you to say,” she muttered. “You’ve got air. Being able to sense electric charges hardly helps me.”


“So fake it,” I suggested cheerfully. “You could always try echolocation.”


“You can do that?” Kyra asked me.


“I can’t, personally, because I never saw enough use in it to learn how. But theoretically, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to do it. I mean, conceptually, you could actually learn to use the same principle for any kind of sensory stimulus. I’ve always thought UV light sounded cool; nobody can see it, and there’s no time lag.”


“God, you’re nerdy,” Aiko said disgustedly. “I think we’re going to have to stage an intervention or something.”


“Says the person who collects Weird Al albums and plays independently produced video games.”


Ooh, epic burn! Snowflake said, her mental voice excited. You just pwned that noob! Woot!


The resultant laughing fit put an end to the conversation for several seconds. It was obvious everyone was wondering what was so funny, but they knew better than to ask and I didn’t think I could really explain anyway. I found myself feeling suddenly sympathetic for Bryan, which was an interesting revelation but not immediately important.


Besides, we were there.


Edward’s house, a one-story affair crouched on top of a small hill, wasn’t terribly large. It didn’t really have to be; he isn’t the type to spend much time in the house, in any case. But it’s big enough to serve as a meeting place for his pack, which makes it bigger than most people’s homes, and he has a really nice garage out back. I was somehow unsurprised to see that none of those things had changed. This wasn’t the sort of place where change was welcome.


Bryan opened the front door without knocking and didn’t hesitate as he walked in. He still hadn’t said a word since greeting us, if you could even call that a greeting. Kyra closed the door behind us.


We walked straight to Edward’s study, a room where he spent as little time as he could get away with. It showed, too; the bookshelves, which were largely empty, had a thick layer of dust on them. But the massive desk, a relic that looked to be almost as old as Edward, was just as impressive as I remembered, framed by the floor-to-ceiling window that looked out over the town. Edward himself was seated behind the desk, and in terms of visual impressiveness he was definitely overshadowed by it. He looked to be a dark-haired, well-tanned man in his late twenties, kinda short and with an unfashionable amount of facial hair, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt.


He put down the paper he was reading immediately when we walked in. “Winter!” he exclaimed in a surprisingly deep voice, coming around the desk. He swept me into the kind of embrace that tells you why they called it a bear hug in the first place. A moment later, though, he drew back. “What the hell are you wearing, boy? Armor?”


I grinned and let my cloak slide aside a little to expose gleaming metal underneath. “Don’t leave the house without it,” I said, only halfway joking.


He shook his head. “Good Lord, son. You’ve grown.” He sounded almost sorrowful.


“It happens,” I said, shrugging.


He sighed, then shook himself briskly. “Enough of that,” he said firmly. “Who’s your friends?”


“Right,” I said, quite willing to leave that topic far behind. “This is my cousin, Alexis Harrison.” Alexis started slightly at that; I don’t normally make any mention of our family relationship, for perfectly valid reasons. “Then Snowflake, and Aiko Miyake.”


“Well met,” he said, nodding to each of them in turn, and actually bowing slightly to Aiko. “And I must say, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you, Miss Miyake. I’ve heard a great deal about you.”


“I’ll bet,” she muttered, seeming unable to decide between smirking and kicking me in the shin. Predictably enough, she settled on both, although the impact was largely mitigated by the aforementioned armor.


“Okay,” I said, dropping into one of the hard, almost stool-like chairs. “I think that’s enough introducing. What’s the deal?”


“Wow,” Kyra said. “I think you’ve actually gotten worse at small talk in the last few years. I would have sworn it was impossible.”


“Maybe later. It’s already been a long night. Also,” I said as an afterthought, “I can’t help but notice that the rifle on your wall’s freshly oiled, Kyra’s dressed for a quick shift, the keys were left in your truck out front, there’s a revolver in the top right drawer of your desk, and oh yeah, freaking Bryan Ferguson is in town.” Although not, I noticed, in the room; he must have left once we were safely here. “I think I’ve got reasonable cause for concern and then some.”


Wait a second, Snowflake said. How did you know about the revolver?


There’s always a revolver in Edward’s desk, I admitted. I’m betting it’s still there. But Edward might not remember that I know about it.


Edward exchanged a significant look with Kyra, then sighed, and walked back around the desk to slump in his office chair. “War,” he said heavily.


“It doesn’t have to be,” Kyra said sharply. “That’s the whole point.”


“Won’t work,” he said bluntly. “Trust me, Walker. I know these folk. They ain’t gonna back down.”


“Wait, what?” The three—well, four, but nobody else heard Snowflake—of us said it at more or less exactly the same time. I think we were about equally confused.


“A legal dispute—”


“What’s that have to do with war?” Aiko interrupted.


“—with the fae,” Edward finished smoothly.


“Oh,” I said. That could be seriously nasty; not for nothing do the fae have a reputation for an obsession with bargains and promises, or a reputation for horrifically out-of-proportion responses to people who break the rules thereof. “What happened?”


“One of my wolves was in a fight with some fae jackass,” he said in a near-growl. Edward wasn’t much given to mild emotional states. “Everyone agrees it was the elf’s fault, but one thing lead to another and now he’s dead and my man’s in trouble for it. Worse trouble, because he has a contract with them.”


“You let one of your wolves make a deal with the fae?” Aiko asked incredulously.


“I looked it over first,” he said. “It shouldn’t have been a problem. Definitely not anything like this. Anyway, I’m saying he’s mine and they got no leg to stand on. They’re saying he should be tried in their courts, which we know won’t end well for him.”


“Probably not,” I agreed. “So, I have two questions. First, why call me? Second, what the hell have Bryan and Dolph got to do with this?”


Edward sighed. “Comes down to the treaty Conn signed with them. Now we have to worry about causing a ‘diplomatic incident,’ so I can’t just tell them to go screw themselves. Dolph’s here to make sure nothing goes south. Bryan, well. Hell if I or anyone else can figure out what he’s up to.”


“Fair enough,” I admitted. “And me?”


Kyra cleared her throat. “This part was my idea,” she admitted.


I closed my eyes. “You had to say that,” I groaned. “I was just starting to hope this wouldn’t turn into one of your disaster stories.”


“If you think about it,” she said, ignoring me, “you’re a neutral party. You aren’t officially involved with us. So I suggested you as a neutral arbiter.”


“See, that’s exactly the sort of thing I was hoping not to hear. You realize I can’t exactly just throw in with you, right? I mean, I wish I could, but I can’t. There’d be way too many consequences, for way too many people.”


“If nothing else,” Aiko pointed out, “you could be a genuinely neutral mediator, which is way more than anyone they suggest will do.”


I glared at her. “Thanks a lot. Whose side are you on, anyway?”


She shrugged. “I calls ’em like I sees ’em. Besides, this sort of thing that could pay, like, really really well.”


I sighed. “Fine. I’ll stay long enough to talk to Dolph. After that, well, we’ll see.”


“Fair enough,” Edward said. “If nothing else, it’s good to see you, boy. You should visit more often.”


“Yeah, yeah, I know. I don’t suppose there’s somewhere we could spend the night? If you want me to look neutral, it would probably work better if I don’t stay here.”


“There’s a bed-and-breakfast in town,” he offered. “Down at the old Carlton house.”


“I remember where it is.” It hadn’t been a B&B when I lived here, but I used to know the Carltons. They’d been humans, but Edward had been friends with the family for the better part of a century. I had no idea what happened to them after I left, though.


“I’ll tell them to expect you,” he said. There was no question of whether they would be open; in Wolf, you were open when Edward Frodsham told you to be. “Good night, Winter.”


Kyra drove us to the bed-and-breakfast. She didn’t make any further effort to convince me on the way, and dropped us off at the door.


A few minutes later, we were unpacking in a small two-bed room on the second floor, a process made significantly easier by our lack of luggage. I dropped my backpack on the floor, stretched, and locked the door behind us.


“I am so confused right now,” Alexis said. “Do we finally get to talk about what happened out there?”


“Not quite yet,” I said, crossing to the window. I couldn’t see any activity, so I opened the window wide and popped out the screen.


“What are you doing?”


“Just wanted a little fresh air,” I said, sticking my head out the window and looking around. I still couldn’t see anyone. I took my cloak off, rearranging the shadows it was made from into the shape of a long, thin rope. I had to empty the pockets to do it, but that wasn’t a huge problem. Alexis started to ask what I was doing; Aiko, who’d figured it out, shushed her.


Snowflake went first, disdaining the rope and just jumping out the window. It takes more of a fall than that to annoy her. Once she’d given the all-clear, Aiko slid down after her almost as quickly. Alexis, who wasn’t anywhere near as physically competent as either of them, took longer, but eventually the rope slackened and I knew she’d made it down. I pulled the rope back in and twisted it back into its normal shape, replaced the gear in the pockets, and climbed out the window.


Magic works in interesting ways. Most people—well, most mages; most people don’t have any magic worth noticing—can only use it in a few, very specific ways. It doesn’t even matter all that much how skilled you are, or how long you’ve been practicing. Nobody ever manages to get good at more than the tiniest fraction of what magic’s capable of. On the other hand, within those few specific categories, you can learn to do some really neat tricks.


I’ve got three talents, in that regard. First, I’ve got a kinship with predators. Second, I have a minor talent with darkness and shadows—my cloak is the height of what I’ve managed in that line, but I occasionally find another use for it. And, finally, I’m passable at manipulating air and wind.


It was that last one I was counting on right now.


I can’t fly with magic. Almost no one can. It’s way too difficult and way too dangerous, and it has a very steep learning curve. It’s hard to learn something when it takes a lot of practice and your first mistake has a tendency to be your last. But one of the first real applications I learned for air magic was altering the density and movement of air to slow falling. I’ve had a lot of practice at it, and by now I can pretty much jump out of a plane without a parachute and consider it little more than a thrill. Well, one of the things I’d figured out more recently is that there’s only a relatively small difference between convincing the air to support some of your weight and convincing it to support all of your weight.


Granted, that little difference makes it a lot more challenging.


But, while my new job has a lot of downsides, I have to admit that there are also certain perks. Namely, tons of resources and ample free time. One of the things I’d used that time for was rethinking and improving my gear. While I’d been reinforcing the leather boots that matched the armor, I’d also made them into a spell focus.


That can have a lot of meanings. Basically, a focus is just something you use to cheat the system and make magic simpler and less draining. For the most part, my foci were simple, general tools designed to help with handling a broad spectrum of energies. But this time, I’d gone for something much more specific: a pair of boots that did nothing but make it easier to thicken and strengthen the air directly underneath them. The downside is that they’re absolutely useless for anything else, except in the sense that any pair of boots is useful. The upside is that a focus that specific can be pretty good at what it’s designed for. Under normal circumstances I’m pretty terrible with air magic, relatively speaking, but with that focus I could manage to more or less hold my own weight.


It isn’t flying; all the motion is still being generated by me, and it can be a pain climbing what’s effectively a very steep staircase while also concentrating on even a simple magic. I can’t move faster than I can walk, either. And it’s pretty draining; even with the focus, it’s a lot of magic, and I’m not skilled enough to pull it off without a hell of a lot of inefficiency. But I can stand on air. That, right there, is worth it.


I made sure the curtain was closed and shut the window, then let myself drop. I rolled when I hit the ground, having no more trouble with the fall than Snowflake had, then stood and looked around. We were all still here and nobody had showed up to kill us yet, so I was going to tentatively call it a success so far.


“We aren’t staying here?” Alexis asked.


“Sure we are,” I said, walking off in a random direction. “But it’s even money that Edward has the place bugged, and I don’t feel like letting him in on this conversation just yet.”


“I thought you trusted him.”


I shrugged. “For a certain value of trust, sure. Edward’s got a proven track record of lying to me ‘for my own good,’ remember? And there’s something they aren’t telling us here.”


As much as I hate to encourage your paranoia, Snowflake said reluctantly, I think you might actually be right this time. And I don’t like it that Bryan knew where to find us.


That had been worrying me, too. Well, if I was going to be honest anything involving Bryan Ferguson worried me more than just slightly, but this worried more than that.


“So…is that a yes or a no on the trusting?”


I thought about it for a moment. It hadn’t ever really occurred to me to put it in such simple terms. “I guess I trust Edward to be Edward,” I said eventually. “I’m fairly confident he has my best interest at heart. He’s seriously protective about his people, and he’ll always think of me as one of his people. But I don’t trust him to know what my best interests are.” I shrugged. “And I might be being too hard on him. Okay, moving on. We only have so much time before someone notices something.”


“So who was the creepy bastard with Kyra?” Aiko asked. She sounded cheery, but I noticed that she hadn’t argued about leaving the room, and now that we were outside she was looking around watchfully with one hand on her sword.


“That was Bryan Ferguson.”


She froze, then stared at me. “The Bryan Ferguson? The Man in Black? The Lone Wolf? That Bryan Ferguson?”


“Yup, pretty sure. Don’t think there’s another Bryan Ferguson they’d call something like that.”


“Well, shit.”


“I guess you’ve heard some of the stories,” I said dryly.


“Wait a second,” Alexis said. “Who is this guy?”


“Well,” I said, “that’s kind of a complicated question. You remember I told you about the Khan, right?”




“Well, his name is Conn Ferguson. He lives in North Dakota—I lived there with his pack for a while. He’s a pretty nice guy, so long as you stay on his good side.”


“Christ, isn’t there anyone you don’t know?”


“Of course there is. You’re just mostly meeting spooky people because I introduce you to them, which skews the sample. Anyway, Conn has three children. The youngest one, Erin, is an assassin. She kills people who get in his way, and she does freelance work. She’s about two hundred and fifty years old or so.”


“That’s the youngest one?” Alexis said incredulously.


“Yup. There’s a reason people are scared of them. The second one is Rudolph, but everyone calls him Dolph. I recommend you not make fun of his name in any way, because he could eat you alive. He does a lot of diplomatic and political work, which I don’t know very much about because I try to avoid high-level politics. He’s five hundred, give or take a few decades.”


“You’re really annoying when you get into lecture mode, you know that, right?”


“Yeah, well, the next part is where it gets good.” I grinned at her. “See, nobody knows how old Bryan is. Except Conn, presumably, and he isn’t talking. But I know it’s over a thousand years.”


“A thousand years.”


“At least. At a guess, fifteen hundred isn’t unreasonable.” I shook my head. “Bryan’s…scary. Really scary. He doesn’t work like a normal person, and he doesn’t follow the rules.”


“What do you mean?” Aiko asked, cutting Alexis off—although, realistically, she was probably going to say the exact same thing, so it hardly matters.


I frowned. “It’s…hard to explain. Look, everybody knows what a werewolf can do, right? You’ve got superhuman strength and speed, unnatural healing, functional immortality, mental effects, weakness to silver, you can just go down a checklist. Well, he’s got all that. But he can do all sorts of crazy other things too. He disappears, and no one knows where he goes, and then he shows up anywhere from a few hours to a few decades later somewhere else. Or there’s the way he just…knows things.” I shivered. “Don’t look in his eyes, by the way. Really bad idea.”


“How does he do it?” Alexis asked, sounding fascinated.


“Well,” I hedged, “keep in mind that asking him stuff isn’t exactly a productive thing to do, so this is all my best guesses. But I’d say that he’s like me, a hybrid of multiple factors that all combine in ways that aren’t necessarily predictable. Werewolf’s one, obviously. But my bet would be that the other is mage, and if I had to say specifically I’d guess shaman.”


“Shaman?” Aiko sounded surprised. “Why?”


I shrugged. “Just a guess, really. I haven’t seen him do anything that falls into one of the other categories. And some of the things Alexander said imply that accessing weird sources of information is one of the things shamans are really good at. But all I really know is that I don’t know what all he can do, and his psychology is so freaking weird I can’t even guess what he will do.”


“So how do you think he knew where to find us?” That was Aiko again. She’s had more experience with how enormous and varied the supernatural world was, so she was more inclined to just accept that Bryan was an almost totally unknown variable and move on to practical matters.


“Felt the gate forming? He already knows where my gate locations are? Tracked the people who met us there? Saw the future?” I shrugged again. “Too many possibilities, too many unknowns.”


“Fine,” Alexis said, “but while we’re on the subject, who were those people? I was getting, like, a really freaky vibe off them.”


I frowned and thought back on it. “I’m not sure,” I said slowly. “Their smell was…really weird.” I hadn’t taken the time to really analyze their magic, probably because I was still disoriented from the portal and not thinking very clearly.


“Half-breed fae,” Aiko said with a distant look in her eyes.


“You sure?”


She gave me an unamused look. “I ran with the Courts for almost a decade, Winter. I know a half-breed when I see it.”


I forget sometimes that Aiko is older than me, and in some ways vastly more experienced. It’s easy, most of the time, because she lives so much in the present, but sometimes—like this one—I get this feeling of how alien she really is, and as much as I love her it still makes me want to shiver.


“I couldn’t say what their fae sides were,” she continued, once again seeming like she was looking through me rather than at me. “But I’m sure that’s what they are. Well, that’s what the leader was, and most of the rest. I think a few of the others might be changelings.”


“What’s the difference?” Alexis asked, beating me to the punch. Good thing, too; asking questions like that hardly makes you look the knowledgeable and experienced mentor figure.


“A half-breed has human and fae blood,” Aiko said, snapping back to the here-and-now. “A changeling is full-blooded, either way, but they were raised in the opposite world.”


“And that makes a difference?”


“Oh, yes,” she said. Something about her manner made me suspect that she’d had a less than pleasant experience with a changeling in the past, and it had stuck with her. “Fae-born changelings are almost like really low-level mages; they know there’s something odd about them, but it’s minor enough they just dismiss it as being lucky or something, and they’ll almost never catch on unless someone points it out to them. Human-born ones are a little more…unpredictable. They aren’t citizens there, and they don’t fit here. Makes them dangerous. Desperate, a lot of the time.”


“Do they have any actual powers?” I asked.


She shrugged. “Sometimes. They’re not as powerful as a real faerie, but they can do some things normal people can’t. Like I said, they’re unpredictable. You never really know what a changeling’s got.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Think there’s any chance it’s unrelated?”


“Nope,” she said brightly. “That’s why I was telling you to take the job. So who’d you kill that they’re so upset about?”


“Not sure. I haven’t killed any faeries recently. You?”


“Just the one last month, but that was self-defense.” Aiko paused. “Not that they would care about that.”


“Yeah,” I agreed, “but it was also a female. The one tonight very clearly said I’d killed a ‘him.'”


“Oh yeah. I forgot about that.”


I sighed. “Okay. So, in summary, we don’t know who they were with any specificity, we don’t know what they want beyond the obvious, and we don’t really know what’s going on here. That about right?”


“Pretty much!” Aiko said excitedly. “This is great news, Winter, it really is. It’s been way too long since something exciting happened around here. I was starting to get bored, and we all know what happens then.”


Yeah, Snowflake agreed. I haven’t gotten to kill anything bigger than a rabbit for weeks. This is shaping up to be so much fun!


You’re both frigging crazy, I muttered as we walked back to the room. But I couldn’t deny, as I climbed up with my nifty air-walking trick to open the window and drop the rope for the rest, that I was looking forward to the next few days. Whatever happened, it could hardly be worse than beating my head against the wall that was authority.

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