I do not like rituals.
When a mage talks about rituals, they usually mean one of two things. The first is ritual magic—long, drawn-out spells involving large amounts of power and lots of props. I don’t do that sort of magic very often, but it’s more because I don’t normally have the time than because I have a personal objection to it. Ritual magic is basically just another kind of magic, and whether you do any given spell as a ritual or the fast-and-dirty style I preferred had more to do with personal preference and your talent with that type of magic than anything.
The other thing they might be talking about are actual rituals. They tend to be more specific and demanding than spells, less like a recipe and more like chemical synthesis. Instead of “Arrange representations of the four elements and meditate on what they mean,” you get things like “Light a fire using rowan wood that hasn’t been cut by metal, then sing Silent Night in Tahitian”.
The thing people tend not to realize at first is that rituals aren’t magic. They might involve magic, they might require magic, they might produce effects which resemble magic. But they aren’t magic.
The simplest way to think about it is by analogy. Let’s say that there’s a certain building in the downtown area of a certain city. If you go there, and you go to the thirteenth floor, you will find a serious person wearing a serious suit, black or possibly dark blue. If you talk to this person, and you know the right words to say, and you show this person the right objects, and you make the right marks on a piece of paper, then the person will give you money. How much money is difficult to predict, but one thing you know for certain. Within a given amount of time, you will have to return this money, with a certain amount extra, to the man in the suit. If you don’t then things will happen which…may be very bad for you.
What I’m getting at is that the process of applying for a loan is every bit as arcane and arbitrary as any summoning. It doesn’t make any more sense. If you didn’t know anything about it then it would seem just as obtuse, and you’d have pretty much no chance of figuring out the rules from the outside. If you were to see it with no experience of what the game means, then you might well describe it as magic.
Rituals are pretty much the same thing. They aren’t magic, however much they might seem like it. They’re a system of rules for communicating. The only difference is that the rules of the game are much, much different. They’re older, for one thing, and by and large they weren’t made by humans. Far from it, in fact. As a result, most of the time the rules aren’t very pleasant for the mortal party.
Most rituals involve sacrifice in one way or another. Sing the right prayer and throw a diamond in the fire, and a salamander will come to guard your home for a day and a night. Drain the blood of a lamb into a silver bowl (a large one, presumably) and offer it up to Black Annis, and a hag will come to guide you home, however far you’ve strayed. If you hang nine men from an ash tree in the name of the Hanged God, then Allfather Odin will come and answer any question you can think to ask.
The rewards can be considerable. But there’s always a price.
As if that weren’t discouragement enough, rituals also tend to have extremely specific requirements. It has to be an ash tree, for example; no other gallows will do. Only men are acceptable sacrifices; women and children need not apply. They have to know exactly what’s happening, too, and go gladly to the tree. Mess up any one of the requirements, even slightly, and the best you can hope for is failure. If the ritual you’re performing happens to involve more maleficent creatures, your friends might never find enough of the body to identify you.
All of that explains part of why I don’t like rituals. But the biggest factor is actually something else entirely. When you perform a ritual, what you’re basically doing is asking someone else to come and bail you out—admitting, essentially, that you can’t solve your problem yourself. Leaving aside the implications for your pride, there’s one thing that’s pretty much constant.
Help doesn’t come free.
There’s always a price, always. Just what form the payment will take can be difficult to tell—even if you think you know, there’s always something else hidden in the fine print—but it’s usually just a little more than you can afford. The rule of thumb with rituals was that what you get is never quite what you wanted, and what you wanted is never quite worth what you pay.
As rituals went, the Rite of Three Moons was relatively pleasant. It was more annoying than dangerous to perform, and the dangers of screwing it up were mild. Of course, like anything else, there were drawbacks to it.
The tradeoff was that it wasn’t a summoning, exactly. It was more of an invitation. By performing the ritual I was sending an invitation to a Faerie Queen. Any Faerie Queen—Maiden, Mother, and Crone of each Court, and I had no influence over which one answered. That was why Aiko had called it chancy. All of the Queens would know something, because you don’t get to be that powerful without knowing something about pretty much everything. But Scáthach was the only one I could assume had access to details about this specifically. If I happened to find myself talking with one of the other Queens this wouldn’t be nearly as productive.
There was a price, of course. There’s always a price. The price for them to show up was minimal. The price for answers could be…almost anything.
I do not like rituals.
Our mansion is a strange place, unearthly in every sense of the word. Even ordinary spatial definitions are inconstant—several rooms would have to occupy the same space to fit, and there’s one section of wall that can belong to three different rooms depending on which door you enter through. It’s got a ton of benefits and I’m glad to have it, but it’s still awfully weird, and more recently I’ve come to think of the garden as being the heart of that weirdness.
It started off normally enough, all things considered. It was a fairly small room by the standards of the mansion, maybe three hundred square feet and floored with dirt. Simple flagstone paths wound throughout, and there were a handful of marble planters. It had been empty, to begin with, excepting a single planter of goji and lingonberry.
These days it was bigger. A lot bigger. About a thousand times the size it started out as, in fact. I’m not sure how it grew. Somehow there’s just always room for another plant.
Speaking of plants, there were also a lot of those in there now. Like, a lot. It took quite a bit of work to assemble them. Some of them are illegal to own—poisonous ones, mostly, but there are also a few that are listed as illegal drugs, and a handful of endangered species. More are just expensive. There are a couple of things in there that aren’t even native to Earth, mostly from Faerie.
I have no idea how they all manage to grow. I mean, I’m not an expert on plants, but I’m pretty sure that orchids, cacti, and alpine wildflowers prefer slightly different environments. They all grow in my garden. The plants don’t seem to need water or sunlight, either, and they all grow faster and healthier than natural. There are no seasons in my little slice of the Otherside, and at any given time you can find spring growth, flowers, and fruits all on the same plant.
Convenient, undeniably, but you can’t tell me that isn’t a little creepy.
Currently, I was standing in a secluded corner of the garden, with a screen of cypress and hawthorn cutting it off from the rest of the area. There was a circular patch of grass maybe thirty feet across, surrounded by a low stone wall. The grass was mostly foxtail and reed grass—not, in other words, what you might think of as typical grasses. It didn’t resemble a lawn, at any rate; the stalks came up to my thighs, and would have rustled nicely if there’d been any breeze at all.
In the center of the circle was another circle of cleared dirt seven or eight feet across. There was a different plant at each corner of an imaginary triangle, on the border between dirt and grass—honeysuckle, elderberry, and nightshade. All three of the plants were decent-sized bushes, and carefully maintained. This wasn’t an expensive ritual, as such things were measured, but you needed all three of those plants in the right places for it to work. That took time to arrange, and one of my favorite precepts is that when you need something, you’re probably going to need it right now. Thus, while I’d never had any real desire to perform this ritual, I’d cleared some space and planted the seeds the day after I learned about it.
Preparation is key to the success of any endeavor. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’re doing, that’s pretty much guaranteed.
I was currently sitting at the center of the triangle, ordering my thoughts. There was no actual magic involved, but it still required serious concentration. I had to get all the words and actions right, the first try—it had been made very clear that trying over after a screw-up without waiting at least a day and a night was a Bad Idea, and that was time I didn’t have. Once that was done I had to successfully negotiate with a Faerie Queen and get the information I needed, which was likely to be rather harder than that made it sound.
Once I thought my head was in the right place, I stood up and picked up the sack which contained the tools I would need. There weren’t many, and under ordinary circumstances I probably would have just carried them in the pockets of my cloak.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t currently possible, because one of the requirements of the ritual was that it had to be done naked. I don’t know why, honestly, but the recipe was quite clear and straightforward on the point. No clothes, no weapons, not even any jewelry was allowed. Mine was currently piled at the base of the trees.
At least I didn’t have to do it outdoors. I mean, I’m not easily bothered by cold, but come on. Standing around naked? In December? Not worth it.
I started by pacing counterclockwise along the outer edge of the circle of dirt, dropping river stones at each step. The rocks were about the size of my fist and smoothed by years of flowing water. Every third stone had a simple starburst pattern carved into it—I’d used a bronze chisel, which I’d had to custom order.
Once the circle was established, I returned to the center of the circle and tossed the empty sack outside, palming the last item I would need. I took a deep breath and then stepped towards the honeysuckle.
“Crescent moon,” I said clearly, feeling a little ridiculous. “Creation. Growth. By your shadows am I sheltered, by your radiance am I enlivened.” I took a single berry from the honeysuckle and ate it, chewing it thoroughly. It tasted sweet. Once I’d swallowed the berry, I spat on the plant. “As your gifts to me, so mine to you. Come to me, crescent moon. Lend me your radiance, lend me your shadow.”
Two steps clockwise along the circle took me to the elderberry. “Full moon,” I said. My voice sounded richer than it should have, and had strange harmonics. “Preservation. Sustenance. By your gloom am I hidden, by your luminance am I enlightened.” I took an elderberry and ate it, wincing at the taste. I haven’t tried elderberry wine—I’m not big on alcohol in general—but the raw berries were not very good, sharp and a little bitter. Then, somewhat uncomfortably, I urinated on the bush. “As your gifts to me, so mine to you. Come to me, full moon. Lend me your luminance, lend me your gloom.”
Two more steps and I was standing before the nightshade. “New moon,” I said, and almost jumped at the sound of my own voice. It was deeper than it should have been, echoing for no apparent reason, with wind and wolves howling beneath the surface of the sound. I was almost shouting now, without meaning to. “Death. Resurrection. By your darkness am I ended, by your light am I reborn.” I reached out and plucked a single black berry from the plant. I looked at it and hesitated for a moment. Then I popped it into my mouth and, before I could think about what I was doing, bit down on it. The berry tasted vile, bitter with the alkaloids that gave it its famous toxicity. I chewed and swallowed anyway. There was little point in stopping now.
The next part had to be done without the use of iron, which was slightly inconvenient. Most people used a silver knife, but—for obvious reasons—that wouldn’t work for me. I had a piece of obsidian instead, smooth and black and sharper than any razor.
I held my left hand over the nightshade and slashed my wrist open with it. The ritual required a fair amount of blood—I didn’t know exactly how much, but a few drops drawn with a pin wouldn’t cut it. I let enough run down my fingers to coat a few leaves, then licked the blood off my hand, letting the taste mingle with that of the berry (it didn’t improve it much). It was a clean, shallow cut that wasn’t made with silver, and it took me only a few seconds to close it.
“As your gifts to me,” I whispered, “so mine to you. Come to me, new moon. Lend me your light, lend me your darkness.”
I stepped back to the center of the circle. “Three moons, hear my voice. One lost in the fog seeks your guidance. Hear my call. One troubled by ignorance seeks your wisdom. Hear my plea. One diminished by weakness seeks your aid.”
Having concluded the chant, I knelt on the ground and closed my eyes. At this point, my part was done. Within fifteen minutes or so, I would know whether it would receive a response.
Less than ten seconds later, I heard laughter. It was high and sweet and sharp, and I knew instantly that it had been made by nothing human.
I stood up, opening my eyes, and turned to face the source of the sound, a Sidhe woman standing over the honeysuckle.
She was tall, as most of the Sidhe tend to be, a few inches taller than me. Her hair was raven’s-wing black, with highlights of blue and green, and cut short to show the tips of her delicately pointed ears. Her eyes were a startling, vivid green, the color of emeralds and snakes, with slit pupils. She was wearing a plain black tank top and black jeans, and she was barefoot.
I bowed my head. “Lady,” I said, packing as much respect into it as I knew how. The honeysuckle represented the Maiden, meaning that this was either Scáthach or her Daylight counterpart, Aoife. I was guessing the former, based on the color scheme, but it was impossible to be sure. I’d seen Scáthach before, granted, but trying to compare this to that was impossible. There was just too much difference between the two settings.
Besides, when I’d seen her last, she’d been riding at the head of the Hunt, cloaked in storm and with all the terror and beauty of Midnight drawn about her. Her physical features had hardly even registered through that.
“I always enjoy this ritual,” she murmured. “Particularly coming from a werewolf. Your kind have such enviable…physique.” She looked me up and down, with no evidence of embarrassment.
“And with whom do I have the honor of speaking?” I asked, acting as though she hadn’t spoken.
“You are addressing Scáthach, Lady of the Isle of Shadows, Queen of the Unseelie Court,” she said, her voice a strange blending of imperious and mischievous. “What is it that you seek?”
Well, damn. It really was Scáthach. Guess I got lucky for once. “Knowledge,” I said. It was one of three acceptable replies, as far as the Rite went. The ritual itself was already complete, but the fae are big on tradition and proper form, and I didn’t figure following it would lose me any points.
“Answers to questions three, is that your desire?”
“It is,” I said, dreading what might come next.
“Tradition dictates,” she said softly, “that you do a service for me in return.”
I bowed my head. “It does,” I agreed. “What bargain do you wish to strike?” One of the benefits of this particular ritual was that I got to refuse the deal if I didn’t like the price she demanded. It wasn’t a perfect guarantee, of course. Bargains with the high fae tend to resemble fishhooks; they go down easy and you never see the barb. But it was a hell of a lot better than nothing.
“Hmm,” she purred. “I wouldn’t want to make it anything too arduous. Perhaps we could find something that might be pleasant to us both.” She looked me over again, more slowly this time. “Even by werewolf standards,” she murmured, “you’re unusually robust.”
My lips were tingling, and I could feel that my heart was racing. I’m pretty sure those were the aftereffects of the nightshade, though, because all I really felt at the moment was annoyed. Bad enough when somebody tries to swindle you; when they’re that obvious about it, it’s just insulting. “Before you continue this line of thought any further, I feel I should let you know that I’m currently in a committed romantic relationship which I’m very happy with.”
“So?” Scáthach said, clearly amused. “Invite the kitsune, if you so desire. I’m sure she would find it a pleasurable experience.”
I debated answering politely and keeping up the courteous, traditional forms for maybe a second. Then I sighed. “Look, Scáthach,” I said. “It’s been a long day, so I’m going to be blunt. Number one, my relationship with Aiko is off-limits. I love her more than anything you can offer me. Number two, I am not a horny teenager. You will not get me to agree to an open-ended bargain by throwing around seductive phrases which don’t actually mean anything. Number three, I wasn’t born yesterday. You are not convincing me that you’ve gotten and kept as much power as you have without having higher ambitions than screwing random werewolves. Particularly not when I know for a fact you’re surrounded by accessible men much more attractive than I am.”
The Lady of Shadows looked at me for a long moment, her eyes alien and unreadable, and I was afraid that I’d cost myself a bargain—or worse, made an enemy of her. Then, in a voice which was much more dispassionate than she’d used previously, she said, “Very well, Sir Winter. As you wish. My offer was genuine, you know. You could have paid your price with a single evening of pleasure, and I would have made it sweet. Instead—” Scáthach tapped one long green fingernail against her lips, thinking. “Kill a man in my name,” she said abruptly.
“Who?” Not the most heroic response, perhaps, but a very practical one. A single murder was much less than some prices, and I thought it highly unlikely that he’d pissed off Scáthach without knowing what he was setting himself up for.
She shrugged fluidly, a motion that suggested that her spine was about as flexible as rope. “Whomever you please,” she said nonchalantly. “You have, oh, a season. That is my request, Sir Winter. What say you?”
“Deal,” I said instantly, before she could renegotiate. Again, not particularly heroic, but if I was being honest the chance that I would go three full months without needing to kill someone anyway was pretty miniscule.
“Bargain struck,” she said with a vulpine smile. “Ask, then, and I will answer.”
“Before asking any question,” I said carefully, “I would like to state that your price was unusually low for this sort of exchange.”
Her grin widened. “I owed you for collecting my spear,” she murmured. “That debt is balanced now. After tonight, we are on even footing. Now ask, werewolf, before I lose interest.”
Nothing quite like a time limit. “Statement,” I said. There are reasons that every fairy tale ever emphasizes the importance of careful phrasing in situations like this one. “A male Sidhe who referred to himself as Stefan Morgenstern was until recently a member of your Court.”
Scáthach said nothing, smiled wider.
“Statement,” I continued. “Stefan is now dead, stabbed in the torso and left to die in a German club. Statement: this club is owned by Zhang Qiang, a mage of the Zhang clan. Statement: this club is highly suspicious. Statement: at least one person did not want me to investigate the club, and was willing to make a significant expenditure to prevent that.” I licked my lips nervously, thinking. They were still numb.
I couldn’t just ask obvious questions, like “Who killed Stefan?” Scáthach might well know, and she was bound to answer truly, but that wouldn’t stop her from deceiving me. She could cloak her answer in riddles and metaphor until it was worse than useless, serving only to confuse me further. You always had to come at things sideways with the fae, move so far away from your goal that you snuck up on it from behind.
“Question,” I said.
“Finally,” Scáthach said dryly, rolling her eyes.
I ignored her. “Why does Zhang Qiang go to such lengths to keep people, and me in particular, from seeing the storage room of his club?”
“Because the nightclub’s official functions provide only a small fraction of its worth,” the goddess said calmly. “It is also a hub for the storage and transfer of illegally smuggled goods between your world and the Otherside.”
I thought for a moment. “Statement,” I said slowly. “Stefan was involved in smuggling.” The idea that a fae involved with smuggling would be a regular customer at a nightclub that was actually a front for a smuggling den by coincidence was beyond laughable. “Statement: his illicit activities were well known, and made him disreputable. Statement: in spite of this, you allowed him to remain in your Court. Question: Why?”
“Stefan thought himself a suave, cunning rogue. However, in reality he was quite clumsy. By allowing him to steal a few, relatively valueless secrets I gained for myself a pawn within his smuggling ring.”
I nodded, trying to fit the pieces together in my head. Nothing I’d learned was surprising, exactly, but it was invaluable confirmation of what had up to then only been suspicions.
“What,” I said slowly, “was the last object or secret which Stefan was contracted to smuggle before he died?”
Scáthach smiled slowly. “Clever,” she murmured. “This particular client was obsessed with security to a unusual extent, Sir Wolf, even for members of her profession. Stefan was sent with only half of the secret, the cipher that would be used to decrypt the message which was sent with another courier. That message contained a very powerful secret indeed, the identity of a traitor within my Court.”
That revelation shocked me enough to make me blink. Predictably, when I opened my eyes Scáthach was gone.
Her voice remained, though, drifting through the grass like the whisper of a breeze. “Deliver the message,” it said, “and you will have earned my favor.”
“Well,” I said. “Shit.”
In addition to all the other factors in play, this was looking like a dominance struggle between Faerie Queens.
Things had just become a great deal more risky.
When I walked into the bedroom, Aiko was lying on the bed with Snowflake sprawled across her knees. “How’d it go?” she asked, not opening her eyes.
“Reasonably well,” I said, dropping onto the bed with a groan. It had been a very long day. “I got Scáthach.”
The kitsune tensed, almost imperceptibly. “What was her price?” she asked, with the peculiarly hesitant tone of someone who isn’t sure they want their question answered.
“Kill someone for her. She doesn’t care who.”
Aiko was silent for several moments. “Did you agree?” she asked quietly.
I sighed. “Yes,” I admitted. “I…yes.”
There was a long, ominous pause. “That worries me.”
“You think I should have said no?”
“I don’t know. I mean, we really need that info. And there are worse prices she could have asked for. It’s just…I’m not sure how to feel about you killing people for her.” She sighed. “I don’t know.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “I mean, I told myself I was probably going to be killing someone within a season anyway. And that’s true. But then I have to ask, is that really a good thing? I didn’t used to kill people.” It was my turn for a long, uncomfortable pause. “Am I turning into a monster, Aiko?”
“I’m a horrible person to use as a touchstone for morality,” she hedged.
“Bullshit,” I said firmly. “You’re a good person. You have a twisted sense of humor and no sense of perspective, but you aren’t evil.”
“Do you remember that vampire?” she said after a moment. “The one Katrin put up to talking crap about you?”
“You scared me a little when you were talking to him. With how cold you were.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “You’re not a monster, Winter,” she said at last. “But honestly? I’m a little worried about what this job is doing to you.”
“So am I,” I said. “Every time I sit on that damned chair. The other day, I was pretty much telling that vampire I was going to kill him, and I mostly just felt bored. I know I should care more—but how can I do that job and care about the people I’m supposed to be judging?” I sighed. “I wish I could get out of it. But I don’t see how I can.”
“We could always elope,” she said, only half-joking. “I have a cousin who’s a priest in Cuba….”
“Yeah, he’s a little weird. He ran away from home to join the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century, and he’s been doing it since.”
“You know how well I get on with my family?” she said dryly. “Well, compared to him I’m the prodigal daughter. He hasn’t been within a hundred miles of Japan for five hundred years.”
“It’s tempting,” I said honestly. “But I couldn’t stand to live in the tropics.” A couple seconds later I continued, more seriously. “Katrin and Kikuchi would start the turf war back up if I left,” I said quietly. “There are half a million people in this city, and—whether they know it or not—they’re depending on me to keep things stable. I hate being jarl, but I can’t just ignore that.”
“I know. You always were the responsible one. It’s annoying sometimes, but also strangely endearing.” She grinned. “Okay, so now that we’ve gotten through the nauseatingly sentimental conversation, is it time for the irresponsibly-sleep-disruptive sexual hijinks?”
“Well,” I said, also grinning, “when you phrase it like that, how can I say no?”
“Cool.” She leaned down and prodded Snowflake, who, remarkably, had slept through the entire conversation. “Move, dog.”
She stood up and stretched. Again? she said grumpily, padding a few feet away. Don’t you people ever get bored of this?
Evidently not. Although we have been considering—
Gah!, she interrupted. Do not tell me. It is disturbing enough that I sleep on that bed without knowing the details. She jumped down to the floor. I’m going to go get a drink of water, she said. A very, very long drink.
I slept fitfully, and woke up later than was my norm feeling almost as tired as when I went to sleep. For once Aiko had gotten up before me, and taken Snowflake with her. I got dressed, yawning, and then wandered downstairs to find them.
I found them in the kitchen, along with Ash. Alexis was making breakfast, which involved chive and mushroom omelets, hash browns, three kinds of toast, grilled tomatoes, bacon, sausages, waffles, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Alexis really enjoys cooking, for whatever reason, and she has a tendency to go a little overboard. I don’t complain, because I really enjoy eating. Having a ton of food on hand also meant I could regularly leave some out for the tomte, which was one of the traditional ways of buying your way into their good graces. I’d never actually seen him—they’re apparently very shy, and seldom interact with humans directly—but given that he’s the one who does all the housework and maintenance at no price, I figured it would be wise not to piss him off.
Good morning, Snowflake said, not looking away from the pan of sausages. Did you sleep well?
No. Did you?
I didn’t, she said, sounding distracted. Bad dreams. She hesitated.
Huh. That didn’t happen to her very often—like, almost never. I wasn’t sure if that was significant or not, but I usually find that, when in doubt, it’s safest to assume conspiracy.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much I could do about it. Even if it wasn’t random, there were too many possible causes, and none of them were things I could do about it. So, for now, I filed it under “Stuff to look into later” and moved on.
“That smells delicious,” I said to Alexis.
“Good morning. It should be done in a few minutes.” My cousin didn’t so much as glance in my direction, the concluding stages of food preparation being more pressing.
“Thank you. I’ll be right back; I need to go make a few calls.” Needless to say, there are no cell towers on the Otherside.
Outside, it was almost nine in the morning and still fairly chilly, at least by human standards. It didn’t bother me, obviously, but I still walked across the street to stand in the sun. This was partly camouflage, and partly because, cold or not, the sunlight felt nice.
The first person I called was Kyi Greyfell, who answered on the first ring. “Heill, herra,” she said. It was the traditional Norse greeting, which happened to bear an unfortunate but coincidental resemblance to the nontraditional German one.
I would like to reiterate that I don’t arrange these things deliberately.
“Good morning, Kyi. How did you know it was me?”
She sounded amused. “Only person knows number, is you.”
“Ah. Has anything happened?”
“No, jarl. The Alpha did not his house yesterday leave. Only one other comes, and is also werewolf.”
So the only person visiting Edward was another werewolf—one of his pack, most likely. “Can you describe this werewolf?” I asked.
“Já. Is female, brown hair, tan skin. Smells like spices.” That description left something to be desired on the precision front, but I was guessing it was Anna. She matched perfectly, and female werewolves weren’t common enough that it was likely another member of Edward’s pack looked and smelled the same as she did.
“And she was alone.”
“Excellent work, Kyi, thank you. Keep watching and call me if anything changes.” I hung up, then dialed another number.
Sveinn answered on the third ring. “Hello?”
Again, Sveinn went from suspicious to drill sergeant as soon as he heard my voice. “Good morning, jarl. There are messages for you.”
I sighed. “What are they?”
He cleared his throat. “Katrin Fleischer lodges a formal complaint regarding your treatment of her vampire, and accuses you of overstepping your rights under the treaty.”
“I expected as much,” I said. I was impressed by how quickly she’d moved on it, but it was hardly a surprise. Since I’d been careful not to overstep, it also wasn’t much of a problem—just tedious. “She’ll have to wait. I have more pressing things to deal with right now.”
Sveinn did not comment on that. “Next,” he said. “Michael Adams requests that you take more proactive measures regarding the presence of vampires and other menaces in the city.”
“Again?” I said in disbelief. “Does the man have no life whatsoever?” This was the fourth time in two weeks that Mike had lodged that particular request, even after I’d explained at length that there was very little I could do.
I respect their dedication to what is, in all fairness, an honorable cause. But sometimes I wonder whether the Inquisition have two functioning brain cells between them.
“Do you want me to reply to him?”
“Argh. No, not right now. I’ll call him and Katie later and explain—again—why what they want isn’t going to happen.”
“Very well.” Sveinn’s voice gave no hint as to whether he approved or not. “Next, a message from Zhang Qiang. He thanks you for your assistance and politely requests a meeting in order to discuss your findings and judgment.”
I’d been afraid of that. The fae might be willing to let me take my time—they’re immortal, and renowned for their patience. The high fae thought nothing of waiting years or even decades for a plan to bear fruit. Zhang, on the other hand, wanted this issue resolved quickly before it could scare away any more customers than it already had.
“Call him back,” I said. “Tell him that I will host a meeting here, at noon today. Did Anja Morgenstern, Gwyn ap Nudd, and Carraig all send contact information?”
“Good. Call them too, tell them the same thing.” I could tell Edward, and Zhang would presumably contact the Watchers.
“I will do so.”
“Good. Are there any other messages?”
“Even better. I’ll see you at noon.” I hung up on him and started to dial Edward’s number.
Before I could finish, I heard an odd thump. Being paranoid, I instantly assumed it was related to me and started looking for the source. I noticed two things right away.
First, the area—never densely populated, particularly at this time of day—was entirely empty. There was not another person in sight.
Second, the enormous half-troll was less than twenty feet away and approaching quickly. He was armed, this time, carrying an oversized wooden club. The wounds Vigdis had inflicted during our last encounter with the thing weren’t visible, not even as scars.
I immediately dropped my phone, cursing. I’d been too casual, assuming I was safe for a few minutes, when the people chasing me were clearly taking less and less time to home in on my location. I wasn’t carrying any weapons, and I wasn’t wearing anything more protective than simple clothing. Hell, I hadn’t even grabbed my cloak, which—with the tricks and toys it contained—would at least have given me some options.
I thought about trying to talk him around, then dismissed the idea. He’d made it quite clear that he wasn’t interested in talking. My next impulse was to run for the door, which was smarter but, sadly, impossible. I’d wandered more than fifteen feet, and I’d have to turn my back on him to go for it. He might not be fast enough to catch me—I’d outrun him once before, after all—but I’d need a good ten seconds of concentration to disarm the wards and go in. The chances that he couldn’t catch me in that time—or, hell, just toss that club hard enough to splatter my brains all over the wall—were not worth considering.
I stepped out into the middle of the road instead, giving myself room to maneuver, and called Tyrfing. The half-troll grinned, rolled its shoulders, and picked up the pace slightly. When it was around seven feet away, it stepped into a simple overhead strike with the club.
I dodged out of the way, with surprising ease. The half-troll wasn’t as quick as I was, which made him pretty damn slow in the greater scheme of things. The head of the club hit the street instead, sending chips flying, and left a dent half an inch thick. Cracks spread through the asphalt for almost a foot in all directions.
Note to self: the half-troll is also not interested in taking you alive. That hit would have turned my brains to jelly, and even werewolves die from that.
I backed away, thinking furiously. The thing was strong—much stronger than me—and extremely tough. He had shrugged off being stabbed, bitten, and clawed without wincing, which was more than I could say. On top of that, with that club he had a significant advantage in reach. All of that take together meant that, if I wanted to win this fight, I had to get inside of his reach without being hit, avoid letting him touch me, and inflict an instantly lethal wound on something which was remarkably resistant to lethal wounds.
That did not seem particularly likely.
The only solution, then, was to change the rules of the game.
He lunged, bringing that club around in a horizontal strike that might have literally knocked my head off my shoulders like a baseball. As I didn’t want to find out, I ducked under it—and immediately found myself about a foot away from his free hand. The half-troll wasn’t stupid, and he’d been ready to grab me if I dodged the swing.
Off-balance as I was, the only way I could dodge was by diving aside. I did so, simultaneously throwing a gust of wind at its back (fortunately I’d at least remembered to grab my foci when I got up).
That gust was strong enough to toss a grown man from his feet, especially if he wasn’t expecting it. The half-troll, having much more mass than a grown man, wasn’t knocked down. He did stagger forward, though, giving me time to get back to my feet.
This wasn’t working. I was outclassed and underequipped for a physical confrontation with a half-troll, clearly, and trying to beat it with magic alone was out of the question. I’m just not that good at combat magic; that’s why I use things like stored spells and foci in the first place—
Oh. That might work.
I stared past the half-troll as he started to turn, calculating distances and angles in my head. As a result, I had an excellent view when Alexis opened the front door and stuck her head out. “Hey, Winter,” she called, looking around. “Breakfast’s—” She broke off, staring at the half-troll. “What’s going on?”
“Bad guy,” I shouted, advancing. “Blast him.”
My cousin nodded and stepped out onto the sidewalk. She held up her hands and I caught the smell of human magic, barely touched with the scent of ice and snow. She was channeling the power through her own focus, a copper ring set with amber. The magic built, twisted, surged.
And then she sent a bolt of lightning into the half-troll’s back.
In my experience, most people tend to underestimate how potent lightning is as a weapon. An average lightning strike delivers several hundred thousand volts—more than five times as much as a typical industrial accident, and way more than enough to be lethal. The great thing about lightning as a weapon, though, is that it has more than one thing going for it. In addition to the electricity itself, the heat of a lightning bolt is incredible—like, five times as hot as the surface of the sun. That’s…pretty unbelievably hot, really.
Even if you dodge the lightning itself, it can still hurt you in all kinds of ways. Ground current can be plenty strong enough to kill a person, and it can travel a long way. The concussion of the thunder can throw shrapnel right through you, if it doesn’t just inflict enough blunt force to cause internal bleeding and fractures.
That’s a pretty long list of dangers, and it’s very hard to counter all of them at once. It can be done, at least by some people, but pretty much only by dropping everything, getting out of the direct path of the electricity, and putting everything you’ve got into defense—and it’s pretty hard to hurt someone while you’re doing that.
As weapons go, lightning is top-notch. Much more deadly than the blasts of wind that were my main magical arsenal.
Alexis couldn’t match a real lightning bolt, not without a lot more time to work on it than she’d had. She wasn’t really generating the electricity—she wasn’t anywhere near strong enough for that, at least not yet—more altering the positions of charges already present in the air. It was a spark of static electricity, basically, and while it wasn’t anywhere near genuine lightning, it still packed a solid punch.
The half-troll convulsed, muscles jerking uncontrollably. He fell to one knee and stayed there for a second or two. I couldn’t blame him; two or three hits like that would take the fight out of most anyone.
Unfortunately, Alexis didn’t look like she was up to a repeat performance. She staggered to the side and had to lean against the wall to stay standing. She’d just moved a whole lot of magic fast—it was probably the single biggest punch I’d ever seen her throw, in fact—and that really takes it out of you. It would probably be several seconds before she could produce so much as a spark, and she wasn’t carrying a weapon.
If that half-troll got within reach of her, Alexis would die. She couldn’t go back into the building, either; the wards didn’t keep things from leaving, but they wouldn’t let her back in. She’d learned enough to lower them, but it would take her even longer than me.
He stood up, growling incoherently, and turned towards her. Clearly, that lightning bolt had revised his opinion of who the most urgent threat was here. It had rattled his cage, if nothing else, which was more than anything I’d thrown at him had managed.
Fortunately, while he shook it off, I’d had time to get into position. When he turned around he found me standing between him and Alexis. That meant I was also standing between him and the house.
He bellowed, truly angry for the first time, and charged me. I backpedaled, fast. The half-troll wasn’t moving terribly quickly—a human could have run faster—but he had so much mass that there was still an enormous amount of momentum involved, and I would definitely fare worse in a collision.
Of course, the nice thing about momentum is that it’s impartial. Once you introduce that energy, that motion, it doesn’t care who uses it.
As I backpedaled I brought up another breeze, this time blowing straight into the half-troll’s face to slow him down. It didn’t, of course. He just leaned into it a little and kept coming. That was fine.
The other part was a little trickier, because I couldn’t see what I was doing. I didn’t need to be precise, though, which made it doable.
I started spreading ice on the pavement behind myself.
It was actually easier than most of the times I’d done it. It was cold out, meaning I didn’t have to fight nature to get it to freeze. There was a bit of snow left in the shade, too, giving me water to work with. After a second or so Alexis, who was also part-jotun, started pitching in too. This wasn’t magic—not quite, not exactly. It didn’t draw on the same sources of power, and she could do it regardless of whether she was temporarily exhausted or not.
I managed to keep my footing as I backed across the ice, but I had to be careful, and that slowed me down. By the time I was at the edge of the sidewalk, the half-troll had reached the edge of the ice and was just about in range of me.
He wasn’t stupid, but he was extremely focused on turning me into a red splatter on the pavement. He didn’t see the ice until it was too late.
As I’d noted, he had a whole lot of momentum behind him. He was preternaturally strong, granted, but he was also dependent upon that strength. Once you get half a ton of muscle moving at a charge, you need incredible strength just to keep it under control.
I’d dealt with unnaturally strong things before. One of the things I’d learned in the process is that muscle doesn’t do you much good without something to push against.
When he hit the ice, the friction he’d been relying upon to control his own momentum was gone, suddenly and unexpectedly. When, at the exact same moment, I dropped the resistance of the headwind and instead threw a gale-force blast at his back, his controlled and deadly charge turned into something a bit like a runaway truck. It was still incredibly dangerous if you happened to be in front of it—but now the driver had no more control than the guy standing in the way, and was in almost as much danger.
The half-troll had already started another swing, which went far wide when he started slip-sliding around, and only threw him further off balance. I seized his arm as it flew past me, and then I fell down.
I wasn’t as strong as he was. But falling down changed things. Suddenly, it wasn’t about strength anymore. It was about him trying to hold a hundred and fifty pounds on one arm, when it was suddenly dropping and pulling in the direction he was already barreling. He was phenomenally powerful, but he wasn’t that strong—especially not when he couldn’t even get his feet under him.
Bottom line, the end result was this. His own momentum, combined with the aids I’d so helpfully provided, was too much for the half-troll to handle. He went airborne, passing just over my face while I narrowly escaped being trampled. I let go at the peak of the arc, and his speed was such that he flew over the sidewalk completely and impacted the side of the building.
More specifically, my building.
My warded building.
My wards are fairly passive, as such things go. They’re designed so that, when something applies a force to them, they turn that force back on the object with a little bit extra—meaning, essentially, that the more force you apply, the more trouble you’re in. Try to egg my house, and the yolk’s on you. Throw a brick at my window, and your problems are going to be significantly worse. It was a common, very simple warding technique, and while I’m not good enough with kinetic energy to do it well, it hadn’t been hard to find someone who could.
However, any design of kinetic barrier can be overwhelmed if you throw enough force at it. Between that and the fact that I wanted a little more discouragement than that if someone ever attacked me for real, I’d taken another common precaution by building additional spells into the structure. The idea was that, if enough force was applied to deform the barrier, it would also change the shape of the trap spell in such a way that it would trigger.
The half-troll was a thousand pounds of nasty moving at high speed. It was pretty much inevitable that he would impact hard enough to trigger them.
There was a bright flash of white-yellow light when he hit the wall, followed by a loud woomph. A moment late the half-troll flew over me again, and landed out in the street. I pushed myself to my feet, wincing slightly—falling on the curb hadn’t injured me, but I’d have bruises for a while—and turned to inspect the damage.
The half-troll was lying on the asphalt, smoldering. That, along with the smell of burnt meat and the distance he’d flown, told me that he’d triggered one of the fire spells. I’d hired a Dutch wizard to design those, because I’m pretty useless with fire. The result was closer to high explosives than simple flame, and had similar effects on anyone unfortunate enough to trigger it. He was also twitching spastically, suggesting he’d had the poor fortune to also set off one of the traps Alexis had designed. Those were basically just magical batteries designed to release a great deal of electricity quickly. Based on the distance he’d flown, I thought he might have tripped one of the kinetic spells, too. Even a half-troll would go flying when one of those things went off; they hit harder than a speeding truck.
My wards are lethal. It’s probably civically irresponsible of me, but let’s get real. When you’ve pissed off as many people as I have, you take home defense seriously. Lethality can be tricky when you’re dealing with preternatural attackers, though. So I waited a minute or so, watching to see if the half-troll was going to get up and keep trying to kill me, but it didn’t even twitch, and I was pretty sure it wasn’t breathing. It smelled like it had been pretty well cooked by the wards, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten yet, and its bones had been damaged enough that its chest and face looked misshapen.
Even with all of that, I approached only cautiously, and kept Tyrfing at the ready. When even that didn’t get a reaction, I figured it was probably dead.
I cut its head off anyway. I haven’t kept myself alive this long by taking chances that dumb.
“Well, that was exciting,” I said to Alexis, sheathing Tyrfing and setting it aside. “Thanks for the help.”
“What was that?” she asked, staring at the corpse with an expression of revulsion.
“Half-troll. It tried to kill us in Germany the other day. Apparently someone’s a little upset that I’m looking into this mess. Or something. I’m not sure why else it would be chasing us.”
“Wait,” she said. “You killed it, and you don’t even know why it was upset at you?”
“It was trying to kill us,” I repeated patiently. “The conditions weren’t exactly conducive to a nice chat.” I looked at the body. “We’d better get this off the street before somebody sees it. Could you get the wards, and maybe grab the head? I’m going to have my hands pretty full with the body, and I’d rather not take the time to chop it up.”
“Don’t you guys have some way of dealing with things like this?” she asked. She sounded a little queasy.
“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully. “I mean, I’m pretty hungry, but this guy’s huge. Maybe if we got the werewolves to pitch in.” I shook my head. “Look, we’ll figure out what to do with it later. For now, I want to get this out of sight.” I slid my arms under the body and heaved experimentally. It was exactly as heavy as it looked; I was going to have to drag it, and even that would be an effort. The ice would make it considerably easier, at least.
Alexis looked at me, opened her mouth to say something, then closed it and turned to start on the wards. I shrugged, bundled the half-trolls head up in its cloak, and started dragging it towards the door.