Monthly Archives: January 2015

Frost Bitten 7.1

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I was shifting around on my throne, ass already numb, and wondering how much tickets to the tropics would cost me. I’d heard that Hawaii was very nice at this time of year, and if we timed it right we could be quite well hidden before they ever thought to look for us. I’d never been to a tropical island before, but it couldn’t take that much adjustment.


“Jarl?” a slightly diffident voice said. “Are you ready?”


I sighed, sat up straight, and cursorily glanced over my appearance. Everything seemed in order, which left me with no excuse for further delay, so I said, “Yes, Sveinn, thank you. Bring him in.”


Já, minn herra,” Sveinn said, and gestured slightly. I’m not entirely sure why he couldn’t say it in English—”yes, my lord” cannot be that difficult to remember, and it wasn’t like I in any way encouraged him to add the lordly bit in any case. Besides, he spoke English just fine. I suspected he just did it to annoy me. I probably shouldn’t have let it go on—I was technically his lord, after all, regardless of how little I wanted the position. But Sveinn Wartooth was the most sane and reliable of my half-dozen housecarls, and I didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that reliability.


Besides. I didn’t want to start thinking of myself as a jarl. I might be in a position of authority now, but nobody said I had to like it.


A moment later, two more of my minions walked into the room, dragging a bound and gagged man visually indistinguishable from a human. He was dressed in clothes which would let him blend into any college crowd in the city without too much difficulty, although the effect was ruined by his expression. His hands were tied tightly behind his back with actual rope, and another length of rope connected his feet. It was long enough for him to walk, but would severely limit his stride length, and the jötnar carrying him were moving too quickly for him to keep up. It wasn’t until they stopped, directly in front of me, that he was able to stand up under his own power.


Vigdis Bloodaxe, perhaps the craziest of my housecarls—although that was, in all fairness, a fiercely disputed title—was standing to his right. She was holding his shoulder in one hand and his elbow in the other, and had a broad, nasty smile on her face. Kjaran, on the man’s other side, was supporting his weight with one hand under his arm. His face was dispassionate, disengaged.


Vigdis is the lunatic of the group. But Kjaran unnerves me more. I do not understand him. I do not know what he wants, or why he continues to work for me. The man is an enigma. Even Aiko finds him strange and a little creepy, and not much gets to her.


“Thank you,” I said calmly. Vigdis nodded sharply, her features suffused with pride—she had been instrumental in his capture. Kjaran didn’t react, but then he wouldn’t. Not for nothing do they call him the Silent.


“So,” I said, speaking to the bound man now. “Good evening, Mr. Miner.” He startled visibly when I spoke his name; clearly, he’d thought himself anonymous—justifiably, considering how tricky it had been for me to learn his real name. “I’m sorry to meet you under such circumstances, but you didn’t seem particularly amenable to speaking with me before.” I’d made a point of sending him a very public, very well-attested message; I didn’t want anyone to claim I hadn’t offered him a choice.


“Now then,” I continued briskly. “I hear that you’ve been saying rather offensive things about me for some time. Insults and such. You will notice, Mr. Miner, that I have allowed you to do so. It is of course your inalienable right to believe and, indeed, to say whatever happens to come into your evidently quite tiny mind!” I shook my head sadly. “Unfortunately, you recently went beyond speech. You acted against a person under my protection. There are things which can be forgiven, Mr. Miner, and there are things which cannot. Your recent actions—which, I might add, are directly in violation of the treaty your people agreed on with me—are distinctly in the latter group.” Val hadn’t been in any real danger, of course—he was very capable of defending himself, as were both of his employees—but it made a good excuse, which was all I really needed.


Besides. You don’t go around trying to set fire to peoples’ stores. That isn’t political protest or whatever he wanted to call it. That’s just being a dick.


“Shall I kill him, jarl?” said Vigdis eagerly. It was, I knew, a serious offer; she knew the plan, but if I told her to just kill him now she would be overjoyed to do so.


“Not just yet, thank you,” I said. “You see, Mr. Miner, this presents me with certain problems. If I simply kill you, Katrin will undoubtedly be aggrieved. She takes the loss of one of her vampires quite seriously, however valueless the vampire in question may be. Now, I would be well within my rights as defined by our treaty to do so, but I would prefer not to antagonize her needlessly.” I sighed. “Quite a conundrum, isn’t it?”


“Do you want us to let him go?” Vigdis asked, sounding reluctant. The vampire relaxed, and even started to look a little smug, assuming this had all been an exercise to scare him a little. Had he been able to see that Vigdis was still grinning, he probably would have known better. When Vigdis grins, it usually presages violence, usually being inflicted by her.


“No, no,” I said absently, leaning back in my throne and letting my gaze wander off. “Have you ever read Machiavelli, Mr. Miner? It’s quite fascinating—he was a very insightful man, and remarkably honest, I think.. People tend to consider him devious, even evil, but I must admit I’ve always read it a little differently. Indeed, it seems to me that his attitudes were quite moral; his morality was simply more farsighted and logical than was the fashion at the time. After all, if there’s one thing you can say in support of an iron-fisted ruler, it’s that they rule. Better, it would seem, that the people be governed harshly than that they be crushed by an invader, or ravaged by civil war, or any number of other things that are invited by a weak ruler. Stability, even unpleasant stability, is often better than chaos. Don’t you think?”


The vampire couldn’t answer, of course, but his glare had acquired tones of contempt and derision. Perfect.


“Interestingly,” I continued, hardly even seeming to pay attention to what was going on, “Machiavelli even notes several times the importance of avoiding, above all else, being despised and hated—words which are, unfortunately, often confused in this language, when their meaning is really quite distinct. Now, it seems clear that if I kill you, I will provoke hatred from Katrin, something which I should seek to avoid. But if I simply let you go, it will make me seem powerless. It seems to me that there is nothing quite so likely to provoke disdain in the populace in general as to allow a declared enemy to escape punishment.” I shook my head sadly. “As I said, quite a conundrum.”


He managed to snort. Aiko, sitting on the floor to my right, had her head pillowed on my thigh, and seemed hardly even present, mentally speaking. Snowflake had already fallen asleep, sprawled across my feet.


“Fortunately,” I continued brightly, “I’ve had all day while you were, ah, asleep to think of solutions to this puzzle, and I think I’ve come up with four different ways to deal with it. First off, you can simply leave my domain. Exile isn’t a terribly harsh punishment, but it will allow me to save face, which is really all I’m interested in right now. Second, you can publicly recant your statements regarding me. I think that will be some measure of reparation, and the public humiliation should be a severe enough punishment that it won’t be viewed as excessive lenience on my part. Third, I can give you a highly visible injury, which should keep people from seeing me as weak. I think removing a hand should do it—and, Mr. Miner, while you might not think that a terribly significant punishment, I assure you that if I cut off your hand with this—” I touched Tyrfing, which was leaning against my other thigh—”it will not grow back.”


“Now,” I said, with a warning note in my voice, “I should warn you that this is a one-time only offer. Should you break the rules again—which includes returning to the state of Colorado, if you should choose exile—I will not be so lenient. The choice of which of these punishments you will receive is, of course, yours. Kindly remove his bindings.”


Vigdis and Kjaran hastened to comply. A few moments later, the vampire was standing under his own power, ungagged, a few lengths of rope pooled around his feet. Vigdis still had her hand on his shoulder, but Kjaran was standing a few feet away. It didn’t matter; vampire or not, there was no way he could get away or win a fight. Not with me, Snowflake, Aiko, and half a dozen jötnar standing there ready to go to town on him.


He was still glaring at me fiercely, but he seemed to be at least slightly nervous too. That was good; it suggested he might not be a total moron. “What’s the fourth?” he said finally.




“The fourth option,” the vampire said impatiently. “You said there were four choices. You’ve only listed three.”


“Oh, man!” I exclaimed. “How could I forget that! The fourth option is, I kill you in such an entertaining way that hopefully Katrin is too busy being amused by it to get upset with me. I’m thinking I’ll have Vigdis pull your arm off and beat you about the head with it, then maybe stick it up your ass and stake you through the heart with your other arm bone before having your head chewed off by weasels. But if you can think of something funnier I’m all ears.”


Vampires are typically pale. But this one moved another shade or two towards snowy. “You can’t do that,” he said blankly.


Vigdis grinned and tightened her fingers on his shoulder. Now, Vigdis doesn’t look terribly impressive—she’s about average height and only slightly heavier in build than a normal woman, in her human guise. But she’s a frost giant, and I knew she was more than strong enough to pop his shoulder out of its socket with her fingers. I also knew that the vampire was realizing more or less the same thing right now. She leaned closer to him, just inches from his ear, and whispered, “Want to bet?”


The vampire had the peculiarly shocked expression of someone realizing too late that he’s in over his head. A moment later his features firmed into a credible mask of calm. He stuck his free arm out in front of him and looked at Tyrfing significantly.

A short time later, we were all seated comfortably in what used to be the Alpha’s bedroom, back when this house was owned by the pack. It was a little cramped, but now that the main room of the house had been converted into a throne room, it was the de facto gathering place. Given that the second floor had been given over into living quarters for my housecarls, and the third-floor study was basically my office now, there wasn’t a lot of choice. The only room larger was the safe room in the basement, and I wasn’t willing to spend time there. I don’t have a lot of psychological problems from my stint as a prisoner in a werewolf safe room, but I won’t ever be comfortable in one.


I probably shouldn’t have been there in any case. I mean, chumming with the minions after completing a mildly difficult and seriously unpleasant task doesn’t exactly fit with a proper jarl’s dignity and decorum, I suspect. But I have no interest in being a proper jarl, and in any case I wanted to keep my housecarls friendly. They were in an excellent position to stab me in the back, literally or otherwise.


“That was awesome,” Kyi Greyfell said, laughing. “You were so funny, and then he not laughed. I expected not, that would he that choice choose.” Kyi, the other female out of six housecarls, was also the youngest of them, maybe no older than me. English isn’t her first language. Not that any of the other jötnar’s first language is English, but Kyi’s relative youth meant that she sounded like it, particularly when she’s had a bit to drink. Being a jotun, that’s most of the time.


“I didn’t see it coming myself,” I admitted. “I’d have thought he was smart enough to pick exile.”


“Aren’t you worried he’ll try to get revenge?” Sveinn asked.


“Not really. Katrin won’t want him embarrassing her, and at this point any time someone sees him it will be an embarrassment to her. I expect she’ll have him killed or shipped off soon.” I was guessing the former; Katrin wasn’t the sort to worry overmuch about little things like justice or loyalty. If killing a minion was the most expedient solution, that was what she’d do.


“Clever,” Tindr the Exile said, sounding impressed. He was smaller than any of the others save Kyi, in both human and giant forms, and the worst fighter of the lot. That made him bottom of the totem pole in the hyper-violent jotun society. I was always careful to treat him with respect, though; Tindr is smart. After Sveinn, he was responsible for organizing this mess, and he was the most bureaucratically-talented of the group. He also did all my accounting, now that I was dealing with enough money to need an accountant. I was clever enough to see how vulnerable that left me to him, should he decide he would be better off not to serve me loyally.


“You should have him watched anyway. Just in case.” That was from Haki Who-Fights-Alone. As his name suggests, he’s not the most enthusiastic team player. He wasn’t antisocial, exactly; just not accustomed to working with others, and not particularly inclined to change that. Not entirely unlike me, really, except that I didn’t get the option. When Skrýmir informs you you’re going to hold court and command housecarls, you don’t argue. It isn’t wise.


“Excellent idea,” I said. “Thanks for volunteering.” Everyone in the room laughed, with the exception of Kjaran. Kjaran doesn’t laugh. Ever.


I can’t say it’s the gang I always wanted to be the boss of. But it could be worse.

About an hour later, I got a call from a familiar number and excused myself to answer it, somewhat gratefully. The housecarls had broken out the mead some time earlier (I have no idea where they get the stuff, but it’s seemingly an endless supply), and several of them also had more exotic forms of alcohol. As a result, Kyi was lapsing incoherently in and out of whatever bastardized version of Old Norse the jötnar used, Vigdis was reminiscing about some battle or other, and Sveinn had started singing in what sounded like Swedish.


Given that I don’t drink and at the moment wanted nothing more than to go home and go to sleep, I was rather glad to have an excuse to leave.


“Hey,” I said, closing the door to my office firmly. Snowflake was already there, waiting to go home; she doesn’t like the jötnar much. “What’s up?”


“Exciting times,” Kyra said. Her voice was very light and casual, but I knew her well enough to recognize the tension underneath. “Could you do me a favor?”


“For you? Anything. Especially if it involves leaving this freaking city.”


“Now you know how I felt. So how soon can you get to Wyoming?”


I frowned, estimating timing. It was made trickier by the fact that time’s passage could be slightly more fluid than people usually conceive of time as being in some of the places I traveled through. “An hour,” I said eventually. “Maybe an hour and a half. Why?”


“Wait, what? An hour? How are you going to manage that?”


“Being a freak of nature has its perks,” I said smugly.


“Be that way,” she said. “Well, I don’t think Dolph will be here before morning, so I guess I’ll see you then.”


I considered going back into that room and pretending to celebrate a small, ugly victory in the small, ugly war between me and Katrin, and pretending to take pride in the maiming and probable death of someone who, while no saint, probably never even understood the game he was a pawn in. “Actually,” I said to Kyra, “do you mind if I come tonight? It sounds like this is one of your complicated favors, and I’d like to hear what I’m getting myself into before Dolph gets there.”


“Fine with me,” she said, probably shrugging. I mean, I wouldn’t know, obviously, but I could imagine her shrugging while she said that, and the other person not being able to see you never seems to stop people gesturing.


“Great. I’ll see you in a few hours.”

Almost an hour later, Aiko, Snowflake and I walked in the front door of our mansion. All of the housecarls had offered to come along, of course, because that’s the sort of thing a housecarl is supposed to do, but I’d turned them down. I was looking forward to a little time without having minions around, and if necessary I could always come back and get them.


A few steps inside the door, we were met by Alexis. My cousin and I were never particularly close, but I was currently sort of teaching her magic, and it was simpler for her to live with us than be constantly traveling back and forth. There was plenty of room for it; there are castles smaller than the mansion. It was also cheaper, and significantly safer for her—there are very, very few people capable of attacking a pocket dimension built by a god with the explicit purpose of being very private and very defensible.


“This is ridiculous!” she said, glaring at me.


“What is?”


“The jackass you keep insisting I take classes from!”


“Shihan Johnson has very good credentials,” I reminded her. “And he knows what he’s talking about, which isn’t at all the same.”


“Maybe,” she allowed, not much mollified, “but he’s an asshole.”


“Oh, no,” I assured her. “John’s a very nice man. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to convince him to be an asshole to you. He didn’t like the idea very much, let me tell you.”


The belligerence drained out of her face, replaced by confusion. “Wait a second. You asked him to be a jerk?”


“Absolutely,” I confirmed.




“Because you need to start learning self-defense, aikido is a good place to start, and he’s an excellent aikido instructor. And you also need to learn how to deal with assholes in positions of authority, because believe me, you will never stop encountering them. This was just killing two birds with one stone.”


She stared at me. “That…almost makes sense. Which kind of scares me.”


I grinned. “Don’t worry about it. You’ve got the basics down, so I don’t think it matters much if you stop going at this point. Most of the higher-level stuff is window dressing and niche applications you don’t really need. For now, pack your bags for a couple of days.”


“For what?”

“Trip to Wyoming,” I said cheerfully. “You get to meet some interesting people.”


“Most of whom will probably try to kill me,” she muttered as she walked away.


“Well, duh. You’re traveling with me and Aiko, what do you expect?”

Trying to use magic to travel is a difficult prospect. People get all the wrong ideas about it. See, teleportation is possible, in the most technical sense of the word, but it isn’t practical for anyone short of a deity. Space is a fundamental part of the universe, and trying to warp it that much takes astronomical power, literally; trying to do so with the precision required for safely transporting a living thing takes the kind of skill and expertise no human has. Flying is easier, but still very difficult. Trying to manipulate enough energy to move a human’s weight is pretty hard, to begin with. Then you have to do so powerfully enough that it’s faster than walking. That means some pretty terrific forces are involved, which means that a single mistake is likely to be lethal, which means that it’s damned hard to practice. So basically, it can be done, but only by people who have a pretty strong gift in that direction.


The method most people use to travel, assuming they travel with magic at all, is a little more complicated. It takes advantage of numerous extremely esoteric principles of spatial and metaphysical relationships; the theory behind it is so far beyond me I’ve never even tried to grasp it. Basically, though, it takes advantage of a loophole in the idea of place and takes a side trip through another level of reality, going from A to B without actually interacting with the space between at all.


In practice, what this means is that magical travel is a difficult, exhausting, and dangerous process. It also has the very important limitation that you can’t use it to travel anywhere you don’t already know intimately.


I explained all this to Alexis as we walked to the first waypoint. She’d heard most of it before, and even traveled this way, but it was the kind of thing she could stand to hear twice.


“Why do you do it at all, then?” she asked when I was finished.


“Because we’re about to go about a thousand miles in an hour,” I said.


“Well, I suppose it beats flying.”


“That’s the spirit!” Aiko said brightly. “Now shut up, please. I’m trying to concentrate.” We were currently standing just out front of a small movie theater. Given that it was only around ten, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that it was a fairly busy place, and we didn’t have much trouble blending in. There weren’t a lot of people standing around outside, given that it was mid-December, and our appearance was such that we always attract a bit of attention, but I imagine they see enough weirdos at theaters that they hardly even notice them anymore.


“Watch what she’s doing,” I said to Alexis quietly. “You see the energy structures?”


“Yeah,” she replied. “Wow. That’s some really intricate patterning.”


“Yes,” I agreed, “it is, which is why you shouldn’t mess around with it yet. Screw up with this stuff, and you disappear.”


“What, like, die?”


I frowned. “Nobody’s quite sure. As far as we know, nobody’s ever managed to make contact with anything that’s gone through a failed portal. But nobody’s ever come back either.” She started to look very, very concerned. “Don’t worry,” I said. “Aiko’s good at this.”


“Yes,” Aiko growled, “but I’m better when people shut up.”


I smirked. But I shut up.


A few minutes later, an elongated oval of absolute darkness snapped into place against the wall in front of her. I stepped through first, then Snowflake, then Alexis, and Aiko brought up the rear.


The other reason people avoid using this sort of travel is that it sucks. A lot. The moment between entering one end and stepping out the other was only a fraction of an instant, but it packed a whole lot of unpleasant into that period. It felt like being stretched and crushed and burned and frozen and blinded and exsanguinated all at once. Not really, of course, because it wasn’t a physical sensation at all, but I have difficulty describing it in terms that make any sense at all, and an extended metaphor comparing it to more ordinary sensations is the best I can do.


I blacked out for a minute or two on the other end. I always do. I don’t know why. I don’t really understand much about this stuff. I can do it, although not all that well, and beyond that I absolutely do not want to know. When I came to, I was on my knees, Snowflake was on the ground next to me making a sort of whimpering noise, Aiko was leaning on me for support (which didn’t make it any easier not to fall over, trust me), and Alexis was flat on her back in the unbelievably perfect grass a few feet away.


I stood up, slowly enough not to upset Aiko’s balance. “I bloody hate coming straight here,” she muttered, glaring at me . “Why couldn’t we use an intermediary again?”


“Because I don’t want to go through the sleazy neighborhood world ever again, and there wasn’t a convenient place to get to Faerie around.” I glanced around. We were standing in the middle of a rough oval of grass, brilliant green and lush in ways no grass in my world ever was. The space, around the size of a football field, was delineated by towering obelisks of some silvery material I’d never seen anywhere else. A gibbous moon hung in the sky, casting more than adequate light.


Predictably, the most distinctive part of the world we were now in to me was the scent. The air here smelled wonderful, all the time. At the moment it smelled like a mountain breeze, and the air after a thunderstorm, freshly cut grass and night-blooming flowers. It was balmy here, a sharp contrast from the chilly air of Colorado. It was always balmy here.


It took a few minutes to recover from the crossing. Oh, I suppose they weren’t strictly necessary; I’d done much nastier ones, and in comparison this was downright pleasant. I mean, none of us was violently ill afterwards. We could have gotten up and kept going, if necessary carrying Alexis, who wasn’t accustomed to such things. But, well, why?


“Ugh,” my cousin said a few minutes later. “Where are we?”


“A backwater world the Sidhe use to host minor events,” I said. “That’s how it started, anyway. It got some publicity for a breakout show of some sort, and a few different groups have started using it, although not on a regular basis.”


Aiko sighed. “Come on, Winter. You could have told her anything, and you go with the boring truth? I’m disappointed in you.”


“We call it El Dorado,” I concluded. “Although that isn’t the proper name. It sure as hell isn’t the original.”


“Good,” Alexis said with a note of relief. “I don’t know if I could handle that.”


“Just wait until you see Atlantis,” Aiko said, taking off across the grass.


She’s kidding, right? Snowflake said, standing up and shaking herself thoroughly.


Almost certainly. Operative word being almost.


The next stop was in a park. The grass, just as lush and unbelievable as all the rest, came up above my waist, and rustled with a soothing, almost musical sound in the breeze. Trees, mostly ash and oak with a scattering of conifers, towered overhead. It was tricky to estimate exactly how high they were—El Dorado was tangentially connected with Faerie, and the second Faerie becomes involved concepts of distance and spatial arrangement are so unreliable as to be worthless—but it had to be at least a few hundred feet.


Aiko opened the next gate as well, spinning it within an arch formed by massive tree branches near the small stream that passed through the park. We stepped through it, and found ourselves in a place almost diametrically opposed to that which we’d left.


At first glance, it seemed fairly similar. The trees were more varied—beyond what I would ordinarily think possible, even—but equally enormous. The bright, sparkling brook had been replaced by a dark, slow river that seemed as though it might be hiding nearly anything beneath its surface. The sky was obstructed by a rainforest-like canopy of branches, casting the forest floor into a perpetual state of twilight, not too different from the moonlit streets of El Dorado.


Every specific feature was, although not the same, quite similar to the place we’d left. And yet no one would ever confuse the two, not even momentarily. I’m not sure I can really explain why. It simply…felt different. This forest had a hushed quality to it, almost a sense of awareness. It wasn’t that it felt like the trees were watching me; it was more that it felt like they could watch me, but weren’t currently bothering. This was a place that had little knowledge of me or anything like me, and less desire to learn. It was friendly enough, though. There was no real sense of malice. It was just a lot bigger than me.


None of us had nearly the symptoms of last time. Snowflake trotted over to the water and took a long drink, then settled down to wait. Alexis looked a little ill, but she was hardly on the brink of passing out. I felt dizzy and my headache had gotten noticeably worse, but I was in fairly good shape, on a relative scale.


Aiko didn’t look like she was having any problems at all. Her eyes were half-closed, and her expression was one I didn’t often see on her face, one of contentment. She wandered over towards the river, moving in an almost dreamlike manner, her fingers brushing against the bark of the trees. She looked like she was coming home.


But then, that’s probably because she was. From what little she’s willing to say, the Wood was more her home than her mother’s domain ever was.


A few moments later Alexis once again asked, “Where are we?” Her voice was nothing less than awestruck, a perfectly appropriate and rational response to Inari’s Wood.


“Inari’s Wood,” I said. “You remember who Inari is?”


“Japanese deity,” she recited dutifully. “Very important Shinto kami. Associated with agriculture, particularly in the form of rice.”


“Right, and his servants are…?”


“Foxes, particularly high-ranking kitsune,” she said, glancing at Aiko. For her part, our resident kitsune didn’t abandon her usual dignity and decorum to grace that with a response. Which is another way of saying she was twenty feet up a spruce; a second or two later she bounced a cone off my head.


“Good job,” I said. “He created this domain as a sort of homeland or refuge for the kitsune. It should be the last stop before we get to our destination, if Aiko would get down here.”


“Hey,” she said unrepentantly, tossing a cone at Snowflake, who bit it out of the air. “You’re driving.”


“True,” I sighed, turning to where a pine branch bent to the ground, forming a sort of elongated triangle.


“Wait a second,” Alexis said. “You’re driving? Should I be worried by this?”


“Try not to sound so happy,” I said dryly. “You’ll make Aiko feel bad.” I started gathering power together and shaping it into the pattern I wanted.


I’m nowhere near as good as Aiko at this particular area of magic. She’s a native of the Otherside, however easy that is to forget, and that makes her naturally more suited to this sort of thing. She’s also had close to fifty years to practice, while I’m twenty years younger than she is and I’ve only been able to do this trick at all for maybe three or four.


But I’ve had a lot of opportunity to use it, recently. I was getting better. I only made two false starts before getting it right, and the whole process took me less than fifteen minutes. Still not good enough for a quick escape, maybe, but there are ways to compensate for that. The experience of transfer was even less fun when you were the one making the portal, and this domain was far enough removed from my destination point to make it noticeably worse, but I could cope.


I could always cope.

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Balancing Act Epilogue 6

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That evening, almost exactly at sundown, there came a knocking on the door. Whoever it was knocked nine times, heavy and regular as a death knell. I opened it, expecting the worst by both logic and habit.


What I got was Skrýmir sweeping in like a one-man avalanche and enfolding me in a bear hug that would have made a grizzly cry mercy. “Excellent work, my boy,” he boomed, almost loud enough to deafen me all over again. “A king’s blood in your veins! And not shy to show it, either. Most excellent.”


He unwrapped me, and I almost fell over. “Ah…thank you, Your Majesty.”


He laughed. “There’s no need for that between family, lad!” He nodded. “Truly, though, you’ve done a fine job. My brother will complain, of course, but don’t doubt he’s proud of you as well. I’ve put out the notices, and as fast as your star ascends it won’t be long before folk are volunteering, I wager.”


I paused, a tiny voice in my head warning me very, very loudly. “Uh. Volunteering for what, exactly?”


“Why, a place in your court, naturally. I expect there will be some very stiff competition for places among your housecarls, although of course the final decision is yours and yours alone.”


“Um…Skrýmir, I wasn’t actually, ah, planning on having a court.”


“You’re a jarl now,” he said, as though confused. “A jarl has to have a court. It wouldn’t be right, otherwise.”


“Well, okay, but I wasn’t going to stay the jarl. I only claimed the title to serve a purpose, and it’s sort of done now. I figured I’d just give the city to Kikuchi, or maybe the vampires—they seemed reasonable enough. Or I suppose I might invite a werewolf pack in and let them take over the territory.”


“Nonsense!” the jotun king thundered, loud enough to make me literally and physically wince. “This land is yours, rightfully claimed and honorably earned. It’s yours. Besides, you know as well as I that you shall make a fine jarl, and any who say otherwise can say it to my axe.” He winked broadly. “Come now, son. I spoke to your lady, the other day. Don’t you think she’d enjoy a bit of power to abuse?”


Never refuse the command of a god. Never, never, never ever. Even if they like you. Even if they don’t seem to care a great deal. Even if the command is implicit, rather than explicitly stated. It never ends well. Never.


Skrýmir wasn’t a god, but given that he reputedly duped, mocked, and insulted them and got away scot free, I was pretty sure the same applied to him—especially given that, technically, I had declared myself a member of his court, and thus subject to his orders. Thus, rather than protest that I didn’t want to be a jarl, I bowed my head. “As you say, then,” I said, wincing internally. I’d known there would be a price for my little bit of political maneuvering, but I’d been really hoping it might not look like this.


“Glad to hear it,” he said with another infectious grin. “Come on, then, and bring Miss Miyake. I think a celebration’s in order, for the family’s newest jarl!”


As I should probably have guessed, Skrýmir’s idea of a “celebration” was what I would have called a “bar crawl.” I’m not sure how, but he seemed to know where every single drinking establishment in town was, and was determined to patronize every one. As you might imagine in a city the size of Colorado Springs, that took rather a lot of doing. About fourteen hours’ worth, in fact, which is why it wasn’t too surprising that my memory of the event is slightly fuzzed—I can’t, for example, quite recall how we got from one bar to the next.


I managed not to get quite as wasted as the last time I’d seen Skrýmir, largely because I was drinking alcohol meant for human rather than jotun consumption. Aiko, who seemed just as inclined to “celebration” as Skrýmir did (although, I suspect, for different reasons; the kitsune had not taken at all well to her prolonged Otherside house arrest, and given that this was her first chance in a long time to party in her preferred world it probably isn’t surprising that she went to excess), seemed determined to match him drink for drink.


It was inevitably a losing proposition, of course, because this was freaking Skrýmir we were talking about, and he showed so little ill effect from the superhuman quantities of booze he was downing that bartenders and other patrons were looking at him with awe verging on reverence. But it still had the effect of producing a very, very tipsy kitsune. There were, nigh-miraculously, no serious incidents or criminal activities, although a number of amusing events did result. My favorite was when Aiko picked a fight with a two-hundred-and-fifty pound biker. He took offense, and then found himself looking up at Skrýmir. The giant casually picked him up and threw him bodily out of the bar.


Through the wall. Fortunately—ridiculously so, even—no one was injured.


The next clear memory I have is of walking up a familiar street, while the sun came up behind us. I was all but carrying Aiko, who was holding an empty bottle of schnapps and humming the tune to “Schnappi, das kleine Krokodil.” It was most likely not a coincidence.


“What are we doing here?” I mumbled. From the way Aiko giggled, I was guessing it was not the first time I’d asked.


“I have something to show you,” Skrymir said cheerily. He seemed none the worse for wear. “Come along, now.”


The streets started getting more familiar. I sighed; even in my current condition I could figure out where I was, and in any condition I would have found it ridiculous.


A few minutes later, the pack house came into view. I don’t know how, but it had been repaired—completely—since I saw it last. The walls were pristine. The doors were present. The windows were not only unshattered, they weren’t boarded over, although the bars were still there. It was like the rakshasas had never been there.


“Welcome,” Skrýmir said with a grandiose gesture, “to your new hall, jarl.”


I sighed. I wasn’t even surprised. Disgusted, but not surprised.


Inside, the main room had been redecorated again. The comfortable, cozy lounge feel was gone. Instead, the room was dominated by a flare-backed throne on a large dais. It was constructed from black iron, with no decoration whatsoever. The result was a rather grim look.


The walls were covered in artwork, ranging from tapestries to hanging scrolls. They exhibited the same themes of wolves, winter, and death that everything I owned seemed determined to fall in line with, although there was a lot of variation within that theme.


The dominant position, though, was very definitely held by the massive coat of arms on the wall behind the throne—mine, apparently, although I hadn’t heard a word about such a thing before. Loki’s doing, I supposed, although it might also have been Fenris’s, or Skrýmir’s, or even Blaise’s. The shield was black, with a ragged-edged wolf’s head on it in white, and was flanked by a pair of rampant wolves in black. The wolves were standing on what looked like a sheet of ice. The shield was mantled, shockingly enough, in black and white. The appearance as a whole was somber, stark and cold. The scroll underneath bore the motto Grimmir ok Svalbrjóstaðir in ornate lettering. I had no idea what it meant, and only guesses as to what language it was, although finding out was definitely high on my list of things to do. Bad enough to have a formal motto, and much worse not to have chosen it myself; the idea of not even knowing what my motto was was rather upsetting.


Maybe it was fatigue—or, you know, the fact that I was more than a tiny bit drunk—but something about the whole thing struck me as incredibly absurd. I stood there, and looked at the latest twist my life had taken, and I laughed. They looked at me funny, but I didn’t care. I just laughed and laughed and laughed.

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Balancing Act 6.15

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I never saw the skinwalker move. I was watching, too. As far as I could tell, he moved from the bottom steps of the staircase to the middle of the room without actually crossing the intervening space. He discarded his disguise as he moved, and arrived in the center of the room as the same Native American man I’d seen before. He’d traded his expensive suit for hunting leathers, and was wearing a cloak of feathers that reminded me uncomfortably of the garment I’d once seen Loki wearing. These feathers were all black, though. It wasn’t hard to guess where they’d come from.


He wasn’t visibly armed, having dropped the tengu’s sword as he moved. I wished that I could believe that would matter. I wasn’t capable of beating this thing—he didn’t deserve the title of person—at my best. In my current condition, I wouldn’t even be a speed bump.


“I must say, you did an excellent job,” the skinwalker said, his voice supremely confident. “I expected you to make a decent showing, of course, but I never would have guessed this gambit would pay off this well. You not only removed the greatest obstacle to my gaining dominance over this pathetic cesspool of a city, every remaining inconvenience is in the same room! And you’re half dead already, I shouldn’t doubt. Really, my friends, you’ve outdone yourselves this time.” His voice was almost friendly, which made it all even creepier.


“What about the vampires?” I said, hating the way fear made my voice shake.


“They don’t matter,” he said dismissively. “They can’t oppose me, and they’ll flee rather than face me regardless. No, I don’t have to worry about the vampires.”


Kikuchi hissed, an eerie inhuman sound. “You speak too soon, abomination,” he said in a cold voice. He only had one hand with which to wield his katana, but it didn’t look any less deadly.


The skinwalker didn’t even look at him. He just flicked his fingers, and a blast of magical force hit the tengu like a speeding bus. He flew across the room, not dropping noticeably over the course of fifteen feet, and slammed into the wall with terrible force.


The tengu dropped limply to the ground. His sword clattered on the floor as it fell from his hand.


“Always with the distractions,” the skinwalker said, hardly even sounding annoyed. “Where was I? Ah, yes. Mr. Wolf, this battle is over. You’ve lost. But, as I think I’ve conveyed to you already, I hold you in no particular contempt. I admire your determination, your indomitability. I have only respect for you on a personal level.”


“Gosh thanks,” I growled, shifting around slightly where I sat.


“There’s no need to be snide,” he said disapprovingly. “As I was saying, I have no reason to wish you ill. It isn’t too late for you to leave this room alive.”


“Let me guess,” I sneered at him. “All I have to do is abandon any ideals or principles I might, by some miracle, still have, betray and kill my friends and allies, and swear eternal service to you and your evil masters.”


“Nothing so ridiculous,” the skinwalker said. “No, I think killing one of them should suffice. The dog or the kitsune. It shouldn’t be too difficult for you. You and the survivor would be free to go. You are, of course, welcome to remain here and serve me, but frankly I think it would be better for all of us if you didn’t.”


Damn, I was starting to really hate this jackass. I mean, it’s one thing to be a bad guy. It’s bad enough to be manipulated, defeated, tormented, and eventually killed. But for it to happen at the hands of a villain who was so damned cliché, well, that was just over the top.


I pretended to consider it, shifting around uncomfortably, looking at Aiko and Snowflake in turn. There was no way my face could be seen behind the cloak and the helmet, but I kept it properly horrified anyway. I must have done a fairly good job, because Alexis looked like she was about to be sick with terror, and Miyazaki—who was standing a safe distance away from the skinwalker, clutching his club, and trying to pretend he hadn’t been dismissed from this conversation like he wasn’t even there—growled a little.


I opened my mouth to answer. The skinwalker leaned closer, sadistic pleasure writ large in every line of his body. He was enjoying this, exulting in our suffering, getting off on watching me damn myself. It seemed for a moment that the whole world was holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.


And then I pulled the trigger of my shotgun.


People with a certain amount of knowledge of the supernatural tend to be fairly down on guns. Now, there are entirely valid reasons for that. A lot of critters—vampires spring to mind, but there are others—aren’t even inconvenienced by bullets. More than that, though, people get the idea that magic is better than a firearm. That’s broadly true. Even a minor mage such as myself can typically come up with a counter to a gun. I can’t stop bullets. But that doesn’t mean other mages can’t—they can. Easily. And even for me, stopping the person shooting the gun is a relatively trivial task. For a stronger and more experienced mage, it wasn’t even that.


But all of that assumes that the mage knows about the gun. It’s hard to stop what you don’t know is there. It can be done—for example, some mages never leave the house without a full set of magical protections that protect from that sort of thing, while especially paranoid mages never put themselves in a position where a gunman could conceivably be present without their knowledge at all. But it’s much, much more difficult.


The skinwalker had no way of knowing that I was even carrying a gun. Circumstances during the fight hadn’t been conducive for me actually using it, and it was concealed beneath the cloak. All that shifting around had let me get it aligned properly without being obvious about it, removing the instant of warning he might otherwise have had. And, at that moment, he was so fixated upon what I was about to say, so absorbed by the pleasure he was getting from our suffering, that he wasn’t expecting an attack at all.


I’d loaded the shotgun with custom ammunition roughly based off my anti-nasty dust, a mix of iron, silver, and rock salt imbued with magical energy and blessed. As far as I knew, skinwalkers weren’t vulnerable to any of those things, but I didn’t reckon it could hurt.


The skinwalker flinched away, a number of holes opening on his face and chest, blood spraying out the exit wounds, but didn’t fall. I worked the pump, but before I could get off a second shot some unseen force snatched the shotgun from my hands, overcoming my attempts to hold onto it as easily as if I were a two year old.


Miyazaki took advantage of the skinwalker’s momentary distraction to attack. He charged, uncannily fast for such an enormous guy, whipping the huge club in an overhead strike that could have crushed a cinderblock to dust. The skinwalker saw it coming too late to dodge, and lifted one hand in an instinctive, futile attempt to parry. I felt like cheering.


The spiked head of the club smashed into the skinwalker’s hand…and, contrary to all logic and reason, stopped dead. The tanuki crashed to a sudden halt, almost thrown from his feet just by the aborted momentum of his attack, but the skinwalker didn’t even sway on his feet. He flicked his wrist, the sort of motion you might use to shoo away a fly, and several hundred pounds of tanuki flew through the air to land on the ground several feet away.


Bloody hell. How strong was this thing?


The skinwalker turned back towards me, easily snatching my shotgun from where it floated in midair next to him. I noticed he wasn’t bleeding; every one of the holes from the shotgun blast had healed already. He didn’t even seem to have noticed it. “Well, I suppose I can take that as your answer,” he said. His smile showed many, many pointed teeth, and his yellow eyes glittered with almost sexual excitement. “A pity. I would have enjoyed working with you, Mr. Wolf. But I’m afraid now it’s time for you to die.” He leveled the shotgun at my head.


If you’re going to be a supervillain, here’s a piece of advice that might be worth considering. Don’t indulge in evil gloating. If you absolutely must indulge, wait until the enemy’s already dead. If for some reason you can’t, never ever hand the universe a straight line like that one. It can’t resist.


“Hey, stupid,” a voice called from the front door.


I don’t know who in that room was the most surprised. I think me, but it might have been Snowflake, or even the skinwalker. Certainly we all turned to look.


Brick walked into the room. He was dressed in a robe of some soft grey fabric, complete with hood, and carried a tall staff of some pale wood in his left hand. His right held a rod maybe eighteen inches long and one and a half thick made from polished granite. His blue eyes were almost as cold as Snowflake’s, and I thought that he’d never looked so much like a mage, or so little like the rest of the Inquisition.


And on his chest, hung from a simple silver chain, was an oval of Damascus steel with the image of a serpent on it. The mark, I knew, of a Watcher on assignment (although the significance of the serpent, rather than the flaming sword or all-seeing eye I’d seen other Watchers use as emblems, eluded me). Brick, a Watcher. I’d never really considered the possibility before, but it made a certain amount of sense. If nothing else, I would never have guessed it, and that was the kind of person the Watchers liked best.


“Did you really think I wouldn’t figure out who was sending those constructs?” the man said coldly, walking into the room. His staff clicked against the floor with every step, as did his hard-soled boots.


“Ah,” the skinwalker sighed, sounding more satisfied than upset. “You must be Nobody’s protégé. This night just gets better and better.” He tossed my shotgun aside to clatter on the floor, spreading his hands out to the side. They filled with putrid yellow fire, reeking of sulfur and corruption and magic.


“Alexis my darling,” the skinwalker said, not looking away from Brick. “Be a dear and kill your cousin for me, won’t you?”


She didn’t answer.


“Come now,” he chided. “You’ve come this far already. Surely you know there’s no going back after you’ve already done me such fine service. Do this one thing, and you’re free. You’ll never hear from me again. I swear it.” He sounded sincere, and I thought he might be—if nothing else, most people from my side of things are very hesitant to break a sworn oath. Of course, given that it was a skinwalker talking, I wasn’t sure how much that meant.


I wasn’t sure what Alexis was going to answer, and I didn’t wait to find out. I focused a quick spike of magic at her. A moment later, there was a flash of intense green light behind me.


A second after that, Alexis hit the floor. She fell badly; it’s hard to do otherwise when there’s nobody home in your body. I’d never tried shunting someone else into an animal’s mind, but it seemed to have worked, and I was pretty sure Snowflake would be able to keep her busy long enough to ensure that she wasn’t a threat. If nothing else, the wolf that shared her mind had plenty of practice with this sort of thing.


The skinwalker smiled at me. “Well played,” he said. “Most people are too trusting to ever see such an attack coming, let alone prepare for it intelligently.” Without even looking, or pausing in his speech, he flicked one of those handfuls of fire at Brick, clearly hoping to take the mage off guard.


He failed. Brick lifted his right hand, and the stone rod it held, and spoke a single word. I wasn’t sure what he did, exactly, but the fire splashed against an invisible barrier a foot from his face. A moment later it dissipated. Brick never even moved his feet.


“Not bad,” the skinwalker said, turning to face Brick directly. “Not bad at all. Slightly unimaginative, but then that’s to be expected.”


Brick didn’t rise to the provocation, just pointed that rod at the skinwalker like a gun. He said one word, and a surge of earth-scented magic rose. A tennis-ball sized sphere of brown-and-green light flew from the end of the rod, moving about as fast as a major-league pitch.


The skinwalker made a curious rolling gesture with his now-empty hand and murmured a phrase in a language I didn’t recognize, even vaguely. Flickers of yellow light mingled with the brown and green, and the ball of light curved in the air. It struck the wall, and a circle three feet in diameter began to melt and run like wax. Then he tossed the other handful of flame to the floor, where it began to spread hungrily. The reek of the skinwalker’s magic rose higher in the room, making me gag.


Brick spoke a half-dozen words of what sounded like archaic German and thumped his staff on the ground once, and the fires died away. But he’d lost the initiative, and given the skinwalker another chance to attack. He seized it.


This bit of magic was harder to understand—although the others had been plenty hard enough, even for me. The skinwalker made a gesture that vaguely resembled someone plucking feathers, speaking a few more words in whatever language he was using. A moment later Brick stiffened, his muscles clenching without any apparent volition on his part. His face was frozen in a rictus of fury, and his cheek was twitching.


Apparently the skinwalker’s spell didn’t have as much of an effect as he’d hoped, though, because Brick still managed to riposte. He raised that rod to point forward, shaking but not stopped. He snarled an almost incomprehensible word. The magic that he sent against the skinwalker next was hard to see, visible only as a slight, rippling distortion of the air. It moved fast, too, fast enough that I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen it at all.


Any suspicion I might have had that it was a trick of the mind, though, was dismissed when it struck the skinwalker. The blast of kinetic force was no kinder to him than his had been to Kikuchi in the opening stages of this bizarre little encounter; the skinwalker was tossed across the room. The strange stiffness lifted from Brick’s limbs at once, and he immediately lifted his staff to point at the monster and snapped another word. Frost instantly began to form over the skinwalker’s body, like watching a time-lapse video of crystal growth.


The skinwalker murmured another phrase and yellow flames washed over him, wiping the frost away. He pushed himself easily to his feet, seeming totally unharmed. He didn’t even look fatigued, and I could see that Brick was leaning heavily on his staff just to stay standing.


“Not bad,” the skinwalker said, sounding quite calm and pleasant. Now that I was starting to get an idea of the vileness behind those yellow eyes, that pleasant everyman’s voice creeped me out a lot. “Really, you have a great deal of potential. Quite skilled in your application of varied elements, especially for a sorcerer.”


Brick’s reply was another blast of force. The skinwalker turned it away easily, and it blasted a hole in the ceiling.


“Unfortunately,” the skinwalker continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted, “you’re still acting like a clan mage. That’s a terrible weakness. You’re thinking in two dimensions.” He gestured slightly.


My shotgun went off again. This time, controlled by the skinwalker’s telekinesis, it was pointed directly at Brick’s back.


I didn’t smell any blood, so I didn’t think the pellets had penetrated his robe—it must have had some kind of magic in it, reinforcing it until it was bulletproof. But the force involved was still considerable, and it knocked Brick over onto his face. He grunted, trying to get his staff under him and stand.


He was too slow. The skinwalker ambled over and picked him up by the throat with one hand. Brick was a tall guy, significantly taller than the skinwalker, but he seemed to have no difficulty lifting the mage over his own head, until his toes were dangling an inch above the floor. “You see,” the skinwalker said conversationally, as Brick clawed at his fingers, “you limited your perceptions to fit your expectations. Flexibility of thought, young man, is one of the most important determining factors in any magical conflict, and it is the rigidity of thought engendered by centuries of tradition which is in many ways the greatest weakness of the clans. In order to effectively take advantage of your surroundings, it is imperative that you are aware of them at all times.”


I enjoyed what happened next. I probably shouldn’t, but I’m convinced that irony has a personal vendetta against me, and it’s always nice to see your enemies indulging in a little friendly fire.


At the same time as the skinwalker was giving his little lecture on the virtues of awareness, a shadow dropped from the hole he’d knocked in the ceiling. It landed with perfect grace, in perfect silence, and straightened from its crouch. It took two silent steps forward and rammed a long knife home in the skinwalker’s back.


He immediately dropped Brick, who looked semiconscious at best, and turned to face the new assailant, seeming only mildly inconvenienced by the knife sticking out of his back. His features twisted with rage when he saw the latest attacker, the first real emotion I’d seen on his face. “You!” he snarled.


“Me,” Reynard agreed with a wicked grin, drawing a gladius-style sword from his belt. He had another knife in his left hand. He spun the knife idly in his hand as he and the skinwalker began to circle each other.


“Traitor,” the skinwalker spat, wrenching the knife out of his own back with no signs of pain. “You should never have come here. I will tear your flesh and break your bones.”


Reynard just smiled more. “Big words for a little man,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, abhorrence, did you ever find her? You didn’t, did you?” His smile broadened, sharpened, gained a note of cruelty. “How apropos. All the sacrifices you’ve made, and you never found her. Not that she’d want you to by now. How she must loathe you!”


I didn’t know what Reynard was talking about. It was an inside reference of some sort, that was clear, but I had no idea what he was referring to. It was just as clear that the two of them knew each other, but I couldn’t have guessed how.


What I do know is that hearing that drove the skinwalker mad with rage and hate. He threw himself at Reynard, his face twisted into a grimace that made him look almost as monstrous as he really was, slashing with his appropriated knife again and again. His other hand burned with a yellow radiance too bright to look at directly, and I didn’t doubt it was a weapon every bit as deadly as the knife, if not more so. For his part, Reynard danced away from every blow, occasionally parrying with dagger or sword. He laughed the whole time, a cruel and evil laugh.


And that was my moment.


For the entire fight up to that point, the skinwalker had been calm, collected, in control. He never let himself get too focused on one thing. But even monsters have buttons, and Reynard knew just which ones to push to drive the skinwalker out of his head.


For the first time, the skinwalker wasn’t paying any attention to me.


I was hurt, and terrified, and exhausted. But those were all familiar states for me, almost comfortable. And, end of the day, I was just too damn stubborn to give up now. I got to my feet and crept up behind the skinwalker. Reynard, clearly aware of my intentions, moved straight backward now, keeping the skinwalker from turning and seeing me. He could only do so for a few moments, but that was all the time I would need. Any sounds I might have made were easily covered by Reynard’s ongoing mad laughter. I got into position, sent off a quick and silent prayer to any benevolent deity who might happen to be listening, and lunged.


The skinwalker, by chance or intent, moved unexpectedly at the last moment, and Tyrfing took him in the right hip rather than dead center of the back as I’d intended. The skinwalker shrieked, and for the first time sounded like he was in pain. He tried to spin and do something nasty to me, but evidently Tyrfing’s magic was stronger than whatever vile power had protected him from every injury up ’til now. He stumbled when his weight fell on the newly crippled leg.


Reynard took advantage of his distraction to slash at the magic-wielding hand with his gladius. Two fingers dropped to the floor, foul-smelling blood welled up, and the urine-yellow light of magic faded.


I twisted Tyrfing and wrenched it back out.


Kikuchi, who’d been biding his time since he was batted away when the skinwalker first revealed himself, sprang to his feet, and then at the skinwalker’s back. He had only one arm with which to swing his katana, but it still bit deeply into the thing’s shoulder. The tengu pulled it out and readied for another strike.


The skinwalker had finally had enough. His face contorted now with pain and fear rather than anger, he jumped. Propelled by muscles that were disturbingly strong even to me, he easily cleared six feet of vertical leap from a standing start. As he neared the apex of his leap, he screamed another word in that strange language. His shape seemed to blur and twist, and then a deformed-looking crow flapped awkwardly through the hole in the ceiling.


Kikuchi moved as though to follow—though how he planned to follow a flying enemy, and what he planned to do to it when he got there in his condition, I don’t know. Reynard put his hand on the tengu’s good shoulder, stopping him. “Let him go,” he said quietly.


“We have him,” the tengu said, angrily shaking the hand off. “Now’s the time to finish it.”


Reynard shook his head. “No,” he said, not perturbed at all by the younger being’s anger. “Better not to. Chase him now and he’ll become desperate. That one’s got a fair bit of fight in him yet, if you drive him to it, and you’d not be the only one to suffer for it.” His lips twitched into a wry smile. “Besides, I doubt you’ll need to worry about him anymore. I daresay it’s been some time since a fight went so badly against him so fast, and he won’t want to face you again anytime soon.”


Privately, I thought that a rather optimistic prediction. It seemed likelier to me that the skinwalker would be looking to redress the insult to his pride. He wasn’t the sort to take it philosophically. But now wasn’t the time for such grim discussion, so I let it go.


“See to your people,” Reynard said softly. Kikuchi still looked like he wanted to argue, but he bowed to the voice of reason and went to do as Reynard had suggested.


“Hell of a fighter,” I murmured, watching the tengu walk away.


“He is at that,” Reynard agreed. “A touch hotheaded, perhaps, but he’ll grow out of it.” He glanced at me. “Sojobo said to tell you that de Sousa got away. Realized that the water here was rather hotter than she liked, most likely.”


I nodded in resignation. I’d sort of expected that. “She can’t hide forever,” I said. I wasn’t entirely sure—I mean, evidence suggested she sort of could—but this wasn’t a time for pessimism, either. Reynard nodded, and I got the impression he knew exactly what I meant.


After all the other surprises and confusions, I almost didn’t think it remarkable when we found Anna locked in the pack’s old safe room. Maybe the skinwalker had been working with the rakshasas before we eliminated them for him. Maybe he just found it amusing. It hardly mattered, and I honestly did not want to understand that monster’s motivations any better than I already did.


As I’d expected, the skinwalker had already started abusing Anna. She had a number of bruises, several relatively minor lacerations, three broken fingers, a mild concussion, and was missing the smallest two toes of her left foot. She was conscious, though, and as much pissed as scared. She took a not inconsiderable amount of pleasure in our recounting of how we’d shown the bastard up and driven him off, although she was rather disappointed to learn that he was still alive. I didn’t blame her, and privately resolved that if I ever got a chance, that skinwalker was a dead man. I might even hand him over to Loki to entertain himself with. If ever there was a being that deserved a slow and painful death, he was it.


I don’t normally think in terms like that. I am hesitant to use absolutes, because so little in this world is absolute. But that bastard had the distinction of being the most truly, purely evil being I had ever encountered. He had looked into the heart of darkness, had seen clearly all the evil humanity is heir to, and had embraced it wholeheartedly. Born into a twisted, cruel world, he had devoted himself to making it worse in a million tiny ways, for no other reason than that he could.


No, I had no compunctions there.


A few minutes later, I found myself sitting on the floor next to Anna, slumped against the wall in abject exhaustion. Kikuchi had gathered his people, living and dead, and departed. I hadn’t seen Hrafn since before I went into the building. Reynard had disappeared somewhere along the way, without my noticing, as had Brick. That left just the two of us, Aiko and Snowflake asleep nearby, and Alexis. I’d made it clear to my cousin that she was to wait by the door until we were ready to leave. Maybe it was guilt, or the anger in my voice, or the fact that I was still wearing blood-soaked armor and carrying a shitload of weaponry, but she didn’t argue.


“I’m sorry,” I said finally, not looking at Anna. “I’m so sorry.”


“It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly.


“Wasn’t it?” I asked. “I don’t know. You were only targeted because of me. If I hadn’t been so damned arrogant, this would never have happened.”


“How could you have known what would happen?”


“Maybe with five seconds’ worth of actual thought?” I snarled. A moment later, I sighed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take this out on you.”


“It’s all right.”


“No. No, it isn’t,” I said bleakly, staring off into space. I took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m endangering you,” I said eventually. “Just by being around you. As long as I’m around, people like this will target you to get at me.”


Anna didn’t deny it.


“You know,” I said conversationally, a few breaths later, “I always wondered. Why on earth did you want to be around me? It baffled me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful—you’ve been a good friend, and I’m lucky to have you. I don’t deserve such a good friend.”


“You’re too hard on yourself,” she said, not meeting my eyes.


I sighed. “Maybe. But if not me, who else?” She didn’t have an answer. “Anyway,” I said after a moment. “I always wondered. You and your brother both. I never quite understood why people like you would be friends with a person like me. Well, now I know why Enrico was there. He figured out what I was, or a part of it anyway, and he thought it made me a danger he had to keep an eye on.”


“It wasn’t all that,” she said quickly. “He was your friend.”


“Maybe eventually,” I agreed. “But at first? He wasn’t in it for friendship. Anyhow, what I’ve been thinking is this. You’re every bit as smart as your brother was. And I know how close you were. And I just can’t imagine him having these suspicions all those years and you not knowing it.” I shook my head. “That wouldn’t happen. And then, when you found out for sure, it didn’t bother you. You didn’t freak out. You weren’t even surprised. And you’ve been spending time around werewolves since then. You know them well enough that you recognize them when you see them.”


She didn’t respond. She didn’t really need to.


“Enrico was scared of werewolves,” I said quietly. “But you aren’t, are you? Rather the opposite, I think.”


Anna was silent for a long moment. “Yes,” she said finally. It had the tone of a confession. “I remember when I was a kid, I always got the others—you know, vampires, ghosts, Frankenstein’s monster, sure, those are monsters. I got that. But I never quite understood werewolves. I never got why they were monsters, why they called it a curse. It didn’t make sense. I remember thinking it sounded more like a blessing to me. I didn’t phrase it like that at the time, of course.”


“A blessing,” I murmured. My lips twitched into a bitter smile. “Yes, I suppose it could be at that.” I didn’t tell her that I was thinking of older, darker gods than the one she was, the kind of gods whose blessings were so often worse than their curses, when you could even figure out which was which.


“What’s this have to do with what we were talking about?” Anna asked, clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.


“Everything,” I said. “This is an important question. Do you want to be a werewolf?”


She was quiet for a few minutes, thinking about it. I didn’t interrupt. Better to think it through. “Yes,” she said at last. “I mean, there are definitely some aspects to it that I don’t like. But on the whole, yeah. I guess I do.”


I nodded, and tried to pretend it didn’t hurt to learn that my only real human friend had been more interested in what I was than who I was. I think I did a fairly good job. “I think you could do it,” I said. “It’s always hard to tell, of course, and I’m hardly an expert, but I think you can. I think you would do quite well as a werewolf. Now, to get back to what we were talking about earlier, here’s what I’m getting at. I can’t protect you. I think that’s abundantly clear by now. If you were a werewolf, with a pack, that would give people pause before they tried another stunt like this. If you want, I can arrange an introduction and sponsor your bid to undertake the change.”


“What if it doesn’t work?”


I sighed. “You die. That’s how it works, how the system functions. You become a werewolf, or you die. Once you are a werewolf, you have to learn to control your new urges, or you die. You obey your Alpha and the pack laws, or you die. There’s no middle ground.” I shrugged. “But I think you can do it, or I wouldn’t even offer this. With ideal circumstances, which is what you’d have, you have about an even chance of surviving the first step and becoming a werewolf. You’ve got a strong personality, you’re smart, and your personality is well suited to it, so I give you maybe three in four of surviving the next step. After that, well, it’s pretty much up to you.”


“Those aren’t very good odds,” she noted.


“No,” I agreed. “They aren’t. But they’re all I can offer. The truth is that most people don’t make it as a werewolf. You have better odds than most.”




I frowned. “You remember when Enrico was changed? How unhappy he was? How it always seemed like he was trying to fight himself?” She nodded. “That’s because he was a terrible candidate for it. No one in their right mind would have recommended him for this, until there wasn’t a choice anymore. That’s fairly common with people who have it happen by accident, by surviving an attack or some such. Most of the time, if they can establish control at all, they tear themselves apart fighting between who they were and what they’ve become. Suicide is pretty common.” I shrugged again. “That’s not you. You don’t consider this a curse. That makes an enormous difference.”


“Oh,” she said. I knew she was thinking about her brother, who was pretty much the poster child for what I’d just described. Technically he hadn’t killed himself because he couldn’t accept the wolf, not exactly, but I knew that was in large part to blame for his death.


Of course, he’d only become a werewolf in the first place because of me. The guilt fell squarely on my shoulders.


“You don’t have to decide right now,” I said quietly. “Honestly, I’d worry if you did. At the very least you should learn more about what the rules are you’d be expected to follow. And it will be at least a few weeks, probably a few months before you’re ready to actually do it. Survival rates are higher if you’re healthy before you try it.” I frowned, and tried to ignore how bitter the next words tasted. “Regardless of what you settle on, I’d recommend that you leave the city.”


“Do you really think I’ll be any safer somewhere else?” she said dryly.


“I think you could hardly be less safe,” I countered. “And…well, it looks like I’m going to be an important person around here. More important, at any rate. There’s going to be a lot of details to work out, but it’s safe to say that there are going to be a lot of people in the area with a grudge against me. It would be safer for you to be far away from them; at least then they’d have to work a little to get at you.” My lips twitched. “Besides, if you do decide to try for the change you’d definitely have to move. There are no werewolves here anymore, except me, and I don’t count.”


“Where should I go?” she asked. She sounded very lost, and I reminded myself that she’d been out of the skinwalker’s hands for less than an hour.


“Wherever you want to,” I said with a shrug. “Although if you want to be a werewolf, unless you really dislike the idea, I’d recommend a pack in northern Wyoming. Kyra’s there, and a few of her old pack, so you’d have at least a few friends. And I know the Alpha. He’s a decent guy.” I stood up and offered her a hand. “Come on,” I said. “You’ll feel better after a little rest. I have a spare bedroom where you can stay—it’ll be a lot safer than your apartment.”


“Right,” she said, taking my hand and standing. “And Winter? Thanks.”


Returning home was a bit difficult. Fortunately, of the five of us, four were too tired to care much. Aiko, Snowflake, and Anna were all snoring within minutes of sitting down again. I would gladly have done the same, but someone had to stay up and keep an eye on things.


Back home, I got Anna settled in on the opposite side of the building from Alexis’s room and let my cousin know that I would take it very, very badly if she tried to get away or otherwise do stupid things while I was asleep. I probably should have sat down and talked it out with her right then, but I was simply too exhausted, That was going to be a very delicate conversation, and this wasn’t the right frame of mind to approach it from. For now I stuck her in her room and left it for morning.


That task taken care of, I went upstairs, where I found Aiko and Snowflake already very firmly asleep. We’d already determined, to the best of our abilities, that neither of them needed immediate medical attention beyond what they’d already received, so I saw no harm in letting them sleep.


I didn’t need to worry, of course. If I can stand, I don’t need medical attention.


That doesn’t mean I feel good, of course, a fact of which I was reminded forcefully of when I peeled cloak, armor, and clothing off, taking a little skin with it. It was less than pleasant. Worse was the shower; hot water and soap is pleasant, but not when you’ve got first-degree burns over a significant portion of your skin. I didn’t have to worry about it—dehydration wouldn’t be too hard to manage, and infection was no risk to me—but between exertion and other injuries I hadn’t even started fixing them yet. Any touch on the damaged skin was painful.


I scrubbed the burns clean anyway. It had to be done.


That unpleasant task over with, I toweled dry and limped back out. I hadn’t dressed, because why bother? It would just hurt a great deal in order to conceal my nudity from people who wouldn’t care and had seen it all before. That didn’t strike me as a terribly good trade right now.


As it turned out, that was a fortunate decision. Aiko was awake again, and willing to tend to my injuries, which in this case meant digging shrapnel out of my back. It was a little like extracting bullets, except even less fun, because the projectiles were irregularly shaped. There were almost twenty holes in my back and legs. They were all fairly shallow—the armor hadn’t stopped them, but had certainly slowed them down rather a lot—but it was still pure dumb luck that none of them had hit anything vital. Which isn’t to say that they weren’t painful and bloody, because they were. Very much so.


But that, too, had to be done. I didn’t want to start healing with bits of brick and wood still embedded in my flesh. That was a bad idea.


Finally, necessary tasks done with, I dragged my bruised, burned, bleeding, battered body to bed. One of the main bright sides of being almost too exhausted to stand is that you seldom have trouble falling asleep, and in my experience you don’t need to worry much about unpleasant dreams, either. Certainly that was the case this time.


The next thing I was aware of was waking up the next morning. As always, my unnatural healing had done its work while I slept. I wasn’t bleeding, the bruises were starting to fade, my burned skin had gone from excruciating to merely very tender, while my hip still hurt I was no longer limping noticeably, and my hearing had returned to normal. Yay, me.


I dressed slowly and carefully in light, loose clothes which wouldn’t agitate the burns too much, and which I didn’t have to strain my back to put on. Aiko and Snowflake were already gone, which didn’t surprise me too much when I saw that the clock read noon.


I found Alexis still in her room. She was sitting on the chair, dressed in a somber outfit that I recognized as belonging to Aiko, and had an expression appropriate to a condemned criminal facing the prospect of hanging at dawn. “Good morning,” I said to her.


“Hey,” she said dully. Her eyes were sunken and haunted, and I wondered whether she had slept at all. “Aiko said to tell you she and Snowflake went to talk to a nurse friend of yours.”


That meant Mac. Good. She was probably the best suited person in the city for the task, and it would go more smoothly if I wasn’t there. Mac and I haven’t ever really got on. I doubted that would change now that she’d grown even more pacifistic and I’d become a politician and embraced even more closely moral compromise and the use of violence as a solution to problems.


“Thank you,” I said to Alexis. “Come and sit with me. We have some things to talk about.”


It was not a question. She nodded anyway.


A few minutes later, I relaxed into a comfortable chair by the fireplace in the sitting room (unless maybe it was a studio, or a drawing room, or a living room, or some other sort of room indistinguishable from one of those), put my feet up on a padded footstool, and set my large glass of iced tea on a table. Alexis, who still looked drawn and anxious, sat on a hard-backed chair across the table from me and proceeded to not meet my eyes. The result had an almost surreal resemblance to a student awaiting discipline, and I had to suppress an inappropriate chuckle.


“So,” I said pleasantly. “I suppose there’s something you want to tell me?”


“Why should I?” she said bitterly. “You clearly already know.”


“I suspected,” I corrected. “I don’t know most anything. I mean, I’d figured out that you had some kind of prior relationship with the skinwalker, and it wasn’t hard to guess that you were a plant providing information to the enemy.”


“But…if you didn’t know, why…?”


“Did I give you a trapped amulet?” I shrugged. “I had strong enough suspicions to justify a certain degree of preemptive action. It was inert until activated, and even if someone else had figured out how to trigger it they couldn’t have used to actually hurt you, so I thought it was a safe risk to take. Had you been on the level, the magic would have faded within a few days, and you would never have learned what the real function of the spell was.” I shrugged. “A little excessive on my part, maybe, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. And, in all fairness, it must be acknowledged that your behavior was suspicious enough to justify a certain amount of prejudice.”


“What are you talking about?”


I snorted. “You want a list?” She nodded hesitantly. “First, the immediate question of why in hell you came here. We’ve never been all that close, and I found it difficult to believe that changed overnight. For you to show up just in time to partake in this went far beyond what could reasonably be attributed to coincidence—I mean, hell, you contacted me the same day as the skinwalker did. You accepted the existence of magic without any argument or disbelief, which normal people do not. The logical conclusion was that you had some degree of prior exposure to this world; if so, you did not mention it. You seemed confident that I was a werewolf, yet in the brief time I spent around you, I never gave you a clear reason to think so—in fact, if anything, I would have expected you to realize I didn’t feel cold normally first. That was also long enough ago that, if you remembered it at all, you should have attributed to a childish fantasy. That you did not is further evidence that I was not the only supernatural thing you had encountered. You left that first meeting abruptly and without apparent reason, and since that time have avoided any mention of why, where I would expect an ordinary person to inform me as soon as possible to prevent my drawing unfortunate or embarrassing conclusions.”


Alexis looked rather upset. I didn’t stop. “Later, when you called me to come rescue you, you said that you knew there was a problem because you saw the magical taint of the constructs. However, when I got there, they hadn’t even arrived yet. It’s possible to detect a presence at that distance, but unlikely unless you have some degree of training or familiarity with that specific signature, neither of which you indicated to me. Furthermore, you apparently immediately concluded that it was a lethal danger, where I would expect most inexperienced people to write it off as a hallucination or irrational fear. The timing of that entire incident—my arriving just in time to watch them approach, then getting to your door just as they were entering—was too perfect to be coincidence. The constructs were prevented from entering by a barricade of furniture, which I find unlikely, but entered just in time to be too late for me to save you, while allowing me to see the action. This struck me as the sort of psychological torment a skinwalker would enjoy. You are clearly opposed to violence, philosophically, yet you shot them without any hesitation, and expressed no guilt over their deaths, which suggests that you were already aware of what they were.”


She started to say something. I talked over her. “Once you arrived here, your behavior became even more suspicious. You took the presence of this mansion, which makes absolutely no sense under normal natural laws, in stride, implying that it is not your first experience with other realities. You had no difficulty with the concept that you had magic, and no difficulty describing the pattern of events which told me that you did have magic, whereas I expect most people would have problems seeing the connections between them. You went to seemingly unnecessary lengths to stick close to me, most obviously during Reynard’s little jaunt. Afterwards, there’s the matter of the skinwalker’s ransom letter. There are certainly beings who can come and go as they please here, but I don’t know that he’s one of them. It made much more sense if you’d been given the note. I brought you here, bypassing the various defenses, and then you waited for Aiko and I to be out of the room before dropping it. It makes sense, and certainly you didn’t seem too surprised to see it. And…no, actually, I think that’s about it.”


She stared at me, a bizarre mix of chagrin, shame, and annoyance in her face. I laughed. “Don’t feel bad,” I said, still chuckling. “You’ve not done this sort of thing before.”


“Then…you’re not upset?”


“Of course I am,” I said cheerfully. “You endangered my life. You threatened the lives of my friends. You deceived me in order to do so—the fact that your deception was comically inept notwithstanding. You worked with one of the most purely evil beings it has ever been my displeasure to encounter.” I took a drink of tea and smiled reassuringly. I must not have done a very good job, because Alexis went a shade paler and scooted away from me slightly in her chair. “I am very upset,” I concluded, still in that light and friendly tone. “I have, in fact, killed people with whom I was less upset than I am with you right now, and gladly. I just think I should maybe hear the whole story before I jump to conclusions or do something rash, because your behavior also suggests that you weren’t with the skinwalker willingly, and that you weren’t glad about doing harm to us.” I winked conspiratorially. “That’s your cue, by the way.”


She swallowed. “Okay. Um. Where should I start?”


“At the beginning, I should think. You might start with what really happened when you found out you had magic.”


“Okay,” she said hesitatingly. “Well. It was almost three years ago that this all started. I started seeing things. I thought at first I was just going crazy, but then the things I saw started to come true.” She frowned. “Not like I was seeing the future or anything. I don’t know how to explain it.”


“You had insights about people and things,” I said helpfully. “Insights which, although inexplicable and baseless, turned out to be weirdly accurate. It provided you with information about people’s character and personality which you had no way of knowing.”


“Right. That’s it exactly. And then there was the lightning stuff. It was confusing, and for a long time I didn’t really believe it, but eventually I just figured either the world was crazy or I was, and either way I might as well just go with it.”


Practical answer. I liked her thinking.


“Anyway, I started trying to learn about it. I didn’t get very far, but I found some other people like me. And then the…the skinwalker found us.” She swallowed, looking almost ill. “He started…teaching us things.”


Lovely. Was it just me, or had I heard this story before?


“How long did it take for it to go wrong?” I asked, morbidly interested.


“Almost a year,” she said in a small voice. “It started small. Harmless. He’d encourage us to break the rules. It was…fun, almost. Exciting. Like being a rebel. But it started to get worse. David and Charles—they were two of the guys in our group—started robbing people. Muggings, you know? I didn’t like it, but I didn’t want to argue. I mean, they were my only friends. Then somebody died. They said the guy fought back, and they didn’t have a choice, but I wasn’t sure.”


Damn, this skinwalker was a cliché bastard. I could have finished the story from here without even a drop of imagination.


“Then David killed Charles,” Alexis whispered. “Said it was self-defense, that Charles attacked him and he didn’t have a choice. I don’t know if that was true—Charles was on drugs by then, and he could be irrational, violent. I wanted out, but David wouldn’t let me leave. He had proof that I’d been involved in some of the crimes, and he told me he’d give it to the police if I didn’t do what he said, and they’d throw me in prison.” She frowned. “I don’t think he would have, though. He didn’t want to let us go.”


“Let me guess,” I said. “Right about then, it started to be you guys dying.”


She nodded bleakly. “We disappeared. One at a time. And David was getting stronger, at the same time.” She was silent for a long moment. “When we started, there were almost twenty of us. But by the time we caught on, there were just six of us left, and David. We knew what had to happen, then, and we all agreed to attack him before he killed us.” She swallowed, and the haunted look in her eyes became even more pronounced. “We lost.”


“And the skinwalker came back into play,” I said. I was guessing, but I don’t think that she realized that.


She nodded again. “David had us all tied up on the ground. He was ranting. I couldn’t even follow what he was saying from one moment to the next. Then the skinwalker walked up behind him and broke his neck. I was sure we’d been saved. He hadn’t been around for a while, and I somehow convinced myself that he hadn’t known what was happening.”


She was quiet for a long time. “I was wrong, of course,” she said finally. “Dead wrong. He laughed at us, told us we were weak. And then he started killing us. It took him a long, long time.” Alexis looked like she was about to be sick just thinking of it. I didn’t ask what the skinwalker had done to them. I didn’t want to know. I already knew more than I wanted to of his atrocities.


“Eventually, I think a day or two later, I was the only one left. I thought sure he was about to kill me, but he just cut my ropes off and asked if I was okay. He was so…so friendly. It made me want to puke.”


I could sympathize with that sentiment.


“He offered me a deal,” she said. “I could help him, and he’d let me live. I could be stronger than David ever was. Or I could say no.” She swallowed. “And he’d kill everyone I’d ever met, slowly and painfully. I’d just watched him torture my best friend to death right in front of me. I believed him. I took the deal.”


I didn’t blame her. I’d made my own deals with the devil, and with less justification than she’d had.


“That went on for almost a year. Then he brought me out here,” she said. “And I thought of you. I was hoping you could help me get free. I’d have done anything, to get away from that monster.” She frowned. “I know I haven’t given you a lot of reason to trust me, Winter. But I swear to God, I didn’t help him willingly. It’s true I knew more than I told you, and I recognized his constructs—he uses them a lot. But I didn’t betray you. I didn’t tell him anything. I’d already escaped.”


“No, you didn’t.” She started to protest, and I held up my hand, cutting her off. “I believe you. But you didn’t escape. Trust me, if that man wanted to keep you prisoner, you couldn’t have got away. He let you go, probably specifically so you would come to me for help.” I frowned. “Actually, that was probably his design all along. He didn’t spare you because he liked you; it was because you were my cousin.”




“Well,” I said, “he claims he knew my mother, which frankly takes the cake for liaisons of hers I disapprove of intensely, so that might have something to do with it. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was to cause me suffering.” She looked confused, and I sighed. “At the end,” I said. “He told you to kill me.”


She nodded. “I wasn’t going to. Even before you paralyzed me.”


“It wouldn’t have mattered,” I said calmly. “The skinwalker is a smart guy, Alexis. He’d have known I’d be prepared, and—no offense—you don’t really represent a serious threat to me. He didn’t expect you to hurt me. He just wanted to make me kill my own cousin.”


“Oh. That’s horrible.”


“Yep,” I agreed. “Makes it pretty easy to believe from him, doesn’t it.” She smiled. It was weak and unsteady, but hey. Small steps. “Feel better now that you have that off your chest?”


“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.”


“No problem,” I said. “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, there’s a few things we need to talk about. Namely, you need to start making choices.”


“What sort of choices?”


“Well, basically, you need to decide what to do with your life.” I shrugged. “You’ve got magic, Alexis. What do you want to do with it?”


“Do I have to do anything with it?” she asked. I didn’t have to ask to know that she was thinking of the skinwalker right now, and that her opinion of magic had been forever sullied by her experiences.


“You don’t have to do anything at all,” I pointed out. “But like I said, it’s hard to have magic and live like you don’t. Now, if you really hate your power, there are ways to get rid of it, permanently. I can’t do it, but I know people, and if you want I can probably arrange it. It’s traumatic, and you’ll never be quite the same again, but it can be done.” I shrugged. “Or you can go on as is. Having magic isn’t the same as using it. You can be just a normal person. Honestly, the bigger problem for interacting with normal people is just knowing that this stuff exists, and removing memories is extremely traumatic. Or you can learn to use it. It’s up to you.”


“What happens if I decide to learn?”


“Up to you,” I repeated. “I don’t know what you’ll be able to do. I don’t have the first idea what you’ll decide to do with that ability. Magic’s a tool, Alexis. Just a tool. It doesn’t make you into a paragon of evil. It won’t turn you into a saint. At the end of the day, all magic can do is make you more of what you already are.”


“You use magic to help people.”


“Some,” I agreed. “But let me tell you something. If you do want to learn this, one of the first lessons you need to learn is this. There is no room for self-deception in this world. Lie to your enemy, sure, that’s just good tactics. Lie to your friends, if you have to. I’d ask that you not lie to me in the future, but I’m not so naive I actually believe you won’t. But never, ever lie to yourself.”


“I’m not a good person, Alexis. I try, I really do, but I fail on a regular basis. Good people don’t do the things I do. I mean, sure, you can say it’s why you do it that matters, but at some point you have to acknowledge that there is something deeply, truly wrong with you. Good people don’t play the game when the rules are this sick, good people don’t run towards the gunman, good people don’t get hungry when they smell blood, good people don’t smile while someone dies. I’m not a good person. I regularly have to burn my clothes because there’s too much blood on them to ever come clean. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve killed. I think it’s triple digits, but I can’t even remember anymore who half of them were, and most of them didn’t deserve it.”


“But you help people,” she said stubbornly. “You do. You saved my life.”


I sighed, and all the passion seemed to run out of me, leaving little more than weary desolation. “Maybe I do. I don’t know. I’ve had a long time to gaze into the abyss, Alexis.”


“I don’t understand.”


“Doesn’t matter,” I said dismissively. “Anyway, sorry to have derailed the conversation. What I’m trying to say is this. If you want, I will be glad to teach you. If you agree, you have to understand something. There is no room for mistakes in this business. If you slip up, I probably won’t be able to save you, and if it’s because of your own stupidity I might not want to. One mistake could kill you. If you get unlucky, it can be worse than that. A lot worse.”


She was quiet for a long time. “Winter,” she said finally, “I know you think you’re a bad person. How do you think I feel? When push came to shove, I caved.”


“You didn’t have much choice with the skinwalker,” I pointed out. “Denying him would have been just as bad as accepting.”


“That isn’t what I’m talking about,” she said. “Before that, when we were first starting. I knew what we were doing was wrong, and I did it anyway, because I didn’t want to give up my friends, and because it was exciting. You can hang whatever fancy words you want on it. It doesn’t change the fact that I caved. You say there’s no room for self-deception here? Well, honesty says that I let fear and greed convince me to do things I knew to be wrong. People died because of it, and it’s pure luck that you and I aren’t both among them.” She shook her head. “If I take this power, I can use it to make up for that. I can make it so that people don’t have to suffer what I did.”


I smiled. “I think that’s a very good reason.”


It wouldn’t work, of course. It never does. But I had to respect her for trying.

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Balancing Act 6.14

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I turned abruptly and thrust with Tyrfing. It wasn’t a great move—it’s difficult to translate the sort of rough image I had of my surroundings into the kind of detailed information you need to fight effectively—but I caught the man behind me by surprise and, well, let’s be honest here. When you’re a werewolf carrying one of the most powerful and destructive weapons ever wielded by mortal hands, and you’re fighting untrained, unarmored humans whose capacities seemed to be in some way damaged by the rakshasas’ control over them, you don’t need perfection.


Tyrfing bit deeply into the man, somewhere in the abdominal area. There was another quiet sound of surprise, but still no indication of pain, and I wondered idly if they no longer had the capacity for it. That seemed like something a rakshasa would do.


I wrenched the sword back out and bolted for the back door, shouldering my way through the people between it and me. I didn’t bother trying to fight them; it wasn’t worth the time it would take. I caught the first several totally by surprise—they’d had no reason to think that their surprise had been ruined, after all—and sent them sprawling without difficulty. Then one of them, a fellow more than six feet tall, muscled like a grizzly bear and armed with a woodcutter’s axe, planted himself solidly directly in front of me. He swept the axe in a short, vicious stroke at my head, growling incoherently under his breath.


I stepped into the attack, bring Tyrfing up to parry. Well, parry is probably a bit of a misleading term to use. The sword cut cleanly through the fiberglass handle of the axe, as I’d anticipated, leaving him holding around a foot or two of handle and nothing else. He staggered, thrown off balance by the sudden removal of half his weapon. I continued the momentum of my swing, bringing the sword around and into a cut that took his right leg off at the knee. A simple thrusting kick knocked him over backward, and I proceeded over him. I had a clear shot at the door now.


I had just about made it to the door when I felt something grab my arm and heard claws grating against my armor. I half-turned and slashed at my assailant. Their armor must have been exceptionally fine, because it actually slowed Tyrfing down a little bit. It didn’t matter, though. I still cut clear through their arm. They shrieked in pain, marking them as a rakshasa rather than another slave, and fell away from me. I turned to consider the door.


It had been blocked every bit as thoroughly as the windows. By which I mean that they’d literally bricked it up. It was hard to say for sure, but going off my memories of the building’s layout I thought they’d laid two or three feet of wall over the door. I could hack through it—Tyrfing can cut through almost anything given time—but time was the one thing I most assuredly did not have. Besides, even if I got the bricks out of the way, there would still be the wards to contend with. I might have been able to break them as I’d broken those over the front door, or figure out some clever way to circumvent them, but that would also take time.


Besides. I’d just about had it with subtlety. Petty, but true.


I dropped one hand into my cloak, feeling around. The object I was looking for was small, but I had designed the cloak with such things in mind. It was capable of moving objects through its substance in response to my will. Just a few seconds later I withdrew my hand, holding a very dangerous weapon.


It didn’t look like much. The silver ball was tiny, no larger than a pea, but there was so much magic packed into it that even that tiny amount of silver, even through an armored gauntlet, burned painfully. This was a stored spell of significantly more power than I could manage. It had cost me a great deal. I’d tried, initially, to replicate it, until I realized that it was not something I could manage safely and—with surprising wisdom—gave up on the project.


Just now I concentrated on it, drawing a bit of power up and focusing it on the ball. “Trial by fire,” I whispered, and immediately tossed it at the barricade. Then I turned and sprinted away, moving as fast as I could. I ran straight into the rakshasa I’d just maimed, and the two of us went into a tumble. But it was a tumble away from the door, so that was okay.


Exactly three seconds after I’d said the trigger phrase, there was an explosion behind me. Well, okay, that isn’t entirely accurate. What happened was this.


There was a sudden light behind me, so bright that it was painful and I wasn’t even looking at it. The light had a strange golden tone, a bit like dusk sunlight, and brought with it almost unbearable heat. I instinctively drew on the ice inherent in my jotun blood, chilling the air around me and coating my armor with a thin layer of frost that almost immediately melted. It was still very, very uncomfortable, and I was going to have some mild burns, but I wasn’t dead or on fire, and that was a victory under the circumstances. The spell had never been meant for use at such close quarters.


A moment later there was a boom that quite literally shook the earth. It was unbelievably loud. Not “rock concert” loud, or even “gunshots” loud. No, this was an entirely different kind of loud, the sort of sound you would expect from a car bomb. The screams of distress and pain that echoed in the following silence sounded tiny, strangely muffled. Tiny bits of something hard, propelled at a speed uncomfortable to contemplate, hit my back and went through the armor like a paper screen, engendering small but bright sparks of pain in several places.


I took advantage of the rakshasa’s evident shock to elbow him viciously across the face. The ridged metal left bloody cuts on his face, and between that and the force behind the blow it took the fight right out of him. He slumped to the ground, and I pushed myself away and stood. I turned, dizzy but ambulatory, to examine the results of my little toy.


There was a sphere, nine feet in diameter, that was simply gone. The bricks were gone. The door was gone. The walls were gone. The ceiling was gone. The floor was gone. The earth itself was cratered, the shallow pit lined with glass from the sheer heat of the not-explosion. At least as importantly, the wards were gone.


When I’d battered my way through them, I’d left them too damaged and disordered to function as intended. In the wake of this far greater power, though, they were simply gone. Eradicated. Demolished entirely.


Damn. I was feeling pretty good about my decision not to experiment with that thing.


“Door’s open,” I called, not particularly caring whether anyone heard—Kazuhiro was surely clever enough to figure that out, and even if he weren’t I expected Miyazaki or Hrafn could. My voice sounded odd, simultaneously too loud and peculiarly flat. I realized suddenly that I was only hearing out of my left ear, my right presumably damaged by the noise of the explosion.


That freaked me out more than just a little bit. I mean, sure, it was probably nothing my preternatural healing couldn’t cope with given a little time, but what if it wasn’t? That would suck so utterly.


Several small fires had been started in the hallway, and they provided more than adequate light as I made my dizzy, unsteady way back to the main room. I passed a number of slaves and two strange, twisted shapes that had to be rakshasas as I went. They were not dead, for the most part, but they were badly burned, peppered by shrapnel, and clearly even whatever the rakshasas had done to them wasn’t enough to overcome this degree of damage. Some of them tried to crawl, where to I don’t think even they knew. Most, though, weren’t capable even of that. They lay still, or curled up, whimpering, moaning, and sobbing to themselves. The air was thick with the scent of burned meat, a vile stench if ever I smelled one. It was a scene from Hell’s nightmares.


I strode down it unflinchingly, numb and dazed and half-deaf and horrified and haunted by what I’d done—by the fact that, given the chance to try over, I wasn’t sure I could or would do anything differently.


I seemed to hear Loki’s delighted laughter in the back of my head. Optimistically, I wrote it off as a stress-induced hallucination.


The rakshasas were equally devastated. Both of them looked strange, wrong, like wax statues of a human being left too long in the sun. Their shapes were warped, unnatural. Their arms were twisted, their faces looked like some strange blend of a human and a cat without any hair whatsoever, their proportions disturbingly off-kilter. One was seven feet tall and freakishly thin, with bizarrely tiny arms that made me think of a tyrannosaur. The other was maybe half that height, must have weighed nearly two hundred pounds, and had such long apish arms that I expected it was more comfortable with quadrupedal locomotion than any form of human transport. Both had long, sharp claws that seemed an intermediary step between unkempt human fingernails and a raptor’s talons.


Neither of them moved. I beheaded them both anyway, just in case they were faking it. When in doubt, you can never go wrong with decapitation. I didn’t have the leisure to burn them, unfortunately. That would have been ideal. But cutting their heads off with Tyrfing was a solid second best.


Back in the central room, things had worsened considerably. Kimiko was down, near the front door. She didn’t look good. I couldn’t see what was wrong, and hardly had the leisure to check, but the air reeked of fresh blood, and odds were good some of it was hers. Alexis was standing outside, her posture making it plain she didn’t have the first idea of what to do. She had that gun out, but her hands were shaking too badly to use it, even if she could have figured out whom to shoot.


Aiko and Snowflake were still standing, but clearly in dire straits. They had been pressed back nearly to Kimiko’s position. Snowflake was limping badly, her left foreleg held clear of the floor, and her snarls held both desperate rage and a sort of resigned fatalism. Aiko had lost her dagger somewhere, but it hardly seemed to matter; her left arm hung limp at her side, and it wasn’t hard to see that she wouldn’t have gotten much use out of it anyway. She still moved with the same ferocity, but she was slowing down, getting clumsy. It wouldn’t take long before they wore her down, and Snowflake could never hope to stand them all off with her injuries. She might possibly have been able to flee, but I knew without even considering it that she wouldn’t do so. It wasn’t in her nature.


The ground was littered with corpses—how many was difficult to tell, because the fires’ hellish light wasn’t strong this far from ground zero, and the madly dancing shadows it cast were almost worse than unsullied darkness—but the rakshasas themselves were still unharmed, and the advantage of surprise that had let us pull off a charge on such a numerically superior foe was played out. It was only a matter of time now, and everyone knew it.


Of course, that was before I hit them from behind.


I probably should have charged the rakshasas, knowing that they were the real threat here. I did not. Tactics be damned, I wasn’t going to watch Aiko and Snowflake die knowing I could have prevented it. I was not.


I hit the thralls from behind, and I hit them hard and fast. I could say that I did something fancy, some extravagant bit of swordplay that was as beautiful as it was deadly, that astounded even as it killed. But that would be a lie. That would be an absolute lie.


The truth is that fancy maneuvers are things meant for the practice hall. They are designed for formal matches with rules of right of way, target areas, and fair tactics. They are very occasionally useful when fighting someone equally as skilled as you are.


They are no good for battle. When you’re fighting for your life, or your friends’ lives, you don’t want something fancy and impressive and honorable. There is little room for honor in real violence, and less for glory. When life is on the line, you seize every advantage you have, or you die. That is the truth. Anything else is either a beautiful lie designed to convince the youth to throw away their lives in service to a cause they hardly even understand, or based on situations not relevant to ninety-nine percent of conflicts.


In my case, the advantages were fourfold. First, surprise—because they surely would not expect anything to have survived the conflagration I had just set off. They would assume it had been a suicide attack, meant to trade my life—all our lives, probably—in return for a tactical advantage. Second, position. I was standing right behind the enemy, and there’s a reason that description is the basis for all kinds of metaphors describing an unfair advantage. Third, I was a werewolf. That made me almost certainly stronger and faster than any of the people in this room, excepting the rakshasas. Fourth, I had Tyrfing. What that meant in this context was that I could disregard certain rules and restrictions that govern ordinary fighters.


If I were an ordinary person, with an ordinary sword, the best I could do would be to kill one opponent, maybe two, before they figured out I was there. I would have tried to reduce the weight of numbers against myself a little bit, an ultimately futile endeavor—they were simply too numerous for that to matter, in the long run.


Instead, I focused on simply removing people from the fight. As many of them as I could.


My first attack beheaded two enemies and removed the arm from a third. Two of them dropped, while the last staggered away, fountaining blood, still not screaming. I stepped into the hole I’d made and swung again, capitalizing on the chaos my arrival had spread. This attack was a long diagonal slash from upper right to lower left, and left five people on the ground in pieces of varying shape and size.


A few steps later, I was standing next to Aiko. She was panting heavily, making a little pained noise on every exhale. I’d left nearly a dozen enemies maimed or dead, and when they turned to face me she’d attacked again, killing several more. Most of the slaves were dead now, with the exception of a small clump gathered around the rakshasas where they still stood on the sidelines. That group seemed a little better armed than the rest, a little less impaired. They also seemed reluctant to attack; presumably the rakshasas wanted them nearby.


“Took you long enough,” Aiko muttered, wincing slightly. That, combined with the way she moved, suggested that she had ribs which were bruised, cracked, or fractured. It was hard to guess which.


A broken rib can kill you, if you get unlucky. The sharp, splintered end goes into your heart, and you drop dead. Or it punctures a lung, and you drown slowly on your own blood. Or, if you get really unlucky, it punches through the wall of your stomach or intestine, and the wound starts pouring toxins and bacteria into your bloodstream, and you die over the course of weeks from septic shock. It’s a bad way to go. Not that there are many good ones, I suppose, but that’s worse than most.


I tried not to think about that too much. Aiko wouldn’t appreciate it, no more than I would accept her keeping me out of the fight to protect me. We all knew the risks here.


“What were you doing, anyway?” she asked, stretching her working arm in a way that suggested it was mildly injured as well, maybe a strain or pulled muscle or something. This hadn’t been a good fight for her; usually she got off the lightest of any of us. I suppose everyone has bad days.


“Wait for it,” I murmured, keeping close watch on the room. No one had come to attack us, and the rakshasas were conversing urgently in that unintelligible language of theirs. I was guessing they were debating whether to take the field personally now that we were properly softened up.


Suddenly, the room was plunged back into darkness, the fires gone out all at once. “There we go,” I said in satisfaction. The rakshasas’ muttering cut off with a short sound of confusion that transcended language barriers.


Aiko and Snowflake both started to ask what I meant, and what was going on. The others would have joined in, presumably, except that Kimiko looked like she might pass out if I breathed on her too hard and Alexis was pretty clearly in shock. Before I could reply, though, their questions were answered.


Miyazaki emerged from the hallway, and redirected the flames he’d stolen. It was directed away from us, but I still felt the wash of heat against my face, even through the cloak and helmet. I realized for the first time that my face was also burned, just enough to be irritating, and the cloak of shadows would need some serious repairs.


For the other team, the tanuki’s magic trick was significantly more threatening.


It lasted only a moment, but fire flooded orange-and-crimson from his outstretched hands, pouring over the rakshasas and their few remaining slaves. I looked away. If pressed, I could always just say that the fire’s brightness was painful to my eyes. It would not be a lie, in the technical sense, although it would also not be the truth.


There was screaming, this time, the sort of high-pitched, desperate screaming you seldom hear these days. I tried my best to tune it out. It wasn’t too hard, since I could only hear it in one ear anyway. Once again, the air filled with the stench of burning flesh. I gagged, and hoped nobody was looking to catch me being squeamish. It wouldn’t do for them to think me squeamish.


The fire died, plunging the room back into merciful darkness. I could not see at all, my eyes too abused by this rapid shuffling between painfully intense light and total blackness. But I could feel shapes moving too fast through the air, and knew that Kikuchi and his kin had followed close on the fire. Miyazaki’s opening salvo had been to deal with the humans; now the tengu would finish the job.


I slumped the ground in exhaustion. The yokai would stab me in the back or stick to the deal; it hardly mattered at this point. I wasn’t up to doing anything about it in any case, and I seriously doubted I could contribute anything useful to the fight at this point. Aiko sat down beside me a moment later, and Snowflake hop-limped her way over to collapse near us, panting. It occurred to me that I should probably check on her; it takes a fairly serious injury to make Snowflake take notice. I’d never seen her hopping like that. I couldn’t seem to make my body move to actually do it, though, and after a moment I lost interest.


The battle lasted only a few minutes. There was still no light, and I couldn’t seem to concentrate enough to feel the movement of the air that might have told me something about what was going on, so I know very little about how that fight went. It was fairly quiet as battles go, which isn’t really saying all that much. There was the clanging of metal on metal, the softer, wetter sounds of metal on flesh, the occasional scream of pain or ululating war cry.


Eventually, the sounds of fighting died away. I heard heavy, clomping footsteps coming closer, and briefly debated standing up to defend us. I dismissed it as the ridiculous notion it was.


Miyazaki spoke a single word in a deep, resonant voice, accompanying it with a thump of his club on the floor. A moment later, the room was filled with a gentle golden radiance. It had no evident source, and cast no shadows—which, believe me, is a lot creepier than you might think.


The rakshasas were dead. Very, very dead. The largest piece I could see was a forearm. The tengu hadn’t been satisfied with just beheading, it seemed. One of them was standing guard, in a position where he could watch both doors. Another was methodically executing all of the incapacitated-but-alive slaves. I might have found it repugnant or immoral, except that it was so clearly an act of mercy. The degree of injury necessary to subdue them had been far beyond what a human could reasonably expect to recover from.


Kikuchi himself was walking over to stand by Miyazaki. He had that katana held in a ready position so calm and casual I wondered whether he was even aware he was doing it. It was dripping blood, literally. He considered me for a moment, and I wondered if I was about to die for my high-handed treatment of him. If there was an emotion on that alien corvine face, I couldn’t read it.


“Are you well?” he said eventually. His voice was still mangled by the beak, making it a little hard to understand, but I thought it actually sounded concerned.


It occurred to me that he was talking to me. It occurred further that I should probably answer him. But I couldn’t think of a good reason to do so, nor did I have the faintest idea what I might say. I mean, what the hell kind of question was that? Was I well? How on earth could anyone be well right now? Furthermore, if I was well, would I really just be sitting here staring into space like a lunatic?


“He’s in shock,” Aiko explained, sounding very tired. “His injuries aren’t too serious, though. He should be fine.”


Shock. Well, that explained a lot. I wondered idly whether it was physical, emotional, or magical in cause. I could make a pretty strong case for all three, which struck me as a very indicting statement about the kind of life I’d been leading.


“We still have those bastards upstairs,” Miyazaki said. The tanuki no longer seemed so comedic. There were a number of holes—bullet holes, it looked like—in his vest, along with a number of burns, and his exposed arms were so bloody it showed through the hair. But he was just as huge and solid as ever, the injuries not seeming to bother him at all, and that massive club was thoroughly bloodied. There were bits of…things I had no desire to contemplate further stuck between the iron studs.


Kikuchi hesitated. “Go on,” Aiko said. “We aren’t going to be much help anyway. We’ll stay here and make sure nobody comes up behind you.” What an absurd statement. Snowflake was lamed, Aiko had one working arm and injured ribs, Kimiko was unconscious, Alexis was completely raw, and I was loopier than a racetrack, and fairly injured myself. I was pretty sure the only way we could stop toddlers was if they came one at a time.


“Are you sure that’s smart?” I mumbled. The words were mushy, but intelligible. Score one for the home team; I was not going to be a mute. “There’s only four of you.” Hrafn, of course, still couldn’t come inside. I was starting to understand why the vampires, for all their terrifying power, hadn’t driven out the competitors. They had too many weaknesses, and those weaknesses were too well known.


“Rakshasas are schemers,” Miyazaki said dismissively. “They go down easy enough in a fair fight.” He started for the stairs, drawing the rest along with him more or less by default.


I watched them go. Then I suddenly blinked, and seemed to come awake. “Hey,” I said to Snowflake. “Are you okay?”


The ankle’s broken, she said dispassionately. Not seriously. I can’t put weight on it, but it isn’t terrible, and it should heal all right. There’s a cut on my side that’s going to need stitches. One of my ears is going to be pretty well notched, and there’s a nick on my chin that will probably leave a real nice scar. Quite a few bruises, of course. Other than that I’m fine.


“Oh,” I said. “I suppose it could be worse.” I frowned. “Do we need to set the ankle?”


She hesitated. Not yet? she said tentatively. I don’t really know. I can get around all right for now. We can see about the actual medicining later.


“Okay. What about you?” I asked Aiko.


She grimaced. “This arm’s useless. Some bastard hit me with a hammer. I don’t think the shoulder’s broken, but I’m not going to be juggling any time soon.” She concluded with a liberal sprinkling of pejoratives and obscenities in a multitude of languages, which I couldn’t really parse at all.


“Are your ribs all right?”


She started to shrug, winced, and made an ambivalent sound instead. “Sore. Nasty bruises. Maybe cracked. Oh, and I sprained my good wrist, I think.”


I sighed with relief. “Oh good,” I said. “I was worried there was something serious.”


She snorted, then nudged me with her elbow. “What about you? I mean, shit, Winter, you don’t look so good.”


I took inventory. “Mild burns on my face, arms, back, and legs,” I said after a moment’s thought. “Shrapnel wounds on my back. I think it was the bricks exploding that did it. I must have taken a hit or two I didn’t notice, because my right hip doesn’t seem to want to work right, and the ankle is sore enough I think it might be sprained. I’m fine otherwise.” I frowned. “What happened to Kimiko?”


“She got overrun when they hit us from the rear,” Aiko said. “They just swarmed her. She must have taken out half a dozen of the bastards, but they just kept coming. It was like they didn’t even care.” She shivered slightly. “That was some creepy shit. Anyway, they took her down and got a few hits in, but we managed to clear them out. Snowflake held ’em off—that’s where she broke the ankle, some jackass with a bat lying on the ground—and I dragged her out.”


“How serious are her injuries?”


Aiko shrugged helplessly. “Enough?” she said. “I don’t know medicine. We got most of the bleeding stopped. She’s still breathing. That’s about what I’m good for.”


“Right,” I said. Then, “You think he’s going to win this?”


Aiko didn’t pretend not to understand what I meant. “Probably. This is totally Kikuchi’s kind of fight. I mean, shit, look at how easily he went through those guys,” she said, nodding at the pile of dismembered corpses in the middle of the room.


“Those were the weakest of the gang,” I said. “The stronger ones will be upstairs.”


“True,” she said. “But he’s got two other tengu and an old tanuki with him.” She shrugged. “Eh. Doesn’t much matter. I don’t think we can run fast enough right now to get away from ’em regardless.”


“Good point,” I admitted with a wry grin. “I reckon we’re pretty much all in now, and the dice are cast. Nothing to do but play it out.”


“How are you people so calm?” Alexis asked suddenly, sounding nearly hysterical. I started a little at the sound of her voice; I ‘d nearly forgotten my cousin was there at all. A dangerous habit to get into.


“It isn’t worth getting worked up over,” Aiko said with another abortive shrug. “Besides, we’ve both been hurt worse than this before.”


I grinned. “Yeah we have. Remember that time you got shot in the guts with a poisoned arrow? I thought that was gonna be the end of it.”


She laughed, although it looked slightly painful and trailed off into coughing. “Yeah,” she said after a moment to catch her breath. “Then there was that time right after we met, when you were in a coma for a week. I still don’t know how you aren’t dead.”


“And the time you personally insulted the Dragon King and implied his security was incompetent? When he’s your own freaking uncle? I wouldn’t be surprised if he up and killed you one of these days.”


“Well, at least I didn’t stab myself with my own magic sword right after. Besides, you tried to run a con on Loki. That’s, like, a bazillion times worse. You should pray that all he does is kill you.”


“In all fairness, I should point out that he thought it was hilarious. And given that you once tried to frame Erica as a drug runner, I don’t think you’ve got a leg to stand on when it comes to accusations of willfully pissing people off.”


“What are you two doing?” Alexis asked with a sort of horrified fascination.


“Don’t mind us,” I told her. “We tend to react to stress with inappropriate humor. It isn’t acceptable in most social situations, but I find that it’s actually very good for making you feel better. Maybe you should give it a try sometime.”


My cousin looked at me like I was crazed—which, in all fairness, was not entirely unlikely, nor without justification.


It took nearly half an hour for Kikuchi and his cohorts to finish their grim business. To my surprise, there was no interference or interruption. Clearly someone had arranged for the police to be occupied elsewhere, or otherwise kept them away. I amused myself for a while trying to guess who, but was eventually forced to conclude that there were so many possible parties that trying to figure it out was a hopeless venture.


I checked on Kimiko after a few minutes. My brain was clearly still addled, or I would have done that first thing. She had some fairly serious injuries—hellacious bruises, lacerations, a few broken bones, that sort of thing—but she was still alive, and likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future. She remained unconscious throughout, probably due to head trauma—there was a sizeable bruise on the side of her head, and it didn’t take a genius to guess that somebody had thought to club her about the face while she was on the ground. Head injuries are notoriously unreliable, and it wasn’t impossible that it would kill her, or make her wish it had. Unfortunately, they’re also notoriously difficult both to examine and to fix. It was well beyond my rudimentary first aid skills.


Finally the yokai came back down the stairs. We’d heard ominous noises, periodically—you know, screams of terror and agony, explosions, that sort of thing—but they actually looked fairly healthy. Kikuchi’s right arm was visibly broken, but he seemed quite capable with his left. One of the other tengu had some nasty burns on his face (and, believe me, the only thing weirder than a tengu’s real face was a tengu’s real face without feathers). Miyazaki had acquired even more burns, gunshot wounds, and a few slashes, but still seemed to be just too tough to faze.


“Is it done?” I asked, my voice flat and tired.


“It is,” Kikuchi said, his tone equally grim.


“Did any of the humans make it?”


“They wouldn’t surrender,” the tengu said, unreadable now. “We tried to take a few alive, but they killed themselves when they saw their masters die.”


Was he telling the truth, I wondered? Had it been truly necessary to kill them, or had he simply not looked for an alternative? If he hadn’t, did it even matter? Would I have done any better? Had I done any better?


“Truly, tonight’s has been a bitter business,” Kikuchi said, walking out into the middle of the room. He looked around at the various corpses, and I almost thought his expression looked haunted. But that was probably just me projecting. “But it’s over now.”


“I don’t know that I would go that far,” said a deep, unfamiliar voice. I turned to look at what was going on, just in time to see the uninjured tengu reach over and slice his kinsman’s throat out with his sword.


The traitor turned enough for me to see his face, and I nearly pissed myself.


The skinwalker’s baleful yellow eyes looked out at me from the tengu’s face.

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Balancing Act 6.13

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“Give me a moment,” Aiko said as we walked out the door. She stood dead still for several moments, eyes closed, head thrown back in a way reminiscent of a canine taking a scent, then sighed contentedly.


I got the impression maybe she was glad to get out of the house.


“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, as Aiko continued to bask in the pleasure of not being confined.


I shrugged. “Nowhere specific, as yet,” I said. “At the moment we’re on hold for somebody to get a location on the target. Where do you want to wait?”


I’ll never know the answer to that question, because before any of the three of them responded I felt a sudden rush of magic. It was scented with darkness, blood, with hints of some odd piquancy—licorice, perhaps, or aniseed—and a subtle, dry undertone that made me think of feathers. It was also fairly strong—not phenomenally so, but I definitely would have noticed it, even if I wasn’t paying attention.


I promptly turned to face the shadowed alley where that scent was emanating from. A few seconds later, Hrafn Gunnarsson stepped out into the street. He was still wearing black, but it no longer looked ridiculous; he’d traded out the velvet and silk for worn black leather, and ditched the cloak entirely. It was a much more martial outfit, and one which looked much more natural on the vampire. He was clearly ready for a fight, too; he was carrying an axe quite openly over his shoulder. It looked like an intermediary step between a Danish bearded axe and an executioner-style bardiche. The haft was around five and a half feet long, and better than an inch thick. The head had a cutting edge more than a foot long. A human would have been hopelessly slow with such a heavy weapon. Even a werewolf would have found it more than slightly cumbersome. Somehow, I thought that Hrafn wouldn’t have that difficulty—and if he landed a solid blow with that thing, it would hit with terrifying force.


“Jarl Winter,” the vampire said, nodding almost deeply enough to call it a bow. “I hope I find you in good health.”


“Indeed,” I agreed. “I would say the same, except that I suspect your health ceased to concern you some time ago.” The vampire chuckled heartily. I almost had to remind myself that he was an evil spawn of darkness and evil, and a leech on humankind. “You are not here without reason, I presume.”


“No, indeed,” he said, sobering. “Your timing is quite impeccable. I had just been dispatched to your home to find you. Kikuchi’s people have found the lair of these rakshasas. He and his kin are awaiting only our presence to begin their assault.”


I frowned. “He and his kin only?”


Hrafn sighed. “Katrin is…well. Your treatment of her pricked her pride. She assisted the yokai in their search, but she will not come to the battle.”


“And yourself? Why are you here, if I have offended so gravely?”


“I am a simple man, jarl,” he said, heaving another sigh. “I cannot abide the machinations and deceits of political games, nor have I any great ambition. You wish to rule this place? Fine, say I. ” He shrugged, the gesture making his axe bob oddly. “In any case, I have never been one to flee from the fight.”


I nodded. “And the third that came with you? Natalie, I think her name was?”


Hrafn’s face twisted with distaste. “Even if she wanted to come, you would not wish her to. Her talents lie in other areas. In open violence, you would find her to be of little use.” His tone made it clear that he regarded that very, very poorly, increasing my suspicion that Hrafn was an old, old vampire. That sort of almost instinctive revulsion towards people who rely on trickery, deception, and wealth to avoid physical combat hasn’t been prevalent for quite a long time. It was a small thing, and circumstantial at best, but combined with his…well, his air, for lack of a better word, it made me pretty sure that Hrafn was old. How old was impossible to say, but I was guessing a few hundred years at least, maybe even a thousand. At a guess I would have said he was certainly older than Natalie, and maybe even older than Katrin.


I inclined my head toward him slightly. “Thank you for your honesty,” I said seriously. “We’d best not keep them waiting, though. They might start the fight without us, and we couldn’t have that.”


He laughed at that. “Indeed,” he said. “Have you a vehicle?”


“Don’t you?” I asked curiously.


“I came a faster way,” he said cryptically. “But I cannot take you with me, and it is some distance to our destination.”


I was really wondering what that “faster way” was—I’d certainly felt the magic from the vampire’s arrival, but it had none of the tones of Otherside travel, and that was seldom faster than a car for such short distances anyway—but this was clearly not the time for that sort of inquiry. Not that I really expected Hrafn to answer me, regardless. “Alexis?” I said, turning to look at her. She was visibly curious about what we were talking about—I’d told her virtually nothing about the events at the meeting or the people involved, which I expect made the conversation rather hard to follow. “Do you have your keys?”


She started, then nodded and started fishing around in her pockets. “Wonderful,” I said. “Miraculously, your car is still unstolen, so we do indeed have a vehicle, Hrafn, just down the road a little.”


It was a little tricky packing the five of us into Alexis’s sedan, but we managed. She drove, by reason of it being her car, and Hrafn was in the passenger seat providing directions, with his axe between his feet. That left me, Aiko, and Snowflake in the backseat. It was a little crowded, but we were all quite friendly, so it wasn’t a real problem.


I mostly tuned out the directions Hrafn was giving, and didn’t pay a lot of attention to our surroundings, either. I was fairly confident that it was safe enough. Hrafn wanted this fight too much to sell us out before we got there (and if not, well, he was the only one who knew where we were going anyway), and there was not a chance in hell that Alexis could overcome him in any way, should she be less enthusiastic than she claimed. So, because my participation wasn’t in any way required, I didn’t worry about it. I spent a few minutes scratching Snowflake’s ears, checked that all my knives and assorted other tools were in place, and in various other ways tried and failed not to dwell on what was about to happen. I always get like that, in the interval between the last chance to make preparations for a fight and when hostilities actually start.


I started to feel strangely uncomfortable as we traveled. We were down in the south end of the city by this point, in one of the more expensive neighborhoods. We moved off the highway into the hills, along progressively more unnecessarily winding streets.


Winter? Snowflake said. Does this seem familiar to you?


Yes, I said, staring out the window at very, very expensive houses as we passed. Yes, it does.


Hrafn directed Alexis to park at the side of the road. From this angle, I could see a small group of people clustered at the base of a hill, all of them looking up. At the top of the hill, framed against the trees, was a single house. It was a lot smaller than my extradimensional abode, but still quite large enough to qualify as a mansion in this era, three stories and proportionally broad. At the moment the lights were all off in the windows and the moon was mostly obscured by clouds, rendering the building into an ominous, brooding silhouette barely visible against the forest.


If you were shooting a movie, you would have no hesitation in choosing this place as your house of monsters.


“You’re kidding,” I whispered. “They’re here?”


Hrafn looked at me with confusion. “Yes. Why? Is there a problem?”


“Not exactly,” I said dubiously. “But this is the old pack house. The werewolves based their territory out of here for years.” I smiled wryly. “Of course, I expect the rakshasas aren’t exactly displeased by that statement.”


Hrafn chuckled softly. “No, jarl, I expect they are not.” He opened the door and got out. I followed suit immediately—I didn’t want him to reach the assault team before I did—with Aiko and Alexis following a few moments later.


As it turned out, it was a relatively small group waiting for us. Kikuchi was there—he could hardly afford not to come, politically speaking—flanked by two other tengu, both male in appearance, not that that meant much. All three looked basically human in shape, but were covered in inky black feathers, and had beaks sprouting from their faces. Kikuchi, who I recognized more by scent than sight, was wearing armor not unlike an abbreviated version of my own, while the other two wore only loincloths. All three were carrying the katana-and-wakizashi ensemble that had once been the distinguishing mark of the Japanese samurai.


The tanuki, whose name I couldn’t seem to remember, was also there. He was still wearing his biker leathers, and was carrying a massive oak club. It was nearly five feet long, shaped roughly like a baseball bat, and studded with iron at the striking end. Miyazaki—that was his name, I knew I’d remember it eventually—handled the thing like it weighed about as much as a rolled-up newspaper.


Sheesh. Between this and Hrafn, I was starting to feel a little insecure. I mean, sure, Tyrfing was easily the equal of any weapon here—for that matter, it was pretty much the equal of any weapon anywhere—but sheesh.


Hrafn and I walked over to meet them. I was flanked by Aiko and Snowflake, with Alexis trailing after, looking lost. The vampire stood just far enough away not to look like we were a group. The message was clear.


“Are we about ready to go in?” I said to Kikuchi, making sure to keep my voice respectful, and to make clear that I was asking his opinion rather than stating my own.


“Not quite,” the would-be dai-tengu said absently, staring up at the mansion. His words were oddly mangled by the beak. “Matsuda Kimiko is scouting. We will wait for her to return before we move.”


I didn’t argue, for two reasons. First, this was his mission; I was pretty much just the muscle here, while he was the brains. Second, I’d have to be a freaking moron to say we should charge in blindly without waiting for the scout to report. I’m not that dumb.


We all stood around for a few minutes in silence. There didn’t seem to be anything to say; we couldn’t very well plan strategy until Kimiko came back with the scouting report, and small talk was out of the question.


Fortunately, the kitsune returned before the silence could really settle in, make itself at home, and become an oppressive cloak. She was in fox form, a fennec hardly larger than a big rat with enormous bat-ears. It wasn’t hard to see why she’d been assigned to scout out the target; her fur was a pale tan that wouldn’t blend into the surroundings particularly well, but she was so small and so agile that it would hardly matter. There was no question that she could get closer than any of the rest of us without being noticed.


She slithered down the hill, detectable only by the faint rustling of grasses as she passed through them—and I only even noticed that because Kikuchi focused on it. She covered the last few yards in ridiculously long, high bounds, and changed to human form almost before she’d stopped moving. She started strapping on weapons without any sign of modesty, no more conscious of her nudity than if she’d been entirely alone. I looked away, slightly uncomfortable. I don’t have much in the way of a nudity taboo—most werewolves don’t, mostly because we’re no more able to shift in clothing than a kitsune—but there was something intensely awkward about the moment. Maybe it was because of the strangers present, or because we were about to storm the not-entirely-metaphorical castle of a bunch of monsters—or, hell, maybe it had something to do with the fact that my heavily-armed girlfriend and female cousin were both standing right there.


I should have known better, of course. Alexis looked away, blushing furiously—but, equally predictably, Aiko leaned over to get a closer look, and peered at the scene with interest. “Not bad,” she said appraisingly. “She’s been working out since the last time I saw her.” She followed the statement up with a wolf whistle, loudly enough that everyone present would hear but not enough so to present a risk of detection.


“Aiko, that’s your cousin.


“So?” she said reasonably. “I can still appreciate her body on an aesthetic level, can’t I? Besides, it isn’t like there’s any chance of inbreeding, is there, so what’s it—wait. Is that a tattoo? There? That must have really hurt.”


Ooookay then, Snowflake said. This conversation is now officially too disturbing even for me, and I think we all know what that means. Kindly change the subject. Right now.


Fortunately, I was spared from either having to continue that conversational line any further (because really, that was disturbing) or trying to change the topic, because about then Kimiko finished pulling on her biker’s leather, belted on the same paired-sword ensemble as the tengu were wearing, picked up a Kalashnikov assault rifle, and gestured for us to come closer.


“They’re definitely in there,” she said quietly, no trace of levity in her voice. “Hard to say how many, but I’d guess not less than a dozen rakshasas, maybe as many as thirty.”


“They’ll have human minions with them,” I said, remembering the scene Reynard had showed me. Four rakshasas, and fourteen human servants. “Maybe a lot of them.”


She nodded. “Probably. They’re on a fairly tight lockdown. All of the first-floor windows are boarded over, and the back door. The front door is locked, and I spotted two rakshasas on guard outside. The whole building is warded.”


“What kind of wards?” I asked.


“Detection,” she said. “That much is certain. There’s also a force reversal ward in place, and there might be any number of spell triggers worked into the matrix.”


“That presents a problem,” Kikuchi said, stroking the hilt of his katana absently. “A detection web will negate any chance of taking them by surprise. And they’ll be able to hit us with all sorts of magic while we’re delayed by the wards, not to mention the surprises they will be preparing for us as they wait.”


I frowned. “I can take down the wards,” I said, somewhat surprised by the confidence in my own voice. “But I’ll be vulnerable while I do it. We have to take out those guards first, preferably without alerting the ones inside.”


Hrafn cleared his throat mildly, making several of us jump—clearly, I wasn’t the only one present who found it easy to forget about the presence of the vampire, especially when he wasn’t breathing. “I can kill one sentry without causing alarm,” he said in a calm, even tone. “And the detection spells will feel nothing.”


“Are you sure?” I asked. “Some of those things are really hard to hide from.”


The vampire smiled. It might have been just my imagination saying his eyeteeth were more pronounced than was entirely natural, when every other time I’d seen a vampire they looked entirely human—but I doubted it. “Very little sees me when I do not wish to be seen,” he said with perfect assurance. “Trust me, Winter jarl. They will not feel my presence.”


“That’s one of the guards,” Kikuchi said. “Matsuda? Do you think you can conceal yourself from the wards as well?”


Kimiko frowned, chewing her lip. “Maybe?” she said tentatively. She paused for a moment, then nodded. “I think so,” she said, more decisively.


“Good,” he said. “In that case, you and your cousin will approach and remove the other sentry, allowing Wolf to approach and remove the wards. Meanwhile, the four of us—” he indicated the tengu standing to either side of him, and Miyazaki standing a short ways off—”will move around to the back of the house and cause a diversion, hopefully preventing the rakshasas within from interfering with you. You will enter and strike them from the rear, and we will grind them between us. Are there any questions?”


There were not. I wasn’t going to say so, but I had to admit being rather impressed with Kikuchi. Granted he must have expected something like this—certainly it would be almost unimaginable for a group of rakshasas, knowing that they were in a state of war, not to erect wards around their stronghold—but the fact remained that, within just a few seconds of learning the extent of those protections, and of his allies’ capabilities, he had a workable plan of battle laid out. One that put him in the most dangerous position, no less, and he had no apparent qualms with that idea.


“Very good,” he said. “Let’s get started, before they send someone out to take us as we stand here. Diversion starts in three minutes, so be ready.” He gestured to the other tengu, and the three of them moved off at an angle to the hill, melting almost instantly into the night. Miyazaki waited just long enough to shoot us a thumbs-up and a fierce grin, his blocky teeth startlingly white against the beard, before following. For all his size, the tanuki made no more noise than the tengu, and vanished just as quickly into the trees.


“We have to get into position,” Kimiko said, checking over her rifle. It had the look of ritual to it.


“Right,” I said. “Go ahead, you two. Snowflake, you’re with me. Hrafn—” I looked around and discovered that the vampire had disappeared. It was impossible to say when he’d left, and equally so to tell where he’d gone. “Right,” I muttered. “Because that isn’t creepy at all.” By the time I looked back, Aiko and Kimiko had also vanished, already on their way to their assigned position.


“Winter?” Alexis asked, once again sounding scared almost out of her wits. “What should I do?”


“Stay behind me,” I said. I tried to think of a way to say “Stay out of the way and don’t do anything stupid,” more politely, without much success. “And shout if anyone tries to sneak up behind us,” I finished lamely, well aware that if someone from this crowd did sneak up on us Alexis would almost certainly be dead before she knew anything about it. I was fairly confident she knew that, anyway, making it not really worth pointing out.


Snowflake and I moved up the hill, fairly slowly. The last thing I wanted to do was give away the game before the others were ready—and, in any case, I didn’t really want to get that close to the building anyway. I was pretty sneaky, particularly wearing the cloak, and Snowflake was better—but I knew my limits. Trying to approach an alert rakshasa from dead ahead stealthily was beyond them, and I didn’t have the first idea how to hide from the magics they had in place. If I went in before the diversion started, or before the sentries were dead, there was no possibility I would go undetected.


We got to within around ten yards, though, both of us flat on our stomachs in the underbrush. I was feeling pretty grateful that the rakshasas’ overweening pride had demanded they make their home in the werewolves’ former center of power. The wolves had chosen this place for its privacy and close access to the forest, both of which were currently playing to our advantage. Alexis, whom I had completely dismissed as unimportant at this time, was hanging back a fair ways—pretty much where we’d started, in fact, and well out of the danger zone. Smart. If she could just stay there until the fur stopped flying, we’d all be better off for it.


From that vantage, I could see the building fairly clearly. The windows were boarded over, as Kimiko had said, although I thought that a bit of an understatement when there was a sheet of plywood, a set of cross-braced planks, and iron bars over every first-floor window I could see, and the upper ones were barred. The door was flanked by a pair of what I could only presume were rakshasas. They both looked human, although visibility was very poor—even by werewolf standards, it was damned dark out here. I could at least see that both of them were holding weapons, though there wasn’t anything like a uniform between them. The one on the left had a halberd planted against the ground and, as nearly as I could tell, was wearing heavy plate armor. The right-side guard had what looked like a scimitar at his hip, was holding a shotgun or rifle of some sort, and had no armor on that I could see.


We sat there, waited, and tried not to think about all the things that could go wrong with this plan.


We were not terribly successful. Even by my standards, this plan was less than solid.


Fortunately it wasn’t more than a minute, maybe two, before Kikuchi’s diversion started. There was a sudden flash of light on the other side of the building, which I supposed any civilians would mistake for lightning. That impression would be helped along by the thunderous boom that followed a moment later, a sound closer to explosions than to gunshots in volume and timber. A moment later I heard the tengu shouting, his voice small in the wake of that artificial thunder but still quite loud enough for me to hear. He spoke mostly in what sounded like Japanese, but with occasional forays into other languages. Judging by the few parts I understood, he was not exactly shouting compliments on the rakshasas defenses.


The two sentries both jerked at the light, then jumped slightly at the following noise. The unarmored one moved as though to go around and investigate. The other reached out and caught his arm, and I didn’t have to hear it to imagine the stern lecture on the meaning of “guard this door” and the nature of diversionary tactics.


And that was our moment.


Hrafn appeared, just freaking appeared behind the armored, evidently superior guard while he was distracted. That monstrous axe of his came down in a whistling overhand strike that started on the crown of the rakshasa’s helm and concluded somewhere in the vicinity of the bottom of his sternum, which I felt pretty much guaranteed we didn’t have to worry about that one. The two of them had been standing so close together that I suspected the axe had also caught the second guard, but if so it hadn’t been more than a glancing blow. He jerked back, visibly surprised, and I was quite confident he was about to start raising hell.


Kimiko, who had emerged from the trees the moment the light started (her illusions weren’t quite as good as whatever Hrafn had done, and I was watching closely enough to catch the slight discrepancy) put her katana through his back, turning the incipient scream into a grunt of pain. A moment later Aiko, whose concealment had been more complete than her cousin’s, passed her wakizashi through his throat. He dropped to the ground, sliding off the sword stuck through him, and the kitsune wiped their blades clean and sheathed them.


And as quickly and simply as that, two rakshasas were dead.


I started uphill at a run, Snowflake tight by my side and thrilling with excitement, and called Tyrfing as I went. I undid the clasp and flicked the scabbard aside, and as always I felt joy and fury rush into me with the drawing of the sword.


Aiko and Kimiko had taken up a position to one side of the door, with Hrafn watching the other. All three were keeping close watch on the surroundings—it was not impossible that this entire thing was a setup, luring us into an ambush—and I noticed that Hrafn was standing in such a manner that he could easily take a swing at anyone coming through the door.


I had to slow down a little as I approached, for fear that the combination of poor lighting, uncertain footing, and Tyrfing’s attendant bad luck would put me flat on my face. That was unacceptable—it would make me vulnerable to the rakshasas, and it would make me look weak and stupid in front of Hrafn and Kimiko, neither of which was something I could afford.


I pulled up short in front of the door and closed my eyes, already examining the structure of the warding spells. They smelled much like the rakshasa I’d encountered earlier that night. I could easily discern multiple individual signatures in the magic, making me think that it had been established by a cooperative effort of multiple rakshasas.


As I’d hoped, the wards were static in nature, solid and locked rather than flowing. It’s sort of hard to explain what I mean by that—you can’t really get it unless you have the senses to perceive it for yourself, in which case you hardly need an explanation—but a metaphor might help to convey something of what I was perceiving. Think of the type of ward they were using as a crystal. Everything was locked into a precise, orderly form, with no flexibility to it, no room for variation, no movement. Some wards, in contrast, were more like fountains. The overall shape was consistent, but within that boundary the energy itself was free to move around, shifting and flowing.


There were benefits to the kind of ward the rakshasas had used. It was more stable, for one thing, which gave it a longer shelf life. Any long-term magic has to be repaired periodically unless its construction was absolutely flawless, but a fluid format is much more susceptible to leakage and power loss to the environment. This type of construction was simpler, too, and you could get more bang for your buck with less skill. Its stability made it more resistant to meddling, interference, and hacks of all sorts.


But it has disadvantages, as well—obviously, or it would be the only thing anyone used, ever. Such rigidity made it incapable of adapting. A more fluid design would level itself out, so to speak, so that you couldn’t substantially weaken one part of it without taking on the whole thing. There wasn’t enough freedom of movement in the energy making up these spells’ structure to allow that sort of correction. Like diamond, it was strong, durable, incredibly hard—yet brittle, and easily fractured by the right sort of blow.


A fluid ward is susceptible to clever tactics, cunning tricks, and subtle maneuvers. A crystalline ward, on the other hand, is easily defeated by a sufficient amount of brute force, skillfully applied. That’s why I, like any good paranoiac, used a mixture of both.


I opened my eyes, took a deep breath, let it out, and opened a long, shallow cut on my wrist with Tyrfing. The sword’s mirrored blade swallowed the blood without a mark, as always, but it flowed freely down my arm, dripping off the back of my hand to the ground.


I gathered my magic. I reached, through the medium of my blood, for the power of my life, power I could convert to magic at need, and held it ready. And then I slashed viciously at the door with Tyrfing.


When Tyrfing collided with the ward, the ward tried to keep it out. The magic attempted to turn the force impacting it back on itself, send the sword flying back at my face with extra velocity thrown in. Had it been an ordinary sword, or a battering ram for that matter, I don’t doubt it would have been quite adequate for the task. I mean, there’s a reason that a force-reversing spell is the bread-and-butter standard issue warding spell. It was the equivalent of an assault rifle—simple, versatile, and capable of dealing with an incredibly wide range of opponents.


The problem wasn’t with the ward. The problem was that, to continue the analogy, Tyrfing was the equivalent of a mainline battle tank. Standard issue equipment wasn’t up to handling that sort of thing. If you want to shoot a tank, you need anti-materiel weapons with armor-piercing ammunition, and even then it’s going to be rather chancy. Likewise, if you want Tyrfing not to cut you, a standard warding spell, or even a set of them, wasn’t enough. You need….


Actually, I wasn’t sure what you’d need. I had yet to encounter something Tyrfing couldn’t cut through, given a little time, with the exception of the personal weapons of the champions of the Sidhe Courts.


So, long story short, when the ward’s magic tried to latch onto Tyrfing, it failed to find a hold on it. Tyrfing, on the other hand, had no such difficulty with slicing into the ward, which didn’t fare nearly so well from their encounter. The sword slowed only slightly as it passed through, and bit into the door deeply.


The damage to the ward’s structure was enough, though, to trigger the next line of defense. Embedded within the base layer of magic were more…proactive defenses. The principles involved were actually the same as those of a stored spell. A small trigger—in this case, the feedback of the ward’s own shattered magic—acted to release a much larger amount of energy that had been appropriately shaped beforehand. In this case, I was pretty sure it was a combination of kinetic force and lightning, which would cause distinct problems if it hit me. The force wasn’t an enormous problem—the armor would mitigate some of the damage, and I could probably heal the rest—but I had no real defenses in place against electricity, and there was enough of it here to be quite definitely lethal.


Which is why, at the exact moment it started to trigger, I hit the ward with all the power I’d been holding. It was a brutally simple tactic. As the structure of the spell started to collapse I smashed it with raw, undifferentiated magical energy.


I have no real talent with either kinetic energy or electricity. But this wasn’t either of those things, not yet. I caught it in the split second between when it started to release the stored power and when that power took on a physical form. I wasn’t exactly skilled at purely energetic stuff either, preferring more tangible magics—but, then again, this wasn’t exactly finesse work. It was a contest of brute strength, more or less, and I was prepared, relatively fresh, and using blood magic to supplement my natural power.


I was skilled enough for that.


Oh, don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t perfect. I took a hit roughly as hard as a strong tackle, sending me staggering backward, and a miniature lightning bolt that hurt like hell and set my muscles to twitching furiously. Between these two things, it should come as no great surprise that I wound up on my ass, and probably would have banged my head painfully off a rock if I weren’t wearing a helmet.


But significantly more of the power backlashed into the ward itself. When I managed to sit up and look around, slightly dizzily, the door was hanging drunkenly open from one hinge, there were burn marks spread over a dozen feet of wall, and it took only moments for me to see that the ward’s structural integrity had been too badly damaged for it to continue functioning at all. There was no further impediment to entry through this door.


“We’re good,” I croaked, pushing myself to my feet and recalling Tyrfing to hand. Aiko, Kimiko (who was looking at me with newfound respect, and maybe a hint of fear) and Snowflake slipped into the darkened building at once. Hrafn stayed to give me a hand up, and made no move to follow me inside.


“Aren’t you coming?” I asked as I limped over the threshold, every sense alert for enemies on the other side.


“I cannot enter a home uninvited,” the vampire said, his expression one of icy calm which I felt strangely confident belied a terrible frustration. “I will go assist the yokai with their distraction.” Hrafn vanished, so fast that I couldn’t really say whether he’d teleported or was simply that fast, leaving only a lingering scent of vampire and raven.


Well, great. So much for our heavy hitter. I had magic and was better equipped, but there was no doubt that Hrafn was stronger, faster, and more durable than me. I’d been counting on his assistance inside, and felt significantly more vulnerable now that I knew I wouldn’t be getting it.


I also felt more than slightly stupid for not even considering that this might happen beforehand, of course. But that didn’t really have much bearing on the situation.


The house was dark, even to my eyes, and I was relying more on hearing and my awareness of how the air flowed over and around objects than on my largely useless vision. Even with those advantages, it was hard to understand what was going on. There was nothing for it but to continue, though, so I walked into the madhouse.


The rakshasas seemed to have been gathered in the large, hollow room that made up most of the first floor of the house. I smelled alcohol and roasted meat. They were still clearly trying to react to the surprise and figure out what was going on. In the confusion, we had gained the advantage. The smell of blood was vivid, and I could see at least two enemies on the ground, dead or dying.


Aiko and Snowflake, who’d both had quite a while to learn to work together, were standing to my right as I entered the room. The kitsune had her wakizashi in one hand and a tanto in the other—clearly, she’d decided that, between the dark, the confusion, and the proximity, the blades were a better choice than gunfire. She was fighting something like a dozen opponents at once, and making it look easy. They were human slaves, judging from the wooden movements. They were armed with an eclectic mix of baseball bats, knives, and clumsier improvised weapons—but they were still just humans, and unskilled, poorly motivated humans hampered by the rakshasas’ mental controls at that. Aiko was simply out of their league. She dodged everything they threw at her, and retaliated with unbelievable precision and skill.


As I watched, trying to make sense of what was happening, one of them finally got into a position behind her, and raised a club of some sort—only to be taken out at the knees by Snowflake. I don’t know whether she dealt him a lethal blow while he was down, or he was trampled by his own allies, but that slave fell, and did not rise again.


They were skilled, experienced, had taken the enemy by surprise, and were mowing them down like a combine harvester. The fact remained that it was only a matter of time before the weight of numbers told, and everyone knew it. The rakshasas weren’t getting involved, because they didn’t have to. They could let their minions absorb the brunt of the attack, and then move in to mop things up.


To my left, Kimiko was faring even worse. She had her back against the wall, and was fending off nearly as many attackers as Aiko and Snowflake. She had her katana in both hands, and it rapidly became apparent that while she was very, very good, she lacked the pragmatism and experience that elevated Aiko from a skilled fighter to a nearly superhuman one. Kimiko cut down three people with as many strokes as I watched, but the third took the sword with her as she fell.


She reacted almost before I could register what happened, springing away in a ridiculous, ceiling-scraping leap. She even pulled a frontflip in midair, landing in a crouch a few steps from Aiko. She immediately straightened and opened fire with her AK-47.


The assault rifle put out a few dozen rounds in the space of a couple seconds.


They accomplished more or less exactly nothing.


Oh, don’t get me wrong. People died. Maybe a half-dozen slaves in the front rows dropped to the ground, dead or dying or just injured too grievously to stand. But the bullets never made it past that to threaten the rakshasas. They hit some invisible barrier in the air, just beyond the first rank of minions, and ricocheted away harmlessly.


Well, harmless to the rakshasas, at least. Several of the ricochets hit the humans from behind, inflicting additional injury on them. One particularly unlucky bounce hit Kimiko in the arm, just as she stopped firing—no doubt she had realized too late the uselessness of her action. A number of others flew in the general direction of Aiko and Snowflake. One bullet skipped off my helmet, making me flinch away. My armor was good, but there’s a wealth of difference between the small-caliber weapons I’d encountered earlier and a military-grade firearm such as this. If that shot had hit me directly rather than merely glancing off, there was a very good chance it would have gone through—and a bullet to the head is almost certainly beyond even a werewolf’s ability to heal.


Which mattered very little at the moment. Because another round had zinged right past my shoulder—and was promptly followed by an almost-silent grunt of pain from just behind me, the first audible indication of damage I’d heard from the enemy in this fight.


I couldn’t be absolutely sure I’d heard it, of course. I mean, it was damn near silent, and Kimiko had just opened fire with an assault rifle less than fifteen feet away. My ears were ringing pretty well—moderately superhuman hearing acuity isn’t always a blessing, after all. But it was enough to get me to focus my senses on that rather than keep trying to sort out what was going on in front of me.


What I found was another group of people creeping up behind me. Some of them came from the short hallway leading to the back door, where they’d presumably been awaiting Kikuchi’s entrance once he managed to get through the wards. Others came down the stairs from the second floor. Some moved with the clumsy, almost wooden manner common to the human slaves. Others were shaped like something not-quite-human and moved with the oily agility of a greased leopard, and were presumably rakshasas. As nearly as I could tell, all of them were armed.


Their plan suddenly made a great deal more sense. They hadn’t just been wearing us down by throwing waves of minions at us. They’d been bogging us down, forcing us to commit, so that when the reserves hit we’d be surrounded and helpless. They’d cut us down in seconds. Sure, it would cost them terribly—how many of their slaves had died already, just to set this up?—but they probably wouldn’t care. From a rakshasa’s perspective—at least, according to what I’d read—human lives were more a property issue than anything. They had a certain amount of value, granted, and occasionally you might come across one you liked enough to keep, but by and large they were replaceable. They probably thought of this tactic more in terms of expending ammunition than sacrificing lives.


All of which, of course, was quite inconsequential at the moment.


My first impulse, upon discovering the flankers, was to turn and fight, keep them off my allies’ backs. I dismissed that impulse as a moronic one. They still outnumbered us enormously—and, even if they didn’t, we hadn’t even fought the rakshasas themselves yet. It seemed reasonable to assume that if the four of us could handle all of them, they wouldn’t be here in the first place.


That’s why you make battle plans before the fighting starts, and stick to them. When you were in the thick of things, it was easy to be swayed by details which, although incredibly significant on a personal level, were tactically unimportant. That’s a weakness which is easily exploitable by pretty much anybody. You can’t afford that sort of weakness.


In other words, I had a job to do here. The fact that it wasn’t the job I wanted to be doing had no real bearing on the situation. It didn’t make that job any less necessary.

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Balancing Act 6.12

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Well, that went well.


Not badly, I agreed, stepping cautiously out Pryce’s front door. I was probably safe—even rakshasas, a species with a reputation for being reckless, egotistic, and arrogant, wouldn’t dare violate Pryce’s truce—but I was feeling especially twitchy at the moment, for some strange reason. I do believe they might even wait for the enemy to be dead before they stab me in the back.


Snowflake snorted. Come on, Winter. If there’s anyone more paranoid than you, it would be a vampire, which means they understand how your mind works. As much time as you spend watching your back, they’ll know to come from the front. There was a brief, considering pause. Or from above, I suppose. Can vampires actually turn into bats?


I frowned. I don’t know. Legion hasn’t mentioned it when we’ve talked about them, but then he might not. My frown deepened. I suppose, if nothing else, they might be able to use blood magic to duplicate a shapeshifter’s talents. Although they’d have to leave their equipment behind for that.


Like that would matter, Snowflake said, laughing. If a vampire hits you from behind by surprise, do you really think you can take him? Even if he is unarmed?


No. I wasn’t actually sure how strong vampires were, in a practical sense. Stronger than humans was obvious—almost all of the stories could agree on that much, and it just made sense, besides. But that wasn’t a meaningful statement, under the circumstances. I mean, hell, I’m stronger than most humans. So vampires might be no stronger than me, or they might be able to rip my head off like a gingerbread man’s. The only way to find out was no way to find out.


They freak me out, she admitted. That bit with the not breathing was fucking scary. Their hearts weren’t beating either, by the way; I don’t know if you heard. And they smell wrong.


You could smell them? I said, surprised.


You couldn’t?


I shrugged mentally, turning down a one-way alley that was lightly traveled even during the daytime. If someone was tailing me, hopefully they would stand out more here. I could, I said. But I have a hard time sometimes distinguishing between physical scents and magical. Vampires have a really strong magical signature, and that makes it difficult to catch anything but an overwhelming scent. Especially in this body. I shrugged again. Besides, I was a little bit distracted.


She snorted. Yeah, I bet. The things reeked. Almost like old blood, but there was something just wrong with it. They aren’t right. Is it just me, or is that guy moving too purposefully to be just another pedestrian?


I chewed my lip for a moment, then came to a decision. Ready to run double? I asked, drawing my power close around me. Snowflake indicated in the affirmative, and then we did something pretty cool, something I would have said was impossible even a handful of months ago. I was pretty sure it was, actually, and that we could get away with it only because we were both such strange, hybrid creatures. Oh, and we’d practiced it endlessly. That helped.


It happened very, very quickly. It took, from start to finish, no more than a half-dozen heartbeats.


First, Snowflake slid her awareness along the link my magic had forged over years of interaction into my body. It was smooth, swift, and effortless. I felt her presence, instinctively, the barest whiff of a winter storm and the feeling of feet and feet and feet of snow, cold and merciless and just itching for the chance to be an avalanche. I hardly even noticed; we pulled this trick all the time, whenever one of us wanted access to the other’s senses.


The unusual part was what came next.


As Snowflake slid in, I slid out. My mind, suddenly dissociated from my body, cast around for a moment, before I found a raccoon sitting on a window ledge and slipped into his mind and body.


Meanwhile, Snowflake exerted control over my body in my absence. I think the specific way it worked was actually that Snowflake herself remained in her own body, while the wolf that timeshared her mind ran mine, but the distinction was a fine one, even to me. The important thing was that, rather than collapse like a marionette with the strings cut when I removed myself, my body kept walking down the street without so much as a stumble to betray the switch.


While she did that, I was focusing on the raccoon. I attuned myself to his senses—not forcing, not coercing, because that wasn’t something I did. I’m no saint, but I have my limits. I simply accepted an invitation. Like most predators and semi-predators in the neighborhoods I frequented regularly, this raccoon was familiar with me, to some extent. I didn’t think I’d worked with this specific animal before—raccoons are more scavenger than predator, and while I spent a significant amount of time at or near Pryce’s, I hadn’t put in the hours and hours of work to build the network of animalian spies I’d had around my old house. But I had a pretty good rep, all the same. I consistently provided food and water, sometimes shelter, and occasionally more tangible protection as well. Between that and my blend of unusual magic and quasi-human psychology, if an animal can help me without putting taking any risks, they usually will.


It took me less than a second to get my mind into the appropriate shape, and I was looking out through the raccoon’s eyes. I prodded gently, and he amicably turned his attention to the person Snowflake had noticed following us.


It was a big guy, six and a half feet or better and built like a weightlifter. He was wearing a black trench coat, black combat boots, and black gloves, and had a shapeless, broad-brimmed black hat pulled low on his head. I’d say that all that could be seen of his face were his eyes, except that he was also wearing a pair of mirrored shades. The raccoon couldn’t see any details, identifying features, or exposed skin. That could have been coincidence—coons aren’t famed for their keen vision, after all, and the distance and angle were both unfavorable—but I highly doubted it.


I manifested myself more strongly, fitting my psyche more strongly into its current mold. It wasn’t easy—this was more of a connection than I usually established—but for a moment I was more than simply a hitchhiker in the raccoon’s mind. And, for just the barest instant, I could smell this being’s magic, paled and attenuated by distance and disembodiment but still recognizable, the scent of water and rich vegetation and exotic spice. Definitely ginger, with subtler tones of cardamom, turmeric, and maybe a touch of jasmine. It was an exotic but not unpleasant mix.


I expressed gratitude to the raccoon and withdrew from his mind, returning to my own body. It took me a second or two to reorient myself, after which I took control back from Snowflake. It was difficult to do without stumbling, but we had practiced this, a lot. I was confident no one watching would have noticed a thing.


Rakshasa, I said to Snowflake, blinking a couple times. As usual, returning to my own body took some adjustment. Not as much as sometimes—I’d been working out, and I’d only been gone a very short time—and this, too, was unobtrusive. No chance it’s a coincidence.


No shit. Why now, do you think?


I shrugged mentally. Attack of opportunity? They almost certainly have spies in both groups, which means they probably knew about this meeting well before it happened. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had hitters waiting to take out the ringleaders when they left. We just happened to walk out alone, which makes us look vulnerable. I shrugged again. Or maybe there were enough of them to put a tail on all of us.


That sounds more likely to me. If you think about it, this is the last time you’d want to try a hit. Everyone brought their inner circle to this meeting, which means a high concentration of military strength. The smarter thing to do would be to have your minions tail them out, get information, and arrange to attack when they’re vulnerable and not anticipating it.


Snowflake’s pretty good at tactics, for a dog.


What do you think we should do about it?


Well, it’s a beautiful opportunity to send a message, she said, after a brief pause.


A thought occurred to me, and I smiled nastily. Excellent idea, I said. Then I turned around and shot our tail in the knee. He let out a yelp, sounding more startled than pained, and dropped to the ground.


Most interactions people have in the modern world are very, very highly scripted. Greetings between strangers, for example, are so formal and stilted that you can write out the whole conversation before a word is exchanged. But occasionally you get other situations where there aren’t any societal rules telling you what to do. It’s interesting, because without those guidelines you can’t quite predict how anyone, even someone you know well—hell, even yourself—will react. Just what those situations are changes from person to person—violence, for example, terrifies a lot of people when it occurs outside of a handful of tightly defined scenarios, but it hardly perturbed me at all. But there are some that are, in my experience, universal. A person’s first exposure to the supernatural, for example. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. Discovering that something you assumed with a bedrock certainty isn’t true. That sort of thing.


I’ve never experienced it. But I imagine discovering, in a violent and painful way, that you’ve been made by the person you were assigned to spy on is one of them. I’ve no idea how I would react to that.


But I know the rakshasa was furious.


After the first yelp, he hardly seemed inconvenienced by having just taken a bullet. He was back on his feet in an instant, his flesh seeming to warble and twist beneath the clothing. He’d just taken a modified, high-powered .45 round to the knee, though, and he hadn’t thrown off his human guise enough to ignore that kind of damage. His leg buckled, and he dropped into a position intermediate between kneeling and crouching. The injury healed itself with an audible, icky sound of bone and cartilage sliding against each other, and he was standing up again, snarling.


Of course, by that time Snowflake and I were standing right next to him. I had Tyrfing in my hand, and unsheathed. Snowflake was growling, the sort of deep and savage growl that begins deep in your throat and concludes deep in someone else’s. Between that and the fact that he’d just taken a bullet to the knee, we were more trouble than the rakshasa wanted to buy right now.


“Good evening,” I said to him, quite calmly. “You’re going to give your superior a message from me.”


He snarled some more and spat half a dozen words at me. I didn’t understand the language, but it didn’t take a genius to guess that he was cursing.


“You know,” I said mildly, “you don’t have to be alive to convey this message.”


The snarls cut off as abruptly as if I’d flipped a light switch.


“Better. The message is really very simple. Get out. Get out now. Be gone from this city by midnight tonight, and I’ll let you go. No harm, no foul, scales even between us.” I smiled. “Or don’t. And I will find you. I will come into your place of power, and I will tear it down around you. I will slaughter you like cattle. You and yours will fall under the edge of my sword like wheat before the reaper. When I leave your fortress will lie in rubble, and there will be not one living thing therein. Those who hear of your destruction will wonder what god you angered, that such a thing should happen to you, and your people will speak of it in whispers for a hundred years.” I smiled at the rakshasa, cold and cruel and sharp as a knife’s edge in the winter. His sunglasses had been knocked off in the fall, exposing startlingly red-orange eyes, and he flinched slightly when I met them with my amber ones. “Your choice,” I murmured.


He stared at me with hate in his eyes, and was silent.


“You got the message?” I asked. He nodded, still not speaking. He must understand English, because his responses were too appropriate and well-timed to be coincidence, but I hadn’t heard one word of it out of him. I backed away a few steps, bringing Snowflake with me, although I didn’t sheathe Tyrfing, and she was still growling a little. He stood, looking only slightly unsteady on his wounded leg, shoved his half-broken sunglasses into place, and hobbled back along the alley the way we’d come.


You should have killed him, Snowflake said. I’d have killed him. I can still kill him. Be no trouble. Just say the word. Hell, you don’t even have to talk, just nod.


No, Snowflake. I sounded, even to myself, very weary.


No, really, I can do it. Look at him. That leg isn’t all the way fixed. There’s no way he can outrun me. I’ll trip him, take the other leg, go for the neck. Rakshasas die when you bite off their heads, right?


We’re not going to kill him. She knew what I had meant, of course. If I wanted him dead, it wouldn’t have taken much work to do the deed. I could have just shot him half a dozen times, then chopped him into pieces with Tyrfing. That, I was fairly confident, would kill damn near anything.


We ought to. You know it’s the smart thing to do.


He’s inconsequential. Their leader wouldn’t send anyone important on a job like this, and if he had half an ounce of sense or skill he wouldn’t have been that easy to catch. Besides, it’s more important to send the message.


That doesn’t preclude killing him, she argued. Shit, Winter, a corpse is a much stronger statement of threat than letting him go. You could even write down your ridiculously melodramatic threatening spiel and leave a copy on his body if you want.


I sighed and turned away, sheathing Tyrfing. It wanted blood, like always, but it was a familiar effort to let the sword go, and I hardly even had to think about it. It might have been just my imagination, but it seemed like it had been getting easier to do recently. The cursed blade hadn’t been showing up inconveniently as often, either, and the entropy curse didn’t seem to be affecting me or my allies as much.


I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.


I kept walking, in the opposite direction as the rakshasa had taken, and Snowflake came with me. She came reluctantly, still growling almost inaudibly, glancing frequently over her shoulder at the departing rakshasa, but she came.


The problem, I said to her as we walked away, is that if this plan works, we aren’t just independent small-timers any more. I just declared myself as a political entity. That changes what messages people will take from my actions. By letting the rakshasa go, I announce that I’m reasonable, and I don’t go around killing people senselesslyand also that they scare me so little I don’t care that I gave one of them a grudge against me and then let him go.


Yeah? she said sarcastically. Because I’m thinking it says more that you’re such an utter Spatzenhirn that you let your enemy get away. Have you never read Machiavelli, man?


You know I have, I said, amused. Given that I was the one who gave that book to you.


Yeah, well, I think maybe you didn’t pay enough attention. ‘Cause if this doesn’t take you into “despised and hated” territory, I don’t know what will.


Tell you what, if it gets us horribly killed I promise to let you say you told me so without interruption or complaint. Guaranteed.


I think you and I both know you won’t be able to resist making sarcastic comments.


Well, there was that.


“Guess what,” I said, walking into the trophy room. “You’re going to get to kill some rakshasas. Maybe even help take out a skinwalker, if we get real lucky.”


Aiko looked down at me from her perch on a small stepladder. “How’s that?” she asked, adjusting the wreath of holly and mistletoe she was weaving through a spiral of glittering steel blades hanging on the wall which hadn’t been there a few days ago. It took me a moment to recognize them as the claws from the constructs which had attacked Alexis. How they had gotten here was another topic that wasn’t worth worrying about. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to understand how this mansion works.


I looked the arrangement up and down critically. “Not bad,” I said eventually. “Little asymmetric, though. It could use a little more mistletoe on the right.”


“I meant,” she growled through gritted teeth, “how is it that I get to fight?”


“Oh, right. Sorry. Well, it’s not a done deal, so don’t get too excited, but I was talking with Sojobo tonight and he said he’d talk to the nine-tails. It sounds like he’s on really good terms with your kin, and I’m sure he’s got contacts like no other, so I expect he’ll be able to convince them.”


“You’re kidding.”


“Actually, for once I’m being entirely serious. You’d better go get packed; I’m expecting this to go down tonight, and we both know how much you’d hate to miss it.”


Aiko did not wait for me to tell her twice. I don’t know that I’d ever seen her move that quickly.


What makes you so sure it’ll be tonight? Snowflake asked me.


Katrin’s a vampire, I said by way of explanation. She didn’t seem to get it, so I elaborated. That gives her a great deal of powerenough to kill both of us without breaking a sweat, if she’s as old and powerful as I think she is. But it comes with a boatload of drawbacks, complications, and weaknesses, and the biggest one is the sunshine thing. All that power won’t do her a lick of good in the daytimein fact, from what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure she won’t even be conscious. She sure won’t be able to pull out any cool vampire superpowers.




So she knows it makes her vulnerable. Her sanctum will be hidden, and protected, and I don’t doubt she’s got whole swarms of minions, but the fact remains that she’s personally helpless during the day. I shook my head. She hates it. You know she does. Especially when she knows there are powerful people actively trying to off her. Now that she’s got enough people backing her to get the job done, she’ll want the fight over before she has to spend another day with that hanging over her head.


Snowflake considered that for a while. Sounds reasonable, she said eventually. But there’s one problem with your calculations.


Oh? And what’s that?


You have no idea whether they’ll even be able to find the enemy tonight. Or ever, for that matter.


I chuckled dryly. That’s true, I admitted. But I don’t think so. I stood up and left the room. Come on, I said. Let’s go get a bite to eat and then get ready. Just in case I’m not wrong.


You da Boss, she said with a mental shrug. Besides, it ain’t hard to convince me of any plan that has “go eat something” as a first step.


Alexis, as it turned out, was not just obsessed with but skilled at kitcheny things. I knew this, because she’d made steaks fried with fresh onions and mushrooms, couscous with green onions and shallots, spicy black beans, green chili, a large salad composed of vegetables I usually encountered only in the form of pictures, falafel with hummus and tahini, and fettuccine Alfredo with shrimp and chicken.


I stared. It is not often that I am struck literally dumb, but this spectacle managed it. Even more astonishingly, Snowflake was standing next to me, equally speechless, staring at the array of dishes.


Alexis emerged from the walk-in refrigerator (empty-handed, astonishingly enough) and scowled at me. “What?”


“You may not have realized this, since the mansion is so large, but we actually don’t have swarms of people to feed,” I said dryly.


My cousin flushed. “I didn’t have a lot to do today, all right?” she said defensively, gesturing vaguely at nothing in particular that I could tell.


“Hey, I’m not complaining. I like food. Just saying.” I started grabbing dishes and carrying them out to the dining room—not that there was any reason the kitchen table wouldn’t have served, but this seemed an extravagant enough meal that I felt justified in doing so.


It also gave me the opportunity to inspect each dish thoroughly without Alexis knowing about it. Purely a coincidence, of course.


I pulled out a chair and sat, Snowflake resting on the floor beside me. She could have had her own chair, obviously—there was enough room at that dining table to seat twenty times the people who might actually attend, and it’s not like I’d get upset about it. She just enjoys…playing to the stereotypes, I suppose.


Alexis insisted on saying grace before eating, which took me by complete surprise as I had no idea people still did that. She didn’t seem to require my active participation, though, for which I was quite grateful. I had enough to do just keeping my mouth shut, looking at my lap, and trying not to burst out laughing at Snowflake’s jokes.


After that odd little anachronism, I managed to avoid eating for a few moments by excusing myself to go grab a glass of iced tea—tea I had brewed myself, a few days before. It didn’t usually last that long, but I hadn’t been home much recently.


I sat back down and proceeded to eat with much, much more decorum and restraint than I normally exhibited. I only touched things Alexis had already tasted, for one thing, and ate only a small piece of each item to start after that, giving each one plenty of time for any toxins to work. It’s hard to poison a werewolf, and any common poison would be slow-acting and reversible in any dose not large enough to alter the flavor noticeably. I only sipped the tea, as well; she’d had all day to tamper with it, and I couldn’t be sure that Aiko or Snowflake would have caught her at it.


Of course, given that Alexis was vegetarian, it was harder than it might otherwise have been to not taste anything she hadn’t. Out of that entire massive spread, the only things she actually ate were the beans, salad, couscous, and falafel. Given that I’d made it quite clear that I was as enthusiastically carnivorous as they come, it would have been very suspicious for me to restrict myself to the same menu. It wasn’t long before I simply had to cross my fingers (metaphorically; I wouldn’t dream of giving away that big of a hint openly) and take a bite of steak.


It was delicious, expertly prepared to something a bit shy of medium-rare, seasoned with black pepper and copious amounts of garlic. Snowflake, who, being less obsessively paranoid than I was, had skipped right to the steak, agreed wholeheartedly. She usually ate her meat raw, but had no real objections to cooked food, especially when it was cooked well. Besides, her steak was a few steps rarer than mine—more warmed than cooked, really.


Aiko walked in a few minutes later, covered head-to-toe by her armor. It was more or less the same design as mine—not unpredictably, given that they were made by the same person—but significantly more friendly and cheery in appearance. The colors were warm golds and crimsons, rather than the stark black-and-white I wore, and her suit was sleek and smooth rather than being covered in ridges and spikes. She had her favorite wakizashi and tanto on her belt, and a military-grade carbine on a strap across her chest. She was carrying a small black backpack, too, which probably contained an assortment of other weapons.


Alexis paled visibly at the sight. I just congratulated her on the quick equipping time and told her to come get some food. Aiko, who was very nearly as obsessed with food as the average werewolf, didn’t hesitate. She dropped the bag beside her chair, and her helmet, but otherwise retained the martial aspect as she fell to on the food.


It took me that long to realize I was still wearing most of my own armor, easily visible under the cloak—and I had Tyrfing displayed openly on my belt, to boot. I was getting way too comfortable with this. No wonder Alexis kept glancing my direction.


Less than ten minutes later, there was a sudden pounding on the front door. I heard eight heavy knocks, spaced slowly and evenly. Aiko got up immediately to go to the door, her expression the same as you might expect to see on a prisoner who’s just heard word of a letter from the governor but doesn’t yet know whether it contains a pardon or a writ of execution.


I had never before heard someone knocking on the door in that mansion.


I couldn’t see the entry room from where I was sitting, and I was concerned that going to look would violate some principle of etiquette or other. Normally I wouldn’t care, but between Aiko’s demeanor and the fact that we were already expecting something of the sort, I was guessing this was kitsune business, and if they were anything like the other supernatural entities I’d encountered they wouldn’t care for outsiders sticking their collective nose into their internal affairs. Now, again, that wouldn’t normally mean a great deal to me, but in this case it might be detrimental to Aiko’s cause, and that was something I didn’t want.


So I can’t speak, personally, for what might have happened when Aiko went to answer the door. A minute dragged by, then two, then five, and she was still gone. I held Snowflake back when she would have gone to investigate, but privately I was also feeling more than slightly concerned. It didn’t help that neither of us could hear anything. Given that I was a werewolf (sorta) and she was a husky (kinda) we should have been able to at least hear any conversation. Not make out the words, maybe, but we at least should have been able to hear that they were talking.


I put it down to kitsune magic, which I knew was capable of blocking all sound at significantly closer range than this, and kept eating.


Finally, seven minutes after she left, Aiko walked back into the dining room, clutching a piece of paper like a drowning man’s rope and shaking her head. She looked dazed, like she couldn’t quite process the information she’d just been given. She collapsed back into her chair, looking around aimlessly. “Unbelievable,” she muttered. “A full pardon!” She waved the paper in my face, still clinging to it like a lifeline. I didn’t bother trying to read it; I was confident it would say exactly what she had implied.


“A pardon?” Alexis asked, confused. “For what?”


“Oh, you know,” Aiko said evasively. “The usual.”


I snorted. “Aiding and abetting a convicted criminal. Resisting arrest. Obstruction of justice. Aggravated assault. Attempted murder. Hostage taking. Extortion. Carjacking. Conspiracy to commit murder. Conspiracy to commit all the rest, too, I suppose.” I took a small sip of tea, which had so far failed to produce any ill effect. “I sincerely hope that isn’t usual in any broader company than who’s sitting here.”


“Don’t forget vandalism,” she said helpfully.


I frowned. “Actually, I don’t remember vandalism. Are you sure there was a vandalism involved that time?”


“No, actually, I don’t think there was. I just throw that into any list of crimes I commit, because why not? I mean, I’ve done it enough times.” She shrugged. “Of course, I suppose at that rate I also ought to put in burglary. And theft. And larceny, although I’ve never been quite clear on the difference there. And robbery. And crimes against nature. And arson. And incitement to riot. And—”


“Are you serious?” Alexis asked, sounding slightly horrified.


“Well, I’ve only done the arson thing around a dozen times. But one of them was a pretty large building, so I think that should count extra, and then there was the time we used explosives, which I think they might prosecute differently—I only have a rudimentary understanding of the legal system, you know.”


“Yes, she’s serious,” I translated. “That’s actually a fairly abbreviated list, though. We don’t really have the time to discuss every crime she’s guilty of.” I glanced at Aiko. “Actually, now that you’ve got that pardon, we should probably head out. I’m not entirely sure how they’re planning to contact us if they locate the target, and it’ll be easier if we aren’t here.”


She snorted. “How about you go finish getting dressed, then. I’m going to stay here and eat some more. I haven’t had food this good since the last time I was in Italy.”


“I also made dessert,” Alexis said, sounding like she couldn’t decide whether she felt complimented or really, really freaked out. She was starting to look nervous, too, like she was seriously questioning the wisdom of coming here. “Blueberry pie, chocolate mousse, and Black Forest cake. In the fridge.”


“I don’t think we have quite that much time.”


Aiko gave me a pleading look. “I haven’t had good Kirschtorte in a long time, Winter.”


“It’ll keep,” I said ruthlessly. Snowflake, who has very little appreciation for such things at the best of time, laughed at the expression on the kitsune’s face.


A few minutes later, I walked back into the kitchen. I’d put on the helmet and gauntlets, which took me from a five all the way to maybe an eight or nine on the barfighter’s scale of “He looks like he could kick my ass.” (Normally I don’t make it above a two. The only reason I was at a five before was that I had a broadsword on my hip, and that tends to inspire a certain amount of respect in modern punks, unaccustomed as they tend to be to any edged weapon larger than a paring knife.) I also had my very large, very scary-looking shotgun on its strap across my chest, and I’d grabbed the rest of my toys and trinkets as well. The intimidating effect was, granted, somewhat impaired by the fact that I’d shaped my cloak into a head-to-toe blanket of shadow. Anyone casually glancing in my direction would see little more than a man-sized, ragged-edged moving patch of darkness, which—while spooky as hell—engenders a rather different type of fear.


That actually wasn’t as conspicuous as you might think. I know people somehow have this idea that a moving shadow without anything obviously present to cast it would instantly attract their attention, but I honestly have no idea why you would think that. I mean, if you’re looking for it and it stands out against the background, sure, maybe you’ll notice something. But people generally don’t look for things like that, in my experience. So long as I avoided brightly lit areas and similarly idiotic actions, my cloak was damn near as good as actual invisibility.


I found Aiko and Snowflake, both fully kitted out for battle, waiting in the throne room. I also found Alexis, who promptly said, “I want to come with you.”


I stared, and didn’t try to make it a warm stare. “You are aware of what we’re doing, yes?”


She flushed slightly and looked away from me. “Yes.”


“You are aware,” I continued, “that this is an extremely dangerous endeavor, and that while the three of us will do what we can, because violence is intrinsically chaotic and unpredictable, it is quite likely that circumstances will prevent us from helping you? You are, I presume, aware that the three of us are going into this fight aware that we may not be coming back? You are aware that, as you are by a wide measure the most fragile and the least experienced person in this room, it is possible—indeed, probable—that you will be killed or permanently injured?”


Alexis looked frightened—no, not frightened. That’s far too mild a word. Alexis looked terrified. She had the stiff, desperate appearance of a deer in the headlights. Her voice, though, was relatively even, with only the slightest trace of a stammer, when she said, “If it’s that dangerous, shouldn’t I come to help?”


“And what conceivable help could you be?” I asked derisively. I had only respect for her attitude, but I wanted to know how she would react to mockery.


She flushed again, but it was with anger this time, and she had no difficulty looking me in the eye. Interesting. “I can shoot,” she said sharply.


I couldn’t deny that, not after her performance when we came to rescue her. “There’s an enormous difference between shooting targets and shooting people. And there’s no room for squeamishness in this,” I said, more gently. “It’s kill or be killed out there. That’s the sort of experience that changes you, no matter what happens. It’s more than possible you’d have to commit murder—and make no mistake, that’s what we’re doing, however fine our reasons—just to survive. We’ve done this before, and sad to say there’s enough blood on all three of us that I doubt tonight’s activities will add anything much to the stain on our hands.” I left unspoken the implication that she couldn’t say the same, and given her attitudes I was confident she never wanted to be able to.


She could tell I was working up to a flat refusal. Interestingly, though, rather than relief, it seemed to make her terror worse. Her eyes looked desperate, almost hunted. “Somebody tried to kill me,” she said, her voice small and slightly unsteady. “One of the people you’re going out to fight.”


“Probably,” I cautioned. “Occam’s razor be damned, I’ve never yet seen a situation where everything is simple and straightforward.”


My cousin continued as though I hadn’t spoken at all. “You’re putting yourself in danger because of me,” she said quietly. “How can I stay here and pretend everything’s fine while you’re out there risking your lives for me? When I know my presence could make a difference?” She managed a weak, unsteady smile. “Besides, if you do die, how long do you think it will take for them to get me? I can’t stay here forever. Better to come with you. At least then I won’t have to put up with weeks of waiting for them to catch up to me.”


“Are you sure?” I asked.


She nodded, the fear seeming to recede a little.


I sighed. “All right, then,” I said reluctantly. “Do you have your pistol?” She nodded again. “Go grab it,” I said, “and whatever ammo you have. I’m going to go grab some things.”


Alexis took off for the stairs at a near sprint. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Aiko asked me, sotto voce.


“Not at all,” I muttered, starting for the stairs myself. “I just can’t think of a better one.”


A couple minutes later, I returned to find Alexis already waiting for me. She had that little semiautomatic in a plastic sheath on her nylon belt. Other than that, she was wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black hoodie. I tossed her the leather jacket I was carrying—too simple, heavy, and ugly to be mistaken for anything other than armor, which it was.


She caught it easily enough. “What is this?” she asked.


“Put it on,” I told her. She did, having only a modicum of difficulty with the old-fashioned ties. I was on the small side for an adult human male, and she was a bit over average for a female, so my old jacket fit her well enough. She looked up just in time to catch a leather belt with a sheathed knife, flashlight, and med kit on it. “How much ammo are you carrying?”


“Two magazines,” she said, wrapping the second belt around her hips. “Fourteen rounds total.”


I frowned. “What caliber?”


“Thirty-two.” Huh. Guessed right for once. Who’d have thought.


I grunted. “Don’t think we have any of those,” I said, glancing at Aiko, who shook her head. Both of us tended to use rather heavier rounds than that—a .32 is fine for most self-defense scenarios, but when faced with a charging werewolf it starts to seem a little…inadequate. “Try to save that for a last-ditch, then.” I didn’t mention that fighting at all would be a last-ditch effort for her, given that her chances of actually contributing to a fight on this level were fairly minimal. She knew that.


I took a certain amount of comfort in seeing the grass-green pendant around her neck. I’d never tried a stored spell quite like it, making it difficult to say for sure whether it would work or not, but it should provide at least a bit of security should worse come to worst.


“Okay, people,” I said, turning to the door. “It’s go time.”


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Balancing Act 6.11

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After my chat with Sojobo I went back home, at least for a while. I wasn’t at all sure what to do next, and figured it would be better to sit and think in a safe location.


I hadn’t had much of a chance to just sit back and think for some time. Now that I did, I was almost surprised at how overwhelmed I was. I felt like a man trying to tread water while holding a barbell over my head.


I’d spent the past several days running from crisis to crisis, desperately trying to keep any one fire from growing too large to handle, unable to concentrate on any of them long enough to actually extinguish it. And the hell of it was, I hadn’t really accomplished all that much. I mean, sure, none of my friends were dead, but plenty of other people were. I still didn’t know who or where my enemies were, not with any precision. I couldn’t stop the fighting.


It had been unbelievably arrogant, really, for me to think that I could. This was too big for me.


It was at around that time that Aiko walked in, guzzling what smelled like watermelon juice. “Hey,” she said. “Who’s dead?”


“Nobody, yet,” I said. “I did have a chat with Sojobo, though.”


“The Old Man of the Mountain himself?” she said, impressed. “Damn. You move in high circles.”


“You know him?”


She shrugged, the motion neither confirming nor denying. “Stories. You know. Never met him. We can’t all be like you, related to frigging everybody.”


I snorted. “Yeah, you aren’t exactly a peasant yourself. Speaking of relations, did I tell you one of your cousins is helping the tengu with their turf war?”


“Don’t think so. Which one?”


“Kimiko, or at least that’s what she told me to tell you.”


She grimaced. “Oh. Her.


“Something wrong?”


Aiko shrugged. “Not exactly. We aren’t, like, nemeses if that’s what you mean; she’s just…way, way, way too serious. Her father was a six-tail, scary dude. He was old-school, samurai style—you know, codes of honor, service without question, death before dishonor, the whole thing. Went around whacking bad guys and stuff. When I was twenty—she’d have been six—a handful of vampires decided they’d had enough of it and kidnapped her and her mother. He got ’em back, but died doing it—you know, typical goody-two-shoes sort of thing.”


“The sort of thing that might leave you with something to prove,” I mused.


She snorted. “No shit. Doesn’t help Kimiko turns into a fennec. She’s got an inferiority complex the size of a mountain.”


I could see why. A fennec fox was the smallest living canid in the world—seriously, we’re talking poodle-size, or smaller. Rather a comedown from a notorious samurai father. I mean, that was one heck of a reputation to live up to. I thought I was starting to understand why Kimiko might be willing to risk her life for a bit of street cred.


“What are you doing now?” she asked. I could hear a touch of something not quite envy in her voice. She didn’t blame me for it—she’d made it very clear, all along, that it was her choice, and she’d known there would be consequences—but I knew she resented being trapped on the Otherside while I went out and got in brawls.


“Not sure,” I said. “I’m considering throwing in with the yokai.”


She stared at me. “You gotta be shitting me.”


“Actually, for once I’m being entirely serious. I don’t have the resources to deal with this myself. I don’t think I can kid myself into believing otherwise anymore, do you?”


“Well, no, but you can get them. I mean, shit, Winter, you’ve got contacts, you know people. You don’t think any of them would back you on this?”


“Maybe,” I admitted. “But think about it. You’re talking about begging help from Loki…making deals with the Twilight Court…bringing the Khan into a local conflict….” I shook my head. “You know what that would mean, Aiko. There would be a price to pay. There would be consequences.”


“What about Skrýmir? He seemed fond of you.”


“Sure. But there’s a pretty big difference between giving your great-nephew a drink and giving him an army. And there’d be political backlash if he were to stick his nose into this at this stage. He wouldn’t do it for free.” I looked at her curiously. “Why are you so upset about this, anyway? It’s your people we’re talking about.”


“Exactly,” she said grimly. “We aren’t good people, Winter. I mean, hell, you’ve seen the stupid shit I do. You know exactly what kind of irresponsible, immature, irrational imbecile I tend to be. I’m a delinquent virago, a brazen kleptomaniac, a flagrant zoophile, a recidivistic vandal, and a feckless hussy with more neuroses than a small fandom convention.”


“That was really nice,” I said. “I’m impressed.”


I know, Snowflake said, the first she’d spoken since we got home. I’m going to have to look a few of those words up.


“Thank you,” she said modestly. “But the fact remains that you’ve gotta ask yourself, do you really want a bunch of people just like me in charge around here? I mean, shit, at least I’m smart enough to recognize that I shouldn’t be responsible for anything more important than a teacup.”


“Granted,” I acknowledged. “Do you have a better idea? Do you have even one better idea? Because I don’t.”


“I hate when you get all rational,” she grumbled. “Completely out of character. How am I supposed to deal with that?”


“Beats me,” I said cheerily. “Don’t worry, though, you’ve got some time to think about it. I’m not going to act on it until I’m sure there’s not a better option. Is Alexis awake?”


“Not sure. But I strung a tripwire across her doorway, so—” There was a sudden crash from upstairs, making Aiko grin. “Well, speak of the devil. She’s definitely awake now, I’d say.”


I laughed. “Did the maple syrup get her? I haven’t had a chance to ask.”


Her grin became wider and more malicious. “Yep. You should have heard her complaining about how hard it was to get out of her hair.”


“That’s wonderful,” I said enviously. “I’m going to have to remember that one.” I frowned. “Expensive, though. Good maple syrup is spendy as hell.”


She snorted. “Yeah, like that matters to you.” She stood up. “Come on, I’m hungry. Think there’s any pizza left?”


I frowned, following her to the kitchen. “Can’t remember,” I said, and then almost ran into her when she stopped in front of me. “What is it?” I asked, edging closer.


“That wasn’t there before,” she said, walking slowly over to the table. I felt a twinge of panic at the words—it’s almost never good to be surprised in your own home—and followed her. Snowflake stuck to my heels, growling slightly. Aiko picked up a sheet of parchment maybe a foot square and read it.


“What’s it say?”


Rather than answer she handed it to me, her expression unwontedly grim. I understood why the second I saw the letter. It read:




I regret that it has come to this, but your actions leave me little option. I have your friend, the cook, in my keeping. Quit the field and leave the city immediately, and she will come to no harm. Remain, and she will die. Oppose me, and that death will be slow and horrible. The choice is yours.


Again, I regret the necessity of this ultimatum; rest assured that had you listened when first we spoke, this eventuality would not have come to pass.


There was no signature at the bottom. Instead, it had three marks of authenticity. The first was a long, dark, straight hair. The second was a drop of blood which had stained the parchment. I had no doubt that they both belonged to Anna. The third was a red wax seal, with the impression of an eagle in it. I sniffed it tentatively, and—as expected—found that the wax was shot through with the reek of magic and rot. A guarantee, of sorts. This had been sent by the skinwalker.


Are you okay? Snowflake asked, at almost the same time as Alexis walked into the room and said, “Is everything all right?”


“No,” I said. My voice was such an icy, flat sound that I almost didn’t recognize it. It was, I noted absently, almost the same tone Sojobo had used. “Nothing’s all right.” I resisted the urge to shred the parchment far past the point of recognition. I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop there once I got started, and it’s never wise for a werewolf or anything like one to lose control of his anger. Besides, it wouldn’t improve anything. My motions were calm, almost gentle as I placed the letter back on the table.


Well, obviously, Snowflake said, but your shoulders are really tight and you’re breathing pretty fast and your knuckles are going white and I’m really starting to worry over here, so if you could maybe take a few deep breaths and count to ten I think it might help, all right?


I ignored her. “That’s it,” I said, in that same deceptively calm voice. “That is it.” I turned and walked towards the front door.


“Winter? What are you doing?” Alexis’s voice was shaking, and she looked like she was about to be sick.


“I’m ending this,” I said. My voice held all the warmth and kindness of a mountain blizzard, and even Snowflake flinched away at the sound. I walked out without further conversation.


I wanted to kill the skinwalker. I really, really wanted it. My instinctive, ingrained reaction to threats against my pack was to respond with swift and brutal violence. My first impulse upon reading that note was to put on my armor, buckle on Tyrfing, grab every weapon I owned, and go visit the wrath of me upon him.


However, I also knew that that was exactly what he was expecting. I mean, sheesh, could it get more predictable than that? I was known for an irrational protective streak regarding those few individuals I cared to protect; I was known for anger issues, and for preferring simple, straightforward solutions where possible; I was a werewolf, which could only exacerbate those traits. It’s no harder to predict a stopped clock than to expect violence from a werewolf under those conditions.


Rushing in blind would get me killed. Now, I’m going to die someday, and I can guess with some confidence it will be my own fault, but I didn’t want it to be because of a mistake that stupid. Furthermore, I was certain that playing right into the skinwalker’s hands would do nothing to help Anna.


Reacting quickly wouldn’t get me anywhere. I had to react intelligently.


With that in mind, I set about making certain arrangements, getting into contact with certain people. It cost me a fair amount of cash, and a couple of debts that I would normally have hesitated to cash in. At the moment, I didn’t think once about it, let alone twice.


I’d had enough of this war. If ending it meant paying a price, well, it was a price I was willing to pay, even if I didn’t know just what it would be.


Finally, at around noon, I decided I’d done everything I could think of to do, and went home to seek counsel from a demon.


It is said, by some New Age gurus and self-help books, that thought is real. Now, most of the time I have less respect for such sources than for the advice of circus performers, who at least have to have a sizable quantity of skill and knowledge to do their jobs. However, in this specific case, they actually do have a point—more by accident, I suspect, than any actual intelligence.


Thought is real. It has a weight, a substance to it which, although unlike physical objects or strength, and unlike magic, would only be discounted by fools. In thoughts—purely mental constructs, with no physical reality or reflection therein at all—like love, hope, and faith, there is a power quite undeniable.


It’s only a short step from there to the idea that some thoughts have so much reality that it doesn’t matter anymore whether someone is actually thinking them. They can, in essence, think themselves. They’re…alive, in a certain sense of the word, although it doesn’t apply precisely. They have a sense of self and a discrete nature.


That’s Legion. Except he isn’t an idea like love or hope or faith. Legion is a spirit of death, destruction, decay—and, because there is very little which is wholly positive or negative in this world, also of rebirth, strength, regeneration. The simplest way I’ve found to describe him is as a necessary evil. Not in the sense that there’s some choice between him and something worse, but because he embodies that which is unpleasant and destructive and horrible, but without which you cannot grow, and become weak.


Someone has to do it. But there are reasons I call Legion “demon”, and not the more general term “spirit.” He isn’t one of the good guys, on any level.


I didn’t see Aiko, or Snowflake, or Alexis when I walked in. Probably they were avoiding me, and with reason; I was still all but shaking with suppressed emotion. I was chafing with the knowledge that every moment of delay was probably causing Anna significant suffering—because, come on, did anyone buy that line about coming to no harm? Yeah, didn’t think so—but unable to come up with any way to do this faster that didn’t end with me dying in agony, and probably her too.


The resultant tension had me a little upset.


I walked into the lab and sat down on a plain hardwood chair at the worktable. “Legion,” I called. “I need you.”


A skeleton, tucked neatly into the corner of the room, began to quiver. It was more or less canine in shape, but larger than most any dog, and lean. Aiko had pieced it together from Cu Sith much like the ones we’d seen at the party the other night. By the time we got through with them, they weren’t in very good shape; it took her a dozen faerie hounds to get a complete skeleton. Legion, as a spiritual entity, needed a vessel to interact with the physical world, and the skeleton was it. It was more common to put a spirit into an animal host, but I hadn’t cared for the idea, for rather obvious reasons.


“Took you long enough,” he said irritably, as thick black fog seemed to boil out of the bones and cover them in a dense, shifting cloud. It was filled with sparks of multicolored light, with two larger aquamarine sparks for eyes. “It’s been four weeks since you called me.”


“You go into a state of dormancy in between anyway,” I said, relaxing slightly. Sparring with Legion was an old, familiar routine, pun most definitely intended. It was calming. “So don’t tell me you got bored. Besides, before that I took you to that amusement park, remember?”


His eyes glittered a bit more brightly. “Hell, yeah. We should do that again.”


That was, more or less, how I paid Legion. He wasn’t physical in nature, and this world was very foreign to him. There were many things I took for granted—sensory input, emotional reaction, that sort of thing—which were a source of intense fascination for the demon. Occasionally I—or Aiko, or rarely Snowflake (she has issues with demons in general, and Legion in particular)—let him temporarily occupy my body and mind in order to vicariously experience material existence. He’s a sense junkie, basically.


One of the more interesting things I’ve learned about demons is that they don’t seem to distinguish between positive and negative experiences—hell, he can’t even tell the difference. He’s equally as intrigued by hunger, pain, and fear as things like lust, pleasure, or happiness. It’s like the specific character of a stimulus doesn’t matter nearly as much to him as its absolute value.


“How much do you know about skinwalkers?” I asked him, toying idly with a pencil. I have a tendency to take notes while talking with Legion, because he mocks me relentlessly if I have to ask him to repeat a point.


Legion had a nasty habit, which I had been entirely unsuccessful at breaking him of, of conveying an impression with perfect clarity, but without giving me any idea of how it had been conveyed. This time, I understood that he had imparted the equivalent of a shrug, but the skeleton never moved, and his voice didn’t change at all. “Enough,” he said simply.


“Wonderful,” I said. “Start with the basics.”


“You da boss, Boss,” he said in an affected Chicago accent. “How familiar are you with native superstitions and beliefs regarding magic?”


I grimaced. “Not at all, beyond extremely basic stuff.” There was, as I had often been given cause to bemoan, simply too much for anyone to know it all. I’d focused most of my efforts on present-day organizations, and particularly on the denizens of the Otherside who had a tendency to interact with my world. My knowledge of historical trends and minor sects was woefully incomplete.


“Of course,” he said. His tone was the usual utter blandness, but I got the impression of disgust all the same. “Well, essentially, the native tribes had a much different attitude than most of the world. Magic was never seen as something external to everyday life, and mages were never marginalized the way most human cultures historically have. The shaman was considered a normal, if respected, member of the group, not entirely unlike a priest in that regard.”


“Clarification,” I interrupted. “Do you mean shaman as in the social role, or the definition of a skilled mage with an unusually strong connection to the spiritual?”


“The first,” he said, displaying no anger at being cut off. “Although there was an extraordinarily high proportion of shamanic magic among them, as well, presumably due to cultural background. In any case, the salient feature is that magic was seen as a tool, something which existed to serve the people. The shaman was expected to serve the tribe, often at personal expense or danger.”


I frowned. Mages were essentially just ordinary people, in most ways. And, like any group of people, that one inevitably included assholes. “Not every mage would be willing to do that.”


“Precisely,” the demon said, his manner that of a schoolteacher when a dim bulb managed to make an intelligent observation. “There will always be mages who look at a millennia-old tradition of helping, guidance, and sacrifice, and turn their backs on it.”


“That doesn’t make sense, though,” I murmured. “People like that turn up everywhere. Skinwalkers are native to North America. What gives?”


“You would learn more if you interrupted less. To answer your question, not everyone abandons tradition. Sometimes you get a person who elects instead to turn it inside out, corrupt and betray it actively. In this context, that means harming others for your benefit rather than vice versa. Thus, skinwalkers: those who sing to harm rather than heal, sacrifice others for personal gain, and reap the power of sorrow and death for their meat and drink.”


“In most accounts,” I said thoughtfully, “a skinwalker tears the hide from his victim and uses it to change shape.”


“Right,” Legion agreed. “Skinwalkers are almost never natural shapeshifters. That’s a rare talent, and it tends not to occur alongside the magics they depend upon. In essence, a skinwalker examines his victims on an extremely intimate level. By observing, both physically and magically, how the body and mind react to various stresses, he begins to understand that body and that mind. People opposed to the practice tend to characterize it as torture, but the process is actually a good deal more complicated than that. It’s as important that the skinwalker understand the subject’s responses to pleasurable stimulation as to pain. Eventually, once he understands them from the inside out, he kills them, slowly—usually he’ll skin ’em alive, but that’s not actually necessary for the ritual. They just have to die slowly, so that he has lots of time to take in the pain and the emotion and the life the victim puts off. The skin serves as a symbol that he can associate with the person it came from. Because he understands them so well, and there’s a bit of them still in him, he can use it to take on their form, right?”


I stared, caught between horror and a sickened fascination. “Holy shit,” I breathed. “Legion, that’s horrible. Even by your standards.”


The demon gave the impression of a shrug. “What can I say, Boss? There’s reasons people don’t like skinwalkers.”


“No kidding.” I rubbed my forehead and shivered a little. “Wow, that’s seriously creepy. Okay. You said there’s a part of the victim that stays in the skinwalker. How does that work?”


“I’m not entirely sure. I’ve never actually worked with a skinwalker, you understand, so this is all from talking with spirits that have. But as I understand it, the key is the process of oscillating between pain, pleasure, sexual release, and various emotional extremes. It degrades mental barriers—hell, even you monkeys have figured that out, and you’ve got nothing on skinwalkers when it comes to torture.”


I frowned. “Almost like a vision quest, then. Breaking down the mental filters we use to interpret reality.”


“Exactly,” he said approvingly. “The whole thing is a mockery of shamanic tradition, right? The same principles, just inverted and corrupted. Most skinwalkers, if they’re seriously trying to acquire a new skin, drag the process out over a couple months at least—years, sometimes. After that long you don’t even know who you are, let alone what’s happening to you.”


I shook my head. “But how does that let them change shape? I mean, drive someone crazy, yes, I can see where that sort of thing would be great at that. But how do you get from that to a skinwalker?”


“Like I said, I’ve not studied it in detail. But the theory is that they’ve forged a connection with the person, established a bond, whatever. Sort of like lovers. It’s in the opposite direction, sure, but there’s the same intimacy and so on, right? Then, when they finally die, you sort of use that connection. They’re gone, but they’ve left a mark on you, and between that and the fact that you know how their body works, you can turn yourself into some semblance of them.”


“So the shape they take on has some connection to the person they took it from?”


“Yep. That’s why most skinwalkers tend to pick their victims carefully; you want the biggest, strongest one you can find. It’s hard to have more than one skin that are really similar to each other, though; you run into trouble trying to keep them distinct in your mind. Most skinwalkers can only do one of any given animal, and they can’t turn into another human at all.”


I made a note of that. It might be useful at some point. “You know,” I mused, “that sounds almost like what Garrett did.” Garrett White, werewolf, shaman, serial killer, and all-around lunatic, had killed wolves and bound their spirits to his soul and those of other werewolves. It had been a while, but I would never forget the feel of his magics. Garrett has a special place in my heart, after all; it was killing him that put the last nail in my chances of ever having an even slightly normal life.


“Right,” Legion said. “I wasn’t there for that part, but I’m pretty sure what he was doing was based on skinwalker traditions. He was really sloppy, though, or else whoever showed him that wanted him to die. When he killed those wolves, they never really died, you know? He took the mind and personality, not just the feeling. That’s why he went batshit. A good skinwalker, the skin is just an extension of himself. The person who contributed it is dead and gone.”


“You keep saying person,” I noted. “I thought this wouldn’t work on humans.”


He snorted. “Yeah, right, ’cause there’s such a huge difference between humans and animals. You of all people should know better, Winter. The whole point of this is to target the part of the animal that is a person. Try it on something stupid, like a snake or something, it doesn’t work very well. It won’t work at all on an insect or a sponge, or anything really without a brain and some degree of self-awareness.”


I shivered again. “Right. So how many…skins? Is that the right word?” Legion, once again, indicated confirmation without any gesture or word, and I continued. “How many skins does a skinwalker have?”


“Depends,” he said, with a motionless shrug. “The thing to remember is that a skinwalker is still a mage, just a really psycho one. It takes time for them to learn these things, and most of their power comes from learning, from knowing things and studying things. The older they get, the stronger they are. And they don’t age, either; they absorb life energy when they kill, sort of like a vampire.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered. “I’m guessing the really old ones have several thousand years of experience, right?”


“Yup. Don’t worry, though, it isn’t likely you’ll run into one of those. I don’t know why, but the Conclave really hates skinwalkers, and the Council isn’t much better. They actually managed to get along long enough to do a purge around a thousand years ago, and practically wiped them out. That’s why they allied with the Pack, actually; no one else would have them, and they needed some kind of backup or they were going to be eradicated.”


“Why would the Pack want anything to do with them?”


Legion made an interested noise. “You know, I’m not actually sure about that. I was working with a necromancer in Russia at the time—he did some really fascinating work, I’ll have to tell you about it sometime—and by the time he paid any attention at all it was a done deal. They must have gotten something out of it, because no one would help a skinwalker otherwise, but I don’t know what it might have been.”


I grunted. Another mystery to look into, then. “So, assuming they aren’t one of the ancient ones that survived the purge, how scary are we talking? Ballpark.”


Legion not-shrugged again. “More than you. Not as much as a god. A true skinwalker has all the power of a witch with at least thirty or forty years of experience and no limits. They’re good at various curses. Most of ’em have a fair amount of skill with blood magic, necromancy—you know, the usual ‘evil witch’ repertoire. You do the math. The actual shapeshifting isn’t really that great, combat-wise. It’s the magic you’ve gotta worry about.”


I groaned. Wonderful. I’d gone up against witches a few times before. I’d had werewolves, the Inquisition, Aiko, and Snowflake backing me up, and the witches hadn’t even been fighting seriously, and they still thrashed me soundly. Every time I’d encountered one in anything like a fair fight, straight-up, I lost fast and hard. It wasn’t even a contest.


And I was pretty sure neither of them had been anywhere near skinwalker-scary. Let Legion say shapeshifting wasn’t a threat; I’d seen shapeshifters go at it before. They dished out a serious beating, and that was with only one alternate form and no other witchery backing it up. A polar bear with no fear of humanity was a serious opponent, easily a match for several unarmed people. Add in humanlike intelligence, and a shapeshifter could potentially represent a real danger to armed humans, or a werewolf in fur.


A skinwalker would be worse. Lots worse.


There wasn’t a lot I could do about that, though. So I pushed aside the thought of how insanely dumb I must be to voluntarily tangle with this nut, and set to preparing for it as best I could instead. I made a stored spell, with Legion’s guidance. Like everything produced with his methods, it was unstable, humming faintly with the energies coursing through it. They were stronger than I could manage with a comparable amount of effort using the techniques Alexander had shown me, but the shelf life was just a few days, which is why I didn’t really use them very often.


Of course, in this case, that wasn’t a bug, it was a feature. Besides which, this one would probably last longer than most. It was a lot more in line with my natural talents than most of the things I made, and that helped a whole lot.


That done, I sent Legion back into dormancy, and went upstairs.


I found Aiko and Snowflake easily enough, in the library on the second floor. It was a smallish room, which in this context means merely large enough to be a perfectly adequate, even comfortable enclosure for, say, a wolf. I’m not exaggerating, either; I measured it once, just for kicks, and it was a little under half an acre. And it was still on the small side, as far as rooms in that house went. Our bedroom was easily five times that size, probably more.


The library was still one of my favorite rooms, though. It wasn’t anything like the Keepers’ archives, but it still had a few thousand feet of shelf space, of which I’d filled relatively little. There were all kinds of bookshelves, ranging from lovely ebony built-ins to freestanding shelves tall enough to justify the rolling ladder. There were even a couple of heavy, glass-doored cabinets for the display of particularly valued works—or, in the case of the one with heavy-gauge wire screens, bulletproof glass, multiple locks, and heavy-duty built-in warding spells, particularly dangerous ones. That one had my handful of texts on magic, supernatural politics, and unexpurgated histories. I had one of the keys. Aiko had the other.


I considered it one of my better tricks. You see, if you have a cabinet full of dangerous, invaluable books, one complete with extremely serious protections, people expect you to keep the key on your person at all times, so I did. With luck, they would work so hard trying to steal it, it would never even occur to them that for a key to even exist would be an unacceptable security breach. I’d destroyed the real key almost immediately after moving into the house. The only way through those locks was to pick them. And they were very, very difficult to pick.


The only other display case I’d moved anything into was filled with philosophical and religious works. I had a lot of them. I’d always been fascinated with mythology—it started with trying to figure out the identity of my father, a process I’d only partially succeeded at, and grew into a near-obsession—and once Loki implied that the Poetic Edda was at least slightly accurate, I figured it would be smart to make a point of studying such sources more closely. Thus, in addition to more mainstream religious texts, I had both Eddas, a number of sagas, all four of the major Irish cycles, the Kalevala, the Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Theogony, the Popol Vuh, the Kojiki, the Tao Te Ching and the I Ching, the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Enuma Elish, the Book of Coming Forth by Day, and the Principia Discordia, and I’d read every one of them. Fenris had replaced my original heavily battered collection of used books with a matched set bound in black leather with gold-leaf lettering. The result was visually striking, to say the least.


Aiko, being Aiko, had duct-taped a paper sign to the front. It read, in large block letters, IN CASE OF APOCALYPSE BREAK GLASS.


At the moment, she was sitting in an overstuffed armchair next to the fireplace, which cast a circle of cheerily flickering light against the relative dimness of the room, tinting Snowflake’s fur an eerie red. Aiko was reading a Calvin and Hobbes compilation, and occasionally reached down to turn the page in Snowflake’s book of German fairy tales. “Hey,” she said as I walked in, not looking up from her book. “Feeling better?”


“Not really, no,” I said cheerfully. “But marginally less psychotic, and significantly calmer and more logical.”


“Hardly counts as improvement, I’d say.”


“Well, duh,” I said, at the same time as Snowflake. “I do have a meeting lined up just after dusk, though.” I glanced at the clock, a mahogany work of art with a swinging pendulum that invariably made me think of Poe, and confirmed that I had a few minutes before I had to leave in order to arrive a half an hour or so early.


“You going through with that plan to sell your soul to my cousins?” Aiko asked me. Her voice was light, and she still didn’t look up from her book. I was not fooled.


I smiled cryptically. “Not exactly,” I said in my best mysterious voice—which, for the record, isn’t very good.


She rolled her eyes. “Fine, be that way. I’m guessing you want your thug back?”


I shrugged. “If she’d like to come. I need to talk to Alexis, too. I don’t suppose you know where I might find her?”


“In the kitchen,” Aiko said, while Snowflake stood and stretched. “Your cousin has a fascination with food preparation that makes me look well-adjusted. Especially given that she’s vegetarian.”


“It disturbs me too. Thanks. I’ll see you later.”


I went downstairs and did, indeed, find Alexis in the kitchen, where she was doing inexplicable things to a bunch of arugula, and possible violating the Geneva Conventions with how she was treating the celery. “Good afternoon,” I said to her.


She glanced at my face and then quickly away, her posture almost fearful. “Hi, Winter,” she said, setting the knife down.


“I’ve got to go to another meeting,” I said. “And, trust me, you really don’t want to be there. I do have something for you, though.” I held out a fine silver chain, holding it gingerly through the fabric of my cloak.


She took it and examined the pendant on it, a piece of glass that most people would assume was only seeming to glow a shade of green somewhere between grass and Gatorade, wrapped in brass wire. “What is it?” she asked curiously.


“I’ve never done anything quite like this before,” I said honestly. “But I’m not terrible at that sort of thing, and the theory is sound. It should provide a certain amount of protection if you wear it.”


She seemed to accept that explanation, and put the necklace on. I smiled. “Okay,” I said. “I’ll see you later. Come on, Snowflake, we’ve gotta get dressed for this.”


For the second time in as many days, I strode—not walked, mind you, but strode, which is much harder—into Pryce’s and made my way over to the bar. I did not speak to anyone on the way, and no one tried to speak to me. In fact, more than a few people drew back when I passed near, and a handful got up and walked out. I smiled inwardly, being careful not to let the faintest trace show on my face. If their reaction was anything to go by, I’d gotten the look right.


Pryce himself, of course, wasn’t intimidated. I wasn’t surprised. The only time I’d seen the big guy look shaken was when the Fenris Wolf himself walked in in a bad mood, and I wasn’t anywhere near that scary. He didn’t say anything either, being a man not much inclined to small talk—or any other kind of talk, really. He just twitched his head in what might, with enough generosity, be called a nod. A moment later a waitress—fae of some sort by the smell, but otherwise unidentifiable—came and led me to the private room. She, too, was silent.


I could have found my own way, obviously—I mean, sheesh, it had just been last night—but it was just as obvious that wasn’t how it worked, and I was willing to go along with it. I, like pretty much everyone else, held Pryce in great respect.


For once, I was the first one to arrive. I made my way to the head of the long oak conference table. I sat down, being careful not to entangle Tyrfing in the chair—it actually takes a lot of coordination and practice to wear a sword on your belt without knocking stuff over and tangling in things. I arranged my cloak so that it would frame the armor without doing the least to conceal it, or the various weapons I was carrying. Snowflake, wearing her collar and a black silk eyepatch without any form of marking on it, sat on the floor just to my right and looked serious. I checked that everything was in place, and we settled in to wait.


It was a pretty long wait. We’d arrived almost thirty minutes early, so as to be sure of being the first ones there. I can be patient when necessary, though, and Snowflake amused herself with making up filthy limericks in a number of languages.


The first person to arrive was Katrin, about five minutes early—which meant only ten minutes past sunset. I’d suspected she would show up early, which was why I had set this up so soon after dusk. Early bird or not, a vampire couldn’t be there before me if I came while it was still daytime.


She’d brought flunkies with her, as I suggested, two of them. The first was a short woman looking like she was barely out of her teens, with brown hair and a face most people would automatically classify as “cute.” The other was a man going for the classic Dracula look: tall, slender, very pale with jet black hair, dressed all in black. He was even wearing an opera cloak. Seriously. Granted, I’m not in much of a position to throw stones, considering that I was also wearing a blackish grey cloak, but still.


They were both vampires, of course. Even if I couldn’t have guessed that, which I could and had, I could smell it on them. They were also clearly minions, though; they both hung back around the door while Katrin walked over and talked to me. For once, she wasn’t wearing modern casual clothing, having opted instead for velvet and silk, including a black velvet doublet, because apparently someone had gotten the “diplomatic meeting” message mixed up with “Renaissance Fair.”


“I’m here,” she said to me. Her posture was relaxed, hands hanging casually at her sides, but there was a touch of anger to her voice. Or maybe annoyance would be the better word for it; I’m not sure. “What’s this about?”


“I’d rather not explain it twice,” I said, half-apologetically. “So, if you wouldn’t mind waiting for the others to arrive….”


She scowled, and there was a trace of true anger to the expression that made me wonder how long it had been since someone offered even that much defiance to her. This was a side of the vampire I hadn’t seen before, one which reminded me why I hadn’t gone to any lengths to spend time around vampires in the past. But she nodded tightly and stalked over to a chair about halfway down the table, leaving plenty of space between us. The vampirettes followed her, taking seats on either side of hers. None of the three was visibly armed, but given that they were vampires that probably didn’t mean very much. At all.


The room had been silent before, but it was an entirely different sort of silence that settled over it now, an oppressive sort. The vampires were utterly still—not person still, or even frightened-rabbit still. They were statue still. Corpse still. They didn’t twitch, or blink, or breathe.


Gosh, that wasn’t creepy at all.


Maybe three minutes later, Kimiko opened the door. She was wearing biker leathers again, although these moved with a sort of stiffness that made me suspect they were reinforced with some sort of armor. She was followed by, presumably, the yokai contingent.


There were four of them, and it wasn’t hard at all to tell what each of them was. Kimiko, obviously, was the kitsune representative. The man following her was more hirsute than anyone I could remember seeing before. His beard covered most of his face and the upper portion of his chest, his mustache stretched from cheek to cheek, and even his eyebrows were so aggressively bushy as to cast his eyes in shadow. He was huge, towering over her, with a large belly that didn’t look like fat, and also dressed like a biker. It looked more appropriate on him. He smelled somewhat similar, too, fur and musk and a hint of citrus, although his magic was deeper, less playful in nature. That made him the tanuki.


The next through was in the form of an old man with a pinched, sour expression. He was bald, and his scalp gleamed so brightly I wondered if he oiled it. His eyes were grey and cold, and before I’d met so very many scary beings I probably would have shivered when I met them. His clothing was of a loose, simple style I didn’t recognize, the pale tan of cotton that hadn’t been dyed. He smelled wet, like slow-moving water and rice paddies, and just a hint fishy, and I immediately pegged him as the chief kappa.


The fourth person, then, had to be Kikuchi Kazuhiro, the tengu who would be chief. He was smaller than I’d expected—an inch or two shorter than me, and I’m not a tall guy. He was fairly slight of build, too, almost effeminate. He moved with the precise grace and confidence of someone who could handle himself in a fight, though, and he was wearing armor much like mine, complete with a wakizashi on his belt. I went through pretty much the same deal with him as with Katrin, enlivened slightly by the fact that we hadn’t met before. He didn’t like it much either, but eventually I convinced him to wait too. He sat a little further away than, and across the table from, the vampires, flanked by his chief minions, and the two groups proceeded to ignore each other studiously. The yokai, too, didn’t make any kind of conversation among themselves, although at least they breathed.


Sojobo walked in less than a minute later. He looked the same as when I’d spoken to him earlier in the day, although somewhat more composed. He nodded to me, nodded to Kazuhiro, and took a seat midway between us. The yokai reacted to that with varying degrees of surprise. Only the kappa didn’t so much as blink. But then, that didn’t much surprise me. He didn’t seem the sort to give anything away.


We all sat and waited, in silence. And waited. And waited. It was nearly three minutes past the scheduled time when Reynard sauntered in like he owned the place, wearing a black Robin Hood hat with a jaunty scarlet feather. He yawned deeply and then slouched into the chair opposite Sojobo, who nodded again, politely. “What’s everyone waiting for?” he asked with a sprightly grin. It was the sort of smirk the fox shoots the farmer on the way out of the henhouse, with blood already on his teeth.


I cleared my throat, drawing their attention back to me. “I think,” I said, eyeing the tension in the room, the way Katrin’s weight was centered over her feet and ready to rise, the way Kikuchi’s hand didn’t stray far from his sword, “that it might be more productive if we all agreed to a truce. Does the duration of this conversation and twenty minutes afterward sound good?” There was a chorus of nods and murmured agreement, and I nodded firmly. “Very well, then. I shall cause no harm to any of you gathered, nor permit harm to occur if it is within my ability to stop, save only in self-defense, for that time.”


Everyone else—including Reynard, which I hadn’t been sure about—swore more or less the same oath. I relaxed a bit once they had, and I wasn’t the only one; oaths were solid currency in the supernatural world, and you’d be a fool to break your word, doubly so if sworn in front of your most powerful retainers. Triply, with people such as Reynard and Sojobo there to guarantee it—which had, of course, been the whole point of asking them to come. (I could, of course, have called Loki, and he probably would have come. But I wasn’t that desperate.) “Wonderful,” I said. “Now—”


The tanuki cleared his throat loudly, cutting me off. “My apologies,” he said. “But your hound has not sworn any oath.” His voice was very polite, and I got the impression he actually did regret the necessity of interrupting me.


I tried to mimic that courtesy when I spoke. “Forgive me,” I said. “So few understand her, I forgot it completely. Thank you for reminding me.” I glanced at Snowflake, who sighed but repeated the oath. “Will that suffice?” I asked the tanuki.


He narrowed his eyes, and I got the impression he was trying to decide whether or not he was being mocked. “Quite so,” he said. “And you are forgiven, of course.”


“Thank you,” I said. “Now, I believe a round of introductions is in order?”


I think that Kikuchi would have protested my assumption of authority, except that Sojobo spoke before he could. “An excellent idea,” the ancient tengu said. “If there are no objections, I will begin.” No one spoke up, so he continued, “I am Sojobo, dai-tengu of Mount Kurama, and lord of my people. I am the eldest of my kind, and the strongest.” He said it plain, no trace of bravado in his voice. It was simply a statement of fact.


“I am Kazuhiro, of the clan Kikuchi. I am a tengu of three centuries, and the leader of my people in this place. I am a knight of the Order of the Serpent, and an honored servant of the Lord Sojobo, and soon I will be the first dai-tengu on this continent.”


“I am Matsuda Kimiko, one-tailed kitsune, the daughter of Matsuda Yasunori. I am Kikuchi Kazuhiro’s chief lieutenant in this city.”


“Kenichi,” said the kappa. His voice was much like the rest of him—colorless, watery, flat, but with the suggestion that dismissing him would be a most unwise thing to do. “Master of the Yellow River. Kappa.”


“Miyazaki Kenta,” rumbled the tanuki. He sounded amused, and was slouched in his seat in a posture reminiscent of a movie-goer. “Tanuki. I’m the birdbrain’s thug.”


Kikuchi glared at him. I had to restrain a smile. Reynard didn’t bother, and Snowflake chuckled in the back of my mind.


“I am called Katrin Fleischer.” For the first time, Katrin sounded exactly like what she was: an old, terrible monster, returned to existence by powers I wasn’t prepared to contemplate and kept there, in that state of undeath which was itself a mockery of nature as I understood it, by actions I wasn’t prepared to consider. Her raspy voice was lifeless, utterly devoid of any feeling I could recognize, except perhaps a cold, dry mockery. She and her minions were still unmoving, unblinking, not even breathing except to talk, and I found it an unexpectedly creepy tableau. “I am a vampire of significantly more than three centuries and the young of this city answer to me. More than that you need not know.”


The next to speak was the male vampire. His voice was, much like the rest of him, so stereotypically vampiric that he would never have to worry about dressing up for Hallowe’en: smooth, dark, cultured, just a touch of a vaguely guttural accent. I imagined that, between the voice and the looks, he wouldn’t have to work hard to find victims; he could just walk down the street, and teenage girls would faint across his path. “Hrafn Gunnarsson is my name,” he said simply. “I am a soldier. That is all.”


Well, I had to give him credit for brevity.


“Natalie Sullivan,” said the third vamp in a voice not nearly as drama-laden as the others’. “I’m a lawyer.” She smiled winningly. “Don’t worry, I’ve heard all the jokes before.” I found the third vampire, in many ways, to be the creepiest. Oh, don’t get me wrong; Katrin and Hrafn were both plenty spooky. But they were spooky in ways I understood, ways I could quantify and explain. Natalie wasn’t nearly as overtly frightening as the other two, but there was something subtly unsettling about her. It was like, where her compatriots flaunted what they were, she was trying to act human—and getting it ever so slightly wrong, like she couldn’t quite remember just what it was she was trying to mimic. The contrast between the bland, pleasant features and that underlying inhumanity set my teeth on edge.


Besides. She was a lawyer.


Reynard yawned. “Reynard Fox,” he said in a bored tone. Kenichi blinked his watery eyes, once. Hrafn and Kimiko both looked at Reynard with new interest. “I expect you know what that means.”


It was rather sketchy as introductions went, but no one complained. Presumably they all knew who he was already.


Now, those were some fairly impressive introductions. You might be thinking I couldn’t compete, and you would be correct. I was almost certain that, with the exception of Kimiko, I was the weakest and most inexperienced person in this room, and everybody knew it. Hell, even the kitsune was older than I was. She was younger than Aiko, but if she really did have that much to prove to herself, she might well have driven herself harder, too.


But I didn’t want them to know it, not for sure. Reynard had probably heard about me from Fenris, but the rest couldn’t be certain that I wasn’t more than I seemed. So I wanted to sound more impressive than I really was. So I modified my introduction to Skrýmir’s court slightly and used that, because it sounded terribly important without actually providing any information worth noting.


Snowflake spoiled the effect slightly by saying, Hi, I’m Snowflake. I follow this nitwit around and occasionally he lets me kill something. I’m sort of like a dog, except not really, and why am I bothering with this?


That, too, was a calculated gesture, and valuable. Miyazaki. Reynard’s smile broadened. Hrafn glanced at me as though expecting me to respond in some manner. The rest failed to react at all, meaning that either they had incredible poker faces—not unlikely—or they hadn’t heard her. Not immediately useful information, but it might be worth having at some point.


I leaned forward slightly. Those who had heard Snowflake would see this as me taking the floor again; those who hadn’t would assume I had just paused slightly, and wanted to emphasize what I said next. Both were valid interpretations. “I am a peer among the jötnar, declared so by Hrym’s own word, made jarl by no less a person than Fenrisúlfr himself, announced as such before Skrýmir and both Courts of the Sidhe. Are there any present who would like to contest that claim?”


Nobody said anything.


I nodded slightly. “Excellent. Now, as you all have some interest in what happens in this city, I felt I should let you know that I am claiming it as my jarldom.”


There was a moment of shocked silence, which was broken by Reynard’s laughter. He laughed long and hard, tears streaming down his face. “Good gods, boy,” he said, still laughing. “You’ve got a damned heavy pair on you, don’t you?” I noticed that he’d ditched the French accent; no one could have guessed from his voice that he was anything other than a perfectly ordinary college student.


“Your courage is not in doubt,” Kikuchi said. “But I have to question your judgment. You cannot truly believe yourself capable of defeating me, let alone all the other contenders in the field.”


I looked him in the eye, and spoke my next words to him personally. “Who does this fighting help, honored dai-tengu? Does it benefit you to throw away resources and lives? Does it profit any of us present to do so?” I shook my head. “No.”


“I am no coward,” the tengu said stiffly. “And your words will not sway me from the path of honor.”


“Nor should they,” I agreed. “But tell me, wise elder. Is it the honorable way to sacrifice needlessly? To fight without thought, without meaning, without end?”


He didn’t say anything, but I got the definite feeling that my words had left an impression.


“I don’t think this fight is necessary,” I said, looking around the table. “And I’ve damned well had enough of unnecessary fighting. I think that we can negotiate a peaceful solution.”


“I notice,” Katrin said in a voice which, although still rather dry, at least didn’t sound like it was being spoken by a corpse, “that you didn’t invite the rakshasas to your little summit. Or this skinwalker I’ve been hearing about.”


“The rakshasas,” I said bitingly, “bombed an apartment complex trying to kill one person. The skinwalker is currently holding a friend of mine hostage against my good behavior. I have little use for people like that.”


Hrafn frowned. “This hardly seems like good behavior,” he said. “Won’t that be dangerous for your friend?” There was something in his voice—concern, maybe, or perhaps just disappointment—which sounded honest. It made me like him more.


“I’ve never interacted with a skinwalker before,” I said honestly. “But from what I know of them, I doubt she would fare much better if I were to do whatever he asks.”


Reynard cleared his throat. “Actually, I’m afraid it’s rather worse than that. I have had dealings with skinwalkers, and I expect she will suffer more for your compliance than if you deny him.”


I inclined my head towards him slightly. “As you say, then. In any case, this represents my best chance to rescue her, or failing that get revenge upon him.” I shook my head. “I do not abandon my friends, if that is what you are asking. But it will do no good to react rashly and without thought.”


The kappa—Kenichi was his name, or at least what he wanted us to call him at the moment—narrowed his eyes and nodded slightly. I got the impression I’d just earned some points with him.


“So,” I said briskly. “You all are aware now that I have a personal motivation here, as well as more general ethical and political reasons for my actions. Let’s get down to it. What do you want?”


Katrin cleared her throat softly. “I do not particularly desire political power or recognition,” she said in a mild tone. “I have coexisted with werewolves frequently, for many years. I see no reason I could not stand in the same relationship with you.”


I nodded respectfully and turned to Kikuchi. “And you, honored dai-tengu? What do you desire?”


“The mountain is ours,” he said firmly. “That is nonnegotiable.”


“That’s fine,” I said easily. “I’m really more interested in the city itself, anyway. Would it be acceptable for the road, the cog railway, the trail, and the buildings at the summit to be neutral ground?”


He frowned. “Not neutral ground, no. It must be ours. But safe passage, that is acceptable.”


“It would mean a great many people passing through your lands,” I warned. “I expect you to leave them in peace.”


“Within those areas, yes,” he agreed. “And elsewhere, folk who come in peace have nothing to fear. But those who seek to harm the mountain—” Kikuchi frowned severely, his black eyes glittering—”that is not acceptable.”


I sighed, but nodded. “Not unreasonable, I suppose,” I said. “That makes it my turn, then. Within the bounds of the city, I would be preeminent. You would agree to come to me with any disputes you have with me or those who owe me fealty. I won’t act against you except in defense of self, vassals, or property, and will tolerate your presence within my territory. In return, you would agree to provide reasonable assistance in defending the area against intruders, and would not act to harm any personal friend of mine. Is that acceptable to you?”


“Come now,” Katrin said. “Under those restrictions, you could simply declare every inhabitant of this city your friend. I must needs feed, Jarl Wolf. I am, after all, still a vampire.” She ladled more scorn into my quasi-title than I would have believed possible.


“There are, what? Fifty of your kind in this city?”


She glowered at me. “Fewer,” she admitted.


I nodded, carefully keeping my face reasonable. “Let us use fifty in our estimates, then, to be generous. Five human chattel is enough to sustain a vampire, is it not?” Katrin nodded, her glower deepening. “We’ll call it ten, then, that you might live in comfort and security. That would give you a requirement of five hundred people for your stables, combined.” I grinned at her. “Last I checked, there were more than four hundred thousand people living in this city, not counting outlying areas. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve met that many people in my life, let alone formed lasting friendships with them. You should be all right.”


“Fine,” Katrin said, biting the word off.


“As wonderful as all this peaceful negotiation is,” Miyazaki said dryly, “I can’t help but think it’s a tempting fate to be settling the peace before the war is won.”


“And thank you for that masterful segue to the next topic of discussion,” I said. “Assuming everyone is satisfied with the agreement we’ve outlined verbally?”


Kikuchi nodded after only a brief pause. Katrin was slower, and more reluctant, but she did nod, and I was calling that a success.


“Excellent,” I said. “So. You’ve been competing with the rakshasas for some time now, and given that you aren’t dead I imagine you’ve done fairly well at it. Given that the skinwalker has so far been playing a subtle game, more inclined to scavenging and opportunism than outright assault, I assume he can’t be in much stronger of a position than they are. Both of your groups together should be capable of overcoming them. Additionally, I will be assisting, and while I am—as the respected dai-tengu said—no great power, I think it’s fair to say that I will contribute something myself. Do any of you disagree with that assessment?”


Had there been crickets available to chirp, it would not have made the silence any more telling.


“Good. As our ability to deal appropriately with our enemies is dependent upon first finding them, I would recommend that you pool your information—I, unfortunately, have little or nothing of value to add, I suspect. But if you find a target, just let me know. I’ll be happy to help you terminate them with quite extreme prejudice.”


“You will be bringing my cousin with you, then?” Kimiko asked. “She’d rather have her nails torn out than miss a fight like this, unless she’s changed more than I can imagine.”


“She would,” I agreed. “Unfortunately, at this time Aiko is restricted to the Otherside, and I doubt the fight will take place there. So probably not.”


“What, still?” Kimiko sounded incredulous.


I shrugged. “It hasn’t been that long since the sentence was passed.”


Sojobo growled something I couldn’t quite hear. “That is ridiculous,” he said grimly. “I’ll be having words with the nine-tails.”


“In that case,” I said, “she will probably be there. She hasn’t gotten to take part in a battle for quite some time. It makes her grouchy.”


Sojobo grunted with something that might have been amusement, then stood up and left. Kikuchi and Katrin followed, accompanied by their respective flocks of henchmen, presumably to go set their underlings, lackeys, and minions to the appropriate tasks. The two groups kept a cautious distance between them, but I was hopeful that there was at least a little less tension than when they came in.


That left just Reynard, still sitting in his chair. He was sipping from a goblet of what smelled like red wine, although I had no idea where he’d gotten it from. “You pushed them pretty hard,” he said, his voice almost contemplative. “There will be a price.”


“There always is,” I said calmly. “This way, there’s a decent chance it will be me paying it.” He grunted noncommittally and drank some more wine. “You didn’t have much input tonight,” I said, making sure not to sound even slightly accusatory.


“Isn’t that what you wanted?” he asked curiously. “Your message said you just wanted me here as a witness.”


“Well, sure. But since when does Reynard Fox do exactly what he’s asked, and nothing more?”


He laughed. “True, true. But I didn’t really have a great deal to add, in any case.” He shrugged. “Sooth, if anything I would soonest have you in power, of those available. You are of my dear friend’s line, you feed my kin, and you made me laugh. That’s three ways I owe you, and this was no great payment.”


“Will you be joining us in battle, then?”


“Likely not. Honestly, open combat has never been a great strength of mine.”


“You beat Ysengrim in a fair duel,” I pointed out.


Reynard smirked. “I hardly think pissing in someone’s eyes and wrenching their testicles counts as a fair dueling tactic, do you?” He shook his head. “If I beat the wolf—and I’m not saying I did; really, you shouldn’t trust everything you read—it was by cheating.”


I stared, then made a show of cleaning out my ears. “Sorry,” I said. “For a second there, I almost thought you might be implying I had any intention of fighting fair.” He chuckled, but I kept my face deadly serious. “I’ve never pissed in my tail and slapped someone about the face with it to blind them,” I admitted. “But only because the opportunity never seems to present itself. If I have a chance to do that, or some even less sporting tactic, in this fight, you can bet your ass I’m going to take it. These people don’t deserve to die honorably, and in any case I’ve never been fond of a fair fight.”


“We’ll see,” he said. “I must think on it.” He stood, draining the wine, and tossed the empty goblet over his shoulder to shatter in the fireplace. “Good evening, Winter,” Reynard said, tipping his hat to me. “And watch yourself. You think you know what cost this night will exact, but I tell you truth that you have no knowledge of just how high a price can run.” He walked out without another word. If I hadn’t been watching so very closely, I never would have realized that he didn’t actually open the door.

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Balancing Act 6.10

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The next thing I was aware of was pain. It felt like a giant with a slingshot had been using my head for target practice. I was additionally more nauseous than I had ever in my life experienced, and my mouth tasted like seven generations of rodents had lived and died in it.


I thrashed my way out of the blankets and flopped onto the floor, although it was a heroic effort. Crawling to the bathroom was harder than conquering a small continent. I managed to make it to the toilet and threw up my toenails before curling up on the floor and whimpering. I stayed there and waited for the world to stop spinning. I noticed, in the tiny portion of my mind not currently dedicated to tracking my own suffering, that I was not only at home, I was naked, and had no idea how either of those conditions came about.


Serves you right, Snowflake said lightly, not stirring from her place on the bed. How many drinks did you have, anyway? You were both pretty well smashed when you got back.


I have no idea, I said after a moment of thought. There was quite a lot of mead involved, though. How did we get back here, anyway?


Through a portal, just like usual. You and Aiko staggered in arm-in-arm around dawn carrying a bottle of rum and a rubber chicken. I’m not entirely sure how you managed the stairs, actually; presumably you were swaying in opposite directions, and it balanced out. Then you had sex, which is actually fairly impressive considering how poor your dexterity and muscular coordination were, collapsed into bed, and crashed for almost ten hours.


I groaned—well, I was already groaning, but it gained new tones of woe. Oh gods. This is why I don’t drink.


I thought that was to avoid the hangover.


Well, yes, that too. This was the second I’d ever had—well, I suppose third technically, but the time I got hammered on one swallow of Fenris’s mead the pain had been more because of my recent crucifixion—and I would be ecstatic if it was also the last.


Something occurred to me. What time did you say it was?


Almost five in the evening. Why?


Shit. I stood up, trying to ignore the way it made my head swim. I’m supposed to meet the vampire at dusk.


Better get a shower then, don’t you think?


No shit, Sherlock, I said sourly, climbing into the shower. I turned it on very, very cold—by my standards, I mean, which means just above freezing. It wasn’t very comfortable, which made it exactly what I needed right then. I threw up again meanwhile, but by the time I was finished showering I felt much better—or, at least, capable of ambulation and vocal communication. Barely.


I dressed hastily, somewhere between last night’s costume and everyday wear, including my foci. I also had my Bowie knife and pistol on my belt, quite openly. If Katrin got upset by that when there was quite literally a war on, she could find some other schmuck to do her dirty work.


I hastily let Alexis know that we were still alive on my way out—I didn’t have time for anything more. Aiko was still out cold, and I wasn’t taking Snowflake on this trip. It was better, I thought, that she not show up on the vampire’s radar more than absolutely necessary. I could tell she didn’t like vampires any more than I did, because for once she didn’t argue with me.


I jogged, unhappily, to Pryce’s, and just barely made it in time to be considered dusk. By some standards, at any rate. I walked in the door and straight over to the bar. “Private room?” I said to Pryce, who nodded and gestured shortly. One of his staff, a sour-dispositioned man who moved with a fluidity entirely at odds with his elderly appearance, led me down a few back hallways to an unmarked oak door.


Pryce’s private meeting room was nice. The carpet was thick and spotlessly clean. I knew it was spotlessly clean, because it was also spotlessly black, and black carpet shows everything. The furniture was very high quality, handmade with lots of oak and mahogany and no pine to be seen anywhere. The fireplace, which was big enough to roast a cow whole, held a massive blaze. Like the other time I’d been here, I thought that the pennants hanging from the rafters gave the place an oddly medieval feel.


I knew a bit more now than I had then, though. Before, the only one I had recognized was the Pack’s stylized wolf’s-face in black on grey. Now I knew that the nine-pointed white star on a black background was the Conclave’s symbol. The Twilight Court was represented by a sunset (it could just as easily have been rising, but somehow I always thought of it as a sunset), more a matter of lines and suggestion than picture, in scarlet on green. The Vampires’ Council’s flag was azure, charged with a black dagger.


There were still plenty I didn’t get, though. I had no idea what the cross-and-dragon was representative of, for example, or the crossed keys, or the three interlocked triangles in red, green, and blue on black. Given the context, though, I was reasonably confident they were important people. I should probably look into that.


“Rather petty to avoid looking at me, don’t you think?” Katrin sounded amused.


“You’ll have to forgive me,” I said, doing so. She looked no different, of course; vampires, like most preternatural beings, are not troubled by the passage of time, at least not on the outside. She was tall and slender, and somehow hungry-looking despite full cheeks and chest, with ash-blond hair and sky-blue eyes. “It’s been a long few days.”


“You do look rather peaked,” she said with mock concern. “Should you sit down?”


I growled, but took the seat across from her. “Damned faerie booze,” I muttered. “What do you want?”


She sighed. “And here we were doing so well at being polite,” she said, an edge of laughter only thinly veiled in her voice.


“I’ve been informed that I look peaked,” I said dryly. “And I know for a fact I’ve got a lot on my plate, so how about for tonight we settle for businesslike instead?”


She chuckled. “As you wish. I assume you’re aware of the rakshasa presence in the city?”


“Yup. I take it they’re the folks you want me to whack for you?”


“Quite so.”


I yawned, hugely and genuinely. “Well, it’s kind of you to be so blunt. I don’t suppose you could tell me why I should be inclined to do so? And don’t tell me you’d owe me one,” I said, forestalling her reply. “I’ve never been a hitman, and I can’t say the idea has much appeal. I’ve got favors owed already, and I can get more without resorting to violence.”


Her lips tightened, but other than that her pleasant mask remained firmly in place. “I assume you’ve heard about the bombing two nights ago?”


“Only very vaguely.”


She nodded, as though she’d expected as much. “I expected as much,” she said. “A kitsune had rented an apartment for the duration. They blew it up trying to kill her.”


“The apartment?”


“The apartment complex.


I blinked. “That seems a little like using a grenade to kill a spider.”


She smiled a little. “Not exactly. With the grenade you could at least expect to kill the target, whereas the kitsune was not even in the building at the time.” The humor faded from her face. “Unlike more than a hundred and fifty civilians who were killed by the blast.”


I suddenly felt less like laughing.


Her emotionless mask was firmly in place now, and she spoke with a cold, implacable ferocity. “Such a thing is not merely sloppy, it is inexcusable. It was the action of someone who kills for pleasure, nothing more. Such a clumsy, imprecise attack betrays an intolerable lack of discretion. It is beyond disgusting.” She paused, and visibly reined in her emotion. “Wolf, I know that we’ve not always seen eye-to-eye. You don’t think highly of me, and I know that. But believe me when I say that I would never engage in such a…gaudy display, and I have no taste for killing without reason or precision.”


I believed her.


“Where are they?” I asked.


“If I knew that,” she said sharply, “they would not be.”


I nodded. “Right, of course. Sorry. Look, I’m not any more kindly disposed to that sort of action than you are, but there’s not a lot I can do about locating them, and even less I can do without that information.”


“So you will help me?” she said, fastening on my lack of actual refusal like a leech.


“Maybe,” I hedged. “But I’ll be honest, I’ve got a lot going on right now. I don’t know that I’ll be able to help you. So let’s put it like this, I’m not opposed to the idea. If you find them, call me and we’ll see.”


She looked like she was going to argue with me for a moment, then nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that’s all I can ask. In the meantime, go get some rest; you look like you could use it. And Wolf?” she said as I turned to leave.




“Watch your back. These people are ruthless, and it won’t much matter to them whether you agree to help exterminate them or not. You’re a threat to their dominance over this area just by existing.”


I nodded, and did not thank her for the advice.


Less than three steps out the door, my phone rang. I glanced at it, and swore tiredly when I saw that it was Frishberg’s number. “What the hell do you want?” I snapped as I answered it.


“Get your ass to the morgue,” she growled, equally as brusque as me, and hung up.


I muttered under my breath, but I went. Fortunately my Jeep was more or less permanently in Pryce’s parking lot; that made it simpler.


Of course, it is indicative of the poor condition my brain was in that I didn’t realize that the last time I’d used the car, I’d left it out where I met Brick. Meaning that someone must have somehow arranged to have it brought back here, and I hadn’t even realized until well past the point at which they could have used that opportunity to cause me lethal harm.


I had to get my act together, before it got me killed.


There wasn’t a lot of purpose to worrying about it now, though. So I just grumbled some more and kept going. As before, Frishberg met me at the door. The pace of her work, which I somehow doubted had slowed, was beginning to tell. She looked worn, haggard, her eyes sunken. I was guessing she hadn’t slept or eaten in quite a while.


“You look like shit,” I said by way of greeting.


She snorted. “Yeah, well, you ain’t exactly pretty yourself. Come on.”


“What’s the problem?” I asked, following her into the building.


“Well, let me put it this way,” she said grimly. “When I said I wanted a change of pace, this was not what I had in mind.”


I winced. “Ah. I see.”


“I doubt it. You made any progress on those mystery corpses I showed you?”


I shrugged. “Minimal. I talked to a fairly reliable source who claimed it was the work of some latter-day witchhunter. She sounds like a real piece of work—ultra-rich, dedicated, and absolutely freaking psycho. He says she’s been pulling similar stunts for the better part of twenty years, worldwide. Why, have you found any more of them?”


“Yeah, four. Surrounded by a dozen bastards just cut to pieces, normal-style.” She glanced at me, and frowned. “But you already knew that.”


I didn’t bother denying it. “Well, yes.”


“You didn’t tell me,” she said coldly.


I shrugged. “Wouldn’t have done a lot of good. There was no evidence there you could use, and I knew you’d find it sooner or later.”


“That isn’t your call to make.”


“Was I wrong?”


She glared at me and did not answer. “In any case, that’s not why I called you. Hell, I only thought those were bad. If they were the worst thing I had to deal with I’d be frigging ecstatic. Instead, I’ve got this.” She drew me to a stop next to corpse sitting on an examination table. Even by the standards of corpses, this one smelled pretty awful, fetid and sour. Otherwise, though, it seemed almost bland, with no visible injuries.


“Okay,” I said after a moment, “I’ll bite. What happened?”


Sergeant Frishberg looked like she’d just smelled something bad. “I’ve got twenty eyewitnesses saying this guy was walking down the street in the middle of the day. He was wearing a hoodie, and a lot of people seemed to think he was a gang member or some shit, but he wasn’t doing anything aggressive, just minding his own business. Then he suddenly draws a knife and starts waving it in the air, screaming. A college student who was out shopping told me it sounded like Indian—from India, I mean, not American—but he didn’t have any idea what he was saying, says it was an archaic form.”


“I can’t imagine the tourists liked that,” I said dryly.


She snorted. “No, they did not. So anyway, after a second or two, he took off running down the street, still waving his knife around and screaming his head off. Then he just dropped to the ground. We bring him in here, and do you know what the medical examiner tells me?”


I shook my head. At this point, I couldn’t even guess.


“He drowned,” she spat. “Middle of the street. There wasn’t any water within a block of him. But when we cut him open, his lungs were fucking soaked.”


Well, that was nice. It had to be magic—or at least I couldn’t think of any other way for that to happen. If he shouted in Indian under stress, he was most likely a rakshasa, which meant he was most likely involved in the turf war, which meant that I could narrow down the suspects a little. It wasn’t de Sousa; she would have stabbed him, or more likely touched him with her Killing Stone, not offed him with wacky magic rituals. It wasn’t Katrin; even if it hadn’t occurred during the day, this was not her style. If she wanted someone dead, I got the impression that the police would never find the body, let alone have twenty witnesses to a bizarre and overt killing. That left another rakshasa killing him in an internal power struggle, the yokai, and the skinwalker. I wasn’t sure which prospect disturbed me most.


“I don’t think I can help you with this one,” I said after a moment’s thought. I was being honest, for once. I didn’t know anyone who could do this sort of thing; people with an affinity for water tend not to gravitate towards Colorado, after all. I like my city well enough, but it isn’t exactly coastal.




I shrugged. “I can tell you it was probably magic. That’s about it.”


She exhaled through her teeth. “Damn. Well, he’s not the only one I’ve got.”


I blinked. “He’s not?”


“Nope. The Asian guy’s missing a bunch of inch-wide strips of skin—doc said blood loss was probable cause of death, but he didn’t sound real confident. The chick has a broken rib through her lung, but there’s no sign of blunt impact or anything to say how it happened. And the Latino’s hair started growing the wrong direction, went straight through the skull and ripped his brain apart.”


“You’re shitting me.”


“I wish. Creepiest thing I’ve ever seen. Made the examiner sick, and I didn’t think that was even possible.”


Well, that was interesting. That many bizarre, probably magic-caused deaths in a short time definitely suggested things were heating up. More than that, it suggested that someone had wanted to be obvious. Why? Because it would intimidate their opponents? Because they thought the competitors would be reluctant to garner that much publicity, and back off? I couldn’t really say for sure. There were too many players whom it could have been, with too complex and obscure of motivations, and no way to say for sure which of them this had been. I did try to catch a whiff of whose magic it had been, but either they’d covered their tracks or the scent had faded. Probably both.


“I can’t help you,” I said to the sergeant. “I’m sorry, but there’s nothing here for me to work with.”


“Nothing?” she said testily.


I paused. “Well, almost nothing. I can tell you that this was meant to be seen. It’s…gang warfare, right? This,” I gestured at the corpse, “this is the equivalent of shooting up a restaurant in broad daylight. It’s big, flashy, obvious. Someone was sending a message to their competitors.”


“Gang war, eh?” she said thoughtfully. “I might be able to use that.”


“Don’t,” I said seriously. “This isn’t the work of ordinary gangs. They aren’t afraid of the police, you personally can’t do jack to them, and they can kill you easy as breathing.”


“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you cared.”


“Well, then, I guess it’s a good thing you do know better, right?” I grinned. “Look, sergeant, think of this as a professional courtesy. You’re good at what you do. I’d hate to see you die for no reason. Chase these people if you want, but watch your back, and don’t try to take them solo. If you manage to find them, call me. I’d be happy to help you deal with them.”


“Deal with them how?”


I thought of bombed apartment buildings, and smiled grimly. “You know, sergeant,” I said calmly, “I don’t think the good people of Colorado Springs should need to worry about these folks, when there’s so many other things going on right about now. Do you?” My smile spread, and she flinched a little and looked away. “As stressed as you are, mistakes are bound to happen. If they should get unlucky, why, I imagine they might run into an unfortunate accident while resisting arrest.”


She nodded slowly, and escorted me out.


I would have liked to go home, climb back into bed, and finish the process of recovering from the Sidhe party. Unfortunately, I had obligations to fulfill. Alexis was owed a talk.


My little errand with Frishberg had eaten some time, but not all that much, and I wasn’t surprised to find Alexis still awake. Snowflake, who was still upstairs, informed me that Aiko was awake, but—astonishingly—significantly worse for the wear than I was, and disinclined to move. I told her that was fine and that I would be up shortly to resume sleeping, then sat down in the sitting room with Alexis. “Congratulations!” I said. “You’re a blueblood.”


“I’m what?”


“A blueblood. Fairly high nobility, I think.”


She snorted. “Not hardly.”


“Actually, you are,” I said dryly. “Have you ever heard of the jötnar?”


“I don’t think so.”


“They’re frost giants,” I explained, “in Norse mythology. The Æsir—that’s the gods, Odin and his kin—were constantly at war with them. If you needed a bad guy, it was almost always a jotun. They usually came out on the losing side, but not always, and if you consider whom they were going up against that isn’t bad.”


“What’s that have to do with anything?”


“Well,” I said slowly, “not a whole lot. But you’re one of them! A quarter, at least.”


“Winter,” she said patiently, “you’re not making a lot of sense right now.”


“Right, sorry. It’s been a long day. Anyway, the story is our maternal grandfather was Björn One-Hand, son of Herjólf the Sharp, son of Njáll Half-Burned, son of Asolf the Unwashed, son of Hallgerda Manslayer, daughter of Egil the Black, son of Sinfjötli Longtooth, son of Signý the Bloody, daughter of Hljoth the Fair, daughter of Hrym the Mighty.” I thought it was fairly impressive I’d managed to remember the whole tally.


“I don’t know what that means.”


“Well, neither do I. I’m going to have to look into that, clearly, as soon as I have the time. But the important bit is that Hrym is big news—he’s either the king’s brother, or another king in his own right, I’m not entirely sure—which means that we’re both nine generations removed from jotun royalty.”


She stared at me. “Are you serious?”


“Absolutely. The even gave me an honorary barony—although I wouldn’t recommend presenting yourself to the court tomorrow and asking for one. I get the impression that the jötnar are old-school, which means that they value strength highest of pretty much anything, and you aren’t badass enough to impress them. No offense.”


“None taken, but…what does this mean, Winter?”


I shrugged. “Like I said, I’m still looking into it. But it explains a few things. It makes sense that even a quarter-jotun wouldn’t feel much cold.” I frowned. “Unless you’re less than that. In the Eddas Sinfjötli was only half, which probably means another jotun bred into the line at some point, or you wouldn’t have enough of it in you to notice.”


“What about you?” she said, only half joking.


“I’m a special case,” I said dryly, then paused. “Although, now that I think about it, Sinfjötli was also a werewolf—of some variety, at any rate, although in the saga he’s described as being born with the talent, which suggests a different mode of action than a true werewolf. That’s an interesting precedent, especially taking Fenris into account. I wonder whether there’s an interaction between that and—”


“I’m sorry, Winter, but you’re losing me.”


I shook my head briskly. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m a little fried, in case you didn’t notice that. That’s something I’m going to have to research later. For now, what’s important for you to know is this. You’re descended from jotun nobility, which means you might be able to get something out of them later on—they seemed really big on blood kinship. They’re also strong and cunning enough to seriously challenge the gods, which means really, really old. Given that you got enough of it to do some low-level magic, I’m guessing that sort of power will be enough to retard the aging process, if not stop it entirely.”


“Are you saying I’ll live forever?”


I snorted. “Forever? No. Nothing lasts forever. But I suspect you won’t age normally, which makes it quite possible that you will survive for a long time. Centuries, at least.” I took in her expression of shock and grinned. “That’s another thing we’ll have to talk about later. For now, I’m going to go get some more sleep. I just thought you should know this much.” I stood up and left.


The next day was the sort of thing nightmares are made of.


It started out reasonably well. I woke up just before dawn, as usual, and felt entirely recovered. Snowflake was bright-eyed, bushy tailed, and bored after a day of inactivity. Aiko, who drank about as frequently as I did and was significantly more susceptible to alcohol, was grim-faced and had a number of choice words on the subject, but had ceased to feel half-dead.


Snowflake and I got dressed, including our weaponry and armor, and left. I breathed a sigh of relief when there were no messages on my phone. The sunrise was lovely. We made it to Pryce’s without incident, and the gossip was hardly aflutter with news of recent developments. It was emptier than usual, and I suspected that many of the lesser flames of the supernatural world were in hiding or gone elsewhere until this storm blew over, but none of the people there had heard of any explosions or attacks or other drama in the past day or two. I was reasonably confident that that was good news.


We ate an excellent breakfast and left, and I was really thinking that things were looking up, when someone fell in beside us on the walk home. He was of average height, but slightly stocky, with pale skin, brown hair and eyes, and aquiline features. “Good morning,” he said in a pleasant but unremarkable voice.


I glared at him. “Do I know you?”


He smiled faintly. “We’ve not met, if that’s what you mean. I am Sojobo.”


“Ah. I’m Winter.”


“I know who you are, of course,” he said mildly. “Pleased to meet you.”


“And yourself, of course,” I said, and, belatedly, “good morning.”


His smile broadened, very slightly. “It is quite lovely, at that, though the afternoon will bring rain.” I had no reply to that, and we walked in silence for a time.


“I suppose you’re here to tell me to piss off and let your kin take over the city,” I said eventually, reluctantly. It seemed too pleasant a morning to ruin in this manner.


“Kazuhiro, you mean?” he said. “No. He’s an earnest young man, but I don’t know that he could or should hold this territory. He’s made his choices, and he will succeed or not on his own merits.”


“And yet,” I commented, “you must want something, or you would not be here. We are far from your mountain.”


He made a vaguely affirmative sound. “We all want something, don’t we? It is a failing, I think, that we seek to so exert our will upon the world. If there is one wisdom I have gained, it is that I am far too foolish to deserve to make such choices.”


“I have time for discussion,” I said after a moment. “Maybe even for banter. But I think I’m rather too busy at the moment for games, and almost always for discussions of philosophy.”


He laughed again. “Fairly spoken. I will be brief, then. You know, I think, that the one called de Sousa is here.” I nodded. “She will not stay long. It is her way. She comes, and does her bloody work, and then is gone. She is always in places of disturbance, where her victims will arouse no excitement. This city is unsettled, in chaos—her favorite sort of place, and why she has stayed so long, when it is her more normal practice to move on after only days, or even hours. But even so, she will not remain in this area much longer.”


“I cannot say I greatly regret that,” I admitted. “I don’t like having her around.”


He chuckled. “I cannot argue that point. However, it also means that she will soon be beyond your reach.”


I frowned. “That’s true. And I also can’t say that I’m happy just to let her go. I…don’t approve of her actions.”


Sojobo grunted quietly. “Good. You should not approve of such things.” He was silent for a few steps, then said, “The Keepers will want you to return the stone to them. Have, perhaps, asked such of you already.”


“That is true.”


“I would rather that you gave it to me instead.”


“Because they can’t keep it safely?”


“In part. In part. But no, that is not my true reason.” He frowned, and I got the impression that he was choosing his words carefully. When he did speak, they caught me entirely by surprise.


“I loved her, Winter. We had been together a thousand years, and neither of us anticipated that we should not be together a thousand years more. I loved her.” His voice was intense, his expression grim.


“What happened?”


“That spring, she told me she wanted to spend a year or two at court,” he said. He had lost something of the intensity; now, he just seemed bleak. “It was something she did, now and then. She loved deceiving all the courtiers, running circles around them, making them fight over her and then rejecting the victor. She made an art of it; she always said that humans were more amusing victims than her people or mine.”


“Sometimes I went with her, played the attentive and devoted samurai paying court to her. But that year was one of much turmoil among the tengu. There were battles to be fought, traitors to be uncovered—the usual fare. And she was a nine-tailed kitsune. She could take care of herself.”


“And she didn’t call you for help? Not even after she’d been unmasked?”


He stopped walking, and his fist tightened at his side. “She did. I was occupied, and could not attend to the more ordinary ways of messaging. The emergency couriers she sent were…intercepted. I knew nothing of her plight, and had anticipated that she would be at court for at least a year, perhaps two or more.” He sighed. “Tamamo was never fond of violence. I was not surprised that she had chosen to remain among the human court until it had passed. We had been in love for centuries; a few years of absence would not harm anything.”


Sojobo was silent for a long minute, and when he spoke again his voice was thick with emotion. “Five years,” he said. “Five long, bloody years. That’s how long it took me to settle matters and return home. I expected that she would have tired of the humans, and would be waiting for me. Do you know what I found instead?”


I was silent.


“Nothing!” he roared, the volume making a few pedestrians look askance in his direction. “I found nothing!” He visibly forced himself to calm down. “I found, years too late, the messages she had left for me—though it would take me years more to learn of the couriers she sent, who were waylaid. I loved her for a thousand years, but when it mattered most I failed her.”


I winced.


It was a long moment before he continued, and when he did his voice had gained a new tone, a deceptive and dangerous calm. I recognized it. There were a number of old werewolves I’d dealt with who, when they were really pissed, got that same calm, almost serene tone. People who didn’t know them were sometimes fooled into thinking that meant things were safe. People who did know them had a tendency to make themselves scarce at that point, or sometimes just scurry for cover.


“Her murderers had hidden their tracks well, but they did not anticipate that I would be alive, nor that I would dedicate myself to their destruction with such a wrath as to shake the earth. I hunted them down, over a period of decades, and found a cabal of yokai and humans, led by another dai-tengu. They thought that her death would break me, and leave room for them to take power.”


“I showed them wrong.”


“It has been nigh on a millennium since that day,” he said, still in that frighteningly calm voice. “My pain has not lessened with the passing of centuries. Since then, there has been no joy in my life. All lands are bleak and wasted to my eyes. All my thoughts are grim and drenched in blood; my heart lies fallow, and brings forth a crop of weeds and poison. I hear her laughter on the wind, and see her smile in my dreams, but these bring no surcease from the pain. Such things only serve to keep the agony fresh in my soul.”


Wow. That was impressively lyrical. Also, seriously hardcore.


“As you might imagine,” he said after a long, brooding pause, “the story was not so clear in the years after her death, nor was it so widespread as it is today. I had not heard of her death until years after it happened, and when I did my first priority was slaying her killers. It took more than sixscore years for me to learn of the Killing Stone she had left behind, by which time it was in the Conclave’s possession. They told me it was merely the subject of her death curse, meant to bring sorrow and death to the world which had hurt her so, and I did not question. It was not, I thought, so surprising that she would wish vengeance, and in the moment of her death not care whom that vengeance was inflicted upon. I did not ask for the stone. I wanted no reminders of my failure, nor did I care to interfere with my beloved’s revenge. I dedicated myself instead to enforcing order over my kin. There is no dissension among the tengu any longer. There is no warring. I do not permit it.”


Okay, Sojobo was really starting to scare me now.


“And then,” he continued, “twenty years ago, I learn something else. Reynard, with whom I have had some acquaintance and who is kin to her people, came to tell me that the Killing Stone had been taken. That it had been turned to evil ends by a madwoman. And, as none before had the courage to do, he told me that this Stone was no mere cursed bit of rock, but the body and soul of my love.” His fist once more clenched by his side, and he resumed walking, heels striking the ground with unnecessary force. “Now, when it is too late, I know how very deeply I have wronged her, how I have failed her once again. I cannot find this woman, de Sousa. She is protected against divinations, and knowledgeable in the arts of concealment. For twenty years have I sought her blood, and for twenty years have I failed.”


We walked most of a minute in silence. Sojobo was breathing hard from the force of his emotion, and I couldn’t blame him. A thousand years of self-loathing and perceived failure was a hell of a burden to carry, and I doubted he had let it out in this way for a long, long time.


“I will help you,” I said finally, reluctantly. “You have my word. If what you say is true. Should I obtain the Killing Stone, it will be yours, and no other’s. Should you find this woman, if it be at all possible, I will help you to kill her.”




I thought for a moment. “I suppose,” I said slowly, “it’s because I know how it feels to fail someone. I can’t make up for my mistakes. It’s too late for the people I failed. But you can, and you’re trying to. I respect that.” I glanced at the eldest tengu. “Find her. And I will help you bring her down.”


He nodded, his expression thoughtful. He turned down the next alley, and I did not follow.

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Balancing Act 6.9

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More than any other, particularly in oral tradition and everyday folklore, it is the scary story we are enamored of. We are obsessed with the eyes in the darkness, the laughter in the night, the shapes half-seen in the shadows beneath the trees. Every culture has its stories, and likewise every culture has its monsters and demons, its ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. It’s a universal urge—and don’t think it’s limited to normal humans, either.


Werewolves and vampires and wicked witches are the stuff of terror. To many people—at least those you could convince to admit such things—we are the most frightening things in the world. But, naturally, we can’t be scared shitless of ourselves. We still hunger for stories, though, and so it is that you find another whole world of scary stories among the weird and preternatural folk than everyday humans.


Ours tend to be scarier. If only because, in my world, oftentimes the scary stories weren’t quite as fictional as you might wish. And sometimes it’s the lucky ones that die.


Thus, if you know the right places to listen, you can hear stories about the Wild Hunt, which rides like a storm through the sky, with a fury that is awful and beautiful to behold. It hardly matters whether you die, or you’re lucky enough to hide and avoid drawing their attention, or you’re predator enough yourself to ride beside them. You don’t walk away from the experience, not as the person you were before the Hunt came. It changes you.


Or there’s the Khan of the Werewolves, a young-looking man with a terrible old soul. He knew everything about everyone, the whispers said, and if you were careless or stupid or just didn’t walk as lightly as you should you just might wake up from a nightmare some evening to find eyes in the darkness.


But I have to admit, if I were to pick one, I’d say the scariest of all are the Sidhe Courts. Strangely, though, the most terrifying of their stories aren’t those of blood and death, of war or the hunt. Because, although they are a terrifying force, the Sidhe really aren’t frightening for violent reasons. If you don’t pick a fight with them, they aren’t terribly likely to pick a fight with you.


No, it was when they were wheeling and dealing that the Sidhe became truly scary. Like the genie of pop culture (not the actual djinn; they were equally scary for entirely different reasons), they always kept their bargains to the letter and yet what you got never quite seemed to be what you wanted, and what you wanted never quite seemed to be worth what you paid. It was commonly said, and not entirely in jest, that if you ever found yourself under the impression that you had gotten the better of a Sidhe in bargaining, you should immediately count your relatives. Then your legs, then arms, followed by fingers, toes, eyes, teeth, and testicles.


Thus, rather than a battlefield, many of the truly terrifying tales of the elves took place at parties and festivals, in crowded ballrooms and ancient castles. See, the thing you have to remember is that Disney took a lot of the grimmer parts out of the legends of the faeries. And, even if you feel some need to stick to that interpretation, remind yourself that the wicked faeries and evil stepmothers got invited to such parties, right alongside the good and the benevolent.


So it probably shouldn’t be a surprise that at a real faerie ball the carriage didn’t revert to a pumpkin and Cinderella never had to leave, not even when she was so weary of dancing that her slippers had filled with blood. The wine was sweet as poisoned apples, the wolves weren’t half so dangerous as the grandmothers, and every game was played with house rules for infinite stakes. No one cared enough to tell you the name of the game, and there was nothing protecting you from your own decisions. It was quite possible to sell your soul with just a few wrong words to the right being at the right time.


They say that only the desperate and the foolish have dealings with the Courts of Day and Night. They are not far wrong.


We stepped through one of the official portals, which by some strange coincidence had been located in a domain Aiko was reasonably familiar with. I find that such coincidences abound, when there’s a Twilight Prince smoothing your way.


We emerged onto a dusky mountain path about a million degrees colder than we were dressed for. That didn’t bother me too much, because I’m really hard to upset with cold, but Aiko started shivering almost immediately. “Bloody hell,” she muttered grimly, hurrying down the snowpacked path. There was more snow all around us, so deep that it seemed more like we were walking down a trench cut into the snow than along a path. “They couldn’t make it open inside the flipping castle?”


Before we’d gone a dozen feet, there was someone walking next to us. I couldn’t have told you where he came from; he was simply walking beside us, where a moment before the trench had been empty. His appearance should have shocked us and had both of us reaching for our weapons, but it somehow didn’t, and I wasn’t at all sure why.


He was better than six and a half feet tall, and thin without looking skeletal. He was obviously Sidhe, with slit pupils in intensely deep green eyes, predator’s teeth, and sharply pointed ears. Unlike most of his kind, though, he was not pretty, nor did he take any care to hide that fact. His features were rough and coarse even by human standards, and his anthracite-hued hair was cropped shorter and more unevenly than Aiko’s. He was wearing a leather tunic and breeches, the latter held up with a length of rope, and had a fresh wolf pelt thrown around his shoulders as a cloak. It moved slightly in a nonexistent breeze, and left traces of blood on his skin where it passed. He was barefoot, and should clearly have been freezing, and just as clearly was not.


“Blaise,” I said, with just a touch of respect—enough not to be insulting, not enough to be fawning. “I thought that the whole point of a masquerade was to come dressed as something that you aren’t, as opposed to looking exactly like what you are.”


“Some of us are beyond such things,” he said dryly. “And yourself? What masque do you wear tonight?”


“I’m a werewolf,” I said cheerfully.


He raised one eyebrow. “Did you not just say criticize me for resembling my own nature too closely?”


I smiled. “Precisely why I chose the costume I did.”


He nodded slowly. “I see. An interesting message, to be sure. There are many who will spend much of the evening debating what you meant by it.”


“That was the point,” I said. “You’re strong enough that you don’t need to worry about what people think of you. Not all of us are that lucky. If people aren’t sure what I mean or what I’m capable of, I think they’re a lot less likely to dismiss me as prey.”


“A valid point, although I think you give yourself too little credit.” He shook his head. “In any case, I understand your intention. And what of you, my lady? How have you chosen to present yourself this evening?”


“I,” Aiko said grandiosely, “don’t give a fuck.”


Blaise blinked a little at that, for which I couldn’t blame him, because so did I. “Are you saying that you didn’t care to costume yourself, or that that is your costume?”


Aiko’s smile showed a great many teeth. “Exactly.”


The Twilight Prince laughed deeply, shaking his head. “Excellent,” he murmured. “Truly, it is too long since you graced one of our festivals with your presence.” We emerged from the snow-trench onto a staircase a hundred feet wide set into the mountainside, and I got my first glimpse of Utgard. I’d seen a lot of things in my life, but I’d never seen the seat of the king of jötnar, and even my jaded mind was awestruck for a moment at the sight.


The mountain we were standing on, for one thing, dwarfed any I’d ever seen. We were in the middle of a mountain range, and looking down on the peaks all around, an ocean of white-capped mountains spreading out as far as the eye could see. Even the least of the mountains was the size of Pikes Peak, and the greatest had to be twice its size. The ground itself, which was almost unimaginably far below, was shrouded in dense white mist, into which the snowy mountains faded imperceptibly. Up here, though, the air was painfully clear, exposing a sky just fading from the brilliant colors of sunset into the deep, piercing blue of a night untainted by any city lights. The stars were just beginning to come out, brilliant sparks of light that made the snow look sallow. I’d never in my life seen them so bright, not even in the forests of Wyoming with the nearest lights a hundred miles off.


All of it, though, was easily eclipsed by the fortress-castle of Utgard. It crouched high on the mountain, a castle like none ever dreamed of by mortal architects. I couldn’t really estimate how large it was. The cold grey granite seemed to rise from the mountain itself, making it hard to say where one began and the other ended. It was easily a thousand feet from side to side, though, and the highest tower soared far above the peak of the mountain itself. Instead of a moat, there was a natural chasm between us and it, several hundred feet across and deep enough that the bottom was hidden in the mist. The grand staircase turned into a delicate-looking bridge of ice that arched over the crevasse with all the deceptive strength of a spider’s web, large enough for a commercial plane to use it as a runway. I was betting it could handle the strain of it, too.


“I thought you might like to see it from the outside,” Blaise said by way of explanation, as I picked up my jaw and we started up the stairs. “It’s rather impressive the first time, no?”


“Sure,” Aiko said, keeping her teeth from chattering by the simple expedient of clenching them and growling through them. “If you’re a freaking snowman.


The Twilight Prince glanced at her, as though he’d just now noticed that she was cold. He gestured slightly, there was the faintest brush of wolf-and-tree scented magic, and the cold retreated. I wasn’t sure how he’d done it, exactly; the snow wasn’t melting, the wind hadn’t stopped, and yet the air suddenly felt warm. “My apologies, Lady Miyake,” he said seriously.


She glared at him, but didn’t complain as we crossed the icy bridge. It should have been nerve-wracking, crossing a bottomless pit on a bridge made of literal ice, but it wasn’t. Perhaps the sheer scale of the bridge made any concern of falling seem ridiculous. Perhaps I simply assumed—correctly—that, ice or not, it wouldn’t be the least bit slippery. In any case, we crossed without difficulty, and passed through granite walls fifty feet tall and at least as thick to enter the castle courtyard. The gates, which were built to the same scale as everything else in this land of giants, were slabs of ice nearly as thick as the walls, with layers and layers of runic inscriptions in them.


It was incredible. You couldn’t lay siege to this place. All the defenders would have to do was collapse the bridge and close the gates, and you would never get inside, not unless you could fly—and even then, I was pretty sure the jötnar would knock you out of the sky without much difficulty. It was as near to impregnable as a place could conceivably be.


But then, if you’re going to war with the gods, I suppose that’s probably not a bad idea.


We passed through the barren snow-filled courtyard, which was otherwise empty, and ascended another sweeping stone staircase to the great doors of Utgard. They were made of some pale wood, perhaps ash, around a hundred feet tall and fifty wide, bound with bronze and iron. The jötnar were not fae, not precisely, and they had no more difficulty with iron than I did.


Blaise opened a smaller door inset into the massive ones and ushered us through into an entryway a thousand times as impressive as mine, although rather more sparsely furnished. It was large enough to fit a few soccer pitches without difficulty, and the granite ceiling was easily a hundred and fifty feet overhead. Blaise led the way straight through it to another door in the opposite wall, one a little more humanly-scaled. There was a fellow standing in front of it, wearing servants’ livery of white and blue, who looked like he could wrestle a polar bear and make it cry for its mother. He looked at me and got a seen-it-all-before expression. He looked at Aiko and it only deepened. He took one look at Blaise and his already pale face—what little of it could be seen behind a massive black beard, at any rate—started trying to imitate the snow outside.


He essayed a low, surprisingly graceful bow to the Twilight Prince. “Good evening, Your Lordship,” he said.


“Good evening, Sveinn,” Blaise said. “Might you escort my companions and I to the festival?”


Sveinn looked like he would rather shove his hand in a blender. “Might I see your invitation, sir?” he said diffidently to me.


I pulled it out and handed it to him. He read it pretty normally until he got to the signature, at which point he gulped hard, went even paler, and handed it back to me in hands which shook a little. “E-everything seems to be in order,” he said. “If it would please you to follow me, my lords, my lady.” He turned and led us through the door and down a series of stone corridors. It was a really big castle; it probably took five, maybe even ten minutes for us to reach a broad balcony overlooking the party, with a magnificent staircase sweeping to the ground on either side.


The festival itself was being held in a room the size and grandeur of which I’d never seen bettered. It was a single massive hall easily a hundred and fifty or two hundred yards square, all of smooth grey granite. The ceiling, which was easily a hundred feet overhead, was a single enormous, flawless sheet of ice, letting in the light of moon and stars as the sunset faded outside. We had arrived early, it seemed, and the floor was sparsely inhabited. I couldn’t see a band, but the air was filled with music, something that sounded like bagpipes skirling along over a heavy, rhythmic drumbeat that made me think of keeping time on a longboat. There were voices, lots of them, singing in a language I couldn’t understand, and doing an excellent job of it.


At the balcony, Sveinn turned us over to an even burlier blond servant with unmistakable relief. Blaise proceeded past him and down the stairs, but the servant stopped us with an upraised hand and grim expression. He, too, checked out the invitation, also paling a little at the fact that it was signed, and then turned and walked out to the railing. He slammed his staff three times on the ground, the impacts resounding with the sort of volume more normally associated with medium-caliber gunshots, and the room, not all that noisy or active to begin with, went utterly still.


“My Lords and Ladies of the Sidhe,” the herald boomed in a voice louder than most concerts. “Allow me to present to the Court the jarl of Ífingr, baron of Thrymheimr, and peer of Járnvithr; knight-banneret of the Most Noble Order of the Mistletoe; favored vassal of His Excellency Fenrisúlfr; slayer of Grutte Pier, champion of the Daylight Court of the Sidhe; bane of the Six Witches; chosen wielder of the most illustrious blade Tyrfing; the Honorable Lord Winter Wolf; and his consort, kitsune of the Chrysanthemum Court, the Lady Aiko Miyake.” He gestured for us to proceed down the stairs. We did so, Aiko even going so far as to rest her fingers lightly on my arm—purely for show, of course; she was less likely to trip than I was, even wearing a hakama.


The Sidhe applauded, briefly and purely for form’s sake, and went back to what they were doing. Thankfully; it had been quite uncomfortable having all of them focused on me. I didn’t want to be dismissed, but that was a far cry from being the center of attention.


“Consort?” Aiko murmured as we went, so softly as to be nigh inaudible to werewolf ears two feet away. “Consort? Shouldn’t they have asked me first?”


“If it’s any comfort,” I replied at equally low volume, “they didn’t ask me, either. I don’t even know what most of those titles mean.”


Blaise was waiting for us at the bottom of the stairs. “A lovely performance,” he told us, leading us off through the crowd, which parted before him without ever quite making it clear that was what they were doing. “Skrýmir will want to speak with you first, of course. His throne is directly in front of you, you can’t miss it. I’ll leave you to that, and then perhaps we’ll be able to speak more later.” He vanished into the crowd without waiting for us to reply.


“You know,” Aiko said in a bare murmur, “I can’t help but recall that the last time we tried to introduce ourselves to the host at one of these shindigs, it went rather badly.”


“Me too,” I muttered. “But there’s not a lot of choice for it. C’mon, let’s get it over with.” We edged forward through the crowd, who all seemed to sidle out from in front of us. I suddenly wondered whether they’d been getting out of Blaise’s way, earlier, or mine.


Something to think about another time.


The hall was pretty freaking big, and it took some time to move across it at a politely snailish pace. For once, though, it turned out to actually be impossible to miss the thing we couldn’t miss. As it turns out, when a frost giant does a throne, he does it big. The dais was elevated several feet above the ground, and the throne itself was carved from a single piece of ice big enough to dwarf a man. The figure currently in it was well matched, being better than eight feet tall, and massively muscled. He looked like he could bench press a truck without any supernatural assistance.


He beckoned us closer once we were within sight, and we hesitantly climbed up onto the dais. He seemed content to spend a few moments examining us, and I returned the favor. Skrýmir’s skin looked hard and white as ice itself, and icicles had formed in his mane of ash-blond hair, and in his beard. His eyes were a shade of blue just a touch paler than Snowflake’s, and inscrutable. He was wearing what looked like the entire skin of a polar bear for a cloak. Other than leather breeches and fur-lined boots, that was all. The cold didn’t appear to inconvenience him.


He grinned suddenly, showing shiny white teeth that would have looked quite at home in a wolf’s mouth, and leaned forward to thump me on the shoulder. It was a casual, friendly gesture that was still strong enough to make me stagger sideways. If I hadn’t been braced against it, I don’t doubt it would have sent me sprawling. “Hail and well met!” he said. His voice was so deep that even a speaking voice practically qualified as a growl. “Ah, but it’s good to meet you at last, nephew.”


I stared blankly for a second. “Nephew?”


“Well, I suppose if you want to speak technically, it’s—” he broke off suddenly and turned to look at one of his hangers-on nearby. “How many greats, Ólaf?’


“Nine, my lord,” he murmured.


“Aye, that’s right. Nine-times-great nephew.” He took in my blank expression and a scowl gathered on his face, swift and dark as a sudden storm. “They hadn’t told you?” He really was growling now.


“Your Majesty,” I said dryly, “I usually find it a safe assumption that no one tells me anything.”


He chuckled. “Fair enough. You’re one of us, boy, of my brother Hrym’s line. What’s the descent again, Ólaf?”


“Winter Wolf-Born, son of Carmine No-Counsel, daughter of Björn One-Hand, son of Herjólf the Sharp, son of Njáll Half-Burned, son of Asolf the Unwashed, son of Hallgerda Manslayer, daughter of Egil the Black, son of Sinfjötli Longtooth, son of Signý the Bloody, daughter of Hljoth the Fair, daughter of Hrym the Mighty.” There was no hesitation in his voice.


God, I hoped there wasn’t a test on this later. “I really, really want to stab something right now,” I muttered, too quiet to hear.


Ólaf cleared his throat in the background. “There will be contests of arms later in the evening, if you would like to participate.”


“There, you see?” Skrýmir said with a laugh. “You’ve noble blood, nephew, and strong. Aren’t afraid to show it, either, are you? Good! That’s as it should be! A jotun is meant to be strong, aye, and fierce as well.” He reached out and thumped me on the back again.


I swallowed dryly. “So…when your herald said I was a baron earlier…he was being serious?”


“Ah, that. You must speak with my brother for that, I fear; ’tis a courtesy title only, my boy, without lands or privilege. The lordship proper is held by—” He paused and glanced significantly sideways.


“Atli Nine-Graves holds the Völsung title following Gimli the Tall’s death, my lord,” Ólaf provided smoothly.


“Ah, yes, Atli. Fine young man, if a bit grim. I don’t deal with him much,” Skrýmir said to me by way of explanation. “He’s a forest lord, you see, and those folk keep mostly to themselves. As I was saying, you’re a baron in name only until you tell Hrym to grant you lands to go with it, or you challenge Atli for it. Of course, my brother did make a point of calling you a peer, so you’ve a voice all the same in his Court.”


I was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. “That’s fine,” I said numbly.


The jotun king grinned again. “Aye, you’ve no great need for legitimacy in any case, have you? As it should be, I say; we could use more fire in the younger blood. Although, it must be said, you’re jarl in your own right. Fenrisúlfr made it so, and there’s not a one as will challenge his word, is there?” That was apparently a humorous comment, because the half-dozen or so people on the dais laughed heartily.


“But that’s enough of that,” the giant said, chuckling a little. “You’ve a hunger, I’m sure, and if you’re anything like any wolf I’ve ever met you’d rather feed it than listen to an old man talk. Go, eat, enjoy yourselves. And don’t those pansy elves push you around, either; you’re of my blood, and any as raises hand against you or yours in my hall shall answer for it, I tell you truly.”


He waved us off and we backed down from the dais. Aiko’s hand was still on my arm, but it was more to steady me now than her; after so many years of trying to figure out my ancestry, to have such an overload of answers simply handed to me was almost more than I could wrap my head around. “Are you all right?” she whispered to me once we were safely on level ground, and out of earshot of Skrýmir and his kin.


“Fine,” I murmured back. “Just a little overwhelmed, that’s all.” I glanced around and saw an enormous white-clothed table along the wall under the balcony where we’d entered, covered with an almost unimaginable array of dishes, bowls, and covered platters. “What say we follow Skrýmir’s advice? I haven’t eaten since lunch.”


“Hell yeah,” she muttered. “I’m telling you, Winter, the food is worth coming all by itself.”


I grinned, and we turned to enter the fray.


The only other time I’d attended a Sidhe party, I’d spent less than half an hour actually partying—and I’d been entirely focused, during that time, on obtaining certain information. I had been utterly overwhelmed, flooded with so many sensory experiences which someone from my world was quite simply not meant to experience that my mind went into safe mode and flat-out refused to process much of it.


Or, at least, that was what I thought at the time. In retrospect, it was really rather tame. I know this, because as it turned out the All Hallows’ Eve masquerade of the Sidhe Courts was a whole lot more…intense. It was an experience beyond understanding, and far beyond the ability of words to convey. The room was mostly darkened, with only a few lanterns and the moonlight coming through the ice of the roof to illuminate the hall, with flashes of lightning casting everything into sharp relief. The music, which continued to drift sourcelessly throughout the hall, shifted and danced unpredictably, slipping from one style to another without warning, with a preponderance to the weird and spooky. Through this twilit hall strode and slunk and danced the Sidhe, though I would never have realized it had I not known whose party this was.


There were Sidhe guising as clouds of multicolored lights, or rail-thin shadows that spoke in a voice to chill the soul. Another being was nothing more than lips followed by a pair of arms, which picked them up and positioned them into the appropriate expressions. A gentleman in a dark suit who looked quite normal except for the smooth, blank skin where his face should be chatted amiably with a gowned lady who had a golden apple for a head. Their voices seemed to emanate vaguely from the chest region. And those were just a handful of the most tame out of hundreds of Sidhe there.


I swiftly discovered that everyone not of the Sidhe Courts was introduced by the herald before they entered the room. I wasn’t entirely sure why; certainly nothing of the sort had happened at the last festival. Perhaps it was in reaction to my party-crashing and subsequent escape from custody, but I rather doubted it. I wasn’t that important. More likely it was a difference of protocol from Ryujin’s court to Skrýmir’s.


Some of those introductions were fairly interesting—although I quickly noticed that almost none of them were as long or aggrandizing as mine had been. The strangest might have been a skinny man in a grubby overcoat who looked even more uncomfortable here than I felt and was introduced simply as, “The fire in the wire.” A woman pale as paper with eerie white eyes and waist-length hair blacker than a raven’s wing was apparently, “The freezer of hearts and bane of men.” She wore a floor-length white robe and moved as gracefully as a snow flurry. There were more, too, many, many more. After a while I mostly gave up trying to keep track of them, and only occasionally glanced up to look at the newcomers.


Time itself seemed strange, warped. This wasn’t like the dislocated sense of time that intensive magic produced; I was quite familiar with that altering of perception. This seemed more like time itself had become something fluid, instable. I grew hungry and ate a dozen times, yet never grew tired or sleepy, nor did the logical consequences of all that food follow. Perhaps because time had become so strangely distorted, my memories of the parties are snapshots, instants and scenes unconnected by any form of narrative.


The food itself was, naturally, quite excellent. The cutlery was all of ice, yet it didn’t melt, and it wasn’t just me not finding it chilly. There was a staggering array of food, everything from the entirely mundane to the outlandishly exotic, every bit of it superb beyond anything my world had ever produced. I ate fruits I’d never heard of before, dined on the flesh of everything from snake to lemur, from raccoon to stoat. The roasted butterflies were pleasantly crunchy, although they had very little substance, and the raw squirrel with lingonberry-and-lemon sauce was incredible.


In one corner of the room, a group of satyrs and goblins and less identifiable things were holding up the bar, where a jovial jotun laughed and poured drinks from a jug which never emptied. I stayed far away from it—if it was anything like dwarven mead, which was the only other Otherside liquor I’d ever experienced, I couldn’t handle a mouthful, let alone a glass. Aiko was more bold, and brought back a pair of icy goblets filled with amber wine. It tasted sweet and sour and cold and spicy all at once, and had a kick more like brandy than any normal wine.


A grove of dryads performed a mad, incredible dance, which had them flickering from naked, inhumanly beautiful young women into trees in an eyeblink. The trees themselves spun and lashed like willows in a gale, though the air was perfectly still, as other dryads in human form danced through the boughs. Afterward, one of the dryads propositioned me so blatantly that I thought Aiko was going to stab her—although, to be fair, the dryad had made it clear the kitsune was quite welcome to come along, if she wished. Aiko touched her knife meaningfully, and I growled a refusal. The dryad shrugged and sauntered off, completely unconcerned.


Skrýmir, as it turned out, really had entered me into the contests of arms—without, I might add, telling me so. I performed with sword, and also in the wrestling competition. I was defeated handily by the second Sidhe I faced with the sword, but did rather better at the wrestling. I’d learned a decent amount of judo in my youth, and between that and my werewolf’s (and, as it turned out, maybe jotun’s, but that wasn’t something I was prepared to think about right now) strength and speed I acquitted myself reasonably well. I beat a pair of the Sidhe, a jotun, and a small troll before losing to a jotun who went on to be the champion. I did well enough that Skrýmir congratulated me personally, and pressed a tankard of mead on me. It wasn’t quite as good as the dwarven stuff Fenris had given me a taste of, but it was better than anything I’d had other than that and the wine earlier.


A slender, startlingly beardless jotun stood and declaimed skaldic poetry in a resonant baritone. I didn’t know a word of the language, but the alliteration fell from his tongue with a power and significance that I could feel even so, and the poem had a beauty and a sorrow that transcended language barriers. The whole hall erupted into applause when he finished, and I was not the least enthusiastic among them.


Aiko, perhaps inspired by my example, took part in a gymnastics competition. It was a lot like a normal gymnastics meet, except that it was being held by the Sidhe. Thus, the parallel bars were a dozen feet apart and twenty high, the balance beam was no thicker than Aiko’s belt, and so on. I doubt there are more than a handful of human athletes in the world that could have even performed a routine under such extreme circumstances. Aiko, who was by no means human and showing it more openly tonight than was usual, managed it handily, and still put on such a good performance that I don’t think most professional gymnasts could have matched it under ordinary conditions—although she was still far from operating at her best. Her left side hadn’t entirely recovered from its near-lethal dosing of deathstalker venom, and might never. She usually hid it well, but it’s nigh impossible to do so while performing freaking gymnastics, and I could see that her limbs weren’t reacting quite as perfectly as they should be—though, in all fairness, I was something of a special case. I doubt anyone who didn’t know her fairly intimately would have noticed it.


She didn’t win, of course. That went without saying. She was a kitsune, and thus far superior to most humans, physically—but she wasn’t competing against humans. The Sidhe were as far beyond her as she was beyond a human. Even from my biased viewpoint, I couldn’t deny that she had been blown out of the water. But she did better than some of the competitors, and what she lacked in technical perfection she made up for in spirit. She, too, got congratulations and mead from Skrýmir.


A pair of Sidhe nobles played a game of tennis like nothing I’d ever seen. The ball looked like pure starlight, and they batted it back and forth with silvery swords. When one of them finally missed his parry, the starlight burned a hole straight through his chest. It must have cauterized it as it passed, because there was no blood when he slumped to the ground. The party didn’t even slow. I saw a woman so beautiful it hurt to look at her dance by, wearing a black domino mask and nothing else. She never even flinched as she pirouetted across the body, her black stiletto heels leaving small bleeding holes.


There was a riddling contest. Neither of us tried our hand at that; we knew when we were overmatched. But it was quite popular, attracting several dozen of the Sidhe, a comparable number of jötnar, a pair of leprechauns, and a number of less easily identifiable races, attached to one or the other of the Sidhe Courts. I could hardly even understand half the riddles, but apparently it was very well done, and the eventual winner was unanimously decided to be a Sidhe lord of the Midnight Court.


I spent several minutes talking with an anthropomorphic wolf who was drinking what smelled like an exceptionally literal Bloody Mary. He congratulated me on having not been killed by the Wild Hunt that spring, at which point I recognized him as the only member of said Hunt who had seemed to be on my side against Pier’s, and invited me to come hunting with him soon. I politely demurred, saying I was extremely busy and not sure when I would have the time, but we spent a while chatting, and I arranged a way to contact him before I left. Because, let’s face it, I am a werewolf. We hunt in packs naturally, and I hadn’t had anyone along but Snowflake in quite some time. I liked him, and it might be nice to go hunting with someone else.


At another table, a gryphon, a sphinx, a manticore, and a pair of jötnar were drinking (or lapping, as the case may be) copious amounts of alcohol and trading hero, damsel, and sidekick recipes. I’d never have guessed you had to cook them differently. They invited me to join them, saying a werewolf’s perspective would be refreshing, but I politely declined, because I was a terrible cook and as far as I was aware I’d never eaten any of the three. Besides, most of the time a werewolf’s perspective boiled down to, “Have you tried eating it raw and bloody?”, which I didn’t think was likely to be particularly useful.


Aiko, possibly in competition with the dryads (unless maybe it was the other way round; afterward, I could never quite say what order my flashbulb memories occurred in, and Aiko wasn’t much help) was talked into performing a dance by a Daylight Sidhe who apparently knew her in her younger, even wilder days. It involved a lot of jumping and athleticism, and flickering back and forth between human and fox, sometimes in midair. I couldn’t even conceive of the coordination and practice it would require to manage it. She made it look easy and utterly graceful, although I’m reasonably confident she’d had at least one drink by then. It earned her a round of applause, complete with hooting and hollering—not from the Sidhe, of course, but some of the lesser fae and most of the jötnar were intoxicated enough that inhibitions were loosened. More mead was pressed on both of us.


A leprechaun (I recognized him as such only because Aiko, who had been friends with a leprechaun until he died, pointed it out to me) juggled a hundred gold coins, with more appearing and disappearing from thin air every second. I’d never seen anyone’s hands move so fast.


There was a watermelon spitting contest, which turned out to be a lot like a watermelon seed spitting contest, except that it required a much larger mouth.


Something that looked like a cross between a wolf and ball lightning put on a light show like no storm my world had ever played host to. It must not have been attached to the Courts, because the herald had introduced it, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember as what.


Aiko, who was pretty plastered by now, apparently said the wrong thing to a troll only a little bigger than Andre the Giant. It took a clumsy swing at her, which she dodged easily. All that booze must have gone to her head, though, because she had little of her usual agility, and actually tripped and fell getting out of the way. I stepped up and decked the troll before it could take advantage of the situation. Skrýmir, who had apparently already been on his way to defuse the situation, slapped me on the back some more, and insisted I join him in quaffing another horn of mead. I was starting to feel a bit woozy, but couldn’t see a polite way out of it.


A dozen Cu Sith crowded beneath the banquet table, squabbling over bones and snatching up tidbits dropped to the floor. Two of them began mating, as uncaring of their surroundings as if they’d been ordinary dogs although I was fairly confident they were as smart as people, or smarter. No one paid any mind, except to nudge them out of the way to get to the food. I stepped around them, and pretended I didn’t see Aiko looking toward me significantly. My sensibilities don’t align perfectly with society’s most of the time, but there are some things even I won’t do.


I know, it shocked me too.


There was a competition for the most obscene limerick. Aiko tried hard, and (perhaps inevitably) did much better at it than either of us had at the other contests. Eventually, though, she had to admit defeat at the hands of no less a personage than Skrýmir himself.


I got her back in the stuff-a-ferret-down-your-pants contest, though. I was eventually disqualified by reason of having used magic to calm the ferret, but I still outlasted everyone else, and walked away without a scratch. Plus, because the rules hadn’t technically forbidden that (probably because there weren’t very many people who could pull it off; like I told Alexis, communicating with animals isn’t a common talent), I still got the consolation prize, which was another drink with Skrýmir.


A pair of female Sidhe flyted, surrounded by a jeering crowd. Only around a quarter or so of the insults they tossed back and forth were in English, the rest being a mixture of more languages than I could count (although Aiko, inevitably, understood quite a few of them). I thought it rather telling that “You couldn’t sell beef to the starving” was considered by the onlookers to be one of the most extreme. Only the Sidhe.


Aiko sang a filthy German ditty with a jotun and a satyr, and followed it up with a French sailors’ song describing a large number of anatomically improbable sexual activities, and which had more than a few people rolling on the ground laughing. Literally.


A group of sylphs put on a synchronized flying display. One of them, apparently more blitzed than the rest, flew into the wall and dropped to the ground. It got up and flew away without evident impairment, though, and between that and the laughter and applause it garnered I suspect the accident was rather more intentional than it wanted it to appear.


One male Sidhe’s costume was particularly good. He stood ten feet tall with limbs no thicker than pool cues, and his black clothing hung off him in tatters to expose a gaping void beneath. His head was a bare skull with vivid emerald flames in the eye sockets and a mouth much too wide, filled with teeth much too sharp. He pulled it off and did tricks with it, to the delight of the crowd. His skeletal companion, not to be outdone, removed a femur and played fetch with one of the faerie hounds.


Some sort of fae being I didn’t recognize put on an elaborate puppet show. The puppets flew about without any sort of suspension, and spoke independently. I was pretty sure they were acting out some play or other by Shakespeare.


Aiko was approached by a Sidhe noble who’d seen her dance. Because she didn’t carry her clothing with her when she shifted forms, she’d had to dance in the nude. He apparently thought her casual attitude towards that meant more than it did. I must have been getting fairly schnockered myself, because rather than politely disabuse him of that notion, I just stepped up and punched his lights out. I gathered he wasn’t very popular, because even most of the Sidhe applauded that action. I knew I’d just made an enemy, but couldn’t seem to regret it.


And on, and on, and on. More mead, more wine. The table never emptied, the music never ceased. Existence began to seem fluid, malleable. Reality stretched, twisted, melted, warped. I could no longer recall where I was, or why. The world outside these walls seemed no more than a fever dream half-remembered, ephemeral, like morning fog come sunrise. Had I ever not been here? The answer seemed elusive as a trout in the stream, inconsequential as a breath in the hurricane.


I ate and drank and danced and fought in a twilight hall beneath a roof of ice, while outside the stars wheeled and spun through a sky dark and cold as a midwinter night’s dream and the snow fell ever more thickly. For a time I had no yesterday or tomorrow; I simply was, and that was enough.

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Balancing Act 6.8

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Of all the archetypes which have ever captured the imagination of people, there is perhaps none either more widespread or more difficult to understand than the Trickster. There are a very, very great many gods and heroes which have filled that role, from Anansi to Ulysses. These days, though, I think the best-known two are probably Loki and Coyote, and in some ways you can understand how huge a variety exists among tricksters just by those two examples. Both were unpredictable, mercurial, cunning and shrewd, liable to flip between extremes at a moment’s notice. That’s kind of what a trickster does, after all. But other than that they have fewer things in common than divide them.


The myths describe Loki as a dangerous and deceptive person, and I knew from experience that they weren’t lying. He was a cruel, malicious meddler. He terrified me more than any other being—and, given the competition he’s dealing with, that is not an insignificant statement. I have seen him go from death threats, to jovial laughter and good humor, to painfully killing someone for betraying him, and back to laughter, all in the space of a few minutes.


I’d never met Coyote, but the stories of him are very different. He’s cunning, yes, but not particularly wise. He’s typically good-humored, and relatively easygoing. He plays pranks and tricks on people not out of malicious intent, but for the simple joy of it. Often as not, they’re laughing too by the end, and often as not they end up better for being tricked. In some ways I’d even say he’s Loki’s opposite, the creation to balance his destruction. Sometimes he kills people, yes, but they usually deserve it, which is more than Loki could ever say.


Reynard the Fox is another such trickster, one who falls partway between those extremes. Like Coyote, his stories were mostly a matter of oral tradition and folklore rather than an established or systematic mythology, and all through Germany, France, and the Netherlands you might have found all sorts of different versions of his exploits. Of course, because they were mostly orally transmitted, it’s hard to say what proportion of them we’ll never know.


The stories only have a few things in common. Reynard is always the villain. It couldn’t be more obvious he was the bad guy if he dressed all in black, had glowing red eyes, ended his sentences with prepositions, and considered “evil laughter” both one of the most important things on his resume and his preferred form of entertainment. He’s a sly, vicious son of a bitch, a cheat, a murderer, a thief, and a pathological liar. In spite of that, though, there are three things you have to take into account, which in my opinion set him aside from a simple monster.


First off, he’s clever. In fact, his stories remind me a bit of a heist movie. He’s clearly the bad guy, and his enemies are clearly in the right, but he’s so cunning and so quick-witted and just so damn good at what he does that you want him to win anyway—which he pretty much always does, another thing setting him apart from both Loki and Coyote. Reynard’s the kind of guy who, on his wits alone, could take on an entire army of people who were absolutely frothing at the mouth with rage, and had assembled specifically to see him dead, and manage to talk them out of it. Even better, he’d talk them into giving him lands and privileges and their daughter’s hand in marriage at the same time, and by the time he finished with them they’d be thanking him for the opportunity.


Second, he’s not unilaterally evil. In fact, in some ways I think he’s a bit like a prototype of Robin Hood. He takes on the Church and the aristocracy and makes them look like utter fools. His entire history is one of cunning and shrewdness triumphing over book-learning. Everything he does exposes the rampant hypocrisy, corruption, and nepotism of the upper classes. He might not be the best person in the court, but he isn’t the worst either, and it’s hard to really blame him for his lack of a conscience considering the background he comes from.


Third, and most importantly, Fenris considered him a friend. Now, Fenris himself was usually considered a ravening monster fit only to be put down at the end of time. But he was my distant grandfather, and more importantly he’d never failed to do right by me. He ranked high on my list of Least Untrustworthy People, actually, and a good word from him meant far more to me than a bunch of second-hand stories written by strangers hundreds of years ago.


Thus, it was with a certain amount of caution but not any particular fear that I accompanied Reynard out of the bar. It had begun to drizzle outside, a hard cold rain, and between that and the wind I was just as glad I was wearing my cloak—I don’t really get cold, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy being waterlogged and windblown as a drowned rat in a tornado. Alexis, who hadn’t dressed for Colorado’s notoriously unreliable fall weather, looked like she was starting to regret it, and even Snowflake wasn’t happy.


Reynard didn’t appear to notice a thing. But then, he wouldn’t.


“I meant to be there sooner,” he said, walking briskly down the street. “But you were rather busy, and I did not wish to interrupt your conversation. What I have to show you will not suffer for a few moments’ delay, regardless.”


“I don’t suppose it’s good news, is it?” I said hopefully.


He glanced back at me. “No. No, I don’t suppose it is.”


“Of course not,” I muttered. I grumbled a few more things, too, heartily encouraged by Snowflake. She thinks I don’t let my feelings out often enough. Easy for her to say, considering that practically nobody can hear her griping.


Reynard, as it turned out, had a car parked only a few minutes’ walk away, a two-seater Lamborghini. It was rather cramped trying to fit us all into it, and there were a few tense moments when I half thought Snowflake was about to bite someone. But eventually we managed, and Reynard took off to the north at a speed both highly illegal and more than slightly hazardous. I didn’t complain, because I was pretty sure he was doing it to get a reaction, and giving him one would just encourage him.


Long story short, it took only a short time before we were up in the north end of the city. The houses here were larger, more expensive, mostly located in bland subdivisions with ridiculous names where you weren’t allowed in the gate without a damn good reason. Such places always struck me as disturbingly soulless, and I was just as glad when Reynard drove to one of the few that wasn’t.


Oh, it was a big house, and I don’t doubt it was expensive as hell. But it was just past the ever-expanding border where the city meets the plains, and the nearest neighbor was several hundred feet away. It was a quiet sort of place, one where I imagined strangers seldom went. Perhaps it was just my imagination, overstressed by the events of the past days or by Reynard’s presence, but there seemed to be some intangible aura around it, and not a very pleasant one. Looking at it I got the impression that people would avoid it, and that they would be right to do so.


I knew better than to dismiss such instincts. All too often, they were absolutely correct.


Especially about the bad things.


Reynard whipped his Lamborghini through a highly illegal U-turn and parked, tires squealing, right outside the house. Unlike my usual modes of conveyance, it blended in just fine with all the expensive cars around here. We all piled out of it, in a manner almost but not quite as ungainly as we’d piled in, and stood on the sidewalk looking at the house. I don’t know about the others, but I was reluctant to go closer.


This was not a good place. Not at all.


Finally Reynard turned and cleared his throat, his face grim and still. I could tell, even after so little time around him, that it was not a normal expression for him; his features were made to be mobile and full of laughter, not locked down harder than a birdcage at a cat fanciers’ convention. “You may want to remain outside, miss,” he said to Alexis, his voice unwontedly serious.


I hadn’t had a chance to tell her how dangerous and powerful this guy probably was, but she wasn’t stupid. There wasn’t a trace of flippancy in her voice as she said, “What I want is of very little importance here.”


He nodded, the impression conveying respect, and turned to lead us up to the door. I had to restrain a shudder, and was powerless to keep the hairs on the back of my neck from rising. Had I been a wolf my hackles would have been doing their damnedest to part ways with my body, and I don’t doubt that I would have started growling. Strangely, I appeared to be the only one so affected; I wasn’t surprised that Alexis wouldn’t notice anything, given how inexperienced she was, but Snowflake is usually very sharp about such things, and not shy about showing it most of the time. Never mind me, I was surprised she wasn’t growling and snarling by now.


Reynard glanced back at me. “You feel it already, don’t you? Fascinating. There aren’t many that would. Mayhap your grandfather was not exaggerating.” He climbed the front steps, and as he did I noticed something interesting. He seemed relaxed, very cool and casual, but he wasn’t used to deceiving werewolves. The tension he carried in his spine gave the lie to his act.


Whatever this was, he felt it too.


He opened the door without knocking, and proceeded inside without any hesitation. I noticed that the lock itself wasn’t just disengaged, it was broken. A quick glance, and a breath of wind slipped into the housing, confirmed that the deadbolt was entirely nonfunctional, apparently disconnected from the locking mechanism. Reynard closed the door quietly behind us.


Within was…well. Suffice to say it impressed me, and that takes some doing. Snowflake made an awed sort of sound in my head. Alexis gagged. I would have too, were it not for the need to keep up a good front.


Most of the corpses were simple enough. I saw several which had been stabbed with some slender weapon, a dagger or a very light sword. Maybe even an icepick. Three had heavy, ugly ligature marks around the neck, speaking of slow and nasty death by strangulation. Two of those appeared to be simple strangling cords, but the third formed the clear outline of a chain. One man’s head lolled about on a broken neck. Another had been entirely beheaded, his head resting on the ground between his feet. They filled the living room almost to bursting, barely leaving enough room between them to walk.


Alexis looked away, still gagging, and Reynard silently opened the door for her to go outside. Snowflake went with her, to act as her bodyguard—it didn’t seem likely that someone would vanish her while we were right here without us knowing, but it wasn’t unprecedented. He closed the door behind them, but I clearly heard vomiting, and smelled stomach acid. That I could pick out the smell so easily suggested that all these bodies had yet to really start rotting, which in turn implied that they had died quite recently—hours, at the most.


I didn’t feel too happy, myself. But somebody had to pay attention, and at the moment I was the only choice available. So I took a deep breath and forced myself to look at the scene logically, rather than reacting to it. If I let myself feel emotion in response to this, I would rapidly become useless.


So. Eighteen corpses. Nine were dead of stab wounds. Three strangled. One broken neck. One decapitated. That left four with no obvious injuries. I walked over to look at them more closely, idly noting as I did that none of the corpses in the room showed defensive wounds. They hadn’t fought back. None of them looked like hardened killers, but they should still have fought if they’d had warning, which meant that they hadn’t all died here. They’d been moved. That fit with the way they were all arrayed so neatly, almost as though laid out for funeral. None of them had any obvious physical or magical scents, which was unusual. Most people, so soon after death, would still have smelled of cologne, perfume, deodorant, soap, lunch—something.


The coffee table had been moved aside to make room for these four corpses to be laid out on the carpet, which was an almost bizarrely pristine grey. These really did look like the mortician had already done his work—totally composed, peaceful, with arms crossed on chests. Three were male, one female—around the same ratio as the rest of the bodies. They had no apparent injuries, and hadn’t been dead long enough for discoloration to set in yet.


It could have been poison, I supposed. It could have been four simultaneous heart attacks. It could have been, but it wasn’t. I knew that, because on these corpses I caught the first clear smell in the building.


They smelled like nothing. Not the mere absence of smell, which was general throughout the house, but the smell of absence.


Son of a bitch.


I turned to look at Reynard, who had come up behind me. He moved so silently I’d have never known except that I smelled him. “Do you know how this was done?” I asked him, my voice steady and cold.


“Better,” he said with a grin that struck even me as inappropriate for the circumstances. “I know who.” He tapped one finger on his lip for a moment, evidently thinking, then nodded firmly. “Yes. Come with me.”


I expected him to go further into the house, although I’m not sure why. All the evidence had obviously been moved down here. Instead, he went right back out, closing the door neatly behind us. Clearly whatever happened here had been utterly silent, because there was still not even the smallest bit of attention being paid to the place.


“There’s someone you need to meet,” Reynard said crisply. “I will convey you there and back.” He glanced at Alexis, who was standing near the car with Snowflake, and then looked a question at me.


I had no intention of making that choice. “Do you want to come with us?” I asked Alexis. “You’ll learn some things, but I won’t lie, it could be dangerous.”


“What?” Reynard said, amused. “You don’t trust me?”


“Of course not. But actually, I’m more concerned about whoever we’re going to meet.” I shrugged. “Besides. Knowledge is always a dangerous thing.


Reynard smiled, but only with his eyes and posture. I had to wonder whether he was as unaccustomed to werewolves as I had initially suspected; he sure seemed to do a lot of his communicating nonverbally, which wasn’t a trait I associated with people who spent most of their time around humans.


Alexis was smart enough to think for a moment before she answered. “Will it help catch the person who did that?” she asked, her voice surprisingly hard.


I looked at Reynard, who shrugged. “I doubt her presence will tip the scale in either direction. But I have been known to be wrong before. It isn’t impossible.”


Alexis seemed to take that as a useful answer, for some reason, and nodded. “All right then. I’ll come.”


“Very well.” Rather than get in the car, Reynard turned to the open air just at the edge of the street. He held his arms out in front of him. His magic surged, filling the air with smells of the wild and the hunt. Perhaps ten seconds later, a portal unfolded between his outstretched hands, the motion reminiscent of a flower opening.


“Oh, bloody hell,” I muttered. Then, to Alexis, I said, “Okay, this is gonna suck. Step through all at once, don’t try and inch through it.” I didn’t actually know what the result would be of trying to be inside and outside the gate at the same time, but it didn’t sound like a good idea. “Other than that, try not to throw up on anyone, and remember that no matter how bad it feels, you’ll be okay. Ready?”


She nodded, looking less perturbed than I would have expected from someone watching a hole open in the fabric of the world. I took a deep breath and went through first, because I was less fragile and it would be more pleasant for all of us if Reynard went last. The portal would stay open for a couple seconds after the maker went through, presumably because that was the time spent in transit, but it was less stable, and therefore more horrible.


It was not very much fun. In point of fact, it was very much not fun. But it didn’t feel much worse than any other portal to the Otherside, which was about all that I could ask for.


When I came back to myself again, we were in a small, dimly lit room. It was barely tall enough for Reynard to stand up in, and barely wide enough for all of us to fit—although that wasn’t helped by the fact that Alexis was still prone on the stone floor, unconscious. The walls and ceiling were oak, and the light was cast by an oil lamp. I noticed all those things in the first few seconds, and one other as well. It was that last one I asked Reynard about.


“We aren’t on the Otherside,” I said to him.


He grinned a sharp, vulpine grin. “You’re quick on the uptake, aren’t you?” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not.


“I thought it wasn’t possible to open a portal between two spots on the same plane,” I noted.


“It isn’t,” he agreed. “Technically, we actually passed through two portals. The trick is to open one, then open another just on the other side of it, and step through both at once.”


Huh. That was an interesting trick—not to mention hard as hell. I couldn’t even really estimate the kind of power it would take to hold open two simultaneous portals, let alone how skilled you would need to be to hold two spells that complex in your mind at once. If I’d had any doubt that Reynard was a badass like few I’d seen, this dispelled them.


Alexis started to sit up at around that time, just in time for someone opening the door to hit her in the side and knock her back over. The newcomer was dressed in a black outfit not unlike Reynard’s, but hers didn’t look nearly so deliberately dramatic—more like she was tired of stains, and didn’t get out enough to care about her image. Her hair was a shade of brown that made me think of rat’s fur, and cut very short and plain. Her eyes were likewise brown, and hidden behind classic librarian’s glasses. In fact, the only thing about her which was at all remarkable was her one article of jewelry—if it could be called that; I wasn’t sure. Hanging on a long silver chain around her neck was an ornate bronze key. It was the type of large, heavy key used in a warded lock—you know, the ones they use in movies when they want to make it clear how archaic and old fashioned a person is, the ones with keyholes you can spy through.


Her expression when she walked in the door was neutral and professional, which lasted all of the two seconds it took for her to lay eyes on Reynard, at which point it was replaced by distaste, lightly seasoned with anger. “You,” she said in a similar tone of voice.


He sighed. “Hello, dear,” he said. “Monsieur Wolf, meet Keeper Jacqueline Fleur. Jacqueline, this is Winter Wolf.”


She stopped glaring at Reynard for a couple seconds to glare at me. “I know who it is,” she said coldly. “What do you want, Reynard?”


“They need to know about the stone.”


Jacqueline Fleur suddenly stopped looking like a frumpy woman of indeterminate years and started looking like something altogether different, something more than a little frightening. Her gaze sharpened to a glare, the iciness of which I’d seldom seen surpassed. Her fingers curled into claws at her sides, and the smell of magic filled the room, human’s disinfectant overlaid with something almost papery. Her power hung in the air around her almost like the heat haze over asphalt in the summer.


Damn. I’d seen stronger mages—but I’d never seen one this close to throwing down.


“You have no place in deciding that,” she said, her voice impressively chill.


Reynard’s was no less cold, although he made no threatening moves to match hers. “It should never have been entrusted to you. I said so long ago, and now that I am proven correct, you would tell me my place? You overstep yourself, Keeper.”


She maintained her coldly furious demeanor for another second or two, then crumpled. The smell of readied power faded, leaving just the milder aroma of a mage not currently magicking. “Very well,” she said in a resigned tone. “Your dog had best behave itself,” she told me, sounding perhaps a bit spiteful.


I snorted. “Don’t worry,” I said dryly. “Unless you piss her off, she’s probably the best-behaved person here.”


The Keeper looked doubtful, but didn’t argue with me. We stood around and waited for Alexis to finish getting herself together. It took a few minutes, and she didn’t say a thing the whole time. I got the distinct impression that my cousin was feeling seriously out of her depth, and it was making her subdued. I couldn’t blame her for that, though; I was rather overwhelmed myself.


“Please refrain from touching anything. Many of the things here are both fragile and irreplaceable.” the Keeper said as she opened the door and led us out down a short hallway. Her professionalism was firmly back in place, and you couldn’t have determined anything of her feelings from her voice. “You should feel honored, really. Usually only clan members in good standing are allowed in here, and even then only after completing a great deal of paperwork.”


She was so serious, I couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “What about Reynard?” I asked, keeping my voice utterly innocent.


She glared at me, and I got the definite impression that she wasn’t fooled a bit. “Reynard,” she said, biting off the words, “is the exception to a great many rules.”


“Yes,” he agreed, good humor evidently restored. “It’s part of my charm. I wouldn’t be half so fun if I were unexceptional.”


He might have kept talking after that, but I sort of lost track when Jacqueline opened a wooden door about halfway down the hall. It was an ordinary enough sort of door, opening into a very unordinary sort of room.


It was a little on the small side, which surprised me a little. I’d expected a vast warehouse of some sort, I suppose, but the room was only perhaps fifty feet wide, with a seven foot ceiling. I couldn’t see how long it was, because there were obstructions in the way, but from the way the air moved I was guessing no more than twice its width.


What it lacked in size, though, it made up in content. The walls were lined, floor to ceiling, with oak bookshelves, and the shelves were straining under the weight of the books on them. More shelves filled the room, leaving crooked aisles barely wide enough to walk down. There were all sorts of books, from ancient tomes two feet thick bound in faded, cracked leather to the most recent hardback bindings. None of them had any kind of label, and I didn’t look closely. As we moved through the stacks I saw racks of scrolls, tablets of stone and bronze, even a standing runestone of the sort that still dots the Scandinavian countryside. It wasn’t hard to figure out where we were. This mage didn’t just resemble a librarian, she was one—and of a library the likes of which I’d never imagined, let alone seen.


“Wow. This is incredible. I’ve never seen a library its equal. What all do you have here?” That’s what I didn’t say, because I was trying to come across all cool and worldly to everyone present except Snowflake, who knew better, and that wasn’t the sort of thing that went with that image.


Instead, I commented, “You’ve got a lot of books here,” as though it was inconsequential. The reality, of course, was rather different. I somehow got the idea that these weren’t the sort of books you bought at Barnes & Noble. Between the reek of magic and the fact that the librarian was a clan mage, I was pretty sure these were the sort of books that were filled with old knowledge and secrets man was not meant to know.


You don’t buy that sort of book with simple money. You don’t keep it with simple locks.


“It’s one of our larger collections,” our guide agreed. “Mostly the Keepers prefer to maintain numerous smaller archives. The objects here are mostly of historical value, though, making their loss a minimal danger, and the defenses here have been built up over a longer span of time. As such it was deemed safe to store more things in this location.”


Reynard snorted. “Yeah, right. And I’m sure the fact that it lets you assign one Keeper to it instead of ten didn’t factor into it at all. Face it, Jack, you don’t have the manpower to keep up all your old archives.”


Some of the wind seemed to go out of her sails. “True,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t invalidate the logic behind it. It should have been safe.”


Reynard snorted again. “Should have. Would have. Could have. And yet, strangely, was not.”


“No. It wasn’t,” she said, drawing us to a stop beside a small glass-covered table. We’d passed several of the sort on the way, with miscellaneous items on them. I’d noticed that they smelled quite strongly of magic, although it was mostly masked by the general reek and hidden behind seriously heavy-duty protections. Other than that I hadn’t examined them closely. I got the impression that showing too much interest in such things wasn’t a healthy action to take in this place.


Besides. I didn’t really want to know. There are reasons magic has been so poorly regarded throughout history, reasons why reason and science and civilization have been so eager to dismiss it as a myth and a fantasy. Magic is absolutely freaking terrifying, even to me. I didn’t want to know what the Conclave’s archivists had felt a need to keep hidden and protected.


I had seen enough, though, to know that there was something wrong with this particular case. Namely, it was empty. There was a depression in the jet-black velvet the size of my fist, but it was hollow, and from the dust I was pretty sure it had been that way for a long time.


“How familiar are you with the story of Sessho-seki?” the Keeper asked me. I must have gotten a blank look on my face, because she clarified, “The Killing Stone.”


“Can’t say I’ve heard that one,” I admitted.


“I see,” she said disapprovingly. “It’s not a very complicated story, really, although the implications are fairly interesting. In the reign of Emperor Konoe—this was around the middle of the twelfth century in Japan—a beautiful courtesan called Tamamo-no-Mae came to court. She was sweet-smelling and very neat, and though she looked young there was no question she couldn’t answer.”


“Sounds too good to be true,” I noted.


Her lips twitched faintly before she remembered that she didn’t approve of me and went back to frowning. “It was, by all accounts. Needless to say the young Emperor was utterly smitten with her, and began lavishing attention on her as though she were his Empress rather than a glorified prostitute. At the same time, he became mysteriously ill. He spoke to all manner of doctors and mystics, all of whom told him the same thing. Whatever was wrong with him had been caused by evil magic, and they couldn’t do a thing about it.”


“I can’t imagine he liked that answer.”


“No. He became convinced that he was going to die, but continued asking for help. This whole time Tamamo-no-Mae had been rising higher in the court, until by this point she was the only person the Emperor would listen to. Finally, an astrologer told the Emperor that his beloved Tamamo-no-Mae was actually a nine-tailed kitsune, and had been the one making him ill the entire time. When he returned to court the courtesan had fled, and he sent his two finest hunters to hunt her down. To make a long story short, she begged them to spare her life, they refused, and one of them shot her dead with an arrow.”


I frowned. “No normal arrow ever killed a nine-tailed kitsune.” Hell, Aiko had only one tail, and she could go toe-to-toe with a werewolf and walk away whistling. Given that a nine-tail was the height of power among the kitsune and was, of necessity, not less than nine hundred years old, you’d have to be both very powerful and very skilled to even get near her.


“That’s one problem with the official story,” Jacqueline agreed. “There are several others. But I digress. To conclude, the kitsune died, and her body became the Killing Stone. As you might have guessed from the name, anyone who touches the stone dies, instantly.”


“What happened next?” Alexis asked, making me start a little. She was standing behind me, and she’d been so quiet for the past several minutes that I’d almost forgotten she was there.


The Keeper shrugged. “Nothing. That’s the end of the story, with the exception of a Buddhist morality tale which was rather obviously tacked on at the end.”


“So that’s the official version. What really happened?”


“We don’t know. The Emperor didn’t approach any clans for advice, and between that and the poor communication of the day we didn’t know any of this at the time. We do know that there are a number of inconsistencies in the story as given. Why should Tamamo-no-Mae have tried to kill the Emperor, when it would surely be more valuable to keep him alive and besotted with her? Why wouldn’t any of the other people he consulted, some of whom did know a certain amount of magic, have been able to identify the source of his illness? As you said before, how could a simple hunter possibly kill an elder kitsune? To make matters even more unclear, the Emperor died shortly thereafter, in spite of the astrologer’s assurance that the kitsune’s death would cure his ailment.”


“Gosh,” I said dryly. “What an informative and reliable story that is.”


“Fortunately,” she said sharply, “this is the point where Conclave records do begin mentioning the stone. For the next several generations, adventurers and thrill seekers of all stripes came to the Killing Stone to test themselves against it. Monks and mystics came to exorcise it. Hotheaded young samurai came to prove they could survive where others had not, or simply so they could say that they had spent the night in the vicinity. Conclave mages came to study it. Only the last of those survived the experience, and not many of those.”


“The effects of the stone are exotic, but predictable,” she continued, settling more firmly into lecture mode. “Making skin contact with it is instantly and invariably lethal. There are verified records of contact with men, women and children, with werewolves, vampires, fae beings, and mages. It does not matter what you are or what defenses you have in place, you die. If it comes into contact with any variety of magic, it drains it—and, assuming there’s an open connection to the mage responsible, it begins to drain them as well. Several of the Conclave were unable to shut down the connection fast enough and were killed. Spending time around it produces feelings of unease, and is detrimental to the health over time. Anyone sleeping in the area experiences horrible nightmares, which were in many cases severe enough to cause insanity or suicide.”


“Nice,” I said after a moment. “I think I’m starting to get why you had it locked in here.”


She smiled humorlessly. “Oh, it gets better. Prayer, exorcisms, and persuasion have all failed to remove the curse. However, it does react to them—violently. The nightmares and the draining effect seem to worsen dramatically directly after such an attempt. The stone particularly appears to hate being prayed over, and in several cases actively attempted to kill those responsible. These incidents, as well as several other pieces of evidence, make us suspect that the stone wasn’t produced by Tamamo-no-Mae, it is her, or what’s left of her. Not just her body, but her mind, and her soul if you believe in such things.”


I imagined what that would be like. Start with the fact that I was pretty sure she’d been framed. It couldn’t be much fun to be betrayed and sentenced to death by the Emperor you thought loved you, and whom you just might have actually loved in return. Then to spend the next nine hundred years trapped in a rock, paralyzed and incommunicado, just stewing in your anger and hate for centuries….


I shivered.


“The stone was given into our keeping around three hundred years ago,” the Keeper continued. “We performed a number of experiments on it, and failed to discover anything particularly useful. After around fifty years, it was simply placed in containment. We had no problems with it—unlike many of the more dangerous collections we maintain, it was essentially inert. There were no escape attempts, nor any apparent manipulations of the environment. Our higher security sites are always stretched for resources and personnel, and over time it was deemed essentially harmless and moved here.”


“Somebody stole it,” I guessed.


“Indeed. Eighteen years ago, someone broke in here.” She frowned. “Mister Wolf, I think perhaps you have been given an inaccurate perspective on the security of this location. We are currently several hundred feet underground in France, in a cave system which was collapsed two hundred years ago. The only way to access this archive is with an Otherside portal, and outside of the Keepers there are very few individuals with the appropriate coordinates. Additionally, there are a number of wards which would trigger at the presence of an unauthorized person, and the Killing Stone itself was behind a number of additional wards and protections. It would be significantly easier to break into a secure government area than this archive.”


“And yet,” I commented, “somebody did it anyway.”


She nodded shortly, her lips pressed tightly together. “Yes. They managed to gain access without setting off any alarms, which not even authorized visitors can do. They bypassed all of the protections and went straight to this case—and I assure you, Mister Wolf, that there are much more valuable things in this room than the Killing Stone, and more lightly guarded as well. In spite of that, they took nothing else, didn’t even touch anything else.”


“Unfortunately for them,” she said, “we also maintain more subtle protections. Everything that passes through this room is tagged with an energetic marker to make tracking it simpler. The stone was hidden in some manner for the first several weeks after its theft, but we eventually tracked it down to an ordinary enough human woman. She must have purchased it from the original thief—indeed, she may have commissioned him in the first place—because there is no way that a normal human could have stolen it.”


“I can’t imagine you just sat around once you found that out.”


“Indeed,” she said wryly. “Two Keepers were dispatched immediately. They weren’t combat-trained, but it was deemed unnecessary. The Killing Stone is very dangerous, but more as a trap than a weapon. They were prepared for it—both of them had worked with the stone in the past, in fact, and were inoculated to its effects on the mind—and two mages of any disposition were deemed more than enough force to handle a single human.”


“What happened?”


“She killed them. We don’t know how. She killed them, looted them, and left the bodies in a public area as a challenge to us.” She took a deep breath. “It was deemed necessary to make a gesture of strength. Not just to recover the stone, which was clearly more dangerous than we had realized, but to ensure no one thought we were weak or vulnerable. We could not afford to seem weak. A team was assembled, consisting of four Guards, four Watchers, and one Keeper, and given orders to kill the thief and return with the Killing Stone. None of them came back.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “You’re telling me this totally ordinary human took out nine fucking clan mages?


“Trust me, it gets worse,” she assured me. “We took the time to do some research after that. Nobody knows what name she was born under, possibly including her anymore, but these days she goes by Vivian de Sousa. Twenty-one years ago she married Felipe Louis de Sousa. Two years later he was the victim of a highly public case of spontaneous combustion, the work of a local wizard on behalf of conflicting business interests. De Sousa was left the sole heir to a sizable fortune, including stakes in numerous major companies.”


“Since then,” Jacqueline continued in a grim tone, “she has dedicated herself to a life as a witch hunter—although her targets are much more varied than that would indicate. Since obtaining the Killing Stone, she has assassinated thirty-six mages that we know of. She has slaughtered more than a dozen of the fae, eradicated at least one nest of vampires, killed twenty-seven werewolves resulting in the dissolution of two different packs, and been the death of innumerable miscellaneous magical creatures and lesser talents.”


“Unlike most serial killers and extremist sects, de Sousa has never ritualized her murders, and in no cases are there signs of torture prior to death—it appears clear that she is motivated less by the suffering of her victims than by a desire, however twisted, to protect others. However, collateral damage apparently does not upset her; in her efforts to exterminate the supernatural she has also killed at least a thousand human beings, and probably a great many more. While she seems to prefer precise, surgical strikes, she adapts her tactics to the situation, and has been known to utilize a wide variety of weaponry. She is a skilled marksman, trained in demolitions, a practiced martial artist, a poisoner, and an arsonist. We cannot accurately estimate how many other artifacts and magical items she may have acquired over the past eighteen years; however, it is safe to say that she has taken several from her victims, and she isn’t without the contacts to commission more herself.”






“The smell you noticed was left by the Killing Stone,” Reynard said as he started his car again. “It’s her usual practice to touch it to each of her victims, in order to ensure they aren’t simply feigning death and to remove any identifying traces she may have left. It leaves a distinct trace.”


Behind us, Alexis looked more than a touch nauseous. “Jesus,” she muttered. “This woman killed all those people?”


“Yes,” Reynard agreed. “Four of them were rakshasas—demonic beings from India. The remainder were human servants they had retained, most of whom were mentally dominated or compelled into service.”


“But that doesn’t make any sense,” she protested. “I mean, they were just people. They were victims. Why would she kill them too?”


You sure it isn’t stupid? Snowflake asked me. Because I’m really thinking she might be dumber than a post. Never mind the vegetarian bit.


“Perhaps you were not paying attention, Miss Hamilton,” Reynard said dryly. “De Sousa is not a rational being. Attempting to apply logic to her actions is not a worthwhile investiture of time. Monsieur Wolf, where would you like me to drop you off?” I’m not sure why he called me Monsieur; he clearly spoke perfect English, and besides, he used Miss not five seconds before.


“Home, if you don’t mind,” I said, feeling very weary.


Reynard didn’t need directions. I tried to pretend that didn’t scare me.


Back at home I got a solid four hours or so of sleep, then reluctantly rousted myself, showered, and got dressed. I’d been thinking for a while about my costume. I didn’t believe for a minute that I wouldn’t be judged for it, which made the choice a rather important one. Fortunately, I thought I’d come up with something that might actually work.


I wasn’t trying to show off or look fancy. I wouldn’t have a chance with that, not when I was competing with the Sidhe. No, my objective was just to make an impression, to do something bold enough that people would have to pay attention, and respect me for having the balls to try it. It wouldn’t earn me many friends, but then, that wasn’t why I was going. I couldn’t afford to be seen as weak at a party like this; everything else was secondary.


Thus, rather than the armor I would rather have worn, I dressed in a loose black silk shirt with bands of white embroidery at wrists, hem, and neck, more lightly embroidered across the chest and back. All of the embroidery was of naturalistic designs, mostly wolves with a handful of ravens and snowflakes scattered in the mix. I matched it with loose black pants, more silk, held up by a broad black leather belt studded with bronze which wasn’t quite a sword belt. The pants tucked into tailored leather boots with more designs worked into them, in something that looked like silver but didn’t burn my fingers the way silver would have, and I tucked a pair of black silk gloves into my belt. I swept my cloak of shadow over the whole, pinning it unnecessarily at the neck with a gold wolf’s-head brooch. The eyes of the wolf were emeralds, and glittered when the light hit them.


I glanced in the massive full-length mirror lining the back wall of my closet and nodded in satisfaction. The ensemble looked both obscenely expensive and more than a little bit scary. Perfect.


To that I added enough jewelry to really drive home the “I have more money than God” image. I put a gold earring and a platinum one in each ear (as a werewolf, I can’t actually have piercings, because they heal too quickly. Instead, I had to shove the pins through my flesh every time, which was why I didn’t wear such things often. It was irritating, painful, and bloody to put in, and even worse taking out—but tonight I felt it was worth it). The pendant Edward had made in the shape of my mother’s lupine form had too much iron in it to wear to a Sidhe party, so I made do with a heavy gold chain, the pendant of which was a large chunk of black opal carved to resemble a wolf’s head. I wrapped my leather bracelet around my left arm, under the shirt, and put a gold bracelet set with amber on my right. I added a pair of gold cufflinks set with emeralds, and checked in the mirror again.


Yep. I looked like I was really, truly, disgustingly wealthy, and not afraid to flaunt it. I also looked like I hadn’t yet ruled out the possibility of attending a funeral after the party—all I’d have to do is lose a little bit of the jewelry and I’d blend in perfectly, assuming it was a very high-class funeral. Like, for royalty, maybe. Anywhere else it would look like I was considering buying the cemetery, or possibly the town it was situated in.


I made my way downstairs, where Aiko had already gotten herself prepped. She actually looked like she belonged at a party of this sort, which was a relief. The last time we’d gone to such an event she dyed her hair green and wore heavily patched jeans and a T-shirt with the legend Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. To the court of the Dragon King. Aiko is not necessarily the most stable, danger-conscious person around. She’d said she wasn’t going to do anything like that this time, but you can never quite tell with her.


She’d cropped her hair raggedly just above her ears, most likely with a knife, but it was still black, which was something. She wasn’t wearing a dress, but that was to be expected; I’d never once seen her in a dress, and in fact had a hard time imagining it. But she was dressed in a manner which could at least vaguely be construed as somewhat formal, sorta, in a perfectly white judogi jacket belted with a narrow obi striped red and white, a jet black hakama, and black slippers. She wasn’t wearing nearly as much adornment as I was, just one ring each of shadow and ice, another of twisted gold wire, and a close-fitting necklace of fancy chainmail (gold, of course, because really, why not?). There was a tanto tucked into her obi, just discrete enough to not look like she was trying to conceal it, which was almost pretty enough with its jeweled sheath and carved bone handle to qualify as jewelry itself.


It wasn’t that far off from what I was wearing, actually, at least in intent—a little classier, a little more understated, subtler, but not any less threatening. Not any less of a statement of wealth, either; that necklace wasn’t as flashy as what I was wearing, but it was perfect craftsmanship using very small rings. You have to pay through the roof for that kind of quality—not to mention that it was several ounces of gold.


Of course, at the moment she was sitting in front of the enormous fire in the sitting room prodding Snowflake with one slippered foot and trying to convince Alexis of the virtues of the electric cello, which did a lot to subtract from the image. But that was the sort of thing you got used to around Aiko.


Alexis looked up when I walked in, then blinked and did a double take. “Holy shit, Winter. You look scary.”


I grinned. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever seen her use that knife. It only looks like it’s for show.”


Aiko snorted. “At least I’m not carrying a grenade.”


“It isn’t technically a grenade,” I said in a wounded tone. “Besides, it’ll only trigger if I say boom, and I don’t—” I broke off suddenly, and turned a horrified stare on my cloak pocket.


Alexis, proving that her survival instinct was developing apace, promptly threw herself behind a couch. Even Aiko stood up and quickly put some space between herself and me. Snowflake didn’t move, but then she could see my intention, so she hardly counted.


I held it in is long as I could before I broke out laughing. Aiko, being quicker on the uptake and more accustomed to this sort of prank, stalked back to her upset chair, righted it, and sat back down. “Bastard,” she muttered, not without a certain amount of admiration.


“The person I bought it from promised me it takes a command phrase—which I’m not going to say—and an effort of will,” I said, laughing. “Come on, people. Do you really think I’m that dumb?”


“With reason,” Aiko said. “Remember the Hamadryad Incident?”


“You were the one picking music for that,” I said in an outraged tone. “And don’t even mention the Koala Incident, that was all you.”


“Uh-huh,” she said skeptically. “And the Chinchilla Incident?”


I sniffed. “Could have happened to anyone.”


“Right. And the Steampunk Incident?”


“That one was not—wait. Which one was that?”


“The one with the hairbrush,” she said helpfully. “And the cowboy boots. And the glass of punch. I think there was a cursed teapot involved, too.”


“Oh, right. That Steampunk Incident. I don’t even know what the hell was going on there.”


“Are you two for real?” Alexis interrupted.


I snorted. “Think about it. Do you really think I’m creative enough to make this sort of thing up?” I glanced at the enormous grandfather clock in the corner. “We need to go.”


“Where are we going?” my cousin asked.


We are going to a party. You are staying here.”


“Why?” Give her credit, she sounded only moderately defensive.


“First, you aren’t ready for this sort of thing. You walk into this sort of party with as little as you know, you’ll be very lucky to walk back out. Second, I can’t afford the distraction. I walk into this sort of party trying to look after you, I’ll be very lucky to walk back out. Third and most important, the invitation was for two only, and they’re expecting both of us, so I couldn’t bring you even if I wanted to.”


She’d been looking progressively more outraged as I went on, but her expression fell at that last bit. “Oh.”


I grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get to risk your life for no reason doing something pointlessly dangerous and mind-bogglingly stupid again soon. Until then you’ve got the run of the house, with the same rules as before.” I didn’t offer to tell her said rules again; if she couldn’t handle a memory exercise that simple, she had no business sticking her nose into this sort of thing anyway. “Remember, if Snowflake tries to tell you something, pay attention. She’s probably the smartest person in this room.”


Gosh, not setting the bar very high, are you? She came over and butted her head against my thigh, making a sort of soft growling noise. Go on, get out of here. The sooner you two leave, the sooner we can get the part where you get kidnapped or some such shit because I’m not there over with.

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