Monthly Archives: January 2015

Balancing Act 6.7

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By the time I made it back home, it was around nine. I’d only had to open one portal this time, as Brick did the first one for me. I left him in his strange underground home, after first promising again to watch each other’s backs. I made a few calls on the way, less satisfactorily than I might have hoped. I told Kris that Brick was all right, and generally what had happened to him. She wasn’t particularly surprised, which made me wonder whether she’d actually pointed me at him as a roundabout way of getting me involved in this mess. I couldn’t help but think that, considering how much difficulty someone of Kris’s relatively minor talents would have getting the job done herself, tangling me up in the middle of a horribly tangled mess in a free-fire zone was a damned good way to assassinate me. Nobody would even suspect her.


I didn’t think that particularly likely. We’d always gotten along pretty well, and in any case she’d always struck me as the sort who dealt with her problems directly—but, then, that was exactly what she would want me to think, if she really was out to get me, wasn’t it?


I never used to think things like that about my friends. I sometimes think that’s the worst part about getting involved in the political scene, even slightly. You have to be paranoid of everyone, and assume that every single person you meet is lying to you in order to set up a hit of some sort, just to survive.


I hate that.


But, of course, that didn’t change a damned thing.


Other than that, I made brief calls to Mike and Katie trying to talk them out of helping Jimmy with his insane behavior. I made no progress whatsoever—they were both too stubborn, too dedicated. No surprise, really; of all the Inquisition, it was those two who had started doing what they did out of a sense of moral obligation, rather than any personal motive. A zealot, I reflected, was always the worst sort of person to try and talk out of something. Once they get the wind in their sails, nothing will sway them.


On the other hand, I did confirm more or less what Brick had told me about the split in the group. Mac and Chuck had both quit going on monster-killing trips several weeks back, although Mac was still healing them after they won the fights. The rest—Brick, Doug, Kris, and Matthew—were still willing to help, but felt that they should sit this round out. Some of the things Katie said made me suspect that she had taken their reluctance to undertake a suicide mission as a personal affront, a suggestion that they weren’t as dedicated to the Great Cause as they should be.


That scared me, a little. I mean, it wouldn’t be the first time an extremist group schismatized and then executed a purge on its less extreme members. And Katie, although a nice enough person and truly dedicated to Doing the Right Thing, could be very, very scary in how far she was willing to go to do so. More so than the rest of them, even, and that was saying something.


That could get ugly, fast.


There also wasn’t anything I could do about it, at least not right now. So I put it on the back burner and went home to have a nice chat with my cousin about the nature of life, the universe, and everything, with maybe a side conversation on the topic of magic and the fallible nature of any human’s perception of reality. If I got really lucky, she might even tell me the truth about what she was doing here this time.


“Do you have any idea how awesome this is?” Alexis asked me, gesturing grandiosely. Her cheeks were flushed, her eyes were bright, and she generally had the look of some excited almost to the point of autourination.


I looked around the kitchen. “Not really, no. How awesome is it?”


“I’ve known professional chefs that would have killed for a setup like this,” she said exuberantly. “How much did this cost?”


“Um. Actually, I really don’t have any idea. I don’t really spend all that much time here. I’m a pretty bad cook, you know.”


I really don’t think that Alexis could have looked more shocked if I’d run naked down the street while loudly proclaiming myself the king of the muskrats. And spitting fire. And maybe even piloting one of those Chinese paper dragon thingies they break out for New Year’s. It looked like she was about to have a fit, although whether it would be outrage at my lack of culinary skill or ecstasy over my kitchen seemed to be still up for debate. Seriously, she looked like she was about to start humping the food processor or something.


I decided to move the conversation to another location, and topic, before I could find out whether that was a more literal statement than I thought it was. I had seen and heard—and, depending of course on your definitions, probably done—stranger and more unsettling things, but still. You shouldn’t get that excited over a kitchen. It’s just not natural.


“How’d things go this morning?” I asked, sitting on one of the couches in the throne room. There were more comfortable places—actually, in that house, the throne room was probably the least comfortable place—but this was closer. Besides, I wasn’t anticipating staying long.


“Not bad,” she said, sounding a little calmer now that she wasn’t surrounded by high-quality cookware. “I only woke up a few hours ago.”


“Is Aiko awake?” That wasn’t at all certain; she tends not to be an early to bed, early to rise type. She usually woke up before noon, but by no means always.


Alexis snorted. “Yeah. She spent most of the past two hours trying to convince me to break all the rules you told me last night.”


“Did you?”


She treated me to the look normally reserved for the cripplingly mentally impaired—which, again, probably justified. “I’ve read Bluebeard, Winter. Of course I didn’t.”


I chuckled. “Good job not being a complete moron, then.”


“Thanks. Anyway, a little while ago she gave up on that. She said she was going to go take out the traps on my bedroom.”


I grinned. “Don’t believe it. She won’t do anything that might seriously hurt you, but there’s no way she won’t take the opportunity to prank you.”


“Thanks,” she said dubiously. “So what are you doing now?”


“I’m starving,” I said. “How do you feel about going out for a bite to eat?”


She frowned. “Are you sure? I mean, there’s a ton of food here. I could cook something. It wouldn’t be a problem.”


I sighed. “I know that, Alexis. What I meant was, how do you feel about going out for a bite to eat, where I can talk to some people, maybe introduce you to some of them worth knowing, maybe run a few errands. All of which, you may notice, are things I can’t do here.”


She flushed. “Oh. Right.” She hesitated for a second. “Isn’t that dangerous, though? I mean, I thought you said I shouldn’t leave the house….”


I shrugged. “It’s possible. You’ll have Snowflake and me with you, so it should be relatively safe. After we wiped out their last strike force they’ll probably be a little more hesitant to hit you directly while you’re with us. But yeah, it’s possible that something bad will happen, and I can’t guarantee your safety.” I shrugged again. “End of the day, it’s up to you. If you want to avoid anything that might be dangerous, you’ll never leave this building—and even that, by the way, isn’t perfect. This house is a hell of a tough nut to crack, so you’re safer here than most places, but nowhere’s totally secure.”


She took a deep breath and nodded. “Right. I know that,” she said firmly. “So where are we going?”


“One second,” I said, and went upstairs to say goodbye to Aiko. Well, actually it was mostly to tell her that Brick hadn’t done anything overtly dastardly to me; she has a tendency to overreact rather extremely to people she finds threatening, and she has a hair trigger when it comes to the people she cares about. You’d never guess it from casual interaction, but she’s actually rather protective.


I also helped her prop a bucket of maple syrup (don’t ask me where she got it, because I have no freaking idea) over Alexis’s door. And coat several doorknobs and handles with bear fat (likewise of mysterious origin). Because really, some things are just too funny not to do. And I’d already warned Alexis, anyway. If she really wanted to get into my world, she had to develop a proper sense of paranoia, and there was no time like the present to start building it. Better by far that she start out with harmless pranks. It would be good practice for when people started seriously trying to kill her.


“So,” Alexis said as we walked down the street. She’d offered to drive, but it was a lovely fall morning, and those don’t come along often enough to disregard them. Besides, we weren’t traveling all that far. “I think you owe me a conversation.”


“Yep,” I agreed cheerfully. “It’s a lot of explaining, but we can start with something fairly simple. Do you believe in magic?”


“What do you mean by magic?” she asked guardedly.


“That’s actually a sort of difficult question,” I said. “But, again, we can start simple. Magic itself is, essentially, a force. It doesn’t register to scientific instruments, because it isn’t entirely physical in nature. Someone with the right set of talents can manipulate that force, make it do things which are detectable physically. Sometimes those things don’t make a lot of sense, from a scientific perspective, and as a result most people dismiss them as impossible.” I shrugged. “There’s a lot more, and depending on who you ask you can get all kinds of philosophy and metaphysical bullshit mixed in with it, but that’s the basics.”


“Magic,” she said, sounding a little numb.


“Yep. Do you believe that?”


“I guess so,” she said, although she didn’t sound particularly happy about it.


“Good,” I said. “Because it’s real. It doesn’t work much like you might expect, but it does exist, and it’s responsible for basically all the weirdness you’ve been noticing.”


Alexis was silent for a while, absorbing that. “Why were you surprised by the lightning?” she asked at last.


“Well,” I said, “that brings us to the next point. I mentioned the other day that you’re not entirely human, right?” She nodded. “Well, that’s still true. And most of the things that can do magic aren’t human, not even a little bit. But some magic is human in origin, right? I’ve got some ability for that, and given that it’s human it must have come from my mother—that sort of thing doesn’t have to be inherited, but more often than not there’s some sort of blood connection. Your mom doesn’t have any magic that I’ve noticed, and I have looked, but I’m guessing it runs in the family. Probably just skipped a generation.”


She nodded thoughtfully. “So the ice and stuff…?”


“Doesn’t have any connection to the lightning,” I confirmed. “Totally unrelated traits. I could make a spark of static electricity, but I’d have to work for it. Theoretically I might be able to induce a lightning strike, but it would take several hours of effort, and the end result is as much luck as anything. I sure couldn’t do it reliably.”


Alexis blinked. “Why not?”


“How many languages do you know?”


“Um. Just the one,” she said, clearly confused by the non sequitur.


“Me too,” I said, nodding. “I know a handful of phrases in Spanish, and I can curse in most of the languages of Europe. That’s it. Do you think that makes me an idiot?”


“Of course not.”


“Me neither. But Aiko speaks Japanese, English, Latin, German, Italian, Spanish, and French fluently. She can get by in Greek and Arabic, and God only knows what else that she hasn’t told me about.”




I grinned. “I know, right?” I shook my head, my smile fading. “I’m never going to know that many languages. It doesn’t matter how hard I work. It isn’t something I’m good at.” I shrugged. “But I’m better than her with mathematics. I have a better grounding in history, and most of the sciences. I’ve read most of the major religious and philosophical works, and a lot of the minor ones. And it isn’t bragging to say I’m really, really good at making things. So you tell me, which of us is smarter?”


Comprehension dawned on her face. “You’re good at different things.”


“Exactly. And I’ll bet you fifty to one, right now, that there’s something you know better than either of us. It might be something small, might seem petty or unimportant, but you know it. You’re good at it. Because that’s how people work, right? Nobody’s good or bad at everything. Well, that applies to magic too.”


“So lightning isn’t something you’re good at?”


“Nope,” I confirmed. “Electricity in general, in fact. It’s really not something I’ve practiced with.” I shrugged. “That’s how mages work, pretty much. You can work on it, and with enough work you can learn to do other things, but you need to accept right now that you’ll never have more than a small subset of skills. Odds are good that electricity will be the only thing you can work with at all for a long time.”




“You have to understand, we’re kids playing with fire here. We don’t really understand magic—or, at least, nobody I’ve ever talked to does. We know how it works, sorta, but why? Beats me.” I shrugged again. “Because that’s how mages work. It always goes the same way. When your power starts to develop—usually that happens between ten and fifteen, but it isn’t rare for it to wait until you’re nineteen or twenty, so you aren’t terribly unusual—it always goes in more or less the same way. There’s one thing, one single and specific thing, that you can do. It’s easy, it’s natural, it comes without even having to think about it. The first thing you have to learn is how to control it, how to leash it to your conscious mind. You’ll always do it instinctively, but you can learn to use it deliberately, and how to make it do what you want. Once that’s done, you can start experimenting with other applications, learn what you’re good at.”


“How long does that take?”


“Depends,” I said. “There’s a lot of factors involved. It took me around two, maybe three years from when I started showing a talent until I had solid control over it. But that’s something of a special case. It shouldn’t take you more than a year, I’d guess.”


She absorbed that for a moment. “What’s yours, then?”


“Animals,” I said simply. “Well, predatory animals, really, and mammals by preference. I can do all kinds of mind magic involving predators, inhabit their bodies with my consciousness, that sort of thing. I have a certain amount of power over them, but I don’t use it like that very often, because it’s rude and it’s unnecessary.”


She looked from me to Snowflake and back again, and once again I got to see sudden understanding light up her face.


I grinned. “Nice catch. Not many people get it that fast. Yeah, Snowflake’s more than just a normal dog. She’s a hell of a lot smarter, for one thing—smarter than a lot of people I know. She also knows more languages than me.”


“Could I talk to her?” Alexis sounded almost wistful.


“Not likely,” I said, not without a certain amount of sympathy. “It’s an extremely unusual ability. You might learn to talk with Snowflake specifically, because she isn’t normal herself, but you’ll probably never be able to communicate with other animals.


“Oh. What’s she say about me?” she asked a moment later.


You want me to tell her the truth, or make something up?


Might as well tell it like it is. Unless you can think of something funny to say, which isn’t likely.


“She thinks you’re a bit naive,” I said aloud. “She’s spent her whole life around me, so she sort of has a hard time understanding how little you know about our world.”


Wow, way to soft-pedal what I said. How gutless. You didn’t call her an idiot even once.


Oh, shush. To Alexis, I said, “Okay, we’re almost there. Some of the people you’re about to meet are pretty scary, but you’ll be fine if you follow a few simple rules.”


She turned to look at me, her face cautious. She was taking me seriously, and she was smart enough to be a little bit afraid. Good.


“Stick close to me,” I said. “I’m known here. If you make it clear that you’re with me, they’ll treat you with a lot more respect. Don’t make any trades. I’m serious about that—not even one as simple as swapping phone numbers. Don’t offer anyone a gift. Don’t accept any gifts, either, unless I tell you it’s okay. If someone looks offended, apologize, even if you think it’s their fault or you don’t understand what they’re upset about.”


She waited a bit, then said, “Is that all?”


“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “No, there’s a whole hell of a lot more to it than that. It can be a lifetime’s worth of work to really understand this crowd. But those are the big ones. Remember those and follow my lead, and you should be just fine.”


Pryce’s bar is an interesting place. He doesn’t advertise, and at this time of day he had relatively few customers, it being between breakfast and lunch. As such, there was little to distinguish his establishment from the abandoned warehouses around it. The restaurant itself was in another warehouse, unmarked by any form of declaration. Either you knew what it was, or you had no business being there.


As with many less mundane parts of the world, it was only if you looked closely that you could begin to see its true nature. There was no graffiti on the building, which was unusual in this area. The door was a heavy slab of oak, not cheap pine or institutional metal. There were never many passersby on this street, but if you watched long enough and closely enough you would still see that those who were there never seemed to go near the building. It didn’t seem to be a matter of deliberate choice. It was more like they simply didn’t go near, left a cautious space around it without conscious thought, the way they might an undertaker’s place of business. It wasn’t that you were afraid of it, or that you stigmatized it, because you of course were a reasonable, intelligent, unprejudiced person and would never think of attaching that sort of superstition to the profession.


You just didn’t see a reason to go near. That’s all. Really. Nothing to see here, move along.


I, of course, walked straight up to the door and opened it. Alexis looked a little uncertain, a bit uneasy, which was in my experience a perfectly normal reaction from an ordinary person approaching Pryce’s for the first time. Part of it’s the spell he has around it to keep plain old humans from coming around, but I think more is that they are subconsciously aware that this isn’t a place which belongs to their ordinary, rational, skeptical world.


She followed along gamely enough, though, and didn’t complain. Points for resilience. She hesitated a little when I opened the door to reveal a short flight of stairs down to the restaurant itself. I didn’t blame her for that, because the room was just dim enough in comparison to the daylight that a human would have a bit of trouble seeing for the first few minutes.


Of course, the bar itself might have been responsible for that. If so, I didn’t blame her for that, either. Pryce’s is a rather overwhelming place at first—especially given that, from what she said, I was pretty sure Alexis was interpreting magic as a visual sensation, rather than an olfactory one the way I did. There was a lot of magic in Pryce’s. Until she learned to distinguish that from actual vision, she might have a hard time seeing in here.


I waited patiently for her to adjust, then led her across the room to my favorite corner table. “Welcome to Pryce’s,” I said grandiosely. “Favorite watering hole of all the magical misfits, supernatural outcasts, and generalized freaks in the city. Possibly even the state.”


“What should I have to eat?” she said, looking around uncomfortably.


I shrugged. “Whatever you want. Just ask; if they can’t do something, they’ll tell you so.” Pryce doesn’t actually have a menu. He doesn’t see the need, and nobody’s willing to argue with him about it.


People don’t argue with Pryce about much of anything, in fact. Partially because he’s nigh-godly powerful on his home ground, which he never leaves. But mostly I think it’s just that if you try, he just responds with noncommittal grunts and monosyllables until you give up and go away. It’s hard to really argue or debate with someone who refuses to cooperate.


There’s probably a lesson there, somewhere.


Alexis asked for a spinach-and-mushroom omelet, with ice water to drink. I, being rather more ambitious, had a hamburger with all manner of toppings on it, including some that people don’t normally think of in that context, including sausage gravy, sliced avocado, and a fried egg, and a very large glass of very strong iced tea.


My cousin looked at me uncomfortably. “You really don’t care about your body at all, do you?”


“Alexis,” I said dryly, “trust me. Compared to a lot of the things I’ve done to it over the years, this is a six-month stay in a luxury hotel. There isn’t even any blood involved.” I frowned. “You aren’t really a vegetarian, are you?”


“Yes, actually.”


Great. Just what I needed.


While we ate, I sketched out the basics of the supernatural scene for Alexis. I told her who the really big players were, and a little bit about them. (Snowflake made the occasional comment, some of which I passed along to Alexis. But mostly she was more interested in a bowl of meat and bones and another of water that Pryce handed me without being asked. We’re fairly routine about some things, after all.) I explained the dangerous position of people playing the game without one of those groups to back them up, and how a lot of those people tended to congregate here. We—and I made sure she understood she was included in this—were the flotsam and jetsam of the magical world. In some ways it was like being an illegal immigrant, actually; our presence was tolerated by the real citizens, and occasionally they would kick some work our way, but we didn’t have the same rights, or privileges, or legal protection. If you didn’t have an affiliation with a larger group, anyone who did could kick you around more or less at will, and there wasn’t a lot you could do about it.


I wasn’t quite that bad off. I knew the Khan personally, and his was a name to scare even scary people. Between that and the years I’d spent racking up accomplishments and building connections, I was pretty well established. I had a decent number of names to drop and a decent collection of achievements to boast about. I’d earned respect in this crowd. They were, by and large, mean sons of bitches, because you have to be to survive that kind of life—but they would hesitate before causing trouble for me.


Alexis didn’t have that protection. The only name she knew was mine, and I just wasn’t scary enough to shield her with my reputation. I had no intention of broadcasting that she was my cousin, and even if I did, that wouldn’t change a thing. In the supernatural world people usually only respect you for yourself. I could probably get some awed whispers by saying that I was related, however distantly, to the Fenris Wolf, but that would be more because I’d spent time talking to him personally and shared a drink with him. I’d met other people with that kind of heritage at Pryce’s, and aside from people buying them drinks in exchange for stories it didn’t matter a bit who their great-to-the-nth-degree-grandfather was.


Once the food was finished, we set about introducing Alexis to the community, and vice versa. I introduced her to Pryce, and Luna, and Rachel, in all three cases referring to her only as a mage just starting out, rather than making any mention of our family connection. She got along with all of them quite well, or at least as well as anyone gets along with Pryce. He isn’t exactly a wellspring of cheer. It was Saturday, which was Chuck’s day off (he worked as a mechanic, and had done for a number of years now), so I wasn’t especially surprised to see him already there drinking. The shapeshifter takes his booze seriously, and even so early in the morning it wasn’t terribly unusual for him to be at Pryce’s downing beers. Alexis turned down his offer of a drink, but they spent a few minutes chatting. She flirted with him a bit, although clearly both parties knew there was nothing serious to it, and generally both of them seemed to have a good time. It was good progress at introducing her to the local scene, at any rate; Chuck wasn’t aligned with anyone, but nobody really had a grudge against him, either, and those two facts combined to mean that he was drinking buddies with half of the freaks in town.


That was the good news. The bad news was that my primary purpose in coming here, finding out more about what was going on, was a total bust. Pryce wasn’t willing to compromise his notoriously strict neutrality, and I didn’t even ask him about it. Rachel hadn’t heard anything, which wasn’t a surprise. She was in the same position as I’d been most of my life—she had magic, she wasn’t normal, but she only dabbled in the community. She came to Pryce’s for company and food, not politicking. Essentially, Rachel didn’t know about the territory war because it didn’t matter to her who claimed to own the city, so long as they left the small-timers alone—which all of them would, because there was no reason not to.


Luna, of course, was an entirely different story. She’d heard tidbits, because it was her job to hear things, and she was willing to trade for what I knew. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much. She’d heard the rumor that the Daylight Court was making a play, but no hard evidence. The other Council interest in town was a gang of rakshasas, who were more than likely the enemy Katrin wanted me to take out for her. Rumor said they’d tried to hit the vampire (whose name, incidentally, Luna did not know) last night and got their asses handed to them, but the only thing anyone knew for sure was that a building had gone boom.


In return I told her that a skinwalker had taken an interest, and the other serious competitors were yokai. I probably gave more than I got, but I didn’t mind too much. It couldn’t hurt to build up some more goodwill with her, considering that she was still the best source for local info I had.


Chuck, of course, didn’t know a thing. He was happily withdrawn from the (slightly) higher level of involvement that working with the Inquisition had forced him to take, and exulting in the peace and quiet.


I tried a half-dozen other people, too, who I didn’t know as well. A couple of old small-scale mages, a half-breed fae I’d met through Val, some guy whose magic smelled like rain but was otherwise unidentifiable. He’d bought a few things from me in the past, and we got along reasonably well, but I didn’t know his name and hadn’t shared mine—although he probably knew it anyway. People like that.


I didn’t learn anything from them, either. In all, after close to an hour of work, I had pretty much nothing to show for it at all. I hadn’t learned anything new about the territory war, aside from the fact that it was starting to seriously pick up momentum. I hadn’t learned what would create the bizarre corpses Frishberg had shown me. I had not, in fact, learned anything.


“Okay,” Alexis said as we sat back down. Snowflake had kept the table clear for us while we circulated throughout the room. “So what do we do now?”


I grinned. “Now,” I said, “we wait.”


“Uh-huh,” she said skeptically. “For what?”


“Well,” I said, “now everyone knows what we want. We’ll give it a few minutes to see if any of them want to come talk.”


Said minutes dragged by, slower than molasses in February. It seemed nobody was interested in helping me out at the moment. I was just considering leaving, and trying to figure out what my next move should be, when someone sat down across from us.


She was around five feet tall and slender, maybe a hundred pounds. She was fine-boned and had sharp, Asian features and close-cropped black hair, and was wearing jeans, boots, and a biker’s leather jacket. The leather smelled, obviously, like leather, but through that I could pick out a familiar aroma. Her magic smelled like fox, and under that a tone reminding me of the desert, all hot winds and broad expanses of sand.


Aiko smelled less like desert, and more like spice—nutmeg and cinnamon, mostly. But other than that, it was very similar. A kitsune, she had to be, the second one I’d met.


“You mind if I sit here?” she asked, having already sat. Her voice was much more heavily accented than Aiko’s—presumably, this kitsune had less lingual facility. Or perhaps she was just more accustomed to speaking Japanese; Aiko was fluent, and I was reasonably confident it was her first language, but I’d never heard her speak it, not even a word. She has issues.


“Not at all,” I said, smiling without any particular warmth and being sure to show teeth. I met her eye as I did, just to make sure the message got through.


“Thanks,” she said. If she noticed my coldness, she didn’t show it. “I hear you’re interested in current events.”


I nodded my head, very slightly. “I expect you know something of such things yourself.”


She smiled enigmatically. “Perhaps so.”


I paused, and then sighed. “Okay, look. I’ve had a long day, okay? So how about we stop beating around the bush. What do you want?”


“I thought I’d share information.”


“No, but really, what do you want?”


She laughed. “I spoke truth, Master Wolf. I wish only to inform you.”


“Uh, not to look a gift horse in the mouth here, but why?”


She shrugged. It was irritating, because her body language was almost the same as what I was used to seeing from Aiko, but just a little different. This particular gesture was somehow both stiffer and more rolling than hers. “It isn’t a great burden to me. Besides, you’re with my cousin.”


“Ah,” I said, nodding. “That explains a bit, then. So who’s leading your people’s bid to take over the city?”


“What makes you think I’m involved in that?”


I smiled again, thinly and coldly. “I really think this conversation would go better for all of us if you would kindly stop trying to trick me into giving things away and just tell me openly what you want from me, madam.”


She looked me over again, her gaze more considering this time. “You aren’t as dull as they say you are, are you?”


I sighed. “I have little time or patience at the moment, kitsune. Thrice I ask and done, what do you want? Answer me this time, or this conversation is over.”


She frowned, and nodded sharply, once. “As you might imagine, even in a relatively minor conflict the fog of war is considerable. We are all pressing our intelligence capabilities to the limits, the more so because we are not familiar with the area. As you have spent a great deal more time here, I think it likely that you have knowledge we are not privy to. Are you willing to trade?”


I spread my hands out to my sides. “There, you see? Was that so difficult?” I frowned, turning serious again. “I’m quite willing to trade information with you, yes, although I must warn you that my information is not nearly as complete as I might hope.”


She nodded again. “Not surprising, considering that you’re still asking around about it. What do you wish in return?”


I shrugged. “Ideally, I would like to know who leads the yokai here. I would like to know what your goals are, in a general sense.” She opened her mouth to protest, and I hurried to cut her off. “I am not asking for information regarding your strategies, or indeed anything which I could use against you. I only want to find out what you want in this city, and why you’re moving here and now.”




I sighed. “I live here. It’s my home. Granted I could move, but I can’t say I want to—I like it here. Given that, and given that you apparently want to claim the area, is it really so surprising that I want to know who you are, and what I can expect if you should be successful?”


“I suppose not,” she allowed. “That sounds fair to me.”


I nodded. “I give you my word I will share all information I have pertinent to this territory dispute, at this time, with the exception of a minor incident of a personal nature which I have excellent reason to believe is relevant only to me, and has no bearing on your request or the conflict which you are interested in.”


I could tell she wasn’t happy about that addendum, but I was hardly going to tell her about the attack on Alexis. Besides, if I really wanted to deceive her, I wouldn’t have mentioned it at all, would I? “And I,” she said, “give you my word that I will tell you the name used by the leader of our force in this city, and why he has come here. You first or me?”


“Me,” I said. It was polite, and it would tell her that I trusted her word. I’d been pressing pretty hard, especially considering that she was of a species noted more for trickery and misdirection than straight dealing, and I figured if I wanted to not make an enemy right here I’d better start laying it on thick.


“Since the local werewolf pack left for greener pastures this spring,” I began, “I understand that this area has been considered vacant territory, although I only found out about this myself a short time ago. It seems that this ignorance is general locally, which makes me believe that this conflict has only recently begun in earnest. However, I have substantial evidence that it has properly begun now, and will be escalating shortly.”


“What evidence is that?” she asked.


“First, I was informed by one of the parties involved that things are heating up, and he requested that I remove myself from town for a time to avoid the violence—don’t worry, I’ll discuss him further in a moment. Second, the local law enforcement found several corpses which appear to have been killed using a form of magic I have yet to identify. Circumstances surrounding the victims suggest that they may have been in some way involved with the supernatural, and as a result I suspect that they were killed as an opening salvo in this war. Third, I have an unreliable report claiming that a skirmish occurred last night between a group of rakshasas and a local vampire, involving a sizable explosion. For something that large and public to occur implies an escalation of hostilities.”


“It wasn’t a vampire,” she said grimly. “I can tell you that for free.”


Well, wasn’t that interesting. “Moving on to the parties involved, then,” I said, pretending I hadn’t heard her. “A knowledge broker I occasionally deal with said his info reported a group of yokai involved, which I believe you have confirmed, and also that there was a party from the Vampires’ Council with an interest. A local source confirmed that, and specifically identified a group of rakshasas as the party in question, although I have yet to investigate that further. I’ve also heard that the Daylight Court is involved, but at this point I’m reasonably confident that rumor’s unfounded.”


“It is,” she assured me. “We’d know, otherwise.”


“Yes, well. Other than that there’s a local group of mages interested in claiming the territory, but considering that they have no formal training and there’s only four of them actively participating in the effort, I doubt they represent a threat to you. The only other participant I know of is the one who warned me away. I’m reasonably confident he was a skinwalker, but given that nobody else seems to know anything about it he’s probably just now starting his bid for power in the area.”


The kitsune’s eyes got wider—just a little bit, but enough. “A skinwalker? That…explains a few things.”


I wanted to ask what. But I hadn’t bargained for that information, and I didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of telling me so. So I just smiled cryptically. “Well, then, I believe that’s everything.”


She nodded. “Yes, and generously. My turn, then. The person leading the yokai in this matter is a tengu named Kikuchi Kazuhiro. He’s around three hundred years old, and thinks it’s time he was dai-tengu. Except he lived on Mount Kurama.”


I didn’t know much about the tengu, because let’s face it, there were just so many supernatural critters that nobody could know much about more than the tiniest fraction of them. But they were one of the more prominent yokai, and I knew the important things. Thus, rather than look confused, I was able to nod knowingly. “And Sojobo will never give up his mountain,” I said. Sojobo, who was the chief tengu on Mount Kurama, was quite possibly the biggest badass of any Japanese myth, excluding bona fide gods and certain dragons. He sure as hell wasn’t going to yield to some kid of a mere three centuries, not when he himself was at least a thousand years old, and probably twice that.


“Exactly,” the kitsune said. “And there aren’t many unclaimed mountains in Japan. There are a handful of hills he could have moved into, but that isn’t a good way to build your reputation. He could have challenged one of the other dai-tengu, but that isn’t a good way to keep breathing. Then he found out that there’s a great big mountain this side of the ocean, a famous mountain, that nobody had claimed. If he was the first dai-tengu in North America, everyone would know his name.”


“That doesn’t sound particularly profitable for you,” I noted.


She shrugged. “I had nothing better to do,” she said easily. “And besides, this is good for my reputation too. And it’s never bad for a dai-tengu to owe you one.”


“Is it worth your life? Because that’s what it might end up costing, given whom he’s fighting here.”


She snorted. “No, it isn’t. That’s why I’m only here as a scout. Kazuhiro can fight his own damned battles; I never offered to fight for him.”


“You know that,” I said gently. “He knows that, and is of course too honorable to ask you to do so.” I managed to say that with a straight face. “But that doesn’t mean the bad guys do. Just be careful, that’s all I’m saying.” It was a narrow line between patronizing and threatening on that last bit, so I just delivered it without any particular inflection or tone at all.


She narrowed her eyes belligerently, which made me feel pretty good about that choice. She struck me as the sort who wouldn’t react well to being patronized, and threats at that point would have been tacky to say the very least. “What do you care?” she asked, her chin thrust forward as though daring me to pick a fight.


I smirked. “It isn’t a great burden to me,” I said, mimicking her vapid tone from earlier. “Besides, I’m with your cousin.”


She considered holding on to the attitude for a second, then decided on a bark of laughter instead. “I guess you are, at that. Tell her Kimiko says hello.” Apparently that was goodbye, because she stood up and walked out without another word.


I was all set to leave, after that. I’d gotten whatever information was to be had here, and I figured that if I left now I’d have time to catch up on sleep and maybe spend some more time talking with Alexis about just what she was getting herself into. I’d even stood up, Alexis and Snowflake following my lead, when we were interrupted by the sudden appearance of another visitor.


I don’t mean that he didn’t stop and chat on his way there. I don’t mean that he was moving quickly, either. If he moved at all, it was either too fast or too concealed to be visible. From my perspective, he just appeared, standing behind the chair just vacated by Kimiko.


Alexis gasped in surprise. I managed to remain silent, but couldn’t help twitching a little. Even Snowflake said, Not bad, with the mental equivalent of a raised eyebrow.


The man facing us was slender, taller than average, and dressed all in dusty black. The clothing contrasted sharply with his hair, which was a brilliant shade of red I would have assumed to be the product of dye anywhere else, and grass-green eyes. He smelled of grass and trees and hours spent in the sun, and more strongly of a predator’s musk.


As I watched, he nodded to me, deeply enough to just about qualify as a bow, and sat down. “Bonjour, Monsieur Wolf,” he said, his voice mellifluous and surprisingly deep.


I sat too, glaring at him and being careful not to make eye contact. “Yeah, hello to you too. What do you want?”


“Pardon?” he said, sounding about as French as it was possible to sound.


I sighed. “You said Wolf without any accent whatsoever,” I said, not making an effort to mask my irritation. “That, and the fact that you’re here at all, strongly suggests that you speak English. If you do not, you might as well leave, because it’s the only language I’m fluent in. In either case, I don’t have enough time to fool around.”


He laughed. “You got me,” he admitted, in slightly accented but perfectly understandable English. “A bit wordy, though, don’t you think?”


I narrowed my eyes. “I mentioned the need for brevity, did I not?”


He laughed again, throwing his hands up in surrender. I noticed that he had a ring on one of his fingers, a very unusual ring. It was a simple band of gold, but set with three stones, all of which looked just a little bit odd. The first, a red stone I presumed was ruby, seemed to sparkle a bit. I would have passed it off as a trick of the light, except that it was easier to see in the shadows. The second stone was normal enough, except that I couldn’t figure out why you would set a piece of quartz in gold. The third seemed to flicker between amethyst and emerald as it moved. Looking at the iridescent gemstone was oddly dizzying, and I quickly focused my eyes on his face again instead.


“Very well,” he said, seeming to take no notice of my momentary distraction. “I say truly, though, that you should relax somewhat. I came only to share with you something that you should know.”


I managed not to roll my eyes, but it was a challenge. Why was it that everybody picked today to act like I was born yesterday? “And why should you do such a good deed as that?” I asked, perhaps a bit sarcastically.


He chuckled. “And why should I not? You are a man not so far from mine own heart, Wolf. You feed my kin, and there have never been so many who look kindly upon them that such a one can be lightly dismissed. And you are kith and kin of my favorite bridge partner. That’s three ways I’m tied to you. A little knowledge isn’t such a great gift that I would hesitate to make it under such circumstances.”


I put a few things together, and then inclined my head slightly more than he had at the beginning of the conversation. “Ah,” I said. “That explains it, then. Good morning, Reynard.”

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Balancing Act 6.6

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Sunrise was at around seven thirty at this time of year. I’d need somewhere around an hour and a half to drive to where I was supposed to meet Brick, though, which put me leaving pretty early in the morning. Tack on time to get dressed and kitted out for a small war, walk to where I’d left the car, get lost on the maze of back roads I’d have to take, and show up a few minutes early, and I had to wake up at around five in the morning. Between that and the, ah, nocturnal activities of the previous evening, I got less than five hours of sleep. As you might imagine, I was less than thrilled by that condition.


I brushed my teeth and threw on clothes more or less at random from my closet, inevitably stubbing my toe on a chair in the dark. Snarling under my breath, I stalked back to the bed, grabbed Snowflake, and unceremoniously dumped her on the ground.


Who’s a grumpy werewolf in the morning? she said in the affectionate tones ordinarily reserved for favorite pets, standing right back up. She hadn’t been asleep, of course; Snowflake sleeps often but lightly, and she never sleeps through me getting up. She was, in that respect, quite unlike Aiko, who was currently sprawled across an improbable amount of bed and snoring. Loudly.


I did consider waking her up, just to share the misery, but eventually deemed it unworthy even of my pettiness. At five in the morning with my side still smarting, that was not an insignificant statement.


My armor had a barely visible hole in it where the construct’s claw had slid between two of the scales, but nothing really problematic. The odds of an attack hitting at exactly that point were pretty minimal, maybe a thousand-to-one odds. Naturally, that made me utterly certain it would happen, and at the worst possible time to boot. There wasn’t much I could do about that in any case, though, so I just threw it on and hoped that for once Murphy would turn out to be wrong.


I checked that everything had made it back into my cloak after it was press-ganged into service as a bandage (it had—I’m always careful to keep my cloak loaded with everything I might need, in case I need it really fast when I wake up) and buckled Snowflake into her collar. I went ahead and put a leash on her, too, although it made me rather uncomfortable—she didn’t care a bit, but I always felt there was something intrinsically wrong with putting a leash on another thinking being. Granted, it was a thin leather leash that wouldn’t hold up to one stiff pull from her, and she could bite through it in one go, but it was the principle of the thing.


I was, for entirely obvious reasons, very careful about opening the front door, but I actually didn’t eat a sniper round right away. I clomped grumpily outside and, astonishingly enough, continued not dying for several minutes. Nobody attacked me, nobody called me, nobody tried to convert me to a new religion or sell me stale cookies using guilt-tripping tactics sophisticated enough to qualify as psychological warfare. It was strange, wonderful, and—naturally—couldn’t last.


Less than five minutes out on the delightfully empty road, my phone started ringing. I glared at it balefully, muttered a few dire imprecations at anyone who called people at five-thirty in the morning, and answered it with a grunt that might generously have been called monosyllabic.


“Hello, Winter,” said a female voice I recognized, but couldn’t quite place. “How are you this fine morning?”


My niceties take a little while longer to wake up than most of the rest of me, especially after too little sleep. So, rather than exchange polite nothings, I said, “Who is this?”


Snowflake rolled her eyes at me.




That placed it. “Oh, right. The vampire.” I’d only spoken with her once, and briefly, when our interests happened to overlap. She wanted a powerful, rather loopy witch dead because he dared to openly challenge her authority; I wanted him dead because he was mad as a hatter and dangerous with it. I wound up doing the deed, with assistance from Aiko, Snowflake, and the Inquisition, and proceeded to never talk to Katrin again. I don’t like vampires.


I could practically hear her roll her eyes. “Yes, yes, I’m a vampire, you’re a werewolf, we’re both monsters, we’ve both got enough blood on our hands that we don’t deserve to throw stones. Now that we’ve got that conversation out of the way, could we please move on to meaningful discussion?”


“You’d better. Because, if you haven’t said something worth my while in thirty seconds, I’m hanging up on you.


“I want a favor.”


“See, that’s not advancing your cause any. Why the hell would I want to do you any favors?”


“You think I’m bad? You don’t know anything. There are things that go bump in the night that would make your hair curl.”


“And let me guess,” I said dryly. “One of them’s in town and you want me to whack ’em for you.”


“Essentially, yes.”


I snorted. “I repeat, why the hell would I want to do you any favors? Maybe I wasn’t clear enough last time, but I think you’re a parasite. You and your kind are a blight on humanity. I have no intention of picking a fight with you, but if you think I want to help you you’ve lost it.”


“Because I would owe you one,” she said easily, not taking offense that I could tell. “And because, trust me, you won’t object to this particular favor. You think I’m a parasite, and in all fairness you have a point, but there are things out there that not even vampires put up with.”


I sighed. “All right, fine. I’ll hear you out. But I’m sort of busy right now—I have a meeting to go to, and it’ll be daylight by the time I’m done with that.”


“Dusk tonight, then?”


I grimaced. “Sorry. There’s an event I have to attend,” and just saying that made me feel like I’d eaten a lemon wedge. Covered in vinegar. After it was left out in the sun to rot for a few weeks. “How about around dusk tomorrow? Same place as last time?”


Katrin made an irritated sound. “Fine. But this had better be a damned important meeting, Wolf.”


“Don’t worry,” I said. “If I had the choice, I’d rather come chat with you.” I hung up on her without another word.


The hell of it was, I was telling the truth. When the interview with a vampire is the least unpleasant event on your social calendar, you know your life’s taken a turn for the worse.


Naturally, I did indeed get lost. Jon’s house had been in a forested subdivision way the hell and gone, several miles out of Cripple Creek, which was itself a tiny town an hour from anywhere. The only way to get there is by following looping dirt roads up into the hills. Before the fire, the neighbors were the better part of a mile away. After our little house-burning adventure got a bit out of hand and took out a decent section of forest, along with a number of expensive houses, it was closer to two.


Between the seclusion, the driveways—which had to be downright hellish in winter, when the snowplow wasn’t likely to get out here for months at a time—and the risk of wildfire, I really don’t know why you’d want to live there. It has a decent view, I suppose. And all the privacy you could ask for—hell, you could walk out on your back porch in the middle of the day and fire off a few rounds, and nobody would comment. If they even heard it; the trees provided enough insulation that I didn’t think it particularly likely.


Not the most comfortable thoughts to have on your way to a rendezvous with a possibly-antagonistic person.


I’d also forgotten just how far into the hills it was. Depending on how you defined sunrise, I might or might not have been running late. I wasn’t early by any definition. By the time I pulled into the barren, recently-burned space where Jon’s house once was, I was growling under my breath again, and feeling, if such a thing were possible, even grouchier than when I’d woken up.


I was almost hoping whoever showed up here tried to kill me. In my current mood, a bout of savage and destructive violence sounded wonderfully relaxing. Cathartic, even. I could work out my bad temper, go back home, and get a few more hours of sleep.


Naturally, the one time I was hoping for a vicious and treacherous ambush, I didn’t get one. Brick was sitting on a small boulder, watching the road and the sunrise at the same time, and apparently chewing gum. “Morning, Winter, Snowflake,” he said as we got out of the car. “I didn’t think you were coming.”


“I seriously considered it,” I admitted. “But I really needed to talk to you.”


He grunted. I couldn’t tell quite what it was meant to convey, but it was really a very good grunt. “Come on, then,” he said, standing up. “Best we get out of the open first.”


I made a show of glancing around. “You got some invisible house out here or something?” Hell, I’d heard stranger things.


Brick snorted. “Not exactly,” he said, turning to face the boulder he’d just been sitting on. His fingers began moving at his sides, a gesture a little like he was plucking the strings of some musical instrument. I smelled his magic, a heady aroma of loam and freshly broken stone, with a peculiarly transient tone to it that told me what he was doing.


I sighed. “Oh, come on. You can’t seriously expect me to follow you into the Otherside.”


He glanced back at me and shrugged indifferently. “I’m going. If you want to talk, you’ll come with me, because I’m not staying here. I give you my word that no harm will come to you by my action, or by my inaction if I could have prevented it, while you are in my home, unless you should first move to harm me or mine.” He turned back to his work.


Huh. Interesting. Young people, and I had reason to believe Brick was less than twenty-eight years old, don’t normally talk like that. In fact, people younger than a century or two don’t often talk like that. I do, occasionally, but only because of Conn’s influence, and his family’s. Given that the youngest of them is around two and a half centuries old, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that spending a few years with them would make me sound a bit archaic sometimes.


Brick took around eight or nine minutes to get his gate up and running—a lot faster than me, but not nearly as much so as some of the people I’d seen do it. There were a couple of people on the Conclave who could do it faster than blinking, and with less apparent effort. Caller, in particular, had opened a portal with a flick of his fingers, and only the smallest trace of magic to show it. Brick wasn’t on that level, or anywhere close to it, but he was still an order of magnitude beyond the next-best of the Inquisition. He was almost certainly stronger, more experienced, and better educated in the exercise of magic than I was.


I would be a fool to forget that. I could crush him like a bug in physical combat—a human seldom stands a chance against any sort of werewolf, much less one reasonably skilled at hand-to-hand wielding Tyrfing—but unless I got very, very lucky or had absolutely the right set of circumstances, I would never get to that point. He would squash me from a hundred yards away and walk away laughing.


Eventually it was open, a tidy little gap cut in the world just above the rock. He turned towards me inquisitively, pun intended. I sighed, set my shoulders, and walked forward.


Are you sure this is a good idea? Snowflake asked me, trotting along at the end of her leash. Brick was aware that she was a bit tougher than the average dog, and better behaved, but he couldn’t know exactly how extraordinary she was. We wanted to keep it that way, which meant making her look as much like an entirely ordinary canine as possible.


Of course not. This is a terrible idea, I said to her, not stopping. But it’s also the only way I can think of to learn what’s going on with these nutters quickly. I could leave you here if you want….


Snowflake huffed, and glared at me a little bit, but otherwise didn’t respond. A moment later we stepped into the void, and she couldn’t respond. Somewhat to my surprise, this transition wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected. Oh, it was still a horrific, nightmarish, nausea-inducing experience of the sort that I could quite happily have gone my whole life without experiencing. It’s just that I didn’t actually throw up on anything, and even Snowflake stayed standing.


Of course, that relative pleasantness was quickly mitigated by the fact that we were standing in total darkness on the other end. I could smell the same sort of smell I associated with Brick’s magic, the damp stone of tunnels deep underground, and from the way the air moved the ceiling had to be less than eighteen inches over my head, though the cave stretched out in every other direction as far as I could sense.


I have issues with enclosed spaces. Oh, nothing horrible, not like I couldn’t stand to be indoors or anything. I’d just spent enough time locked up, often in pretty terrible circumstances, not to like feeling trapped. Between that, the complete lack of visibility, the fact that any air magic I could work would be of limited strength underground, and—oh yeah—the way that this felt exactly like a trap, I wasn’t very happy. If it had gone on for longer than a few seconds, I might have started hyperventilating.


Fortunate for me, then, that only a second or two later I heard a sudden click behind me. A moment later I could smell Brick—not a terribly strong scent or anything, but his leather jacket wasn’t too far removed from its tanning, and I could smell that from across the room. “Okay,” he said, sounding only slightly rough from the travel, and unaffected by the dark and the closeness. He was accustomed to such things, presumably. “I’m about to touch your shoulder, so don’t jump.” It was a good thing he said so, too, or I would probably have panicked and done something all three of us would regret.


He moved forward to stand just in front of us. “The next portal will open just in front of me,” he said in a whisper. “Try not to move around when you get to the other side, there’s not a lot of room.”


I nodded tensely, not trusting my voice to be entirely steady. It’s very important to keep things like that in mind if you want to keep up a reputation as a badass. Presumably he had some way of telling my motion despite the darkness, because a moment later he began the magics to open another gate.


Objectively speaking, it probably took him the same amount of time as the last one. Heck, it was probably less—he was opening a portal to his inner sanctum, after all, to the place where he felt safe despite whoever or whatever was after him. He would be intimately familiar with such a place, and that always makes it easier and simpler to go there.


Subjectively, of course, it took rather a lot longer than that. The darkness was absolute, so thick and oppressive as to be nearly a physical object. As a werewolf, I’m not used to being blind—even in human form, my eyesight adapts more quickly and more thoroughly to the gloom than a real human. The wolf’s eyes are even more suited to nocturnal activity (not that vision is nearly as overwhelmingly important in that shape), and even starlight is quite adequate for most purposes.


But down here, there was no light. None. Nada. Zip. None whatsoever. If you’ve never been underground—deep underground—you really can’t grasp what it’s like. It’s so dark that your eyes start playing tricks on you, shapes and colors crawling around at the edge of your vision. The air is thick with the smell of rock, of moisture, of air that hasn’t known a breath of wind in thousands of years. Sometimes you can hear the drip, drip, drip of water somewhere off in the dark, but often the silence is as flat and overbearing as the dark, and that’s how it was here. It seems that you can feel, with some atavistic sense long since forgotten by your conscious mind, the thousands and thousands and thousands of tons of rock hanging over your head.


I knew, of course, that this wasn’t really some primeval cavern or abandoned mine. Even if Brick hadn’t just made a portal here from my world, the air was suffused with the indescribable intensity of the Otherside. This wasn’t the real world, it was someone’s creation.


But they’d created pretty damn well. To all my senses, including the magical ones, it seemed I was surrounded by nothing but stone and blackness. I stretched myself out through the air around us, as far as I could, but to the limits of my range there was no difference. In fact, as near as I could tell, this short, open chamber extended for over a hundred feet in all directions. There were no walls, no changes in height, not even the smallest projection from floor or ceiling.


I knew it wasn’t real, at least not according to my usual conception of reality. It just didn’t matter. It was the equivalent of making an unbelievably realistic fake snake, right down to the movements and the sounds and the venom dripping off of its inch-long fangs, and trying to tell an ophidiophobe not to panic, because it’s not really scary.


It didn’t help that I was inexplicably certain that there was something, or somethings, out there in the darkness, something unseen and dangerous and entirely inhospitable to me. I would have dismissed it as a reaction to being enclosed in the dark, except for two things. The first was the utter, perfect regularity of this cave. There’s no such thing as a natural cavern without even the slightest imperfection or roughness. Granted, it was possible that whoever had made this domain simply designed it that way, but I didn’t think so. There was something about it, some indefinable quality that was more felt than sensed, which suggested that it was the product of constant maintenance and upkeep. If so—and I was more inclined to pay heed to my instincts than to my rational mind, on the Otherside—then logically something had to be keeping things neat.


The second reason was that Brick had whispered his instructions to me. Now, there are a lot of kinds of whisper out there. Sometimes you whisper because it’s appropriate to the sentiment being conveyed, or because you’re in a hallowed place where a raised voice feels wrong, or simply because it isn’t necessary to speak any more loudly. This wasn’t any of those kinds of whisper. It was almost like the whisper you use around a sleeping person so as not to wake them, but not quite, not entirely. It was more like there was a sleeping tiger right next to you, and it hadn’t done anything to you yet—but you really, really didn’t want to do anything that might change its mind on that subject.


Whatever was out there, Brick was afraid of it. Between that and my own instinctive impression of whatever it was, I thought it would be wise to treat it with respect.


I wasn’t shaking in my boots by the time Brick had his portal finished—but only by a serious effort of will.


When I felt the portal solidify and open in front of me, I didn’t wait for Brick to give the signal. I stepped forward, making sure that Snowflake was with me, and switched from here to there.


There, as it turned out, wasn’t all that different. It smelled the same, it looked the same, and it irritated me to about the same degree. It wasn’t the Otherside, and I didn’t feel any strange and malevolent presences sharing the darkness with me, but that was about made up for by the fact that my first experience in the new cave was bouncing my nose off of a rock wall. My second was falling on my ass and cracking my head on the stone (I’d worn the armor under my cloak, but left the helmet at home. For politeness’s sake, more than anything; I was pretty sure Brick would be able to feel the metal regardless). My third was Brick stepping on my crotch as he exited the gate.


I was wearing armor, sure, but it actually doesn’t incorporate a lot of protection at the joints. It was designed on a feudal Japanese style, putting a lot of emphasis on mobility and relatively little on standing there and taking all the punishment they could dish out. The chest, and back—pretty much any large expanse, actually, including most of the limbs—were covered by metal plates, or else scale armor. But at the joints, including the crotch, it was just a layer of mail over the Kevlar. For stopping sharp cutting edges, or bullets I suppose, that isn’t bad. When it comes to muting blunt physical trauma, it’s…less than ideal.


Oh yeah, and Brick was wearing cowboy boots. Fun times all around, really.


A moment later, a light of some sort kindled above me. It wasn’t very bright, just enough to illuminate a bubble around us, but to my dark-adjusted eyes it was painfully intense. Brick spent a few seconds looking around, head ducked to keep from hitting it on the ceiling—thankfully, I was too short to have that particular problem. After a couple seconds of that, he happened to glance downward, and did a movie-quality double take when he saw me lying on the ground. It would have been hilarious, under slightly different circumstances.


“Winter?” he asked in the tone of voice usually reserved for potentially dangerous lunatics—which, hey, I qualify! “What are you doing down there?”


I muttered a few imprecations under my breath and stood up. “Oh, nothing. There’s no blood on my face, right? I don’t think I broke my nose on your wall, but it’s kinda hard to tell sometimes.”


He winced slightly. “Sorry. I did try to tell you.”


You have no idea, Snowflake said from where she was sitting on the floor waiting for me to get my act together, how funny that was. You should see your face, man.


I muttered something that might generously have been taken for an apology, and looked around. Brick’s light, which appeared to be a small battery-operated lamp, didn’t stretch more than a few feet in any direction. We were standing in a tunnel, rough-cut through what looked like granite, barely tall enough for me to stand up in. Brick was hunched over with his head and neck pressed against the ceiling, and he could have stretched out his arms and touched both sidewalls at the same time without any particular difficulty. It wasn’t a lot like the last place, despite the surface similarities. I could easily see tool marks on the walls, and signs of blasting. This place hadn’t been shaped by magic, but by backbreaking labor and the liberal application of explosives. There was a certain amount of timbering holding things up, but it looked to have seen better decades. It was completely rotted away in places, and I wouldn’t have relied even on the better parts to hold my weight.


“Isn’t this a bit dangerous?” I asked, prodding one of the timbers hesitantly.


“No,” Brick said dismissively. “This is hard rock. It’s stable. The timbers are only still here because I haven’t felt like going to the effort of taking them out. I really don’t know why they bothered putting them in.” He set off, evidently at random, down the tunnel, moving at a pretty brisk pace. He had a lot longer legs than me; I had to hurry a bit to keep up.


“Where are we?” I asked, glancing around a bit nervously. It wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as the Otherside domain had been, especially with a light, but I still don’t care for being underground. If there were a collapse or something—and, considering Brick’s mastery of earth magic, a collapse would be a trivial thing for him to arrange—I wasn’t at all certain that I could get out before Snowflake and I suffocated.


“You ever been to Victor?” Brick asked me.


I shrugged. “Briefly. Never saw the point in going back. Victor’s the geographical equivalent of Al Bundy.”




“Yeah. It won a game of high school football a hundred years ago, and hasn’t shut up about it since.” Snowflake laughed, although where she ever saw that show I haven’t the faintest idea. Brick didn’t, but then he never did strike me as having a terribly healthy sense of humor.


Once upon a time, Victor really was The World’s Greatest Gold Camp. An almost obscene number of people had come to Pikes Peak to tear the shiny metal from the ground. The Peak itself didn’t turn out to be worthwhile, but—by some truly bizarre coincidence—nearby Cripple Creek was absolutely loaded with the stuff. Gold rushes were the day’s equivalent of the lottery, attracting the desperate and the foolish and the adventurous and everything in between. People flocked there in droves, and at its heyday there were dozens of towns in the area.


These days there’s two: Cripple Creek, and Victor. Cripple Creek was a city of perhaps a thousand people, stumbling along on the tourist trade and a handful of casinos. Victor was even worse, an almost literal ghost town. The one time I was there, walking down the dirt roads past crumbling buildings and overgrown lots, I was reminded forcibly of the pictures I’ve seen of Giza. Here, it seemed to say, was something which had once been great—the World’s Greatest, even.


Once. But not for a very long time. Victor’s glory days were long behind it, and it could never get them back.


And that was before the pit mine razed whatever was left of its rich history and cultural heritage.


“Just as well,” Brick said, oblivious to my reminiscences. “You wouldn’t be welcome here, not for any length of time. The Ellers own the whole district. They aren’t fond of visitors.”




“Eller clan,” he clarified. “They’re on the small side for a mage clan, just over a hundred members, but they’re decently powerful on their home ground.”


That’s what I love about dealing with supernatural thingies all the time. Power comparisons are just absurd. A hundred mages, for example, could squash me and all my friends without even trying—but they were still so weak as to be utterly inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.


“I didn’t realize you were a clan mage,” I said casually.


Brick snorted. “I’m not one of them. But we have a deal worked out. They let me live down here in the old mine tunnels. I keep all the nasty things that don’t like the sunlight out, and don’t cause trouble. They get cheap muscle to deal with the trolls and vampires and such. I get cheap lodging in a really defensible place.” He shrugged. “It works pretty well.”


Defensible was an understatement, I was pretty sure. Hell, being killed while attacking a sorcerer with a specialty in earth and rock while in an old gold mine was one of those things that’s legally classed as suicide. Or should be, anyway. It really doesn’t matter how badass you are, unless you’re freaking godly you die when a thousand tons of granite land on your head. It was a sobering thought. Right now, we were utterly within Brick’s power. If he decided not to let us walk back out, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to argue the point.


We walked down narrow, lightless corridors in silence for a while. I didn’t even bother trying to remember all of the turns we took. No one had ever mapped these mines. On the surface the gallas frames and shafts and adits marked out property and territory, but underground it was a different story. These miners had followed the twists and turns of ore veins, and the miles and miles of tunnels they’d laid out—in three dimensions, which—didn’t necessarily follow property lines and such. It was anyone’s guess how much of the old mines survived, but I was guessing that you could still walk the seven or so miles from Victor to Cripple Creek without ever once setting foot above ground. Never mind all the passages Brick might have made himself.


There quite simply wasn’t a point to keeping track of where we went. Even if I’d had any idea where we came in, there was no way I would be able to find my way out of here without help from someone who knew these tunnels—and, from what Brick said, I was pretty sure he was the only person alive who really knew their current shapes. If he decided to abandon us here, the only way we were getting out was via the Otherside. Even that would be iffy, because there was an enormous physical and spiritual difference between this place and any of the connection points I’d branded into my memory, most of which were in forested areas. With my relative lack of skill, trying to bridge such a huge gap would be exhausting. It was quite possible that I would slip up somewhere, in which case…well, nobody’s quite sure what happens to you in that case, because nobody’s ever come back from a botched portal to complain about the food, if you get my drift.


Finally, just when I’d started to wonder whether Brick was leading us in circles, he took a sharp right turn out of the old mine tunnels. This part was clearly his own addition; the stone was smooth and almost polished, carved out of the earth with magic rather than mundane techniques. A few feet ahead of us, the tunnel opened into a room.


At the edge of the room, a thick band of carving was incised into the stone. The basic shape appeared to be Celtic-style knotwork, with harsh, angular lines reminiscent of Norse runes interspersed here and there. As art goes, it wasn’t great. The lines were of inconstant thickness, and almost clumsy in their placement, their edges rough—they’d been cut into the stone with a chisel, not Brick’s magic. But I could smell the magic in them, a scent much like the rock around us but more sharply edged.


“Nice wards,” I said, examining them more closely. “Is it supposed to trigger a cave-in if crossed?”


He smiled sharply. “Among other things. Excuse me.” He stepped forward and placed one hand on the carving, and the smell of magic surged forth from him. It flickered and changed, ever so subtly, several times in a few seconds, before he dropped his hand and stepped across, gesturing to us to follow.


Interesting. From the way the wards’ magic had interacted with his, I was betting they were designed like a combination lock. Expose them to that specific sequence of energies, and they drop for a few seconds. Mess it up, even slightly, and they go off in your face. Given how difficult it was to mimic another person’s magical signature—even just one signature—it would be a very, very difficult code to crack. Certainly much more so than my defenses, which just required that the patterns of magic making up the wards be manipulated in a certain way. Theoretically, anyone could hack that if they knew the right things to do, or maybe even just figure it out by examining the structure of the wards themselves. This was less like a password, more like a biometric—I’d just seen Brick take them down, and I still didn’t have the first idea how to go about mimicking it.


It took a lot less time, too, which could be very useful under some circumstances. I was definitely going to have to look into duplicating that trick.


He hung his electric lamp on a hook near the entrance, where it cast decent light, and then went around and lit a bunch of oil lamps, a couple candles. I’m pretty sure he wanted me to think he was doing it with magic, but I could smell the match, which made that a rather pointless effort. Once that was done he turned the electric light back off, leaving the room bathed in a cheery, old-fashioned glow.


Brick’s hidden sanctum was…pretty cozy, actually. It was fairly large, bigger than most apartments, although I guess space was one of the few resources he had a surplus of down here. He had an old couch there, and a double bed, though I’ve no idea how the heck he got them down there. The huge desk was formed by an outfolding of the cavern wall, but the office chair was leather, and looked relatively expensive. There were several notebooks on the desk, and a pen cup made from what looked like an enormous drill bit. There was also an expensive-looking laptop, currently powered down; presumably he took it back to the surface when he needed to charge it.


Brick walked over to the chair and sat on it with a sigh. It was sort of funny, actually; the whole way there he’d looked confident and calm, but the second he sat down it was like watching somebody put down a ridiculously heavy load they’d been carrying way, way too long. He just slumped back against it, almost like he’d forgotten what it was like not to have that weight on his back. “Please, sit down,” he said. “Can I get you something to drink? I don’t have a lot to offer, but I have soda, or water if you’d rather.”


“No, thank you,” I said, sitting down on the couch. It was surprisingly comfortable. Snowflake, of course, immediately found a position laying across my feet.


He shrugged, reaching under the desk. “Suit yourself,” he said, pulling out a can of cola. He opened the can, drained it, and tossed it into a corner of the room.


“So,” I said as nonchalantly as I could manage, which wasn’t especially. “I hear you and Jimmy had something of a falling out.”


“So that’s what you’re here about,” Brick said. “I was wondering.” He sighed. “Jimmy’s a good kid, but he’s more balls than brains, you know?”


Privately, I had my doubts. Not that my opinion of Jimmy’s intelligence was particularly high; I just happened to know that the man was a coward and a hypocrite. He was incredibly arrogant, much of the time, but lacked both the courage and the skill to back it up.


“Kris mentioned that he was getting on her case about working with Val,” I mentioned.


“Is he really?” Brick sighed again, shaking his head. “Damn fool. Kovac’s harmless. Hell, I’d trust him further than most humans.”


“So would I,” I agreed. “Not to mention that he could kick all our asses together, and make it look easy.”




“So,” I said lightly, “what stupid thing did Jimmy do to set you off?”


“It was the other way round, actually. He keeps talking about how we should take advantage of this territory war to claim it for ourselves, says we could keep the whole city under our protection.” Brick sighed. “I try to tell him that it’d never work—we couldn’t compete on that level of fighting, and even if we somehow came out on top nobody would respect our authority. But he wouldn’t listen, of course.”


That fit pretty well with what I knew of the man. “Let me guess,” I said dryly. “A few days ago you were talking with Jimmy about this. Things got a bit heated, and he decided to slap you around a bit to put you in your place. Except you handed him his ass on a platter, at which point he realized you were sharking him this whole time and you’re way better than he thought. He lost the fight, at which point you bugged out and hid out here.”


“Not bad,” Brick said, laughing a little. “I’d ask how you knew, except it’s so damned predictable.” He shook his head slowly. “What about you? What’s your stake in this?”


“Well,” I said, “it started out as just a favor to Kris. But I and my associates were targeted by constructs starting right after I heard about it, which makes it a bit personal for me. I don’t take kindly to that.”


I’m not sure what I was expecting at that point. Expressions of surprise, perhaps, or meaningless declarations of sympathy and condolence.


I most definitely did not expect what I got, which was for Brick to jump up and exclaim, “Dammit, you too? Damn. That changes things.” He shook his head slowly. “They’ve been taking swings at me whenever I go outside for the last two weeks.”


“Really?” I said, surprised. “That does change things.” There was a sullen pause as we both integrated this into what we already knew. “It’s the same model as Jon used,” I said after a moment.


Brick shook his head. “Doesn’t mean anything. Jon didn’t make those, he bought them. Some mage mass-produces the things for sale—they’re pretty common cheap muscle, actually. I remember my old boss had swarms of the bloody things.”


I frowned and thought. “These were a little different than I remember his being, though,” I said slowly. “Slower, a bit stupider. Much more fragile. Almost quadrupedal.”


“I guess someone could have adapted the design,” Brick said after a moment’s pause. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who sent them?”


I shrugged. “Honestly, my best guess was you. I mean, no offense, but you’ve gotta admit your fellow vigilantes aren’t exactly the sort to do that quality of work, are they?”


“Hm. No, not really.” Brick frowned. “I don’t know that any of them can make any sort of construct, let alone a combat-capable one. You think it’s one of them behind it?”


“Don’t have a better idea,” I said honestly. “Besides, they’ve got the motive. I’ve never got along too well with some of them, and I know there’s a couple that blame me for Erica dying. And it sounds like you really pissed Jimmy off.” He wasn’t the sort to take being shown up in stride. I frowned. “I suppose the rest of them are following him to their glorious deaths?”


“Some of them,” Brick said reluctantly. “I’ve tried to tell them it’s smarter, safer, and more effective in the long run to stick to small stuff. Keep everything low-level, don’t do anything that could attract the wrong sort of attention. Some of them listened. Mac and Chuck have stopped helping out entirely, and Kris isn’t far behind, but until then she’s with me on this one. So is Doug, and Matthew.”


“Matthew? Really?” I said, surprised. “I’d have thought he’d be all for Jimmy’s plan.”


“The man’s insane,” Brick said wryly. “Not suicidal. Say what you will about him, he isn’t stupid. He knows as well as you do how to run away and live to fight another day.” Brick sighed heavily, and the humor faded from his eyes. “But yeah, the rest of them are with Jimmy. They’re so proud of their successes, they refuse to listen when I tell them those were the bottom dwellers of the supernatural crowd, the ones too weak or stupid to not get caught.”


I winced. It sounded like most of the more moderate of them were opting out of this conflict, leaving the Inquisitors I thought of as being more overzealous, self-righteous, and generally extremist. Without more level-headed voices to balance them out, that could get ugly, fast. I knew, too, that what Brick was saying was true. The Inquisition wasn’t half bad at what they did, but they were nowhere near the level they’d have to be to play this game. I knew that, because I operated on a higher level than them and I was scared shitless at the prospect of interfering in it.


They wouldn’t stand a chance.


“Are you getting involved?” Brick asked me, his voice guarded. I couldn’t tell what emotion he was masking, if indeed he felt anything about the prospect at all. I hadn’t spent enough time around the man to know him all that well. In fact, this was probably the longest I’d ever spoken with him.


I sighed. “Dunno,” I said, feeling very tired. “Can’t say I want to, but it’s starting to look like I don’t have a choice.” Not if I wanted to be able to live with myself, at any rate.


Brick nodded, not looking particularly surprised. “Be careful, Winter. These are deep waters. They could swallow you whole and not even know it.”


I couldn’t argue with that. “Maybe you could answer a question for me,” I said, leaning back against the couch. “If you don’t mind.”


“You can ask whatever you like,” he said dryly. “The answer is another story entirely.”


I snorted. “What’s with this?” I asked, reaching down to rub Snowflake’s ears. “The territory war, I mean. I know that werewolves have territorial instincts, so it’s no surprise they’d claim land, and they need a large population base to blend into. But what’s with the fighting over it? It isn’t that valuable.”


“Part of it’s just that it’s a desirable city,” he explained, shrugging. “Lots of people, lots of money. It’s common sense that any herd can only support so many predators, right? Well, the same goes for cities.”


“I just don’t buy it,” I said. “It can’t be worth that much. Besides, why the heck would there be a mage clan in Victor? That’s about as far from a big, prosperous city as they come.” I shook my head. “No, there’s got to be something else to this.”


“Well, of course there is. Alexander never told you about it?” Brick asked. I was somehow unsurprised that he knew who I’d learned the finer points of magic from.




Brick grunted. “Weird. I always figured that was why you came to Colorado Springs in the first place.”


I snorted. “I just came here to go to school. I stayed because, well, where else was I gonna go? Not like I had a lot waiting for me.”


“Let me guess, though. It was the Khan that suggested you come here, right?”


I paused. “Yeah, actually.”


Brick nodded. “Figured so. He might not be a mage, but he knows the shape of things—not that I’ve ever met the man, or wanted to. He’s got a scary reputation.” He shuddered dramatically, the motion absurdly exaggerated on his long, lean frame. “It isn’t the city they want, Winter, or at least not entirely. It’s the mountain.”


I blinked. “You mean Pikes Peak?”


He nodded.


“But that’s ridiculous. What the hell would a vampire want with a mountain?”


“Did you know that it’s the second-most-visited mountain in the world?” Brick asked me. I shook my head. “It’s true. Only Fuji gets more people, and it’s right next to Tokyo, not to mention that the place is all kinds of holy. You ever wonder about that?”


I frowned. “I always figured it was just that the Peak is so close to the city. There aren’t many mountains that size so close to the beaten path.”


“True enough,” Brick allowed. “But then you have to ask yourself, why is it so close to the path in the first place? Winter, people have been coming to this mountain for a long time. They made pilgrimages here before Europeans ever came to this continent.”


“Why?” I asked, genuinely baffled. I mean, Pikes Peak is a wonderful mountain and all that, but it’s nothing that special.


Brick shrugged. “I don’t really know the specifics. It’s just…a special place. I know some high-level mages swear magic works better in certain places. Things near the Otherside have a tendency to show up more often around them. People congregate there, for no real reason.” He grinned suddenly. “But the city is a big part of it, trust me. It’s not as easy to find a decent urban area to claim for yourself as you might think.”


Well, Snowflake said. How nonspecific and vague. It’s almost frustratingly uninformative.


You’re telling me? I said, irritated—not at Snowflake, really, just generalized irritation. To Brick, I said, “Thanks for the help. I’ll let you know if I find anything out about who might have sent those constructs.”


“I’ll do the same,” he said, nodding. “You two leaving, then?”


“Yep. Got a lot of things to do today.”


“I’m sure,” he said, still grinning. “Let me show you out.”

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Balancing Act 6.5

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


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


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


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


“Yeah, sorry. Look, where are you?”


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


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


“Should I call the police?”


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


“Definitely spooky.”


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


“Thanks, Winter. Please hurry.”


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


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


Good point. That hadn’t occurred to me.


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


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


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


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


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


Fortunately for me, I had just the thing.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


What? It could happen.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And that’s when I made my move.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I did not intend to allow them the opportunity.


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


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


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


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


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


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


Two down, nine to go.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


And then there were five.


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


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


Yeah, probably that second one.


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“I had noticed, yes, thank you.”


“You killed him,” she said accusingly.


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


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


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


“And you’re okay with that?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Yep, put it in last week.”


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


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


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


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


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


Snowflake laughed, at least.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Alexis shrugged uncomfortably. “I guess, sure.”


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


“I saw them out the window.”


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


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


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


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


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


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


“And Aiko?”


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


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


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


“Is that all?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Quarter to eleven,” Aiko supplied.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


“Are you serious?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I never even used to have pajamas. Good grief.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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Balancing Act 6.4

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


Wasn’t exactly reassuring, I agreed.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Right. Sorry.


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


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


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


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


As meeting places go, this one was excellent.


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


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


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


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


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




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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


You are invited


To a Gathering and


Masquerade of the


Seelie and Unseelie Courts


of the Sidhe


To be held Tomorrow, All Hallows’ Eve,


From Dusk until Dawn,


In the Palace of




And to bring with you


One Escort of your choice.


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


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


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


Master Winter,


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


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






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


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


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


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


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


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


“It was exactly that bad.”


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


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


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


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


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


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


“You sure?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


I frowned. “Yokai as in kitsune?”


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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Balancing Act 6.3

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As it turned out, road construction meant that I had to drive faster than was entirely safe on the latter half of the journey to get there on time. Snowflake, of course, loved it, hanging her head out the window and urging me to speed up.


But we made it without incident, and pulled into the parking lot with ninety-one seconds to spare. The restaurant, a fancy Italian place in the vicinity of the Broadmoor, was just opening for lunch, and the lot was almost empty. My car still stood out pretty starkly against the sports cars and luxury vehicles more common in the area. I only saw one automobile older than mine, and it was a beautiful vintage car from the 1950’s.


I’m sure not all the people going to that restaurant drive nice cars—if nothing else, they had to have a dishwasher, and I doubt he made much more money than I used to as a woodworker. But he apparently had to park somewhere else.


I walked through the heavy double doors and was immediately enveloped by the smells of money, class, and olive oil. This wasn’t exactly my normal sort of venue. The lighting was subdued, classical music played quietly in the background, and there were red tablecloths and napkins on all the tables.


Fabric tablecloths. For lunch. Sheesh.


The host, unless maybe I was supposed to call him a maitre d’—since, you know, classy and everything—took one look at my ensemble and looked like he couldn’t decide whether I was allowed inside or not. I looked just suspicious enough that he wanted to throw me out on principle, but I was just ostentatious enough about my relative wealth that he wasn’t sure he was allowed to.


Snowflake was waiting outside with the car. We weren’t even going to try to convince them to let a dog in here.


I relied on my usual tactic for such things. I nodded at the host (because seriously, I couldn’t say maitre d’ without cracking up) politely and walked in like I owned the place. I’ve often been amazed at the places a confident stride can get you, and this was no exception. The man wilted in the face of my evident assurance and didn’t challenge me, although his reservations with that were clearly apparent.


It wasn’t hard to find the person Anna had called me about. It wasn’t like the place was crowded. Plus he waved me over the second I hit the dining room. That helped a lot.


I made my cautious way over. His table was against the wall, and he was sitting alone with his back to the window. He couldn’t see the door, either. That made him an arrogant and careless man.


Unless, of course, he was simply so powerful that he didn’t have to worry about such things. I was afraid that might be the case.


The large empty space around his table might have been coincidence, I suppose. But I didn’t think so. There was something about him, some indefinable quality, that made me want to stay away from him, and I suspected that everyone else felt the same thing. Oh, they wouldn’t acknowledge it—in my experience, people are very good at coming up with excuses to cover the real reason for their behavior, when they don’t want to face it. It would still influence their actions.


But the first rule of dealing with supernatural nasties is that you never, ever let them see you flinch. At best, it tells them that they can walk all over you. At worst, well, there’s a certain amount of truth to what they say about predators smelling fear and attacking weakness. Telling a supernatural predator that you’re weak and scared is tantamount to telling it you’re delicious and nutritious, and that’s a great way to wind up dead.


So I swaggered right over and sat down across from him. He didn’t say anything for several moments, giving me plenty of time to examine him. It did very little to reassure me.


On the surface, there seemed little reason for the reaction he caused in people. He was impeccably dressed in an extremely expensive suit. The fur-lined coat seemed excessive for the weather, but not ridiculously so. Given that he looked so very Native American you would expect dark eyes to match the hair, but his were yellow.


I don’t mean a sort of brown. I don’t even mean amber, like my eyes, or gold, such as Fenris usually sported. His eyes were yellow, vivid yellow like no human eyes are supposed to be, making me think of a reptile. I expect most people thought they were contact lenses. I suspected otherwise.


You’d think that would spook me somewhat, and you would be right. But what really got me going was his scent. He smelled of magic, strong enough to make my nostrils burn and my throat itch, and he smelled wrong. His magic reeked of death and decay, rotting flesh and soured milk, like a charnel house or a landfill on a hot day.


People whose magic smells unpleasant to me tend to be dangerous, nasty, and just generally unpleasant people to be around. Given that this man—if it was a man; I got nothing of the usual, disinfectant-like tone of human magic—smelled worse than any magic I’d ever encountered before, and stronger than most, I didn’t think I wanted anything to do with him.


I had no doubt, at this point, that people were avoiding him for a reason. That aura was so strong that anyone, even an ordinary human being that hadn’t believed in magic for ninety years, would pick up on it, and so unpleasant that I couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to be around it. The amazing thing wasn’t that the tables around him were conspicuously empty. It was that there were still people in the same frigging building.


In the interest of getting away from this thing as fast as possible, I decided to speak first. “What do you want?” I said. Well. Growled, really, but the words were intelligible. That’s what matters, right?


He leaned back and laughed. It didn’t sound nearly as evil or cackle-like as it seemed like it ought to. He took a sip of water, which was the only thing on the table, shook his head, and laughed some more.


I waited for a moment. “Okay,” I said finally. “Glad to have that over. Goodbye, don’t call, don’t visit.” I started to stand.


He waved one hand, somehow conveying apology in the gesture. “My apologies,” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep, and although it sounded perfectly normal there was still some quality about it that made me want to shudder. “It’s only that, for a moment, you sounded very much like your mother.”


Now I did shudder. “Oh great,” I said. “Don’t tell me how you knew her, I don’t want to know. Please.”


He chuckled again. “Don’t worry,” he said in what was probably meant to be a reassuring tone. Actually, it probably was a reassuring tone; it was just that my perception of his magic was twisting my opinion of him. Not that I had any intention of discounting that perception. “I’ve no desire to share that particular story with you. No, I simply thought that we should talk.”


I glared at him, being careful not to meet those unwholesome yellow eyes—there are too many things that can do too much to you that way, given the chance. “Then talk. And make it fast; I’ve got things to do.”


He smiled, showing very white and even teeth. “As you will. Have you considered leaving town for a time? Take a vacation, perhaps?”


“No,” I said flatly.


“You should,” he said earnestly.




“The war is heating up,” he told me, sounding calm and sincere. “I expect that this will be a rather violent location for some while. It would be safer for you to relocate for a time.”


“Wait, what war? What are you talking about?”


He made an impatient sound. “It isn’t complicated, Wolf. Until recently the werewolves owned this territory. There were others here, but everyone knew that the wolves were dominant, the strongest force present. But now they’re gone, and given that this is quite a desirable territory it will be no simple matter for another to establish himself in their place.”


“You’re saying there’s a supernatural turf war going on in the city.”


“Crude, but not without accuracy.”


I thought for a moment. I didn’t know a lot about the larger political scene, because mostly I try to keep out of politics. That’s a good way to get killed posthaste. But what he said seemed reasonable, which immediately presented another question. “Why tell me about it?”


He shrugged. “Your mother impressed me somewhat, which is rare. It seemed no great difficulty. And I try to stay on the Khan’s good side, in any case.”


I’m not sure why, but it wasn’t until he mentioned Conn that I realized what this man had to be. “Considering that you’re a skinwalker,” I murmured, “you’ll have to forgive me if I have a certain amount of doubt regarding your goodwill and kindly nature.”


He smiled broadly, and didn’t deny it. “Think on what I’ve said, Mr. Wolf. That’s all I ask.” He stood up and left without another word.


A few moments after he left (I didn’t hear a car start outside, which meant very little if I was right about what he was) Anna came out of the kitchen and sat down. She probably wasn’t supposed to, but given that she was the head chef, or kitchenmeister, or whatever you’re supposed to call it at a fancy restaurant, she could get away with a lot. She used a different chair than he had, but that one might have been coincidence. “Was it a werewolf?” she asked me, quietly enough not to be heard.


“No,” I muttered back. “Something worse.” I glowered vaguely at nothing in particular. “Much worse.”


She nodded, as though unsurprised. “I kind of thought so. Werewolves don’t put my back up like that. Do you want something to eat, since you’re here anyway? My treat.”


I glanced at the time and sighed. “I’d love to, but I can’t. I have another meeting to get to.” Hopefully this one would be more pleasant. Surely Alexis couldn’t be worse than a skinwalker, right? Right? Anybody?


It is, perhaps, a sign of how distracted I was that it didn’t occur to me until Snowflake and I were halfway to the next destination to wonder: since when had Anna spent enough time around enough werewolves to know what they felt like? The way she’d said it sure made it sound like she’d known more than just me and Enrico.


Another thing to look into when I had a moment. Considering how short the list was this time yesterday, it seemed entirely unfair that it was now enormous.


It was a near thing, but I managed to be early to lunch with Alexis. I ambled inside, once again leaving Snowflake at the door, and started looking for the ambush. It was already pretty crowded here, and you’d be insane to try something in such a public location, but people have done crazy things before. The fact that all sorts of people would come down hard on the assassin would be of little comfort to my corpse.


Fortunately for me, I’d chosen this venue with just that in mind. It was the sort of place where you ordered and paid when you walked in, chose a table, and picked up your own food when it was ready. There were always people moving around—going to get food, ordering drinks, hitting the salad bar—and when the lunch rush hit it was crowded enough that one guy could easily blend in.


It took me a few minutes, but I eventually found where she was sitting, a corner booth on the upper level. It had been five years since I’d seen my cousin last, but you don’t necessarily look very much different from sixteen to twenty-one. Alexis didn’t; I was easily able to recognize her long raven’s-wing black hair, dark eyes, and serious expression. She was dressed in a long-sleeved shirt and jeans, both black. She used to have a fondness for cheap, dangly jewelry, but she wasn’t wearing any now. No visible scars or tattoos, which wasn’t saying much considering how little visible skin there was. She didn’t seem to be carrying any weapons, and I didn’t see any obvious thugs with her. That didn’t mean much, of course; a decent professional killer can blend in better than I can, even without the aid of magic. But it was at least slightly reassuring.


I’m pretty sure she didn’t notice me while I examined her. I was standing in a shadowy corner most of the way across the room, and my cloak is very good at blending into the shadows. It ought to be, considering they’re what I made it out of. It wasn’t invisibility, but it was pretty close.


Even after doing that, and making a fairly thorough sweep of the restaurant checking for obvious threats or strong magical signatures, I was only a minute or two late for lunch. Impolite, perhaps, but not unforgivably so. I slipped back to the entrance, pulled my hood back (I’m pretty sure nobody noticed that it melted back into the coat afterward), and walked back in.


I made a show of looking around even before I was in the right area, just in case Alexis had some way of keeping the restaurant under observation or somebody else was watching. Once I was closer, I waited for her to wave me over before sauntering in that direction. I sat down in the hard-backed chair across from her rather than in the booth, just in case I needed to move quickly, and conveyed to Snowflake where we were. A few moments later I saw a flash of white fur in the parking lot just outside the window I was looking out, and knew she was ready to back me up if necessary. I could bash the window out quite quickly, and once it was out of the way she could be inside in seconds. And yes, that meant she could jump through a second-story window from the ground. She’s good like that.


“Hey, Winter,” Alexis said, her voice surprisingly warm. “You look…good.” By which, I suppose, she meant that I looked younger than her, and she wasn’t sure how.


“Hello, Alexis,” I replied. “What brings you to Colorado?”


She paused, apparently taken aback at how abrupt I was being. It probably would have been more polite to take some time for niceties and meaningless small talk, but I was busy. Besides, I’ve just never been that inclined to small talk. I mean, what’s the point?


“Well,” she said finally, “actually, I came to talk to you.”


Of course she had.


“I sort of have a problem.”


Of course she did. Because clearly I didn’t have enough to do already.


“Why me?” I asked, making an effort not to sound accusatory or complaining. “Oregon to Colorado’s a pretty long drive just to talk.”


There was another long pause, and when Alexis did speak she sounded oddly hesitant, as though now that she were here she wasn’t sure she should have come either. “I remember,” she said slowly, “that mom always told us not to trust you—she said you were crazy, that you might believe what you were saying but it was all just craziness. But you never seemed that crazy to me. And some of the things I’ve seen you do…well, I can’t explain it.”


Realization dawned. “And you think there’s something like that going on in your life? Something you can’t explain?”


She opened her mouth as though to answer, then paused. “Let me go get drinks,” she said instead, standing. “You still like iced tea, right?” I nodded, and she walked off.


A few minutes later she came back, carrying a tray with a sort of casual grace that made me think she might have spent some time doing it professionally. As she got closer I saw that there were actually three glasses on it—one of iced tea, one of soda (probably root beer, unless her tastes had changed dramatically), and one large glass full of crushed ice and nothing else.


“What’s with the ice?” I asked, as she set the tea in front of me and took the other two. I took a sip—only a small one, in case it was poisoned. Werewolves are resistant enough to poison that if she wanted to kill me with that small of a drink she’d have to use enough to alter the taste, so I should be safe. If I didn’t feel any different in a few minutes I could chance drinking some more.


Rather than answer me directly, she took a small drink of root beer (that was what it was, too, I could smell it). Then she shoved her hand into the other glass and withdrew a handful of ice. The cold didn’t seem to bother her.


I don’t mean that she was masking the discomfort. It quite simply didn’t look uncomfortable. After a few moments, she opened her hand to show me the ice.


It wasn’t melting. Not even a little.


Now, that was fairly unusual. If you grab a chunk of ice, the heat of your body is enough to start it melting. It was conceivable, I suppose, that the ice was simply so cold that it wouldn’t—but not very likely, and if it were that cold you couldn’t grab it like that without some discomfort.


It was at about that time I noticed something else. My nose, inundated as it was with the smells of Italian cooking, wasn’t working at quite optimum levels—but, however I perceived it, detecting magic wasn’t actually related to my sense of smell at all. As such, I could quite clearly smell the magic of everyone nearby. Everyone in the restaurant had smelled to me of disinfectant, and not terribly strongly, which was what I associated with an entirely normal human being. Alexis was no exception.


Now that I thought to look for it, though, there was something else there. It was a delicate smell, soft and subtle as the sound of snowfall on cedars. It flickered and danced at the very edge of perception like windblown leaves tumbling down the road. It was cold and sharp and delicate, and while I realize that this isn’t a very good description it is, nevertheless, the best I can do.


It’s no wonder I didn’t notice it before. This scent belonged to a magic of smooth snow and glittering ice. It wasn’t meant to be noticeable.


It was also, if you were to squint your metaphorical eyes and look at it through a warped pane of glass upside-down, very familiar. It ought to be. It was the same as my magic smelled—and it was in no way human. Not at all.


Alexis dumped the ice back into the cup and looked at me expectantly. I inhaled sharply, and nodded as I let it out. “Yeah,” I said. “I think I understand.”


“So what now?”


“Now,” I said, feeling rather tired although it was still fairly early in the day, “we get some food. I’m starving.”


Several minutes later, a large bowl of salad and a very large pizza arranged on the table, the conversation resumed. “So do you know what’s going on?” my cousin asked me, sounding eager. I couldn’t really blame her; it tends to be rather upsetting when something you didn’t think existed starts intruding on your life.


“Maybe,” I said, “but I’m still struggling to wrap my head around it.” I took a large bite of pepperoni-and-mushroom goodness and spent a moment chewing. “How long’s this been going on?”


“Almost a year. At first I thought I was just imagining it, but, well.” She shrugged eloquently. “What’s it mean?”


I frowned. “I dunno. I’m pretty sure it means you inherited something weird.”


“Do you know what?” she pressed.


My frown deepened. “I have a few guesses, but they’re all based on my father being whom I got it from. If it actually came from my mother’s side, that changes things.


“Wait, you mean you can do this?”


I snorted and dipped one finger into my tea. I reached for the part of my mind that I associated with that cold, quietly savage magic, and twisted a small amount of power into the appropriate shape as I dragged my finger across the table. It left a trail of frost behind it, where the water in the tea had frozen at my will.




“If you didn’t know that,” I asked, wiping away the frost, “why come here?”


She flushed—only slightly, but her skin was pale enough to show it all the same. “I always just assumed you were a werewolf.” She paused. “Wait, this doesn’t mean that I’m a werewolf, does it?”


I snorted again. “Yes, I am, and no, you’re not.” A werewolf’s magic is very distinctive and very recognizable, and I have a ton of practice at recognizing it. Alexis definitely didn’t have any tones of werewolf in her scent. “I’m not entirely sure what you are. But given that it would have to be at least two generations back for both of our mothers to get it, I’d wager you’re three-quarters human.”


“Oh.” She thought about that for a moment. “What’s it mean?”


I shrugged. “Dunno. I mean, I’m such a mongrel we can’t really use me as a baseline.” I frowned. “If I had to guess, I’d say it mostly means that you’ll have an affinity for cold. It’ll take a lot of it to hurt you. The area around you will probably get cold when you’re stressed.” I shrugged again. “It might also make you stronger, or let you live forever. I really don’t know.”


Realization dawned in her eyes. “That’s why you look so young.”


I cleared my throat. “Actually, that probably has more to do with the werewolf part.”


“Oh. So…why doesn’t my mother have any of this going on?”




“You don’t know much, do you?” she said sharply.


“And you do?”


“Fair point,” she said after a moment.


“So what’ll you do now?” I asked.


Alexis shrugged. “I’m not sure. This seems like something I ought to know more about.”


“Probably,” I agreed. “You might have a hard time finding things out, though. I’ll be looking into it, and I’d be happy to share anything I happen to find with you.”


There was a very long pause. I didn’t object, because it gave me time to stuff my face. “This stuff,” she said after a moment. “It’s dangerous, isn’t it?”


I didn’t see much point in lying. “It could be. Your blood could make you some pretty scary enemies, especially now that you’ve started…I don’t know, waking it up or whatever. Not to mention that there are people who’d be happy to kill you just because you’re my cousin.”


“Wait, what? Why would somebody kill me for being your cousin?”


I sighed. “Because I have a talent for stumbling into hornet nests and my sense of self-preservation is less functional than my appendix. I’ve pissed off a number of unpleasantly powerful people, and some of them would love to take a hit at someone because they know me. We’ve never been that close, Alexis, so it hasn’t been worth their while, but if they think that’s changing it could be pretty bad for you.”


She laughed. “Oh, come on, Winter. You sound like the private eye in a bad gangster movie.”


I frowned. “Actually, I’m on good terms with the only gangster I know. But other than that you’re not all that far off, honestly. These things are cliché for a reason. And we’re talking about, like, the original bad guys, here.”


She was silent for a moment, studying my face. Apparently whatever she saw there convinced her that I was serious, because she went pale and looked away. “You mean people like us, don’t you? People who are….” She trailed off, clearly not sure how to finish the thought.


“Supernatural?” I suggested. “Unnatural? Preternatural? Otherworldly? Spooky?”


“Let’s stick with spooky,” she said dryly.


I chuckled, as did Snowflake (absent doesn’t have to mean ignorant, when you share a mental connection). “Fair enough. And yes, I am.” I thought of Frishberg, who most definitely wasn’t my friend however chummy she could act, and frowned. “Although, in all fairness, that sort of thing isn’t below your standard-issue human either. There are all sorts of bad people out there.”


There was another moment of quiet. “It seems to me,” Alexis said, slowly and quietly, “that I don’t have a lot of choice about belonging to that world.”


I shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not. Like I said, I don’t really know what you—we—inherited along those lines. But yeah, if it’s much like any of the other supernatural influences I’ve encountered it’ll make it pretty hard for you to blend in with ordinary society. Most people with a weird ability like that wind up migrating to the community over time, if only so they have someone to talk to that doesn’t think they’re insane.”


“What do you mean ‘the community?'”


I shrugged. “It’s…I don’t know, the community. You get some loner werewolves, some mages. A handful of changelings, a few people like you with weird blood in their family tree. I once met a guy who’s descended from Zeus, around fifty generations back. Then there are a couple people who’re totally normal but happen to be involved for some reason.” I shrugged again. “We aren’t friends, generally speaking, but…well, we have to look out for each other, don’t we? Nobody else will.”


“Huh,” she said thoughtfully. A moment later, “If I’m going to be involved in this stuff regardless, seems like I oughta know something about this. Like, know who I’m dealing with and stuff, right?”


“That’s your choice,” I said calmly. “But sure, sounds pretty reasonable. I can show you around some right now if you want, introduce you to a few people.”


She opened her mouth, then paused and glanced around. When she did speak, her tone was almost embarrassed, and she was holding her shoulders stiffly, almost as though she were anticipating a blow. “I’m sorry, I can’t. Maybe tomorrow?”


Nothing unusual in that request, particularly—but her posture made it suspicious. “What’s so pressing?” I asked, voice carefully light and casual, as though I couldn’t care less what the answer was. “You meeting your boyfriend for coffee or something?”


She flushed again, and refused to meet my eyes. “No, it’s not that, it’s just that I’ve…got something I have to do.” She looked at her phone. “Oh, shit, I’m late. I shouldn’t have stayed here so long. I’m sorry, Winter, I have to go.” She stood up and all but bolted for the door.


Well, that was fun.

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Balancing Act 6.2

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A reasonably short time later, I walked in the door to our…house, I suppose.


It’s a big house. Too big, in some ways; there were times I felt like a pebble rattling around in a container meant for a boulder. The place was just so big, so expensive, so luxurious…it was too much of too much. Houses like that weren’t made for the likes of me.


In spite of that, there was no difficulty guessing where Aiko was. I just had to follow the noise.


Currently, she was in the kitchen. The crashing of pots and pans didn’t quite cover up the sound of a German children’s song about a baby crocodile biting everything in sight, in infuriatingly high pitches and simple words.


I’m not sure which is worse—that Aiko listens to that, or that it was actually one of the top songs in Germany for a long while. And, for that matter, most of Europe. Including countries that don’t even speak German.


Snowflake and I walked straight through the throne room that was also the domain’s only hardwired connection to the outside world. Towards the back of the room, tucked unobtrusively away, was a simple door. It was made of walnut and covered in subtle, intricate carving, and the ornate handle was solid brass—but then, every door in this house looked more or less like that. It wasn’t like it was especially fancy or anything.


I opened the door, causing the music to become significantly louder, and Snowflake and I slipped quietly inside. Aiko knew we were there, of course—the music might cover any sounds we made, but a kitsune would certainly smell us—but she didn’t give any sign of recognition as we walked in and sat at the long hardwood table along the back wall. Well, I sat, anyway; Snowflake promptly flopped down across my feet. Urged on by her mental prodding, I leaned over and undid her collar, setting it and her eyepatch du jour on the table.


A moment later, “Das kleine Krokodil” segued into the next song. She must have been on something of a German kick, because it was a medieval-metal band—In Extremo, I thought, although it might have been Cultus Ferox, or maybe even Subway to Sally. I didn’t know enough German to understand any of them, so I had a hard time telling them apart.


She placed what looked like a tray of brownies into the oven with, perhaps, a little more force than was strictly required, slammed the door shut, and turned to face us with a broad smile. I found that somewhat unsettling—Aiko smiling and food preparation are a potentially dangerous combination, after all—which was probably the point. “Hey,” she said. “Anybody try to kill you?”


“Yeah, actually, but they did a piss-poor job. You poisoned those, didn’t you?”


“Now, Winter,” she said disingenuously. “Would I do a thing like that to you?”


I thought for a moment. “Yes,” I concluded, “given that you’ve tried to poison or drug me fifteen times this month, I think you might.”


She sniffed. “Please. You forgot the one with the sumac extract in your sock drawer.”


“Oh, you’re right. Sorry, sixteen times.”


And that was Aiko in a nutshell.


I thought that I might want to be prepared for something bad to happen the next day.


I mean, gosh, right? What an incredible display of acumen and foresight.


I’d explained last night the situation as it stood, and Aiko wasn’t surprised that my first stop the next morning was the armory. She was pissed as hell that she had to stay at home (she had some choice words about that the first time, in four languages and involving a number of obscene gestures as well), but she knew as well as anyone that leaving the Otherside was an exceedingly unwise thing for her to do.


Her fellow kitsune considered that a fairly lenient penalty for the time she gave me a hand with a dangerous situation she really shouldn’t have. If she violated the terms of that pseudo-house arrest, they might not be so inclined to go easy on her. And, while I didn’t know that much about how kitsune did it—Aiko never talked about her people, literally—most of the time justice in the supernatural world is both very quick and very final.


It was a shame, too, because I would have really liked to have her with me. She was young—less than sixty years old, which was barely adolescent for her kind—but she was also clever, dangerous, and easy to underestimate. I’ve gone into a number of scary places with her, and having seen her in action I would most definitely rather have her on my side than the other guy’s. Aside from Snowflake there’s no one I would rather have watching my back.


As that wasn’t an option, I went with heavy armament instead. My shotgun and pistol both fit under the cloak without showing anything suspicious, while the pockets were filled with stored spells and a couple grenades, plus extra ammo. Tyrfing would come when I called, regardless of distance, but I went ahead and grabbed a few sharp implements, just in case. A smattering of things that might be useful in various magical endeavors—chalk and ink, sand and ash, string, a bag of salt and a bag of stones, a small vial of pure rainwater, that sort of thing—rounded out my personal arsenal.


Snowflake, who was planning on coming with me, was also armed to the teeth, although she didn’t look it quite so obviously. Her gear was in the closet, too, rather than the armory. So mostly she just sat and watched while I grabbed all this stuff, and then glanced in the mirror to make sure nothing overtly illegal was showing.


I forget, sometimes, just how frigging scary we look. I mean, I look like a juvenile delinquent at the best of times, but this was something else. The long grey-black coat was one thing, but you could clearly see a pair of very expensive black jeans under it, and my black leather boots were custom-tailored. Between that and the half-dozen rings, I looked a lot more wealthy than the average delinquent, and that wealth was a lot more understated. So the overall effect was probably more gangster.


The closets came full-packed when we got the house, of course. At least I wasn’t wearing any silk or velvet.


In spite of that, Snowflake was a long ways my better. It’s hard to look terrifying when you’re a husky—the blue eyes, white-and-black fur, and general dogginess are a bit too cute—but she pulled it off. The eyepatch she’d chosen for the day was simple black leather marked with the fishhook-esque shape of an eihwaz rune—representative of a long e sound, or a yew tree. Given that yew was an excellent wood for weapons, and also somewhat poisonous, it was a…rather ominous emblem, to say the least.


Most people wouldn’t recognize that, of course. But her ears were pierced in a dozen or so places, with metal rings or bits of wood, and a leather cord woven through several of the holes. Her collar was similarly imposing, a heavy band of leather set with a bunch of heavy spikes and bits of bone. It didn’t take a genius to get the message there.


People get nervous when they see us coming, these days. Sometimes they even get scared. A number of people cross themselves at the sight of me, and even in Pryce’s when I walk in some folks walk out.


That bothers me a little, some days. But, in all fairness, not having to deal with petty troublemakers is well worth it. Plus, nobody crowds us!


I sighed, gave up on cheering myself, and walked into the next room over.


The laboratory was, oddly, a less friendly and pleasant room than the armory. The armory was as much for show as use, and as a result was designed to look good. The weapon racks were all polished ebony, with bronze fittings. The knives nestled into thick green velvet, and there were a handful of actual glass display cases. The lighting, cast by some sort of enchanted ceiling panel, was a warm orange.


The lab wasn’t nearly as welcoming. Rather than wood paneling, the room was essentially a marble cube, complete with drains in the floor. The lighting was classic fluorescent-blue, casting everything into sharp relief—no soft shadows here. The furniture, although also made of fine hardwood and marble, was much more angular, more functional. The armory was a place of comfort, but the lab was very much a place of function. It brooked no nonsense.


The effect was somewhat spoiled by the crepe paper and tinsel Aiko had draped around, trying to cheer the place up—but only somewhat. You really had to hand it to the lab—it takes a special sort of room to feel grim and brooding when it looks like Christmas came early.


Alexander’s lab, although a little smaller, was still better stocked. But I’d gotten a fairly impressive stash of reagents and components together, enough to perform a really quite remarkable array of enchantments, rituals, and invocations. That was why I was here now.


I grabbed a few things off the shelves, while Snowflake sat and waited near the door. She doesn’t much like ritual magic. I can’t blame her, because I don’t either—it’s exacting, requiring intense concentration and extreme precision, and it also tends to be rather dangerous. Mess up while performing quick-and-dirty magic like I’d used on the construct, or even most enchantments, and the spell fizzles. Mess up a prolonged ritual and it explodes.


In all fairness, though, this was actually an extremely safe ritual to perform. I hesitate to call it a ritual at all, really; I used a ritual setup, because I wanted to be sure and this wasn’t something I was very practiced at, but someone with a talent for this sort of magic could have achieved the same effect with little more than a word and a gesture.


I wasn’t one of those people, though. So instead I took my double handful of components over to the summoning circle inlaid in the floor.


There are all kinds of summoning circle out there. Some people use a half-dozen layers of runes and sigils, each a perfect and concentric circle, complete with candles, incense, jewels—the works. Other people, who don’t feel the need to show off or just don’t have the cash, pour out some sand or salt in a vaguely circular way. For most purposes, it doesn’t make nearly the difference newbies usually think it does.


Mine was on the simple end of things, a ring of pure steel perhaps eight or nine feet across—I did not feel any great desire to go summoning things that couldn’t fit inside that circle. The space inside it was pristine white marble, unmarked in any way.


At the four points of the compass (there was no magnetic or geographic north in the Otherside, so I’d just settled on one of the walls of the laboratory as “north” and gone from there), I set out the foci I was using for this summoning. Inside of the circle I placed simple things with a clear association to the entity I was trying to call—a hawk’s feather, a small windchime, a painted fan, and a bit of dandelion fluff. Outside, evenly spaced between those, I placed four small white candles, and lit them—with a match, rather than magic. I’m really not good at fire magic. Then I sat down a few feet away and started working.


The first step was pouring a small jar of sand out in a circle around myself, exerting a slight effort of will as I did to charge it with magic. This was a delicate task, at least for me, and I didn’t want a stray current of energy interfering with what I was doing at a critical moment.


Once that was done, and both circles were humming with just the littlest bit of magic, I got to the real work. I closed my eyes, sat very still, and started concentrating—not on words, or numbers, but on a certain feeling.


Imagine the delicate brush of a spring breeze through the branches. Picture, in exquisite detail, the rush of the wind through your fur. Visualize the patterns autumn leaves make blowing down the streets. Conceptualize the feeling of running free, all bonds broken and fetters burst. Wrap all those images up into a single whole, remove the words until all that’s left is a feeling, and you will have started to touch on the shape of my summoning, the bare bones waiting for something to fill them.


There were no words. There couldn’t be. The being I was trying to contact had no understanding, no concept of words. It had to be all feeling, instinct, impulse; logic, reason, those things would get in the way.


It was hard. I mean, as much as this might surprise some people, I tend to be a pretty careful guy, right? I might tend to the rash occasionally, or not reck as much as perhaps I should to danger, but I’m not careless or, typically, impulsive. This type of thinking was far out of my scope. Between that and my lack of skill with summoning in general, it probably took the better part of twenty minutes for me to shape the magic just right. I’m not quite sure, because any exercise in magic skews your perspective and dislocates your sense of time, but it was a while.


Finally, when I felt that I had the idea as close to perfect as I could, I let the circle around myself drop and let the magic out with a breath. No name—beings such as this don’t understand even the basic idea of names—just my breath slipping out, brushing over the sand before passing out into the world.


Nine of my heartbeats later, there was a presence in the summoning circle—invisible, intangible, but definitely there all the same. I immediately pushed more power into the circle, making it into a barrier. It wouldn’t stop the creature from escaping—very little could do that—but it would prevent it from doing so unconsciously. I reached out, crossing the circle easily, and gently touched the magic of the newcomer.


It smelled like early morning air and brushed across my skin like a gentle breeze fresh off the sea. It spoke, directly into my mind, saying recognition, greeting, acknowledgment, query.


There were no words. There couldn’t be.


I replied in the same manner, all basic concepts, emotions and images. I concentrated on my image of Brick, much as I had on the air spirit itself, the look of him, the exact way his magic smelled. I enquired, very delicately, as to whether it might find him for me, and tell him that I wanted to talk. There was a moment of hesitation, then another burst of recognition, then agreement. Something that was just a little bit more than a passing breeze brushed against my cloak, having slipped through the circle without even realizing it was there, and then the lab was empty again.


It was even odds whether it would do so, of course. I was on good terms with the air spirits—mostly because I was on good terms with Aiko, and she makes a point of maintaining friendly relations with them—but, well, they were still air spirits. That meant flighty, forgetful, inattentive, and careless. There was a very good possibility that it would forget where it was going. On the other hand, it could slip between the Otherside and the real world without any more thought than it had given to my circle, it could pass through practically any magical defenses, and there was no wall ever made that could keep out a determined air spirit.


As spies go, their poor memory and inattentiveness are too critical of weaknesses to be worth it. As messengers, well, I’ve seen worse.


I could have just called Jimmy, of course. But we’ve never gotten along all that great, because he’s an arrogant asshole and a coward to boot, and I have a crippling inability to refrain from pointing it out when he acts like it. Brick and I weren’t too great of friends either—he was too reserved, and I knew too much of his history—but I’d much, much rather get the story from him than Jimmy. Brick I might believe.


Even better, he just might tell me the truth.


I had other ways available to me of finding a person, ways which were more difficult to confound. But, by and large, they were difficult, expensive, or incredibly rude. I could progress to those if I had too, but I thought I’d give this a try first. If I didn’t get a response of some sort, I could always move on to the harder-core efforts later.


It would probably take the air spirit at least a few hours to find Brick, though, and once it did it might take him a while to get back to me. So I figured I had plenty of time to go try other avenues of finding out just what the heck was up among the Inquisition. I hadn’t forgotten the construct, and it didn’t seem nearly as amusing now as it had last night. I mocked them, behind their backs, but the truth is that the Inquisition scared me a little. I mean, they were magic-wielding fanatics, most of whom had dark secrets, all of whom had abilities I couldn’t readily counter. I’d have to be a moron not to be a little bit scared by that.


Especially now that, from everything I’d heard, the bonds holding them together were coming apart like old newspaper in a monsoon. Given how impressive I’d arranged for most of them to think I was, if they started going at each other both sides would make a priority of recruiting me, and a secondary objective of killing me so the other team couldn’t recruit me.


I didn’t think I had to worry about an attack at home, at least. I might not be comfortable living in an Otherside mansion granted by the Fenris Wolf, but it did have one upside over my old cabin—nobody who was less than a god was likely to be able to launch a serious offensive on it.


And if somebody tried, well….good luck. I take my paranoia seriously, and Aiko’s sense of humor is somewhat sadistic. If you attack my house, the biggest problem the police are going to have will most likely be finding enough of you to identify the body.


I figured I’d better take advantage of that peace and quiet while I could, so I took my time cleaning up after the summoning ritual. One of the things Alexander had drilled into my head over and over and over again was that, no matter how busy you were, you kept the lab neat. When you’re working with some of the stuff I kept in my lab, even a small mistake is lethal.


Besides. You never know when you’re going to need a circle on short notice. I’d be a fool not to keep mine ready to go, and that meant keeping it clean.


Snowflake sat patiently by the door while I swept up the sand and threw it out, returning the various props I’d used to their various cabinets and cupboards. She continued to watch patiently while I made sure that everything was secure and not likely to come crashing down the moment I turned my back, went over the floor with a wet rag to make sure I hadn’t missed any sand, and was finally forced to acknowledge that I was just delaying the moment I would have to leave my safe position.


Snowflake and I, in the five-months odd that we’ve been living in the Otherside, have worked out a certain morning routine. We wake up shortly before sunrise—earlier, today, to make time for the summoning—and slip out of bed without waking Aiko, who’s much more of a night-owl type.


We get our gear together—not usually this much, but always some, because I’m paranoid—and go for a walk. While we’re walking the sun comes up, because I like watching the sunrise almost as much as the sunset. Once that’s done and we both feel awake enough to deal with the day, I check my phone for messages.


Once that little ritual is taken care of, we go out for breakfast. Because Aiko is almost as bad at cooking as I am, that usually entails bringing something back for her too—she can’t, of course, come eat with us. After that the three of us can figure out what to do that day. Usually it involves a lot of reading and time in the laboratory. Not always, though, because Aiko’s really bad at being a stay-at-home anything. Frequent excursions and getting into trouble are essential to her wellbeing, and she usually brings us along.


If nothing else, the extra muscle is not infrequently useful for getting out of a dangerous scene. Aiko takes her getting into trouble seriously. By which I mean that—just counting the ones I’ve personally participated in—she’s started eighteen bar fights, four large-scale altercations between shopkeepers, two schisms within a major thieves’ guild (that sort of thing still exists in the Otherside, apparently), a riot, and a religion (don’t ask) in the time I’ve known her.


I strongly suspect that her idea of fun will be the death of all three of us, one of these days. Given how many people want me dead, though, I can’t exactly point fingers on that particular topic.


Things started out pretty much the same today. We were just in time to catch the tail end of the sunrise. It was almost November, and that meant it was late enough that the streets were pretty busy. We passed a number of joggers and dog walkers once we’d left the cesspit of a neighborhood where Fenris’s permanent connection to the Otherside opened. And then things became a lot less normal, when I started checking my messages.


Usually, that was boring, a ritual I conducted mostly out of habit. Oh, I might have missed a casual call from a friend, or various forms of advertisement, but nothing important. I seldom got more than one or two calls a day.


Today, I had a text message from Kris reiterating her request that I find out where Brick had gone. I had a text from Kyra saying hello, asking how I was doing, and inviting me to Wyoming for Thanksgiving. I had a voice message from Edward saying howdy, asking how things were going, and telling me I was welcome to come to Wyoming for Thanksgiving. I had a message from Sergeant Frishberg of the Colorado Springs police saying that somebody had died in a really bizarre way—a noteworthy statement, from the unofficial head of the freak squad—and she was willing to pay me to come have a look at it. And I had a message from my cousin Alexis saying she was in town and would like to see me.


That last one was, of course, the most worrying to me. I mean, murder, mayhem, generalized and massive chaos and destruction, check, right up my alley. Family? Not so much. Alexis was the oldest of my aunt Hilary’s three children, but my mother had been a lot older than her sister. Even Alexis was about a decade younger than me, and between that and my own freakishness, inhumanity, and magic, there was always a sizeable gap between us.


In the dozen years I’d lived in Colorado, not one of my family had come to visit. Not my aunt. Not her husband, who traveled frequently for his work. Not any of my cousins. Not once. I got maybe half a dozen phone calls from them yearly, combined.


So why the hell was Alexis here now? I had a definite feeling I wasn’t going to like the answer to that one.


Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to convince even myself that I would get to dodge the issue indefinitely. My life doesn’t work like that. So, rather than struggle against it, I called her back first.


The ensuing conversation was awkward, stilted, and full of uncomfortable silences—par for the course, essentially. She didn’t mention why she was in Colorado, and I didn’t ask. I gave her directions to a pizza place, and arranged to meet her there for a lunch. I hung up and gave the phone the sort of look I normally reserve for venomous snakes.


I thought about getting breakfast. I really did. But I had a little time left before I could expect to hear from Brick, and I figured that as long as I was being responsible I might as well go all the way. So I called Frishberg back instead.


And that is how I became embroiled in the second hideously dangerous mess.


I’d never been to the morgue before.


I found, to my total lack of surprise, that I hadn’t been missing much. It was better than the hospital, at least. The patients here wouldn’t recover, but that was more than eclipsed by the fact that they were beyond feeling pain.


Better than a hospital—but not by much.


Sergeant Frishberg, whose vaguely Hispanic features belied her Germanic name, met me at the door. She was mildly subdued, wearing formal clothing although not police uniform, and seemed more than a little glad to see me. I immediately discounted that. When I first met her I thought Frishberg was a little clumsy at faking reactions and blending in, but I was starting to suspect that it was all an act to cover the cunning, shrewd, and somewhat brutal mind behind it. I didn’t for a moment believe that a few dead bodies would shake her composure.


“Winter,” she said, nodding slightly. The gesture carried more than a touch of respect. I’d helped the freak squad deal with a couple of the freakier things they’d been called upon to do in the months since I’d met Frishberg, and she’d seen me in action. Apparently it left something of an impression.


I mean, not serious action or anything. But she saw me kill a few things. And this one time I kind of set a building on fire. And there was this one incident involving a rogue vampire and a lot of blueberries. But mostly nothing that serious.


“Sergeant,” I replied, nodding back. “What new and exciting bundle of horrors do you have for me today?”


Her lips quirked slightly. “Nothing too exciting, actually. Right this way.” She ushered me through the back halls of the morgue. Everything was very, very quiet, and the smell of disinfectant and embalming fluid was thick, but otherwise the place was unremarkable. It could have been an office, albeit one with a fondness for stark hallways and a real aversion to anything identifying them. The place was a maze.


Eventually she went through another door, into a room with an occupied autopsy table. It looked just like a medical table, except that the patient wasn’t breathing, and no effort had been made to make it comfortable and homey.


I’ve seen a significant number of corpses, and made more than a handful. I have seen the effects of werewolf attacks, close-range shotgun blasts, explosions, serious fires, a couple different kinds of poison, and decapitation on a body. Thus, it is with a certain expertise that I say that this particular body was, bar none, the least offensive and disturbing I’d ever seen. It looked like the man—a middle-aged fellow with Asian features who was a touch overweight—had just gone to sleep for a while. Aside from the autopsy marks, there was nothing whatsoever wrong with him.


I examined the body for a while. “Okay,” I said finally. “What killed him?”


“Well,” she drawled, “that’s sort of the problem. As far as they can tell, nothing did.”


“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said dryly, “but he seems pretty dead from where I’m standing.”


“Yep,” she agreed. “Guy’s in perfect health, though. Nothing wrong with him at all. No tissue damage, no poison, disease, nothing. Found him in his house like this.”


I grunted. “How’s that your problem?” I asked. “Chalk it up as one of life’s little mysteries and move on.”


“Normally, I’d agree with you. The problem is, he’s the fourth one this week. Just poof, dead.”


“Oh.” I thought about it for a minute. “You know, on second thought, I can maybe see where that might upset some people. I take it they dumped this on you because it’s weird and they can’t actually call it homicide without a cause of death.”


“That,” Frishberg agreed, “and they’re too busy.” She frowned vaguely, not looking directly at either me or the corpse. “Things are bad out there, Winter. I’ve never seen it like this.”


“Bad how? You mean like increased crime rates or something?”


“Through the roof,” she said dryly. “We’ve had more than thirty murders in the past month. Almost two hundred assaults. A hundred and fifty reported arsons.”


“I take it that’s unusual?”


She eyed me flatly. “We normally see less than thirty murders a year.”


“Oh. So pretty unusual, then.”


The sergeant rolled her eyes. “Bite me. The department’s working its ass off, which means fewer people get sent to the freaks, which means I have to do everything myself, and they dump a shitload more work on my head. And now this shit starts happening.”


Something remarkable happened then. Frishberg shook her head once, briskly, reminding me of Snowflake shedding water, and all the anger and frustration that had built up around her over the past few sentences just…evaporated. A moment before she’d looked ready to bite someone’s head off, and not too picky about whose it might be. Now, she had returned to the carefree, almost placid personality she’d shown up with.


Now that, Snowflake said, approaching awe, is a nice trick. You should learn to do that.


“So,” the sergeant said, quite calmly. “What happened here, and how much will it cost me to find out?”


I grinned at her. “Oh, no charge for you, sergeant. I’m happy to help out my friendly neighborhood police force. Us freaks have to stick together, right?”


Frishberg looked at me in a gimlet manner. “You,” she informed me sourly, “are not nearly as amusing as you think you are.”


True dat, Snowflake sighed. And you only have to listen to him occasionally.


Seems like a bit of a waste, I told her, given that she can’t hear you. Snowflake huffed and laughed at the same time, while I walked over to take a closer look at the mysterious dead guy. “You have any information on who these people were? Like, is there some kind of connection between them or something?”


“Maybe, but I want your take on it first.”


I sighed. Of course she did. Up close, the body looked pretty much exactly like it had from farther away. There was something odd about the smell, though, something funny. Not physically—he smelled pretty much the way you would expect of a dead guy in a morgue, in that respect. No, this was a magic smell,


It took me several moments to place it, and when I did it was more confusing than anything. He smelled like a lacking, a void in the background. I’m not sure how to explain it, beyond that. Magic doesn’t leave a trace of itself the way physical scents do, and it fades in hours, so I wouldn’t have expected to smell anything meaningful on him. The problem was that this particular void didn’t feel like the absence of smell. It was more like the smell of absence, like something that should have been present wasn’t. I’d have never noticed it unless I was looking for it, but once I did it was hard not to smell it.


So. Assuming he hadn’t just been a bizarre magical creature I hadn’t previously encountered which smelled like a void—which, given how relatively little of the supernatural world I’d encountered, was entirely possible—it was safe to assume that whatever killed him also caused him to smell like this.


I supposed that something could have ripped his magic away, leaving a hole where it had been. That didn’t fit, though, because every way I knew of to do that to a human being would have left some evidence on the body. Besides, I’d encountered something of the sort before. It didn’t produce this sort of lacuna.


On the other hand, neither did anything else that I knew of. And it seemed logical that, in order to so profoundly alter a person’s magical scent, you would have to alter their magic on an equally basic level. So. Maybe it was a way of taking magic that I didn’t know about.


Working on that assumption, I asked whether it would be possible for me to look at the other bodies. It turned out that it was—I suspect it was illegal, but the freak squad was sorta supposed to do that sort of thing, as I understood it—and it was quickly arranged. All of them appeared more or less the same. I didn’t pay too much attention to that, though, because the important trend was in the scent of their respective magics.


The most recent corpse was the one I’d already seen. The second newest smelled the same, but weaker—if I hadn’t known exactly what to sniff for, I wouldn’t have caught it. The third was so faint I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t my imagination. The fourth smelled perfectly normal.


That supported my guess that this was an effect of the method of killing. Finding one corpse smelling bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever encountered was one thing. Finding four identical ones, in one city, in one week, having all been killed in the same way, seemed…a bit far-fetched.


“All right,” Frishberg said, glaring at me and Snowflake in turn. “What can you tell me?”


“Well,” I said, “not a lot. Assuming I’m right, which I’m pretty sure I am, this is murder. It’s murder with a really unconventional weapon, but still basically murder, which means you can investigate it like any other murder. There’s a limited number of people who could pull this off, and I sorta think anyone who could do this could probably also cover their tracks pretty well, so you probably won’t find them that way. But you can at least figure out the motive.”


She smiled, thin and sharp as a well-honed knife, something of the hard, cold mind under the mask showing through. “Way ahead of you.”


It was my turn to roll my eyes. “I should hope so. Are you ready to tell me what that connection is?”


She glanced first one way, then another, in an exaggerated display of caution, and leaned closer. “They don’t actually exist.”


“No, seriously.”


“Well,” she amended, “officially, at least. No ID. No records of who the bastards were. No fingerprints.”


“You mean the prints aren’t on file?”


“Right. Except for the second one; he actually doesn’t have fingerprints. Never seen shit like it.”


I paused. “Wait a second. I thought you said the last one was in his house. How does that happen without some sort of paper trail?”


She grimaced. “It was a rental. Apparently he paid cash up front, and the owner didn’t ask too many questions.”


“Cash he didn’t have tax records for,” I noted.




“So,” I said slowly. “You’re telling me there are four unidentified people, dead of inexplicable causes, who were involved in shady financial dealings, within one week.”


“You’re catching on. Although, technically, I don’t think you can call it shady when you make a living dealing heroin.”


I stared. “You’re kidding me. How’d you find that out?”


“Corpse number one had a shitload of the stuff,” she said dryly. “Apparently someone matching the description’s wanted in two or three states out east. They were pretty upset when he turned up dead all the way out in Colorado, let me tell you.”


I stared some more. I was starting to see why the freak squad wound up with this. The whole mess sounded too confused, tangled, and generally screwy for anyone to want to deal with it, and that meant it got shoveled to the freaks. “I don’t know if I can help you with that,” I said. “I mean, it sounds to me like some sort of vigilante, but beyond that I have no freaking clue what’s going on.”


“Wonderful,” she said sourly. “Just wonderful. I don’t have time for this.”


“I’ll keep an eye out, then. Somebody’s running around doing this sort of thing, I’ll probably be seeing them before too long.”


She looked at me oddly. “You think they might try and take you out?”


“With my luck?” I sighed. “No might about it. Don’t worry, though, I’ll pass along your regards when they do.”


“You do that,” she said. Her eyes gleamed with some emotion I couldn’t quite place, and her voice had steel in it. And then the moment passed, and once again the mask flowed over her features, hiding the real Frishberg behind a veil of incompetence and corruption.


She was, I reflected, one of the more interesting humans I’d met. One of these days I was going to have to find out what she was hiding behind that mask.


Back outside, I made it all of three steps before being interrupted. Again. Surprisingly, it wasn’t an assassination attempt this time. I might have preferred an assassination attempt, but I didn’t get one.


What I got instead was a phone call. From Anna Rossi, possibly the only true, not even slightly preternatural human friend I still had. I debated ignoring it, but eventually sighed and answered. I expected an outpouring of concern, as she’d been expressing on a regular basis ever since her brother killed himself because of me. Somehow, she got the idea that that was messing with my head a bit. I can’t imagine how.


Instead, she said, “Hey, Winter. Whatcha doin’?” Her tone, terse and almost afraid, belied the casual words, and immediately made me tense up and start checking my weapons, more out of habit than anything. I mean, I didn’t exactly need to worry that they’d gone missing.


“Not a whole lot,” I said cautiously. “Why?”


“Well,” she said, “there’s a guy here asking about you. By name, I mean. He says he wants to talk to you, and it’s really important.” She paused. “He makes me a little nervous. I think he might be a werewolf.”


“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said grimly, and hung up. I cursed under my breath as I stalked over to my car. Anna might not have realized it—or, judging from her tone, she might have—but this guy was threatening her. Or, more accurately, threatening me with her—saying, basically, that if I didn’t come talk to him she’d suffer for it. It was a very veiled, polite threat, but definitely still there.


I don’t take kindly to threats. I take less kindly to people threatening my friends as a way to get to me. Given that this werewolf had done both, I thought we might have a very interesting chat.


And that is how I became embroiled in hideously dangerous mess the third. God, I hate my life some days.

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Balancing Act 6.1

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People seldom have sufficient respect for the power a thing can exert by being absent.


That’s my experience, anyway. It’s easy to look at something and say, “It’s doing this and this and this, so these must be the important parts of what it does.” It’s easy, but it isn’t always accurate.


A lot of the time, the really important stuff is what doesn’t happen, just because it’s there. Just look at the keystone of an arch; you might think it’s ridiculously unimportant, right up ’til you take it away.


The same thing tends to happen, I’ve found, with people. It’s easy to look at someone and only see what they do, which isn’t much. But then, once they’re gone, all manner of other things happen that don’t have any obvious relation to that person, but which wouldn’t have happened if they were still there.


Case in point: Erica Reilly. In life she’d been a vapid, greedy twit, approximately as self-centered as a gyroscope and with approximately the same intelligence as a lobotomized pigeon, who’d managed to irritate or infuriate practically everyone she met. Eventually one of them decided he’d had just about enough of that and flayed her alive.


Literally. I was there. It was not fun.


Anyway, as I was now discovering, Erica was having more influence after death than she ever could have alive—an irritation stronger than death, if you will. This was not exactly a welcome revelation, given that I’d had more than enough of her while she was alive.


Which is, in essence, why I was currently staring at my former employee Kris Lake across a small table in the corner of Pryce’s bar. “What do you mean Jimmy’s upset that you’re working with Val?” I asked, sipping iced tea.


“Sounds like you heard me,” Kris said acerbically. Snowflake, currently curled around my feet, chuckled faintly in the back of my head.


“Well, yes, but…what the hell? I mean, seriously, what’s the man thinking?” Jimmy Frazier was a sorcerer specializing in fire magics with less than a decade of experience. Dvalin Kovac was a fae powerful enough to ignore the literally cutthroat world of fae politics. I was pretty suspicious that he’d also been the Dvalin who forged Tyrfing, which would make him one of the most skilled magical craftsmen alive. It also meant he had to be at least a couple thousand years old.


That is not a recipe for a fair fight. If I had to guess, in fact, I would say Jimmy was roughly as strong relative to Val as a poodle to a werewolf. For him to pick a fight with the fae was…unwise.


“Hell if I know,” Kris muttered darkly, taking a long drink of some sort of cheap beer. “We’re falling apart, Winter. Ever since Erica died, it’s all just falling apart.”


Given that this was the sixth time she’d said that, I was guessing that this wasn’t Kris’s first beer of the night. Given that it was just past sunset, that was somewhat concerning. “You wanted to talk to me about something?” I asked, hoping to redirect the conversation into a less depressing topic.


She nodded with the peculiar exuberance of the moderately intoxicated. “Yeah. Yeah, I was getting to that. Jimmy got into a fight with Brick a couple days ago—he won’t tell me what it was about, but it was pretty bad. Yeah. Brick kicked his ass, but nobody’s seen him since. I was hoping you could, you know, find him or something?”


I sighed. The problem with helping someone out of a couple of seriously unpleasant situations was that they started thinking you could do anything, when the reality was that I had less chance of finding Brick if he didn’t want to be found than she did. Besides which, getting involved in this would put me smack in the middle of a feud between the various mages of the Inquisition, and that was as sure to get me embroiled in a hideously dangerous mess as anything I’d ever seen.


The bigger problem, of course, is that once someone starts to look at you like you’re a hero, you start wanting to help them. Especially someone like Kris, who was both fairly pathetic and one of the few people I considered a friend. Which is why, rather than explain why what she was asking was probably impossible, I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”


She nodded some more, said “Thanks,” a few more times than was strictly necessary, and wandered off towards the bar itself.


You owe me five bucks, Snowflake said smugly.


Cheater, I muttered. Someone told you about this already, didn’t they? She’d bet me yesterday that Brick would be the first person to cause a schism within the Inquisition’s ranks; I’d guessed Matthew.


Come on, Winter. Would I really conceal a potentially dangerous situation from you for a measly five bucks?


Given that I wasn’t willing to bet fifty? Absolutely. I scratched the husky’s ears idly, causing her to twitch a little—it was an astonishingly good impression of sleep, really. I don’t suppose they told you where he’s hiding out, did they?




Great. I’ll add it to the list of things to look into. Fortunately, it was a pretty short list at the moment. We’d had a few slow months now—a welcome reprieve, after the tumult of the spring.


In the meantime, I had business to conduct.


I’ve always liked making things. There’s a…satisfaction, I suppose, to be had from it, which you can’t quite replicate anywhere else. I mean, it can be intensely frustrating work, but the feeling you get when you look at something beautiful and know that it was your hands and mind that shaped it…well, there’s just nothing quite like it, and there’s nothing I can say to tell you what it’s like. You either feel it, or you don’t. There isn’t much ground in between.


Over time, though, the things I make have changed. I spent a sizable portion of my life working with Val, mostly making furniture, and that was good—but making things with magic is better. It adds a whole new layer of artistry, of intricacy in the crafting. I’m not that good at it—my gifts are in other areas, and it’s rare to be talented with multiple types of magic. But I’d put in a few hundred hours practicing, and I’d gotten to the point where I could make things that I was genuinely proud of.


I also had some practical reasons for the switch, of course. Namely, you can make really good money in magical items, if you’re clever and you can do something people will pay for.


I, generally speaking, am not renowned for my cleverness. So, naturally, it took me a couple years to come up with something good, and when I did it was Aiko’s idea. But it didn’t take me long to put it into practice, and for a few months now I’d been making and selling jewelry. Between spinning shadows and moonbeams into something almost solid and producing ice with a melting point in the vicinity of gold, I could make things you weren’t likely to find anywhere else.


Which, in turn, meant that someone might be willing to pay an absolutely ridiculous sum for one of those rings—on the level of a hundred to a hundred and fifty bucks a pop.


The cost of materials is nonexistent. I spend somewhere in the vicinity of an hour on the work. That translates into an obscene amount of cash for what is, really, very little work. I mean, I did the math a while ago, and we’re talking more than two hundred grand a year if I were to do that work full time. I don’t, but it’s still a pretty decent income.


More than that, though, is that I just don’t have any real expenses. I don’t have to pay rent, or a mortgage—Fenris gave me my house outright. Likewise, I don’t pay property tax, because I don’t officially own the dilapidated house that the Otherside mansion connects to, and the land where my now-burned cabin once sat is long since sold. I don’t pay income tax either, because all of my income is of the shady sort to say the least—in cash, for the most part, and with the sort of customer who thinks you’re insane if you say the word “receipt.”


So what’s that leave? Groceries? Eh, not so much—Fenris’s deal also included a steady supply of food, and while I occasionally bought something to supplement it, there was absolutely no chance that we’d be going hungry. I still had my Jeep, but it had been in long-term parking outside Pryce’s for months now, and I drove it once or twice a week at most. Not exactly spending a fortune on gas.


I understand a lot better, now, how someone like Aiko can have a family fortune and not even think it’s noteworthy enough to talk about. What good does having money do, when there’s nothing worth spending it on?


Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been spending money. I buy books, some of which are quite rare and expensive. Laboratory equipment and reagents, too, are not cheap—the two pounds of silver sitting in a lead-lined box alone cost me more than a thousand dollars. I have several thousand more stashed in various locations around town—none of which is a bank, because my accounts have been closed for a while now—and in other places where I can get to it if I need to. And I still had a hard time figuring out what to do with the money.


Which is why, when I sat down at one of Pryce’s corner tables to start bartering, it wasn’t for the money. It was mostly for something to do, and partially to continue building my network of contacts for the next time something goes disastrously wrong and I need a favor.


I would rather that didn’t happen, of course. But, speaking from experience here, that isn’t a realistic hope. Better to prepare for it, so that when the inevitable happened I had some chance of surviving it.


And the third reason was that sometimes, you find something much better than money. You find something interesting.


I did a brisk trade, over the next two hours or so. I’d been stopping at Pryce’s to sell stuff one evening a week for several months now, which meant that people knew where to find me.


It didn’t even occur to me to go anywhere else. I mean, why should it? I was catering to the supernatural crowd, and when it comes to the supernatural in Colorado Springs, everyone goes to Pryce’s sooner or later.


This evening followed the same pattern as usual. First, once Kris had gone on her way, Snowflake and I ate a leisurely dinner. Then, pleasantly full, I pulled out the small black backpack that had been concealed beneath my cloak, and Snowflake went to sleep.


The first person to approach me at my table was a jittery young man who’d been watching me eat for the past twenty minutes. My bag had hardly hit the table when he was standing on the other side of it. He bought a narrow, glittering band of ice for his mother, in an extremely rushed manner. I knew it was for his mother, because he insisted on telling me so five times, with the slightly panicky tones of someone who’s lying and knows he’s lying and knows he’s lying badly but can’t think of anything else to do.


I didn’t care why he wanted the thing, but I don’t take kindly to being lied to. And his smell was unpleasant—too much cologne, not enough washing. So I charged him two hundred, thinking perhaps it would make him just go away.


Instead, somewhat to my surprise, he paid asking price in used twenties, seeming positively grateful for the chance to do so. Then he stood back up, jittered a little more, seemed for a moment as though he would say something, and left.


That was not a particularly unusual customer interaction. Dealing with unaffiliated members of the supernatural world has a number of upsides, foremost of which may be a real aversion to any sort of question at all, but nobody’s ever said it came without liabilities.


After that, things settled into a routine. Rachel took the time off from her pool-shark career (she actually works as a counselor, I believe, though she’s in Pryce’s so much I’ve no idea how she has the time) to chat for a few minutes. She brought her current boyfriend, too, and within a few minutes had him talked into buying something pretty for her.


I would have given it to her for free—money didn’t mean much at the moment, and she was a longstanding acquaintance, almost a friend. But there was a gleam in her eye, and a tenseness to her posture, that told me not to go easy on him. I didn’t gouge him like the last guy, but I got my usual price. She walked off, a patch of shadow touched with moonlight wrapped around her wrist, and proceeded to thrash him mercilessly at pool. From his posture I guessed that she’d been letting him win until now.


It’s sort of sad. Rachel’s an empath—a small-scale mage with a natural gift for detecting other people’s emotions. She doesn’t go rooting through your brain unless she doesn’t like you—that sort of thing’s deeply impolite. What she’s really doing, as I understand it, is sampling the energy surrounding you, energy which is naturally influenced by strong feelings. Theoretically any mage could learn to examine that cloud of energy to such a fine degree as to pick up emotions, but Rachel did it as instinctively as examining a person visually.


It makes her a great counselor—when you know exactly how a person feels, it does a lot to help you help them. It’s an useful talent, and one of great benefit to society, but not one I’d wish on anyone I like.


I know it was hard for her to grow up with that kind of power. Even if I couldn’t guess as much, which I could, the occasional comment or sudden silence made me pretty sure that when she’d first started coming into her power, the sensations it had exposed her too hadn’t been pretty ones. I’ve never asked her about it, of course, just as she never asked why I was so quick to change the subject when werewolves came up. Such things are simply not done, among people like us.


But you could see the effects in her behavior. Because she’d been exposed to something bad and she could feel people on such an intimate level, she was only too aware of how vile human beings could be—she knew, from the inside out, how it felt to be a bad person. As a counselor, that helped, because she could sympathize and she knew what people were going through. But it had left her with worse relationship issues than mine and Aiko’s put together, and that’s saying something.


I’d lost track, over the years, of how many boyfriends she’s gone through. They’re typically scum-of-the-earth sorts, because she doesn’t want to inflict herself on anyone halfway decent. From that interaction, I was guessing this one had two weeks left, tops.


That’s the problem with hanging out with the small fry of the supernatural world. Most people fall into one of three groups. They’re either so pathetic you want to give them a hug, so unsettling and generally spooky you want to back away slowly when you see them coming, or—most commonly—both. Rachel was definitely both.


Fortunately, it got less depressing from there on out. Luna, who spent so much time working out of Pryce’s that it was functionally her office, stopped to pick up her order. As she was the center of a small-scale but very active black market and information brokerage, I did a lot of business with her. Not the most ethical work, perhaps, but realistically speaking there’s no point trying to shut her down, even if I wanted to. Someone else would pop up to fill the demand within a week, and they probably wouldn’t be nearly so nice as Luna.


After twenty minutes of fierce bargaining, she took away three rings, a necklace, and a pair of earrings. She also took away four stored spells—two would produce a dense localized fog when activated, and one a fairly sizable patch of shadow that wouldn’t be dispelled by any natural light. The last was something she’d ordered special, a piece of slate that, when broken, would cause every dog in a mile to start going crazy at the same time. I wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted it for, but she must have wanted it pretty badly, considering what she paid for the thing.


In return, I took half a dozen stored spells, a large uncut ruby, and an envelope describing how the rakshasas were going to vote on the upcoming trade agreement between the Council and the Daylight Court. The information was useless to me, but I might be able to sell it to someone else. That was how the business worked.


Other than that, I didn’t sell to anyone I knew, although there were a number of strangers, and even more people I vaguely recognized, who were interested enough to fork over some cash. I chatted briefly with a few other regulars, who didn’t buy anything—if they wanted what I made, they already owned it. A large bearded werewolf I didn’t recognize hastened to assure me he was only visiting for the day from Denver and bought a ring. Then he wouldn’t shut up for five solid minutes about how excellent the workmanship was and how he’d never seen the like, which almost made me want to take it back.


I like a compliment as much as the next fellow. But there’s only so much a guy can take.


There were also a few more interesting cases. A slender woman wearing what looked like genuine—and well-used—hunting leathers whose magic smelled of gardenias traded an oddly shaped knife for a full bridal set in shadows. A human mage, whom I suspected was actually a Watcher out of uniform, bought one of the ice rings. He also, under cover of that transaction, purchased the envelope from Luna—which, I might add, I hadn’t even opened. In exchange he gave me a long strip of leather which would cling to itself more tightly than any glue, which I was hoping to reverse engineer for my own use. A fiery-smelling man I thought might be a djinn took a bracelet of shadow and my last stored spell for sale, a glass marble that would release a sizable gale if shattered, in exchange for a jar full of some odd black sand that smelled like the same magic as he did and felt warm to the touch.


Like I said. Interesting is more valuable than diamonds. I know, because a while ago someone paid me in diamonds, and before the week was out I wound up trading them for a glass dagger, a pouch of seeds taken from Faerie grasses, a pair of ivory dice that could be convinced to roll any number on command, a couple stored spells, a tortoise shell of the sort used in traditional Chinese fortunetelling, a deck of illuminated Tarot cards, and a few jars full of various exotic and possibly illegal substances.


It wasn’t just a matter of amusing myself, though. I was trying to build a reputation as someone who could make things happen, and that meant dealing in things that nobody else could arrange. It might be years before I managed to sell any of that crap, but it would be worth it in the end.


After that was finished, Snowflake and I stood up to leave. We stretched, walked out the door into the cool autumn night, and traveled almost two blocks before someone tried to kill us.


As assassination attempts go, this one was pretty weak. An odd-looking fellow in a dark cloak, conspicuous because there was nobody else moving on this particular side street at this time of night, walked up and tried to tear my guts out. It has the advantage of simplicity, I suppose, and a generous enough person might call it elegant, but…sheesh. When you’ve had your life threatened by old gods and faerie queens, something like that’s almost more an insult than a threat.


I saw it coming a mile away, of course. I mean, I size up everyone I see as a threat. It’s such an ingrained habit it’s practically instinctive. When that person is wearing a cloak, I pay attention—with the exception of anachronistic freaks such as myself, nobody wears a cloak these days, and that makes it suspicious. When they’re in an otherwise silent part of town in the middle of the night, I automatically assume they’re there to try and kill me, and act appropriately.


I would call it paranoia, except that I tend to be right.


The figure covered the last few feet in a blur, one hand coming up in a simple strike at gut-level. What looked like a curved knife gleamed in the light of a waning moon, just bright enough to be silver-plated rather than steel along the cutting edge. It was clearly relying on sheer speed to take me out, rather than any form of technique.


That was not so smart. I was accustomed to dealing with preternaturally fast things, and I was ready. Almost before it started moving, I was falling backward, and the blade passed through empty air over me without ever being a threat.


Snowflake, moving with the sort of coordinated precision that only comes from long practice together, surged over me as I fell. She took the assassin out at the feet before he had a chance to follow up on my vulnerable position. She also, as she blew by him, seized one leg and, with a quick snap-jerk, tore it off at the knee.


Snowflake’s a lot stronger than she looks. Stronger than a husky has any right to be.


I, too, had a lot of practice with Snowflake, and excellent reflexes. So, before he could even tilt—before I’d even hit the ground—I forced power through the focus of my leather bracelet. The resulting gust of wind was just strong enough to knock the thing off balance, which was strong enough for my needs.


Long story short, it happened as follows. A gust of wind strong enough and sudden enough to make a grown man stumble hit the thing sideways. As it was no longer capable of stumbling to that side, it fell, hitting the ground hard and rolling. A pair of sunglasses fell off in the tumble, and I got a glimpse of intensely yellow eyes.


Then, without so much as wincing in reaction to its unplanned amputation, it came up to a low crouch. I’d suspected it wasn’t human, or anything like it, but that clinched it. No human spine or pelvis was that flexible. Then it threw itself at me with its three unwounded limbs.


All of this happened in the space of a second or two, before Snowflake could so much as turn around.


I’ve been in a lot of sticky situations, and I don’t panic the way I probably should anymore. So I had the presence of mind to notice a number of things. First off, there wasn’t any blood. The thing should have been bleeding like a fountain from the leg, and I would have smelled that. I didn’t. Second, it wasn’t a knife it had come at me with—it was a claw. The creature had three of them on each forelimb, and they were definitely edged with silver. Charged silver, too; I could smell it.


That told me a lot about what I was dealing with. It had been a long while since I’d seen a construct, but I have a pretty good memory for these things. I knew the signs to look for.


I rolled away as it pounced, and it hit pavement instead of me. Then, rather than get up and start fleeing the way it probably expected, I got one foot under me and threw myself back towards it. It wasn’t prepared for that, and I managed to get a solid grip on the front of its cloak with both hands. Then I planted my feet again, arched my back, and threw it away with the strength of my whole body.


There is a certain amount of truth in the stories of a werewolf’s supernatural strength, and that is one of the attributes I do share with a true werewolf. The thing flew almost ten feet and hit the ground hard.


Snowflake was waiting—and this thing was too stupid to take its attention off of me, its assigned target. When it hit the ground, she pounced. A moment later, her jaws snapped shut and jerked sideways again. A moment after that, the thing was in two pieces, one of which was a head.


When in doubt, you can’t beat decapitation for killing something unnatural. The best part is that, even if your attacker actually is human, well, beheading works on them too.


It’s convenient that way.


The three-limbed, headless figure staggered upright, and for a moment I thought it would come at me again. Apparently that was too much even for something as resilient as this, though, because a moment later it collapsed again. The disembodied head, lying on the ground a few feet away, continued to stare hatefully at me out of urine-yellow eyes. The pupils were slitted, and the result looked more like a snake than anything.


Then the whole thing started melting.


I sighed and pushed myself to my feet. The whole thing had happened too fast for thought, and I was just now starting to feel the adrenaline rush. I mean, my hands weren’t shaking or anything—I’m too well accustomed to violence for that—but I could feel that my heart and breathing rates were picking up, and my muscles were tight.


Gott, dass schmeckt mir abgefuckt beschissen, Snowflake muttered in my head. Construct, you think?


I frowned and walked over to examine the body—well, what was left of it, anyway. It was rapidly turning into a puddle of some sort of thick, translucent fluid, which was in turn evaporating into the air. Matter from the Otherside is naturally inundated with magic, and without that power it can’t maintain a physical structure. Looks like, I muttered grimly. We both stared as the construct finished melting and vanished.


All that was left behind was a long black cloak of some cheap fabric and a half-dozen claws, long curved pieces of steel with silver along the cutting edge. Those hadn’t come from the Otherside, but rather been incorporated after the construct itself was made.


Are you going to do something with those? Snowflake asked me, keeping careful watch down the street. Sending an obvious assassin was an excellent way to hide the presence of another, subtler one while the target was still busy being relieved at surviving the first attack.


I can’t say I want to have them around.


You don’t want the cops picking them up either, do you?


I sighed. Good point. I picked up the cloak and started bundling the claws into it, being careful not to touch the silver with my bare skin. It still itched having so much charged silver around, but it wouldn’t actually burn me unless I touched it. As I did, I thought about what had just happened.


The construct was quite similar to the ones I’d seen when I took down the loony witch called Jon. Actually, scratch that; it wasn’t similar, it was the same, right down to the claws and the yellow eyes.


Lots of mages use constructs as cheap muscle. But there’s a lot of kinds of construct, custom designed for specific purposes. Besides that, every mage had a unique style, and you could often tell who designed a thing just by the feel of it, the pattern of the magic that went into making it. The likelihood of an unrelated practitioner creating a fighter-construct exactly like Jon’s style was beyond tiny.


Okay. So, I reminded myself, the first thing to do was go through the facts available to me, without making any conclusions at first.


Fact the first: I’d just been attacked by a construct clearly based on the same design Jon had used.


Fact the second: As Jon was entirely deceased, he could not have been the one to send it.


Fact the third: All of the Inquisition spent some time taking lessons from Jon before I met them.


Fact the fourth: The first time I encountered the Inquisition they were trying to kill me as part of their monster-slaughtering crusade. We’d since come to be a sort of allies, but they were still pursuing the same goals.


Fact the fifth: The ten minor mages making up the Inquisition were no longer a unified group. Even before Kris talked to me about it, I knew that the group was starting to fracture under the tension of Erica’s death and a slowly growing divide in philosophy.


All of which led to an inescapable fact the sixth: Finding out what had happened to Brick had just gone from a favor for Kris to a high priority for myself. I could handle constructs like that one all day and part of the night, but…well…there were much worse things they could send at me next.


That struck me as a good reason to reorganize the to-do list.

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Debts Outstanding Epilogue 5

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Three days later, I was meeting Kyra in the city. It was supposed to have happened two days earlier, but as it turns out, you don’t actually get phone reception on the Otherside. When I made it back to the “real” world to stretch my legs and keep from going crazy with cabin fever, I had about a thousand messages. They started out polite, moving on to annoyed after about twelve hours. By the second morning she was actively angry, and then in the late afternoon to worry and depression.


I’d left her a message, the first day back, about not being dead, at least. I don’t think I want to know what she’d have thought or done otherwise.


Thank God, Snowflake muttered as she trotted down the road at my side. Until this morning, she hadn’t spoken since I got back—that whole Wild Hunt thing hit her pretty hard, and no surprise. She must have been feeling at least a little better now, though; she was not only talking, she’d asked to come with me, and settled on the purple eyepatch with a Day-Glo-green peace sign on it, coupled with a heavy black leather collar set with a double row of steel spikes. (I cannot express to you how hard I laughed when I saw that there were three separate walk-in closets attached to the master bedroom—one for me, one for Aiko, one for Snowflake. They were all about the same size.) I couldn’t take one more day in that abgefuckt beschissen house.


I didn’t make a big deal of the fact that she was talking to me again. I mean, come on, I knew her pretty well by now, okay? And I knew nothing would make her retreat faster than that. Can’t argue, I agreed. It wouldn’t be so bad if it just had a few windows. I don’t think I’ve ever gone so long without seeing the sun.


Agreed, she said fervently. I love the furniture, but that’s going to get old fast.


We were, thankfully, not bound to the same cafe as before. That would have been just spooky. Kyra and I had, after some discussion, settled on a tiny park instead. It was a pretty good walk, but neither of us had any objection to that; after three days stuck in our new house, both Snowflake and I wanted a chance to stretch our legs.


Around an hour later, we strolled into the park, looking…well, not like any other person walking a dog, but a reasonably close imitation. I wasn’t even wearing the armor—light and masterfully crafted or not, it’s too bloody uncomfortable for anything short of an emergency. Granted I had a number of knives secreted on my person (I’d forgotten I even had some of those), but they were small enough I wasn’t even wearing my cloak as a long cape or trench coat. A light hoodie, not unreasonably warm for April in Colorado, was quite adequate to conceal them.


Kyra was already there waiting for us. She looked…different, somehow, a matter more of bearing and posture than physical appearance. It took me a minute to figure out what it was, although once I did I couldn’t believe I’d overlooked the obvious.


She looked like herself. As in, just herself, without the added baggage of the Alpha. Authority changed a person, especially a werewolf, and the difference in how she carried herself after acquiring that role was marked. Now…it was gone, plain and simple. Kyra looked like the reserved, mildly snarky werewolf I’d known for years before that change. She was even slouching a little.


I wasn’t at all sure what to make of that. She was still alive, though, so it couldn’t be too bad. That’s the nice thing about werewolves—they tend to be very direct about hating you. You seldom have to wonder whether you pissed a werewolf off; if they haven’t tried to eat your spleen yet, the answer is probably no.


“How’s it going?” she asked as I walked up. She didn’t so much as glance in my direction, and she was slumped against a small tree. An Alpha would never act so carelessly, not even with a trusted old friend.


“Not too shabby,” I said, sitting down next to her with a sigh. Snowflake flopped across my feet. “Yourself?”


She grunted. “Good news. Ryan’s alive.”


I blinked. “Really?” We hadn’t heard from him since he disappeared from the shopping mall, and I’d been pretty sure that wasn’t going to change in the near future.


“Yep,” she said. “Apparently he saw some sort of something in the crowd and thought he should go investigate. Next thing he knew he was waking up this morning. Called me first chance he got.”


“Huh. That’s interesting.” Sounded like a will-o’-the-wisp to me—they were Unseelie beasties, so they could easily have been working with Carraig. I didn’t think a werewolf would resist their lure particularly hard, either; in fact, what with the focus on hunting, they might be more susceptible than a normal human. The only thing that surprised me was that he was still alive.


Kyra grinned. “Oh, you haven’t even heard the best part. He woke up stark naked and rather sore in the middle of a cornfield in Kansas—oh, except for a collar. With, and I quote, the worst hangover imaginable, a bottle in his right hand, a set of spurs in his left, and smelling like lemons and burnt toast.”


“That is quite possibly the most disturbing mental picture I’ve had all week,” I said after a moment. “Thanks.”


Her grin got even wider. “I’m still not done. He has a number written on his hand in something he says is almost but not quite permanent marker. With ‘Call me’ underneath. Oh, and a number of bite marks. I’ll let you guess where.”


I closed my eyes for a second or two and tried to banish the images that conveyed. I so did not want to hear any more details about this.


I think I need to bleach my brain after that, Snowflake said in agreement after a moment. I thought you got up to some weird stuff on the weekends, but this trumps every story you have put together.


“Okay,” I said, eyes still tightly closed. “Now that you’ve scarred us for life, why did you want to talk?”


“The pack’s splitting up.”


I opened my eyes. “Wait, what?”


“You heard me,” she said.


“Well, yes, but…what?”


She shrugged. “Too much action the past year or two. Between that and all the publicity—we were one of the media-attention packs, you know, and now that that gambit’s over….” She shrugged again. “Plus we’ve lost a bunch of people. Makes more sense to just split things up and assimilate into other packs, rather than try to move.”


“Kyra, I…I’m so sorry—”


“Oh shut up,” she snapped. “Christ, Winter, I’ve heard the condolences speech from twenty-four werewolves, you really think I need it from you too?”


“You could at least have let me finish the sentence,” I said sourly.


“You’ll live.”


Epic burn, Snowflake laughed. I wonder if you could convince her to wait while I catch a rabbit?


Wouldn’t popcorn be more appropriate? I asked her.


Well, sure, but seriously, popcorn? Bleck. Who likes popcorn?


“Where’re you going?” I said out loud.


“Wyoming,” she said decisively. “I’ve already talked to Frodsham about it, and he says he’ll take me. I’m driving up there tomorrow.”


I blinked. “Why Wyoming?” I’d always thought of Kyra as more of a city person.


She shrugged. “You make him sound like a decent guy.” No surprise, really, considering that Edward was the closest thing to a father figure I’d ever had. He was a decent guy, too, especially for a werewolf. Most of the species is, I’m sorry to say, bad enough that I don’t have to wonder too much about where the scare stories come from.


“Good luck,” I said eventually. “I think I’ll be staying here.”


She glanced sidelong at me. “You sure?” she asked—just serious enough to let me know it was a serious offer, just joking enough to let me know she wouldn’t object if I declined.


“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got too much going on here. Besides, I’ve lived in Wyoming once already. It hasn’t been nearly enough years for me to want to go back yet.”


“Fair enough,” she said. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be staying. I think I might go back to school, finish up my degree. I guess I’ve got time to decide, right?”


“I really am sorry,” I said as she stood up.


She grinned. “I’m not. I was never really Alpha material anyway.” I couldn’t honestly argue with that one, so I didn’t try. “See you around.” She walked briskly off.


Snowflake and I stayed awhile in the park. The sun was warm on my face, and I laid back in the grass for a short nap. The world was still a terrible place, I was still a terrible person, we still sometimes had to do terrible things—but, for just a little while, it was still pretty good. Nobody can be a monster every day, after all.


I still had questions to ask, loose ends to tie up, loads and loads of work to do.


Work, we decided unanimously and without discussion, could wait a while.

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I woke up slowly the next day. I do mean day, too; I slept until almost noon.


I was pretty disoriented, which is why it took me a moment to realize how funky things were. I’d gone to sleep in my armor, in the forest, draped in all manner of weaponry. I woke up sitting in a chair, in the same cafe where I’d met with Kyra and Pellegrini, wearing street clothes.


In other words, something was very wrong with the world.


To reinforce this impression, as soon as I was awake I heard a voice. More specifically, Loki’s voice, or at least the voice he used most often in my experience. He said, “You’re about to go visible, so try not to jump.”


Loki himself was sitting across the table from me. “Good morning, Winter. How do you feel?”


“Stiff. Sore. Generally not too great. But alive.”


“Very good,” he said enthusiastically. “Most excellent. Oh, your food should be here shortly. I’m sure you’re hungry, after last night.” He motioned toward the large glass of iced tea in front of me.


I considered asking whether it was poisoned, but dismissed the notion. I mean, really, what would be the point? If it was, Loki probably wouldn’t tell me. And, in any case, if he ever decided to kill me, there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. He was a god; I was just a mortal with a little bit extra tacked on; ergo, any fight between us could end in only one way. It wasn’t complicated.


It occurred to me that it was more than possible today was the day he would make that decision. In which case, hell, I might as well enjoy some breakfast first. The tea was quite good.


“So,” Loki said. I noticed he was idly flipping a butter knife around in one hand, and couldn’t help but remember that was the instrument he’d promised to kill me with if I messed up. “I’m assuming that you have some entertainingly complex plan to recover the spear. Or else you’re terribly confused.”


I bowed my head slightly—not that I really thought the gesture of submission would count for anything, but I had to try, you know? “Actually, Loki, I wasn’t planning on retrieving it.”


“Now, see,” he said, “that’s what I would call ‘terribly confused.’ After all, we did have a deal, didn’t we?”


“I have fulfilled the terms of your request,” I said.


He raised one dark blond eyebrow. “Oh, this should be good. Do continue, Winter, I’m dying to hear this explanation.”


“You asked me to identify the person or persons responsible for three deaths in this city,” I said carefully. “I have done so. Shannon Plumber was killed by Pier of the Daylight Court, Steve Potts by criminals hired by Humberto Escobedo, and Humberto himself by Carraig of the Midnight Court. In a more broad sense, Erica Reilly was responsible for all of these deaths and several others by obtaining, and subsequently selling, the Gáe Bolg.”


“Which is all fine and well,” Loki said. “But I rather think you’re forgetting one little part. Namely, that wasn’t all I asked you for. By which I mean that I also asked you to return the stolen goods.”


This was where it got tricky, but if it worked I might get out alive. “You asked me to return anything stolen from the victims,” I corrected. “At no point in time did the Gáe Bolg fall under that category. Plumber sold it to Potts before her death, which was a legal transfer of property. It was then confiscated by the police from Potts’s home, which is their legal right and was properly executed. Neither of these were cases of theft.”


“And for you to take it from the police? Will you tell me that was legal, as well?”


“No,” I said. “That was theft. However, you very clearly stated that only things stolen from the victims of the three murders which had happened when you contacted me were to be returned to you. As I did not steal it from any of those individuals, it does not qualify, and at that point the spear was mine to do with as I would.”


Loki considered that for a moment. Then he did the last thing I’d expected.


He started to laugh. And kept laughing, until he was leaning on the table for support with tears running freely down his face. “Oh,” he said breathlessly—which was pretty funny in itself, given that I don’t think he actually needs to breathe in order to talk. He was a pretty good actor, when he remembered that he wanted to be. “Oh, man. That’s really good. Nice job, Winter. I have to say, I didn’t expect you to be that good at lawyering.”


“So we’re even?” I asked cautiously.


He waved one hand carelessly. “Oh, sure, sure. No problem. I mean, I have to reward that kind of twisty thinking somehow, don’t I?”


“Do you?” I asked, curious.


“Well, I’m reasonably confident I’m supposed to, at any rate. Being god of half-truths and unethical bargaining and all that. Besides, it’s not like I wanted the thing anyway.”


Right about then the waiter dropped off my food—and only my food, because apparently Loki wasn’t even pretending to need to eat today. “What do you mean you didn’t want it?” I asked once he’d left.


“Of course not,” Loki said patiently, as though speaking to a child. “Why should I? I mean, I’ve no idea what I’d do with such a thing, and then I’d be always wondering where I’d left it. No, thank you. I probably would have just given it back to Scáthach. No big deal.”


I stared. “I don’t get it,” I said eventually. “I mean, if you didn’t want it in the first place, why’d you cash in your favor?”


“Well, it was funny, wasn’t it?” he asked, as though that explained anything. “Everybody had all these careful plans laid out, I just couldn’t resist interfering. You make a wonderful monkey wrench, by the way.”


“Thanks,” I said sourly. “So this whole thing was just to satisfy your twisted sense of humor for a day?”


“Pretty much, yeah. Thanks, you were a lot more exciting this time around.”


I spent a minute eating and reflected that the universe put way too much effort into hating me.


“No, actually,” Loki said as though I’d spoken aloud. “Very common mistake. People find the claim that God hates them to be very comforting, so I suppose it’s only natural.”


I snorted. “Comforting? Comforting? In what way is knowing that there are forces vastly more powerful than me which hate me comforting?”


“In what way is it anything else?” he countered. “People say they believe in a benevolent and loving God, of course, but that’s a very difficult attitude to maintain in the face of a world which seems determined to disprove any such concept. Often, I find, humans find it much easier and more satisfying to believe in a God which hates them personally.”


“I still don’t get how that’s a comforting attitude.”


“Think about it,” Loki said, leaning forward earnestly. He was wearing deep blue eyes today, presumably because the real thing would have been inappropriate for such a public venue, and if I hadn’t known better I would have thought him perfectly trustworthy. “If God hates you, then nothing bad that happens to you is ever really your fault. It doesn’t matter what you do, because God will always ensure that nothing goes right. Besides which, you can always tell yourself that you’ve beaten this God with whatever scraps of happiness you do achieve, which must be a significant boost to your ego.”


I frowned. “Huh. I guess I never thought about it that way before.”


“Of course not. To think about it from a rational perspective would undermine all the psychological benefits of such a worldview. Besides which, that would force you to examine a much more existentially frightening concept.”




“The idea that God doesn’t care,” he said, sounding even more earnest. “Think about it, Winter. A God who hates you is, fundamentally, a God who knows that you exist, a God who pays attention to you personally and cares about your life. In a negative sense, perhaps, but all attention is good attention, as they say. Malicious, yes, but it nevertheless says that there is something bigger, that it does know and care who you are, that you’re important to no less a being than God himself.”


“Now,” he continued, gesturing grandiosely with his butter knife, “compare that to the alternative—that is, that there is no God, or worse, that God exists but doesn’t care. Now that is a terrifying concept—imagine a God who knows you exist but can’t be bothered to remember, who is so much more than you that you become just a number on the file folder. It’s the difference between a gunshot and cancer, you see?” He shrugged. “I imagine it also places a great deal more moral responsibility on you. If God isn’t responsible for the horrors of the world, after all, there are very few other candidates than yourselves.”


I thought about that for a while as I finished up the food—not as much as I might have wanted, but I wasn’t about to complain to Loki. It was an interesting perspective, one I hadn’t ever really considered before. “So which is true?” I asked after a minute or so.


He laughed, infinitely more disturbing than Fenris’s. When Fenris laughed, the sound was touched with wolves’ howls and a hunger too deep for words. Loki’s laugh, though, had an edge to it of madness that made mere human insanities seem rather blasé. “In a cosmic sense? Who knows?” Grinning a mad grin, he stood up and offered me his hand. “There’s something I want you to see.”


Did I want to see it? No. I didn’t even have to ask to know that I would rather take a silvered grater to my knuckles.


It’s never good when the Trickster smiles. Never. Never ever.


Of course, I was still holding my life in my hands, quite seriously. Loki might have been amused enough by my exploitation of a technicality (not to mention all the violent antics of the past days, which seemed like something he’d enjoy) not to kill me. But he was still fucking Loki. He didn’t need a reason to kill me. He didn’t even need an excuse. If he wanted to, he could murder me right there in front of a dozen witnesses and I was willing to bet he’d get off scot free. My continued life was dependent on being amusing to him—and, while my life might not be the best available, I wasn’t ready to give it up quite yet.


Not as heroic an attitude as I’d managed the previous night, perhaps. But, alas, it was a lot harder to hold on to that sort of dedication and sacrificial attitude in the light of day. It’s one thing to die heroically, but I’ve never been all that great at living heroically.


So I shrugged and took Loki’s hand. And, as it had before, the world changed, literally in the blink of an eye.


When my eyes opened again, I was standing in the corner of a cramped, cluttered room. I recognized it, too—I’d only seen Erica’s dorm room once, but the sharp division between the mess on her side and the neatness of her roommate was distinctive.


Of course, it helped that Erica herself was sitting at the desk. I mean, that sort of thing tends to jog my memory, you know?


At around that time, I noticed three things. The first was that Loki wasn’t standing next to me. The second was that Erica hadn’t reacted at all to my sudden appearance. The third, and by far the most disturbing, was that I had no control over my body whatsoever. I couldn’t blink or look away from the tableau. I certainly couldn’t walk. I was still breathing, and my heart was still beating, but other than that I was immobile—and, in spite of the spike of fear that went through me at this realization, my breathing rate and heartbeat remained steady, no change at all.


As I watched, Loki moved into the scene. He wasn’t wearing the “normal person” persona now. His clothing, all dull blacks except for a single gold ring, was tailored to make his tall, thin frame even more noticeable, and while his hair was the same dark blond his eyes had gone to orange-and-green chaos. His voice, when he spoke, was deep and rich and had mad laughter dancing under the surface.


“You asked me for power, Reilly. Do you remember that?” he asked, moving forward into the center of my field of vision. Erica stood up, obviously taken by surprise, and turned to face him. It seemed like she was moving very slowly. “And I gave it to you! I gave you everything you asked for—power, knowledge, wealth, whatever, not that you had the imagination to ask for much. And all I asked for in return was that you obey one simple rule. Do you remember?”


She was afraid. Oh, she tried to hide it, but she wasn’t very good at it. She knew who she was talking to—she’d seen those eyes once before, and I’d told her who they belonged to—and even Erica was smart enough to fear Loki. “What do you want?” she asked, stammering very slightly. Huh. Maybe smarter than I’d thought.


“‘Anything unusual is to be reported immediately,'” Loki said, seeming to take a certain amount of relish in the words. “Is there some complexity to the statement that I don’t understand? Did you somehow think what I really meant was, ‘Unusual things can be sold to anyone I feel like?’ Did I perhaps fail, in spite of numerous repetitions and assurances, to make it clear that I was serious?”


“You disappeared! How was I supposed to tell you?” Erica protested. She sounded aggrieved, and just slightly too strenuous in her denial. She knew that she’d messed up, even if she wasn’t going to admit it to anyone but herself.


“Really,” Loki drawled sarcastically. “I’ve given you a lot of slack, Reilly. I’ve been willing to tolerate your idiotic greed, and it is idiotic, up to this point, because you were of marginal utility to me. As of right now, you are rapidly approaching the point of being a liability instead. Comments?”


“I…how could…what was I supposed to do?” Erica said, stammering more heavily now. She tried to retreat from Loki, only to find herself up against the edge of the desk after a mere two steps. “Look, I can make up for it! Just tell me what I have to do!”


Loki shook his head slowly. “No, I don’t think so. Your second chance has come and gone, and you failed. Furthermore, you demonstrated either abysmal stupidity or astonishing recklessness in ignoring my rule. I have little patience for either of those things—and none for failure. Goodbye, Reilly.” Without seeming to move at all, he was standing mere inches from her. He reached out and flicked her lightly on the forehead with one finger, then disappeared.


Erica sighed in relief, the tension running out of her body visibly. If I could have moved, I would have screamed at her in frustration. It’s never that easy, Loki’s never really finished with a person, she should have known that.


But then, Erica was never the sharpest.


Of course I couldn’t scream at her. My body was still on lockdown. I couldn’t even move my eyes, or close them.


As a result, my view of what happened next was much better than I would have liked. So much.


Take a raw tomato. Dip it in boiling water for a few seconds. Pull it out and drop it in a bowl of ice water. Watch the skin pull away, easy as anything, exposing wet red flesh underneath.


This was a lot like that. Except nastier. So so so much nastier.


I’ve seen some bad things, and I’ve done some bad things, and I generally think I have reason to think of myself as being something of a hard guy. And this made me want to cry, or vomit, or at least avert my eyes—not just because it was awful, but because there was something terribly intrusive about it, like accidentally seeing a stranger naked.


I couldn’t do anything of the sort, of course. My body was still firmly under Loki’s control. Oh, I fought it, of course I did, but it didn’t make a difference. A fly had as much chance of getting free of a sundew as I had of resisting Loki’s will made manifest.


Erica was dead. I knew that. I mean, anybody with any kind of medical knowledge will tell you that one of the most important things you can learn—and one of the hardest—is that there are things you can fix, and there are things you can’t, and no amount of wishing will make the one into the other. I knew just enough about the subject to know that Erica fell very firmly into the second category. I mean, she’d lost her skin. Her entire skin, at least as far as I could tell.


You don’t walk away from that. A healthy young human already in an emergency room wouldn’t live. A werewolf with the full moon and a pack in support wouldn’t survive it. A vampire might survive it, if you could call that survival, but I wasn’t sure even of that. And Erica was none of those things. Short of divine-level magic—which, thanks a lot and all, but I think we’ve got enough of that already—there was nothing I knew of that might save her life at this point.


I clarify this so that you understand what I mean when I say that my first impulse after the puking bit was to kill her. I didn’t have a weapon, but that isn’t really a serious impediment to a werewolf, not when the other guy’s half-dead already. It wasn’t that I bore Erica any particular ill will—she wasn’t my favorite person by a long shot, but I didn’t hate her that much. It was just that I don’t like suffering, mine or anyone else’s. Erica didn’t so much as whimper, and she didn’t so much as twitch, but I knew that having your skin ripped off had to hurt, and I knew that at this point a mercy kill was the only thing I could offer.


I couldn’t do that either. I was quite literally helpless to do anything but stand there and watch. It may have been the closest I’ve ever been to Hell.


My senses were never impaired, though it felt like they should have been. There are times when superhuman senses truly aren’t a gift, and this was one of them—but at least I could tell, a few minutes later, when Erica’s breathing stopped, and didn’t start again. It was the blood loss that did her in, which was a mercy. One-hundred-percent loss of skin was lethal, but if she hadn’t bled out she might well have lingered for days or even weeks before dehydration, infection, or septic shock finished the job.


Not a big mercy. Puny, in fact. Picayune. But still. A mercy.


So died Erica Reilly. She wasn’t a good person, at least not the way I saw things. She was greedy, shortsighted, and not infrequently almost unbelievably stupid. Had circumstances been slightly different I suspect I might have killed her myself. And yet, for all of that, I didn’t want to see her die, and would have helped her if I could.


Almost immediately after Erica’s death, I once again found myself elsewhere. As I had control of my body again, the first thing I did was to puke out the meal I’d just eaten. I took my time about it, and did a fairly thorough job.


“Oh, come on,” Loki said in an amused tone after a minute or so. “Don’t you think that’s a little excessive? It’s not as though you liked her.”


I looked up and saw the god standing a few feet away leaning on a graffiti-strewn brick wall. On some level I knew it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I still glared at him, and when I spoke the venom in my voice surprised me a little. “But I didn’t murder her,” I spat.


He looked at me evenly. “You might have, if I hadn’t. It’s not like you haven’t killed people you liked more.”


I didn’t have a lot of grounds to argue that one. “At least I would have done it quickly. And painlessly, if I could.”


“And?” he said. He sounded honestly confused.


I wanted to keep arguing with him—but, on some level, I recognized that it was pointless. Things like mercy and gentleness were quite simply not a part of his nature. He was ancient and inhuman, and to judge him by human standards was a waste of time and effort. Heck, I doubted he could even understand human values. “Never mind. Why did I have to see that?”


He grinned. “Well, now you know I don’t dislike you.” The implication was pretty clear; if he did dislike me, that was what I could expect.


It was a sobering reminder of what I was dealing with. Even talking with Loki was the equivalent of jumping up and down on an unexploded land mine.


He started walking down the alley. I followed him, because what else was I supposed to do? After a few seconds, I recognized it as being directly across from my lab. I could see the building, the familiar door replaced by one without a hole punched through it. “So,” Loki said, halting just before the mouth of the alley. “For entertaining me, you get a reward. Three more of those mage-children have made similar deals with me. I look forward to watching you figure out which ones.” He winked one forest-fire eye at me and disappeared, leaving me behind.


I had a lot to think about as I crossed the street.


I didn’t have time to think about it, of course. That’s how life goes.


Fenris was standing next to my door. He had his civilized human face more firmly in place today, and only my ability to smell magic (and the fact that I recognized his form, which—unlike his father—he never seemed to change) allowed me to recognize him for what he was.


He also looked rather smug. I wasn’t as worried about that as I was when Loki did it—Fenris had helped me out several times now, and he actually meant it—but it was still a little unsettling. Especially after seeing the way Pryce reacted to his presence. Forget old legends, that was spooky.


“Winter!” he called to me, not moving from his spot next to the door. “You made it!”


“Barely,” I agreed with a sigh. “What are you doing here?”


His grin spread wider. “Thought I’d give you the tour.”


Tour? What tour? I thought for a moment…and then froze as I realized that my lab building smelled of magic.


Now, that wasn’t too surprising, in itself. After all, the outside was covered in fae wards, and the inside was covered with my wards. I’d have been seriously worried if it didn’t smell of magic. But this was different, a new tone added to the mix. I wasn’t sure quite what it was—it was woven in very subtly, very smoothly, and I couldn’t pick out enough of a distinct marker to say for sure what it was supposed to do or who had cast it. All I knew was that the delicate blend of energies making up the aroma of “standing outside my laboratory door” was different, and not simply because Fenris was standing there.


Fenris, seeing my expression, smiled even more broadly, reached over, and opened the brand-new front door, revealing an impossibility.


The building was a small, worn down old house. It was one story tall, with nothing fancy about it whatsoever. The first room inside the door was a foyer, carefully set up to give off the “abandoned” air. I just about literally knew every inch of that room. When I looked through the door, that foyer was what I saw, perfect in every detail.


But when I stepped through, I found myself somewhere very different. I froze dead still and looked around in wonder as Fenris followed behind me and shut the door behind himself.


I’d never really done the mansion thing. So I don’t know what a typical entrance room—a room dedicated solely to being an entrance, I mean—really looks like. But I know that this one was pretty damned impressive.


It was around three stories tall, for one thing, with a great big vaulted ceiling overhead, and long enough that you could have built a small house in it without cramping. To either side of the door was a spiral staircase, elegant and seemingly unsupported, made from finest white marble, leading both up and down. The rest of the furniture was, if not quite as dramatic, equally nice. There were a number of chairs and couches, artfully arranged throughout the hall. I wasn’t sure whether to sigh or laugh when I saw that at the far end of the room was a marble dais with a small but genuine throne on it. There were several doors down both sides of the room.


The furniture was nothing short of lovely, all dark woods and bronze fittings. The upholstery was a mix of silk and velvet, all in shades of deep forest green, with a bit of leather (not green, thankfully) thrown in for variety. There were a handful of accents in blue, violet, and white, but for the most part green was clearly the order of the day.


It is not often that I am struck speechless. This did it.


Fenris laughed at my expression. “You like it?” he asked.


My mouth worked. Nothing came out. I eventually managed a “Wow.”


He laughed some more. “Come on,” he urged, sounding as excited as a kid with a new toy. He tugged gently at my sleeve, and proceeded to lead on one of the more impressive whirlwind tours of my life.


It quickly became apparent that my initial impression of “mansion” wasn’t far off. The entrance hall was the largest room, but there were a lot of them, and none was less than incredible. To the left of the throne room, as I immediately came to think of it, was a literal game room, by which I mean that I couldn’t see any purpose to it but games. The chess set—set into its own table, of course—was more white-and-black marble, flawless, with just enough variation between the pieces to be handmade, but not enough to have been made by anyone short of a master. There were also a number of card tables, billiards, tall glass-fronted cabinets holding more games, the works.


Behind the wall where the throne sat was a large indoor garden. The flooring here was dirt, with flagstones forming winding paths throughout. Here and there, marble planters provided a place for anything a person wanted to give special emphasis. Everything was empty—excepting a single long planter that wrapped around the outside wall of the garden, which was filled with a mix of goji and lingonberry, mingled together.


I’m sure Fenris had a reason for that. It just hasn’t occurred to me yet. Subtle symbolism is a fine thing, but I occasionally have to wonder whether these people are overdoing it a little bit.


I suspect you can guess a lot of the rest. The other side of the empty garden led into a kitchen, more marble, complete with top-quality everything. Even the knives had handmade hardwood handles. The dining room next to that, rounding out the ground floor, could have seated a banquet at the long oak table.


“This is incredible,” I said, following Fenris in a daze. He seemed content to just escort me through the place with that same silly grin rather than saying anything. “How’d you do this?”


“We’re actually on the Otherside,” he said with—entirely reasonable—pride. “This domain is permanently linked to your old lab, so you don’t have to worry about the time dilation. Don’t worry, though—it’ll only work for you and anyone with you, or people you specifically designate. And they won’t be able to bring anyone else in with them.”


Holy cow. I mean, wow. I couldn’t even imagine the complexity involved in that kind of magic. It’s one thing to know that you’re barely more than a child when it comes to magic, and that you’re talking to a literal god—but wow. It is entirely different to have it driven home.


Fenris seemed, again, content to give me all the time I wanted to absorb that while he showed me around the place. The basement had a laboratory, larger than the entire building I’d been using up until that point. I recognized most of the supplies there, including Legion’s skeleton, though the room itself was much nicer than my old lab. I mean, seriously, when even the labs get marble counters and hardwood worktables, you know you’re in a classy place.


More surprising was the armory right next to it. It was equally huge, and equally impressive. Strangely enough, it was softer and more welcoming than the rest of the mansion—more wood and cloth, less stone, gentler lighting (all of which, by the way, all through the house, was given off by simple stone panels enchanted to glow). One mannequin held my armor, another Aiko’s.


In between were scattered all sorts of weapons. There was a sizable gun rack, an equally impressive if rather more scarcely inhabited sword rack, and a long display case lined in green velvet with individual, tailored depressions where shorter blades rested. I also saw, as we walked through, a table covered in magical foci and stored spells, and another with various other small weapons and toys, and a large cabinet filled with ammunition of all types.


Granted it was all either my stuff or Aiko’s, but sheesh. I’d never seen it all in one place before. Now that I did, I had to admit it might be a wee bit excessive. I mean, at some point you have to acknowledge that your knife fetish is approaching pathological levels.


There was a lot more, but at some point the rooms started blending together in my head. Suffice to say that the second floor—no more marble, thankfully, although the hardwood and velvet were there to stay—was less impersonal than the ground floor. There were guest bedrooms, bathrooms, a library, and more than a few rooms whose purpose I couldn’t even guess. I suppose at some point you can’t think of any more, so you just start throwing in empty areas and hoping the tenant can think of something to do with it. Possibly the most remarkable—and, I must admit, slightly unsettling—section of the second floor was the trophy room.


A trophy room. Seriously. A trophy room. It wouldn’t have bothered me so much, except that there were actually trophies in there. Nothing grisly—certainly no animal heads, thank Fenris—but still. I’m not the kind of guy who has trophies. Come on.


Anyway, I guess I was getting kind of numb by that point. It was just too much stimulation in too short a time, especially right after waking up. Besides, going from a cot under the lab table to this was a little too much to really accept right away. I’d never in my adult life lived anywhere more extravagant than a cabin. The idea of living in this massive, well-appointed mansion was too much to take in.


Which is why I wasn’t expecting much different from the third floor. Well…I was wrong.


I’d more than slightly expected the massive bedroom, and I wasn’t far off on the details, either. Thick green carpet, bronze-and-wood furniture, wooden paneling, check, check, check. Granted, the paneling was rosewood instead of more ebony or walnut, which was nice—comfy, rather than impressive. And the bed was a massive four-poster complete with curtains—curtains! on a bed!—which, I have to admit, was more than slightly surprising given that I didn’t think beds like that actually existed. All of which paled when I saw a heap of silver fur at the foot of said bed.


I started to walk over and say hello to Snowflake—somehow I was unsurprised she’d adjusted to the new digs faster than I would—but was stopped by Fenris’s outstretched arm. “She needs her rest,” he murmured to me.


For a second I was confused. Then I saw another, smaller canine curled up in the exact center of the ridiculously large bed. This one was red, and looked to be so solidly asleep that a decent-sized explosion wouldn’t do much. My heart lurched a little at the sight, to indulge in an overused yet strangely appropriate expression—not an unwelcome surprise, but a very unexpected one.


It says a lot about how stunned and overwhelmed I was, that it didn’t occur to me until that point what the ramifications were of living on the Otherside. Aiko was allowed to be here.


I allowed Fenris to usher me back downstairs without complaint. “The tomte moves in tomorrow,” he said to me. “Don’t try and spy on him while he works and you shouldn’t have any issues with cleaning or maintenance. And I’ve arranged for grocery deliveries—it might not be the most variety, but I can promise everything will be fresh.”


What do you say to something like that? I have no idea. Anything I could come up with seemed inadequate. So I settled on “Thank you,” and hoped that it could convey all the rest.


Fenris seemed to understand. He looked at me, and smiled slightly. “Good job, Winter,” he said, opening the front door. It looked out on the same street in the same bad neighborhood as my lab’s door always did. “I’m proud of you.”


After that, pretty much all that was left was wrapping up. I didn’t hear from Bryan again. I did get a card from, of all people, Ash Sanguinaria, which I sure as heck didn’t see coming. It was meticulously handwritten in plain black ink, and very serious. The contents weren’t anything too remarkable—she had enjoyed meeting me, she was glad I wasn’t as dead as expected, she hoped to talk to me again, etc.


I’m reasonably confident that she didn’t know that someone, presumably a less serious fellow student, included another piece of paper in the envelope. It was written in a much more spontaneous way (by which I mean the handwriting wasn’t that good, and there were a lot of misspellings and crossed out words), and told me not to take Ash’s demeanor too seriously, because it was mostly an act.


I don’t know whether that’s true. But it made me smile, and I actually do hope I see her again. That’s unusual—most of the time, after I meet someone new, I wish I believed in God, just so I could pray to never encounter them again. It doesn’t work, of course but it might make me feel better.


Just look at Carraig. I mean, sheesh, I’m sure I never want to see him again, and equally sure he’ll stick his nose in again at an inopportune time. He’ll probably have moved on to keelhauling or something by then.


But hey! It could be worse. I mean, I’m alive, Snowflake’s alive, Aiko’s alive, everything else you can live with, right? We’ve got a kickass mansion all to ourselves (needless to say I’ve been taking certain measures to ensure that. In fact, I feel rather sorry for anybody unlucky enough to try breaking in, given that Aiko and Snowflake pitched in on the defenses. Those two scare me when they get going, and I frankly think the bit with the dental floss was a bit over the top).


As for the rest, well, I’m currently pretending it doesn’t exist. Oh, I know I can’t pull that off forever, but for right now? I think we all deserve a bit of a rest.

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Debts Outstanding 5.17

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Pier drew his monster of a sword slowly. It shone in the moonlight, and flickered oddly as he spun it lightly in his hands.


Fortunately, at least in the weapons department, I wasn’t outclassed. Tyrfing sang as it slipped free of the scabbard, gentle and suffused with the promise of death. Its surface was bright as a mirror, and in the eerie half-light of the moon and the storm it almost seemed that it was reflecting a bit too much light to be just a reflection.


There was a moment of silence, much like that which had accompanied the Sidhe lady’s appearance, when I drew my sword. Tyrfing was a mighty sword, and its appearance on any battlefield was the sort of thing that demanded respect—and got it, even from the Wild Hunt.


That probably should have scared me more than it did.


Pier and I began to slowly circle one another. The mask of storm and shadow still wreathed his body, making it hard to say for sure, but I thought he seemed a lot less angry than I would have anticipated. Resigned, perhaps, would be a better word. Like…he didn’t regret what was about to happen, but he wasn’t going to celebrate it either.


After a minute or so of this, with the low growling of the hounds the only soundtrack to the fight, Pier attacked. He closed the distance between us faster than anyone his size should have been able to move, let alone somebody wearing heavy armor, and launched the same diagonal strike he’d used to start the fight with Carraig.


Like Carraig before me, I ducked easily away to the rear. I didn’t bother trying to parry; Pier was twice my size, a champion of the Sidhe, and wreathed in the power of the Wild Hunt besides. The only thing matching my strength to his was likely to do was rip my arms off. Better to dodge.


He was obviously expecting the move, because he immediately turned the slash into a cross-body thrust at my chest. This blow I could parry—not pitting my strength against his directly, but striking perpendicularly to the direction of his strike while stepping sideways. Like Carraig’s sword, his weapon was apparently immune to Tyrfing’s edge. Shame.


“Not bad,” Pier said, falling back out of range of any counterattack. I took several steps back as well—his sword was rather longer than mine, after all.


“I don’t get it,” I said, watching him warily. The storm would make it harder to see the telltale cues before he attacked. “You saved my life from Carraig.”


“I thought that you’d lead me to the spear,” he said, shifting the sword to a higher guard.


“That doesn’t make a lot of sense, you know,” I pointed out. “It was pretty clear that I was looking for it for myself. Why would you want me to find it before you?”


I thought for a second that he would answer me. Instead he lunged forward, cutting horizontally at his shoulder height—halfway up my head, in other words. I was a little too slow dodging, and had to interpose Tyrfing between me and the attack. As I’d expected, the force of the huge man’s swing tore it from my hand, but it gave me time to fall back and the sword passed over my head.


Pier pressed the attack, stepping forward and bringing his blade back around to stab at me while I was lying on the ground. I had no idea how he could move that monster of a sword around so quickly and effortlessly—his strength had to be almost unimaginable.


Fortunately, there’s more than one way to fight. I flung shadow and air at his foot just as it started to move, knocking it sideways behind his other leg. A textbook perfect foot-sweep, executed with magic. He didn’t fall, but he stumbled and the would-be killing stroke fell far short. I had plenty of time to scramble to my feet and recover Tyrfing.


“Maybe I didn’t want Carraig killing you,” Pier admitted.


“Why not?” I asked, genuinely curious. A failing of mine, perhaps, that I was obsessed with figuring out why things were happening when it would have been smarter to worry about surviving the next five minutes.


Pier stepped closer, forcing me to retreat. Much farther and I’d run into the line of hounds. “I loved your mother,” he said, low enough that not even the dogs would hear and cold enough to make the night air look like a sauna.


I feinted at his face. He batted Tyrfing casually from my hands—I was barely even trying to hold onto the thing, at this point—but I used the time it bought to circle around him, giving myself room to maneuver. “Then why call the Hunt against me?” I asked, summoning Tyrfing once again. That was an excellent trick, and I had to admit that maybe I was actually grateful to Val for giving me the sword. Cursed or not, Tyrfing had served me admirably.


“She never loved me, of course,” Pier continued, taking no notice of my question. He lunged at me, holding the huge sword one-handed, but he was so far overextended I could deflect it easily enough, and even riposte. “But she never lied about it. And she was willing to play around.”


I shuddered and cut at his legs, mostly to interrupt that sentence. I so didn’t want to hear the details of what my mother got up to with the champion of Daylight. I mean, I knew enough sordid stories about her sexual exploits already to make me nauseous whenever I thought about it. I did not need another.


Pier stepped away from the attack easily, and cut down at my hands. I dropped Tyrfing and jerked back out of the way. His sword hit the ground and sank three feet into it, having as much difficulty cutting into the rocky earth as most blades have with the resistance of jelly. It wouldn’t last long, but for just a moment his sword was trapped, and I took advantage of it. Tyrfing came easily to my call, and I brought the cursed sword down in an attack on his hand. I didn’t cut it off—Pier was uncannily fast even by my standards—but I nicked one of his fingers. First blood to me—and, better yet, now I knew that Tyrfing would penetrate both the storm and the armor without difficulty.


Not surprising, really. There isn’t much that can resist Tyrfing’s edge. But it was good to be sure.


Pier snatched his sword back up before I could press the advantage any further, and danced away. “I suppose I feel like I owe her,” he said, circling around again. I moved with him, so that the distance between us remained constant.


I raised one eyebrow behind my helmet. “And yet you brought the Wild Hunt here to kill me.”


He snorted, moving the sword’s point through small patterns in the air. The cut to his finger didn’t seem to be bothering him at all, and in fact now that I thought about it I couldn’t smell blood anymore—or, at least, not more than the background magic of the Hunt. He’d healed already, healed a cut made by Tyrfing no less. Wonderful. “That’s why. I don’t know whether she’d want vengeance, but it’s the least I can do.”


I blinked, and almost lost a hand because of it when Pier attacked without warning. I barely dodged out of the way in time. “Vengeance? For what?” I was starting to run out of breath and it probably would have been smarter to conserve it for the fighting, but I’ve never been too smart where my curiosity is concerned.


That’s the source of a lot of my problems, actually, now that I think about it.


“Killing her, maybe?” he said.


“My mother was a suicide,” I spat, thrusting at his abdomen. He batted the attack aside with his hand, not even bothering with the sword.


“Suicide?” he said mockingly, stepping back out of range. “Yes, I suppose that’s what they would have told you. Wouldn’t do to hurt your feelings, after all.”


“What are you getting at?” I asked, falling back as well. I wanted to be sure that I heard what he had to say before the fight was over, either way.


“You never met her,” he said, voice dripping venom. “But I know you’ve heard stories. If you’ve any of her brains you must have thought that the story they told you doesn’t make a lot of sense.” He snorted again. “Suicide in slow-motion? Carmine Vilkas, dead of a broken heart for someone she spent one night with? I don’t think so.”


“What would you know?” I snarled. I was somewhat surprised at the depth of my own emotion; I’d always thought that her death didn’t bother me all that much—I’d never known her, after all—but apparently I’d been wrong. It occurred to me, somewhat belatedly, that neither of us was keeping his voice down.


“I don’t know what your father was,” Pier said, and his voice wasn’t calm either. “And I’ve no idea what sort of monster you are. But I know a parasite when I see one.” He started stalking closer to me.


“What do you mean?”


“Exactly what I said!” he roared, loud enough to hurt. “You’re a leech, and she died because of it! You took something from her, and the more you grew the more she lost. But it was never enough!”


“No,” I stammered. Glancing back, I saw that I was once again almost to the edge of the ring. I heard the hounds behind me growling, snarling. “No, you’re lying.”


Pier laughed. “Tell yourself whatever you please.” He was close enough, now, to attack, and he did.


It quickly became clear that he was done with talking, and ready for the fight to be over. If I’d thought he was fast before, now it became clear that he had been slacking off. Now he wasn’t, and he moved almost too fast to see.


In the first five seconds he attacked me twenty-three times. That included fifteen sword blows, five unarmed attacks—which, of course, would have been every bit as lethal had they connected, given how unimaginably strong he was—and three magical attacks. Of those last, two involved fire, and the last was a beam of light that I felt sure would have burned like a laser. I dodged it, fortunately, and it dissipated when it struck the wall of storm around us.


I have no idea how I survived that barrage. I was once again moving on instinct, not thinking at all, and while I know exactly what he tried to do to me I cannot for the life of me say what I did to avoid it. By the time we came apart, I’d lost Tyrfing—a few times, I think—and I was bleeding from several wounds, none of them life-threatening. He’d broken a couple ribs when he connected with a knee, even through the armor.


But I was alive. And not all the blood I could smell was mine, so I must have nicked him again in there somewhere.


Pier was finally starting to show some signs of wear—apparently even he was stressed by that flurry of attacks, because he was breathing heavily, and his guard wasn’t quite as perfect as it had been before.


That wasn’t quite as comforting as it might have been, because I was undoubtedly still the worse off by a wide margin. I was panting, and even with the full moon the cuts to my left shoulder and right shin would be moderately incapacitating, and of course the ribs had the potential to be a serious inconvenience.


In other words, things looked bad. I’d been playing Pier’s game, and now that he was playing seriously it was very clear that I would lose. I couldn’t survive another onslaught like that, and he looked plenty capable of launching one.


So. That meant I had to change the game.


I backpedaled fast, almost to the other edge of the ring. Pier looked at me, and even with the mask and the armor anger was writ large in every line of his body. He charged straight at me—no words now, no careful exchanges. This wasn’t a play fight anymore.




I concentrated. I would have to time this perfectly for it to have any chance of success. At a thought the wind picked up, blowing into my face. The air around me dropped a couple of degrees, and I felt my mouth spread into a cold smile. “Ten thousand years of winter,” I murmured, and wrapped the freshly forming frost around my fingers. Feathers of frost spread in seconds across my body, down Tyrfing’s length, onto the ground at my feet.


It was that last one I was concerned about. Pier was around ten feet away, his sword upraised, and moving fast. I concentrated on a thought I still barely understood, and the frost around me spread further, turned in places to ice.


Pier was fast, strong, and skilled, and I don’t doubt that he could have killed me. He was furious, too, enough to do it without a first thought, let alone a second. But, like some werewolves I’d known, he let that fury blind him. Being too angry to see straight can be an asset in a fight, occasionally, but it seldom helps a person think clearly.


It definitely wasn’t helping Pier right now.


I waited until he was only a few feet away, until the sword had already started the downswing, before I moved. I didn’t try and fight. I dove sideways to the ground instead, simultaneously throwing a surge of magic behind the wind, whipping it up into a gale. It was very localized, and it would only last a moment—I wasn’t strong enough to muster anything more.


It was enough. Pier tried to turn to face me, where he would have plenty of time to run me through on the ground, but his own supernatural speed worked against him. He had so much momentum, aided by the tailwind I’d so thoughtfully given him, that he couldn’t turn on a dime.


I was suddenly reminded of the demon-possessed werewolf, the only thing I’d ever fought that could possibly have matched Pier in terms of sheer strength. Like him, it hadn’t been able to perfectly control its own momentum once it really got going.


Of course, back then I hadn’t been able to produce patches of ice on the ground on an otherwise warm night.


Pier’s foot hit the ice slick just as he was turning his forward momentum into a turn. For those of you who haven’t had the joy of experiencing something similar, trying to turn at speed while on ice isn’t a very good idea. Predictably enough, his foot went out from under him.


Of course, he still had a lot of momentum. And the ground was quite slick, what with all the frost and ice on it. So, rather than bounce straight back to his feet, Pier slid.


Into the storm.


I couldn’t see what happened, then. But I could hear it. It didn’t sound nice. Not nice at all, in fact.


I moved back out to the center of the ring, and finally did what I should have done to begin with. That is to say, I used my brain.


Pier was vastly my superior in physical combat. That was obvious. I couldn’t continue to fight him like this and hope to survive—and he wouldn’t fall for that trick with the ice again. That was for sure. He might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he wouldn’t have lasted five minutes with the Sidhe without some kind of brain.


But he wasn’t omnipotent. And, as the sounds from the cloud bank started dying down, I realized something. Pier hadn’t, at any point, pulled the weird short-range teleportation he and Carraig had employed so extensively while fighting each other. Now, in the early stages, that made a certain amount of sense—he hadn’t wanted to kill me all that much, clearly. But now? He wasn’t playing softball. So why no teleportation?


I thought maybe it was because he couldn’t. I mean, the only way I could think of to work that sort of ability was to use the same mechanism as a portal to the Otherside. Oh, not exactly—but everything I’d ever learned about magic suggested that just flat-out manipulating the fabric of space was impossible. Or, if not outright impossible, nigh-impossibly difficult. Portals avoid that difficulty by exploiting the fluidity of the border between my world and the Otherside—but even on the Otherside, with its bizarre approach to geography, I’d never seen or heard of a portal from one place to another within the same domain.


So, if I was right, Carraig’s shadow walking trick had been essentially the same thing, in a different way—taking advantage of his role as an avatar of Midnight to walk from one shadow to another through the medium of Faerie.


Pier couldn’t do that, not now. Because to do so would, in some measure, be to leave the area set aside for our duel, even if he exited and reappeared within it.


I grinned and saw what I had been doing wrong. I tossed Tyrfing aside.


Just in time, too. Pier walked back out of the storm cloud at more-or-less the same time I had my realization. And he looked like hell.


In spite of everything, I had to admit a certain amount of pity for the big man. He was quite literally dripping—both normal, human blood, and something that looked like liquid shadow touched with lightning from the tears in the Wild Hunt’s mask. Parts of his armor, visible where the shroud of storm had faded, were missing. In most cases the gaps revealed burns, but I also saw a few puncture wounds, at least one of which was too big to have been made by teeth. Even werewolf teeth.


Note to self: don’t try to leave the ring. The Hunt wouldn’t take it kindly.


The injuries were terrible. They would have killed a human, no doubt about it. Even a werewolf, even tonight, would have likely been incapacitated. Even Pier noticed them. His sword was missing a chunk from the hilt, which appeared to have been bitten off, but he was still carrying it, and looking very angry. If he was moving slower now than before, it was clearly because he didn’t want to get burned again.


I didn’t waste time talking. Instead, as soon as I could see him clearly, I threw the object in my left hand at his feet.


Light is a very simple thing to produce with magic. I mean, magic is defined by thought, right? Well, pure light’s something very easy to think about. It’s easy to concentrate on, which makes it easy to work with. I’m not very good with it, just like I’m not good with almost everything else. Using it in a fight was probably a waste of time.


But that all changes when you’re talking about a stored spell instead of something cast spontaneously. With a stored spell, all the work is put in on the front end, meaning you have all the time you need. That takes a lot of the stress out.


The clear marble I’d just thrown was one of the simpler spells I’d made. It was designed to trigger on impact, and to do nothing fancy. It would just burst into light.


Very, very bright light.


I turned my face away and closed my eyes in time. It was still bright enough to see through my eyelids. Pier, who hadn’t had any such forewarning, was caught by the full brunt of the light. When I opened my eyes again, he was standing still, one hand outstretched. I didn’t think blindness would slow him down—heck, even I could function on other senses—but it had stunned him momentarily. It had stopped him, however briefly, in his tracks.


Which meant he wasn’t watching closely enough to stop me from throwing what was in my right hand. Namely, Tyrfing.


Throwing your sword in a fight is a bad idea. It’s a terrible idea. But Tyrfing isn’t a normal sword, and as such it isn’t subject to the same limitations as a normal sword. For one thing, the curse on it ensures that bad things happen to whosoever has the bad luck to be near it, which means that you don’t have to worry about a bad bounce or it twisting in the air—throw it at someone, and that someone will probably get stuck.


For another, I could always recall it to hand. That alone takes throwing it at the enemy from an insanely stupid tactic to a quite workable one.


I did not, of course, leave it at that. I also drew a knife in my left hand and threw that. And a rock.


As I watched, the giant fell. It was more akin to watching a tree fall than anything I associated with people. A few moments later, the shroud of the Wild Hunt flowed away, fading into the background storm. I walked over to inspect my handiwork.


As I’d expected, Tyrfing alone almost certainly would have been lethal—a yard of powerfully cursed steel through your lung can do that to a person. I cursed when I saw that—I would have preferred to ask him whether he was lying about my mother, but I wasn’t going to be asking Pier anything. Ever again. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t be getting an answer—I could ask all I wanted, he was just too dead to reply. The knife, which had hit one of the large gaps the Hunt had left in his armor, had hit blade-first and slipped between his ribs—assisted, undoubtedly, by Tyrfing. A spinning knife is just random enough for an entropy curse to affect.


This is also, of course, why the stone had bounced off his breastplate straight up under his helmet and shattered his jaw. Even if he hadn’t died instantly, there was no way he could have spoken.


I collapsed to the ground next to him. I felt almost too exhausted to move. I’d been throwing around a lot of magic, tonight, and between that, the injuries, the exertion, and the fact that I still wasn’t totally recovered from being crucified, I was pretty much wiped out.


Around me, the hounds went from sullen growling to outright howling. A moment later, the Sidhe with the white horse rode out into the open space. “Excellent,” she murmured, looking down at Pier’s dead body with unmistakable satisfaction.


I looked up at her, although now that the adrenaline was fading even that much movement was an effort. “I take it you’re satisfied with how things turned out, then, Scáthach?”


“How did you guess?” she asked me, a laugh like the loveliest of bells playing a dirge underneath the surface of her voice.


“Pier couldn’t have called the Wild Hunt himself,” I said dully. “And they weren’t really trying to kill me, from the start.” I stared off into the night, still shrouded from view by the Hunt’s porta-storm. “You were happy to see him dead.” I shrugged listlessly. “Seemed like a reasonable guess.”


She laughed delightedly. “So! A fine mind, for one so young. Perhaps my sister was right about you.”


“Your sister?” I asked. I realized I sounded almost as monotone, in my exhaustion, as Bryan did all the time. If I hadn’t been so damned tired it would almost have been funny.


Scáthach did something which, in a being of less refinement, I might have called a shrug. “No matter. Congratulations on your victory, Master Wolf.”


“I didn’t win,” I said softly. “He lost.” I knew, without even a shadow of doubt, that Pier’s death was in large measure his own fault. If he’d taken things seriously from the start, or restrained his anger later on, I’d have been dead meat.


“Perhaps,” the goddess said, and I got the distinct impression that she knew exactly what I meant. “Even so, you are alive and he is dead. Is that not worth celebration?”


I sighed. “I used to think so. But every time I see someone die, I become less sure.”


“An unusual attitude for a werewolf.”


The saddest part, of course, was that it was true. I couldn’t work up the energy to reply, and I wasn’t sure what possible response I could have to something like that.


“We will hunt elsewhere, this night,” Scáthach promised me. And then, without fanfare of any kind (Loki could stand to profit by that example), the Wild Hunt was gone, taking Pier’s body with it.


I couldn’t seem to care enough to move, so I slept in the bloody dirt right there.


My dreams were, of course, of the nightmarish variety.

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