Monthly Archives: February 2015

Interlude 8.a: Snowflake

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The voice in the back of my head starts counting at sunset. I know when sunset is, and I know when my appointment is; ergo, I can count from one to the other. Seventy-six minutes. Not such a long time.


Every time is a long time when you’re counting the seconds. Even if it isn’t me doing the counting, per se.


I get a glance at someone’s phone, when they don’t know I am looking, and use it to calibrate myself. The voice in the back of my head adjusts his count by nearly a minute. Not such a bad job, to lose a minute over the course of half an hour.


You learn things, living without a clock. Making sure to know what time sunset is in advance. Keeping accurate counts. Watching for any chance to confirm those counts.


Not the most useful things. But I take what I can get.


With seven minutes left on the count, I stand, shake myself. I need to get some air, I think, putting that little bit extra behind the thought. Making it carry.


Winter doesn’t react, doesn’t look at me, but I hear his thoughts in my mind, interrupting the voice in the back of my head. I don’t blame you, he thinks. His thoughts are crisp, cold, and as always, very clear. I can feel his boredom, his distaste for the person droning on and on in front of him. Going to kill some rabbits?


Something like that, I think, moving towards the door. People move out of my way without thinking, without even quite noticing me there. As always I feel a certain happiness upon feeling his mind brush against mine. He is, after all, my…well, my Winter. What else could I say, what word could I use that would encapsulate the emotion? “Father,” in addition to being technically inaccurate, fails to grasp the magnitude. “God” has all the wrong connotations. “Maker” doesn’t include the relationship after the making. “Friend” is entirely inadequate.


He is my everything. Which, really, is all that need be said to explain why there is a current of bitter anger mixed into that happiness, as always.


I cannot have a conversation with anyone else, not really. I read books, but I can’t write them. I learn languages, but there’s no one to speak them with.


How much of life am I missing? I have pack, sort of, but I don’t have friends, and I don’t have any expectation of making them in the future. I have only an academic understanding of romance, and no reason to think that will change. How is someone like me supposed to have a relationship? Even if I could find someone willing to overlook the body I’m in, and the scars I’ve added to it, there’s that damnable issue of communication again. I could look for a dog instead, but that’s a waste of my time; we exist on such different levels that there’s no possibility for meaningful interaction.


How much am I missing? How much of what I have is broken?


You can’t blame someone for making you. The gift of life, the chance to be, is literally priceless; even a sorry life is infinitely more valuable than to never live at all. You can’t even blame them for not asking permission, because you weren’t there to ask. That’s the whole point.


But to be made broken…well, there’s a reason not everyone who believes in God worships him.


Don’t think about it. Don’t look back, because you can’t go back. Don’t look forward, because it doesn’t get better. Don’t think about it.


It isn’t easy to lie with your mind. You have to lie, and then forget that you’re lying, so that not even the faintest trace of the deception shows up in your thoughts. Not easy, but I’ve had practice.


It helps if what you’re saying is true. Going to kill some rabbits, he thought.


Something like that. You only had to change one word.


Forty-seven minutes. That’s how long I have to myself, before Winter starts to wonder where I am. Before he thinks to look for me. Seven minutes travel each way leaves thirty-three minutes in between. Not long.


Long enough.


I enjoy the run, glorying in the night, the wind, the snow. It is a beautiful thing to run, meaning without word, thought without meaning, motion without thought, everything given over to the running. I so seldom get to truly run, without being held back by one thing or another.


The voice in the back of my head keeps counting, calm and steady.


I reach the rendezvous point with two minutes left before my appointment. I crawl under a car to wait, watching.


The voice in the back of my head takes a break from counting to inform me that there are four joggers approaching from the west, none of whom appear to be a threat; that there are three exits from the building in front of me, one of which is concealed; that there are noises coming from within, suggesting that the evening’s activities have already begun; and, last but not least, that the wind from the east bears the scent of the person I am here to meet.


Then he goes back to counting.


Ninety-three seconds later, a woman approaches the front door, her stride brisk and jaunty. The count must have been slightly slow; she would not have come early. Too much chance for complication. I would wonder whether it were coincidence and this not the person I was waiting for, but I can smell her, odors of steel although her armor is hidden under clothing and magic, the subtler scents of perfume and spice and sweat which tell me that this is Aiko before she is even within sight.


She takes her phone out as I emerge from my hiding place, holding it at such an angle that I can see the screen, see the time. Not a coincidence, not an accident. She knows I am present, knows that my time is tightly limited.


The voice in the back of my head takes note of the time, remembers it, and then stops counting. Our attention cannot be split at this time.


“Hi, Snowflake,” she says to me as I walk up behind her. “How’s it going?” She does not turn towards us.


She is wearing an illusory mask of some sort, concealing herself behind another face. I seldom see her do such things. Generally speaking we do not leave witnesses behind, so it matters little if someone sees her true appearance. Perhaps this has left her out of practice, because this mask is less than perfectly crafted. The expressions of the face are awkward, as though it has undergone recent plastic surgery. Then again, perhaps the flaws are the result of wearing an illusion over a helmet. It cannot be easy to do so.


It does not matter. We will not be here long, and if anyone notices, no one will believe.


Going okay, I think. Better soon. I likely shouldn’t have bothered with that little bit extra, but there is no reason not to use it. It costs me nothing


She does not hear me but can likely guess what I have said. She kneels beside me and scratches my ears. I do not permit many people to touch me but Aiko is an exception. She is safe, insofar as safety is a meaningful concept, and as such we can enjoy the touch.


Then she reaches into the small pack that she is carrying and pulls out a leash. The buckle looks like silver but is actually highly polished steel. I am not susceptible to silver but I would hardly wear it. Silver is a weapon, and one best used with great care.


I do not want to be leashed, not by anyone other than Winter and even that is a thing done out of necessity and not pleasure. But I know that the plan, the aim of this evening’s activities, requires it, and I can set aside my desires when necessary.


But still. To be leashed rankles. I was not made to serve, the voice in the back of my head less so.


I stifle a growl as I approach, forcing my thoughts to remain calm as well. I am meek and subservient as she attaches the leash to the heavy leather collar I am wearing. The leash is leather as well, and very thin. I could snap it easily. I do not anticipate that I will need to do so but it is comforting to know that I can.


Do not think about the leash. Do not think about what it means to be leashed. Life is easier when you don’t think too much.


“Are you sure you don’t want armor?” Aiko asks, standing.


I shake my head and look pointedly at the door. No, I think, putting even more behind it than before. It would be suspicious. They might run when they see me coming.


This time she hears me, or at any rate she gets enough of the thought to understand the gist of my meaning. “Right,” she says, looking at the door. “We don’t want that.”


I am frustrated as we proceed. I do not despise my nature but there are times, and there are aspects, which are frustrating. My inability to communicate is perhaps the most ubiquitous of them, never truly terrible but every day I turn around and there it is again, making everything just a little harder.


Winter is the only one I can talk to, the only person I can ever really have a conversation with. Well, there is also the voice in the back of my head but he is…he….


Keep moving. Movement without thought, everything focused on what will happen in the next few minutes. Don’t think. Don’t think about the voice in the back of your head, because you’ve thought those thoughts ten thousand times and one more will not make anything better.


Life is easier when you don’t think too much.


We walk down a long hallway, moving briskly. The leash hangs slack, not pulling at me. It doesn’t make it any better.


I smell blood in the air, smell fear, smell pain, smell alcohol and smoke, hear snarls and whines and laughter, keep moving. My heart begins to beat faster, something just a shade darker than excitement making the world come alive. I feel like I’m waking up from a waking dream, every shadow standing out in sharp contrast, every movement just a little bit quicker, every moment stretching out into a languid blur. I am alive.


And I am hungry.


Continuing, I move quicker, lighter on my feet. I am panting slightly, with eagerness and the anticipation of exertion, bringing the odors in stronger, heady and intoxicating. I am tugging at the leash now, rather than the other way around, but Aiko is as eager as I am, as hungry. I think that she would be skipping if it would not make the wrong impression.


We reach the end of the hall, step into a large, open room. A large man with skin made dark by ink laughs and says something. I do not bother to listen, do not care to hear. The voice in the back of my head tells me that he is complimenting me, complimenting Aiko for my excitement. Most dogs, he says, have to be dragged, snarling and angry. It is a welcome surprise to see one come gladly.


Am I here gladly? Yes, I suppose that I am. There is something…lacking…but it is still something, more than I have had in too many days. I am looking forward to this, even if it isn’t what it might have been.


I am an addict, a junkie. I cannot go long without my fix, and when I get it the world feels so real that I cannot see why I should want to. I am aware of this, aware of my dependency.


But I am in control. I made my choices, knowing what they meant, knowing what the consequences would be. I choose when and how I indulge my needs, not the other way around. A small but very meaningful point of pride.


We step up to the edge of the pit. It is shallow, perhaps ten feet, but it is deep enough to serve its purpose. The walls are concrete, sloped steeply enough to be a deterrent, slick enough to be an obstacle. The arena floor is sand, pale gold where it isn’t touched with scarlet. Men and dogs and a very few women stand by the edges, drinking and smoking and talking. Down below one dog seizes another by the throat, biting down and spilling more blood onto the sand. The smaller dog whines and pisses itself, admitting defeat and submission. The dogs’ handlers move into the arena, pulling them apart. Above money changes hands, people laugh.


I do not react to the suffering of the animals, beyond a sharpening of my hunger, a quickening of my lust. They are alien creatures to me, in many ways more alien than those observing them. From the humans, I am cut off only by an inability to communicate, a sort of aphasia. From the dogs I am separated by a vaster gulf, very near to them and yet so very far away. On a fundamental level we are the same, sharing the same anatomy and general physiology, many of the same instincts and urges, many of the same needs. On another level we are nothing alike.


I am not a dog. A dog does not think in words, does not plan, does not count the seconds. A dog does not read, or discuss philosophy, or complain about aphasia.


Dogs do not have voices in the backs of their heads


I am not a dog. I am something else, something far more difficult to define or classify. Winter would say that I am unique, that I am special.


Unique. Special. Very pretty words for alone.


I am not here out of any particular sympathy or solidarity with the dogs below, or because I feel a need to end their suffering. I am here because of…well, other reasons. Because Aiko offered, and because the voice in the back of my head has no taste for life which is a mockery of living, and because I hadn’t tasted blood on my teeth for a week and it was driving me out of my skull with boredom.


And because it would break Winter’s heart to know that this place existed, that these people existed, and I would rather have my eye burnt out again than see that happen.


“Well,” Aiko says, watching the men below drag the dogs apart, bleeding and snarling and whimpering in agony. “Let’s get this party started.”


The man standing behind us, the one who greeted us, says something that is lost in the pounding of my heart and the rush of my blood. The voice in the back of my head informs me that it was a comment on there being a schedule, and the next opening not being for several hours.


Aiko grins. I cannot see it, but I can hear it in her voice as she says, “Oh, that won’t be a problem.”


And then she leans over and unhooks the leash from my collar.


I do not hesitate for a moment, leaping at the man who spoke. I have nothing against him, but he is close and he is easy and he is as good a place to start as any.


He flinches away, too late, and his hands come up, much too late, and I am already on him. My weight hits him in the chest, knocking him backward, and I worm through his arms easily, lunging forward. My teeth—teeth made of steel, teeth far different from those I was born with, but still teeth—close on his throat. I clamp tight and then jerk away, steel edges sliding easily through flesh, and a large chunk of meat comes away with me, blood pouring out of the hole, running over my teeth and down my chin and across my tongue. I shiver at the taste, only for a moment, before standing up. He hits the ground, blood flowing out across the concrete, taking his life with it. He looks at me, confused, and then ceases to look at anything.


The voice in the back of my head warns me that people are reacting, a practiced and surprisingly calm reaction. I lunge for the next nearest human, a female of middle age with darkish skin. She steps away, more adroit than I had expected, and rather than her abdomen I get a mouthful of her arm. I close my jaws anyway, crushing the bones easily and drawing forth another rush of blood, and she screams.


The voice in the back of my head tells me to dodge and I do, not questioning or hesitating, and as a result the bullet hits her in the chest, cutting off the scream abruptly. I turn in the direction the voice indicates, and see that one of the bouncers by the door has a pistol trained on me, and is already lining up the next shot. Before he can take it Aiko pulls the trigger and his head disappears in a red haze. I dismiss that group. Keeping people from reaching the doors is her responsibility here.


I move for the crowd instead, reaching them before most have even begun to realize what is happening. I move in among them, hidden in the crowd, and use the opportunity to lay about myself with my teeth, cracking shinbones and drawing blood, knocking people down. Many of them would have fallen on me, and others try to kick or shoot me, but I am never where they need me to be. With the voice in the back of my head providing directions, I am far too quick, and never surprised.


It isn’t anything a normal being can’t do. Anyone, especially in a fight, processes a great deal of information subconsciously. The difference is that my subconscious is, as it were, conscious.


That can be a powerful thing. Two minds processing the sensory input. Two minds means two chances to notice something, two chances to react in time.


Very little surprises me.


People are screaming now, many of them drawing weapons, many others running for the exits. I do not concern myself with the second group. They run quickly but they cannot outrun a bullet. I doubt any will make it to the doors.


The others are a concern. But they are slow, they are still in a state of shock, and they hesitate to shoot into a crowd. They are still thinking that I am a dog, a creature they are accustomed to tormenting with impunity. It has not occurred to them that they are the prey here.


Not occurred to them yet. It will, before they die.


In the time they were foolish enough to give me, I disable nine people. Several of them may bleed out from their wounds; I do not concern myself with that. My focus is on the armed individuals instead. I run towards them, moving more quickly than a dog could, much more quickly than they are prepared for. Their shots go wide and there is more screaming behind me, around me, as people are hit by the stray bullets.


They are on the other side of the pit. Some take the time to reload, or take their time aiming at me, thinking that this obstacle gives them a margin of safety.


They are wrong. The pit is less than thirty feet across and I jump it easily, landing on the other side with reasonable grace. I dart forward, leaping up and grabbing another man by the throat. I bite down, breaking the neck, and then jerk my head to the side, ensuring that the corpse will fall into the rest of this group. They stumble, several of them falling to the ground, one falling into the pit.


I do not like to stay still but this opportunity is too good to let it go to waste. I advance on the downed humans, quick and confident, and begin tearing at flesh. I do not prioritize victims, going after the nearest available vital target. A neck here, an abdomen there, a thigh, a torso. I do not generally waste meat but it is faster to spit it out now than swallow it, allowing me to move quicker, to be more efficient.


And, in any case, there is more meat in this room than I could eat in a week. A little more or less will not be noticed.


I am punished for my greed as I deserve, the blast of a shotgun grazing my side. They are using birdshot, intended to punish rather than kill, and it barely penetrates my fur and skin, it does not go deep enough to even draw much blood. I snarl with anger but there is no pain, it is drowned in blood and bloodlust and the sheer joy of the moment.


I would like to count on Aiko to deal with the offender, but the voice in the back of my head informs me that she is reloading. It will take a precious few moments, during which time I might be shot again, with a more dangerous load. I cannot count on her to cover me at the moment.


I look but there are too many humans with guns to pick out the one that shot me, which is in itself an indicator of how dangerous my situation is. The voice in the back of my head says that the only cover available is the pit itself and I concur, jumping for it. My movements are slowed by the injuries and another shot grazes my fur before I reach it. It does not injure me.


In the pit there are only three humans, one of whom just fell in and is as a result still stunned. I ignore him for the moment, focusing instead on the two dog handlers. Both of them are looking at me in shock, still struggling to adapt to what has just happened. I pick one at random and lunge forward, grabbing his leg and yanking it out from under him. A moment later there is more blood on the sand, and this time it does not come from a dog.


The other handler was maintaining his distance, keeping their respective charges apart, and as a result he has time to react before I can reach him as well. He draws a knife, a cheap, battered thing that has not been maintained properly. Winter would have a fit if he saw it. He gets quite upset by people who don’t care for their weapons.


That reminds me of what is missing from this fight, and that makes me angry. So, while I could easily have killed the other man in a moment, I dance with him instead, letting him understand what has happened and what is about to happen to him. A small cruelty, to match the small cruelty he has dealt me. Eventually he overextends and I bite his hand off, leaving him to bleed out in the sand.


Certainly this is unfair of me. Likely it is unjust as well, although I do not know what crimes he may have committed; perhaps he deserves it. It hardly matters. In my experience justice is a myth, and not a particularly plausible one.


A few moments of work and I am the only living thing in the pit. They cannot shoot at me from this angle, and I am safe until one is foolish enough to approach the edge. I would like to wait for that to happen, ensure that the fight resumes on my terms, but I am not here alone. Aiko is armored but it is not infallible. She is not Winter, but she is still pack; her life is worth protecting.


So, for her sake, I wait only a few moments in the pit. The voice in the back of my head has been tracking my movements, and tells me which side of the pit Aiko is standing on. I go to stand under that point and leap out. A dog could not jump out—that is, after all, the entire point of having a pit—but I am not a dog, and I do so easily.


Standing beside her, I look at the room and am pleased. Most of the enemies have been downed, with less than a quarter still standing and armed. Perhaps fifteen, perhaps less. I do not count. The voice in the back of my head tells me that there are eleven, and another eight who are not armed. There are five dogs left alive and none of them are listening to the humans telling them to attack. Smarter than the humans, although it is unlikely to help them.


Three of those eight make a break for the door as a group. Aiko begins to sight on them but I growl, and she turns her attention back to the armed humans, leaving the runners to me.


I chase them, not truly running. They are human, and slow even by the standards of humans; if I were to run they would be in my jaws within a few seconds. I enjoy the chase too much to allow it to end so easily, particularly when it is likely to be the only chase of the night.


But I cannot allow them to get within earshot of the street and so, after only a few moments, I close the distance to them. They are not looking back, and I leap on them from behind, taking the hamstring of one. There is more blood, and there is screaming. The other two turn, eyes wide and white, breathing fast. They smell like fear.


I am concerned that I will be needed back in the main room so I do not take my time about killing them. I break the necks of two and tear the throat out of the third, leaving her to bleed to death behind me. She cannot scream but I hear the labored breathing as I leave.


Back in the other room Aiko has killed almost everyone. The last few have thrown down their weapons and I do not need the voice in the back of my head to tell me that they are begging for mercy.


Mercy. An odd concept, which I have never quite grasped. I wonder why they are asking for it. Do they truly expect that we will spare them when we have killed so many others? Perhaps they have seen the way that one dog will allow another to submit, rather than killing it. If so, they have mistaken the meaning of the action. Every dog is a wolf under the skin, and wolves know nothing of mercy. You leave your enemies alive because they are more useful alive than dead.


When they are not useful? They do not live. So simple. So easy to understand. There is nothing of mercy in it.


Aiko waits for me to return before opening fire again, killing those who had tried to surrender. The dogs, as well, she shoots, before dropping her carbine to hang from its strap and drawing her knife. She proceeds around the room, ensuring that the wounded do not stay in that condition for long.


She would call that mercy. I can at least understand this, although I would do it for pragmatic rather than ethical reasons. Witnesses are problematic. The dead have many faults but talkativeness is not one of them.


I am glad that she is doing it, however, because I have little taste for doing so. That’s what Jack London and his ilk never quite seem to grasp. It isn’t the kill I need, or even the blood. It’s the fight, the moment where everything rides on one movement, one perfectly timed action. Life has no thrill quite like dancing on the very edge of death. I would say that it’s like a high, but that would be disingenuous; it is a high. I know enough physiology to know that it has the same characteristics as any other. Increased production of endorphins, increased release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, increased release of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain; the chemical signals are the same.


It’s the same urge that drives any other addict, really. I just happen to get my kicks from a darker place than most.


Aiko finishes her work and stands. The voice in the back of my head confirms that she checked every one of the corpses.


How many people did we kill? Thirty? Fifty? I do not know, do not ask the voice in the back of my head to tell me. I do not want to know. As with any high, when it fades I feel no happier than before it started. It is worse than usual today, only serving to emphasize how empty this fight was. No challenge. No real threat. And, again, that something lacking. It was better than nothing, it slaked my thirst for the time being, but it was far, far less than I might have hoped for.


I smell guilt on Aiko and wonder whether she feels similarly, dismiss the thought. I know why she feels guilty and it has nothing to do with what happened today. She knew about this place somehow, and considering her history it isn’t hard to guess the how. I am confident that this is not the first dogfight she saw, and that the others did not end this way.


I wonder, in an abstract way, whether I should be offended or angry at her for that, but I am not. I am not a dog, and I am hardly in a position to criticize anyone for taking pleasure in bloodshed. In any case, she is clearly bothered by the memory more than I am.


Mercy would be to say nothing, which is easier for me than most. Justice likely demands punishment, for crimes I know about and crimes I don’t. Maybe one day she’ll face that justice, but I really and truly hope not, because if justice is real, then almost by definition it has to come to everyone and if justice comes for me then damnation is the least of what I am due.


The voice in the back of my head interrupts this line of thought, thankfully, and draws my attention to the time. He has not been keeping count but he has a reasonable idea of how much time has passed, and I am coming up against my deadline. If I allow ten minutes rather than seven to run back, accounting for my full stomach, then I have less than ten minutes remaining before I need to move.


I thank him for reminding me and look at what Aiko is doing. She has taken a large plastic jug out of her pack and is pouring it out on the floor, making sure to pour some on each and every corpse. It looks like gasoline and most people would think that it was, but they would be wrong. Certainly there is a hydrocarbon base, but I can smell something extra that turns it into something entirely different, something that will burn hot enough that not even the bones will survive intact. Removal of evidence.


She finishes covering the room and we leave, pouring out a trail of accelerant behind us to the door. I expect her to throw away the empty jug but she puts back into her pack instead. Avoiding leaving evidence, which is smart. I wouldn’t have bothered, knowing that there was no information which could link this to us, but now they will be less likely to suspect arson. That was good, because if they called it arson then Winter might hear about it and the whole point of this was that there are some things Winter is happier not knowing.


Aiko kneels down beside me and ruffles my ears again. “Good job,” she says. “Let’s clean off the blood.”


As I expected, the injuries are shallow. She cleans them with water and a little isopropanol from her pack; I am not generally susceptible to infection but it is best to take care. She then rinses most of the blood out of my fur and pats me dry. She leaves some of the blood around my muzzle; it would be suspicious if I were to return entirely unbloodied.


“Okay,” she says, turning back toward the building. “I’ll get it from here. You get back before anyone starts asking questions.” I cannot detect the magic, but I recognize the distinctive posture she adopts when opening Otherside portals. She will light the fire we have set and disappear immediately afterward, ensuring that she is not found here by the fire response team.


She hums to herself, very quietly, as she works. I do not recognize the song immediately but the voice in the back of my head does. There is no longer any reason to count and I do not need his attention now, so he is free to sing along to himself as we begin to run.


Warum ist die Sonne rund? he sings softly in the back of my head as I turn my feet south. Behind me I hear the fire start to catch, smell the smoke. Warum werd ich nicht gesund?


I do not answer the questions. I know the answers and they are not good ones. You cannot make something healthy which is, on a fundamental and intrinsic level, broken.


Don’t think about it. There is no point in thinking about it, dwelling on it. Live your life one day to the next, always chasing the next high; that is how we get by, that is how we cope.


Life is just so much easier if you don’t think too much.



There you are, Winter says in my mind about nine minutes later, when I am a block away. Did you get lucky?


Yep, I think smugly. Both the thrill and the post-violence depression have faded, leaving a sort of sated languor in their wake. I trot into the building, not making any attempt to hide the blood around my mouth as I move through the crowd of supplicants and past the housecarls. Bizarre, that they are still here. Even more bizarre, that Winter continues listening to their requests, when I know full well that he hates his position as jarl.


I walk up and sit at his side. He scratches my ears absently as the human standing before him drones on endlessly about something. I don’t care enough to pay attention, and neither does the voice in the back of my head. Neither of us cares what happens to these people.


While I cannot deny my bitterness at his having made me what I am, I also cannot deny the happiness and the pleasure I feel when Winter touches me. He is my everything, so integral to my life that a fight without him is hollow, a day without him unimaginable.


I would do almost anything to make him happy, up to and including lying about what I’ve done for him.


He is, after all, my everything. Good and bad and everything in between.

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Event Horizon 8.10

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There were two more attacks that night. The first was on a local politician I knew to be in the pocket of several businesses and at least one criminal organization—no surprise that he’d been targeted, and I found it difficult to regret his death. The second targeted the residence of Luna Kuzmak, a small-time information marketer and black marketeer. Her apartment building had been pretty thoroughly trashed, but Luna herself was far too canny to be caught that easily. She’d probably figured out that the person summoning this thing had a serious hate on for supernatural predators and criminals, and Luna was in thick with both. All reports agreed that she hadn’t even been in the same neighborhood. I felt a small spark of happiness at that news; Luna and I weren’t friends, but she was a consistent acquaintance, and I liked her well enough.


Less pleasant was the news that several other people in the same building hadn’t been so lucky. Eleven people had been killed and a couple dozen others hospitalized.


Strangely enough, it wasn’t until I heard that that I began to feel truly angry about this. Attacking gangsters and vampires didn’t really upset me—hell, in its own spectacularly misguided way it was an ethically justifiable choice. Trying to kill me was more upsetting on a personal level, for obvious reasons, but that was clearly nothing personal. If I were entirely fair, I had to admit that I’d started that fight, not the other way round.


This was different. Using lethal force on someone who was, at worst, guilty of providing supplies and info to both good and bad people was questionable. Doing so in a way that was practically guaranteed to cause serious collateral damage to dozens of innocents was morally shaky to say the least. To do that when the target wasn’t even there—and when that was fairly predictable—was unconscionable.


“Dawn of the sixth day,” Aiko said as I finished reading the news story and closed the laptop. (Yes, there was a laptop sitting in the safe house. Plentiful funds and pathological obsession with preparing for disaster are a wonderful combo.) “Twenty-four hours remain.”


“That would be a great deal more encouraging if I actually got to do this over as many times as I wanted.”


“Nah,” she said dismissively. “You’d get bored of the same six days within two or three reps.”


“Probably true,” I agreed. “I guess I should just get it right the first time instead.”


“Truly, you must be a tactical genius. Did you have any actual plans?”


“Not really,” I admitted. “Katrin hasn’t contacted me, and the only message from Kikuchi just says that most of the Inquisition don’t appear to be frequenting their usual haunts.” I snorted. “I could have told them that and saved them the time.”


“That’s a tengu for you,” Aiko agreed. “Trap ’em in a burning building and they’ll go through the manual to make sure it’s actually on fire and locate their assigned emergency exit.”


“Can you come up with anything?” I asked. “‘Cause honestly, I’m out of ideas. This is too big.”


She pursed her lips and thought for a moment. “You should contact Pellegrini,” she said after a moment. “He has as much of a stake in this as we do, and a lot more manpower.”


I sighed. “That’s not a bad idea,” I admitted. I didn’t like the idea—I found everything about the crime lord repellant—but what she’d said was true. Pellegrini had money, hordes of minions, and access to a lot of resources that not even Katrin or Kikuchi could claim. Those weren’t things I could ignore, not now. The stakes were too high for squeamishness. “I guess I’ll get started on that.”


Fifteen minutes later, I hung up and glared at the phone. I had contact info for Pellegrini—I have contact info for pretty much everybody in my city—but not a personal number. He must have given his minions a briefing on me, because dropping my name worked wonders, but there was still a legion of secretaries to battle through. Once I’d gotten through to a high enough level of management to get something done, I’d discovered that the gangster was in a meeting that “couldn’t be interrupted,” but he would hear about my call as soon as it was over.


I hate being given the runaround. It feels too much like karma.


Inside the safe house, nothing had changed. Alexis was pacing back and forth, her expression frustrated and scared. Aiko was sitting on one of the camp chairs in the corner of the room, looking at something on the computer. She looked more outwardly relaxed, but I knew her too well to be fooled. Neither of the werewolves had woken up yet.


This was getting ridiculous. A week had passed, and I’d learned nothing. I had to be the most incompetent investigator in the history of incompetent investigation.


Before I could think of what to do next, my phone rang. I looked at it, hoping it would be Pellegrini calling me back. I didn’t recognize the number.


“Hello, Winter,” a female voice said. It was high, and not nearly as bright or innocent as it had been the first time I heard it. I still recognized it, and wished I didn’t. This couldn’t possibly be good news.


“Hello, Katie,” I said, feeling inordinately proud that my voice betrayed nothing of what I was feeling. “What’s new?”


“I think we both know the answer to that,” Katie said sharply.


“Ah. It’s you, then?”


“Yeah. It’s me.” Her voice was equal parts defiance and sorrow, as though she weren’t sure whether to ask for congratulations or condolences.


I wasn’t surprised. Disappointed, but not surprised. I suppose I’d always known it would be Katie that turned to the dark side. She was the only pure soul the Inquisition had to offer, and it’s hard find someone darker than the person who used to be so good. “Why’d you do it?” I asked, not really caring what the answer was. It didn’t matter why, not anymore. There was too much blood on her hands to ever come clean.


“I couldn’t stand to watch it anymore,” she said, defiance predominating in her voice now. “They kept getting away with it. We’d take out the ones that went too far, but it never mattered. A week later, it was like we were never there. We didn’t have the power to touch anyone who counted for anything. Well, guess what, Winter? I have the power now. I can finally fix things.”


“You aren’t fixing anything, Katie. How many people have you killed? There were a dozen families in that apartment building. They did nothing wrong.”


“Do you think I don’t know that?” she screamed. I winced away from the phone; clearly, stability was no longer one of Katie’s hirable traits. “Do you think I don’t know what I’ve done? Do you think I don’t hear them screaming when I close my eyes? Because I do! But I don’t have your power, do I? You could have made things better, but you didn’t, and now I have to! I don’t have a scalpel, Winter, but I do have a cannon. And if I have to use a cannon because that’s all I have, I’m fucking well going to do it!” She was breathing heavily. She’d started out screaming, but by the time she finished her rant it sounded like she was practically in tears.


“Why are you telling me all this?”


“Because it’s not too late,” she whispered. “You could still fix this, Winter. You could still help me make everything better. Please. Help me.”


“Considering that you sent your pet monster to kill me last night,” I said dryly, “you’ll have to forgive me if I sound a little skeptical.”


“I want you to help me,” she said, her voice once again almost calm. “But I can’t afford to have you working against me. You’re too capable. I was hoping that I could remove you from play before you had a chance to get too close.”


“Why change your tune now?”


“It didn’t work,” she said simply. “You got away from it, twice. It’s too late to end this quickly, so I can afford to give you another chance. Please, Winter. It’s not too late.”


“I’m sorry, Katie.”


“Please, Winter,” she said again, as though she weren’t sure what else to say. “You were always a good person. I looked up to you. Why couldn’t you do the right thing?”


I felt as though my heart were breaking. “There is no right thing,” I said bitterly. “There’s never a right thing.”


“Maybe not,” Katie said, her voice growing firm again. “But there is a wrong one. Please, Winter. I can’t give you another chance.”


“I’m sorry, Katie,” I said again, and then I hung up on her.


Loki got the Inquisition together, years before, for his own amusement. That’s what he claims, anyway; some things I’ve learned since then make me wonder whether Loki’s really that shallow, or he’s playing a deeper game. Either way, I believe his claim that every member of the group participated for a different reason. Some of those reasons are noble, while others are rather unsettling, and a few are just plain sad. Matthew gets off on violence, Jimmy’s on an ego trip, Aubrey wants power, and Kris just wanted a friend. With such a diverse range of motives, it’s really no surprise that they fell apart once he stopped taking an active hand in things.


Katie was always the zealot of the bunch. The others mouthed the lines about protecting humanity from monsters, and most of them supported the cause to some extent. But Katie believed. She truly believed, with all her heart, that what they were doing was right, that even when they were doing wrong it was justified by being a necessary evil on the path to a greater good.


On some level, that was an accurate assessment. While I didn’t always agree with their methods, and I thought their capability for understanding a situation was essentially nil, I couldn’t deny that they had a point with their vigilantism. They had, all things considered, done more good than harm. Certainly it was preferable to perform the unsavory acts required to get there out of a sense of duty, rather than for sadistic pleasure or amoral greed. As a result, Katie had always been one of the few members of the Inquisition I respected.


She was also the only one I was genuinely frightened of. It may sound odd, but someone doing terrible things because they feel it’s necessary is almost always scarier than one doing them just for fun. Even the most enthusiastically evil person can only handle so much murder before they get hungry, or sleepy, or simply bored. But someone who’s really, truly dedicated to the cause can keep going forever, because they aren’t in it for pleasure. A guy who’s in it for kicks will balk at some things, because they’re too risky, or too tedious, or too evil. A zealot will do anything, because in their mind everything else is secondary to the cause.


You can’t reason with a person like that. You can’t talk them out of it, or convince them that what they’re doing is too costly. You can’t intimidate or blackmail them. They care too much for what they’re doing, and too little for anything else.


Katie was that kind of person. She was kind, honest, generous, and she would shove her own mother under a bus without hesitation if that’s what it took to make the world a better place. She wasn’t always like that—when I first met her, she was actually having doubts about the rightness of their cause—but somewhere along the way she’d gotten ruthless. The last time I’d worked with the Inquisition, she’d put a bullet through a human shield to cripple a rogue werewolf. She was torn up about it, but there was no question in anyone’s mind that she would do it again without a moment’s hesitation.


I couldn’t argue with her, really. I would probably have done the same thing. That werewolf really needed to die, and if he’d gotten away I had no doubt that he would have killed the hostage himself. The bullet was by far the kinder fate.


The idea of her having access to this kind of power still scared me absolutely shitless.



“Katie’s the one doing this?” Aiko said a few seconds after I hung up. “Shit. Do you think it’s too late to move to Belize?” She knew Katie as well as I did, and it took her just as long to work through the ramifications of giving her a superweapon.


“I hope not,” I said. “But hopefully it shouldn’t matter. We know who it is now, so it should just be a matter of telling Loki and letting him handle things from here.”


“You called?” Loki’s voice said from a position about six inches behind my left ear.


I think I squeaked. I know I jumped. I landed maybe five feet away, facing backward and scrabbling for weapons. I then tripped over the cot Kyra was sleeping in. I ended up with my chest on the ground (on my injured arm, because of course I was), and my legs draped over the cot.


Any dignity I might have had was already lost, and I didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise. A little wriggling, helped along by a less-than-subtle shove from Kyra, got me all the way down to the floor. I pushed myself back to my feet, wincing when I forgot and used my left hand, and tried to pretend that little detour was intentional.


Loki, needless to say, was standing right where I’d been, laughing his head off. I wouldn’t have minded, except that everyone else in the room was also laughing at me. Aiko looked like she was about to fall out of her chair, and Snowflake would have been in much the same position except that she was already lying down. Even Anna, once she’d woken up and figured out what I just did, started laughing.


“Nice one, Winter,” Loki said, wiping nonexistent tears from his eyes. He didn’t sound even slightly out of breath, probably because he didn’t need to breathe. “You’re a one-man slapstick show. So what did you want to tell me?”


“I know who you’re looking for,” I said, hating myself for every word. Katie needed to be stopped—there was no question about that. But I didn’t want to hand her over to Loki. I knew only too well what he was capable of, and Katie didn’t deserve that. Nobody deserved that.


But I couldn’t afford to care. The stakes were too high for squeamishness.


“Don’t care,” Loki said casually.


I blinked. “What?”


Loki looked at me directly. I met those mad, whirling eyes, and looked into the wildfire therein. An instant later I was looking at the floor, and shivering a little. I have a hard stare, but when Loki gets serious his would convince a tiger to go back to its chew toy.


“It doesn’t matter who summoned the interloper,” he said, his voice calm and cold. “All that matters is that they be stopped. Tell me, Wolf, can you do that?”


I didn’t look away from the floor. Loki might sound calm, but my instincts were screaming that he was far angrier than I’d ever seen him before, and that meant I was about six inches away from dying horribly. “No,” I said, as submissively as I knew how. My voice wasn’t loud, but it had gone dead silent in the safe house, and I knew that everyone could hear me.


“I thought not. Can you tell me where to go to solve the problem?”


“No,” I admitted. I knew Katie was behind it all, but that didn’t tell me jack about where she was hiding. Katie was always one of the most forward-thinking of the Inquisition, and she was smart enough not to go anywhere I would know to look for her.


“Well, then,” Loki said, sounding almost cheerful again. “It sounds like you have some work to do before dawn, don’t you? I think you’d better get busy.” He snapped his fingers.


Predictably, they produced a sound closer to a large-caliber gunshot than a popgun, accompanied by a bright flash of light. I heard sounds of surprise and pain, particularly from the werewolves, through the ringing in my ears. By the time I could see again, Loki had vanished.


Gods can be such assholes. I mean, a little egotism isn’t all that surprising in a literal deity, but Loki’s insistence on always getting the last word still seems a little unhealthy.


“We’re screwed,” Aiko said a few seconds later. Her voice was mild, devoid of any emotion except a sort of detached curiosity.


“Utterly,” I agreed. “Why did I agree to this again?”


“Because you’re a complete moron with no ability to learn from past mistakes?” Aiko suggested. This was followed by various noises of agreement from everyone except Snowflake, who made hers nonvocally.


“Pretty much,” I sighed. “We need to get moving, though. I don’t think Katie traced that call, but it’s probably best not to rule it out.”


“Where are we going?” Alexis asked, grabbing her backpack off the floor. Alexis wasn’t as paranoid as me, but she was getting there. She certainly didn’t let her jump bag out of arm’s reach at a time like this.


“Shit, I don’t know. Back to the pack house, I guess. I want to see how wrecked it is.” I grabbed my own bag, then grabbed the keys to the SUV from the hook by the door and tossed them to my cousin. Driving with my hand was just not a good idea, and from Kyra’s expression I was pretty sure she’d bite me if I let Aiko drive again.


As we drove south, I tried to figure out why Katie had called me.


I didn’t trust her explanation. That just wasn’t Katie. She looked up to me, and I could see her wanting to give me another chance to join her loony-tunes crusade. But she wasn’t sentimental. If I had to pick one word to describe Katie, “ruthless” would be near the top of the list. I just couldn’t see her throwing away any advantage for what she had to know was the extremely slim chance that I would listen to her.


I trusted my judgment of her character. So, logically, she must have some reason to think it was worth it. There were two ways that could happen—she might think that the cost was smaller than I did, or she might have overestimated the likelihood that she could convince me.


The second possibility wasn’t plausible. We weren’t close, but I’d been dealing with the Inquisition off and on for several years. I’d never been shy about my opinion of their anti-monster crusade. Evidence suggested that Katie’s mental stability wasn’t too hot anymore—which, considering the power she currently held, was a freaking terrifying thought—but I just couldn’t see her misjudging me that grossly.


I groaned to myself and rubbed my temples, where I was already getting a headache. It felt like I was trying to think through fog in a concert hall, and the awfulness of that metaphor just goes to show how stupid I was at the moment. My hand ached, although it didn’t seem to have started bleeding again, and I was ridiculously tired. I’d gotten close to ten hours of sleep, and I felt like I’d been running a marathon all night instead. The skin of my arm didn’t seem to be regenerating as fast as it should have, either. Considering the source of the injury, that worried me more than a little.


I forced myself to think through the path of logic anyway. If Katie had known that calling me was unlikely to provide much benefit, she must have thought that the cost wouldn’t be significant. Revealing that she was responsible for all this was a significant cost; I’d been guessing it was one of the Inquisition, but I couldn’t have pinned it on her specifically.


That, in turn, meant that she must have thought I would figure it out whether she told me or not. I didn’t think there was a huge clue pointing at her that I just hadn’t noticed, which meant that it must be something that hadn’t happened yet. It was about to, though; Katie wouldn’t have given me any more advance knowledge than she could help. Decent tacticians are annoying that way.


But what could she do that would tell me that it was her? By and large, her obsession with hunting monsters was shared by the rest of the Inquisition. She felt more passionate about the topic than most of them, but they had the same targets.


A moment later, I realized what it had to be. “Oh, crap,” I said, digging my phone out of my pocket.


“What is it?” Aiko asked. She was currently sitting next to me in the cargo area of the SUV. She appeared to be browsing NSFW comics on her phone. Because she could, presumably.


“If you were an extremist splinter group from an ideologically extreme gang, and someone gave you way too much power, what’s the first thing you’d do?”


“Kill everyone who ever made fun of my fashion sense,” she replied immediately. “Why?”


“I was just thinking that the only people religious extremists hate more than heathens are heretics.”


Aiko did not take long to see what I was getting at. “You think Katie’s going to take out the rest of the Inquisition?”


“Not all of them,” I said, thinking it through as I spoke. “But Katie was always the most dedicated of the bunch. Now that she has enough power to go it alone, I could see her starting a purge.”


“Maybe,” Aiko said doubtfully. “I don’t know, though. Katie’s psycho, but she’s always been fairly specific. I don’t really see her going after humans deliberately.” Her voice was slightly caustic for that last part. I don’t care for the Inquisition’s monster-hunting agenda, but Aiko’s always been rather more vocal about her disgust than me.


I shrugged and dialed a number from memory. I wasn’t willing to store it in my phone; I don’t really know that much about the finer points of technology, but I was pretty sure somebody could find it there. “It doesn’t hurt anything to give them a heads-up.”


By the time we reached the pack house, I’d warned most of the living members of the Inquisition about my suspicions. Kris and Doug were both still working for Val, who assured me that he would tell them to clear out immediately. Chuck’s boss was less understanding, but Chuck had never had any particular difficulty walking out on a job. Mac, once she woke up, was entirely willing to run and hide; she might be a pacifist, but that didn’t mean she had to be a fool. Matthew lived well outside of town, but he said that he would run at the first hint of weirdness anyway. He’s psychotic and craves violence, but he isn’t stupid. Honestly, crazy though he is, I think Matthew’s probably the smartest of the bunch. He has a surprisingly accurate understanding of his own capabilities, and he’s never hesitated to back down from impossible odds.


I didn’t have Aubrey’s phone number, though. He’s always been paranoid (pot, kettle, I know), and we don’t really talk much. He’s envious of my ability to defend myself directly, and I’m not comfortable being around anyone who can screw with my head magically. Brick, obviously, wasn’t answering his phone, and I couldn’t get an answer from Jimmy or Mike either.


That was a little scary. Katie having access to nigh-godly destructive power was bad enough. Brick was vastly better educated, Jimmy was on a massive ego trip, and Mike was maybe the only one of the Inquisition as dedicated as Katie. If one or more of them were helping her, things could get even worse.


I couldn’t do much about it until I tracked them down, though. So I shrugged it off as best I could and got out of the car to survey the damage.


It was surprisingly mild, all things considered. The doors of the pack house had been disintegrated, leaving a ten-foot hole in their place, and from what I could see through the hole the ground floor had been more or less gutted. The building itself was still standing, though, and that was more than I’d been expecting. My armored truck out front didn’t even appear to have been touched.


I wasn’t totally sure whether that was a good sign. I mean, yes, I was happy that the place hadn’t been demolished again, and yes, it was good that Katie appeared to be getting a handle on the collateral damage. On the other hand, that might indicate that Katie was learning to control this thing more precisely, and that was definitely not good news. The more she learned, the more dangerous the situation became.


For a situation that started out so dangerous that the nuclear option was actually fairly justifiable, that’s pretty impressive.


“So what are we doing here, again?” Kyra asked, looking over the destruction with an air of faint boredom. If she felt anything at seeing her former home damaged in this way, she kept it hidden.


“Wait for it,” I said, with more confidence than I felt.


Maybe five minutes later, Kyi ghosted out of the trees beside the building. As always, I was impressed at her skill; we were standing in an area I knew well, with literally nothing to do but watch for someone to show up, and I still didn’t see her until after she’d left the trees.


“Kyi,” I said. “Did everyone make it out?”


“Já,” she said, nodding vigorously. “Everyone is safe. Tindr only slipped in the wood, and he is only bruised in pride.”


“Good. Are they still out there?” I gestured vaguely at the trees.


. I am here, if anyone comes back, because I am the quiet one.”


I wondered, idly, whether Kyi had been planning to watch them or kill them. It could go either way. Kyi Greyfell was the least crazy of my housecarls, with the possible exception of Tindr, but she doesn’t carry a bunch of knives and a compound bow for no reason. If I want someone to disappear without a trace, Kyi is by far the best minion I have.


If you ever have to seriously consider which minion is best for a quiet assassination, either your priorities or your life have gotten epically screwed up somewhere along the line. I didn’t want to think too hard about which one described me.


“Good,” I said, trying to focus on the task at hand. It was giving me more trouble than usual. “Go get Haki, Vigdis, and, oh, let’s say Kjaran for me. Tell them to bring their stuff. The rest of you should stay in this area for a few days. I’ll contact you in person or by phone. Clear?”


“Clear,” she said, nodding vigorously. “I bring them now here.” She turned and walked back into the forest without another word.


“Why are you getting more thugs?” Kyra asked a minute or so after the jotun left. “Seems like we have plenty of manpower already.”


“Pellegrini knows you,” I said. I’d never gotten clear on the deals she’d made with the gangster back when she was Alpha, but I was certain they’d been conducted face-to-face. “And, no offense, but the rest of you aren’t all that intimidating. I figure I might as well pick up somebody a little more blatant while we’re here anyway.”


“I thought Pellegrini was giving you the runaround,” Aiko said.


I smiled. It was not a very nice smile. “Oh, he’ll help us. He just needs a little persuading.”

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Event Horizon 8.9

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I walked in the front door of the safe house to find Kyra deeply engrossed in a passionate kiss with Kimiko. They both jumped when I shut the door, and turned to face the noise. Aiko, who seemed to be playing backgammon against Anna, chortled. The kitsune looked a great deal better, thankfully.


“Hi,” I said. “Is there something I should know?”


“Not really,” Kimiko said. “I only set this up to see the look on your face when you opened the door. Which was priceless, by the way.”


I sighed. Of course. “The only surprising thing about that,” I said, “is that you managed to convince Kyra to go along with it.”


“She was actually fairly open to the idea. Although she did talk me out of putting a bucket of paint over the door.”


“You know,” I commented to no one in particular, moving further into the room, “I think I’ve figured something out.” I sat down on one of the half-dozen or so camp chairs scattered around. It wasn’t terribly comfortable, but I was pretty freaking tired and at the moment the idea of sitting down was pleasant enough that I didn’t care all that much what it was on.


“What’s that?” Alexis asked idly. My cousin was in another chair, reading a book about gardening, of all things.


“I’ve learned why there’s usually only one kitsune in any given story. More than that and they incite even incarnations of the Buddha to homicidal rage, so the story never gets out.”


“Cute,” Kimiko said in the tone of voice normally reserved for slugs at least five inches in length. “Why did you ask me to meet you here?”


“I didn’t want to talk in front of Tweedledee and Tweedledum here,” I replied. “Which, for various reasons, is no longer a concern.”


“Are you actively trying to alienate any possible allies?” Ivanov wondered out loud.


Aiko snorted and rolled the dice. “This is nothing,” she said, moving one checker lazily forward to capture a blot. “If he were trying, there would be more bodies, and also something would probably be on fire.”


“Thank you for the vote of confidence,” I sighed. “Is there any chance we could get this conversation on topic?”


“Please,” Alexis said. “Did you have one in mind?”


“Well, there’s always this file I had Sveinn collect on what these freaks have been up to,” I offered, pulling it out of my pocket.


“Any actual information?” Aiko asked, leaving one of her pieces open and smirking at Anna. It was an obvious taunt; even if she managed to capture it, it would be an extremely poor move, tactically. The kitsune had a decisive advantage, and she was pretty clearly going to win unless there was a dramatic shift in fortunes. That wasn’t likely, since she was playing with the magical equivalent of loaded dice. Literally; I bought them as a novelty.


“They’ve just been busy little bees,” I said, glancing over the list Sveinn had compiled. It wasn’t complete—it’s really hard to get much clear information soon after something like this—but it was reasonably thorough, and he’d made notes of which data were from reasonably reliable sources. “Looks like ten targets got hit in the last three days. Eleven if you count the pack house, which, by the way, just got blown up. Again.”


“You blew my house up again?” Kyra said. “Christ, Winter, do you think you could lay off the property damage for a couple years? I liked that house.”


Ivanov cleared his throat. “Ah. Um. They’re only behind ten of those, actually. The seventh one on that list was me.” Everyone in the room turned to stare at him. “What?” he said defensively. “The suspect was uncooperative. Things got out of hand, okay?”


The problem, Snowflake said meditatively a moment later, isn’t so much that we live in a Three Stooges episode. It’s that they couldn’t decide on casting, so everyone we meet is Curly.


Too true, I sighed. “That leaves nine attacks,” I said. “Looks like they’ve got an agenda.” I wasn’t a very good investigator, but I’m not a total moron. When one of the victims was a vampire, and three others were businesses which I knew for a fact Katrin had a stake in, it didn’t take a genius to draw some lines.


A moment later there was a series of sharp, brisk knocks on the door. I tossed the folder on the cot next to me and went to answer it.


The woman standing on the other side was tall and pale, with long ash-blond hair. Other than that she was fairly plain, an impression which was reinforced by the plain black T-shirt and jeans. “Good evening, Wolf,” she said pleasantly. “May I come in?”


I hesitated, then shrugged. “Sure.” I wasn’t totally comfortable with inviting Katrin into my safe house, but at the moment she was a pretty small concern to me.


“Thank you,” she said sweetly, stepping across the threshold after me.


I heard a movement behind me and started to turn.


The next thing I knew, I was pressed against the far wall. My feet were six inches off the ground, and I was supported only by her hand on my neck.


“Who the devil do you think you are?” Katrin hissed at me from a couple inches away. “You think you can order me around? You think you can mock me?”


“Can’t…breathe….” I wheezed, scrabbling ineffectually at her hand. It didn’t accomplish much; I only had one good hand, and she had a grip like a vise. Behind her I saw that pretty much everybody had managed to get over their shock, and were currently going for weapons.


“Don’t bother,” Katrin called, clearly not speaking to me. “I can snap his neck before you even twitch.” She tossed me to the ground—I landed on my bad arm, of course—and stalked a few paces away. She snatched the folder off the cot and brandished it at me. “Explain,” she spat, flicking it at me.


I managed to catch it before it hit me in the face. “Ow,” I complained. “Jump to conclusions much?”


“You’ve made it damned clear how you feel,” she said, pacing back and forth. “I don’t consider it much of a leap.” Everyone else in the room was huddled in their respective seats, cowering away from the vampire’s wrath. I didn’t blame them; I would have liked to do something similar. I’d never seen Katrin quite this animated. Now that I did, it wasn’t hard to see why the vampires of the city all obeyed her. In that moment, she could have cowed almost anyone with her sheer presence.


But I wasn’t just anyone. I’d stood up to the Khan, who dominated entire continents with nothing but force of personality. I’d mocked freaking Loki to his face, knowing all the while that if he chose he could skin me alive in a heartbeat. And I’d be damned if I bowed to a jumped-up leech just because she waltzed in and strutted around a bit.


Attitudes like that do a lot to explain why werewolves don’t actually rule the world.


“I’m glad to know you think so highly of me,” I said sarcastically. “Seriously, Katrin. Even if I was stupid enough to rock the boat like that, why on earth would I ask you to come here for a chat if I were responsible?”


She hesitated. “There is that, yes,” she admitted. “But you’ve done some fairly random things in the past.”


“Oh, that’s just….” I shook my head and pushed myself to my feet. “Look, Katrin. Do I like you? No, of course not, that’s never been a secret. But I’m not going to deny that you do a lot for stability in this town. I’ve never once actually worked against you, because I can recognize that you’re preferable to the alternative.”


The vampire hesitated. “You’re bleeding,” she said eventually, rather than respond directly.


“Looks like my wound reopened when you threw me on it. Thanks for that, by the way, my day wasn’t quite shitty enough already.”


“Fine,” she sighed. “Let’s assume I believe you. What did you want to talk about?”


“From your reaction, I’m guessing you’ve figured out that the person responsible for the recent disruptions are targeting you specifically.”


She snorted. “No shit. Get to the point.”


“From what I’ve managed to figure out, I’m pretty sure this is a local event,” I said. “There’s no way they could control this at any kind of distance. That rules out a lot of suspects, right there.”


“I’d already figured that out,” Katrin said, pacing back and forth.


“I’m getting there,” I said, annoyed. Dealing with Katrin was always just such a pain in the ass. “I don’t think it’s particularly likely that this is the work of a newcomer on the scene. The targets they’ve chosen suggest a fairly intimate knowledge of local events. It’s possible that this is a coup, but if so it’s been in the works for a long time.”




“So who would it be?” I asked rhetorically. “There aren’t all that many possibilities. It’s safe to assume it wasn’t you, I think—you’ve been hurt a little more than I see you doing just to throw people off the trail. Even if you were willing to go that far, this kind of wanton destruction just isn’t your style. The same thing goes for Kikuchi—if he wanted to take you out for some reason, he wouldn’t summon a monster to take out your lackeys. He’d go after you personally.”


“You’ve cast yourself as the lead suspect again,” Katrin said dryly. “If you have an actual point to make, I recommend you get there soon.”


“Except it doesn’t work for me, either,” I pointed out. “Think about it. Even if you assume I had motive, I just don’t have the ability to summon and control something like this. Not to mention that, oh yeah, I lost most of my hand the last time it attacked me, and I promise you that’s not something I would do for the sake of selling a lie. Not to mention that it isn’t really my style either. Can you honestly say that this seems like something I would do?”


The vampire frowned. “That’s a fair point,” she allowed a moment later. “You typically do your own dirty work.”


“Thank you. So if we’ve ruled out the three major groups, that means it must have been a minor player. I didn’t really have any ideas beyond that, until I saw this.” I set the file down on the cot and flipped it open to the list of attacks. I pointed at two of them.


Katrin looked at my choices and frowned. “I don’t get it,” she said. Behind her, I noticed that both of the Guards were watching with similar interest, although neither of them said anything.


I tapped the first entry on the list. “This was an apartment building near the middle of town,” I said. “As far as I can tell it was the first location they hit, most of a week ago. I’ve had people looking into this for a while, and apparently the only noteworthy thing about the place was a resident on the second floor. Guy was a fairly serious drug dealer.”


“And the other?”


“Condos. Still under construction, but they were expected to be quite profitable. Trace it far enough back, and the financial backing was coming from a major organized crime figure.” I smiled at Katrin. “So you tell me. What local groups have a reasonable amount of power, are completely reckless and irresponsible with how they use it, and hate both vampires and criminals?”


“Oh, shit,” Aiko said suddenly. “You think it’s the Inquisition?”


“Well, it’s a pretty damn unlikely coincidence otherwise, don’t you think?”


“Who are you talking about?” Katrin said, clearly losing what little patience she still had for me.


“Group of low-key mages,” I said, massaging my neck gently. Damn, she had a strong grip. “There’s, oh, maybe half a dozen of them still around. They get up to a fair amount of vigilante activity, and particularly dislike entities they think of as ‘monsters.'”


“I’m familiar with the group. Is that what they call themselves?”


“They never actually settled on a name. We call them that for convenience.”


The vampire smiled, the sort of expression most commonly seen on indulgent felines in the presence of small mammals. “Cute. Do you have any reason beyond a hunch for me to believe you?”


“Circumstantial evidence.”


“That’s less than compelling,” she said dryly.


“I have a lot of it,” I muttered. “Okay. Number one: the Watcher who was undercover in the group went silent shortly before this mess started. The timing is a little much for coincidence. Number two: they’ve been frustrated for some time that I haven’t been more proactive about dealing with threats, particularly you.” I nodded at Katrin.


“That’s ridiculous,” she said. “I have as much invested in this city as anyone. There are few people less likely to present a threat to it.”


“You know that. I know that. They’ve never been able to wrap their tiny little brains around the concept, somehow.” I shrugged. “Anyways, that’s beside the point. What I’m saying is that they’ve been getting steadily more upset for the past several months. Number three: at least one of them has at least as much of a vendetta against organized crime. He’s a police officer, in fact, and he takes it seriously.”


Kimiko cleared her throat. “Ex-police, actually. Adams quit a couple of weeks ago. No explanation given.” She noticed that everyone was staring, and shrugged. “You’re not the only one who can make reasonable connections. We’ve been looking into them for a couple days.”


“Thank you,” I said. “Actually, that’s even more damning. At this point, the number of temporal coincidences is a little more than just suspicious. Think about it. They’ve been getting more and more upset recently. Then, suddenly, one of them quits his job—and he kept it quiet, too, or I’d have heard it before now. A few weeks later, a mysterious demonic entity shows up and starts killing people. And everyone it hits just happens to be one of the people they really hate.”


“Our intelligence doesn’t indicate that this group has the power to summon something like that thing,” Ivanov said. He was starting to sound intrigued, now, rather than accusatory. “This is a major piece of work. They’re bit players.”


“There are plenty of ways to get around that,” I said. “I can think of a dozen entities that could have provided them with the power. There are rituals, blood magic, demonic possession….” I shook my head. “I’m sure everyone here can think of ways to deal with that problem. It’s not unreasonable to think that they might too.”


“You’d have to be a fool to take any of those options,” Ivanov said flatly.


“Exactly,” I said excitedly. “See, that’s just it. Everything about these attacks indicates that the person responsible is an idiot. The attacks are haphazard and poorly planned. They sent a monster with functionally limitless destructive power to kill us, and we got away with nothing more impressive than a fast car. If they had any kind of tactical skill, we’d all be dead by now. The timing’s been cramped, like they have a list of jobs and they’re rushing to get through it as fast as they can. They clearly have definite targets, but in every case there’s been extensive collateral damage. This has all the marks of a reckless, careless person with no subtlety or long-term strategy.”


“That much is true,” the Guard said after a moment. “And you think this…Inquisition fits the bill?”


“Oh hell yes,” Aiko interjected. “Speaking as an expert on reckless disregard for the future, I can tell you that they’re a bunch of certifiable morons.”


“I can confirm that,” Katrin added. “While a few of them are reasonably intelligent, the majority have no concern whatsoever for the consequences of their actions.” The vampire mused for a moment. “You make a reasonable case.”


“Thank you,” I said modestly. “Since we all seem to be in agreement that stopping this would be a good thing, perhaps you would be willing to set your people to finding them?”


“And killing them?” Katrin asked, not answering me.


“That would seem to be the appropriate response, yes. Although there are a few it might not be necessary to kill.” I shrugged. “I’m sure you can guess which of them are likely to be involved as well as I can.”


“Yes, yes,” she said impatiently. “What do you plan to do?”


“I need to get some rest,” I said bluntly. “I figure I’ll take over in the morning. That’s a more efficient division of labor anyway.”


“We aren’t going to be much help tracking them down,” Ivanov said. “We’ll focus our efforts on general investigation instead, in case your hunch is wrong.”


Yeah, and most of that investigation was going to be targeted at me. I couldn’t blame the Guards; this whole situation was fishy as hell, and from their perspective I was still suspect number one. “That sounds reasonable,” I said, rather than mention any of that. “If that’s all, would you mind heading out? I have something unrelated to discuss with Katrin, and I wouldn’t want to bore you with our personal business.”


“That’s very polite of you,” Ivanov said disingenuously. “We’ll be sure to contact you with any findings.” The Guard stood up and left. Neumann, who still hadn’t said a single word, waited a beat before following. His hostility wasn’t nearly as concealed as Ivanov’s. A few seconds later, Kimiko followed the Guards out, nodding politely to me on her way out.


“Do you really think those two trust you?” Katrin wondered after the door closed.


I snorted. “Get real. Nobody involved in this farce trusts anyone else an inch. No, I fully expect them to be listening in, one way or another. I just asked them to leave out of politeness.”


“Reminding us all once again why it is you’re still not dead,” Katrin said, smiling sharply. “Speaking of which, this is quite a nice safe house you have. Well-stocked, reasonably secure…you clearly put a great deal of forethought into this. The neighborhood was chosen carefully; I didn’t realize there was anything this close to suburbia in this city. The people here aren’t inclined to ask questions, shady characters stick out, and the response time in this area is short. And you kept it remarkably quiet, too; I honestly had no idea you had this set up.”


“I have others,” I growled in response to her implied threat. “And I’ll be ditching this one after this, trust me.”


The vampire laughed softly. “Wise choice. Who knows what might happen otherwise?”


“Natalie is planning some sort of coup,” I said bluntly. I didn’t have the patience to put up with Katrin right now. “She tried to buy me off to let that vampire off the other day.”


“I know,” Katrin said lightly.


I eyed her. “Of course you do.”


“I do appreciate your telling me, though,” she continued in the most cheerful voice I’d ever heard her use. “It speaks well for your trustworthiness.”


“Gosh thanks.”


“Why, if you don’t mind me asking, are you telling me this? If you didn’t want to be complicit in this little scheme, you could have simply turned her down.”


I shrugged. “I thought it might offend her if I refused her offer to her face.”


“And you think this won’t?” Katrin said dryly. “You have some very odd ideas about Natalie, I think.”


“You and I haven’t ever agreed on much,” I said after a moment. “We aren’t friends, and that isn’t likely to change. But you’ve never tried to use me as a pawn in your vampire games.”


“You’ve made your opinion clear of the matter. There’s no reason to offend you when there are other tasks you are willing to do.”


“Right, and that’s a very wise attitude to take. Natalie is not wise.” I paused to let that sink in. “She deliberately put me in a position where I have no choice but to involve myself in your internal politics, after I’d already made it clear that I had no desire to do so. I don’t appreciate that.”


“So this is a form of petty revenge?”


I shrugged. “In part. It’s also partly to discourage others from trying the same stunt. I have no interest in becoming involved in politics any more than I already am, and if people know that there might be consequence for going against that desire they might hesitate to do so.” I paused. “Honestly, though, it’s mostly just self-preservation. If Natalie did get your position, I’m pretty sure the first thing she’d do would be to stab me in the back. She isn’t the type to reward the people who got her the job.”


“And thus you demonstrate more understanding of her character than many who’ve known her much longer,” Katrin said dryly. “Are you sure you’re not interested in vampirism, Wolf? I could use someone with that acute understanding of human nature. And I expect to have a rather disappointing number of positions open in the near future.”


“Thanks, but hell no.”


“The offer’s open,” she said, smiling. It wasn’t the friendly kind of smile. “I recommend you not worry too much about Natalie, Wolf. I have been aware of my dear quisling for some time now, and I assure you she will be rewarded appropriately for her treachery.”


“I look forward to hearing about it.”


“Good,” Katrin said. Her smile had taken on an even crueler, more predatory cast now. “I have a great deal of work to do, so if you will excuse me…?”


“Of course. Good luck with that.”


“And good hunting to you as well, Wolf,” the vampire said as she left. The door opened and closed by itself, a piece of low-level theatrics which was nevertheless surprisingly effective at unnerving me.

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Event Horizon 8.8

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“It’s a Wal-Mart,” Kyra said. She was driving, because allowing either Aiko or me behind the wheel right now would be enough to net you a Darwin Award.


“Yeah, that’s right.” I couldn’t see—Aiko and I were in the cargo area of the SUV, because that was the most comfortable way to make everyone fit—but I’d given Kyra very precise directions.


“What are we doing at a Wal-Mart?” she wondered, parking the car.


“Watch and learn,” I said smugly. I love it when I get to keep people in the dark about inconsequential plans. “Oh, and pull around back. I don’t feel like walking.”


Five minutes later, I was standing in front of the employee entrance while the others made sure no one was looking.


“I don’t get it,” Alexis said. “Why are we breaking into a Wal-Mart?”


“You’re remarkably squeamish about breaking rules,” I said, closing the door behind us. It had been locked, but that never really slowed me down much. “Besides, nobody pays attention to those ‘Authorized Personnel Only’ signs anyway.”


“I don’t mind breaking rules, I’d just rather there were a reason for it,” she said tartly.


I chuckled. “Yeah, well, there is one,” I said, leading the way down the maintenance hallway. It was pretty much the same as maintenance hallways everywhere—grey, soulless, and just wide enough to allow a pallet through. We walked down it a short ways and then stopped in front of a janitorial closet. I fiddled the lock open (using magic; I didn’t feel like trying to work picks with my maimed hand at the moment) and then pulled it open with a flourish.


Most janitorial closets, regardless of where you happen to be, have similar contents. Bottles of various cleaners, for example, are a constant. Brooms, mops, buckets, trash cans, all of these are things you would expect to see there.


You would most likely not expect to see a sizable safe.


Everyone (with the exception of Aiko and Snowflake, who’d already known about this) stared at the safe with expressions ranging from dumbfounded to mildly disgusted. “Why do you have a stash here?” Kyra asked, sounding vaguely offended.


“Would you have thought to look for it here?” I asked.


She thought about it for a second. “Good point. How’d you get it in here?”


“Bribed the head of maintenance. Wal-Mart really doesn’t pay their employees enough.”


Anna looked almost unnervingly interested. “Don’t you worry that he’ll steal from you?”


“Not really. It’s pretty much impossible to break into this thing.”


The werewolf looked confused. “He’s got plenty of time to look at it. I don’t know much about safecracking, but I’m pretty sure if you give someone long enough they can figure out the combination.”


“Ha!” I said triumphantly to Aiko. “You see? I told you it would work!”


The kitsune rolled her eyes. “Yes, you’re very clever.”


“I don’t get it,” Anna said, clearly not sure what I was talking about.


“You remember I used to do some work as a locksmith, right?” I said, walking into the closet. Anna nodded. “Well, I made some modifications to this safe. There is no combination. The dial’s just for show; it doesn’t even connect to the locking mechanism.”


“So how do you open it?”


I grinned. “Magic.” The lock was controlled by a simple lever from the inside, easy for even the modest force I could generate with air magic to move. I made a slight effort, and the door clicked open.


Inside was a veritable plethora of odds and ends. I had two full changes of clothes, suitable for every weather from December to July, including shoes. Also present were a sizable medical kit, a pistol with ammunition, a couple of knives, a few stored spells, a coil of rope, a gallon of water, and enough rations to last one person a few days. The small bag hanging from the wall of the safe contained a couple thousand dollars in four currencies, several pieces of jewelry worth at least as much, and various hygiene essentials.


“Nice stash,” Kyra said, staring at it. I think it was a little more than she was expecting.


“Thanks,” I said. “I have quite a few of them set up.”


“Wow,” Anna said. “That seems a little paranoid.”


Kyra broke out laughing. “No shit.” She paused. “You haven’t actually worked with Winter before, have you?”


“No. Is this normal?”


“This is actually pretty tame by Winter’s standards,” Aiko chipped in. “This one time we were doing wetwork for the Watchers. He had three different people tailing the guy working with us, at the same time. That’s a pretty funny story, actually.”


I tuned them out and got dressed. It was a little awkward, and I still felt rather vulnerable without my armor, but at least I wouldn’t be arrested for public indecency. Then I heaved the medical kit out and dropped it on the floor with a thunk. It was about as big as a midsize toolbox, and weighed more than ten pounds. “Would one of you mind giving me a hand with some bandages?” I asked, interrupting Aiko’s story.


There was a moment of silence. Then Alexis rolled her eyes and walked over. “Why am I the one doing this?” she wondered out loud.


“You’re probably the only one with any kind of medical training,” I said, opening the kit. “Most werewolves don’t bother, and Aiko’s…well, Aiko.”


“Good point.”


My cousin didn’t really have all that much first aid training, and most of that was of the “battlefield medicine” variety. The result was not very pretty, consisting of a bunch of gauze wrapped around my arm and then fastened with duct tape. I was mostly just looking for something to make sure I didn’t start bleeding all over the place, though, and aesthetically it was still a better pick than exposed bone. That’s really only a valid fashion choice on Halloween.


I threw my cloak over the top of it, covering the bandages. My bandaged hand was still visible, but there wasn’t much I could do about that, and it wasn’t nearly as distinctive as having bandages from the elbow down. Then I grabbed the money and a couple of the stored spells, put everything else back into the safe, and closed it again. As this little escapade had proven, it was worth having.


“Where next?” Kyra asked as we made our way back out through the maintenance hallway, locking it behind us. Nobody’d seen us, fortunately; I hadn’t thought far enough ahead to have an excuse ready.


“I need to crash for a while,” Aiko said. “Sorry and everything, but I’m not going to be standing much longer.”


“The safe house is probably the best place,” I said. “Actually, you should probably all go. I’ll meet you there after I check up on a few things.”


As predicted, this proclamation was followed by righteous indignation from pretty much everyone. “Look,” I sighed after listening to it for a few moments. “I’m not getting in any fights. None of us is in condition for that right now. This is purely an information-gathering run. You go ahead to the safe house, and I’ll be there within a few hours.”


“And if you’re not?” Kyra said dryly.


I snorted. “It probably means I’m dead, in which case you should take everyone you’re fond of and hide out on another continent.”


“At least take the dog with you,” Aiko said. She looked even worse than when she’d woken up, and I didn’t think she had more than ten minutes left in her before she was going to collapse.


“Not even I,” I said dryly, “seriously thought I could convince her to stay away.”


Stop one was the housecarls. I’d had all of the people I was badgering reporting in to them; hopefully, by now someone had come up with something. At this point, even an obscure clue would be a godsend.


I could have just called Sveinn. It would have been a lot more efficient than actually driving down there.


That would have meant standing still, though. I had no idea what kind of resources the person behind all this crap had access to, but I didn’t think it was a coincidence that they’d waited until we were home to sic their monster on us. They clearly weren’t omniscient, and the entity itself hadn’t moved terribly quickly. As long as we were a moving target, I thought we had a pretty decent chance of staying ahead of it.


For much the same reason, I took a roundabout way down to the southern end of the city, moving as quickly as the armored truck could manage. Snowflake and I were both hyper-alert, staring frantically in every direction at once, but we didn’t see anything out of the ordinary. Traffic was fairly heavy, as would be expected from the time of day, even on side roads. It was almost sunset, meaning that we had caught the very end of the after-work rush.


I didn’t notice anyone tailing me, but that wasn’t saying all that much. A modified Brinks truck is many things, but subtle isn’t one of them. Any number of people could have been following me from enough of a distance that I wouldn’t have noticed them.


When I pulled up, there were already vehicles parked outside of the house—other than our Lamborghini, I mean. That wasn’t normal.


One of them was almost a perfect match for the SUV that Aiko and the rest had taken to the safe house. Black, with tinted windows, it was quite anonymous. I was pretty sure it was armored, but there was no real way to tell.


The other vehicle was about as far from anonymous as they come. A sleek motorcycle of Japanese design, it looked like it could break speed limits with impunity, because the cops wouldn’t be able to catch it. It was painted a vivid raspberry, with polished chrome fittings. I wasn’t competent to guess how much a bike like that would cost, but I had an uncomfortable feeling that, until recently, it would have been more than I was worth.


I had no idea who had driven either of those vehicles down here, or what they wanted.


I considered just driving away, but eventually decided it wasn’t worth it. Whatever shit was brewing here, I probably couldn’t avoid it forever. Better that I get some idea what was going on.


That decision made, we got out of the truck. I drew up what little dignity I currently had and marched to the door, Snowflake padding along at my side.


The tableau on the other sides was…well, not what I was expecting. To say the least.


To the right, my housecarls were arrayed in what wasn’t quite a battle formation. Sveinn was in front, as I would have expected, flanked by Haki on one side and Kjaran on the other. Behind their sheer bulk, it was easy to miss Vigdis and Kyi standing behind them. Even Tindr was there, which was unusual; he’s about as much use in a fight as a housecat, and doesn’t tend to get involved in tense situations.


To my left was quite possibly the last person I would have expected to see. Short and slight, with features that showed a very clear Asian ancestry, she looked about as threatening as a rabbit next to the housecarls. That appearance was deceptive; I’d seen her fight, and while she wasn’t a match for me she was still pretty damn good. Matsuda Kimiko was about my age, making her barely more than a child by kitsune standards, but she had a massive inferiority complex and her way of making up for it involved a great deal of violence.


And, last but most definitely not least, were two men standing directly in front of me. They looked vaguely like the stereotypical image of an FBI agent. Both of them were wearing sober suits and sunglasses, which was just ridiculous at this time of day. One of them had brown hair while the other was blonde, both cut short enough to be hard to grab in a fight, but other than that they could have been twins.


That wasn’t a big deal. The Men in Black look, although not very pleasant aesthetically, was pretty standard for minions, and I wouldn’t have been concerned to see it here, either. No, what concerned me was that both of them reeked of human magic.


I paused for a second when I saw all these people, none of whom I’d been expecting. Then I shrugged and shut the door. “Good evening,” I said to no one in particular.


The mages turned to face me, their motions almost perfectly synchronized. “Good evening,” Blondie said. “Are you Jarl Wolf?” His voice was brisk, clipped, and impersonal, with no accent that I could detect.


I grinned, causing both men to flinch slightly. I don’t really have a friendly smile, and I expect that one was more psychotic than most. “Yes,” I said. “And you might be?”


“My name is Hunter Ivanov,” he said with a badly faked smile. “This is my partner, Klaus Neumann. We’re here on behalf of the Guards, hoping that you might be able to answer a few questions for us.”


Oh shit. “I presume you have some identification?” I stalled.


“Of course,” he said smoothly. Both of them, with that same creepy synchronization, produced a small badge. Made of some reddish metal, they were shaped like starbursts, with a pair of crossed spears inset in gold. Both badges smelled of magic, sharp and biting.


This was so not good. “I see,” I said. “I will be happy to assist you, gentlemen. If you could give me a few minutes to conduct other business?”


“Certainly,” Ivanov said. I was getting the distinct impression that Neumann preferred to say as little as he could get away with.


“Thank you,” I said, stepping past them. “What can I do for you?” I said to Kimiko.


“Birdbrain says hello,” she said. “And he’s still looking.”


I stared. “Kikuchi sent you as his representative?”




I shook my head. Aiko was going to be pissed. And probably also laugh her head off. “Could you convey a message to him for me?” I asked.


She shrugged. “Sure.”


“Thanks,” I said, pulling a sheet of paper and a pen out of my cloak. Bracing the paper against the wall, I wrote a short note and handed it to her. Kimiko nodded and left, slipping between the two Guards as though they were utterly beneath her notice.


I had to admire the kitsune’s poker face. Watching her, you would hardly have realized she could read the note over my shoulder as I wrote it, much less guess what it said. “Wonderful,” I said, turning to Sveinn. “Do you have something to report?”


,” he said, producing a manila folder from…somewhere.


I took it and flipped it open, somewhat awkwardly. I’m used to having two functioning hands, and it’s surprisingly difficult to do pretty much anything with just one. I skimmed the first couple of pages, nodded, and tucked it into my cloak.


“Thank you for your patience,” I said, returning my attention to the two Guards. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”


“We understand that there have been some prohibited activities taking place in this area,” Ivanov said carefully.


“Prohibited activities,” I repeated, biting back a hysterical giggle. Yeah, that was one way to phrase it. “What, specifically, if I might ask?”


“We believe that a dangerous entity has been summoned, possibly repeatedly.”


“Pardon me,” I said, still smiling. “But isn’t the investigation of affairs such as this the responsibility of the Watchers?”


“Typically, it would be,” Ivanov countered, smiling right back at me. “However, interaction with other political bodies falls to us. As this activity has been taking place on territory you claim, that makes it our affair.”


I frowned. “I see.” I had a lot more credit built up with the Watchers; this was the first time I’d ever knowingly encountered a Guard. “Well, then. You’re certainly free to investigate this matter, although I would appreciate it if you would keep me appraised of your findings.”


Both of the Guards were smiling now. They reminded me a little of the expressions you see when you get rival werewolves in the same room—all teeth, no humor. “Why, certainly, jarl,” Ivanov said with obviously false cheer. “In that case, we would be remiss not to inform you that we’ve noticed a peculiar trend among these incidents.”


I was starting to get a really bad feeling about this. “And what might that be?”


“An oddly large number of them seem to involve your political rivals,” Ivanov continued cheerily. “At first we thought it was impossible that such a fine citizen as yourself could be involved in something like this, but the numbers became so telling that we simply had to look. And, well, just imagine how we felt when we discovered that you actually have a known history of associating with demons, and fraternizing with known transgressors of the law!” He shook his head sadly. “Truly, Klaus, it’s just painful to discover such unsavory history in a prominent citizen, isn’t it?” Klaus nodded solemnly.


“Well,” I stalled, hoping that I could come up with a solution. “I can see why you would want to talk to me, then.”


Ivanov’s smile was becoming more openly predatory now. “Do you, jarl? Perhaps you could tell us, then, why as soon as we decided to do so, you seem to have vanished? Indeed, for the past several days nobody seems to have seen you anywhere?” He leaned closer and lowered his voice, as though he were letting me in on a secret. “It’s almost,” he said softly, “like you’ve just been so busy you couldn’t even take the time to attend to your normal business.”


This was ridiculous. Here in about five minutes I was going to have two combat-trained mages trying to remove my liver, and there was no conceivable way I could win. I might be able to beat them—there were half a dozen violent jötnar in close range and itching to spill some blood on my behalf—but I couldn’t do so without using lethal force, and that was a death sentence in the long run. If I killed two Guards who were already clearly suspicious of me, it wouldn’t be long before the entire Conclave was after me. At that point, the only real question was how creative they would get before I died.


And then I noticed something wonderful. It’s strange how much things can change in a short time. Just a few seconds earlier, if I’d seen the walls start to warp and felt a fierce, itching pain in my mutilated hand, I would have thought it was horribly bad news. Now, it felt like the best timed coincidence I’d had in years.


“Look,” I said to the Guards. “We don’t have much time, so shut up and pay attention. I’m not responsible for this mess. I’ve been trying to find the person who is, without much luck. They know it, and they aren’t happy about it. Their last shot at me took me out of action for a few days, which is why I haven’t been around. Here in about a minute they’re going to try again. All of us together can’t even slow this thing down, believe me, and it won’t care who you are.” As I spoke, I made several complicated gestures with my functioning hand.


Sveinn gestured acknowledgment, a simple movement of a couple fingers. A moment later, Kyi slipped away from the group. I doubt the Guards noticed; Kyi is silent when she wants to be, and she has a real talent for fading into the background.


“You realize how pathetic that attempt was, right?” Ivanov said contemptuously.


“Frankly, I don’t give a damn. At the moment, all I care about is not letting that thing peel any more of my skin off. I recommend you guys start running now.” Snowflake and I turned and made for the door, not slowly.


I’d made it less than three steps when there was a loud, hollow thump from the center of the room. My left arm burst into fierce, tingling pain, and the room suddenly felt like a meat freezer.


Time to go.


I went from a hurried walk to a staggering sprint, Snowflake just in front of me. I didn’t bother shutting the door behind us, and I heard shouting and heavy footfalls from behind us, before they were cut off by a loud crashing sound. Theoretically the housecarls would be scattering into the night by now. They’d been forewarned, and they were all fast enough that the monster probably wouldn’t be able to catch any of them.


I couldn’t really afford to worry about any of that right now. I was pretty sure it was after me.


I’d been planning on leaving in the same truck I drove in with; the ridiculously excessive protection would have felt pretty damn good right about now. Unfortunately, its many good qualities don’t exactly include speed, and the acceleration is piss-poor.


That’s why I’d told Kyi to start the Lamborghini instead.


Snowflake and I scrambled over each other to get in, frantic with terror. The end result found me sitting in the driver’s seat with a husky sprawled across my lap, half-curled trying to fit herself into the car without taking the time to crawl any further in. Undignified, to say the least, but at the moment I absolutely did not give a shit. I slammed the door and stomped on the accelerator—which, given that this was a Lamborghini, was anything but poor. Less than five seconds after the monster appeared, we were burning rubber out the driveway.


Maybe two seconds after that, there was a thump and the weight of the car shifted to the rear somewhat. I glanced back, expecting the worst, only to see Klaus Neumann clinging to the rear bumper. Astonishingly, he was doing so with only one hand; his other arm was busy clutching Hunter Ivanov, who was staring back the way we’d come.


Wow, Snowflake said. We’re already doing forty. How the hell’d they catch us? She paused. For that matter, how the hell is he holding on?


Beats me, I said, most of my attention focused on driving. I’m not a bad driver, but I’m also not usually navigating twisty roads one-handed at maximum speed, so I figured I should probably take it seriously. Open the passenger door for them.


Are you kidding? These guys were like two seconds from trying to kill you back there. I say dump ’em; the thing’ll be doing us a favor to kill ’em.


Snowflake, I sighed. Come on. Please?


Fine, she sniffed. But only ’cause you said please. She started crawling across the seats, muttering vile imprecations in German as she went. German is a good language for imprecating; it has a lot of options.


Apparently Neumann had had the same idea I had, because as I watched he started pulling himself along the side of the vehicle. Considering that we were doing over fifty miles an hour by this point, there wasn’t much in the way of handholds on the side of the car, and he still had a fairly large man clinging to his back, this was pretty damn impressive.


He reached the passenger door about the same time Snowflake managed to get it open—car door handles aren’t really all that compatible with teeth. She barely managed to squirm out of the way as the two Guards tumbled in. Ivanov reached out and caught the door a moment later, pulling it shut. That cut the drag down pretty noticeably, which was good since I was almost to a main road where I would have to worry about traffic.


“Christ,” Ivanov muttered, shifting around to try and fit with Neumann in the passenger seat. Neither of them was all that large, but it really wasn’t meant to seat two. He crossed himself, glancing nervously over his shoulder. “What was that thing?”


Snowflake, who had just about wormed her way back onto my lap by this point, snorted. He isn’t the quickest on the uptake, is he?


“Exactly what I told you it was,” I said, ignoring her. Surprisingly, neither of the Guards reacted to her statement. Not that most people would—the vast majority of people can’t hear Snowflake even if she tries to be heard—but I’d sort of come to expect clan mages to have weird abilities that I didn’t understand.


Then again, one of them had just run fast enough to catch a sports car and shown off strength that was easily on par with a werewolf, despite being pure vanilla human. So maybe Guards just didn’t cross-train in the espionage department.


“Why is it after you?”


I started to answer, then almost lost control going around a corner. I got the car back under control more by luck than skill and snorted. “It sure isn’t trying to deliver the mail,” I said.


“Maybe a letter bomb,” Ivanov agreed. “Are you sure it’s safe to drive at this speed?”


“Do you really want me to slow down?” Before he could respond, I eased off the gas a little. “Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m pretty sure we’re far enough already, as long as we don’t stop.”


“Good,” the Guard said fervently. “I’ve seen a lot of shit in this work, but that thing’s a new record.”


“Agreed.” We’d made it out of the maze of back roads surrounding the house, fortunately. Rush hour was almost over, and we could probably make good time on the way back north. At this point I figured the first priority was to get back to the others.


We were all quiet for a few moments. I was focused on not crashing into something at high speed—I mean, seriously, talk about an embarrassing way to die. Presumably everyone else was coming to grips with their recent brush with mortality. Excepting Neumann, who would probably have the same attitude of grim silence at a child’s birthday party.


“You realize,” Ivanov said after a few minutes, “that you’re still the prime suspect for summoning that thing.”


“Tell you what. You wait until we’re somewhere relatively safe, and I will be glad to discuss it with you.”


Ivanov opened his mouth to retort, probably with some heat. Then he paused and sighed. “Fair enough. You have somewhere in mind?”


I grinned. “Yeah, as it happens I do.”

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Interlude 5.z: Ryan Peterson

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“Mister. Hey, mister. Are you awake?”


I hadn’t been, but someone screaming in my ear was enough to start me in that direction. Once I did, I rapidly became aware of a pounding headache and intense nausea. I moaned, rolled over, and promptly rolled back over onto my stomach when the light hit my eyes. Closed or not, that fucking hurt.


Something prodded my shoulder. “You have to get up, mister. My dad’s plowing this field today, and you don’t want him to find you here. Come on, get up.”


I managed to sit up, mostly just to stop the screaming, and opened my eyes. I then vomited profusely, and judging by the smell I didn’t even want to know what was in that vomit. Fortunately I managed not to puke on myself. It had been a lot of years since college, but apparently I hadn’t forgotten everything.


I hadn’t been hungover since I was changed. It would almost have been fun for nostalgia value, if it hadn’t been so fucking awful.


After several minutes of that, I got my head together enough to look around. I was lying in the middle of a field, which presumably was corn or wheat or something. I’d never been on a farm before, so I had no real idea what the plants were supposed to look like.


The only person in sight, and apparently the one who’d woken me up, was a girl standing maybe ten feet away. She was maybe twenty, and looked about as appropriate for a rural setting as I did. Maybe I was outdated, but I didn’t think of farm girls as having gauged ears, nose rings, or heavy makeup. She was pretty enough, in an unconventional sense. You got the impression she was aiming for hot instead of beautiful, and it worked for her.


I looked at her blearily. Then I realized I was stark naked, and flushed.


She laughed, clearly recognizing what was going through my head. “Don’t worry,” she said. “In my experience, seen one dick, seen ’em all. The collar’s a fun addition, though. Where’d you get it?”


It took me a second to process what she’d said. When I did, I reached for my neck, and suddenly realized that I was holding a bottle, my fingers cramped so tightly around it that I was surprised it hadn’t broken. It was empty, and from the smell, I could attribute a lot of how shitty I felt to that fact. Compared to that, absinthe smelled nice.


I forced myself to let go of the bottle and made another attempt to feel around my neck. This time, I managed to find the collar she’d mentioned. It was heavy, studded with large spikes, and buckled tightly around my neck.


Very tightly. I had to use both hands to get it off, dropping a piece of metal without paying much attention, and I still had to work at it for several seconds. When I did I pulled it off and looked at it for several seconds, a little dismayed. It was black leather, with bronze spikes, and it reeked of blood and liquor.


“Yeah, I didn’t realize anyone sold that kind of thing around here,” the girl said cheerfully, drawing my attention back to my surroundings. “And spurs? That’s intense, man.”


I barely glanced at the piece of metal I’d dropped, and confirmed that it was indeed a set of spurs. More bronze, it looked like. Just fucking great.


“You said someone was coming?” I said, trying to stand. It didn’t go so well.


“Yeah, my dad, but he’ll be maybe half an hour. Take your time.” She regarded me with an impish grin. “I’ll be honest, I would not have guessed there was a spring break party that intense going on in Bumfuck, Kansas.”


I must have looked something like I felt, because she paused. “Did I say something wrong?”


“Kansas?” I said slowly. “I don’t remember being in Kansas.”


“Seriously?” she said. “Wow, that’s…that’s really impressive. I mean, I’ve heard about shit like this, but I’ve never actually seen it. So what’s the last thing you do remember?”


“I was in Colorado,” I said slowly. “That was on…Friday? Yeah, Friday.”


“It’s Tuesday now,” she informed me. “Do you, like, really not remember anything? Or is it just patchy?”




“Cool,” she said. “Tell you what, let me go get you some clothes. My dad’s overalls should fit you. Then we can go grab some coffee and get you sorted out.”


“You don’t have to do this,” I protested halfheartedly.


She looked at me like I was an idiot. “Dude. You’re hot, and you party hard enough that you wake up in a different state wearing nothing but a collar. Trust me, I’m not just doing this for you.”


While I was waiting for her to go and grab clothes, I took stock of myself. I was hungover, obviously, and I still felt a little drunk, which was a little weird. It’d been years since I felt drunk.


Other than that, there were bite marks on my shoulders and neck, and my left thigh. They were mostly healed already, but I was pretty sure there were at least three or four mouths represented there, and at least one of them had been something other than human. I stank of alcohol and sweat, and more subtly of lemons and burnt toast. Somebody had written Call me on my left hand in something that looked like marker and smelled like flowers, above a phone number I didn’t recognize.


All things considered, it was a pretty fucked up image. It kind of weirded me out thinking about what might have led to this situation, and I was the one that did it.


After that, I sat down and rested until the girl came back. I was out of it enough that my brain didn’t want to work right, but I didn’t actually pass out again.


I didn’t quite pass out again, anyway.


“Here,” she said, rousing me. She tossed a pair of heavy denim overalls at me.


I fumbled the catch, managed to grab them, and then dropped them again. She laughed at me while I struggled into the overalls, making no pretense of looking away to preserve my modesty.


It was just as well that I was a werewolf, really. Once I’d have blushed having a stranger watching me get dressed, but you outgrow that pretty quickly. It only took me couple months to realize that skin’s just skin, nothing special.


The overalls were comically oversized on me, but I managed to make them work. It helped that a few years of running as a wolf had put enough calluses on my feet that I didn’t care too much that I didn’t have any shoes.


“My name’s Maggie, by the way,” she said as we started walking.


“Ryan Peterson,” I said automatically. “Where are we going?”


“There’s a town about a mile away,” Maggie said. “It isn’t much, but it’s what you get around here. I figure we’ll get some food and coffee in you, help you sober up a little.”


“Do you have enough time for that?”


“Sure. I told my dad I’m visiting friends today. I haven’t been back for a few months, so he won’t be suspicious.”


“You don’t live here, then?” I asked.


She snorted. “Hell, no. I’m going to college in California. One more year, then I start vet school, and I can say goodbye to Kansas for good.”


I paused as a thought finally penetrated the pounding in my head. “That’s convenient,” I said, trying hard not to make it sound like an accusation. “For you to be in town to find me just before your father was going to stumble across me out in your field.”


“I found you last night,” she said dryly. “I was walking home from a party and saw you passed out there. I just figured you could sleep until morning.”


I considered her for a moment, then shrugged. Maybe she was lying, maybe she wasn’t. Some people—Kyra came to mind, as did her friend who might as well have been in the pack, we spent so much time working together—would have gotten worked up about that, trying to figure out which it was. Me, I didn’t care. I was pretty used to being kept in the dark and fed on bullshit.


It isn’t so bad being a pawn in the game of life. Not so bad at all.


About an hour later, I was finishing up my food. I didn’t have my wallet, obviously, but Maggie had been generous enough to buy me breakfast, coffee, and a cheap pair of sandals.


The caffeine didn’t affect me, no more than any other drug affected a werewolf, but it felt good drinking coffee. Routine. Between that and the food, I was feeling quite a bit better. The headache was mostly gone, and I was thinking a lot more clearly.


“Thanks,” I said. “For the food.”


“No big deal,” she said dismissively. “What are you going to do now?”


“I don’t know. I guess I need to figure out what happened. Hopefully I didn’t do anything too stupid over the weekend.”


“Scared you screwed your best friend’s wife?” Maggie said, grinning. “Sent a dick pic to your boss? Invested all your money in a basket weaving startup?”


“I’m mostly hoping I didn’t kill anybody,” I said without thinking.


“Has that happened to you often?” she asked, still grinning. “Getting drunk and killing people?”


I paused and looked around. The cafe we were in was empty except for the staff, and the staff wasn’t much different from empty. There was nobody close enough to overhear our conversation. “You aren’t going to, like, turn me in to the cops or something, are you?”


For the first time, her cheerful attitude faltered. “I guess not. I mean…no, I guess not.”


I nodded. I wasn’t sure why I’d asked, really. If you have to ask that question, it doesn’t matter what the answer is.


I wasn’t really sure why I was telling her this, anyway. It wasn’t smart. Maybe it was that I was still stupid from the alcohol, or maybe I just needed to talk about it. It wasn’t like I could tell this story for sympathy in the pack. Every one of them could top it.


Sometimes it’s easier to talk things out with a stranger. You don’t have any investment in the relationship to get in the way. If I scared her too much, I could just walk away. Worst case, I could just shift to fur and be back in Colorado in a few days.


“It only happened once,” I said. “I was in Afghanistan, and I’d just found out that my girlfriend was cheating on me back home. I was drinking with some friends, people from my unit, and we went out to the village near base. I don’t even remember why, some stupid reason. One of the villagers said something, and I was feeling sensitive. I started hitting him, and another guy did too, and then things just…happened.”


I looked away from her, focusing on the last of my food. It had been years, but there was still a lot of shame there.


It’s one thing to kill people. I’d killed people before that, in the Marines, and I’d killed people as a werewolf. But what we’d done that day was different. That was wrong, on so many levels.


Maggie clearly felt similarly. “Jesus,” she said. “Did you, like, go to jail for this?”


“They never reported it,” I said sourly. “No investigation. They discharged me from the Marines and swept it under the rug.” I ate some more food. “Thought about turning myself in, but what good would that do? Won’t bring that guy back to life.” I shrugged. “Anyway, that’s the last time I drank. Haven’t touched the stuff for years.”


“Jesus,” she said again. “What made you pick it up again?”


I shrugged again. “I don’t know. I don’t remember starting to drink.” I held out my hand, showing her what was written on it. “Guess I ought to call this number. See if maybe they know what happened.”


“Wow,” she said. “This is…pretty crazy. It’s like I’m an extra in a spy movie or something.”


“Thanks for the help,” I said. “Um…do you have a phone?”


“I’m in college,” she said dryly. “Of course I have a phone.”


I called Kyra first, checking in and telling her that I was alive. I didn’t go into too much detail, not with Maggie right there, but I managed to make it sound like I was just calling my boss. She gave me the go-ahead to check up on what had happened while I’d been out of it and offered pack resources if I needed them, which was a relief. I could have just gone on with life and ignored what had happened, but I really didn’t want to. I’d rather know what new skeletons were in my closet.


That dealt with, I called the number on my hand. The person who picked up didn’t seem to have the clearest grasp on English—he didn’t have an accent that I could tell, but he stumbled over his words and I had to say everything two or three times to get my meaning across. Eventually, I managed to get an address, although I had no idea why it mattered.


“Well,” I said, handing her phone back. “That was less than helpful.”


“What is it?”


“An address in California,” I said sourly. “Somewhere in San Francisco.”


“What happened there?” Maggie asked, sounding interested. “I’m guessing from your face it wasn’t a hot chick wanting a repeat performance.”


“Some guy who hardly even spoke English,” I said. “Definitely didn’t seem to remember writing that number on me.”


“You think she gave you a false number?”


I looked at the writing on my hand, watching how it moved as I flexed and relaxed the muscles.


Markers didn’t smell like flowers. Alcohol shouldn’t have had an effect on me, and certainly shouldn’t have been able to lay me out like that. Hell, the last thing I remembered was disobeying my Alpha’s orders and all common sense to chase something in a crowd, and that sure as fuck shouldn’t have happened.


“No,” I said to Maggie. “I have a hunch it isn’t that easy.” I shrugged. “I guess it’s time for a trip to California.”


She hesitated, looking oddly conflicted, then said, “Could you take me with you?”


I eyed her. “Does that really seem like a good idea?”


“Not really,” she said, shrugging. “But I really need to get the fuck out of Kansas. And you’re exciting, you know? You’re something different.”


“You aren’t upset by the, you know. Killing somebody thing?”


“Not really,” she said, looking over my shoulder. “I mean, you were in the military. That was kind of your job, right?”


I stared at her in confusion, then looked back. One of the waitresses was standing right behind me, openly listening in on our conversation. She flushed when I looked at her, and hurried away.


“That was stupid,” I said.


“No shit. See, you need me to make sure you don’t do that kind of thing.”


I sighed. It was stupid and irresponsible of her, but I couldn’t exactly point fingers on that regard. Besides, I could kind of understand where she was coming from. When you’re young and dumb, anything new sounds like the best idea ever. The hint of danger would just make it more exciting.


“Fine,” I said reluctantly. “Go clear it with your family. I need to make some arrangements. I’ll meet you back here in about an hour.”


She grinned and left. I followed at a slower pace, and with much less enthusiasm.


Even in Bumfuck, Kansas, the pack had enough credit to get a foul-smelling man in too-large overalls and the cheapest sandals money could buy in the door. I rented a car and arranged for it to be driven out from Topeka. Then I got enough money from the bank to buy new clothes and a shower at the local pool.


I kept the collar, though. I had no intention of wearing the thing, but I’ve learned that the strangest things can be important sometimes.


Maggie took a few minutes to find me, and looked rather surprised when she did. “Wow,” she said, walking up to the car. “How’d you pull this off?”


“My boss has lots of money and a liberal view of business expenses,” I said, shrugging. The rental sedan was small, it smelled like cheese, and a bad serpentine belt meant that it sounded like a cat being tortured, but beggars can’t be choosers. It would get me where I was going, and that was what counted.


Besides, it wasn’t my money.


“Cool,” she said, sitting in the passenger seat. She tossed a bulging backpack, apparently her only luggage, into the back seat. “Maybe I should work for your boss. Doesn’t sound too bad.”


I managed to restrain a laugh. “It wouldn’t work out,” I said. “Trust me.”


Relatively little was said as we drove out Interstate 70, stopping a few times for rest and food. It was monotonous driving, not the sort of thing you’d do for pleasure, but traffic wasn’t terrible.


“That’s the third hamburger you’ve eaten today,” Maggie said during one of those stops, watching me with an odd expression.


I shrugged and crammed the last of it into my mouth. “I eat a lot,” I said. “You sure you don’t want something?”


“Lunch was fine. How long are you planning to drive?”


I chewed for a few seconds and then swallowed. “I’m thinking we’ll stop in Denver. I’m still feeling kind of crappy, so I’d rather not drive all night. Unless you wanted to trade off?”


“I don’t drive,” she said. “But stopping for the night works for me. I don’t have to be back in school until next week, so there’s no real rush.”


“What’d you tell your parents, anyway?” I asked, getting back into the car. Maggie sighed and followed suit.


“Nothing much,” she said. “I just told them something had come up with a friend and I needed to be back in Cali. Then I ran out the door before they could ask too many questions.”


“Won’t that get you in trouble?”


Maggie shrugged. “Maybe. I don’t really care that much. Like I said, I’ve got one more year of school and then I’m done with this whole thing. Whatever.”


I nodded, a little envious. She made it sound so easy, to walk away. So free. I’d never had that kind of freedom. Not as a kid, not with my family. Then I was in the military, and nobody’s got much freedom there. Now, well, there were a lot of perks to being a werewolf, but personal liberty isn’t really one of them.


Maybe twenty minutes later, Maggie stirred out of what I would have bet was a solid sleep. “Hey,” she said. “You mind if I put some music on?”


“Nah,” I said. Something to fill the silence would be welcome.


That was what I thought, anyway, until I heard what her idea of “music” was. I wouldn’t have used that word, myself. The whine of the belt fit in pretty well, and that was saying something.


“Oh,” I said. “This kind of music.”


She was grinning. “Not your thing?”


“No. I’m more of a classic rock person. AC/DC or Metallica, maybe.” I realized she was giving me a funny look, and frowned. “What?”


“Nothing,” she said, just a little too quickly. “You just seem a little young to listen to that.”


“I’m older than I look,” I said, smiling a little. Not so much older—only ten years or so, which was nothing to a werewolf—but enough. Enough to be a meaningful difference to someone like Maggie.


“Do you ever have the feeling that you’re alone with a crazy person?” she asked after a moment.


“Frequently. But I spend a lot of time with crazy people.”


“See, that isn’t exactly reassuring.”


“Sorry,” I said dryly. “But reassuring isn’t exactly my specialty.”


She laughed, and if there was an edge of unease to it, we both ignored that.


We stayed the night in a cheap motel in Denver. Maggie claimed to be willing to sleep on the floor, but I bought two rooms anyway, and she seemed grateful. After a decent breakfast at a local place that the clerk recommended, it was back on the road.


“You’re good at this,” she commented. “Driving, I mean.”


I grunted. It was a little before rush hour really started, but the traffic was still intense. “I spent a few years driving a bus,” I said when I had a little room to breathe. “Next to that, this is nothing.”




“Yep,” I confirmed. “A Greyhound. Long-distance overnight trips.” I shuddered. “Believe me, I have worse stories from that job than from Afghanistan. You don’t even want to know what people got up to on those buses.”


“I can imagine.”


“No,” I said dryly. “You really can’t.” After a few minutes, I said, “We’ll make it to Nevada today, I think. We could press on to California, but I’m not in that much of a hurry.”


“Cool with me. I haven’t spent this much time in a car in a while.”


“You flew out from school, then?”


“Yeah. I didn’t make it out this winter, so my parents really wanted to see me.” Maggie shrugged. “I thought I could handle it for a week. Turns out I was wrong.”


“Are they really that bad?” I asked.


“Eh. They could be worse. They’re just…very, very Kansas. Listening to my dad, you’d think it was still the fifties.”


I could understand that. I could understand wanting to get away from that. Fortunately most of the wolves in my pack were on the younger side, the oldest less than a century old. I hadn’t been so lucky in Arizona.


We stopped for food twice along the way, once in Moab and once in Wendover. By the time we reached Reno neither of us was in the mood for anything more exciting than food and sleep. The nice thing about staying in a gambling town, though, is that places are so desperate for business that they’ll offer you almost anything just to get you in the door. So we ate at a fairly decent buffet and stayed in separate hotel rooms, and I didn’t even have to feel guilty about how much money I was costing the pack.


The next day we drove into California, where the traffic was even worse. We weren’t in L.A., but nobody does traffic quite like California. By the time we reached San Francisco I was starting to feel pretty upset, which wasn’t good.


“Okay,” I said, pulling over in the parking lot of a small shopping center. “Now I just need to find this address.”


Maggie already had her phone out. “What is it?” she asked.


I told her, and she typed it into whatever app she was using. I might not be old by the standards of werewolves, but I was more than old enough to be fairly clueless about the most recent technology. It just moves so fast.


“Warehouse,” she said after only a few moments. “On the edge of Chinatown. Not a good part of town.”


I frowned. “Well, that’s ominous.” I stretched and then started the car again. “Where do you want me to drop you off at?”


“Drop me off?” she said incredulously. “I rode halfway across the fucking country with you. No way am I backing out of this story now.”


“I thought you just said it was a bad part of town.”


“Sure,” Maggie said dryly. “‘Cause that isn’t something I’ve seen before. Look, I’m a smart girl, I’ve got my Mace and everything. And you’re an ex-Marine. You can keep me safe, right?” She simpered at me, trying for puppy dog eyes. The effect was spoiled a little by the facial piercings.


I shrugged. “Your choice. Just don’t come crying to me if it goes wrong.”


She’d understated the badness of the neighborhood in question a little. It wasn’t the worst I’d seen, not by a long shot, but it was the kind of place that would look pretty good in a movie as the crime lord’s home base. I was pretty sure there were at least four or five gang members in sight.


I wasn’t too concerned. You don’t last long in a violent gang without learning to size up your target at least a little, and I didn’t look like an easy target. It would take a while for them to nerve themselves up to start trouble with me, and I wasn’t planning to stay that long.


Maggie stayed close to me on the way to the door, though, and she was looking around nervously. I couldn’t blame her. Whether you wanted to look like a badass or not, this wasn’t a good place for a civilian.


Nobody answered when I pounded on the door of the warehouse, and I was in a bad enough mood not to feel like I waiting. When the doorknob didn’t turn, I kicked it in.


“Wow,” Maggie said. “Was that a good idea?”


We’ll find out,” I said, walking in. The building was spacious, and dark. There was nobody in sight.


I waited a moment, then sighed. “Come out,” I said. “You’re not impressing anybody.”


There was a long silence. “Okay,” I called, louder. “I know you’re here. I can smell you. And I’m just about out of patience. You really want to do this?”


A light went on in the depths of the building, casting a small circle of light without disrupting the darkness too much. There was a small desk, and a grotesquely large man sitting behind it. His fat rolls had fat rolls. His skin was pale, and between that and the red-violet color of his eyes, I thought he might actually be albino.


“You have business here?” he said, his voice clearly the same as that I’d heard on the phone.


“Maybe,” I said, walking towards him. Maggie clung to my hand, reminding me that she couldn’t see very well in the dark, and I slowed a little. “I was told to call this number.”


“I don’t do business over the phone.”


“Which is why I’m here,” I said dryly. “What business do you actually do here?”


“Transport,” he said. “To exotic and common destinations.”


“Okay,” I said, getting into the circle of light. It was bright enough that I could reclaim my hand from Maggie and present it to him. “Why would someone write this on me, then?”


He grabbed my hand, his skin unpleasantly clammy, and pulled it close. Really close, and he bent forward at the same time, so that he ended up looking at it from maybe six inches away. “Oh,” he said, releasing me. “You’re that one.”


“You know what this is about?”


“Yes. Can send you back. Is not…not free.”


“I can get cash for you,” I offered.


He shook his head, causing fat to jiggle up and down his body. “No. No money. Is no good to me.” He peered at me, blinking watery eyes. “You brought girl for trade?”


Maggie stiffened. Hell, I stiffened. “No,” I said. “I don’t do that sort of thing.”


“Why for not?” the man said reasonably. “She came here. Is…is dead now, yes? Why not sell?”


“That isn’t going to happen,” I said quietly. “You’re going to let her go, and you’re going to tell me where I need to go. Or I’m going to gut you and toss you in the ocean.” I pulled a knife out of my pocket, startling Maggie.


Clothing hadn’t been the only thing I’d purchased, that first day. You spend a few years getting into scraps, you get your priorities straight.


“You will not,” he said confidently. “Would be…bad business, yes? I have many friends. I have friends from the other side, yes? They cause very much trouble for you.”


I knew, then, what I was dealing with. The weirdness surrounding the message I’d woken up with, the nature of my disappearance, the uncanny appearance of the man, the way he’d emphasized the word other…it all suggested that I wasn’t dealing with a normal gangster, here.


So rather than dance around the subject, I met his eye. “Maybe you don’t know me,” I said quietly. “I’m a werewolf. I have a history of anger management problems. History of aggression and violence. History of suicide attempts and risky behavior.” I smiled, showing a few more teeth than was polite. “You really want to bet on a guy like that doing the smart, safe thing?”


He frowned at me, and nodded reluctantly. “Is understood. The girl, she may go. Will not be harmed. As for you…yes, I provide transport. Meet me in back.” He stood and lumbered away without a word, moving with startling speed considering his bulk.


“Okay,” I said to Maggie. “I think you should leave now. Can you make your own way back to school?”


“Were you serious about what you said?” she asked, not answering my question.


“About killing him? Yeah, I’d have done that rather than let him hurt you.” I shrugged. “I said I’ve only killed one guy because I was drunk. Doesn’t mean I’ve only killed one guy.”


“Not that,” she said impatiently. “The werewolf thing. Was that serious?”


“Oh,” I said self-consciously. “Um. I probably wasn’t supposed to say that. It would be nice if you kept it to yourself. Safer for everyone that way.”


“So that’s for real. it wasn’t a hoax?”


“No. I don’t know why they did that whole thing, coming out to the public, then discrediting themselves. Some kind of political bullshit, I think.”


“Cool,” she breathed. “Listen, I get that you’re in a hurry, but after this is over, you want to look me up? It’s been fun, and I kind of like the idea of having a werewolf friend.”


A friend. That was…a novel concept. It had been years since I had a friend that wasn’t tied up in the pack.


A few minutes later, I walked into the darkness at the back of the room with a phone number written on either hand.


“This door,” the albino said, pointing at a simple wooden one. “It opens on a Way. Will lead where you are going.”


“What’s a Way?”


He grimaced, showing flat, ugly teeth. “Is Way. Leads to Otherside. Slower than direct route, but easier to use, more stable. Safer.”


I nodded. “You know that my pack will look if something happens to me,” I stated.


He grunted, an unsettlingly wet sound, and nodded. “Is honest deal. Paid in advance. Anything happens on Way, is not my fault.”


I nodded and opened the door.


On the other side, I was standing on a forested hillside. I couldn’t see the ocean, but from the smell of salt it couldn’t be all that far away. There was a trail leading through the trees, marked with simple stone cairns.


I shrugged and started down the trail.


Maybe an hour later, I saw another door, a fancier one. It seemed pretty clear that this was my destination, so I went through it.


As I’d expected from the last time, one side of this door had nothing much in common with the other. The new location was a large clearing in the middle of a much warmer forest than I’d left. There were chairs and tables scattered around, and a long bar to one side.


I looked at the bar. Then I took a deep breath. Under the trees, I could smell strong alcohol and something not unlike lemons. It was an intense, unpleasant, familiar odor.




I looked around, but there was no one in sight. I walked over to the bar, figuring that if there was anywhere I could find someone it would be there.


I’d been standing at the bar for maybe thirty seconds when someone tapped me on the shoulder, without having made any noise. I jumped away and turned to face them.


The person who’d touched me was female, or at least I was assuming so. She was mostly naked, but it was still a little unclear, because she was more openly inhuman than most of the people I’d met. Her skin was greenish-brown and her proportions were more like a teenage boy’s idea of what a woman’s body should look like than anything that actually made sense. I thought it was supposed to be enticing, but the result was too unnatural to be sexual, at least to my tastes.


“We’re closed,” she said in a voice like the sighing of the breeze through leaves. “Come back later.”


I presented my hand, feeling a little awkward. “I’m looking for the person that wrote this,” I said. “Do you know where I could find them?”


“Ah,” she sighed. “Yes. Come with me.”


The not-woman led me to an arch of woven branches at the edge of the clearing. On the other side I could see a snowy beach leading down to a grey, stormy sea.


“Through here,” she sighed. “She has been waiting for you.” She turned and left without another word. I watched, more out of curiosity than anything, but she disappeared within three steps.


I shrugged and stepped through.


It was cold, on the other side, cold enough that my clothes felt pretty fucking inadequate. My feet were soaked in a few seconds.


I wished I’d thought to change. The wolf can handle the cold a lot better than the man.


I didn’t want to take the time now, though, so I kept going, walking down to the shore. I looked out at the water, wondering whether there was something I was supposed to be doing, when I noticed something coming closer. It was moving fast, swimming more gracefully than a person could, and just barely protruding from the water. I couldn’t get a look at what it was.


When it got closer, I realized that it was a seal. I didn’t know enough to say more than that. It was pretty small compared to, say, a walrus, not much bigger than I was.


It occurred to me that those teeth would line up fairly well with the bite marks on my shoulders. That was…a little unsettling.


Just before it came out of the water, the seal changed, shifting in an instant into the form of a woman. She was a little shorter than me, and greyish, much the same color as the seal had been.


I pulled the collar out of my pocket. “Is this yours?”


She smiled, showing teeth just a little too sharp to be human. Rather than answer, she moved closer and hugged me.


I felt a little awkward. I mean, she was a fucking seal not ten seconds earlier.


Then again, I asked myself, why should I care? Hadn’t I just been considering turning into a wolf? What was the difference, really?


Now that I thought about it, it wasn’t like I’d had great luck with humans, before or after I changed. Werewolves were a little better, if only because I didn’t have to worry so much about saying the wrong thing or scaring them off, but it wasn’t that great. There weren’t that many females around, and it wasn’t like a submissive wolf was that exciting to most of them. It had been a hell of a long time since I was in a relationship lasting longer than a month or two.


Sure, I’d done some stupid stuff over the weekend. But maybe it wasn’t all bad. Maybe I should at least see where this went.


Screw it, I thought, and hugged the seal-woman back. Answers could wait, at least for a few minutes.

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Event Horizon 8.7

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I usually wake up fairly quickly, likely as a side-effect of the paranoia engrained by repeated assassination attempts. But this time, it was a slow, drawn-out process. It felt like I was pulling layers and layers of cobwebs off of my brain, until finally the last one came free and everything snapped into focus and I opened my eyes.


I was floating in the middle of complete emptiness. There was nothing but white in all directions, stretching off into the distance. I felt vaguely weightless, as though I were floating in a pool of warm water. There was no surface under my feet, and even the concepts of “up” and “down” didn’t seem to apply. In the absence of noticeable gravity, forward was just whatever direction I happened to be facing.


It was very quiet, very soothing. The light, which had no discernable source, was a little bit too bright, but not painful. The only scent I could detect was a slight odor of wolf and ice, not unlike my own magic.


I floated there in the light for a few minutes, not thinking of anything in particular. It felt strangely restful here. I became aware, in that dreamlike way where you realize that you knew something all along, that I couldn’t feel any of the injuries I’d sustained trying to escape from the mansion. I was dressed in loose, comfortable clothing, with my cloak of shadows wrapped around me like a shroud. It was the only thing in sight that wasn’t white.


An indefinable length of time later, I heard the first sound other than my own heartbeat since I’d woken up. It was a sort of tapping noise, perfectly regular, coming from behind me. It took a few seconds to recognize it as approaching footsteps. I wasn’t sure how to turn and couldn’t work up the motivation to try, so I just waited as the noise approached. Somehow I was sure that there was nothing to be afraid of in this place.


There was no real transition between that and seeing the source of the noise in front of me. It was Loki, of course, back in what I thought of as his usual form, of a tall, blond Nordic man. He turned to face me and I saw that his eyes were whirling chaos in orange and emerald, like a wildfire in a bottle. He was dressed all in dusty black, wearing a single gold ring and a sprig of mistletoe pinned to his shirt. He nodded in my direction. “Good morning, Winter,” he said. There was no trace of humor about him.


“Loki,” I said. “Am I dead?”


He snorted. “Death is a flexible concept,” he said. “Even your doctors recognize that. So by some definitions, yes, you died back there. But in any meaningful sense? No, in spite of your best efforts, you’re still alive.”


“Oh. So what’s with….” I gestured vaguely at my surroundings. “This.”


He shrugged. “You aren’t really awake. This was simpler than actually making a setting for our conversation.”


Lovely. It wasn’t good enough that Loki’s bullshit had taken over my life, now he had to invade my dreams too. Just lovely.


The god leaned back and crossed his feet as though leaning against a wall. Predictably, the empty space proved quite happy to hold him up, in defiance of all logic. “Coyote told you,” he said. It wasn’t a question.


I didn’t bother pretending confusion. “Yeah,” I said. “How did you know?”


“It wasn’t difficult,” Loki said dryly. He sighed. “That dog will be the death of me. Cunning, but he’s always been impatient. I can’t tell you how many of my plans he’s disrupted.”


“I don’t get it. Why didn’t you want me to know what was going on?”


“Did you in any way need to know that to do your job?” he asked me.


“Well, no—”


“Does it in any way help you to find the entity you’re looking for, or do anything about it if you find it?”


“No,” I admitted.


“That’s why. Wasting time I don’t have explaining secrets you don’t need to know about topics you can’t understand doesn’t strike me as particularly worthwhile.”


“I guess that makes sense.”


He rolled his eyes, the motion adding a new spin to the whirling colors within. “Thank you. Truly, I don’t know how I could cope without your approval.” He gestured sharply. “Enough. What progress have you made?”


“Little,” I admitted. “I’ve got a bunch of people looking, but as far as I know none of them have come up with anything.”


“You haven’t narrowed your pool at all?” Loki asked.


“Not yet.”


He looked displeased. “You’re running low on time to still be saying that,” he said warningly.


“It’s only been one day,” I protested. “Besides, I at least know I’m on the right track.”


“How so?”


I shrugged. “They bothered to send their überdemon after me. From what Coyote said, it doesn’t sound like they’d do that without a reason, which means they must think I pose some sort of threat.”


“That’s reasonable,” he admitted after a moment. “Although not necessarily true. You’re currently a symbol of order and authority in the city. Anyone wanting to destabilize the area could do worse than removing you.”


“Oh. Good point.” I hadn’t thought of that angle at all, probably because I didn’t think of myself as an authority figure.


“In any case,” Loki said, turning and walking away from me, “it sounds like you have things in hand. You know the stakes now, so I don’t expect I need to remind you of the urgency involved.” He raised one hand and snapped his fingers casually, and the world went black again.


The next time I woke up was a little more like what I’d been expecting. Which is to say, it hurt. A lot. I couldn’t really pick out specific pains to focus on; there were just too many to choose from. I opened my eyes and tried to sit up, and immediately regretted doing so.


“You’re awake,” Kyra said. It sounded like she was somewhere in front of me. I couldn’t see her—or much anything else aside from the ceiling, really. I was lying on my back, with my head pillowed on something soft.


“Yeah. What happened?” Talking hurt more than I’d expected, mostly in my abdomen.


“Hell if I know,” the werewolf said. “Aiko did her thing, and then you guys all passed out. The dog said it was some sort of magic backlash or something. Anna was awake for a while, but she’s sleeping now.”


“How long ago was this?”


“Nine, ten hours?” she guessed. “Long enough to start going stir-crazy. I tried to get a look around, but the doors won’t open.”


“I’ve been out ten hours?”


“Yep. Did you know your dog cheats at cards?” Kyra sounded rather impressed by that. “I’m not sure how. I mean, I’m the one shuffling. How is she cheating?”


I chuckled. It hurt. “She’s been taking lessons from Aiko.” A moment later, I finally asked the question I’d been dreading. “How bad off am I?”


There was a short, ominous silence. “Pretty bad,” Kyra said at last. “You took most of the shot to the chest. I’m really sorry about that, by the way. Shit was getting weird and I had no idea what was going on, and I panicked.”


“S’okay,” I mumbled. “It was the smart thing to do.”


She cleared her throat. “Right, well. There was one pellet in your shoulder and one in your abdomen. They were both pretty shallow, so I dug them out and disinfected them.” Usually that was a really bad idea—most people actually heal better if you don’t get the bullet out of them—but I’d had so many encounters with bullets and assorted bits of shrapnel that if I left all of it in I’d rattle. I didn’t really need to worry about it making infection more likely, or worsening the damage a little. “A couple hit you in the arm, too,” Kyra continued. “But they went straight through.” She shrugged. “Not that those’ll really matter, on top of everything else.”


“Um. On top of what else, exactly?”


There was another ominous pause. “You don’t remember that?”


I was starting to get a sick little feeling in my stomach. “Remember what?”


“Okay,” she said after another pause. “This is, like…wow. Don’t freak out on me, okay? Hang on a second.” She stepped into my view a moment later, looming over me with a worried expression on her face.


She picked me up, very delicately, and rearranged me so that I was leaning against the wall, propped up on a pile of blankets. We kept a ton of them in the armory, along with a bunch of sleeping bags and cold-weather gear. Not for any particular reason; I’m just obsessive about disaster prep.


If you’ve ever tried to do something like that, you can appreciate what a statement that was about how strong Kyra was. It’s actually pretty hard to move someone around when they aren’t capable of cooperating. It didn’t strain her in the least. Lycanthropy has its perks. She’d always gotten more in the way of raw strength out of the deal than I did.


At that point I got my first good look at myself since I’d woken up. I didn’t look so good. My torso was covered in blood. It would probably have made me look like a badass, except that it was mostly dried already and as a result, rather than terrifying war paint, it just looked like sticky, vaguely unsavory brown stuff. What wasn’t bloody was bruised, a delightful mottling of purples and greens, with narrow red lines crisscrossing it from the thorns of the hedge.


It wasn’t a good sign that I was still covered in bruises and scratches. Ordinarily, I should have been able to heal those almost completely in ten hours. The fact that I hadn’t meant that my body had bigger fish to fry, and had chosen to leave the cosmetic injuries alone until more serious problems were dealt with.


I could see all this because I was naked. My cloak was what I’d been using as a pillow, and it would have been extremely foolish to try and put anything else on me, given that I was injured and unconscious. Kyra didn’t seem to care, in any case. That might have been because she was so absolutely focused on the crisis in front of us, but probably had more to do with the fact that she wasn’t even slightly attracted to men.


All of which was pretty much just background noise in my head, because I also saw something much more important. Namely, my left arm looked like something out of a horror film.


From the elbow down, most of my skin was missing. There were patches left, tattered and ragged, but they served only to emphasize the raw redness of the exposed flesh. What skin remained looked pale and stiff, almost waxy. The muscle had been eaten away in places, deep enough that I could see white bone through the fibers.


More than slightly afraid, I looked down my arm at my left hand.


I didn’t have much of one anymore. My smallest finger was completely gone, and the ring finger ended just after the second knuckle. The other side of my hand hadn’t been affected quite as badly, but I was still missing a chunk of the thumb, and the tip of my index finger had been lopped off neatly just behind the nail. The skin had been peeled from my hand entirely, and I could see bones and tendons through the muscles.


I was suddenly very glad that my arm was still numb.


“Wow,” I said, feeling more than slightly ill. I was accustomed to pain and I’d taken a hell of a lot of damage over the years, but this was a new level for me. “How’d that happen?”


“I was hoping you could tell me,” she said. “It was like that when you walked in.”


“I guess it was when that thing grabbed me,” I said, staring at the bone peeking through the shreds of muscle in my forearm. It was nauseating, but in a distant, disconnected way. I couldn’t seem to grasp, on a visceral level, that it belonged to me. “Why isn’t it bleeding?”


“I think it’s frozen,” she said, walking back to where she’d been sitting when I woke up. “It feels really cold, and the skin looks frostbitten.”


“Huh,” I said, reaching over and delicately prodding it with my other hand. Kyra was right; I hadn’t noticed it until now, but the tissue felt stiff, like half-frozen meat. Now that I looked at it more closely, I saw that there was actually a fine coating of frost on the remaining skin.


I didn’t think that was because of the thing peeling the flesh from my arm. It bore too much resemblance to other times my body had frozen a wound to prevent it from bleeding. Usually unintentionally; I didn’t have all that fine of a control over the jotun stuff, and this particular trick definitely came from the frost giant side of my heritage.


Of course, none of those injuries had been anything like as serious or extensive as this. Usually the cold seemed to accelerate my healing, but I wasn’t at all sure if that would be the case this time. Half my arm was frozen most of the way to the bone. I’m not a medical professional, but I’m pretty sure that when you get frostbite that deep, it doesn’t go well.


“So how do we get out of here?” Kyra asked, sitting down and picking up a hand of cards. Snowflake, who was lounging on the floor nearby, glanced at them and then indicated which one should be discarded. Her lack of opposable thumbs necessitates certain adaptations when playing games.


The husky hadn’t said anything since I’d woken up. I could feel her emotions, though, simmering steadily at the back of my mind. There was concern there, and worry, and under that a cold, ferocious rage. Snowflake has even more protective tendencies than I do, and when someone threatens her people she tends to skip straight to the ultraviolence phase of the negotiations.


“I have no clue,” I said, leaning back against the blankets. “I don’t even know where ‘here’ is.”


“Guess we have to wait for Aiko to wake up, then,” Kyra said. She didn’t sound particularly surprised. “You want something to eat? The dog showed me a pretty good stash in one of the closets.”


“Yeah, please.” I wasn’t particularly hungry, but I knew it was the smart thing to do. Food would accelerate the healing process.


By the time I finished chugging a can of lukewarm chicken soup, I was starting to feel tired again. Sleep was the other thing that any good werewolf knew was good for healing, so I didn’t bother fighting it, just nestled deeper into the mound of blankets and draped a fold of my cloak over my face to block out the light. I fell asleep to the sound of Kyra and Snowflake playing cards.


The next time I woke up, it was a significantly easier process. I still hurt all over, and it was painful to move or breathe, but I felt better than before. The holes in my chest seemed to be mostly healed, and most of the scratches were healing up. I’d also regained some feeling in my left arm, which was more than bad enough to make up for it, but I decided I’d look on the bright side of things.


I pushed myself delicately upright, the cloak falling from my face. Everyone else was awake already, and were sitting in a loose ring in the middle of the room playing poker.


“You awake?” Aiko said when I moved.


“Yeah,” I said redundantly. She was sitting facing me, so she pretty obviously knew that I was. “You look like hell.” She did, too; I’d seen corpses that didn’t look as hard-used as Aiko did right now. She had a naturally narrow face, but at the moment it looked downright gaunt. Her cheeks and eyes were sunken, and her skin had a pale, sallow cast to it. She was propped up on a pile of blankets every bit as substantial as mine.


She snorted. “Said the guy with one arm. It took a little more out of me than I expected.”


“What was ‘it?'” That had been bothering me since I first woke up. I had absolutely no idea what she’d done to get us away from the world-destroying monster.


“I pulled us out of there. This,” she gestured at the walls, “is now the tiniest free-floating domain on the Otherside.”


I blinked. “You can do that?” I’d known that it was possible to create an Otherside domain—Alexander had occasionally talked about the mechanics of it—but I wouldn’t have guessed Aiko was capable of something like that. It was an incredibly complex bit of magic, and took a hell of a lot of power.


“It took a few months of work.” She saw my expression and laughed. “Come on, Winter. You’re not the only one who can be prepared. I always figured we’d need an emergency exit at some point.”


“Can that thing follow us here?” Kyra asked.


Aiko shrugged. “It shouldn’t be possible. A domain like this doesn’t have a fixed position. We probably ought to leave anyway, now that you’re awake.”


“Are you up for that?”


“I’d better be,” she said. “I’m not good enough to keep this thing stable for very long.” She hesitated. “It might be better if you drive. I don’t think I’ve got enough left in me.”


I thought about opening an Otherside portal in my current condition. It didn’t sound like much fun. I could probably do it—my exhaustion was mostly physical—but I didn’t think any of us would enjoy it much. “I guess,” I said doubtfully. “Give me a few minutes to get ready.”


“I’ll do it,” Alexis interjected. I’m not sure who was most surprised by that. I was guessing me—I’d kinda forgotten she was even there, something I had a regrettable tendency to do—but judging by her expression it might have been Alexis herself.


Aiko looked at me, her expression dubious. I shrugged. Alexis had never driven on something like this, but she’d opened portals before, and she knew the theory. “Probably a better idea than either of us doing it,” I said.


Alexis took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. I’ll start getting ready.”


Aiko didn’t seem to think we’d be able to get back here once we left, so we took stock before we left. We’d lost a bunch of stuff with the mansion, but there was a small blessing in that we’d brought the armory with us. We were loaded down with guns, knives, and ammo, along with a sack of grenades and magical trinkets. I’d left my armor in the bedroom when I left, but Aiko still had hers, and I had my cloak. I also grabbed Tyrfing; it was as nearly indestructible as a sword could be, but I wasn’t sure how it would handle being left in a collapsing Otherside domain. Between that and Legion, most of our really important resources were here.


About half an hour later, we were lined up in front of the door and ready to go. Aiko and I were both less than steady on our feet, but we would at least be able to get through the gate. I hoped so, anyway; the aftermath of being carried through would be unpleasant. Possibly amusing, but unpleasant.


Alexis was standing next to the door, her face set in an expression of intense concentration. A delicate web of magic hung in the air, scented with disinfectant and ozone. The odor of snow, a telltale sign of our shared jotun blood, was barely detectable; had I not known to look for it, I would never have noticed.


It had taken her pretty much all of those thirty minutes to get the portal set up. She’d messed up and had to start over twice, but even if she’d gotten everything right on the first try it would probably have taken a solid twenty minutes. I’m a little bit faster than that and Aiko’s faster than me, but the best-case scenario even for her still took at least five or ten minutes. It was a complicated spell.


Finally, a few minutes later, the last of the structure snapped into place. Power rushed into it, fleshing out the skeleton she’d woven, and the portal snapped into place just in front of the doorframe. Alexis staggered sideways and leaned heavily against the wall, her fists clenched at her side. She had more in the way of pure magical strength than I did, but holding a portal open was still fairly taxing.


I looked into the oval of pure, all-consuming darkness and shivered. I’d never liked these things, but that had nothing on the dread I felt now. I’d stood in the center of the chaos these things led through, and lost a good chunk of my arm to it. I’d always suspected that this was one of the times that ignorance was truly bliss, and I was right. The idea of walking into that was currently more frightening than facing down a horde of charging monsters.


I was supposed to be the first one through, though. So I set my teeth and shambled forward, bracing myself for what I was confident would be a particularly horrific crossing.


It didn’t happen.


Usually my experience of an Otherside crossing is fairly consistent. There’s an interval of mind-numbing unpleasantness, something which is simultaneously instantaneous and eternal, as though it transcends our usual definitions of time entirely. I’ve often tried to explain what it is about the event that’s so awful, and never quite gotten there. It’s just too alien to normal experience. After that I pass out, and then I wake up a few minutes later on the other end.


This time, I got something much more mundane. I shambled in one end of the portal, barely able to stay standing. Then there was a heartbeat of darkness. Painted in broad, twisting strokes over that were the same vividly colored patterns I’d seen in Coyote’s bubble in the heart of chaos.


The next thing I knew I was stepping out the other side. I didn’t lose consciousness. I didn’t even lose my balance. Hell, I felt a little better than when I’d started the crossing.


I stumbled, caught off guard by the strangeness of the experience, and then stepped out of the way. I didn’t want to follow up such an unexpectedly pleasant experience with getting run into from behind.


A moment later Aiko stepped out of the portal. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic from this end; rather than a hole cut in the fabric of the world, there was just a vague blurriness to the air, not unlike the haze over asphalt on a hot day. It’s a lot less noticeable, which occasionally comes in handy. It was still pretty startling to see Aiko suddenly walk out of it, stepping a couple of inches down onto the ground. Her expression of shock looked pretty much the same as I felt.


She looked around, clearly baffled, and then saw me standing upright and conscious. “Did you just see….” She trailed off, clearly not wanting to mention Coyote’s top secret bullshit. There was no one in position to hear it, but when a god gives you a nondisclosure agreement backed with a fate-worse-than-death sentence, you take it seriously.


“Yeah,” I said. “Move out of the way before they come through.”


She did so, standing next to me several feet away from the portal opening. Over the next few seconds the others exited the portal. Kyra and Snowflake came first, followed by Anna. Alexis brought up the rear, the portal fading a few seconds later. In all cases the pattern was the exact same; they walked out, their eyes firmly closed, and took a few shambling steps in a random direction. Then they fell over. It was interesting to watch; they seemed practically comatose, but all of them fell in a carefully controlled way, one they clearly had some control over.


“So do we mention this?” Aiko asked, staring at the various unconscious bodies with an expression of bewilderment.


“The portal thing?” I said. “I dunno. I’m not sure how to explain that without touching on the stuff we aren’t supposed to talk about.”


“Good point. So you think we just leave it for now?”


I shrugged, wincing slightly. “Yeah, I think that’s the best idea. We always wake up first anyway.”


“True.” She paused, and a moment later she looked at me with a concerned expression. “Uh, Winter? Your arm is bleeding.”


“It is?” I looked at it, and saw that there was indeed quite a bit of blood leaking out. “It is. Shit.”


“At least it isn’t frozen anymore,” she pointed out.


“I would have liked for it to wait until we were somewhere a little more convenient than this,” I muttered, wrapping my cloak tightly around the wound with an idle thought. It wasn’t a great bandage—I hadn’t designed it with absorbance in mind—but I’d used it for the purpose before and it would do well enough for the time being. It dumped the contents of my pockets on the ground, but I figured that was preferable to losing any more blood than was strictly necessary.


It took maybe three or four minutes for Snowflake to wake up. She stood up, shook herself once, and then slumped on the ground in mute but eloquent unhappiness.


Under other circumstances, it probably would have been suspicious that Aiko and I weren’t suffering similarly. Fortunately, at the moment, we were both in a sorry enough state that I doubted anyone would notice the difference.


A couple of minutes later the others woke up, within about thirty seconds of each other. Alexis promptly vomited at the base of the wall, while Kyra held her head in a manner reminiscent of an extraordinarily bad hangover.


“Could we get this show on the road?” I said quietly.


Kyra still winced, and raised her head just enough to glare at me. “Give me a minute,” she muttered darkly. “I feel like my eyes are about to start bleeding.”


I cleared my throat. “Yes, well, my arm actually is bleeding. Quite a bit, in fact, and I’d like to get somewhere I can deal with it sooner rather than later.”


She looked up, clearly alarmed, and seemed to notice my newly enhanced state of dishabille for the first time. “Aw, shit,” she muttered, wincing. She pushed herself to her knees and started grabbing my stuff and shoving it into her backpack. “Fine. You can be a real pain in the neck, you know? Can you walk?”


I pushed myself to my feet. Then I staggered into the wall, tripped over my own feet, and faceplanted in my cousin’s stomach acid.


Clearly this was not my day.


“Um,” Anna interjected while I was pushing myself back to a seated position. “Did anyone else notice that it’s not even sunset yet?”


Yes,” Kyra groaned, her eyes squeezed tightly against the light. “So what?”


“So it was noon when this whole thing started,” the other werewolf pointed out. “We were stuck in there for over ten hours. It should be the middle of the night.”


Oh, shit. “You get Internet on your phone, right? Can you look up the date?”


There was a brief, ominous pause. “It’s Monday,” she said after a moment.


“Shit,” I muttered. We’d lost three days in there somewhere. It had been the Otherside, of course. There were all sorts of fables about people spending a few days over there and waking up a hundred years later. Fenris had linked the mansion to this world too tightly for those sorts of shenanigans to happen, but whatever Aiko had done to get us out of there had apparently broken the tether. “We need to get moving.”


“Right,” Kyra said, casually picking me up and slinging me over one shoulder. “Where to?”


“Get to the car first,” I sighed.


A few seconds after we emerged from the alley, Kyra froze. “Wow,” she said, forgetting for once to act tough and hard-boiled.


“What is it?” I asked, trying to see what she was looking at. I wasn’t terribly successful at this endeavor; this was a more than usually awkward position, and mostly all I got was a really good view of her back.


Rather than answer, she shifted around so that I could see. “Well, shit,” I said after a moment.


I’d been pretty confident that the monster I was chasing had been responsible for that trashed apartment building. Now I was completely confident of it, because it had done a similar number on my old lab.


The extent of the destruction wasn’t quite as large. None of the other buildings on the street seemed to have been affected. The pavement out front was cracked and broken, but by and large the collateral damage seemed pretty insignificant. Whatever that thing did, it didn’t seem to generate any shrapnel, and there hadn’t been a car for it to throw this time.


The house it had been after, on the other hand, was pretty much leveled. There was a pile of wreckage, although not as much as you’d expect, but that was all. It was pretty obvious that it would be cheaper to have the lot razed to dirt and rebuild from scratch than try to repair what was left.


“Something tells me we may not be going back there,” I said.


Kyra snorted. “You think?” she said dryly, turning and walking in the opposite direction. “We don’t want to get spotted by a spectator,” she said, more loudly. “This ensemble’s suspicious as hell.”


“You the boss,” Anna said. She sounded rather appallingly cheerful, all things considered. As the other werewolf moved into my line of sight, I saw that Aiko was also getting a ride. Hers looked a lot more comfortable than mine; the kitsune was cradled comfortably in front of Anna, while I was already getting a headache from hanging over Kyra’s shoulder. Aiko flashed me a smirk and a rude gesture on the way by.


I sighed. This was so totally not my day. Or days, depending on how you looked at it.

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Event Horizon 8.6

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When the fog cleared and I could see, I was back in my world, on the slope of the mountain. The good news was that I either hadn’t actually been on the Otherside at all, or else Kikuchi had access to a much smoother means of transition than I was accustomed to. There was no blackout involved that I could detect, and no interval of mind-numbing unpleasantness at all.


The bad news was that I was on the wrong side of the mountain. It took me a couple minutes to confirm, but I’d been hiking those forests for most of my adult life, and I’d run through them as a wolf most full moons for the past three years. It’s safe to say that I knew that mountain as well as anyone. Within a few minutes I was pretty confident of my general location, and it was most of the way around the mountain from where I’d started.


It helped that I could just ask the hawk soaring overhead to borrow his eyes for a few seconds, of course. That’s what is referred to, in certain orienteering circles, as an “unfair advantage.” But I’m reasonably confident I could have figured it out without the bird’s help. I just didn’t see the point.


I hadn’t walked anything like far enough along that path to come this far, which meant that something screwy had happened with location in the mist. If that whole interaction really had taken place on the Otherside, that made perfect sense. I wasn’t sure whether Kikuchi had sent me back to this particular location deliberately, or it was just the default exit point.


I was inclined to the former. Kikuchi and I get along well enough, but he has a proud streak a mile wide and an utterly inflexible sense of honor, defined in a vaguely samurai-ish way. He was legally my equal and socially my superior, and even the slight presumptions I’d made in how I approached him were likely to have consequences. I was guessing this particular inconvenience was just a subtle reminder that there were boundaries I would be wise not to cross.


I would like to think that, in the face of a serious problem, people wouldn’t play stupid games like that. But c’mon. Really. Even a passing acquaintance with human nature should tell you how naive that hope was. Kikuchi wasn’t human, but from what I’d seen tengu nature was even worse for that, so that wasn’t a terribly important distinction.


Unfortunately, it did leave me in something of an awkward position. I needed to be back in the city immediately, if not sooner; I had a lot of balls in the air right now, and any of them were liable to crash to the ground at any moment, with potentially catastrophic results. There was nothing to be done about it, though, so I shrugged and started working on opening a portal to the Otherside. I’d been getting quite a bit faster at that, and it should only take me half an hour to get back. It wouldn’t be fun, but it was doable.


And then I stopped. The Otherside was the fastest way back, that was pretty undeniable. But, now that I’d had Coyote’s tour of the chaos underlying reality, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had a strong suspicion that all of this time I’d been using those portals, I’d been tunneling through that. Having just experienced firsthand the profoundly disturbing, alien nature of that stuff, I wasn’t eager to go back any time soon. Not to mention the godlike monsters wandering the void waiting to destroy things.


Granted, I’d always suspected that there was some hidden danger involved in Otherside travel, in addition to the very clear dangers I’d already known about. And I’d always known that the sheer fish-out-of-water awfulness of the experience had to be due to something. But there was an enormous difference between knowing that, and feeling it.


I sighed, then shrugged again. If I couldn’t bring myself to do it, I couldn’t; there wasn’t much point beating myself up over it. Besides, doing any kind of magic when you aren’t fully behind what you’re doing is chancy, and when it came to the Otherside I wanted to risk that less than ever.


I thought for a moment, then stripped out of my armor and bundled it up in my cloak. The armor had been designed to fit together compactly, and the shadows that made up my cloak were extremely malleable; the resulting package was a little smaller than a backpack.


I took my leather bracelet off, put my rings on it, and then knotted it around my neck like the world’s strangest necklace. Then I laid down on the ground and started to change.


Shapechanging is a fairly common art, as such things go, and there are a lot of ways to go about it. Shapeshifters can do it, of course, and so can a handful of other human mages, but it’s a pretty rare gift for humans. When it comes to nonhumans, though, the list is a mile long. Kitsune can all shift from human form to that of a fox at will, and some of the older ones go far beyond that. Higher-ranking tengu can pass for human. So can most jötnar, and a few of them (Vigdis is the only one of my housecarls) have other shapes, most of which are predatory in nature. I don’t know for sure whether vampires have the power or not, but it’s a common enough part of the myth that I wouldn’t feel comfortable ruling it out.


Then again, if you attribute every power to vampires that’s ascribed to them in various myths, it becomes rather difficult to understand why they aren’t ruling the world outright.


In any case, I’ve always felt that even a cursory examination of all these myths reveals a profound injustice in the universe. Of all the shapechangers in the world, werewolves are the most famous. You talk to somebody about therianthropic metamorphosis and (on the off chance they understand you) they think werewolves. They dominate the field so thoroughly that people use “lycanthrope” to refer to any kind of shapechanging, when the word pretty much literally means wolf-man.


And yet, out of all the shapechangers I’ve encountered, werewolves have by far the shittiest transformation process.


Most of the people who change from one form to another do so painlessly. Aiko takes less time to turn from fox to human or back than she does to blink, and the only sensation involved is a mild, almost pleasant tingling, a bit like the pins-and-needles of a limb that hasn’t quite fallen asleep. (Don’t ask how I know that. Seriously, don’t.) All of the housecarls can melt from human to giant so smoothly that you don’t even notice it at the time. Hell, even Kris can turn into a hawk fast enough to get all the lift she needs to take off from jumping as a human.


Werewolves, on the other hand, get to experience the joys of bones breaking, muscles tearing, and skin ripping, before it all comes back together and heals in a different form. The process is painful, frequently messy (blood is pretty common, and urine is involved more often than anyone wants to admit), and extremely unsettling to witness. Not everyone throws up the first time they see a werewolf change, but it’s a common enough reaction that nobody’s surprised if you do.


Oh, and just to add that little bit of spice, the process takes anywhere from five to thirty minutes. Generally speaking the more practice you’ve had, the faster you go through it. Experienced werewolves average somewhere around ten minutes, and they can make it faster if they want to. They have to really want to, though, because accelerating the change like that takes it from extremely unpleasant to outright excruciating.


I was experienced, and I was in a serious rush. “Excruciating” just wasn’t all that scary for me, anyway. When you’ve been literally crucified (that’s where the word comes from, by the way), it takes a lot to make you flinch.


I gave myself a couple of minutes, on the other end, to recover, and then heaved myself to my feet. My knees made an unpleasant sound as I did, somewhere between a crunch and a squelch, as the last of the cartilage clicked into place, and a sharp jolt of pain went through my legs. The joints are always the worst part of the change, at least for me. I’ve talked to werewolves who don’t have any trouble with them, but for some reason the bones in my legs tend not to articulate quite right until I put weight on them. I’m not sure why.


I took a few slow, cautious steps, giving myself plenty of time to adjust. I spend a lot more time on two legs than four, and it always takes a bit to get used to it again. As I paced I caught a glimpse of myself in the small stream running through the spot of forest where the tengu had dumped me, and had to chuckle internally. The image of a werewolf delicately mincing around with a bunch of rings hanging off of his leather collar was too amusing to pass up on.


Granted, it did not make me look cute or adorable. I look a little less creepy as a wolf than a human, unlike most werewolves, but that isn’t saying all that much. At two hundred pounds and small change I made any actual wolf look pretty small, and I had claws that could slice open a grizzly in one stroke. Add in mostly black fur and vivid amber eyes, and I look almost as scary as Snowflake. It probably doesn’t help that, like Snowflake, I wear the marks of violence openly on my body. I was missing a couple of teeth and I had scars across a good portion of my skin. Better yet was the deep stab wound pouring blood all over one thigh.


Wait a second. I hadn’t been stabbed recently. I mean, that seemed like the sort of thing I’d remember, and I should have been able to feel it.


I blinked several times, and looked at myself both in and out of the water. It was no use. I didn’t see any evidence of a wound, and I didn’t smell blood. On the other hand, I also couldn’t convince myself I hadn’t seen it, which pretty much just left the conclusion that I was going nuts.


That wasn’t a comfortable thought. I’ve done crazy. I don’t want to do it again.


On the other hand, this really wasn’t the time to deal with it. So I shrugged and walked over to my bundle of armor. It took a little bit of finagling, but I eventually got it onto my back and convinced my cloak to tie itself on. I could have just held it in my mouth, of course, but this was much more convenient. It didn’t throw my balance off, and it left my teeth free for anyone stupid enough to get in my way.


I checked that everything was stable, and then I took off.


A werewolf can really haul ass when he’s motivated.


As a human, I’m roughly on a par with a decent sprinter. As a wolf I’m quite a bit beyond that. On familiar ground, I estimated that my top speed was somewhere in the vicinity of fifty miles per hour. Obviously I wasn’t going that fast the whole time—there are these things called trees—but it was still a pretty damn quick trip.


Of course, I lost most of that time on the other end. A huge, scary looking canid attracts a little too much of the wrong sort of attention in the city, so I had to change back when I reached the edge of the forest. But I’d still cut off quite a bit of time. It took me about ten minutes for both changes and another ten minutes to actually run through the forest, so I was moving almost as fast as if I’d gone through the Otherside.


But it still took time, and I resented every minute wasted right now. Plus, once I was done with that, I still had to drive back into the city, which ate up more time. All told it was getting close to noon when I parked the car at Pryce’s and walked the rest of the way to the mansion.


“Hey, Wolf,” a familiar voice called from across the street as I started to open the door. I turned and saw a similarly familiar face.


Jackal hadn’t changed much. She looked like a girl in her late teens or early twenties, dressed in the castoffs from a used-clothing store. Her features were harsh and sharp, almost emaciated, with eyes the color of long-cold ashes.


She was currently flanked by two people whose attitudes made it very clear that they were present as minions. One of them, a rawboned guy who looked like he was about sixteen, I knew. His name was Wishbone, or at least that was what he preferred to be called. I don’t think any of Jackal’s gang uses their real names—if they even have names; I’m honestly not sure.


I might have pegged the other guy as being as old as twenty-five, if he hadn’t been with Jackal. He didn’t fit in with the others. Jackal looked and smelled like she slept in doorways, and Wishbone would fit in quite well with a group of Goths. The new guy, by contrast, would fit in quite well with a group of professional athletes. He was better than six feet tall, and I was guessing he could lift me off the ground with one arm. He had very dark skin and startlingly green eyes, and his bald scalp was so shiny I wondered if he polished it.


More than anything, though, what distinguished them from each other was their respective attitudes. Jackal moved like a starved rat, all quick movements and furtive glances. You got the impression that she was ready at any second to run, and if you cornered her she’d bite. Wishbone, on the other hand, was perpetually hunched as though anticipating a blow. He looked out at the world with the thousand-yard stare of someone who’d seen more shit than anyone should have to, and had long since abandoned any hope of a merciful God.


It would be hard to find someone more diametrically opposed in attitude than the third guy with them. He carried himself with the air of someone accustomed to getting his own way. I got the distinct impression, looking at him, that he would never fumble a catch or stumble on his own feet, and in a disaster people would naturally look to him for leadership. The dude had an aura of confidence so thick I could smell it.


“I don’t know you,” I said, staring at the huge guy. I didn’t even pretend it was a friendly stare.


He smiled, his teeth startlingly white against his dark skin. There were quite a few missing. “I’m Moose,” he said, his voice surprisingly high. He didn’t sound like he’d been breathing helium or anything like that, but you would expect a guy built like that to sound like a bass drum, and Moose was closer to a snare.

“What you want, Wolf?” Jackal rasped before I could reply. As usual, she sounded like there was something seriously wrong with her vocal cords.


“You owe me a favor,” I said bluntly.


She narrowed her eyes and nodded once, sharply. “You calling it in?”


I sighed. “Yeah.”


She grunted. “Shit.”


And that’s what I like about dealing with Jackal. Sure, she’s a vicious thug and her gang had tried to kill me in the past over an extremely stupid misunderstanding. But at least I didn’t have to worry about political niceties with her crew.


“I haven’t even told you what it is yet,” I pointed out. “It seems a little rude to be complaining already.”


Jackal snorted. “You’re trouble, Wolf. You’re calling in favors, that means you’re in deep shit, and when you get into shit there’s enough to go around.” She glared at me. “I don’t got all day, Wolf. Spit it out or move on.”


“Gosh thanks,” I said sourly. “I want your help with an investigation. Information only.”


“Who?” she asked immediately.


“If I knew that,” I said dryly, “I wouldn’t be calling in favors, would I?” I shrugged. “Someone’s been summoning a monster into town. I want anything you can dig up on it. Preferably who’s responsible, but any info on location, motive, pretty much anything you can get me will help.”


“Vague much?” she asked.


“Trust me, I know just how you feel.”


She snorted. “Yeah, right. You got anything on what this ‘monster’ is?”


“Suffice to say,” I said carefully, “that I know what it is, and you don’t want to. If you think I’m trouble, you don’t even want to touch that topic.”


“Lovely. I’m guessing there’s a deadline involved?”


“Good guess. You have until Tuesday night. If this isn’t resolved by then, I recommend you get out of town and hide somewhere far away until things settle out.” Technically Loki had given me until dawn on Wednesday, but I had no intention of waiting that long. I figured that if I hadn’t come up with an answer by Tuesday, I’d better just start running, and hope that he didn’t decide to hunt me down.


“Fine,” Jackal said after a moment. “We’re even after this, Wolf.” She turned and left without another word, followed closely by her minions. I noted with some amusement that Wishbone hadn’t said anything the entire time, and Moose had only spoken to introduce himself. Jackal might not be the most visually impressive person I’d seen, but her gang obeyed her without question.


Not that I could really blame them for that. I’d seen Jackal in action. She fought like a stray cat—lots of hissing and sharp pointy things, without a moment’s hesitation. I was pretty sure I could beat her in a straight-up fight, but I wouldn’t walk away unscathed.


I didn’t really expect her people to be much use. They had zilch in the way of local contacts, and from what I’d seen of their operation they had the investigative competence of a retarded ferret. But their help was cheap, and at this point I was getting desperate enough to take what I could get.


“Took you long enough,” Aiko said when I walked in. She was sitting on the floor of the entryway playing cho-han with the werewolves. If you’ve never played cho-han, don’t. It’s a Japanese dice game intended primarily for people who think roulette affords too much opportunity to control your fate and use cunning stratagems. The basic idea is that one person rolls a pair of dice, and then you bet on whether the total is odd or even. The only thing cho-han is good for is losing a great deal of money very quickly. (It’s possible to win a great deal of money very quickly instead, but if you do the Yakuza sitting next to you will probably remove several of your fingers for cheating.)


Needless to say, Aiko enjoys it a great deal. Kyra and Anna both appeared to be down a fair chunk of change, probably because Aiko cheats. I’ve never gotten entirely clear on all the ways she cheats, but it’s usually a safe bet that any game she’s playing is rigged.


“You could have left,” I pointed out. “I’m sure you could come up with something to do.”


She snorted. “Sh’yeah, right. And what would you have done when we weren’t here when you got back?”


“I probably would have done something rash and violent,” I admitted.


“Thought so,” Aiko said. She lifted the dice cup and grinned. “Four. Pay up.”


Kyra shook her head and pushed a stack of chips over. “Those dice have come up even five times in a row,” she grumbled.


“They’re your dice,” the kitsune pointed out. “So what’s the word? The birdbrains willing to talk?”


“Kikuchi agreed to help, very reluctantly, on the condition that we put up with one of his people breathing down our necks. And then he dumped me in the forest on the other side of the mountain.”


“How typically tengu of him. So what took so long?”


“I had to run back here,” I said sourly.


“No offense or anything,” Anna said, “but that was fairly obvious. You reek.”


Aiko pursed her lips. “Yeah, he does smell a bit yiff, doesn’t he?”


Anna started giggling. Kyra looked confused. “Don’t you mean whiff?”


Aiko snorted. “No. No I don’t.”


Kyra looked back and forth between them and sighed. “I don’t want to know, do I?”


“No,” Anna said, still laughing. “No, you really don’t.”


And thus the battered corpse of my dignity took another boot to the face. “I’m going to go take a shower,” I said. “Let me know if anyone tries to blow the building up or something.”


Timing is a funny thing. When you’re trying to arrange it, setting up intricate timing is impossible. The logistics of something as simple as a bake sale are mind-bogglingly difficult. Trying to coordinate an assault requires hundreds of people working overtime, and the result is still a haphazard mess of garbled orders, confused mistakes, and people getting in each other’s way.


And yet, somehow, when a random accident happens, it always manages to happen at, like, the worst possible time. It’s practically a law of the universe. It’s irritating as hell, but also strangely liberating. When you recognize the pattern, you don’t have to be surprised anymore. That takes a lot of the sting out of it.


It also means that you don’t waste much time when it happens. In a lot of ways, that’s why I’m still alive. It’s not that I’m spectacularly good at surviving the worst-case scenario. It’s that I go to ridiculous lengths to ensure that the worst-case scenario isn’t that bad, and when it happens I don’t lose any time. Sometimes, when things go to shit, it’s more important to act fast than to act right.


And that’s how I found myself standing on the staircase, mostly naked and dripping wet, while I watched the single most terrifying…thing I’d ever seen go to town. It must have triggered one or more of my wards and traps, because it was surrounded in flames. They didn’t burn it, or even really get close to it; where it went, the fire went away. It wasn’t even extinguishing it, not really. It was more like it was removing the flames.


They still got in the way, though, making it even harder to see something that would have been plenty confusing on its own. There’s no real biological analogue for what it looked like. It was maybe eight feet tall, but even that was hard to pin down—it swelled and contracted constantly, in all directions, seemingly at random. Visually, the closest analogue I can think of is a jellyfish. It had the same fluid, amorphous shape, but lacked even that much of a central organization. It was constantly extruding new limbs and retracting old ones, but the number seemed to stay relatively stable at around twenty. Each of them was relatively short, no more than three feet or so, and mostly they were coiled up near the center of it.


Of course, that still left it with half a dozen three foot long tentacles, which was a bit of a daunting proposition in a fight.


Not that I was planning on fighting it, because there was one more, very important characteristic I noticed about the thing. Namely, the entire thing was black. Not dark-skinned black, or even ink-black. No, this was the blackness of a cloudy night without a moon, of the cold and infinite void between the stars, a blackness so deep your eyes couldn’t focus on it.


The same blackness, in other words, that I saw every time I looked in a portal to the Otherside. The exact same blackness that Coyote had shown us, lacking only the mad swirls of light.


Everywhere its tentacles passed, they left streaks of that same no-color. Even in the middle of the air. And those streaks were spreading, rapidly.


Well, that settled it. This was definitely the thing that I was supposed to be dealing with, and that meant that staying here was suicide. I’m occasionally rash, no doubt about it, but sooner or later even I recognize that something’s a dumb idea. This was one of them. No, the only way to deal with this was to run away.


Of course, it was between me and the door. That created some issues.


I’d moved fast, and it had only been a few seconds since it busted in the front door. It didn’t appear to be moving very quickly—not even at a fast walk—which left me a couple of seconds before it advanced far enough into the room to cut me off from the rest of the building. That doesn’t sound like much, because it isn’t, but it was enough for me to consider my next course of action.


Priority one was getting out of the building. It would probably still chase us, but there were a lot fewer obstacles outside, and we could obtain a vehicle. We had a much better chance of evading it outside. There wasn’t another exit, but with luck we’d be able to figure something out. And if not, well, there wasn’t jack shit I could do about it anyway, so might as well ignore that possibility.


That meant that the first thing I had to do was find everyone else. Assuming no one had left the building, there were six of us in here—Aiko, Snowflake, Alexis, the two werewolves, and me. All of them would presumably have heard this thing crash through the door, but none of them were in sight, so I had to presume that they didn’t yet realize the danger.


I hopped the railing and fell to the ground, maybe fifteen feet from the monster. I’d decided to try the kitchen first—that was usually a good bet to find Alexis, and everyone else might be in there with her. Failing that, it had access to the garden, which was the closest thing to open space in the mansion. If there was anywhere I could evade it, it would be in the garden. I didn’t think I would be able to outwait the thing—the way those streaks of blackness had been spreading worried the hell out of me—but every little bit helped.


That decision made, I promptly took off at a sprint for the kitchen door. Then I just as promptly fell on my ass when my wet feet slipped on the marble floor.


The good news is that I managed to scramble back to my feet with ten feet left between me and the monster.


The bad news is that, as it turns out, those tentacles could stretch.


I never saw it coming. My back was turned, and all my attention was on legging it. I was brought up short, though, when I felt something wrap around my left forearm. It was cold, so bitterly cold that it instantly started aching. I would have expected it to be slimy, but it was instead totally dry—which, somehow, made it feel even worse, almost reptilian.


I didn’t even think, just wrenched my arm away. There was almost no resistance; my arm slid through the coils without pausing, and I yanked my hand out without difficulty. I staggered a little, expecting more of a fight, and then kept moving. My left arm was numb from the elbow down, from the cold or something else, but I could run and that was what was important right now.


I didn’t slip again, fortunately, and made it to the kitchen without being caught by another tentacle. I slammed the door shut behind myself—I didn’t expect it to do much good but, at this point, I’d have tried pretty much anything—and then turned to survey the scene.


Alexis was in the kitchen, as I’d hoped, as was Snowflake. They were both clearly aware that shit was going down. My cousin had grabbed her staff (my paranoia had been rubbing off on her; that thing was pretty much never out of her immediate reach) and the husky was pacing back and forth, baring her steel teeth and growling.


They were also both staring at me with evident surprise. This may be because it isn’t every day a panicky guy wearing nothing but a largely insubstantial cloak and carrying a sword runs into the room, slams the door, and looks around frantically. But hey, maybe that’s just been my experience.


“Where are the others?” I demanded before either of them could ask what the hell was going on.


The armory, Snowflake said immediately. Aiko was getting ready to go. Kyra and Anna went with her.


Shit. The armory was in the basement, which meant that getting back out was likely to be difficult or impossible. It also meant that getting there in the first place was going to be difficult, since the monster must have advanced past the stairs by now.


None of which mattered. I wasn’t leaving them here. That wasn’t an option.


Besides, nothing we did at this point could really make the odds longer in any meaningful way. At least this way we’d all get to die together in one big, heartwarmingly sentimental scene.


Fortunately, I plan ahead. I’d always known that having only two spiral staircases, both near the entrance, was a potentially very dangerous feature. I couldn’t actually do anything about it, granted, but that wasn’t as important as you might think. Somehow, and I can’t pretend to understand this, when there was a feature I wanted, the mansion always seemed to add it. I’m not sure what the story was with that. Honestly, there were so many kinds of crazy weird magic shit involved in that mansion, I didn’t even try to pretend to understand what was going on with it.


“Come on,” I shouted, running out through the kitchen into the garden. I didn’t really need to shout—whatever the thing was doing, it didn’t seem to make much noise—but there are some moments where talking in a normal tone of voice just doesn’t feel right.


They followed closely on my heels. Well, honestly, the only reason they were still behind me was that they weren’t sure where we were going. Snowflake is way faster than I am, and Alexis is in pretty good shape. Ordinarily I would still have been a lot faster than my cousin—werewolf, remember?—but I was still barefoot.


“What’s going on?” Alexis shouted. Well, at least I wasn’t the only one.


“Just run!” I said, turning down a narrow side path. It wasn’t hidden, exactly, but the opening was between a dense hedge and a row of cypresses, and it was really easy to overlook if you didn’t know it was there. I ran down that, miraculously managing not to sprain my ankle in a ridiculously embarrassing way, until I spotted a thin spot in the hedge.


Again, it wasn’t much. It looked almost exactly the same as the rest of the hedge, but if you pulled the surface layers away there was an archway. Normally I gently tugged the floral curtain away, slipped through, and made sure it was back in place behind me. Currently I wasn’t in the mood, so instead I slashed through the center of it with Tyrfing and then just barged through. It was a lot faster, albeit painful and awkward—those hedges were nasty, and I took some scratches in places that really weren’t meant to be scratched.


If I got really lucky, I might have a chance to be annoyed by that.


On the other side was a tiny clearing, barely big enough for a half-dozen friendly people to stand in. The only feature was a massive trapdoor. It looked like something out of an extremely low-budget fantasy movie, a slab of stone the size and shape of a seven foot door. It was glossy black and unmarked, except for a stylized snowflake design in the center of the door in what looked like mercury.


The mansion also has something of a flair for the dramatic.


You would expect a piece of stone that size to weigh a ton, and if it were really stone I expect that it would. It had a density closer to pine, though, and I grabbed the steel ring with my right hand and threw it open easily. This revealed a narrow, pitch-black staircase lined with expertly cut stone. I threw myself down it without hesitation. Alexis and Snowflake, who were starting to pick up on how extreme my urgency was by now, followed at a brisk pace.


I did manage to outpace them on the stairs. Unfortunately, that was only because my feet went out from under me again and I mostly ended up bouncing down them. I didn’t break anything, but I picked up a few more bruises, and I was pretty sure I’d sprained my right wrist. Between that and the numbness I was still feeling in my left arm, it was going to be inconvenient if I had to do anything precise with my hands in the near future.


This was getting ridiculous. It was a good thing I wasn’t planning on fighting the monster, because at the rate I was going I’d be crippled by the time I saw it again. How was it possible for someone to be an absolute badass capable of cutting through hordes of minions, and yet almost get taken out running around the house?


Pushing such thoughts from my head with only minor difficulty, I got to my feet and opened the door at the bottom of the staircase, a much more normal door than the one at the top. It opened up into my laboratory, a large, plain room that was all white marble and stainless steel. It was probably ridiculously expensive, but it always reminded me more of a high-class bathroom than anything.


I have no idea how that works. I mean, I measured it all out once, and by all rights the bottom of the staircase should be about fifty feet out into the garden. The lab wasn’t even close to it. Linear distances just aren’t all that reliable on the Otherside.


“Winter,” Alexis panted as she stepped through the doorway, herded by an extremely impatient Snowflake. The husky had probably picked up most of what was happening from my mind, and she was at least as panicky as I was. “Hold up a second.”


“There’s no time,” I said. I was also breathing a little hard, although not nearly as much so as my cousin. I’ve always gotten more in the way of endurance than anything from the werewolf schtick.


“Don’t you at least want to get Legion?” she asked. “If things are all that bad, you know.”


Oh. Right. That was a good point. I had a ton of valuable stuff in this lab, some of which was absurdly expensive, but ultimately it was all replaceable. Legion wasn’t. The demon wasn’t a friend, exactly, but he’d gotten me out of some nasty scrapes and to abandon him now would be a foolish waste of resources. Also, somewhat unethical. He might be a bastard, but that was a bit much.


I ran over and grabbed the skeleton Legion used as a vessel. He was capable of movement—heck, when he got going none of us could keep up with him—but it took him a couple of minutes to wake up and that was time we didn’t have. So for now I just tossed the skeleton over my shoulder and kept moving.


Uh, Winter? Snowflake said. She sounded afraid, which was pretty unsettling; Snowflake’s smart enough to be scared of a lot of stuff, but usually she masks it with bravado. The walls are…bending. Is this supposed to happen?


I looked at the walls. They were bending. I can’t really explain it, and even looking at it gave me an instant headache. It was a bit like at a stereoscopic image that wasn’t quite aligned right, or a really freaky optical illusion. When I looked at any point on the wall, everything was linear and where it should be. But out of the corner of my eye, they looked stretched and warped, like they were flirting with non-Euclidean geometries.


The scary part was that, once I saw it, I realized that it wasn’t just the walls. It was easiest to see on the walls, but that was just because they were large enough for the subtle effect to show up. Once I knew what to look for, I saw it in everything in the room, like the space in the room was being twisted.


“Oh fuck,” I said. “Run!”


The laboratory was a large room. I took about five seconds to cross it. As I was turning the handle on the door, there was a large crash behind me—the sort of sound you might hear if, for instance, a large slab of something that wasn’t really stone had just broken through a sturdy wooden door and shattered on a marble floor.


Needless to say, I didn’t turn around to see if that was really what it was. The monster shouldn’t have been able to fit down the staircase, but I had no faith that it would be limited by that. Hell, it could probably just carve a tunnel down through the ground.


The hallway between the lab and the armory was less than twenty feet long. The warped space must have been getting worse, though, because after ten seconds of sprinting I was less than halfway across. Alexis and Snowflake both passed me easily, not even seeming to see me on their way by. Then, between one step and the next, I started moving so fast that I crossed the other half of the hall and slammed face first into the door on the other end.


It turns out ramming a bronze doorknob into your abdomen at high speed and then breaking your nose on a hardwood door hurts a little bit. In combination with my numerous cuts and bruises, sprained wrist, and numb arm, I was really starting to feel a little bit upset. Even for me, this streak of bad luck was getting absurd.


I reached for the doorknob, and only then realized that I was still carrying Tyrfing, and it wasn’t sheathed. No wonder I was breaking myself into bits here. Hell, the only surprising thing was that I hadn’t stabbed myself falling down the stairs.


Under other circumstances, I probably would have felt embarrassed at having made such a stupid mistake. Fortunately, I was currently a little bit too busy with raw panic, so I just sheathed the sword and opened the door. The weird space-twisting shenanigans seemed to have balanced out, and I ended up walking through about two steps in front of the others.


Kyra was standing directly on the other side pointing a shotgun at the door. That was an entirely intelligent thing to do, and frankly in the event of a home invasion by an unknown force it was probably the smartest thing she could have done.


I just wish she hadn’t pulled the trigger when I opened the door.


Kyra isn’t really all that great with guns in general, and I might have hoped that her terrible aim would have worked in my favor for once. This being my day for shitty luck, that didn’t happen. I took most of a load of buckshot to the left side of my torso and arm.


It hurt.


“Winter?” Kyra said. “Oh, shit. What did I just do?”


I staggered into the room and started to fall. Aiko, who was standing just inside decked out in full armor, caught me and lowered me slowly to the floor. “How bad is it?” she asked urgently, as Snowflake and Alexis moved inside. Neither of them seemed quite sure what had just happened.


“Ow,” I whispered. “Run.”


“Is it the thing Coyote was talking about?” she asked. Her voice sounded strange, parts pitched high and parts low. It sounded slightly out of sync with itself, like listening to the same song twice at once with one iteration a beat ahead of the other.


“Yes. Run.”


“Oh, shit,” she breathed. For a second the kitsune looked scared, terribly overwhelmed and out of her depth.


Then something frightening happened. She stood up, a mad devil-may-care grin on her face. I’d seen that expression before, and it never boded well. “Fuck it,” she said. “I can’t really make this worse, can I?” She looked at my cousin, who was standing by the door looking stunned. “Shut the door,” she barked. Alexis jumped, then obeyed.


Aiko walked around the room, muttering to herself. She tugged one gauntlet off and tossed it carelessly to the ground, and drew her tanto with her other hand. A quick movement later and she was bleeding freely from a shallow cut along the back of her hand, still muttering in what sounded like Japanese. Or whatever version thereof kitsune use, anyway; Aiko actively avoids any kind of discussion about her species, but I’m pretty sure they don’t speak modern Japanese.


As she moved I felt the magic she was working. It was big, easily the most power I’d ever seen her use by an order of magnitude, and smelled so strongly of fox and spice that it overwhelmed the scent of blood.


I had no idea what she was doing. It felt almost like opening an Otherside portal, but bigger, deeper, vastly more complex and not nearly as localized. I wouldn’t have had a prayer of pulling something like that off, but Aiko was a lot more comfortable with that sort of thing.


I also noticed something strange. I could feel, now that I was pretty much obligated to calm down and stop running around like a chicken with its head cut off, what the presence of Coyote’s god-level abomination was doing to the fabric of space. Actually, that isn’t quite right; I’d noticed it warping space, but now that I had a chance to actually think about it I was pretty sure that was just a symptom of a larger thing going on. I thought that it was doing something on a basic level to the Otherside domain that housed this mansion.


Now that I thought about it, that made a lot of sense. If what Coyote had said was true, this thing was pretty much an embodiment of entropy. Between that and the streaks of chaos that it had left in its wake, I was starting to suspect that it was breaking down the orderly rules which set this domain apart from the chaos which Coyote had implied it was made from. It only made sense that that would bring with it a collapse in the rules governing the spatial relation of objects.


Whatever, the point is that I could feel it, in some way that I couldn’t quite define but was absolutely sure of. And I could feel how that instability was feeding into whatever Aiko was doing. I wasn’t sure whether it was intentional, but I could tell that whatever the thing was doing to the world, it was amplifying the effects of her magic. Whatever that was supposed to do.


I hate not understanding what’s going on.


Maybe ten seconds after she started, her spell came to a crescendo. It wasn’t that much stronger than what she’d been doing, but it seemed to trigger another release of power, one that was vastly greater than anything I’d been anticipating. It washed over me with all the irresistibility of the tides, and brought a curtain of blackness in its wake.



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Event Horizon 8.5

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Astonishingly, we were still alive when I opened my eyes again. We appeared to be in Colorado Springs again, right where we’d left from, rather than a random desert on another continent. And Coyote was still present. All things considered, it was quite the unexpected hat trick.


“Okay,” I said, once I’d adjusted to not feeling or seeing creepy, bizarre things. “There’s something from outside of the world running amok in town, and it’ll be bad if it stays here. Okay. I can deal with that. What happens if I don’t find it?”


Coyote glanced at me, then started walking down the street again. “It would be good if that didn’t happen,” he said, his voice unwontedly serious.


“What happens, Coyote?”


He sighed. “Whoever summoned it, they did it thinking it would give them power. That’ll work, but it can’t last. Sooner or later, something’s gonna break, and it ain’t gonna be the thing from the outside. It’ll get loose, and when it does things will be bad.” There was a heavy, ominous pause. “Loki ain’t gonna let that happen.”


Something about that phrase was deeply worrying to me. If it were that simple, Loki would never have hired me to find the person in the first place. “How would he stop it, exactly?” I asked.


Coyote glanced sidelong at me and smiled mirthlessly. “You ever heard of Pompeii?” he asked.


“Wait a second,” Aiko asked. “He set off a volcano on them?”


“That one was Shiva’s work. But yeah, that’s the gist of it.” Coyote shrugged. “We’ve been trying to stay out of things on earth lately, ’cause it’s kinda fun to watch you bastards fumble around without us. So he’ll probably try to make it look like an accident. No volcanoes here and it ain’t by the ocean, which makes it a little harder. He’ll probably do it as an earthquake or a fire or something. Maybe a bomb, those are popular right now.”


“If I don’t catch them within a week,” I said weakly, “Loki’s going to destroy the city?”


“He gave you a week? Damn, that’s more than I was guessing. Oh,” Coyote said as an afterthought, “and yep, that’s the score. He’ll let a few people get away, but we like to be thorough with this sort of thing. Can’t take chances with things from outside. They don’t play by the rules.”


“No pressure or anything,” I muttered.


“That’s the spirit!”


We walked for a few minutes in silence. I was trying to process the sheer magnitude of what I’d just heard. I think Aiko was doing something similar; she could be destructive, but killing half a million people to deal with one fool was in another realm entirely.


Coyote, presumably, was just going for a walk.


“Okay,” I said finally. “I think I’ve got my head wrapped around that. So can I ask you one more question?”


“Well,” Coyote said slowly, “that’s a tricky one. I mean, I could pull your tongue out. But that would remove a lot of your charm, and I can’t think of another way to stop you. So in that sense, yes, I suppose you can.”


“Why are you telling us this?”


“We had a deal,” he said offhandedly.


I snorted. “Yeah, right. Because casually employing a relative is totally worth as much as the deepest secrets of the universe. Oh, and you couldn’t find any more prestigious, rewarding jobs to bribe her way into. Right, of course.”


“You’re not very trusting.”


Aiko broke out laughing. “Holy shit, Winter, we’ve found the god of understatement.”


“Right,” I said sourly. “Come on, Coyote, stop trying to change the subject.”


He sighed. “You realize that I have a vested interest in this world, right? I like this world. I don’t want to see it damaged any more than Loki does.”


I rolled my eyes. “How dim do you think I am? You told us way more than was necessary to do the job.”


“Fine!” he snapped. “I owed it to your mother. You happy now?”


I groaned. “She was screwing you too?” I said disbelievingly.


“Yeah, that was a fun few nights. She wasn’t as hot as the succubus, but ten times the creativity, and let me tell you, that counts for a hell of a lot.”


Lovely. That brought her count up to several dozen werewolves, at least five faeries, a vampire, three literal wolves (one of which was actually descended from the Fenris Wolf, but she hadn’t known that at the time, so I thought it scored as a wolf), and two gods. “Isn’t there anyone who hasn’t had sex with my mother?” I asked aloud.


“I haven’t,” Aiko offered.


“Actually,” Coyote interjected dryly, “I wouldn’t say that if I were you.”




Coyote nodded. “Oh, yeah. You were definitely at that party. This would have been, oh, around thirty years ago. It was a Daylight Court gig. You came with a changeling and then ended up stabbing him in the liver.” He chuckled. “Good times.”


“Wait a second. That werewolf was Winter’s mom?”




“Well, shit,” Aiko said after a few moments. “I guess I did have sex with your mother once.”


“Oh, man,” Coyote said, chuckling. “Talk about awkward. Man, the looks on your faces right now are priceless.”


I glared at him. “Speaking of which,” I growled, “I think this conversation has wandered rather far from anything resembling relevance, and I’m on a rather tight schedule. So unless you have something to say worth hearing, please piss off.”


Coyote grinned and swept into a low, mocking bow, holding his cowboy hat in front of him. It appeared to have sprouted a peacock feather at some point. “Sayonara,” he said cheerfully as he straightened up, tossing his hat casually through the air.


It landed on my head, in front of my eyes. By the time I’d gotten it off, Coyote was gone.


“So,” Aiko said as we made our way back to the house. “Um. This is really awkward, you know?” She was quiet for a few steps. “I had no idea that was your mom. I would have told you if I had.”


I sighed. “Aiko, as nontraditional as it is, let’s think this one through before we go jumping to conclusions, okay? First off,” I said, marking it off on my fingers, “the only source for this is Coyote. It’s a plausible story, sure, but it’s also plausible that he’s just making it up to screw with us. Second, my mother had sex with anything that moved, up to and including a raccoon. A significant proportion of the people I’ve met have screwed her. I’m pretty much used to the awkwardness.”


“Wait a second,” she said. “A raccoon? How?”


“I try not to think about it too much. Oh,” I added as an afterthought. “Third, and most importantly, I love you. For your sake, I would set the world on fire and dance in the ashes. Next to that, what happened at a party before I was born means very little to me.”


Aiko was silent for a long moment. “You know,” she said finally, “I think that’s the most romantic thing I’ve ever heard you say. A little heavier on psycho-killer than adorable, but romantic.”


“Too much?”


She shrugged. “Hey, I like psycho. Psycho’s a lot of fun.” A few seconds later, she grinned. “So were you serious about setting the world on fire? Because that would be a pretty cool show.”


I sighed. “Aaaaand the mood is dead. You made it longer than I expected, honestly.” I didn’t say anything for a few steps. “More seriously,” I said quietly, “what did you think of Coyote’s story?”


She shrugged again. “Believable, I guess. Really doesn’t matter much to me. Sure it’s cool to talk to somebody who was there when the world was made, but it’ll never matter for the likes of us.” She paused. “Also, Coyote’s a jackass and I wouldn’t trust him to give me the time of day without lying just for the hell of it. So there’s that.”


I snorted. “Yeah, that’s about what I thought. If he’s serious about Loki destroying the city, though….” I shook my head. “That’s kind of hard to grasp.”


“You’re backsliding towards adorable now,” Aiko informed me. “I’ve always thought it was really cute the way you take responsibility for, like, everything. I don’t see that it matters any, though. You were already committed to finding the guy. The only thing that’s changed is that we know to get out of Dodge if it doesn’t look like it’s working.”


“True enough,” I admitted. “But it does raise the stakes. I might take a few measures I wouldn’t have considered otherwise.”


“Calling in favors?” she guessed.


I grimaced. “Yeah. Maybe even giving a few away, much as I hate the idea.” I was quiet for a moment. “I think I’m going up on the mountain first,” I said eventually.


Aiko looked like she’d bitten an onion, and then discovered it was rotten. “Makes sense,” she admitted reluctantly. “Probably better if I stay at home for that one. Kitsune tend not to get along with tengu very well.”


“Last I heard your cousin was still working for them,” I pointed out.


“True. But then Kimiko’s got a stick so far up her ass she’s most of the way to a birdbrain herself. They probably get along fine.”


I laughed. “Good point. I’ll see you when I get back, then. Try not to blow anything up.”


She sniffed. “You never let me do anything fun.”


Of the two groups I share dominion over the city with, I much prefer the tengu. Part of that, I can’t deny, is prejudice; I don’t like vampires, and nothing Katrin has done has given me reason to change that attitude. More of it, though, is that Kikuchi Kazuhiro takes a much more hands-off attitude towards dealing with me. As far as he’s concerned, the city’s mine and the mountain’s his, and that’s all that need be said. It cuts down on my roaming territory, because I don’t go onto the Peak without a good reason anymore. But I vastly prefer that to my constant, petty power struggles with Katrin.


It was late morning when I parked the car at the base of the mountain and started up the trail. By agreement, people on the official trail up the mountain had safe passage. I had insisted upon that when Kikuchi and I first made our deal, but I think the tengu agreed more for his own convenience than anything. Pikes Peak gets a fair number of visitors, and if he had to vet all of them individually it would drive him crazy.


I hiked up the trail for about an hour. It wasn’t terribly difficult—I’m in excellent condition, and it was a groomed path. Heck, I wasn’t even carrying a pack. It was getting pretty hot out, though, and I was wearing a long cloak over a suit of armor. Now, my armor has a great many beneficial qualities, and I value it highly. But no one’s ever accused it of being excessively breathable. So by the time I decided I’d gone far enough, I was sweaty, irritable, and resentful of the time I’d lost.


Finally, once I was a good distance up into the trees, I turned off the beaten path along a game trail. It was narrow and indistinct and, most importantly, empty. Most of the relatively few people that came this far didn’t leave the path, and prey animals tend to avoid me. More so than normal people, even. I saw some birds and a couple of squirrels, but nothing larger.


I ambled along that trail for a while, in no particular hurry. I was decidedly on their turf now; the tengu wouldn’t take long to find me.


Less than ten minutes later a fog came up. It was a strange, distinctly unnatural weather phenomenon. To the sides it was a dense curtain, obscuring all but the most shadowy glimpses of the forest around me. The trees themselves loomed out of the fog in a way reminiscent of a horror movie, all skeletal branches and reaching twigs. Straight ahead, though, the fog was more of a pale mist, drifting idly across the path, soft and inviting without revealing anything more than twenty feet ahead.


I glanced backwards, once. The fog was thicker there, a wall of white no more than five feet from my back. It moved with me, at a steady walking pace. I considered stopping, to see if it would continue moving and swallow me up.


Something told me that wouldn’t be a very smart thing to do.


There was no birdsong now. No sign of life at all.


I shrugged and kept walking.


A few minutes later, a pair of tengu loomed up out of the mist, one standing just to either side of the trail. They were strange-looking creatures, a little shorter than a man with limbs slightly too long for their bodies. They were covered with corvine feathers from head to toe, and disdained any other garment. Long black beaks sprouted from their faces where a nose would be on a human, between large, gunmetal-grey eyes. Other than that, they had no distinguishing features. Presumably another tengu would know the difference, but to my uneducated eyes the two were identical.


Oh yeah, and they were both holding a plain, undecorated katana. It looked extremely casual, almost more like a fashion accessory than a weapon, but I wasn’t fooled. I’d seen tengu fight before, and while presumably these guys weren’t on a par with Kikuchi, they were still extremely dangerous. I was probably stronger than either of them, and Tyrfing was more than a match for most any sword. But tengu could be blindingly fast, they probably had at least a century of experience on me, and we were on their turf. In a fight, I wasn’t sure I could handle either of them. Both would take me to pieces.


Not to mention whatever might be out in the fog that I hadn’t seen.


“Halt,” said tengu on the left. Its voice was harsh, closer to a raven’s croak than a human voice. “Identify yourself.” It sounded more bored than anything, and looked at me with a casual condescension that transcended species barriers.


Considering that I was in a strange place, probably surrounded by…not enemies, exactly, but certainly not friends…and I’d already determined that any trouble was extremely likely to end in my messy death, you’d think that I was a little nervous. And you’d be right, albeit guilty of criminal understatement.


But this was a make-or-break moment. How I dealt with the gatekeepers would determine how the tengu perceived me.


Winter Wolf, perpetually broke carpenter, would have liked to be polite, even diffident, and avoid causing a scene. He would have liked to keep things civil, not assert any claim of dominance, and generally be a nice guy.


Winter Wolf, jarl, didn’t have that option.


“I am Winter Wolf-Born,” I said, faking a confidence I didn’t in the slightest feel. “Jarl of Colorado Springs, here to see Kikuchi Kazuhiro, dai-tengu.”


The tengu on the right scowled at me. It had a pretty good scowl. “We have not been given instruction to conduct you to our lord,” it said.


I raised one eyebrow (a trick which took forever to figure out, by the way). “Do you propose to stop me?” I asked, as deliberately nonchalant as I could manage. They could, of course—even if they believed every ridiculously overhyped story I’d heard about my capabilities, I was pretty sure they could still figure out who had the advantage here. But it would be an action with some fairly serious political fallout, and these guys were just minions. I was gambling that they would rather pass the buck than take the possible backlash for this decision themselves.


I felt bad for ruining their day like this. But as far as they knew, I had a heart of ice.


Twenty minutes later, I walked into a small clearing, the edges of which were shrouded in fog. The two tengu were still flanking me, but their attitudes of confused deference made it seem more like an honor guard than an armed escort. Neither of them seemed entirely clear on how they’d wound up doing what I said rather than the other way round, and they were clearly not happy with this state of affairs.


Kikuchi was lounging in the center of the clearing in a throne seemingly carved out of an enormous tree. Or possibly grown; I was pretty sure the tree was alive.


Well, I hoped it was Kikuchi, anyway. He was wearing armor of a style similar to mine, and I hadn’t seen another tengu in that ensemble. But given how much difficulty I had telling tengu apart, it could have been an impostor and I would have never known the difference.


I bowed deeply at the edge of the clearing. “Dai-tengu.”


Kikuchi looked at me for a long moment, his expression alien and unreadable, then nodded. “Jarl.” He looked at the other tengu. “Leave us.”


They hastened to comply, leaving me alone with their boss. Except, of course, for all of the hidden watchers who, I was still convinced, were waiting out in the fog to pounce at my first wrong step.


That wasn’t really Kikuchi’s style, I was pretty confident. But I usually find that it pays to assume that everyone is secretly plotting to kill you until proven otherwise.


“Winter,” Kikuchi said, sounding much more pleasant now that the witnesses were gone. “You were a little harsh on my people.”


I didn’t bother asking how he knew that. In my experience, asking how a powerful person on the spooky side of things knows something is pretty much never a fruitful avenue of inquiry. Besides, I was in his house. It was safe to assume that nothing much happened here without Kikuchi knowing about it.


So, rather than play dumb, I just shrugged. “It seemed the most efficient way to do things,” I said honestly. “And the matter I have to talk with you about is too urgent to permit much politeness.”


Kikuchi stared at me for a long moment, and I got the distinct impression that he wasn’t happy. At all. “When you say that,” he said at last, “I get a very bad feeling. Why is that?”


“Because you’ve met me?” I suggested.


Kikuchi seemed to actually consider it. “That may be it,” he said at last, very seriously. “What is your problem?”


This was the tricky part. I didn’t for a moment think that Coyote had been joking when he threatened me with death and dismemberment if I shared the secrets he’d told me. Telling Kikuchi what was really going on was, therefore, out of the question. At the same time, though, I didn’t want to lie to him. There was a very good chance he would catch me if I outright lied, and doing so in this setting was rude enough that I couldn’t predict what the consequences of such an action might be. Getting around both of those problems was going to require some quick talking.


“It has recently come to my attention,” I said carefully, keeping my tone as deferent as I knew how, “that a dangerous entity has been summoned into my city. The presence of this entity has been attracting…unfavorable attention from very high places.”


Kikuchi treated me to a remarkably cold look. “Are you implying,” he said, enunciating very clearly, “that I have broken our treaty?”


“What?” I said stupidly, genuinely surprised that he would get that message out of what I’d said. Then I replayed the past several minutes in my head and wanted to slap myself. In retrospect, it probably would have been a little smarter not to approach the topic quite like this.


“Honored dai-tengu,” I said, laying the submissive attitude on even thicker, “I would never question your integrity in that manner. Indeed, the thought had not even occurred to me; I would as soon imagine the sun failing to rise as you breaking your given word.” When in doubt, ridiculous flattery is always a good bet for damage control.


The tengu looked at least slightly mollified. “In that case,” he said, leaning back in his living throne, “why have you come to tell me this?”


I tried to think of a polite, roundabout way to get my point across. Then I sighed. As usual, the only thing my attempts at polite diplomacy had succeeded in was digging me into a nice, slick-sided hole. Personally, I blame so much time spent around werewolves as a child. Granted werewolves have plenty of political games of their own, but generally speaking they’re pretty straightforward. It was poor preparation for clever word games and subtle double meanings.


“Look,” I said, abandoning etiquette entirely. “It might be in your best interest to care about this particular event. I’m not trying to threaten you, or anything like that. I’m just sharing some information that I think you might find helpful. Loki wants this situation dealt with, posthaste. He gave me a short deadline, and I have it on good authority that if I don’t meet it my city is going up in flames, probably literally. I don’t want to presume, but it seemed to me that this was something you would want to know about.”


Kikuchi spent a few moments absorbing that. He didn’t seem upset at my bluntness, at least, which was a relief. “And you’re confident of this?” he asked at last, his voice noncommittal. That’s one of the reasons I tend to avoid Kikuchi; dude is incredibly hard to read.


I took a moment to consider the question. “Loki isn’t the most trustworthy of gods,” I said eventually. “But to the furthest of my knowledge, he’s never actually lied to me, either. And some of his actions this time….” I shook my head. “No, I don’t think Loki is fabricating this. And I don’t in the least doubt his willingness to destroy the city, if that’s what it takes to resolve the problem.”


“I see,” Kikuchi said. I still couldn’t get a solid read on what he was thinking. “How much information do you have on this…entity?”


“I know that it was summoned into this world by a deliberate action,” I said, carefully not mentioning where it was summoned from. “And I know that it’s powerful enough to worry gods. Beyond that, I have no information on its capabilities.”


“It was summoned,” Kikuchi said, latching onto that detail like a pit bull with a particularly tasty bone. “Do you know who summoned it?”


“I know that it was someone in the city,” I said, shrugging. “Beyond that your guess is as good as mine.”


Kikuchi frowned, an expression which was much more intense on a tengu’s face than a human’s. “I see. It would seem that it is in my best interest to assist in investigating this matter.” He nodded firmly. “I will instruct my kin to help you identify the guilty party,” he said, in the manner of a king graciously bestowing aid upon his least loyal peasant. “And send a representative to facilitate coordination of our efforts.”


I bowed deeply. “Thank you, dai-tengu. I will likewise inform you if I discover any information relevant to the investigation. With luck this problem can be resolved quickly and without harm.”


Kikuchi nodded decisively. “It is settled, then. I will not delay you from this urgent task any further.” He waved one hand casually, and the fog poured in with such speed and inevitability that I was, for one brief moment, vaguely surprised that it didn’t make a sound like a crashing wave as it rolled over my head.

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Interlude 3.a: Pryce

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I have always hated that moment, in the dead of the night, when everything is quiet.


It doesn’t happen every night. On weekends, or during the holidays, I can sometimes go days without it. But sooner or later, inevitably, the moment will come that the last employee has taken their pay and left, the last drunk has staggered out the door clutching a bottle of their favorite poison, the last customer has gone home to a loving family or an empty house.


They don’t think about what they leave behind when they go. It’s enough for them to know that it will be there again when they return.


The thing that bothers me about that moment isn’t the loneliness. I don’t mind that; hell, I’m grateful to have some time to myself. No, what I can’t stand is the emptiness. The hollow feeling left behind when I’m the only one in the building. The contrast between what’s still in the bar and what they took home with them when they left.


Home is a concept that hasn’t had any real meaning for me in a very long time.


On this night, the moment came at around three in the morning. I watched as the last group of college students gathered their belongings and left, drunk as lords and secure in the knowledge that they would never die. A pair of werewolves drifted behind them, grim men who had imbibed more than any of the students and walked away stone-cold sober. The very last to leave was the old drunk at the end of the bar, who raised his bottle to me on the way out.


I nodded back at him. One lost soul to another, as it were. I didn’t know what shadows were lying over his past, or why he hadn’t been sober for thirty years. In many ways, it didn’t matter. I created this bar to be a place where nobody had to talk about the skeletons in their closet.


A haven for lost souls, in a way. There are so very, very many of us.


I watched the door swing closed, and then walked out from behind the bar. Many of my customers would have been shocked by that; many of them would have thought it was impossible.


In a sense, they were right. But even after a hundred years, sometimes I liked to pretend.


It was for much the same reason that I grabbed a bottle of whiskey as I moved. I didn’t bother with a glass.


Sitting at one of the tables, I opened the bottle and traced my fingertips over the chessboard set into the tabletop. The werewolves had left their game set up, many of the pieces still on the board. White had checkmate in three moves, black in two.


I am not fond of chess. You have to plan to play chess, and I don’t like to plan. My plans have never worked out well, not for me or anyone else. A delicate touch, to make the only games in my bar chess, billiards, and shuffleboard. A subtlety. The kind of tiny mockery that turns a prison into a work of art.


I swept the pieces into the drawer under the table and took a long drink of whiskey. The flavors were muted, and there was almost no burn, but for a moment I could almost convince myself otherwise. I could almost remember.


Memories are interesting things. I’m still not sure whether leaving me with mine was a small mercy, or the final touch on my own personal hell.


The newcomer in town was slender, almost effeminate, and expensively dressed. Many took him for a lawyer, a banker, or a politician. He carried himself in a way which was suggestive of authority, as though he was accustomed to his orders being followed.


There were places in town that he could have gone to blend in. This was all so very long ago, before Colorado was even a state, but there was still money in the area, and it had brought its inevitable attendants with it. He could easily have gone somewhere that he wouldn’t have stood out. Instead, he walked into one of the roughest, nastiest bars in the city.


In hindsight, that should have been a warning. But then, I suppose that’s the nature of hindsight.


I was there when he came in, drinking with two friends. We were all more stereotypical of that era, hard men who were suited to frontier life. John was a miner, and Michael worked for one of the ranchers near the city. For my part, I could never hold down a job for long. At the moment I was working as a laborer for the gold mill. It was backbreaking work, sometimes literally, and the pay was never enough.


To this day, I don’t know why he chose to sit with us. I didn’t question it at the time, which should have been another warning sign. I hardly even noticed him, and that wasn’t natural.


One thing led to another. He drank with us for a while. The man said little, but he said it in a pleasant way, such that all of us thought he was a decent fellow. Some time later, he mentioned cards.


Shortly after that, he was looking at me and smiling. “You cheated,” he said. He didn’t sound upset about it. It was just a statement of fact. The sky is blue. The bread is burnt. You cheated.


“You calling me a liar?” I asked. At the time, I thought that I sounded dangerous, like an outlaw or a stagecoach robber. In hindsight, I suspect it was obvious that I was just a stupid young man who needed money to pay off gambling debts and had no real idea what to do about it.


“No,” he said mildly. “I’m saying that you cheated. It’s entirely different.”


“What are you going to do about it?”


He looked around at the bar. At the time, I thought that he was sizing up his situation. I might not have been a dangerous man, but I had two friends with me and most of the bar knew me, and he was a stranger. Thus, I wasn’t surprised when he pushed the money over to me.


“I’m sure I’ll think of something,” he said, smiling at me. He then stood and left without another word.


I don’t sleep anymore. I can’t. But if I could, and I had nightmares, they would just consist of that smile.


I took my time about the whiskey, savoring it. I knew the ebb and flow of my bar as intimately as a man might know his heartbeat, and I had almost an hour before business would be picking up again. There was plenty of time.


Then again, I always had a surplus of time. “Water, water, every where, nor any drop to drink.” An unpleasantly apt comparison, considering the nature of the poem.


After about forty minutes I returned to my position behind the bar, dropping the empty bottle into a garbage can. It was empty, both before and after I threw the bottle away. A small perk of my position. I then idled away the time polishing glasses, though they didn’t need polished. It was a simple task, repetitive and mindless, and it soothed the part of me that wanted nothing more than to be a bartender.


Finally, just when the emptiness was getting to be too much to bear, a young woman entered. She was dripping wet, suggesting that it was raining outside, and looked quite bedraggled in her skimpy clothing and heavy makeup. To the best of my memory, and my memory for such things was literally flawless, I had never served her before.


A werewolf. Uncommon, to see a female of that species, but hardly unknown. She was still quite young, and carried the influence of the wolf lightly enough that most wouldn’t have seen it, but I knew my customers. Another perk.


She was unhealthy. Damaged. Broken, in a sense. A strong person beaten down until she fit into place.


I had seen several werewolves of that sort, recently. There was something wrong in the pack, a sickness, a corruption. The signs were there, easy to read if you knew how to look, all of them saying that something had changed.


It was, I reminded myself, none of my business. It was nothing I could fix. The werewolves would sort themselves out, sooner or later, or someone else would sort them. I couldn’t contribute anything.


She looked around warily, seeming confused, then walked over to where I was standing and collapsed onto a stool, slumping forward against the bar. “Beer,” she said, sounding desperately tired. “Something cheap.”


At a glance, she couldn’t be more than seventeen. Much too young to be drinking, if one believed the modern laws. As a lycanthrope, she could have been any age and looked like that, but she couldn’t have fooled me. I knew full well that she was hardly older than she looked.


I placed a bottle in front of her anyway. We’re all damned, each in our own way. It isn’t my place to say that anyone’s road to hell is wrong.


“I’ve never been here before,” she said, staring at the bottle. “A friend told me about it.” She was lying, and poorly. A friend wouldn’t have sent her here alone, and particularly not at this time of night. For that matter, if she had a friend, she wouldn’t have needed to come.


I grunted noncommittally and went back to polishing glasses.


“You don’t have a sign outside,” she continued. “What’s the place called?”


“Prices,” I said. A simple name, and truth in advertising. It’s always amused me that everyone hears me wrong.


This woman was no exception. “Right,” she said. “I take it you’re Pryce?”


I grunted, nodded. It was as good a name as any. My own name was long since gone, plucked neatly out of my memories the day I became this thing. After so long, I doubt anyone remembers it anymore.


“I’m Kyra,” she said, drinking a significant portion of her beer. She then looked at it in apparent surprise. “This is good. What is it?”


“Microbrewery.” I hadn’t bothered to check the label, but I knew what I served. I could have told her the name of the brewery, the ingredients, and the date of bottling, had I cared to. Had she been interested. I knew my customers, and this girl didn’t drink beer for the taste. She didn’t drink for the alcohol, either; werewolves don’t. No, she wanted beer for the same reason I had drunk that whiskey. To pretend. To remember, if only for a moment, what it had been like to be human.


She said nothing for the next several minutes, which was pleasant. Too many of my patrons are inclined to talk a great deal when they have nothing to say. Someone who was content to sit and drink beer in silence was a welcome change.


After about ten minutes, and most of three beers, my door opened again and a man walked in. He was an infrequent customer, a human with a little troll blood in him. I recalled him as an aggressive, rude loudmouth, a bully and a coward. Not a pleasant man, but thus far he’d been smart enough to toe the line, and I had tolerated him. Sooner or later he would break my rules, and I would throw him out.


When he came in, he immediately saw the girl. He looked her over, taking in multiple aspects of her appearance and dress, and grinned lecherously.


For her part, she looked terrified, miserable, physically nauseated. She looked at him, visibly nerved herself, and then stood up. “Sorry,” she said. “Duty calls.” She paused and turned to face me. “Do you have a back room?” she asked hesitantly. “I…I really don’t want to go out in this again.”


I considered her for a moment, then grunted. “That hall,” I said, pointing.


“Thanks, Pryce,” she said. She took a deep breath, then went to talk with the man. They stood out of earshot of the bar, but I knew that they were discussing money, and more specifically how much of it she was to be paid for performing vaguely specified actions. He looked pleased as a pig in shit. She looked as though she were about to vomit.


It was not my place to judge, I reminded myself. Not my place to condemn. Men and women lived their lives, and sometimes they got hurt despite having done nothing wrong. There was no rhyme or reason to it.


I could not provide justice. I could not make the world make sense.


I could only stand ready to pick up the pieces. I could provide a refuge, a place to go when you didn’t have a home, or a friend, or a hope.


A haven, for those with nowhere else to go.


After the stranger came to town, two weeks passed uneventfully. For a few days, I worried that there would be repercussions for my actions, but none was apparent, and gradually I began to relax. I began to think that his parting line had been an idle threat, or an expression of bravado. He had no proof, after all, and no way of knowing who I was. And it wasn’t as though I had taken that much from him, in comparison with his apparent wealth. I convinced myself that he had simply moved on with his life, and I had nothing to fear.


Then, two weeks later, I went to sleep in my bed, and woke up elsewhere.


That building little resembled the bar in which I currently make my residence, a fact in which I take some pride. At that point, it was just a warehouse on the edge of town, an empty shell of a building with little to make one take notice of it. It was visited so seldom that no one noticed when people stopped visiting it entirely.


There was no one else there when I woke, no explanation of what had happened or why. I tried to leave immediately, and swiftly discovered that I couldn’t. Only two steps out the door and I felt weak. A third step left me unable to stand.


I kept trying to leave for the next week. The furthest I made it was twelve steps. It felt as though I were hemorrhaging, and the weakness was so great that I was certain I would die if I kept going. I barely managed to crawl back inside, and it was nearly three days before I could stand again.


That was the last attempt I made. The message was clear. There would be no escape.


For some time I held out hope that someone would come looking for me, that my friends would notice my absence. As days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months, I was forced to acknowledge that this was not the case. I had been cut out of their lives, as neatly as my own identity had been excised from my memories. There would be no rescue.


I no longer felt any need to eat, and it soon became apparent that I was incapable of sleep. There are no windows in this building, and the door is inset so that I cannot see the sky. But I could look out the door and see the lighting change in the outside world, and I could mark the passage of time in that way.


I spent the first two months like that, watching the world pass me by and trying to come up with a solution. I tried many things, ranging from the desperate to the absurd, none of which had the slightest effect.


Finally, when I had begun seriously considering an attempt to determine whether I might truly kill myself by walking too far from my prison, someone walked through the door.


For a moment I thought that it was the same man I had cheated. He had a similar aura of confidence, as though he expected that the world would reshape itself to accommodate him. But he was more personable, and far more memorable.


“Good morning,” he said, nodding to me.


I eyed him warily. The resemblance to the other man was unnerving, and I thought it suspicious that he had come into my prison when no one else had. “Who are you?”


“Call me Hunter,” he said with a smile. “And you are?”


I debated giving a false name, shrugged instead. I didn’t say anything.


He nodded again. “Took your name, did they? Unfortunate. I wish I could say I was surprised, but that sort of pettiness is rather typical of them. You might want to choose another name. They’re useful things. Help you retain a sense of self. Think about it.”


“Who is ‘they?'” I asked, seizing on the only part of what he said that I really understood.


“They,” he said. “Them. The old ones. We’ll get to that. For now, there’s a more immediately relevant question in front of you. What do you want this place to be?”


“I don’t understand.”


“Well, it’s really quite simple,” he said, sitting down and leaning against the wall. “You’re a part of this building now. A god tied you to it, and not even I can break that.”


“There’s only one God,” I said, reflexively.


He snorted. “Maybe, but if so He’s fine with letting other people pretend to be gods to screw with us. Anyway, what I’m saying is that this place is a part of you, and it’s going to decide who you are. So right now it’s empty, and as a result you’re feeling empty, vague, like you don’t have a purpose.”


I thought about it. What he’d said summed up how I’d felt over the past months fairly well, but I didn’t want to admit it, so I said nothing.


He smiled knowingly. “Right. So you can’t change the influence this place has over you, but you can decide what it looks like. So the question in front of you is what you want it to turn you into.”


“A bar,” I said, almost without thinking. It wasn’t a hard choice; most of the pleasant moments in my life had been in bars. There were large gaps in my memories, but I could remember that.


He considered me for a moment and nodded again. “Yes, I can see you as a bartender. That works. I’ll get some renovators in here to fix the place up, and then we can start working on a customer base.”


He stood up and walked towards the door. I debated letting him go, but curiosity got the better of me. “Why?” I asked. “Why are you helping me?”


He paused, not looking back at me. “There’s a war on,” he said. “End of the day, that’s what it comes to. There’s a war on. And we need every soldier we can get if we want to have half a chance of winning.”


“No,” I said. “I learned my lesson.”


I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear the grin in his voice. “There’s the problem. You thought the lesson was ‘don’t cheat a god.'”


“What else would it be?”


“Don’t get caught,” he said, and stepped out into the sunshine.


About half an hour passed while the werewolf and the troll-blooded jackass were in the back room. The bar began to fill up during that time; it was early yet, but there were people who had to be at work before dawn that wanted food before they began their days, and a handful of night owls getting a last drink before they ended theirs. My taproom was hardly bustling, but there was conversation and laughter and life to drive the emptiness back into the corners. There was work for me to do, enough to keep me from thinking too much.


The man walked out of the hallway. He looked satisfied with himself, and didn’t pause as he swaggered across the room to the door.


Behind him, the werewolf emerged from the hallway. She was visibly distraught, her expression guilty and sickened. “You didn’t pay me enough,” she called after him. “We had a deal.”


He didn’t look back. “You’re lucky I paid you at all, bitch,” he said, reaching for the door.


I debated for a moment, then made my decision. When he grasped the doorknob it didn’t turn, and when he slammed his shoulder against the door it didn’t even shudder.


“Pay her,” I said, loudly enough to be heard by everyone in the room. “Leave. Don’t come back.”


He turned and sneered at me. “No,” he said.


The bar went silent. The speech, the laughter, it all died out in a moment. The silence rushed into the room, bringing with it the hollowness that normally only filled the space when it was otherwise empty.


I hated him for that.


I walked slowly around the bar and towards him. Patrons shifted away, leaving a clear aisle between us. I proceeded down it, moving slowly enough to convey an impression of inevitability. “Last chance,” I said, once I was within arm’s reach of the jackass. I allowed my voice to fill the space, rumbling through the walls and rattling glasses behind the bar. A minor bit of showmanship, but one that could convey a message clearly.


He grinned and punched me in the face. His fist bounced off me, as though he’d hit a wall rather than a man.


It is not my place to pass judgment. I cannot condemn another for the path they’ve chosen to walk.


But there must be rules, in order for my bar to serve as the haven I made it to be. There must be rules, there must be order.


And a rule has no meaning unless it is enforced.


He backed away rapidly once he realized how little impact he had had on me, but I reached out and grabbed him by the throat, dragging him back. Almost three hundred pounds, but I lifted him easily into the air with one arm. Even that was an affectation, done to improve the show. I could have achieved the same result without even moving from behind the bar.


He scrabbled ineffectually at my hand, his fingers scraping against my flesh as though it were made of stone. My fingers closed slowly, inexorably, like tree roots breaking a stone. I blocked off his airway, mostly so that I wouldn’t have to listen to him any more, and then paused to think about what I wanted to do.


Anything truly impressive would be a waste, with so few people here. Pour encourager les autres is a valid objective only when there is someone present to encourage.


Then again, this message only really mattered for one person. And while something extreme might disturb someone so new to this world, even young werewolves are no strangers to death.


I shook the man once, like a dog shaking a rat, and with much the same result. A broken neck isn’t such a terrible way to die. Merciful, in comparison to what I might have done.


A wallet fell out of his pocket while I was shaking him, as did a small bag of off-white powder. A drug deal, then, rather than prostitution. Interesting, that I had misread the situation. That seldom happened.


She had been instructed to do this by the pack, then. I couldn’t picture her having chosen to participate in such a business, and I knew that werewolves often dabbled in such things to finance their activities. Another symptom of the sickness in the pack, that such a task would be given to a relative innocent to perform. It was unnecessarily cruel.


I picked both items up and tossed them to the girl. I considered destroying the drugs instead, as I had no fondness for such things, but the only result would have been the punishment of the girl.


Besides which, I had no right to criticize. We all make our choices. My opinion of those choices was largely immaterial.


She didn’t notice, being preoccupied with the dead man, and had to pick them up off the floor. In the meantime I returned to my position behind the bar, carrying the corpse with me. Around me the room returned to life, my patrons satisfied that the problem had been dealt with and all was right with the world.


“You want work?” I asked, dropping the body out of sight behind the bar. I could dispose of it later, without difficulty or fuss.


The girl started and then nodded hesitantly. “Yes,” she said. “I…yes.”


“Tomorrow. Noon. Be here.”


She nodded again, gratefully, and left. I didn’t watch her go.


She must have been even younger than I’d thought, to agree so readily. To be so confident that what I was offering was better than what she had. That was far from certain, even if my initial estimate of what she had been doing to leave her feeling so guilty had been accurate.


It’s not such a terrible thing to sell your body, after all. Far worse to sell your soul.


Hunter was as good as his word, arranging for extensive renovations. I had no idea what the renovators he hired were, although I could already tell that they weren’t men. In hindsight, they were most likely dwarves. Excessive for the task, probably, to hire such skilled workers, but he clearly had the resources.


It took nearly a month to finish the process of converting an empty warehouse into a functional bar, during which time I saw Hunter somewhat regularly. After that, it was only a few days before customers began to trickle in. I quickly learned that they were not the same sort of crowd I was accustomed to seeing at bars. They were freaks, myths and monsters and creatures out of nightmare, angels and demons and everything in between.


Lost souls, one and all. In time I learned to distinguish them, and to understand them. Then I began to feel a sort of kinship with the beings that frequented my establishment. And finally I came to understand what Hunter’s purpose had been here, why he had gone to such lengths to help me.


I never saw him again after I had that realization. Perhaps he ran out of luck, and was caught by one of the gods he hated. I think it more likely that he simply knew that his work was no longer needed, and moved on. The investment had been made; the returns were inevitable.


Over the years I came to a better understanding of my nature. I was tied to this place, yes, and it shaped me, but I also shaped it. As more powerful beings began to frequent my bar, more and more power seeped into it. Tied to it as I was, I grew in power as well, until eventually I came to rival even the strongest of the creatures that came into it. I became a force to be reckoned with, and I began to impose order on my clientele.


It took some time for them to listen, but it hardly mattered. I was, as Hunter had explained to me, functionally immortal. I was as much a part of this bar as the walls and the stones, and so long as it existed I couldn’t truly die. You would have to burn the building to the ground to end me, you would have to crush the foundations and sow the earth with salt, you would have to wipe the very memory of it away.


It was, in a sense, a gift. A balance to the curse which had been laid upon me. I was uniquely constrained, but I was also uniquely empowered. It was, as I had learned, typical of a deity. Giving with one hand. Taking with the other.


I never learned which of the gods had done this to me. In many ways, it didn’t matter. One was much like another. For all of them, the hardest part of determining whether their curses are crueler than their blessings is always telling one from the other.


My patrons learned. Some slow, some fast, but all of them eventually learned that there would be no killing me, or putting me in my place. My rules would stand, one way or another.


Many left. Disappointed by the changes I had instituted, or ashamed at having been so easily defeated. Others, however, came, glad to have a safe place. Neutral ground, where all grudges and vendettas are put on hold.


Even monsters need somewhere to call home.


The werewolf returned the next day, as I had anticipated. She walked in precisely five minutes before noon, nervous but resolute.


I put her to work serving food. It was simple work, if not always easy, and safe. There was no one in this city foolish enough to harass one of my employees. The consequences of such a mistake had been made very clear.


I kept part of my attention on her throughout the day. She performed adequately, if not superbly. Sufficient for my needs, at any rate. Presumably her work would improve over time. If not, I could address that issue at a later time.


It was a quiet day, as such things went. Most of my patrons were local. All of them were familiar to me. My own work was routine, not requiring much thought. Food and drink went out and money came in, as always.


The only real excitement during the day was when a half-leprechaun picked a fight with an apprentice mage, saying something about theft. Judging by the young man’s face, it was an honest grievance. I told the two of them to take it outside, and as far as anyone else was concerned the matter was settled.


I spent some time thinking about it. It was unfortunate, as such fights always are. There’s a war on, after all, and we need every soldier we can get. Neither of those two was likely to contribute much—their powers were dwarfed by the scale of the combatants—but every loss was a loss that we could not afford in this fight.


The conclusion of the war is foregone. Beating them was never in the cards for us. But we can hope that they will at least know that they were in a fight.


As for me, it’s enough that when I finally get to leave this place, I will die knowing that I cheated the gods, and I won. In some small measure, I won, and nothing they do can ever take that away.

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Event Horizon 8.4

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“You’re a hell of a heavy sleeper, you know that?” said a male voice I didn’t recognize. “I mean, I was just going to wait for you to wake up, but this is getting ridiculous.”


I went from a dead sleep to actively freaking out pretty quickly, for reasons which should be pretty obvious. I mean, I don’t care if you’re the least paranoid guy around, if you wake up to a stranger in your bedroom—your incredibly well-defended bedroom, where no stranger should ever be—you freak.


I sat bolt upright, grabbed Tyrfing, and launched myself out of bed, landing in a crouch and growling softly. Or, at least, that’s what happened in my head. In reality, Aiko had at some point wound up draped across my chest. That was a pleasant enough state of affairs, except that she woke up at the same time I did and had about the same reaction. The end result was that we thrashed around a bunch and, rather than badass fighting poses, ended up in an undignified tangle of limbs.


“That was pretty good,” the stranger said, chuckling. His voice was low and rough, evoking images of a lifetime spent exposed to the elements. “Do you guys do parties?”


I managed to disentangle myself enough to twist my head around and glare at the intruder. He was of average height and build, with heavily tanned skin and dark eyes. His features were sharp, with an aquiline nose that had clearly been broken at some point, and an inscrutable expression. He was wearing jeans, a plain black cowboy hat, and a leather jacket covered in intricate geometric quillwork.


I had absolutely no idea who the hell this was.


“Who the hell are you?” Aiko asked, sounding understandably hostile. She’d also managed to contort herself enough to get a clear look at him.


“Friend of a friend,” he said, which wasn’t actually terribly informative. Then he laughed. “Come on, get out of there. I don’t bite. Much.”


There didn’t seem to be much point in arguing, so we untangled ourselves and got out of bed. Fortunately, neither of us was particularly modest. I snatched my cloak of shadows off the floor and threw it on anyway. I might not have issues with nudity, but there were still all sorts of toys in my cloak from last night. Most of them weren’t weapons, but I could make do with what I had.


“What did you do to Snowflake?” I asked, glaring at the intruder. Snowflake has a reaction time that makes a snake look slow and a territorial instinct that makes me look welcoming. Ordinarily she would have been chewing on this guy’s spine by now. It didn’t even look like she was awake.


The stranger rolled his eyes. “Your hound’ll wake up in an hour or two,” he said, not seeming to notice my hostility. “I wanted to talk to the two o’ you a bit, and I reckoned it’d be simpler doin’ it this way.” He nodded toward the door.


“You still haven’t told us who you are,” Aiko said. She was holding a small, plain knife, and making no effort to hide it.


“Some people got no patience,” he sighed. “I s’pose if I told you I was God you’d laugh, right?” Not waiting for an answer, he grinned broadly, showing teeth that could have featured in a toothpaste commercial. “So I guess you’ll just have to call me Coyote, instead.”


I stared. “Coyote. You mean, as in, Coyote Coyote? That Coyote?”


“That’s right.”


“Oh shit,” Aiko said. “Oh shit.


Coyote looked offended. “I ain’t that bad. Hell, you’re workin’ for Loki, you’d think a person like you’d be takin’ this in stride.”


“Winter’s the one working for Loki,” she said in an offended tone. “I’ve never even met him, and frankly I’d be freaking ecstatic if it stays that way.”


Coyote snorted. “Bullshit. I don’t think anybody in this room’s buyin’ that line.” He pointed one finger at Aiko. “You’re in deep with Mister Wolf, and he’s got trouble like a dog’s got fleas.”


“I don’t get your point.”


“I reckon you do, and I don’t particularly care. Now come on and walk with me. I got some things to say that you ain’t gonna like, and it’ll sound better in the sunshine.”


The sun was indeed shining outside. It was about nine in the morning, and already shaping up to be a hotter day than I would prefer. A bit of a change from the rain of the day before, but that, generally, is Colorado.


“So what’s this bad news?” Aiko asked, glaring suspiciously up and down the street. She’d taken the time to get dressed and throw her armor on before we left; Coyote didn’t seem to care, and I could tell she was feeling more than usually antsy.


Not that I could blame her. I was wearing armor, too.


“It’s about this job Loki’s got you doing,” Coyote said, ambling along down the sidewalk. He seemed totally unconcerned; anyone watching him would have thought he was just out on his morning constitutional. “More to the point, the thing he’s got you looking for.”


“You know about that?” Not that I was surprised—this was Coyote we were talking about, after all, and he could probably hang around in the same general class as Loki—but it would have been nice not to feel quite so obvious.


He snorted. “Son, let’s get real here. Everybody knows about that.” Lovely. In case I wasn’t feeling quite exposed enough already.


“So what do you have to say about it, then?”


“Well,” he said, “I think you could maybe stand to know just what it is you’re after. True?”


“It couldn’t hurt,” I allowed.


“Well, that’s where you’ve got problems. See, Loki don’t think you oughta know. He thinks you can’t handle it.” Coyote shrugged expansively. “Normally I’d trust his judgment. Loki’s a hell of a sharp guy, and he can judge a fellow’s character better’n most. But when it comes to people close to him, he’s got a blind spot an inch wide and a mile deep. I reckon that’s what’s happening here.”


I blinked. “Loki? Close?” I asked incredulously. “You’ve gotta be kidding me! I can’t even count all the ways he’s screwed me over!”


“Whatever you say, Mister Wolf,” Coyote said with a smirk. “If that’s what gets you to sleep at night, you go right ahead. What matters is I think Loki’s sellin’ you short. I think you’re ready to see this, and I can show you.”


I waited a moment, then sighed. “And?” I prompted.


Coyote glanced at me slyly. “And,” he said, “I’m thinking maybe you could do me a favor in return.”


“Oh God,” Aiko said. “I can’t believe I’m hearing this.”


“Seconded,” I agreed. “I’m in deep enough already, thank you.”


“Now hold your horses. I ain’t talkin’ about a debt to carry the rest o’ your lives. I got a favor to ask, you do it for me, and we’re even. That sound a little more to your likin’?”


“First,” I said dryly, “I’d have to know what the favor is.”


He laughed, a high sound that resembled the yip of a coyote. I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t already known his nature, but it was unmistakable now that I knew what to listen for. “That’s cause you ain’t entirely stupid, Mister Wolf. It’ll take a bit of explainin’, though.” He was quiet for a moment, presumably deciding where to start, then nodded. “You’ve read that book the Bible thumpers get so worked up about, I’m guessing.”


“Yeah,” I said.


At the same time Aiko said, “Hell, no.”


Coyote snorted. “Yeah, that’s what we’re talking about here. Hell. See, a thousand years and change back, a few of us got to thinking that was pretty funny. So we decided to make it.”


I blinked. “Wait a second. Are you telling me that you made Hell?”


“Yup. Took a while to get it right. Then when Alighieri wrote that book of his, we went back and changed it up a bit to match.” He chuckled. “Let me tell you, that guy was all kinds of messed-up. We’d a never thought of the shit he had those bastards going through.”


“So, when you say we,” Aiko asked, “who are you talking about?”


He shrugged. “I did a little, and Loki pitched in on some of the details. He’s almost as twisted as that Italian guy, you know. Xmucane helped us get the atmosphere right. It was Iblis’s idea from the start, though, and he did most of the work on it.”


“Iblis,” I said. “He’s…Arabic, right? The lord of the djinn.”


“Hey, you ain’t bad at this game. And yeah, he’s a genie. Little on the crazy side, but in a good way. This one time we were out in the desert, this was the Mojave, and there was this guy out wandering around with a bucket—”


“Not,” Aiko interrupted, “that stopping you from finishing that sentence isn’t enough reason to interrupt you in itself, but could you get to the point of this story?”


Coyote cleared his throat. “Yeah. Right. So anyway there’s this Otherside domain modeled on Hell, right? So we decided to make some demons, ’cause you can’t have Hell and no demons. There’s this one succubus—the demon kind, not one of those saps on the Vampires’ Council—anyways, she’s not all that experienced. A week or two ago she screwed something up pretty bad.”


“And you want me to kill her?” I guessed.


“What? No! Why the hell would I want you to kill her?”


I shrugged. “You’d be surprised how often the favors people ask me for boil down to that. So what do you want?”


“I want you to give her a job.”


I stopped and stared at him. So did Aiko. Coyote took about three steps, realized we weren’t following, and turned to glare at us. “What?”


I cleared my throat. “Um…not to be impolite or anything, but…are you kidding me? You want me to hire a literal succubus who messed something up badly enough to get thrown out of Hell? Are you insane?”


“It’s not like she stabbed someone,” Coyote said testily. “She was between assignments up here. Her boss was showing this guy around—they give tours sometimes, for wannabe dark lords and whatnot—and he decided she should tag along. Well, Hell has this whole fire-and-brimstone thing going on, right? And this guy wasn’t used to it, so he sneezes. And she said ‘God bless you.'”


Aiko had started choking about halfway through Coyote’s retelling, and was currently having such a hard time restraining laughter that it looked more like a seizure than amusement. I, on the other hand, was fondly remembering a time when I could make all my problems go away by hitting them very, very hard.


“Coyote,” I said slowly, “in ten words or less, kindly explain why I would ever want this person working for me.”


He thought about it for a moment. Then he thought about it some more. After about thirty seconds, he finally came up with something. “She’s really good at poker?” he hazarded, sounding less than confident.


Aiko physically collapsed laughing.


I closed my eyes and counted to ten before I trusted myself to respond in a way which wouldn’t get both of us smote by quasi-divine fury. “Does she have any skills that are actually relevant?” I asked hopefully.


Coyote snorted. “Look, Mister Wolf, girl’s a succubus. She ain’t gonna cut shit up, and let’s get real here, if you need more o’ that than you already got you’re in deep shit anyway. You want somebody to sweet-talk a mark? You want to run a honey trap? She can do that, and I don’t think you got another minion as can.”


“Well, that’s something, anyway.” Not that I really thought I’d ever need that particular skillset, but hey, I wouldn’t have guessed I’d get into politics either. It wasn’t impossible. “Does she want paid?”


“I reckon room and board should do for her,” he said. “Maybe kick her a little somethin’ every now and then.” He narrowed his eyes. “She wants more than that, you tell her to talk to me.”


I sighed. Damn, but I am a sucker. “Fine,” I said reluctantly. “It’s a deal, with the condition that I get to fire her if it doesn’t work out.”


Coyote smiled in a way which really reminded me of all the stories where he swindles some sucker out of everything they own, and then gets them to pay him for the privilege. “That sounds pretty good to me, Mister Wolf. I reckon we can make this work. I’ll send her around.”


“Um,” Aiko said, having recovered enough to form intelligible speech. “Not to intrude, but why do you want Winter to help this demon in the first place?”


He glared at her. “I think that’s a touch intrusive, now, don’t you? And besides, I’ll have you know I’m doin’ this out of the goodness o’ my heart, and that’s all the explanation you folks need.”


I stopped. “Actually, Coyote, I don’t think it is. I don’t mean to renege on our deal, but I can’t hire someone I can’t trust, and that answer really makes it sound like there’s more to the story than this.”


He switched his glare to me, then looked away. He mumbled something under his breath which I couldn’t quite make out.


“Um, sorry, but I couldn’t quite make that out.” Which, considering my hearing, pretty much meant that it hadn’t been audible.


“She’s my granddaughter!” he shouted, loud enough to hear from across the street. “Christ on a crutch, get a clue already! I hate when people need everything spelled out for them!”


“Your granddaughter,” Aiko said blankly. “And…she’s a succubus.”


“Yeah, that was a fun month or two. Succubi really know their business, let me tell you.” He paused and glared at me some more. “That being said, you even touch my granddaughter and I’ll hang you by your toes for the next hundred years.” Judging by his tone, I didn’t think he was exaggerating.


“Don’t worry,” I said dryly. “This whole conversation is so freaking bizarre as to make the idea physically nauseating.” I took a deep breath and let it out. “So what’s this super important secret you have to tell us?”


“It’s more of a ‘show’ than a ‘tell,’ really,” he said, stopping. “I reckon you two oughta close your eyes for the next bit.”


When a god tells you to do something, you don’t ask too many questions. It doesn’t matter how inane what they’re saying is. Even if it isn’t important, and in my experience it’s usually safest to assume that it is, they’re liable to just smite you for not listening to them.


I closed my eyes.


An instant later there was…well, it’s hard to describe it. It might be the most peculiar sensation I’ve ever had. It was an intensely uncomfortable, full-body sort of thing, not like anything I’d ever experienced. It was a little like pain, and a little bit like numbness. It wasn’t particularly intense, but it was strange and unpleasant and entirely unfamiliar, and hard to ignore.


“You can open your eyes now,” Coyote said. His voice was strange, louder than it should have been and with an odd echo. It sounded, at least to my ears, as though the yipping and howling of coyotes underlay the words. I’d heard a similar effect with Fenris and, occasionally, my own voice, albeit with different sounds.


I did so. What I saw was a bit like the tactile sensation, but a thousand times stronger.


Go down into a cave sometime. I don’t mean a small cave. I’m talking about a real cave, the sort of place where there are thousands of tons of rock overhead and it’s a twenty minute hike to the surface. Go down there, into the dark, and turn out your light.


It’s hard to understand what you see, at that point, if you’ve never had the experience. It’s not just dark. It’s this total, overwhelming darkness. It’s not that you can’t see anything, it’s that you can’t see. The black is so deep, so total, that your brain starts making stuff up to fill the empty spaces. The experience is terrifying. I suppose there are some people who get a thrill out of it, but I’m mildly claustrophobic and the prospect of blindness scares the shit out of me. Not my idea of a fun time.


Looking out at…whatever I was looking at…was like that, but worse. There was this void, stretching out on all sides into infinity, the way you might imagine the vast emptiness of space to look. It wasn’t just black; it was that same total, mind-breaking darkness of a cavern that had never seen the light of day. Every few seconds a streak of color moved across my field of vision, moving very quickly and leaving a vivid afterimage. The colors were vibrant, intense.


Not all of them were natural colors, either, which makes it hard to describe. It’s an interesting philosophical problem, really; how do you describe a color that doesn’t have a name, because nobody’s ever seen it before? There’s no meaningful comparison you can make. It’s like asking what sound green makes.


The only contrast was an area about ten feet in diameter, filled with air. It was a bit like standing in the middle of a soap bubble, the surface clearly visible against…whatever was out there. Coyote, Aiko and I were all standing in this bubble, with no visible surface supporting our weight.


“What is this place?” Aiko whispered, staring out at the swirling lights with a strange fascination.


“Ah,” Coyote said. “See, that’s where we’re gonna run into some problems. This ain’t a place, exactly. It’s what comes before place.”


“You’re going to have to explain that one to me,” I said.


He grunted. “I can try, anyway. How much do you know about entropy?”


I blinked. I’m used to non sequiturs—seriously, I live with Aiko—but this was a pretty good one. “You mean, like, chemical entropy?”


“Closer to mathematical. Think information theory.”


“Pretty much nothing.”


He made a frustrated noise. “You’ve gotta broaden your horizons, Mister Wolf. Don’t do a lot of good to know who Iblis is if you don’t know shit about science.” He muttered a few additional things under his breath, which I suspected were less than complimentary, then sighed. “Fine. The short version is, think of it as randomness. The harder it is to predict something, the higher the entropy. You with me so far?”


“I think so,” I said. Aiko just nodded, still watching the mad, chaotic dance of color against the void.


“Good. So, and I’m not going to bother explaining this one, entropy always increases in the long haul. So that means that the eventual state of any system is maximum entropy. Except that, by definition, perfect entropy is entirely unpredictable. It could turn into anything, including perfect order. So what you get is a dynamic equilibrium, with orderly structures being produced at the same rate as other structures degrade into a state of chaos.”


I was starting to get a headache. This was starting to sound a lot like the advanced magical theory Alexander used to lecture me on, and that involved way more math than I was comfortable with. “What does this have to do with anything?”


Coyote laughed and spread his arms wide, spinning around madly. “You’re looking at it, Mister Wolf! This, right here, this is chaos.”


“That can’t be right,” Aiko interrupted. She seemed to be following along a lot better than I was. “Infinite randomness can produce anything. This is just a bunch of lights moving in a sort of random way.”


Coyote smirked. “At least somebody’s paying attention. And you’re right, this ain’t really chaos, per se. I’m toning it down for you two quite a bit. You ain’t up to lookin’ at the real deal. From in here it should just be a touch uncomfortable, but you don’t want to go stickin’ anything out of my bubble. That stuff could turn you into anything, and the chances of that ‘anything’ being you are pretty slim.”


My head was definitely hurting now. “Not to rush you or anything, Coyote, but just what does this have to do with what Loki’s got me doing?”


“Ah,” he said with a satisfied smile. “Finally you ask a smart question. That’s going to take some explaining. This is the bit that Loki don’t want you two hearing about.” He looked at each of us in turn, and he was suddenly not smiling at all. “I don’t reckon I need to tell you,” he said, his voice gone very flat, “that this ain’t the sort of thing you ought to share with all your friends. I can’t say as I know what’ll happen to you if you were to talk about it, but I wouldn’t bet on your surviving the experience. Savvy?”


“Quite,” I said sourly. I couldn’t say I was particularly happy about it—as death threats go, it was far from the best I’d received—but I wasn’t planning on ignoring him, either. When a being like Coyote gives you an ultimatum and implies that Loki is backing it too, well, it would take a moron of astronomical proportions not to pay attention.


I’ve met a couple of people like that. They have a tendency to die in horrible ways.


“Savvy,” Aiko said, still watching the lightshow rather than Coyote. “Hurry it up already.”


He snorted. “I like you. So. This,” he gestured broadly at the chaos around us, “this is reality. You could think of it as the bedrock everything else is embedded in. Earth, the Otherside, everything you’ve ever encountered, we made it out of this.”


“Who’s ‘we?'” I asked promptly.


“I’m getting there,” he said testily. “See, the chaos is old. Eternal, really. Now, what I was saying about infinite chaos producing order? That ain’t just a hypothetical.”


I was starting to understand what he was getting at. “Are you saying,” I asked slowly, “that you came from this?” I gestured vaguely at the chaos surrounding us.


Coyote smiled toothily. “Ah, he’s getting there. Yeah, I was there for this. Like I said, this stuff’s eternal. Now, if something’s infinite, eternal, and infinitely random, eventually it’ll produce everything, including things capable of manipulating the randomness.”


“Is that where gods come from?” I asked.


He shrugged. “Not really. I mean, in principle, yes, but….well, look at the Olympians. Sure, they came from chaos, but that was, like, a hundred generations back or something. Most of ’em, I guarantee you they’ve never even seen it with their own eyes.”


“But you were here,” Aiko said suddenly. “And somehow I doubt you were alone. How many of you are there?”


Coyote shrugged again. “Twenty or thirty,” he said. I was pretty sure he was telling the truth, and entirely sure he knew the exact number. “Really, though, there’s only two you need to worry about. Me, and Loki.”


“Wait a second,” I interrupted. “Are you saying that Loki spontaneously generated out of this?” That was a terrifying concept. I mean, I’d always known Loki was nine kinds of bad news, but I’d never even imagined something on this scale.


“Um,” he said. “Not exactly. Most of us didn’t create ourselves. I did, obviously, but Loki can hardly hope to compete with me. No, Ymir made him. But he’s old enough to have developed out here, so in that sense, yes.”




“Yup,” Coyote agreed happily.


“Okay,” Aiko said, “I like making fun of Winter’s poor decisions as much as anyone, but you still haven’t actually, you know, found a point.”


“I’m getting there,” he snapped. “Shit and onions, you people really have no patience at all, you know that? Fine, you know what, screw it. Short version. We made the world out of this, because we’re the fucking gods and we get shit done. We made you sons of bitches to put in the world, because we were bored. If you let what’s out here into what’s in there, shit happens and it’s hard to put back together afterwards. There, you happy?”


I blinked. I’d seen a lot of things, but a god having a tantrum was a new one. “So…are you saying that someone’s bringing this chaos into the world, and that’s what Loki wants me to deal with?” I hazarded.


“Finally he gets it,” Coyote said, sounding distinctly exasperated. “And yes, that’s what I’m saying. It isn’t quite that direct, though. There are…things out here that want to destroy what we made. They can’t get in very easily on their own, but occasionally someone’s stupid enough to open a door. That’s what’s going on in your town.”


“Okay,” I said. It was bizarre and inexplicable as hell, but that was nothing new. “So why do they want to destroy things?”


He shrugged. “I don’t rightly know. I don’t reckon anyone does, really,” he said. I noted with some amusement that, with the return of his good temper, his hokey accent was firmly in place again. “You gotta realize, Mister Wolf, these things ain’t like us. Me and my like, we made you, so you got some stuff in common with us. These things took a different choice way back when. We don’t even share the same basic concepts with them.”


“So what you’re saying here,” Aiko said, “is that someone randomly decided to summon an ancient, eldritch horror from beyond the bounds of space and time?”


“You do seem to have an admirable grasp of the situation, yes.”


“Sounds like fun. Maybe we should hang out sometime.” Aiko paused, her expression suggesting that something unsettling had just occurred to her. “So,” she said a moment later. “If they’re summoning those things from here, that suggests that there are more of them out here.”




“What happens if one of them finds us?” she asked. “Are they, like, a threat to you?”


Coyote scoffed. “To me? Don’t be ridiculous. Of all the gods, I am clearly superior. The strongest and bravest, the quickest and cleverest. The only way the likes of them could injure me would be for me to hurt myself laughing at the ingenuity with which I defeated them.” He paused. “You, on the other hand, might not fare so well.”


Aiko looked like she was seriously considering the pleasures of deicide. “Suddenly,” she said, “I understand why people always seem so upset when I do stupid, random things without thinking about collateral damage.”


“And with that in mind,” I interjected before Coyote could reply, “could we continue this conversation in a locale with slightly fewer rampaging monsters?”


“Pussy. Fine, close your eyes.”


I closed my eyes. Aiko asked, “Why do we have to close our eyes?”


“We really don’t have time for a metaphysics lesson,” Coyote sighed. “Now stop being difficult and close your damn eyes.”

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