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.
“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.
“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.