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.
“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.
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.”
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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