Monthly Archives: February 2015

Event Horizon 8.3

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I stood in the rain and watched the world end.


It had been an apartment building, as far as I could tell. A simple enough thing, as square and blocky and unattractive as you could ask for.


Now it was…actually, I can’t think of an appropriate word. “Wrecked” implies the possibility of reconstruction, “annihilated” suggests some degree of precision and discrimination, “destroyed” fails to convey the intensity. Devastated, perhaps, conveys more clearly what had happened here.


So, then. The apartment building had been devastated. It was impossible to see the details of what had happened, but the aftermath was brutally eloquent. Where there had been a building, there was now a large pile of rubble. Bits of the apartment building were still standing, seemingly at random, sticking out of the heap like the mast of a sinking ship. The lines of division were bizarrely sharp, sometimes cutting through rooms as though the plans had been marked out with a straightedge.


There was no fire, no debris, none of the things you would expect from a bomb or, indeed, any other mundane cause of such a scene. There was, as a result, less activity at the scene than I would have expected. There was an ambulance, and a handful of police cars. A few people, cops and civilians both, were picking through the wreckage, presumably looking for that rare category of people unfortunate enough to have been in the building, yet lucky enough to survive the experience. Others were standing around the edges, staring in dumbfounded shock at the destruction.


As I watched, one of the cops walked up to a young woman in a bathrobe. At this distance I couldn’t hear what was said, but I got the gist well enough. A few moments after he approached, she broke down crying—not gentle, demure weeping, but the sort of wracking, heartbroken sobs people seldom allow themselves in public. The two young children standing next to her looked numb, like they couldn’t comprehend what had happened. The police officer looked horribly uncomfortable.


I looked past the group, and saw that they were standing outside of a small house. It would probably have been a fairly nice house, had it not been for the minivan halfway through the wall. Something had, evidently, picked it up and thrown it, hard enough to break through the wall of a building.


I winced. I might not be able to fill in the details, but it wasn’t hard to sketch out what was going on. Somebody wasn’t coming out of that house.


Aiko was staring at the same scene with disturbing intensity. “Someone is going to die,” she said. Her tone was bright, almost sweet, which made it even scarier. Aiko seldom really takes things seriously. When she does…well. Suffice to say that, if someone literally starts riots for casual entertainment, pissing them off might not be a good idea.


“Yes,” I agreed simply. Granted, at the rate things were going, it would probably be me, but that was beside the point.


Kyra, who had been staring dumbfounded at the wreckage, shook her head. “Jesus. The guy you’re after did this?”


“Most likely. I mean, I guess the timing might be a coincidence, but it’s not bloody likely.”


The werewolf was quiet for a long moment. “You’re insane,” she said bluntly. “Not, like, funny-insane, either. Not normal-for-you insane. You are seriously out of your fucking mind. You’re picking a fight with that? What the hell are you going to do if you find it, ask it to stand still while you make like a lumberjack?” Kyra’s voice rose as she went on, until she sounded nearly hysterical.


“Calm down. People are starting to stare.” That was true enough, and the whole lot of us walked away before they decided to do more than just stare. I had enough on my plate without people deciding I’d somehow done this too.

“Calm down?” she hissed incredulously. “That doesn’t even make sense! This isn’t hysteria, it’s a perfectly rational response to the idea of fighting something that can demolish buildings and throw cars through walls!”


“I hate to say it,” Alexis said reluctantly, “but I’m with Kyra on this one. I’m not happy with letting someone get away with this, but trying to take something capable of this is a little out of our scope.” My cousin’s a relentless do-gooder, but she’s had enough lessons in hard knocks not to be stupid about it. She makes a better voice of reason than I would have expected, honestly.


“What is it with you people and deciding that I’m too stupid to think of these things?” I wondered aloud. “Come on, give me some credit for not having died yet.”


“From where I’m standing,” Alexis said dryly, “your not having died yet is more luck than skill.”


I chuckled. “Point. But I actually do have a plan this time.”


Kyra snorted. “God preserve us. I’ve seen your idea of planning, Winter.”


“You guys really need to ditch the negative attitude and look on the bright side,” Aiko said seriously. “Winter’s plans might get you killed horribly, but you won’t die bored.”


I’m starting to remember why we don’t bring Kyra along more often, Snowflake commented. It’s bad enough with just Alexis and Aiko here. More than that, and so much time goes into making fun of you that nothing gets done.


“Yeah, well, as much as I hate to cut this party short, I have work to do,” I said, while Kyra laughed and Alexis looked confused. “I told Sveinn to schedule the rest of the petitions for tonight.”


“What should we do?” Anna, at least, seemed to be taking things seriously. That was probably just because she hadn’t had as much experience with this crap—there’s only so many times you can be scared out of your wits by an eldritch monster from the netherworld before you pretty much have to start laughing at them instead, or else go insane—but it was still a nice change.


I snorted. “You’re welcome to come with me. But unless you want to be bored out of your freaking skull, I’d recommend you go home and get some sleep instead.”


“Seriously, don’t,” Aiko added. “You will shoot someone, and apparently people get upset about that sort of thing.”


“Don’t complain,” I advised her. “I got you off on a technicality, remember? Hell, the plaintiff thanked you.”


Kyra looked back and forth for several seconds, evidently waiting for a more informative explanation, then sighed when it became apparent that none was forthcoming. “You two are insufferable,” she said wearily. “Come on. If we move fast, I can drink myself into a stupor before bedtime.”


“You’re a werewolf,” I reminded her. “I literally do not have enough drinkable alcohol for you to drink yourself into a stupor.”




I dropped everyone else off at the mansion and kept going alone. Kyra and Anna had both taken over one of the guest rooms in the past few months. They weren’t in town all that often, but we could have hosted a moderately sized army in that mansion without crowding. It wasn’t like anyone else was using the rooms.


Not even Snowflake was willing to come with me to deal with petitions. That says a lot about just how incredibly, mind-numbingly boring it was. I knew what I was getting myself into with this gig, even if it was more of an unfortunate side effect than anything—but if I’d known just how much boredom being a jarl entailed, I would have put a lot more consideration into it.


Astonishingly, not a single thing happened on my way down there. I was halfway expecting a divine visitation, or a rain of fire, or at the very least a kamikaze attack or something, but things were entirely boring.


I finally got to the house at around ten, several hours later than I was supposed to have shown up, having gotten turned around twice on my way there. The rain was falling heavier now, and Sveinn had evidently decided not to make everyone wait out in the weather for an unknown period of time. I hurried up the stairs and in the door, dripping wet, grumpy, and generally not in a very good mood.


Inside the house, things were warmer and better lit, if not any more pleasant. There was a small crowd milling around the throne room, divided into a number of very distinct clumps. Nobody seemed inclined to mingle. The housecarls, arranged along the back wall, were openly fingering weapons, and I think if I’d taken much longer they would have needed to use them to prevent a small riot from breaking out. Sveinn was the exception; he was standing beside the throne, and looked about as happy as I felt.


I stormed through the crowd to the front of the room, where I sat in the throne and immediately remembered why I seldom do so if I have any choice in the matter. How they can make a chair less comfortable than the ground is beyond me, but they managed it.


The water dripping off of my clothes and running into my eyes probably decreased the solemnity of the scene somewhat. But I feel reasonably confident that my scowl was foreboding enough to make up the difference.


“You’re late!” someone called from the crowd.


“I was unavoidably detained.”


“By what?”


I looked in the general direction of the person who was shouting and smiled. It was, quite deliberately, a grim and menacing smile. “You’ll see it in the news tomorrow,” I said in a flat, cold voice. Which was, technically, true; I was pretty sure that they’d call it a terrorist attack or something similar.


Of course, the way I’d phrased things suggested that I had been the one to do it, but that wasn’t an accident. A reputation for being the sort of person who can make bad things happen to people that piss him off is, sadly, not a bad thing.


I can’t make the people love me. It takes a great leader to do that, and I’m not. But I can damn well make them fear me. Which, and let’s be honest here, is a safer thing to rely on anyway. Most people will forget love for a million dollars. Unless it’s the kind that spends in hell, though, they won’t forget that that’s where they’re going if they betray you. Sad, but true.


“Now,” I continued while they absorbed that, “if there are no further questions, let’s begin.”


Sveinn stepped forward and cleared his throat. “Case of Jacob Cohen versus Schneider the Mad.”


Two figures stepped up out of the crowd. The one on my left was a tall, stooped fellow with long white hair, a tangled beard that reached most of the way to his belt, and pale, watery pinkish eyes. Between that and his skin tone, he was either albino or trying very hard to look like it. He was wearing a grubby overcoat that stank enough to make my eyes water at ten feet, unless the smell was him. I was guessing it was both.


The other guy looked forty years younger and ninety years prettier. He had tan skin, dark hair, perfect teeth, and an expensive suit. I disliked him on sight.


“What’s your grievance?” I said, already developing a headache.


The guy in the suit pointed a finger at the bearded man as though hoping to stab him. “This man has robbed me!” he exclaimed. “I demand recompense!”


I looked at the other man, who didn’t seem particularly concerned. Then I blinked and looked again. “Is that…a squirrel?” I asked hesitantly. “In your beard?”


The man—who I was pretty confident at this point was Schneider the Mad, because duh—reached up and scratched the squirrel behind the ears. It chittered happily. “Like squirrels,” he said with a beatific smile. “They’re so chewy. Chew chew chewy-chew chew chew chew.”


“Right,” I said slowly, while everyone in the room tried to pretend they weren’t edging away from the crazy old guy with the squirrel. Including the housecarls; apparently this was enough to tip even their astonishingly dysfunctional scales. “So…would you care to respond to this accusation?”


“Just chewing around,” he said. “Chew, chomp, munch, crunch, nibble, nosh, gnaw.” He looked out the window and started humming. It sounded like “Itsy Bitsy Spider.”


“Okaaay then. Mr. Cohen, could you specify how exactly you were robbed?”


“Certainly,” he said, gesticulating vigorously. The guy seemed entirely unaware that his opponent apparently thought he was in the forest, and also seemed to be off of way too many meds for comfort. “I agreed to pay him five hundred dollars for a rubber chicken. I paid up front, and he has not held up his end of the bargain. I demand a refund and compensation for my inconvenience.”


I closed my eyes and counted to ten. It didn’t help, so I went back to staring. Schneider appeared to be feeding his squirrel something that smelled suspiciously like squid. “Are you telling me that you paid five hundred bucks…for a rubber chicken…to a guy called Schneider the Mad…who carries a squirrel in his beard?”


Cohen bristled. “Yes.”


I closed my eyes again, then took a deep breath and opened them. “That,” I said slowly, “is quite possibly the stupidest thing I have heard all week. Well done. You don’t get a refund. You additionally owe me a hundred dollars as compensation for wasting my time and forcing my brain to consider possible explanations for the mind-numbing stupidity of your actions.”


“You can’t do that!” he shouted. He was definitely a shouty man, was Jacob Cohen.


“You’d be amazed how often I hear that,” I said dryly. “I think you’ll find that, as a matter of fact, I can do that. Now pay your hundred and get out before Schneider’s squirrel chews your nose off.”




As beginnings went, it was less than auspicious.


I rubbed my eyes and looked at the clock. It was getting close to midnight.


The problem, essentially, was in how I’d set up my position here. I hadn’t intended, at the time, to actually do the job, so I’d just declared myself jarl without thinking too much about the consequences.


That meant that, theoretically, I was allowed to do pretty much literally anything I wanted—jotun law is very old-fashioned, and that was technically the only system of laws I was obligated to follow. I might run into trouble if I flaunted my disregard for other cultures’ expectations, but there was no official, legal requirement for me to follow them.


On the other hand, that very antiquatedness worked against me in other ways. Jötnar expect their jarls to take a personal interest in the lives of their subjects, to a much greater extent than I would have preferred. Since I’d—rather shortsightedly, it must be said—claimed the entirety of Colorado Springs as my territory, that meant that anyone in the city could insist that I personally settle their dispute, for any reason or none.


And I couldn’t stop them from doing so. I could annoy them, sure. I could be an absolute dick about it. I could make the request procedures so arcane and convoluted that almost nobody had the patience to get through them. I could schedule their hearings for ungodly times of day. I could make them stand outside while they waited. I could do all these things, and I did—but I couldn’t actually stop them. I could not, for any reason, outright refuse anyone.


“Case of Thomas Burkett versus Elisa Hosking,” Sveinn announced, ushering forward the eleventh supplicant of the night. The crowd had thinned out considerably, which was some consolation.


“What do you want?” I said wearily.


Burkett, a short, overweight guy with a toupee and a bad attitude, puffed himself up self-importantly. “I run the largest company providing—”


“You would not believe,” I interrupted, “how little I care.”


Burkett stared, face going red. His eyes literally started to bulge. Kyi giggled. A moment later the housecarl turned it into a fake cough that wouldn’t have fooled a deaf cat.


“Find a point,” I suggested. “You have ten seconds before I have you thrown out.” I paused. “Of a window. I’m really not in a very good mood.”


I thought he wouldn’t get himself under control but, alas, he made the deadline by a second or two. “This woman worked for me up until two months ago,” he said, biting off each word. “Since then she’s been slandering me to all her friends. I want recompense and a public apology.”


“Could I say something here?” Hosking asked.


“Not until it’s your turn. What, specifically, is the slander you’re accusing her of, Mr. Burkett?”


“She says that she quit because she was being sexually harassed.”


“Could I please say something?”


“No, and if you interrupt again I’ll have Sveinn gag you.” Hosking sat back in her chair, clearly nonplussed. “So,” I said to Burkett. “Sexual harassment, eh? That’s quite a serious thing to suggest.”


“It is,” he agreed.


“Is it true?”


Burkett froze. His mouth opened and closed like a landed fish, which he resembled more than superficially.


“Ah, that’s a bit of a problem. See, in order for something to be slander, it has to be a lie—maybe you should have looked it up?” Behind me, Kyi started laughing. This time she didn’t bother covering it up.


Burkett did not seem as amused. “I, I, I don’t know what you’re suggesting,” he stammered feebly.


“Yeah, I think you probably do. I’m guessing Ms. Hosking hasn’t gone any further than talking with her friends, is that right? She hasn’t brought a suit against you for harassment?”


“That’s correct,” Hosking said once it had become clear that Burkett wouldn’t or couldn’t answer.


“Thank you. In that case, Mr. Burkett, you will not be getting anything. You will apologize to Ms. Hosking and provide her with whatever she deems to be adequate recompense. Is that clear?”


“Whatever I want?” Hosking said slowly. She started to smile.


I grinned. “I’m glad at least one of you understands me. Now get out.”


They did so in silence. I’m pretty sure Hosking was gleeful, and Burkett was afraid to speak up lest I slap him around some more. I was, after all, legally allowed to hand out anything up to and including the death penalty to anyone foolish enough to willingly submit to my version of justice, and they didn’t have much of anybody to complain to about it.


Jotun law also tends to be rather harsh.


“Next,” Sveinn said, sounding about as enthused as I felt. It had been a long day for everyone. “Case of Katrin Fleischer versus Friedrich Schwarz.”


“Finally,” I muttered as a pair of vampires stepped forward.


The one on the left was female, with curly brown hair and a generically cute face. She was wearing an expensive suit and a charming, entirely false smile.


It was not, of course, Katrin. The master vampire of the city would hardly stoop to attending something like this herself. No, this vampire’s name was Natalie Sullivan—or at least that’s what she preferred to be called. She was, for reasons entirely unknown to me, one of Katrin’s inner circle.


Generally speaking, when Katrin wants something from me, Natalie serves as her mouthpiece. I suppose that the official reason for that is that she’s an attorney, insert your own evil lawyer joke here. Personally, I suspect it’s more because Katrin knows that I can’t stand her. Of course, Natalie isn’t too fond of me, either. I think she’s upset that she can exploit the most intricate, arcane legal maneuvers and loopholes in the world, and I don’t have to care.


The other vampire was a male I didn’t recognize, and it was only by scent that I knew what he was at all. He was average looking, with stringy blond hair, glasses I was pretty sure he didn’t need, and a sneer that seemed to be a permanent part of his expression.


I am not fond of vampires. They’re parasites, utterly dependent upon hurting and killing people in order to continue their own existence. Furthermore, they are freaking creepy as hell, and when I’m saying that you know that it means something. That probably makes me racist or something, but I feel justified in this case.


Most of the time, of course, I had plenty of additional reason to dislike vampires. I disliked Katrin because she was a prideful, deceitful bitch who was constantly testing me to see what she could get away with, and that got annoying fast. I disliked Natalie because she was a lawyer, and she acted like one. That also got annoying fast, not to mention that her efforts to seem human, rather than blending in, usually took her straight into the uncanny valley. Vampires were creepy enough already.


I disliked Friedrich because his smug, supercilious attitude was readily apparent. He walked in like he owned the place, and sneered at me like he expected me to grovel.


I’m a bit of a hypocrite, really. I dislike having authority over people. I hate giving orders. But at the same time, I absolutely can’t stand people giving me orders. That’s a large part of why I’ve never actually been a part of a werewolf pack. People who won’t take or give orders don’t fit in well to the dominance structure, and wolves who don’t fit in the hierarchy have all kinds of problems.


All of which meant that, when the strange vampire walked in and looked at me like a servant, it prejudiced me against him. Not that it mattered particularly, since I needed to stay on Katrin’s good side right now anyway, but it made things easier.


“What’s the problem?” I asked, rubbing my temples. That never seemed to help with a headache, and yet I never ceased to try.


“Dumbass went poaching,” Natalie said with a grin that made me want to shudder. Her casual inflection was slightly off, like listening to a ninety-year old trying to use modern slang.


“What, exactly, does ‘poaching’ mean in this context?” I asked dryly.


The vampire’s grin vanished instantly, as though she’d suddenly remembered that it wasn’t a good way to charm me. “He preyed on someone that another vampire had marked,” she said, her voice entirely businesslike.


Vampires getting territorial about their food. Just what I needed. “Is he from out of town?”


“No, he’s been in the city for five years.”


“And the other vamp, was he local, too?”




I paused. “So what you’re saying,” I said slowly, “is that one of Katrin’s minions insulted another one, so he threw a hissy fit.”


Natalie gave me a cold look. It reminded me uncomfortably that, ridiculous and contemptible as she was, she was still a scary monster, and I’d be wise not to underestimate her. I could probably beat her—as vampires go, Natalie is distinctly at the bottom of the violence totem pole—but whether I’d get the chance was another question entirely. Vampires have a reputation for being sneaky bastards, and Katrin wouldn’t keep her around without a reason.


“Your statement,” she said a moment later, not sounding at all pleasant or amused now, “while a crude oversimplification of a complicated situation, is not entirely inaccurate.”


“And I’m handling this…why, exactly?” I asked, ignoring her hissy fit entirely. “I didn’t agree to handle Katrin’s discipline problems for her. If she’s trying to outsource that to me, I’m going to be upset.”


Natalie looked as though she were smelling something unpleasant. “Ordinarily,” she said in a tone which suggested she was about as happy with this as I was, “my mistress would prefer to handle this in-house, as it were. However, in this specific case, she didn’t have the option.”


I paused to read between the lines. “Are you saying dipshit here decided to appeal his case to me himself?” I asked incredulously.


This time the vampire’s smile almost looked honest. “That’s right,” she confirmed.


“Could I—” said dipshit started to say, sounding confused about the course this discussion had taken.


“Shut up,” I interrupted offhandedly. “I wonder who gave him that idea. They can’t have liked him very much.”


Natalie’s face was carefully neutral. “I don’t have any information on who suggested it to him.”


Yeah, I bet. It was Katrin. I couldn’t prove it, but it was her. Oh, she might not have been the one to say it, but she was responsible. It was too neat to be an accident. She got to punish an insubordinate minion without taking the blame herself, piss me off, and remind me of how hellish she could make my life, all at once. If she wanted to badly enough, she could make every day look like this.


That prospect was upsetting enough to make me feel a little ill. It went well with the pounding headache and building fatigue I already had.


Of course, two could play that game.


“What sort of punishment,” I asked casually, “would this sort of thing typically get? If Katrin were handling things, I mean.”


Natalie shrugged. “Nothing too serious. Confinement for a few weeks, perhaps, or he’d have to provide the vampire he stole it from with a replacement.”


As casual as she sounded, you could almost forget we were talking about a human being. Almost, but not quite. I’m not generally the biggest fan of humans, but some things were beyond the pale.


I found myself smiling maliciously, and did nothing to hide it. “And rather than accept that,” I said softly, knowing quite well that I sounded rather creepy, “you decided to take your chances with me?” I smiled wider. “Friend, I think you made something of a mistake.”


Natalie paused, looking a bit like you might expect someone on their first skydiving trip to look right before they jumped. Then she sighed. “Jarl Winter,” she said, sounding almost pained, “could I speak to you in private for a few moments?”


I considered her for a moment, then shrugged. “Why not. Everyone, if you could please wait outside for a moment?” I would have preferred to just vacate the room myself—it would have been much more convenient for everyone—but I could hardly afford to send that message. Jarls don’t worry about inconveniencing other people, however much I personally hated that attitude.


The small crowd that was still waiting left, with much speculative whispering, and took the other vampire with them. It only took a few seconds before the door shut, and I leaned back in my throne, shifting uncomfortably. “Well?” I snapped, in no mood to continue pretending I had any patience left for Natalie. She wouldn’t believe it anyway. I don’t like Natalie, but she isn’t stupid.


“And your minions?” she said, eyeing the housecarls significantly.


I snorted. “If you think,” I said dryly, “for even a second that I’m going somewhere alone with you, you’ve vastly underestimated my intelligence. Now get to the point, vampire, before I lose what few scraps of patience I still have this late at night.”


She almost smiled. It was a better job than most of Natalie’s expressions; if I hadn’t been watching her eyes, I might have almost thought it was sincere. “As you wish. I’d appreciate it if you could go easy on Friedrich, here.”


“And why,” I started, before being interrupted by a long and genuine yawn. “Why,” I continued, “would you want me to do a thing like that?”


“His progenitor is an old friend of mine. I must admit I harbor a bit of lingering fondness for the boy.”


Yeah, right. And in unrelated news, scientists had developed aeronautic bacon, and there was a guy on the corner selling the deeds to a dozen bridges at cut-rate prices. Natalie was simultaneously a vampire, a lawyer, and a politician, which meant she had only slightly more chance of doing something out of the goodness of her heart than Loki did.


She wanted something. And given that this involved Katrin, it wasn’t hard to see that it was probably some sort of vampire politics. I knew nothing about the internal politics of the vampires in town, and the longer I could keep it that way the happier I’d be.


On the other hand, it would also give me leverage on Natalie. And that wasn’t a bad thing to have.


“I do this for you,” I said, “you owe me one. Got it?”


She didn’t look happy, but she also didn’t look surprised. She nodded tightly, and I smiled. “Great. Sveinn, get everyone back in here, all right?”


It took only slightly longer to get everyone herded back inside than it had taken them to leave. “So,” I said. “Friedrich, you did some pretty stupid things. But I’ve decided to cut you a break, so I’m not going to kill you. You owe Katrin and the vampire you poached from a favor each, to be claimed at their discretion. And you also owe me, oh, let’s say ten thousand dollars, to be paid within the year.”


“Why do I owe you?” he protested indignantly. Beside him I saw Natalie rolling her eyes, and almost smirked. Yeah, she definitely wasn’t saving this guy’s ass because she liked him so much.


“Let’s say it’s a tax,” I said with a smile. “To discourage any other vampires from coming to me with their problems. I have enough of my own to deal with.”


Natalie herded him outside before he could talk himself any further into trouble, fortunately for the brains of everyone in the room. I looked at the small group of people still waiting and sighed. “It’s late,” I said. “I’m tired. Does anyone object to postponing the rest of this session until next week?”


No one did, and they filtered out into the rain, not without a certain degree of grumbling. I stood up and stretched, giving them a few minutes to disperse before I left to go catch a few hours of sleep.


“Jarl?” Sveinn said, while the rest of the housecarls wandered out, most of them also yawning and grumbling. “What should we do with the money?”


“You guys split what we took in tonight,” I said, yawning again. “To make up for the late night.”


Kyi, who was still lingering, sighed. “This is not jarl,” she said disapprovingly. “Jarl does not apologize.” Kyi’s English, while still shaky, was distinctly better than when she’d started working for me.


I glowered at her. “Housecarls,” I countered, “don’t tell their jarls what to do.”


She smirked. “As you say, jarl.”


Sveinn cleared his throat, cutting off any rejoinder I could have made—which was just as well, really, considering I couldn’t think of a witty one. “And the money from the vampire?”


I shrugged. “Assuming he pays up, it goes in the general fund.” I took in a lot of money jarling, but I already had vastly more cash than I was ever likely to need. Some went to upkeep for the housecarls, and the rest I split between various charities.


“I’m going home,” I announced a moment later. “If you hear about another building blowing up or some shit like that, you know how to contact me. Otherwise, it can bloody well wait ’til morning.”


The housecarls are, as a group, psychotic, dangerous, generally unsafe to be around, and not as obedient as some overlords would prefer. They aren’t stupid. None of them argued the point with me.


I was delayed getting home by an overturned semi which, even at this time of night, had traffic backed up to a ridiculous extent. By the time I finally staggered in the front door, it was almost two in the morning, I’d achieved nothing since sundown, and I was in the sort of mood that could only be described as “homicidal.” I was actually a little sad that nobody’d tried to assassinate me on the way home; in my current state of mind, taking my mood all the way to actually homicidal would be a relaxing diversion.


My frustration was somewhat alleviated by the fact that Alexis had left dinner in the kitchen, some sort of pasta with cream sauce that wouldn’t suffer excessively for being left out a few hours. I shoveled a plate of it down my gullet and, now feeling only somewhat grumpy, went to bed.


End of day one, and nothing accomplished. At this point, it wasn’t looking too good for me to get this sorted out within my one-week deadline.

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Event Horizon 8.2

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When you have a problem and you don’t know quite how to solve it, there are a few ways you can approach it. You can take the time to investigate the issue carefully and thoroughly, until you know exactly which avenue of inquiry is most likely to yield a solution. Or, if you’re on a tight deadline and you don’t even really have a place to start, you can take a more random approach, trying every path available and hoping that one of them pays off.


Since I seem to be under a time constraint pretty much all the time, it should come as no surprise that I was more familiar with the second method. It’s got some problems, but there are also some definite upsides.


If you want to get good results from that approach, the first thing you have to do is make sure that you have a lot of avenues, with a lot of variety between them. The more ways you have to look at the problem, and the less overlap there is between them, the more likely it is that at least one of them will hit pay dirt.


That’s where obsessive preparation comes in handy. It’s hard to assemble that kind of network on the spot. But if you happen to already have it in place, you can access a lot more information in a hurry than a more considered, precise approach would ever allow you to pull off.


I’m really good at obsessive preparation. So, before we’d even left home, I’d already placed several phone calls. I called Kyra and asked her to meet us in Wyoming in a few hours. I called Katrin Fleischer and left a message saying I wanted to meet with her tonight. I called the housecarls and told them to be on the lookout for anything out of the ordinary. I left messages with Brick, Pryce, and Val asking them to let me know if they saw or heard anything. I called the strange, feral half-breed who called herself Jackal, and let her know that I was in the market for information. I called my contact with the Watchers, a sorcerer who called himself Moray, and told him to pull everything they had on summonings in the area and get it to me—I had access to their information network, but it was entirely unofficial, and had to go through certain channels.


All of that, without my having to do any real work or expose myself to anything dangerous. I could get used to this kind of work.


I opened the first portal in a small park a couple of blocks from home. I’m not especially good at opening portals to the Otherside. On the other hand, it’s an incredibly useful talent to have, and being able to do it quickly and easily provides all kinds of options you’d never have otherwise.


I can’t do that. That’s why I’d taken the time to make a focus for that specific kind of magic, and I wore it pretty much everywhere—a ring made out of ice, it wasn’t hard to conceal, if I even felt the need to bother. It was entirely useless for any other task, but it cut the time I took to open a portal from almost twenty minutes to somewhere around ten. That was useful enough to be worth the thirty or forty hours it had taken to make it.


That’s what sucks about magic. It’s useful, sure, and impressive as hell, but that’s mostly because you’re only seeing a tiny part of the process. A mage can throw around gusts of wind, bolts of lightning, or fireballs, and that’s quick and flashy and liable to make their enemies crap themselves and run away—but it’s also the end result of a much longer and more involved process, one that isn’t nearly as fun or impressive as the final product. Behind that one spell, the mage probably has hundreds of hours of study, calculation, practice, and refinement.


It’s much easier to just be a thug with a gun.


After a suitable recovery period and a quick jaunt through the streets of El Dorado, Aiko opened the next portal. This one led from a small alley between a pair of enormous silvery towers to another small alley between a pair of glass-walled skyscrapers. I’d been here several times before, but usually late at night—the time difference between Colorado and Italy is a substantial one, and trying to align schedules between the two is difficult in the extreme.


It was late afternoon here, this time, and I was a little surprised at the difference. The streets, which I was accustomed to seeing empty, were thronging with crowds, most of whom looked like businesspersons—just getting off from work, most likely.


Aiko managed to flag down a cab anyway, largely by dint of being quite willing to elbow a woman in a three-thousand-dollar suit between the ribs with no hesitation. It probably helped that she was with Snowflake and I; we tend not to have many problems with crowding. That turned into a hindrance once she was trying to convince the taxi driver to let us inside his car, of course, but she managed to talk him around. The process seemed to involve a great deal of rapid speech in Italian, which I didn’t understand, and also a fair bit of cash.


Magic is great, but shameless bribery can take you at least as far.


“So,” Alexis said as we got out of the cab. “Not to cramp your style or anything, but what are we doing here?”


Projectile vomiting, probably, Snowflake said gloomily. I swear this place gets nastier every time we come here. I think I can actually smell him all the way out here.


I choked back laughter and answered Alexis’s question. “Aiko knows a guy here,” I said. “He works in the black market, does a lot of business as a knowledge broker.”


She blinked. “Seriously? You’ve got a friend in the black market?” She shook her head. “Wow. That’s…kind of cool, actually.”


I snorted and opened the door to the apartment building. “Yeah, that’s what I thought too. Jacques was something of a letdown.”


A few minutes later I was pounding on Jacques’s door, and trying not to preemptively gag in the expectation of him opening it. Shockingly, it took less than five mintues for him to get to the door; possibly he had actually been conscious this time, rather than in his more normal state of alcohol-induced stupor.


Jacques is not a pretty man. Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s not a man, per se, at all; I doubt he’s anything as simple as a human being. But he both looks and smells like one, in the worst way. An overweight, middle-aged man with jagged yellow toenails, bloodshot eyes, and filthy, matted black hair, he carried a stench of alcohol, sweat, and spoiled food that hung around him in an aura that could have stopped small-caliber bullets. His breath should have been licensed as a weapon, and probably banned by the Geneva conventions while they were at it.


He glared at us through the narrow opening of the door. “Cupcake,” he said sourly. Aiko had introduced herself to him with that pseudonym years ago, before I met her, and it was the only thing I’d ever heard him call her. It’s a matter of etiquette, I think; there’s no way he doesn’t know exactly who we are, but politeness forbids him from using real names. “Shrike,” he continued, which was the name I was stuck with around him. “And Spike. Lovely. Who’s the chick?”


“Cricket,” Aiko said impatiently. “Now hurry up, I’m not talking business out here.”


Jacques snorted and opened the door the rest of the way. “You’re no good at naming things, Cupcake,” he said, stepping out of the way.


“I’ll try to live with myself,” she said dryly, brushing past him without making physical contact. The rest of us followed her into a small, dimly lit living room. Jacques locked the door behind us.


“What do you want?” he asked, dropping heavily onto the couch. It both squealed and squelched, and as usual I resolved to never, ever touch it.


“Information,” I said. “As soon as possible.”


He yawned and grabbed a large bottle seemingly at random off the floor. “What kind?”


“Loki wants something,” I said, watching the information broker closely. “I want to know what.”


Jacques didn’t react. “Hell, Shrike,” he snorted. “Loki wants a shitload of things. You gotta be more specific than that.”


“It has to do with some kind of summoning. And he really wants it. If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s actually scared.”


Jacques looked confused for about three seconds. Then a flash of realization went over his face. “No,” he growled. “Screw you, Shrike, I ain’t touching that. Get out.”


“We’ll pay—” Aiko started.


“You lot aren’t worth it,” he said. “Nobody’s worth that. They’d eat me alive.” I opened my mouth, but he cut me off before I could figure out how to respond. “I said no,” he roared. “Now get the fuck out of here!”


Suddenly Jacques did not look amusing or pathetic at all. He was sitting upright now, one hand shoved down between the cushions of his couch. I thought about some of the weapons I’d bought from him, and how much damage they could do in an enclosed space. I thought further about the fact that we were currently on his turf, and a black marketeer could probably manage all kinds of defenses.


Aiko, Snowflake and I all tend to be reckless. We are not stupid. We left.


“That was exciting,” Alexis said once we were back out on the street.


“Yeah,” Aiko agreed. “I’ve never seen Jacques that upset before.”


Personally, I was rather concerned. I mean, I’d bought some fairly serious info from him in the past—nothing godly, sure, but there were still some awfully powerful groups involved. He’d never even flinched at that, never let his mask slip—but just the mention of this had taken him from zero to sixty pretty damn fast. There’d been steel in his voice when he told us to leave, and I had no doubt he would have resorted to force if we’d resisted. But there had been fear under that, real and genuine terror.


Jacques knew something. He knew what Loki wanted, all right, or thought he did, and it terrified him. It would take a lot of fear to override the man’s innate self-interest. Even if he hadn’t been willing to talk, I would have expected him to try and turn a profit somehow.


What could they have summoned that would make Loki nervous? What could be so bad that Jacques wouldn’t even discuss the topic, at any price?


What on earth had I gotten myself into?


Aiko opened another portal from Milan to Faerie—none of us thought it was a good idea to stay in Italy very long, not after Jacques had blown up like that. He had a lot more resources there than we did, and if he decided we were a threat that needed to be dealt with, there wasn’t a lot that any of us could do about it.


I didn’t really expect for him to do something like that—but, then, I hadn’t expected him to react the way he had to my question, either. He had no loyalty beyond self-interest, and while that usually made him fairly reliable, I couldn’t predict what he would do right now. This was just too big, and I knew too little about it. Smarter to put some distance between us and him, and give him a chance to cool down and remember what profitable customers we were.


From there it was a relatively simple matter for me to open another portal to Wyoming. It opened in a small clearing in the forest just outside the town of Wolf, where my sort-of foster father had been the Alpha for a century or two.


I hadn’t called Edward. Even if I felt like explaining the situation to him, which I very much didn’t, he wouldn’t have been much help. Edward doesn’t come to Colorado, ever. I don’t know all the details, but I gather that there’s a whole lot of bad blood between him and one of the Colorado Alphas. Whatever happened was a long time ago, close to two hundred years, but werewolves can hold a grudge for millennia. The solution they’d arrived at was to simply avoid each other. He stayed out of Colorado, the other Alpha stayed out of Wyoming, and on the rare occasions they both had to attend a meeting or something, everyone was real careful not to schedule them both in the same place at the same time.


Edward wouldn’t break his word. It just wasn’t the kind of guy he was. Even if he would have, I didn’t want him to. The last thing I needed was another powerful person out to get me.


Fortunately, Edward wasn’t the only werewolf I knew.


It was a fairly long walk to the only bar in town, a small place that had been open for at least a hundred years. I think the same werewolf might have been running it that whole time, too; things tend not to change much in Wolf. It was early in the day still, but the bar was also the only restaurant in town, and there were a handful of people there eating.


“Hey,” Kyra said. “I was starting to wonder if you guys were coming.”


“Travel took a little longer than I was hoping,” I said, staring at the person waiting with her. “What are you doing here?”


Anna Rossi smiled lazily. “Thought I’d come give you a hand,” she said. “What’s up?”


“It’s dangerous,” I said warningly.


Anna rolled her eyes. “So what, she gets to help but I have to stay here? Come on, Winter. If I wanted to be safe that much I wouldn’t be here.”


I wanted to tell her no, but it wouldn’t have been right. Anna was an adult; she could make her own decisions. Heck, it wasn’t like she didn’t already know firsthand that bad things might happen as a result of her helping me. If two missing toes, three broken fingers, and a whole bunch of scars hadn’t taught her that, she was beyond helping.


“All right,” I sighed. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”


“Cool,” Kyra said, standing up straight. “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, what did you want us for, anyway? Last I heard you had plenty of thugs.”


“I do,” I agreed. “I’m actually hoping you might be willing to track someone for me.”




“I don’t know,” I admitted. “Honestly, I don’t know if I’ll need your help at all. But I figured I’d better ask early than late.”


“Hang on a second,” Alexis asked. “You’re talking about scent tracking someone, right?”




“Couldn’t Snowflake do that?”


I shrugged. “Sure. But Snowflake’s sense of smell isn’t as acute as a werewolf’s.”


Also I have too much dignity to walk around snuffling the ground, she pointed out. I snorted, and Kyra cracked a smile. Snowflake recently figured out a way to get werewolves to hear her—I have no idea how it works, but I think it has something to do with manipulating the pack connections that are built into a werewolf’s psyche. It’s a very different system from what I do, but it works for her.


“What about you?” Alexis, not being a werewolf, couldn’t hear what Snowflake said. She’s pretty used to missing out on a certain amount of the conversation, though, and it didn’t slow her down much.


“I could. But it’s like anything else. You have to practice to do it well, and I haven’t put in anywhere near as much time as Kyra has.”


“So who are you looking for, anyway?” Kyra asked, clearly impatient with the topic—for obvious reasons, she already knew all this.


I thought about Loki’s expression when he said that this was serious, and remembered Erica Reilly lying on the floor of her dorm without a skin. “Someone who isn’t very smart,” I said. “Are you ready to go? I want to get back before someone blows the city up or something.”


Kyra snorted and shouldered the plain black backpack that had been sitting on the sidewalk by her feet. It looked heavy. “We’ve met you, Winter. I’ve got enough kit here to fight a small war. Let’s go.”


A short while later we were back in Colorado. It took a little longer having Kyra and Anna along—they hadn’t done this as much as the rest of us, and the transitions were harder on them, so we had to wait a few minutes in between for them to recover. It wasn’t as bad as it could have been, admittedly; they’d both been coming to visit fairly regularly, and they’d gotten used to the experience. It was still vastly superior to flying.


Moray called while we were in an alleyway not far from Val’s shop, waiting for Kyra to feel well enough to walk again. He told me that the files had been sent, but he didn’t know how much use they would be. The Watchers collect information obsessively, but they have their limits; for them to have specific details available this quickly would be a rare stroke of fortune. Moray also, more quietly, told me that this was being taken seriously—very seriously. He’d received personal orders from Watcher to expedite my request, and she’d also added files that weren’t in the official record.


That wasn’t a good sign. Watcher—the head of the Watchers, that is, whom I’d never heard referred to by any other name—had gotten involved in my business a couple of times in the past. It never ended well. She wasn’t the sort of person who bothered with small things.


The documents had been sent by special courier, and would be waiting at the small mansion which had once belonged to the pack, and was now, however reluctantly, mine. I seldom went there, except to hold court; I’ve never liked the place that much, and that hasn’t improved now that I own it. I’m not willing to tell people where I really live, though, so I always used it for my official address.


That wasn’t a surprise. Mail was too slow, and, predictably enough, the Watchers avoid electronic means of communication like the plague. It isn’t secure enough for their tastes. Encryption is a wonderful thing, but you can’t hack paper. I’d dealt with them a couple of times, and they always sent documents by courier. Their couriers were ridiculously fast, but they still had their limits. The files I wanted wouldn’t arrive for a while.


My next stop was Pryce’s. Pryce himself wouldn’t be much help; he hardly ever strung three words together, and even if I could convince him to he was adamantly neutral. Trying to get him to help me on something this important—and, more to the point, this probably-dangerous—was a laughable proposal.


On the other hand, pretty much everyone in the area who was involved with the supernatural passed through his doors at least occasionally. Pryce’s was where I went when I wanted to get a sense of how the community was feeling. It was also the best place to find my favorite local information dealer. Given that this was a local problem, Luna would probably have the most relevant information available.


It would have to wait, though. It was just now noon, and Pryce’s wouldn’t start filling up for a couple hours. I was also hoping to meet Katrin there, and, obviously, that couldn’t happen for a while. I don’t really know whether vampires burst into flame at the touch of sunlight—popular culture gets a lot of things wrong, and I haven’t seen what happens myself. But they definitely don’t like it much. I’ve never yet seen one out and about in the daytime.


That left us with a few hours to kill. We started by getting lunch at a small Mexican place Kyra was fond of. It was cheap and within walking distance of both Pryce’s and Val’s shop, and as a result we’d both eaten there quite a few times. It had been a long while since those concerns were of particular importance to either of us, but the food was still good.


They didn’t let Snowflake in the building, of course. Most buildings don’t, on account of her looking a bit like a fashion-conscious hellhound. She probably could have convinced them otherwise—intelligence at least on a par with most humans does wonders for your acting ability—but she doesn’t want to. She thinks that the benefits of being terrifying outweigh the costs.


It didn’t take us long to eat—it seldom does; werewolves tend to bear a strong resemblance to their natural cousins in that regard, and Aiko can put away three days’ allotment of sugar and caffeine in less than ten minutes. Alexis ate more slowly, but then she also just didn’t eat as much as the rest of us, so it balanced out.


Anyway, what I’m saying here is that it was still quite early in the day when we walked out into the sunlight. It was uncomfortably warm in my armor; Colorado has a reputation for being freezing cold, but that’s pretty much only in the winter, or in the mountains. It was currently July, and Colorado Springs is not by any reasonable definition in the mountains. Ergo, it was above ninety a lot of days.


“That was nice,” Kyra drawled lazily as Snowflake emerged from under a car across the street. She shouldn’t have been able to hide there—bright white fur is supposed to be a little more conspicuous than that—but none of us were surprised. She’s always been better at concealment than a husky has any right to be. “What now?”


I glanced at the sun. Still quite a long time ’til dark. “Go see if the Watchers’ guy dropped of those files,” I decided. It hadn’t been that long since I asked, but the Watchers tend, as a rule, not to let much grass grow under their feet. They don’t have the spare time for it.


I used to drive a Jeep. It was a nice car, very sturdy, and it served me well for a year or two. I’d bought it used, though, and I couldn’t deny that it had some issues. It couldn’t reach highway speeds, for one thing, and that’s a fairly serious problem in a getaway car. Between that and the fact that Aiko’s car had since gone by the wayside (I have no idea what actually happened to the thing; it just disappeared, and by the time I noticed it had already been gone for a few months. I’ve never asked her what she did with it, because I’m not sure I want to know), we’d invested part of Watcher’s blood money the previous winter in new wheels.


Said bribe was somewhere in the vicinity of fifty million dollars. As you might imagine, that meant we probably went a little over the top with the whole project. What good does a fortune do if you can’t squander it?


What I’m getting at here is that Aiko bought a Lamborghini. And yes, I mean that literally. It was expensive as hell, and then I spent a fair chunk more having most of the important bits reinforced with magic. I would have done it myself, but I’m really not skilled with that sort of thing.


Unfortunately, as some car aficionado is doubtless already saying, Lamborghinis only have two seats, which presented certain difficulties under the present circumstances. Even if we’d wanted to pack that many people into that much space, which we didn’t, it still wouldn’t have been an option. We left it parked outside the pack house. It blended into that neighborhood much better. It was still more expensive than some of the houses, but at least it wouldn’t buy most of the block.


Besides. Since that house was built it had been owned by, in order, a pack of werewolves, a pride of rakshasas, and a gaggle of whatever you called my band of freaks. At this point, I figured anyone dumb enough to steal a super-expensive car from out front was pretty much asking for it. The housecarls would probably run them down before they made it off the driveway.


Of course, that wasn’t the only vehicle we’d purchased. We were wasteful, not moronic. I’d purchased an armored truck from a bank (I’m pretty sure that sort of thing wasn’t allowed, but it’s amazing what people will overlook if you wave enough money in front of them). By the time I got finished upgrading it, it was probably sturdy enough to drive over a landmine without suffering any harm.


It was also almost as conspicuous as the Lamborghini, and probably a bit of overkill right now. It was fortunate, then, that we’d also purchased a nicely anonymous SUV, for cases in between. It looked vaguely Men in Blackish, jet black with darkly tinted windows. It was reinforced and armored, as well.


That impression was slightly spoiled by the large bumper sticker which read, in garish red letters: MAKE WAR, NOT LOVE. WE ALREADY HAVE A POPULATION PROBLEM. I hadn’t wanted to put it on there—it ruined any chance the vehicle had of blending—but Aiko had been insistent, and in the end it was just too damn funny for me to argue very much.


Kyra smiled when she saw the bumper sticker, probably because she was the one who’d given it to us.


Aiko wound up driving, probably because Alexis, Snowflake and I were the only ones who had any real experience with Aiko’s driving, and none of us were above a practical joke at the moment. I’m not particularly fond of driving—too many years of not owning a car, I suppose—and apparently Kyra and Anna weren’t in the mood.


I’m pretty sure I saw the exact moment when they started to regret that decision. Aiko was doing eighty down the Interstate at the time. She slid through a gap in traffic perhaps ten or fifteen inches larger than the car, flipped off the semi driver directly behind us, and hit the accelerator. Snowflake, who was currently hanging her head out the window, flashed a steely grin in his direction as we pulled away. Aiko laughed and started fiddling with the stereo, steering one-handed around another car.


The expressions on the werewolves’ faces were priceless. I saw Anna gulp and discreetly check her seatbelt.


Is this…Mongolian throat singing? Snowflake asked after a few moments. Crossed with gangster rap?


I listened for a few minutes. Pretty sure it is, yeah. Could be worse. At least she’s laid off the splittercore. Aiko’s taste in music was…bizarre doesn’t begin to describe it. Neither does erratic. She can quite literally go from Gregorian chant to Viking metal in the space of a song, and sing along with both.


We didn’t actually wreck on the way there, but more because Aiko has a literally superhuman reaction time and the luck of the devil than anything. She navigated the mess of twisting streets leading up to the house flawlessly (which, even after years of visiting the building, was still more than I could reliably do) and slammed to a stop less than two feet from the Lamborghini.


The werewolves exited the car in less than a second and a half. They didn’t say anything—both Kyra and Anna were smart enough to realize that Aiko would only be encouraged by a reaction—but their expressions were eloquent. I followed them at a more leisurely pace, grinning, and went inside.


Sveinn met us at the door. I don’t know how he knew that we were coming, but he opened the door before we reached it, his posture ramrod-straight. “Heill, herra,” he said, nodding almost deeply enough to count as a bow.


“Good afternoon, Sveinn,” I replied, moving past him into the building. “Has a file arrived from the Watchers?”


,” he said. “I will bring it.” The jotun jogged upstairs.


“I can’t believe you still haven’t redecorated the place,” Kyra said, looking around dubiously. It was overcast enough that not much light came in the numerous and large windows, casting the throne room into shadow. It made the omnipresent wolf motif look creepier than usual.


“I don’t spend enough time here,” I said, shrugging. “Besides, I’ve always suspected that Skrýmir’s spying on me, and I don’t want to piss him off.”


Sveinn returned, carrying an unmarked folder, taped shut. “Thank you, Sveinn,” I said, taking it. He went back to watching the door. I opened the folder and pulled out a few sheets of paper. There was no letterhead, of course; if you didn’t know where this file came from and where it was bound, you had no business knowing.


The first sheet of paper was a form letter, entirely unsatisfying. The Watchers had no information regarding any unusual summoning activity in the area. It might have been a lie, of course, but I didn’t think so; I’d been useful to Watcher often enough that I didn’t think she’d antagonize me at this point without a reason.


The next paper was much more interesting. I was pretty sure it was one of those papers Moray had mentioned Watcher slipping into the file. It read like an internal memorandum, and I didn’t think anyone outside of the organization was even supposed to know that it existed. It read:


An unusual degree of activity has been observed in the central Colorado region, centered on the city of Colorado Springs. We have reason to believe that prohibited activities are taking place, including but not limited to summoning rituals, proscribed research, and noncompliance with official orders. Any unusual behavior related to this area, or expression of interest therein, is to be considered a subject for official inquiry, and all related information is to be relayed to your superiors.


Your compliance is appreciated.


Well, shit. The Watchers were scrambling to figure out what was going on, too. Hell, I probably knew more than they did right now. This was so not good news. I pulled the last sheet of paper out, dreading what it might say, and glanced it over. Then I blinked.


It wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. It was worse.


Brick Anderson hadn’t been seen or heard from for close to a week. That didn’t surprise me too much—when he’d been threatened before, he’d retreated to his hideout in an abandoned mine tunnel. It was almost impossible to reach, and once you got there it was damned near impregnable. It wasn’t too strange that, in the face of what was clearly another very dangerous situation, he might hide there again.


But he hadn’t reported in to the Watchers, either. He hadn’t responded to their messages, or—when they started getting concerned—to emergency channels. A search of his known locations hadn’t turned up anything. All things considered, and keeping in mind that this had gone on for at least a week, it seemed safe to say that Brick had disappeared.


There were several possible explanations for that. It could be that he knew what was going on, and it was bad enough that he needed to take precautions this extensive to feel safe. Or it could be that whoever was responsible had, for whatever reason, removed him from the equation.


Or it could be that Brick himself was responsible.


Personally, I was hoping for that last one. Considering Brick’s combat skill, anything that could take him out without making a show of it was more than I could deal with. At least if this was all Brick’s fault, I had a reasonable starting place and a chance at dealing with him.


Plus I wouldn’t owe him a favor anymore. Bonus!


I passed the file to Aiko, who skimmed the papers and snorted. “Well, we’re a bit screwed, aren’t we?”


“Quite.” I wasn’t entirely sure what to do with this new information. I’d been prepared for the Watchers to have no useful information, but the implication that they were truly concerned by the situation was unsettling. On top of that, I didn’t really believe that Brick was the person we were looking for, which meant that I had to seriously consider the possibility that the culprit had the power, skill, and cunning to remove a combat-trained and paranoid mage without any kind of disturbance.


A moment later Sveinn, standing at the edge of the room, cleared his throat. “Jarl?”




“The rest of the petitions were rescheduled for tonight. Will that work, or…?”


“No, I don’t think I can spare the time. Not for at least a week.” He didn’t say anything for a moment, and I sighed. “What’s the problem?”


“One of the plaintiffs speaks for Katrin.”


I groaned. Katrin would help me in the end—Loki was liable to do something insane and destructive if I didn’t find this summoner for him, and nobody wanted that. Katrin had more invested in this city than I did. The problem was making her see that. I had to talk to her before I could make her realize how high the stakes were. If she thought I was insulting her by making her minion wait, she would put me through the runaround for days.


I’m not sorry that I don’t get along with Katrin. The only way we would get along is if I were to roll over for her, and I’m not willing to do that. But at times like this, I wished I hadn’t gotten into this pissing contest with her.


“All right,” I said. “Fine. I’ll be here tonight.” I resented the time lost, but enlisting Katrin’s resources would be worth it. The vampiress had clout, and minions. Her assistance, even if it was reluctant and limited, would be worth vastly more than another few hours of my time.


Sveinn bowed. “. I will tell them to come.” The housecarl left, probably to go do exactly that. Sveinn is nothing if not efficient.


“Right, then,” I said briskly. “Might as well go to Pryce’s now, then. Something tells me I won’t be hearing from Katrin tonight anyway.”


Aiko snorted. “What, just ’cause she’s a prickly, domineering bitch?”


“Now that you mention it, that might have something to do with it, yes.”


Around four hours later, the long summer twilight had reluctantly given way to night. We’d enjoyed an excellent and very large meal, and I got to watch Kyra walk into Pryce’s for the first time in quite a while. It was sort of funny; anyone who didn’t know would have sworn she hadn’t been gone a week. He hadn’t remodeled, of course, and there wasn’t much staff turnover either. Pryce himself didn’t say a word—no surprise there—but a few of his employees and several longtime customers stopped by to say hello.


The bad news was that that was all of the good news. I talked to everyone I knew and the handful of people I didn’t, and everywhere I heard the same thing. There was something going on, something big, but nobody quite knew what. Pryce’s bar had the same charged atmosphere you would expect to find in a warzone. People clumped up and spoke in harsh whispers. I noticed that there was a lot more hard liquor moving than normal. This surfeit was more than balanced by the general lack of cheer, and near-total absence of laughter.


People were scared. They might not know exactly what was happening, but this crowd hadn’t survived this long without developing a weather eye for this sort of thing. They knew that something was up, and that all sorts of people were paying attention to it. That alone was enough to frighten them.


I offered people money, in quantities which literally made me wince. I might have it to spare, but a pile of cash doesn’t make you rich. That’s an attitude, and my attitudes were still those of a guy who’d barely been able to afford food for most of his life. You don’t change that in a year or two. I offered them information in trade. I offered stored spells. I even offered favors, which I normally avoid like the plague.


It didn’t matter. The things I wanted to know simply weren’t available, at any price. Nobody knew. Luna was the best source, as usual, but that wasn’t saying much. She was the only person I talked to who’d heard the summoning angle, and she didn’t have anything concrete.


Long story short, after three hours of work, I’d gotten exactly no result. Rumor and innuendo, whispers and implications, all of these things I could have in bulk, but there wasn’t even a scrap of actual information.


Needless to say, this left me feeling rather frustrated.


“So,” Anna said brightly. “What are we doing here again?”


I glowered at her. “Don’t look at me. I suggested that you stay in a hotel or something until I came up with something you could do.”


She opened her mouth to respond, but my cell phone cut her off before she could. I pulled it out and answered it, because seriously, what else was I going to do under the circumstances?


“Jarl?” Sveinn sounded…a little scared, actually, which couldn’t possibly be good news.




“You said to call if we heard anything unusual? Well, we heard it.”


I perked up instantly. “What’s up?”


“I don’t know. But it sounds like something you need to see for yourself.” He rattled off an address and hung up.


“Sounds like a clue.” Anna sounded, gods help us all, excited.


“Yes,” I said thoughtfully. “Yes, it does. I think we’d better go check it out.”


“Fine.” Kyra sounded distinctly less enthused. “But I’m driving this time.”


I was chuckling as we walked out into the night.

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Interlude 7.a: Ash Sanguinaria

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When I heard the door open, I immediately looked up to see who had entered. There are a great many students at Hearthstone Academy, but the vast majority are entirely preoccupied with making provisions for their futures. As such, they generally spend most of their time studying those subjects which are of clear value and utility in the Courts, while their free time is devoted to the extremes of pleasure-seeking. This library, which contained historical works focusing primarily on social and economic topics, was of little use in either pursuit, and as such I had very seldom encountered another student here. When I heard another person come in I thought that it might be one of my few friends, as they would certainly think to look here if they wanted to find me.


Instead, I saw the werewolf called Bryan Ferguson. While he had still clearly come here with the intent of speaking to me, the meaning was very different.


I slipped a ribbon into the book of kobold history I was reading and set it to the side. There was little point in continuing, after all.


Bryan could not have seen my alcove on the upper level from the door, but he did not bother pretending that he did not know where I was. In my experience Bryan very seldom bothers with any pretense at all.


I sat back in my chair and sipped at the glass of water I had brought, watching him cross the library and begin climbing the narrow staircase to the upper level. Across from me, Hikaru rose from the padded bench he was resting on, stretched, and walked over to sit next to me. Notably, he did not return to the form of a stuffed animal, as he usually would when another person was approaching.


Most likely such caution was unnecessary. At this point, there was little to no reason to think that Bryan would act to cause me harm. If he did, however, Hikaru would need to react immediately to have any chance of saving me.


“Good morning,” Bryan said as he reached the top of the stairs and turned towards me.


“It is evening, locally,” I said, stroking Hikaru’s back. There was no particular warmth in the action, on either side. Petting him was a habitual behavior on my part, much as flicking an ear in annoyance was a habitual gesture on his. The interaction had long since become so casual as to be nearly meaningless.


“My mistake,” Bryan said. “Thank you for correcting me. I have an excursion planned. I believe it will be of educational merit to you.”


I nodded and stood. The statement was so uninformative that I would have questioned why he bothered making it, were it anyone other than Bryan. I could count on the fingers of no hands the number of times he had come to visit me without a reason, and the vast majority of them had been educational excursions.

Many of them had been less than enjoyable. But there was no point in arguing. Debt cuts both ways, after all.


“What destination do you have in mind?” I asked, following him to the stairs. Hikaru stepped up next to me, allowing me to grasp the scruff of his neck, so that when he returned to his smaller form I could pick him up without breaking stride.


“Winter Wolf. You spoke with him last year.”


“I remember.” It had been an unusually pleasant outing. Relatively few of the strangers I met were willing to treat me as an equal. Most of them saw me as a child to be patronized, while the remainder were unsettled by my bearing.


“I would like you to go and assist him with a minor task. It does have a significant chance of putting you at risk.” He did nothing to indicate it, but we were all aware that the final statement was not directed at me.


Hikaru snorted rudely. “I’ve kept the twerp alive for fifteen years,” he said. “She hasn’t gotten dumber, so she probably won’t get killed this time either.”


I wondered, as I often did, how much of Hikaru’s disdain towards me was still genuine, and to what degree it was merely an imitation of a feeling which had since faded. I knew that he no longer despised me. In a sense, we might even be friends. Certainly there were times when I could convince myself we felt genuine fondness for each other.


In many ways, I supposed, it hardly mattered. The three of us were bound together by a morass of debts and obligations beyond any of our control. How we felt about it was quite immaterial.


“How long are you expecting this excursion to last?” I asked as we walked out of the library.


“Several days,” Bryan said, walking briskly down the street. “Possibly as much as a week.”


“There are professors I should inform, then. As well as fellow students who might be concerned by my absence.”


“They have been notified,” he said. His tone did not change, but his meaning had become dismissive.


I nodded and kept walking without comment. Hikaru growled quietly, but did not react otherwise. Regardless of how he felt about Bryan’s casual disregard for my desire to tell my friends goodbye in person, he knew better than to challenge the werewolf on it.


Besides, there was little sense in doing so. Bryan was damaged, and had been for a very long time. He was, on a fundamental level, not capable of forming or understanding meaningful relationships. Criticizing him for that was akin to criticizing a wolf for eating meat.


Nothing more was said as we walked through the Academy.


It was a tediously long walk. The library, like most of the buildings intended for student use, was relatively near to the periphery of the Academy, but it was still several miles to the nearest sanctioned exit. I was tempted to suggest the use of public transportation, but it would have been a waste of breath. Bryan had spent more than enough time here to know about it. If we were walking, it was because he had chosen to walk, and he most likely had a reason for it.


Eventually, after roughly an hour of walking, we reached the edge of the Academy. We passed under the outer wall, a shell of grey stone thick enough for entire buildings to be built into it, and stepped out onto the bridge. I didn’t remember using this bridge before, but it was much like all the others, a delicate construction of dark metal that spanned the canyon in a single graceful arch. A bridge of steel would have required multiple piers to support it across such a gap, but of course there was no steel in the Academy.


It had been years since a student jumped from one of the bridges. I wondered, as I sometimes did, what it might be like. The rushing of the wind. The pounding of my heart. Watching the water get closer and closer. At that speed, it would be little different from hitting concrete.


There was no real danger of that, of course. Even if I were to jump, Hikaru would hardly allow me to hit the water. It was almost sad, in a way.


I wouldn’t have jumped. I have no desire to die. But it would have been nice to have the choice.


Bryan led us up the gradual rise on the other side of the canyon, making sure we were well outside the Academy’s wards. I was getting tired, but we were nearly done walking. I could wait to rest until we had finished.


I could have ridden Hikaru. He wouldn’t have objected, particularly given that we were well away from prying eyes. But I had no desire to do so, not with Bryan there. Our odd, delicate friendship was not something I wanted to share with Bryan.


At the top of the rise, he began work on the portal that would take us out of this world. I turned back, looking at the Academy. It wasn’t that great of a view, but there was nothing else out here but endless, featureless grey plains. Even the Academy was more interesting to look at than that.


We weren’t high enough for me to see over the walls, but I could see four of the nine bridges connecting the Academy to the outside world. Dormitories and libraries huddled against the walls, many of them tall enough to see from outside, while further in buildings housing classrooms and the support facilities necessary to sustain the Academy loomed over them. At the very center a single tower rose to the sky, impossibly high, with the light of a tiny sun caged at the top.


Hearthstone Academy. The finest home I’ll never have.


I sighed and turned to follow Bryan through the portal.

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Event Horizon 8.1

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In retrospect, it should have been obvious that things were about to go to hell. I’d had half a year of peace and prosperity, and that was about half a year more than I could count on. I should have known that when it all fell apart, it would do so with more than the usual enthusiasm.


It all started innocuously enough. I was sitting in my throne room hearing petitions. It wasn’t my favorite activity, at all, but it wasn’t horrible. Almost two years into the jarl gig, I’d finally gotten it somewhat figured out. Most of my nominal subjects had figured out that I wasn’t really that into dealing with their problems and reacted poorly when they attempted to drag me into the middle of a spat, so mostly they didn’t bother me unless they thought a situation had gotten fairly serious. As a result, I only had to actually hold court once or twice a month these days, rather than on a weekly basis.


That should not be taken to mean that it was any less unpleasant. Less frequent, but not less unpleasant.


It was currently just past dusk and I’d been sitting in my hideously uncomfortable throne for the better part of eight hours. Thus far I’d heard a dispute between a pair of vampires over who owned one of their pet humans, an allegation that Jimmy and his little gang had used unacceptable methods while hunting a vampire down in Pueblo, and an accusation that a minor mage had stolen a significant amount of money from, of all things, a coffin maker.


The fact that it had taken eight hours to deal with those three complaints should tell you something about how fun my job was. It made herding cats look pleasant; with cats, you’re at least allowed to use filthy language. I had to remain polite, calm, and levelheaded the whole time I was dealing with this crap, and it left me in a mood that could charitably be described as foul.


Finally, after two full hours of wrangling with the coffin maker and the mage he’d accused, I managed to arrive at a compromise. Like all good compromises, it left no one happy and wouldn’t last five minutes outside my line of sight, but at least I might not have to see that particular complainant again.


I sighed. “Another one down,” I said. “Who’s next, Sveinn?”


My housecarl glanced at a sheet of paper. “It seems to be one Mr. Laufson,” he said.


I froze. “Luke Laufson?”


“That’s correct, jarl.”


“Oh shit oh shit runrunrun.” That’s what I didn’t say, because it would have ruined my image.


Having an image can be such a pain in the ass.


Thus, while my initial reaction was to hit every panic button available and run out of the building screaming, instead I said, “Show him in, please,” as calmly as I could manage. I must have been getting better, because Sveinn didn’t seem to see through me. He just nodded and went to the door. We made everyone wait their turn outside in summer, as another way of ensuring that they had to really want to talk to me.


Luke brushed past the giant casually as he walked in. He was wearing a body I hadn’t seen before, less visually distinctive than was normal for him. It was short, a little overweight, and pale, which combined with short, unkempt black hair to make him look vaguely nerdy. If I’d passed him on the street I wouldn’t have thought a thing of it.


For a second I hoped that this actually wasn’t the single most terrifying entity I’d ever encountered, and the name was just a coincidence, or someone trying to scare me or something. Then he winked at me, and a muddy brown eye vanished into orange-and-green madness for half a second before returning to mundanity. I sighed. It was Loki, all right.


“Everyone leave, please,” I said quietly. “Sveinn, this will be my last appointment for the night. If anyone’s still waiting, get their contact information and let them know that I’ll see them tomorrow.”


I could tell that the housecarls were confused. They didn’t know who this was, and they didn’t know why I didn’t want them present for this conversation. The lot of them filed out without comment or question regardless. They knew my rules. I was fine with—welcoming of, even—questions, recommendations, and complaints. They kept me from getting complacent. In front of outsiders, though, I expected prompt obedience. Anything else made me look bad, and I couldn’t afford that.


“I love what you’ve done with the place,” Loki said, wandering idly around the room. “Very…Spartan. Is that chair as uncomfortable as it looks?”


“Worse,” I growled. “What do you want?”


“Come now,” he said. “Is that all the patience you have? For me, your dear friend?” He sighed and shook his head. “You need to work on your manners, Shrike. Surely Conn trained you better than this.”


“I’ve been in this chair all day,” I said. “I’d rather not be here all night too. I know you want something, or you wouldn’t be here. What is it?”


“As you wish,” he said, stopping and turning to face me. His expression and voice were both unwontedly serious, and I almost shivered. Anything bad enough to make Loki start paying attention was way out of my league. “This is a time for brevity, in any case. I desire a favor.”


“A favor,” I repeated.




“Do you think I’m a moron?” I asked. “I remember the last favor I did you.”


“That was jest,” he said. “This is serious. I will provide you with all the assistance I can. You will be well rewarded, I assure you.”


“I also remember the last favor you did me,” I said dryly. “It isn’t a terribly good motivator.”


“Knowledge, then,” he offered. “I will answer nine questions for you, truthfully and to the best of my knowledge and your capacity for understanding.”


I paused. “Any nine questions?”


“Yes.” Loki sounded impatient.


“And they only count if I explicitly state that they do?”


“Naturally. Petty word games are for lesser beings, and unworthy of such as us.”


Wow. That was…an extremely good offer. Almost good enough to be tempting. I mean, Loki was a god. A god. Not even a weak, unimportant deity, like the god of kitchen drawers or something. He was probably in the top ten most powerful and influential entities in the world. He was old, too, older than I could probably hope to understand.


You don’t get to that kind of position without knowing all kinds of things, things better left forgotten. If you knew to ask the right questions, even a single truthful answer from Loki was the sort of thing that could change the world. Nine of them was a priceless treasure, worth far more than any dragon’s hoard.


Loki was many things, few of them good. But he wasn’t an oathbreaker. If he was offering me this deal, he meant it. I was utterly confident of that. He wasn’t trying to bilk me, or trick me into accepting a fool’s bargain. He was being sincere.


Which, in turn, meant that him saying this was serious was the understatement of the year. Even for a god, the sort of thing he was offering me was a rare deal. It was the kind of thing you don’t give away without a damned good reason. If he was taking anything that seriously, it was a safe bet that the smartest thing for me to do was run as far and fast as I could. Like, maybe into another world. And then hunker into the toughest bomb shelter I could come up with, and pray I could weather the storm.


I took a solid five minutes trying to decide what answer I should give him. Loki seemed content to wait in silence, not even breathing or blinking. Impatient he might be, but he was still Loki. Five minutes just doesn’t mean a lot to someone who’s seen the birth and death of millennia.


What eventually decided me was, oddly enough, not the promise of reward. It was curiosity. It’s a serious problem for me. When I’m presented with a fascinating question, I want to know the answer, even if I know that the information will cost more than it’s worth. If I turned him down, I’d never know what it was that had him so upset.


And I wanted to know.


And, on a more practical note, it was hard to figure out which way to run if I didn’t know where the threat was coming from.


Ah, well. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway. I’d dealt with Loki a few times in the past, and if there was one thing I’d learned it was that I was going to get screwed no matter what I did. Might as well go into it with open eyes.


“I’m not agreeing to anything,” I told him, “until I know what favor you want.”


“It’s fairly simple,” he said, resuming his pacing. “Someone in this town summoned something, something which should have been left well alone. I want you to find them.”


“What, exactly, did they summon?”


He made a frustrated sound. “There isn’t a word for it. It’s a bad thing, Winter, a very bad thing. It doesn’t belong here.”


“Dangerous, I presume?”


“Extremely,” he said dryly. “I would recommend you avoid it. You aren’t ready to handle something on this level.”


Wonderful. If Loki thought this nameless thing was extremely dangerous, it probably meant I was playing with something closer to thermonuclear weaponry than fire. “Do you know who summoned it?”


“If I knew that, I wouldn’t be asking you. They’re somewhere in or immediately around this city, I know that much.”


“Not very helpful,” I commented.


“That’s why you get the big bucks. Now come on, Winter, I’m in something of a rush. Will you do it or not?”


“Is there a time limit?”


“Seven days,” he said after a moment’s thought. “You have until dawn on Wednesday to come up with the information.”


I took a deep breath and then, before I could think better of it, said, “All right then. I find the person or persons you’re looking for within a week, and you answer nine questions for me. Deal.”


Loki treated me to a smile which, even by werewolf standards, was rather predatory, and tipped a black bowler hat which hadn’t existed until he reached for it. “Bargain struck, Winter Wolf,” he said, bowing grandiosely. “Good luck.” He straightened, turned around, and vanished in an instant.


I was muttering curses as I left the building. None of the housecarls asked me what had happened.


“If I told you I was incredibly stupid and deserved to be shot,” I said, “what would you say?”


Aiko didn’t look away from her dinner. “Loki or Scáthach?” she asked, the question only slightly muffled by a mouthful of steak.


“Loki. How’d you guess?”


“Most of the time it takes you a while to figure out you did something stupid,” she said, taking a bite of mashed potato. “But even you catch on pretty quick when those two are involved.”


“Wait a second,” Alexis said. “When you say Loki, you don’t mean, like…Loki, right?” My cousin, not being as accustomed to my particular brand of dumbassery as Aiko, seemed somewhat disbelieving.


“Yes, unfortunately,” I sighed, grabbing a plate. Alexis had made dinner, which always meant good things. Tonight it meant steaks, mashed potatoes, three loaves of bread, potato salad, pasta salad, actual salad, and cheesecake. Alexis really likes to cook, which kind of weirds me out. I can’t complain, though, because I like food.


“Jesus Christ, Winter, isn’t there anyone you don’t know?”


“We’ve been through this,” I said. “And I thought you guys weren’t supposed to do that. Isn’t there a rule about the whole ‘taking the Lord’s name in vain’ bit?” Alexis was some variety or other of Christian—she goes to church and everything. I’ve never paid too much attention to the details, because it seems to me that the best way to avoid religious arguments is to avoid the whole subject.


I was also raised Christian, to one extent or another. I never really got into it, though, and it’s been years since I even paid it lip service. It’s hard to act like there’s a benevolent supreme power watching over you when you’ve seen as much bad shit as I have. It gets even harder once you’ve actually met some gods. They tend to be rather frightening.


“In this case, I think it’s justified,” Alexis said dryly.


Aiko snorted. “Never mind that. What dipshit move did you pull this time? You didn’t make a deal with him, did you?”


“Sort of,” I admitted.


She froze, then sighed. “You really are a bit thick, aren’t you? Haven’t you gotten burned enough times already?”


“Yeah. But his offer was really good.”


“What could possibly be worth that?” Aiko asked skeptically.


“Nine true, complete answers. To any question I want.”


There was a shocked silence. “Okay,” she said finally. “I can see where that might be worth something. But you don’t get something for nothing. If freaking Loki’s offering a deal like that, it’s gotta be bad.”


“That occurred to me, too,” I agreed. “But there’s something I’d like to point out. If this is that valuable, Loki’s taking it seriously.”


“You are not helping your case any, Winter. Anything Loki takes seriously is too big for the likes of us.”


“Ah,” I said, sitting down. “But let me ask you something. If Loki’s taking this that seriously, he isn’t likely to drop it if I say no. So if a god gets tired of subtlety and just starts swinging, what’s the minimum safe distance?”


She grunted. “Good point. What did you sign on for?”


“Someone summoned something. He wants me to find them.”


“Could you be any more vague?” Aiko wondered.


“Hey, that’s all I know.” I took a bite of rare steak, delicious as usual—Alexis is vegetarian, but there isn’t much she doesn’t know how to cook—before continuing. “I figure I’ll start asking around tomorrow. This is local, and that means that someone must know something.”


“Somebody’s feeling optimistic,” she snorted.


I wasn’t, of course. This wasn’t going to be as easy as that. If it were that simple, Loki would have done it himself. But I’d already signed on for the job, and it wouldn’t do me much good to start complaining before I’d even started. Just because it was going to be a disaster and we all knew it was no reason to have a negative attitude.


I somehow got the idea, getting dressed the next morning, that things might be dangerous. I’m not sure quite how I came by this idea. It probably had something to do with the fact that, oh yeah, I was working for Loki. That might have done it.


Anyway, I wanted to be ready for when things inevitably went to hell. I also wanted to present the right kind of image. Image is everything, especially when you have a reputation to uphold. I’d spent a lot of effort developing my rep, and I couldn’t afford to blow it now.


Fortunately, armor never really goes out of style. I put mine on, draped my newly-redesigned cloak of shadow over it, and grabbed the weapons, foci, and random crap that I thought might help when something bad happened. The final result was more than a little scary looking, especially with the cloak hanging open.


That being said, I didn’t have a thing on Snowflake, who was patiently waiting next to me. She’d gone with a plain black silk eyepatch today, which looked rather severe. She was wearing her collar, as usual, a heavy leather braid set with bits of bone, as well as various semiprecious stones and metal charms, most of which had some sort of magic in them. She’d lost most of her teeth when she took a blast of force in the face seven months earlier, and we’d eventually decided to have the rest yanked. The lot of them were strung on gold wire, and she wore the result as a necklace.


This should not be taken to mean that she was toothless. That would have been a stupid decision, considering how often and gladly she bites various bad guys. We’d had a full set of dental implants installed instead, and a permanent set of stainless steel dentures put in. It was more difficult than you might think. First we had to find a veterinarian willing to do that who was still the sort of person I would have trusted to even brush her teeth, and that combination turned out to be quite rare. Once that was done it was a fairly involved medical procedure, and incredibly expensive. The dentures themselves were pricey, since we’d had to have them custom made—when was the last time you saw steel dentures?—and once they were installed I’d taken advantage of my contacts to have both the steel and the connection to the bone reinforced extensively with magic. Taken all together, her new teeth had cost somewhere around three million dollars, a price which would have been quite prohibitive even a few years earlier.


Fortunately, these days money wasn’t really much of a concern for me. I make the better part of a million a year in the form of payments from various supernatural groups who feel like paying me for jarling, and a good chunk more from selling things I make. Between that, our minimal expenses, and the fifty million the Watchers had paid us to get rid of Zhang Qiang for them, finances were way down the list of my problems.


These days, Snowflake looked actively frightening. She’s a beautiful husky, but a one-eyed husky with metal teeth and a bunch of grim adornments made out of bones is terrifying under any circumstances. It’s even worse when she wears her armor—which she wasn’t, currently, because that would have been a little bit too aggressive. Even without it, people don’t like to get close to us. Random strangers have been known to cross themselves and walk the other way when they see us coming.


On the other hand, those steel teeth plus her preternatural strength give her a bite that can crush a brick in one go. Given a little time, she can chew through concrete, rebar and trees with equal ease. Little things like bones and meat don’t even register on that scale. That’s worth a few aesthetic flaws.


I patted her on the head and then went upstairs to collect the others.


Alexis has so far managed to avoid looking like a movie monster. My cousin was about as tall as me, putting her a little above average for a woman, with long black hair and dark, serious eyes. She was wearing a copper ring and a plain wooden bracelet, but no other adornment. Alexis’s strongest suit is electricity, and someone with that kind of specialty would have to be remarkably stupid to wear anything conductive if they didn’t absolutely have to. She was getting better at precision, and her control over electric currents was good enough that it would probably take a direct lightning strike to pose a serious threat to her, but still. It wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to take chances with.


That, obviously, ruled out a lot of armament choices. Knives were right out, as were guns, and steel armor was something she wouldn’t even consider. She had a set of Kevlar-lined leathers that were almost as good, though, and she was carrying a traditional wooden jo stick. That wasn’t just an affectation; in addition to being a magical focus, she’d spent enough time practicing aikido to make the short staff a practical weapon for her. She wasn’t a match for a skilled swordsman, or even a really decent knife fighter, but she wasn’t incompetent either.


It was also a much subtler weapon than mine. Swords and knives and guns are all lovely weapons, but they’re hard to mistake for anything other than weapons, while a jo is pretty much indistinguishable from a walking stick. Alexis has gotten pretty good at faking a limp, too, and it’s a rare person who will take a walking stick away from an attractive woman with a limp.


Aiko rounded out the ensemble nicely. In her human form she was a little on the small side, and clearly of Asian descent, but otherwise visually unremarkable. Of course, that impression couldn’t last long; Aiko just isn’t cut out for blending into any crowd. Her short, unevenly cropped hair was currently dyed a vibrant cherry-red, which contrasted sharply with viridian nail polish. She had a few rings on, as well as a number of bangles and a gold pendant set with a large ruby.


The “rich” look was, of course, somewhat offset by the stained T-shirt and holey jeans. Aiko enjoys messing with people’s heads.


I looked from Snowflake to Aiko. Then I looked from Aiko back to Snowflake. Then I broke down laughing at the contrast between them.


The laughter died quickly, of course. Things were too serious for it to last. But it made me feel better.

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Frost Bitten Epilogue 7

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Ryan and Unna got married around a month later. The wedding was held in Wyoming, in the small chapel in the middle of town. Aiko, Snowflake and I all attended. We dressed up for the occasion, of course, which in our case was something of a statement. The mansion had come with fully stocked closets, and whoever stocked them wasn’t on a budget.


The wedding itself was fairly extravagant. Not ridiculously so—which was good, because between Edward’s casual wealth and Kyra’s newfound riches they could have gone obscenely over the top if they wanted to—but there was a surplus of food, which was saying something when an entire pack of werewolves was in attendance, and they’d hired a live band. I didn’t recognize them, but they were pretty good, and I doubted they’d come cheap.


The ceremony itself was more or less standard. Kyra was the best man, which struck me as bizarrely amusing. I didn’t recognize the priest (if it was a priest; the fact that the wedding was being held in a church suggested that selkies didn’t have problems with holy ground, but that didn’t mean they were fond of human religions), but he did an admirable job of talking a whole lot without actually saying anything. No mention was made of any deities, and the vows were so blandly generic that it was easy to miss the fact that nothing was actually sworn.


Ryan wore a tuxedo (I was a little surprised by that; Ryan was the kind of guy you expected to wear a dress uniform) and Unna went with the traditional white dress and veil. She practically radiated happiness, which was some comfort. It still seemed weird as hell, but as far as I could tell they genuinely loved each other. Besides, I couldn’t really talk.


This being a rather unusual case, there were actually two wedding receptions. The first one was pretty normal, a casual party held in a large, open building that used to be a barn. It had been empty for a long time, but the scent of animals is distinctive, and it lingers. Aiko and I sat at the edge of the room, went through large amounts of food, and made crass comments about the other guests. Snowflake, being a dog, could get away with waiting outside.


The reception ended earlier than I think is normal, just before sunset. That was kind of necessary. The next part of the event was oriented toward the couple’s more exotic qualities, and differed from the more traditional event in several important ways. The food is customarily dead before the wedding reception starts, for example, and that wasn’t the case here. Not for nothing had the wedding been scheduled the day of the full moon.


Aiko left when the human guests did. She doesn’t care for hunting. Neither do I, actually, except for full-moon nights. Then, well, it isn’t really optional. The hunt is in my blood, and when the moon is out I enjoy it, like it or not.


There was a brief interval between the two events, though, during which time I managed to corner Unna alone. She was sitting at a shadowed table in the corner of the room, eating a plate of salmon in quick, small bites. I slid into the chair opposite her, checking that no one was in earshot. Nobody was. “Congratulations,” I said.


The selkie looked at me, her face oddly blank, and then nodded quickly, the motion reminding me of a bird. “Thank you.”


“So,” I said, leaning back casually. “I don’t mean to spoil your evening, but there’s something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about.”


“What is that?” she said, not pausing in her eating.


“Well, it seems to me that in all the excitement, everyone’s forgotten one key question.” I smiled at her. It was not a friendly smile. “Who, exactly, killed Morgenstern?”


“What do you mean?” she said. Such slippery things, questions are. Asking a question says nothing about whether you know the answer.


“Well,” I drawled, “it wasn’t Zhang. There was no reason for him to do it. Why would he kill one of his own suppliers? Even if he decided to do it, why in hell would he do it in his own establishment, where it would be certain to draw all kinds of attention to things he didn’t want anyone looking at? He wasn’t an idiot.”


The selkie made an impatient sound. “Does it matter? He deserved death, did he not?”


“Sure, sure. But, see, that begs the question: if he didn’t do it, who did?” I shrugged. “It wasn’t Ryan. I believe that. There was no reason for him to do it, either. But it was still an incredible coincidence that he was there that night. What I don’t think anyone’s considered is that he wasn’t there alone.” I smiled at her and ticked points off on my fingers. “You were present with him. You were the only one present for the start of the confrontation with Morgenstern. You would have had ample opportunity, in the confusion, to kill him without Ryan noticing. And, strangely, you’ve avoided saying anything about the topic, which is slightly suspicious.”


“Why would I do this?” Her voice was level, but her shoulder were tense, giving the lie to her act.


“‘Favors aren’t free,'” I said quietly. “Your family’s a part of the Midnight Court. You, however, are not. The Sidhe don’t give anything away for free, ever. You didn’t get out without paying a price. I think that your family is in service to Scáthach. I think that when you wanted to leave her service, the price she asked was a debt, a favor to be paid later. I think that she’d gotten all the use she was going to out of Morgenstern. I think that she asked you to kill him, knowing that Ryan would be blamed, knowing that would eventually lead to my being drawn into this. I think everything that’s happened, all of it, was a scheme on her part to get me to take down Zhang’s smuggling ring for her.”


Unna was looking a little wide around the eyes now. I saw her consider going for a weapon, or running. “Calm down,” I said. “I’m not going to tell anyone.”


“Why not?” she asked, clearly confused.


I shrugged. “Honestly? It really doesn’t matter to me. Morgenstern, by all accounts, deserved to get got. I don’t give a damn who did it, not when it was obviously a small part of a big plan. No, I’m pretty much just here to tell you a few things.”


“What?” she said suspiciously. I think she expected me to blackmail her.


“Your mother’s a traitor,” I said instead. “Don’t know the details, but I’m pretty confident of it. She sold out Scáthach, and Scáthach knows it. Do with that what you will.”


Unna looked shocked. A moment later, though, she nodded, and started to stand up.


I let her get three steps in before I spoke again. “Unna?” I said quietly. She turned to face me, looking like she was ready to bolt. “I don’t care that much about Ryan,” I said quietly. “I like him, but he’s not one of mine. Kyra? Is.” I was silent for a moment, letting that sink in. “She likes your husband. She’d be upset if anything bad were to happen to him. So I’m telling you this as a fair warning. You treat him right, or we’re going to have words.”


She nodded again and left.


I went outside and got changed before the moon rose. Snowflake came with me, her eye bright with excitement. Snowflake does enjoy hunting.


That night I hunted beside Edward for the first time ever. It was an interesting experience, in large part because of how natural it felt. Snowflake, Kyra and I moved as a single unit, of course, but we also moved in instinctive harmony with the rest of the pack, full of joy and hunger and moonlight.


Ryan and Unna left the pack first, appropriately enough, after less than an hour of hunting. Other wolves continued to drop out over the next several hours, gone to sleep or pursue less social pleasures. Finally, by coincidence or design, the only ones still hunting were me, Snowflake, Kyra, and Anna. Anna took down a buck, the first we’d seen that night. She tore his throat and feasted on the blood, while the rest of us crowded in beside her and ripped at the meat. I didn’t think I’d ever seen her so happy.

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Frost Bitten 7.14

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My injuries were the most numerous out of everyone who went on the attack. I had seven broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder, a broken wrist, a concussion, and a mix of second- and third-degree burns over about seventy percent of my skin. The shrapnel wounds in my back were fairly nasty too, although the cauterization kept me from bleeding out. I’d also sprained an ankle and broken three fingers somewhere in there without realizing it, and shattered my left fibula into three pieces, although I honestly have no idea where that happened.


More seriously, that blast of force that clipped me did some fairly serious internal damage. It ruptured my spleen, which is apparently a fairly bad thing, and also a few blood vessels. That’s why I’d passed out; shock is no joke, even for werewolves.


Internal bleeding isn’t a joke either, and I could have died from it quite easily. I should have been able to stop the bleeding, what with being a werewolf and all that, but even my body has limits. The accumulated damage of all those injuries had been too much for me to overcome.


Fortunately for me, Moray and Brick had made it down there only a couple minutes after Zhang’s death. I don’t think the timing was deliberate; they aren’t the type to avoid a fight. Neither of them knew jack shit about treating injuries, of course, but Moray called the Watchers and they sent a witch with a specialty in healing. He must have been on standby already, because he got there within five minutes.


Witches can do incredible things, especially when their patients already have accelerated healing. I lived. I don’t have a spleen anymore, but apparently that just means I’m more susceptible to infection, which really isn’t a problem for a werewolf anyway. My ribs, wrist and leg hadn’t healed yet—bones always take longest—and my skin was tender, but I was inclined to call it a success.


Aiko got lucky, and walked out with hardly a scratch. She had some bruises, of course, and some mild burns, but nothing you couldn’t get on an ordinary day. Kyra’s worst injury was that cut on her front leg, which was messy and painful but didn’t involve anything but skin and muscle. She had it healed by the time I woke up, a little less than a day later. Brick and Moray were both exhausted and somewhat scorched—Zhang clearly liked his fire—but basically okay. Vigdis and Haki between them had six broken bones and needed a hundred and twenty stitches—they’d run into one of those steel golems upstairs, apparently, and there wasn’t a whole lot Brick or Moray could do about it. They eventually managed to batter it into submission, but it took some battering.


Snowflake was not as fortunate. That blast of force she took to the face knocked her out, like I’d thought, but it also knocked out most of her teeth. She’s pissed, but otherwise pretty much unharmed.


Moray also called in a bunch of other Watchers, on top of the healer. They subdued the rest of the guards (most of them had already run, I guess, and I don’t blame them) and confirmed that Zhang was dead. They also carried out most of the loot, of which there was a huge amount, and repossessed the house itself. I gather it’s being sold to another, hopefully more pleasant, mage.


We kept a few things—some gold and jewels, a few furs and handmade rugs, that sort of thing. We’re taking the rest of our share in cash, though, and there’s a shitload of it. I gather that, as it was an unofficial operation, Watcher doesn’t have to report the windfall to the Conclave. That made her feel generous. Aiko, Kyra and I got ten percent of the proceeds to split, which came to almost fifty million each.


I spent most of my share making sure that the kids we rescued from Zhang wouldn’t starve. Most of them turned out to be orphans abducted from cities around the world. I called in some favors (from Conn, mostly) and arranged for them to be adopted. The rest of the money went into various, elaborately constructed trust funds. There was enough there to put them through pretty much any school they wanted.


I’m not a saint. But come on. Some things are just obvious. Besides, it wasn’t like I needed the money.


“Good morning,” I said. It was around eleven, so that was technically accurate.


“Morning,” Carraig said, sauntering casually in the door. He was dressed more casually today, which in his case meant leather.


It fit with the atmosphere, which was much more relaxed than it had been the last couple of times. I was sitting in an ordinary chair next to my throne, because I’d be damned if I was sitting in that when I was already in as much pain as I currently was. Three days of bed rest and plentiful food had bought a lot of healing, but bones are never fast. Aiko had flat out refused to go near her throne if I wasn’t in mine, and had taken another of the wooden chairs. Alexis and Ash (holding the raiju in her lap) were both present, as well, sitting down in the back of the room.


Gwyn ap Nudd’s lupine minion entered less than a minute later. He nodded cordially to Carraig and sat a short distance away. “Good morning, Winter jarl,” he said.


“And you.”


Kyra and Ryan came in a few minutes after that, followed by Moray. Anja Morgenstern was the last to arrive this time, only five minutes before we were scheduled to start at eleven thirty. She didn’t bring Samuel Black this time.


“Welcome,” I said formally. “If there are no objections, I will begin.” Nobody said anything, so I kept talking. “It is my judgment that the werewolf Ryan Peterson was falsely accused of the murder of Stefan Morgenstern. All evidence suggests that he is innocent, and should not be punished.”


“Who, then, is guilty?” Moray asked, following his script.


“It is my belief,” I said slowly and carefully, “that the mage Zhang Qiang was responsible for the death.” The wording was very important; I had to out-fae the fae, and make every word true while implying something else entirely. Zhang was accountable for things that happened on his property, whoever did them.


“What evidence do you have for this claim?” That was Moray, again. As the representative of human mages here, it was his place to challenge me.


“First, that Stefan Morgenstern was in possession of information regarding Zhang’s illegal and unethical actions.” I’d had to think about that phrasing for some time. “Second, that the murder occurred on premises owned by Zhang. Third, that Zhang repeatedly attempted to limit investigation by accusing Peterson, even after evidence accrued challenging that claim.”


“That sounds reasonable,” the wolfish fae said, a gleam in his eye suggesting that he knew exactly what I was doing and approved of it. “How, then, shall this blackguard be punished?”


“By death,” I said seriously. “When I approached Zhang, he became violent and did not answer.” Again, technically true; I never said why I was approaching Zhang, and the fact that he didn’t answer in no way suggested that I’d actually asked him anything. “This behavior convinced me of his guilt”—what, specifically, he was guilty of was unclear, but I was convinced there was something—”and I exacted the appropriate penalty.”


“Death, eh?” Carraig said, grinning. He knew what I was up to, as well. “That seems unusually strict.”


“He accepted my arbitration,” I said. “It seems to me that murder, lying before a court such as this one, and falsely accusing another person in order to hide your own guilt are crimes deserving of strict punishment.” That was true; those did seem like serious crimes. I wasn’t certain, not truly certain, whether Zhang had committed any of them, but then I hadn’t said anything about that.


“I agree,” Anja said. “It pleases me to see that justice is served.” Which, I noted, wasn’t the same as saying that it had been served in this case. I got the impression that she was no more fooled than anyone else in the room, which made me wonder why we were all sitting here almost-lying to each other when everyone knew the truth we were dancing around. That sort of thing must drive the fae crazy.


“Are there any outstanding issues to be resolved?” I asked. The room was silent. “In that case,” I said, expecting at any moment to be interrupted, “I declare this arbitration complete.”


“So,” I said, sitting down. “Did you learn much?”


“Indeed,” Ash said. We were currently in the guest room she’d appropriated, back in the mansion. “Watching you work was most educational.”


I nodded. “So what is a raiju, anyway?” I asked idly. It had been bugging me for a while now. I knew the name from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite remember.


“A variety of yokai,” she said calmly. “A thunder spirit, closely related to the kitsune.”


I nodded, unsurprised. “Aiko said that you were half-fae,” I said.


“Yes, and she was correct.”


“So how did a raiju come to be your companion?”


Said raiju, currently sitting on the bed in stuffed-animal form, snorted loudly. “That’s business,” he said. “As in none of yours.”


I decided, in a rare moment of wisdom, to let the topic drop. “Will you be returning to school, then?” I asked her.


“Yes. I expect that Mr. Ferguson will come soon in order to provide me with transportation.”


“Funny thing about that,” I said.




“Yeah. See, in all the excitement, I almost forgot that Bryan traded me a favor to get me to bring you with me—which I don’t regret at all,” I said hastily. “You’ve been a wonderful guest. My concern was only ever for your safety.”


“I do not understand.”


“I’m getting there,” I said. “See, I’ve been having a hard time figuring out why he would do that. Your presence, while appreciated, doesn’t seem to have been particularly critical, and I’m sure that he could have arranged an equally educational experience at less cost than he paid for this one.”


“That is likely true,” she admitted.


“Later,” I continued, “Scáthach told me that Morgenstern was smuggling the cipher for an encoded message, one that contained the identity of a traitor in her court. The closest thing I could find to a cipher was the phrase ‘Favors aren’t free.'”


“That is not particularly informative,” she said, her voice very slightly amused.


“No,” I agreed. “I couldn’t make any kind of sense out of it. Then I realized that I was approaching it from the wrong direction. See, I assumed the message was being sent to Scáthach. But what if she was actually the person sending it?”


“Then the message would have been for you,” Ash said. “Since she provided you, specifically, with the knowledge of what to look for, and where. She would not do so without reason.”


I nodded approvingly. “I had the same thought. That, in turn, provided the context for that message to make sense. Bryan is the only person who has offered me a favor recently, and why is unclear. If, as Scáthach’s message suggests, that favor wasn’t free, then there must be some exchange involved which I was unaware of, something related to this message. That made sense; Bryan has been involved with Scáthach’s affairs in the past.”


“I understand what you are asking,” Ash said. “And your logic seems sound. However, I cannot help you. I do not know what this message is.”


I slumped. I’d been so sure, too. “All right,” I began. “Thank—”


The raiju interrupted me with another loud snort. “Humans,” he said disgustedly. “You’re a bunch of bloody morons, you know that?”


I considered him. “I don’t think anyone in this house could be accurately described as human.”


“Maybe, but you’re still bloody stupid.” He snorted again. “It’s her mother.”


I blinked. “What?”


“That’s the message,” he said, the “fool” unsaid but not unheard. “It’s her mother. Hell if I know what it means.”


I considered it for a moment, and then suddenly it clicked into place. I did know what it meant, and I couldn’t believe I hadn’t so much as considered it until now. “Thanks,” I repeated. “Hopefully we’ll see you again sometime.”


Ash smiled shyly. “I would like that. Thank you, Winter.”

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Frost Bitten 7.13

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I was pretty sure the traps on the stairs were rigged to a pressure trigger—that was the simplest way to do it—which made the solution pretty simple, too.


Of course, there was a big difference between “pretty sure” and “sure.” If I’d guessed wrong, this was going to be an exceptionally embarrassing way to bite it. But if safety was what we wanted we’d have just stayed home, so I figured screw it.


Besides, there wasn’t time to spend second-guessing myself.


Kyra was the only one I wasn’t sure could make it, so I picked her up. She was heavy—with the armor, it probably came to around three hundred pounds, and even for me that was a load—but I could hold her for a while. It helped that she didn’t squirm or struggle, although she did twitch fairly enthusiastically when I grabbed her—more out of surprise than anything, I think.


I took off down the stairs at a dead sprint. Or, more accurately, I took off above the stairs at a dead sprint, shoving power through the focus of my boots to hold us several inches off the ground on a cushion of air. We dropped at a steep angle—I wasn’t used to supporting this much weight with magic—but, given that we were descending a staircase, that was less of a bug than a feature.


We reached the bottom of the stairs a few seconds later, seemingly without triggering any of the traps. I dropped Kyra, who looked like she knew something weird had just happened but couldn’t quite put her finger on what, and looked back up the staircase. It didn’t look like anything bad had happened, so I sent Snowflake the all-clear. She hit me in the chest about two seconds later, knocking me to the ground.


Aiko made the jump look graceful, which was pretty impressive. She took two long steps and dove forward, turning and coiling in the air to avoid coming into contact with any of the surfaces, and landed in a crouch. She also landed on me, because the universe has a weird sense of humor.


It took me a second to catch my breath—seriously, you have someone jump down a flight of stairs onto your stomach and see how you feel—during which time we heard a couple of explosions and a lot of cursing from above. I remembered Moray’s mention of deliberately setting off the traps, and optimistically wrote it off as “according to plan.”


There were no lights down here, the same as in the storeroom in Munich. Zhang could make his own light, and I didn’t get the impression that he cared overly much about other people’s convenience—particularly not here, in his private sanctum, where even his guards and servants were clearly not allowed.


Fortunately, Aiko can also make a light. She’s never quite been able to explain how it works to me—she was raised to approach magic from a very different standpoint than I was, and techniques don’t tend to translate well from one school to the other. There was a gentle twist of magic, scented with fox and spice, and a reddish gold light filled the staircase. It illuminated a circle about ten or fifteen feet in diameter, roughly centered on her.


We turned the corner and found another flight of stairs leading downward. I wasn’t sure if this one was trapped as well—I could smell magic, but that might have just been Zhang’s wards—but it was a pretty safe assumption. We got around it the same way as before, although this time I went last. The narrow hallway we found ourselves in was little more than a concrete-lined box; aesthetics were evidently not high on Zhang’s priority list. It led off into the darkness with no distinguishing features or doors in sight.


We started down it. It was an unnerving experience, walking down a lightless hall in the stronghold of a ruthless criminal wizard without knowing for certain what we would encounter. The fact that it was too narrow for the four of us to walk side-by-side and short enough to feel claustrophobic just added a little spice to an already unpleasant mix.


We found no more traps as we walked, which just made me more nervous. Things were going too smoothly.


Finally, perhaps fifty feet along, the hallway split into three. All three branches were unlit and unoccupied, and there was no way to say for sure which one led where.


“Which way?” Aiko asked after a moment.


I nodded toward the right. “That one’s warded,” I said. It made sense that Zhang would be hiding behind wards right now.


She nodded. “Right it is, then. Hang on a second.” She pulled out a piece of chalk and drew a large, obvious arrow pointing back toward the stairs. “All right. Can you get through the ward?”


I grinned and drew Tyrfing. “Let’s find out.” As always, excitement and bloodlust rolled through me from the sword, more obvious than usual. Most of the time if I’m holding Tyrfing I’m in a fight, and that generally means I have anger to spare already. I took a deep breath, set the emotion aside, and turned to face the ward.


It was a fairly simple design, nothing more than a kinetic barrier. It was strong, though; I could have rammed a truck into that barrier and bounced off. Explosives wouldn’t do the job, not without bringing the ceiling down on our heads, which I felt was a definite step in the wrong direction.


Fortunately, Tyrfing is much more than just a sword, and it cuts more than just flesh and stone. I swung it at the barrier, two-handed, and I put all the strength I had behind the blow. It bounced off seemingly empty air—but I felt the magic quiver at the touch. Two strikes, three, four, and then the sword’s magic bit into the barrier’s and the blade stuck. I wrenched it back out, sheathed it with some difficulty, and then gathered my power.


I’m not good at purely energetic work, magic unconnected to the physical world. It’s one of my weakest suits, actually. But I’ve gotten a little better over the years, and this was pretty much the simplest application of the skill there was. Designing a ward this solid took a genius, but breaking it didn’t require much in the way of technical knowledge. Just power and an understanding of what I was looking at.


It’s almost always harder to make a thing than break it.


I started at the crack Tyrfing had made. That made things much easier. Wards are a lot like any other kind of defenses. Once there’s one breach, it’s hard to keep the enemy from expanding it. I took advantage of that fact, sinking claws of power into the opening and tearing at the structure of the ward. It had been constructed as a single unit, each strand of magic dependent upon each other strand, and once it started disintegrating it was relatively simple to keep unraveling it.


Suddenly, though, things changed. The structure I’d been picking at collapsed, imploded, and folded into another shape. I had about a second to recognize the new alignment of energies before it activated.


A second doesn’t sound like much time. That’s because it isn’t much time. But it was long enough to let me react. I immediately stopped messing around with the ward, threw one arm over my eyes, and turned my attention to dropping the temperature. I’ve gotten a lot faster at that, and it took me less than a second to take it from chilly (we were in a basement in the Himalayas at night, after all) to something well below zero.


An instant later, all of the energy that had been bound up in the barrier degraded into heat, rapidly. A lot of heat. That kinetic barrier had been strong enough to hold up under a battering ram, and that translated into enough heat to render us all extra crispy.


If I hadn’t had that second’s warning, we wouldn’t have stood a chance. As it was, the hallway was cold enough to begin with that it took a few seconds to really crank the heat up, time during which I could continue trying to chill it back down.


Don’t get me wrong, it still sucked. There was a rush of hot air like standing in front of an oven, except that it went on and on, building and building, until it must have been at almost two hundred degrees in that hallway. Agonizing seconds ticked past, one after another. Finally, almost ten seconds after the ward triggered, the heat started fading. It only took me a few more seconds to dial it back to something comfortable.


I opened my eyes hesitantly, wincing. “You all right?” I asked.


“Yeah,” Aiko said from about twenty feet away, while both Snowflake and Kyra barked. “What happened?”


“Zhang happened,” I said, glowering. “He had the ward rigged to turn into a fireball if it stopped working.”




“Yeah,” I admitted. “I guess this means we can expect some traps ahead.”


We progressed very slowly, very cautiously down the hallway. Aiko’s light was a godsend (not literally, of course; in my experience most actual godsends are rather unpleasant and dangerous); I would never have been willing to walk down that hallway if I were relying on a flashlight to see my way. Strangely, there actually weren’t any traps. I supposed that made sense, in a way; Zhang could pass through his own wards with ease, but mechanical traps are inconvenient for everyone.


We did find two more wards, though, spaced ten feet apart. We’d gotten smart about it. I approached each one, alone, in a bubble of air as cold as I could make it, and just beat the shit out of it with Tyrfing until the damage triggered its fallback mode. I got some burns—it felt like a whole body sunburn—and my cloak, never designed for such conditions, was going to need serious repairs, to the extent that it might be easier to just replace it. But there was no serious harm done, and I got through.


Finally, thirty feet along, we reached a door. Saying it was the kind of door you would expect to find on a vault would be accurate, but misleading. Most vaults couldn’t dream of a door like that. I suppose there are a few that still have massive steel blast doors secured by bolts as thick as my arm, but I don’t think they’re very common. It had a pair of large combination locks set into it. Somehow I didn’t think my usual tactics were going to be very effective at picking them.


“Do we blow it?” Aiko asked.


“Of course we blow it,” I said, digging more glass spheres out of my pocket. They were the same design as the one I’d given to Vigdis, although not nearly as high-powered. I’d made these myself, reverse-engineering the design from Alexander’s model, and my talents with this kind of magic were nowhere near his. They looked pretty much the same, except that the spark of light inside was emerald green rather than blue.


I tugged my gauntlet off and bit down on my fingertip again, drawing blood. I smeared a little blood on the surface of each sphere and then, very carefully, taped each of them against one of the bolts. (It goes without saying that I was carrying a roll of duct tape. That stuff is indispensable.)


We retreated most of the way back down the hall. I couldn’t see the vault door by the time we’d reached a safe distance. I had a good idea of where it was, though—and, seriously, it was a straight hallway. It wasn’t that hard to aim my shotgun in more or less the right direction and pull the trigger.


Before the noise of the shotgun blast could begin to fade, one of the pellets hit one of the spheres. The glass, which was now exactly as fragile as glass should be, shattered. I almost fancied that I could see a tiny spark of viridian light begin to unfold like a flower.


Then the expanding pressure wave released by that first sphere hit the other two. Glass shattered instantly under the force. Suddenly there was no doubting that the shot had been on target; the light was visible now, bright as a lantern, then brighter, brighter, until it was nearly blinding. Snowflake whimpered instinctively in surprise and distress. The noise started moments later, a crashing, crunching sound like car being compacted.


There was very little heat, the spheres having been designed to produce kinetic energy rather than thermal. They were designed as demolitions charges, not weapons. The force hit us a few seconds later, though, sending me stumbling backward. The noise died away. I blinked a few times, clearing my vision—not that there was much to see, until Aiko brought her light back.


The hallway had held up well under the stress, as I’d anticipated. There were cracks in the floor and walls, and the floor was covered in chunks of concrete that had fallen from the ceiling, but the structural integrity didn’t seem to have been damaged.


The door, being at the epicenter, hadn’t fared so well. The bolts were sheared through and the door lolled drunkenly to the side. I pulled it the rest of the way open, grunting at the weight. I’m sure it set off all kinds of alarms, which really wasn’t important considering that we’d already set off every alarm he had.


I wasn’t disappointed by what we saw on the other side. Well, actually, that isn’t quite true. I’d been hoping to find Zhang, and we didn’t. But what was there was enough to make up for it.


The room was fairly small, perhaps fifteen feet to a side. It was packed, though, barely enough room to walk between the crates, shelves, and pallets. The contents were pretty much the same as what Moray had described, although it was a hell of a lot more impressive in person.


“Do you think you could carry this out?” Aiko asked, eyeing a large gold ingot speculatively.


“We should keep moving,” I said.


She stared at me. “Come on, Winter. You don’t even want to grab a handful of diamonds or something? You’ve become jaded.”


Some diamonds would look nice on my collar, Snowflake said. Even Kyra looked at me askance.


“No, actually,” I said. “I was thinking that, if we go kill Zhang first, we can come back and loot it at our leisure. I want to take more than one load.”


“Ah, pragmatic greed. There’s the Winter we all know and love.”


“Damn straight. Now come on. The sooner we get this over with, the sooner we can roll around in heaps of money.”


We tried the hallway directly across from the vault next, and were disappointed—for real, this time. It led into a mage’s workshop. It was a nice setup, actually a suite of rooms. Zhang had a large laboratory, a carpentry shop, a darkroom—he even had a literal, old-school forge. There were no wards or other defenses, presumably because there was nothing there valuable enough to require more protection than remoteness, armed guards, the wards on the house, and booby-trapped stairs.


Okay, so that was pretty reasonable.


That left one more branch to clear. I was guessing that was where we would find Zhang; it was clear that the basement was where he kept the highest-security rooms, and from the workshop it seemed likely that he spent a lot of his time down here.


Besides. It just felt right.


Fifteen feet down the hallway—just outside Aiko’s bubble of light, from the intersection—we found a set of double doors. It wasn’t anything like the vault door, though. Where that was designed for security, this was meant to impress. Eight feet tall and almost as wide, there were made from rich brown wood and bound with what I really hoped was brass. Gold would have been just too much—which meant that was probably what it was.


They didn’t seem to be warded, which was odd. Zhang must have known what we were doing here, and he’d had plenty of time to slap up some defenses while we got this far. I was guessing that meant that he had some other kind of trap ready.


With that in mind, I drew Tyrfing and slashed vertically through the door. As I’d expected, it met resistance about halfway down. They’d barred the door, with a timber or a metal rod or something. Fortunately, since I’d expected it, I was swinging hard enough to cut through it without stopping. I pulled Tyrfing free and, with two more quick slashes, took out the hinges. I kicked the door as hard as I could.


I’m pretty strong, especially when I’m actively feeding the werewolf extra magic. The two-hundred-pound slab of wood flew a couple of feet in and then slammed to the ground with a sound like fifty dictionaries hitting the table at once.


You would probably expect me to charge in at this point, brandishing Tyrfing and screaming something about death and glory. For precisely that reason, I did no such thing. I mean, come on. The bad guys have seen those movies too.


I ducked aside instead, behind the door that was still standing. That turned out to be a wise decision. Immediately after the door hit the ground, some sort of magic flashed by me. It was invisible, but I smelled it, a sort of grey and dusty smell. I was pretty sure it was some kind of witchcraft, meant to target the victim’s mind. That wasn’t a very good tactic to use against me—werewolves are naturally resistant to most mind-affecting magic, and Tyrfing’s wrathful bloodlust was excellent insulation against other effects. A strong enough spell could still put me down for the count, though, and it seemed safe to assume that this was a strong spell.


I dove through the opening as soon as the magic passed, before anyone on the other side could adjust to the fact that they’d missed. I rolled to my feet, seeing Aiko rushing in out of the corner of my eye. Snowflake and Kyra were directly behind her, snarling and growling.


Somewhat to my surprise, it wasn’t Zhang behind the door. I know I should have seen that coming, but somehow I didn’t. It was, instead, the woman who had accompanied him to the first meeting. I could smell her magic, and was surprised at how weak it was. She wasn’t as strong as Brick, I didn’t think, and possibly not even as strong as I was. An apprentice, perhaps.


“Get out of the way,” I said, glancing around the room. It appeared to be a living room, much more opulently furnished than the one upstairs—lots of velvet and silk, mostly red and gold. There were tapestries covering the concrete walls, although I didn’t look at them very closely. It was the first room we’d seen since descending the stairs that was lit, a dozen or so oil lamps casting a cheery glow.


“No,” she said. I was a little surprised at that; I honestly hadn’t expected her to respond in any way that didn’t include a weapon.


“Do you know what your boss does?” I demanded.


Something that might have been shame flickered across her features and was gone. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “He’s my master.” She raised her hand and I felt her gathering magic for another attack.


Aiko shot her in the face.


Apparently she hadn’t been expecting that. Her head jerked sideways, blood and less pleasant things splattered the wall and floor behind her, and then she dropped to the ground. I don’t think she ever felt a thing. Aiko’s carbine was a relatively light caliber, but she’d just taken a burst to the head and that was the kind of thing that killed a human more or less instantly.


“What?” Aiko said. I must have been staring at her. “She turned you down. It wasn’t like we could leave her behind us.”


“I know,” I sighed. “It’s just…I worry about us, you know?”


“Don’t,” she said, surprisingly fiercely. “She knew what was going on here, and she stayed. That makes her as bad as Zhang. Worse, maybe. He at least accepts the responsibility.”


“I know,” I repeated. I couldn’t blame her—I would have done the same thing, after all, and we couldn’t exactly risk a fight at this point—but I still felt strangely, inexplicably sad.


That did not, of course, stop me from decapitating the mage as I walked past (not that she had much head left, but it’s best to be sure). There’s sad, and then there’s stupid.


The next door we opened led into a bedroom. It continued on the same theme as the living room, and was similarly extravagant. It was dark except for the light coming in from the other room (it wasn’t until then that I realized that Aiko had let her light fade). The king-sized bed was rumpled and the closet door was hanging open. We’d caught Zhang sleeping, then. That was a stroke of luck. There was only one other door leading out of the bedroom. It was locked, a situation I remedied easily with Tyrfing.


On the other side we found ourselves back in the harsh, utilitarian design Zhang seemed to favor, outside of his personal quarters. There was a short, unlit hallway with concrete walls and ceiling—no trace of opulence here. We found two layers of wards, the same design we’d found earlier, and got past them the same way, earning me a few more burns. Being burned on top of a burn always sucks, but we were so close now that I could smell it, and that took some of the sting out of it. At the end of the hall was another door, this one a heavy steel model. I chopped through the lock with Tyrfing and pulled it open.


The room on the other side was brightly lit by the first electric lights we’d seen since coming down here. The fluorescent lights were harsh, and uncomfortably bright after the relative darkness of the hallway. The room itself was circular, perhaps fifty feet across, with a nine foot ceiling. The blank concrete theme was continued here, giving the place a stark, grim look.


Zhang was sitting in a comfortable armchair in the center of the room. A second circle was delineated around him by a wide ring of silver set into the floor, leaving a strip ten feet wide around the edge. I could feel the magic humming in the ring, probably a kinetic barrier. I didn’t think it was a deliberately anti-werewolf measure, but concentrating magic in silver always makes it more unpleasant, and even being in the same room with it set my teeth on edge.


The circle was both good and bad news. On one hand, it would make his barrier much stronger if it was anchored by a circle. However, it also made him relatively incapable of attacking us without dropping that barrier—it’s incredibly difficult to project power across an empowered magic circle, especially one designed to prevent that from happening.


“Mr. Wolf,” he said, sipping what looked like wine from a fancy crystal glass. “I must admit, I didn’t expect you to be so stupid as to try something like this.”


I considered him for a moment. “You know what?” I said. “I’m really not interested in talking to you.” I took a step forward, rolling Tyrfing casually in my grip.


“As you wish,” he said calmly, gesturing slightly. A moment later, the walls cracked open at eight points, evenly spaced around the room. Golems stepped out, their bodies seemingly made from steel. Each of them had four arms, all of which ended in blades. I wasn’t sure whether they were solid metal, or just a coating over concrete. Either way, it wasn’t good. There weren’t very many of the golems, but I was confident that they would be Zhang’s best work—and considering how dangerous his worst work had been, that wasn’t good.


This was a problem. Tyrfing could probably damage even magically-reinforced steel, but the others weren’t so well off. I mean, they hadn’t done so well against concrete golems.


I immediately turned toward the nearest golem, barely five feet away. It turned to face me, insofar as that phrase can be applied to something without a face, all four arms coming up into a guard position. I stepped cautiously closer, and then immediately had to back away again as one of those arms passed within a few inches of my face. Damn, this thing was faster than it looked. Snowflake and Kyra raced past the thing while it was focused on me, and in my peripheral vision I saw Aiko starting around the circle the other way.


The next time it swung for me I stepped into the attack, meeting its arm with Tyrfing. The cursed sword bit most of the way through the limb, but the force involved tore it from my hands, and the golem didn’t even hesitate as it stabbed at me with another arm. I barely managed to reverse direction, moving with the blow.


It probably saved my life. Instead of punching straight through the armor, the tip of its sword-arm barely clipped me. It still knocked me sprawling, and I was definitely going to have a bruise.


I scrambled to my feet and recalled Tyrfing to my hand. The golem advanced and I gave ground before it, trying to think of something to do. I heard an explosion behind me, probably one of Aiko’s grenades, and the there was a loud crash of metal against stone where another had fallen, probably tripped by Kyra and Snowflake.


Fighting this thing was an unusual challenge, one I wasn’t sure how to approach. I’ve killed a lot of things using Tyrfing, but generally speaking they’ve had two arms each. Trying to get through four of them at once without leaving myself open to a counterattack was tricky, and given how strong these things were I didn’t think just taking the hit and trusting my armor was a good idea.


It was faster, stronger, and tougher than me. That meant I had to be smarter than it. I also had to do it quickly; the next closest golem was twenty feet away and closing, and I couldn’t handle two of these things at once.


I circled around the golem, then attacked as it turned to follow me. I didn’t even try to seriously harm it this time, just cut at it and immediately retreated. I barely nicked the arm I’d already damaged, but I dodged the counterattack entirely. Three more repetitions of this had that arm on the ground, where it stopped moving. The golem was, it turned out, solid steel, with no trace of concrete or stone to be found.


That made things easier. I circled to its weakened side, forcing it to reach across itself to attack me. It did, and I ducked under the swing, moving back to its other side. Another slash with Tyrfing, harder this time, cut through its leg at the ankle, and it was a simple matter to knock it over with a gust of wind. It hit the ground with a sound like half a ton of steel smashing into concrete, probably because that’s exactly what it was. It immediately started to push itself back to its feet, but before it could I stepped up behind it. It took me three swings, but I managed to cut its head off. Like the golems we’d fought before, it dropped lifelessly to the ground when that happened.


I straightened, breathing heavily, and looked around. Aside from the golem I’d taken out, there was one other lying on the ground, hit by Aiko’s grenade. One of its legs and two of its arms were little more than slag, clearly too damaged to use. It was still animate, though, dragging itself toward me with its remaining limbs. The golem coming around the circle from the other direction had nearly reached me, too, and the next wouldn’t be long.


My attention was largely captured, though, by another golem, one which was currently fighting both Kyra and Snowflake. And if it wasn’t clearly winning, well, it hadn’t lost yet, either. The two canids were circling around it, just out of reach, occasionally darting in to nip at it. They weren’t doing any damage, but they were distracting it, and the thing wasn’t smart enough to figure out that it could just ignore them.


Granted, that would have gotten to be fairly difficult anyway when Snowflake launched herself through the air, landing on the thing’s back and ripping at it with her claws. The steel sheaths didn’t rip through it like they would have flesh, but they scored the metal noticeably, which was more than either of them had managed to that point.


A moment later, bellowing loud enough to make me wince across the room, it knocked her off with one hand, hard enough to knock her into the wall. It didn’t feel like she was bleeding, and I doubted the impact had done serious damage, but it took her out of the fight for a moment. Kyra was left circling the golem, clearly unsure what to do alone, and there were more closing in on her.


That was all the time I had before the next golem was closing in on me. I went on the attack immediately as it got within reach, launching light, quick cuts at its head and legs. None of them would be enough to take it out, but every one was a threat, and it wouldn’t take many to damage the golem until a single solid blow would be devastating. It had to parry each strike, and Tyrfing cut slivers from its arms each time they connected.


The golem had enough limbs to attack at the same time, of course, and it did so. I twisted aside from the strikes, danced in and out of range, deflected its blows by critical inches with gusts and blocks of hardened air. It was a difficult, tiring way to fight, and while it was undeniably effective I wouldn’t be able to keep it up indefinitely.


It also meant that I had to be absolutely focused on what I was doing.


I’m not sure what tipped me off. Maybe I felt Zhang’s circle, and the barrier it was powering, collapse. Maybe I smelled him gathering magic. Maybe I just got lucky. Whatever the reason, I jumped back without quite knowing why, and the lance of force Zhang threw only clipped me rather than striking me directly.


That was good. It meant that, rather than being turned into so much canned meat, I just got the delightful experience of breaking most of the ribs on the left side of my body, as well as dislocating the shoulder. I hit the ground hard, wheezing painfully. The golem, structural integrity already weakened by my attacks, pretty much went to pieces. The blast of force continued on to hit the wall, shattering maybe ten square feet of concrete into dust, to a depth of around six inches.


Holy shit. I didn’t think I’d ever seen even Alexander or Brick throw a punch that hard.


I could hardly breathe and it hurt to move, but I managed to force myself back to my feet. Zhang was standing, and looked coldly, calmly furious. As I watched he drained his wineglass and tossed it aside to shatter on the ground. He gestured calmly, and a blast of white-hot fire rushed in my direction.


I dove aside, biting back a scream at what the motion did to my ribs. It wouldn’t do me much good to avoid the fire and be roasted alive, though, so I also wrapped myself in cold. Frost formed on the concrete, and immediately melted again as the fire rushed through, the heat reflecting off the walls. Even with my countermeasure, the air was oven-hot, and I got some more burns.


The wall where it had been directly struck by the flame fared worse. It literally exploded from the heat and force, sending shrapnel flying. Most of it went away from me, but a few pieces hit me in the back, punching through the armor. The good news was that they were hot enough to cauterize the wounds as they made them, and they didn’t penetrate deeply enough to hit organs, so I probably wasn’t going to die. The bad news was, it really freaking hurt.


I staggered back to my feet, feeling somewhat dizzy. I couldn’t just let Zhang keep blasting away at me. I can survive a lot, but attacks on this scale was so far beyond that as to be laughable.


I managed to grab a grenade from my belt and chuck it at him before he could throw another spell at me. It didn’t get within ten feet of the mage before he knocked it back at me with another blast of force.


Fortunately, I’d anticipated that. I hit it with a gust of wind before it could move far, sending it in a sweeping curve through the room. For once I got the angle and force exactly right, and the grenade bounced off the wall toward one of the golems. The same one that had already been crippled by the first grenade, to be specific. It was moving slowly, and another golem had caught up to it.


The grenade went off at around head height, and two golems collapsed to the ground.


On the other side of the circle, Aiko had joined in against the golem that Kyra and Snowflake were fighting. She was quick enough and skilled enough to make it look fairly easy, and she’d managed to scratch it about the head and shoulders quite a few times. Between that and the damage that Snowflake had inflicted, the next time Kyra tripped it something broke, and it didn’t get back up.


I expected Zhang to make some quip or something, but apparently he took me at my word when I said I didn’t want to talk with him. Apparently he’d gotten tired of me dodging, too, because his next attack was a wall of fire that was about fifteen feet wide and filled the room from floor to ceiling. It swept forward like a broom wielded by a pyromaniac giant, not as quickly as his targeted blast of fire had but much too fast for me to get out of the way.


I stared, my eyes undoubtedly taking on the wide, glassy-eyed stare more commonly associated with deer on highways. I don’t care how badass you are, the first time you see that you’re going to be scared witless. Then I snapped out of it and realized that there was only one thing to do. I grabbed all the cold I could find, wrapped it around myself until my armor glittered with frost and my breath could have frozen water. Then I sprinted forward (well, insofar as I could sprint at the moment) and dove through the fire.


You know how I talked about things being unpleasantly hot earlier? Well, that was nothing. This, this was fire. I don’t know how hot that fire was, and I don’t want to. It was bad enough having to do it; knowing just how insane it was would only make it worse.


I hit the ground on the other side, screaming. It takes a lot of pain to impress me, but this pulled it off. I rolled along the ground, putting out any lingering fires. I pushed myself back upright, swaying dizzily on my feet. Between the pain and the exertion, I was running on empty. I just didn’t have much more left in me.


At least Zhang had to lean on his chair to remain standing. Even he couldn’t keep throwing around this level of magic indefinitely.


I must have missed hearing another grenade, because two more golems were lying on the ground in various states of disassembly. Neither of them were actually destroyed, but neither one was really a threat in its current condition. That left just one golem still standing, which was currently fighting Kyra. She couldn’t really damage it, but she could keep it occupied, and she did.


That left Snowflake with no immediately pressing task, a state she took advantage of. She ran full-tilt at Zhang’s back and leapt. I felt her feral, savage rage in the back of my mind.


Zhang heard something at the last second and turned. He fell back a step, clearly surprised, and then gestured slightly with one hand. A rush of force took Snowflake in the face and sent her flying backward, where she landed with all the grace and poise of a ragdoll and didn’t get back up. She wasn’t dead—I was confident I would have known if she was dead—but I thought she might have been knocked out.


While Zhang had his back turned, I threw my last grenade. It rolled to a stop at his feet. He glanced down and then took a step forward, and I smelled a massive surge of power as he threw up a barrier.


A moment later the grenade went off. He managed—somehow—to withstand the explosion, and while it tossed him to the ground it didn’t seem to actually hurt him at all. He had to struggle to stand, though, and I could hear him panting for breath.


Aiko had dropped her blades at some point. Now she lifted her carbine to point at Zhang, where he was still lying on the ground, and opened it up.


Stopping bullets is relatively easy for a kinetic barrier. They’ve got a lot of velocity, but not much in the way of mass, and a light-caliber bullet is unlikely to penetrate a competent shield.


But Zhang had been burning through incredible amounts of magic. The attacks he’d thrown at me were terribly dangerous, true, but they’d also required enormous power. On top of that, he’d also just survived a freaking grenade, while standing virtually on top of it. The energy involved in that had to be astronomical.


Bottom line, he could still stop bullets. But it took all of his focus to do so—meaning that he couldn’t hit back and he couldn’t move. It wouldn’t last long—Aiko’s gun did not have infinite ammunition—but while it did it was a priceless opportunity.


I couldn’t get close enough to use Tyrfing. That barrier was ricocheting bullets in all directions, and even if I’d been willing to trust to my armor to keep me alive I couldn’t move fast enough. I checked my other weapons, and came up disappointed. Knives were useless, and the shotgun wouldn’t penetrate his barrier. I didn’t have any more grenades, and I’d used my only silver sphere getting into the house. I was still carrying one of Alexander’s demolition spells, but they really weren’t meant for combat. It might be fatal if you were touching it when it went off, but short of that it was unlikely to do lethal harm. Besides, using kinetic force to batter down a kinetic barrier was a losing proposition.


Suddenly I saw the answer. I grabbed the glass sphere, biting my tongue hard. My mouth filled with the taste of blood and I spat on the sphere before tossing it. Not at Zhang.


At the ceiling.


A stray bullet hit it before it could quite get into position, and a spark of blue light blossomed a couple feet below the ceiling. The force was invisible—the light was only an identifier—but I almost thought I could see it as a faint ripple in the air.


Alexander’s spell was a lot stronger than mine. Twenty feet away, it was still strong enough to knock me on my ass. I landed badly—no surprise, given how tired I was. Honestly, considering how much I’d been using Tyrfing, I’m lucky I didn’t shoot myself or something.


But I still landed badly. Really badly; I distinctly heard my right wrist snap, and pain lanced up my arm. That was pretty much the end of me fighting for today, then; with both arms injured and little magic remaining, there wasn’t much left for me to do.


I wasn’t the only one affected. The two remaining golems staggered sideways, interrupting a slash that likely would have removed Kyra’s leg. Aiko fell to the ground, the last few bullets going wild before the magazine ran empty. The wave of force washed over Zhang’s barrier and dissipated harmlessly.


And it also washed through the concrete ceiling.


Kinetic force is an interesting thing. There wasn’t enough power in that sphere to bring down the roof, not even close. But when part of a solid moves and the rest doesn’t, there’s an enormous stress on it. Concrete is strong stuff, but it’s also relatively brittle, disinclined to bend and sway.


Rubber wouldn’t have been affected much by the force. But the concrete broke apart, and once it started gravity finished the job, bringing it down in large chunks. The effect didn’t spread too far; the force was too diffuse for that. But for a circle perhaps ten feet across and two feet deep, the ceiling fell to pieces.


Zhang probably could have held it up, if he’d been fresh. Even tired, his barrier could have protected him; he was at the edge of the circle, and only a couple of the chunks of concrete hit him.


But he’d intended it to stop bullets. A kinetic barrier can stop either large masses moving slowly or small ones moving quickly, but it’s hard to make one do both at once. I didn’t know exactly what adaptations were necessary—in my world barriers are pretty much something other people use—but I knew that, if you wanted to stop an object efficiently, you needed to adapt it to what you were doing.


Zhang hadn’t had the chance. His barrier was still incredibly strong, mind you. It held up under the first impact, and the second. But when the third chunk hit it, it wavered and then collapsed. The concrete continued falling unimpeded, and landed on his abdomen.


That alone might have been lethal. I mean, that piece of concrete probably weighed a couple hundred pounds, and having things like that fall ten feet and land on your guts is bad for you. I didn’t feel like taking chances, though, so I summoned Tyrfing again. Then I grabbed it with my right hand, biting back a scream at how that felt to my broken wrist, and lobbed the sword toward the center of the room.


Aiko, who had recovered her feet almost instantly, darted toward it. She snatched the sword up and brought it down in a single motion, never pausing in her run. Zhang’s head hit the floor, and that was that.


It took Aiko only a couple of minutes to finish off the last of the golems. Between her skill, Tyrfing, and Kyra’s assistance, it never stood a chance. She carved it up like a Christmas goose, and it never even got close to her.


She stood there for a second and then sheathed Tyrfing and dropped it. I didn’t think she’d been injured, but she looked very tired as she made her way around the room to where I was currently slumped against the wall. Kyra limped along beside her, her left foreleg badly cut. I could smell the blood.


“Are you all right?” she asked, looking at me with concern.


I smiled beatifically. “Don’t think so,” I mumbled. Then I passed out.

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Frost Bitten 7.12

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Back in Colorado, we turned the kids over to Sveinn to be cleaned up and cared for. They would need food, water, probably medical treatment. Moray went to tell his boss what had happened.


I went to talk to Jackal.


I found her outside, near the edge of the trees. She was sitting with one of the people we’d rescued, a scrawny guy who looked like he was sixteen and smelled like he hadn’t been clean for years. “Is this Wishbone?” I asked. Jackal nodded.


He looked at me. His eyes were haunted, and I didn’t think it was because of being kidnapped. He gave the impression of being someone who had seen more than his share of misfortune. “You Wolf?” he asked, his voice distant.


“Yeah. Do you think you could do me a favor?”


“Maybe. Maybe not. What?”


“Were you given a message of some kind? Something maybe a little cryptic?”


He stared into the distance. “Favors aren’t free,” he said finally.


I blinked. “Are you really—” I began.


He shook his head. “No,” he interrupted. “That was the message. Some Sidhe told me the day before Morgenstern grabbed me. Don’t know what it means.”


“Huh,” I said. “Thanks.”


Jackal looked at me. “You taking Zhang down?”


“I’m going to try.”


She considered that, then nodded. “We ain’t up to that,” she admitted, no trace of shame in her voice. “You ain’t bad, Wolf. See you around.”


I nodded and left them there.


I couldn’t figure what the message was supposed to mean. Scáthach had said that Morgenstern was smuggling a cipher, something that could be used to decode another message. Well, if this was a cipher, I couldn’t figure out how.


I also didn’t have time to think about it right now. I had things to do.


I found Moray outside the building. He was staring at nothing, his face grim.


“They’re letting him go,” I said quietly, walking up beside him. “Aren’t they.”


He nodded tightly. “Same story I’ve heard a thousand times. ‘The greatest good is served by preserving stability and maintaining the ability of the Watchers to protect humanity.'”


“They’re going to let him get away with selling kids as slaves?”


Moray’s voice was bleak. “They can’t prove anything. Not without admitting they know what we just did.”


“I don’t like that answer very much.”


“Neither do I.”


“What if there’s another one?”


He looked at me guardedly. “What are you suggesting?”


“The Watchers are already denying one operation. They can deny another.”


“What you’re talking about goes a bit further than just disrupting a shipment.”


“That’s kind of the point,” I said dryly. “Look, I’m sure your bosses know where to find him. All those times you wished for backup? Well, this time you’ve got it.”


“It won’t make a difference,” he said reluctantly. “You know that. I hate to admit it, but they’re right about that. Zhang just moves the goods. So long as someone wants to buy and someone wants to sell, there’ll be people like him.”


I knew that what he was saying was true. Killing Zhang wouldn’t change anything, not really.


“Do you really believe this is the greater good?” I asked quietly.


He sighed. “I don’t know. It’s hard to see, sometimes.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. That was a sentiment I could get behind. “You know what isn’t hard to see? Zhang takes peoples’ freedom. Smuggling is one thing, I could tolerate smuggling for the greater good, but Zhang is not a smuggler. He takes away freedom, takes away choice. Not for the greater good, not in service to some ideal. He does it because he can, and because it profits him. And if he gets away, he’s going to keep doing it.”


A muscle twitched in his jaw. “Yeah. I know.”


“Look,” I pressed. “Call your boss—the big boss, I mean, not the one who thought he could bribe me with Conclave recognition. Ask her where Zhang’s hiding—because I’m sure he’s hiding right now, after what we just did. I bet you she’ll answer. I bet you she meant for us to be having pretty much exactly this conversation.” I’d never quite gotten sure just how many layers of plans Watcher had the last time around, but I knew she was one of the smoothest operators I’d ever dealt with. That kind of long-term planning and manipulation was well within her purview.


Moray hesitated, then nodded. “That’s her style,” he admitted. “Look, I’ll make the call. If she says yes, you’re on.”


“Good,” I said, and went to get some food.


I found Snowflake, Kyra, and Aiko in the office on the third floor. Kyra looked bemused, insomuch as a wolf’s face can manage the expression, to find herself in the room where she’d spent so much time as Alpha. Things hadn’t changed much. I don’t really spend much time in the office.


I walked in carrying several pounds of beef, most of it raw, and a few loaves of bread. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but it would work. I’d gotten by for months at a time on a diet of raw meat and little else before Alexis ever showed up; I could handle a day. “Good news,” I said, dropping the food on the desk. I unwrapped the raw meat and set it on the floor.


“Yeah?” Aiko asked. She was staring out the window at the trees.


“Yup. Moray’s finding out where Zhang’s fortress is, and then we’re going to go take him down.”


“You do realize what a stupid plan this is, right?” she said dryly. “We almost got taken out by the defenses around a minor hideout.”


I hate to admit it, Snowflake said reluctantly, but she’s got a point.


“I know.” For several seconds the only sounds came from Kyra and Snowflake eating. Not for nothing do they call it wolfing food. “Do you think we should back down?” I asked reluctantly.


Kyra growled in a menacing, aggressive way, making her opinion clear. Hell, Snowflake said, amused. I’ve got no problem with it. I’ve never wanted to die in my sleep anyway. Just making sure we were all on the same page.


Aiko was slower to answer. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s just…things are nice, you know? Things are finally going right.” She sighed. “I guess you always have to pay it back. I thought I’d gotten off easy, but I guess it just took longer coming around than I thought.” She grabbed a sandwich. “Fuck it,” she said through a mouthful of roast beef. “Let’s go kill the bastard.”


“You sure?”


“Yeah,” she said, her eyes hard and cold. “He deserves it. Besides, it’s been ages since we had a proper battle.”


I grinned faintly. “Yeah, it has. What do you say we make a real party out of it?”


She looked at me and started to smile.


Fifteen minutes later Moray came in and told us that Zhang was at his main base of operations, a heavily-fortified manor in the Himalayas. He also, more quietly, said that Watcher had given unofficial approval to our plan. We were permitted to remove Zhang, permanently, by any means necessary.


Most people don’t take phrases like that seriously. They don’t really mean it when they say things like “by any means necessary” or “at all costs.” I was pretty sure Watcher did. No expense too high, collateral damage not a concern.


I don’t like being handed a blank check like that. I’m always afraid of what I might do with it.


“So do we have a plan?” Moray asked.


“You won’t like it.”


“Try me.”


I told him. He didn’t like it. I inquired whether he had a better idea. He was quiet for several minutes, and then told me no, he didn’t have any suggestions.


Moray left to get more armaments, presumably from his home in Seattle. Unless he had a stash nearby, which he probably did; that seemed like his style. I thought that was a great idea, and went back to the mansion to do the same.


I always carry a decent supply of equipment. But, werewolf or not, you can only carry so much at one time, and it’s important to pick your gear carefully. On the last trip out, I hadn’t really been expecting trouble—I’d just been going to a meeting, after all—and I’d chosen my kit appropriately. I’d been carrying a lot of items suitable for hiding and running away, with an emphasis on not being overtly threatening or conspicuous.


Well, right now I had different priorities. We were going to break and kill whatever and whomever got in our way. I could put a pleasant spin on it, and it might be the only way to resolve the situation, but that didn’t change the fact that what we were planning was to go and murder people, at least some of whom probably didn’t deserve it.


So what I’m getting at is that being inconspicuous and nonthreatening weren’t on the table anymore, and I didn’t even try. I put on my armor, including the helmet and gauntlets, and grabbed my shotgun. I was still carrying a few stored spells designed for producing cover or concealment, but mostly I’d switched to more aggressive ones, a mix of explosives and a couple more exotic weapons. A few grenades, a couple of knives, and my favorite pistol rounded out the mix.


I also helped both Snowflake and Kyra into their armor. Kyra’s was a standard werewolf design, heavy plates of steel over the back, chest, and flanks, leaving the legs and most of the head uncovered. She’d brought it with her, assuming that things would turn violent at some point—which, let’s be honest, she was around me. It was a fair assumption.


Snowflake’s armor was a little more exotic. I’d purchased it custom from the same kitsune who made both my armor and Aiko’s, at a moderately exorbitant price. It had thick plates of steel inlaid with silver covering her chest and sides, and a mix of scale armor and chainmail along the legs, throat, and head—although, unlike Kyra’s, her armor was covered in spikes and sharpened ridges, making any attempt at grappling with her a risky proposition. Her paws were covered by tailored metal sheaths, complete with oversized steel claws. It was colored white with swirls of pale blue, making her look almost ghostly. The whole thing was lined with extra-thick Kevlar, and between that and the metal she was probably safe from anything short of anti-tank rounds.


It was fairly heavy armor. A normal husky couldn’t have stood up in it, let alone sprinted. Fortunately, Snowflake was not normal, or anything like it. She was stronger than she should be, and the spells woven into her collar made her significantly stronger than that. I’d actually designed those enchantments myself; there aren’t very many witches specializing in affecting nonhumans. I’m not really sure how to compare her to other dogs—you can’t just say how much she bench presses, for example—but she’s at least as strong as most werewolves in fur, and faster.


Snowflake’s kind of scary.


Aiko walked into the room, wearing her full suit of armor and carrying her carbine on a strap around her shoulder. She had her wakizashi on one hip and her tanto on the other. I looked at the demonic mask of her helmet, she looked at the lupine mask of mine, and then we both broke down laughing until we were leaning on each other to stay standing. She swayed sideways and I fell on my ass, which just made me laugh harder.


I don’t get it. What’s the joke?


Nothing, I said, still laughing. It was just the image of the four of us, sitting here in our tin cans with all the guns and swords and explosives. And then Moray in his suit.


Snowflake considered that for a minute. Nope, she said eventually. Amusing contrast, but not that funny.


“Okay,” I said, getting myself back under control. “Ready to go pick up our guests?”


I couldn’t see Aiko’s face behind the helmet, but I could tell that she wasn’t smiling anymore. “Yeah,” she said. “Let’s go.”


The first stop was back at the pack house to pick up Vigdis and Haki. Vigdis was coming because I knew that she wouldn’t balk at any task, however unpleasant. Most people react poorly when ordered to do things like finish off wounded enemies or shoot through human shields. They might obey, because most people are disgustingly obedient, or they might not, because everyone has their limits—but either way, they hesitate. Vigdis doesn’t. If dirty work needed doing, I could count on her to do it.


Haki was coming for the somewhat more straightforward reason that he was a badass. Now, don’t get me wrong. All of the housecarls were soldiers, even Tindr. They could all fight. But Haki lived for it. He spent every free moment training, practicing, exercising. He could take any two of the other housecarls on any given day. Sveinn and Kjaran were skilled enough that it might take him a couple of minutes to beat them; for the rest it was a matter of seconds. The guy’s absolutely lethal in a fight.


I might be able to take Haki, in a fair fight. But only because of Tyrfing and my magic. He’s bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled than I am, and all else being equal he would kick my ass.


He also redefines the term “lone wolf.” Haki Who-Fights-Alone, they call him, a name with a lot of implications. He earned every one of them.


The six of us stood there in silence for a few minutes, holding our various weapons and growing increasingly impatient. I was just starting to wonder whether maybe this whole thing was a setup when the Watcher walked up.


Brick Anderson was a tall guy, and beanpole thin. He looked to be in his early twenties, and had for at least three or four years. He was currently wearing a long, hooded grey robe. He was carrying a wooden staff and a granite rod, and no other obvious weapons. It looked a little ridiculous, but I knew better. That robe was bulletproof, and the staff and rod were foci of some sort. I’d seen him go toe-to-toe with a skinwalker, and while he’d been badly outclassed he’d still held the thing off for almost a minute. I couldn’t have done half as well.


“Brick,” I said, nodding to him. “I’m glad you decided to come.”


He smiled. “It isn’t often I get to work with really skilled fighters,” he said, casually dissing the rest of the Inquisition. Having seen the lot of them in action, I couldn’t argue. They’re scary—but they’re minor talents, not even as versatile as me. Brick was in an entirely different class. “I’m looking forward to this.”


“Bring any of the gang with you?” I hadn’t invited the rest of the Inquisition—I didn’t want to drag them into something like this—but I hadn’t exactly uninvited them either. They might not be on Brick’s level, but they’d had a lot of time to practice what they did and there were a lot of them. Not as many as they started out with, maybe, but quite a few all the same.


He snorted. “No. Katie has everyone who will listen to her chasing a vampire in Pueblo.”


“And who does that include?” I asked, curious in spite of myself.


“Almost nobody. Kris and Doug have dropped out, and Matthew doesn’t have the patience for investigating things.” He smiled thinly. “At this rate, they’ll be weeded out entirely before long, and I can move on to a real job.”


Moray arrived in a rented sedan less than five minutes later. He was still wearing his three-piece suit, which presumably had the same kind of protection as Brick’s robe. That wand hung from a nylon web belt, along with a knife and a heavy semiautomatic pistol. He’d added a black silk balaclava and gloves, leaving no exposed skin.


The two Watchers eyed one another distrustfully. It looked amusingly similar to a pair of dogs who weren’t yet sure whether they were going to fight or not. I was guessing they hadn’t worked together before. Neither of them were wearing their official emblems—not surprising, considering that this little outing was as unofficial as they come.


“We ready?” I asked before they could start showing teeth.


“You aren’t bringing any of your other henchmen?” Brick asked, not looking away from Moray.


I shrugged. “I can. Do you really think we’ll run into any problems we can solve by applying more manpower than we already have?”


“Probably not,” Moray answered before Brick could say anything. “That isn’t Zhang’s style. He goes for versatility, not numbers. Adding more of the same thing won’t help us deal with curveballs.” He paused. “Would be nice to have the raiju along, though. That thing could chew right through his defenses.”


I shook my head. “I don’t think it would leave Ash. And I’m not bringing her along on this trip.”


“No argument,” Moray said. He rolled his shoulders, pulled his sunglasses out of a jacket pocket, and put them on. “I’m ready when you are.” Brick, never one to talk much, just nodded.


“All right. Let’s do this.”


The first step was getting to Zhang’s hideout, a process that was significantly easier than I’d anticipated. Moray just so happened to have a connection point about ten minutes hike from the compound, shown to him when he was given the unofficial position of dealing with Zhang’s crap. The Watchers had always known where to find him, of course. Like most mobsters, Zhang had been hidden more by politics than secrecy.


We did not, of course, approach directly. That would have been foolish to a degree that approached suicide. We stopped two hills away and looked at it through binoculars. I wasn’t the only person who’d remembered to bring a pair this time.


Zhang, as you might expect, had money to flaunt, and he’d flaunted it. The manor was sprawling, a rough square maybe a hundred and fifty feet to a side, nestled into a large valley. The building itself was two stories, but considering the nature of its owner I was confident there was at least one basement level we couldn’t see. There were no roads leading to the manor, not even a gravel path. Zhang was a mage with an international smuggling network; he could presumably get everything he needed shipped in by other means, and he didn’t want visitors.


Unfortunately for us, that also meant that his defenses didn’t need to be as low-key as they had in the middle of Munich. There was a ten-foot-tall concrete wall around the perimeter, topped with coils of razor wire, and guard towers spaced along the perimeter. There were no visible gates in the wall, or any other obvious structural weaknesses. I could see all that clearly, because there were also a bunch of spotlights. The area for twenty feet around the wall was cleared of all vegetation and lit up like a sports stadium, the light reflecting off the snow.


That wasn’t good. I’d been counting on the darkness to let us sneak up on the place. As things were, approaching it was going to be problematic. Zhang was the type to have large numbers of armed men on duty at any time of day or night, and that would pose some difficulties. Armor is a fine thing, but there are limits. Large amounts of military-grade munitions were probably on the wrong side of them.


“Vigdis,” I said quietly, returning the binoculars to my pocket. “Eyes in the sky?”


The giant nodded and set her axes down on the ground. It was cold and snowy—we were in the Himalayas, after all—but she paid no notice as she kicked off her sandals, removed her sundress, and folded it neatly before setting it down. Brick, I noticed, didn’t look away from examining Zhang’s defenses, while Moray was clearly not as accustomed to a shapechanger’s casual nudity.


He was probably somewhat surprised when Vigdis changed. Her shapechanging is closer to that of a shapeshifter or kitsune than a werewolf; there’s no prolonged warping of flesh and bone, just a sudden surge of magic and a different body. Where Vigdis had been, now there was an eagle. It was a huge bird, large even by the standards of eagles, with dust-brown plumage. It took off immediately, soaring into the night.


Most raptors, including eagles, don’t fly at night. Fortunately, Vigdis wasn’t really an eagle. Her vision would be very poor, like that of an actual bird, but she had access to a few other senses that neither birds nor humans do, and she was smart. It made her surprisingly good at recon, especially when people weren’t expecting it.


It would take her a few minutes to go and come back, though. I walked a short distance along the hill to where Moray was standing, staring at the manor. “Does this look right?” I asked.


He nodded, not looking away. “I haven’t seen any of his places this heavily fortified, but some of them came close. It’s his style, too.”


“Can you tell if it’s warded?” I asked. I couldn’t, not at this range, but that wasn’t exactly my specialty. My magical senses are unusually good, but I’ve spent a lot of time honing them for highly detailed work, not on expanding their range. Plus I don’t have a nifty pair of enchanted sunglasses.


He nodded. “Definitely some energy on the building itself. I can’t tell what they’re doing at this range, but if it’s his usual mix he’ll have kinetic barriers, mantraps, and a lockdown.”


“Lockdown?” I asked.


“A ward designed to limit access,” he explained. “Try to open a way to the Otherside and it shuts you down. Nobody gets in, nobody gets out.”


I frowned. “Doesn’t that limit his options for escape?”


Moray shrugged. “Yeah. It also means he doesn’t have to worry about unhappy customers bypassing his security. Or prisoners escaping, for that matter.”


“I guess that makes sense,” I said. “So if we keep him inside the building, he can’t just slip away.” I frowned again. “Might make getting out tricky, though.”


“You’re confident,” he said dryly.


I snorted. “Maybe you’re cool with a suicide run. I’m planning on surviving this.”


“Likewise,” Aiko said, strolling up next to us. “Those lights are going to be a problem.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “Can you…?”


Moray shook his head. “I might be able to take them out, but we’d have to get too close. I don’t know if I can blast through that wall, either.”


“Brick can,” I said confidently. He had a talent for working with rock and earth, and concrete was close enough. “I don’t know of any way to deal with the lights, though.”


“Distraction?” Aiko suggested. “We don’t really need the lights gone, we just need them to be looking the other way.”


“Might work. We’d have to move fast, though. What kind of distraction are you thinking of?”


“Dunno. I don’t think I can manage an illusion that would do it at this distance.”


I was about to answer when Snowflake told me that she heard Vigdis approaching. I turned around just in time to see her land and melt back into her human shape. “Jarl,” she said, not bothering with clothing. Moray gulped audibly.


“Vigdis,” I said. “What do you see?”


“Snipers on the hills,” she said briskly. “Three teams. Every approach is covered by at least one.”


That was a problem. Having seen an anti-materiel rifle in action, I knew better than to think my armor would even slow it down, particularly if they were using armor-piercing rounds, which I was confident they were. “Can you take them out?” I asked.


She considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Já. It will take me a few minutes.”


“Good,” I said. I reached into a pocket of my cloak and, very carefully, pulled out a hollow glass sphere a little bigger than a marble. It was warm to the touch, and a tiny spark of blue light hovered in the center. I bit my finger, drawing blood, and smeared a little of it over the surface of the glass. The magic of the stored spell shifted slightly at the touch of blood—the signal it had been designed to react to. Like most stored spells meant for sale, it had a very specific set of triggers that anyone could provide.


Before, it had been relatively safe. It looked like simple glass, but Alexander was smart enough to reinforce it with magic, and it would have taken a few hits with a sledgehammer to break it. Contact with any kind of blood removed that protection.


In other words, it was now about as safe to carry as nitroglycerin on a carnival ride.


I set it on the ground, very gently. “Deal with the snipers,” I told Vigdis. “Then come back and grab this. Do not break the glass. Fly it over and drop it at the base of one of the towers on the opposite side of the compound. We’ll meet you inside the wall. Do you understand?”


“What will it do?” she asked, staring at the sphere with some trepidation.


“Blow up,” I said. “Make sure to drop it from high enough that the glass will break. It should take out the tower. They’ll assume we’re running for that gap, and we should be able to get by on the other side while they’re distracted.” I spoke loudly enough that everyone would hear.


Vigdis nodded, and melted back into the eagle without another word. I watched her fly off into the night and worried. Vigdis was tough, and the snipers were presumably focused on their jobs, but this was still a chancy prospect. Whether she could take out three teams of snipers unarmed without raising an outcry was far from certain.


One of the hardest parts of having minions—and teamwork in general, but it’s worse with minions—is trusting the other guy to do his job. Especially for someone like me, who’s naturally more suited to lone wolfing it, it can be more stressful than just doing things yourself.


Unfortunately, Vigdis was the only one of us who was mobile enough to get to all three locations and deal with them in a timely manner. And we also had a job to do; we had to be in position to move, immediately, when she dropped Alexander’s spell on them. So I did my best to pretend I wasn’t concerned, and started moving.


We set off across the hill, moving fairly quickly. Vigdis wouldn’t take long, and we didn’t want to be running late. The humans had the hardest time of things; the almost-full moon didn’t provide enough light for them to be comfortable, and the terrain was rougher than they were used to. Brick, at least, was accustomed to the altitude, although we were probably a fair bit higher than Colorado Springs here. Moray was coming from the coast, and he was visibly suffering for it.


Haki changed while we walked. It was nothing as dramatic as Vigdis’s shapeshifting; I didn’t even notice when it happened. But at some point I glanced over and saw that he’d dropped the human mask, and let his true face show through. Haki in his natural form stood almost ten feet tall and was leanly built, reminiscent of a half-starved wolf. His chain shirt, which had looked more like a dress, fit him now, and the axe which had seemed enormous previously fit comfortably in one hand. He was also carrying a half-dozen knives, which looked like toys next to his bulk, and a short sword that most humans would need both hands to lift.


“Can you make us a hole in the wall?” I asked Brick as we hiked. He nodded, not sparing the breath for speech, without any hesitation. That was good. Another stored spell or two could crack the nut, but I was really hoping to save those for use as weapons. They were pretty much the only big guns I had.


A few minutes later, we were lying on the ground just outside the pool of light surrounding the wall. We were well within sight of the guards on the wall—I could see them now, and my guess that there would be a lot of them was confirmed—but I didn’t think they would see us. Their own spotlights blinded them to anything lurking in the dark.


The snipers were a different story—they would be using some form of night vision or thermal imaging device, and darkness was no adequate defense against that. But Vigdis had presumably removed them by now, and if she hadn’t we probably had bigger things to worry about anyway.


We lay there for about five minutes, waiting. I didn’t get cold, because I pretty much don’t, but I felt sorry for the others.


I never saw Vigdis fly overhead, nor was I in position to see the glass sphere fall. My first hint that it was time to move was when I saw a flash of blue light reflected in the snow on the other side of the building, hardly visible against the brightness of the floodlights. A moment later there was a loud sound, resembling thunder, and I saw one of the towers tilt sideways. The blast had taken out only a small chunk of it, relatively, but most towers aren’t so good at remaining standing without a foundation.


I was up and running before the screaming started, a blend of shouted orders and panicked yells. Those of the guards I could see rushed about like distressed ants, paying no attention to me.


Snowflake and Kyra were right behind me, and outstripped me in seconds, with no particular effort. Haki came next, followed by Aiko, while the mages came last of all. A pair of guards in one of the towers had kept their heads about them and not abandoned their post, and they shot at us while we approached. They missed, and their shouts of warning were lost in the din.


Before they could get another volley off, the concrete of the tower seemed to simply melt and flow like wax. The tower slid free and collapsed at an angle, tossing the guards to the ground and forming a ramp to the top of the wall, crushing the razor wire. Snowflake and Kyra, running far ahead of the rest of us, reached the guards before they could stand up. Jaws closed on necks, blood stained the snow, and that was that.


I glanced back and saw Brick, smiling calmly, return the rod to its sleeve within his robe. He hadn’t even paused.


I rolled my eyes. “Show-off,” I muttered, reaching the base of the tower. I jogged up it, taking care with the slick surface—the last thing I needed was to slip off and get tangled in the razor wire. I reached the top, looked out over a clear expanse of ground, and saw something terrifying.


There was a space maybe twenty feet across between the wall and the building. When we’d looked down on it from a distance, it had been a simple, barren courtyard of concrete, with no decorations to provide cover.


Currently, it was crawling with golems. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I could have walked from the wall to the manor without once setting foot on the ground. Most of them were the vaguely humanoid forms we’d seen in Munich, but there were a couple dozen shaped like enormous hounds, and a few bipedal monsters as big as Haki. All of them were sculpted of smooth, cold concrete, some of them with snow still clinging to the surface.


We didn’t have time to deal with this. It would only take moments for the guards to discover that they were under attack from the opposite side. If we were caught in the open when that happened, things would go poorly for us; the defenses inside would probably be at least as deadly, but out here we were sitting ducks exposed to numerous lines of fire.


Fortunately, this time I’d come prepared for golems. As I reached the lip of the ramp I pulled a grenade out of my cloak, pulled the pin, and tossed it down into the crowd.


In my experience, most members of the preternatural subculture don’t have sufficient respect for the damage purely mundane weapons can inflict. Stored spells are wonderful things, and for many tasks they’re irreplaceable. But for just blowing shit up, you can’t go wrong with plain old explosives.


The grenade went off with a hollow boom that made the din of shouting voices pale in comparison. It cleared an area maybe ten feet in diameter in the middle of the mass, shattering the golems into so much shrapnel.


Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to really make a dent in the sheer numbers of golems present. It also attracted lots of attention. The chitter of automatic weapons fire started almost immediately.


I snarled. They weren’t hitting yet, but they would soon, and I hadn’t cleared nearly enough of the golems for us to make it to the door. I could—if nothing else, I had enough grenades and stored spells to carpet bomb a significant chunk of the courtyard—but nothing I was carrying could do the job quickly enough, and I couldn’t afford to waste the munitions.


Before I could think of a plan, Brick brushed past me, muttering something about amateur work. He was holding both staff and rod again. He stood there, ignoring the bullets whizzing past, and swept the rod from left to right, muttering something under his breath.


And, just like that, two hundred golems collapsed to the ground, their legs melted just as the tower had been. It took maybe two seconds, start to finish, and the area between us and the manor was clear.


I stared. I’d brought Brick specifically because I’d known to expect stone golems, and he was an expert with stone—but damn. He didn’t even look like he was trying.


“We need to deal with the wards,” he said, shouting to make himself heard over the ongoing gunfire.


I shook myself out of it. He’d cleared the way, but we still had to get there. “On it,” I said, digging in my cloak. I came up with a silver sphere the size of a pea, packed with so much magic that the silver burned my fingers, even through the gauntlets. “Trial by fire,” I shouted, and threw the sphere in the direction of the manor.


It hit the ground five feet from the wall, rolled a little, and then burst into yellow-gold light that made the spotlights look like they needed to work out. It burned through golems, wards, and walls with equal ease, sending shrapnel flying in all directions. When the light faded, there was a nine-foot sphere that had been emptied of everything but bits of rubble. The edges of the wall smoldered a little, and the concrete was burned black.


“Go!” I shouted, jumping down and sprinting for the hole I’d just made. Snowflake and Kyra were right beside me, and then in front of me—a werewolf in fur is always faster than one without, and Snowflake is faster than either, even with the armor. The handful of golems that managed to get in our way, they dealt with before I ever got close. Drawing on their experience from the last fight, they didn’t even try to fight the things. They just knocked them off balance, bowled them over, or physically tossed them aside.


As I ran, an eagle swooped down beside me. Vigdis changed ten feet above the ground, did a flip on the way down (because she could, presumably) and hit the ground at a sprint. Haki, who’d been carrying her gear, tossed her an axe on the run, which she promptly used to decapitate one of the golems the canines had knocked down.


Snowflake and Kyra reached the door first and took up positions on either side. I was the first one through. The wards, fortunately, had been taken out by the stored spell; I’d used a similar spell for the same purpose once before, but I hadn’t been completely sure that Zhang’s wards would also be susceptible to it. There are a lot of ways to make a ward, and not all of them are vulnerable to a brute force attack like that one.


Inside, I found myself in what appeared to be a large kitchen. There was no one around, and no defenses that I could see. Once I’d crossed the threshold without dying in some horrible way, Snowflake and Kyra followed, with Aiko on their heels. Haki and Vigdis were next, leaving just the Watchers outside, predictably. Don’t get me wrong, they were fit—but they were also human, and most of the time a human will lose to a nonhuman in a contest of speed.


Brick came first, holding his staff under one arm to keep it out of his way. Moray was fifteen feet behind him, panting, and had slowed from a sprint to a fast jog. The guards had their weapons sighted in now, and the bullets were coming in short, on-target bursts. Moray was deflecting them with a kinetic barrier, but he couldn’t maintain his barrier at a high enough strength to stop bullets indefinitely, and dividing his attention was slowing him down.


I glanced at Haki and gestured slightly. He nodded—it wasn’t hard to figure out what I wanted, after all—and bolted out the door. He reached Moray in a couple seconds, threw the Watcher over his shoulder, and returned. His speed was not noticeably lessened by the weight. He tossed Moray through the hole—literally tossed him, I mean—and stooped to get through himself.


Brick stepped up to the entrance as soon as Haki was through. “Figure out which way to go,” he said calmly. “I’m going to seal this.” I felt him gathering power, scented with a dry, earthy tone. Bits of concrete started moving toward the hole. Most of them were golems, and some of them were still moving. Brick didn’t seem to care.


I left him to it and went looking around. There were three doors out of the kitchen, all of them identical in appearance. The first went to a larder; Snowflake went down the stairs for a quick look around, turning up nothing interesting. The second opened onto what appeared to be servants’ quarters, currently empty. Zhang had evacuated, apparently, in preparation for our attack. Whether that was a surprising touch of humanity from him or just concern for his property was hard to say.


The third door led into a large, elaborately decorated dining room. Snowflake, Kyra, and I, being most easily able to keep in touch with each other, went through the dining room and explored the rest of the house. There was a living room, an office, a painter’s studio, a guard barracks—all empty. The only door to the exterior we found was locked and warded, and from the structure of the wards I didn’t think the guards would be able to pass through them. Zhang or one of his subordinate mages must have lowered the wards every time they needed to change shifts. The inconvenience was offset by how much more secure it made them. Any time your security system will let some people through, there’s a possibility that an unauthorized person will take advantage of the same hole.


Of course, now that we were inside the building, it would have the opposite effect, keeping the security forces from chasing us in. That gave us a little breathing room, a little time to work.


We found no defenses on the ground floor, and no sign of Zhang’s presence. The three of us gathered at the base of the stairs, just down the hallway from the dining room. There was one staircase leading up, and one leading down. I had no idea which way Zhang was; being on the top floor had connotations of superiority which would appeal to his arrogance, but underground was probably more secure, and he might be smart enough to go with safety over style.


We’ll have to split up, Snowflake said reluctantly.


I nodded just as reluctantly. If we picked wrong, Zhang would slip out behind us, and we wouldn’t catch him unprepared (relatively speaking) again. We couldn’t wait and flush him out, either; the guards would catch us from behind, and we wouldn’t have much of a chance at success then. That really didn’t leave many options other than splitting up. it was always bad tactics to divide your forces, but sometimes that’s all you get. Hopefully we’d brought enough force to get the job done anyway.


“Let’s go report,” I said, walking away from the stairs.


Back in the kitchen, no one had mysteriously vanished, which was excellent news. The hole in the wall was stopped with a massive heap of concrete fragments, many of which seemed to be fused together. How thick it was I couldn’t say, but it seemed like a fairly formidable obstacle. The guards would dig through it eventually, of course, but it would take some time.


I explained what we’d found, briefly. Brick immediately came to the same conclusion we had, and said as much. Nobody liked the idea much—everyone’s seen the movies—but no one had a better idea, either.


We all proceeded as a group to the stairs. Moray examined them for maybe a second and a half before he said, “Trapped.”


“Trapped how?” I asked.


He shrugged. “The usual. Looks like fire, force, lightning—” He paused. “That step’s actually a golem. How did he manage that?”


“Can you disarm them?” I asked.


“Maybe. Most of them don’t look too bad anyway. I should be able to shield against them.”


“All right. You and Brick check the upstairs. Take Vigdis and Haki with you. If you clear it come down and help us.”


“It would be better if one mage went with each group,” Brick said, looking down into the basement. “No offense, Winter.”


I shook my head. “No, it wouldn’t, and we don’t have time to argue about it.”


“You’d better know what you’re doing, Wolf,” he said quietly.


“Trust me, I don’t plan on dying here.”


He looked at me, then sighed. “All right, but only because crazy works for you. Come on, meat shields,” he said, turning to his staircase. Magic flickered to life at his fingertips, sparks of green-brown light running along the length of his granite rod. “Let’s bring the house down.”

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