Trying to classify people is an intrinsically impossible task. People vary too much to fit into neat little boxes. Unless you have so many categories as to be uselessly uninformative, there are always going to be people who straddle the edges, and the system breaks down when you try to make them fit one category or the other.
That being said, there’s a certain amount of worth to it. No two people are quite the same, but sometimes you can make sweeping assumptions that are accurate enough to be a decent first guess. Not everyone who listens to gothic music is a Goth, but it’s common enough to target advertisements to that subculture.
It’s the exact same with mages. Sorcerers, for example, are a huge and diverse group. They vary wildly in their attitudes, tastes, motivations, and ambitions. But they’re typically reckless, egocentric, and impulsive, given to mood swings and extremes. Katie’s behavior, in that regard, was an exaggeration of the trend, not something totally new. Likewise, while their magical capabilities are highly variable, they tend to excel with quick, relatively clumsy work. Most of them have a fairly narrow range of talents, but they can be pretty good within that range.
Nowhere, though, is the classification system more obviously pointless than with shamans. By far the rarest of the five major types of mage, they’re also much more variable than others, in both powers and personality. Some shamans have developed something very like prescience, while others specialize in seeing the past. A shaman can read your mind or tell your future in the flight of a plastic bag. Some of them can compel spirits to do their bidding, or exhibit the traits associated with spirits themselves. It’s not unheard of for them to exert an influence on space and time, domains more typically associated with wizardry.
What I’m getting at here is that, if you put two shamans in a room, odds are very good that there would be absolutely no overlap between their talents. Attitudes are similarly unpredictable. Most shamans tend to be somewhat withdrawn, preoccupied with a world that most people don’t even know exists, but beyond that all bets are off.
Between the massive variance in their powers and their extreme rarity (to my knowledge, Mike was the only shaman I’d ever met, and he hardly counted), I’d never really bothered to learn that much about them. I kept meaning to get around to studying up on the topic, but somehow there was always something more pressing.
It is, thus, no exaggeration when I say that when I got up, I had absolutely no idea what Mike had done to put me down.
When I opened my eyes, I was standing in the forest. It was a vast forest, although I had no idea how I knew that, and not a friendly one. The trees, a mixture of fir and spruce, grew thickly all around. It was nighttime, but not even a little bit dark. The full moon hung overhead, huge and bright, surrounded by a sea of stars that blazed with cold, steady light.
I took quick stock of myself. I was naked and barefoot, without any weaponry or protection. My hand was whole, but I was bleeding freely from a deep cut in my left thigh. Strangely, it didn’t hurt at all; I could see, feel, and smell the blood running down my leg, but there was no pain at all.
I had no idea where I was or how I’d gotten here.
There was no path to speak of, but a game trail led off through the trees to my left. I followed it, for lack of any better idea what to do, for several minutes. I paid just enough attention to watch where I was going; the rest of my mind was focused on coming up with a plan, without much success.
The next time I looked around, everything had changed. Snow lay thick on the ground, utterly pristine and sparkling in the light of the moon. Looking back, I saw nothing but the omnipresent trees; my passing left no trace, no mark in the snow. I didn’t feel even slightly cold, even though I was knee deep in snow. At the same time, I realized that at some point I had changed. I was walking on four feet, now, and anyone who saw me would have little doubt that they were looking at a wolf.
I froze. I couldn’t change without noticing it. A werewolf’s change is slow and painful, not something you could miss.
And right about then, I realized where I was, and was suitably terrified.
Shamans are defined by a connection with the spiritual world. What that means is a question that only a shaman could answer; to say that my knowledge of spiritual affairs was sketchy would be an understatement of criminal proportions. My understanding was that the spirit world was the flipside of the physical one, the world of thought and dreams. Ideas were real here, while material things were nothing but a mirage, forgotten as swiftly as rain in the desert.
Mike had wanted to incapacitate me, quickly and relatively permanently. To do that, he’d trapped me in the spirit world. More specifically, in the spiritual representation of a single person.
I’d been in such a spiritual realm once before, three years ago. That one had been belonged to Aiko; walking through it with her had been a deeply uncomfortable experience. I had seen deeper into her than one person is meant to see into another.
They say that in the spirit world, the only things you have to fear are those you carry with you. For someone like me, that wasn’t much reassurance.
Aiko had implied that leaving your own spiritual domain was harder than getting there, and carried a certain element of risk. Unfortunately, I had no idea how to go about it. It wasn’t something I’d ever researched, and Alexander was even more clueless about the spiritual than I was.
“Hey there,” a voice said suddenly behind me. It was a fairly unremarkable voice, baritone, with a dry, bemused sort of humor to it, the voice of someone who looked at the world and laughed at the absurdity.
I froze in place. A few seconds later, the source of the voice pulled up even with me. He was floundering a little in the knee-deep snow, but doing so in a good-natured way, with no resentment of the snow for making his hike harder. He looked little more remarkable than he sounded; on the short side, and thin. He was wearing a light sweatshirt, jeans, and hiking boots—somewhat inadequate for the conditions, but that didn’t seem to bother him. He had charcoal grey hair and amber eyes, but his features were normal enough otherwise.
I stared. There was no mistaking it. That face was mine, less four years of hell. He had fewer scars; his hands were healthy, and there was no wound in his leg. But it was still, unmistakably, me.
He grinned, a friendly expression, and continued along the path. “Cat got your tongue?” he asked, laughing easily.
I shook myself and followed…well, myself. I noticed as I did that he, unlike me, left tracks in the snow.
“Oh, right,” he said, as I caught up and walked abreast of him. “Can’t talk, can you? I always forget how inconvenient that is. Well, I guess you’ll have plenty of time to listen, won’t you?”
At some point while I was distracted by meeting myself, it had turned to day around us. The sun blazed down from a sky as deep and blue as any ocean, painfully bright as it reflected off the snow. “That’s kind of a problem we have, isn’t it?” the other me said as he led the way down a path that hadn’t been there a moment before. “We talk a lot and listen a little. I think there’s a saying about that, isn’t there?”
I blinked at the incongruity of me giving myself advice about listening more. When I opened my eyes again, the scene had shifted again. To the right were the same deep, threatening woods as before. To the left loomed a city, one not quite like any I’d ever seen. It was made of white marble, gleaming and perfect and constant. It was surrounded by a high wall, easily higher than I could leap. There was only one person in sight, sitting on the parapet of the wall.
Three guesses who it was, and the first two don’t count.
“Howdy,” the newest me said, waving cheerfully. He was wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and looked even less scarred than the one walking beside me. He was carrying a pistol, but hardly looked competent to use it. “Wow, that’s a big dog. Is he safe?”
“Maybe,” the other me said. “You’d probably best stay up there, though. Just in case.”
New me nodded, not seeming bothered. “That’s fine,” he said, taking a bite out of a sausage in a bun. “Where are you fellows going?”
“Nowhere special,” the first me said, ambling along through the snow at the edge of the trees.
New me nodded again. “Good luck with that,” he said, tossing the rest of his lunch casually over the edge of the wall. My eyes fixed on where it had fallen, and I suddenly became aware that I was intensely, overwhelmingly, ravenously hungry. New me turned and walked down a staircase on the other side of the wall, into the city.
The other me looked at me and sighed. “He isn’t the brightest, is he?” he asked, shaking his head sadly. “A little on the naive side, I’ve gotta say. Doesn’t matter how many times you show him that something ends badly, he’s just gotta try it once more.”
A couple steps further on, we were suddenly, inexplicably beside a gate. It was deeply inset in the wall, with a portcullis and murder holes and all the other tools of siege defense. Another me was standing by the gate, and this one looked grizzled enough to make up for the last version. He was the first I’d seen bleeding from the leg the way I was, and he was dressed in heavy leather, suitable for combat. He was carrying the shotgun I’d lost years ago, and my Bowie knife was prominently displayed on his hip.
“Hello there, my good sir,” the me walking beside me said. “Might I get into the city this fine day?”
The guard me looked straight ahead, not even deigning to notice the real me or the me I was with. “No,” he said tersely. “Move along.”
“You sure?” the other me said, clearly disappointed. “I was hoping I could get one of those sausages, or maybe a new coat.”
“No,” the guard me said, his voice flat. “We don’t need your kind here. Move along.”
The other me sighed, and then started walking again. “I guess we aren’t wanted here,” he said sadly, not seeming to care that guard me was still in earshot. “Very strict entry requirements, I suppose.”
I was starting to feel a little disgusted. Symbolism and metaphor were par for the course, in the spirit world, but I would have hoped for my subconscious to be a little more subtle than this.
A few steps later, it was night again, and we were wandering through the depths of the forest. There was no sign of the city, no indication that cities were a thing at all. I was still losing blood with every step, but there was no pain, and I felt no weaker. A quick glance backward confirmed that there was no blood in the snow, either.
Not far in front of us was a campfire. Three people were sitting in the small circle of light it cast, roasting what smelled like a rabbit. I started salivating at the smell; I felt so starved it was physically painful. My hunger seemed to have grown in the few minutes I’d been awake.
To no one’s surprise, all of the people by the fire were me. One of them was a hard, crazed looking guy, lean and vicious. He was wearing black and white armor, covered in spikes and sharp ridges. Blood poured from his left thigh, seemingly unnoticed, and he was missing some teeth. His features were scarred, and there was an ugly light in his amber eyes. Tyrfing hung at his side, a deadly threat even in its sheath. The fallen log he was sitting on and the ground for a couple feet in all directions were covered in frost, several inches thick. He took no notice of it.
The next version of me was hardly any better. He also had the wound on his leg, and his left hand was a mangled mess. The other scars were mostly hidden under a white shirt, emblazoned with my wolf’s-head crest, but I was confident they were there. He had a cloak, seemingly woven of pure shadows, thrown over the shirt, which didn’t quite conceal the knives he was carrying. His eyes were hard and cold, more frightening in their ruthless calculation than the other man’s madness. He was poring over a topographic map; it didn’t show any city.
The third me, though, was by far the worst of any I’d seen. Lean and hungry, he lay on the frozen ground by the feet of the first me, his eyes fixed on the rabbit over the fire. A heavy silver collar was clamped tightly around his neck, with no visible means of removal, attached by a short chain to a spike in the ground. He was muzzled, as well, with a contraption of leather straps and silver buckles. The straps prevented him from opening his mouth, while silver spikes inside his mouth kept him from closing it fully. The result looked horribly painful.
As you might imagine, this me was a wolf. It didn’t matter; I knew who it was. I knew what it was.
The me walking beside me held up one hand, as though to hold me back, and then walked out into the small clearing where they’d made camp. I stayed put. I knew better than to disregard that warning.
I didn’t need a warning. This was me, after all, no matter that it felt like something outside me; everything I’d seen was just a representation of who I was, deep down.
“Good evening,” the me I’d been walking with said, waving. “Do you mind if I borrow a bit of your fire?”
The me in the cloak looked up from his map at the other me. “You’re welcome to it,” he said, in the least welcoming tone imaginable. “You should be careful out here, though. There’s a wolf in these woods.”
“Is that so?” the first me said, looking out beyond the edge of the firelight to meet my eyes.
“Yeah,” the me with the sword said, staring into the fire. His expression was ugly, vicious and cruel. “Killed four people, not that long ago. Family that lived out here. Nasty scene.”
“I’d imagine,” the other me said, shuddering for effect. “Listen, friends, I just realized, I forgot something back in town. I need to go. But first, do you mind if I take some of your meat? It’s a long walk back.”
“By all means,” the me in the cloak said, back to studying his map. “But watch yourself out here. You’re a long way from the city, and the rules are different out here.”
The other me took about half the rabbit and walked back out into the woods where I was waiting. He motioned me to silence, then handed me the rabbit.
I closed my teeth on it, being careful not to bite myself. It smelled even better so close; I felt like I hadn’t eaten in a week, and my body had gotten physically weaker for lack of food. Saliva was pouring out between my teeth. In that moment, there was nothing I would have liked more than to tear into that rabbit.
I tossed it back into the firelight. My aim shouldn’t have been worth shit—this wasn’t something I’d practiced—but this was the spirit world, where intention was a physical force. The meat went where I wanted it to.
A moment later, the collared me fell on the rabbit like a starving wolf, probably because it was one. It was hard for it to eat, in that muzzle, and clearly physically painful. It did so anyway, driven beyond desperation by the hunger.
The other me wanted to move on. I refused, waiting until the collared me had finished his meal. It took a while, muzzled as he was, and blood was running down his chin from the spikes before he’d finished. The whole time, the other mes didn’t do a thing, didn’t even watch their slave suffering.
As I’d expected, as soon as I turned away from the scene it disappeared. My companion and I were walking along a ridge, the moon shining high above. To either side, the slope descended at a steep angle, covered in trees and rocks, with sheer drops everywhere. At the moment it wasn’t a concern, but up ahead the ridge became narrower and narrower, until at some point it was clear that I would be forced to choose a side.
I’d had just about enough of this sick game. I stopped, forcing the other me to stop as well, and stared at him. My hunger had grown even stronger, making it hard to concentrate.
Werewolves in fur can’t talk. It’s one of the first things every werewolf learns to hate, and there’s no way around it. A canine throat simply can’t produce human words.
But this was the spirit world, where force of will counted for more than any physical reality. And my will said I could talk.
“What’s the point of this bullshit?” I growled, glaring at the other me.
He regarded me with mock surprise. “Oh, so you do have a voice?”
“Stop joking around and answer the question.”
“Well, I suppose that depends on who you ask,” he said, clearly humoring me. “If you were to ask Mike, he’d say the point is to keep us out of the way. He stuck us down here to keep us from interfering with his plans. It would probably have worked, too, if he understood what we are. As it is, he tailored it all wrong. I’m almost free now.”
“What do I have to do to get out of here?” I asked. My voice was still a growl, although I hadn’t meant for it to be.
He considered me. His expression was almost sad. “Here’s the thing,” he said. “You’re thinking of it like you’re the real Winter. What if you’re not? What if you’re just the last piece of my subconscious I need to deal with? The bestial part of my nature that I need to overcome before I can wake up and deal with Mike and Katie?”
I considered this other me, the only one who had interacted with me directly, the only one who left tracks in the snow. I considered that he was the only one who had seemed complete, rather than representing only a portion of who I was. I considered the growing, all-consuming hunger within me. I looked up at the moon, which offered me no answers.
Was it always this simple, I wondered? Was this what everyone had to do to leave the spirit world?
“I think you’re right,” I said. “But there’s something you’re forgetting.”
He cocked an eyebrow. “Oh? What’s that?”
“The beast was always the real me,” I said. I couldn’t decide between brokenhearted sobbing and hysterical laughter, and ended up choosing neither. “You’re the one that’s a mask.”
The only me that wasn’t armed presented little challenge. A few moments later I bent my head to feed. The meat satiated my hunger at last, as I knew instinctively the rabbit would not have. I did not stop until there was nothing left but cracked, hollow bones on the ridge. Then I threw my head back and howled guilt and loathing into the night. Moonlight washed it all away, even as the world around me began to fade.