I became aware, with no sense of transition, of an incessant, high-pitched giggling, the kind of laugh that held more madness than any scream. As though that were the switch on a floodgate, I became aware of a surge of other sensations. I could smell pain and terror, all of it my own, a reek that left me almost gagging. I was sitting on a hard floor, which felt more like wood than tile, and my back was against a wall. Other than the laughter, all I could hear was my own heartbeat, fast and strong and panicky. I couldn’t see anything, and for a while I was afraid that what I’d seen had burned my eyes out of my skull.
It took almost ten minutes before I thought to open my eyes.
When I did, I immediately shut them again against the midday sunlight streaming in the window. The room wasn’t that bright, but it was painful all the same. I eventually, after several tries, managed to keep my eyelids open.
I was sitting in the living room of my safe house in France. I hadn’t seen it often—visiting often kinda negates the point of keeping a hidden sanctum—but I knew it when I saw it. I was hugging my knees to my chest and rocking back and forth, and I couldn’t for the life of me stop giggling. My head and my hand both throbbed painfully in time with my heartbeat, and the light seemed to stab at my eyes.
It was almost twenty minutes before the laughter died down to the occasional chuckle, and then to nothing. I was still breathing hard, panting like I’d just run ten miles and then arm wrestled a troll.
Maybe five minutes after that, when I was just starting to get my breathing under control, I heard the door open. A rush of fear went through me, the raw, animal panic of a rat in a trap, and I would have thrown myself out the window if I hadn’t tripped. By the time I managed to push myself back to a sitting position, the irrational terror had faded a little, and I managed to sit still as the light, graceful footsteps proceeded through the house.
When they reached the living room, the footsteps paused. Roughly half a second later, I was bowled over and pinned to the floor. “Oh God,” Aiko said, hugging me so tight that I heard my ribs creak. “You’re back, you’re alive, thank God.”
I hugged her back just as tight, and for the first time since I’d woken up, my heart stopped racing, and my breathing calmed.
“I thought you were gone,” she whispered into my neck. “I thought they’d finally gotten you. Where have you been?”
I thought back on what I’d done, and seen, and tried to think of a way to make her understand.
Five minutes later, I had the giggles under control again. Aiko seemed to understand, and held me gently as I laughed, and shivered, and hugged myself. I felt hollow, and I didn’t think I’d ever be warm again.
“It’s okay,” she murmured, as I finally managed to choke off the laughter. “It’s okay. You’re safe now.”
That almost cracked me up again, although it was at least ordinary hysteria, rather than outright madness. Safe? After what I’d seen, I didn’t think safety was a feeling I was going to entertain for a long time, if ever.
“Are you all right?” she asked after a moment. “Can you talk?”
I thought about it for a moment. “I think so,” I said eventually. Well, said might be an overstatement. The words were badly slurred, as though I were talking through a mouthful of blood after half a gallon of vodka, but understandable.
Aiko seemed to relax. “Good,” she said. “That’s good. Do you want to talk about what happened?”
I flinched. “No!” I said, almost shouting. Aiko drew back a little, and I forced myself to calm down. “No,” I said again, more quietly. “I mean, yeah, I’ll tell you about it. But…not now. I’m not ready to talk about it yet.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “Do you want some food?”
At the question, I suddenly became aware of my hunger, a fierce, gnawing thing at the base of my spine. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been so hungry. “Yeah,” I said.
She chuckled, although it sounded almost more like a sob. “Of course you do,” she said. “Who am I kidding?” She drew back enough to look at me, and then froze.
“What is it?”
“Nothing,” she said, a little too quickly, and then looked me over from head to toe. “So,” she said with a smirk, her vulnerability carefully masked again. “What did you do with your clothes?”
Almost two hours later, I was finally starting to feel all right again. We’d been sitting in an expensive restaurant near the safe house for the past hour. No monsters had leapt out of the shadows to rip my face off, and I hadn’t broken down giggling once, although it was close a couple of times.
“Hell, Winter,” Aiko said, laughing. “Aren’t you getting full yet?” She’d finished her meal some time earlier.
I paused. “No,” I said slowly. “I’m not.” The hunger wasn’t nearly as bad as when I’d woken up, but I wasn’t even close to satiated. That wasn’t right. I’d already eaten three loaves of bread, a couple pounds of meat, a bowl of French onion soup, two large bowls of pasta, and probably a pound of cheese, and drunk two pitchers of iced tea. The restaurant staff were watching me with expressions ranging from almost-fear to near awe. Not surprising, really; you didn’t expect Andre the Giant to eat that much at a sitting, never mind a relatively thin guy who was smaller than average.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I go through a lot of food. Werewolves tend to have a higher metabolic rate than humans, and it’s not uncommon to eat almost twice as much. But not like this. My stomach shouldn’t even have been able to hold all that.
“That’s okay,” she said, as I tried and failed to ignore the spike of fear that went through me as I realized that. “Take your time.”
I kept eating, although there was no pleasure in it now. Finally, after another thousand Calories or so and half a gallon of tea, the hunger stopped gnawing at me. It felt like I could think clearly for the first time since I woke up.
“Why did you think I was dead, anyway?” I said, doing a reasonable job of keeping my voice light and carefree. “I was only missing for a couple hours. Have a little faith.”
Aiko paused in the middle of getting out money for the extremely high restaurant bill. “Winter,” she said slowly. “It’s…been a little longer than that.”
I got a sinking feeling in my stomach. “Really?”
She nodded. “Yeah. It’s been almost two weeks since you disappeared. I only came back here to get a few things from the safe house. The city’s been recovering faster than I would have guessed, but it’ll be a while before things are settled down.”
I felt lost, confused, and not a little scared. “Aiko?” I said slowly, and I’m sure some of what I was feeling showed through, because her face reflected it. “Recovering from what?”
“Right,” she said. “You don’t know.” She hesitated, a long, uncomfortable hesitation. “It’d be easier just to show you,” she said at last, sounding atypically unsure of herself. “Come on.”
I stood at the edge of the disaster zone and watched the emergency crews working. Two weeks later, they’d gotten the fires out, but the wreckage wasn’t even close to cleared.
The disaster was centered around the subterranean hall where men had laughed at gods and gods reminded them why that was a bad idea. The crater was a hundred yards deep and a little bit more across, a pit dug in the earth by main force, burned black and lined with glass. I hadn’t seen it yet, but I’d seen pictures.
The destruction spread around it in a vaguely circular pattern twenty square miles in area. The damage had been strangely erratic; in places there was only one building left standing on an entire block, surrounded by the burned wreckage of houses and businesses. In other places a single building had been plucked from its place and crushed, the pieces left to rain down on the neighboring areas.
Twenty square miles. A tenth of the city, wiped away in a single morning. More than five thousand people confirmed dead so far, and at least as many injured. More than thirty thousand unaccounted for. Most of them would never be found, I supposed.
Thirty thousand. Ye gods, how was I supposed to cope with that? How was I supposed to comprehend it? I’d had plenty of blood on my hands already, but this….
Thirty thousand lives, lost to my incompetence, my arrogance. It didn’t help that I hadn’t done it myself. These deaths were on my shoulders. I had found Katie and Mike, and charged in like an idiot, too proud and too scared to call Loki until I was at the brink of death. Before that, I had known about them, known that they were arrogant and stupid and far too powerful for comfort, and I’d done nothing. I hadn’t been willing to shut them down hard when they were just a bunch of kids trying to fix all the problems of the world, and thousands of people had paid the price.
How do you go about making up for that?
As I stood there, staring at the wreckage and trying to adjust to a world in which I was responsible for the deaths of thousands, I heard a news reporter nearby. I couldn’t hear her clearly—there was too much background noise—but I made out a few key phrases. Things like “most devastating acts of terror…ever seen,” or “officials…yet to release details…not clear how many bombs…death toll in the thousands.”
And then, because of course I did, things hadn’t gone far enough wrong already, I heard the following. “Winter Wolf, resident of…believed to be involved…possible sleeper agent…unknown terrorist group. Circumstantial evidence linking…several previous attacks…witnesses placed him at scene…wanted for questioning…armed and extremely dangerous…please contact authorities.”
Naturally. Loki probably wanted to make his opinion of my tardiness clear. Not that he’d needed to do much; I hadn’t exactly kept a low profile the past week.
I couldn’t complain too much, though. After all, they were pretty much right.
I struggled to maintain an objective point of view. Yes, I’d fucked up something royal—but it wasn’t like I meant to. I’d done everything in my power to keep this from happening. And it had worked, somewhat. Tens of thousands of people were dead, but that still meant I’d saved hundreds of thousands from dying when Loki destroyed the city to save the world. That had to count for something, right?
Right. Sure. I believed that.
“Come on,” I said to Aiko. “We should get off the street.” I was wearing a hoodie and sunglasses, covering up most of my more recognizable traits, but everyone in the city had just seen a wanted picture with my face on it. The chances of someone recognizing me were just too high.
She nodded silently and led me back to the car.
Aiko, Alexis, and Snowflake had been staying in a hotel for the last week or so. It was expensive, but we still had a nice cushion left over from the Watcher’s payment, and they hadn’t wanted to visit any location that was associated with me. After hearing what they were saying about me on the news, I didn’t blame them a bit.
I moved as quickly as I could up the stairs to the room; I didn’t want anyone to have a chance to identify me. That wasn’t as quickly as I might have liked—my coordination was shot all to hell—but I didn’t encounter anyone on the way up.
I pushed the door open from the inside the same way I had at the last hotel and walked inside. The way my life had been going recently, I wasn’t even surprised to see Loki waiting for me.
He was sitting on a comfortable armchair that I was damned sure wasn’t hotel standard, sipping scotch with evident satisfaction. He was back to his normal look, human-sized with short reddish-blond hair. He was still wearing that golden ring, though, and he had a sprig of mistletoe pinned over his heart. He smiled at me as I came in. The expression was twisted by the scars around his mouth, a score of thin white lines.
Alexis was standing against the wall, as far as she could get from Loki without actually leaving the room. Snowflake was next to her, cowering under a chair, everything about her conveying the impression of stark raving terror.
“Sir Winter,” he said, nodding to me regally. “Excellent work, if a bit lacking in punctuality. Come in.”
I did so, feeling like a marionette. He gestured me to sit and I did so, knowing full well that a chair would appear before I completed the motion.
Behind me, Aiko opened the door. She took in the scene in a moment, and said, “Fuck shit.”
“Miss Miyake,” Loki said genially. “Please, come inside. Have a seat.”
Aiko was terrified. I knew her well enough to see it in the tension of her posture, to hear it in the tightness of her voice. But she also knew better than to refuse the invitation of a god. So, rather than run away screaming, she moved cautiously into the room. “You’re too kind,” she said, carefully not saying anything that could be construed as thanks.
A minute or so later, Aiko and I were sitting side by side in matching armchairs. I was holding a steel goblet full to the brim with dwarven mead, which I knew damn well I wasn’t going to touch. Aiko had a matching cup, although hers was filled with what smelled like faerie wine.
Alexis and Snowflake hadn’t moved or spoken since we came in.
“What did you do to them?” I demanded, giving Loki a hard look. It wasn’t smart, but I wasn’t in the mood to be smart.
“I placed them in stasis,” he said mildly. The god didn’t seem at all perturbed by my attitude. “This conversation has only tangential relation to them. I thought it simplest to remove them from it for the time being. They will return to normal when I leave.”
I nodded. I believed him. Loki knew how I would react if he hurt them, and he wasn’t the type to throw a tool away without a good reason. “Did you get them?” I asked bluntly.
He smiled, and the wildfire in his eyes sped up a little. “Oh, yes,” he said softly, and I shivered to hear the madness in his voice. “They put up something of a fight, but I assure you, Katie and Mike are no more. The creature they called forth is less simple to destroy, but I removed it from this world. It will be some time before it finds another way in.”
“My apologies for the mess,” he continued. “Such confrontations are seldom neat.”
I blinked, and had to work not to stare. I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever heard Loki apologize. It had certainly never sounded like he meant it before.
He placed his glass of scotch on a table that didn’t exist before he reached for it, and smiled at me. Aiko shuddered at the expression, and it was only familiarity that kept me from doing the same. “So,” he said, in a voice smooth as silk, “that leaves only the matter of your reward.”
“Nine true answers,” I said immediately. “To the questions of my choice, to be taken at my leisure. That was the bargain.”
“Indeed, and you more than completed your part,” he agreed. “I think it only fit that I reward you with more than I promised.” He smiled and stood. “Come with me, if you please,” he said. Apparently he didn’t care whether we pleased or not, because he didn’t wait for an answer before transporting us elsewhere.
It was daytime, where we were now. I was starting to feel like my jet lag was approaching temporal whiplash; I’d gone from fighting in the morning, to waking up in the afternoon two weeks later, then moved to night in Colorado, and now it was back to daytime.
We were standing at the edge of the woods, a thick, dark forest of conifers. In front of us was a massive hill or a baby mountain, five hundred feet at the very least, the upper half of which was sheer and rocky. A set of steps led up the slope, cut into the stone, to the door of a castle.
That wasn’t an exaggeration. It was a literal castle, medieval-style, huge and grim. The walls were made of massive grey stones, rough-cut and mortared together. The tower in the center was a full hundred feet above the mountaintop. I was pretty sure that medieval engineering wasn’t supposed to be able to do that, but Loki didn’t care.
“Welcome to Transylvania,” Loki said, and I could just hear his grin. “I hope you enjoy your new home.”
Transylvania. Well, that figured. It was going to be a hell of a commute—although, given that I was now a wanted terrorist, that might be a good thing. I was willing to bet this castle was even more defensible than its medieval inspirations, too.
I looked at Aiko. Aiko looked at me. A moment later we both broke down laughing. And if there was an edge of hysteria to it, well, I wasn’t going to complain.
Walking through the castle was an interesting experience. An effort had obviously been made to replicate the mansion which the monster had destroyed. The decoration scheme was the same, with a heavy focus on dark woods and expensive fabrics, colors mostly green and blue, and lots of steel and bronze. The stone was primarily granite, rather than marble, but other than that it could almost have been the same building.
I would have been happier if I liked the mansion’s decoration in the first place. As it was, I still felt uncomfortable, surrounded by the wealth of a small nation. People like me aren’t supposed to have freaking throne rooms. The castle lacked the sheer, overwhelming size of the mansion—I didn’t think there was a building on earth that could match that place—but it was still huge. We could have garrisoned a sizable force there. The dining hall could seat maybe a hundred and fifty without crowding, and the adjacent kitchen could have fed them without straining.
I hadn’t misestimated its defensibility, either. The exterior walls were solid stone, ten feet thick, with battlements and machicolations and everything else a defender might want. Between that and the extremely harsh terrain, anyone trying to take the place by force was in for a treat. A prolonged siege wasn’t a great idea, either. There were a couple of wells inside the castle walls, and the storeroom stretched off into the distance, lined with sacks and barrels.
Not that that meant a lot anymore. Stone walls wouldn’t do jack to stop a plane. But still, it was oddly comforting to know that our new house could hold off a Mongol horde.
As I might have guessed—and, in fact, had guessed—our personal rooms were in the central tower. The bottom floor of the tower was empty, bare stone, blank and cold. The door to the staircase was heavy steel, six inches thick, with steel bolts on the inside an inch in diameter. It would take a team of werewolves with a battering ram several minutes to rip that door out.
Oh yeah, and there were three of them blocking the stairs. Even if an attacker managed to penetrate this far, odds were very good they would be unable to get through those doors before we’d managed to escape. Between that and the fact that there were exits readily available, I thought this place might be even more secure than the mansion, once it had been fortified appropriately.
The next floor up was an armory, clearly styled after the one I’d lost. There were weapon racks against the walls, and tables and display cases scattered around the room, all made of smooth, dark wood with bronze fittings. The lights (there were electric lights throughout the castle, although I had no idea where the power was coming from) were gentle and slightly ruddy, almost like firelight, softening the lines of the room.
There was a lot of stuff in the armory. That was to be expected, I supposed. We’d managed to salvage quite a lot from the mansion’s armory before it was destroyed, and it went without saying that Loki could arrange for all of it to be moved here without our knowledge. He appeared to have added a few things, as well; I was going to have to investigate them carefully. Shotguns and rifles hung in racks along one wall, with ammunition and smaller guns on the tables underneath. Knives, magical foci, and stored spells rested on tables or nestled into thick, emerald velvet in the display cases. Finely crafted, carved wooden crates under the tables held raw materials and more exotic weapons in bulk, each neatly labeled.
All of that was ordinary enough. What surprised me was the armor.
It had a stand all to itself, near the door to the stairs. It resembled my old armor, in the same way that an enraged wolf resembled a Chihuahua having a tantrum. The general lines were the same—white and black coloration, lots of spikes and sharpened ridges, and a helmet with the mask in the shape of a snarling wolf’s head. But this armor had taken those elements and refined them, put a fine edge on them.
White and black formed a severe geometric pattern across the surface, reminiscent of the patterns frost makes on metal, accented and trimmed with blues, greens, violets, all the colors of a glacier. A closer inspection showed tiny runes inset in the bands of color in black, each of them no larger than a fly, perfectly formed and stark against the background. The wolf in the mask had been crafted by a true artist, every hair sculpted individually and perfectly placed, every tooth sharpened. The eyeholes were hidden behind something that only looked like glass. Even the boots were armored with delicate-looking plates of steel, articulated with mail at the ankles.
As far as appearance went, though, by far the most obvious change was the crest emblazoned on the breast. It was my coat of arms, replicated with perfect attention to detail, right down to the motto underneath the shield. Just below that was a sprig of mistletoe, rendered with such artistry that I had to look again to be sure that it wasn’t real.
I paused before the armor on the way by, reached out to brush it with my fingers. The surface was smooth and cold, and burned with the power in it. I could smell it as well, the magic rich with the scents of ice and earth and steel, and just a touch of mad, divine flame.
I guess it pays to work for a god, sometimes.
“Wow,” Aiko said, looking at the armor. “Maybe I should get an upgrade. I’m starting to feel a little jealous.”
I snorted. “Look over there,” I suggested dryly, looking pointedly at the matching stand on the other side of the door. Aiko’s new armor was lighter than mine, and lacking the pointy bits, but otherwise quite similar. The colors were a little cheerier, with lots of red and gold, accented with black. Like mine, it had characters inscribed in the black bands of trim, although hers were Japanese kanji rather than Norse runes. The only major change was that the generic demonic visage of her mask had been replaced with a snarling fox, much the same as the wolf on mine.
Oh yeah, and hers had a coat of arms, too. Hers was a red-and-gold shield, with a vaguely scale-like pattern, and a black falcon diving. The shield was mantled in black and crimson, and supported with a pair of gold foxes. The motto underneath was the ever-popular Nemo me impune lacessit, which was way less depressing than mine. Between that and how colorful it was, I wondered whether I should file a complaint.
I’d never seen that coat of arms before. But, then, that was the exact same way I’d discovered mine. Loki wasn’t big on asking permission.
Next to the armor, on a table set aside for the purpose, was a traditional Japanese sword stand with a katana, wakizashi, and tanto on it. The blades were clearly a matched set, with the same color scheme as the armor, and they were a work of art. That did not detract from their functionality. Just looking at those things, you knew they could cut a cinderblock to pieces without suffering any ill effects.
“Wow,” Aiko said, staring. “You should work for Loki more often. It pays well.”
It took probably five minutes before we managed to tear ourselves away from ogling our new toys and continue up the tower. When we did, I got an even bigger, and more disturbing, shock.
The next floor up was a library. It wasn’t nearly as large as that in the mansion, but it had much the same furnishings, and felt similarly cozy.
That was fine. A library was an entirely predictable choice for our personal quarters, particularly considering how valuable some of the books I’d accumulated had been. There were a lot of them that I wouldn’t have wanted just anyone reading.
I would have been a lot more comfortable if I hadn’t still had them.
Walking through the library on the way to the next staircase, I had plenty of time to glance at the books on the shelves. Almost all of them had been in the old library. In some cases, that wasn’t concerning—an unabridged dictionary, for example, was a pretty predictable thing for me to have, and not one that would be too hard to acquire. But there were other book which were less typical. Some of my texts on magical theory and practice were very old indeed, and I was pretty sure some of them had never been published using a printing press, never mind a computer. It had taken me years of work and more than a few sacrifices to build that collection, and its loss had been one of the more distressing aspects of the mansion’s destruction.
Almost all of the books were here.
There were only two explanations for that, and neither of them was very comforting. The first was that Loki knew my library well enough to replicate the contents, right down to the stains and water damage on some of the covers. I didn’t think that was very likely. Not that he wasn’t capable of it—I was sure he was—but because I had a hard time seeing him putting that much thought into it. The only other explanation that I could think of was that he’d been in the mansion when it was attacked, watching everything that happened, and he’d removed the books before they were destroyed. He had not, however, felt any need to warn us, let alone actually provide assistance.
That was disturbingly plausible, and put a new, uncomfortable spin on the events of the past several weeks.
We did not loiter in the library.
The next floor up was an intimate sitting room. There were relatively few furnishings—a couple of chairs, a sofa, a small table—but they were of the very highest quality. A glass-fronted liquor cabinet by the wall appeared to be well stocked already, and somehow you just knew it wasn’t the sort of stuff you bought in a store. There was a large fireplace, currently dark, a handful of bookshelves, some tasteful and subdued art on the walls. It was, all things considered, a pleasant, almost totally unremarkable room, making it a pleasant break from the previous levels.
Finally, up at the very top of the tower, we found the bedroom. With the exception of the attached bathroom, it occupied the entire top floor, which was pretty much the perfect size. It was large enough to be luxurious, but not as absurdly, pointlessly oversized as the master suite in the mansion had been. The bed, although of much the same design, was merely twice as large as a king-size, rather than being as large as a modest house.
I’d never seen the room before. But when I walked in, it felt like coming home. I looked around, and a tension I hadn’t realized was present ran out of me, and for the first time in three weeks I thought that things might be all right after all.
In the bathroom, which was large and luxurious but otherwise not noteworthy, I spent a moment looking at the changes which had so unnerved Aiko when she first saw my face. I’d had a glimpse of them earlier, but this was the first really sizable mirror I’d had a chance to look in.
Oh, it wasn’t just my face. My injuries all appeared to have been healed, but the evidence was very much there. My left arm was a mass of scars from the elbow down; my skin was mostly numb there, as though under the effects of a permanent topical anesthetic. My hand was still a maimed, ruined mockery of what it should be; my fingers were still missing, and my grip would never be as strong as it once was.
But my eyes were what I noticed. They’d always looked odd, a shade of amber on the edge of the human range. Now they were beyond that range. The color hadn’t changed, but they looked frozen, the irises patterned like cracking ice, or crystals of frost. It looked a little different every time I saw it, and I got the distinct impression that time lapse photography would show it changing with glacial slowness.
I shook myself, and walked away from the mirror. It was, I told myself, to be expected. You didn’t walk away from the experience I’d had unchanged. If the only change was that I showed my inhumanity a little more openly, I’d call that a win any day.
Back in the bedroom, there was a sheet of paper on the pillow which hadn’t been there previously. I walked over, curious, and looked at it.
It was some of the nicer paper I’d seen, thick and creamy with just enough texture that you knew it came from a tree. It seemed like a bit of overkill, considering that there was only one line of text, surrounded by a vast expanse of blank paper. It read, in flawless, beautiful handwriting:
Congratulations on your apotheosis! —Loki
I read it. Then I read it again. Then, as the meaning started to sink in, I started to laugh.