Monthly Archives: March 2015

Event Horizon 8.15

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The world changed. Pain, fatigue, doubt—all these things retreated, driven from my mind. Those were things for prey, and my world did not include them. In their place I found hunger, power, certainty, cold and feral. I didn’t care that what I was doing was insanely dangerous. Safety was also a thing for prey, and it had no place in my world.


I looked at the monsters chanting in the circle, the only true monsters in the room, and felt a cold and savage fury. A snarl bubbled out of my throat, too soft to hear over the chanting, and I felt my lips draw back from my teeth. How dare they challenge me, how dare they deny my commands, how dare they call themselves my equals? They had killed on my territory, they had challenged my authority, they had questioned my power, and they would be rewarded in the only way such as they deserved.


I padded forward into the room, with thoughts of blood in my mind and an ice-cold whirlwind in my heart. Tyrfing found its way to my hand, without a thought crossing my mind. I flicked open the clasp and drew the blade from its scabbard, slow and sensuous, and a new note entered the raging storm inside me, cold and sharp and utterly without mercy. I lowered the scabbard to the floor, gently so as not to make a sound. My hand protested this exercise, a pain dismissed as swiftly as last year’s snow.


I spun the blade in my hand, every motion smooth and perfect, and had to bite back a laugh at how right it felt. The hilt of the sword fit perfectly in my hand, the best friend I’d ever had, always there, always eager, so much a part of me that I could hardly have said where the sword ended and I began.


My prey were foolish, certain of their safety and occupied with their task. They had set no guards, and were far too focused to see me creeping up behind them. I crossed the space between us swiftly and in perfect silence, every step confident, assured, perfect. The air turned cold in my wake, frost covered me unnoticed in a coat almost as good as fur, and my sword glittered beneath a layer of ice, sharp as any razor.


I reached the edge of their circle within a few seconds, and looked at it with a cold, dismissive smile. Such foolish prey, to think that this was enough to stop me, to shield them from their well-earned fate. Tyrfing cracked their spell like an egg and I stepped over the circle, flinching away from the silver but not breaking stride. They started, the chant slipping out of time, as I stepped over the water and strode through the fire. It licked at my flesh but was turned away by the ice in me, dismissed utterly. They turned to me, shock writ large across their bodies, as I reached them. Tyrfing drew back, smooth as snow, as I drew near.


Another me might have hesitated. Another me might have felt horror or shame at killing a man who was only trying to do the right thing. Another me might have wondered whether this was evil.


The wolf didn’t care. Good and evil were just words, lacking immediacy, understood hazily at two removes. The wolf understood power, understood territory and what it meant to keep it, and that was all that mattered, that was enough, I knew what to do.


Tyrfing fell, blood sprayed through the air, the smell of it a drug, and Mike’s body hit the ground, his head hit the ground as well but several strides away, a spray of blood raining on the ground. I kicked his body casually into the fire as I passed, turning to Katie now, and the flames wreathed it almost instantly, sickly green fire that stank of magic. No more shaman, no more tricks and dreams, now it was just me and Katie and an honest fight.


I almost won it at once, reaching her while she was still stunned and confused, mind occupied by the ritual I’d disrupted. Tyrfing licked out, quick as a viper’s lunge, ready to pierce the shadows holding her together and tear the mask away.


I didn’t reach her. Before the sword had half crossed the distance between us she raised one hand, her mouth shaped a word I didn’t hear, and darkness swarmed across the distance between us like a speeding train.


I threw my power against it. This was a magic I knew, and I’d always been stronger than Katie. I should be able to tear her spell apart with little more than a thought.


I didn’t even slow it down. It was too close and too fast to dodge, and I couldn’t move fast enough to get away. I reversed direction instead, moving into it, cutting at the cloud of darkness she was throwing at me.


It almost worked. Tyrfing cut its substance like tissue paper, and I began to slip through the hole.


Then the rest of the shadow moved, twisting on itself, and wrapped around to strike at me from the other side. It took me from my feet and threw me across the room.


I hit the wall thirty feet away with devastating force. I heard a distant crack, like the breaking of tree branches, and pain rushed through me. A moment later I fell, hitting the ground twenty feet below. That hurt as well.


Some part of me, distant and uninvolved, began cataloguing my injuries. Shattered ribs, at least a few of them. My hand was bleeding freely now, and my arm as well. My left shoulder had been broken or dislocated. I landed badly in the fall, and sprained an ankle.


The rest of me was moving again, throwing myself sideways with all four limbs. A moment later another blast of darkness hit the wall where I’d just been, shattering stone like glass. I kept moving, rolling sideways, just in time to dodge a shadow that fell over the ground like a blanket and then began to contract.


I came back to my feet, limping slightly, watching Katie warily. The wolf was still capable of moving, for it knew that to stop was to die, but I had taken too much damage for even the wolf to ignore. I eyed Katie with wary respect, Tyrfing at the ready in my hand.


She didn’t hesitate. Her expression was slack and blank as she raised her hand. A globe of darkness gathered around it, almost as impenetrable as the body of the thing she’d summoned from the outside. A moment later she threw it at me, too fast to see clearly.


I knew the moment I saw it that I couldn’t dodge this attack, and trying to stop it with magic directly wasn’t worth consideration. Instead, panicky and desperate, I threw up a wall. It was made of solid ice, one foot thick and five feet tall.


Thick ice is a very serious obstacle. That wall could have stopped a charging linebacker cold, no pun intended. Small arms fire wouldn’t have been a problem for it.


Katie’s spell turned the top half of the wall into so much shrapnel.


My tactic was successful, in the sense that it prevented that ball of shadow from hitting me, and I was pretty sure that if it had my torso would have been turned into so much pulp. But it did have the side effect of sending a hundred shards of ice flying at me, each one a tiny, beautiful, deadly razor.


That hurt a lot.


A moment later, I became aware that I had fallen. Lying on my side, I stared at one particularly lovely shard, a piece of ice six inches long embedded half its length in my right biceps. The light glimmered through it, making it sparkle like a tiny star. I was fascinated, staring at it. I knew that I should get up, but I wasn’t sure why and I couldn’t make myself move.


It was just too much. I’d never tried to conjure a tenth that much ice before, and the effort left me exhausted. I’d given the wolf inside my skin control, because it was far more capable of dismissing pain and fatigue, and its ruthless, feral certainty was a deadly weapon in and of itself. But it wasn’t invincible—it was a part of me, and this much abuse was too much for it cope with. I couldn’t even stand, let alone keep fighting.


A moment later, ropes of shadow wrapped themselves around my limbs and hauled me to my feet, horribly strong. They didn’t stop there, pulling me five feet off the ground and holding me against the wall. Another length of shadow reached out and wrapped around my head, pulling it upright so that I could see what was going on.


Katie was still standing exactly where she had been. Her expression hadn’t changed, and that blank, emotionless face was more terrifying than any werewolf’s snarl. She didn’t show any strain from holding me in the air, even though that was far more force than I’d ever been able to exert through a shadow. She didn’t even look like she was trying.


Behind her, I watched a figure step out of the fire. It was covered in green flames, which licked its flesh but did not burn. It picked its way carefully over to stand beside Katie, not seeming inconvenienced by its lack of a head. It must have been bothered to some extent, though, because a moment later a new one formed on it shoulders, made entirely of emerald fire. Its features were crude, as though sculpted of clay by a five year old, but they were still clearly, unmistakably those of Mike Adams.


I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. Katie got shot twice with a sniper rifle, and she didn’t even fall down. I cut Mike’s head off with Tyrfing and shoved his body into a magic fire pit, and he shrugged it off after a minute or so.


What the fuck did it take to kill these things?


Mike looked at me. I met his flaming eyes with my frozen ones, and was afraid.


“Kill him,” he said, and his voice was the voice of fire, with nothing human in it.


Katie looked at me for a long, tense moment, her features utterly without expression. “I’m sorry,” she said at last. She didn’t sound sorry. She didn’t sound anything. “I can’t protect you anymore, Winter.” She lifted her hand, and another cannonball of darkness gathered around it.


I laughed, a long and broken sound, sharp and cold and biting as an icicle, with the howl of wolves barely hidden beneath the surface. Katie had left any semblance of humanity far behind, but she still hesitated at the sound.


“Loki,” I said through a mouthful of blood. “Loki the crafty in lies, I call thee. Loki Sky-Traveler, I summon thee. Loki Laufeyjarson, I name thee! Come to me!”


When I began to speak my summoning, Katie threw her fastball of shadows at my face, with enough force to spray my brains across the walls. I flinched, but forced myself to keep talking, knowing that I could never complete what I was saying before it reached me.


I didn’t need to. Loki, unsurprisingly, was paying close attention to me, and he heard it when I said his name; the ritual repetition was totally unnecessary. The spell shattered, a foot in front of my face, shadows flying in all directions. They gouged at the wall on all sides, spraying me with chips of stone, but none of the shadows touched me, and I finished my invocation.


When my vision cleared, I saw Loki standing in front of me. And, badass though I was, if I could have moved, I would have fallen to my knees before him, and wept, and prayed with all sincerity that he not notice me.


I, who had stood unflinching before monsters and driven them back, who had held the forces of the universe in my hands, who had struck bargains with gods and demons, who had seen wonders and terrors most men never even imagine….


Next to the naked power of a god, I was nothing. Nothing.


The god stood nine feet tall, lean and long-limbed. He was dressed in dusty black, with a single golden ring, and a cloak of feathers thrown over his shoulders. The feathers were brilliantly colored, the vivid shades I’d seen dancing in the chaos between worlds, colors like nothing on this earth. He blazed, head to toe, with divine fire, gold and white and crimson, like a star made flesh. Aside from the eerie green flames of their circles, it was the only light in the room, and more than adequate. His reddish blond hair hung about his head like a halo, drifting in the updrafts from his fires.


I met his eyes, two candles amidst the wildfire, and was lost.


A heartbeat and a lifetime later, he chose to blink, releasing me. The god made no gesture, showed no sign of effort, but the ropes of shadow holding me against the wall burst into sudden golden flame. The fire licked at my skin, a sensation akin to being bathed in feathers, but did not burn me, and when I fell from the wall the flames cushioned my landing.


“You have cut your time short, Sir Winter,” the god of fire said, in a voice as cold and remote as any glacier. “But you have performed your function. This bargain is complete.”


I looked at the floor, and shivered, and was wise enough to be silent.


Loki turned away from me, and the absence of his regard was simultaneously the greatest relief and the most crushing loss I’d ever experienced. “I am not a god of mercy,” he said, in a voice that filled the room and a little bit more. “But you belong to me, and I am not without loyalty. Thus, I give to you one final chance. Cease your actions now, or be extinguished.”


I chanced a look up. Loki was facing away, which was far more of a mercy than I can possibly express. Katie and Mike, in their broken, inhuman bodies, faced him. The monster, vast and dark as the spaces between stars, was framed between them, a churning mass of nothingness.


“We have been given power,” Katie said, her empty voice flat and assured, without a trace of hesitation or fear, “for a reason. Such power that no one can push us around or force us to tolerate their evils. Not even you.”


I couldn’t see Loki’s face, for which I thanked any gods that were listening. But I could hear his mad, sharp grin in his voice when he spoke. “Maybe so,” he said easily. “Guess it’s a good thing I’m not alone, isn’t it?”


For a single, terror-filled second I thought he was talking about me. Then columns of golden fire, too bright to look at, swept down from the ceiling at his sides.


When the fires faded, there was more than one god in the room.


To Loki’s left, Coyote stood in an attitude of casual, cocky disregard. He didn’t appear to share Loki’s need to show off. He was wearing the same body as when I’d seen him previously, and the same clothes. The only addition was a simple belt with a pair of heavy revolvers hanging from it.


I didn’t do more than glance at him, though. I couldn’t. My attention, and likely everyone else’s, was entirely focused on the third god in the room.


A wolf seldom weighs much more than a hundred pounds. They aren’t even as big as a big dog. A werewolf is quite a bit larger, sometimes as much as three hundred pounds. A large werewolf stands three or four feet at the withers. That’s pretty impressive for even a large dog breed, and intimidating.


This was a bit like that, except more so.


The wolf was probably ten feet tall, and twice as long. It could bite me in half without even trying. For all its size, though, it looked practically scrawny. It was unhealthily thin, almost as thin as Katie. Ribs the size of polearms stood out starkly against its flesh. A narrow silver collar hugged its neck, barely visible against the silvery-grey of its fur.


I had seen and spoken with the Fenris Wolf a half dozen times. He had helped me several times, and I generally considered him a friend. But I had never before seen his true shape. I had never seen him with his power gathered around him. Now that I did, I understood why he was feared.


He turned his head to face me, and I wanted to flinch away or start gibbering in terror. I didn’t. I knew how he would take it.


I looked into a golden eye, easily larger than my fist. It was like meeting Loki’s eye, and vastly different. When I looked into his father’s eyes, it was like looking through a window into madness and fire. Fenris’s eyes were more like a mirror filled with power. I had a wolf inside my skin. I knew all too well the hunger that lurked behind the Fenris Wolf’s eyes.


His mouth didn’t move, but I clearly heard his voice all the same. “Winter,” he said, sounding sad and resigned and hungry. “You should go.”


I tried to stand, and failed. The monster from the outside surged forward, its bonds lifted, the power to unmake the universe chained only by the will of two of the more flawed people I’d ever met. Loki raised his hands to the sky, laughing a mad and terrible laugh, and his fires blazed brighter, brighter, driving back the darkness. The creature reached for him with those awful tentacles, but it couldn’t get close, golden flames licked at it and these flames it could not take lightly, nothing in the universe could. Fenris surged forward, ten tons of muscle driven by the will of a god and a hunger that could swallow the world.


Coyote lifted his hands as well, and laughed a coyote’s laugh, and power gathered around him, vast and terrible. Where Loki was chaos and destruction and mad, tumbling, divine fire, Coyote was night and darkness and inevitability. His power didn’t cast light, but drained it from the world instead; not even Loki’s golden light could reach his skin.


And yet, when he turned and looked at me, I could see him only too clearly. His eyes were the blackness of the abyss, deep pits lit with sparks of gold that melted and flowed like quicksilver. He winked at me, then turned back to his task.


The first caveman to look out over the ocean did not equal my awe at the vastness of what I saw. The first astronomer to grasp just how far away the stars burned in the night could not match my appreciation of just how small I was, for I had seen the gods, and understood them.


This wasn’t magic. Magic was entirely too small a word for a power that could sculpt entire universes from nothing but chaos and will.


What was all the power in the world, next to beings that were worlds in themselves?


It was too much, all too much, too much pain and too much fear and too much power. I could smell the power in that room, could feel it roll across my skin, and it was too much, far too much, nothing mortal was ever meant to be in the presence of this power. I was screaming, had been screaming, would never stop screaming, because in that moment I had seen the truth, I had seen how very insignificant I was beside a power that could unmake the world and make it anew in a heartbeat, and in the wake of that knowledge I would never be the same.


And then a touch of that power, just the tiniest fraction, reached out and embraced me, enfolding me in the scent of wolf and woods. It sent me down into the dark, and I went gladly.

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Event Horizon 8.14

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I woke up screaming.


That is, for the record, not normal. That scene in the movies, where someone sits bolt upright and screams coming out of a nightmare? Yeah, that doesn’t happen.


It took me a minute to get my head together enough to get my bearings. I was deep underground—I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but I was absolutely sure of it—lying on a cheap cot. The room I was in was reasonably spacious, albeit not as high-ceilinged as some would like, and smelled of long-term habitation.


“You’re up,” Brick said from somewhere nearby. He sounded vaguely surprised.


I looked around frantically, still panicky and disoriented, until I located the sorcerer sitting on the floor about ten feet away. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans two sizes too small, and smelled almost as filthy as Katie. I was a little scared by that, until I realized that he looked to be in much better health than they were. Brick was a far better mage than either Katie or Mike had ever been, but I was pretty sure he would have shown some effect if he were involved in summoning that monster.


“Where is this?” I said haltingly. My heart was still pounding, and I thought it would be a while before I forgot what I’d seen in the spirit world.


“I’m not totally sure,” Brick said, leaning against the stone wall and stretching his legs out casually. “Those nutjobs stuck me in here about two weeks ago. I haven’t gotten out since.”


“How’d they get you in the first place?” I asked. I’d been wondering about that for a while now. I was pretty sure Brick stood no better of a chance against their new and improved talents than I did, but unless I was mistaken they’d hit him before they summoned their monster.


“Katie kept me busy, and then Mike blindsided me. He locked me in some sort of dream sequence, and then woke me up here.” He grimaced. “Teach me to overlook a shaman.”


So Brick hadn’t been able to get out of the spirit world? That was interesting. I wondered whether I was just more experienced or better able to recognize what I was looking at, or my subconscious had been right and Mike hadn’t understood what I was. Something to think about later.


“Why haven’t you left?” I asked, standing up. My hand hurt like hell, and I was a little hungry, but otherwise I felt fine. I was guessing that meant I still had a little time before the shit hit the fan. I just wished I’d known how long; Katie and Mike had taken all my stuff before they dumped me here, and I couldn’t really estimate time underground.


Brick looked about as happy as I felt. “Mike again. He did something to stop magic from working in here. We can’t get out.”


“We’ll see about that,” I said grimly. I was truly pissed now. There were a lot of things I could forgive; Mike had done the one I couldn’t. “Where’s the door?”


The door turned out to be a massive, ugly thing deeply inset into the stone of the walls. It took me about thirty seconds to determine that Brick was right about our chances of getting through it. It appeared to be solid steel, and could have laughed off a battering ram. It was hung to open inward, and there was no handle on our side.


I’m pretty good with locks, but that only really works when there’s a lock to work with. This door didn’t even have a latch. And, inhumanly strong or not, I didn’t think I could kick this thing down. What Brick had said about doing magic in here was true, too; I tried several times, but no matter how I strained, I couldn’t stir even the tiniest breeze, or bend a shadow even slightly. There was just nothing there.


I sat down in front of the door to think about it. Brick went back to sitting against the wall, his attitude making it clear that he was waiting for me to give up. No surprise; he didn’t realize what a short deadline we were on. Heck, if his senses were locked down that tight, he might not even know what they’d been getting up to.


A couple minutes later, I grinned. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated. I was really hoping Mike hadn’t realized that I was more than just a werewolf with some magic tricks. Considering the Inquisition’s track record for competency, I thought it was a reasonable hope.


Whatever he’d done, it wasn’t powerful enough to keep Tyrfing away. When I put my hand down, it came to rest on the sword’s hilt naturally, as though I’d known it was there. I stood up, drawing the sword, and stepped forward.


The door was thick, heavy steel. It took me almost five minutes of swinging to embed Tyrfing deeply enough to stick. Once I had, I managed to twist the blade and use it as a lever, pulling the door open far enough to catch it.


“How did you do that?” Brick asked. His voice was quiet, almost awestruck.


I laughed, and Brick flinched away. Maybe he could hear the wolves and the wind, howling beneath the surface of the sound. Or maybe it was just a scary laugh. “Mike doesn’t understand the first thing about me,” I said, in a cold, remote voice. “Or he would have known better than to think I’d be caged.” I pulled the door open, and held it long enough for Brick to follow me out. It slammed shut behind us with a hollow boom. Katie might hear it and realize that we were getting out. That was fine. I hoped she did.


“What’s going on?” Brick asked, sticking close to my heels.


I smiled a wide, cold smile as we moved forward into a dark, low-ceilinged tunnel. White globes on the walls cast enough light to see, but not enough to make out any details. “What it comes down to,” I said to Brick, “is a con game. The thing about a con game is that every layer you add makes all the previous layers obsolete.”


“I don’t get it,” he said, sounding almost plaintive. He was lost and confused, and totally out of his depth. So was I, but I was a lot more used to it. Brick was a Watcher, a certified magical badass; he was used to being the one terrifying his enemies and running circles around people, not the other way round.


“Don’t worry about it,” I said kindly. “Listen, we’re outside the radius of whatever Mike did to shut down magic. Can you open a way to the Otherside from here?”


“I think so,” he said after a moment.


“Good. Do that. Get away. Either stay on the Otherside or go somewhere at least a few hundred miles from Colorado Springs. Stay there until this all blows over. Can you do that?”


“Yeah. What will you be doing?”


My grin felt sharp and icy, more a wolf’s expression than a man’s, and more a monster’s than either. “Hunting,” I said softly, and turned away into the darkness.


What I’d said to Brick was true. This whole thing—everything that had happened—was nothing but an enormous, epic confidence game. I wasn’t sure who was pulling all the strings—the obvious answer was Loki, but my gut said he’d gotten played just as hard as I had—but I was totally sure that strings were getting pulled.


Well, I’d had just about enough of getting my strings pulled. It was painfully clear that there were always going to be games being played around me. This time, I’d chosen to play one of my own.


I’d known that my little chat with Katie wasn’t going to end well. There was just no chance that I was going to get through to her, particularly when she was unbalanced by the stresses of the magic she’d been doing. Thus, I’d had Aiko waiting with a sniper rifle.


Katie had known that I knew that things would devolve into violence. Thus, she’d been prepared for me to throw the first punch. My treachery, if you could call it that, hadn’t caught her by surprise at all. She was too well acquainted with how I operated to expect me to fight fair.


I’d known that she would know that. Katie’s not a moron, and she’d seen me throw sucker punches and arrange traps often enough that she wouldn’t be terribly surprised by one more. I’d also known that she didn’t really, truly want to kill me. I’d been gambling that she would use a nonlethal takedown instead, and that I would be able to get loose. So far I’d won on both counts.


Katie knew that I would foresee that possibility. Thus, she’d taken all my stuff. I had no doubt that she was fully expecting me to get out of Mike’s lotus-eating trap, and she couldn’t seriously think that I would be caged by a heavy door and a little bit of shamanic magic. By depriving me of my equipment (I didn’t even have clothes, although I was too focused to pay much attention to the lack) she’d gone a long way towards defanging me.


I knew that I couldn’t expect Katie to rely on me being held captive, and would take measures to weaken me if I should get out. As a result, I was carrying several different tracking devices. They were not your cheap, run-of-the-mill products; even deep underground, at least one of them should have been able to get some kind of signal out. Once they pinpointed my location, backup would have a fairly easy time getting to me. It wouldn’t be as simple as walking in the front door, but I’d called in some fairly heavy movers and shakers; they’d get there eventually.


I had no doubt that Katie had seen that coming, as well. Using myself as bait and then bringing in hardcore backup was a tactic I’d used in the past, at least once that she definitely knew about. She’d be a fool not to search me for tracking devices. I was pretty sure she’d found and disabled all of them.


And, naturally, I knew that she would do so. Those devices hadn’t even been broadcasting to anyone. I didn’t know anyone with a better chance of taking them down within the time limit than I had.


There was no backup coming. Aiko, with any luck, was already in France, and everyone else who might take me seriously had gotten instructions to run hours or days earlier.


I wasn’t here to play games with Katie and Mike. I was here to kill them.


I wished that I knew how long I had to do the deed. I didn’t have any way to tell how long Mike’s little trick had kept me down. I might have only been out for half an hour, in which case I still had a couple of hours before dawn. Or it might have been a week, in which case the city had already been destroyed and I’d only survived by being underground. I just didn’t have any way of knowing.


That was incredibly stressful. At any moment, the world might dissolve into the fire of a mad god’s wrath, and I would have no warning. I resented every moment that I wasn’t running them down.


I forced myself to slow down and think it through anyway. Rushing in would just waste time I didn’t have available, even if it didn’t get me killed horribly. With half a million lives riding on me getting this perfect, I couldn’t afford to take chances.


The problems I’d listed for Alexis earlier were still valid. These tunnels ran for miles and miles, and I had no idea where in the complex I was right now. I’d never gone back and explored them after I took out the lunatic that owned the place; there were too many bad memories associated with it. Just now I was starting to regret that.


That made my task very simple. I needed to localize, reach, and kill my prey, as rapidly as possible, with no mistakes and no hesitation. That made my next step an obvious one.


Normally, I take ten minutes to change. In a rush, I can cut it down to five, at the cost of considerable pain.


I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever been in so much of a rush as I was right then. I started the change and then forced it, faster and faster, throwing magic at it desperately. I kept moving as I did, which I’d never tried to do before, shambling along down the tunnel. There didn’t appear to be any branches on this path so far, which made it easier to choose where to go.


It hurt. Oh, it hurt. It felt like pumping acid through my veins. My muscles screamed at me, and putting weight on a bone while it’s in the process of changing shape was an agony like nothing I’d ever experienced. At some point I fell, and when I rose it was on four feet. My joints screamed, burning, as I forced them to carry my weight without giving them a chance to align themselves properly, and it was all I could do not to scream. Where I walked, blood and frost mingled on the ground.


But I never stopped. Amazing, really, what you can do if you want it badly enough. I just wished I hadn’t needed a catastrophe quite this serious to discover what I was capable of.


By the time I’d reached the first intersection, perhaps a hundred yards or so from the cell door, I was fully lupine. Brick had completed his portal and vanished to the Otherside by that point, which was some small gratification; I’d saved at least one life tonight. I was panting pretty hard, but I’d gotten my legs back under myself, and the stabbing pain in my knees had died down to a dull throb. My left forefoot hurt like hell every time it touched the ground—changing had helped the healing process a little, but not nearly enough. I forced myself to ignore it.


At the crossroads, I lowered my nose to the floor and took a deep breath. I was assaulted by a wave of odors, foremost among which was a dry, dusty scent, the smell of long neglect in a place that never saw the sun. Under that, and not deeply, was the stench of human bodies gone weeks without a shower. Katie and Mike had passed this way, and recently.


I was expecting to have to work for it—like I’d told Alexis, parsing scents wasn’t something I’d practiced as much as I should have. But as it turned out, it was so easy that I don’t think I could have missed it if I tried. Katie and Mike were both a great deal more pungent than most people, and there weren’t a lot of scents to compete with down here. It helped that it was underground. With no wind or rain to wash things away, an odor could last for years down in the dark.


It took me maybe a second and a half to establish that one of the paths leading from the intersection had been traveled repeatedly, while the other two had seen little if any recent use. That tracked; this tunnel complex was far larger than the two of them could possibly need on a regular basis. I was guessing that there was a relatively small section that saw consistent use, while the rest went empty.


I turned down the tunnel that smelled of use and started running.


I started out at a normal, sane wolf’s speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Then I sped up, until I was doing maybe fifty through the tunnels.


It hurt. A lot. My maimed limb was not, in any way, healed enough to take this kind of abuse. I ripped the half-healed skin open almost immediately, and I knew I was leaving a trail of blood behind me. Ordinarily that would have been a cause for some concern; if a mage gets a bit of your blood, they can use it to do horrible things to you. As it was, I had bigger fish to fry.


As it happened, though, it was more of an immediate problem than I’d thought. It turns out that a layer of blood between your foot and the floor isn’t all that great for your footing. The loss of a few toes had also wrecked my balance, and the floor was too smooth to provide much traction. The first time I tried to take a sharp corner, following the scent down the only tunnel that had seen any recent use, my feet slipped out from under me, and I went sliding into the wall.


For the record, sliding into a stone wall at the next best thing to fifty miles an hour is not anyone’s idea of a good time.


It took me a minute to get my breath back after that. I was pretty sure my ribs were cracked, too, which was a lot more painful than it sounds. I went more slowly after that, and took care with corners.


Thirty miles an hour is still a pretty good pace, though. It took maybe half an hour, during which I only got sidetracked twice, before I started hearing voices. They belonged to Katie and Mike, indisputably; the sound was too faint and distorted to make out any words, but I knew whose they were.


I slowed down at that point, until I was only moving at a fast lope (which was still almost a sprint for a normal human, granted). I had no idea how far away they were—sound carries strangely through tunnels—but I didn’t think I could be too careful. I couldn’t take them in a straight-up fight anymore, that had been made abundantly clear earlier. I was only going to get one chance to sucker punch them, and I had to make it count for as much as I could.


After another five minutes of walking, I saw a brighter light up ahead. The voices were louder now, and clear enough that I could make out words easily. I slowed down even more, until I almost crawled up to the tunnel mouth.


I was looking out onto a massive chamber, lined with cut stone. It was about a hundred yards square, and thirty yards tall, with numerous tunnels leading off of it. The one I was in was at floor level, midway along one side of the room. Maybe forty yards away, in the center of the room, Katie and Mike had set up shop.


I’d seen a lot of magic circles in my life. Almost every spell more complicated than quick and dirty combat magic used one. It prevented natural currents of power from disrupting the structure of the spell and provided a foundation for the more complex layers to build upon. They vary a lot, though, in appearance and function. For a simple spell, all you needed was a ring of steel set in the floor, a bit of spray paint, a few stones set out at strategic locations—almost anything would do. It didn’t even need to be circular; that was just the easiest shape to envision.


More complicated spells tend to use more elaborate circles. They might involve multiple layers, designed to perform different functions. They almost always require a variety of materials and objects, meant to resonate on an energetic and symbolic level with the task being performed and the mage casting the spell. I’d seen circles with half a dozen layers, made of precious metals and other exotic materials.


I’d never seen one quite like this, though.


The outermost edge of the circle was thirty feet across, laid down in silver. Then came a foot of blank stone, in which were painted all manner of symbols. Most of them were simple geometric patterns, meant to channel energy into a certain shape. I also saw a number of runic inscriptions. The runes had no intrinsic power, but they expressed a meaning, helping to focus the mage’s intention. The designs were painted in a dozen colors, crossing and overlapping to form an intricate, almost fractal look.


The inner bound of the designs was at another circle. This one was a deep groove, maybe six inches across, filled with water. The water moved counterclockwise around the circle, at a fairly brisk pace; they must have had some sort of pump installed. Inside of that was another trench, this one filled with some sort of slow-burning oil. The flames were a pale, sickly looking green, and formed a wall almost as tall as I was.


Inside of that was the monster.


It looked much the same as when I’d seen it previously, a roughly spherical shape perhaps ten feet across, hovering close to thirty feet above the ground.. Thirty or so appendages sprouted from its surface, without any apparent order to their placement. They were almost eight feet long, and writhed continuously. The only difference I could see was that it didn’t seem to be destroying the integrity of the world around it, presumably because it was caged in the circles.


The thing had grown, since I’d seen it last. That couldn’t be good.


Mike and Katie were sitting in a smaller circle, between me and the monster. The interior of this circle was hardly big enough to fit them both, but it was just as elaborate as the circle holding the monster, and looked about the same. The flames were only knee high, and the water wasn’t moving quite as quickly; other than that, they were identical. Both of them were staring at the thing they’d summoned, as though entranced by its ceaseless movement.


I’d thought that they looked horrible before. I was wrong. Mike had lost another ten pounds, and it looked like his hair was starting to fall out. Katie was….well. Imagine the scariest cyborg you’ve ever seen in a movie, and double it. Half her chest was held together only by shadows. They still looked just as unnaturally thick and oily as when she’d summoned them, and they pulsed rhythmically, like a second, horrid heartbeat. She’d lost more weight, as well, to the point that she would make someone starving to death feel better about themselves. It looked like a stiff breeze could knock her over.


“We should move,” Mike said. His voice was dull, lacking any animation whatsoever. “Winter found us. It’s possible that someone else will.”


“No,” Katie said. Her voice was quiet, and skittered oddly across tones. No wonder I hadn’t been able to overhear them clearly; both of them sounded wrong, as though they no longer quite remembered how to talk. “We don’t have anywhere else to keep it.”


“So let it go. We can summon it again when we set up another location.”


“Where can we go without attracting attention?” Katie asked rhetorically. “No. We finish this tonight and then let it go for good. Just one more push.”


Well, that wasn’t good. Looking at them, I was sure they couldn’t keep control when they let it out of the circle this time. Using the vast, unnatural powers they’d gained clearly took something out of them. If I gave them a chance to get started again, everything I’d done would be for nothing.


I resented the time lost. But I needed to be lethal, instantly, on the very first stroke, and I only had one weapon that might be capable of that where two .50-caliber rounds had failed. So I took a deep breath and changed again.


The pain was, if anything, worse this time. I wasn’t used to changing this often, and the less time you left between changes, the more they hurt. On top of that, I was starting to feel seriously tired. But I pushed it as hard as I could, and five minutes later I was human again, lying on the floor. I was breathing harshly, but I’d made almost no noise during the change, and they hadn’t noticed me.


I’d lost track of the argument through the pain, but apparently Katie had won. The two of them were chanting, now, in a language I didn’t recognize. The smell of magic filled the room, terrifyingly strong. The scent was the disinfectant-like odor of human magic, touched with a sick, rotten undercurrent that was painful to smell. The monster seemed to be responding to whatever they were doing; the churning motion of its tentacles had slowed somewhat, and it appeared to be descending towards the floor.


I started moving out onto the floor, and almost tripped on the first step. I was just too tired, in too much pain, to be graceful. My hand hurt like hell, and hadn’t stopped bleeding. My ribs were definitely cracked, and it hurt to breathe. I was scared there might be internal damage, too; sliding into the wall like that was a great way to cause internal bleeding, or even rupture organs.


But I couldn’t afford to be less than perfect. So I did something I very, very rarely did, and with good reason.


In my nightmarish sojourn to the spirit world, I’d seen a lot of faces of myself, most of which I didn’t care for. One of them had been a wolf, tightly bound and muzzled. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the metaphor there. I’d always kept that part of myself under a tight leash. It was wild and dangerous, lethal power without conscience or restraint. It was never made to deal with the modern world, with the small indignities and civilized restraints that society demanded.


But I didn’t care right now.


I wasn’t wearing fur. That didn’t matter. A lot of young werewolves assume that the wolf is just another body, but that’s wrong. The wolf was a state of mind, a part of me. Wearing a different shape made it easier to dismiss, but deep down I’d always known that the thing standing in the way of my dreams of peace was that the person having them was me. There had always been a wolf inside my skin, whether I could turn into one or not.


So I took a deep breath, and then I took the muzzle off.

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Interlude 5.y: Carraig

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“Are we expecting a major attack tomorrow?” the lieutenant asked me. His voice was a little nervous. First battle, I was guessing. I’d heard it before. It’s funny, how some things never change. Young money looking their first engagement in the teeth is one of them.


“Ours not to reason why,” I said, eyeing him coldly. “Ours but to do and die. Follow your orders, officer, and let your Queen do the thinking.”


He flushed, saluted, and waved me through the gates. I kept walking, unconcerned. He hated me now. That was good. Hate might keep him fighting when he would rather turn away.


Hate’s a powerful thing. It can keep a man going for a long, long time.


The soldiers in the camp paused as I walked through, turning to watch me. Some of them bowed to me, or saluted. Most just turned back to their work, dismissing me. The fae are good at that. They can sneer at you with their guts on the ground, and die satisfied.


I made my way to the command tent, a palatial thing of silk and velvet that could have housed a battalion. That’s the nature of things in a Sidhe army. Even in the middle of the war they find a way to set themselves above the rest, looking down on the world from a thousand feet high.


The squire watching the door tried to stop me from entering, but the sergeant with her held her back. He nodded to me, respectfully, and I nodded back. I didn’t know his name, but I remembered his competence. The sergeants have always been the last refuge of competence in an army, since before there were sergeants. Some things don’t change.


Stepping inside, I brushed through the crowd of officers, adjuncts, and sycophants. They stepped away, getting out of my way without ever quite acknowledging my presence. Almost two thousand years I’d served the Queen, and still I was an outsider, an observer. Not a one of the fae respected me. Oh, they respected my office, the authority I’d been given, and certainly they respected my power, but not me. The lowliest goblin in that camp would still look on me with a sort of condescending pity.


“General,” I said, stepping up beside the leader of the Midnight forces in the area. An ancient Sidhe, old when I had been young, she had an arrogance to her that the others in that tent could only dream of. They were playing at being soldiers, but she was the real thing.


“Sir Carraig,” she said, nodding to me. Still no respect, but there was at least a touch of fear there. She had seen me work before, she knew something of what I was capable of. Unlike the others here, she knew that I walked through a camp of the darkest nightmares the faerie realms had to offer, and I was the most terrifying predator there.


“I will be participating tomorrow,” I said. “On the eastern flank.”


She nodded. “Are we anticipating a heavy enemy deployment?”


“I expect another Champion of the Courts to be present,” I said, smiling. “I advise you not to deploy any other forces in the area. It would be an unfortunate waste of resources.”


She nodded again, tightly. She hated me as well. Old wounds, inflicted in my youth, that never healed and never will. But she wouldn’t, couldn’t, act against me. Not so long as Scáthach holds me as her Champion, and after so long neither of us believed that I would be cast out of that position. The only way I will be leaving my office is feet-first inside of a box. Not that there’s likely to be enough to bury. Or that anyone will bother.


“Until the morning, then,” I said, still smiling. Then I left, pushing through the crowd.


A brusque entrance, and an even more abrupt exit. It was rough, rude, offensive; the Sidhe there would gladly have killed me for such an offense. But I was not concerned. It was my job to be offensive, a reminder of what my Queen could do if she had the mind. It is the nature of the Midnight Court to present an iron fist beneath a velvet glove.


I have never been a man of velvet.


I retired for the night in the small tent that was reserved for me. In any camp, any fortress, any place that the Midnight Court went, there was a place set aside for me. It would not do for Scáthach’s Champion to arrive and accommodations not be ready, after all.


I could have had much grander lodgings, if I wanted. I could have a dwelling to dwarf the command tent. But even after almost two millennia, I am not so comfortable with luxury. I don’t care for servants, or extravagance. Give me a place to sleep and something to keep the rain off, that’s all I need.


I had nightmares. Dreams of fire, blood, ravens gathering above. A raven perching on a corpse before me, looking at me with intelligent eyes. An offer. A very, very foolish man accepting that offer.


It was easy to think that had been a stupid choice, and from an objective view it was, but at the time it had made sense. I’d been a scared, angry young man, barely more than a boy, and my king had betrayed his kingship. All the battles I’d fought, dreaming of uniting the land under the rule of a king more god than man, had been for nothing. I’d wanted nothing more than to die, and one of my gods had given me the chance to die a hero, and have my name remembered ’til the stars burned out. Not such a bad deal, from that perspective.


Neither of us could really be blamed that it hadn’t worked out that way. Death is often a fickle lover, embracing those who flee her and spurning those that seek her. It was hardly my fault that I’d lived long enough to see how foolish that boy’s ambitions had been.


Still, I was almost glad for the reminder. It had been almost twenty years since I had that dream, maybe ten since I thought of that day at all.


It’s important to remember where you come from. That’s what set me aside from them, even after so long in their company. The Sidhe are immortal, ancient beyond words, but at the same time almost childlike in their outlook. I wonder sometimes whether they remember the past at all, or they’re so busy drowning it in the present that they don’t think of it at all.


I walk through the camp, enjoying the silence. There’s no stillness quite like the stillness of a camp just before the battle starts. It helps that they know exactly when the battle will start. I’d tried to argue against that, early on, but it was no use. That was how the Sidhe were. They fought, yes, but it was a civilized war. The battles had to be open, honest, so that there would be room for deceptions and games and bargains behind the curtain.


As I was gathering the things I would need, a half-breed ran into me; he wasn’t looking where he was going, too focused on delivering his messages to where they were bound, and I was lost in thought. I barely stumbled, but he hit the ground, and as he scrambled to his feet he got a look at what I was doing.


“What do you need so much food for?” he blurted, thoughtless.


I looked at him and put one hand to my sword. A silent threat, but not at all difficult to hear. He knew that I could cut him down in the middle of the camp, in front of a hundred witnesses, and not one would bat an eye. I’d done it before.


He flushed and kept moving, at a dead sprint. He did glance back once, clearly expecting me to have a weapon drawn. I just smiled at him and put the loaf of bread into my bag. The baker was already awake, as might be expected, but she knew better than to question me.


It wasn’t a problem. But it was concerning, that I hadn’t seen him coming. That was careless, and I wouldn’t live long if I were careless. It had been too long since I had a chance to relax. I’d hoped to take a holiday, take a few years to myself. Catch up on my reading, do some hunting in the high places. But Scáthach wanted to press the advantage after reclaiming her spear, and when she wanted to do battle with the Daylight Court, she sent me.


Ah, well. That was the way of things. Perhaps next year, or the year after that.


On the way out of the camp, I passed the deserters, crucified in neat rows at the edge of the encampment. For all its reputation among humans, crucifixion isn’t such a terrible thing. The fae could do worse things to a person.


The fae had done worse things to these people. The whole point, after all, was that the punishment for desertion was worse than death in battle. The foot soldiers dying in the front lines had to be more afraid of their own commanders than they were of the enemy.


The crucifixion was my touch. I started doing it to mock the Romans, and then, just a few years after the Romans died, the Christians came to the isles.


Of the two, I think I hate the Christians more. The Romans slaughtered us in droves, but at least they never claimed it was for our own good.


And besides, there were no Romans anymore. There was no point in hating a people that had been dead and gone for five hundred years. There’s no passion in hate for something dead.


Out in the wooded hills overlooking the field of battle, there was a clearing. In that clearing, there was a broad stone outcropping that had a good view of the field, but couldn’t easily be seen from it. On that stone, a heavy wool blanket had been laid out. One side of the blanket was in open sun, while the other half was in the shade cast by a small grove of oaks. Sitting on the sunny side was a scruffy, ugly man wearing mail and carrying an axe.


“You’re late,” he said as I walked into the clearing. He spoke the old language, the language I’d spoken as a child. There couldn’t be more than a few dozen people left who knew it. His dialect was even older than mine; he was my elder by a few hundred years.


That had seemed so important, once. Much as it had seemed important to fight the enemy. It took a few hundred years to realize that I had more in common with my immediate opposite than either of us had with our allies.


I shrugged. “I was delayed.” I sat across the blanket from him, in the shade.


He nodded. “It happens,” he said, reaching into the pack sitting by his side. He pulled out a bottle and a pair of ancient clay cups. Those cups were a hundred years old, and looked it.


I pulled out a loaf of bread and a haunch of mutton, and set them on the blanket, so that they crossed the boundary between light and shadow. Half on each side, much the same as the cups he poured.


Cups poured out of the same bottle, and he made no move to choose one, leaving it up to me. A small courtesy, a measure of safety.


Not that it mattered. One day, there would be poison in the wine, or razor blades in the bread, or any of a thousand other tricks that we were capable of. One day. We both knew it. It was the way of things.


“This isn’t a fae vintage,” I commented, picking up one of the cups.


“No,” he agreed. “Human. A Burgundy, from about ten years ago.”


I shrugged and downed it. I’ve never been a connoisseur of wine.


“How do you expect the battle to go today?” he asked, tearing off some bread and meat.


“You’ll gain a few yards here, we’ll gain a few yards there. A couple hundred soldiers will die, and at the end of the day nothing much will have changed.”


“You always say that.”


I grinned. “I’m always right. It’s how it is.”


“True enough,” he sighed. “Although our side brought more people today than usual. Ogres, dryads, a handful of sylphs.”


“So did ours,” I said, shrugging. “Trolls, mostly.” That was how it usually went. Both Courts trying to dupe the other, but they were so much in lockstep that they ended up doing the same things.


I ate some mutton and watched as Midnight troops began pouring out of the camp, rushing across the field at the Daylight defenses. I couldn’t hear them from this distance, but I heard the battle cry all the same, the wild, bloodthirsty howling of the masses. Behind that blood-maddened rabble came the real soldiers, tight, disciplined units.


Daylight fighters came rushing out to meet them, crashing together on the open field. The leading fronts of both sides began to fall, mingling until it was hard to say where one army ended and the other began.


I wondered if there was a difference between the two sides, anymore. I thought there was one, once. I remember there being more of one. But maybe I’d just gotten cynical. I remember thinking it was about right and wrong, once, but now it was just about us and them. That was all any war was about, really. Politics, religion, land, those are just pretty words to put on top. The real reason you go to war is that they hate you and you can’t stand them, and why shouldn’t you all slaughter each other?


“Looks like your guys are trying a flanking maneuver,” he commented, pointing at a small group of Midnight soldiers creeping through the grass. From our elevated position they were easy to see, but from the field they would be hidden fairly well.


“And your people will send out their cavalry on the other side,” I agreed. “Lure them in, draw back so that they have to overextend. Then send aerial forces to surround the flanking force, reverse the retreat and catch them in a pincer.” I sighed. “I swear I’ve seen this battle before.”


“That’s how the fae work,” he said. “Nothing really changes. It doesn’t matter who’s fighting, the fight’s the same.”


It was as good a summary as any. The Court as a huge churning mass, people dying and being replaced almost before they were dead, the office far more important than the officeholder, while Scáthach stood above it as constant and remote as the North Star.


Or did she? Had my Queen, my goddess, been replaced as often as everyone else? Would I even have known if she had? Queen was a role the same as any other, after all. It was a disturbing thought.


He didn’t have it quite right, though. “That isn’t just the Courts,” I said. “Humans are no better. Did you pay attention to that mess in Russia in the last century?”


“Not really,” he admitted. “I remember hearing something about it, but I haven’t been on earth much lately.”


“A bunch of workers decided that they were cold and hungry, and they’d be better off overthrowing the tsar. Put in a communist government. Then, just a few decades later, they realized that they were still cold and hungry, and overthrew that regime. Tried a democracy for a while. Now they’re thinking about changing it up again.” I shrugged. “They haven’t figured out yet that factory workers in Moscow are always going to be cold and hungry. Doesn’t matter who’s in charge of things.”


“True enough,” he sighed. “But that’s enough talk about such grim things. Are you up for a game?” he asked, pulling a chess set out of his pack.


“Depends. You got another bottle in there?”


He did, and for a few hours, the Courts were forgotten.


He won the first game, I took the second, and the third and fourth were stalemates. Neither of us was willing to quit on that note, so we kept playing until I finally dragged out a victory in the fifth game.


“Damn,” he said, draining another cup. We’d finished off the second bottle of wine and moved onto the whiskey I’d brought by that point. “Time for one more?”


I looked out at the battle. At some point it had passed the climax, and both sides were now fighting for a draw. “Better not,” I said reluctantly. “They’ll be expecting me back at camp soon.”


He nodded and started packing up the pieces. “I can’t be here tomorrow,” he said. “Titania wants me in Alfheim. Something about a show of support during a trade meeting.”


“I understand,” I said. “Maybe next year.”


“Maybe,” he said, extending his hand again. “Good to see you again, Carraig.”


“Likewise,” I said, shaking it. “Look after yourself out there, Aodh. I’d hate to miss the chance to kill you.”


He laughed and walked off into the sunshine. I watched him go for a moment, considering the possibility of putting a knife in his back.


Then I turned and walked into the darkness. One day, I’d kill him. One day. It was inevitable; how Carraig and Aodh felt about it was irrelevant. I served Scáthach, who’d once been called Nemain, and he served Titania, who was once Brigid. One day there would be no more ignoring that.


One day. But not today.

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Event Horizon 8.13

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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.

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Event Horizon 8.12

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It took almost an hour for Kyra and Anna to follow the trail to the end. When they had, I no longer had any doubt as to whether it was Katie’s or not.


“I don’t get it,” Alexis said. “A tile store?”


“A closed tile store,” I corrected, watching the building from a hundred yards away. “It’s been closed for a while. There’s a fairly huge tunnel complex underneath.”


“How do you know about this?” my cousin asked.


“There was a witch using them a couple of years ago,” I said. “And Katie was there when we shut him down.” The building had been almost demolished in that fight; someone must have fixed it up and kept it from being repossessed on back taxes.


“Oh. So this is it, then.”


“Looks like.” I dropped the binoculars; there didn’t appear to be any activity near the building. Less so than there should have been, even; this wasn’t a high-traffic area, particularly at this time of day, but in the past five minutes I’d noticed people giving the tile store a wide berth even by those standards. I wasn’t sure whether that was because people could tell, on some level, that there was something bad going on there and avoided it as a result, or because Katie had taken more active measures, but either way it was good news for me.


The last thing I wanted right now were witnesses.


“I want you to take the werewolves and go,” I said, handing the binoculars to Alexis. “Get well out of town. I would recommend France.” I was referring to another safe house, a relatively small place in the French Riviera. Alexis, Aiko, and I all knew a gate terminus nearby. Aiko was the only one who spoke French, but there were so many foreigners in the Riviera that you could pretty much always find someone who spoke English.


Alexis clearly wanted to argue. She didn’t. One of the qualities I’ve appreciated in my cousin is a willingness to realistically consider the dangers involved in a situation, and bow out when those dangers become too much for her to handle. She’s serious about using her powers to help people—which, I might add, she does in a rather more intelligent way than the Inquisition ever managed—but she isn’t stupid.


“You sure?” she asked instead, her tone unhappy.


“Yeah,” I said firmly. “Take Snowflake with you, too.”


Hey! Snowflake said, sounding distinctly upset. You can’t send me away!


I sighed. You saw that thing, Snowflake. You can’t do anything to help me against it. I can get out through the Otherside, if I have to; you can’t. And if there’s one place Loki would be extra thorough when he destroys the city, it’s right here.


I know that! she said indignantly. I’m not stupid, Winter. But bad things always happen to you when I leave you alone. If I let you go in there alone, you’ll die.


Do you think I’ll do better if I have to spend my attention making sure you’re safe?


You can’t do worse, she said defiantly.


I sighed again. Look, Snowflake, I said, feeling very tired. I know the odds here. I know there’s a pretty good chance I’m not coming back out of there, whether you’re there or not. If I’m going to hell tonight, I’d rather not take you down with me.


Now you’re just fighting dirty.


That’s my specialty, I agreed. Will you do it?


Fine, she said bitterly. But you’d better come back. Aiko and I wouldn’t make it very far without you.


“Hang on a second,” Alexis said suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “Aren’t we overlooking something? Loki said if you told him where to go, he could deal with it. Why don’t you just call him up?”


“That’s a good thought,” I said. It was also one I’d already had, as soon as we started tracking Katie back to her hideout, but I didn’t mention that. “The only problem is that the tunnels under this place are huge. I haven’t explored them in any detail, but I know there’s at least one tunnel that’s about twenty miles long. I don’t think that level of precision would make Loki happy.”


“Oh,” she said, clearly disappointed. “Shouldn’t you tell him anyway, though? It could at least narrow things down a little.”


I paused. “Probably,” I admitted. “But considering how pissed he was the last time, I think he’d kill me if I called him again without having an answer for him. If I can’t figure anything out soon I might have to take that option, but for now I still have a chance of resolving things myself.”


“I guess so.”


“It was a good idea,” I reassured her. “Now go on, get out of here.”


I had a lot to think about, as I walked up to Katie’s lair. Did I seriously believe I had a chance of pulling this off? I knew all too well what this thing was capable of, and I was well aware that the idea of me presenting a serious challenge to it was laughable. Was this really an attempt to solve the problem, or was I just throwing my life away for no gain, trying to assuage a misplaced sense of guilt? Was what I’d told Alexis true? Did I refuse to contact Loki—if I could even do so, which wasn’t at all certain this late in the game—because I thought it was the best way to stop Katie, or was I just frightened of what he might do to me if my performance wasn’t satisfactory?


Or, more disturbingly yet, did I just want to take her out with my own hands? She’d done more to hurt me, personally, than anyone had managed in quite a while, and I’ve never been good at forgiving and forgetting. Was I risking my life for justice or revenge? What was the difference, in the end, if the consequences were the same?


It felt like a long, uncomfortable walk, alone in the night.


Finally, I reached the long-abandoned tile shop. I made no effort to hide my presence; to the contrary, I marched quite openly up to the front door. My armor had been lost when their pet monster destroyed our mansion, but I’d had a reasonable wardrobe stashed in the safe house. Currently I was wearing black leather pants and a white silk shirt. The shirt had my coat of arms, a black shield with a ragged-edged wolf’s head in white, prominently displayed on the chest.


I had reinforced both the shirt and the pants fairly heavily with magic. They wouldn’t provide nearly the protection that actual armor would, but unless I got unlucky they should at least stop small-caliber bullets, and knives driven by merely human muscles.


That would have been a lot more comforting if Katie were using either of those weapons.


Anyways, what I’m getting at here is that I cut a fairly impressive figure. My left hand was still a maimed, shredded hunk of raw meat, but that just made the result scarier.


I didn’t bother trying to open the door. Katie was smart enough and skilled enough to have some way of monitoring the area, either magically or with security cameras. Between that and my rather distinctive appearance, I didn’t think I had much chance of sneaking in.


It was possible that she was about to send her otherworldly monster down my throat, in which case I was about to be in a lot of trouble. But I didn’t think that was too likely. From what she’d said I was pretty sure she really didn’t want me dead, and she had to be curious what I was doing loitering around outside her door. I was pretty sure she’d come to check it out personally.


To encourage that attitude, I’d deliberately kept my appearance as low-key and nonthreatening as I could. I had a whole bunch of weapons in my cloak, but nothing visible or obvious. That was a bit chancy, but I didn’t really expect a knife or a shotgun to stop Katie at this point anyway. I thought it was a chance worth taking.


I’d been standing there maybe fifteen minutes when the door opened—long enough that I was starting to feel pretty antsy, but not long enough to eat into my margin of safety before dawn. I was expecting to see Katie on the other side, and I wasn’t disappointed.


I just wasn’t prepared for how wretched she looked. Katie had always been on the small side, and slender. But sometime in the last couple of months she’d gone from slender to starved. Her clothes hung loose on her frame, as though she were a scarecrow; I was pretty sure that if she hadn’t been wearing them I could easily have counted her ribs. Her forearms, where they stuck out from her ratty T-shirt, were stick-thin, with a clearly visible indentation between the bones. Her face was almost cadaverous, with cheekbones that could have cut a tense silence. Her hair was filthy and matted, and could have benefited from the attentions of a lawnmower. Her dark eyes were sunken and haunted, but feverishly bright.


The man standing behind her looked hardly any better. Mike Adams had been a lot bigger to begin with, and so he could sustain it a little better, but he still looked like shit. He must have lost fifty pounds of muscle, and his skin was so pale that I wondered whether he’d been aboveground since he quit his job. His hands, when he moved them, had a slight but noticeable tremor. Both of them put off a stench so thick I gagged almost ten feet away; neither their bodies nor their clothes seemed to have been washed in weeks.


Summoning literally ungodly monsters from beyond the edge of the universe could give you vast power, but it turns out that maybe it didn’t come for free.


Katie stared at me for several seconds. Her eyes didn’t seem to focus quite right, and her face was curiously slack, as though she wasn’t sure how to form expressions anymore. “Winter,” she said at last, her voice quiet and dead tired. “What are you doing here?”


“I came to give you one more chance,” I said, silently panicking. Coyote had said that anyone stupid enough to try this stuff lost control eventually, and looking at them it wasn’t hard to see why. With the condition Katie and Mike were in, I doubted they would be able to maintain the degree of concentration required for that kind of heavy-duty magic much longer. Never mind dawn, it might break free the very next time they sent it out. If that happened, I had a sickening fear that France might not be far enough to run.


“One more chance?” Mike asked, his voice slow and somewhat unsteady. “For what?”


I kept my gaze focused on Katie. She’d always been more willing to listen to reason, zealot or not. “To stop,” I said, keeping my voice fairly submissive. I remembered how volatile Katie had been in our last conversation, and I couldn’t afford to set her off right now. “If you stop now, everything can still be all right. We can work together and fix this mess.”


Katie’s eyes focused on me for the first time, and her expression went cold. “You can’t push us around anymore, Winter,” she said, her voice flat and bleak. “Nobody can. We’re stronger than you now. Go away, Winter. Go away and don’t come back.” She started to close the door.


Well, shit. I’d said exactly the wrong thing to get through to them. I didn’t stand a chance of chasing them through the tunnels, not when they’d had who knew how long to learn their way around and prepare traps. I needed to get them out of the building, and I had to do it before she could close the door.


And then I realized exactly what to say.


“‘He who fights monsters should be careful that he does not become a monster himself,'” I quoted, slowly and distinctly. Katie stopped moving the instant I started, and I knew I’d chosen right. “‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”


Katie opened the door again, and I was legitimately frightened by her face. She glared at me with a hatred that bordered on madness, and that hatred transformed her. Her skeletal frame ceased to be a cause for pity, and became terrifying instead. “How dare you,” she breathed, her voice unsteady. “How dare you say that to me?”


I leaned back against the wall, several feet away from the door, and smiled. It was a provocative smile, deliberately so. “I was chatting with Katrin Fleischer a couple days ago,” I said casually. “I don’t know if you know her, but she’s the baddest vampire in the city. Real nasty character, believe me. Even she thought you guys were going a little far. I mean, I don’t like her, but I’ve gotta say, at least she only kills the people she means to. Hell, you two have a higher body count than anybody I’ve dealt with, and you haven’t gotten any of the ones you say you hate. Really makes me wonder what you’re trying to do here.”


By the time I’d finished the third sentence, Katie’s face was locked in an expression of apoplectic fury. When I started questioning their motives, she lunged out the door, her hands raised as though to strangle me, which I strongly suspected was her actual intention. Mike reached out and caught her by the elbow; his reactions were too slow, at this point, to catch her before she crossed the threshold, but he made her pause before she actually reached me.


In that momentary pause, Aiko pulled the trigger.


I had an excellent view, from less than five feet away. The first round hit Katie in the side, just under her arm, and proceeded through her body at a fairly sharp angle. There was no question of it stopping; the .50-caliber rifle Aiko was using could put a bullet through a brick wall no problem. Flesh and bone didn’t even slow it down.


Blood and meat sprayed out the exit wound, a hole the size of my hand just to the right of the center of her chest. It wasn’t a heart shot, not at that angle, but her lung was destroyed. It was a damn good shot from a hundred yards, even with a sniper rifle.


Katie staggered to the side, all but thrown from her feet by the impact, and hit the wall. Her expression was one of total shock—no pain, that hadn’t had time to register yet, but she looked almost stunned as she saw the damage that her body had just taken, an injury far more severe than anything I’d ever received.


A moment later, as my ears started to ring from the sound of the first shot, the second bullet hit her. Thanks to Katie’s movement, this round hit a little lower, on her abdomen. It punched through her liver, possibly clipping the kidney on the way by, and then shredded her intestines on the way through. More blood sprayed across the wall, mixed with feces and chunks of organs.


I watched for sudden realization and pain to come over Katie’s face, for her to stagger and fall. She didn’t. Blood was pouring out of her in buckets and I had bits of her innards splattered on my face, but she didn’t show any sign of pain, and she didn’t fall. Her face was contorted by even more vicious fury instead, and she turned to face the direction the bullets had come without hesitation.


A moment later I was hit by a hammer of magic, scented with shadows and iron. It was overpowering, an order of magnitude stronger than anything I’d ever seen a human produce; the sheer sensation of it literally knocked me from my feet, and it wasn’t even directed at me.


Almost instantly, darkness seemed to boil out of nowhere in a massive, hemispherical shield, cutting the three of us off from the rest of the street. It was absolutely opaque, blocking out any light from the other side. Presumably Aiko was equally unable to see us through Katie’s spell. It was a brilliant defense against a sharpshooter, and I had to applaud Katie for thinking on her feet, even if it was a little late.


Except, apparently, it wasn’t. She turned to face me, and as I watched more shadows seemed to crawl from her feet up her body. They were thick, almost oily, and as they moved I was struck by how alive they seemed. It was like watching a time-lapse video of rot spreading across meat. The shadows lapped at the edges of her wounds, almost tentatively, then slipped inside.


Katie shivered. Her eyes were half-closed, and her expression was touched for the first time with pain, and also a strange, unsettling pleasure. I felt intensely uncomfortable watching it, yet couldn’t tear my eyes away. I wasn’t sure whether this was the first stage of some sort of parasitic infestation or just a particularly disturbing bit of magic, but either way it was creepy as fuck.


As this was going on, I heard another gunshot. It didn’t penetrate the wall of shadows.


That was beyond terrifying. Shadows aren’t supposed to have any physical strength, and magic can only twist something against its nature so far. I was reasonably skilled with this kind of magic, and I’d never managed to make a shadow much stronger than duct tape. Even that was difficult, and I couldn’t keep it up for more than a couple seconds.


Katie had just bounced a bullet that could pose a serious threat to tank armor, with no sign of effort, while simultaneously shrugging off damage that could have put any werewolf I’d ever met down for the count.


Coyote had said that the monster they were summoning could provide power. I was kinda wishing he’d mentioned that, in maybe two weeks’ exposure, it could turn a crappy half-trained mage into a world-class nightmare.


Katie didn’t even seem to notice that her shield had just been shot. She was standing steady on her feet again, and her wounds were completely covered in those thick, unnatural shadows. She didn’t even seem aware that most of her guts were now splattered across the wall. “Get Wolf,” she said. Her voice was thick and wheezy, and blood flowed from her mouth when she spoke. It looked wrong, oily and a couple shades too dark, laced as it was with those unnatural shadows. She didn’t seem to notice that either.


Mike nodded and started walking towards me. He didn’t seem to have reacted any more strongly to what had just happened than Katie did; his expression was blank, and he didn’t hurry at all. When another bullet hit the wall of shadows without penetrating, the shaman didn’t even flinch.


I scrabbled away, startled out of my reverie by sheer panic. I was so terrified that it hardly even registered when my ruined hand hit the ground. It was fair to say that I was scared shitless of Katie and Mike, and in that moment I honestly would rather have faced Loki’s disapproval than spent another instant in the company of these supercharged lunatics.


I didn’t get the choice. Mike, without accelerating or showing any sign of effort, gestured with one hand. A moment later I was hit by a wall of magic, driven by the same unbelievable power as what Katie had been doing. I didn’t have a prayer of resisting that overwhelming force; all my mental defenses crumbled before it like dust before the wind. I’d barely had time to recognize what was going on before I lost consciousness.

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Event Horizon 8.11

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Twenty-five minutes later, I was sitting in an uncomfortable chair with my back to the wall of a small outdoor cafe. Snowflake was sitting by my feet, and I had a frost giant looming over my shoulder.


Nicolas Pellegrini walked out maybe a minute later. He didn’t look like much; a guy in his late forties, the only thing that would have set him aside in a crowd was the quality of his suit. If you watched him for a while, you might start to see something in his bearing that indicated that he wasn’t anything so simple as an office worker, but it was far from obvious.


I knew better. This was a guy who could look an Alpha in the face and refuse to be pushed around. He had plenty of steel in him.


He walked straight over towards my table. There was one chair on the other side of the table. He considered it for a moment, then looked at the giant standing behind me. “Really, Mr. Wolf,” he said disapprovingly. “Was it necessary to use such an overt intimidation tactic?”


I shrugged. “Minions seemed like an appropriate fashion statement the last time we talked. I didn’t want to come underdressed.”


He sighed and sat down. “I apologize for the delay,” he said. His voice reminded me, once again, of an English teacher. “My secretary did not see fit to inform me of your call. I would have come sooner if he had.”


“That’s fine,” I assured him, watching over his shoulder. I recognized the huge guy standing across the street; he was the same bruiser Pellegrini had brought with him to the last meeting. I imagine he would have intimidated a lot of people. With Haki standing about six inches away, he looked about as threatening as a dog snarling at a grizzly. “You owe me a favor.”


Pellegrini’s smile could have meant anything. “Oh?”


“That was the deal,” I reminded him.


“The favor was to be in exchange for you removing a certain person,” he said mildly. “Preferably in a way that would impress the consequences upon anyone else considering a similar action.”


“Yes,” I said patiently. “And they found her without her skin. Which I told you about at the time. I think that was a suitably impressive response, don’t you?”


“There’s no question about that,” he agreed. “Whether you actually performed that action is less certain.”


I eyed him a moment. Then I sighed. “Look, Mr. Pellegrini,” I said. “We both know this isn’t about that. You aren’t fond of competition, and I’ve accumulated enough influence in this city to make you feel a little concerned. Is that about right?”


There was a brief pause. “Your appraisal is unusually direct,” he said eventually, not answering my question.


“I’m extremely short on time. So I’m going to make this as simple as I can.” I met the mobster’s eyes, making sure to keep my voice and bearing as nonthreatening as I could. I really didn’t want to make him feel defensive right now. “The way I see it, we’re in something of a stalemate here. See, you’re rich. You’ve got a lot more in the way of material resources than I do. You’ve got a lot of manpower. When it comes to contacts, lawyers, political influence, you’ve got me outclassed.”


Pellegrini smiled and said nothing.


“But,” I continued brightly. “I can screw you over pretty hard, too. You’re a smart guy, Mr. Pellegrini. I’m sure you’ve done a certain amount of research on me. You know about the things I’ve done, the people I’ve done, and you’ve got to have a good idea about the problems I could cause for you.”


“Is that a threat?” he asked mildly. I was pretty sure he knew what the answer was, but there were certain stereotypes to uphold.


“Of course not,” I said derisively. “No, what I’m saying here is very simple. I have largely ignored your activities, and this has, perhaps, sent the wrong message. Perhaps you have come to the conclusion that I am weak, and not to be taken seriously.”


“This is not the correct impression,” I said, keeping my voice level and fairly quiet. “I have ignored you because, frankly, what you do is not my problem. I do not police this city, and I have no desire to start. But if, for whatever reason, you’ve decided to make it my business?”


I smiled and met his eye again, and this time I didn’t try to make it a human gesture. “I can do that,” I said softly. “I really can. You want a fight? I can bring one like nothing you’ve ever imagined. I’m in a hurry, however, so I would appreciate it if you could have the dignity to say so, rather than trying to back out of a fair bargain and play word games for the next twenty minutes.”


Pellegrini was silent for a long moment. His eyes, a shade of blue somewhere between denim and the sky in December, were flat and inscrutable. “I’ve had men killed for taking that tone with me in the past,” he said eventually. His tone wasn’t angry; he was simply stating a fact, totally calm.


“What do you know,” I said dryly. “The only person here is Kjaran, and Kjaran doesn’t talk. Nobody has to hear about how I was all rude and disrespectful. Your reputation doesn’t take a hit, and we can interact like reasonable human beings.”


“Are you?” he asked mildly.


I smiled tightly. “Neither of the above,” I said, and I truly didn’t know whether I was lying. “But that doesn’t need to stop us.”


He considered me for a moment, and then inclined his head slightly. It struck me more as a gesture of respect, as a fencer acknowledging a hit, than agreement. “Very well, Mr. Wolf,” he said, his voice still utterly unreadable. “What favor were you requesting?”


I carefully did not let myself relax. I hadn’t been totally sure that Pellegrini was bluffing, but I didn’t want him to know that. “It’s really more of a mutual benefit thing than a favor. I expect you’re aware of the recent attacks which have, to some extent, focused upon your business interests?”


“Naturally,” he said, with a negligent gesture.


“Good,” I said. “A woman I sometimes associate with named Katie Schmidt is responsible for it. I want you to have your people collect any information you can on her whereabouts, and if possible kill her. They should consider her armed and extremely dangerous, and if they get a shot, hit it with everything they can. I would recommend explosives, or something similarly extreme.”


Pellegrini didn’t even blink. “Do you have any information on her location?”


“My information is incomplete,” I said, gesturing slightly. Kjaran stepped forward and placed a fairly thick folder on the table. “But I have some information on her and several known associates. Kindly instruct your men to report to me if they see any of them. If any of these associates seem to be acting in concert with Schmidt, they should be considered equally dangerous, and a similar shoot-on-sight policy should be enacted.”


“This would represent a significant investment of resources,” Pellegrini said slowly.


I smiled coldly. “I seem to recall having saved you a similar investment in the past,” I said. “And really, this will help you as much as me. You have a great deal invested in this area, and Katie poses a serious risk to those investments.”


He flipped through the folder, then closed it and stood. “Very well, Mr. Wolf,” he said. “I will send out the instructions immediately.”


“Good,” I said, not standing. “Kindly keep me appraised of new developments.”


I’d been expecting Pellegrini to take a little longer than he did. As a result, it was nearly ten minutes before my next appointment sat down in the same chair he’d vacated. I took the chance to snatch a quick meal, as did Snowflake.


Kjaran didn’t. But then, that was hardly a surprise.


Sergeant Kendra Frishberg was, in many ways, the polar opposite of Nicolas Pellegrini. Where his expensive suit stood out here like jewels in a pigsty, Frishberg was wearing worn jeans and a hoodie. Where Pellegrini looked about as physically intimidating as an aging English teacher, Frishberg was on the large and athletic side for a woman, and made no attempt to conceal that fact. She looked vaguely Hispanic, but there was too much of the mongrel visible in her features to pin them down definitively.


You might imagine that the cop/criminal dichotomy was another way in which they represented the opposite ends of a spectrum. I would probably agree, except that Frishberg was not, in any sense of the word, a model police officer. She was the one who was unofficially in charge of the freak squad, the group of cops who were responsible for the unofficial problems which, unofficially, nobody else wanted to deal with. Think X-Files, and then remember that nine-tenths of what a cop in any department does is bullshit and paperwork, and you’ve got a pretty good idea what Frishberg’s job was like.


More importantly at the moment, she was also not at all averse to a little casual bribery. I’d gotten access to files I really had no business looking at a few times thanks to her.


“Shrike,” she said, not bothering with a hello. “It’s been a while.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. I hadn’t seen her since I’d helped her out with a rather amusing situation the year before. “Look, I need a favor.”


I laid the situation out for her in much the same terms as I had for Pellegrini. She wasn’t nearly as argumentative about it as he had been, though. Frishberg didn’t have the ambition that the crime boss did, and she was on much friendlier terms with me.


“You don’t ask for much, do you?” she said dryly when I’d finished. “You do remember that I don’t have any official authority, right?”


“Who said anything about ‘official?'” I asked. “Look, I’m not talking about a formal manhunt. I just want you to take any resources you have on hand and look into things.”


“I don’t think you get what I’m saying. If I do this for you, and someone notices, there’ll be hell to pay. I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but I actually get paid to make sure you people don’t cause problems that show up on the official radar.”


I sighed. I’d been afraid of this. I could probably have talked Frishberg around—just telling her what the stakes were would probably have done it— but I didn’t have time, and I hadn’t forgotten how serious Coyote had been about secrecy. “I’ll owe you one,” I said instead, hating the way the words felt in my mouth. “Any favor you need that I can do.”


Frishberg suddenly didn’t look like she was in the mood to joke around. “Aw, shit,” she muttered. “It’s serious, huh?”


“Oh, yeah. I’ve got a serious time crunch here, though. In or out?”


“In,” she muttered. “Damn you anyway, Wolf.” Frishberg shook her head and stood up. “I’ll tell my people to start looking.”


“Thanks,” I said, standing as well. Snowflake stood and shook herself. “Call if you find anything,” I said, and then hopped the fence onto the sidewalk. Kjaran followed, although he didn’t so much hop the fence as step over it, and we walked off down the street.


Just after we got out of sight of the cafe, a massive eagle swooped down into the alley we were walking down. It was a huge bird, enormously outsized even by the standards of eagles; it could easily have flown off with a medium-sized dog.


When it was ten feet off the ground, I felt a sudden surge of ice-scented magic, and the bird turned into Vigdis. The giant did a casual frontflip and landed on her feet, falling perfectly into stride. Kjaran, without missing a beat or showing any reaction whatsoever, tossed her a simple black sundress, which she began pulling on.


“Did you see anything?” I asked. I’d had her doing overflights while I talked with Pellegrini and Frishberg, under the assumption that there was literally no degree of paranoia which was not currently justified.


She shook her head. “Nothing. Do you think that…thing will come back?”


“Possibly, but I doubt it. Katie’s already missed her chance to take me out before I start catching on, and with that off the table I think I’ve moved well down her list of priorities.”


Vigdis absorbed that for a few moments. “What will you do now?”


“I want you to take Kjaran and Haki and check out our list of known locations. Look for anything out of place, and try to get information out of anyone you think might know something. If you see anything threatening, run. Clear?”


“What if they don’t want to share what they know?” Vigdis asked.


I paused. I wasn’t totally comfortable letting them interrogate people. Vigdis was borderline sociopathic, Haki was antisocial to the point of mental illness, and Kjaran was unlikely to intervene if they started going too far. The chances of an interrogation getting ugly were distressingly high.


But the stakes were too high to back down now. “Use your best judgment,” I said, and hated myself for saying it.


She nodded sharply. “Come on, big guy,” she said to Kjaran. “Let’s go get Haki. There’s work to do.” Gods help me, she sounded excited.


I sighed and kept walking. Snowflake, sensing my mood, didn’t say anything on the way to the hotel room where we’d agreed to rendezvous after my meetings.


We didn’t see anything on the way there. I kept watch, and paid close attention to whether things seemed to be bending around us, but I really didn’t expect to see anything. What I’d said to Vigdis about Katie’s priorities was true, and it had been made pretty clear that sending her monster after me wasn’t likely to pay off. She had no way of knowing just how close those calls had been.


Back in the hotel, a generic chain downtown I’d never used before, I took the stairs to the seventh floor. It was a little inconvenient, but it had a great view and it was high enough up that I could catch myself with magic if I had to jump. That was worth a few flights of stairs.


I didn’t have a key, so I opened the door with the same trick I’d used on my safe. It was harder on a door, because the handle was harder to move, but I’d also spent a lot more time practicing this version. There are enough doors that only lock from the outside to make it worth the effort.


Aiko was the only one who’d beaten us back. “You get anything?”


I shrugged. “Both of them agreed to help, but neither of them was exactly thrilled about it. I don’t expect much. What’s the word at Pryce’s?”


“Same old,” she sighed. “Kuzmak’s fled town, and everybody else’s keeping their heads well down. Kikuchi’s people managed to track down Aubrey, though. Looks like he bought a one-way ticket to New York the day before Katie went apeshit. Didn’t even take his stuff.”


I grunted. “Getting while the getting’s good, you think?”


“It’s Aubrey,” she said dryly. “Guy’s got a worse opinion of humanity than you do. He’d know how safe Colorado is for him with Katie going on a rampage.”


If we lived through this, I was going to have words for Aubrey about that. I didn’t blame him for skipping town. In his position, I’d have done the same thing. But he could have at least warned me first.


If my city burned because he didn’t have the balls to tell me how badly his gang had screwed up, he’d have Hell to pay. Literally, if what Coyote had said was true.


“The werewolves are still out looking for scents?” I asked, dropping onto the bed next to Aiko. There were a couple of chairs, but I was pretty sure they were actually medieval torture instruments in disguise. Snowflake jumped up and curled around my feet.


“Yeah. I sent Kimiko with them to answer any questions. Figured they’d have better odds if they both went furry.”


“Good idea,” I agreed. “I don’t have high hopes for it, though. Katie would definitely know to plan for that.”


“Can you think of anything she wouldn’t know to plan for?” Aiko asked, idly scratching Snowflake’s ears.


“I’ve already tried them all,” I said sourly. “You got anything?”


“Zilch.” Aiko was silent for a long moment. “How long do we wait before we run?” she asked finally, sounding distinctly unhappy.


If my life were a storybook, this is where I would have made some dramatic and inspiring speech about how we’d never give in and run. We’d miraculously pull it off at the last moment, with ten seconds left on Loki’s countdown, and then go home to our happy ending.


But I’ve never been much good at giving speeches, and all my miracles come from the dark side.


“Midnight,” I said after a moment’s thought. Loki gave me until dawn, but I didn’t think this was a good time to cut it close. Midnight would give us about five hours before any reasonable definition of dawn. If that wasn’t enough time to get far, far away, then we weren’t trying hard enough.


“Sounds good,” Aiko said after a moment. “That gives us thirteen hours to find Katie and deal with her.”


Thirteen hours. Well, that sounded fun.


The next nine hours were an exercise in pointlessness, futility, and frustration.


It seemed bizarrely unfair that, with all the effort I’d put into this and all the favors I’d used up, there should be so little result. Of all the avenues I’d taken, none of them had yielded anything worthwhile.


The jötnar hadn’t turned up anyone even worth the bother of interrogating. In five hours of searching, the only person they’d found with any useful information was an old man who said that Katie had moved out of her apartment nearly a month earlier. All three of my housecarls agreed that he wasn’t keeping anything back, and in fact seemed positively eager to gossip about his neighbors. They weren’t the best choice for canvassing a neighborhood, but I was pretty sure they would have found anything obvious, making further investment of resources in that direction a waste of effort.


Kyra and Anna found Katie’s scent in a number of places—apartments, university buildings, restaurants, and the like—but in every case the trail was long since cold. As far as they could tell, Katie hadn’t been to any of her usual haunts in the last two weeks, and most of the trails were more than a month old. Aside from telling us that she’d been planning this for a while, which I’d already guessed, this wasn’t terribly useful.


Frishberg, probably aided and abetted by the various other forces I’d put into motion, had APBs out for Katie, Brick, and Mike. Thus far, there had been a great many false alarms, and nothing useful. They did manage to find Katie’s car, in long-term parking by the airport, but it didn’t seem to have been touched in months. The number she’d called me from turned out to be maybe the last payphone in the city, which wasn’t exactly useful for tracking her down. Katie was the type to drive halfway across town before she used a payphone, just so that if I found it it wouldn’t point me at her lair.


Pellegrini didn’t contact me at all. I wasn’t terribly surprised by that—it had been made very clear that he was cooperating under duress, and I hadn’t expected him to contribute much—but it was still rather disappointing. I hadn’t heard a word from the two Guards, either; presumably they were still too busy trying to prove I was guilty to consider actually helping.


Kikuchi, at least, was following through on his commitment. At this point, I thought he might have accomplished more than I had. Not only had his people managed to track Aubrey down, they’d also found Jimmy. It turned out that I’d been unable to contact him earlier for the simple, rather embarrassing reason that he’d changed his phone number recently. Kikuchi’s minions had interrogated him fairly thoroughly, and come to the conclusion that he was not only not participating in Katie’s schemes, he appeared to have no idea that there was anything going on at all. That fit; Jimmy always was the sort to be oblivious to something right under his nose.


That was the sum total of all our knowledge with four hours or so left to go before midnight. We’d managed to rule out a couple of suspects that were, frankly, fairly long shots to begin with. We’d managed to confirm that Katie wasn’t stupid enough to be caught by looking in incredibly obvious places, which even the dumbest psychic could probably have told us. That was about it.


I would have liked to get out and look myself. I didn’t. My minimal investigative skills were just not likely to find anything that the rest of the people looking wouldn’t have. My time was better spent coordinating everyone else’s efforts and making sure that all the various groups I was trying to manage were kept informed of each new development. I knew that.


That didn’t mean I had to like it.


Dusk found me sitting in the hotel room, watching the sun set through the window and desperately trying to think of any other way I could go about finding Katie, and failing to come up with anything more practical than dowsing. I’d gotten some food and sleep, which did me some good. I still felt abnormally tired, and my maimed hand was throbbing painfully, but I could at least think clearly.


Just when I was getting ready for another round of futilely checking in with every group to make sure they hadn’t heard anything, my phone rang. I recognized the number, but I’d been on the phone with so many people in the last few hours that I had no idea who it was.


“Wolf,” Jackal said tersely when I answered. “Is that sorcerer you told me to look for any good with shadows?”


“Yeah,” I said, starting to feel excited for the first time since I woke up. “Yeah, that’s her specialty. Why?”


“I think we’ve got something for you.”


Jackal looked, under her usual feral attitude, rather satisfied with herself. She was wearing the same thrift-store rejects as the last time I’d seen her, although she’d changed out her minions. Wishbone and Moose had been replaced by a slender, petit woman with features best described as cute. She had long, silky black hair, and pale grey eyes.

“Wolf,” Jackal said, nodding tightly to me. She’d told me to meet her in the parking lot of a smallish grocery store on the north side of the city. “This is Blackcap.”


“Hello,” Blackcap said. Her voice was quiet and hesitant, almost to the point of stuttering.


“I’ve had my people staking out groceries and restaurants since you called me,” Jackal said, pacing restlessly back and forth. “Blackcap, tell them what you saw.”


“Okay,” she said. “It was about an hour ago. There were two people using a shadow-based veil. They came in the front door and then stole about a day’s worth of food. I followed them out the door, but they turned down an alley and they would have noticed me following them.”


“Did you get a good look at them?” I asked.


“I’m afraid not,” Blackcap said, flinching away from me slightly. “They didn’t drop the veil where I could see them.”


“Can you show us the alley where you lost them?” I asked.


Blackcap glanced at Jackal, then nodded. “I can,” she said, her voice a little firmer. “Follow me.”


The alley turned out to be an unremarkable specimen of the type, about three blocks away. I could see why Blackcap hadn’t been willing to follow them in here; it wasn’t a terribly populated area, and she would have a hard time blending in with the handful of people who were present. This wasn’t a nice part of town, and Blackcap looked like she came from a background five times richer and ten times more vulnerable than anyone in sight.


Not that I believed it for a moment. She hung around with Jackal, and from what I’d seen of Jackal she was about as gentle and well-mannered as her namesake. Based on what I’d heard from Aiko, that wasn’t an uncommon result in the harsh, dog-eat-dog society of fae half-breeds. If Blackcap had survived that, it was a safe bet that she was a lot tougher than she looked.


I couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary in the alley. That wasn’t surprising, really; it had been an hour since Katie had been here, if that was who Blackcap had seen, and she wouldn’t have lingered long. Any trace of the veiling spell would long since have faded, and only in lazily-written stories do bad guys leave obvious calling cards or unique tire treads wherever they go.


Fortunately, I’d come prepared. Almost before I’d gotten a chance to look things over, Kyra and Anna moved past me and started casting for the trail.


Scent bomb, Snowflake informed me a moment later, undoubtedly relaying it from Kyra. I could communicate with werewolves directly, but it was harder, and I needed skin or eye contact to get much detail unless I was in a trance. Peppermint and silver dust. Guess we’re expected.


Yeah, I agreed. It was a little troublesome, but also a good sign. A scent bomb spiked with silver was really only good for one thing. Given that silver was rather expensive stuff, most thieves wouldn’t bother using one unless they had good reason to expect a werewolf to be tracking them. Can they figure something out?


She says she thinks so, Snowflake said after a few moments for everything to work its way through the pipeline. They used too much mint. Kyra thinks they should be able to follow it without having to breathe silver the whole way.


Awesome, I said, starting to grin. It wasn’t the friendly sort of grin. Tell them to follow it as far as they can without risking detection, and go with them to make sure. The rest of us will go get prepped. It’s starting to sound like this might be our ticket to finding Katie, and I want to be ready.

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