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.