Monthly Archives: May 2015

Interlude 10.c: Nicolas Pellegrini

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The black SUV stood out against the depressed neighborhood.


Depressed. The term amused me. Calling this sort of place depressed was a pathetic cover-up of the realities of the area. This was a suicidal neighborhood. Surrounded by industrial zones, far from convenient transportation or concentrations of wealth, it was a place that no one would choose to live.


Then again, many were not given the choice.


The vehicle stopped and I got out, checking that my coat was neat and straightening my tie. The expensive clothing stood out even more than the expensive car. That was the purpose. To many of these people, who were more accustomed to worn jeans and thrift-store rejects, such a casual display of wealth would set me above mere mortals. I might as well have been the devil himself, come to walk the streets.


Or an angel, I supposed. It was not a devil that went to Sodom.


Before I had taken two steps away from the vehicle, my employees had fallen in on either side of me. Michaelson was on my left, Andrews on my right. Brown would remain with the car, ensuring that there were no unpleasant surprises when I returned.


Across the street, Michaelson opened the door with a key. He held it open as Andrews and I stepped through; the courteous gesture looked odd on him, at odds with his bulk, his almost brutish appearance. The key word there, of course, being almost. Michaelson was violent only when necessary, and brutish never.


Inside, we were in a large, dim room. It had been years since this slaughterhouse had seen any use, but the scents of blood and feces lingered. Although that last might have been my imagination. Greeley in general smelled strongly enough to cover any absence here. Meatpacking plants are excellent investments, but on the rare occasions I visit the city I almost regret my investment in the industry. It is…distasteful.


A trio of men were waiting for us, although they did not know it. Kneeling on the floor, bound and hooded, they knew very little. Michaelson nodded slightly at the one on the left, telling me which to start with. A subtle reminder from someone who seemed disinclined to subtlety, but that was Michaelson, generally. There was both more and less to him than met the eye.


I approached the indicated man and Andrews handed me a pistol before taking the man’s hood off. His hands secured behind his back with cable ties, he was little to no threat. Not that it mattered, given that Michaelson and I were both holding guns.


Andrews was not, but he was likely still the most dangerous man in the room. He costs me a fortune, and is worth every penny of it. Whether he is worth the other costs is…open to debate, perhaps, would be the simplest way to phrase it.


“Good morning,” I said, although the reality was closer to midnight. People seldom came near this building, but some business is still better conducted after dark.


“Fuck you,” he said, glaring at me.


I put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. It was a suppressed weapon firing subsonic ammunition, which was still louder than many people seemed to think, but not enough so to attract attention from outside.


The man fell on his side, and I stepped to the next. Andrews pulled this man’s hood off as well. “Are you from Chicago?” I asked.


“You can’t do this,” he said. “Do you know who you’re dealing with?”


I shot him as well, and then proceeded to the final one. “Chicago,” I said confidently as Andrews removed his hood. “You know who I am?”


The man looked at the two corpses and then back at me. He licked his lips nervously and then nodded.


“Finally someone who can answer a question,” I said. “My people caught you dealing drugs in Denver.”


He paled slightly. He’d known that his position was precarious, of course, but he might have been hoping that he could deny any wrongdoing. Now, that wasn’t an option.


“I have an agreement with the Chicago families,” I said. “Out here, I’m in charge. I run the drugs. I run the prostitution. I run the bookies. If you’re trying to renege on that deal, I’m going to be upset.”


“I was just working for the capo,” he said, sounding panicked. “I thought he’d cleared it with you!”


I glanced at Andrews, who in turn looked at the second man I’d killed. So the capo had come to handle this job in person. That made things simpler.


“I’m going to send you back to Chicago,” I said to the bound man. “And you’re going to explain to your family that this was all an unfortunate misunderstanding.” I didn’t bother with threats. If the corpses of his former associates didn’t convince him that I meant what I said, nothing would.


Andrews hooded him again, and then we left. I handed the gun to Michaelson, and then peeled the gloves off my hands and passed them over as well. “Get someone to drive him back to Chicago,” I ordered. “Keep him hooded on the way.”


Michaelson nodded and then took out his cell phone, sending a simple text message. And that simply, the deed was done. As soon as we left, cleaners would descend upon the scene, ensuring that no incriminating evidence would remain. The bodies, the bullets, the gun, even my gloves would disappear. In New York, such things tended to find their way to the ocean; in Chicago, Lake Michigan was the venue of choice. Colorado lacked such a convenient body of water, so the cleaners here had to be more creative. Sometimes they used the incinerator of a well-bribed funeral home; other times an abandoned mine shaft was more convenient. Either way, no sign would remain of what had happened here. Two more bloodstains on a slaughterhouse floor would go unnoticed by all.


“You left one alive,” Andrews commented, while Michaelson made the arrangements. “You’re usually more ruthless than that.”


“I am a businessman, Mr. Andrews,” I said. “Returning a competent employee is a sign of respect.”


“So why not return all three?”


“The other two would have taken it as their due. That one will be indebted to me forever.”


He nodded. “Everything’s just business to you, isn’t it?”


No, I thought. Not quite.


Back in Denver, I sat at my desk and read paperwork. I owned the building, as I owned a considerable proportion of the buildings in the city, and the state. A large part of why I had risen to prominence was my understanding that, approached with the proper attitude, legitimate business interests could be considerably more valuable than traditional criminal enterprises.


This particular location, however, was solely to serve my interests. The center of my empire moved on a regular basis, preventing anyone from becoming too confident of where to find me. Typically I used buildings that were still under construction, working out of the areas that weren’t currently being worked on. That way the construction crews and I didn’t interfere with each others’ business.


Although, in reality, both sides were my business. I owned the property, I owned the construction company, I owned most of the subcontractors. When the buildings were finished I sold them at a profit and bought more property. This one would be a medical complex when it was finished, and I would probably have a considerable investment in it, in addition to having ready access to medical personnel.


Efficiency is the hallmark of good business.


The door to my office had not been hung yet, so Andrews knocked on the sheetrock before entering instead. I kept reading the letter I was currently dealing with. It was from a trusted accountant, and I didn’t want to take the chance that it was urgent. Disregarding the advice of accountants had been the downfall of many empires, criminal and otherwise. I knew that much of my success could be attributed to my understanding of economics, and I likewise knew that ignoring such things could lead to my rapid downfall.


Of course, with recent events, many of the lessons life had taught me would need to be reevaluated. But, all things considered, I suspected that meant I had to pay even more careful attention to the reports I received in the next few days.


Eventually I finished it, made a small note of what was to be done, and placed it in the tray on my desk. “Yes?” I said to Andrews.


He nodded to me. “Boss,” he said. “There’s been an incursion in the southeastern part of the city.”


“Understood. Take a group of troubleshooters and take care of it.”


He hesitated, and then said, “Boss, you might want to check this one out yourself.”


I looked at him sharply. Andrews was a powerful man in his own right, and I expected less subservience from him than I usually required from my employees. But he sounded concerned, or perhaps even worried, and anything that could worry the wizard was something that I very much wanted to pay attention to.




“It…isn’t a human incursion.”


I walked into the building, with Andrews on my right and Michaelson on my left. There was blood everywhere, staining my shoes and the hem of my slacks; I regarded this with mild irritation. The expense was negligible, but having to replace my clothing was always irksome. Bodies lay scattered around the room, broken and ripped apart, like toys after a child’s tantrum.


The child in question sat on the counter, his feet dangling above the floor. He was wearing a suit not unlike my own, although his was entirely saturated with blood, and a beret that was similarly soaked.


There was one other person in the room, a young girl. Perhaps twelve years old, huddled against the wall. She was bloody, and she was crying.


I felt a natural protective instinct at the sight, remembering another girl, another night.


I quashed that urge immediately. This was not a time for sentiment.


“Redcap,” Andrews murmured, watching the bloody man with a wary expression. “Nasty fae. Don’t trust it, and don’t get close.”


“You’re in my territory,” I said to the man. Thing, if Andrews was to be believed; he had called it fae, and the fae were not men, however close the resemblance might sometimes seem. “And you just killed several of my clients.”


The redcap shrugged. “What should I care for your clients, mortal?” it said. Its voice was smooth, almost musical, but there was a grating undertone that spoke of an underlying cruelty. It was off-putting, like a violin slightly out of tune.


Or perhaps I was reading too much into it. It must be difficult to sound benevolent while soaked in blood and surrounded by the bodies of your victims.


“They were my clients,” I repeated. “I do not tolerate challenges to my authority. Should you continue to assault my clients, I will regard it as an act of war, and I will act to defend myself appropriately.”


It looked at me oddly. I thought it was probably surprised that I reacted so calmly. “There are no rules protecting you any longer, mortal,” it said. “I am under no obligation to leave you in peace.”


“No, but your Courts explicitly grant self-defense rights to anyone who has expressed and proven a clear and substantial obligation to defend a person, location, or object which has been attacked, threatened, or stolen. I have expressed my obligation to defend my clients, and if you would like proof I can provide a copy of the contracts.”


Its eyes narrowed. “You are not a part of the Courts.”


“No,” I agreed. “But an outsider can take advantage of the self-defense rights, provided they pay the requisite weregild to the appropriate Court.” I smiled thinly. “It’s in the charter of the Twilight Court. Section twenty-three.”


“Clause seven,” Andrews added helpfully. “Paragraph four.”


I almost smiled at that. I read enough letters from my attorneys that I understood their language. It was amusing, if unsurprising, that Andrews could speak it as well.


“Self-defense only applies if you can do so,” the redcap said. It wasn’t smiling now. “I have killed thousands of your kind, mortal. Leave now and I may not do the same to you.”


“I will provide a counteroffer,” I said quietly. “Hand the child over, and get out of my city, or I will destroy you. Right here, right now.”


The creature tensed, and it seemed about to attack for a moment. Michaelson had his hand on the machine pistol in his shoulder holster, but I doubted it would care about that.


Then it noticed that Andrews was touching the dagger at his belt, and it relaxed again, although it didn’t look happy about it. “Take the mortal, then,” it said. “But you will learn to respect your betters, human. I will enjoy the instruction.”


I beckoned to the girl, who stood and ran to us. We left the building, the creature watching us the entire time.


“Will it attack us?” I asked, as we got back into the SUV. Brown was driving, as before. A quiet woman, but a very good troubleshooter. More than one person had underestimated her, and found to their dismay that she was quite, quite deadly.


“Absolutely,” Andrews said, with no hesitation. “After you challenged its pride that way? There’s not a chance it’ll back down.”


“Excellent,” I said. “Ms. Brown, take us to the fallback location, please. Mr. Andrews, what can we expect from this redcap?”


“It depends on how badly he wants you dead,” the wizard said. “If it’s a casual investment on his part, stopping it will be difficult but not impossible. He’s lethal, but more a predator than a fighter. Redcaps like to take their prey by surprise, ambush them or trick them somehow. You can’t trust anything you see with him around. He’ll also have other tactics, nasty ways of attacking. He’ll be faster, stronger, and tougher than a human.”


“I see. And if it isn’t casual?”


Andrews shrugged. “If he wants it badly enough, there’s an effectively unlimited number of ways he could attack us. I can’t really give you advice on how to deal with it.”


I nodded. “Could you beat him?”


“Maybe,” he said, but he didn’t sound confident. “In a straight fight, I’d give myself two in five.”


“Yet he backed down from you in there,” I said.


“He wasn’t ready for a fight then. Next time, he will be. If he’s really prepared for it, my odds drop considerably. I’d have to ask my patron for help. It would be…expensive.”


“Understood,” I said. “We’ll have to use our other plan, then.”


The fallback shelter was designed quite simply. The facade was that of a small office building, and on the upper floors this facade was a reality; doing things that way limited the potential of discovery. A heavy steel door blocked access to the basement level, ostensibly for security. The two basement levels were the defensible location, with the actual safe room a level below that.


Following certain incidents, many of them involving werewolves, it had become clear that I required an advisor for dealing with the less mundane threats to my power. Andrews served that role admirably, in addition to performing his other tasks. On his advice, I had taken considerable pains to ensure that my protections could serve against a broad range of enemies, human and inhuman alike.


A strong attacker, a werewolf, an ogre, could be handled easily. A skilled attacker was more challenging to defend against, but could be handled by brute-force tactics. An intelligent attacker was more challenging yet, but I felt confident there were measures in place. If nothing else, Andrews himself was a significant deterrent against that type of thing.


An unusual attacker, one that approached matters in a more abstract way, was harder to deal with. It was hard to plan for people who made a point of approaching things from unusual directions. Unusual threats were problematic, to one degree or another.


The redcap, I was confident, was an unusual threat. Something that had to be dealt with in its own way.


Andrews was confident that the creature would take its time about attacking, waiting until the opportunity was ripe for the picking. I waited in the safe room, sitting at my desk. Michaelson was seated next to the door, having already dismissed the few workers still in the offices upstairs, and arranged for my troubleshooters to be waiting in another building across the street, also owned by me.


Their weapons would not be enough to bring down the redcap. But they might be of use if it brought friends.


The girl we had rescued was curled into a small ball on one of the three cots in the room. She had not spoken since we extracted her. I was not concerned; I had seen this type of reaction to stress before, the overwhelming shock. Likely she would recover. If not, there wasn’t much I could do about it.


I was halfway through a notice from one of my lieutenants in Colorado Springs when Andrews came in. “Redcap’s on his way,” he said. “Two blocks out and closing fast. He’s got a lot of friends.”


“Anything that we should take special precautions with?” I asked, dropping the paper and standing. Michaelson stood as well. Like me, he was wearing body armor. Unlike me, he was carrying a large steel axe.


“No,” Andrews said. “They’re fae, so use iron. And remember not to trust anything you see.”


“Very good,” I said. “Mr. Andrews, please stay here and ensure that nothing gets past us. Mr. Michaelson, let’s go give our friends a warm welcome.”


Upstairs, on the first basement level, we stopped at a low wall. In front of us, a single long hallway stretched; at the other end was a narrow set of stairs, leading up to the ground level. Behind us the hallway took a ninety-degree turn and led down another set of stairs to the next level.


I ignored the waiting gun emplacements and turned instead to the video screens on the wall beside me. I pressed a button and they came to life, showing slightly grainy video of the building’s exterior.


For almost a minute, all was quiet. Then something bounded around the corner, looking almost like a dog, but wrong, too large and oddly proportioned. My uncle had bred dogs, and I was familiar with a wide variety of breeds. This was larger than anything short of a mastiff, but leaner, built to hunt rather than to guard.


More followed it, first one and then five and then dozens, until there might have been a hundred of them rushing at the building. Behind them, almost invisible behind all that fur, was the redcap. It was wearing armor, matte black mail with spikes at the shoulders and elbows, and it was armed, carrying a black staff in its hand and a silver sword on its hip.


A few seconds later guns began to fire, and the dog-creatures began dropping, spraying blood. The troubleshooters were not using light or suppressed weapons; attracting police attention was unlikely at the moment, and I was planning to abandon this location after today in any case. These guns were heavy, military-grade rifles, and the damage they could do was such that not even monsters took it lightly.


“That’s our cue,” I said, going to the wall. Michaelson grunted and joined me, kneeling behind the wall a short distance to my left.


We waited there for perhaps another minute before something struck the steel door, causing it to buckle. It was hit again, and again. The fourth blow tore it from its hinges entirely, and it flew back with enough force to hit the opposite wall before falling to the floor.


I frowned. Disappointing. Andrews had been confident that a heavy steel door would be an impedance to fae beings. Evidently he had overestimated their vulnerability to the metal.


“Hold fire,” I murmured to Michaelson, slipping my own finger into the trigger guard. He grunted at me.


A few seconds later, the first of the dog-creatures bounded down the stairs and turned towards us, sprinting down the hallway. It was fast, very fast, but it was also a long hallway. “Hold fire,” I said again, putting just a bit of tension on the trigger. Michaelson’s grunt was more annoyed this time. He knew this as well as I did.


More creatures came down the stairs, until the hallway was thronging with black fur and glowing eyes. The leading creature was close enough that I could clearly see its teeth.


“Fire,” I said, squeezing the trigger.


The M2 Browning belt-fed machine gun is one of the most widely used heavy weapons in the world. At a full rate of fire, it can send approximately five hundred rounds per minute downrange, each of which will travel fully two thousand yards while retaining enough energy to inflict lethal damage.


Using two of them in a confined space was, to phrase it lightly, overkill.


Bullets began pouring down the hallway, ripping into the enemy. The leading ranks of dog-creatures went down almost instantly, their bodies more shredded than shot. The creatures behind them fared better, on the whole, simply because they were shielded from the onslaught by their less fortunate brethren. But these rounds were designed to penetrate tank armor; even after passing through five or six other bodies, they retained enough momentum to inflict very serious wounds on those they struck.


The guns fired for less than ten seconds before they both jammed at the same moment, locking up entirely. A moment later the fluorescent lights illuminating the hallway flickered and died, leaving the area entirely devoid of light.


I smiled at that. Humans are a primarily sight-oriented species. Removing that sight is one of the most straightforward, effective means of incapacitating someone. It’s been a common tactic throughout history. Nonhuman attackers—the fae, werewolves, vampires, practically anything, really—tend to find it particularly effective. They can function better without vision than a human, and the fear that blindness causes is a weapon in itself, driving people to panic, pushing them beyond the point of reason.


It was also, of course, an entirely predictable tactic. Andrews had identified twenty-three different ways an attacker might plausibly attempt to blind us. Contingencies were in place for each of them.


Simply turning out the lights was one of the simpler approaches, and one of the easier ones to deal with. I took a step back and turned, moving for the staircase. At the same time I reached up to my forehead and pressed a button. A moment later the headlamp began emitting light, bright enough to make any worries about dimness seem laughable.


Downstairs, I waited for Michaelson to join me, and then hurried down the hallway. Behind us the dog-creatures were howling, and from the sound of it they were already reaching the bottom of the stairs.


I opened my mouth, but Michaelson was already taking a grenade from his belt. He pulled the pin, held the grenade for a second, and then tossed it backwards before hurrying on.


A moment after we reached the end of the hallway and ducked behind cover the grenade went off. My ears were still ringing from the machine gun fire, but I could hear the explosion, and I could hear the dog-creatures screaming afterward.


I smiled. A fragmentation grenade in an enclosed area was a phenomenal weapon. When it was loaded with steel shrapnel, and you were fighting fae, well, that was just icing on the cake.


Peering down the hallway, it looked as though all of the dog-creatures were dead, and no more were coming down the stairs from above. Good. I doubted the main threat had been eliminated yet, but removing the auxiliary threats was very good.


Several seconds later, the redcap walked down the stairs. Two humanoid figures stood to either side of it. None of them were obviously injured.


“Mortal,” the redcap called. “You accomplish nothing with this pathetic attempt. Give me the girl, admit your weakness, and you may yet live through this night.”


“Let me think about it,” I said, waiting for the other humanoids to join it at the base of the stairs. Once they had, I reached out and grabbed an unobtrusive lever at the top of the next flight of stairs. I tugged on it, triggering an entirely mechanical reaction. My understanding was that electronic devices could become unreliable when exposed to certain types of magical energy, so I had gone to great lengths to prepare for that. This trap involved no circuitry whatsoever. A marvel of engineering, really.


When pulled, that lever had three effects. The first was to open a trapdoor above the stairs, dumping napalm over the people standing there. The second was to trigger a pair of thermate grenades hidden at the base of the stairs.


Michaelson and I hurried down the stairs as the flames began, and the creatures started screaming. I was a little surprised at how human they sounded. I would have expected such creatures to be more obviously alien while in pain.


Down in the safe room, we stopped and waited. Andrews was standing by the door, holding his dagger in one hand and a wooden staff in the other. “Is he dead?” I asked, gasping a little. That had been quite a bit of running.


Andrews shook his head, watching the stairs with a blank expression that suggested he was seeing something entirely different. He didn’t say anything and I didn’t ask him to, walking over to my desk instead. I took my pistol from its shoulder holster and placed it on the desk in front of me, then grabbed the submachine gun from the desk drawer and held it loosely, pointed at the door.


The girl was still curled up on the cot, evidently having not moved the entire time. I frowned. That could be problematic.


My thoughts were interrupted by the sound of another, louder explosion from upstairs, as the redcap discovered the third thing the lever had done. The pressure trigger had not been armed when Michaelson and I crossed it, and as a result the landmines in the wall halfway down the hallway hadn’t detonated.


The redcap and its allies were not so lucky.


Once the noise of the explosion had faded, I looked at Andrews. He shook his head, not looking back at me, and I nodded. Predictable. The redcap was still alive, then. Pity.


The next few seconds were ominously silent, before a small black ball rolled down the stairs. It hit the ground and rolled to a stop a few feet away, just inside the door. I stood, thinking that I might take a closer look at the thing, and then I saw that Andrews was pressed against the wall as far from it as he could get, cowering and holding his staff between himself and the thing.


If Andrews was frightened of what this thing could do, that was all the reason I needed to feel similarly. I ducked down behind my desk and waited to see what would happen.


I didn’t have to wait long. Only a few seconds later the stone went off. It was something like the opposite of a grenade; rather than explode, it seemed to implode, pulling everything towards itself. The desk slid forward a few inches, I slid forward until I hit the desk, and my left shoulder pulled itself out of its socket.


The odd force faded after less than a second, and I pushed myself back to my feet with my working arm. Andrews had apparently been able to protect himself, but Michaelson was lying on the ground, evidently unconscious.


Andrews stepped between me and the redcap. The creature looked at him with something approaching respect. “Wizard. Stand aside. You need not die this day.”


“I signed a contract,” Andrews said quietly. “I meant what I said, and I don’t back out of deals.”


The redcap nodded, and the two began to circle each other. It was, in a way, like watching a man fight his evil twin. Andrews was carrying a staff of pale wood, wearing a light grey robe, and wielding a dagger. The redcap was carrying a dark staff, wearing black armor, and wielding a sword.


Which of them was evil was open to debate, of course.


The redcap cut at Andrews repeatedly, moving with inhuman speed. Andrews was limited to normal human speed, but nevertheless, none of the redcap’s attacks connected. Somehow Andrews was always in just the right place to not be hit. He looked more like he was dancing than in a fight for his life. The redcap’s sword came closer and closer to him, first six inches away, then three, then less than one, and still the wizard seemed perfectly calm, not even rushing his movements.


Even Andrews could make a mistake, though, and I didn’t feel like taking the chance. So the next time I had a clear shot, I took the pistol from my desk and shot the redcap in the chest.


I thought it was the noise and the steel-jacketed bullet, more than any actual injury, that startled the redcap. Its head whipped around to stare at me for just a moment before it returned its attention to Andrews.


A moment was considerably too long. Andrews moved in exactly as I shot, still not hurrying, and lifted his arm exactly in time with the redcap’s movement. As it turned its head back to the wizard, it dragged its own throat across the edge of the dagger.


The redcap was an incredibly tough combatant. It had been shot repeatedly, set on fire, and had two mines go off right next to it, and emerged unscathed.


But Andrews’s dagger was an entirely different sort of threat.


The redcap was, in a sense, confronted with the same issues that I had been. It had to be able to defend itself against a wide variety of threats.


Against strong threats, a brute force approach, its swarm of dog-creatures would have protected it. Against skilled threats, artistry and grace, it would have been shielded by four fae allies it had brought. Against smart threats it was competent in its own right. The fact that it had faced off against Andrews and not immediately lost was sufficient proof of that.


But that dagger was an unusual threat. It was something that presented a unique danger, and which required unique countermeasures.


Under ordinary circumstances, perhaps, the redcap would have been able to block even that attack, which had been optimized specifically to bypass such defenses. Perhaps.


But it had already expended an enormous amount of energy, and all of its allies, just to get this far.


The redcap hit the ground in a rapidly-spreading pool of blood. Andrews watched it for a few seconds, then carefully wiped his dagger clean with a handkerchief and sheathed it again.


“Are we done?” I asked. The wizard closed his eyes for a few moments, then nodded. “Good. Check on Mr. Michaelson, please.”


He grabbed the industrial-size medical kit from under one of the cots and dragged it over to where Michaelson was lying on the ground. I turned back to check on the girl.


She was still lying on the cot, watching me with wary eyes. She appeared uninjured; evidently she had been outside the blast radius of that strange grenade the redcap had thrown. That was good.


My first impulse was to bring her somewhere she could be properly cared for. A foster home, perhaps, or a psychiatrist.


Upon consideration, that impulse was a poor one. The situation out there was very uncertain at the moment. It was, I thought, not unlike a gang war. Tensions had been building up for a long time, and now that they had been released every side was fighting every other. As odd as it seemed, the safest place for her right now might very well be with me. I was likely to be tested again in the coming days, but at least I could defend myself.


“He’s fine,” Andrews said, interrupting my train of thought. “Just passed out from it messing with the blood flow to his brain. He’ll wake up in a few minutes.”


“Very good,” I said. “Come help me reduce this shoulder, please.”


He obligingly stood and walked over to me. “You know, Boss,” he said quietly, as he moved into position, “this was a risky move. Luring him in like that…it was risky. And expensive. His weregild is going to be almost half a million, I think.”


“He challenged me,” I said. “Reputation is important. Letting people challenge you and get away with it is bad for business.”


“Right,” he said. “And you couldn’t have dealt with it any other way?”


I noticed that he was looking over my shoulder at the girl on the cot. “It was business,” I said, enunciating the words very clearly. “I do not tolerate challenges to my reputation, Mr. Andrews, particularly when they are likely to become public knowledge.”


He took the hint and said nothing more as he pulled on my shoulder, tugging it back into place. I clenched my teeth around a scream, but the pain actually faded quite quickly. Andrews was quite skilled with simple medical procedures. A side effect, I thought, of his more unusual talents.


A few minutes later Michaelson woke up, and a few minutes after that he felt entirely recovered. “Very good work, gentlemen,” I said. “Let us go and get some food. I suspect our work will only get harder from here.”


“What about the girl?” Michaelson asked.


“My name is Carrie!” she snapped, the first thing she’d said.


“My name is Nicolas,” I said to her, carefully not smiling. “You can come with us if you want to.” She seemed to still be in shock, but there was clearly something in her that refused to give up. I suspected she was going to recover from this experience.


She considered it for a few seconds, then stood up and walked over to us. She paused to kick the redcap’s body as she passed, getting a little more blood on her thoroughly bloodied sneaker.


I did smile at that. Yes, Carrie was going to be just fine.


Which was good, because I could see something of myself in her. Anyone who could get over her shock and feel grateful rather than frightened over the perpetrator’s death so soon after the fact was…well, we had something in common, I supposed. A certain kinship, perhaps.


I’d lost one daughter to gang warfare already. They had kidnapped her with the intention of forcing a reaction out of me, and I supposed that it had succeeded, although not in the way they intended. I’d tried to save her, and a great many people died, and Julie had been one of them. At the end of the day, that was all that mattered. The rest of the story was just…trimmings.


The strange thing was that, in an odd way, it had been the biggest favor they could have done for me. Julie and her mother had been the only things left from my life before I started a career in organized crime. With one dead, and the other gone, I’d been able to dedicate myself wholly to my work.


In an odd way, they were the only reason I’d been able to rise as far as I had. With nothing holding me back, and a powerful motivation to gain power, I’d climbed the ranks very quickly indeed. I’d always been more ruthless than my peers. You would think that an accountant would have more principles than a thief, and in some respects you’d be right, but the scruples line up oddly with each other.


Between the lengths I’d been willing to go to and my understanding of how easy it was to bring someone down if you hit them with an attack they were utterly unprepared for, it had been surprisingly easy to set myself up as the sole ruler of organized crime in Colorado. I liked to think I’d done a decent job. I’d cut down on a lot of the violence. Even the cops agreed that I’d been a stabilizing force, even if they wouldn’t admit it.


And none of it would ever bring my daughter back.


But in spite of the pain, I was still smiling as I reached out to pat Carrie on the shoulder. It was good to be reminded of that, once in a while. It was good to remember why I’d started down this road.


As I’d expected, she recoiled from my touch, an expression of shock and pain going across her face when the steel-jacketed bullet I’d concealed in my hand.


I smiled sadly. I liked Carrie. I really did. But nothing is what it seems with the fae, and at the end of the day, business is business.


She hissed at me, her expression turning to fury, and in that moment it was easy to see that she was nothing human.


And Andrews’s dagger came out again.


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Clean Slate 10.11

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“Holy shit,” Aiko said. “Did you seriously buy a limousine?”


“I’m not sure yet,” I said, stepping inside. I left the door hanging; it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to hold it for my housecarls. “How was your morning?”


She shrugged. “I’ve had worse. Yours?”


“There are three factions of independents in the city,” I said, grinning. “One of them’s probably going to stay out of my way, and the other is tentatively backing me up. I also recruited a bunch of ghouls.”


“My,” she said dryly. “Sounds like you’ve been busy. And you even got things done without me around to help.” She shook her head. “What’s the world coming to?”


I snorted and kept walking. It was late enough now that people were waking up and moving around. There were maybe half a dozen people in the throne room, moving tables around and setting out reams of files, and I could smell food cooking upstairs. Noises from both the bedrooms upstairs and the safe room below suggested that more people were waking up and getting ready to start the day.


It felt rather bizarre to be walking through my own headquarters and realize that it felt like a home. People were talking, laughing quietly, drinking coffee as they discussed the work ahead and got ready to get to it. Even more bizarre was that I was oddly separate from the whole thing. This was my place, and yet very much not, like I was an outsider in my own home base. I walked through the crowd, such as it was, and people nodded respectfully or said good morning, but then they went right back to what they were doing. Nobody tried to draw me into a conversation, or make casual small talk the way they did with each other.


Which, I supposed, made sense. From where these people were standing, having me around was a lot like having a Special Forces soldier who’d killed enough people to fill a stadium on your flag football team. Sure, you appreciated what he brought to the table. You were glad he was on your team. You were sure as hell glad he wasn’t on the other one.


But you weren’t going to invite him home for dinner.


I told myself it didn’t matter, with limited success. Better was to just keep moving, keep focusing on the task at hand, so that’s what I did. I found Selene upstairs in the office, predictably enough. I took one chair, Aiko took the other, and Snowflake curled up around my feet.


“Things go all right, Boss?” Selene said absently, not looking up from the paper she was reading.


“Eh,” I said. “Might have gotten some more people. Decent skills, it sounds like, and fairly good numbers. But I definitely pissed some other people off, and they got away.”


“How unlike you. Should I be expecting these people to try something?”


I frowned. “Doubtful. I don’t think they even know where to go. But I suppose it isn’t impossible.” My frown deepened. “I should probably look at getting some better wards around this place. Something further out, so you’d have a little more warning.” Crap. How was I going to work that into my schedule? Wards took time to design, time and effort to set up, and more time to repair after they’d been damaged.


Stop fidgeting, Snowflake said irritably. You’re making it hard to sleep.


It wasn’t until she pointed it out that I realized that I was tapping my foot. Once she did, I found that I’d been doing it long and enthusiastically enough that my leg was getting tired.


Double crap. Of all the times for my head to be out of whack, this was one of the worse ones.


“Business,” I said, forcing myself to be still. “Starting with, why the hell do I apparently have a limo now?”


Selene grinned at me. “I’ve been thinking for a while that you need something with a bit more style,” she said. “Something that was a little more appropriate for someone of your wealth and station. So I bought you a Rolls-Royce. Later today someone’s going to come by and spruce it up a bit. You know, put your arms on the door and such.”


I stared. Aiko chortled, probably at my expression. “You bought me a Rolls-Royce,” I repeated.


“Well, technically you bought it,” she said. “But I handled all the work, so I figure I get some of the credit. Apparently you have to jump through some hoops to get the armored version, or it would have been ready sooner.”


“Did you clear this with Tindr first?” I asked. I didn’t actually ask how expensive it had been. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to know.


“Yep,” she said cheerfully. “It was well within the budget. And the payment went through before all this started, so it didn’t come out of the budget he gave you the other day.”


“Okay,” I said. It seemed fairly insane to me, but apparently that was just how things worked in my world these days. “Moving on. Any more replies come in?”


“Several,” she said, losing any hint of humor. “Scáthach says that she won’t give you formal support, but she will prohibit her people from causing any trouble within your territory for the next week. Apparently you have carte blanche to kill anyone from her Court you find here.”


“Good enough,” I said, with some satisfaction. Snowflake agreed enthusiastically, although she didn’t bother putting it into words. Aiko looked a little less happy, which probably made sense. She had issues with the Sidhe.


“Gwynn ap Nud also sent a messenger,” she continued. “He didn’t promise support, but he did request that you pay him a personal audience. Watcher didn’t reply directly, but she forwarded an internal memo recognizing you as the local authority and instructing her people to contact you before they take any action in your territory. Edward Frodsham called to say that his town isn’t having any difficulties, and your friends are ready for pickup whenever.”


Well, that wasn’t great. It wasn’t terrible, but I’d been hoping for more. Thus far all I’d gotten was unofficial backing, and while that was valuable in its own right, it didn’t have the oomph that a formal statement would. It was hard to point to conditional statements and internal memos as grounds for your authority and respect.


“You also got a few unsolicited messages,” she said. “Do you want to hear them now?”


I sighed. “Yeah, I’d better.”


“Okay. First off, Katrin requests a meeting on neutral ground at midnight tonight. She included an address.”


“Skip it for now,” I groaned. I’d known it was coming, but still, I really didn’t want to deal with that.


“You got it, Boss. Next, a man who identified himself as Jack called to offer his services. He claimed to be a mage, but didn’t offer any details.”


“Could be worth following up on,” I said, glowering at the desk. “Could be a waste. Anything else?”


“One more,” she said. “This one is from a Blind Keith. He says he wants to meet with you to discuss future prospects.”


I groaned. Triple crap. Judging by our last chat, a discussion with Blind Keith was like playing with fire, if fire was intelligent and enjoyed scaring the shit out of people.


“Okay,” I said. “I’m guessing you got contact information for all of them?”


Selene looked somewhat offended. “Of course.”


“Right. Call Jack, tell him I want to meet with him before I commit to anything. Don’t give him this address, though. Set it up at…shit, I guess Pryce’s.”


“Aren’t you banned?” Aiko asked. “Just, you know, in case you forgot or something.”


“I’m really hoping that won’t be an issue,” I said. I tried to think of what else I needed to do. Dealing with Katrin wasn’t optional, but I also didn’t really need to call her back. She wouldn’t even be conscious for hours. I could pick up Kyra and Ryan later; I mostly wanted them in case I needed a werewolf for something, rather than as actual fighters. I liked them too much to want them fighting in this mess.


That was why I’d brought in new housecarls, and hired Jibril’s ghouls. They were…disposable. And I hated thinking like that, but that didn’t make it any less valid of a point.


That just left Gwynn ap Nud and Blind Keith, neither of which could be ignored. Of the two, I thought Gwynn was the higher priority. He liked me, at least a little, and he was a Twilight Prince, which meant that his opinion counted for a lot. Blind Keith was also powerful—I was sure of that, if nothing else about him—but I hadn’t forgotten his parting words in our last meeting. He’d said he wouldn’t come to my territory again without talking to me first, and given that he was fae of one stripe or another, there was no questioning that commitment.


In fact, that was very likely why he wanted this meeting. Which, in turn, meant that putting it off until I had other things settled down couldn’t be a bad idea.


“Okay,” I said to Selene. “Tell Gwynn ap Nud that I’ll be there as soon as I can arrange it, and tell Blind Keith that I’m willing to meet with him. Ask him to pick a neutral location in…shit, I guess London.” It wasn’t my favorite place, but I knew a portal terminus there. It also had more supernatural protectors than the vast majority of cities, between the Conclave’s strong presence in the city and various local powers. London was old, and that meant it had had the opportunity to pick up all kinds of protections.


“You got it,” she said. “Anything else?”


“I don’t think so,” I said. “Is Kyi outside?”


“Yep. Putting the new recruits through their paces, I think.”


“Great,” I said. “I’ll go talk to her, then.”


Out back of the house, I didn’t immediately see anyone. Not surprising, and just as well; there was another thing I needed to take care of.


Aiko amused herself painting graffiti on the trees while I struggled to get the phone to work. As Selene had warned me, reception was intermittent; I’d had fairly good luck earlier in the morning, but this time it took a few minutes to find somewhere I could make a call.


For much the same reason, I was expecting to have to leave a message. To my surprise, though, Erin answered on the second ring. She didn’t say anything, though; I couldn’t even hear her breathing.


I smiled a little. She’d gotten more paranoid, it seemed; the last time I called she’d at least had a greeting. “It’s Winter,” I said.


Instantly, the sense of quiet, latent hostility vanished. “Winter!” she said brightly. “Hey, how’s it going? Nothing too bad after the whole prison thing, right? I wanted to come break you out, but Father wouldn’t hear of it.”


“I’m fine,” I said, although she almost certainly knew I was lying. All of Conn’s family were almost impossible to lie to. “Do you have a minute?”


“Sure,” she said. “I’m on a stakeout right now. Trust me, any distraction is welcome.”


“Great. Listen, I had a question. I ran into a guy called Blind Keith the other day. I remember you mentioning the name, and I was hoping you could maybe tell me a little about what I’m dealing with.”


There was a long, ominous pause. “Blind Keith?” she said. “Are you sure?”




“Well, that’s not good.” Erin’s voice was somber, and I shivered a little. She only had a couple of emotional states, and somber wasn’t typically one of them. “Blind Keith is…well, I told you there’s only so many people at the top of the business, right?”


“Yeah,” I said. Said business consisted primarily of killing people and secondarily of killing people while preventing other people from being killed, but I didn’t bother pointing that out. Erin was a little sociopathic, even by my standards. It wasn’t so much that she enjoyed violence—that was standard for werewolves, really. She just didn’t care about it at all. It had no real emotional value for her, and I wasn’t entirely sure she grasped the basic concept of ethics.


“Well, he’s one of them. Except he isn’t really in the business, you know? Like, he doesn’t take pay or anything. He takes strictly the jobs he wants, and he’s in it for thrills.”


Great. Just what I needed. “When you say he’s one of the best,” I said. “What does that mean?”


There was another ominous pause. “He’s good,” she said at last. “One of the more powerful people I’ve seen. The rumor is he could have been a Twilight Prince, but he didn’t care enough. I know for a fact that he can call the Wild Hunt.”


I shivered again. I’d seen the Wild Hunt, once. More than that, I’d Seen them, using the Second Sight. That experience had played a major role in convincing me that the Second Sight was not remotely worth the dangers of using it, in fact.


I knew the magic, the spirit of the Hunt. I knew exactly what it would take to call that power up and control it.


“Shit,” I said. “This is not sounding good.”


“No,” she agreed. “Let me put it like this. As a bodyguard, I’ve lost five bodies. Four of them were killed by Blind Keith. I’ve only beaten him once, and that was on one of the luckiest days of my life.”


“Shit,” I repeated. “Do you have any advice for me?”


“Maybe,” she said, then paused. “My mark just came out of his house,” she said. “Hang on a second.”


Before I could say anything, I clearly heard her set the phone down.


Then, loud and sharp and unmistakable, the sound of a gunshot.

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Clean Slate 10.10

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Naturally, when Newton and his crew had been trashing cars, my nice armored truck had been one of the casualties. They hadn’t been able to total it the way they had the other vehicles, but it had still been damaged badly enough that it would need serious repairs before it was drivable again.


I was more than a little peeved at that. That truck had been expensive. Sure, I had money to burn right now, but there was a large part of me that couldn’t help but freak out a little. I was guessing it would cost at least a hundred grand to fix the thing, and for most of my life that had been more money than I saw in a year. A lot more money.


I didn’t want to ask Shadow for a ride—that was not the right message to send—so I called Selene and told her to arrange something. She said it would be there within a few minutes, although there was a smugness to her tone that worried me a little.


After that we were left to sort of stand around awkwardly while we waited. “So,” Shadow said at last. “Why did you set yourself up as the protector of the city, anyway?”


I was pretty sure she was just talking to fill the silence, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t use the opportunity. “Obligation,” I said, shrugging. “I needed the infighting to stop for a little while so I could do something, and the only way I could think of to make that happen was to take charge myself. And then I couldn’t come up with a way out of it afterward.”


She snorted. “Sure you can. Drop everything and move to the Bahamas. You’re rich enough for it, from what I hear.”


I smiled sadly. I’d considered a plan very much like that one, once. I wondered how it might have gone, how things might have been different if I’d actually done it.


“It wouldn’t work,” I said to Shadow. “There are people you can’t hide from. If I tried to back out now, there would be several of them after me.”


“Ah,” she said, nodding sagely. “That’s why I stick to the small scale. I make enough to get by, and don’t piss off anyone who could really be a problem.”


I snorted. “Shadow, you’re preaching that normal people should be subservient to mages.”


“Sure,” she said reasonably. “But that’s the way things are going anyway. Think about it. You talked about how the masses have guns and bombs and stuff, but we have all that too. I knew a guy who had control over metal and an enchanted rifle. Best shot you’ve ever seen. We’ve got the edge on them, same as we always have. The only difference is that we aren’t being held back by the rules anymore.”


I frowned. I wanted to argue with her, but I was having a hard time coming up with how. I disagreed with her conclusions, but it was hard to see how to challenge them without some reference to ethics or tradition, both of which she clearly didn’t respect.


Why does she care? Snowflake asked suddenly. If she’s all that selfish, what’s it matter to her?


It was a good question, and I repeated it.


Shadow just shrugged. “We spend our whole lives playing by the rules,” she said. “Do this, don’t do that, think this, don’t think that, all because there’s a constant threat of retribution if you break the rules. Well, I’m tired of following the rules, and I’m tired of pretending to be something I’m not. We have the power, we have the opportunity, and I for one think it’s about time we take that opportunity.”


The conversation lapsed back into an uncomfortable silence after that. Fortunately, it was only about another minute or two before a black stretch limousine pulled into the lot. For a second or two I hoped that it might be a coincidence. Then I saw Kjaran in the driver’s seat, and sighed. “Come on,” I said to Shadow. “There’s our ride.”


As we approached, someone got out of the backseat and bowed, holding the door open. It took me a second to recognize him as one of my new housecarls, a guy called Nóttolfr. He was on the slender side for a jotun, but in a very different way from, say, Tindr. Tindr was slender because he didn’t work out enough to put on much bulk. Nóttolfr was slender because he worked out a lot, and he favored quickness over raw strength.


I wanted to ask what the hell was going on, but it wouldn’t have sent the right image, and Nóttolfr was too new to know the answer anyway. So I got in the limo like I did it every day. I went with the rear-facing seat because, hey, why not?


There was another new housecarl already waiting in the car, a jotun named Brandulfr. He and Nóttolfr had about as little in common as two jötnar could, superficially. Brandulfr the Pale lived up to his byname, with hair and eyes that looked almost white; Nóttolfr had very dark hair, and dark blue eyes. Nóttolfr was slender and wiry; Brandulfr was broad and heavily muscled, built like the proverbial brick shithouse. He gave the impression that if you ran into him with a small car, the car would come out the loser.


They did have one thing in common, though. Neither one looked remotely friendly. I almost felt sorry for Shadow, sitting between the two of them in the other seat. Brandulfr was openly carrying a semiautomatic pistol, and Nóttolfr started sharpening a knife as we drove. Kjaran didn’t ask where we were going, of course, but presumably Selene had told him what I wanted.


“So,” I said, trying not to laugh at the whole thing. I felt a parody of the classic movie gangster, right down to having Snowflake sitting next to me rather than a fluffy white cat. “It seems to me I did you a considerable favor back there.”


Shadow shrugged, a little uncomfortably. “I could have gotten away.”


“Maybe so,” I said. “But not without losing face. And I couldn’t help but notice that your friends back there were doing big, flashy magic—flipping things over, blowing things up. The sort of attack that can hit someone whether you know they’re there or not.” This last was an attempt to warn my housecarls of what to expect if things went sour. I wasn’t sure whether any of them would notice, given that two were brand new and the third was Kjaran, but I had to try.


Then again, I wasn’t entirely sure whether they even had to worry about it. Shadow’s disappearing trick worked by affecting the mind of the observer, making them incapable of noticing or remembering her even though she was standing in plain sight. It was notoriously difficult to use that kind of mental magic on nonhumans; you have to have a connection with someone to do that, and their minds tend to be alien enough that making that connection is tricky.


“That’s true,” she said reluctantly. “What do you think is a fair payment?”


“Let’s get breakfast first,” I said. “After that, I’d like some information.”


Shadow wasn’t very happy with that answer, and I couldn’t blame her. When someone doesn’t give you a clear answer to a question like that, it’s never a good thing. But sitting in my limo, flanked by my minions, she wasn’t exactly in a position to argue with me.


We completed the ride in silence.


I wasn’t sure how Kjaran knew where to go, but he made his way unerringly to my old favorite breakfast place. It was a smallish restaurant, close enough to the western edge of the city to fall within Kikuchi’s area of the map. Normally it would have been crazy busy there at eight-thirty in the morning, but today there was no difficulty finding a place for a limousine in the lot. There were a handful of bikes, some pickups, a couple of vans and sedans, but nothing like the kind of business they usually had.


I hadn’t been there for a couple of years, but I still recognized most of the staff. They recognized me, too; if I hadn’t guessed that already, I certainly would have known by the way the waitress hesitated before approaching our table. I’d taken my helmet off in the car, and even if I hadn’t they’d have recognized Snowflake.


I’d been well liked here before the whole trial thing, though, and with the way that whole fiasco ended I didn’t think anyone was quite sure how to take it. Between the two, I figured I should probably be fine so long as I didn’t cause trouble or overstay my welcome.


“Okay,” I said, once food had been ordered. I ordered for Kjaran; he had fairly straightforward tastes, and it was much simpler than trying to explain why he didn’t talk. My other housecarls were at a separate table; I didn’t necessarily want them to hear this conversation. “So how many people are there in this gang of yours?”


“About fifty who are solidly on our side,” Shadow said, shrugging. “Maybe a hundred others who are considering it.”


I stared. “That many?”


She smiled a little. “We aren’t just talking about the big players here. I know a girl whose only power is that she can tell whether something’s magnetic. That’s seriously the only thing she can do with magic. She still believes in what we’re doing, absolutely.”


I shook my head. “I just don’t get it. Even if you get what you want, that girl’s still going to be at the bottom of the pecking order. It’ll just be different people pushing her around. How can she seriously think she’s going to be better off under the society you’re trying to establish?”


“It isn’t about that,” Shadow said quietly. “We’ve spent our whole lives on the outside. We live in a culture that says we don’t exist. Even for the people without much power, this is a huge part of their lives, and they’ve been told that it isn’t real, it doesn’t matter. If you talk about it, if people even think you talk about it, you get put on pills, or thrown in the psych ward or something. Well, this is our chance to prove we exist, and make sure they remember.” She shook her head. “It isn’t about setting themselves on top, for these people. It’s about making sure people can’t just sweep us under the rug anymore.”


I sat back, stunned. She sounded so impassioned about it that, for a second, I almost started nodding along. The ideas didn’t sound crazy when she phrased them like that. She didn’t sound crazy. She sounded rational, reasonable, intelligent. She started talking and she made her beliefs sound like they made sense.


When she talked, it was hard to remember what she was saying.


I wanted to write it off as some sort of magical manipulation, but I couldn’t. I didn’t think she was powerful enough to affect me that way, or smooth enough to do so without being noticed. This was…just the result of someone who really believed what she was saying. This was the kind of speech that started riots, not because people weren’t in control of themselves or their emotions, but because they were.


How long had that anger been building up, under the surface? Hundreds of years, probably. Ever since the wise women and cunning men started to be ridiculed instead of respected. Whole lifetimes of being persecuted and condemned by human society, when they bothered to acknowledge your existence at all, and all the while the people who knew better and had real power pushed them to the fringes, used them, and never recognized them as equals.


And now, after all this time, they had carte blanche to act out however they wanted. For the first time in their lives, there was no one waiting to step in and smack them down if they got out of hand.


Bloody hell. No wonder Shadow had a hundred and fifty people following her.


Luckily our food came before I had to respond to that. I forced myself to eat slowly, cutting my steak into bite-sized pieces, but I still scraped the last bit of egg off my plate before anyone else had eaten a quarter of their food.


I sat and waited quietly for them to finish, trying to figure out what to do. I had to change my approach if I wanted to get anywhere. I’d been assuming that Shadow was in it for herself, just using the other independents to increase her own power, and that clearly wasn’t the case. If she didn’t genuinely believe what she’d just said, she was the best actor I’d ever seen, and I’d seen some good ones.


“Okay,” I said, once she was done. “You don’t like the old way of doing things, and you don’t like the rules. I get that. A few years ago, I’d probably have been first in line to sign up.”


“But?” she asked. “I’m hearing a ‘but’ here.”


I nodded. “But sometimes rules are there for a reason. They keep things sane, they make sure everyone is approaching things on the same level. It’s like the Cold War, right? If I have nukes, and you have nukes, we need some kind of rules or things are going to go to shit.”


“And you think magic is the equivalent of nuclear weapons?” she asked skeptically.


“I’ve seen Loki,” I said quietly. “I’ve seen what he can do when he gets upset. Nukes are small change by comparison.”


“That’s a deity. It’s…not quite the same, you know?”


“Sure,” I said. “But even on a smaller scale, we’re capable of some pretty scary things. Look at what happened this morning. Those guys did probably a few million in damages in less than ten minutes, between the cars they totaled, the parking lot, the buildings. And that was from a pair of small-scale, half-trained mages, no offense.”


“Okay,” she said. “Granted. I’m still not seeing a lot of reason to care.”


I sighed. “Fair enough,” I said. “I was really hoping to avoid this, but if that’s how it is, let me put this in terms I’m sure you can understand. I’m going to be keeping the peace in this town until things have steadied out again. After that, I’ll gladly help you with your cause, because I think you’re right. People really do need to incorporate mages into society and start making use of their talents. That’s the only way they’re going to survive now that nonhumans basically have an open season on them.”


“You’re making a lot of promises,” she said. “But it’s easy to promise something when you won’t have to keep that promise for a long time.”


“I keep my word,” I said, momentarily thankful that it was Kjaran sitting with us. One of my other housecarls might have stabbed her for that. “That’s one of the rules I was talking about. We keep our word, because that way everyone knows they’re on the level and they can make deals without getting screwed. If you aren’t willing to play by that rule, you might as well walk out right now.”


She didn’t look happy, but she nodded.


“Good,” I said. “Like I was saying, I’m keeping the peace. The way I see it, you basically have three options. One, you help me out. We do our best to help each other, we both come out in one piece, and we’re in good shape to work on your goals afterward. Two, you stay out of my way. I’ll do my job, you don’t cause trouble, and when it’s over I’ll still help you, because I really do think you have the right general idea. Three, you try to fight me, or you try to make radical changes while the world burns down around you. If you do that, you’re a problem I need to solve, and that won’t go well for you.”


“Or four,” she said. “We fight you, and we win.”


I smiled sadly. “Shadow, that isn’t going to happen. You’ve got a lot of people, but most of them aren’t fighters. I’m guessing two-thirds of the people backing you haven’t ever been in a fight to the death. And even if you kill me, what then? There are a lot of people with power invested in me, and I guarantee you that you can’t take them in a fight. You aren’t even a speedbump to them. Not to mention that you aren’t strong enough to hold the city against everyone who’d be interested in taking it over.”


She hesitated, then nodded. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s say I believe you.”


“That sounds good. So what’s it going to be, Shadow? You going to help me, or am I on my own here?”

“Let me talk to my people,” she said, sounding quite tired for so early in the day. “After what happened earlier, I don’t know how it’ll go. Hell, they might try to kill me on sight. But if they’re okay with it, I’m willing to help you.”

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Clean Slate 10.9

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“Okay,” I said, moving towards the door. I didn’t like the idea of being trapped in the confined space of the hallway during a fight, but it beat the vulnerability of standing by the window while people blasted at me. “What kind of threat are we talking about?”


“Newton is a sorcerer with a knack for force spells,” Shadow replied, darting through the kitchen to what was presumably her bedroom. “He’s a clumsy brute, not the type for fine control, but nasty in a fight. Get in the way of a full-power hit from him and you’re looking at broken bones or ruptured organs.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered. Then, louder, “Is there anyone with him?”


“I didn’t see anyone,” she called back. “But I’m guessing he’ll have brought his close friends. That means a wizard who focuses on fire magic and a witch that likes to manipulate people. Maybe also a shapeshifter.”


“Freaking wonderful.” That ruled out my first impulse, which had been to jump out the window and charge them, hoping to take them by surprise. If they had two serious ranged attackers, that made that plan basically just suicide by another name. I’d been on the receiving end of serious fire magic before, and while I sincerely hoped these bozos didn’t have anything like that kind of power, it was still ugly.


A moment later Shadow returned. She’d put the mask back on, and I noticed that she was carrying a knife as well. No gun, and no magical foci that I could detect. She was either very good or very overconfident; from what I’d seen thus far it could go either way. “You about ready to go?” she asked, grinning behind the mask.


“Yeah,” I said. “Let’s do this.”


In the hallway, people were milling around, unsure what to do. A handful were making their way to the emergency exits; the rest seemed to have come to the quite reasonable conclusion that the emergency was outside the building, and going closer to it wouldn’t help their odds much. Snowflake and I pushed our way through. We didn’t have to push very hard; most of them took one look at us and decided of their own accord that not being close to us was a very good idea.


I took the stairs three at a time, jostling the handful of people in the stairwell. A couple of them might have fallen down; I wasn’t sure. I couldn’t take the time to care. I had to get outside soonest.


Ground floor, moving through the lobby. I could feel Snowflake, her shoulder bumping my hip every few steps, hunger and anticipation burning in the back of my mind. There were a handful of people in my way, but they didn’t slow me down. The guy behind the desk turned to stare at me as I passed. He was on the phone, probably with the cops.


Outside, the parking lot was almost empty. The sky was overcast and the sun was barely up, leaving things dim. Most of the light in the lot came from a trio of burning cars, casting deep, flickering shadows. The air stank of gasoline and burning rubber and melting plastics.


I stopped just outside the door, slinking to the right and sticking to the shadows. It was just me and Snowflake, against three mages, any of whom might have been a match for us. That meant we had to fight smart, not hard.


Of course, that would have been considerably easier if I’d known where they were. They’d done a decent job of making that hard, although it was probably unintentional. The bright, flickering light made it hard to see anything lurking in the shadows, the stench from the burning cars made tracking them by scent impossible, and the fires made the air so turbulent that trying to track their motion that way was a waste of time.


I had to do something, though, so I moved out into the lot. There were maybe a two dozen cars, with lots of open asphalt between them. I stuck close the vehicles, staying in their shadows and moving low to the ground. I could have done more to conceal myself—summon a cloud of fog, for example, or thicken the shadows around myself—but my strongest asset at the moment was that they had no way of knowing anyone was here to fight them.


I stopped and waited near the right-side edge of the lot, listening for anything that might tell me where my prey were.


Nothing. If they were making any noise, it was covered by the crackling of the fires.


And then there was another explosion from the other side of the lot, loud enough that it hurt, the force enough to send me staggering to the side. A moment later I looked around, and saw a fourth car burning.


I grinned and started making my way in that direction. I had to move across a fairly broad expanse of open ground to do so, but that was the way it was. I stayed low and scurried across as quickly as I could; between that and my cloak, it was unlikely that I would be noticed. Snowflake was still moving with me, but she was about twenty feet to my left, where we couldn’t both be hit by a single attack.


Unless it was a really big one, I supposed, but if these guys could hit that hard, we had bigger problems.


I moved closer, watching for movement. And then I saw it, a figure around twenty feet from the latest automobile victim, moving away from the burning car.


I hesitated for a moment. It was awfully suspicious to be that close to the explosion when I hadn’t seen any other people in the lot up to that point. But it wasn’t proof, not really. I didn’t know that this person had anything to do with it. They might be totally innocent.


They might be. But it didn’t seem likely. And I would only get one chance to take them by surprise. I had to make it count.


I hadn’t really been planning on a battle today, but it would have been foolish not to expect some kind of trouble, and I was carrying a decent arsenal. Knives, guns, garrotes, a variety of stored spells—I had enough kit to deal with a reasonable range of threats.


Sometimes, though, the simplest answer is the right one. Almost the instant I saw the figure, I drew a grenade from its place in my cloak, pulled the pin, and tossed it at the figure, all in a single motion. I bolted away from the car I was hiding behind a moment later, not waiting to see what happened.


A couple of seconds later, there was a boom that made the previous explosions sound pretty insignificant. I was a good forty feet away and taking cover behind another car, and that was the only thing that saved me. I’d used these grenades a fair amount, and I knew I was inside the shrapnel radius. Armor wouldn’t do jack shit to protect me, either.


In the wake of the grenade, my ears were ringing. My healing rate would ensure that they recovered quickly, but for the moment I was functionally deaf. The guy I’d thrown the grenade at might have been lying on the ground screaming at the top of his lungs, and I wouldn’t have been able to hear it at all.


Or they might be sneaking up behind me with a shotgun.


For a few seconds everything was still, as everyone involved tried to figure out where everyone else was and what was going on.


Then the car I’d been hiding behind when I threw the grenade suddenly flipped over, as swiftly and easily as a child flipping a toy car. It hit the ground with a scream of tortured metal and shattering glass that I could hear even over the ringing in my ears.


He’s still standing, Snowflake said a moment later. Looks like he threw the grenade far enough away that he only had to worry about the shrapnel, and he managed to stop it. I’m about thirty feet behind him, and he hasn’t noticed me yet.


Don’t attack, I sent back instantly. He’ll swat you out of the air before you get close.


She didn’t say anything else, but I didn’t get the impression that she was going to do something stupid right away.


A moment later another car flipped over, a little closer to me. Newton’s work, I presumed, and a little intimidating. I knew he specialized in big, flashy force magic, but that kind of display was still impressive.


I had to do something to change the game. If I kept hiding like this, eventually he would get around to the car I was hiding behind. I was tough, but I didn’t think I’d fare well if a freaking car got flipped over onto me.


So I did something that might have been a little foolhardy. I stepped out into the open space beside the car.


“Hi,” I said, loudly enough to be sure that he heard me.


There was a pause, then he stepped into view, about fifty feet in front of me. He was standing in the light of one of the burning cars, giving me my first good look at him. He was a little short, and wearing the same style of mask as….


Damn, lost my train of thought—a valuable reminder that they had a witch with them, although I doubted I was in danger on that front. I was hard to affect with mental magic. Anyway, Newton was wearing a black mask that covered his whole face, making it hard to say much more about his appearance. In any case, I was more concerned with the cloud of small objects floating around him. I saw bits of cars, chunks of asphalt, spare change even a few bits of shrapnel that had probably come from my own grenade.


Most of the force magic I’d seen had focused on pure kinetic energy, the sort of magic that only sort of interacted with the rest of the world. Newton seemed to prefer telekinesis, actually moving objects rather than just blasting things with force. It was an unusual approach in my experience, but potentially just as deadly—as evidenced by the whole “flipping cars” bit earlier.


“Hi,” he said. “You got a problem with me?”


“You started blowing things up while I was in the middle of a meeting,” I said, tensing my legs to jump aside if he attacked. “So yeah?”


There’s another one approaching from your left, Snowflake said.


I glanced that way, trying to keep it from being obvious, and saw that another mage was indeed coming closer. This one was female, judging by her body shape, but wearing the same sort of mask as Newton. Her magic smelled sharp, biting, and hot; the fire mage, most likely.


Not good. Their two serious attackers were both in play now, and they had the advantage of position on me. If they both attacked I’d be hard pressed to avoid both threats.


“So you threw a grenade at me?” Newton said, sounding amused. “Hypocrite much?”


“All the time,” I sighed. “But in this case I think it’s justified. You’re causing trouble, and it’s kind of my job to deal with that in this city.”


“Is that so?” he asked.


Then, with no warning at all, a dozen projectiles flew from the cloud around him at me, moving fast enough that they would hit more like bullets than baseballs. I managed to dodge in time to avoid being hit, but they hit the ground hard enough to shatter the pavement. If one of those things hit me, I thought it very likely that it would punch right through my armor.


He sent another wave at me, and this time I had to roll to the side to avoid being pulverized. I managed to come to my feet as I did, but almost immediately had to dive back the way I’d come when I came to close to a car and he flipped it over, trying to crush me.


To the side, I saw that the woman had her arms raised in front of her, and a ring of pale blue fire was forming between them. It was taking a while to form, but I could smell that there was a lot of power bound up in that spell.


Well, that wasn’t good. I wasn’t especially worried about Newton’s toys, but that fire spell was another story. Wizards had a reputation for being able to gather and control ridiculous amounts of magic. It took a while for them to do so, which normally meant that they weren’t really all that threatening in a fight—but at the moment I was too busy dodging to take her out quickly.

Then, before she could finish, a blur of white fur and metal teeth streaked past from my right, moving almost too swiftly to see. Snowflake leapt at the wizard, jumping through the fire, and hit her in the chest. The fire scorched her fur, adding a new and unpleasant scent to the mess already in the air, but the wizard fell hard on her back, and the fire dissipated into a gentle wave of heat.


Newton threw another wave of shrapnel at me, but this time I wasn’t content to just stand there and take it. I ran forward, ducking under the attack. He could stop anything I threw at him, which meant that grenades and most of the stored spells I was carrying were a waste of time. Tyrfing could probably cut through whatever defense he used, though, if I got close enough to use it.


His next attack was a wider cone, less focused but also a lot harder to avoid. I couldn’t dodge them all without completely sacrificing my position and momentum, so I sidestepped the worst of it and took a handful of quarters to the chest and thigh. As I’d expected, they were small enough and fast enough to penetrate the armor easily, slipping through the seams and punching into my flesh.


I was getting close now, though, and Newton was falling back, looking scared. Another masked man had appeared behind and to the side of him, presumably the witch. I almost grabbed a stored spell to throw at him as I ran, but I was distracted by a yelp from behind me and the sudden surge of pain I felt through my bond with Snowflake. I felt a rush of concern at that, with the part of my mind that could process emotion right now—she’d lost her eye under similar circumstances, and I remembered that pain with a visceral intensity that made it hard to put out of my mind.


The rest of me was still running forward. Tyrfing was in my hand and unsheathed, though I didn’t clearly remember calling it. Newton launched something larger at me this time, the mirror from a car door. I slid to the side on my next step, just a little, and batted it away with Tyrfing. I wasn’t trying to oppose his force—I wasn’t remotely strong enough for that—just redirecting it a little, knocking the mirror to the side so that it missed me by a couple of inches. I had a strong suspicion that he was about to whip it at me from behind, but I couldn’t take the time to worry about that now. I was within reach.


I slashed at him overhand, the kind of strike that starts at the shoulder and ends around the opposite hip, but he stumbled backward and the blade fell short. I didn’t slow down, taking a step forward and bringing Tyrfing back around at about his knee level.


He reached out with power, trying to tear the weapon out of my hand, but Tyrfing could slice through magic as easily as material objects, and it was hard for him to get a grip on the sword. He could slow my attack, but not stop it. He moved a chunk of asphalt into position to block the strike, but Tyrfing sliced through it and kept going.


His attempts did some good, I had to give him that. The blade was moving slower when it hit his shin than I’d wanted, and as a result it only cut to the bone rather than chopping the limb off completely. Blood still started pouring out of it almost instantly, and he fell.


I grinned. He wasn’t going to be walking on that leg any time soon, never mind running away. I stepped closer, raising the sword for the finishing blow.


And then I suddenly realized that my real target was still standing. My gaze snapped to the witch and I snarled, suddenly remembering how much I hated it when people screwed with my head. This bastard used that kind of magic, and if I gave him half a chance he’d use it on me. The peculiar mix of anger, bloodlust and excitement that I always felt when I was using Tyrfing sharpened suddenly, focusing on the witch, and I was grinning as I ran at him.


Suddenly I pitched sideways, pain screaming through me. My left leg didn’t want to work properly, and I tripped the next time I tried to step, hitting the ground and rolling.


It wasn’t until I smelled roasting flesh that I remembered the wizard. Sloppy of me, but there was just so much to keep track of that she’d fallen through the cracks. And anyway, taking out the witch was a much higher priority. I looked back at him and forced myself to my feet, snarling through the pain.


And, thus, I was in a perfect position to see a fourth masked figure materialize behind him. It was the oddest thing; the second I saw her, I realized that I’d watched the whole time as she calmly walked up behind him, knife in hand. I just hadn’t recognized it or paid attention to it.


Suddenly I understood exactly what Shadow’s particular talent was.


She swung at his throat the second she became visible, but somehow he managed to dodge in time, and she caught his shoulder instead. He cried out in pain, and the magic clouding my mind broke, letting me focus on other things.


For example, I could focus on the fact that the fiery wizard was still active behind me, and she’d made a pretty decent attempt at cooking me. Given the chance, and with me standing still, I thought she’d probably do better next time.


I spun around, and sure enough she was around fifty feet straight behind me, with more fire gathered around her hands. I instantly pulled another grenade out and chucked it at her, not even bothering to pull the pin first.


She reacted just as fast, instinctively blasting it with fire. Those grenades were designed to be stable, but this went well beyond what it had been intended to handle. It went off.


I hit the deck in time to avoid most of the shrapnel, and I’d been far enough away to avoid the worst of the actual explosion. I picked up some more bruises, but nothing serious. She looked unharmed, but she’d also lost the spell she was planning to immolate me with. Overall, it was a wash.


The wizard looked at me, then at Shadow, who had just withdrawn her knife from the witch’s shoulder. Behind the wizard, I could see that Snowflake was picking herself up. She was a little singed, and she was still a little dazed from whatever had taken her out of the fight to begin with, but she didn’t seem harmed.


Outflanked, with Newton down for the count and bleeding from several bite wounds, the wizard apparently felt that her position wasn’t as good as it had been a few minutes earlier. She bolted, torching another pair of cars behind her to cover her escape. The witch did similarly, taking another slash from Shadow as he did so. I turned to check on Newton but the force mage was already putting distance between us. I’d been right that he couldn’t run, but apparently that didn’t stop him from levitating a chunk of asphalt and using it to carry himself.


I debated chasing one of them, but decided against it. I thought we’d come out on top in that encounter, generally, but I was still injured. Better to let them go, deal with Shadow, and catch up to the rest of the gang later.


“Okay,” I said, sheathing Tyrfing. “That was fun.”


“You aren’t going to ask what I was doing?” Shadow asked lightly. I noticed that she didn’t sheathe her knife.


“Nah,” I said. “I’m pretty sure I already know. Your magic makes people not notice you, right? You aren’t invisible, they can see you just fine, but there’s a block that keeps them from consciously recognizing or remembering you. I figure you turned that on the second I was out of your apartment and followed me out, waiting for a chance to take out one of us without being killed by the counterattack. That about right?”


She glowered at me. “About.”


I grinned. “Cool. Nice trick, by the way. So do you want to continue that conversation we were having? I could go for some breakfast.”


“What’s stopping me from just disappearing and walking off?”


I grinned a little wider, a little more manic. She would hear it in my voice, even if she couldn’t see my face. “I am,” I said. “You can hide from me. We both know it. But if you do that now, right after I bailed you out of that mess, I’d think it was rude. And we both know that you can’t keep your concealment up indefinitely. If I bring everything I’ve got to bear on you, you won’t last long.”


“Are you threatening me?” she asked. “I just want to know where we stand.”


“Nah. I don’t need to threaten you. The way I see it, your crew just declared mutiny with style, and you haven’t exactly made a lot of friends with your lifestyle. Your former associates are going to want your head, and the other factions aren’t going to be terribly supportive in your time of need. Like it or not, Shadow, I’m the only game in town right now.”


She glowered at me, then sighed and pulled the mask off. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s get some breakfast.”

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Interlude 9.y: Selene

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“We have to get him out,” Kyi said. The jotun was on edge, as she had been for the past day; she paced a lot, and fidgeted when she wasn’t pacing.


“He doesn’t want out,” I said patiently. “Or he would be out.”


“I know that,” she snapped. “But we need him. This whole thing will fall apart without him.”


Not for the first time, I wondered whether Winter had been entirely wise to place Kyi in command of the other housecarls. She wasn’t suited for it; too impulsive, too accustomed to working alone. And she didn’t have much of a relationship with her fellow jötnar; she was too far removed from their cultural ideals. Their society emphasized honor in battle, and while Kyi Greyfell was a hardened and practiced killer, she had never laid claim to honor.


It would be so easy to show her how to fix that. Kyi was assertive, independent—but also socially anxious, and inexperienced with interpersonal relationships. I’d seen that pattern before, more times than I could remember. Given a week I could be her trusted confidante. Given two I would be in charge of the housecarls in all but name.


I started to move my hand to touch her shoulder, then paused and lowered it again, smiling a little. That wasn’t my job anymore. It was sort of funny how often I had to remind myself of that, but then the habits of a lifetime were hard to break.


And besides, Winter did give her the position. It might seem like a bizarre decision to me, but that was par for the course. He had a tendency to do things that seemed utterly batshit at the time, but somehow ended up being good ideas. Crazy just worked for him.


“Kyi,” I said instead. “Relax. We can keep things going until he gets bored of being in jail. Trust me.”


She looked at me, and I knew she wanted to tell me I was wrong. But I smiled at her, a warm, purely friendly smile, and she didn’t say a thing.


“You don’t get it,” Jimmy said. “We owed Winter. And honestly I still think that was ridiculous, but even if believed him about it, we owed him, personally. Not this ‘organization,’ whatever the hell that means.”


I kept my smile, though inwardly I was certainly not enjoying myself. It had only taken me about ten minutes to understand Winter’s complaints about dealing with Jimmy, and then some. He was the kind of guy who had a massive inferiority complex and a tiny dick, and ended up in charge mostly because nobody gave enough of a crap to fight him for it.


I’d dealt with his type more often than I liked to remember. I was good at it. Playing a guy like Jimmy was all about attitude. You had to play to his insecurity, make him feel big and important.


So, while I wanted nothing in that moment more than to tell Vigdis to knee him in the crotch until he stopped moaning, I smiled a little wider and leaned forward, hunching my back a little to look just a tiny bit smaller. “I know,” I said, keeping my voice a little bit on the quiet side. “But I don’t want to have to tell him I let you leave?” I let my voice rise at the end of the phrase, making it a question.


“Winter’s in jail,” he said. “He might never get out.”


I squirmed uncomfortably in my chair, using the motion to catch Vigdis’s eye. She was already stepping up behind Jimmy and I knew that she was planning to hit him in the head from behind and maybe go a little bit further. She stopped when I glared at her, though, and Jimmy didn’t know a thing.


Not good, for Vigdis to be here for this meeting. But I had to have some kind of muscle with me for the sake of both safety and respect, and I had to cycle the housecarls through it or the one stuck with the job would go crazy with boredom.


“I know,” I said, sitting still again. “But I have to hope he’s coming back, you know? And if you go, I’m worried that people will think he’s not going to? And I don’t want to have to explain that to him if he does come back.”


He opened his mouth, then paused and glanced me over. I was keeping my posture open and inviting, and between that and the kind of guy he was, I knew exactly what was going through Jimmy’s mind. “Okay,” he said, in what was probably meant to be a gallant tone but mostly came across as ridiculous. “I guess I can stay a little longer, then. For you.”


I kept my face and posture steady until he left, then sat up and took a long drink of water. “Pompous asshole,” I muttered.


“How do you do that?” Vigdis asked. She sounded mildly curious, nothing more. “Make them do what you want like that.”


“It’s all about making them want to make you happy,” I said, shrugging. “With a guy like Jimmy, that means pretending you think he’s as important as he does. Piece of cake.”


“Sounds like a lot of work.”


I snorted. “It can be. Tragically, we can’t all just turn into a wolf and eat the people that annoy us.” It would be easier if I could, but I didn’t even have enough of a talent for shapechanging to adjust my features. A lot of succubi did—it was a helpful sort of thing, in that line of work—but my talents had always been in…other realms.


Pryce’s was bustling, people carrying food and drink back and forth, money changing hands. It was rather pleasant to just sit back and watch it all, almost meditative.


“What can I get for you?” the waitress asked, sounding somewhere between bored and harried.


I met her eye and smiled, keeping the expression gentle. “I’d like a fried chicken sandwich, very spicy, and a glass of cola, please.”


A couple of moments passed, then I nudged Tindr with my elbow. He scribbled down a few more numbers, then said, “Porterhouse steak, rare, side of fries, coffee.” He didn’t even look up from his notebook.


I rolled my eyes. Some people are hopeless.


I kept watching the crowd while we waited. The mood in the restaurant was pleasant, upbeat. No real worry that I could see, not much tension. People were willing to sit where they couldn’t see the door. In the back Rachel Brown was winning a game of pool, as usual.


Tindr kept writing, occasionally referencing another notebook or a printed sheet. I wasn’t sure what he was doing exactly. Calculating the likely return from investing in a bar in Texas, I thought, or at least that had been his pet project yesterday. Tindr was always working on something or other.


The waitress came back in just a couple minutes, carrying a tray. She dropped plates and glasses in front of us. “Is there anything else I can get for you?”


I picked up my soda and wrapped my lips around the straw, holding her gaze the whole time. “No, thanks,” I said a few seconds later. “I think we’re good.”


She walked away, a little flushed, and I smirked and picked up my sandwich. It was good. I didn’t know how Pryce’s kitchen always knew exactly how to cook the food, but it was always perfectly spiced, just hot enough to burn without getting in the way of the flavor.


“You’re ridiculous,” Tindr said, closing the notebook and setting it on another chair. “Don’t you ever get tired of flirting?”


I shrugged. “Not really. It’s fun, and it’s good to keep my hand in.”


“You don’t even do that kind of work anymore.”


“Maybe not, but I spent twenty years in the business, and I’ve been out of it for what, not quite three? Some things are still habit.”


We ate in silence for a while, then Tindr suddenly asked, “Did you like it? Being a succubus, I mean.”


I considered the question for a few seconds, then shrugged. “It’s got its ups and downs, like anything else. The first job’s the hardest. Once I was past that it wasn’t bad.”


“Your first wasn’t good, then?”


“No,” I said. “No, he wasn’t good.”


He’d been one of the more twisted motherfuckers it had been my displeasure to know, was more like it, but I didn’t want to get into that with Tindr. At least it had been a short job. It barely took me a month to get him solidly in our camp, then I put a spike in his ear one night and that was that. It was a bit of a clumsy job, but I was a rookie. I’d gotten much smoother since then.


“I’ve never done anything like that,” Tindr said, cutting his steak meticulously into bite-size pieces.


I tried to figure out what he was talking about—it could be hard sometimes, since at least a quarter of any conversation involving Tindr never made it out of his head—then turned to stare at him. “You’ve never had sex?” I asked, somewhat incredulous.


He kept cutting his meat. “No,” he said. “I’m not exactly good with people.”


I nodded. “You want to?”


He paused. “Is that a serious offer?” he asked after a moment. “I can’t tell with you.”


I shrugged. “Sure. I’m busy for the rest of the day, but tomorrow should be fine.”


He resumed cutting his steak, but it had clearly cost him something to do so. “Why on earth would you do that?” he asked, not looking at me. Pointedly not looking at me.


“It’d be good for you,” I said, smirking a little. “And it might be fun. Sex doesn’t always have to be a big deal, you know.”


There was a long, long pause. “Thanks,” he said at last, about as gladly as someone pulling out his own intestines. “But no thanks. You’d find a way to use it against me. No offense.”


I almost laughed at that. It had been a while since I got offended about that sort of thing. I mean, when you’re literally a demon tasked with seducing people into evil so that you could take their souls to Hell, it’s hard to get worked up about people treating you with a little mistrust. Not that I really knew why Hell wanted souls, since they didn’t get anything much out of it. I supposed it was good for a certain amount of influence with the people in charge, since they’d built the place with the intention that it do so.


That raised the question of why they’d built it, but I knew better than to ask that question. My grandfather and his cronies had thought it was funny. End of the day, that was all the reason they really needed.


“That’s not what this is about,” I said to Tindr, making sure to keep my voice in exactly the same casual tone as before. “Like you said, I’m not in that line of work anymore. I’ve cut ties with Hell. I really don’t have an ulterior motive here; it’s just to keep my hand in, have a bit of fun, and do you a favor because I like you. Don’t make it more than it is, and we’ll both walk away happy. I give you my word.”


He wanted to think I was lying, I could tell, but he didn’t. I’d given my word, after all, and that carried weight in his world. A bit naive of him to think it also carried weight in my native culture, but that didn’t matter, since I was actually being honest. Even if I hadn’t cut ties with my old bosses, I wouldn’t have gone after Tindr. He belonged to Winter, which meant that taking him would be both poaching and a betrayal of my employer’s trust, and neither one was my style.


“Okay,” he said at last, looking at me again for the first time since the conversation took this turn. “Tomorrow?”


I grinned and took another bite of my sandwich, a slow bite, dragging my teeth through the meat. I chewed slowly and then swallowed, still grinning. “Tomorrow,” I agreed.


He hesitated, then nodded. “Okay,” he said again. “But we still have a meeting to think about.”


I sighed, and the smile went away. “Yeah,” I said. “We do.”


Nothing more was said as we finished eating, then walked over to another table, a small one tucked away in the darkest corner of the room. The woman sitting there watched us approach. Her features were bland, the sort that wouldn’t stand out in any crowd, but there was a calculating hardness to her gaze that betrayed the lie, if you knew how to look.


“Miss Kuzmak,” I said as we reached the table. I didn’t bother flirting with this one; she was the type to appreciate a purely businesslike approach. She was not asexual, I thought, just the sort that didn’t mix business and pleasure. I could be wrong about that—my ability to read people was the result of practice rather than magic, after all, and it wasn’t infallible—but I was fairly confident. “I’m here on behalf of Winter Wolf.”


Her eyes flicked from me to Tindr, and she nodded, once. “I know who you are. Sit down.” We did so, and she leaned back a little, relaxing. Her hand was still under the table, though, and I was guessing she was holding a weapon of one sort or another. “What do you want?”


“You know my boss is in prison right now,” I said. “I’m concerned that people might think that means they don’t have to honor their commitments to him.”


“I don’t pay tribute to Winter,” she said, which was true. He’d always preferred to just have an understanding with Luna, rather than take money. “And I’m not stupid enough to think he’s out of the picture.”


“But you know people who are,” I said. “Yes? In this town, if someone’s in the community and they want something done on the sly, they talk to you. You’re good at your job. You know what’s happening in this city.”


“I know things,” she agreed. “What’s it to you?”


“We’d like it very much if you could tell us where to find these people,” I said with a smile. “So that we could take care of any misunderstandings. How much would we like it again, Tindr?”


The jotun opened another notebook and started reading from it. I ignored that part of the conversation; I was familiar with human economics, generally, but my knowledge was vague and not particularly tied to this region. Tindr was much better with it, which was why he was here for this meeting.


Luna listened to it, then looked back at me. “You’re asking me to betray my clients,” she said, her voice quiet and hard. “Money isn’t worth taking that kind of hit to my reputation.”


I smiled broadly at her, keeping my own eyes as hard as hers. It was challenging to control that, a matter of posture and fine muscle control in my face, but I’d practiced every day in a mirror for years when I was younger. “Winter isn’t going to be in that prison forever,” I said, calmly and quietly. “We both know that. And when he gets out, he’s going to know who stayed on his side while he was gone. And he’s going to know who didn’t. Which one do you want to be?”


She looked at me for a few seconds longer, then nodded once, tightly.


I had a mole in the audience for Winter’s hearing. Of course I did; it wasn’t hard to arrange, and it might be critically important. I couldn’t go myself for fear of being recognized, but I wasn’t going to let it go completely unobserved.


Which was just as well, since he sent me a text message the second Loki walked in the door. A few moments later I got another message suggesting that he was televising something important, so I rushed downstairs. The television in the kitchen didn’t get much use, but I made sure it functioned.


I watched the whole thing, then shut it off and went downstairs, muttering curses in the language of my childhood as I went. The language of demons was good for cursing in; it sounded like a snarling animal crossed with a chainsaw when you were being pleasant.


I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I knew it would be big, so I immediately alerted Kyi, who in turn would alert the housecarls. Then I went to the phone to contact our various other assets. I hadn’t called on the mages since I talked Jimmy around, not wanting to push the boundaries of their loyalty, but if there was ever a time to risk it, it was now. I also called Luna and the various informants we’d contracted ourselves, telling all of them that we wanted to know what was happening in town before it finished happening.


Other than that, there wasn’t much I could do beyond sit tight and wait for Winter to give us more specific directions. I was confident we’d be seeing him again soon, at this point. Calling Loki into things like that was an act of desperation—calling on Loki was an act of desperation, period, as anyone who knew the first thing about him could say. Winter wouldn’t have done so if he weren’t pushed to the limit, which meant he wasn’t going back to jail.


It ended up being almost five days before he came back to Colorado from wherever he lived—he hadn’t even told me where that was, which seemed like a bit of excessive paranoia, but I wasn’t going to argue with my boss on that topic. Tempers were wearing thin by that point, as people got tired and irritated from days on end of being on high alert, but the reaction when he walked in the door was still instant and respectful.


I felt a bit of pride at that. It hadn’t been easy, but I’d managed to keep the ship running tight while he was gone.


Winter ignored the whole thing, walking straight across the room, his hound and his girlfriend beside him. Aiko was walking a little closer to him than normal, which was reasonable enough under the circumstances. I was just surprised she hadn’t tried to break him out of jail.


Winter walked up and sat down in his throne, which had been kept scrupulously empty since he left it. A kind of sigh went through the room at that, as everyone let go of a tension they hadn’t realized they’d been holding.


It was good to have a jarl again. Even those of us who would never admit it were glad to have that feeling of leadership, of there being someone at the helm of the metaphorical ship.


“Jarl,” I said, approaching him and his retinue. Kyi was next to me, representing the other side of the middle-management in this arrangement. “We’ve kept things going in your absence.” I didn’t mention how godawful hard that had been. It wouldn’t have been appropriate.


“Thank you,” he said, and Kyi straightened up a little, standing with more pride in her bearing. Just two words, but even that much recognition got a reaction out of her.


“It’s good to have you back, sir,” she said.


He smiled, and if the expression was a bit vacant, a bit warped, I was probably the only one who noticed. “It’s good to be back,” he said, and I knew that things were going to be all right.

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Clean Slate 10.8

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This one wasn’t a formal meeting at a neutral location. In fact, the person I was here to meet didn’t know I was coming at all.


There was a very good reason for that. Selene hadn’t been able to dig up much on the leadership of any of the independent factions—apparently they’d all been content to keep their activities quiet until recently.


But Shadow was the spokeswoman for the camp that felt that people with magic were better than normal humans, that they deserved to be in charge. They were a group that was defined by a serious and extreme agenda, and apparently they were willing to use violence to advance it, even while the world was going to pieces around them.


The funny thing was that, on some level, I understood where they were coming from. When you can stop bullets, or bench press a small car, or blow things up with your mind, it can be hard not to look at a plain old human being and think of them as lesser. People on the fringes of the supernatural got used to being marginalized, from both the connected players and normal society. It wasn’t hard to see why Shadow had been able to attract followers under the platform of “It’s our turn now.”


And just from that, I could be fairly confident that Shadow wasn’t the kind of person who would respond to diplomacy and negotiation. Someone who thought of personal power as the appropriate basis for societal power, who wanted to move up in the world and instantly looked to move someone else down, had a very different outlook on life than the idealists I’d met with earlier.


I intended to convey my message in terms that she could understand.


So rather than a restaurant or a park, we pulled up in front of an apartment building. It was nice enough, as such things went, a fairly small building with lots of windows. There was a guy at the front desk just inside the door who looked like he wanted to stop me. I just smiled at him and kept right on walking.


People don’t usually stop you if you look like you know what you’re doing, and this guy was no exception. Even though I was wearing a hooded grey-black coat, and accompanied by a ridiculously scary-looking husky. Snowflake wasn’t wearing armor, and mine was covered by the cloak, but it was still not the sort of ensemble that you should probably let walk into your apartment complex unchallenged.


Then again, maybe he was calling the police behind us. It might not matter—I imagined they were too busy to respond to every suspicious person call. Either way, it was probably best to work fast.


I hadn’t been able to get Shadow’s residence narrowed down any further than this building, so I was going to have to find her apartment the old-fashioned way. I started on the ground floor, walking slowly down the hallway and looking for anything out of place.


I found plenty of things. The cat in 103 was in heat, and pissed off that she couldn’t do anything to relieve the tension. From 107 I caught the scent of raw beef, and lots of it. That had nothing on 112, where I smelled blood and camphor, and heard a low moaning coming from inside. I almost went into that apartment, until I realized that they had a pet dog and got a look at things through his eyes.


Then I realized what the residents were up to, blushed, and kept walking. I considered myself fairly open-minded on the subject—Aiko has a rather bizarre imagination, after all, and my pain tolerance and healing rate were both off the charts. It would have been somewhat odd if we hadn’t played around a little. Watching other people going at it, though, that was a different story.


I didn’t run into anything else quite that exciting as I finished surveying the ground floor, but there were plenty of other oddities. It was amazing, really, all the things that happened behind closed doors. This was a pretty normal apartment building, pretty bland, and after a casual examination of the place I still had a ridiculous amount of blackmail material.


I finished looking around and moved up, doing the same thing on the next floor. It was a good thing that it was a smallish apartment complex; I couldn’t have done this in a really big place. But there were less than two dozen apartments per floor, and I only needed about thirty seconds to clear each one. It didn’t take too long.


Finally, when I was midway through the third floor, I caught what I was looking for. Apartment 309 smelled of magic, the sharp disinfectant tone of humanity cut with a shot of darkness. There was something odd about that smell, something I hadn’t encountered before. It was quiet and dusty, but there was something about the scent that was deliberate, the result of action rather than chance.


To put it in simpler terms, there was the darkness you got when you couldn’t see, and the darkness you got when you closed your eyes. This was the second one, and I didn’t know what that meant.


There was nowhere to go but forward, though, so I walked up and knocked on the door. I had to knock a couple more times before I heard rustling cloth inside, and then it was almost another minute before footsteps approached the door.


I hated not knowing what was going on. There were no pets in this apartment, so I had nothing to go on but what I could hear from outside to guess what was happening.


Finally, just when I was contemplating picking the lock and going in, the door opened a few inches before being caught by the chain. The woman on the other side was short and thin, with brown eyes and dyed-black hair that was rather disheveled. She was wearing a black robe and a black mask that covered everything but her eyes.


“Hi,” I said dryly. “You must be Shadow.”


“Who are you?” she asked suspiciously.


“Winter Wolf. Can I come in, please? I’m afraid one of your neighbors will see us.”


She frowned at me suspiciously. But apparently she couldn’t think of a good way to tell me no, because a few seconds later she reached up and unhooked the door chain.


I went in, taking a look around the place as I did. It was a nice apartment, not terribly large, but nice. The furniture wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but it hadn’t been purchased at a garage sale or IKEA, either. There were a few bookshelves, with a whole lot of books stacked on them, mostly paperback fiction.


I took a seat on a leather couch that had seen its fair share of use. Snowflake sat next to me and rested her head on my thigh, where I could scratch her ears while Shadow locked up.


A few moments later she came back and sat on the other couch, which was at right angles to the one I was on. That gave both of us a decent view of the other, while also putting the coffee table between us.


“Would you care for some tea?” she asked after a few moments. It sounded like she wasn’t sure what else to say, so she fell back on that by default.


“Please,” I said. “Also, no offense, but I’ve gotta ask. What’s with the robe and mask?”


“I was asleep,” she said. “The robe was the simplest thing to throw on. As for the other…well, look at it from my perspective. If you got woken up by a strange mage knocking on your door, would you really want to answer it without some kind of protection?” She smiled wryly. “Obviously not, given what you’re wearing.”


“The armor serves a practical purpose,” I said defensively. “It makes sure that if someone tries to shoot me, it won’t work.”


“The mask is another kind of protection,” she said quietly. “Although not one that will do me much good here, I guess.” She stood up. “Let me get that tea.”


It took a few minutes for the water to boil, which I mostly spent scratching Snowflake’s ears and trying to reconcile this homey apartment and being offered tea with a power-hungry faction of mages.


When Shadow returned, she’d ditched the mask and traded in the robe for a black T-shirt and jeans. Without the mask her face was a little pale and visibly freckled. Her hair was still mussed, but now it was artfully mussed, the sort that happened on purpose for stylistic reasons.


She set two cups on the table, followed by a jar of honey, a small pitcher of cream, and a teapot. She made no move towards either cup, letting me choose. Courtesy in the supernatural world, particularly between those who weren’t quite enemies but certainly weren’t friends, had a lot to do with minimizing the possibility for assassination.


Not that I was safe. There were all kinds of ways to get around the standard precautions, after all. She could have just taken a preemptive antidote and then slipped the poison into the teapot, for example. But it limited the danger, and the fact that she’d done things this way said a lot.


“Thank you for the hospitality,” I said, taking one of the cups and pouring tea into it. It was something of a loaded phrase; the rules of hospitality were taken very seriously by the vast majority of supernatural beings. Do something to violate them, and you could expect very little welcome once word got out.


“Of course,” she said, taking the other cup. “Would you like some honey?”


“No, thank you. I don’t care for sweet tea.”


She shrugged, spooning some into her cup. “Suit yourself.”


I settled back into the couch, taking my helmet off and setting it next to Snowflake. It would be hard to drink while wearing it, and removing it would send another message, a less hostile one. “Okay,” I said. “No offense, but you’re really not what I was expecting.”


She raised one eyebrow, blowing on her tea to cool it. “Really?” she said. “And what were you expecting?”


“I’m not sure. Something a little less pleasant, I suppose. I mean, you’re the ringleader of the most aggressive, power-hungry faction of independents in town right now. No offense.”


“Is that how you think of us?”


“Your central tenet is that people who don’t have magic should be subservient to those who do,” I said dryly. “It’s kinda hard to interpret it any other way.”


She was quiet for a few seconds, then abruptly asked, “How many dogs are there within a block of us right now?”


“Nineteen,” I said instantly, then paused.


It was the strangest feeling. I hadn’t thought about that beforehand. Oh, I’d been aware of the animals nearby, but I hadn’t stopped to count them or anything. And yet, the instant she asked, I knew the answer, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was right.


“And cats? How many of them?”


“Twenty-four. I’m sorry, is this relevant?”


She shrugged and took another sip of tea. “How hard would it have been for anyone else to answer that?” she asked idly. “I mean, a ‘normal’ person, a plain old standard-issue human being, would have to work for it. They could go door to door and ask people, but that wouldn’t account for strays. Or they could do research on the demographics of the area and compare it to standard values, and maybe get in the right general area. Either way it would take a lot of work and the answer you get would have a certain margin of error. I ask you and I get an answer right now, no delay, no uncertainty. Just boom, there’s your number.”




“So you of all people should agree with me,” she said, setting her cup down. “When I say we’re better than they are, it isn’t racism or classism or whatever ism you want to call it. It’s a statement of fact, plain and simple. You’ve got access to information on a level they can only dream of. I can walk into their house right in front of them, pick up their treasured belongings, and walk back out, and they won’t do a thing to stop me.”


“Can,” I asked quietly, “or have?”


She smiled a little. “This apartment doesn’t pay for itself.”


I nodded. “So what you’re saying is that might makes right. We have the power, so we should use it. Is that about right?”


“I guess so, yeah. Although it’s really not any different from what you’re doing, is it? I mean, I’m not going to pretend I know everything you do, but you’re taking power, right? Taking control?”


“That’s different,” I said, although I didn’t sound convincing, even to myself. “I’m doing it to help people.”


“Sure,” she said. “I get that. That’s why a lot of the people with me are speaking up now, when they haven’t before. The old rules, the old protections, they don’t apply anymore. That means that we’re the only ones who have the knowledge and the power to keep people safe. But we can’t do that while we’re too attached to the way things have always been to move forward.”


“You know,” I said quietly, sipping just a tiny bit of my tea, “there are a lot of people that would say that you’re wrong. That the ones who have that kind of power should be answerable to the people, not the other way around.”


She snorted. “Yeah, right. Since when has that ever happened? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea, but the real world doesn’t work that way. The people in power always rig the game in their favor. I’m just not in denial about it.” She grinned. “Besides, if you really believed that, wouldn’t you be doing things aboveboard instead of just taking power by yourself?”


I winced. Shadow had scored a very palpable hit, there. “I get what you’re saying,” I said. “But there are a couple of things you’re overlooking. First, your estimates of relative power are whacked. There are like a hundred of them for every one of you, even if you convince all of the mages and minor talents to side with you, and they’ve got things a hell of a lot nastier than torches and pitchforks these days. Second, this is a temporary situation. Anarchy is a nice concept and all, but there’s too much pressure from above for it to last long. The major players want things stable and orderly.”


“And you don’t think that we could make things stable?”


“No,” I said. “Not in the long term. Have you ever read Leviathan?”




“It’s an old philosophy book by Thomas Hobbes,” I said. “The way he looks at it, the natural state of things is a lot like what you’re describing. It’s all about personal power, who’s the strongest, that kind of thing. But if you want a stable society, you need a unified government backed by something more than who has the biggest stick, you know? If the system is based on personal power and strength, then there will always be someone who thinks he’s the baddest guy around. Things will never really be stable.”


“That’s a fair point,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s the only way to run things. Think about it. How much of what you’re saying here is based on reality, and how much of it is just what you’ve been taught to believe? Right, wrong, good, bad, they’re all just rules that the people in charge made up to stay in charge, and keep the masses down. Well now it’s our turn, and we don’t have to listen to any rules but the ones we choose.”


I was still trying to think of how to respond to that, or how to convince her that what she was doing really wasn’t a very good idea, when there was a sudden boom outside.


Most people probably would have been confused then, or wondering what was happening. I wasn’t. I’d heard explosions before, and I knew one when I heard it. This had been louder than some, but not ridiculously, which meant that my ears were ringing but my balance wasn’t thrown off.


It only took a couple of seconds for me to be on my feet, Tyrfing in one hand, pulling my helmet back on with the other. Snowflake rose beside me, a snarl bubbling up in her throat, lips pulled back to show metal teeth.


Shadow was apparently no amateur herself, though. By the time I was ready to go, she was on her feet and looking out the window. A moment later there was another explosion, and this time I could see the red glow from outside. Somebody was starting fires out there.


“Unbelievable,” she said, letting the curtain fall. “That’s Newton. He’s one of my inner circle.”


“Not anymore, apparently,” I said dryly. “That’s the trouble with preaching the übermensch philosophy. Sometimes people take you seriously.”


“I’m not surprised he wasn’t loyal to me,” she snapped. “I’m surprised he was stupid enough to turn on me like this. He of all people should know better.” She turned to me. “Winter, I’m sorry, but we have to put this conversation on hold. You want to give me a hand with this, it might be good for both of us. Newton is…he’s not someone that you could have this debate with, let’s just put it that way.”


I pursed my lips and nodded. “Fine,” I said. “But you’ll owe me.”


All right, Snowflake said, sounding a little more excited than was comfortable. And here I thought today would be boring.

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Clean Slate 10.7

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“Good news,” I said. “I just hired an army of ghouls. They’ll be there around noon to talk about integrating them into our plans.”


There was a moment of shocked silence from the other end of the phone before Selene laughed. “You really never fail to surprise, do you, jarl?”


“I try,” I said lightly. “Now please tell me you’ve got something on those names I gave you.”


“I’ve got something,” she said, any trace of humor suddenly gone. “It looks like there are actually three factions among the independents right now. You’re meeting one of them for breakfast in half an hour.”


She rattled off an address, and I almost groaned. I could get there in half an hour—maybe, if the roads weren’t in too bad of shape—but not with much time to spare.


“Okay,” I said, putting the truck in gear. “Tell me about these factions. Broad strokes, right now.”


“The main thing they disagree upon is how to respond to the unrest. One side feels that it’s dangerous and they should just be trying to survive it. The other two are of the opinion that it’s an opportunity, a chance to change the basic rules of the game while everything is in flux. One of them wants to see mages and magical creatures rise to social and political dominance. The last one is more concerned with internal affairs, trying to shake up the traditional power structure and gives the independent actors a bigger say in how the system works.”


I did groan at that. I so didn’t need to be dealing with that kind of political maneuvering right now. I mean, I’d rather not deal with it at all, but for it to be going on at the same time as all the other crap I had to deal with seemed…more than slightly unfair.


“Which one am I meeting with?”


“The third,” she said, sounding entirely too cheerful. “They want to talk you into supporting their cause, I think.”


“That’s insane,” I said, more-or-less automatically. “I’m about as closely tied to the traditional power structure as a guy can get. They’d have to be crazy to pick me as a recruit.”


“They’re trying to overthrow the current balance of power,” she said dryly. “One that was put in place by deities, and is currently supported by most of the major players in the world. It’s safe to say they aren’t the sharpest tools in the metaphorical shed. Now, I’m still trying to set up meetings with the other two, and a new set of scouting reports just came in that Kyi’s too busy to look at, so unless you mind I’ll leave you to it.”


“No, that’s fine.”


“Great!” the demoness said brightly. “Have fun!”


I hung up and dropped the phone back into the console next to me. “I’m pretty sure she’s crazy,” I said to no one in particular. “Like, really crazy, not just a little bit.”


Snowflake snorted. Of course she is. She works for you. What sane person would take that job?


“Good point. So how do you see this going?”


Probably not violent, she said thoughtfully. They sound like the idealistic type, which means they aren’t likely to throw the first stone. Although I’d wager they’ve got a few more ruthless people in the mix. The sort who’ll do what they think’s necessary, whether or not the rest of the group agrees.


“Probably,” I agreed. “Honestly, I’m inclined to say they’re the biggest threat of the three. Any normal person would be hunkering down right now, and I can at least understand the ones who are making a play to put themselves on top. Idealists are…a little harder to work with.”


I didn’t mention Katie and Mike, or the monster they had summoned in the name of justice. I didn’t have to; I knew we were both thinking of it. They had been idealists, too, and if we got very, very lucky the world might someday recover from the results.


Hopefully this one won’t go that badly, Snowflake said, several long moments later. There can’t be very many people who know how to fuck things up that badly, right?


No, I said thoughtfully. But then again, we never really learned how those two figured it out, either.


The conversation died out after that, leaving me to dwell on that thought as I drove. It wasn’t an especially comforting one.


The restaurant where the meeting was scheduled was a chain, a few steps above fast food, located just inside the rough boundaries of the independents’ territory. I’d never been there before, but it wasn’t hard to find; there weren’t all that many places with a busy parking lot at seven in the morning.


You think they’re going to let me in? Snowflake asked idly as I locked things up.


A week ago, I’d have said not a chance. But now? I shrugged. Who knows?


The host met us at the door, looking distinctly nervous. I couldn’t really blame him for that; we were both still wearing full armor, and that’s the kind of thing that would scare damn near anyone.


“We have a reservation,” I said. “Party name of Ironside.”


He nodded, although the wary look didn’t go away. “Your party is already here,” he said. “Follow me.”


They didn’t have a private room, apparently, but he led me to a secluded corner of the room that was the next best thing. There were already half a dozen people sitting at the table there, an even mix of men and women, most of whom looked awfully young and not terribly sure of themselves.


Looking at them, I was reminded of the night I’d first met the Inquisition, with an almost violent intensity. They’d started out with the same idealistic naïveté as these kids, although it hadn’t taken long for them to get the same weary, bitter look as most of the mages I knew. Very few people, in my experience, managed to maintain normal relationships once they’d come into their power. You either fought the darkness or embraced it, and either way it was hard not to feel a certain separation from the world after a while.


These people hadn’t made it there yet, I thought. But they would.


“You’re Winter Wolf, then?” the one in the center of the group said. He was a thin, balding guy, who was tan in a way that suggested long hours spent exposed to the weather, rather than time on a beach or in a salon. He didn’t have the broken-down look that Katie had gotten near the end, but there was still a toughness about him that the rest of the group lacked.


“That’s me,” I said. “And you must be Ironside.” He nodded, and I snorted. “Okay,” I said. “So…what is it with you guys and the ridiculous names?”


“You’re one to talk,” he said dryly.


“Granted, but at least I was born with it.”


“I wouldn’t be so quick to criticize on that basis. There actually are people named Ironside, you know.”


“Fair,” I admitted. “And honestly, you aren’t even the one I’m complaining about. One of the people I’m supposed to meet later is called Shadow, for crying out loud. I see that and I’m just like, really? This isn’t a freaking comic book.”


He nodded slowly. “You’re part of the old school,” he said. “The line of thinking that says that you want everything you do to be associated with you, so that it all feeds into your reputation as a person.”


“And you don’t think so?”


He considered that for a long moment. “Let’s just say,” he said slowly, “that while comic books are ridiculous, they occasionally stumble across a relevant point. Some of us still have people outside this world. Friends, family, loved ones. And I think we both know you’re not above threatening them if that’s what it takes to get your way. So we’ll be sticking with aliases for the time being.”


“Low blow,” I said. “And a fair point. Now that that’s settled, you mind if I sit down?”


“Not at all,” he said.


“Cool. So would you mind telling me, you know, what the bloody hell you people are getting at with all this?” I grabbed one of the chairs and spun it around before sitting, resting my arms across the back.


Ironside looked at me oddly. I got the impression that I wasn’t playing into his expectations at all, which was exactly why I’d done it the way I had. I thought I had a better chance of getting the information I wanted if I kept them off balance.


“Simple,” he said, recovering his composure more quickly than I’d expected. “For a long time, we’ve been kept down. The magical world is stuck in the feudal era, when the rest of the world left that nonsense behind ages ago. We want to take this opportunity to demand some basic human rights.”


“It’s a nice thought,” I admitted. “But there’s a problem. When the feudal system was overturned in Europe, it happened because the lower classes had the power and the leverage to make it happen. And that’s just not the case here. When it comes to the supernatural world, the people keeping you down actually are bigger and more powerful than you are.”


“That’s what they want us to think,” he said, leaning forward a little. There was genuine passion in his voice. “Think, Mr. Wolf. How much of what you’re saying is true, and how much of it is just the rhetoric you’ve been taught to believe? We have the numbers, we know how the system works, and for maybe the first time in history we have the ability to communicate and organize on a global scale. The old system, the whole ‘feudal lord’ approach, it’s not the only way things can work anymore. We do have the power.”


“I have seen what happens to people that defy the gods,” I said flatly. “If Loki wanted to, he could kill everyone in this city without even trying. And he’s just one god, out of dozens.”


There was a moment of silence after that, and several of the magelings looked at each other. “Granted,” Ironside said, trying to recover his momentum and partially succeeding. “But wasn’t it a god that told us that the rules don’t matter anymore? They aren’t imposing the system on us anymore.”


“True,” I said. “But really, it applies on every level. The people on any given level of the system got there by stepping on the people under them. Now that they’ve got there, they’ve sacrificed, they’ve paid for every inch they took. They aren’t going to just let that go. Now, I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of what you’re fighting for, here. You want to hear what I think?”


“Why not,” Ironside said.


“I think,” I said, slowly and carefully, “that what you’re trying to do is admirable. I might even want to help you. But I also think that, by and large, people aren’t as nice as you. And generally speaking, the only language those people really understand is power. So if you want respect, if you want people to listen, you have to make them listen. You have to be an asshole, have to be maybe even a little bit evil, because if you aren’t they’ll walk all over you.”


“That sounds like an ugly world to live in,” he said quietly. The rest of them had gone still, and some of them were looking at me with barely-disguised fear. “We’re trying to make a better one.”


“I respect that,” I said honestly. “But there are half a million people in this city. And right now, there are no rules protecting them. The only thing standing between them and all the horrible things that want to happen to them is me. I don’t want this job. Never did. But I’ve got it, and…and there’s no one to do it if I fail, you know? There’s no second line of defense, nobody willing to take over if I walk away. Everything I do right now, every single goddamn thing, there’s half a million lives maybe riding on it.”


“That sounds like an awful responsibility.”


“It is,” I agreed. “It really, really is. But I’m telling you this for a reason. I like what you guys are trying to do. I respect you for it. But at the end of the day, I have to balance that against everything else that’s at stake. If you want to help me, if you want to help keep the peace until things are stable and we can work towards your democratic system, I’d be thrilled. If you want to stay out of the way, that’s fine too. But if you try to undermine me, if you do anything to prevent me from keeping all those nasty things away, I won’t hesitate to shut you down.”


He regarded me for a moment. “I find it hard to believe that you’d try to hurt people you know are trying to do the right thing.”


I smiled a little behind the mask, very much a predatory smile rather than a friendly one. “Remember what I said about being a little evil? Not a hypothetical. I’d hate to kill you, but I’ve killed people I liked more. I’d appreciate it if you could keep things from going that far this time around.” I stood up, producing a business card from my cloak and dropping it on the table. “In case you need to get in touch,” I explained.


Then I walked away, Snowflake pacing at my side. Behind me the table burst into whispers.


Stop driving and get some food, Snowflake told me.


“Nah,” I said. “I don’t actually need to eat anymore, remember? It can wait until I’ve dealt with the next faction.”


Bullshit, she said firmly. You’re starving. I can feel it.


I’m always hungry, I replied. Going a little longer won’t kill me.


You’re losing your focus, she countered. Or are you going to tell me you didn’t just spend fifteen seconds staring at that woman because she’s barely awake and you know she’d be easy prey?


I had, but I didn’t want to admit that to her. That was made easier a moment later when she stepped from the passenger’s seat over onto my lap, blocking my view and forcing me to coast to a stop. Fortunately there was no one behind me, although we were driving on a fairly major road and it was late enough in the morning that there should have been at least some traffic.


“Fine,” I said, laughing a little. “We’ll stop and get some food. Just get out of the way long enough for me to get there.”


We ended up going to the drive-through of a fast food restaurant, probably scaring the wits out of the person at the window. I devoured half a dozen burgers, which didn’t really satisfy my hunger, but at least dulled the edge a little, and washed them down with a ridiculously large cup of soda. Caffeine didn’t have much of an effect on me, but I could still get a sugar rush, and at the moment I wanted whatever I could get.


Snowflake got a couple of burgers as well, but barely touched them, watching me instead. She was still picking at them when I drove away from the restaurant.


I could feel that she was worried, and I knew why she was worried, but there wasn’t a lot I could do about it. She was right, after all. For me to put off eating like that, for me to treat it as a chore rather than something to look forward to, was beyond unusual.


But what could I say? I was, on a fundamental level, not the same person I’d been before. Loki had changed me, and my time in prison had exacerbated it. I didn’t need to eat, not really, and no matter how much I did eat, the hunger was barely reduced at all. Even the meal I’d just eaten was less a fix, and more a reminder of how overwhelmingly insufficient food seemed these days.


I got more satisfaction, physically as well as mentally, from Snowflake’s meal than my own. And that was worrying, on a variety of levels.


I tried to put that worry out of mind, with moderate success. It helped that it wasn’t long before we reached the home base of the next name on my list.

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Clean Slate 10.6

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Waking up was not a lot of fun. I was lying on the floor of the throne room, Snowflake sprawled out beside me. Even beside the stress you always feel waking up somewhere strange, I was also stiff.


Sleeping in armor sucks. It really sucks. But I hadn’t been sure what to expect during the night. Katrin was smart, which meant she’d probably figured out the same things I had about how the next few days would impact the rest of how this situation unfolded. She was also ruthless, which meant that it would be very much in line with her character to launch a preemptive assault.


She hadn’t, of course, which left me feeling rather silly, but if she had I would have been grateful for the little bit of extra warning that sleeping right inside the door might offer. I would have stayed up all night if I could, but I knew it was impractical. I couldn’t function without sleep indefinitely, and when it caught up to me it would be worse than if I hadn’t put it off. Smarter to get what rest I could now, since it didn’t seem likely that things would get less crazy going forward.


Still. I was glad that Katrin had left me alone another night.


Once I’d gotten up, and worked some of the stiffness out of my muscles, I went upstairs, moving quietly so as not to wake anyone. The sky was just barely getting light, and I doubted that anyone else would be up.


The second floor of the house was the domain of my housecarls. There were bedrooms, bathrooms, a small kitchen—not the most extravagant of living quarters, but enough to get by. With the sudden influx of new faces—I’d tripled my ranks, last night—they’d been scrambling to sort everything out. Some of the rooms were sleeping three or four, and Thraslaug had taken one look at the accommodations before opting to sleep on the kitchen floor instead.


Which was probably still better than the humans got. Kris shared one of the second-floor rooms with Brick, and Matthew had simply shifted to his wolf form and curled up on the floor not too far from Snowflake and I, but the newbies weren’t so lucky. They were sleeping on cots down in the safe room.


I shuddered a little just thinking of that. I supposed it was the most defended place available, and they weren’t likely to be bothered by it, but still. I’d spent more than enough time in a safe room. Even my recent stint in police custody hadn’t been as bad as that, not even with the silver I’d been forced to wear.


Upstairs, I made my way to Kyi’s room, where I picked my way past the three new housecarls on the floor to stand next to the bed. “Get up,” I said quietly, jostling her shoulder a little.


“It’s too early to be awake,” she said instantly, not opening her eyes. Probably she’d been awake since I opened the door; Kyi was not the type to sleep deeply.


“Too bad,” I said pitilessly. “There’s work to do. Wake Selene, get your files and meet me upstairs.”


Maybe ten minutes later, I was sitting in my study trying to plot out my work for the day. It was harder than I’d expected; there were too many balls in the air, too many sides to this conflict for me to keep track of them all, and at the end of the day I just wasn’t that good at coordinating other people’s efforts.


Which kinda made my current career plan a spectacularly bad choice, but whatever.


“Okay,” I said. “Kyi, I’m assuming you’re going to want to check out the new talent, see what we’ve got?”


“Yep,” she said, sounding rather more cheerful now that she’d downed half a cup of what smelled like hellishly strong coffee. I was a little surprised at that; most nonhuman metabolisms are too other for stimulants to have the same effects they did on humans. Hell, even werewolves don’t get a rush from caffeine. Apparently jotnar didn’t have that problem, though, because all of my housecarls were practically addicted to the stuff.


“Good,” I said. “Selene, I have some information I want you to follow up on, soonest.” I handed her a scrap of paper with the three names Pryce had given me written on it.


She glanced at it and then tucked it into her pocket. “Do you have a starting place?”


“They’ll be local. Definitely active within the local community, probably focusing on the independents and the periphery. I’d recommend talking to Luna, maybe Frishberg or Pellegrini’s people.”


“Got it,” she said, nodding. “I also have a report on the people you asked me to contact for you. I would have given it to you last night, but you got rather involved in the housecarl topic.”


“Right,” I said, nodding. So many balls in the air right now. I was already getting a headache and I’d been up, what, fifteen minutes. “Tell me what we know.”


“Jackal and her team are in, although she wanted me to emphasize that they’re in a strictly scouting role. The Khan doesn’t have the resources available to help directly, but he said he’ll be providing quiet political support. The Wyoming pack isn’t officially backing you, but some of their people who know the area will be ready to come in later today.”


“The others haven’t replied?”


“Not yet,” she said, shrugging “But considering who some of them are, that might not be terribly surprising. It might even be a good thing.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Kyi, did you get a location on the ghouls I asked about?”


She started a little, not yet awake enough to really follow the conversation when she had nothing to add, and then nodded. “Found something,” she said. “Some oddities not far east of here. Can’t be sure whether it’s ghouls or something else, if it’s anything.”


“Okay. I’ll check that out, see if I can find them. Selene, focus on those names. Try and get a meeting set up if you can. Kyi, check out the new housecarls and increase the patrols you’ve been running.”


They both nodded and left, moving briskly. I followed a few moments later, although my movements were anything but brisk. I was tired, and I was unsure of what to do, and I was a hell of a lot more scared than I wanted to admit. But I was moving.


I would have liked to have Aiko along for the next bit, but she was still in Transylvania. I knew better than to think she’d be awake this early. Or late. Whatever. It was a pain in the ass trying to think about where we were in the day across multiple time zones.


Anyway, she probably wouldn’t be back in Colorado for at least a couple hours, and I wanted to get this taken care of as soon as possible. So Snowflake and I went out and got in the armored truck, and we started driving east.


I was a little startled, and more than a little unnerved, by how much easier it was than the last time I’d gone looking for ghouls. Then, I’d had to slowly walk around, triangulating in on their location by subtle cues I picked up from various animals’ senses.


Now I just drove, and went wherever felt right, without necessarily thinking about why. If I thought about it I might know that the dog a block to the left was sleeping peacefully, and that to my right an early-morning hawk had banked in a circle around a quarter-mile area for no apparent reason. But by and large I didn’t think about it, just let it accumulate in the back of my mind as a gut-level impression of what was going on and followed that.


I had to wonder, and not for the first time, whether my time in police custody had broken me, on a level. Whether so much time spent dissociated through my own body and drifting had changed me, done something to the tether that held me together. It felt like there was a part of me that was always drifting now, constantly sifting the sensory data available from my magic and drawing a gestalt view of the world around me.


Which was useful, undeniably. But at the same time a little worrying, or more than a little.


I didn’t have the time to worry about it, though. In less than ten minutes I pulled over to the side of the road, confident that I’d reached my destination. It had the same characteristics as the last place I’d found ghouls, the same general feeling to it. There weren’t many animals around, and the ones that were present were scared. They could smell decaying meat, and so could I, although I was smelling it in a slightly different way. The energy here, the magic, stank of rotting flesh. I couldn’t pin down a single source; it was more like the ghouls had been here so long that their aura had seeped into the walls and the streets, coloring everything that happened here. This was a place where every cut would get infected, where people would hurry home at night while looking over their shoulders and not knowing why.


I didn’t blame the ghouls for it. This was nothing they chose, just…a consequence of what they were.


I got out of the truck, Snowflake right beside me, and locked it. Then I just leaned against the door, waiting. I didn’t need to go looking beyond what I’d already done. They’d find me soon enough, now that I was in their territory.


Sure enough, it probably wasn’t ten minutes before someone walked up to me, moving with a rolling gait that hinted at the inhuman limbs underneath the mask. “You aren’t wanted here,” he said to me, with just enough of a growl to his voice to raise Snowflake’s hackles. “Leave.”


I regarded him evenly. “I’m here to talk to Jibril,” I said.


The ghoul didn’t exactly lose the hostile attitude, but as I’d hoped, dropping their leader’s name had been enough to make him back down a little. “What if Jibril doesn’t want to talk to you?” he asked after considering what I’d said for a few seconds.


I smiled behind the helmet. “Then I’ll leave, no harm done. But I think he’ll want to talk. Tell him Winter Wolf is here about a job offer.”


He frowned, the expression emphasizing the too-long lines of his face, then nodded and walked away.


I stood and scratched Snowflake’s ears for the next few minutes. This wasn’t the time to push my luck. So we waited peacefully for our answer.


Finally, maybe fifteen minutes later, another ghoul approached. I recognized this one as Jibril; his disguise was better than the flunky’s, letting less of the beast inside show through. It wasn’t quite as good as usual, though; I could see that his features were a little bit off, and there was a touch of crimson around his mouth. I’d caught him during breakfast, then. Good; the interruption would put him on the defensive, giving me the advantage in this conversation.


Of course, it might have worked a little better if seeing a little bit of blood on his face hadn’t been enough to remind me that I hadn’t eaten yet, with a rather uncomfortable intensity. Logically I knew I probably wouldn’t care for his meal—ghouls are known for preferring their meat well-aged, to the point that most species wouldn’t eat it for money—but that didn’t matter to the more instinctive part of me.


“Jarl,” he said, eyeing me warily and keeping a safe distance. “What do you want?”


“A while ago, I made you an offer,” I said. “Something about giving you work if you wanted it.”


He nodded. “I remember.”


“Well, I’m asking if you want it,” I said. “Because I really need a hand at the moment.”


He snorted. “You’re doing all right from where I’m standing.”


“Sure, but you’re not looking at it in the long term. I can deal with problems as they come up, but that’s not a long-term solution. I need to be able to prevent the problems from coming up, and that means I need people to tell me when there’s something brewing, and to keep other problems in check while I deal with them.”


“Okay,” he said. “I can see that. But then again, why should I care? I like you all right, Wolf, but business is business, and I’ve got to look out for my own people first, yes? So tell me. We’re doing all right here. Things are good right now, everyone has bigger fish to fry than us. Why should I risk all that to help you?”


“Loki’s broadcast changed everything,” I said, not answering his question right away. “It changed the way the world works, you know? And we’re still trying to settle things, we’re still trying to decide what the new world is going to look like going forward. That’s why your people are doing so well. You’re scavengers at heart, and right now you’re essentially feeding on the corpse of the old world. You follow me?”


“Yes,” he said cautiously, clearly unsure where I was going with this. “I follow.”


“Good. Now, there are two problems with this. First off, any kind of opportunity attracts people ready to take advantage. You aren’t the only scavengers to see an opportunity here, we both know that. You were just the first ones on the ground. Second, this is an opportunity with a short lifespan. It won’t be long before things are settled, one way or another, and when they are the first thing the people on top will do is go after the little guy.”


He shrugged. “That’s the way of things. We’re ghouls; we’re used to it.”


No,” I said, leaning forward a little. “That was the way of things. But like I said, we’re in a brand new world. We, right now, get to decide what that world is going to look like. I’m offering you a chance to be a part of that. A chance to be a part of the system, instead of the outsider that scavenges for scraps, and gets chased off when the major players take an interest.”


He tried to look casual, but the gleam in his eyes gave him away. I had him hooked now.


“I can’t offer you anything outside this city,” I continued, lowering my voice. “I can’t promise that you’ll get what you want, or that you’ll be on the inside forever. I don’t have the power. But what I can do is tell you that this is a genuine offer. You help put me on top in this town, and I’ll do what I can to make sure that your interests aren’t ignored when it comes time to establish the new system.”


I fell silent, letting him work through what I’d said. It was a long, tense silence.


Finally he let out a sigh, and the tension drained from the air. “Damn you anyway, Wolf,” he said, sounding as tired as I felt. “You’re going to get us killed chasing a dream, and you haven’t even promised us anything. But you know this is the one offer we can’t ignore.”


“You’ll help, then?”


“Yes. We’ll help.”

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Interlude 10.b: Kendra Frishberg

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I was sitting in my living room when I heard the news, reading an old copy of Gulliver’s Travels. Brooke was lying on the couch, looking at her phone and petting the cat absently.


“Hey,” my roommate said. “You know that Winter Wolf guy, right? The one with the big hearing today?”


I twitched one shoulder in a lazy shrug. “Sort of, yeah. Why?”


“Apparently it’s on the news right now. It sounds like it’s getting pretty crazy.” She frowned. “I didn’t think they showed those things on live broadcast.”


“They don’t,” I said, sitting up straighter and grabbing the remote. I turned the television on, trying to remember the news channel—Brooke was the one who actually watched it, really. I saw enough news in my real life.


It turned out not to be a problem, though. It was being broadcast on every channel, and I didn’t even want to know how they’d managed that. Brooke sat up, dislodging the cat, and we watched as the giant who’d interrupted the hearing killed two men and left a lot more scared out of their wits.


“Shit,” I said once it was over, standing and turning off the television. “Something tells me they’re going to want me at the office.” This was supposed to be my day off, but after something like that it was going to be a while before anyone in the department got time off.


“I’m sorry,” Brooke said sympathetically.


I sighed as I pulled on my coat. “Don’t worry about it. Don’t stay up, either. I don’t know if I’ll be back tonight or not.”


“Yeah,” she said, a little awkwardly. “About that, I’ve been meaning to tell you. I met a girl at the coffee shop the other day, and I sort of invited her here this Saturday.”


“And it’d be simpler if I weren’t here?” I asked, grabbing my gun and keys and dropping them into their respective pockets.


She grinned sheepishly. “Sort of, if it’s not too much trouble.”


I snorted. “Don’t worry about,” I said dryly. “If these fuckers get their way, I might not be home for a week or two. Have fun.” I started to leave, but paused with my hand on the doorknob. “Just…be careful, okay, Brooke?” I called back to her.


“You think this is for real?” she asked me.


“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. Just play it safe for a little while, all right? If this is for real, it might be big.”


“You know me,” she said, with a mischievous smile. “I’ll be careful.” Thunder roared outside, underlining her words in a way I didn’t entirely like. Sure, it might be coincidence, but I’d taken to laughing at that word in recent years, at least when I was out of character.


I wanted to emphasize the point, but I knew better than to try. Brooke was the sort of person who got more stubborn the more you tried to tell her something. I didn’t exactly need to be a brilliant cop to know that, not when we’d been roommates since college.


When I got to my office, dripping wet and pissed off at life in general, I found that there were four different messages waiting for me. Two had been left with the front desk , and two had been left on a cellphone that the department Did Not Know about. So much so, in fact, that they were very clear on precisely what they Did Not Know about it, and knew exactly which questions not to ask so as to make sure that they didn’t learn about it by accident.


I checked that phone first, naturally. The other messages might be important, but any call to that number was going to be at least a little bit of a big deal.


The first message was from a female who identified herself as Selene, and claimed to be acting as a proxy for Winter, trying to set up a meeting for discussion. That was a little odd, since he’d always contacted me himself in the past, but at the moment I supposed a lapse could be forgiven. The number she’d called from was one that he’d used before, too, which gave her claim some legitimacy.


The second was from Mad Dog Jonny, a caporegime in the local organized crime family, or whatever they called their equivalent of that position. I wouldn’t know; Jonny was the only member of Pellegrini’s gang that I’d ever met. He wanted basically the same thing as Winter’s proxy, a meeting to discuss current events. I made a note of both of those and then checked the other messages.


The first message at the desk was from my mother, asking whether I was okay. I rolled my eyes and moved on; I got a similar message once a week or so, whether there was any reason for it or not. I could send her a text so she knew I was alive, and call her when I had a little more time. The other message was from the chief of police, telling me he wanted a report about who had interrupted the hearing and what it meant within a week.


I snorted. Of course he did. Never mind that, if it meant anything at all, we had less than a week before the shit hit the fan. That was police work for you, I supposed.


Which meant that, really, I knew exactly what I had to do. And it started with calling Jonny back.


When I first joined the force, I had about the same idea of the mafia as the rest of the recruits. We were the good guys, they were the bad guys; it was as simple as that, a literal game of Cops and Robbers played out on the grand scale.


Once I’d actually spent some time working, the situation seemed less clear. I started out in vice, and it didn’t take too long to realize that our interests actually had a lot in common with theirs. It seemed like the vice squad, if anybody, should be working against organized crime, but if anything the opposite was true.


Pellegrini’s organization—if it had been his; I wasn’t sure whether he’d been running it that long, although commonalities in the way they operated made me think so—played the long game. And that meant, oddly enough , that they weren’t really a problem for us. He didn’t deal to the streets, he didn’t push drugs to the youth, not out of any moral qualm but because it wasn’t good business. The real money, as he saw it, was in selling to the wealthy. There was less violence, less risk, and they had more money to spend. Which meant that trying to shut him down was a waste of time and resources that could actually be helping people elsewhere.


And in every part of his business, the pattern was the same. His whores weren’t mistreated, and his cut of their profits was lower than some of the legal brothels in Nevada; it was good business to make your employees glad to work for you. His protection rackets actually offered protection; it was good business to keep your customers happy, and that way they’d recommend it to others, so he didn’t even have to coerce a business into paying. When he ran a gambling ring, the games weren’t rigged; when he loansharked people, he was reasonable about collecting.


It seemed like no matter what the crime was, his was the most reasonable, least harmful way it could be carried out.


From that point, it was a short step to make to realize that it was a good idea for us to have a way to communicate with his people. We might not see eye-to-eye on much, but we could agree on some things. When there was an independent operator screwing things up, doing business on their turf and causing problems for everyone, they told us when and where and we got an easy arrest that actually did something to cut down on the violence. When we wanted things to be nice and quiet for a while, we told them and they knew to lay low for a while.


It was less work for everyone, and in the end the people of the city were safer and happier than if we’d taken a hardline stance against it. Once I’d gotten over my initial reluctance to tolerate gangsters, it was easy to see that.


But you had to have a certain attitude to deal with people like that. So before I went into the restaurant I took the time to make sure I had it right. Black suit, no cosmetics, hard expression. When I met with Jonny my persona was businesslike, pure self-interest from start to finish. I was polite and friendly, but I always, always made it clear that I was in it for myself.


It was, of course, nothing like the real me. Hell, I didn’t even keep the bribes he paid me. Each and every payoff went, slowly but surely, straight to the Red Cross. A guy from the financial crimes unit had helped me set the donation system up to be functionally untraceable.


“Good morning, Sergeant,” Jonny said when I sat down next to him. He was eating a salad, no dressing, and drinking water. Jonny had always been a bit of a health nut, although it hadn’t been too noticeable until his brother had a heart attack two or three years ago. He’d told me about that himself; I didn’t know his real identity, although I was sure that I could find out by asking around the department.


“Mad Dog,” I said, giving him a hard look. “What do you want?”


“That was pretty crazy,” he said, not reacting to my hostility. It was a familiar routine for the two of us. “Taking over all the television channels like that, that’s impressive. I was wondering if you might know anything about how it happened.”


“No,” I said. “I was as surprised as anyone, believe me.”


He sighed. “I understand,” he said. “Thanks anyway. You want some lunch? On me, of course.”


I hesitated, then shrugged. Hell with it. “Look,” I said. “You remember the werewolf hoax? The one a few years ago?”




“It wasn’t a hoax,” I said. “And I’m the one who’d know. This is going to be like that. Except that this time they aren’t going back in the closet when they’re done.”


He considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Thanks for the heads-up.”


“No problem. But you didn’t hear it from me.”


Jonny looks almost offended at that. “Sergeant, what are you implying? Mad Dog Jonny doesn’t rat out his friends. Ever.”


I nodded apologetically. Then, before I could convince myself otherwise, I asked, “How’d you get that name, anyway? Mad Dog? It doesn’t really seem to fit.”


He looked at me curiously. “You’ve never asked me that before.”


“I thought it might be a touchy subject.”


“And now you don’t?”


I paused before answering. “Jonny,” I said, “the world just changed. Forever.” I shrugged. “What’s it matter anymore?”


He smiled at that. “I suppose it doesn’t. I got the name when I was quite a bit younger—shortly after I joined the family, in fact. I got into a fight with another guy, over a girl or something, and he pinned me down. I bit him on the face, here and here.” He touched his own face, on the cheek and just above his eye.


I looked at the salad, then back at him. “I have a hard time picturing you doing that,” I admitted.


He shrugged. “I was a much angrier man, back then. I like to think I’ve learned a bit since those days. Are you sure you don’t want some lunch, Sergeant?”


“Thanks anyway,” I said. “But I’ve got more work to do.”


My next stop was in a park, a ways to the south. It wasn’t a part of town I saw often. Too expensive.


Winter often used one park or another when he wanted to meet, as Kyra Walker had before him, and I’d used that as a basis for the persona I presented to them. She was the sort of person who went to parks, athletic, but not the kind of athletic that went to the gym. Much like the Sergeant Frishberg that Jonny was used to talking to, she was greedy, but it was a very different kind of greed, a freelancer rather than a long-term investor. She tried to lie—I’d figured out early on that neither of them would take a crooked cop seriously if she was honest—but she just wasn’t very good at it. She resented her job, and especially her coworkers, but she kept going for reasons that weren’t entirely clear even to herself.


I took that identity on, reminding myself of what it felt like, how I should think, how I should talk. Then I glanced in the mirror, making sure it looked right. Different clothing from before, athletic rather than businesslike; carrying a pistol, just barely concealed from casual sight, but a paranoid observer would notice; hair tied back, and just a little bit of makeup, emphasizing the Mexican in my features that I’d gotten from my father.


Everything looked good, so I got out of the car and walked the rest of the way to the park, watching for anything odd. The storm was intense, not as bad as it had been closer to downtown, but still heavy. The wind almost blew me off my feet a couple of times, and the rain was coming down thick enough that I probably shouldn’t even have bothered with the cosmetics.


Despite the weather, there were a couple of people walking dogs, some of which were big enough to make me think werewolf, but none of them had the attitude for it, the combination of intelligence and predatory interest in what they saw that set a werewolf apart. I didn’t notice anyone carrying weapons, although considering some of what I’d seen from Winter that didn’t mean a whole lot.


When I got to the park itself, it was almost totally empty. I couldn’t blame people; the trees were swaying in the wind, hard enough that I wondered whether they were about to fall, and the sand in the playground was more like mud. It was nice for me, though, in that it made it easy for me to find the person I was there to meet.


And then I stopped. Because she was absolutely, drop-dead gorgeous.


I wasn’t quite sure what gave me that impression. Her features were pretty, but not, like, supermodel pretty. She was wearing a heavy raincoat and galoshes—not exactly flattering at the best of times. But there was something about her attitude, her bearing, that just drove that impression home.


It was, I thought absently, a good thing it was me here for this meeting. I didn’t like other women in that sense, not even a little bit, and I still had to take a couple seconds after I saw her to pick my jaw back up off the ground. I didn’t even want to think about how some of the other people in the department might have reacted.


Once I’d gotten myself back together, I walked up to her. “Hi,” I said. “I take it you’re Selene?”


“That’s right,” she said, smiling. It was a charming, innocent sort of smile, and how she could pull that expression off while looking like that I didn’t know. “You must be Sergeant Frishberg.”


I nodded. “What did you want to talk about?”


“Mostly to apologize,” she said. “I know this situation has to be stressful for you, and it’s only going to get worse. We would have let you know in advance so that you could prepare, but we didn’t actually know about it until this morning. They gave us just enough time to get ready ourselves, and it was made very clear that we weren’t to tell anyone else.”


That made sense, but there was something about this that was bothering me. I realized what it was a moment later, and gave her a hard look. “Who is this we?” I asked.


“Winter’s staff,” she explained. “I’m sort of the general manager when he’s away.” My expression must have slipped, because she laughed. “You didn’t think he worked alone, did you?”


“I’ve met his girlfriend,” I said slowly. “And I know he has a dog.”


She laughed again, the sound low and delighted, making me think of warm honey. “He has quite a bit more than that,” she said, still laughing a little. “Tell you what, why don’t you come down to the house and I can introduce you around. I’m sure you want to get out of this weather, if nothing else. It should die down soon now that it’s not needed.”


I hesitated, then followed her out of the park. If nothing else, I thought, it might be a good idea to learn a little more about how he operated. It sounded like he was going to be a part of how things worked in this city for a little while longer, at least, since he wasn’t going to prison today after all.


And, hell. If my own suspicions, and what Selene had said about this getting worse, were at all accurate, it might be a while before we could spare the resources to try and arrest him again. It might be a long while.

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Clean Slate 10.5

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I looked at the list I was holding, and then looked back at Kyi. “You’re kidding me,” I said. “You have got to be kidding me.”


“Not at all, jarl,” the housecarl said solemnly. She couldn’t quite keep the smirk off her face, though.


“There are already eighteen people applying as housecarls?” I asked incredulously. “It hasn’t even been a day! How are there that many people who are that desperate?”


“Word travels fast,” she said dryly. “And I think you overestimate how desperate people would have to be. That was a valid assumption the last time around. These days, not so much.”


“Why not?”


“You’ve gotta remember, when you started nobody was quite sure what to expect. You were the first jarl to claim territory in this world, and there were people who thought you’d get slaughtered just for that. Then there were people who looked at your history and figured you’d run away within a month. Plus Loki had his claws in you, and most of the people he takes an interest in burn out fast.” She shrugged. “Now you’ve been here a while and you’re still going strong. People respect you, you’re owed favors by people in high places, and you’re saying you want to expand.”




“Meaning you’re a rising star right now,” she said. “There are plenty of people who want to get in now, while your court’s still small and they think they have a chance to get into your inner circle. It’s still a risky move, but it’s a hell of a lot better than it looked a few years ago.”


I sighed. “Fine,” I said. “Do you know any of these people?”


She hesitated. “I’m familiar with a couple,” she said, reluctantly. “But I don’t think they’re people you’d want on your team. They’re the unreliable type.”


“Great,” I said instantly, handing her the sheet. “Cross their names off the list.”


She hesitated again before taking it. “Seriously? You don’t want to know anything else about them?”


“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “If you think they’re bad candidates, that’s all I need to know. If I didn’t trust your judgment, I wouldn’t have put you in charge of things to begin with.”


“All right,” she said dubiously, grabbing a pen off the desk.


While she was working on that, I took a moment to check up on things in the throne room. Aiko had gone back to Transylvania, claiming that she wanted to check in on the defenses and make sure things were still okay, but Snowflake was unwilling to be parted from me. She was downstairs right now, dozing by the fire, which gave me an easy way to see what was going on down there.


Things were quiet, compared to earlier in the day. There were no runners going back and forth, and only a couple of people who weren’t a part of my core organization. It wasn’t hard to see why; the sun was going down, and there’s a basic human instinct that says you want to be in a safe place come nightfall.


There are good reasons for that, even beyond the fact that most big predators are more active at night. The mood, the vibe, the energy of the world changes when the sun goes down. It lends itself to magics that, while not precisely evil, are secretive, deceptive, and dangerous. Vampires aren’t remotely the only things that prefer the darkness to the light of day, and while some are quite pleasant, there are others that are very much not.


On a night like this, it was entirely rational for a civilian to want to be safe behind locked doors before sundown.


But that still left quite a few people in the throne room. Tindr stood at one table, quietly gathering up various papers and sorting them into piles. Another, larger table was covered in food and drink. There were around half a dozen people sitting there, strangers or part-time help, most of them in their late teens or early twenties. Presumably they didn’t have homes to get to, or else they thought they were safer here. Kris and Matthew sat in the corner, sipping beers and talking about whatever shapeshifters talked about.


“Here,” Kyi said, pulling my attention back upstairs. “The rest of them are strangers to me.”


“Cool,” I said, taking the list. Scanning it, I saw that five of the names had been neatly crossed out, leaving thirteen. “Where are the rest of them?”


“They should be at Utgard by now,” she said.


“Great,” I said, setting the piece of paper on the desk. “Get Kjaran and your gear and meet me downstairs. We’re going to go fetch them.”


She blinked. “Now?”


“Yeah. I want to be back here before night falls for real, and that means we have to leave pronto.”


Around half an hour later, I was sitting in my throne, a group of more-or-less unhappy jötnar standing in front of me. For many of them this was their first time out of Jotunheim, and the portal had been correspondingly hard on them. Between that and the fish-out-of-water experience of being in another world for the first time, I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t terribly happy.


Kyi stood by my right hand, and the other housecarls were arrayed behind me. Selene had gone upstairs, and beds had been found for the other guests. This was jotun business, and it would have been deeply inappropriate for me to invite any of my other minions to watch.


“All right,” I said, glancing at the list of names. “Let’s begin with Herjolfr the Fearless.”


One of them stepped forward. A scarred man whose human guise was only a little taller than me, he had an axe strapped to his back and a knife on one hip. He was one of the few who hadn’t been particularly affected by the portal. “Jarl,” he said, nodding to me.


“Herjolfr. What would you bring to my court?”


“I am a skald, jarl,” he said. “I would write poems in your honor, so that all might come to know your glory. And I am also a fighter, so that I might have a share in making that glory all the greater.”


“And why would someone with such skills choose to serve me?”


He grinned broadly. “You are a great hero in the making, jarl, and all who have eyes to see know it. Where else could I find so mighty a jarl as you, who are blessed by the wolf and his father alike? You are fated to perform great deeds, and I will write epics of them, so that we might both be famed long after our bones are dust.”


I wanted to turn him down out of hand. I’d never wanted to be famous, and the idea of someone writing poetry about me was a little nauseating.


But…well, I was trying to build a reputation, wasn’t I? I mean, there were reasons for it, but at the end of the day, the fact remained that my goal right now was to become famous. Or infamous, I supposed, but to the jötnar the terms were practically synonymous.


I glanced at Kyi, who nodded; she thought he was on the level about what he wanted and what his talents were. I hadn’t gotten any vibes off the guy to suggest otherwise, so I looked back at him and nodded. “Very well, Herjolfr,” I said. “I shall accept you as a housecarl, so long as you serve loyally.”


He knelt and bowed his head. “Jarl, I shall serve you and yours, as best as I am able, until such time as you shall see fit to release me from my oath. This I swear.” Then he stood and walked back to the group, standing a little aside from the others.


The next three were simple fighters, without any particular skills to recommend them. I needed fighters at the moment, though, so I took all three of them. The first two, both of whom were male, were called Ragnar the Unlucky and Skallagrim Leifson, respectively. The third, a female called Thraslaug Uggasdóttir, seemed more eager to prove herself, very nearly getting into a brawl when Ragnar snickered at her name.


It took a couple minutes to sort that out, and by the end of it I was starting to get a headache. “Okay,” I said. “Next up, Signý the Black.”


There was a brief pause, then another female stepped forward. As her name suggested, her hair was very dark, although her features were otherwise quite plain. “Jarl,” she said, nodding to me. Her voice was similarly quiet and unassuming.


I considered her for a moment. Her build was slender, almost frail-looking, and she wore a simple black cloak, quite unlike the leather or armor of the other jötnar. She wasn’t carrying weapons, either, beyond a short dagger and a staff. “Signý,” I said. “What skills do you offer me.”


“I am knowledgeable in the arts of seithr,” she said. “I specialize in curses, but I know the warding and prophetic spells as well.”


I blinked. “I see.” Seithr was a very old magical tradition, dating back at least to the Viking Age. I didn’t know much about it beyond that it was old, mysterious, and associated with death and bloodshed. “What do these curses do, precisely?”


She shrugged, the motion graceful and just a little odd, in a way I couldn’t quite place. “Harm, by one means or another. Sickness, madness, misfortune. Death, even, although that curse is less certain than some. It takes power to work another’s death, and power demands sacrifice.”


I nodded slowly. “And the wards?”


“I am not as skilled with those,” she cautioned me. “But I know how to invoke the spirits, and runes of defense and warding. It is enough for simple tasks, if not the greater protections.”


“And why would someone with that kind of power offer it to me?”


“Power demands sacrifice,” she said again. “And for all my talents, a man with a sword can kill me as surely as any other. Often have I been forced to turn my arts to ends that I find distasteful, under the threat of those who would make use of me. Skrýmir says that you will not do so, and that if I serve in your house you will defend me from those who would.” She shrugged again. “Skrýmir’s word is good enough for me.”


Well, that was ominous. If I took her in, then I might be letting myself in for trouble later on, when it came time to follow through on that promise of defense. People could be quite insistent about that sort of thing. On the other hand, though, Signý was apparently quite skilled at a type of magic I’d never even seen practiced before. What kinds of things could she do that I had no other way to accomplish? Maybe even more important, what could she teach me?


And then there was another consideration. I knew something of what it was like to be forced into doing things you’d rather not. Considering her specialty, and her inflection when she’d called her acts distasteful, I was confident I didn’t want to ask what she’d been made to do.


“Very well,” I said, somewhat reluctantly. “Serve me loyally, and I shall protect you as best as I am able.”


She smiled and knelt.


The next two jötnar ended up leaving. The first openly acknowledged that, having met me and seen something of my operation, he really didn’t want to be my housecarl after all. He was quite polite and pleasant about it, and when I told him that was fine, he left without a word.


The next was eager to sign up, but there was something about his attitude that I didn’t like. I wasn’t sure quite what it was, but I got the distinct impression that I’d regret it if I took him on. He was a troublemaker, the sort who couldn’t see a line without needing to push it, to test the boundary. Give him an inch, and he’d take a yard; deny him that inch, and he’d work to undermine you, poisoning every interaction with him until he got his way.


I didn’t want to deal with that kind of thing, and a glance at Kyi confirmed that her opinion of him was similar.


When I told that guy to leave, it didn’t go quite so pleasantly. He went into a tantrum, screaming in Old Norse and waving his hands in the air, although he was smart enough not to actually get violent. The other jötnar were backing away from him warily, though, and it was easy to see that things were just going to escalate.


Then Vigdis quite calmly walked up and punched him in the abdomen, hard. He grunted in pain and doubled over, at which point her knee caught him in the nose with enough force that I could hear it break from where I was sitting. He fell, hard, and lay there moaning. She grabbed him by the nape of the neck, picking him up easily with one arm, and carried him through the room before literally tossing him out the door like a bag of garbage.


Then she walked back to her position behind me, all without saying a word. She was grinning widely, though.


It was probably a bit hypocritical of me to refuse him while I kept someone like Vigdis. From where I was sitting, though, there was a very important difference between the two. Vigdis was a psychopath, but she was my psychopath.


“I apologize for the interruption,” I said calmly into the shocked silence. “Next is Gisli Björnson.”


He looked at Vigdis, looked at the blood on the floor from the last guy’s broken nose, and swallowed hard. “I’ll leave, if you allow it, jarl.”


I nodded, and he all but sprinted for the door. Behind me, I could almost feel Vigdis’s grin getting wider at his reaction.


With five new housecarls accepted and three applicants gone, the crowd was thinning out considerably. I looked back at the list for a moment before saying, “Snorri Helgason.”


The next jotun stepped forward, stammering something in Norse. The only word I picked out clearly was “jarl,” which I heard enough that I could recognize it whether I wanted to or not.


I paused before I said anything. Jötnar generally looked young; like most supernatural critters, they don’t age appreciably. But you can look young, and then you can look young, and this guy was the second one. He was tall, but thin and gangly, like a half-grown puppy, and he carried his sword like he wasn’t at all accustomed to it.


“Kyi,” I said, quietly enough that I didn’t think anyone else would hear it. “How old is he?”


She eyed him for a moment, then shrugged. “I’d guess about thirteen, fourteen.”


“Tell him I can’t take him. I don’t think he knows enough English for me to.”


“You have to take him,” she hissed at me, very quietly but with surprising force.


“He’s a kid,” I said, in much the same tone.


“He came when you called.”


“Yes,” I said patiently. “But he’s still a kid. I’m not putting a kid in the line of fire. That’s just messed up.”


“You’re not listening,” she said. “He came when you called. If you tell him no, what do you think happens the next time someone wants housecarls? He’ll be there again, except that they won’t care if he’s a kid. And they’ll send him out to get killed rather than bother training him until he can hold his own.”


I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. Because she was right, damn her. It felt wrong on every level to basically hire a child soldier, but she was right that it was the best I could do to actually help the kid.


“Fine,” I said. “Tell him he’s in, then.”


She did so, the Norse phrases rolling off her tongue with a smoothness I could only envy. I’d tried to learn it, a couple of times, but I’m not good with languages, and Old Norse is not an easy language.


Snorri seemed shocked at first, then he grinned so widely I was afraid he was going to hurt himself. He knelt down and swore himself to my service, looking so happy that you’d think it was his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one.


After that I took all of the other four. What did it matter, when I’d already done that?

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