Monthly Archives: May 2015

Clean Slate 10.4

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We made it almost halfway to the portion of the city which Kyi had tentatively marked out as Kikuchi’s turf before we ran into trouble. Specifically, we ran into an improvised barricade in the form of a couple of overturned cars in the middle of the road, with a few people standing behind it brandishing weapons. More people stepped out behind us, trying to trap us there.


They weren’t serious or practiced fighters. If they were real thugs, they would have been casual, excited, indulging in shows of bravado. If they were professionals, they would have been calm and coordinated, everything precisely in order.


Instead, most of them looked scared, uncertain. More than just a couple had the drawn features, broken-down postures, and shaky coordination of addicts. Most of the weapons on display were less than impressive, either small-caliber pistols or knives that were meant for show more than use.


There was no way they were associated with one of the major players on the scene. A street gang, I was guessing, something too trivial to have been brought into Pellegrini’s criminal empire, too localized to be a part of a national or global gang. They’d probably never really done anything before, but the current situation would bring all kinds of things out of the woodwork.


“You want to deal with these bozos?” Aiko asked, coasting to a halt. “Or should I just keep driving?”


It was tempting. It really was. None of them were displaying a weapon that could pose even a minor threat to the magically reinforced armor of the truck, and their barricade wouldn’t slow us down much. This was the sort of vehicle that had been designed to be damn near impossible to pull a heist on, and that was before I got my hands on it.


Then I sighed. If they tried to stop me, they’d stop other people too, and the next guy might not have a military-grade armored truck. “We’d better deal with them,” I said to Aiko, picking up my helmet and pulling it on. She nodded and grabbed her carbine from the backseat.


I didn’t need magic to know that Snowflake was excited, even thrilled to have a chance to fight. She started squirming in my lap the moment we saw the hoodlums, and when I said that we were going to fight them she actually barked, something which was very rare. She was out the door before I even had it completely open, hitting the ground with an expression intermediate between a snarl and a smile on her lips. The rest of her face was hidden behind the helmet.


I followed at a more reserved pace, and took the time to close the door before walking over to join her a short distance from the vehicle. “Oi,” I shouted, looking around. “Which of you bozos is in charge?”


There was a brief pause, during which Aiko walked up next to me, before one of the guys in front of us stepped forward. He was whiter than me, and looked like he spent way too much time at the gym. “I call the shots here,” he shouted back.


“Then you’re a freaking idiot. You see the armored car? You see these guns?” I brandished my shotgun casually by way of emphasis, causing several of them to flinch. “You think these things are toys?”


“We have guns too,” he shouted. “And there are a lot of us, and only two of you.” Snowflake snarled at that, and he laughed. “Three.” I liked him a little more for that.


Aiko snorted. “You call those things guns? Please. And it doesn’t really matter how many of you there are. I could take twenty of you morons before breakfast, and it wouldn’t even be a challenge.”


“I’ll bet you could,” one of the punks said, gesturing obscenely.


Silence instantly fell over the scene, a silence that was more than just the absence of noise. This was an ominous silence, the sort that came before things that weren’t at all peaceful. Even the gang leader seemed to feel it, blanching and slapping the offending guy on the back of the head.


“Okay,” I said cheerfully. I was smiling, a little, and if they could have seen that smile they probably would have been more afraid than they were. “You made a few mistakes, here. The first was trying to set up this kind of gig when you clearly aren’t competent to run it. The only people coming through this part of town are going to be poorer than you, scarier than you, or both. Not good targets.”


He started to say something, but I cut him off. “The second mistake,” I said, with relentless cheer, “was trying to stop me. I mean, even you losers should have known that wasn’t a good move. I don’t know what made you think we were something you could handle, and frankly I don’t care.”


Beside me, Snowflake was almost shivering, swaying gently side to side, and growling low in her throat. Even I thought it was a little creepy to watch, and that was saying something.


“Even that,” I said, lowering my voice and dropping the pleasant attitude, “even that you could have recovered from. You could have written that off as a stupid mistake, you could have made reparations and we all would have gone on with our lives. But then you made your third mistake, which was insulting my girlfriend. That, gentlemen, was not the sort of mistake you can recover from.”


One of them pointed a .22 at me with shaking hands and pulled the trigger. They missed, not that it mattered much; a .22 round probably wouldn’t penetrate the steel of my armor, never mind the Kevlar backing.


It was a decent starting gun, though, and all the signal Snowflake needed to bolt toward them, moving at a pace that even a well-trained husky would be hard-pressed to match. They tried to shoot her, but the vast majority missed, and those that hit her found that her armor was more than a match for their bullets.


A moment later, there was screaming, and the smell of blood. Aiko raised her carbine, and while I couldn’t see her face, I was confident she was grinning.


I sighed, and turned to deal with the thugs behind us. I didn’t bother calling Tyrfing. My sword was an ancient weapon, cursed to leave death and tragedy in its wake, designed for the killing of things that couldn’t be killed in almost any other way. These guys were common street toughs. The application of the one to the other seemed…a little disproportionate.


Maybe five minutes later, we were driving down the road again. We’d left most of the punks alive behind us, although some would probably need to spend some time in the hospital. Either way, I was confident we’d scared them badly enough that they wouldn’t be trying anything like this in the near future.


The guy that had sparked it all off with that obscene gesture was dead, having bled out after Snowflake bit his leg off. Honestly, I had a hard time caring. There was stupid, and then there was terminally stupid.


We didn’t run into any more trouble on the way, and a few minutes later we parked at the base of the mountain. “Okay,” Aiko said. “So how do we find them?”


“In my experience,” I said, getting out of the car, “that’s not really a problem. Once you’re on the mountain, they’ll find you.”


Normally, the trail up the peak was fairly quiet. There were usually a few hikers, but most of them didn’t make it very far. By the time you got up into the trees, the path was almost empty.


I was a little surprised that it was relatively busy today. It wasn’t swarming, by any means, but there was a decent assortment of people, and most of those who were there were from the more extreme end of the spectrum, fit climbers carrying enough gear to last for days. I supposed that made sense; the current tensions would discourage recreational hikers, but to a certain type of person, the idea of getting well away from the city right now would be tempting. There were plenty of people who watched apocalypse movies and thought that the biggest problem was other people, not the disaster. Getting out into the woods on your own, or with a handful of trusted friends, might seem like a good way to avoid danger.


I could have told them not to bother. Werewolves were far from the only critters that liked to hunt the wilderness more than the city, and not remotely the least friendly.


It meant I had to change my plans a little, though, since the tengu weren’t likely to approach me while there were others around. So once were into the trees, and on the mountain proper, I left the beaten path, following game trails into the forest. It was a little harder going, between rough terrain, bushwhacking, and backtracking.


To my surprise, Aiko didn’t even gripe about it. Apparently we’d finally found something so serious that she actually took it seriously. I hadn’t thought that was possible.


It was maybe twenty minutes before I noticed a sort of fog around us, somewhere between mist and cloud, thick enough to cloud vision without quite obscuring it. That fit with my previous experiences with the tengu, so I kept walking, not worrying too much about where I was going. Directions were fairly meaningless in their realm anyway.


“So overblown,” Aiko sighed, looking around at the fog. It was thickening now, and out of the corner of my eye I could see things at the edge of the path, flickers of movement among the trees that I couldn’t resolve into a clear image. “The birdbrains just don’t appreciate subtlety.”


“Be nice,” I said. “We’re here to find allies, not piss them off even more.”


She huffed, but nodded.


A hundred yards or so further on, we ran into a pair of tengu standing by the path. The bird-men’s expressions were as inscrutable as always, but I thought I saw a certain tension in their posture. The guards on this path always kept their katana in ready positions, but today they did it like they meant it.


“I am Winter Wolf-Born, jarl of the city,” I said. “Here to seek audience with Kikuchi Kazuhiro, dai-tengu.”


One of them glanced at the other, then nodded. “Follow,” it said, in a voice which resembled a crow’s as much as a human, and which might have been the tiniest bit feminine. “The dai-tengu will see you.”


The tengu led us further down the path, leaving its—her?—fellow to stand guard. A few minutes later we came to a small clearing, shrouded in fog so that the edges were just barely out of sight. The only feature was a smallish throne in the middle of the clearing, grown from a single, apparently still-living tree.


“Wait here,” the tengu said. “You will be met.”


Well, great. Because that wasn’t ominous at all.


With that, we were left alone in the fog to wait for our audience. Aiko and I stood in silence, or sometimes paced. Snowflake tried to amuse herself making up dirty limericks, but I could tell her heart wasn’t in it, and after a few minutes even she fell silent.


It was hard to say how long we stood there. Waiting, especially under circumstances like that, has a tendency to make the time drag. But at a guess, it was almost half an hour before another figure walked into the clearing from our left, a tengu wearing samurai-style armor and carrying a sword. “Jarl,” he said, crossing briskly to the throne and sitting in it. “What business brings you here today?”


“Dai-tengu,” I replied, nodding to him. “We’ve always gotten along rather well. I leave you alone for the most part, and you’ve been gracious enough to pretend that my position is as something more than just a figurehead. I appreciate your respect, and I hope I’ve treated you with comparable respect.”


“Yes,” he said, although to which statement wasn’t clear.


“But Loki’s broadcast, that changed things.”


“It changed everything,” he said. “Great and small.”


I nodded. “Yes. Exactly. And that includes our relationship. I need to be more than a figurehead right now. I need to actually have the power I’ve been pretending to have all this time.”


He cocked his head to the side curiously, the gesture driving home the corvid resemblance. “Are you attempting to assert dominance over me?” he asked. There was no bravado there, no hostility. He was just asking a question.


“Not at all,” I answered. “I’m happy to maintain our current position. You rule the mountain, I rule the city; that’s just fine with me. But I was thinking that we could make it more of a partnership. I was hoping that you might lend some material assistance now, during these troubled times for my city.”


“And you would assist me in turn, I suppose?”


“If a situation arises that you require help with? Yes. I would deploy my resources to assist you in that case.”


He nodded slowly. “It’s an interesting offer you make,” he said.


I swallowed. This was the iffy part; I really didn’t know how Kikuchi would react to what I said next. We were on decent terms, but the dai-tengu had a proud streak to him, and between that and how damnably hard to read he was, the next part of the conversation was going to be dicey.


“With respect,” I said, “it’s not really an offer.”


He regarded me for a moment, then sighed. “It’s like that, is it?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Begging pardon, but the situation in my world is very uncertain right now. In order for my city to be safe, I need for it to look unassailable. My position has to look so strong that nobody is even willing to try to attack it. And that means that anything, anything at all, that might be seen as weakness has to go.”


He nodded again. “And having a powerful neutral party on your borders could be interpreted as such a sign of weakness.”


“Exactly,” I said. “Especially because, well.” I spread my arms helplessly. “I’m a werewolf. We’re supposed to be dominant, to be asshole control freaks who insist that everyone does what we say. That’s the reputation, and whether I like it or not, I’m stuck with it. So if I have allies, that’s fine, that’s just politics. And if I have enemies, that’s fine too; it’s inevitable that people in my position have enemies. But if there’s somebody who doesn’t fall in either group, and I don’t tell them what to do, people will think it’s because I can’t tell them what to do.”


“And if I don’t agree to your proposal,” he said, his croaking voice gone flat. “Then what follows?”


I swallowed again. “In that case,” I said, “I suppose I would have to declare war on you. And I really don’t want to do that.”


“You do not think you could win such a war?” Again, there was no particular emotion in his voice. I couldn’t tell whether he was mocking me, or he was surprised at my lack of confidence, or he was bored and mostly thinking of lunch. Any of them would have been plausible.


“Dai-tengu,” I said, “I think I can say with confidence that both of us would lose such a war, regardless of who emerged the victor.”


“You make an interesting argument,” he said. “Allow me a few moments to ponder it.”


I wanted to keep trying to convince him, but something told me that pushing now would just undermine my own cause. So we stood and waited. And waited. And waited.


Almost ten minutes had passed in total silence, and Snowflake was starting to get antsy, when he suddenly nodded. “Jarl,” he said solemnly, “you have presented an excellent case, and we have often been allies in the past. I would be honored to make that relationship more formal. I will let it be known that we have an alliance, and I will send what forces I can to aid you. These are troubled times in my lands as well, however, and I must keep the bulk of my people here.”


I bowed. “I understand completely, dai-tengu, and I thank you. As I said, if you need assistance, you have but to ask and I will provide what help I can. In the meantime, I expect we both have much to do, so unless you have further business I will depart.”


He nodded, and gestured slightly, and the world went black.


When I opened my eyes again, I was leaning on the truck back in the parking lot. Aiko was sitting on the ground next to me, her head between her knees, and Snowflake was lying on the ground moaning. Oof, she said to me. That was worse than a normal portal. How is that even possible?


I scratched her ears sympathetically, then reached down to help Aiko to her feet. “Okay,” I said. “You about ready to get moving again?”


“Depends,” she said. “Where are we going?”


I frowned. “Back home, I guess, to start with. I’ve got an idea for what to do next, but I don’t think you’ll like it.”


She asked me what I was thinking of. I told her, and she groaned. She didn’t propose an alternative, though, so we went back to the mansion, there to take a nap and get ready for my next harebrained idea.


At that point, I’d dealt with most of the major factions. Kikuchi was on my side, and from his reaction to my offer, I thought he might actually help me, rather than just staying out of my way. The police, similarly, were a nonissue. Frishberg was currently, and very unofficially, one of the more important members of that group, and they were confining most of their efforts to a limited area; between the two, I wasn’t terribly concerned about them. I might have to deal with them on a more permanent basis later, but right now it wasn’t a priority.


The military presence was more concerning, but I was hoping that problem might solve itself. If I could keep things in town peaceful enough that they didn’t need to step in, they should just stay in their enclaves and we could leave each other alone. I was really hoping that was the case, anyway, because if I had to take action against multiple units of the military, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. That was unlikely to end well for me, no matter how it went in the short term.


That left three groups that needed to be addressed. The first was Katrin and her people. The second was Pellegrini’s organized crime syndicate. The third was the independents, small-timers, and minor talents who made up the bulk of the local supernatural community, in numbers if not power.


The first two were, for various reasons, off the table right now. Katrin almost certainly wouldn’t be as amenable to presenting a united front as Kikuchi had been, which meant that negotiations with her were likely to dissolve into violence. I didn’t want that to start until after all my reinforcements had arrived, which was likely to take a few days. The situation with Pellegrini was similar, although in his case I was waiting for results rather than numbers. The crime boss had always struck me as the practical type, and I was confident he would be willing to side with me if it looked like the best option for him. But it would take more evidence than I had available yet to convince him that it was the smart move.


That left the independents, and I thought I’d be wise to get to them as soon as possible, before someone else did. On the surface, it didn’t seem too hard. They had apparently settled into a territory of their own, at least to some extent, and even if they hadn’t I’d have known where to go. Pryce’s had been the geographic center of that community for a long time, and that wouldn’t have changed for a little thing like the end of the world as we knew it.


Unfortunately, I was also banned from Pryce’s. There were various ways I could get around that, most of which would upset people to one degree or another. That bar was one of the few things they had in common, and breaking the rules there would make a lot of them rather angry. Pryce’s was neutral ground, and Pryce himself was a notoriously neutral party. As a result, when he actually did take a side, it meant something. If he spoke against me, it would sway a great many people who were otherwise on the fence.


All of which meant that the situation was volatile. Approach it wrong, and I could kiss any chance of getting the independents on my side goodbye. That wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it would make things harder going forward.


So I was feeling understandably nervous as I left the mansion.


It was late afternoon when I reached Pryce’s. I’d napped a little longer than I’d intended, but not much, and I’d made up the time traveling by Otherside portal rather than car. There were practical reasons for that, as well; it wasn’t too likely that someone would see my vehicle and recognize it as mine, but it wasn’t impossible.


I felt almost naked as I walked the last block or two to the bar, mostly because, by my standards, I might as well have been naked. I wasn’t wearing armor. I wasn’t even wearing my cloak. I couldn’t; this whole plan depended on me not being recognized.


When you wear scary-looking armor, and you wear a black cloak, that’s what people see. Show up again in a Hawaiian shirt and tacky sunglasses, and they probably won’t realize it’s the same person. For much the same reason, Aiko and Snowflake were staying behind for this trip; they were both too instantly recognizable, by too many people.


Entering the bar, I found that it was fairly quiet, as I’d hoped. This time of day was always slow, and while there were more people than usual today, it still wasn’t crowded. A couple of people were playing chess, and Rachel was standing by one of the billiards tables. Mac had apparently taken over the other to use as an infirmary. People were lined up, waiting to get injuries tended to. Most of them were minor—a sprain, a bruise, a cut. Others weren’t. It was a little strange, for Pryce’s to smell like blood.


I was a little concerned that Mac would look up and see me, because she would definitely know who it was, and probably not be inclined to keep my secret. We’d never been on the best of terms. She seemed entirely focused on her work, though, and I slipped by without being noticed.


I sat at the end of the bar, well away from any of the other customers, and waited. Pryce had been glaring at me since I walked in—I’d known there was no point even trying to keep him from recognizing me—but he seemed willing to take his time about getting to me.


Eventually he walked up, and glared at me from a closer range instead. “Told you,” he said, his voice very quiet, but so deep that it was as much felt as heard. “Don’t come back.”


I nodded. “Give me a chance to talk first?” I asked, keeping my voice equally quiet. This wasn’t a conversation I wanted overheard.


Pryce didn’t say anything, but he also didn’t beat the shit out of me, so I kept going. “I know you told me to stay out,” I said. “And normally I would. But things are crazy out there, Pryce. People are getting killed. I’m trying to do something about it, but I can’t handle this on my own.”


He grunted. “And?”


“And I’d heard that the community was organizing,” I said. “Mobilizing, maybe. People getting together and working to protect themselves. And if that’s true, you know about it. Maybe they’re customers, maybe they’re not, but either way you know about it.”


He nodded, once, and waited.


“I need those people on my side, Pryce,” I said. “They’re smart, they’re tough, they’ve got some talents that can be damn hard to deal with, and they know the area like nobody else. I need them.”


“I’m neutral.”


“No,” I said, shaking my head. “Nobody’s neutral. Not this time. Things are falling apart, and that affects everyone. Look, I’m not trying to recruit you for my army or anything like that. I don’t even want you to try and convince them to help me. I just need to know who to talk to.”


He grunted and walked away, grabbing a bottle off the shelf on his way to a group of guys further down the bar. It was an “I’m thinking” sort of grunt, rather than a “get out right now” grunt, so I sat back and waited.


A few minutes later, after taking care of his other customers, Pryce walked back over to me. He set a steak sandwich and a glass of iced tea in front of me, saying, “On the house.” Then he reached into a pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper. I unfolded it and found three names written on it in surprisingly delicate copperplate script. I didn’t recognize any of the names.


“Thanks, Pryce,” I said, folding it again and putting it in my pocket.


He opened his mouth, then shrugged and grunted instead, before walking way. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I was welcome here again or not.


Either way, there was food in front of me now, and I was starving. That was a situation that I knew how to deal with, and I did.

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Clean Slate 10.3

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Driving away, I had the uncomfortable realization that, from Frishberg’s perspective, I was basically indistinguishable from Loki. I had powers that she didn’t really understand, and which she definitely didn’t know the exact limits of. I had information that she didn’t, and between the things I knew and the things I just didn’t admit to not knowing, I probably seemed pretty well-informed to her.


And, much like Loki, I was about to give her exactly what she’d asked for, and do it in such a way that she came to regret ever even asking.


When she asked me to make sure the city came through the current crisis in one piece, I think she was expecting me to talk to people, and intimidate them into toeing the line. I’d mentioned that the reason other cities weren’t having many problems was the reputation of certain citizens, after all, and she’d made it clear that she thought I was one of them.


And the problem with that was that she was wrong. These people had, in many cases, been repressing their urges for hundreds of years, and they’d just been given free rein to indulge themselves. I didn’t have the kind of reputation it would take to convince them not to do so. Nobody had that kind of influence. Moray might be able to do something comparable, but only because he had a major and terrifying organization backing him up—and even then, I’d have been astonished if he didn’t have to give people an object lesson to get the point across.


No, I didn’t have the authority to just tell people not to cause trouble and make it stick. Normally I would have relied on the authorities to take care of most of the problems and dealt with the special cases myself, but at the moment the authorities were in disarray, moving at cross-purposes. The lack of coordination between the military and the police would have been ample evidence of that, even without the information Frishberg had given me. Supernatural affairs weren’t much better settled; the gods had officially bowed out of things, and the other major organizations were struggling to get their feet under them and respond.


I was confident that they would have their act together relatively quickly—a matter of a couple weeks at the most, and probably more like days. But a lot could happen in a few days. If I wanted to keep things together here, I would have to act now, not several days from now.


All of which had led me to the conclusion that the only way I could keep a mixture of internal conflicts and external threats from tearing the city to pieces was to conquer it myself.


It would fit with Frishberg’s request. Some of the citizens would die—maybe a lot of them. The social structures, the politics and the government, might never be the same. But the city, the streets and buildings, the history, the populace as a whole, would come through okay.


And if it worked, I would have a hell of a lot more power at the end of the process than the beginning. Right now, my claim to the city was one of political expediency, and in the aftermath of such fundamental changes to the political structure of the world, even that might not be there. If I pulled this off, on the other hand, I would own the city in reality as well, at least until there was a civilian government to give it back to.


Not that that was why I was doing it. I didn’t even want the power I already had. But from the outside, it would look an awful lot like I’d taken her request and turned it inside out, using it as an excuse to build my own power. And that was the kind of move that might actually get me the kind of respect that Frishberg thought I already had.


I wanted to cry as we drove back to the mansion, found myself smiling bitterly instead. Aiko had turned the stereo to a funeral doom playlist, which suited my mood rather nicely, and even with the debris on the road she managed to get that armored truck up to a speed that would have been excessive for most highways.


Twenty minutes later I was slouching in the heavy, thronelike chair in my upstairs study. The same three people as before were gathered on the other side of the desk—Selene to represent the social, financial, and political aspects, Kyi because she was in charge of the military and espionage branches of my organization, and Brick as a representative of other things. Aiko was sitting next to me, while Snowflake lay on the floor at my feet.


Downstairs, the bustling activity continued unabated, under the watchful eyes of the other housecarls. At my request, a stray cat had been pleased to come inside and doze on the throne, giving me a decent view of the room. Taken as a whole, and viewed absently in the back of my mind, it was almost hypnotic, the people moving in concert. An action was taken in one corner and the effects rippled out through the room, changing the rhythm slightly, more runners going to some tables, fewer to others. Viewed as a whole, it almost seemed like a single organism, rather than many.


“Okay,” I said, pulling my attention back to what was in front of me, while leaving just enough in the cat that I would notice if something changed dramatically downstairs. “I need some specific numbers on logistics.”


Brick cleared his throat. “Before you start,” he said, “I have to go. The Watchers just called me in.”


I eyed him. “I thought you were assigned as my liaison.”


“This is different. There’s an all hands on deck situation in Russia right now. They’re calling everybody in. I shouldn’t even have waited this long, but I thought it would go over better if I told you in person.”


“All hands on deck,” I repeated. “What the hell is bad enough to merit that?”


“There’s a necromancer running around out there,” he said, fidgeting nervously. “A real necromancer, not one of the poseurs that turn up now and then. He’s outside Volgograd in one of the mass graves from World War Two, or he was the last I heard.”


“Ah,” I said. “And…this is bad?”


He gave me an unamused look. “The Watchers have a scale for how serious a situation is, from zero to twenty. Yesterday this was a seven. This morning it was at a nine. When they called me it was at thirteen and likely to climb.”


“Okay,” I said. “How bad is a thirteen?”


“A minor nuclear exchange only rates a ten.”


I blinked. “You’d better get going, then,” I said. “Do you guys want…I mean, is there anything I can do to help?” I knew that I was supposed to be focusing on my own problems, but if there was seriously a problem bad enough to make nuclear missiles look mild, that kinda outweighed my personal concerns.


“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably not. If we can’t get things under control soon, they’ll make a general call for anyone to come and help. If that happens, I imagine you’ll be hearing from someone.” He stood up. “Okay, I’ve got to get moving. Good luck.”


“You too,” I said, watching him go and trying not to worry. The Watchers were huge, well-informed, and dealing with this kind of thing was literally their job. Surely they would be able to take care of things. Surely.


“That was fun,” Kyi said a moment later. “Where were we, again?”


“Right,” I said. “In your opinion, how well would we be able to manage a major action right now?”


Kyi and Selene looked at each other, then Kyi looked at me. “What kind of scale are we talking about?” she asked. She didn’t sound confident.


“Citywide. I’m aiming for control, more than for actually beating the other participants, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to get the one without the other.”


She sighed, and I got the impression that she’d been afraid I was going to say something like that. “Not well,” she admitted. “I mean, we could try, but I don’t see it going well. At this point the only combat personnel we’ve got are the five housecarls, eight mages from the Inquisition, and you three. No matter how you slice it, that’s just not enough bodies to maintain control over that much territory. We’re having a hard enough time keeping a perimeter around this building.”


“I see,” I said. “So your main concern is that we don’t have enough people?”


“At the moment? Yes.”


“So if, hypothetically speaking, I was able to get more people on our side? What then?”


“If you’re thinking of your usual freelancers, then no. Don’t get me wrong, they’re good, but what we need right now is numbers.”


“Understood,” I said, nodding. “Assume we’re talking about more people than the usual. Enough to get decent coverage throughout the city.”


She shrugged. “I’d have to know more about their combat capabilities to say what kind of results we’d get putting them up against the other players. For the logistics, that’s more Selene’s realm.”


“Things are a little tight,” the demoness said promptly. “Cell reception is spotty right now, as is Internet access. Landlines are inconsistent with outside numbers, but the infrastructure within the city is still in decent shape, so that’s a fairly reliable way to communicate with dispersed forces. Our funding should be enough to pay any independent contractors for at least a short time, unless they charge extremely high rates. Supplies are not as good, but grocery stores are still open, so we should be able to stay on top of that.”


“So what you two are telling me,” I said quietly, “is that if I want to have any chance of pulling this off, I need to convince people to help out.”




“How many?”


Kyi shrugged. “I’d like at least a hundred. We wouldn’t be using them all at once, but you need people on the ground throughout the area, and you need enough people that you can manage a sizable force to deal with special situations without leaving the rest of your territory unguarded.” She sighed. “Not that I’ve ever managed an operation like this. I kinda wish Sveinn were here.”


“I do too,” I said. “But you’re the best we’ve got, so we’re going to use your number.”


I sat and thought about that for a while. I had to come up with a hundred people willing to do what I told them, and I had to do it fast. More than a hundred, probably; that was the goal for a final number, but odds were extremely good that I would lose some in the process. It was better to aim too high than too low, right now.


There were only a few ways I could think of to get that kind of force. I couldn’t think of anyone who would give me that much help, not unless I were to pay more than I was remotely comfortable with. That meant that I would have to find my minions piecemeal, taking them where I could find them. And even then, it was likely to involve both risks and payments that I’d rather it didn’t.


There was nothing to be done but to get it over with, though, so I took a minute to sort through the people I could ask, deciding which avenues were worth pursuing and which were just too dangerous, time-consuming, or unlikely to work to be worth bothering with. The others were patient while I did so, although Aiko had started playing a game on her phone while she waited.


“Okay,” I said at last. “Kyi, you can get in touch with Skrýmir, correct?”


She shrugged. “Sure.”


“Good. Tell him that, as my court is currently in the process of expanding rapidly, I find myself in need of skilled help. As such, I’m willing to consider any jötnar who want to sign up as my housecarls. I’ll trust you to get the wording right.”


She regarded me for a moment, her features blank behind the tattoos. “You send out an open call like that,” she said, “on short notice, you’re going to get a lot of respondents you’d rather not.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “I know. I’m hoping that Skrýmir will filter out some of the worst ones, and we can deal with the rest.”


She shrugged. “If you say so.”


“I do,” I said firmly. “Also, I want you to go through whatever reports you’re getting in, looking for signs of ghouls. If there are any in town, I want to know where they are. Don’t take any action yet, just inform me. Clear?”


“Yes, my jarl. Is there anything else?”


“Not for you. Get to work.” She left, and I turned my attention to Selene. “I need some paper and a pen.”


Implements were found, and I started writing. “This is a list of people who might be willing to help,” I said. “Along with the messages I want you to give them. If communications are that bad, it might be hard to get in touch with them. Get someone on it right away, and have them keep trying until something gets through.”


“And the others?”


I smiled grimly. “The others aren’t the sort of people you call on the phone,” I said. I finished writing in silence, and then handed the list to her. It was a few pages long.


She scanned it. “Interesting list,” she commented. “Quite a variety here.”


“That’s the point. If you hear from any of them before we get back, make sure you write down exactly what they say.”


“And where will you be?”


I grinned. “We’re going to go have a chat with Kikuchi.”


Aiko groaned. “Seriously? Do you have to drag him into this?”


“He’s already in this,” I pointed out. “And he’s a lot more likely to help me than any other local player.”


“Fine,” she grumbled. “But you can leave me here. I hate dealing with those birdbrains.”


“Oh, come on,” I said. “It’ll be fun. We’re going to make them give me military support. And that’s after we drive through contested territory to get there.”


“Ah,” she said, grinning. “That kind of fun. Well, with an offer like that, how could I refuse?”


Snowflake was laughing as we walked out the door.

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Interlude 10.a: Alexis Hamilton

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I took a deep breath, settled my backpack on my shoulders, and knocked on the door.


It came out feeble. Old ladies who had to lean on a walker to stay standing knocked louder than that. There was no way anyone inside the house could have heard it.


I started to knock again, but my hand stalled five inches from the door. I couldn’t make myself touch it. My heart was hammering in my chest, and I heard a crackle from the doorbell as the ambient electricity fried its circuits beyond any repair. I hadn’t even meant to do that.


It was ridiculous. I was a grown woman, with a six-figure savings account, excellent if forged academic credentials, and an incredible job waiting for me just as soon as I worked up the courage to take it. There was no reason I should be afraid to knock on this door, to see my family again.


This time I went too far the other direction, pounding on the door like I meant to wake the neighbors. I winced a little as the noise shattered the quiet on the predawn street—not the first impression I’d been hoping for—but at least it was done.


I stood on the doorstep for what felt like hours, running through all the ways this could go in my head. Anxiety cast a shadow over the hypothetical conversations, turning every turn of phrase into something barbed and toxic.


And then I heard the quiet click of a deadbolt being turned, and the door pulled open. The boy on the other side was tall, almost as tall as I was, but gangly, a puppy that hadn’t grown into his new frame yet. He was wearing glasses, which combined with his neatly-cut hair and button-up shirt to give him an almost somber appearance.


I barely recognized him. But then, I hadn’t seen him for…had it really been almost five years? He would be in high school now. Almost done with high school, in fact.


“Who are you?” he asked, looking at me suspiciously.


“Don’t you recognize me?” I asked, trying to keep my smile steady. I’d been expecting this, but it still hurt. “I’m your sister, Tyler.”


He stared at me for a moment, then stepped back into the house. “Alexis? Mom, dad! Alexis is back!”


I forced a smile, and followed him in.


For a while, I was overlooked. It didn’t matter that the prodigal daughter had returned; Tyler still had school, and dad still had to go to work. Rebecca had either dropped or failed out of college, to the surprise of no one, but apparently she’d managed to get a job at a fast food restaurant, and she had to be there on time as well.


In all the bustle, it was easy for me to slip upstairs, almost unnoticed. That was why I’d timed this when I did.


I’d thought that they might rent my room out, or else use it for storage, but it turned out that they’d left it almost untouched since I’d left. The bookshelves were still filled with old, worn paperbacks, mostly horror and suspense with a dash of carefully concealed romance novels. Knickknacks and magazines were scattered around on shelves or lying on the floor, all covered in a thin layer of dust.


I dropped my bag on the neatly-made bed and looked around. It felt odd, being in my room again after so long. I still recognized it, and I remembered the meaning the various keepsakes and posters held, but it felt like I was looking at it from one remove. Like their meaning belonged to someone else, not me.


“Alexis?” my mother said from the door. “Darling, what’s going on?”


I plastered a smile across my face again and turned to face her. “I thought I’d come back and say hello,” I said. “Maybe move back in for a while. I’ve got plenty of money, I can pay rent.”


“Oh, don’t worry about money,” she said, with a smile as fake as my own. “But what’s up? Why are you coming back now, when….”


She trailed off, as though unsure what to say. It didn’t matter, since I could fill the rest in for myself. When I’d been gone for years? When I hadn’t even bothered to call since I left? When our last conversation had ended with tears on both sides, and a screaming match that had left Tyler cowering in the corner with the cat?


“I guess I just need to be at home right now,” I said, not answering the question.


She seemed to accept it, nodding. “Do you have any luggage you need to bring in?”


“No. Just the one bag.”


“Okay. We’ll go out tomorrow and get you some decent clothes, anyway.”


Mom stood there for a moment longer, looking like she wanted to say something but she wasn’t sure what. Then she walked out, leaving me to unpack my bag.


Over the next few days, things around the house returned to their routine. Dad was still working seventy-hour weeks at the advertising firm. Mom was very much the socialite, although her social circles had changed slightly since I’d left. Tyler spent most of his time either at school or on the Internet. Rebecca had two different part-time jobs, one at a fast food restaurant and the other at a temp agency. In her spare time she liked to hang out with people who thought they were a tough crowd, which made me laugh a little.


She was also a junkie, addicted to a prescription narcotic of some sort. I wasn’t sure whether the rest of the family knew, although it seemed likely that they had some idea. I didn’t really care; Rebecca and I had been close once, when I was making the same dumb mistakes she was making now, but I liked to think that I’d grown up a little since then.


I had to wonder whether it had always been so petty, or it only seemed that way in retrospect. They lived their lives, and by and large it was pointless. A little more money, a nicer car, nicer clothes, but what did any of it matter? I had power, and while it might not have been much in the grand scheme of things, it was enough to do something real, something that mattered. In comparison, this was…hollow, I supposed was the way to describe it.


I was starting to remember why I’d left home in the first place. I’d come back here with the hope of remembering, reconnecting with the person I’d been before….just before.


The problem was that the old Alexis had been sort of a bitch. She’d been the shallow, petty, selfish sort of person who could look at this life and think that it mattered. When I’d left home, it hadn’t been because I didn’t want to live like this. It had been because I wanted to do it on my own terms.


And even after I’d left, nothing had been really different. I might not have agreed with it when my friends started to escalate things, moving from burglary to mugging, from mugging to murder, but I hadn’t really argued, either. I hadn’t even realized what that meant about me.


Not until the skinwalker gave me a knife and a choice had I realized who I was, deep down. I hated him for that. More than the pain, the deaths, the endless string of cruelties, I hated him for giving me the choice.


As time went by, I took to spending less and less time at home. I went to Seattle, to talk to Moray about life working for the Conclave, and how to use magic in a fight. He didn’t really teach me much about magic; what he taught me was more a state of mind, an attitude. I also spent a fair amount of time back in Transylvania, working in the laboratory. If I was going to be a Guard, I would need to be equipped for it.


Weeks rolled by like that, and the gulf between me and my family grew and grew. I lost track of how many topics I was trying to avoid; sometimes it seemed like there were no safe ones topics at all. Mom asked for my cell phone number, and I couldn’t give it to her because I didn’t have a cell phone; the electronics tended to fry when I got excited during a conversation, and it had become more work than it was worth to constantly be replacing them. They asked what I was doing for money, and of course that couldn’t be explained.


They asked what my plans were. Mom thought I should get a job, while dad tried to steer me towards college. I thought about being honest and telling them that I wanted to join the special forces of a secret organization that protected the world from supernatural threats, but there was no way that would end well.


So by and large I drifted along, trying to convince myself that I had something in common with them and failing more badly with each passing day. I’d just come to the conclusion that the whole endeavor had been a pointless waste of everyone’s time when everything changed.


Oddly enough, it was my mom that called me downstairs to watch the broadcast. Apparently it had taken over the channel with no real explanation.


Or, as I later learned, every channel. Every television station, every radio, was temporarily replaced with a different sort of programming. He left the Internet alone, probably because he knew they would start spreading the news on their own within seconds.


I hadn’t met Loki, not that I knew of, but I recognized him from Winter’s stories. And Winter’s reaction; there weren’t many things that could get that kind of response out of my cousin. At first it was funny, and I was almost grateful to Loki for stepping in. It wasn’t right that Winter was going to prison for something he’d tried his hardest to stop.


And then he started talking about how the rules had changed, and my smile slipped. “Shit,” I said. “This changes things.”


My mom looked at me oddly. “It’s just a hacker or something,” she said. “Probably a prank.”


I shook my head. “No,” I said. “You don’t get it. This changes everything. Shit. Can I use your phone? I need to talk to someone.”


She continued to give me that odd look, but she handed me her cell phone. I walked away from the couch, dialing a number from memory. “Moray,” I said, the instant he answered. “What in God’s name is going on out there?”


“This is in a different name, I think,” he said dryly. “Yes, this is for real, and no, we didn’t have anything to do with it. Although considering that I already got called to a meeting with Watcher, apparently someone knew about it.”


“This is crazy,” I said. “What do I do?”


“I’d suggest you lay low for a few days,” he said. “Things are going to get worse before they get better.” A moment later, the call ended.


I took a deep breath, tried to keep calm until I could hand the phone back to mom, and then lost it, muttering curses to myself as I sat on the couch with my head in my hands. I listened as Loki finished his speech and the screen went black momentarily before returning to the soap opera mom had been watching.


“Alexis?” She reached out to touch my shoulder, flinching back a little from the spark of static electricity that jumped to her. “Alexis, what’s wrong?”


“Everything,” I whispered. I felt almost numb, overwhelmed by the magnitude of what just happened. “Could you call dad, and see if he can get off early? I’d feel a lot better if everyone were home tonight.” Not that it was a great defense, since this building wasn’t warded or anything, but there were plenty of nasties that would rather attack people on the street than go to the effort of assaulting a house. Especially with me there.


“Darling, I think you’re overreacting a little. This is just a prank or something.”


“Please. It would make me feel better.”


She hesitated, then said, “I’ll call and ask him.”


For the next few days, I thought that I might actually be overreacting. Oh, it wasn’t good—there were riots in a few different cities, and plenty of reports of bizarre accidents and monster sightings. But it wasn’t anything like as bad as I’d been afraid of, either.


Then Tyler, who had staunchly refused to stay home from school until things blew over, didn’t come home one day.


Aiko listened to me patiently, which was as close as she was likely to come to telling me that she gave a damn about me. The kitsune was not a patient soul.


“I’m sorry,” she said when I’d finished. “He’s asleep.”




“Winter’s asleep,” she repeated with that same artificial patience. “Has been for almost two days. I don’t know what they did to him in there—I don’t think he really knows—but it was bad.”


“Could you wake him up, then?”


“Alexis,” she said, “think about it. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in this rough of shape, and that’s saying something. If I wake him up right now, he’ll feel like he has to go out there and help you, and if he tries that in the condition he’s in, I don’t know what’ll happen, but it won’t be good.”


“What about you, then?” I said desperately. “Could you come out and help?”


I could almost hear her shaking her head. “Things are bad,” she said gently. “And chances are someone’s going to blame Winter for it. He’s not fit to defend himself right now, and we haven’t finished repairing the defenses on the castle. I need to be here in case someone attacks.” She paused. “And honestly, I doubt I could do much to help you anyway. Finding missing people is…not exactly my specialty, you know?”


“Right,” I said dully. “Thanks anyway.”


“I’m sorry,” she said again, before hanging up.


I stared at the payphone for a moment, then fed it a few more coins and dialed another number. “It’s Alexis,” I said as soon as Moray picked up on the other end. “My brother’s missing. I need your help.”


There was a long, ugly pause. “Shit,” he said, finally. “Look, Alexis, things are pretty crazy here. I don’t know—”


“I’ll owe you one,” I said, interrupting him. “It’s my brother, Moray.”


“Dammit,” he sighed. “Fine. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”


I met the Watcher in a parking lot less than an hour later. I was wearing my heavy, Kevlar-lined leather coat, and carrying my staff, in addition to various other weapons. He was wearing a three-piece suit and the only thing that was obviously a focus of some sort was the wand in his belt, but I was confident he was well enough armed to take on a small army and come out on top.


“I don’t have much time,” he said by way of greeting. “Do you have something I can use to track him? Hair, clothing, something like that?”


Wordlessly, I reached into my car and pulled out a grocery bag. In it was the shirt he’d been wearing the day before, along with a zipped bag containing a few hairs I’d found in his hairbrush. I didn’t have any blood, unfortunately, but hopefully this would do.


Moray grinned and snatched the bag out of my hand, walking around to the other side of the car. “Get in,” he said. “I’ll get the tracking spell going as we drive.”


It was slow driving, since Moray’s spell gave him little more than a direction and a vague sense of distance. That didn’t necessarily translate to a location, and it certainly didn’t translate to a street map. After a while it became clear that we were going to the river, though, which made it considerably easier.


And then I pulled over and parked, looking at a small garage not far from the docks. “You’re sure this is the place?” I asked.


“Yep,” he said, getting out of the car. “Based on the neighborhood, I’d say it’s probably a chop shop. Looks like your brother was taken by a gang, maybe for ransom, maybe for tribute.”




He shrugged. “Lots of things like kids. Could be they’re in debt to one of them, and they took your brother for payment.” He started to continue, but was interrupted when his phone rang. He answered it, his expression rapidly becoming grim, and hung up without saying anything.


“What is it?” I asked.


“Someone knew I left,” he spat. “They’re making moves in Seattle. I need to get back there, now.” He turned and started walking towards the river.


“Wait,” I said, hurrying after him. “I need your help.”


“If I don’t get back there in the next few minutes,” he said, “a lot more people than just your brother will die. Besides, you don’t need help.”


“Yes, I do,” I protested.


“Really?” he said, stopping by the edge of the water. “Tell me why you called me, then. It wasn’t because you couldn’t find him; you had the stuff, you could have done a basic tracking spell. Or even if you can’t, you could have called a werewolf. There’s a pack in town, and I know you’ve got some high-level contacts with them. They’d have been able to follow the trail here, no problem.”


I didn’t say anything, because I knew he was right.


“I know you know how to fight,” he said, lifting his hands. Power gathered around them, greens and blues that were a touch too vibrant for the world to hold, because they were intended to tear a hole in the world’s surface. “You’re not that experienced, but you’ve got a skillset that lends itself very well to violence. A couple of thugs aren’t much threat to you.”


I continued to say nothing as a roughly circular patch of air transformed into nothingness, because he was still right.


“I don’t know why you don’t want to fight,” he said, glancing at me. “Why you’re scared of it. But I recommend you think carefully about whether it’s more important to you than your brother’s life.” Then he stepped through the portal, which faded away a moment later.


I thought about it for longer than I’d like to admit.


Then I took a deep breath and walked over to the garage.


It took a few minutes of pounding on the door before someone answered. When they did I was surprised to see a woman, short and a little stocky, but in a way that suggested too many hours in the gym rather than a lot of food. “What do you want?” she said suspiciously.


“Hi,” I said, with a forced smile. “I’m here to talk about my brother.”


She eyed me for a moment longer, then took a step back, raised a pistol, and pulled the trigger.


I hadn’t been expecting that, and I hadn’t had a barrier up. It hit me in the abdomen and knocked the wind out of me, and I didn’t think it had penetrated the Kevlar but it still hurt, and it knocked me down, and she was pointing the gun at my head now and smiling and in that moment it was easy, it was oh-so-easy to lash out at her. Lightning was more natural, but force was quicker, and so it was force that I used, a blast of energy that hit her with the force of a small car.


It tore the door off its hinges and cracked the bricks of the wall, and it threw the woman to the ground before she could get another shot off. I wanted to stand, but I knew there were more important things to be done, so instead I reached, snatching the current out from the wires and spinning it around myself until my eyes ached and the air around me hummed with potential and I saw the world through the glare of blue electric fire.


The woman was getting up, so I let just a piece, just the tiniest piece of the lightning blazing in the air around me go, let it jump to her gun and then run up her arm and down her body to ground. She convulsed once as her muscles all jerked with the electricity running through them. Just once, and then she fell again.


Electricity is a funny thing. There isn’t much room between enough of it to incapacitate someone, and enough of it to kill them.


I’d used a little too much this time. She wasn’t going to be getting up. Normally I would have felt guilt about that, but with the electricity humming in the air and the anger running through my veins, there was no room for guilt.


I pushed myself to my feet, leaning on my staff, and walked inside. There were half a dozen people standing around, hard looking people dressed in black with the pale grey aura of human magic around them.


And there was also Tyler, tied to a chair.


One of them raised a gun, and I called force and storm and hit him hard enough that he hit the wall and slid down it, twitching a little. “Let my brother go,” I said, walking forward. One of them sneered, and all of them raised their weapons. I called up more force, a heavy barrier around me, and another around Tyler, to protect him from ricochets.


The guns roared for a long moment, and then went quiet, although my ears were ringing such that it wasn’t easy for me to notice.


Then it was my turn.


It’s a good time to be alive, for people like me, people who see beauty and life in the spark of static, who look at a battery and marvel at the potential it holds. There’s a wire in every wall, running underground and through the air, and at any given moment the current is pouring through them, so much of it that it’s easy to get lost, to follow the path they trace through the world, to forget that you’re more than just another charge, another tiny piece of the vast, interconnected web linking the world together.


It’s not a question of if there’s current to be had, in this day, but of how much, and even that has more to do with what you can handle than what’s available.


I called on that electricity, that whirling storm, and it came to my call, the lightbulbs shattering, the wires that fed their lights and their tools and their luxuries all bursting at my touch, spewing more and more power forth into the air, and I was grinning a wide death’s-head grin against the strain of holding it steady when it wanted, as it always wanted, to escape and go to ground, the intensity of that strain something almost physical, pressing against the inside of my skull.


And then I opened a hole, a tiny, well-defined hole, and it leapt from my grasp with joyous fury, pouring down the channel I had made for it.


What looked like a tiny bolt of lightning jumped from me to one of the gunmen, then to each of the others in turn. For a moment they all stood there, backs arched, trying to scream but unable to control their muscles, and, God help me, I saw the beauty there. Then it ended, and they dropped to the ground, guns clattering away from nerveless fingers.


I walked over slowly, leaning more heavily on my staff now. I hadn’t felt the exertion while I was working the magic, as usual, but once I’d let it go it hit me all at once, and it was a struggle to stand.


Tyler was staring at me, pale, eyes wide. It was hard to say whether he was more frightened of me or of the people who had kidnapped him.


I reached the gunmen and stared down at them. A memory came to mind, not quite a flashback, but almost as intense.


The skinwalker had an almost infinite variety of ways to cause suffering, to torment his victims. I’d seen more of them, far more, than I wanted to. But with me, he’d favored subtler tortures, mind games and psychological trauma. His favorite game, once it became clear to him just how much I hated it, was to give me a choice.


I could kill one person, or he could kill three.


The first time I’d been revolted at the idea of murdering someone in cold blood. I’d never intentionally hurt anyone, let alone killed them, and the mere notion of doing so was horrifying.


He’d suffocated one, thrown the second off a building, and lit the third on fire. And then he went about his day, like nothing of note had happened, because for him, nothing had.


The second time, I’d still held out hope that things might get better, that the world couldn’t really be this bad, that God wouldn’t, couldn’t, be cruel enough to allow such things to happen.


That time he’d taken children. He’d made it slow, and horrible, and he’d made me watch the whole time. I still had nightmares about that, and if I hadn’t been a vegetarian before I certainly would have been one after.


The third time, I’d taken the knife.


Now, looking down at the gangsters, i realized that I had the same choice in a different guise. I could be merciful, let them go, do the right thing. And if I did, the next kid they took might not have a sister with magic to rescue him.


Or I could take the metaphorical knife, and take one more step to the dark side.


There were times it was very easy to see what made Winter the way he was.


I bent down, and picked up one of the guns.


I brought Tyler home, and went upstairs without saying a word to my family. Tyler hadn’t spoken to me on the way back; it was hard to say whether he was more scared of the people who had taken him, or the one who was bringing him back.


In the shower, I threw up, scrubbed myself raw, and then threw up again. I ended up sitting there, shaking, until the water was cold. Then I got dressed, my fingers more steady than I felt they deserved to be, and packed my bag again. I didn’t say anything as I left the house, and nobody said anything to me.


I sent my application to the Guards the next day. It had become clear that there would be no redemption in my life, no peace, no return to a life with a family and a desk job and sleep without nightmares. There are wounds too deep for healing.

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Clean Slate 10.2

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The roads were bad.


It was strange, the extent to which that idea had simply never occurred to me. In this country, you expected that the road system would work. The traffic might be heavy, there might be blockages or wrecks, or maybe even washouts, but in the end things would be fixed. There would be a way to get from A to B.


But now? That wasn’t so much the case. Cars were abandoned on the side or in the middle of the road, their erstwhile owners nowhere in sight. Some of them looked to have been shredded by something with large claws, and others were burned-out husks, but plenty of the vehicles seemed intact. They were just…left, nobody having the time or inclination to deal with them.


In other places, the damage was more obvious. The support for a bridge had been turned to mud, leaving the whole thing to collapse; we had to drive three blocks to find a way around it, and even then it involved off-road driving and a liberal interpretation of traffic laws. Other than that, a number of traffic lights weren’t working properly, and several roads were barricaded off for no apparent reason.


I wondered how much of it was intentional action, screwing things up for amusement or to serve a greater purpose, and how much of it was simply the consequence of the broader environment. With people scared, communications disrupted, and most governmental bodies in disarray, it was easy to see how things would begin to deteriorate. Minor problems, that normally wouldn’t really be problems, started to accumulate. When a light malfunctioned, there was no crew to fix it. When a car wrecked, there was no one to tow it. The garbage trucks weren’t making their rounds, and as a result it just started to pile up.


It was almost surreal, how rapidly things had started to fall apart. There were a thousand little tasks that had to be done on a regular basis to keep a city running, and with nobody to do them, it didn’t take long to notice the cracks appearing in the facade.


Whatever the reason for the problems, we didn’t see many people on the roads, and I couldn’t blame them. We were driving a heavy armored truck, just one step short of a tank, and it was a good thing because not much else could have managed it.


Finally, after around three times longer than it should have taken, we made it downtown. Here, at least, things looked a little better. The streets were clear, and the buildings were intact. We passed people both walking and driving, and if they seemed scared and hurried, at least they weren’t actually injured.


“Where to now?” Aiko asked, turning up the stereo. It was currently blasting what appeared to be a theremin version of Beethoven’s Ninth at a volume more commonly associated with gangsta rap.


“Look for police, I guess,” I said, shrugging. It seemed like an inefficient way to find somebody, but Frishberg wasn’t answering her phone, and under the circumstances I wasn’t sure what else to do.


It took maybe five minutes for us to find a pair of them, sitting in a cruiser out front of an apartment building. Aiko pulled over next to them and I got out, walked over to their car, and knocked on the driver’s window.


I stood there for a couple seconds before he rolled the window down. “What do you want?” he asked suspiciously. His partner had her hand on her gun.


Not that I could blame them. I mean, even at the best of times, if a guy in armor gets out of a heavily armored truck and walks up to you, a certain amount of caution is pretty reasonable.


“I was hoping you could give me directions,” I said, smiling. They wouldn’t see it behind the helmet, but I was hoping that they would hear it in my voice. “We’re looking for Sergeant Kendra Frishberg. Do you know where she is?”


The driver looked at his partner, then shrugged. “Couple blocks that way,” he said. “Look for the barricades.”


“Thanks,” I said, going back to the truck. I could hear them muttering behind me as I got in. “Go a few blocks east and look for barricades,” I said.


“Barricades? Oh, this should be good.” Aiko was smiling, but I knew her well enough to see through it. She was concerned, even worried, although I didn’t think it had anything to do with the barricades. It had more to do with how the police had responded to me, the suspicion there, the hostility.


I had to admit there was a fair point there. I’d never actually been found innocent of blowing up large chunks of the city, after all, and even if I had been I wasn’t naive enough to think that would matter. Between that and the fact that the current insanity had kicked off during my court hearing, there was almost certainly some lingering animosity there.


Those two had been suspicious just looking at me, the armor and my attitude tipping them off that I wasn’t just another scared civilian. What would happen if they actually figured out who I was? Hell, even Frishberg might not be willing to play along with me at this point.


I didn’t want to think too much about what would happen then. I wasn’t going back in a cage.


It had to be dealt with at some point, though, so we kept driving.


After another two or three minutes, we found what they’d been talking about. A section of street had been cordoned off with caution tape and parked vehicles. There were a handful of cops standing around, making sure nobody crossed it.


Their posture was anxious. They weren’t scared, exactly—this wasn’t the same as what the civilians were showing. No, this attitude gave the impression of being a response to a specific event, rather than the general climate of the city. There was something going on here, and while the cops might be doing something about, I didn’t get the impression that they were confident it was working.


“Hi,” I said, getting out and walking up to the cordon, Snowflake pacing along beside me. Aiko was locking the truck up behind us. “Can you give me directions to Sergeant Frishberg?”


“She’s busy,” one of the cops said. “We have a situation here.”


I rolled my eyes. “Obviously,” I said, ladling on the sarcasm pretty thickly. “Why did you think we were here? Look, she’s going to want to talk to me. How about you tell me where I can find her?”


He frowned, and I could tell he didn’t believe me, but he wasn’t willing to call me on it, either. “Come on,” he said. “I’ll take you to her.”


“Thanks,” I said, smiling. We followed him to a small building on the corner. The ground floor was a cafe of some kind, while the second floor seemed to be apartments. A sizable group of cops were hanging out around the building, watching it like hawks. I saw a couple of SWAT vehicles, and from the weapons on display they weren’t just for show.


I could smell blood from the building. That wasn’t good; even with my senses, there would have to be a fair amount of blood to smell it from this far away.


Frishberg was standing a short distance from the group, talking on a cell phone. “Hi,” I said, waving at her.


She turned, saw me, stared for a moment, and then hung up, cutting the guy on the other end off mid-tirade. “What the bloody hell are you doing here?”


“Don’t ask me,” Aiko said. “I just drove him here.”


“I was hoping to talk with you,” I said, grinning. “Maybe catch up on how things have been. I haven’t seen you for a while, after all.”


She stared for a couple seconds longer, then turned to the cop who’d escorted me there. “Get back to your position,” she told him. “And forget you ever saw this.”


He frowned. But he went.


“Okay,” Frishberg said, rounding on me. “First off, I had no idea they were planning that. They wouldn’t even let me stop by after you were arrested, or I would have. Second, what the flying fuck made you think it was a good idea to come here? Are you out of your mind?”


“Probably,” I said, shrugging. “But I was telling the truth earlier. I was hoping to talk, get an idea of what’s going on. I’m sure you have info I don’t right now.”


She sighed, running her hand through her hair. It looked like a nervous gesture, but I was fairly confident it was an affectation. Frishberg was too good at lying to have a tell that obvious. “Look,” she said. “As much as I’d like to, I don’t have the time right now. Shit is going crazy right now, and since I’m the only one who’s been dealing with this stuff for years, I’m having to keep an eye on everything myself.”


“So let me clear your schedule a little,” I said. “What’s the crisis here?”


“Hostage situation,” she said. “Some freak walked into the cafe, took most of the staff hostage. They’re upstairs now, and he’s threatening to kill them if we go inside. I was hoping to get a negotiator down here, but apparently that isn’t going to happen.” She glared at the cell phone.


“Cool,” I said. “I’m fairly sure the hostages are already dead, but I can take care of the guy that did it. Give me ten minutes or so.”


The front door was locked, a problem I dealt with easily enough. It was a wooden door, not intended to stand up to an assault, and I kicked it in without much difficulty.


Inside, things were not pretty. There were splatters of blood on the floor and the furniture, although not enough to account for what I’d been smelling, and several overturned chairs. The cooking equipment must have been turned off, because there was no smoke and nothing was on fire, but the air still smelled like burned food. I was hungry, but not even I would call it an appetizing aroma.


“Naughty, naughty,” a voice called from above. “Coming in without an invitation, are we? You know what that means, don’t you?” A moment later a woman screamed. It wasn’t the sort of canned scream that you get in horror movies, or even a terrified running-away sort of scream. This was the kind of scream you hear from someone in too much pain to keep it all inside.


I was a little more familiar with that kind of thing than I wanted to be.


I glanced outside, afraid that the cops would come running when they heard the scream, but nobody did. Good; they were doing what they’d said, at least for the moment.


“I’m not with the police,” I said, dragging one of the tables next to another. Aiko caught on instantly and grabbed a third table, pushing it into position.


“Oh no?” he said, laughing. “Then who are you with?”


“At the moment it’s just me and some friends,” I said, climbing up onto the tables. Aiko passed up a chair, which I positioned in the center of the improvised platform. “You can call me Shrike, by the way.” I didn’t exactly want to use my real name, not when there were a dozen or so cops within earshot. I was sure some of them knew who I was, but there’s a huge difference between knowing something and being unable to provide plausible deniability about knowing it.


“Hello, Shrike,” he said. “You can call me Keith. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.”


“Hello, Keith,” I said. Something about the name was familiar, but I couldn’t bring it to mind. “It sounds like you’ve been making things hard for the police recently.” I stood on the chair and reached up experimentally. The ceiling was, just barely, within reach.


“But you’ve already said you aren’t with the police,” he said, in a tone of exaggerated confusion. “So how should it be your business?”


“You’re causing trouble in my town,” I said, calling Tyrfing. I cut a roughly square hole in the ceiling with a couple of strokes, pushing it aside when it fell, and then climbed through. “And that’s always my business,” I concluded, helping Aiko through. Snowflake vaulted up on her own, disdaining the platform I’d assembled.


We were standing in a small kitchen, with puke-green appliances that didn’t look to have been updated since the seventies. The smell of blood was stronger here, and I could smell magic as well, a fae magic of moonless nights and the silence between heartbeats.


A moment later a figure stepped through the doorway, and the smell of magic intensified. He was male, but I hesitated to call him a man; his frame was too warped, his limbs too long, his skin too grey. He was the sort of fae that could pass for human with a light illusion or a heavy coat, but when you looked at him squarely the resemblance was slight. He moved with perfect confidence, though there was a heavy bandage wrapped around his eyes.

I stared at that bandage. It seemed significant, though I wasn’t sure why. It was grey in color, almost the same grey as his skin, but something about the color suggested that it was the result of wear, rather than manufacturing.


“Come now, Shrike,” he said, grinning. His teeth were just a shade too sharp, too long. “This apartment is accessible by exterior stairs, not through the business on the lower floor.”


“That’s why I came in the way I did,” I said, watching him warily. He gave the impression of being someone who would know if I looked away, and capitalize on it. “Or are you going to tell me those stairs aren’t trapped?”


His grin grew even wider, and he started to pace slowly around us. It felt strangely unnerving, frightening in a way I couldn’t quite define, but that made me tense and start looking for the exits. It made me think of a rabbit hiding in the brush while the wolf circles ever closer. The rabbit knows that the safest thing is to stay put, but it wants so very much to run….


“Why should I tell you a thing like that, Shrike, even if it were true? But come, let us not forget our manners. These are your friends, I shall presume? And how are they called?” Keith’s voice was light, casual, totally at odds with his predatory attitude.


“You can call me Cupcake,” Aiko said, turning to keep Keith within her field of view. “And the dog goes by Spike.”


“How intriguing,” he murmured. “I thank you, Shrike, for making this day amusing. I had almost feared that I would be bored, but you have brought fresh interest to my work here.”


I couldn’t say why, but right then was when I realized why his name was familiar. “Keith,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to be Blind Keith, would you?”


He stopped pacing and turned to face me, his smile gone. “And where would you have heard that name, Shrike?”


I had to swallow twice before I could speak, that same irrational fear making my throat tight and dry. “Erin mentioned you. She said that you were one of the best mercenaries in the Courts.”


“Mercenary,” he said distastefully. “I mislike that word, Shrike, for I am no mercenary, whose loyalties are bought and sold as cheaply as any other commodity.”


“Perhaps not,” I said. “But I think you have something in common with them, don’t you? Even if it is just a certain set of shared acquaintances.”


“Indeed,” he murmured, resuming his slow stalk around us. “And yet I question your wisdom in pushing this topic. You are, I hope, aware that I can snuff out the lives of these human hostages with nothing more than a snap of my fingers?”


I shrugged as nonchalantly as I could, hoping that I wasn’t condemning some poor cafe employee to death. “I’m aware,” I said. “I just don’t see how it’s relevant to this conversation. This is about you and us, not them.”


He regarded me for a moment, then raised his hand and snapped his fingers. Instantly, there was another scream of agony from elsewhere in the apartment, one that ended in a sort of gurgling moan.


Aiko looked like she was about to go running off, looking for the person that was screaming, so I caught her arm. “Nice try,” I said to Keith. “But your hostages are either dead or silenced, or else they would have started begging for help the moment they heard us talking out here.” I supposed it was also possible that they couldn’t hear what was going on, but I doubted it. Blind Keith struck me as the kind of guy who would want his victims to hear what was going on out here.


“What do you call that, then?” he asked, obviously referring to the ongoing moaning sounds.


“A hunting adaptation,” I replied immediately. “It’s the scream in the night that makes you leave your shelter, it’s the crying baby that draws you out of your safe place. It’s a will-o’-the-wisp, something to lure you out into the dark until you’re lost and alone and far from home.”


He nodded slowly. “Someone,” he murmured, “has been reading his faerie tales.”


“Yes,” I said. “I have. And one of the first things you learn about the fae is that they have rules. There are always rules, and I think I’ve figured out some of yours.”


“Oh? Do tell.”


“You’re a hunter, Blind Keith,” I said, turning so that I could watch him as he continued to pace around us. “A predator. You want us to run, so that you can chase us. You frighten us so that we will flee, you make us hear things so that we will go to check on them. How many sounds could you mimic? A great many, I suspect. You’ve been pushing us pretty hard, trying to scare us, but I notice you haven’t done a single thing to us. Why not?”


The fear crescendoed, rising to a fever pitch. My legs quivered, my hands shook, and a low whine of fear escaped my throat. Snowflake was whining as well, while Aiko had gone pale as snow and started trembling in my grip. I thought I was about to piss myself or throw up or both, but luckily my body was too confused to manage either.


And then the fear began to subside, first fading and then vanishing entirely, and Blind Keith was laughing softly. “You’ve got spine,” he said. “And to answer your question, it’s more to do with choice than necessity. I respect those with the courage to stand against me.”


“And yet,” I said, “you’re trespassing. I told the truth when I said that this was my city.”


He smiled indulgently. “Don’t think you can threaten me. You may know Erin, but you aren’t on her level. You’re barely more than a puppy, and I’m an old hunter indeed.”


“I might be a puppy,” I said, holding up Tyrfing, “but that doesn’t make me a weakling. I was raised in the Khan’s own pack, because no lesser wolf could tame me. I have seen the gods go to war. And my sword is called Tyrfing, and it has claimed the lives of creatures as old and mighty as you. That’s three ways you owe me respect, Blind Keith, and none of them are small.”


“Ah,” he sighed, stretching the sound out, making it last longer than it should have, longer than human lungs could have managed. “So you’re that wolf cub. I thought you’d be taller. No disrespect was intended, child; I was curious to see how the world is changing, and it seemed natural to come to the place where that change began.”


“Understood,” I said. “But you’re still causing trouble for me, at a time when I have more than enough to deal with. I’d appreciate it if you would stop.”


“I will leave,” he agreed. “And I will converse with you, before I return to the territory you have claimed for your own. Give my regards to your grandfather, Shrike.”


“What a mess,” Frishberg said, watching them carry out the bodies on stretchers. Only one of the hostages had been killed, apparently, and that had happened well before I got there, which was why I’d been smelling blood. But the others were traumatized, emotionally more than physically, and not remotely ready to handle a trip down a ladder on their own.


“Isn’t it just,” I said, also watching. “Everywhere, it sounds like.”


“That’s the funny thing,” she said, glancing at me. “From what I hear, it isn’t everywhere. In fact, it sounds like this is very much a localized thing.”




“Yeah. Some places aren’t doing so bad at all. Seattle, Phoenix, Chicago, San Francisco, the list goes on. Then you’ve got places like Portland, where they’re literally snatching people off the streets. You know why that is?”


I shrugged. “Not most of them. But in Seattle, it’s probably because there’s somebody there that nobody wants to cross. It’s easier and safer to go cause trouble somewhere else than to piss him off.”


“Right,” she said. “Someone like you, maybe?”


I snorted. “Thanks for the compliment, but Moray could eat me alive any time he wanted to.” I hadn’t forgotten what it was like to watch him fight. Water magic wasn’t something that I’d thought of as having a whole lot of combat applications, but he made it work.


“Don’t sell yourself short. We were trying to resolve that situation for almost three hours. You walk in, and five minutes later, bam, problem solved.”


“Maybe,” I said uncomfortably. “That’s just a matter of knowing how to talk to him, though. It’s nothing anybody else couldn’t have done.” I had an idea of where she was going with this, and I didn’t like it, not even a little.


Nor was I disappointed. “Winter,” she said, the first time she’d used my name today. “You owe me a favor.”




“I’m calling it in. Make this be one of the good places. Make sure this city gets through this okay.”


“You don’t know what you’re asking for,” I said, sounding almost as exhausted as I felt.


“Maybe not,” she said. “But I’m asking.”

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Clean Slate 10.1

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Walking up to the building, I was surprised at how much activity there was inside. There were maybe twenty people in the main room, and their voices blended into a low buzz, making it hard to follow the line of any one conversation. People moved from one group to another, carrying papers or tablets, distributing food. Everyone was working at a feverish pace, and from the exhausted postures I guessed that many hadn’t taken a moment to rest for days.


All that stopped when I opened the door and walked in. People stopped what they were doing and turned to face the door, hands going to weapons.


I expected them to relax when they saw who it was, and in a sense they did. But almost half of those present saluted me, in one way or another, and several of the others followed suit a moment later.


Huh. That was new. I’d been the boss for quite a while, but that sort of open display of deference was unusual in the extreme. I wasn’t quite sure what to attribute it to, either. Was it the result of the general climate making people uneasy, eager for leadership? Or was there something more personal going on?


Regardless, it wasn’t even on the first page of my priorities, so I ignored them entirely as we walked across the room to the throne. The buzz of conversation resumed as people went back to their work.


Normally, on the rare occasions she even came, Aiko sat in her own throne next to mine. Today it wasn’t there, a problem she solved by sitting in my lap and smirking at me almost before I’d sat down.


Usually I would have been concerned about my image. Today…well, even if that weren’t way down my list of priorities and everyone else’s, you’d have to be insane to think we looked cute and cuddly. There was way too much weaponry on display for that, especially once Snowflake curled up around my feet.


“Jarl,” Selene said, appearing next to me about two seconds after I sat down. “I trust you’re feeling well?”


“Yeah, sure,” I lied absently, looking at the room. “What’s with all of this?”


“Telephone service has been patchy the last few days, and other means of communication are, well.” She shrugged. “Unreliable, I suppose would be the best way to phrase it. We’ve been coordinating everything through here, but it still involves a lot of people running back and forth.”


“Damn,” I said, watching the people running from one table to the next. The whole thing looked like barely-controlled madness, almost like watching an engine running a little faster than it could safely handle. “How much do we know about what’s going on?”


“Our information is decent. Not great, but decent. I’ve been having people prioritize information gathering and scouting activities.”


I grinned. It was good to know something had gone right recently. “Good. Give me the rundown.”


Selene nodded and then waved to one of the runners, a skinny kid who looked like he couldn’t be more than sixteen. “Get me Kyi, Tindr, and Brick. Then bring a table, a pitcher of tea, and a very large sandwich.” She glanced at me critically and said, “Make that two sandwiches.”


“Hey,” I objected as the kid ran off. “I don’t look that bad.”


“Winter,” Selene said dryly, “I have literally seen people in concentration camps that looked better than you.”


“How…you know what, I don’t think I want to know.” I shook my head. “Okay, moving on. What’s with the kid?”


She shrugged. “You’ve been attracting followers recently. This was the lowest-risk job I could find right now.”


“Fair enough,” I admitted reluctantly. I didn’t like the idea of bringing a relative innocent into things, but I supposed that with how things were right now, working in a building full of violent lunatics was probably one of the safer places to be. At least here if someone attacked there was a full-time staff of people ready to deal with things.


And besides. Nobody was really an innocent anymore. I wasn’t sure how things would shake out, but I was pretty confident that the supernatural wasn’t going back into the closet.


Kyi appeared out of nowhere a moment later. Probably she’d been in the crowd somewhere, but if so I hadn’t seen her. That was Kyi, generally. “Jarl,” she said, nodding deeply to me. “Welcome home.”


“Thanks. What’s the situation?”


“Poor,” she said bluntly. “I’ve been coordinating with our scouts, but information is sketchy. Let me set the maps out and I can bring you up to speed.”


In short order, a large folding table was set up in front of the throne. On it was a topographic map of the city, which had been abused to such an extent that it was hard to imagine it ever being used for its intended purpose again. Large swaths of the city had been shaded in various colors, and the map bristled with pins. Notes had been scrawled in the margins or across sections of the map in at least three alphabets, and even the English parts were hard to read, between rushed handwriting, half-finished thoughts and crossed out words, and the occasional coffee stain.


Kyi, though, seemed perfectly confident as she pointed to a small green area near the southern edge of the map. “This is the zone we have under control,” she said. “I’ve been scouting it regularly, but we haven’t had an incursion in two days.” She moved her finger slightly, indicating the larger area it was contained within. “We’ve been keeping the peace in this zone. But once you get farther from this building, things aren’t as safe. We can’t patrol the whole area, so sometimes we haven’t been able to respond to an incident until several hours later.”


I looked at it with some dismay. Even the larger area was…not that large, in comparison to the rest of the map. Less than ten percent of the city.


Considerably less.


“This,” she said, indicating a fairly large semicircle to the west, “is Kikuchi’s territory. He hasn’t actually laid claim to it, but nobody’s eager to upset him, either, so the intruders have mostly been staying well away from his mountain. There are still problems with looting and such, but it’s not as bad as most places.”


“Okay,” I said. “I can work with that. What next?”


A smaller, pinkish area in the middle of town was next, apparently. It was irregularly shaped, closer to an inkblot than a geometric figure. “This is where most of the independents have holed up,” Kyi said. “Nobody too powerful, but there are quite a few of them and they know what’s going on. Generally people have been going for easier targets, so they’ve been left alone. Outside of our immediate vicinity, it’s probably the safest place in the city.”


I stared at it, comparing it to my image of the city. It was hard, since I generally work from memory rather than a map, but I was fairly confident. “This is centered around Pryce’s,” I said. “Almost perfectly.”


She nodded. “They’ve been using it as a home base, apparently. Coordinating their efforts, the same way we’re doing here.”


“I’m guessing Pryce is staying neutral?”




I took a deep breath, let it out, and nodded again. “Okay. That might be a problem.”


Kyi nodded, then pointed to the blue circle covering most of the downtown area. “This,” she said, “is where the police have been concentrating their efforts. They’ve more or less imposed martial law, but they’re keeping the peace. There isn’t much looting or rioting going on in that area.”


“How are they doing at keeping the monsters out?”


She shrugged. “Not so bad. Not so good, either.”


“Fair enough. Next?”


Her finger drifted south and east, coming to rest on a large, vaguely rectangular area at the edge of the map that was shaded dark green. “Military,” she said. “And they have outposts here, here, here.” She indicated more green areas, some large, most not.


“That would be Fort Carson,” I said, pointing to the rectangular area. “Cheyenne Mountain over here, then Peterson Air Force Base, and the Air Force Academy up here. I’m not sure what the others are.”


“Neither are we,” Kyi said, shrugging. “I haven’t made a priority of scouting their turf, and we don’t have any real contacts with them. As far as we’ve been able to figure out, they basically pulled all of their people into their territory, sent the civilians away, and locked everything down as tight as they could.”


“That’s fine,” I said. “Honestly, if they can just keep to themselves and make sure their space is safe, I’ll be thrilled.”


“Yes, jarl,” she said. “So those are all the friendly zones—”


“—more or less friendly,” Aiko interrupted. “I don’t know about you, but I’m actually not on great terms with the police.” She paused. “Oh wait, I do know about you.”


“More or less friendly,” Kyi agreed, ignoring everything else. “There’s also a large area on the north side that seems to be controlled by Katrin.”


Said area was shaded a dark red, and took up most of the northern part of the city. “Nobody’s moving in on her during the daytime?” I asked, trailing my fingers over the map. That was a lot of territory.


“A couple people tried. The vampires tracked them down the next night.” She shrugged. “Nobody’s been in a hurry to try again.”


I snorted. “Yeah, I bet. Are the people there safe?”


“As safe as cows,” Kyi said with barely controlled disgust. “And for exactly the same reasons.”


Right. More or less friendly, and Katrin didn’t even count as that.


I couldn’t afford to forget that. Especially not now.


I looked over the map one more time, noting the marked areas and especially the places between them. It sounded impressive when Kyi tallied all the zones that were under the control of one faction or another, but it was still less than half the area of the city. There were large chunks in between that were apparently unclaimed.


I didn’t have to ask what was going on there. It was the same thing that was going on in every no man’s land right now. Chaos.


“Okay,” I said. “I think I’ve got a decent handle on the geography. Brick? What’s your news?”


“I’ve got the best contact with the outside world right now,” he said, stepping up from where he’d been waiting beside the table. “Although I’m guessing you already know most of what I have to say. What’s happening here is about the same as what’s going on around the world. There are a handful of places nobody’s had the balls to attack yet, but by and large everywhere’s seen at least a little action. And it’s going to get worse.”


“Why?” I asked. I’d already reached that conclusion, but I wanted to hear his reasoning for it.


“Because people will start taking it seriously,” he said, shrugging. “What we’re seeing now, it’s the equivalent of joyriders. They see an opportunity to screw people over for kicks, so they’re jumping on it. But here in a few days, a couple of weeks at the most, the big organizations are going to get in on the deal. And when they do, they’ll be playing for keeps, not for laughs.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That was my thought, too. What are the Watchers doing about it?”


“Scrambling trying to keep up,” he said dryly. “We knew something like this was in the pipeline—and by we I mean the higher-ups, not me personally—but we didn’t expect it to be this soon, or this fast. Right now it’s all about keeping things from going absolutely crazy and being ready for the next shoe to drop.” He smiled thinly. “Which is why, as of yesterday, I’ve been officially assigned to you as a liaison.”


“A liaison,” I repeated. “Um…why do I need a liaison?”


Brick shrugged. “Ask the boss. If I had to guess, they know that you’re a big name in this city, and they know a lot of people are going to see you as the cause for the insanity right now. So they want somebody on site to make sure you make things better instead of worse.”


“Or take me out, if I don’t.” It wasn’t a question. After intelligence gathering, that sort of covert removal was the main task of the Watchers.


“Or that,” Brick agreed. “But I doubt it will come to that.”


“Okay,” I said, sighing. “Let me know if there are any new developments. In the meantime…Tindr? What’s the financial status?”


“Not good,” the jotun said, stepping forward and setting a binder on top of the map. He flipped it open to reveal line after line of meticulous, densely packed handwriting. He leafed through it until he found the page he wanted, then spun it to face me. “The financial system is as uncertain as everything else right now.”


“Uncertain? Or in collapse?”


“Uncertain,” he repeated firmly. “Nothing’s really moving right now, good or bad. Now, after you were arrested, I liquidated some of your assets and transferred others into more stable investments. As a result, most of your wealth should survive the transition. Some of the companies you were invested in will probably go bankrupt, as will some of the shell corporations and laundering fronts. On the whole, though, I think it will be fine.”


“But?” I asked. “I’m sensing a ‘but,’ here.”


He sighed and nodded. “But,” he said, “many of the accounts are currently inaccessible. Trying to get a major international payment through the system right now is impossible. Between that and the fact that so much of your wealth is tied up in long-term assets and investments that would be difficult to offload right now, there’s relatively little actual money available.”


“How much?”


“At a guess?” He shrugged. “Less than a million immediately accessible. Given two or three days, between two and five million, probably closer to five.”


Okay. So I had a city on the verge of implosion, my information was shoddy as hell, and I was supposed to somehow make it all better. And I had barely more than normal operating expenses to do so with.


Oh yeah, and if I didn’t get it done in a couple of days, I probably wouldn’t get it done at all. And if that happened, a whole lot of people would die, I would most definitely be on even more hit lists than I already was, and my allies would probably be a lot less interested in covering my ass than they were right now.


I might not have objected so much, if it hadn’t felt so normal.


Maybe five minutes later, I was writing out a list while the frenetic work around me continued nonstop. Selene had gone back to coordinating their efforts and compiling the information that flowed in, while Tindr was working on liquidating assets and Kyi had taken a team out to do some reconnaissance.


“Whatcha writing?” Aiko asked. She was currently curled up against me, and seemed fairly happy. It struck me as slightly unfair that, apparently, even a person wearing armor was more comfortable to sit on than my throne.


“List of people I could ask for favors,” I said. “I’m hoping I can think of someone who might be helpful without being too risky to deal with.”


She snorted and shoved the last of her sandwich into her mouth. “Too risky?” she said, her voice slightly muffled. “For you?” I’d long since finished my own sandwich, and downed most of the pitcher of iced tea. It hadn’t done much to dull my hunger.


I looked at my list for a minute, then circled one of the names. “There,” I said. “What do you think of her?”


Aiko looked at it, then nodded. “Not bad. She’s on the ground and she’s not totally dumb, so she’ll know something. And she isn’t too bad to deal with.”


“You want to come with me, then?”


She shrugged. “Sure. Driving through town today might be interesting.”


“With my luck?” I said gloomily. “No might about it.”


She laughed and stood, and then we went to have a chat with Sergeant Frishberg.

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Unclean Hands Epilogue 9

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It was oddly peaceful on the ramparts of our castle. The night air was cool, and I could feel the creatures of the forest going about their business, making preparations for the coming winter. Down in the castle Aiko and Alexis were doing something similar, laying in supplies and shoring up the defenses. I had been helping earlier, but I’d mostly just been getting in the way, so I’d wandered up here instead.


It’s funny, Snowflake said, echoing my own thoughts. You can’t tell that anything’s wrong from here.


I know, I replied, reaching down and scratching her ears. She hadn’t been more than a couple feet from me in the four days since I’d left police custody.


Not that I could blame her. I hadn’t exactly been trying to get away from her, either.


Looking south, I almost fancied that I could see a lightness to the sky, a redness. It was probably my imagination, but not necessarily. News was hard to come by at the moment, but from what I’d heard Bucharest was burning.


A lot of the world was burning.


I wasn’t entirely sure what I’d expected to happen after Loki’s little speech, but it hadn’t been remotely as bad as what actually did. An awful lot of people had been awfully repressed for the last thousand years or so, and now that the rules had been lifted they were making up for lost time with a vengeance. Packs of werewolves roamed the streets, vampires stalked the night, and faeries kidnapped children from their homes in broad daylight. The Guards were trying to maintain sanity, as were the Watchers and various local powers, but they couldn’t be everywhere. Where there were gaps in the coverage, the fires spread.


Everything I’d heard suggested that things were bad out there, and getting worse.


The odd thing was that many of the problems could have been avoided. There were plenty of people out there who knew the rules, the logic by which these things worked. They could have told the uninformed to carry iron to ward off the fae, that werewolves weren’t so bad as long as you stayed out of the way, that they should never invite a stranger—or even a familiar face, really—into their home. Simple rules, tips and tricks that could negate a lot of the minor threats people were confronted by. That, in turn, would leave the greater powers with more time to handle the major problems.


Humanity already had the advantage of numbers, and modern weapons, and they had quite a few allies in the supernatural world. With just a little bit of knowledge and organization, they could have kept things together.


But most people had been caught wholly by surprise, unprepared to deal with things they’d been taught were fictional. They were confused, they were scared, and the government wasn’t doing all that great a job of making them less confused and scared. A lot of people didn’t know the old stories, and even those who did couldn’t really say which parts were accurate. There were places where people had held together and maintained order, but by and large they hadn’t. Unrest encouraged unrest, and in cities around the world there was rioting and chaos as a result.


But here, in one of the more inaccessible reaches of the Transylvanian mountains?


Things were peaceful here. Quiet. Calm. Outside, the creatures of the forest followed the same routines they’d followed for thousands of generations. Barring extreme changes in how the world worked, they would keep following those routines for thousands more.


It was, in an odd way, both reassuring and intimidating. To know that life would go on, that the current chaos was fundamentally transient, that was comforting. No matter how bad things got, something would be left to pick up and carry on.


But at the same time, there was something deeply unsettling about it. This was huge, probably the single biggest thing I’d ever seen, let alone had a part in. To know that it was, in the grand scheme of things, not terribly important or significant—that was terrifying. It was a reminder of just how small I was.


I sighed and went back inside. Soon, I knew, this illusion of peace would be shattered. Alexis was leaving in the morning, going back to live with her family in Oregon. Her membership in the Guards was all but certain by now, but she still needed a certain amount of combat training, and I wasn’t equipped to give it to her. She was going to be taking lessons from Moray.


For my part…well, I still had a city to govern. And now, more than ever, I had to actually do the job I’d laid claim to. If I wasn’t there to keep the peace in such troubled times, I might as well give up any pretense of being a jarl. And if someone wasn’t there to maintain order, things might get very bad before they got better.


Inside, the work was almost finished. I did a bit of heavy lifting, moving various blocks and beams into position, and then we called it a night. Alexis went to her room to finish packing. Aiko and I went upstairs, where she kissed me with an intensity that spoke of desperation more than passion.


Neither of us had mentioned what she’d been about to say, when we were interrupted. It had taken days for me to return to a more-or-less normal state of mind, and once I did it had become clear what the state of the world was going to be. Talking about emotions, our relationship, the future—it all seemed ridiculous in the face of such upheaval, such uncertainty about what tomorrow would bring.


But for the moment, I could be satisfied with tonight.

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Interlude 9.z: Loki Laufeyjarson

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I left the courthouse and went to my private domain to watch the consequences unfold. Like the ripples from a stone thrown into a pool, they would begin in obvious places and then slowly spread. Similarly, the interactions between multiple waves, between those waves and the pool itself, they were complex, difficult to model.


Interesting. Especially after so long without throwing any stones at all.


It started small. In Seoul, a kumiho walked the streets, enflaming the lust of all who saw her, taking the lives of any foolish enough to act on it. In Paris, a vampire stalked the night, killing with a freedom he hadn’t felt since the sixteenth century. In western Russia, one of the few true necromancers to survive the Watchers’ purges went into a mass grave, and left with power and an army.


And, naturally, sometimes it swung the other way. The necromancer and his horde were carpet bombed by the Russian military. A faerie who tried to assassinate the British Prime Minister for her own amusement was met with a hail of steel-jacketed bullets. A careless vampire left a trail of blood to his lair, and was staked at high noon by a group of vigilantes.


As I watched, the chaos spread. Ordinary humans, who had seen my broadcast or been told of it, began to worry. As news reports of the violence, the chaos, the insanity that was rampant in the world began to trickle in, that worry turned to panic or rage. There was rioting in the streets of almost every major city in the world. Police forces, unable to cope with what was going on, abandoned their mandate. Governments were paralyzed, unable to respond to something so far beyond their experience. Citizens turned to looting, to violence.


I smiled. A thousand years of rationalism and skepticism, overturned in a matter of days. Here, a suspected witch was stoned to death; there, a Wiccan was burned alive. The true mages began to retaliate, and now it was the mobs that screamed in agony as they were broken by immense forces, as they were skinned alive by summoned monsters, as their minds were crushed by overwhelming emotions.


It was exciting. Invigorating. Thrilling, even. The concepts of chaos, of entropy, and of madness were among those which I had chosen to define myself with. To see them writ large across the world, to watch the rapid collapse of so many social institutions….it gave me power, in a very real sense.


I floated in the dark and watched, not intervening at this time, but simply observing as the chaos unfolded and began to coalesce into new patterns. It was fascinating to watch, like observing evolution in real time, or a firestorm in slow motion. To know that nothing would be the same afterwards…it was intoxicating.


A new world, to usher in the birth of a new god.


And then, finally, the messenger I had been expecting arrived. It was a simple thing, ectoplasm shaped into a roughly humanoid form, but lacking many of the features of the human. I didn’t know who had sent it, and it really didn’t matter. Only one of us could have sent a construct into my private sanctum, and I knew what it meant.


I went elsewhere.


Standing in a darkened room—or, more accurately, a vaguely defined space which didn’t bother with the concept of light—I was surrounded by my peers. I took note of those who were manifest, and particularly of those who were not. Brahma hadn’t come, nor had Danu, nor Atum. No surprise, since none of them had left their sanctums in centuries. Coyote wasn’t there either, which was unfortunate; I could have used another ally. Likely he was too busy amusing himself in the chaos of the mortal world, a child playing in puddles.


Loki, Odin signified. He was manifest in the form of a hanged man, putrid, head flopping on a broken neck. You have overstepped.


I signified amusement. The agreement was made. The experiment was to be concluded; all meaningful data had been gathered. A new experiment was to begin.


Nyx, who had chosen to manifest as a formless mass of shadow, signified hesitant agreement. The agreement was made. But the suddenness with which you acted was not appropriate, nor was the magnitude of your declaration. The Allfather is correct; you have overstepped. You introduced unnecessary chaos into the situation.


Shiva, manifest as a serpent, signified disagreement. Chaos is the nature of change. To examine chaos, to observe the reaction of the mortals to this shift in their world, is the very purpose of our agreement. Loki is not to be criticized for doing so.


Enough, I signified. We all know what I have done, and we know why. My actions have brought about the greatest change, providing the opportunity for observation and learning. If you would condemn me for that, if you would sanction me, let it be done now.


There was a brief moment for reflection, and then the gathered deities let their will be known. Odin, Nyx, Vishnu, and Izanagi were in favor of imposing sanctions on me, for various reasons ranging from the deeply personal to the entirely practical. Shiva, Gaea, Quetzalcoatl, Iblis, and Enlil were not. Xmucane and Xpiacoc remained neutral, as usual.


I could see that Odin wanted to continue, to punish me in some way, but there was nothing he could do without offending the others. Go, then, he signified, and remember this.


I smiled, showing it in my manifestation as a burst of flame, and left that place. To the extent that such a thing could be described as place, which wasn’t much; like us, it was within space and time, but not truly of them.


Back in my sanctum, I examined the course of events once again, and then I began to change them. I was careful, subtle, delicate. A tiny nudge here, and the flame which should have snuffed out a man’s life splashes harmlessly against stone instead. A push there, and a bullet swerves ever so slightly in its course, penetrating the skull rather than deflecting off. A whisper is sufficient to sway a witch to the path of wisdom and weakness rather than power and death.


Nothing obvious, nothing that could be noticed or traced back to me, not even by my fellow gods. And if by some chance they did, they wouldn’t, couldn’t know why, couldn’t see the goal I was aiming towards. Which was good, because if they knew what I knew I would be faced with something considerably worse than criticism or sanctions.


Fortunately, none of them could see what was obvious to me. Likely none of them had thought to look; if they had, they lacked the understanding to recognize what they saw. For much the same reason, they didn’t understand that my goals in producing this chaos were farther reaching than my own amusement. I had an aim, and none of them had the capacity to grasp how I was working to achieve it.


We tend to specialize. To focus our efforts on certain tasks, certain skills, certain lore.


That Odin is the king of death, that he is the master of liminal states and the in-between places, that he is the lord of all transitions—these things are known. His is the knowledge of dark and terrible things, of magics that feed on sanity and blossom into power, of the strange and unknowable things which lurk beyond the limits of our worlds. None can match him in these fields.


Nyx is the mistress of shame and secrets. She knows everything that you’d rather she didn’t, every guilty thought, every transgression, every moment of weakness. She is the subtle one, the quiet one, the schemer, who works in the dark and never shows her hand. The weaver of webs and tangled threads, she is the finest of all the gods when it comes to the long game, the scheme that unfolds slowly over the course of eons.


In much the same way, I am undeniably the master of entropy. To look at a thing and see its ending, to see the weak points in every defense, the path by which all things can be brought to ruin—these are my gift.


And my curse.


To understand entropy is to understand that all things must end. All things, great and small, the clearly transient and seemingly eternal, each is on its own road to ruin. The end cannot be prevented, only postponed.


But to be alive, and I think the term applies to gods, is to fight the inevitable. And thus, despite knowing that the end is near, I act to delay it. A man dies who might have lived, or lives who might have died, and the waves ripple out, a million tiny interactions that individually do little, but combine to shift the course of history into another path.


A butterfly flaps its wings, and half a world away the air spins into a hurricane.


It is, in an odd way, still an application of my specialty. To follow the path of a thousand random events, to predict the ultimate consequence of unpredictable events—these things are very much in line with my expertise. Not prophecy, exactly, since prophecy is essentially impossible. No, this was simply a matter of understanding chaos. Turning that understanding inside out, applying an intimate awareness of destruction to preserve.


The irony of it all amused me.

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Unclean Hands 9.20

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An expensive black sedan parked on the street around two blocks away. There was a cat around the corner, a rat under the storm grate fifty feet in the other direction, and four pigeons overlooking the scene from various angles. As such, I had a surround view as a man opened the driver’s door and got out.


After a few seconds of processing, I recognized it as Alan, my lawyer. A visit from him was worth paying attention to, and today he was wearing an even nicer suit than usual, so I thought I might take a closer look.


Scent and sound weren’t so informative at the moment as vision, so I focused on one of the pigeons. A couple of blinks, mental more than physical, brought the scene into focus, and I watched as he walked briskly down the street. It was hard to read his expression through a pigeon’s eyes—they’d never been my favorite animal to work with, although I’d been forced to practice with them quite a bit recently. But I thought he looked grim. Determined, although not necessarily in a good way.


After he’d walked around a block, there was a crow within sight, and I shifted to her mind with a feeling of gratitude. A quick glance was enough to confirm that I had been correct. His expression definitely had a stoniness to it that suggested today was more than just another status update.


He moved inside the building and I floated with him, moving into a rat this time. It was nested down in a supply closet that hadn’t been opened since I took up residence here, and which was predictably trashed. I couldn’t see, but I could hear him walk into the former police station.


“Good morning,” one of the guards said. He was one of the friendlier ones, I thought. It had gotten hard to tell them apart. You’d think that spending so much time in their company would make them seem more like unique individuals, but strangely, the opposite was true. The turned into just cogs in the machine. “Big day, huh?”


“Very much so,” Alan agreed. He sounded much like he’d looked—determined, but not hopeful.


Big day. It took me a second to figure out what that meant.


Once I did, the excitement was enough to break my concentration completely, and I slipped back into my own body. Big day. There were only so many reasons why Alan would be here for a special day.


Presumably, it was finally time for my hearing.


I wanted to stand up and pace, restless and jittery now that I was so close to getting out of this hellhole. I forced myself to remain on my mattress instead. I’d taken to spending most of my time there, over the past weeks, and it would be odd if I got up for no reason just when my lawyer arrived.


I wasn’t entirely sure why I bothered, given that whoever watched the camera feeds had certainly seen enough to figure out that I was a little off. If nothing else, the fit I’d thrown during the full moon was surely an indicator. The silver in those damned bracelets had prevented me from actually changing, but the resultant agony had left me writhing on the ground and moaning most of the night. They’d actually checked whether I was okay the next morning, and the doctor had been baffled when I appeared entirely healthy.


As disjointed as my sense of time had become recently, it wasn’t surprising that the next few minutes seemed to take longer than entire days of waiting. It felt like hours passed before I heard footsteps coming down the hall, and figured I could stand up and go to the bars without arousing suspicion. Hell, it would probably seem weird if I weren’t anxious, under the circumstances.


As expected, a pair of guards approached. For the first time, though, Alan had come with them rather than waiting for me upstairs. “Good morning, Winter,” he said, nodding to me.


“Good morning, Alan. What’s the occasion?”


“It’s your hearing date,” he said. “It’s scheduled to start in about two hours.”


“Two hours,” I said. “Why didn’t you tell me a little sooner than that?”


He looked at me almost pityingly. “I did,” he said gently. “Yesterday. And the day before. And the week before that.”






I blinked. Had I really missed that? Had I been so out of touch with my surroundings that I’d completely failed to notice him telling me something that crucial?


Thinking back on it, I found it disturbingly plausible. Even now, I had to resist the urge to let myself go. My body ached, I was still coughing from that cold I’d come down with weeks earlier, and recently when I bothered to eat I couldn’t keep my hands steady. In comparison to that, spending time in almost anyone’s body sounded pretty good.


I had to get this silver off. I had to.


“You’re going to be traveling there separately,” he was saying. I forced myself to pay attention; this might be important. “I’ll meet you at the courthouse, and we’ll go over some last-minute details. Please try not to do anything stupid until then.”


“Okay,” I said. “Thanks, Alan. I appreciate this.”


“The money is how you thank me,” he said dryly, and walked away, leaving me to the gentle mercies of my guards.


They let me out of the cell, and then one of them stood at a safe distance while the other put cuffs on my wrists and ankles. My hands were in front of me, at least; if they were behind me, considering how poor my coordination was at the moment, I wasn’t sure whether I’d have been able to walk.


They marched me out the building in silence, at a pace that was just a bit faster than I could comfortably manage with my feet chained together. We were met at the door by another three guards, who fell into position around me for the ten steps it took to get to the street.


Unsurprisingly, they weren’t transporting me with anyone else, so I got to sit in the back of one of the secure vans they used all by myself. Oh, there were four armed guards there with me, but I’d stopped really seeing them as people quite a while ago. They were more like furniture, or security cameras. Part of the background.


As usual, they weren’t interested in making conversation, and I certainly had nothing to say to them. So I leaned back and let myself drift some more, passing the time without quite cognizing it. I noticed, somewhat distantly, that there weren’t many animals out and about, and those that were weren’t happy about it. Focusing a little more clearly, I realized that the weather had gone from somewhat ominous to seriously inclement.


The next thing I was aware of, someone was shaking me. I opened my eyes, blinking a couple of times to get used to seeing the world through only one set, and then looked at the guard. From the expression on his face, it wasn’t the first time he’d shaken me. “Hey,” I said, slurring a little. I wasn’t sure whether it was from confusion regarding how my mouth was supposed to work or just fatigue. “What’s up?”


“We’re there,” he snapped. “Get out of the van.”


I did so, scooting to the edge and then hopping out. I landed awkwardly, and I recovered even more awkwardly, so that I ended up tripping over my own feet. I would have fallen on my face, had a particularly strong gust not hit me at just the right angle to push me back on balance.


One of the guards caught me by the elbow before I could overbalance again, steadying me against the wind. “This is crazy,” he said, shouting to make himself heard over the howling wind. His voice was still all but drowned out. “The forecast was clear for today!”


Looking around, I had to admit he had a point. I generally enjoyed the wind, but even would have to acknowledge it was vicious today, blowing people off their feet and turning dust and grit into a sandblaster. The clouds were so thick and dark it looked like dusk rather than midmorning. Lightning split the sky every second or two, providing more illumination than the sun, and the growl and rumble of thunder was incessant.


I found myself thinking of Scáthach talking about a storm on the horizon. Of Arbiter saying much the same thing.


Sure, it was probably metaphorical. But it was still a little unnerving.


I shivered a little as the guards escorted me into the building.


We walked in through the service entrance, and they seemed to know exactly where they were going as they marched me down several hallways and up a flight of stairs. We ended up in a small room which resembled the interrogation room back at the police station a little more closely than I would have liked. Two guards took up positions by the door, while I joined Alan at the table.


“You made it,” he said. “Good. I was starting to get worried.”


“Bad weather,” I said, looking out the window. It was small, and high on the wall, but still quite a bit better than I’d had in way too long. The storm didn’t look like it was lightening up at all.


“Quite. Strange; the forecast said it should be nice today.” He looked down at the stack of papers he was holding, then back up at me. “So, Winter, how much do you remember about what we’re trying to do today?”


“Not much,” I admitted. “I don’t think I’ve really been present for a lot of our conversations, mentally.”


“I noticed. Fortunately, you seem more lucid today. We’re planning to challenge many of the charges they’ve brought against you on the basis of inadequate evidence and poor procedure. There are a handful that I don’t think we can get dismissed on that basis; we’re planning an insanity defense for those. Ideally I think we’ll be able to dismiss many of the charges, and then take a plea bargain on the rest.”


“Okay,” I said. “And what are we bargaining for?”


“Life incarceration,” he said immediately. “Realistically, that’s the best you can hope for at this point. But with the plea deal, we can probably ensure that the sentence is to an asylum, or possibly a low-security prison.”


“Okay,” I said again. “And there’s nothing you can do that won’t end with me in a cage?”


He shrugged. “It’s conceivably possible that you’d be found innocent in a jury trial. But I wouldn’t bet on it, personally. The evidence for some of the charges is rather overwhelming, and you frankly aren’t photogenic enough to pull it off anyway. Speaking of which, I was wondering whether you’d be willing to take some steps on that.”


“What do you mean?”


He opened his mouth, then closed it and reached into his briefcase instead. A moment later, he handed me a small mirror, giving me my first really decent look at myself since I’d been arrested.


I looked like shit.


Always on the thin side, I looked emaciated. My cheeks were gaunt, and my prison jumpsuit hung off me like I was a scarecrow. My skin was too pale from not seeing the sun in almost a month. My eyes were sunken, and unsettlingly bright as a result. My hair was tangled and matted, and it was long enough to meld into a scraggly beard.


I could see what Alan meant. I looked like a dead man walking, if that man also happened to be strung out on crack.


“Shit,” I said, setting the mirror back on the table. “Do you have a knife?” I gestured vaguely at my face, making it clear that I was talking about grooming rather than violence.


“Better,” he said, smiling. He reached into his briefcase again and came up with a pair of scissors, a safety razor, and a can of shaving cream. “I’m no stylist, but I should be able to get you at least somewhat presentable.”


“You do this often, then?”


“You’d be surprised,” he said seriously. “Most people let their grooming go a little in prison.” He paused. “Granted, this is a bit of an exceptional case.”


Heads were going to roll.


I’d just spent the last three hours forcing myself to remain alert, focused, and responsive, while Alan, the prosecuting attorney, and the judge debated fine points of legalese. I’d been patient and polite while being repeatedly asked the same questions over and over again. I’d tolerated the whispers and murmurs of the crowd gathered, which was larger than I’d expected for a preliminary hearing.


And now that said hearing was over, there were a few thoughts going through my mind.


The first was that Alan had been right. Based on the attitudes of everyone involved, from the lawyers to the peanut gallery, my chance of going free was basically nonexistent. I was almost certainly looking at a life sentence in one institution or another.


The second was that the judge had refused to set bail, meaning that I was going straight back to that tiny cell under the police station.


The third was that the ache from the silver hadn’t let up in the slightest. If anything, now that I was more conscious of what was going on, more tied to my body, it was worse. Over the past hours it had risen to a crescendo, and I almost couldn’t hear myself think through the pain.


The fourth was that the storm outside had only intensified. Even in the bowels of the courthouse I could occasionally hear the wind howling outside, and the more intense rounds of thunder shook the building to its foundations.


All of which just lead back to my initial conclusion. Heads rolling.


“Winter,” my lawyer said when I didn’t get up. “Winter, it’s time to go.”


I turned to him. “Alan,” I said, “thank you. You’ve been very pleasant and tolerant, even though I’m sure I haven’t been the easiest client. You’ve done a lot for me, and I want to apologize.”


“For what?”


I could have given any number of answers, but one of the things I’d figured out over the years was that the universe couldn’t resist the opportunity for perfect timing. Or, at least, Loki couldn’t, and at the moment that was good enough.


So rather than anything elaborate, I just said, “This.”


A moment later, perfectly on cue, the massive double doors of the courtroom slammed open hard enough to hit the walls and bounce. I watched as the entire crowd turned, seemingly as a single unit, to watch what was happening.


There were no friendly faces in that crowd. I’d hoped that Aiko might at least come, but I supposed the hearing wasn’t open to the general public.


Around three seconds after the door was open—just long enough that everyone had turned to look, but nobody had quite figure out what to do—Loki walked through. He was mostly human in appearance today, but well over six feet tall. He was grinning, and it was exactly the warped, twisted grin I associated with him.


“Lights are good,” he said cheerfully, swaggering down the middle of the room like he owned the place. “And action’s on its way. But we could use a few cameras, if anyone’s carrying.”


Several people in the crowd pulled out their phones, either on cue or because what they were seeing was too crazy not to get on video. Loki nodded approvingly and kept walking. “Very nice,” he said. “You folks just earned some brownie points.” He casually vaulted the barrier between the crowd and the people who were actually involved in the proceedings, and bowed to the judge. “Hello, Your Honor,” he said. “I’d like to address the court.”


“Bailiff,” the judge said instantly. That appeared to be all the instruction necessary, as the bailiff immediately moved forward and grabbed Loki by the shoulder.


“I’m going to give you one warning,” the deity said pleasantly. “Let go right now, or I will stop you.”


“Come on, buddy,” the bailiff sighed. “Let’s get you out of here.”


Loki’s smile slipped, just a little, and in that moment I realized something important about him.


I’d always treated Loki with respect. I’d mouthed off to him occasionally, sure, and I’d made a point of not behaving like a sycophant around him. But I’d done so specifically because I knew that he’d be bored if I didn’t, and I couldn’t afford for him to be bored with me. Even before I’d realized who he was, I’d had some idea of the power he wielded, and I’d always regarded him with respect and a healthy amount of fear as a result.


The bailiff, though? He genuinely thought Loki was just a random crazy person who’d wandered into the hearing somehow, and he was treating him appropriately.


And Loki was pissed.


There was no sign of pain, in what happened next. The bailiff didn’t scream, or writhe in agony as he fell to the ground. He just….


Stopped. Completely, and very fatally.


The judge didn’t have time to say anything before several guards lifted their weapons and started shooting. I ducked under the table I was sitting at, and several people in the audience screamed. Loki didn’t react at all, though. The bullets didn’t affect him. It was hard to say exactly what was going on; they weren’t ricocheting off him, and they weren’t making holes in him. It was more like they hit him and just vanished.


The guards stopped shooting and lowered their weapons, looking scared and confused. “Thank you for your courtesy,” Loki said sarcastically. “The next person to try something like that gets turned into something.”


One guard, braver or dumber than the rest, lifted his pistol again. Loki gestured slightly, and he hit the ground with a sort of squishing sound. At a glance it looked like parts of him had been turned inside out, exposing muscle and bone to the air. He flopped a couple of times and then went still.


“Excellent,” Loki said. “Perhaps now we can continue without further interruption. Oh, and don’t bother trying to call for help. I’ve taken the liberty of co-opting all outgoing communication for the time being. What happens here will be seen and heard by most of the world, so do try to remember that what you do now will be recorded for posterity.”


I wasn’t totally sure that last bit was directed at me, but I went ahead and got out from under the table anyway.


“What are you doing?” the judge asked. To her credit, she sounded completely composed, despite what had just happened.


“I’m making a public service announcement,” Loki said, grinning. “Many of you know who I am,” he continued, turning to face the cameras. “For the rest, just rest assured that I do have the authority to say what I’m saying. And what I’m saying is this. The experiment is over. The grand masquerade which has been the rule of the game for the past several centuries has run its course. Anything your various superiors have ever told you about preserving the innocence of the poor, ignorant little mortals is null and void. If they tell you otherwise, tell them to take it up with me.”


“I don’t understand,” the judge said.


“Don’t worry, dear. This message isn’t meant for the likes of you. Now, where was I?” He grinned. “Ah, yes. As I was saying, the age of the dull and mundane is ended. The time of rationalism is passed. The gods have spoken, and we tell our children to let fall the reins, take off the muzzles, and let it all out.”


“That’s fine,” I said. “But what about me?”


He turned and smiled at me. “I just told you that many of the rules no longer apply,” he said. “So I recommend that you be yourself. Unless you want to spend the rest of your life in a cage.” Then he turned and walked back out of the room, vaulting the barrier again on his way. He was whistling while he did, something catchy that I couldn’t place.


“Fine,” I sighed, standing. “Be that way.”


A moment’s concentration brought Tyrfing to my hand. A flick of my wrist sent the sheath spinning off under the prosecutor’s table; another and the chain between my hands was broken. I went ahead and cut the ankle cuffs as well, then carefully slid the blade under the tracking bracelet.


“Winter?” Alan asked, his voice the careful, gentle tone you use around people on ledges. “What are you doing?”


“I’m not going back to a cage,” I said absently, working the sword under the bracelet. I nicked myself, but it wasn’t a big deal. One more scar wouldn’t stand out on my left hand. Tyrfing slid through the bracelet like it was made of butter, and I switched to the other side, separating the bracelet into two semicircles.


Then I switched hands, and looked down with some dismay. I’d never been good left-handed, and between the scarring and the silver, I was even clumsier now. The idea of trying to cut the other bracelet off like that was…unsettling.


Then, unexpectedly, Alan spoke up. “Here,” he said. “Let me hold that for you.”


I eyed him for a moment, then shrugged and handed over the sword. I was half-expecting him to try and stab me with it, but he held it rock steady for me as I cut the other bracelet off.


“Thanks,” I said, taking the sword back. “I really am sorry about all this.”


“Don’t be,” he said. “Honestly, I was expecting something of the sort.” He smiled wryly. “Although not this extreme, I admit. In any case, I know that this likely wasn’t your fault. It’s been a pleasure working with you.”


“The pleasure is all mine,” I assured him. “And I’ll see that you get a nice bonus, as well.”


“In that case, it’s been a very great pleasure working with you.”


I grinned, then walked out into the storm. Nobody tried to stop me.

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