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.”
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.