Monthly Archives: June 2015

Clean Slate 10.24

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Blind Keith’s realm was dark, and it was cold.


I was aware of the cold, in a sense, but it didn’t affect me the way it would a normal person. I wasn’t in pain, I wasn’t slowed or clumsy or numb. Almost the opposite, in a way. It felt like I was more awake, more alive, with the cold pressing against me. I felt sharper, more alert, the fatigue and the hunger I had been feeling both receding from my awareness.


What was with that? I’d never really been bothered by the cold, but I hadn’t had this reaction, either. Was there somehow more jotun in me than there had been previously? Or was this an effect of Blind Keith’s favor, rather than my own nature?


I shook my head, forcing myself to focus. If I wasn’t careful here, death might be the kindest fate I could hope for.


The portal had deposited us in the forest, although it wasn’t a forest in the sense I was accustomed to thinking of them in. This was a primeval sort of forest, vast and trackless, the trees towering above on a scale that defied logic. I’d seen a similar effect before, in Inari’s Wood, and the forests of Jotunheim, and the wilder parts of Faerie.


The moon was full overhead, casting more than enough light for me to be comfortable, but not much made it through the tree cover. The shadows under the trees were pitch black. Darker than they should be, considering the snow on the ground. It should have been reflecting the moonlight into places it couldn’t reach on its own, but the shadows stayed stubbornly dark.


And there, again, I had an odd experience, simultaneously aware of how I should feel and actually feeling something completely different. The ground was covered in snow, much of which had frozen into ice. Even if I didn’t feel the cold, my footing should have been terrible, my feet getting bogged down in snow or slipping on the ice.


But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was exactly the opposite. The ice was comfortable, providing exactly enough traction. It was like walking on pavement. The snow was even better, yielding when I wanted it to yield, providing resistance when I wanted something to push against. All told, I was faster and more comfortable in this terrain than I would have been walking down a city street.


And I wasn’t even thinking about it. I didn’t even have to think to make the snow be firm here, and soft there. I just walked, following Blind Keith, and my surroundings reshaped themselves to my will.


Keith, I noticed, didn’t have the same effect. He was moving as fast as I was or faster, but it was a different kind of speed, a more traditional kind. He was just fast enough to plow through the snow.


Not his power helping me, then. Not unless he could do something similar to what I was, and chose not to.


As we walked, I could feel and smell and see a familiar effect beginning. Blind Keith’s form was wreathed in mist, light at first, but it grew thicker over the course of a minute or so, until his actual body was hidden within a miniature storm cloud. Sparks of lightning crackled within the cloud, and the snow swirled and danced in his wake, as though he carried a tiny windstorm with him.


Neither of us had said a word since entering the portal. He led, and I followed. There seemed to be nothing to say.


I glanced at myself, more to confirm a suspicion than anything, and saw exactly what I’d expected. The storm cloud was forming over me as well, slowly but surely. Wisps of cloud drifted over my forearms, my legs. A band stretched from one arm to the other across my torso, and more tendrils extended from that, spreading across my armor.


I was a part of the Wild Hunt this time. Not just an observer. Not the prey.


In a strange way, I was more worried than I might have been if I were the prey. The Wild Hunt was old magic, something that stretched back to when the world was young. It had a meaning to it, a weight. The only other time I’d seen the Hunt, I’d been a target rather than a participant, and it had still brought the predator in me so far to the forefront of my mind that logical thought became impossible. I could probably expect something similar this time, but to an even greater extent.


Oddly, that was the only thing I was really afraid of. The other dangers I was facing right now—Blind Keith, the Wild Hunt, even the things waiting for me back in Colorado to some extent—they were undeniably serious, but at the same time there was something almost comfortable about them. They were things I could understand, things I could deal with. Even if I failed, there was a limit to how bad things could be.


This was more like Loki, or the Twilight Court, or even the mysterious all-hands-on-deck situation the Watchers were facing in Russia. It was big, and ominous, and there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot I could do about it. There were no actions I could take, really, to protect myself.


And, much like those threats, it had the potential to do much worse than kill me. If I was lost to the Hunt, I might be lost forever. Still alive, but not me, just enough left of the person I was to be aware of the monster I had become. Forever.


I wasn’t afraid to die. But there were so very many fates worse than death out there.


I kept walking, kept the fear in check. It was harder, around Blind Keith. I’d thought he made people afraid, but now I realized that wasn’t quite right. What his magic did was exaggerate fear. It was natural to be afraid of something like him, almost inevitable. Now I discovered that it worked on other fear, too. I would have been anxious about the Hunt anyway, had been anxious, but now it was worse. It was a paralyzing sort of dread, almost overwhelming. I had to force myself to keep moving through it.


I looked around, trying to distract myself, and realized that we weren’t alone. Other figures moved in the night, hounds and wolves, creatures mounted on horseback. Some were Sidhe, beautiful beyond words, with wild, fey smiles and gleaming weapons. Others were goblins, brutish and ugly creatures with an almost frenzied look to their eyes.


The storm was building slowly, wreathing each of us. It was alive, in a way, although not a way that had much in common with humanity. Blind Keith wasn’t creating it, not really. I got the impression that he was more summoning it, bringing it into being in this place, this time.


Which was interesting, because what I could see of the magic, the way it smelled, made me think he didn’t have nearly as much control over it as I would have guessed. Legion had said that Blind Keith was supposed to the original leader of the Wild Hunt, but from what I could see I was almost sure that wasn’t the case. He wasn’t creating the storm of the Hunt. Everything I could detect about the relationship there suggested that he was more evoking it, calling it up.


This wasn’t his magic. it was in line with his nature, he understood it, he breathed it, but it wasn’t his.


I wasn’t sure why, but something about that seemed important.


We kept walking, and there was still no discussion, but now it wasn’t because there was nothing to say. It was because there was no need. I didn’t have to look or think to know where every single member of the Hunt was. They were all around us, moving through the forest out of sight, and I knew where they were. I knew what they were going to do before they moved.


My practice running multiple bodies let me split off a piece of my mind to analyze that information, looking at the bigger picture from an objective perspective. What that part of me recognized was interesting, in a really scary way. We were moving as a unit. One person moved forward and another swung to the side to compensate, maintaining the same distance, maintaining coverage throughout the area. It was more like watching a single organism moving than a group. In a way, that’s exactly what was happening. I was watching the Wild Hunt, not the hunters.


Every member of the Hunt had perfect knowledge of what the rest were doing, and they were coordinated on a level that was considerably deeper than cognitive thought. It was…terrifying, in a way. I knew that I’d only been able to avoid them the last time because they weren’t really trying, but damn. I’d had no idea just how easy it would have been for them to take me down any time they felt like it.


I was running on autopilot now, moving at the direction of the Wild Hunt rather than my own desires. It wasn’t like being a puppet, exactly. I was still doing what I wanted. I just happened to want whatever was best for the Hunt as a whole from moment to moment.


There were a couple of ways that I could deal with that. I could keep myself separate from my body, let the Wild Hunt have that part of me, and keep my mind relatively clear. There were enough predators around that I would have no trouble finding hosts, and I thought I could insulate myself from the effect by doing that, at least a little.


The other alternative was to go with it. Put the predator, the wolf, in charge of things. It was close enough to the Hunt to operate within it, while still being me.


I ended up going with a mixture of the two. The wolf inside my skin took over my body, and the difference was profound to watch. There was no single change I could point to and say was responsible. It was in a lot of little things. I was a little more in tune with the Wild Hunt, a little more able to count on the other members of the Hunt for information rather than doing everything myself, a little smoother in how I used the help that the ice and snow was lending me.


And the reason I could see that? There was a piece, just a small piece, of my awareness split off on its own. Watching, observing, processing the information coming in from the Hunt. I was riding in my own mind the way I rode in the mind of other animals, aware of the process from both sides at once, and it was the strangest feeling I’d ever had.


But it worked. I was moving, I was aware and in control of myself, and I was simultaneously disconnected enough that I could observe things and think things through on a cognitive level rather than a purely instinctive one.


I noticed something odd about me, and I told me to take a look at myself. I obeyed me, glancing at myself between steps, and confirmed what I’d thought I’d noticed. The storm around me was different, very slightly, from that around Blind Keith and the rest of the Hunt. It was paler, more a fog than a cloud, cold enough that ice was forming on my armor, and while it still flickered with lightning, there were snowflakes mixed in.


A different storm to reflect a different kind of Hunter? It made sense, but the explanation seemed incomplete. There was something more to it than that, something that I wasn’t seeing.


The rest of me kept moving. The storm had almost finished wreathing us now, and I knew on a level just below consciousness that that would be the signal for the hunt to start in earnest. It was very nearly time.


I knew that another member of the Hunt was coming closer and did nothing, waiting. He stepped up beside me, a wolf walking on two legs, wrapped in fog, snowflakes settling on his shoulders, his face. I couldn’t see him through the cloud, knew it was him only because the Wild Hunt knew. “I told you we’d hunt together one day,” he said, barely whispering. I understood more because I could feel the movement and the intent than because I could hear him.


I asserted control over myself long enough to turn my head and look at him, confirming what I’d suspected. The storm around him was very nearly the same as that around me, the pale fog, the snowflakes. Paying more attention to that facet of the information feed I was getting from the Wild Hunt, I realized that there were a handful of others in the crowd that were similar, a few Sidhe, some of the goblins, several of the more animalistic, less easily-categorized ones.


Not just a different storm for me, then. Two storms, slightly different but connected. The rational part of me could think of several possible explanations for that, few of which were good. The part of me that was more in tune with the Hunt knew what it meant, but it was on a level so basic that I couldn’t really define it or encapsulate it in words, even for myself.


The storm was complete, now. We were all covered, all connected by the power. It was time to hunt.


Blind Keith did something, a twist of power, and the world we walked through grew even darker, the moonlight fading out until nothing was visible at all, and I was navigating based on the knowledge the Wild Hunt was feeding into my brain each second. Reality faded in again a moment later, and now it was a different reality. We weren’t on the Otherside anymore. We were in my reality.


More so even than I’d thought, I realized a moment later. I recognized the trees, the hills, and it wasn’t just being in my world, it wasn’t just the influence of the Hunt.


I knew this place.


It was still fall here, rather than deep winter, and there was no snow on the ground. It didn’t matter. Where I walked the ground was blanketed with frost and ice by the storm, giving me perfect footing, simultaneously making it harder for anyone else.


The wolf still walked beside me, wrapped in the same effect. He should have been slipping on his own ice slick, and he wasn’t, and it took a moment for me to realize why. The ice was helping him, much like it helped me. It gave him traction when he wanted it, a smooth and frictionless surface when he didn’t. He had a power like mine, it seemed.


No. Not like mine. He had my power, my magic, shared through the connection of the Wild Hunt. In much the same way, reaching out through the storm, I felt the various abilities and magics that the other hunters brought to the table, waiting and ready for me to call upon them.


Wait. The Wild Hunt didn’t just share knowledge and sensation, it shared magic? It let individual members tap each other’s powers when they needed to?


God damn. I’d known it was a terrifying force, that there was no real winning against it, but I hadn’t even begun to comprehend how much of a threat the Hunt was.


We kept moving, moving out of the trees now, and I saw what I’d known I would.


The town of Wolf, Wyoming. The first place I’d ever been able to call home in any meaningful way.


The streets were largely empty, but that just emphasized the small proportion of people who were out and about. I recognized many of them, and knew what the rest were. These were the werewolves of the town, brought forth by their awareness of the Wild Hunt’s coming. They were just close enough to us in nature that they knew we were there, that they were drawn out of their homes and businesses to join us.


Except they weren’t being invited to join. There was no storm gathering about them. I thought about it and knew that they were here to play a different role. They were the prey for this night’s hunt. It was night, now, although the last I’d been aware of it had been dawn in this area. I had lost a day, apparently.


I tried to tell myself to stop, that this was going too far, but the Hunt’s influence was stronger now, and I wasn’t inclined to listen to me.


The werewolves realized what was going on. Some turned and fled, running further into the town, or at an angle, into the forest, or the plains around town. Others stood their ground, preparing to fight. I recognized Edward, in his human form, pistols ready to hand, but not yet drawn. He didn’t need to draw them yet, not with how fast he was.


I felt a twinge at that, paused for half a heartbeat as I walked, then kept going. The more detached part of me noted that Edward wasn’t reacting to my presence, not that I could tell, and I didn’t think he’d be able to mask that particular reaction. Likely he didn’t know I was there, couldn’t see me through the storm. I had to remind myself that it was an obstruction to other people’s vision.


Then I saw the wolf standing by his side. She wasn’t particularly large, or really notable at all, except that there was an element of grace to her that most werewolves lacked. Not agility precisely, more that she was in tune with herself, in tune with the wolf, even to some extent in tune with the Hunt. There was no resistance to her own nature, the way there often was with werewolves.


Anna, I realized a moment later. The only werewolf I’d ever been responsible for who then turned out to work. The only one whose story hadn’t ended in tragedy.


And, if I had my way, it wasn’t going to.


This time, I did stop moving. The wolf didn’t understand much, but pack was one of the big ones, and it’s understanding of that was deep enough to push the Hunt aside, letting me reassert control over my own body.


“This is wrong,” I said aloud, knowing that the connection of the storm would convey my meaning even to those of the Hunt who couldn’t hear. “These are predators, not prey.” It was the only objection I could think of that might carry weight with the Wild Hunt, without acknowledging that I had a personal relationship to these werewolves.


“Of course,” Blind Keith said. I heard him more through my awareness of the Hunt than with my ears. “No baser prey would serve this night.” I could feel him smile, a hundred feet away. “Or do you oppose my choice?”


He knew. Fuck me, he knew. I had no idea how, but he knew what these people meant to me, he’d chosen them specifically because of that.


Legion had mentioned that his essential nature was that of the fae. He’d mentioned that this also meant that there was an element of the capricious to him. What I hadn’t quite acknowledged, on a conscious level, was that the fae also had an element of…not malice, exactly, but cruelty. Even the gentlest of the fae had a sharper side. Even when they were being kind, handing out gifts, there was always a catch.


And Blind Keith was not a gentle fae.


“Yes,” I said, knowing what it meant, what the consequence would be. “I oppose your choice.”


Blind Keith grinned at me, although I knew only because I felt him through the Wild Hunt. And then he turned his magic on me at full strength. He took every fear I felt, every worry, every niggling doubt and minor concern, the dread I’d been feeling this entire time and the entirely rational terror I felt at crossing him. He took all of them, and on each of them he turned the dial up to eleven.


There was no question of fighting back or resisting.


I ran.

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Clean Slate 10.23

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“Wake up,” I said. “We have work to do.”


Lights flickered to life in Legion’s eye sockets. The pale blue color seemed a little more intense than usual, a little bit more vivid. “Excellent work, Boss,” he said. His voice was flat and toneless, as always, but somehow I knew that the demon was excited. “You really shook things up, didn’t you?”


“What are you talking about?”


“What else?” he asked. “I’m talking about the way you changed the game. I haven’t seen anything this promising for four hundred years. And then the way you dealt with those vampires earlier? Let me tell you, Boss, that really made me proud to work with you?”


“How do you even know about that?” I asked. The other I could understand—the way the world had changed in the last few week or so was extreme enough that even a hibernating demon could plausibly know about it—but the vampire thing had been just a few hours earlier, and it hadn’t been that important in the greater scheme of things.


“This is what I am,” he said, and I knew he was confused by the question. “And you’re the one that did it. How could I not know?”


“Okay,” I said after a moment. “We’re going to just pretend that doesn’t have horribly disturbing implications. Moving along now. Tell me about Blind Keith.”


There was a long, ominous silence. “You really are an expert at getting into trouble, aren’t you?” he asked. “Granted, we’ve known this for a long time, but Blind Keith, too? You must have done something really special to get on his bad side.”


“I’m not on his bad side,” I said irritably. “He wants me to go hunting with him. I just want to know what I’m dealing with when I do.”


“Right,” Legion drawled. “Tell you what, Boss. You get back from this hunting trip, and then we can talk about whether you’re on his bad side. Anyway, you know anything about him already? Give me something to work with, maybe?”


“Yeah,” I said, just a little smugly. “I know he’s fae, and he doesn’t belong to any of the current factions. He predates them. He’s powerful enough that he could be a Twilight Prince, but he doesn’t care enough to bother. He’s a hunter, with strong connections to the Wild Hunt, and he inspires fear in anyone who gets close.”


“Sounds like you have the basics down,” Legion said reluctantly. “But you’re understating it a bit. He’s not just a hunter. He’s the spirit of the hunt, the embodiment of it. I’ve even seen some theories saying that he’s the original Wild Hunter, and everyone else is just imitating him. I’m not convinced of that, but he’s definitely old. You mentioned he inspires fear. I’m guessing that means you’ve been around him?”


“Yeah. It was distracting, but I could function through it.”


“Don’t believe it,” Legion said seriously. “Blind Keith has total control over how strongly he affects people. He would have wanted you to think you could resist the effect, but I wouldn’t count on it. He’s an embodiment of the hunt, the interaction between predator and prey. If he decides to make you the prey, it’s going to be very difficult for you to resist that state of mind. That goes double for werewolves, since he has power over animals and hunters.”


“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “So, purely hypothetically, fighting him would be….”


“A very bad idea, yes,” Legion confirmed after I had trailed off. “A lethally bad idea, in fact. If it takes him more than a few seconds to kill you, it’s only because he’s dragging it out to amuse himself. There’s not much you can do to avoid the fight, either.”


“There isn’t?”


“No. Not really. Blind Keith isn’t Sidhe, but he is still fae, which means that there’s an element of caprice to his nature. Maybe things start peacefully, maybe he even likes you, but there’s no guarantee that things will stay that way. And if he does change his mind, it might only take a couple seconds to go from casual conversation to him pulling out your intestines and skipping rope with them.”


I frowned. “But he is fae,” I pointed out. “So if I could get him to swear an oath not to do things like that, he’d keep it.”


“Blind Keith wouldn’t swear an oath like that,” Legion said with perfect confidence. “And trying to get him to is one of the things that might start that fight.”


“Wonderful,” I said. “Just wonderful. So I’ve got an ancient, incredibly powerful fae hunter who may or may not try to kill me as soon as talk to me, and there’s really nothing I can do to defend myself if something goes wrong. And I agreed to go hunting with him.”


“Pretty much,” Legion said cheerfully. “Is that all?”


“I don’t know,” I said. “Can you tell me anything which might actually help me?”


“Not really,” he said. “Blind Keith is…pure, maybe, would be the word? There’s no subtlety to him, no delicacy or hidden depths. He is what he is, plain and simple. Clever maneuvers and elaborate plans won’t work on him, not really. He doesn’t have any secret weaknesses that I know of, either, except for what works on any of the fae.”


I sighed. “Okay.”


“Sorry, Boss, but I can’t really help you with this one,” Legion said. “Did you have any other questions?”


“No, not really,” I said, then paused. “Wait, yes, there is one thing. Why am I constantly hungry recently? Food doesn’t seem to help, either. And it’s getting worse.”


“Maybe it’s because you’re a werewolf?”


“Don’t be a smartass,” I said sourly. “I know what a werewolf’s metabolism feels like. I know how much food it should take to keep me going. This isn’t that.”


“Well,” he said thoughtfully, “the next obvious explanation is that you aren’t actually hungry, per se. You need some other kind of sustenance, but you aren’t accustomed to it, your body and mind don’t know how to interpret that need. So you’re perceiving it as hunger, because that’s the closest analogue you can come up with, but the reality is that you need something completely different.”


“Huh,” I said. “That’s…interesting. What kind of sustenance?”


Legion gave the impression of a shrug, though he didn’t move a bone. “Hard to say. There are a lot of things it could be. I couldn’t necessarily say what it is without checking a few dozen possibilities, and even then we could only rule out the most likely answers. If it’s something more obscure it might take weeks to narrow it down. You should be able to make a decent guess based on when it feels worse and when it lightens up.”


“Interesting,” I said again. “But probably not my highest priority.”


“Oh, I don’t know,” Legion said sarcastically. “You’ve only got Blind Keith breathing down your neck and the world on fire around you. What could be more important than figuring out why you feel hungry?”


“Thanks, Legion,” I said.


The demon snorted. “Thanking me,” he said to no one in particular. “That’s new.”


I went upstairs and checked on the castle again, doing my rounds. The wards were still strong, the door locked and barred. I couldn’t detect anything amiss in or around the building.


Kyi had wanted to post guards here, but I’d overruled her. I didn’t have the manpower to maintain a guard so far from the real center of my activity. Not right now.


And besides, this was my territory. Mine. I didn’t want the housecarls here, or the mages, or the ghouls. Being jarl had taken over most of my life. If I didn’t keep something to myself, I’d go insane.


I wanted to be back in Colorado, to be doing something. I itched for it, almost literally. But there was nothing to be done right now. I couldn’t take the fight to the vampires in the nighttime, and other than that I’d mostly dealt with the people that would have liked to keep me from claiming the city for my own.


There was still work to be done, but at this point it was mostly work that was better left to other people. Right now it was all about organizing, managing, and recruiting for the group, and those weren’t exactly my specialties. Soon there would be more of my work to do, negotiating with other groups and fighting people that would try to stop us, but for the moment it was out of my hands.


After I got back from Pryce’s I’d mostly just paced around my office until Selene flat out told me that I should leave and get out of their hair. Then I’d gone back to Transylvania to ask Legion questions, thinking that I could at least do something productive with my time. Aiko stayed in Colorado to keep an eye on things, promising to call me if anything came up.


Except now I’d gotten any useful information out of Legion that I was going to right now. Which left me with nothing to do again.


So, once again, I started pacing, this time around the castle. I walked along the halls, up and down the stairs, through the rooms, moving faster and faster, until I was almost running. It didn’t make me feel any better, not really, but it at least gave me something else to focus on besides my own helplessness.


Finally I found myself on the roof of the tower, leaning against the battlements and panting. It was almost dawn, in Transylvania, and I stood there and watched the sun come up, painting the forest and the mountains a delicate gold.


It was a beautiful sunrise.


Afterwards, I went back downstairs and went to bed, pulling the curtains closed around the bed. With our schedule—if you could call something that erratic a schedule, which was doubtful—we often wound up sleeping while the sun was up. But the heavy velvet curtains around the bed blocked any light from coming in, leaving it as dark as if it were midnight.


I laid down and pulled the covers over myself, staring up at nothing.


I felt cold and lonely, to an extent that I hadn’t anticipated. I was used to sharing that bed with Aiko and Snowflake. Without them it was too large, and too empty. It emphasized their absence, bringing images of Snowflake lying near death in a hospital bed and Aiko almost being killed by a rakshasa to the forefront of my mind.


After a few minutes, I broke down and grabbed Aiko’s pillow, holding it close. It smelled like her, fox and spice with a hint of something more floral. Not as good as having her there, but as good as I could get for the moment.


I closed my eyes and drifted off, feeling more at peace than I had in days.


I wasn’t sure what woke me, exactly. Maybe there was some slight sound, a small movement or a breath. Or maybe it was just the awareness of Blind Keith’s sheer presence. Certainly, once I was awake I was acutely aware of it, a faint edge of tension with no explanation.


I sat up and opened the curtain, and there he was, silhouetted against the window by the sunlight coming in from behind him. I couldn’t make out any details, but I knew it was him.


“Blind Keith,” I said, nodding to him.


“Jarl,” he replied, not moving an inch. “It is time.”


“Yes,” I said, grabbing my armor from the floor beside the bed and pulling it on. I put my boots on and stood, draping my cloak over my shoulders. It was still loaded with weapons and tools from before I went to sleep, everything I’d thought of that might help me make it through the next few hours.


“Are you prepared?”


“Yes,” I said again. “Let’s go.”


He nodded once and turned, opening a portal to the Otherside in an instant, without even a whisper of wasted power. He disappeared through it a moment later.


I felt an odd relief as I followed him. I might be about to die, but at least I’d be doing something.

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Interlude 8.z: Katrin Fleischer

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Eins zwei drei vier Eckstein, I thought to myself as I slipped through the tunnel. Alles muss versteckt sein.


I wanted to smile at the thought, but my lips didn’t move. Maybe couldn’t. It had been so long since I smiled that I wasn’t entirely sure I remembered how.


But I would smile after tonight.


Creeping onward, one foot sliding in front of the other, every movement as slow as honey in the winter. My body was utterly still except for the movements I chose. The ceaseless machinery of the human body, the pumping of the heart, the bellows of the lungs, the slow churn of stomach and intestine, had all come to a standstill. A reminder that I wasn’t human, as if I needed one.


How long had it been since I breathed? I couldn’t remember that, either. A little longer than since I smiled. I knew that.


One arm stretched out, reaching for the latch. A tendon creaked in protest, having not moved in hours. I stopped moving, but there was no caught breath, no sudden rush of fear or pounding heart. Just stillness.


Moving more slowly, more delicately, I reached out again. This time the movement was silent. I grasped the latch and twisted, slowly so as not to elicit any squeaks or groans from the mechanism. Just as slowly I pulled the door open and looked outside.


The world was grey, a pale and lonely grey moor beneath a pale and lonely grey sky. The city was only a mile to the west, but I was facing east, and in this direction there were no other buildings for twenty miles or more.


I saw the light on the horizon, and almost smiled. I took a step, then another, out onto the moor, not looking away from the horizon. Soon, I thought to myself. Soon I would see the light one last time, and I would finally be able to smile again.


And then a hand clamped on my arm, firm and implacable as steel. I spun, snarling without breath or sound, and saw my sister standing beside me. Her face was as blank and cold as mine, but there was something very different lurking in her eyes.


“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,” she said in a voice that wasn’t hers. “That will be another week in the pit, daughter dearest.”


I tried to resist, to fight back, but a moment later I felt a presence slither into my mind, cold, dark, and ancient. My sister let go of my arm, but I didn’t continue out into the moor to await the cleansing fire. My feet turned towards the door instead, a broad smile curving my lips.


All of us had certain abilities, or so I had heard, although I couldn’t have guessed what mine might be. This was the master’s. He could control other vampires, twisting them to his will and compelling them to do his bidding. All vampires could do that with their own creations, Hrafn had said, but the master was different in that his control extended to vampires other than his own spawn, and he could even exert his powers through the vampires he was controlling. It could have made him a very powerful man, had he chosen to exert himself, but he preferred to remain in his home and send out minions to bring back food.


He walked me back inside, my sister closing the door and locking it behind us. We proceeded down through the tunnels to a deep, dark corner of the lair, where my hand opened another door and I stepped inside without hesitating.


I fell awkwardly, clumsily, the master abandoning me halfway down. I made no effort to break my fall, and when I hit the ground thirty feet below things broke. I felt no pain, only a distant awareness that my body had been damaged.


Thirty feet above me, my sister swung the door closed and locked it.


I lay there in the dark and waited. Half an hour later, when the sun was risen fully enough to take me from consciousness, I went gladly.


“The question,” the man asked as my fangs slid into his throat, “is what next? That, right there, is the question you need to ask yourself? What next? What do you want more than anything else in the world? What would you do anything, sacrifice anything, to make happen?”


He was prey, but interesting prey. Few humans engaged me in conversation when they felt my fangs seeking their veins. I held myself back, restraining myself there, rather than drawing out his blood and his life.


It was hard to control myself like that, when I hadn’t fed for nearly three days. But, in another way, it felt good. It was a reminder that I could control my urges, that I wasn’t yet so far gone as to be a beast. Nearly, but not quite. And then again, the hunger itself felt good in a way. The desperate mental noise of my hunger was loud enough to dull the voices, from my former self and the master alike.


I sat and waited for him to continue, his blood flowing over my teeth. I didn’t feel boredom. I wasn’t sure whether I was capable of it, anymore, but I didn’t feel it now, in any case. My life was one of waiting, punctuated by occasional, undesirable activity. At least now I was waiting for something interesting.


The man spoke up again after a few seconds. “Is this the life you want for yourself?” he asked, as though the conversation had never so much as paused. “This half-life, waking only to feed, living at the whim of another? Do you aim no higher for yourself than this?”


I shrugged. The movement must have hurt him, with how deeply embedded my teeth were in his throat, but he didn’t move or cry out, and the pace of his heartbeat remained the same.


“Think about it,” he said. I could feel the muscles in his neck moving, tearing the holes wider around my fangs, but he didn’t seem to care. “With your power, you could change the world. In a small way, maybe, but that’s more opportunity than most ever have. With my guidance, you could shape the world to your will. I could teach you so many things.”


I withdrew my fangs, then slid my hands up to caress his face, his cheeks. His skin felt feverishly hot against mine, but I knew that was an illusion. The temperature variation went the other way; my hands were as cold as those of a corpse.


My hands were those of a corpse.


I held him close like that for a moment, then twisted suddenly, with inhuman strength. His neck broke, and then some, shattering, as I turned his head in a full circle. I let go a moment later, dropping the body at my feet and walking away.


The master had said similar things, so long ago. My sister and I had been captivated.


I had learned my lesson. I would satisfy my hunger elsewhere tonight. People like that weren’t worth even the dignity of feeding from.


I looked back as I reached the edge of the alley, and paused.


The body was gone.


“Where were you before you came here?” my sister asked, picking at the food on her plate.


Hrafn grunted thoughtfully, gnawing at a rib. “Prague,” he said. “Before that was Kiev, and before that Moscow. And before that was Iceland, Norway, even England for a while.”


“You’ve traveled a long way,” she said.


He shrugged. “I go where the Norns will,” he said simply.




“The ladies who choose our paths,” he explained. “They say the Norns chart our path from birth to death, though it’s seldom a straight one. Fate can be a cruel mistress.”


“God chooses our fate,” she said.


Hrafn laughed. “I am older than your southern god, little girl,” he said indulgently. “Or at least older than his name is here.”


“It doesn’t matter,” the master said from his place at the head of the table. As always, the room went silent as he spoke, no one even daring to breathe. “I choose your path now. Not any god, northern or southern.”


He fell silent, going back to cutting the bloody steak in front of him, and everyone except me let out an instinctive sigh of relief. Some instincts are harder to break than others.


I didn’t breathe, and I didn’t feel relief as I stood at the stove, finishing the preparations of another meal that none of us would eat. I felt nothing more than a blunted curiosity, a detached interest. I couldn’t have said what it was, and wouldn’t have drawn breath to say it if I could, but even at the time there was something about that exchange that struck me as interesting.


“Have you thought about it?” the man asked. “Have you considered what your answer is?”


I spun, and he was standing right behind me, impossibly, undeniably alive. The same man as before, whose neck I had broken, except that now he looked perfectly healthy.


“The greatest weakness, in my experience,” he said, stepping up beside me, “the thing holding most people back is not a lack of ambition, or of power. It’s a lack of vision. If you can’t see what you want, what you really want, then how can you hope to seek it? If you can’t see how your actions will affect the world, how can you hope to achieve your goals?”


I looked at him. He didn’t look too remarkable, his features no different from any number of people in the crowd around us. But there was something about him, about how he carried himself, that was different. He was confident, self-assured; he walked like he expected the world to get out of his way.


I had seen nobles who carried themselves similarly…but nobles died when you broke their necks. This man was something else entirely.


“The reason I’m talking to you,” he said, “the reason I picked you out of all the vampires in the world to have a conversation with, is that I think you have the capacity to overcome that weakness I described, that lack of vision. But you’ve been trained, you’ve been taught, not to think for yourself. So I asked you that question, the most important question you can ask yourself. Because how can you achieve your goals if you don’t know what those goals are?”


I drew in a breath for the first time in nearly thirty years, and only the third time since I left my humanity behind. “How?” I asked. There was still no pain, but there was a very clear awareness that my throat had been damaged by the action. It had been so inactive for so long that breathing, speaking, these things hurt it.


To his credit, he didn’t pretend that I was playing along with his rhetorical questions. “How am I alive, you mean?” he asked. “Well, I assure you, if I were that easy to kill, someone would have done the job long before you were born. If your question is how I know as much about you as I do, that’s a more interesting question, but the answer is much the same. I make it my business to know about people who have potential, and you have a great deal indeed.” He smiled. “But really, this is all beside the point. This conversation is about you, child, not about me.”


I wanted to object to being called a child; I was older than I looked, and even if I weren’t, I would hardly be a child. But that was a waste of breath.


And besides, there was something about this man, the way he carried himself…I thought he might be being fair calling me that. The master was a few hundred years old, after all, and from what Hrafn had said he wasn’t the oldest vampire in the world by far. This man might be as much older than me as I was older than a human child.


Seen in that light, this question became something else. It became important. So, before I answered, I actually thought about it. What did I want, more than anything else?


It was an odd way to think. I wasn’t accustomed to striving for things, to setting goals for myself. Life was more a matter of survival, of waiting for things to happen. That attitude didn’t just go back to when I had become a vampire. It was older than that.


Had I ever really had a goal, in my entire life? I wasn’t sure I had.


A few decades earlier, I would have said my dearest wish was oblivion, release from undeath and damnation. That couldn’t be it, though, because I could have achieved it if it were. My leash was long enough now that the master couldn’t have stopped me if I truly wished an ending.


Which really only left one possibility.


“Revenge,” I said. My voice was hoarse, barely a whisper, but it held more emotion than I’d felt in years.


“A good answer,” he replied. “Clear, simple, to the point. But ask yourself this. Do you want revenge only on the person who inflicted this suffering on you, this so-called ‘master’ of yours? Or do you also want vengeance upon those who allowed it, those who stand by and let things like this happen every day?”


I considered the question, then nodded.


He smiled. “I see you take my meaning. Now, child, I’ll be on my way. So many things to do, you know. But I’ll be watching, if you run into any troubles.” He turned and started to walk away.


“Wait,” I called after him, tearing my throat further. “What do I do?”


He paused. “Having set a goal,” he said, “you have to dedicate yourself to it. You have to commit. Because you won’t get anywhere if you aren’t willing to take risks, or to sacrifice.”


As simply as that, I saw what I had to do. It was so simple, so obvious, that I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t seen it before.


But then again, I supposed he had already told me. I hadn’t been committed to my course, not really. Now I was.


“Who are you?” I asked before he could leave. I was staring at him with wonder, the closest thing to religious awe that I had ever felt.


“Call me Hunter,” he said. “And have a good night, child. Have a very good night.”


“Eckstein, Eckstein,” I sang quietly as I walked through the tunnel. “Alles muss versteckt sein.” My voice was dry and withered, a mockery of human speech, and it held a similar mockery of human laughter. I wasn’t sure what I was feeling now, if there was even a name for what I was feeling now, but it wasn’t something to laugh at.


I felt odd as I opened the door and stepped inside. I was almost out of control, but there was an edge of calculation to it. I felt almost like an observer of my own body, like I was watching myself from the outside.


Overwhelming hunger battled with cold analysis within me, producing something that was greater than the sum of its parts.


“You know,” I said, “I think I know your secret. Why you made sure to humiliate us, to break us down. Why you tried to take our gods away. Your control is a lot more delicate than you want us to think it is, isn’t it?”


“What are you doing?” the master said, standing and facing me. “You are in for a world of hurt if you don’t turn around right now, little girl.”


I almost did what he told me, out of pure reflex. I might have anyway, if it weren’t for the peculiar state of mind I was in. I might not have noticed the edge of desperation to what I said.


“See, that’s just it,” I said, closing the door. “You beat us down, you keep us worn down and tired, emotionally, because your control won’t stand up to a really hard push. If someone’s truly committed to something, if they have real conviction, you can’t keep them from following through on it, can you?” I laughed, the sound tearing my throat further, but it was worth it to see him flinch. “If my sister were still a good Christian,” I mused, “could you keep her from going to church? I don’t think so.”


“You’ve never believed in anything enough to challenge me for it,” he said with quiet confidence. “Now stand still.”


I felt the tendrils of his power invading my mind and stopped where I was. “Maybe not,” I said quietly. “The person I was didn’t. That’s true. But the person you made me? Let’s find out.”


And then I stopped even trying to control the hunger inside me.


I hadn’t fed, hadn’t satisfied that hunger, for nearly two weeks. It was longer, much longer, than I’d ever gone before, long enough that I was on the brink of death, and the hunger was so great that I could barely even think.


Which also meant that when I let it go, nothing else mattered. Not what I believed, or didn’t believe. Not what he was telling me. Only the hunger.


The world went away, masked by a haze of blood and madness.


When I came back to myself, the master was lying on the ground, the front half of his throat missing. My body was badly damaged, but my stomach was full of his blood, and there was power running through me, power unlike anything I’d ever felt before. The hunger had receded to the back of my mind, satiated and then some with the life I’d taken from him. Life stolen twice, it turned out, tasted even sweeter.


I looked down, and felt almost disappointed at how easy it had been. All this time, and all I’d had to do to end it was to let go?


It was disappointing, in a way. But I consoled myself with the knowledge that I wasn’t done. Hunter had shown me the light, shown me what I was truly meant for, and my work hadn’t ended with this.


“This world offends me,” I murmured, “and thus I shall tear it down.”


I smiled, and bent to feed again.

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Clean Slate 10.22

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“Good evening,” I said, dropping into the chair. “You must be Jack.”


The man sitting across from me grinned easily and nodded. “That’s right,” he said. “And that makes you the jarl.” His voice was respectful, but there was a hint of mockery underneath.


“So why do you want to work for me?” I asked. “I don’t get a lot of volunteers.”


He shrugged. “It seems like you have plenty of my kind of work,” he said. “And my last job fell through rather suddenly.”


“Your kind of work,” I said cautiously. “What is that, exactly?”


He smiled at me, a vaguely lopsided smile that didn’t touch his eyes, and pulled a pistol out of his pocket, setting it on the table. “Three guesses,” he said. “And they all involve this.”


I nodded slowly. It was a bit of an aggressive way to introduce yourself, but that didn’t match the rest of his attitude. He seemed casual, almost strangely so. Aside from that one action, I didn’t get the macho vibe off of him.


A test, then? Seeing how I reacted? It seemed plausible.


“You carry a gun,” I said calmly. “That’s unusual for mages, in my experience.”


“They’re useful tools,” he said, still with that odd smile. “And my particular talents don’t lend themselves so well to offensive applications. The gun is a way to compensate.”


“A mage who makes a living off violence, but isn’t good with offensive applications,” I mused. “What are you good at, then?”


“My specialty is more defensive in nature,” he said. If he was offended, it didn’t show. “Kinetic barriers and such. I have some secondary talents as well, of course, but I’m sure you’ll understand if I prefer to keep those to myself for the time being.”


“Of course,” I said. Prying for the exact details of what someone could do before you hired them was more than slightly rude. It gave the impression that you were looking for weakness, and people who had any meaningful dealings with the supernatural learned quickly not to show weakness.


And besides, what he’d already told me was enough. Kinetic barriers were one of the most broadly useful, effective defensive spells around. They were a staple of any combat mage’s arsenal, and my total inability to use them was a problem I’d often been frustrated by. None of my other mages was much better, either. If Jack was really good with them, his value as an employee was suddenly pretty high.


If, of course, being the key word in that sentence.


“Interesting,” I said. “Would you mind demonstrating?”


“Not at all,” he said. His smile looked a bit more honest as he picked up the gun, put it to his temple, and pulled the trigger.


I flinched away a little, more out of surprise than anything, but he just grinned and lowered the gun again. The bullet clattered to the table a moment later, flattened and cracked like he’d shot a concrete wall. “I can also make them reflective,” he said. “So they reverse the force of anything that hits them, instead of just countering it. But that didn’t seem like a good idea in here.”


“That’s a pretty useful ability,” I said. “Anything else I should know about in particular?”


“Not really,” he said, shrugging. “Other than that, most of what I’ve got is only situationally useful. I do have a fair amount of experience, so you don’t need to worry about training me.”


I nodded. “Have you ever worked with the Conclave?” I asked. It was a bit of a risky question, in some ways. The Conclave wasn’t a secret, exactly, but they also weren’t common knowledge. If he didn’t know I’d risk looking crazy, or else I’d give him the idea that I might know other secrets, which was damn near a worst-case scenario when it came to hiring someone on.


And if he did know who they were? In a way, that was even worse. The only way he was likely to know what I was talking about was if he was a member of a recognized mage clan, or else he routinely dealt with people who were. If that was the case, asking the question was as good as an open admission that I also had dealings on that level.


Either way, it was something that I normally wouldn’t have asked without having a decent idea of who he was, how he would react. But I didn’t have time to spare right now, and I needed to know before I could really commit one way or another on hiring him.


Jack narrowed his eyes slightly, and I got the impression that he was thinking about the same things I was. “I’ve done some work with the Guards,” he said carefully. “Strictly as a subcontractor, on some jobs where they wanted more defenses. Is that a problem?”


“No,” I said. “Just checking. I like to know what I’m getting myself into when I hire someone. On that note, is there anything else I should know? Any other obligations you have, anyone who’s out to get you for one reason or another?”


“Not that I know of. I mean, it’s always possible that someone held a grudge for something I did. That’s always a possibility when you’re a freelancer. But I don’t know of anyone that you would need to be concerned by.”


“Good,” I said. “You mentioned that you’re a freelancer, which brings me to my next question. How long are you planning on working for me?”


“As long as you’re paying me,” he said easily. “Most people prefer to hire me for specific jobs, but if you want to do something longer-term, that’s fine with me.”


I frowned. “Someone with your talents, I’d be more inclined to keep you on retainer. How does a hundred grand per month sound, extra for unusually hazardous jobs or expenses?”


He stared at me. “A hundred grand per month,” he repeated. “Are you serious?”


“I’m a very wealthy man,” I said. “And I don’t want you to be tempted to stray. Speaking of which, if you take this deal? You work for me. Not just a little, not casually. You’re one of my people. You stay loyal and I’ll take care of you. You cross me, you betray me or work to undermine my position, I’ll kill you. Plain and simple.”


“I’m a professional,” he said, sounding more than a little offended. “I wouldn’t do that.”


“I’d like to think so,” I sighed. “But you’d be amazed how many people just don’t get that concept. Well, unless you have any more questions, I think we’re good.”


“I’m good,” he said. “What now?”


I grabbed a napkin off the table and a pen from my cloak. “Go to this address,” I said, scrawling it on the napkin. It was mostly legible, I thought. “Big house, on the south side of the city. Ask for Selene. Don’t cause any trouble. She’ll hook you up with the down payment on this month’s pay; it might take a while to get the rest. Funds are tight right now, with how the financial system is going crazy. If you need any kind of equipment, ask her and she’ll see if it can be arranged.”


“Okay,” he said, taking the napkin. “After that? What do you want me to do?”


“Stay there,” I said. “If anybody’s dumb enough to attack the house, I expect you’ll cooperate to defend it. Other than that, just wait. I’ll be there to pick you up at some point.”


He nodded at me. “You got it, Boss,” he said. Then he stood up and started for the door, his hands firmly in his pockets. I noticed that he’d taken the gun back, along with the napkin. I was betting one of those hands was on his gun, and the other might very well be on a weapon he hadn’t shown me. He acted confident, he dressed casually, but Jack was as ready for a fight to break out at any moment as I was.


Then again, I supposed it made sense. A man who specialized in kinetic barriers, who could maintain one on the surface of his skin while he moved, hardly needed to worry about how he dressed. He could walk around naked and be protected as well as I was in my armor. Maybe better.


I felt a pang of jealousy, but pushed it away. I had other talents to compensate.


I looked around, thinking I’d flag down a waiter, but one of them appeared next to my table before I could. Typical of Pryce’s, really. “Food,” I said, pressing a hundred-dollar bill into his hand. “Lots of it, don’t care too much about the details. Meat. And a pitcher of iced tea.”


He nodded once and moved away, slipping easily through the crowd. Not that there was all that much of a crowd. It was getting late, sort of. It was after sundown, and with the way things were going right now that was late enough that a lot of people weren’t happy to be out and about. The ones who were present were tense, jittery.


I’d noticed that the last few times I’d been to Pryce’s. People were tense, scared.


It made me wonder. How long could you keep the tension up, how far could you push it, before things started to break?


Not that much farther, I was guessing. People were resilient, and they could bear up under a lot of stress, but this was a different kind of thing. It was a constant tension, something that never let up. You couldn’t just make it through it, because the next day was just as bad, and the day after that. You couldn’t rest, couldn’t recover from the stress.


People would still be able to cope, I thought. But the ways they coped would be problematic in themselves. People would break, in a variety of ways.


I shook that thought off and stared at the table instead. I was drumming my fingers, I noticed, although I hadn’t realized it.


I forced myself to stop, and shook my head. I needed to get my head in gear. I hadn’t slept in so long that I knew it was starting to affect my performance, and I was so hungry that I couldn’t look around the room for fear that I’d lose it and attack someone for their food. Or maybe even to make them food; I was still a werewolf, after all. It wasn’t like I hadn’t eaten people before.


And the worst part was that there wasn’t much, if anything, I could do about it. I tried to sleep earlier, but I couldn’t rest. When I closed my eyes I saw Snowflake lying in that hospital bed, and that wasn’t going to do me any good. I’d just ordered a massive amount of food, but I knew it wouldn’t do much to assuage my hunger.


It occurred to me that the line of thought I’d had a minute ago, thinking about stress and tension, might be applied to me, too. I could handle a lot, but push hard enough, long enough, and I’d start to break.


I couldn’t follow that thought much further before someone else sat in the chair Jack had vacated. I looked up and saw that it was Luna, and she was grinning at me.


I forced myself to sit up straighter. Luna wasn’t a predator, exactly, and we were almost friends, but the fact remained that she was an exceedingly dangerous person. Showing weakness around her wasn’t a good idea.


“Hi,” I said. “I’m surprised you’re here.”


“Why’s that?” she asked.


“Dangerous times. I figured you’d be hiding out somewhere.”


She rolled her shoulders in an odd, graceful sort of shrug. “I couldn’t stand to stay at home right now,” she said. “If there was ever a time when I wanted my ear to the ground, it’s right now. Dangerous times means opportunity.” She grinned a little wider. “Although I guess you’d know, wouldn’t you?”




“Yeah,” she said. “Word on the street is you’re making moves. Big moves, from what I’ve heard.”


“Really,” I said. “What exactly is this word on the street?”


“Depends. What do you have to trade?”


“A bit,” I said cautiously. “But I was actually wondering whether you’d be interested in a different arrangement. Working for me on an ongoing basis, rather than this individual transaction deal.”


“I don’t know,” she said dubiously. “I like my independence. I like working on my own, you know?”


“You like it because of the climate you’ve done it in. Things have been calm, mostly peaceful. The handful of people that actually start problems have mostly left the small fish alone, you know what I mean?”


“And you don’t think that’s going to be true going forward.” It wasn’t a question.


“I know it’s not,” I said quietly. “This…everything is different now. A lot of the protections we’re used to, the rules that limited how aggressive the big players could be, they’re gone. The people we’re talking about here don’t have any problems with the idea of snatching people off the street. I heard from a reliable source that there’s an entire district in Amsterdam that’s empty. Someone went through, killing everyone they saw, and they didn’t stop until there was nothing larger than a cat in a five-block radius.”


She whistled. “Damn.”


“Yeah. If these people are willing to do things like that, do you really think they’ll hesitate to lean on you if they want something.”


She was quiet for a moment. “I feel,” she said at last, “like there’s a word for what you’re doing here. It’s like you’re playing good cop, bad cop, but you’re using the idea of someone else as your bad cop, so you come out looking good. Trying to intimidate me into agreeing to your offer when I’d rather not.”


“In part,” I admitted. “But what I’m saying is still true. I’m offering you protection, stability, and a chance to get in with what might end up being the dominant group in the city. I’m maybe offering you a say in how the world works going forward, even. And all I’m asking for is that you give up a little bit of your independence.” I shrugged. “I get that it’s not an ideal situation. But realistically, I do think this is the best offer you’re going to get. Up to you whether you take it.”


She didn’t look happy, but she didn’t tell me to screw off, either. “How much are you offering?”


“Hundred grand a month,” I said. It was the same offer I’d made Jack. I figured they were about equally valid to my operation, although for very different reasons, in very different ways.


“Hundred grand…damn.” She shook her head. “That’s a lot of money.”


I shrugged. “I make a lot of money these days,” I said. “And that’s not all I’m offering. You’d have a secure base of operations, official authority that a lot of groups will respect. Armed guards when you’re making a deal, protection if somebody comes after you. I’d even give you some funding and logistic support for the deals you make with other groups.”


She looked at me oddly. “You aren’t going to stop me from working with other people?”


“Of course not,” I said, feeling a little confused. Was that what her problem was about? “Most of what I’m hiring you for is your mind, Luna. You know people, and people are willing to deal with you, talk with you. Why would I want you to shut that down?” I shrugged again. “I mean, there’s some information I’d want you to keep private, and I’d want to hear about any unusual requests, but I have no reason to stop you from doing what you’re doing.”


She considered that for a long moment, then sighed. “Fine,” she said. “Where do I go to start?”


“Go to this address,” I said, grabbing a napkin.

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Clean Slate 10.21

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“I’m sorry,” I said. “For a lot of things, I guess, but mostly because I wasn’t here when you needed me to be. The rest of it I can mostly make excuses for. That one is…it’s harder.”


I hadn’t expected a response, and I didn’t get one. I started to reach out to touch her, but my hand fell back to my side without touching fur. Snowflake’s condition was still delicate enough that a careless touch might cause serious damage. The doctors hadn’t even wanted me to be in the same room with her, but they hadn’t really tried to keep me out. Probably they’d known better.


“They tell me you’re completely out,” I continued, not looking directly at her. “Can’t hear a word I’m saying. They’re good at what they do, and my life isn’t storybook enough for you to be awake in there and this whole thing to just be a bad dream or whatever. So I guess I’m mostly talking to myself here.” I snorted. “You know, in case I wasn’t crazy enough already.”


I risked another glance at Snowflake, and promptly looked away again. There was something profoundly wrong about seeing a husky lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to the tubes and wires associated with life support. It was surreal, in the worst way.


When that husky was Snowflake? That was worse. That was so much worse.


“Anyway,” I continued, injecting some forced cheer into my voice. “Kimiko’s still alive, I hear, which is some consolation. I don’t know if she’s going to stay that way. I mean, I saw how deep those claws went, and I smelled it when I was getting her out of there. She’s got shit in her blood, literally, and that’s the kind of thing you don’t come back from. But Kikuchi knows a doctor who he seems to think can handle it, so she’ll probably be fine.”


Unlike you. I didn’t say it, and she couldn’t hear it, but it was all I could think of.


“The neurosurgeon had a tricky time adjusting to working on a dog,” I said. I felt like I was about to cry, but my voice was even more cheerful than before. I wasn’t sure why I bothered pretending, when I was the only one who could hear me. Maybe it just made it feel less real. “But apparently the basic work was the same, so he could handle it all right. Apparently you’re stable, so unless something goes really badly wrong you aren’t about to die. That’s good news, right?”


Still no answer, no matter how much I wanted there to be.


“The bad news,” I said, more quietly now, “is that none of them seem to think you’re going to wake up. They don’t come right out and say it, but they make sure I know they’re thinking it. You aren’t waking up, or if you do, you won’t be you. You’ll be missing things. Basic functions, personality traits, memories. You.”


For several seconds the only sounds came from the gentle whir and hum of machinery. Monitors, ventilators, intravenous tubes and God knew what else. I wasn’t even sure what half of the machines were supposed to be doing.


“I’m not going to let that happen,” I said.


The words sounded casual. They weren’t. The rest of what I’d said had been at least partially intended for Snowflake, on the off chance that she wasn’t quite as comatose as they thought she was.


But that last line? That was for me.


I was not going to let that happen. To hell with the price.


I sat in that little room and listened to the machines for another five minutes or so, then stood and left.


I pulled my phone out and dialed a number from memory. “Any news?” I asked the moment they picked up.


“Plenty,” Selene said. “Have you gotten any sleep?”


“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “Tried a while ago, but I wasn’t going to get any rest, so I got back up.”


“You’re just making it worse when you finally crash,” she said disapprovingly.


“Honestly, if I live long enough for that to be a concern I’ll be pretty happy. Now. News?”


“Right,” she said, and I could almost see her grabbing her notebook to read out of. Except that Selene didn’t need notes; if her memory wasn’t perfect, it was close enough to fool me. “You remember the mage that contacted us a while ago? Guy named Jack?”


“Yeah,” I said. “I told you to set up a meeting, right?”


“That’s the one. Well, I just finalized the meeting. Three hours from now, at Pryce’s. Does that still work for you?”


“Sure, fine,” I said absently, getting into the car. I was driving my SUV right now, since the armored truck was still out of commission and there was no way in hell I was driving a limousine. Selene had wanted to send me with a chauffeur, but I’d put my foot down at that. There was too much work to be done right now to tie up one of the housecarls on driving me around. “Next?”


“Next,” she said. “The werewolves reported in. Apparently they think they’ve tracked the vampires down to their lair, or at least to a lair. Some fancy house on the north side of the city, according to the selkie.”


“All right,” I said, glancing at the sky. Sunset was getting close, not immediate, but close enough that we’d have to push to get anything meaningful done before night. And I really didn’t want to attack a vampire lair in the night.


But I also didn’t want to give them another night to attack me. And I might not have another chance to take them out in the daytime. My twenty-four hour reprieve from Blind Keith was set to end just after dawn, and I wasn’t going to count on him giving me a second longer than I’d bargained for.


“All right,” I said again, more firmly. “I’m going to go clean out that lair. Send some of the housecarls to meet me. Kyi, Vigdis, and whoever they think is a good fit.”


“You got it, Boss,” she said. “Give ’em hell.”


Even knowing what I did, it was hard to believe this was the secret lair of the vampires that had been causing me so many problems for so long.


“You’re sure?” I asked quietly, looking at the small semi-detached house. It looked so innocuous.


Kyra barked. Everything about her, her tone, her posture, it all indicated extreme confidence. If the vampires hadn’t gone into that building, they’d done a really spectacular job of setting up the fake. Theoretically they thought they’d killed me, which made putting that kind of work into setting up a trap a pretty extreme thing to do.


Not that I had any intention of taking chances. Once Kyra had confirmed it, I signaled the housecarls, and they started carrying boxes over to the house. They set the boxes down at regular intervals around the walls, fiddled with them a bit, then walked back to the semi for more boxes. Vigdis threw rocks at several of the second-floor windows, hard enough to shatter them, and then followed them up with slightly smaller boxes.


After a few minutes, the housecarls stopped and moved back to where I was sitting with Aiko and Kyra. A human I employed but didn’t recognize in the least got into the semi and drove away, moving fast and not looking back.


Kyi handed me a remote control with a twisted smile. “Whenever you’re ready, jarl,” she said.


I looked at the remote. It was very simple, just a black box with one big red button. The button was covered by a plastic shield. This was not the kind of button you wanted to push by accident.


Were there people in there other than vampires? Almost certainly, I thought. I had an idea of how vampires operated, and one of the big things was that they were extremely vulnerable in the daytime. And they knew it, and they hated it. For beings who were otherwise so incredibly powerful, the idea of being utterly helpless to defend themselves against their enemies had to be a sore spot the likes of which I could hardly imagine.


So they took steps to mitigate that vulnerability. Traps were obvious, but sometimes you needed something more than just an automated response.


And that meant minions. I wasn’t sure just what form those minions would take, although I could make some guesses. There would be humans, both as servants and as food. There would be augmented creatures, things that resembled mortal creatures but were invested with power by the vampires, making them more dangerous. And there would be some hirelings, ghouls or low-ranking fae, something like that.


Minions. That was all I really needed to know. Some of them probably deserved to die, some of them probably didn’t, and there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to sort the one from the other. Not without taking a hell of a lot of risks.


In a lot of ways, it was the same choice I’d been faced with infiltrating the rakshasas’ lair, or attacking Natalie way back when. I had to weigh the certainty of killing some innocents against the risk of much, much greater harm.


And, in the end, I knew that I was going to make the same choice I’d made those times.


I flipped the shield up and pushed that big red button.


These weren’t the same as the explosives I’d used on the rakshasas. Those had been military-grade plastic explosives provided by a major crime lord. I didn’t have his connections, and I hadn’t wanted to purchase more from him. The last batch had been enough of a strain on my funds, to say nothing of the risk of lowering his opinion of me. If I had to rely on Pellegrini for more than very occasional assistance, he wouldn’t have much reason to tolerate me.


Fortunately, while I didn’t have his network of criminal contacts, I did have some connections of my own. I owned, through various shell companies and aliases, a variety of companies throughout the city, and I had shares in a lot more. One of the ones I owned outright was a construction company that did a lot of demolition work. They were actually more regional than local, but Tindr had ensured that they had a warehouse in the city, giving me ready access to construction supplies.


And, more importantly for my present purposes, access to demolition supplies. Including explosives.


When I hit that button, the charges went off. I was sitting a couple hundred feet away, but the force was still enough to push me back, and even with my ears plugged and muffed the sound was painfully loud. It wasn’t just the explosion, although that was loud as hell. On top of that, though, there was the sound of shattering glass, breaking wood and bricks.


And screaming. There was some of that too.


I watched with a sort of horrified fascination as the building suddenly tilted to the side. The explosions had been precisely calibrated to damage the building, destroy a lot of it and probably kill the people inside, but not actually collapse it.


Even the most precisely arranged demolitions charges weren’t exactly surgical instruments, and some of the nearby buildings were also damaged, some of them quite badly. We’d evacuated them beforehand, but it was still pretty devastating to whoever happened to live in those buildings. Their whole lives, just wiped away.


And the worst part?


I’d do it again without a second thought.


“Come on,” I said, once the dust had settled. I got out of the car and glanced at the sky one more time, confirming that we still had time. It was hard to say exactly how much time, since “dusk” was a measurement with a certain amount of room for error, but I was guessing we had at least half an hour, at most twice that.


The housecarls fell in behind me as I walked up to the door. It had been left untouched by the blast, deliberately. That way I could kick it open and stride inside. It looked more badass than just stepping inside.


That sounded like a small thing, but it wasn’t. I had my housecarls here, and I knew for a fact that there were a ton of people watching, Innocent bystanders, people we’d evicted, spies and members of other factions, they were all watching. If I came across as a badass, as someone they’d rather not cross, that was another brick on the wall.


I walked inside with Tyrfing out in my hand, watching for any movement. Many of the interior walls were sagging oddly, the studs and drywall shattered, but things were stable. Mostly.


I wondered idly whether blowing the place up first had really been a good idea. I was starting to have my doubts.


We’d been inside for less than thirty seconds when I heard a doorknob rattling to the left. I walked that way and found the door in question, a solid oak door barred from the outside. I chopped through the bar and pulled it open, revealing an emaciated looking man. “Thank God,” he said. “You have to get me out of here.”


I stepped inside. I hadn’t sheathed Tyrfing.


He noticed. “Hey,” he said, backing away from me now. “Hey, man, I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything! They just kidnapped me, and…you’ve gotta get you out of here, man! I’m innocent!”


“Probably,” I agreed. “But I don’t have a way to tell for sure, and I can’t take the chance. Not with half a million lives riding on it.”


Tyrfing lashed out and took his head off in a heartbeat. It was as quick and painless and merciful as I could arrange. It was still very lethal.


“No survivors,” I said quietly, turning back to the housecarls. They looked back at me impassively. The only exception was Vigdis, who grinned like a kid in a candy shop.


There was a reason that I’d asked for her by name. The other housecarls were soldiers, and they could be brutal, but they still had limits. They had honor, and morals, even if they didn’t line up well with most of humanity’s.


Vigdis, though? She only understood morals as something that other people had, and even that was a vague conception.


I watched as they scattered, moving through the house to look for anything still moving or a way downstairs. I didn’t for a moment believe that the vampires were aboveground during the day.


“Pretty brutal,” Aiko commented. “Killing everyone like this.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the point. Do it like this, the next person that thinks about challenging me remembers this and changes their mind. Somebody that will do this is somebody you don’t want to fuck with.”


“That’s cold,” she said.


“Yes,” I said. “It is.”


On my other side, Kyra whined quietly and pressed against me, butting her head against my thigh. I dropped one hand and scratched her ears absently.


It felt good, in a way, to have here there. To have a friend there. I loved Aiko, but at the same time she was tied up in this, the violence and the magic and the ugliness. Our relationship had started with blood and death, and for all that I loved her there would always be that element of darkness to it.


I loved Aiko, and she loved me, but at the same time, she’d fallen in love with Fenris’s child, a man who walked hand in hand with monsters and left death and destruction in his wake.


Kyra, though, knew me back when I was just…well, me. It felt oddly comforting to have her there with me as I took the next step away from that person, and into the person I was becoming.


Nothing else was said as we waited for the housecarls to finish their work. It only took a few minutes for them to start returning to the room where we were waiting. Most of them were stained with blood. None of it was theirs.


“Found a staircase hidden in the closet,” Kyi said. Her hands and clothing were clean, but that didn’t mean much for Kyi. She was an assassin at heart, and it’s a clumsy assassin that gets blood on herself.


“Good,” I said. “Let’s do this.”


The staircase had been hidden behind stacks of folded laundry, and it was opened by a hidden switch. I wasn’t sure how Kyi had managed to find it, but I didn’t ask. It didn’t matter, and it was better for my image if I seemed to already know.


The staircase was narrow and steep, totally unlit. Most of the housecarls had headlamps, though, which was good enough for us. None of us needed as much light as a human. At the end of the staircase was another door, not unlike that on a werewolf safe room. This, though, was meant to serve a very different purpose. It kept things out, rather than in.


I eyed it for a few moments, then stepped up and drew Tyrfing again. I chopped through the hinges, then through the lock, and kicked it as hard as I could.


The door weighed close to five hundred pounds, I was guessing, so it didn’t fly through the air or anything. But I did knock it out of the frame, and when it hit the ground, it was loud. That was good enough for me.


Stepping over it, I saw a group of people standing up from a table across the room. It looked we’d caught them in the middle of dinner, and maybe a game of poker as well.


I didn’t wait to see what they would do, just pulled another stored spell out of my cloak and threw it at them. This one was more traditional, a simple, high-energy fire spell.


They burned. They burned hot and fast. People were screaming, several of them dropping to the ground and rolling in an attempt to put it out, but it wasn’t working. This was more like napalm than normal fire, and nothing that simple was going to stop it. One person tried to run. Kyi shot him in the leg with an arrow before he’d made it three steps, and he hit the ground like the rest of them.


It was only a few seconds before the screaming and moving stopped, and the fires were just burning peacefully. I walked forward without hesitation, gathering cold to myself until Aiko and Kyra were shivering just from my presence. The fires died as I came close to them, deprived of the heat they needed to keep burning.


I decapitated one of the bodies with Tyrfing as I passed, to make sure he was dead and as a statement. The housecarls followed suit as they passed the corpses, ensuring that each one really was a corpse.


The vampires were in the next room. To my amusement, they weren’t in coffins, but rather lying on expensive, antique beds. It made sense, I supposed.


I was just glad they were really here. To have done all this and have it be a false alarm…I didn’t want to think about that.


There were fifteen vampires in that room. I removed the first one’s head with a single stroke, then stabbed it through the heart. There was no reaction at all, but presumably it was dead for good now. We’d take the corpses with us when we left, just in case. I was planning to burn them, mix the ashes with salt and have them blessed by several priests each, and then scatter them widely. Overkill, maybe, but from what I’d seen overkill wasn’t even a meaningful term when it came to vampires.


Kyi, Aiko, and Kyra all stood with me and watched as the rest of the housecarls finished the job, decapitating each of the vampires in turn and stacking the bodies in the middle of the room like cordwood. They did the job quickly and efficiently, until the only vampire left was the one on the largest bed, set on a small dais.


I approached that one myself. This was their leader, evidently, and that meant it was my job to handle it. Image, again. This vampire was female, not Katrin, unfortunately, but apparently one of her high-ranking lieutenants, if she had this many vampires under her command.


She was also awake, at least a little, watching my approach with milky eyes. I didn’t think she could move, really, but she was clearly aware of her surroundings. We’d waited a little too long, maybe. Or maybe she was just stronger than the rest. I’d always suspected that the strongest vampires were more inconvenienced than actually incapacitated by the sunlight.


“You’re a monster,” she said. Her voice was a dry rasp, a mockery of what a voice was supposed to sound like. She sounded accusatory, and I thought she might know exactly what I’d done. She might very well have been watching this whole time, by one means or another.


I smiled a broken, ghastly smile. I was just as glad that no one could see it under the helmet. It was bad enough to feel that expression on my face.


“I am what you made me,” I said, still smiling.


Tyrfing came down one more time, and I turned away from the body.

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Clean Slate 10.20

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“You’re sure you’re okay?” I asked, for maybe the fifteenth time.


Aiko rolled her eyes. “Yes, I’m sure,” she said. “Still. I’m fine, Winter. It just hurt a lot, it didn’t break anything.”


“Okay,” I said. Turning around, I found myself about eighteen inches away from Kikuchi, and flinched away a little. “What the hell,” I said, maybe a little more loudly than I’d intended. “What are you doing?”


“She is uninjured,” he said. “We must go. Matsuda Kimiko requires assistance.”


I eyed him. “You do realize they only took her to use as bait to lure you in, right? I mean, she’s probably already dead anyway.”


“I know,” he said. “But they chose their ploy well. I cannot ignore this.”


I sighed. I could probably back out of this—it wasn’t like I had any personal responsibility for Kimiko. But I wanted to earn some goodwill with Kikuchi, and ditching him when the going got rough wasn’t the way to do that.


And besides. I’d seen some of the things rakshasas did to the people they took. Death, even a slow and nasty death from peritonitis, was a kindness by comparison. I didn’t know Kimiko that well, but I still liked her too much to leave her to that.


“Fine,” I said. “Can you track her?”


He narrowed his eyes slightly. “No.”


“Agh,” I said, almost growling, and pulled out my cell phone. Thanks to a high-quality impact . “Fine. Give me a few minutes to get some people down here.”


Maybe fifteen minutes later, a limo pulled up and disgorged a large pile of fur. The werewolves stood up and started sorting themselves out, looking around.


“Rakshasas,” I said, while they were still getting their bearings. “They’ll smell like humans, for the most part, but with weird tones. They started down that road, moving pretty fast. I want to know where they went, soonest.”


Watching werewolves tracking prey was always impressive. This time, the rakshasas hadn’t made any attempt to hide their tracks, and it was even more impressive as a result. The three of them raced down the middle of the street, moving at almost full speed and only occasionally pausing to sniff at the ground. Occasionally one would bark at the others, using a mixture of sounds and the pack bonds to communicate surprisingly complex ideas. On the rare occasions that one of them lost the trail, one of the others would bring them back on track within seconds.


All in all, it took barely fifteen minutes for them to track the rakshasas to their lair a couple of miles away, and the only reason it too that long was that they had to wait for us.


And that was when the problems started.


“A shelter,” I said, staring at the building. I was feeling a peculiar, cold and remote sort of anger. It was not a feeling that heralded good things. “They’re in a homeless shelter.”


“Looks like it,” Aiko said cheerfully. “Not a bad move, if you think about it. Easy to hide, easy to defend.”


“Kikuchi,” I said, “do you remember the humans they had in their lair last time? The ones who decided to kill themselves rather than surrender?”


“I remember.”


“Do you think there’s any way to fix them?”


The tengu looked thoughtful, to the extent that I could read any emotion on his face. “I researched the matter afterwards,” he said. “In some detail. I could not find any documented cases of the condition being repaired or reversed.”


I nodded slowly. “Okay,” I said. “And you’re sure they’re in there?”


Kyra barked a strong affirmative, and one of the other wolves bobbed its head in a nod.


“Okay,” I said again. “New plan. We get Kimiko out of there, and then we level the place. Any objections?”


“None,” Kikuchi said. “But I am curious how you plan to achieve either of these objectives.”


“First step,” I said, “is for Aiko to call and tell Pellegrini that we would appreciate any explosives he can spare. You take care of that; I’m going to see if I can get an idea of the layout of this place.”


I fell into my magic without waiting for a response. It felt easy, easier than normal, even, and strangely calming. There was something about that disassociated anger that I was feeling that made it oddly easy to take the next step and dissociate myself from my body as well.


They must have had some idea what I could do, because an effort had been made to clear the building of animals. There were no dogs, no cats, no foxes or raptors. But the shelter hadn’t been maintained very well, and there were plenty of food scraps and garbage lying around. No amount of effort could totally clean the place from rodents, and they hadn’t thought to cover all the windows.


I drifted through the various rodents, the rats and mice that were hiding in the walls and closets of the building, trying to get an idea of what we were dealing with. I did, sort of, but it was frustratingly limited. I had a picture of the layout, where the walls were, where the closets were, but the creatures were trying to hide, staying away from the rakshasas and their human slaves, when those were the places I needed to know about the most. I could see a little more through the eyes of a handful of pigeons and gulls looking in through the windows, but there were still large sections of the building that were totally unknown to me.


I didn’t know, and I needed to know.


This kind of magic had always had some odd effects on my mind. It made me feel disconnected, from both the passage of time and my own emotions. Thus, although only a few seconds passed, I had plenty of time to consider what was happening. I found myself thinking again about how the world just didn’t want to cooperate with me. It was one step forward, two steps back.


Had this been arranged? Set up with the intention of forcing me into the exact position I was in? It seemed plausible. Loki or his ilk interfering to force me to this point, to the choice. Or it might have been coincidence. The universe had never needed help to screw me over, after all.


Either way, the facts were the same. I needed to know, and I didn’t know, and my usual approach wasn’t good enough. The answer was obvious, and I normally wouldn’t have gone anywhere near it, but it would work, and I was desperate.


Cold comfort, that. Was there ever a monster that didn’t start out with that justification? But then again, I’d hardly feel any better if I quit now. If the sacrifices I’d already made were for nothing. There was just no winning this game.


At that thought, I felt a distant stirring of that same anger from earlier, cold and remote.


At the same time, I slid my mind more completely into one of the rats in the building. Look around, blink, try to get used to a radically different set of perceptions. I was accustomed to working with scent as much as sight, which made it easier to adapt.


I urged the rat out of its hiding place, pushing it out into the open. It resisted, refusing to do something so obviously detrimental to its own health, but I pushed harder, putting more magic into it.


The rat’s resistance shattered, and I slid further into its body, taking control. I felt its fear in the back of my mind as I moved us out, a little unsteady on our feet. I left enough of myself drifting to maintain a mental map of the building, using that to guide our steps through the hallways. I did take care to keep us to the corners of the rooms, places that we weren’t as likely to be seen. I was willing to take a risk with the rat’s life, if that was what it took to get the information I needed, but I was going to do everything I could to minimize that risk.


We passed rakshasas, and I tried to remember their locations, mapping them out within the building. There were a lot of them, and it was hard to keep track of them all. My memory wasn’t that good, especially when I was already managing so many tasks with my magic.


There were humans, as well, in large numbers. As I’d suspected, they were only technically still alive. All of them that we saw had the stiffness, the wooden, puppet-like manner of the rakshasa-enslaved humans I’d seen before. They were barely even people, at this point, and from what Kikuchi had said there was nothing whatsoever I could do to fix them.


Finally, after far too long of searching, I caught the scent I’d been looking for, blood and feces with a hint of something odd to it, something other. I pushed the rat to follow that path, and at the end of the hallway we found a small room that was the source of the odor.


The door was closed, but I wasn’t about to be stymied by that, not when I’d already gone so far. At my direction the rat started chewing at the wall. It was cheaply constructed, as might be predicted, and we managed to get a hole opened fairly quickly. It wasn’t large, not large enough to move through, but it was enough to get a look inside.


Kimiko was tied up at the far side of the room. Her hands were tied behind her back and fixed to a ring in the wall, just below her waist height. I knew from experience how uncomfortable that position was. You couldn’t stand without having to bend over backward, and you couldn’t lie down or kneel without pulling your shoulders out of socket. That left you with the choice of either standing up and arching your back to an uncomfortable position, half-kneeling and putting your legs under the strain, or lying down and letting all your weight dangle from your shoulders.


Under normal circumstances that was a stress position. It was torture, not a showy kind of torture, but torture all the same.


In Kimiko’s condition? It was worse. Much worse. I wasn’t sure how she was able to maintain the posture, and it was obviously putting her in agony to do so. It wouldn’t be much longer until she couldn’t do it at all.


There were a handful of rakshasas standing in the room, standing around and conversing quietly in a language I couldn’t place. There were a couple of humans as well, standing quietly without reacting to what was happening.


If I’d had any doubts before, that settled them.


Maybe five minutes after that, I slipped inside the building, wrapped in my cloak of shadows. Aiko would have been the better choice for this, for a variety of reasons, but I was the one who knew where to go. My understanding of the building’s layout was solid, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that I could translate into a map or a description.


I knew where to go, which hallways I could take without alerting the rakshasas. It required me to take a meandering route, but that was more of a feature than a bug, all things considered.


I did pass human slaves occasionally, lugging heavy loads around, for the most part. They didn’t react to my presence. There wasn’t enough personality left in them to have initiative, and evidently their instructions hadn’t covered what to do in case of an intruder. That was good. I could have dealt with it if they had responded, but this was…neater.


Then, as I’d known I would, I reached a small, out of the way closet with two rakshasas in it. I wasn’t sure what they were doing, but I recognized the attitude. People shirking work had a certain attitude, even when one of them was an anthropomorphic tiger and the other could have passed for the Elephant Man’s cousin.


They weren’t in my way. Not exactly. But I had to walk by that closet to get where I was going, and that meant there was a chance I’d be seen.


I hesitated for a moment. Just a moment. I’d killed, a lot, but usually it was in the heat of the moment. I wasn’t accustomed to this kind of work. It was…cold.


Then I remembered what they’d done to Kimiko. I remembered their slaves, burned so badly that they could hardly be recognized as human, but still moving, desperate to serve their masters.


Yeah. All things considered, I could be cold.


I stepped into the closet. From their perspective I suspect it was just like watching an animate shadow move through the door, a vague silhouette that hinted at metal and suggested at the wolfish mask of the armor, but showed nothing clearly.


Except the sword. That was very clear.


I cut them down both down in instants. The tiger-shaped rakshasa almost managed to stand before I took its head off; the other didn’t even manage that. I stood over the bodies for a moment, my hands dripping with blood, before I sheathed Tyrfing. The cursed sword was clean. The sword was always clean.


Moving on, I reached the door I had been going for this whole time. I had managed to avoid causing any alarm thus far, but the time for stealth and secrecy was done. I kicked the door and continued inside without pausing.


There was a brief pause as the rakshasas tried to adapt to what was happening. I didn’t allow them the opportunity. As soon as I was inside I darted at the first one and ran it through with Tyrfing. I preferred decapitation when I could get it, but the way the thing was standing made that awkward this time, and stabbing something through the center of mass with Tyrfing was almost as good.


The next tried to create a kinetic barrier, using magic to keep me at bay. It might as well not have bothered. Tyrfing cracked its shield, and then took its head off on the backswing.


The third went for a preemptive attack instead. Claws and teeth hit hard, bruising and eliciting a burst of pain from the broken ribs, but it wasn’t able to actually penetrate the armor, and it wasn’t smart or informed enough to go for an attack that would actually be effective. I stabbed it, coming in from the side under its ribs. It collapsed on the ground in a rapidly-spreading pool of blood when I took the sword out, and I removed its head on the way by.


The fourth ran rather than fight, bolting for the door. I ignored that one, the same as I ignored the humans. They weren’t important right now.


Making it to Kimiko, I found her barely conscious, almost dangling from the ropes. She was still supporting enough of her weight to keep from dislocating her shoulders, but it was obvious that she was in bad shape.


I cut her down and caught her before she could fall, holding her up. I was scared that I might be exacerbating her injuries by moving her like this, but it was better than the alternative.


Holding her in one arm, I turned to face the door, keeping Tyrfing drawn in my spare hand. Standing like that, I started to pull magic to myself, forcing it into the shape I wanted.


About a minute before I could finish, the door opened again. This time the leader of the rakshasas stepped through, in his humanoid form. As before, his shadow was hideous, something that by all rights should belong to a monstrosity ten feet tall with claws and teeth that put a tiger to shame.


He was carrying a young woman in one hand, holding a knife to her throat with the other. She was maybe nineteen, and unlike the other humans I’d seen here, she wasn’t wooden or emotionless at all. On the contrary, she was obviously terrified, crying and choking.


“Hello, jarl,” the rakshasa said. “I thought you might try something like this. You see my pet here? There are more like her in this building. Seven of them, in fact. Unless I tell my associates otherwise, they will all die in pain over the course of the next, oh, five minutes, now, I believe.”


“Let me guess,” I said, sheathing Tyrfing. I continued to focus most of my attention on the spell, weaving the last few strands of magic into place. “This is one of those ‘unless I give you the kitsune’ ultimatums?”


“No, you can keep her,” he said. “I just want you to leave us be. My primary conflict is with the tengu, not you or the kitsune. Quite a bargain for you, I’d think.”


I looked at the girl. She was terrified, hurt, lost. Alone.


How many of the rakshasa’s other victims would be just as scared and hurt, if they had the choice?


“Not worth it,” I said quietly.


After that, several things happened almost simultaneously. The first was that I finished my spell, an Otherside portal snapping into existence right in front of me. At about the same time, the rakshasa dragged his knife across the girl’s throat, smiling the whole time.


I pushed the button on the device I’d grabbed when I put the sword away, and then stepped through the portal, pulling Kimiko with me. The last thing I saw before I crossed over was the girl lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood, twitching a little as her life flowed away.


I ended the flow of power to the portal as soon as we were both across, drawing Tyrfing and cutting through the magic as well just for good measure. I wanted to be very sure it was closed.


Five seconds later, the detonators which had been inserted into the blocks of C-4 which I had scattered in and around the building went off.

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Interlude 1.z: Enrico Rossi

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I close the door quietly behind myself and walk briskly down the hallway. An orderly looks at me and then looks down, hurrying past without making eye contact. I’m not wearing a uniform, but I have the cop face on. A lot of the hospital staff learn to recognize it. The ones in the ICU ward tend to pick it up faster than most.


I step into a bathroom to change before I go downstairs. I’m supposed to be on my way back to my assignment. I’m playing an hourly employee at a pawn shop, one that’s being used by a Latino gang as a fence. But I can’t get my head straight, and I decide on the spot to sit and think instead. It might be bad for my cover, but it would be worse to go in to work right now. With my head in the state it is, I might give the game away entirely. If my boss asks I can just tell him I was in the hospital with a friend. It won’t even be a lie.


Which, now that I think of it, is a large part of the problem.


Looking in the mirror, I see that I already look inappropriate for my role as an employee, too old and not cocky enough. I don’t feel like being interrupted, so I decide to go further that route, take the grieving father route. No one is likely to start a conversation with that.


It isn’t much work. I muss my hair a little more, rub my eyes roughly so that it looks like I’ve been crying, tug my clothing out of position. I don’t even use any makeup or anything like that, but when I look in the mirror it’s like a completely different person is looking back at me.


People ask me how I do it sometimes. I used to really try to explain it, but these days I just shrug and smile. They don’t get it anyway. The kids always think it’s about looks, when really it’s more a matter of being able to fit in wherever you go. You can’t teach that.


That’s my secret, really. That’s why I’m better than the rest. They play the role. I live it.


Which, now that I think about it, is the rest of the problem.


I head back to the main waiting area and sit down in the corner, next to a small table with magazines on it. I take a magazine at random and flip it open to a random page, resting it in my lap. I hesitate a moment, then take a baseball cap from my bag and set it on the table next to me. I’d planned to use it as part of my disguise for my job, but it works just as well as a prop for this persona.


I sit and stare at the magazine without reading it, trying to work out why I feel so conflicted. The problem, I think is that I like Winter. He’s a friend, sort of, in a way. I want to believe him when he says that he’s harmless, that werewolves in general are harmless.


I want to believe him. Do I?


That’s more complicated.


I know he’s a liar. He’s a bad liar, a terrible liar, but he’s still lied to me a lot. All the time, almost. I’d spent years waiting for him to come clean, to just tell the truth, and he hadn’t. I’d had to almost hit him over the head with it to get any honesty out of him. So, as a professional liar, I think it’s fair to say I have a pretty good grasp on how Winter lies. I’ve got enough experience with it, after all.


Was he lying to me earlier? I don’t think so. He’s got a lot of tells, a lot of uncomfortable mannerisms that he falls back on when he lies, and I didn’t notice any of them. He wasn’t lying, unless he’s either gotten a lot better at it very quickly or he’s only been pretending to be a bad liar this whole time, and I can’t take either of those propositions seriously.


But was he telling the truth? I don’t think so, or not exactly. Telling the truth, maybe, but only the parts he thought I wanted to hear. There was too much satisfaction in it to have been totally honest.


Which is where my approach becomes a problem. I’d been playing at being his friend for how many years now? And it wasn’t just an act. When I take a role, I live it, I believe it. It’s a part of me.


How long can you wear a mask before you start to forget what your face looks like?


Or worse, what if the real reason that my masks always look so good was that there is nothing underneath it? I mean, it had been a while since I went out without a mask on. It had been a long while. I can’t even picture what I look like when I’m not trying for one persona or another.


That’s not comfortable to think about, so I go back to debating the whole Winter topic. It doesn’t feel much better. I’m still conflicted on the topic, which is hard to deal with, because I’m not used to feeling conflicted.


The smart thing to do would be to drop it. Recognize that I’m in over my head and I’ve lost my objectivity. But I can’t do that. There’s no one willing to pick the job up after I quit. I mean, we all know that he’s done some shady stuff. If nothing else the way his girlfriend disappeared in college, that is just messed up. But he’s got some friends with pull, and there’s nothing we can do to really prove it was him. So how am I supposed to hand this job off to someone else? It would take them years to get to where I already am, if they even could. And that’s if I could convince them to start the job with basically no official backing, which wouldn’t be easy.


And that’s not even counting the werewolf thing. I mean, I’d been suspicious for years once I started to take the idea seriously. And still, I’d been almost stunned to actually find out that I’d been right. It had taken weeks to really adjust to the idea that werewolves actually existed.


After fifteen minutes, I still haven’t settled the issue. I eventually sigh and get up, walking out. This isn’t fixing anything.


I don’t think there’s anything that’s going to fix this.

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Clean Slate 10.19

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Had I been alone, I would quite likely have died in the first few seconds of the fight. I was in rough shape, and my reflexes were slowed by injury and exhaustion. I was guessing the leader of the rakshasas could literally tear me to shreds if he got those claws on me, and I wasn’t going to be doing much to stop him.


Kikuchi, on the other hand, was still fresh, and he hadn’t gotten his position by being nice and persuasive. Before the rakshasas had taken three steps he was right up in their faces, fighting three or four of them at least and making it look easy. He was fast, faster than me, but more than that he was good. He had the skill to make every action count, moving just enough to get the job done, and often serving multiple purposes with a given movement. He moved out of the way of one attack and it also put him into place to strike another rakshasa from behind; he moved into the swing to put power behind it, and it put him just beyond the reach of a third attacker.


The other two tengu spread out to fight the rakshasas attacking from the sides, from behind us. They weren’t as good as Kikuchi, not by a long shot, but they were still deadly quick and skilled. They were holding their own against several rakshasas, not winning, but not obviously losing either.


It gave me enough time to think for a second, anyway, and that was enough to save me for the moment. My first priority was getting back to the group. Kjaran and the two kitsune would be able to contribute a great deal here, and I needed the help.


I’d come loaded for a serious fight, this time. I hated to do it, hated to burn through my very limited resources, but it wouldn’t do me much good to have my arsenal if I got killed here. So I reached into a pair of pouches I was carrying on my belt, grabbing handfuls of the tiny glass spheres inside, and then threw them into the crowd of rakshasas.


These particular toys were one of my newer ones, something that Jimmy had worked up. He didn’t have much in the way of a talent for making things with his magic, certainly not enough to bind the kinds of power I was accustomed to working with into his creations. In a way, though, that had been an advantage for these. They were easy to make, taking him maybe half an hour each once he’d gotten the hang of them, and the fact that they were less impressive also meant that they could be used at closer range without needing to worry.


I threw maybe twenty of the things into the front ranks of the rakshasas, and I threw them hard. Some of them hit armor, or they hit the pavement, and the glass shattered. As each one broke, it went off like a large firecracker or a small bomb, a sudden burst of heat and force. Where they were packed together, and I’d thrown enough of the things that they mostly were, each one that detonated managed to break others, triggering something of a chain reaction.


Individually, the explosions weren’t that impressive. They wouldn’t have killed a normal human, or probably even hurt that much. But there were a lot of them, and it added up.


The front rank of rakshasas pulled up short, screeching in pain and surprise. Several of them stumbled or fell, and even the ones that didn’t were slowed, burned or blinded.


The creatures pressing against them from behind had no such handicap, and kept running at full speed. Suddenly rakshasas were tripping over each other, falling to the ground in tangle of limbs, which naturally just slowed the next group even more.


I glanced around as they were trying to recover, making sure that I wasn’t about to get mauled from behind. Kikuchi was still handling his side of things admirably, holding off close to a dozen rakshasas on his own. I noticed that he was avoiding engaging their leader, though, and I had a strong suspicion that the creatures he was fighting were cannon fodder, sent to die in hopes of just tiring him out a bit.


The other two tengu weren’t faring as well. To my right, the rakshasas were pressing closer, pushing the tengu back. The bird-man was bleeding from a gash on his right thigh. It wasn’t a light injury; blood was running freely down his leg, splattering the ground with every step. It was the sort of wound that could easily kill if left unchecked, and we didn’t exactly have time to fix it.


The other tengu, to my left, was doing even worse, bleeding in several places and surrounded by enemies. As I watched he went down under a warped mass of fur and claws that looked something like the mutated offspring of a tiger and a grizzly, with a little bit of kangaroo thrown in for style.


I turned in that direction, drawing Tyrfing. There was no question of saving the tengu that had just gone down. After a second or two under that rakshasa, I was basically certain that he wasn’t going to be getting back up. But we couldn’t afford to let that flank collapse; if they could move in and surround us, getting between us, we’d be done.


That meant I had to handle fully half of the circle, keeping the rakshasas out. Under normal circumstances I’d have said I had a passable, but not great, chance of doing that. I was more than a match for most of these things, from what I’d seen, but they had numbers, and I wasn’t really that great at dealing with large groups.


Now? Things were…not looking so great. I was in bad shape, moving slowly, and I knew I couldn’t take anything like the damage I normally could before going down. Unless I handled this just right, things were about to get ugly.


I turned and charged them, roaring and waving the sword around like a maniac. The rakshasas turned to face me, many of them snarling and brandishing weapons or claws, several of them falling back a step or two. I pulled back after a short rush, though, well out of their reach. I was really just doing it to make them hesitate while I repositioned, moving into a position closer to the center of the area I was now supposed to be dealing with.


To the side I started to hear gunfire, carefully spaced bursts. That would Aiko and Kimiko, I was guessing, and I knew from experience that they were both quite good shots. This was nothing like the spray-and-pray fire my people had employed against the vampires.


The first of the rakshasas were starting to get their feet under them again after I’d tripped them up and burned them. The other rakshasas, the ones that hadn’t been knocked down, were starting to press in again. I brandished Tyrfing again, screaming incoherently, but they didn’t seem inclined to slow.


I glanced at the tengu, barely visible under the rakshasa ripping at him. Sorry about this, I thought. But you’re done anyway.


Then I plucked a grenade from my cloak, pulling the pin and tossing it in one motion.


I threw it a fair ways, behind the enemy. Most of them didn’t seem to have any idea what I’d just done, which I supposed made sense. They weren’t exactly natives of this world, after all. There was no particular reason they should be afraid of grenades, and they weren’t. They just kept advancing.


That changed a few seconds later, when the explosive went off. The force of the explosion made them stagger towards me, off balance, and knocked a couple off their feet entirely, but that was nothing compared to the real damage. That came from the shrapnel, hundreds of tiny pieces of metal propelled into them from behind.


I’d put the grenade far enough away that I wasn’t affected much, the force not noticeably worse than a moderate headwind, the shrapnel absorbed by the layers of rakshasas in between. In the moment of opportunity that afforded I charged forward again, and this time I didn’t stop before I reached them.


Tyrfing came down and cut cleanly through the first rakshasa’s spine, almost chopping the thing in half from shoulder to hip. I wrenched the sword back out and the thing fell, giving me room to keep cutting, wide slashes that opened bloody gashes in their flesh or lopped limbs off entirely. I wasn’t trying to put any one of them down, so much as I wanted to hurt a lot of them, debilitating them and keeping their attention firmly focused on me.


Of course, that had the entirely predictable effect that they were attacking me, and not just a little. They came at me with fists, claws, axes and blades, and I wasn’t exactly in a great position to be defending myself. The grenade, coupled with the sheer brutality of my initial attack, bought me a bit of time and space to work with, but I was still dangerously vulnerable.


My armor did a lot to mitigate the damage, and I managed to fight through the rest, ignoring it. It was a hindrance, don’t get me wrong; the injuries made me slower, weaker, clumsier. But I forced myself to keep moving anyway, keep fighting.


That lasted for maybe four or five seconds, until one of the less humanoid rakshasas got its claws on me. They hadn’t been having much luck penetrating the armor to that point, and maybe this one realized that, because it took a different tack. Rather than try to slash at me, it put one claw on either side of my torso and squeezed, crushing me between them.


I can ignore a lot of pain. More than is healthy, really.


Having my already-broken ribs squeezed by four hundred pounds of superhuman muscle?


That was a bit much even for me. Tyrfing hit the ground, and I’d have screamed if I could get the breath for it.


A moment later I found myself being flung through the air for the second time in the past day.


The rakshasa didn’t—couldn’t, probably—throw me anywhere near as hard as Katrin had. When the vampire had done it I’d flown through the air like a fastball, and hit a wall hard enough to break bones. This was more of a lob, and while I did still fly into a wall, it was more of a gentle slap than the crushing impact of earlier.


Not that it mattered too much. My ribcage had been in bad shape already, and that squeeze had been hellish. It hurt to breathe, and sitting up was almost beyond me, even with a wall to lean against. That rakshasa’s attack hadn’t been all that impressive, really, but it had been almost perfect for exacerbating the injuries I already had.


Looking at the fight, I wasn’t sure whether what I’d done had made enough of a difference or not. The kitsune were putting a lot of bullets downrange, and some of the rakshasas were obviously suffering for it, bleeding or stumbling. Kjaran had also reached the crowd, and was currently laying waste.


Kjaran was the odd duck of my housecarls, in a great many ways, and one of those was showing up now. He wasn’t all that great of a fighter, not that skilled, not that quick. But he was insanely strong even by jötnar standards, and in this situation, up against a crowd of brutes even less skilled than he was, that was enough to tip the scale.


He was carrying an oversized club that one of the rakshasas had dropped, and swinging it in wide arcs, crushing rakshasas and tossing them aside with each motion. Occasionally one of them got close enough to tag him, and I was pretty sure he’d taken a couple of rounds from the kitsune, but he didn’t seem to care. His sheer bulk made the wounds almost inconsequential by comparison, the equivalent of taking a knife to a grizzly, and he was stoic enough to just not care about them.


Kikuchi had also fallen back a few steps, until he was standing beside the other tengu. The two of them were a marvel to watch, every movement perfectly in sync with each other. It was beautiful, more like ballet than a fight to the death. The contrast with Kjaran was…impressive, although I wasn’t sure who was winning that particular contest. The tengu were beautiful to watch, but the jotun was dominating the battlefield.


Regardless, one thing that was certain was that the fight was going better for us than the rakshasas had anticipated. They’d caught us by surprise and they’d had the advantage of position, but now that we’d weathered the initial onslaught, things weren’t going so great for them. They weren’t having much luck cracking Kikuchi’s defenses, Kjaran was demolishing their weaker soldiers, and they’d only managed to take one of us out of the fight permanently. I supposed they could turn and come at me next, but I was a good distance away. To hit me in any kind of numbers they’d have to turn their backs to the tengu and the giant, and I didn’t think that was a very good idea.


So naturally that was when they chose to change the nature of the game.


All at once, around half of the rakshasas still standing seemed to disappear. I could tell that they weren’t actually gone—I could still smell that spice-scented magic, and I could feel the disturbance in the air when they moved, sort of—but for all practical purposes they were invisible.


I noticed that the ones still standing were all those that looked more human, less monstrous, and cursed myself. I’d thought that Kikuchi was avoiding their leader earlier, but it had been the other way around. This whole time the stronger rakshasas had been biding their time, waiting for the opportunity to strike and make it count, and they’d just seen it.


I tried to track them, but it was hard. Following somebody by keeping track of the air they displaced when they moved was hard enough when it was calm and I was feeling good. At the moment I was a mess, physically and mentally, and there were a lot of people moving around, making it hard to get a read on things.


I pushed myself to my feet, leaning heavily against the wall, and lifted Tyrfing again. I knew it was a waste of time, though. It was almost impossible to fight back when you couldn’t see the thing you were fighting, and in the state I was in I wasn’t going to be intimidating much of anyone.


They weren’t coming after me, though. A moment later a deep wound appeared on Kjaran’s leg, slicing halfway through his leg at the back of the knee. Blood poured out and he hit the ground instantly, but he didn’t make a sound, and he didn’t stop. On the contrary, the injury seemed to provoke even more ridiculous heights of strength from the giant. He lashed out with that club two-handed in a broad semicircle, and I could hear the crunch of impact from where I was standing.


I was guessing he’d hit more than one of them, but only one appeared, flying through the air. The side of its chest was crushed in almost to its spine, and its arm was flopping around like a length of rope, it had been broken in so many places.


I stared. With damage like that, no wonder it couldn’t maintain its invisibility. Even for a rakshasa, that blow must have been almost instantly lethal.


They wouldn’t have stopped there, though, and Kjaran didn’t seem to be taking any more hits. I followed the direction of travel the rakshasas must have taken, looking past the giant to the two kitsune.


Just in time to see Aiko lifted into the air and thrown by an invisible force. They’d learned how to deal with our armor, it seemed. They couldn’t penetrate it, couldn’t cut it, but they were strong and the armor didn’t make the person inside any tougher.


Aiko was lighter than I was, and the throw was correspondingly harder. She hit streetlight hard, and the way her body wrapped around the pole made me terrified that this throw had done what I’d thought Katrin’s had, and broken her back.


A moment later, before I could so much as take a step, a set of holes appeared in Kimiko’s abdomen. It was the strangest thing; I couldn’t see the rakshasa that had done the damage, but the injury itself was easily visible, meaning that I could clearly see inside her as it happened. Five holes, evenly spaced in a way that suggested a claw, and they punched deep enough that I could see them punching into her intestine. Kimiko cried out and doubled over, almost falling.


The wounds started to bleed a couple of seconds later, suggesting that the claws had been removed. It wasn’t a whole lot of blood; the claws were narrow. It didn’t matter. Her intestines were clearly perforated, in multiple places, and that was the kind of injury that killed slowly, painfully, and reliably. It was an ugly, ugly way to die, and even in a working hospital there wasn’t necessarily all that much they could do about it.


The leader of the rakshasas appeared next to her, still in his monstrous form. He was holding her up with one claw, but he waved at us with the other, sending droplets of blood flying.


Then he picked Kimiko up and slung her over his shoulder, eliciting a scream of agony from the kitsune. He took off down the road, moving at a pace that I doubted I could match even if I were in good shape. Snowflake could probably have caught him, but she wasn’t going to be doing any running any time soon.


Well, that went bad quickly.

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Clean Slate 10.18

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The staircase was steep, dark, and narrow enough that we had to walk in single file. I went first, with Aiko behind me and Kyra behind her. The werewolf was in fur, and handling steep stairs on four feet was tricky enough that everyone involved would be happier in the back.


It occurred to me that might not have been the best idea. Kyra had plenty of experience in fur, and she was generally better off that way in a fight, but it also tended to bring out the more instinctive parts of a werewolf’s personality. That might well leave her more vulnerable to Blind Keith’s influence.


Too bad, if so. It was a little late to stop so she could change.


I thought for a moment that the door at the top was locked, but it turned out to just be stuck, the wooden door warped in its frame by the years. I pushed a little harder, forcing it, and it popped open with a groan.


Through the door was an apartment, dimly lit by the light coming in the windows. The floor was carpeted, relatively clean, but cluttered, like the person who lived here had a tendency to just set things down wherever was convenient and then not bother to pick them up again—not a slob, exactly, just someone who didn’t necessarily feel a need for the space to be open and tidy.


There were no lights on in the apartment that I could see, but I could hear a quiet, regular creaking from the room to my left. I walked that way, moving carefully and ready to fight or run at any moment. I didn’t see Blind Keith being the kind of guy to set up an ambush at a peaceful meeting, but I’d been wrong before.


The other room appeared to be a living room of sorts, small and cozy. Blind Keith was sitting in a rocking chair, and the creaking noise came from the chair as he rocked back and forth. The movement was precisely timed, one cycle every three seconds, like clockwork. It was hard to say in the dim lighting, but I was pretty sure he looked exactly like the other time I’d seen him, a grey figure that was only vaguely humanoid in its shape, with a heavy grey bandage wrapped around its eyes.


I wasn’t aware of us having made a sound, but he knew we were there. Of course he did. “Hello, Shrike,” he said. “Come in, have a seat.”


I stepped into the room, still expecting something to happen at any moment, but nothing did. “Hello, Keith,” I said, walking to a small love seat across the room from him. “You wanted to talk?” Kyra and Aiko stayed by the door.


Blind Keith didn’t seem to care; his attention was all for me right now. “Yes,” he said. “I’ve been looking into you since our last meeting, Shrike. You piqued my interest.”


Oh, man. That couldn’t be good.


“You’ve accomplished impressive things, for your years,” he said. “I want to see for myself whether your skills are as great as they say. I think you and I should go hunting.”


I opened my mouth, then paused. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but this wasn’t it. “I’d have to know a few more details,” I said cautiously.


“We shall hunt. What more is there to know?” Blind Keith asked curiously.


I tried to gauge his expression, but it was too dark. In fact…I glanced around the room and confirmed it. Things actually were darker than they had been just moments before, and it wasn’t because there was less light coming in the windows than there had been. It was like Blind Keith somehow made it harder to see, by his presence alone.


It made sense, I supposed. He was an embodiment of the hunt, and he inspired terror by his very nature. Darkness went along with that, isolating people and removing the comfort of knowing what was around them. Still, it was annoying.


“Well,” I said, hoping I wasn’t making a very bad mistake, “what would we be hunting?”


He grinned, showing teeth sharper and longer than belonged in a human mouth. “I hadn’t decided,” he said. “But I am sure we can find worthy prey.” He stood and held his hand out to me. “Come.”


I hesitated again. I knew that it might make me look weak to someone who I really didn’t want thinking of me like that, but I couldn’t help it. I’d come into this expecting something like the Sidhe, a clever conversation where I had to watch for hidden traps and shades of meaning. Blind Keith was nothing like that, no subtlety or illusion. He was what he was, and he was about as in-your-face about it as it was possible to be.


What had Gwynn ap Nud said about him? He wasn’t Sidhe, wasn’t a part of any of the groups or factions, but he was still fae. I could use that.


“A day and a night,” I said.


He cocked his head to the side, looking at me curiously. Well, sort of. For a certain value of looking.


“I have obligations to fulfill,” I said. “Commitments. Give me twenty-four hours to take care of those first.” I smiled a little. “Surely you wouldn’t force me to default on the commitments I’ve made.” I was concerned that I might be laying it on a little thick, but better that than the alternative.


This time it was Blind Keith’s turn to hesitate a moment. He obviously didn’t want to wait, but he was fae, and the one thing that you could say with confidence about the fae was that they were good to their word. They bent the truth, but they didn’t lie. They exploited any loophole you left them, but they didn’t actually break their word. And, naturally, they respected the same qualities in others.


“Of course not,” he said, letting his hand fall back to his side. “I shall collect you in a day and a night, then. Now go carry out your duties, and take those two with you.”


Back in Colorado, I checked in on things first. Snowflake was still in surgery, which was good and bad. If she hadn’t died yet there was a good chance she’d pull through, but to have been under the knife for so long…well, it wasn’t exactly reassuring.


I’d seldom felt so helpless. I wanted to be there with her, helping her, but I knew that I’d only get in the way. She was hurt, maybe dying, and there wasn’t a damned thing I could do about it.


I channeled that frustration into action instead. Back in the north side of the city, I set the werewolves to tracking down Katrin and her vampires. I had Kyra, Daniell, and Ryan to look for scents, with Unna there to do any necessary talking. I doubted the selkie’s ability to smooth things over with the police, but at the moment that was a minimal concern.


I couldn’t help with that either. I was middling useless as a tracker, never put the time in to really learn. That was the whole reason I’d gone to get the werewolves for this.


That left me with nothing to do but pace around my office while the work went on around me. Most of the housecarls were either patrolling the area or making sure the hospital Snowflake was in was secure, but Selene and Tindr were at the house, as were the mages and the new, human recruits. The work going on right now was passive in nature, support and logistics, but still absolutely vital. And, again, nothing I could help with. Having the warlord making coffee and running papers back and forth would be more distraction than it was worth, even without the hit to my image it would entail.


All of which meant that over the past thirty minutes I’d gotten better acquainted with that office than I’d ever wanted to be. Ten steps, turn. Ten steps, turn. Rinse and repeat until I thought I’d lose my mind.


When Selene stuck her head in, it was a relief, but I was so full of pent-up frustration that I almost snarled at her anyway. “What is it?” I snapped, turning to face her.


She didn’t seem to care. “Someone here to see you,” she said. “One of Kikuchi’s people.”


“Send them up,” I said, moving over to my desk and sitting. I tried to relax, let the frustration fade. By the time the door opened, I thought I’d done a pretty decent job of pushing that aimless anger away from the forefront of my mind. I wasn’t calm—I wasn’t likely to get calm until this was all settled, one way or another—but I thought I could carry on a conversation without making the other person think I was about to kill them.


“Hi,” Kimiko said, walking in. “Am I interrupting something?” She smirked.


I stared. I’d been expecting a tengu, not the only kitsune in Kikuchi’s employ. “He sent you?” I asked.


“Yeah,” she drawled. “Apparently we’ve got a working relationship, whatever that means. Plus we’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands right now, and he didn’t want to send one of his soldiers to get you. About that, by the way…he said to tell you he didn’t intend to fall back on it so soon, but this is the sort of thing your deal should cover, so if you could give us a hand, that’d be great.”


I thought about it for maybe half a second. “Fine,” I said. Anything to be moving, to be doing something, anything. “Where are we going?”


“So the thing is, we’ve been helping out where we can,” Kimiko said, lounging back against the seat of the limo and sipping from a water bottle. “Nothing obvious, nothing people could point to and say that we were doing your job for you, but we’ve been active. Feeling people out, pushing on them when we thought they were a little more resistant to the new order than we wanted them to be, spreading the word to the people that would listen to us. That kind of thing.”


They had? Interesting. I hadn’t heard about anything like that, but it was a hard sort of thing to verify, and under the circumstances it wasn’t unlikely that I wouldn’t have heard about it.


“So what’s the problem?” Aiko asked. She and Kimiko had taken one look at each other and made an unspoken agreement to pretend the other wasn’t there, apparently. They were cousins, but neither one was terribly fond of her family. You’d think that would give them some common ground, but apparently the opposite was true.


“Well, a while ago Kikuchi noticed that some people were responding weirdly. Like, they seemed really passive, but they wouldn’t actually listen. Show up, tell them how it’s going to be, and they don’t argue, but they don’t adjust, either. Like they’re only listening to get you to go away. Except it seemed like they wanted to agree with him, but they didn’t. And they were all in a certain area, too.”


It wasn’t hard to put that together. “Another faction,” I said. “One that’s playing the long game. They don’t want to make a move yet, but they’re ready to.”


“That’s what he said,” she agreed. “So he decided to move on them, see if he could force them into the open. And now…well, we’re almost there. You can see it for yourself.”


The car coasted to a stop less than a minute later. I reached for the door, but Kjaran was opening it before I could, stepping out of the way and bowing.


I blinked. He’d been driving. How the hell had he stopped the car, gotten out, gotten back to the backseat door, and opened the door before I could move my hand a foot?


I got out, suppressing a shiver. Bloody hell, that guy creeped me out.


It wasn’t hard to see what situation Kimiko had been talking about. A trio of tengu were standing in the road about a hundred feet away, looking like humanoid crows, and carrying swords. That was normal enough for them, but something about their posture made me think they were being more serious about it than usual. There was a tension there, a tautness that made me think of a cat about to pounce.


Standing opposite them were half a dozen other figures. These things were harder to categorize or identify. They looked human, generally, but each of them had something wrong about it. One was grotesquely fat, its frame loaded down with so much excess flesh that it shouldn’t have been able to stand. The next was better than six feet tall and skeletally thin, with a tiger-striped beard and his hands tucked into his sleeves. A third looked almost like a ghoul, with limbs too long for its body and the suggestion of a muzzle, with paper-white skin covered in intricate tattoos.


There was no commonality there, nothing that I could point to as a unifying feature. There was something oddly familiar about them, though, something that made me think I should recognize them. I felt a vague sense of foreboding, and hurried my pace a little.


“Ah,” the creature in the center said. This one looked perfectly human, even normal, but his shadow was that of a hulking, predatory monstrosity. “And there’s the man of the hour now.”


The tengu turned to face me. “Jarl,” one of them said, dipping his head slightly—not a bow or a sign of subservience, more a salute between equals. “I am glad that you could come.”


“Dai-tengu,” I said. “I feel similarly.” Then, to the other creature, “What’s going on?”


His smile spread, and the shadow smiled as well, showing teeth that were easily large enough to dwarf those of a werewolf, easily six or seven inches in length. “It’s quite simple, really,” the thing said. “We owe the both of you a rather serious debt. I’d planned on waiting a little longer before we moved, but I think this will work just fine.


A moment later his body melted and flowed in a burst of spice-scented magic, jasmine and ginger with hints of cardamom. He took on the shape that his shadow had suggested before, a vaguely tiger-shaped creature that stood easily eight feet tall, with massive claws and obscenely oversized teeth. His shadow, though, looked human now.


At that moment, I realized several things. The first was that there was a reason these things had seemed familiar. I’d encountered that vaguely floral scented magic before, and it had belonged to things that looked much like these, strange and warped. The second was that I’d accidentally advanced too quickly, leaving Aiko, Kimiko, and Kjaran a ways behind me. The third was that more of the creatures were pouring out of the alleys and doors around us, surrounding me and the tengu, and they didn’t look friendly.


With a cacophony of roars, screams, and whistles, the rakshasas charged us.

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Clean Slate 10.17

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“Coma,” the vet said firmly.


“Are you sure?” I asked, trying to keep my voice from showing any emotion.


Apparently I wasn’t doing a great job, because he looked at me with an odd expression. I wasn’t sure quite what it meant. “Absolutely,” he said. “Traumatic brain injury leading to coma. Probably cranial hemorrhage as well.”


I swallowed hard. “Can you fix it?”


“Maybe,” he said doubtfully. “Probably not, especially if she’s bleeding internally. And even if she wakes up, she’ll probably never walk again with the damage to her shoulder. It’s probably kinder to let her go. She’s suffered enough already.”


This time there was no mistaking what his tone meant. Accusation, plain and simple. Just as well, I supposed. If a vet saw a dog with severe trauma, a missing eye, and teeth replaced with metal implants, and he didn’t feel a certain amount of condemnation towards that dog’s owner, he wasn’t a very good vet.


“Fix it,” I said, more firmly. “I’ll see to it you have whatever you need.”


“A hospital,” he said instantly. “I don’t have the equipment to treat this kind of injury in my clinic. If you want her to live, she needs to get to a hospital immediately. And it’ll take a neurosurgeon to deal with it if there is a hemorrhage.”


I nodded. That made sense, I supposed. Vets probably didn’t have much call to treat comas. “Selene,” I barked, turning away from the scene. I couldn’t stand to watch Snowflake lie there, so close and yet utterly beyond my ability to help.


She appeared next to me so fast that she must have been just standing there waiting for me to call. “Yes?” she said.


“Take the housecarls and take over the nearest hospital.” I racked my brain, trying to think of which hospital that was, but I couldn’t remember, so I left it at that. “And recruit a neurosurgeon.”


“How should we handle this?”


“Do what you have to,” I snapped. “Bribe them, threaten them, whatever. You’re smart, you’ll figure something out.” Turning back to the vet, I asked, “Is that everything?”


He pursed his lips and nodded. He clearly still disapproved of this, on numerous levels, but he wasn’t arguing. Offering someone a quarter of a million in cash, up front and no questions asked, tended to have that effect on people.


“Good,” I said. “Because I’ll blame you if anything goes wrong.” Turning back around, I saw that Selene was still standing there, and glared at her. “Why are you still here?”


She cleared her throat. “Blind Keith got in touch while we were on our way here,” she said. “He named a location in London for your meeting, and says he expects you there in two hours.” She held a piece of paper out to me, which presumably had directions written on it.


“Shit,” I muttered to myself, glancing back at Snowflake. She was lying on an examination table, her breathing labored, although at least if the vet was right she was too far out to feel any pain.


I wanted to be there with her. But I knew I couldn’t do anything to help her now, and if I didn’t go to meet with Blind Keith things were liable to get even worse.


“Don’t screw this up,” I told the succubus, before stalking out of the room. It wasn’t the best stalk, if only because it still hurt to walk. Not just a little, either; I’d gotten a few minutes of rest on the way to the vet’s, but the inactivity only served to emphasize how bad of shape my body was in right now. It was letting me know in no uncertain terms that I would need some rest, and soon, or it was going to give out on me entirely.


Not that I had any idea of when I could manage that rest. There were just too many things going on, too many balls in the air—as evidenced by this message from Blind Keith. I’d almost forgotten that I was supposed to be meeting with him, and now that was coming back to bite me, since I hadn’t prepared for it at all.


I tried to plan as I walked to the edge of the road. Two hours wasn’t much time, not enough for me to really do anything else first, especially if I wanted to show up early. I hated to waste a moment right now, though, so I thought I might pick up the werewolves before going to London.


“Where are we going?” Aiko asked, falling in step beside me. She’d been watching the area, making sure that Katrin’s people weren’t planning a follow-up attack while we were distracted.


“London,” I said. “Blind Keith wants a meeting. With a stop in Wyoming on the way to get the werewolves.”


“Cool,” she said. “Staging point in Faerie, I’m guessing?” She turned to the edge of the road, starting to spin magic out into a portal without waiting for me to answer.


“I can get it,” I said.


She snorted. “Sure,” she said dryly. “But it’s obvious you’re pretty much dead on your feet, and I’m feeling decent. I can handle this one.”


It only took her a few minutes to open the portal, dropping us into the middle of a small glade in the deep woods. It was a quiet, isolated place with a small stream running through it, one of Aiko’s favorite staging points.


She was obviously more tired than she’d let on, because opening that portal took something out of her. She wasn’t even fully recovered by the time I’d finished the next portal, so I went to Wyoming without her. I was feeling too hurried to wait for her, and she would be safe there. It was one of the more secluded places in Faerie, and she knew her way around.


It was a short walk from my destination point in the forest outside Wolf to town. It felt a lot longer today, with how overwhelmingly crappy I felt, but I didn’t waste time feeling sorry for myself.


All I had to do was think of Snowflake, crippled and maybe dying on that table, to drive those thoughts out of my mind. I’d gotten lucky. I’d gotten very lucky.


And if I had anything to say about it, Katrin was going to die slowly and in a great deal of pain for that. Trying to kill me was one thing. I expected that; it was nothing personal, for either of us. But what she’d done to Snowflake, that made it personal.


Once I got to town, I spent a few moments trying to think of where I could find the people I was looking for, then snorted. I was still thinking like a human. If there was anywhere in the world, any single place, where I could reliably use my magic to find someone, it was this town. A decent chunk of the population here were werewolves, probably eighty percent or more had some kind of pet that I could work with, and I knew the terrain as well as anywhere. It had been years since I spent all that much time here, but nothing much had changed.


Nothing much had ever really changed, here. That was part of why I’d had to leave. Even with the current turbulence, the way things everywhere were changing dramatically and permanently, I had a strong suspicion that I’d be able to come back in another ten years and still recognize almost everything.


It took me a couple of minutes, but I eventually found them in the town’s only real bar. They were sitting around with the attitude of people who’d been sitting around for a while, and were starting to get pretty tired of it.


I hurried to get there, as best I could, and it was only a couple of minutes until I pushed open the door and stepped inside. My left leg gave out as I did, with spectacularly inconvenient timing, and I had to grab at the door to hold myself up. I still stumbled forward, knocking over the sign that had the night’s specials written on it.


The clatter from that ensured that everyone present was looking my way. I could practically see the bartender debating whether he should go for the shotgun he kept behind the bar, but luckily he was smart enough to look around first. Kyra gave him a thumbs-up, and he relaxed again.


I walked over to their table, managing to avoid any more embarrassing incidents, and slumped into one of the open chairs. “Hey,” I said. I would have said more, but that one word triggered a coughing fit that went on for a few seconds and left me breathing hard and biting my tongue to keep from making embarrassing noises from the pain.


“Damn,” Kyra said. “You look like crap.”


“I feel worse,” I said, grabbing her beer and taking a sip to try and keep the coughing down. There wasn’t enough alcohol in it to matter to me. “Got in a fight with Katrin a little while ago.”


She frowned, then suddenly blinked. “You mean the vampire? How’d that go?”


“I lived,” I said, shrugging, and then wincing at the pain that caused my ribs. “Snowflake maybe didn’t. She’s in surgery right now, brain injury, some broken bones, maybe internal damage.”


I was a little surprised at the reaction that provoked. I’d expected Kyra to care, but Ryan reacted as well. Even Daniell, the other werewolf Kyra had brought with her when she came to Wyoming, looked concerned.


The only person at the table who didn’t seem to care was Unna. But then, that was to be expected. The selkie had to be more personable than most of the fae, given that she and Ryan had apparently been married for a couple of years with a reasonable amount of happiness. She still wasn’t human, though, or anything like it. Even if she cared, it was pretty unlikely she’d show it in a way that I could recognize.


Kyra was looking at me oddly, and I realized that she must have said something that I missed. I shook my head, trying to shake some sense into it. I needed to focus. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Missed that.”


“I asked what you’re doing here while she’s under the knife,” Kyra said patiently. She had her tough face on, but I knew her well enough to recognize that she was covering up genuine concern, for me or for Snowflake. Probably both, now that I thought about it.


“Have a meeting in London,” I said. “Big, nasty fae that might want to eat me. I thought I’d pick you up on the way. Hopefully you guys can track Katrin’s people back to their hideout and I can take her out during the day.”


“So you just left us hanging until you needed something,” Ryan said. I thought he sounded upset.


“How long have you guys been here?” I asked.


“Most of the day,” Kyra said. The anger in her voice was more deeply buried, but I knew her well enough to pick up on it. “Eight or ten hours, I think?”


“Crap,” I said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I’d kept you waiting that long. Too many things to keep track of right now….” I shook my head again. “I’m sorry. I need to get moving if I’m going to make it to that meeting on time. If you don’t want to come with, I understand.”


“Of course we’ll come with you,” Kyra said, clearly exasperated. “Let’s go.”


London was dismal. It had been close to dawn in Wyoming by the time we left, which put it closer to noon in England, but it was overcast, the air somewhere between a heavy mist and a light rain. I’d reluctantly stopped long enough to take a massive dose of painkillers, enough to have a little bit of an effect even with my metabolism, but even with an accompanying dose of stimulants it hadn’t done much to shake me out of my near-daze. Determination and chemicals could only take you so far beyond the limits of your body, and the result was that at the moment was that I felt almost the same amount of pain, exhausted, nauseous, a little dizzy.


How long had I been awake, now? It was hard to remember. Almost twenty-four hours, I thought. Pretty close to that. And I’d been moving pretty much nonstop the whole time, a couple of fights, a couple of high-stress meetings, the time in between spent trying to organize everything.


Not the best state to be meeting one of the scariest predators in Faerie, I had to admit. But there wasn’t much I could do about it.


Blind Keith had given me an address, but it took a while to find it. I’d thought that London would be better off than most of the world right now, and in a sense I’d been right, but one of the things that was easy to forget when you weren’t a local was that London wasn’t really a city in the same way that I was accustomed to. It had built itself organically over the last two thousand years, and the result was a city that had so many neighborhoods, boroughs, and regions that you could spend your whole life there and not see more than a tiny fraction of the sprawling mass of streets that was London.


Blind Keith had chosen one of the very worst parts of that mass, a back street near Soho that had never really gotten its act cleaned up from when that part of town was a scary one. It was the kind of place you went to do things that were legal only so long as nobody was watching too closely, and that had been before the shit hit the fan.


Now, well, it was worse. My portal location in London was a good distance away, and the streets weren’t in much better shape than those back in Colorado. Maybe worse, in areas. Our stolen car was decent, but it still took a while to reach our destination.


The building he’d selected was a small one, dingy and easy to overlook. There were bars on the windows, and only a small sign in one of the windows identified it as a sex shop. I didn’t see anyone around or inside the building, no customers, no employees.


Where were they, I wondered? Had they just chosen not to go to work today? Had they shown up, but been scared away by Blind Keith so that we could have our meeting?


Or had he chased them through the streets, hunting them down, their lives ended in blood and pain and fear?


I tried not to think about it too much.


The door was unlocked, and the interior of the building was dark except for one light above a door. I went to that door, carefully, flanked by Aiko and Kyra. The other werewolves were waiting outside, watching for trouble.


Kyra whined a little as we crossed the room. Discomfort over being there, or thinking about what might have happened, perhaps?


Or maybe it was the aura of fear, of primal heart-pounding terror, that Blind Keith carried with him. I could feel it myself, a little, although I might not have recognized it as unnatural unless I’d already encountered him. It was just a nagging sense, at the back of my mind, that this was bad, that I should turn and run right now, because there was something very very very bad upstairs and if I kept going I was going to die, I was going to run and scream and bleed and die and there was nothing I could do….


I pushed that feeling away, although it was a struggle. Blind Keith’s magic was designed to speak to a part of me that didn’t have a lot in the way of reason or control, an instinctive level of my hindbrain that just wasn’t capable of too much in the way of rational thought. He scared people, made them revert to hunted animals at the mercy of anything lurking beyond the firelight, and then he capitalized on that. If I wanted to survive the next few minutes I had to keep that part of my psyche tightly controlled, because if I let it control me Blind Keith would eat me alive, maybe literally.


For a moment, I considered walking away. If I could run far enough, or find a good enough hiding place, I might be able to get away. I’d have to abandon the responsibilities I’d taken on to do it, of course, but I could be safe. I could give up the power that had been thrust upon me, that I’d never really wanted but felt that I had to take, for one reason or another. I could stop dealing with gods and monsters. I could stop having nightmares about these things.


Then I sighed. It was a nice thought, but in the end I knew I wasn’t smart enough to back down now.


I opened the door and went inside.

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