Monthly Archives: June 2015

Interlude 9.x: Thomas Rice

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I’d heard that you saw your life flash before your eyes, just before you die. Like watching it on film.


Apparently the person running my projector called in sick, because I didn’t get that. I only got one day, not my whole life, and even that was more of an extremely intense memory than a vision.


I woke up around six and got out of bed. Laura turned over and grumbled sleepily, pulling the covers up around her chin, but my alarm hadn’t woken her. That was good.


I grabbed clothes out of the closet and went to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth and showered, moving on autopilot. A little too much so, maybe; I accidentally used Laura’s shampoo instead of mine, and walked out smelling like lilacs.


Although it could have been worse. I still remembered the time I’d used Ginger’s shampoo. Although maybe that hadn’t been such a bad idea. I hadn’t had to worry about fleas for a while after that, for example.


I could be pretty silly before I got my coffee.


Once I’d dried off and gotten dressed, I went downstairs and poured a cup. The machine was set to start automatically just before I woke up, since the less time I was up before I got my caffeine fix, the happier I was. Although usually it wasn’t this bad. I hadn’t gotten much sleep. Too worried about today.


By the time I’d started on my second cup, I was feeling a little more awake. I rummaged through the cupboard, getting out the pans I would need, then went to the fridge.


I started frying the bacon first. The trick to a really good breakfast was to cook the bacon, then save the bacon grease to fry the eggs and potatoes in. It was a little more work, but it tasted so much better.


About the time the bacon was starting to sizzle, I heard the shower turn on upstairs. Laura was up, then. Good.


She came downstairs a few minutes later, wearing a terrycloth bathrobe. I pulled her close and kissed her. Her mouth tasted like toothpaste. “Good morning,” I said a long breath later, letting her go.


“Good morning,” she said, getting out another cup. She poured herself coffee and then got cream out of the fridge and sugar from the cupboard. Laura had never been able to stomach her coffee black, and expressed mild incredulity whenever I said that I preferred it that way.


I took the pan off the heat and started pulling the bacon out of the pan, setting each piece on a paper towel to drain. Laura got eggs from the fridge and hash browns from the freezer while I poured some of the grease into the other two pans.


I fried the eggs and potatoes, making sure to keep everything cooking evenly. Laura put bread in to toast and got out butter and a jar of raspberry jam her mother had given us for Easter.


While I got the food on the table, Laura went to wake Robbie. He came bounding out of his room a minute later, Ginger bouncing along next to him. No surprise there. The collie had been a part of our family about a year longer than the boy, but the two had been inseparable almost since he was born.


Breakfast was good. It was over too soon, but it was good. I cleaned up afterward, washing the pans and putting everything away. Laura helped Robbie get ready for school.


Once he was safely on the bus with the other first-graders, she came back inside and hugged me from behind, nuzzling against my neck. I finished washing the last pan and set it on a towel, turning to hug her back. She grabbed my hair and pulled me down to kiss me. That went on for a minute or so before Ginger started barking, reminding us that she hadn’t had her breakfast yet.


Once that was tended to, Laura caught my hand again, rubbing her thumb over my wrist. She smiled wickedly, making her intention clear.


I hesitated, then sighed. “You have to get ready for work,” I pointed out. So did I, but I didn’t have to be there quite so early today as she did.


“We could be quick.”


“Later,” I said, more firmly this time.


She groaned, then leaned forward and gave me a peck on the cheek before letting go. “I love you, Tommy.”


“I love you too, baby,” I said, and meant it.


A lot of people had warned me, when I first proposed to her, that it wouldn’t last. Feelings cooled, they said, and sooner or later I’d wind up feeling like she wasn’t even the same person I’d fallen in love with.


I was glad that hadn’t happened to Laura and me. Seven years later, and I loved her as much as ever.


I tugged my uniform awkwardly into place. I hated waiting, and I hated courtrooms. I’d been in them before, of course, part of the job, but still.


There were more people than I was used to today, though, and the hearing hadn’t even started yet. The judge wanted enough armed guards here today to keep anyone from doing something stupid. It was volunteer-only, though.


Most of the people who’d signed up did so for the hazard pay—silly, if you asked me, but there it was. I wouldn’t have done it for that. Money wasn’t that important.


But I’d seen some of how this guy was treated in prison. And that just wasn’t right. He hadn’t even been found guilty yet, and even if he had it wouldn’t have been right. I couldn’t do a whole lot to help him then, and I probably couldn’t do a whole lot to help him now, but I figured he at least deserved to have one person in the room who was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.


The chief knew how I felt about it, and it had been almost three weeks since I’d even seen him. I was shocked at the difference. He looked terrible, fifty pounds too thin and haggard. More than that, though, was the way he carried himself. He moved like a man in a daze, shuffling his feet. His head hung to one side like he couldn’t muster up the strength to straighten it. When he sat down it seemed like he went away entirely, not even seeing the room in front of him. He stayed that way throughout the hearing. Even when someone asked him a direct question he was slow to respond, and when he spoke his voice was sluggish, almost slurred.


I felt a spark of anger stir inside me at that. They’d broken the man in there. This was beyond wrong. It was a betrayal of everything I stood for.


I tried not to pay too much attention to this travesty of justice, and as a result I was maybe the only person in the room who was watching when the doors slammed open. The guy that walked in was big, almost a giant, and he didn’t look happy.


I watched as he gave his little speech about cameras. For a second I was thinking I’d have to deal with him, but then the judge told the bailiff to take care of it. I was just as glad for that. I’d often had to deal with crazy people in my life, but it hadn’t gotten any more pleasant.


Then the bailiff hit the ground. I hadn’t seen what happened, but I’d seen people die before, in the hospital, and twice on the street.


And now once in a courtroom, as well.


I wasn’t sure what to do, but around me the other cops were drawing guns, and he had just murdered someone right in front of a judge, so I grabbed my gun as well. I lifted it, my hands shaking just a little, and then I pulled the trigger.


I’d practiced at the range almost every day for several years. But I’d never fired a gun in anger. I’d never shot at another human being. I’d certainly never killed anyone.


I wasn’t sure how to feel, now that I was doing it for the first time.


Except that he wasn’t dying. He wasn’t even falling down. I shot, and shot again, and I knew I hit him, and other people were shooting him too, but he didn’t seem to care.


I lowered my weapon, and I saw other people doing the same. This was just…not right. What was going on?


“Thank you for your courtesy,” he said. “The next person to try something like that gets turned into something.”


I took a deep breath, looking from my gun to him and back again. I didn’t understand it, didn’t understand any of it, but now that I could think about what had happened, I was ashamed of myself. That had been wrong. Shouldn’t we have tried to arrest him first? Why had they gone straight to lethal force? Why had I gone along with it?


Hadn’t I just been thinking that everything about this hearing was a travesty of justice? If anything I should thank him for interrupting this.


I took a step forward and lifted the gun, intending to say something along those lines and then cast the weapon aside. Dramatic, but hell, I was on camera, wasn’t I? And it was a way to send a message, if nothing else.


I didn’t get the chance. Before I could even open my mouth, the man who had burst into the room twitched, and suddenly I hit the ground.


There was no pain. That was the strangest thing about it. I could still see, and when I looked at myself I could see what had happened to me. I was broken, twisted. There were bits of me exposed to the air that shouldn’t have been. By all rights, I should have been in agony.


But there was no pain, none at all. All I felt was a sort of calm, peaceful lethargy. I found myself drifting, looking back on what had happened.


It had been a good life, I thought to myself. If I could do it over I’d do it the same, and in the end that was all you could ask for.


I would miss my family. Watching my son grow up. Growing old with my wife. We used to joke about how we’d make Robbie get a good job so he could support us in our old age. She’d wanted to go to France, where her family was from. See the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower. I’d talked about raising horses after I retired. My sister and I had made plans to visit Australia.


I felt a nagging sense of regret as I drifted off. So many dreams left unfulfilled.


I wished I could have had just a little more time.

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Clean Slate 10.16

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Okay. So my situation wasn’t great. I was effectively crippled, Snowflake was probably unconscious and definitely out of commission, and there were still at least a dozen vampires up and fighting.


As I crawled, I took stock of what I still had to work with. My people had superior positioning. Katrin obviously hadn’t been prepared for me to have something like that arranged, or her minions wouldn’t have been hit nearly so hard. That meant that the vamps were going to be struggling to respond. Katrin would be able to coordinate them, I was sure, but it would take a few precious seconds.


That meant that they would just now be starting to hunt people down. My housecarls were split into groups of two, which meant that the vamps would have to split up comparably to tackle all of them at once. I was guessing they would do that rather than concentrate their forces on one at a time. Vampires tended to be rather arrogant in my experience.


The other main advantage I could think of was that Katrin couldn’t really have expected me to be back in the fight. If they were trying to hunt me down they’d already have found me, which made me think that they were probably prioritizing taking the other targets down first.


Which was the right choice, tactically. But it also put me in a position where I could potentially do some good.


The first thing I had to do was get to a position where I could see the scene of the fight, make sure that my guesses weren’t totally off. The gunfire and explosions were sure to have terrified any animals away, and I would probably need to spend several seconds going the wrong direction to lay eyes on it myself.


Fortunately I’d thought ahead. Each team of jötnar had a cat in a carrier, where it could see the target area. In addition to giving me a clear idea of where each of my teams were, it also gave me a way to see for myself what was going on.


The nearest of these cats was pressed tight against the back of the carrier, not looking in remotely the right direction. I tried to nudge it to turn so that I could see, but it was scared almost out of its mind, and not inclined to pay attention to me.


So I pushed a little hard, taking control and just moving it, until the amphitheater was in my field of view. I could see a lot of vampires, on the ground or struggling to stand. None of them were in condition to fight, and there weren’t as many as had initially shown up, which made me think that my guess about what they were doing was probably accurate.


I didn’t see Katrin or Aiko.


I let go of the cat and kept crawling, moving towards the closest group of housecarls. They were about a hundred feet away, on top of a small hill.


I paused as I went. A hundred feet wasn’t that far, but…I wasn’t running right now. I wasn’t even walking. At a crawl, it would probably take a minute or so for me to get there.


A minute was way, way too long for my people to hold out against vampires. And that wasn’t even taking the other locations into consideration.


I needed to be moving faster.


I took a deep breath and called Tyrfing. The sword appeared in my grasp, the weight a comfortable presence in my hand. I unsheathed it, setting the scabbard carefully by my side so as to avoid making a sound, and then used it as a sort of cane to push myself to my feet.


It wasn’t so much that the cursed sword made the pain go away, exactly. It was more that it just didn’t matter as much. Rage and bloodlust rushed through me from the weapon, bringing something like an endorphin rush to swamp out the pain signal from my body. The emotions called an answering impulse from within me, raging hunger and a violent, feral anger at those who had dared to violate my territory.


Normally I would have tried to fight those feelings. They came from the wolf more than the man, and under most circumstances letting them run rampant was a very bad idea. I’d gotten used to limiting the way Tyrfing affected me, locking them out, until I hardly even had to think about it.


This time I encouraged them, stoking the anger up until the pain was lost behind it.


It still hurt, and my body still wasn’t responding to my directions quite right, but I managed to stagger forward, using Tyrfing to help my balance. It wasn’t pretty, but I was moving.


I heard a shout of pain from about the right location to have come from one of my housecarls, and gritted my teeth. Those people were mine, dammit. There was no way in hell I was going to let vampires have them. I started moving more quickly, although it still wasn’t nearly as fast as I’d usually be.


A few seconds later I got a look at the hill. There was one vampire, instantly recognizable by the strange, stiff grace of its movements. Brandulfr was on the ground in front of it, with an obviously broken arm. Skallagrim was halfway up a tree nearby, out of immediate danger, but obviously not confident in his ability to shoot the vampire without hitting Brandulfr. And that tree wouldn’t mean much of anything against a vampire. The thing could probably jump high enough to hit him.


I’d wanted to get a sneak attack in, take the vamp by surprise, but it would only be seconds before it killed the downed housecarl. That necessitated certain changes in my approach.


“Hey,” I shouted, moving closer. “You didn’t really think that killed me, did you?”


The vampire glanced over its shoulder at me. Then it grinned, a wide and profoundly wrong expression that showed teeth a bit too sharp for comfort, and turned back to Brandulfr. It wasn’t carrying a weapon, but it didn’t need one.


I growled and tried to run, managing only a sort of slightly-faster shamble.


I wasn’t going to make it in time.


I stopped and lifted Tyrfing, getting ready to throw it at the vamp. It was a stupid thing to do, but I had to do something, and I couldn’t think of any other weapon I was carrying that could put it down before it had time to kill Brandulfr.


Then the vampire paused suddenly. I couldn’t see its face, but its posture looked confused.


A moment later Aiko flickered into view, standing right next to him. Her wakizashi was thrust through his neck to the hilt, sticking out the other end covered in blood. She leaned in close and whispered something in his ear, then pulled the blade back out.


The vampire dropped like a marionette with its strings cut. She’d cut through the spine entirely, apparently.


“Nice job,” I said, trying to pretend that hadn’t surprised me as much as everyone else. I kept walking forward, not leaning on Tyrfing. That wouldn’t be good for my image. “Do we know what happened to the others?”


“Kyi and Nóttolfr bolted,” Aiko said instantly. “Pretty sure they got away. The rest…I don’t know.”


“Okay,” I said. “We’re going to go check on the rest. Brandulfr, Skallagrim, you’re with us.”


The next location was an office building, currently empty. Haki and Njáll had been on the third floor, barricaded inside an empty office.


Now the door on the office was hanging open from one hinge. Njáll was lying on the ground under the window, broken in ways that not even a jotun was going to be standing up from. There was no sign of Haki.


I didn’t like that, but if there was one person on my team who could get by on his own, it was Haki. So we kept moving, looking for the next team.


Continuing around the park, it took more than a minute to find the next location. This one was a small store that had been empty for several years for reasons I wasn’t entirely clear on. Ragnar and Vigdis had been on the roof earlier to get the height they’d needed to shoot down into the crowd. From the sound of things, though, they’d since moved down into the main room of the store, and they were still fighting.


I froze, startled, then rushed into the building.


The interior of the building was a striking tableau. Three vampires were on the ground, each marked with damage from the bullets and explosives, then decapitated. Vigdis was lying next to the door, her right leg snapped like a toothpick just below the knee. Ragnar was still standing, holding a broken spear, which he was using to fight against the last vampire still standing.


The vamp was missing its left arm near the shoulder, and the other injuries were severe enough that it could hardly stand. And it was still obviously, easily more than a match for the jotun. He was feinting with the spear, keeping it at bay, but there was no question of who would win.


I didn’t say a word, just stepped up behind the thing and swung Tyrfing, aiming to chop its head clean off. It heard something and dodged at the last second, so rather than kill it, I cut deep into its right shoulder.


Not lethal, but still pretty decent. Now both its arms were effectively useless.


That’s what I thought, anyway. I was swiftly proved wrong as it spun, not seeming to care about the injury, and slapped me in the chest.


It couldn’t put more than a small fraction of its full strength behind the blow, but then, I wasn’t in much better shape. Even that weak of a hit was enough to knock me from my feet.


The others were filing in the door, though, and the vampire was seriously outnumbered. It turned, looking at what was happening, then tried to bolt for the door.


Vigdis’s hand around its ankle brought it up short. The giant had to be in terrible pain, but she held tightly enough that even vampire couldn’t jerk away easily, and she was grinning wildly.


Ragnar lunged forward, trying to impale the thing on his spear. He succeeded, sort of, but apparently he missed the heart, because it didn’t even slow down. It didn’t even turn to face him as it lashed out, kicking him in the chest.


Ragnar flew backward, his feet coming an inch or two off the ground, and hit the wall. He dropped, instantly, and I was guessing he was out of the fight. Maybe permanently; that was a hell of a kick.


Vigdis took the opportunity to tug his supporting foot out from under the vamp, toppling it. That put it on the floor not far from me. I grabbed the spear sticking out of its chest and started pushing, trying to shove it further into the thing and get the heart.


The reaction was instant and violent. It had been trying to stand, but once I grabbed the spear it gave up on that and started scrabbling away from me on the ground.


It had only three limbs, one of which was basically nonfunctional, and poor leverage, so it made only limited progress. A moment later Vigdis let go of its ankle and moved up, pushing against its back and shoving it into the spear.


The vamp went berserk, bucking against me, kicking out and hitting me with its remaining arm. I gritted my teeth and shoved the spear another inch into the thing.


The vampire screeched, a sound more like metal tearing than a human scream, loud enough to hurt my ears. I ignored the pain, braced myself as best I could in such an awkward position, and pushed.


The vampire bucked one more time, almost throwing me off completely, then went still. I pushed myself slowly to my feet, still holding the spear, and looked at what I’d done.


The vampire was lying on the ground, perfectly still, blood trickling from its mouth. I’d shoved that spear clear through its body and an inch into Vigdis’s breast on the other side. She didn’t seem to care about that injury, any more than the broken leg. She just kept right on grinning at me, wild and ecstatic.


Skallagrim grabbed one of Vigdis’s axes off the floor and brought it over without any hesitation. He glanced at me to make sure it was okay, then brought it down, chopping the vamp’s head clean off.


I felt woozy standing up, almost so much so that I couldn’t, even leaning on Aiko. When I looked around, the rest of the crew didn’t look much better. Brandulfr had a broken arm, and Vigdis wasn’t going to be standing on that leg any time soon. Ragnar was unconscious, and even if he weren’t that kick had shattered several ribs, apparently driving them into his lung.


A normal human would very probably have died from that already. Jötnar were tougher, but whether Ragnar was tough enough to survive this was not at all certain.


“Okay,” I said, and then stopped to cough. I was a little surprised by how much it hurt; I couldn’t even see straight, and I had to lean heavily on Aiko to stay standing. Apparently some of my ribs were cracked, too. I didn’t want to think too much about what might have happened without the armor. Grappling with a vampire wasn’t high on my list of things to do again. “Where are the rest of us?”


“Watching from the roof, it looked like almost everyone made it to the shelter,” Vigdis said. “We were farther away and they’d already sent some vamps after us, so we thought it’d be better to hunker down here.”


“Shelter,” I said. “You mean the basement we prepped?”


“That’s the one,” she said.


I sighed with relief at that. I’d done what I could to prepare for this, but I hadn’t had much warning. The closest thing I’d been able to arrange to a decent fallback position was the basement of a nearby house. For reasons I couldn’t even really guess at, he’d converted his basement into a tornado shelter. I’d had my people reinforce the door as best they could, and sent Jimmy and Aubrey to set up some basic wards.


It wasn’t great, as fortresses went. The best I could really hope for was that the vampires would think it was more work than it was worth. But it was the best I’d been able to arrange on such short notice.


“You stay here,” I said to the housecarls. “Aiko and I will go check on the scene there.” I didn’t like leaving them there, but there was no way Vigdis or Ragnar could travel. This building was reasonably defensible, and Katrin had already sent four vampires to clear it. With luck, she wouldn’t bother throwing more at the job. And if not, well, Brandulfr, Skallagrim, and Vigdis were still in shape to fight, sort of. I’d give them even odds against one vampire. Against more than one, I’d lose at least one housecarl, maybe all four.


Not great. But probably better odds than if they came with us.


The five blocks to the shelter were among the hardest in my life. I could barely walk, it hurt to breathe, and I was terrified that a swarm of vampires would fall on us at any moment. It didn’t help that Aiko had seen where Snowflake fell, and we detoured to pick her up.


I’d seen her injured as badly before, but very seldom. Her shoulder was shattered, as were a couple of her ribs, and I thought her skull might be cracked. In any case, she was definitely unconscious, and to my magic it felt like she was more unconscious than usual. It was like, if the usual feeling of her being knocked out was a phone that was playing a dial tone instead of her voice, this time the phone wasn’t even plugged into the wall.


A crappy metaphor, especially when I couldn’t even remember the last time I used a landline. But it was the best I could come up with.


I wasn’t sure how Aiko managed it, given that she was carrying Snowflake and holding a lot of my weight up as well. I only really straightened up again when we reached the house in question.


The basement-turned-shelter had a separate entrance, a heavy steel door set in the ground. Runes cut crudely into the metal acted as the focus of the warding spells, and I knew that there were several steel bars hastily welded to it to help hold it closed. A vampire could probably batter their way through it, given enough time, but not casually.


Luckily, there were no vampires nearby. Apparently Katrin had been confident that the minions she left behind were enough to get the job done, and she hadn’t thought that getting the rest of the housecarls out of this shelter was worth the effort.


I looked around for a few seconds and then cut a branch off a nearby tree with Tyrfing. I used the branch to tap on the door. The pattern was simple enough that I didn’t need to worry about messing it up, but complex enough that an aggressor was unlikely to get lucky and guess it.


There was a brief pause before I heard the locks, bars, and chains being undone. A moment later the door opened a crack and Kyi stuck her head out. “You made it,” she said, with some relief.


“Yeah,” I said. Looking inside it seemed like all the rest of the housecarls were here. Even Haki had made it, though I wasn’t sure how he’d been able to cross the entire park on his own after his partner was killed by a vamp.


“Almost all of us made it,” Aiko said. “Now it’s time to start thinking about how to get back at them for this betrayal.”


I nodded and sat down, leaning against the house. Katrin’s betrayal, if you could even call it that, had been inevitable and entirely predictable. Now that we’d gotten through it, I could finally slap her down for good without worrying about taking a hit to my rep.


Maybe after a nap. A nap sounded good.

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Clean Slate 10.15

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Before any of the vampires could do much in the way of moving, things started blowing up.


They were freakishly strong, almost invulnerable, and possessed of bizarre powers that I really couldn’t even guess at. But at the end of the day, they were still meat. There were certain rules they had to follow.


When land mines started going off under their feet, they were about as helpless as anyone else. The sheer force of the explosions tossed them around like rag dolls, bodies flying ten feet or more into the air before falling back to the ground.


They weren’t dead, barring unlucky exceptions. It took a lot to kill a vampire, and while explosions were a good way to get the job done, these particular weapons hadn’t been intended to kill them.


What they did do was sow chaos and confusion, making it pretty hard for them to actually do much. Even the ones that hadn’t been sent flying were falling to the ground, screaming in surprise or pain, if they were alive enough to feel pain. The things were horrifically strong and tough, but they were still meat, and they couldn’t operate well with half their bones broken, or muscles torn to pieces by shrapnel.


Kyi had had enough time to remove the mines closest to us from the detonation pattern, so we weren’t at risk of the same fate. The impact was still enough to knock Aiko from her feet, and Snowflake and I staggered hard.


A moment later, before anyone really had a chance to recover or adapt, the gunfire started. I couldn’t really hear it—I was effectively deaf from the explosions—but I knew the plan, and I could see the results. This wasn’t precision shooting with a sniper rifle; that kind of thing wasn’t a great tactic for vampires, and the housecarls weren’t exactly precision shooters, either. The weapons they were using were more crude, designed to just inflict mass damage. Automatic weapons, shotguns, that sort of thing.


Most of them just trained their weapons on the crowd of vamps and pulled the trigger. That kind of spray-and-pray tactic wasn’t effective, but there were around ten of them shooting into a massed group of enemies. Even if one bullet out of ten actually hit a target, it was still inflicting damage, putting enemies down.


The handful that were actually competent—Kyi, Brandulfr, a couple of others to a lesser degree—were using the same weapons, but with a very different intent. They were aiming mostly at the vamps closer to us, they were aiming carefully, and they were shooting to kill.


It’s hard to kill a vampire. It’s even harder to get the job done with a gun. Guns are good at killing, but the way they typically get used doesn’t lend itself well to vamps. But if you know what you’re doing, and these guys did, it can be done. I’d seen videos of assault rifles being used to cut down trees; cutting off someone’s head wasn’t out of the question with sustained fire. Similarly, a couple well-placed shotgun blasts could pulp someone’s heart or brain well beyond what a stake could manage.


When those attacks put vamps down, not all of them got back up again.


Those closest to us had started to react, though, rushing towards us at speeds considerably greater than what I could manage. Running was out of the question. Snowflake could probably get away. If I were on four feet, I’d even give myself decent odds. But there was no way Aiko could move fast enough, and her magic wasn’t remotely strong enough to hide from a vampire.


So I did the next best thing. I drew Tyrfing, and I charged right at them.


I felt a few bullets hit me as I did so, either ricochets, missed shots, or bullets that had passed clean through their target and kept going to hit me. Most of them didn’t penetrate the armor, and the couple that did didn’t do any critical damage. Not right away, at least; bullet wounds could be tricky that way. But I was fine for the moment, and that was all that mattered right now.


I ran straight at them for about three steps. Then I threw Tyrfing at them. I didn’t bother trying to aim. The objective wasn’t to cut them, after all.


Then I forced power through the focus I’d built into the boots of my armor, thickening and controlling the air underneath them. It was very challenging to do it at full speed—turning it on and off in time with my steps, when I was sprinting as fast as I could—but I’d practiced it. I’d practiced a lot.


It was strenuous, not unlike sprinting up a very steep staircase, except that I also had to create the staircase. It was a massive physical, mental, and energetic strain, and I knew that I couldn’t keep it up for long.


But by the time I reached the leading group of vampires, I was twenty feet above their heads, maybe a little more. They could easily have jumped and caught me, but they were still trying to adjust. I’d kept this facet of my abilities very quiet, specifically so that people and Katrin wouldn’t know I could sort of mimic flight. Between that, the mines, the gunfire, and Tyrfing, they didn’t react in time as I ran right over their heads, dropping a pair of grenades as I passed.


When they detonated an instant later it knocked me out of the air, sending me tumbling to the ground. It was a hard fall, hard enough to stun me for a moment.


That left me on the ground in the middle of a crowd of hostile vampires, but in an odd way that was actually the best place I could be. I was lying under the gunfire, for the most part, and in the chaos they weren’t able to really make use of their advantageous position.


Then I called Tyrfing again, and swept it in a circle around myself, at around knee height. It sheared through flesh and bone, and vampires hit the ground all around me, crying out. I was swamped by the rush of dark, foul-smelling blood. There was no real force behind a vampire’s blood—no heartbeat—but I’d just cut off their legs, and even without pressure that translated to a lot of bleeding.


There was another explosion, although I could only dimly hear it. A grenade, most likely. A moment later Snowflake burst through the crowd to my side. Her metallic teeth were stained with that same dark blood, her eye was bright with excitement, and her lips were peeled back in a snarl that I couldn’t hear.


I could really get to hate this reliance on guns and explosives. They were potent, but being effectively deafened for minutes at a time was a pain in the ass.


And then, a moment later, I found myself being grabbed by the neck and hauled into the air. I tried to struggle, but I might as well not have bothered. The person lifting me was stronger than me, in the same sense that I was stronger than a puppy. I might as well have been trying to overpower a locomotive as outmuscle them.


Katrin lifted me up until my face was on a level with hers. She was tall and I wasn’t, so my feet were dangling a couple of inches above the ground. I could breathe, barely—the armor was limiting the compression on my throat, and she wasn’t really squeezing. But it’s pretty much impossible to have much in the way of strength when you don’t have anything to push against. I supposed that I could try to use Katrin herself as an anchor, but that seemed like a spectacularly bad idea.


She looked at me coldly, seeming completely oblivious to the ongoing hail of gunfire, to her minions screeching and dying all around. “You,” she said, “are an exceedingly irksome man.” She must have been almost screaming, for me to hear her clearly, but her face remained blank and calm.


I opened my mouth to reply, and then I felt something, a surge of emotion that wasn’t mine. It took a second to process and figure out what was happening, by which time it was too late. Snowflake leapt through the air, jaws spread wide, claws ready to rake and tear.


And the vampire swatted her out of the air with one hand.


Snowflake was tough and strong and usually smarter than that. But she was still a dog, and not even a particularly large dog. Even with the armor, she couldn’t weight more than about two hundred pounds, max. And she didn’t have anything to push against either, which made it a matter of pure mass and velocity.


When Katrin hit her, she flew. Literally flew, twenty feet or more, out of sight. At the same time, I completely lost contact with her. My magic just suddenly stopped telling me that she was there, at all.


Before I had time to think about what that meant, Katrin threw me in the opposite direction. It almost felt like I was falling, the same wild and uncontrollable movement, and just about as fast. I was horizontal in the air and spinning, the world flashing before my eyes too quickly for me to take it in.


I’d felt a lot of kinds of pain in my life. There was the pain of having your eye melted out of its socket by magical fire. There was the pain of being crucified with silver spikes. There was the pain of broken bones and crushed organs.


The pain I felt then was easily on a par with the worst I’d ever felt, a solid bar of agony from one end of my body to the other. It hurt so much that I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t even really breathe.


I’m pretty sure I blacked out for a couple of seconds after that. Once I was cognizant of my surroundings again, I realized that I was lying face-down on concrete. I tried to roll over and look around, and this time I almost did scream. And all I really managed was to flop around a little. My body wasn’t responding the way I wanted it to.


Biting my tongue to keep from making any more noise than I had to, I tried again, and again. By the time I managed it I was sweating hard, I felt like I was about to throw up, and my tongue was bleeding.


And it was still a relief. For a second there, I’d been genuinely terrified that my back was broken.


Lying there, I took a few seconds to think, trying to figure out what had happened and what I should do. As far as I could tell, I’d slammed flat on my back into a brick wall, then fell to the ground. My spine wasn’t actually broken, but I’d still taken some serious damage. Broken ribs, a spectacular amount of bruising, probably some internal damage. It was hard to say for sure.


I tried to stand, and couldn’t. Everything hurt, my coordination was shot, and my balance wasn’t much better. I could maybe have gotten on my feet, but I didn’t know how long I could stay there, and I was scared that another fall would knock me out for good, leaving me helpless at a time when I really couldn’t afford to be.


So I rolled back onto my stomach, gathered my cloak around myself for a little bit more concealment, and started crawling back in the direction I’d come. I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I got there, but I’d be damned if I just let this happen.

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Clean Slate 10.14

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“You’re not dead,” Aiko said. “Congratulations. Who’s the boring guy?”


“This is Andrews,” I said. “He’s one of Pellegrini’s people. Whatever magic he’s using is also apparently apocalyptically badass, which is fun.”


“I’m strictly freelance,” Andrews said calmly. “And Maker’s concern wasn’t so much about my own talents as the potential interactions it might have with the ongoing situation in Russia.”


“Right,” I sighed. Just what I needed, a pedantic superpower. “You said Pellegrini wanted to talk with us. I’m guessing that you didn’t intend that to be, say, tomorrow?”


“No. And this invitation was for you, specifically.”


“Screw that,” I said cheerfully. “I’ve got a lot of people I’m supposed to be talking to. If Pellegrini is going to raise hell about me bringing Aiko, he suddenly dropped a few steps on my priority list.” I saw that he was hesitating, and said, “Come on. Worst case, we get there and he tells me otherwise. I saw you in there. There’s no way you’re scared of us.”


Andrews went dead still, instantly. It was sort of creepy, actually. Normally, even when people stop moving, they aren’t really still. They fidget, at least a little, blinking, unconscious tics, eye movements, that sort of thing. They can’t stop themselves, because they aren’t even aware they’re doing it.


Andrews wasn’t moving, not even those little unconscious movements. He was still breathing, but other than that he might as well have turned into a statue. It was a short step away from seeing a vampire pull the same trick.


“Very well,” he said, a moment later, his body relaxing back into the normal human state. “Your associate and your hound may accompany us. When we arrive I will ask my employer whether they are welcome in the meeting or they will be waiting outside.”


He resumed walking and we followed him. There was something about what he’d said that bugged me, and it took a couple seconds to realize. Snowflake had stayed outside the building so that she would know if anyone tried to sneak up on us or otherwise cause problems.


Andrews hadn’t ever seen her, to my knowledge, and even if he’d talked to someone who had, that shouldn’t have told him that she was with me right now. So how had he known?


It didn’t matter for the moment, so I tried to put it out of my mind. Outside, Andrews walked briskly across the parking lot, with Aiko and I a few paces behind him. Snowflake caught up within a few seconds, rubbing her head affectionately against my thigh. Armor on armor, there wasn’t a lot to feel, but it was still comforting on a level.


I did pause when Andrews stopped by an expensive-looking silver Mercedes. “Wait,” I said. “We aren’t taking a portal?”


He paused and looked at me oddly. A moment later, he relaxed again. “Ah,” he said, as though he’d just realized something. “You learned that trick from the kitsune, I take it?”


“Yeah,” I said, a little confused. “Why?”


He smiled, the expression almost more of a smirk, and glanced at Aiko. “It’s not my business,” he said. There was an odd emphasis on the words. I wasn’t sure what it was supposed to mean, and it was so faint that I optimistically assumed it was just my ears playing tricks on me. “And I don’t interfere with things that aren’t my business. Suffice to say that no, we won’t be taking a portal. Get in the car.”


I glanced at Aiko dubiously, then shrugged and got into the passenger seat. Aiko got in the backseat, and Snowflake sat next to her, her head extended up next to my arm.


What happened after that was one of the more interesting experiences I’d had recently. The streets were dark, more of the streetlights broken or disabled than were functioning properly. The sky was cloudy, blocking even what little light the crescent moon and stars might have provided, with the end result that the Mercedes’s headlights were the only illumination most of the time.


The car was not exactly an off-road vehicle, and the streets were still in pretty crappy condition. Between those factors and the poor illumination, I would have expected Andrews to take it slow and careful on the drive.


Instead, he went a good bit faster than I would have felt comfortable with in full daylight. He was hitting speeds that would have been respectable on the Interstate on a good day, except he was driving mostly on back roads, in the dark, when the quality of those roads was deeply questionable.


I managed to keep from clutching something, but it took a serious exercise of will. Even Snowflake was a little unnerved, and that was saying something. For his part, though, Andrews seemed totally calm, not showing any concern for the possibility of a wreck. And he had the competence to back it up, too. Cars stopped and moving, piles of refuse, the occasional collapsed bridge or building—whatever the obstacle, he swerved around it smoothly. He might only leave a foot or two between the car and the obstruction, but apparently he was just confident enough in his skills that he didn’t care.


Damn. I didn’t know how he did that, how his magic worked, but it was pretty unnerving to deal with. Everything I’d seen so far pointed at his approach being something unusual, well outside what I’d normally seen. Most mages focused their talents on something concrete and immediate—water, fire, force, emotion. My own approach was more vague, focusing on the concept of predation, and extending out to other ideas that related to that concept to a greater or lesser extent. That was good, in that it meant I had a little more versatility than a lot of people managed. It was also problematic, though, in that it meant that I had one very specific thing I did reasonably well, and a whole bunch that I was pretty spectacularly bad at.


From what I’d seen of Andrews’s work, I was guessing he was a step beyond even how I approached things. His magic seemed more abstract, something that didn’t necessarily interact with the world in a way that I could easily categorize or describe.


I didn’t have the faintest idea how he did what he did, and that bugged the hell out of me.


Maybe ten or fifteen minutes later, he skidded to a stop outside a small apartment building. We piled out of the car and stood around, waiting, as Andrews slowly got out of the car and locked it up.


I wanted to make a wisecrack about that kind of driving not being a whole lot safer than an Otherside portal. I restrained myself. It didn’t seem like a good idea.


“Wait here,” he said. “I’m going to go check with my employer about your associates attending the meeting.”


We stood out in the street and waited while he went into the building. It started to drizzle, the sort of fine, cold rain that could drag on for hours. I didn’t care too much about the temperature, and the others were encased in armor, but it was still gloomy.


Maybe three or four minutes later Andrews came back out. “They’re cleared,” he said. “Follow me.”


Inside, things were…quiet. At a glance, the whole building was empty. I didn’t hear anything, I didn’t smell anything out of the ordinary. There were a handful of animals in the building, but nothing I could really get much use out of—rats, mostly, and a handful of pigeons and starlings on the upper floors. Nothing my magic worked well with. A quick glance through them suggested that none of them could see, hear, or smell anything which hinted of human occupation.


Eerie. Had Pellegrini emptied the whole building for this meeting? I didn’t think so; the fact that vermin had already reclaimed the place suggested a longer period of emptiness. It was possible that he owned the whole building, and it had never seen use other than as a front, I supposed.


Or it was possible that it had been a normal apartment building, originally, and then something happened to the residents. Most of the supernatural predators I could think of would have left more signs of their presence, but there were ways to leave this kind of emptiness behind. A vampire could have walked in and just led the residents out without any kind of struggle, to be fed upon later. Some of the fae, or other, more exotic, creatures, could have slaughtered everyone without so much as a drop of blood to show for it.


I shivered a little. This place was creeping me out. Being led by Andrews, who had to be one of the creepiest mages I’d seen, wasn’t helping things. And the fact that I was here to meet with Pellegrini, a ruthless crime lord who could and would arrange my death if he felt it was necessary? That was just icing on the cake.


Andrews led us to apartment 108, where he knocked on the door and opened it without waiting for a response.


The room inside was dim, except for one illuminated table. I think he wanted it to be completely dark, but he was used to working with human vision. The lamp he’d chosen cast enough light that I could see that the rest of the apartment was completely empty. Either he’d cleaned it out completely, or it had never been occupied in the first place.


Andrews walked to the other side of the table and sat down on the other side of the table, to the side of and slightly behind Pellegrini. An enforcer was sitting on his other side, a massive guy that Pellegrini had brought along at least once before that I remembered. He looked like the sort of dumb bruiser that got thrown out of the WWE for extreme brutality, but I was guessing he was smarter than he looked. Strong or not, you didn’t get to be the lieutenant of a guy like Pellegrini if you were dumb.


“Hi,” I said, sitting across from the crime lord. Aiko and Snowflake took up positions flanking me, mirroring the people on the other side of the table.


“Good evening,” Pellegrini said. “I’m glad you could make it.”


“No problem,” I said. “I was hoping to meet with you soon anyway. Although I do have another meeting across town in,” I glanced at my watch, “three hours. Damn, where does the time go?”


He smiled. It was a thin, dry expression, but I almost thought it might be sincere. “I’ll try to keep this brief, then,” he said. “I know that you’ve been building capital recently. I know that you’ve declared yourself the ruler of all things in this city. I’m still trying to determine whether it’s in my best interest to assist you or shut you down. I strongly recommend that you convince me of the former.”


I managed to keep from showing nervousness at that, but it wasn’t easy. Pellegrini might be human, but he’d still kept himself on top of organized crime in this region for at least several years. You didn’t do that unless you were smart, committed, and ruthless. He was the kind of guy that had to be treated with extreme caution.


I took a moment to gather my thoughts, then nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let me put it this way. You’re a businessman, Mr. Pellegrini. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned about business, it’s that you need a stable operating environment to make it profitable. I’m trying to hold things together, keep things from turning into an even bigger mess. As I see it, backing my play is the best way you have to keep business in this city profitable.”


“Assuming,” he said dryly, “that you don’t take action to limit or compete with my business yourself.”


I snorted. “Why would I want to? You think I want to deal in your kind of business?” I shook my head. “No. I’m fine with you still owning the industries you do right now. I’m not interested in dealing drugs or running prostitution. I would have a couple of rules for you to follow, but nothing you’d be too upset by, I don’t think.”


“Rules,” he said, with obvious distaste. “What sort of rules?”


“You’d have to acknowledge my authority for this to work,” I said. “I can’t maintain respect otherwise. Think of it as…we’re equals, but you’re operating in my territory, so you show respect, right? Other than that, most of what I want is stuff that you already enforce on your people. No pushing drugs to kids, no forced prostitution.”


He nodded slowly. “Reasonable,” he said slowly. “But why should I cede my territory in this city to you?”


“Because you can’t hold it anyway. No offense, but we both know it. Andrews said during the conference that you’ve been attacked recently. Those attacks are just going to get worse as more people take an interest and stronger groups get involved. Apparently you’ve handled them so far, but it’s going to get harder.” I shrugged. “I’m basically offering to defend your holdings in this city for you. And I’ve got the ability to do so. As I see it, that’s a pretty good deal for you. All you’d have to give me is recognition and maybe a bit of assistance.”


“Assistance. What sort of assistance?”


“Information, primarily. Possibly funding; I have plenty of cash, but accessing it is difficult at the moment. I might want more concrete support at some point, but I’d negotiate that separately.”


He pressed his lips together and nodded. “Very well. I will consider your offer. In the meantime, I believe you have another meeting to get to.”


I fled, with gratitude and as much dignity as I could muster.


Not having Andrews’s crazy driving skills, we did use a pair of Otherside portals to travel to the north side of the city. On the other end, Aiko took a couple minutes to recover from the effort of making them, then we stole a car. I felt sort of bad about it, but rationalized it away by telling myself that what I was trying to accomplish here was important enough to justify it.


I wasn’t sure that I liked that train of thought. “The ends justify the means” was a hard ideology once you took it past the most basic level. That was how you rationalized things like preemptive war and genocide. At the same time, though, I’d seen what happened when you went too far the other way, doing the “right” thing without paying any attention to what it would cost. There had to be somewhere in between, a way to balance the two and not wind up doing horrible things.


Didn’t there?


I shook it off and called Kyi. “Are you in position?” I asked, the moment she answered.


“Yes, jarl,” she replied instantly. “Target is within sight and does not seem to have noticed us.”


Was it my imagination, or was her voice a little colder than it had been before? Or maybe it was just circumstance. This was a time for professionalism, after all, not emotion.


“Good,” I said, trying to ignore that thought in the back of my head. “We’re on our way, should arrive soon. Get your people ready to move into final positions.”


“Yes, jarl,” she said, before hanging up.


The location Katrin had chosen for our meeting was a small outdoor amphitheater in a park solidly in the portion of the territory she’d claimed. I felt more than a little anxious as I walked up to it. It felt like I was being watched, probably because I almost certainly was.


The vampire was waiting for us. She was alone, which worried me more than a little. I’d killed Natalie, sort of, but she still had Hrafn. I wasn’t sure why she wouldn’t have brought her right-hand vamp, especially when he was an absolutely lethal fighter. Even by the standards of vampires he was hard to beat.


There were only a couple of reasons I could think of for her to leave him behind. I didn’t like any of them.


“Good evening,” I said, approaching her. Snowflake was growling quietly next to me—she likes vampires even less than I do, generally—but Aiko seemed entirely calm.


“Good evening,” Katrin replied. She was doing that vampire thing, where she didn’t breathe except to talk, and her voice was a dry rasp. “You’re early.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That a problem.”


“Not at all,” she said. “You have been acting up. Making claims on the city.”


“Yeah,” I said. “But you’re one to talk. The way I hear it, you’re snatching people off the street to feed your minions.”


“We need power to maintain order in this city.”


“If that were your only interest, there are other ways you could have gone about it,” I said. “You could have asked for volunteers. You could have asked me or Kikuchi for assistance.”


A thin, cruel smile played around her lips. I might have been projecting a little, but I didn’t think so. “Perhaps.”


I considered her for a moment, then sighed.


So. It was like that, then.


I already knew how this was going to end, had known since before I even agreed to this meeting, but I thought I’d give Katrin one more chance to surprise me. “I’m taking over the city,” I said. “I’m going to keep things stable. Keep the peace. We made a deal, three years ago, that we’d provide assistance to each other against outside threats. Are you going to keep that deal?”


“Here’s the thing,” she said, with that smile still in place. “As I see it, that deal was made in a different context. The world’s moved on since then. So let me give you a counteroffer. You withdraw your claim and get out of the city, and we can let bygones be bygones.”


“I can’t do that,” I said quietly. I supposed that I should have been afraid, or excited, but I mostly just felt sad.


She nodded slowly. “I understand,” she said. “I want you to know that I really did respect you, Winter.”


Then she whistled, loud enough to make me wince.


And then vampires came out of the night. First one, then two, five, ten, then I lost count. Within thirty seconds, there must have been twenty-five or thirty vampires in that amphitheater, standing all around us. Some of them were holding weapons, others weren’t. I doubted it really mattered. If a vampire hit you full strength, it wasn’t too important what they’d hit you with.


“Kill them,” Katrin said, in that same raspy, emotionless voice.

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Clean Slate 10.13

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“You know, I think this might be a first,” Aiko commented, getting out of the car.


“Oh?” I asked, waving to Kjaran. He drove the Rolls off, probably going to park in a nearby lot. It fit with the chauffeur image, and if I had to ride in a limo I was damn well going to play up the image as far as I could.


“Yeah. I can’t think of anyone getting a ban lifted at Pryce’s before, offhand.”


“Not a lot of reason for it anymore,” I said, shrugging. Selene had spent several hours talking with him, and paid him a quarter of a million, but ultimately I knew he’d agreed because he wanted to. Not even Selene was persuasive enough to talk Pryce around once he’d really made his mind up about something, and he didn’t care enough about money for the bribe to be the deciding factor.


“Still,” Aiko said. “Not bad.”


Inside, I walked straight to the bar, where Pryce was pouring what looked like a pint glass of brandy. The room was fairly crowded, but people were gathered in small groups, with lots of empty space between, making it look emptier than it should have. There was a decent group sitting at the bar, tossing back drinks with the grim enthusiasm you only saw when things were really bad, and the long table in the middle of the room was playing host to three different groups, all firmly ignoring each other.


“I’m here for the private meeting,” I said to Pryce, not saying anything about having been allowed in again. He wouldn’t appreciate it.


He grunted and nodded, not pausing as he handed the brandy to one guy and turned to grab a bottle of absinthe for the woman sitting next to him. A moment later, though, a member of his staff appeared next to me. He led us silently through the crowd to a small hallway, where he left us outside an unmarked oak door.


I licked my lips nervously before I opened the door. I’d hoped that I could take more time to get prepped for this meeting, reading up on people who would be attending. My handful of minutes in Gwynn ap Nud’s realm had translated to a couple of hours in the real world, though, eating up the time I’d been hoping to use. After I’d checked in with Selene and Kyi and made sure that Jibril’s ghouls were ready to go, it was already dusk.


Which meant that I’d not only been unable to do my research for this meeting, I was also already having to think about my coming chat with Katrin. Which was just lovely.


Inside, I found that Pryce’s conference room hadn’t changed much. The long table in the middle of the room was the same, with the same chairs along its length. The same banners hung from the rafters, adorned with the symbols of various major political groups. A fire burned brightly in the massive fireplace, making the room uncomfortably warm—for me, at least. I preferred things chilly, and I was wearing heavy armor and a cloak.


I didn’t have much time to look over that, though, because I hadn’t been able to get here as early as I wanted to be. There were already almost a dozen people sitting at the table. Each of them had a wide space around them, the chairs evenly spaced along the table as though they were trying to consciously ensure that everyone had the absolute maximum possible elbow room. Apparently it still wasn’t enough, though, because they were all looking warily at each other. At best; some were glaring daggers, and a couple looked like they were inches from pulling weapons on each other.


I recognized more than a few of them. Ironsides was about halfway down the table, trying a little too hard to look confident. Shadow had a chair near one end, her mask firmly in place, and Newton was sitting at the other end, smirking behind his own mask. He was trying to pretend that he was fully recovered from the battle earlier that morning, but not doing a very good job of it; his posture was tense, and he was favoring the leg I’d almost chopped off. He hadn’t recovered yet, not even close.


Then there were some other faces, familiar from more than just the past couple of days. Luna was tense in her chair, fingering various pockets as though she were very much prepared to pull weapons out of them and use them. Rachel looked like she was in pain, which she probably was; she could sense emotions as easily as she could see, and the miasma of hate, fear, anger, and generalized stress in this room couldn’t be much fun. Just down the table from her, Alexander looked mildly amused. He was practically the only one in the place that didn’t seem at all concerned, which made sense; if he felt like it, he could probably take everyone else in the building at once. I was guessing Pryce was the only one who could even slow him down, and Alexander was smart enough that he would know Pryce’s weak points.


I was a little surprised to see him there. He was wearing the heavy blue robes that he was entitled to as the Maker of the Conclave. It probably didn’t matter—I was guessing I was the only one in the room who would know what it meant. But it was a reminder that he was on the Conclave, and considering how Brick had made that situation sound, I figured he’d have been in Russia helping to keep it contained.


I mean, he’d said it was an all hands on deck, maximum priority kind of situation. Watcher didn’t strike me as the type to use that kind of description lightly.


“What are you doing here?” one of them said when I walked in. It was a guy I didn’t recognize, wearing an expensive suit, who was otherwise about as bland as it was possible to be. He even had a pocket protector, and I didn’t think anybody used those anymore. There was something about him that suggested it was an intentional blandness, though, an impression that had been carefully cultivated. It was a mask of sorts, I thought, something for him to hide behind.


“I have as much stake in this as any of you,” I said. “Maybe more.”


“I’ll vouch for him,” Alexander said. “He’s not the type to break a truce.”


“Fine,” the bland man said, glowering. “But the female leaves. He gets one representative, same as the rest of us.”


I opened my mouth to protest, but Aiko elbowed me in the ribs. It didn’t hurt—I was wearing armor, after all, and it had been designed with nastier things in mind than that—but I got the message. I shut my mouth.


“That’s fine,” Aiko said. “I’ll wait outside.”


She left and I claimed one of the few remaining chairs, between Rachel and Alexander. That was good positioning, in that it put me between two of the people I was least anticipating an attack from. It was a little unfortunate, though, in that I was next to Alexander. If anyone did try something, he would be their main target, and if they knew enough to be here they would probably be smart enough not to hold back when they went for him. I didn’t exactly want to be in the blast radius if that happened.


“We waiting for anyone else?” the bland guy asked. “I have obligations coming up.”


“There’s a couple guys said they’d be here,” another person said, one that I recognized but didn’t really know. “Don’t know if they’ll show or not. They’re coming from a rough neighborhood.”


Several others made similar comments, and the table returned to sullen, anticipatory silence. Over the next twenty minutes or so, more people trickled in. Some of them took seats at the table. Others were turned away, sent to wait in the main room of the bar. There was no single voice that determined whether a given person was going to stay or go. It was more of a general consensus. There was very little argument back and forth; one person might raise a complaint, another might retort, but it didn’t turn into a general discussion. Most people agreed as to whether a given person was welcome or not.


Eventually it became clear that everyone who was going to be here was. I looked around warily, taking stock of who was there, and who wasn’t. There were about twenty people, all told. I recognized almost all of them, and I could put names to maybe half the faces.


This wasn’t a gathering of the strongest, most powerful people in the city. Oh, Alexander had backing on a global level, and I was a local power with decently large-scale recognition, but by and large these weren’t the heavyweights of the city. They didn’t have all that much power, on a relative scale.


What they did have was respect. These were the people who were respected in the community. People might not like them, but even their enemies admitted that they were worth paying attention to. They knew people, and when they said things people listened.


A few years ago, I wouldn’t have hesitated to include myself in that group. I hadn’t been all that active in the supernatural community, but I’d known people. I’d been on good terms with most of them, not friends, but I could have asked for a favor and felt confident that people would trust me to pay them back. That sort of thing.


Now? The situation was…a little more complex than that.


“I think this is about all we’re going to get,” somebody said, about the same time I reached that conclusion. “Should we get started?”


“Yeah,” the bland guy said. “I think we all know what we’re here to talk about.”


Rachel snorted. “Shit hitting fans, past, present, and future tense. Not complicated.”


“I think we all have the same interests, here,” I put in. “Things are bad, they’re getting worse, and there are only going to be more people trying to take advantage of it going forward. We all want to minimize the harm done, locally.”


“Well said,” Alexander murmured. I felt an involuntary rush of pleasure at the compliment. It had been years since he was really my teacher in any meaningful way, but the habit was still there.


“You’re missing the point,” Newton said, glaring daggers at me. “Some of us have things to do. And the time is ripe. This is the best opportunity we’re ever going to have.”


Yeah, I didn’t think he was going to forgive me for almost chopping his leg off anytime soon.


“You’re thinking in a strictly short-term sense, fool,” the bland man said, almost absently. “Overreach your position right now and you’ll be crushed when the greater powers move in turn.”


I couldn’t see Newton’s face, but I was confident that it went homicidally insane when he heard that. The telekinetic stood, gesturing furiously, and the glass of wine that had been sitting on the table by his elbow was suddenly flying at the bland man’s head.


I was expecting there to be blood on the table at that. That glass was traveling at a speed more commonly associated with bullets than anything else, and when it hit it was going to shatter, sending razor-sharp fragments of glass into the man’s head.


Except that it didn’t. The bland man didn’t even seem concerned. He pushed his chair back from the table, in no evident rush, and the glass flew past about an inch and a half from his nose. He then stood and turned towards Newton.


I blinked. You couldn’t dodge an attack like that at close range. Human reflexes weren’t that fast, especially not when the actual dodge was practically in slow motion.


Except that, apparently, you could.


Newton growled something inarticulate and grabbed a handful of ball bearings from his pocket, throwing them into the air in front of him. An instant later they took off like they’d been shot from a gun, a loose cloud of metal maybe five feet in diameter.


The bland man walked right through it. I wasn’t sure how, and I was watching. He didn’t actually do anything to stop the bits of metal. It was just that he wasn’t where they were. They passed over him, beside him, between his legs, between his fingers. He didn’t speed up, and he didn’t break stride.


I was staring at this point. I was just now coming to my feet, as were many of the others, and the bland man had almost reached Newton. The telekinetic started to do something else, something big enough that I could smell it even through the cloud of magic in that room. My guess was that he was planning to flip the table over, crushing the bland man and many other people under its weight.


I felt just the tiniest whisper of power from the bland man, exactly as Newton’s magic began to take solid form. It was a masterful bit of work, just enough energy at just the right time to shake the telekinetic’s concentration. The spell fizzled out, accomplishing nothing.


He tried again, slopping even more power into it this time, and the exact same thing happened. Before he could try a third time the bland man reached out and pressed one finger against Newton’s throat. Just one finger, but it was perfectly placed against his carotid artery, and this guy knew how to use that. Newton dropped in less than a second, out cold. He’d only be out for a minute or two from that, but somehow I didn’t think he’d be in a hurry to start more trouble. Not after he got his ass handed to him that badly.


“I agree with the jarl,” the bland man said, making his way back to his chair. He wasn’t even breathing hard. “My employer has seen five different incursions across the state. Making gains right now is secondary to preparing yourselves to defend against similar attacks.”


“Thank you, Mr. Andrews,” Alexander said. “As usual, your analysis is sound. And thank you for dealing with that fool. He was becoming annoying.”


The bland man—Andrews—smiled. “Agreed,” he said, sitting back down.


“On that note,” Alexander said, “I would strongly recommend you consider taking the jarl’s advice, and fortifying yourselves. There is already an ongoing situation in Russia that is literally world-threatening in scale, and the possibility exists that others will arise. If a threat of similar scope arises here, you would be extremely well-advised to devote all your resources to combating it. That also means that anything you expend on infighting is a waste.”


“Wait,” I said sharply. “That thing in Russia. That’s public knowledge now?”


He smiled. It wasn’t a happy expression. “At the rate things are going, we aren’t going to be able to keep it a secret much longer.”


Andrews sighed. He sounded disappointed, but not surprised. “I would offer to assist,” he said. “But I suspect my involvement at this stage would present more risks than it would solve.”


Alexander shuddered. “God, yes. I said that things were world-threatening, not that I wanted to make them world-ending. No, we’ll all be happier if you stay the hell away from Russia until this is resolved.”


Andrews nodded. “I understand,” he said. “And I will do what I can to provide assistance from a distance, of course, although my capabilities are limited. With that in mind, jarl, did you have a specific plan in mind before that interruption?”


“Not really,” I said, looking around the table, meeting each person’s gaze in turn. Alexander and Andrews were the only ones that didn’t look down. “I know a lot of the people sitting here,” I said. “A lot of you have grudges against each other, a lot of you hate each other. I don’t expect you to set that aside. What I do expect is that you will refrain from acting on it until things have settled down.”


“And what are you doing?” someone asked. I wasn’t sure who; no one I knew, I thought.


“I’m going to be consolidating my power base and taking over the city,” I said. There wasn’t much point lying, and being blunt like that would be good for my rep. “I know many of you would rather I didn’t, but at this point it’s the only practical option. We need to have a strong organization to hold against these threats. What I am proposing is that I will provide that organization, providing the legitimacy and much of the manpower to prevent this city from being attacked.”


“And then you take power after?” another person said. “Pass.”


I shrugged. “Someone has to do it,” I said. “I’m not after power. It’s a means to an end, for me. It’s a tool. And right now it’s a tool I need in order to do things I actually care about, like protecting my city. I know you aren’t likely to believe me, but I truly believe that we need a strong authority figure to deter aggressors, and I don’t see anyone else that I’d trust to do it.”


“Alexander?” Rachel said. “You have the reputation to hold a position like that.”


The wizard shook his head. “I can’t take that much time away from the situation in Russia right now,” he said flatly. “There are three different people covering for my absence as it is. And even if that weren’t the case, I likely wouldn’t be a very good candidate for the position. I’ve not gone out of my way to make friends in life.”


“Pryce?” someone else tossed out.


Another person scoffed. “Not a chance,” she said. “He’s neutral. And he only gets respect inside the city, which negates the whole purpose.




“That might work, but then you’ve set yourself up with a vampire overlord. Personally, I’d take my chances with a war first.”


I cleared my throat, and was a little surprised when people actually stopped talking. “Excuse me,” I said. “But I have another engagement that I can’t afford to miss. And I’m going to do this regardless of your opinion of me. So feel free to continue discussing this, but I’m afraid I have to go.”


I stood and walked to the door. To my surprise, Andrews fell in beside me on the other side. “Good work,” he said. “Playing them off each other like that.”


I eyed him warily. I hadn’t forgotten Alexander’s comment about Andrews being world-ending, and anything that could get that kind of reaction out of the old wizard was something best treated with extreme respect. “You helped me out in there,” I said. “Why?”


He smiled. “I meant what I said,” he said, which really didn’t explain anything. “In the meantime, however, do you have a bit of time before your next engagement? My employer would quite like a meeting with you.”


“And who is your employer?” I asked.


His smile got a little wider. “That would be Nicolas Pellegrini, at the moment,” he said. “I believe you’re already acquainted.”

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Clean Slate 10.12

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“Erin?” I said. “Erin, are you there?”


There was a brief pause, followed by the sound of running footsteps. “Sorry,” she said. “I had the shot, and it was too good not to take. Anyway, where were we?”


“You were giving me advice about dealing with Blind Keith,” I said, trying to ignore the fact that she’d just murdered somebody. Things were busy right now, I told myself. She couldn’t have the free time to be doing freelance work, which meant that her mark had died because Conn wanted him dead. Conn wouldn’t have given the order unless he deserved it.


Right. I believed that.


“Oh, yeah,” Erin said. “Try to stay on his good side if you can. If he comes after you, he’ll probably bring the Wild Hunt, so plan for that. And whatever you do, don’t run. You run from him, you’re as good as dead.”


“Great,” I said dismally. So far, all stuff I’d already guessed, and none of it helpful for actually beating him if it came to it. “Anything I can actually use?”


There was a short pause. I wasn’t sure whether she was thinking, or she had to evade the cops or something. “He’ll try to turn out the lights,” she said. “I don’t know how he senses his prey, but he doesn’t need light to do it. He’s vulnerable to iron, but in the same way as most of the Sidhe. I don’t think it hurts him, exactly, but it makes him lose control, somehow. Be careful with it.” She hesitated, and this time I knew it was deliberate. “He knew your mother. I don’t know how, but they knew each other.”


“Great,” I groaned. “This just gets better and better.” I sighed. “Thanks, Erin. Good luck with the killing people.”


“I don’t need luck,” she sniffed. “I’ve got skills.”


I hung up and dropped the phone back into my pocket. Aiko wandered over to stand next to me, looking curious. “What’s the matter? You look like somebody just ran over your puppy.”


“Blind Keith is a lot scarier than I was giving him credit for,” I said sourly. “And he also knew my mother.”


“Ah,” she said. “Yeah, I can see how that might be awkward.” She was quiet for a few seconds. “Does it seem like Kyi is taking a while?” she asked. “Because it sure seems like it to me.”


I frowned. “Yeah. Yeah, it does.” I took a step towards the trees, intending to look for her.


I was interrupted when Kyi appeared from behind an aspen that I would have sworn was too thin to conceal her. “Jarl,” she said. “You are finished with your call, I take it?”


“Yeah,” I said. “You’ve been checking out the new talent, I heard?”


She grimaced, and the expression told me all I needed to know. “I’ve been checking out the new recruits,” she said. “Talent? That’s another question.”


“I see,” I said. “Not good?”


She shrugged. “They have decent training. Some of them have useful skills—Nóttolfr’s smooth, Thraslaug’s a berserker. But they don’t have the experience, they don’t know how to deal with unusual enemies or improvise, and they don’t know how this world works. Give me some time and I could turn them into something you could use, maybe.”


Give her time.


Time, it seemed, was something that I did not have in plentitude. She would not have the chance to make them into a usable fighting force.


“I might not be able to,” I said quietly. “And I might need to use them anyway.”


Kyi was watching me, her eyes flat and unreadable within their nest of tattoos. “If you do,” she said, “they won’t hold up. Some of them will die.”


“Yes,” I said, even more softly. “I know.” They would die, but they could create a hole that other, more capable forces could exploit. Drawing enemies out of position, leaving them open to attack. Sacrificing a pawn to take a rook.


The jötnar were the pawns in that comparison. Expendable. I was looking at them as resources, rather than people. Hell, I couldn’t even remember most of their names.


Kyi was still looking at me, and I got the impression that she knew everything that had just run through my mind from those three words. “We are your housecarls, my jarl,” she said. “We will serve.” Then she turned and walked back into the trees.


I’d often felt like the world was stacked against me, like nothing I did could really make progress. Try to fix things, try to be something other than what I was, and it was like swimming upstream. One step forward, two steps back. Use the powers I had, and I could make headway, but the act changed me, making me less of who I wanted to be.


Let the wolf inside my skin off the leash, and I was stronger, faster, filled with certainty of purpose, but the wolf would never again be leashed quite as thoroughly as it had been. Use the Second Sight and I could see through the masks that were meant to fool me, but what I saw damaged me. Make a deal with Loki or Scáthach, and I got what I needed, the secrets and the power, but something was taken in return.


The pattern, overwhelmingly, had been that I could get what I wanted, but it wasn’t ever free. If I wanted to accomplish something, I had to give up something else.


I’d never tried anything on this level. Nothing even close.


I watched Kyi go, and I knew that she’d never look at me quite the same, knowing that I was willing to trade the lives of loyal followers for nothing more than a tactical advantage. Kyi and I hadn’t been friends, exactly, but there had been a certain casualness to our relationship. Less formal than what I had with the other housecarls. She respected me as a person, as well as a jarl. I had a strong suspicion that I had just lost that respect.


What else was I going to have to give, to hold my city together?


Gwynn ap Nud had sent a token with his messenger, a slender piece of wood that served as the focus for a powerful and intricate piece of magic. Once I was finished talking with Kyi, I broke the stick, and an instant later a hole appeared in the world directly in front of me.


I stepped through it, alone. This invitation had been for me and no one else, and I had no intention of upsetting Gwynn by bringing anyone with me. Which pissed Snowflake off immensely—she still wasn’t over being separated from me while I was in prison—but she was smart enough to recognize that getting on a Twilight Prince’s bad side wasn’t worth it.


The portal dropped me in a small corridor, which appeared to have been carved into the bedrock. Clumps of crystals protruded from the stone at odd angles here and there, shedding just enough light that I could see. A human would likely have been blind, or at least nearly so.


I glanced back and saw that the corridor ended just behind me, as though the architect had simply stopped carving. No one else was in sight. I couldn’t smell anything other than stone, the air wasn’t moving, and as far as I could tell there were no animals within a mile.


I shrugged and started walking. There didn’t seem to be much else to do.


Maybe ten minutes later, the corridor opened up into a room, as large as a small stadium, lit only by more of the small crystals. The ceiling was still low, though, almost enough to make me uncomfortable, and I wasn’t a tall guy.


I paused just before crossing the threshold. I couldn’t see anything immediately threatening—no weapons, no tripwires or odd-looking patches of ground, no mystic symbols—but there was something…odd here.


On an impulse, I glanced up, and saw mushrooms sprouting from the ceiling. Classic toadstools only an inch or two high, they grew from bare stone in a perfectly defined line, right at the boundary between the corridor and the room it lead to.


No, I realized. Not a line. It looked straight at a glance, but upon examination there was a very slight curvature to it, as though it were a tiny arc of a much larger circle. A circle, perhaps, that might include the entire room I was looking at.


I stared. Magic circles were simple spells, and not usually difficult ones. It didn’t take that much power to make them work. But the power it did take was dependent upon size, and the relationship was an exponential one. A circle big enough to stand in could be charged easily. A bit of blood, a casual effort by a practiced mage—it didn’t take much. Something the size of a small room was more challenging, requiring concentration. The largest I’d ever managed was a clearing, when I performed the ritual to claim Legion as my familiar, and that had been a very faint circle, just a whisper to block undirected currents of energy.


This was maybe ten times the radius of that clearing, which meant that the circle’s total area was closer to a hundred times that of the one I’d created. Add in the exponential scaling in the actual power expenditure and I estimated that this circle would require somewhere around ten to fifteen thousand times that of the biggest one I’d ever created.


Even if I were to dedicate myself wholly to the task, drawing on the energy of the world around me and drawing on blood magic, it would take a couple orders of magnitude more than what I was capable of just to establish this circle. Actually using it to anchor a ward was…almost unbelievable, something that would take the power of a god.


Or, perhaps, that of a Twilight Prince.


I stopped short of crossing the circle. It was probably safe, given that I was invited, but I thought it wiser not to take the chance. “Winter Wolf-Born,” I said, projecting the words clearly. “Here to seek audience with Gwynn ap Nud.”


Enter and be welcome, as a guest in my hall, a voice said inside my head. It was a beautiful voice, in an odd way, a very inhuman way. There was a sort of delay to it, as though it had to translate each word before it spoke, and then my mind had to translate them again to process their meaning.


That was about as close to a guarantee of safety as I was going to get, so I swallowed hard and stepped over the threshold.


An instant later, the whole world seemed to change. I wasn’t standing in a vast subterranean hall. I was in a similarly vast meadow, the evening sky perfectly clear overhead, stars so bright and pure that they looked like diamonds.


I glanced backwards and saw a of toadstools, almost hidden in the grass. They were on the ground now. Or I was on what had previously been the ceiling. It was hard to tell what was what, under the circumstances.


Was this illusion? The glamour of the fae, that let them mold illusions to their will and make the dream almost more real than reality? Or was it something deeper than that, the power of a demigod to control the world he had built for himself? Which was real—the cavern, the meadow, both, neither, somewhere in between?


As was so often the case with the fae, it was hard to say what the answer might be, if there even was an answer. As was also often the case with the fae, although it had taken me longer to realize it, it really didn’t matter what the truth was.


Directly in front of me, in the exact center of the meadow, was a throne, a massive thing carved from granite. I walked towards it. I could see things out of the corner of my eye, glimmers of light and flickers of movement, but I kept my gaze focused on the throne. I was dealing with the fae, after all, and I’d read enough fairy tales to know better than to look at the distractions.


Seemingly between one step and the next, the throne went from being a hundred feet off to right in front of me. Gwynn ap Nud was sitting in it, or so I presumed. I couldn’t quite focus on him, as though my eyes slid from one side to the other, so that I could only see him in my peripheral vision. I got an impression of lean muscle and sharp features, well-worn hunting leathers and a sword, but details just weren’t there.


“You asked me to visit,” I said. Establishing my right to be there, before anything else was said. I’d been welcomed as a guest and that was enough to protect against most dangers, but it was best to be careful. There were all kinds of stories about guests of the fae that wound up getting more than they bargained for.


“Yes,” he said, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was hearing him with my ears or my mind. The voice seemed to have the same vagueness to it as his physical appearance, conveying meaning but leaving no memory of what it actually sounded like.


Damn, this was eerie. I’d dealt with Twilight Princes before, but never on their home ground. The difference was striking, unsettling, and more than a little frightening.


“I came,” I said, redundantly, trying to gather my thoughts.


“You have attracted the attention of a powerful being,” he said. “And not a kind one.”


“I have attracted the attention of many. To whom do you refer?”


“You would call him Blind Keith.”


I sighed. “Oh. That being. I don’t suppose you could tell me anything about him?”


“The hunt is an ancient idea,” he said, not answering my question. Unless he was; Blind Keith was a hunter, after all. “It is a primal concept, one that lies at the heart of the world.”


“Yeah,” I said. “The Wild Hunt. I know about it.”


“Yes,” he said, and the wind seemed to sigh the word with him, brushing through the grass and swirling around my ankles. “He is a lord of the hunt.”


“So are you,” I pointed out. “What’s the difference?”


“There are many faces in the hunt,” he said. “Once the fae were as a single people, but eventually it became clear that our differences were too great. Words had been spoken that could not be unsaid, and it was clear to all that there was no hope for reconciliation. Lines were drawn, alliances were formed, and we went our separate ways.”


“And you were there for this?” I asked. It was almost incredible to conceive of. Logically I knew that many of the truly powerful beings of the world were also truly ancient, but it was one thing to know that and it was another to hear one of them discussing it.


“Yes,” he said. “But I tell you this for a reason. On that day, the one you call Blind Keith was there as well. But when it came time to choose sides, he chose not to choose. He stood apart then, as he has stood apart ever since. He is not of the Tylwyth Teg, the Fomorians, the Sidhe, or any of the other great powers. He stand alone, and he does not choose to pursue the aims that others seek.”


“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. As usual, that was the most important question. Powerful beings did nothing without a reason, and they did nothing for free.


“That is not for you to know. What matters is this. I am a hunter, as is Scáthach, and Herne, and Bleiddwn, and all the other masters of the Wild Hunt. And like them, I am more than a hunter; there is more to my story than the hunting. That is not true for Blind Keith. There is nothing in him but the hunt. Do not be fooled into thinking otherwise.”


I wanted to ask again why he was sharing this, but he’d told me I wasn’t supposed to know, and I’d have to be an idiot of monumental proportions to contradict a demigod in the middle of his own private world. So I just bowed my head and said, “I appreciate the advice.”


“Go,” he said, “with my blessing. My agent shall join your struggles shortly, and I shall speak on your behalf.”


The next instant, between blinks, the meadow vanished, as did Gwynn ap Nud and the throne he sat in. I was standing alone in the middle of the cavern, the only light that which came from the luminescent crystals scattered around.


Well, that was one problem down, at least. And resolved pretty well. Sure, it was enigmatic as hell and I was absolutely certain that it was going to bite me in the ass at some point, but he was backing me, and right now that was what mattered.


I wasn’t sure which hallway I’d entered from, so I picked one at random. It looked like what I remembered, and there was a portal waiting at the end, so I figured it was probably right enough, and stepped through.

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