Monthly Archives: July 2015

Interlude 7.z: Moray

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I felt almost bad watching the medics working on Winter. I was largely responsible for him being there, after all.


The feeling was easily dismissed. This was hardly the worst thing I was responsible for. I had done terrible things. That went without saying; I’d been a Watcher for twenty years. Doing terrible things was a part of the job description. It was very nearly the whole of it, in fact.


In comparison, this was relatively mild. He was still alive. He would likely make a full recovery. And we had been doing good work here. Killing people who deserved it, which was better than what I often did.


I wondered idly, as I watched, whether the link between Zhang and the slave trade had been real. It was plausible, if nothing else. He’d had fingers in enough other unsavory pies to make this one a logical next step. That scene might very well have been genuine.


At about that time, the medics began loading Winter and his dog onto stretchers, apparently satisfied with their work, at least enough to move them to a better location before continuing. The kitsune and the giants went with them, leaving only Watchers and our hirelings on site. Good. That made things simpler.


“How’d it go?” Monica asked, stepping up beside me. In a few minutes her work would start, but for the moment she was still enjoying her customary pregame cup of tea. I’d never asked her what she laced the tea with, although I could feel that there was more in that cup than water and tea leaves. I’d learned not to ask questions I didn’t want to know the answers to.


I shrugged. “It went. Did what needed doing. The contractors did most of the real work.”


She smiled a little, showing teeth a little too crooked to call attractive. “You usually get contractors to do the work,” she said. “Isn’t that why I’m here?”


“I don’t know,” I said. “Are you planning on actually doing your work?”


She shrugged carelessly. “Give me another ten minutes or so,” she said. “I’ll work when I’m good and ready.”


From anyone else, that kind of attitude would have gotten her into trouble with the Watchers. Maybe even gotten her killed, depending on who she was talking to. The Watchers didn’t like much independence in their contractors. It might give them ideas.


Monica knew she could get away with it, though. She wasn’t the best in the world when it came to penetrating magical defenses, and she didn’t claim to be. She was the best who would even consider working for us, and far better than any of the Watchers. For all her attitude, for all the annoyance and expense of hiring her, when there was a really important target, there was no question who I would call.


“Think I’ve heard of this guy,” Monica said after another sip of her tea. “The one you brought in to deal with Zhang. Bit of a psychopath, isn’t he?”


I remembered a shadowy basement full of children, a sword, blood. “A bit,” I said uncomfortably. Hard to deny the accusation when I’d seen his face, heard his voice while he executed that man. Hard to deny that I’d have done something similar if he hadn’t beaten me to the punch, and what did that make me?


“How’d you get him to work with you here?”


I shrugged. “We manipulated him,” I said simply. “Mostly truth, but we made sure he saw the right truth to make him want to help.”


“Mostly truth,” she said, looking at me with an odd half-smile playing about her lips. “So which parts were lies?”


Unwillingly, I found myself thinking once more about that room full of children. Surely that had been real, I thought. That scene of misery couldn’t have been fabricated. Those children must have been slaves, even if Zhang hadn’t been responsible.


It would have been more comforting if I weren’t so intimately aware of how easily it could have been arranged. Those kids could have been enslaved, brutalized, had their whole lives torn away, just to provide Winter with a bit of motivation at a critical time. I had done similar things in the past—nothing involving children, that would involve crossing lines that I wasn’t willing to touch, but I’d arranged other scenes. I’d been the one to provide that critical push for other people in the past.


But Monica was waiting for an answer, so I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “They never tell us that. It’s easier to sell a lie if you don’t know you’re lying.”


“I don’t think I could work for anyone who would limit my information like that,” she said frankly. “Not telling me everything about what I’m doing…I couldn’t tolerate that.”


“I couldn’t work for anyone who didn’t,” I replied.




“Yeah,” I said. “It’s…we do bad things. Some of the worst. That’s why we keep our secrets so compartmentalized. Every Watcher does horrible, terrible things. It’s a necessary part of this line of work. But I have a hard enough time coping with what I’ve done. If I had to know about every bad thing the Watchers as a whole do, I think it’d drive me insane.”


She smirked and drank more tea. “I have a hard time picturing you doing anything that bad,” she said. “What was it? What crimes, what sins weigh so heavy on your conscience?”


I thought about blood and death. Civilian casualties in the dozens. Handing a prisoner off to the men in stained lab coats and watching them close the door of the soundproof room. Vivisecting a particularly lifelike construct that turned out to just be someone’s pet. A long hallway lined with cells, the residents of which were too dangerous to let out, too valuable to kill. Leaving friends to die, because the mission was more important.


So many bad things, and yet I kept doing them. Because I knew, I knew, that the alternative was even worse.


“You don’t want to know,” I said quietly. “You really don’t want to know.”


She shrugged and drank the last of her tea. “Maybe not,” she said, tossing the cup aside carelessly. “Whatever. Let’s go loot this place.”

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Breaking Point 11.3

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As it turned out, I was wrong.


The reality could be a lot worse than vague fears.


It had taken almost an hour for the person we were waiting for to arrive. I wanted to call them a man, but I wasn’t entirely sure the term applied; they looked like an anorexic teenager who was way too fond of body modification. Not just a little bit, either; their face was warped out of shape until it was as close to a cat as a human, one of their ears was completely gone and the other had a hole in it I could fit two fingers through, and one cheek had gaping holes in it, letting me see their jaw moving up and down as they chewed bubblegum. They wore their trench coat open, the better to show the mass of scars, piercings, and subdermal implants covering their torso.


Calling someone human who so enthusiastically left humanity behind seemed almost rude. To pin them down to one gender or another was an assumption I couldn’t confidently make.


“Hey,” they said, walking up to us. “Guessing you two are the pickup I’m supposed to get to the front?”


“That’s us,” I confirmed.


“Cool,” they said. “Gotta fag? I haven’t had anything to smoke all day.”


“Sorry,” I said. “No.”


They grunted and turned to Aiko. “What about you? Anything?”


She shook her head. “I don’t smoke,” she said.


They frowned, the expression made darkly comic by the way I could see their muscles moving inside their face. “That’s not an answer,” they chided. ”Don’t like it when people dodge around questions.”


“Sorry,” she said, sounding somewhat exasperated. “Didn’t realize it was such a touchy subject for you. I don’t have anything to offer you.”


They grunted again. “Damn. Ran out yesterday, and the pills they’re handing out just don’t cut it. Come here, then. Let’s get this over with.”


They moved us into a domain I’d never seen before, a vast dim space that stank of smoke and gasoline fumes, filled with the noise of constantly grinding machines half-seen in the darkness. It was so loud that it was hard to think, impossible to talk, the noise a physical pressure against me. The acrid stench of the place was offensive, nearly toxic; I started coughing with the first breath I took, and didn’t stop. Worse than all the rest, though, was the inexplicable certainty that this place was alive, that the domain itself was aware and, if not precisely malicious, certainly alien, hostile simply by being so very far removed from anything we had ever been designed for.


Our escort seemed quite at home there. I tried not to think too hard about that.


And then we stepped out of that mechanical hell, onto the highway south of Saint Petersburg.


On the whole, I thought I might have preferred the Otherside.


My first impression was one of madness. It was the middle of the night, and while the moon was full, the cloud cover got in the way, made it darker than it might have been. It smelled like smoke, a mix of woodsmoke and nastier things, scorched rubber and burning hair. The noise of battle was quieter than the Otherside had been, but still distracting, confusing and disorienting.


The instant we appeared, we were attacked. The creatures attacking us were humanoid, sort of, but they looked even less human than our escort. Their limbs were too long, twisted in odd directions and tipped with claws, their skin an ashen grey that looked unnatural even in the darkness. They had glowing red eyes, literally.


Two of them jumped me, one swinging a crowbar, another just clawing at me. Another one tackled Aiko to the ground and started trying to bite her. The last of the group rammed what looked like a sharpened golf club into our escort’s chest. It was placed for a lung shot, and given that they were wearing their coat open, there was nothing stopping it from punching into their flesh.


They looked down at it and sighed. “Bastard,” they said. “You’re supposed to still be a quarter mile back.”


Then they reached up and pulled the piece of metal out of their torso. No blood emerged from the hole it left behind. A fluid did dribble out, but it was thick and black, more like oil than blood, and there was no real pressure behind it.


They slammed the golf club into the pavement we were standing on, accompanying it with a burst of magic, scented with car exhaust and gasoline, burning rubber and hot asphalt, and just a hint, a touch, of motor oil. The typical human scent of disinfectant was all but lost in that.


And the asphalt reacted to the magic, moving to their will. It lashed out at our attackers, moving with a speed and fluidity that startled, and pulled them to the ground, even pulling the one off Aiko without actually touching her. Once they were lying on the road they were pulled down into the pavement and crushed.


“Not in the forest anymore,” the mage muttered. “Bloody stupid bastard. This is my kind of place.”


I looked at them with new respect. “That,” I said, “is one of the stranger pieces of magic I’ve seen.”


They grinned, a lopsided sort of grin that showed teeth only through the hole in their face. “You should spend more time with urban druids,” they said. “You might learn some things. Now come on, our command post is this way.”


They led us up a nearby hill to where another tent had been set up, along with some floodlights. People were spaced regularly around the perimeter of the lighted area, maybe eighty percent of them carrying assault rifles, the last twenty armed with more exotic weaponry.


They didn’t challenge us. I wasn’t sure whether we were expected, or it was our escort that got us by the defensive line. Or maybe it was just that, for maybe the first time I’d ever seen, everyone was on the same side here.


A small table was set up within the tent, a large map spread across it. The map was marked with a mixture of colored pins and tape; I wasn’t sure what any of it meant. The only person in the tent was a man in a plain white robe, carrying a long wooden staff.


“Prophet,” I said, eyeing him. I’d only met him once before, and it hadn’t left the best impression. When people vote for your execution, it tends to have that effect.


“Jarl,” he replied. “A moment. Metro, do you have anything to report?”


“Not really,” our escort said. “Things are getting pretty close, though. My input point was overrun.”


“I know,” he said. “They’re traveling faster on the road than we anticipated. Try to slow them down if you can.”


They nodded to him and walked away, spitting their gum out on the ground and pulling another stick out of their pocket.


“Not terribly useful at the moment,” Prophet said, watching them go with cool grey eyes. “But she’ll be key to our defenses if the fighting reaches Saint Petersburg.”


“Is her name seriously Metro?” I asked. “Because that seems like a ridiculous name.”


Prophet smiled thinly. “I would think it would be easy to recognize that Metro would not keep the name she was born with.” He then looked back to the map on the table. “Watcher has great confidence in your ability to contribute in this battle,” he said. “I do not. I will not bother giving you instructions, as it is a waste of my time and you will not listen anyway.”


“Great,” I said dryly. “You mind at least telling me what we’re fighting?”


He pointed behind me without looking up. I turned around to look where he was pointing, and then gulped.


The funny thing was that I’d already seen it. I just hadn’t quite grasped what it meant.


The cloud was hard to see in the dark; there wasn’t much light to begin with, so the area where there was none was harder to distinguish. But once he’d pointed it out to me, I realized what I was looking at.


The effect was maybe a mile across and half that in height, a broad dome shape through which light simply didn’t pass. Anna couldn’t see the ground on the other side, or the skyline. Even the moon was blocked, invisible when the supernatural darkness got between her and it. The leading edge of the effect was still over a mile away, but it was moving steadily towards our position.


I frowned, and shifted my consciousness out, into my surroundings. I skipped over a handful of wolves, a dormant brown bear, and what felt like some kind of seal before settling on an owl. I asked her to swoop in and take a look, and found a surprising amount of resistance. I might not know what was going on, but she had an idea, and she wanted nothing to do with it.


Eventually I managed to convince her, although she wouldn’t go close to it, let alone into the area of darkness. It didn’t matter. I was still able to get a decent look at things.


The edge of the darkness was the site of maybe the most intense fighting I’d ever seen. Most of the combatants were the same warped humanoids Metro had taken out, although there were quite a few things that had four legs but were otherwise similar in appearance. There were a lot of them, more than I could really grasp. I could only see a small section of the fight, and I still estimated that there were probably more than a hundred thousand of them there.


Fighting them was a force that would have been terrifying under almost any other circumstances, but which was simply overshadowed by the sheer numbers being brought to bear against them. I could see werewolves, whole packs of werewolves fighting as a unit to hold down a section of the line. In another spot, the three vampires I’d brought in from Romania were crushing the twisted creatures like they were made of cardboard, sometimes felling a dozen of them with a single blow. It didn’t seem to matter. There was always another dozen ready to go.


Further back, away from the close-quarters combat, were all manner of ranged attacker. There were mages, of course, using every kind of power imaginable and quite a few that I couldn’t identify at all. In another location what looked like an entire battalion of soldiers were shooting into the thick of things without apparent concern for friend and foe. This wasn’t small arms fire, or sniper rifles; far from it. They were spraying indiscriminately with assault rifles, and when the guns ran empty, they reloaded and kept shooting. I saw at least one truck-mounted machine gun.


After a moment, though, I realized there was something odd about the fight. No one went into that area of unnatural darkness. The most blood-mad werewolf, chasing his prey beneath the light of a full moon, turned away when it ran under the cover of that darkness. When it moved forward and buried one of the few close-range mages, his comrades abandoned him without a second thought, fleeing at full speed.


That was about all I could get before the owl got absolutely fed up with me and went back to her nest, a safe distance from the warzone.


I frowned and tried to move to something within the area of the darkness.


Nothing. Not just nothing I could use. I literally couldn’t feel anything, not so much as a rodent in the whole of the area.


I returned to my body and opened my eyes, then frowned and shifted part of my attention back to Anna’s senses. Blindness was really getting old.


Prophet was still looking at the map. I was pretty sure he was doing something important, but I needed more information, so I decided to interrupt him.


“Where are the monsters coming from?” I asked.


He didn’t look up. “The first thing he did after the gods lifted their restrictions was go to the mass graves from the Battle of Stalingrad. He’s added some more since, but we think most of them are still from there.”


“Wait,” I said. “He raised the dead? We’re talking about a literal necromancer?”


“Not precisely,” Prophet said. “Raising the dead is impossible. We call them necromancers, but that isn’t entirely accurate. Mages such as this have power over life, not death. There just happens to be enough lingering life in corpses to provide them with something to work with.”


I opened my mouth, then paused as I realized something. There had been no animals in the area of darkness. What if that was because there was nothing alive in that area, except Viktor?


“Blood magic,” I said. “He’s using blood magic. Taking the life from everything near him and using it to power his magic.”


Prophet looked up at me like I’d done something interesting for the first time. “Correct,” he said. “Right down to the bacteria. That’s why this is so problematic. He’s got enough stolen life to recover from anything we can do to him. His creatures aren’t much threat, but he can bring them back as fast as we can put them down. Everyone he takes makes him that much stronger. Now, if you don’t mind I do have work to do here, so if you can’t be useful, at least be silent.”


I thought for about ten seconds, trying to find something I could do. I wasn’t coming up with much. He was almost invincible, insanely powerful, and surrounded by a cloud of death that would probably wipe me out within a couple of seconds. I only had a couple of weapons that could plausibly even hit him, and none of those was likely to do any good when everything they’d thrown at him thus far had failed.


I reached a decision, and then hesitated a few seconds more, trying to talk myself out of it.


Fuck it. This wasn’t a time for small guns.


“Loki,” I said. “Loki, Loki, Loki. I have a question for you.”


“Yes?” he said to me. I’d turned around the instant after I spoke, so naturally this time he showed up in front of me.


I turned back to face him, scowling. “You know what’s happening here,” I stated.


“Of course,” he said. “It’s quite interesting. I really thought this was over when the military carpet bombed him. Evidently he was further along in his ascension at the time than I realized. An odd miscalculation on my part. I wonder whether he’s drawing power from another source as well, something to supplement the lives he steals?”


“Whatever,” I said. “Priorities. How do I stop him?”


“Is that your question?” he asked, pacing around me. Aiko was watching warily, standing at a safe distance. Anna didn’t seem to realize the danger, and stood right next to me.


“You said I didn’t have to worry about exact phrasing,” I reminded him. “So yeah. Tell me what I need to do to deal with this.”


“The obvious answer is that you need to kill him,” Loki said, circling a little closer now. “But that would be unsporting. The next answer is that you need to kill him quickly enough that he can’t heal. That’s slightly more informative, but doesn’t really provide a useful how-to guide. While I could tell you what the most efficient ways to solve the problem are, I know for a fact that you won’t pursue any of them, which makes the suggestion somewhat disingenuous. So instead, I think I’ll say this.”


He then stepped forward, quick as lightning, his hand reaching out to my arm. He reached through my armor and the clothing beneath it like they weren’t even there, and opened a long, shallow cut in my arm with nothing more than the touch of his finger.


When he pulled his hand out again, it was dripping with my blood. “My name is Winter Wolf-Born, jarl of the Peak,” he said. His voice was a perfect mimicry of my own, right down to the sound of wolves and wind hidden beneath the surface, replacing the mad laughter that usually lurked under his voice. “By this offering of my blood, I call on the Wild Hunt to ride beside me. I call myself the Lord of the Hunt this night, and let my life be forfeit if I am not so great a hunter as this.”


I opened my mouth to ask what that was supposed to mean, then felt an odd, familiar sort of tickling sensation. I looked down and saw pale fog forming around my armor, bringing with it a dusting of frost.


“You asked how to stop him,” Loki whispered in my ear, leaning close as a lover beside me. “My answer? Think hungry thoughts.”

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Breaking Point 11.2

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Having never been to Russia before, I was a little disappointed by how little difference there was between it and Colorado. Brick’s portal dumped us out onto an open plain near a river, with a conifer forest to the other side. The environment was actually quite a lot like the subalpine forests outside of town.


There was a small cluster of tents by the river, and it was towards these that Brick headed, not checking to see whether we were following him. I did, because there wasn’t really much point in doing otherwise at this point, and everyone else followed me.


Aiko was there, of course—I hadn’t even tried to suggest that she might stay behind—and Anna had come along to provide me with vision. Kyi had to stay behind to manage things, but I’d brought several of the other housecarls, especially those who weren’t that well suited to city fighting. They were more useful here, I thought.


No mages, though. If the Conclave’s entire force couldn’t deal with this, the handful I could convince to come with me weren’t likely to manage it.


Anna could smell smoke well before we reached the small camp, thick with the smell of the pines and spruces it had come from. Moving closer, I could see the small details that hinted at how serious the situation was. The tents were the highest-quality models money could buy, but all were soiled, and many were torn, or set up improperly. People were eating, but they were eating what looked like old MREs, the sort of food that could keep you alive for a while, but didn’t have much else to recommend it. Most of them were injured, and almost all were downing pills as they ate. The few who weren’t eating were either tending to injuries or unconscious in the tents.


Everywhere, there was an air of urgency. There was no conversation, and everyone was moving quickly, like they couldn’t afford to waste even a second.


Brick walked through the midst of it all without even looking. The rest of us attracted a few curious looks from various people, but they went back to what they were doing after only a couple of seconds. These people were just too exhausted to work up much interest.


We made our way to a slightly larger open tent near the river, almost a pavilion. There were people running back and forth from this tent, holding scraps of paper or carrying bags. These people, too, looked worn and broken down.


Watcher was sitting at a small table within the tent, her cane leaning against her chair. As each person came in, she took the paper they handed to her or listened to spoken messages, considered each for no more than five seconds, then replied.


Brick made his way to her through the press without any evidence of concern for the people he displaced. I followed in his wake, feeling a little overwhelmed. I had seen some fairly large conflicts in the past, but nothing this long-term. Normally, by the time I was anywhere near to as worn out as these people were, the fight had been over for a while.


“Wolf,” Watcher said, not looking up from the paper in her hand. I wasn’t sure how she could read it, considering that her eyes were very much blind and she used magic to compensate, but apparently she could. “This is all you brought?”


“I had to leave people behind to keep my territory secure,” I said defensively. “And besides, I don’t know what you’re fighting out here. How am I supposed to know who’s useful?”


She grunted. “Everyone’s useful right now,” she said darkly. “But I take your point. Your associates are physical fighters, I take it?”


“Primarily, although one of them is a shapechanger and another has some magical ability. We’ve got quite a few weapons, too—guns, explosives, stored spells, that sort of thing.”


“Right,” she said. “We’ll want them on the front lines then.” She scrawled a quick note on a piece of paper and handed it to the runner who she’d been dealing with when we walked up. “Take that to Raven,” she ordered him. “Then go to Jäger and ask him where he wants a squad of skilled and equipped physical combatants.”


The runner nodded and sprinted off, stumbling a little before he hit his stride. I was guessing he was also functioning only due to massive amounts of chemical assistance. Take away his stimulants, and he’d probably be down for the count.


“I notice you aren’t fighting,” I said. “Why? You’re one of the strongest mages in the world, right?”


Watcher smiled grimly. “We’re trading off,” she said. “I fought yesterday and the day before. Today is my rest day before I go in again. Right now Guard and Prophet are keeping him busy. Keeper, Arbiter, and Maker are trying to establish a wall to keep him from getting any closer to Saint Petersburg. We haven’t been able to lock him down yet, but hopefully we can keep him going the path of least resistance, and he won’t make it to the city. If he does, we might not be able to bring him down at all.”


“Okay,” I said. “Overlooking the fact that it apparently takes five members of the Conclave just to keep him contained…who is this guy? Why’s he such a problem?”


She reached under the table and pulled out a paperback book. It looked like it had been manufactured in a hurry, with smeared ink on the cover and the binding applied at a wonky angle. “Viktor Samsonov,” she said, handing the book to me. “Here’s the dossier. Don’t waste time reading it right now.”


“All right,” I said, taking it. “What should I be doing instead?”


“We need people to pick up less mobile assets and bring them here,” she said. “You and anyone with you who can open a portal should report to Celina Cateye. Brick can show you where to go.” Watcher waved another messenger up, and we walked away.


“She’s pretty energetic for someone who’s been working for three days straight,” Aiko commented.


Brick snorted. “She’s on modafinil and amphetamine,” he said. “And magic. We don’t have enough witches who can mitigate sleep deprivation for them to work on everyone, but she’s important enough to get the treatment. Now hurry up.”


Celina turned out to be a short, heavily tanned woman standing near the edge of the camp. She was pacing restlessly back and forth, and she was wearing a heavy winter coat, although I hadn’t noticed any particular chill in the air.


“Celina,” Brick said. “Got another two for you. They both do Otherside portals.”


She stopped pacing and turned to face us, staring intently with sunken blue eyes. “You,” she said, pointing at me. Her finger shook slightly. “Where can you go?”


“Colorado,” I said. “Wyoming, Oregon, and North Dakota. London. Romania. Singapore. Should I list the Otherside locations?”


“No,” she said. “Still working on agreements with them. Good. American, but good. You?”


“Colorado,” Aiko said. “Milan. Leipzig. Bremen. Seville. Tokyo. Cape Town.”


“Very good,” Celina said. “And the rest of these people? What do they want, Brick?”


“They’re going to one of the fortifications the Jäger clan is defending,” he said. “Don’t know which one.”


“Someone will be making a trip in that direction within an hour,” she said. “They wait here until then. Now. Where in Colorado? Denver?” This last was clearly directed at me.


“Colorado Springs,” I replied.


She thought for a moment, then nodded. “Close enough. Go there, go to Denver. Your pickup will meet you at the coffeehouse on…Colfax?” She dug a scrap of paper out of her pocket, glanced at it, and nodded. “Colfax. Downtown. Go there, get them, and bring them here. Then you talk to me and I will tell you where to go next.” She then turned to Aiko. “Go to Tokyo,” she said. “Akihabara. Your pickup will meet you at the AKB48 theater.”


“I know where it is,” Aiko replied.


“Good,” she said. “Now go.”


I had a surprisingly easy time getting to where I was supposed to be. The highway between Colorado Springs and Denver was usually congested and miserable, but at the moment it was more or less deserted. In Aiko’s Lamborghini, I managed to do triple digits most of the way. It was probably unsafe, but at this point, who really cared?


Finding the rendezvous points was a little harder, since I wasn’t familiar with the city and it had the same problems as Colorado Springs, or worse. The roads were bad, and many of the major ones weren’t even functional. But I managed it after only a little struggling, and pulled into the parking lot.


I didn’t like leaving the car there, but it wasn’t the biggest issue right now. And besides, it wasn’t likely that someone would steal it. Not after I powered up the defenses.


I stepped inside the building, Anna sticking close to my side.


It wasn’t hard to find the group I was looking for. They were damn near the only people in the building. There were maybe fifteen to twenty of them gathered around a couple of tables they’d pushed together in the corner. Most of them were holding cups of coffee that they weren’t drinking, and staring at each other distrustfully.


“I’m here to pick you up,” I said, walking up to them. “For the fight in Russia?”


One of them, a big guy with dark skin and muscles on his muscles, glowered at me. “What is that werewolf doing in my territory?” he asked, rising halfway to his feet.


“You’re the Alpha of this town?” I asked, more out of curiosity than anything. I’d spent a lot of years practically next door to him, and I’d talked to more than a few of his wolves in the past, but I didn’t remember having actually met him.


“That’s right,” he said. “Now answer my question.”


“Guess you’ll get that show of solidarity after all,” I muttered, smiling a little. Then, louder, “We’re just here to do the pickup. Not moving in on your turf. Now, do you really want to start problems about it? Because I think we’ve both got bigger problems right now.”


“He’s right, Thomas,” another man said. This one was shorter and a lot thinner, although still in decent shape. He was also most definitely not a werewolf; there were a lot of magical signatures around that table to sift through, but if there was one scent I could pick out of a crowd, it was werewolf, and he didn’t have that. “I’m Steve, by the way. Blake clan, mental specialist.”


“Don’t really care, honestly,” I admitted. “Although…if you’re that good, why are you still here?”


“I’m not much of a fighter, frankly,” he said. “Not one of the first people you’d call for something like this. And I don’t know anywhere in Russia well enough to open a portal there.”


“Fair enough. Now come on, we don’t have time to waste.”


The portal from downtown Denver to the forest of Faerie was a pretty major difference in terms of the conceptual and atmospheric difference between the two. That made it harder to bridge the gap, and it took me almost ten minutes to get the portal up, even with the focus I’d designed to help with that sort of magic. A couple of people tried to rush me, but Steve and another two mages shushed them.

The amount of distance being covered would also make the experience of crossing it particularly unpleasant, but that didn’t really matter to me. I got a little bit of vomit on my boots from one of the other werewolves, but I’d stepped in worse things. It also meant that I was almost done with the next portal when people started waking up, which was a nice perk.


Back in Russia, I walked up to Celina with the people from Denver following me. “Got these guys,” I said to her. “Don’t know what to do with them from here.”


“I’ll handle it,” she told me. “Werewolves, over there!” she shouted after that, loud enough to make me and most of the werewolves wince a little. “Everyone else, that way! Ask for Watcher, do what she tells you, don’t cause trouble!”


People started breaking up into groups and moving where she’d pointed. No one questioned what they’d been told, not even the Alpha. Celina Cateye had a considerable amount of presence, when she chose to exert it.


“All right,” she said to me, more quietly. “Next up, Romania. There’re two groups, one in Bucharest and one in a village outside Sibiu.”

I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I can do that. What are the details?”


The second trip was harder than the first. The only place I knew to put a portal in Romania was right outside our castle, which was in the northwestern portion of the country. I shifted into fur, and Anna and I just ran southeast towards Sibiu. It wasn’t a run I’d made often, since normally if we wanted to go to the city we just took a portal somewhere, but I knew the way.


We made decent time. Not spectacular, but decent; it was relatively rough terrain, forested and fairly steep, and even werewolves could only go so fast. It didn’t help that this was my first time trying to run at full speed as a wolf while looking through someone else’s eyes. It took us a bit to coordinate that, and there were a few accidents on the learning curve, including one particularly exciting tumble off a sizable cliff.


But we managed, and it only took us two hours and change to get there. The village we were looking for was small, barely a thousand people, not far from Sibiu. I didn’t get a chance to see much more than that, because this time the people we were there to pick up found us before we’d even made it into town.


There were three of them, two male and one female. All three were very obviously vampires; the blood-and-spice scent of their magic was clear, as was the absolute stillness they had when they weren’t moving.


They didn’t say a word, just walked up and nodded to us. When we started running again, they ran beside us with no evidence of difficulty or complaint. One of the males actually turned into a wolf, a massive beast with jet black fur and glowing red eyes; the other two stayed human in shape, but they still kept our pace easily. I got the impression they could have outdistanced us if they wanted to.


We could have stolen a car and driven, but I didn’t think it would really be any faster. We’d have to stop for me to change, since driving in fur was awkward in the extreme and there was no way I was getting in a car driven by a vampire right now. Then the highway took a rather circuitous route, and we’d have to deal with any problems that the road had right now, which might be serious. Simpler to just run it.


So that’s what we did. Following the road would have been easier, but it went well out of the way, and we were all capable of handling harsh terrain, so we went straight cross-country. That took another three hours or so.


When we got to about the right neighborhood of Bucharest, the humanoid male vampire looked at me. “We can go in and get them,” he offered. “You stay here and start the portal.”


The three of them walked further into the city without waiting for a response, the wolfish one melting back into a humanoid form. Although, now that I looked at him in that context, there was something about him that was less human than the other two. He moved with a sort of predatory grace that was subtly but noticeably inhuman.


Once they were gone, I started by shifting back to human, and then opened the next portal. It was a bit of a struggle—I was already pretty tired from the running—but by the time the vampires returned with my pickup from this location, I was ready to go.


Back in Russia, the vampires moved off toward the command tent without waiting for instruction from me or Celina, pulling the rest of the group with them by sheer charisma.


“Where next?” I asked Celina, leaning on the table a little. I was more fatigued than I’d realized, and, now that I thought about it, hungrier. Almost starving, really.


She shook her head. “There is no more time for this,” she said. “The necromancer has broken through the defenses. You are needed to help hold him back from Saint Petersburg. Go and talk to Watcher. Your transport will arrive soon.”


“Okay,” I said, turning and walking back towards Watcher’s tent. I wasn’t in the best of shape for a world-class fight right now, but I couldn’t deny a certain excitement at the thought. I’d been hearing about how bad this situation was for a while now; actually seeing it couldn’t be worse than the vague, formless fear I had felt.


“Wait,” she said.


I paused and looked over my shoulder. “Yes?”


“In Italy,” she said, “I would say in bocca al lupo now, to wish you luck. It means ‘in the mouth of the wolf.’ Now, to wish for the death of wolves now is not a good thing to say. But I think there is another meaning that is not so bad to ask for.”


“I often like to have my enemies in my mouth,” I said dryly. “If that’s what you mean.”


“Yes,” she said, nodding. “In bocca al lupo, then. And may God have mercy on us all.”

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Breaking Point 11.1

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The hospital room was almost entirely silent. The occupants were both asleep, not producing a sound beyond quiet breathing and the slow, steady thumping of two heartbeats. I could hear hurried footsteps and hushed voices in the halls, but nobody ventured too close to this room. Not while I was visiting. Occasionally a nurse would come in for the regular checks on them, doing it quickly while watching me carefully out of the corners of their eyes. I thought they would have avoided even that, if they weren’t afraid of incurring my anger.


I sat in the corner of the room and stared at nothing. Almost two weeks since I’d been blinded, and still my vision hadn’t recovered properly. I could open my eyes without collapsing now, and I could even make out shape and motion a little, but that was about it.


Recovery was slow. For me and everything else in this city.


The people in front of me were no exceptions. Kyra’s leg was in traction, broken so badly that it would likely be a month or more before she could put weight on it. For the moment it was held in place with an arrangement of straps and pins that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Marquis de Sade’s bedroom. The assortment of fractures and dislocations in her leg was so painful that she was on a sufentanil drip that might have killed a human, and she still hurt every time she woke up.


Snowflake was better off, in some ways, but even worse in others. She wasn’t in serious pain. Physically, she was largely recovered. But she had the kind of brain damage that was effectively crippling. Her memory was spotty; some days she was as clear as ever, and others she couldn’t remember a conversation she’d had five minutes earlier. Her coordination was shot so badly that walking was a serious struggle. Sometimes when we talked she had to struggle for over a minute to figure out what she was trying to say. Given how we communicated, this wasn’t just her forgetting a word, though that would have been frightening enough. No, this was more that she couldn’t organize or sort her thoughts, and she struggled to remember the basic concepts she was trying to convey.


Still, she was recovering. Like Kyra, she was more resilient than any mortal had a right to be. It probably helped that I’d gotten a demigod with a talent for healing to start her off. Before that, she hadn’t been making much progress. Things had improved considerably afterward.


It would just take time. Time for bones to heal. Time for brains to recover. Time for trust to be rebuilt.


Time was a resource in short supply, these days. For every minute I had, there were five minutes’ worth of work to do. There was always a task clamoring for my attention. I hadn’t slept in three days.


It almost bothered me how much that didn’t seem to matter. I was tired, but it wasn’t the sort of bone-deep fatigue I used to feel after going without sleep for that long. It was almost more cerebral than visceral. The constant stress wore on me, making me irritable and snappish. But I didn’t get weak or clumsy. I didn’t fumble. I didn’t have to work to keep my eyes open. Physically, I was almost less tired than when I’d been sleeping regularly.


It was disturbing, another step away from being a mostly normal person into being…whatever it was I was turning into. Another step away from humanity, for sure. But having the extra time was so useful right now that it was hard not to be grateful even though I was scared out of my mind whenever I took the time to think of it.


But still, even with how pressed I was with every minute, I spent an hour in that room with Kyra and Snowflake, listening to them breathe and not even coming close to dozing.


I closed the door quietly behind myself, so as not to wake them, and walked out of the hospital. Times being what they were, there were armed guards watching the exterior doors, standing at many of the key locations within the hospital, and occasionally patrolling the halls. They were hard, grim men and women, the sort of people that could put a bullet in a toddler and walk away whistling.


I ought to know. I was the one that hired them. Pellegrini had turned out to be more willing to contribute to keeping order than I’d expected, and he’d loaned me some of his troubleshooters at cut rates. Add in some freelancers that I knew, and it wasn’t all that difficult to come up with a security force to protect the hospital.


I liked to think that I’d have done it even if I didn’t know people who were staying there.


I’d had to expand my operation somewhat, setting up other locations, just to house my newly expanded army of minions. But the center of my organization was still very much the throne room in the old pack house, and it was there that I went after I left the hospital.


I imagined that the location of the building was something of an open secret at this point. Technically I was still a highly wanted man, and the police were probably supposed to consider apprehending me their highest priority. But they also knew that I was doing more to stabilize the situation right now than anyone else in this city. I was guessing that they were telling anyone that asked that I was just a bloody hard target to find, and politely ignoring the fact that I had a massive organization running right under their noses and they knew exactly where to go to find me.


It was a situation I’d seen a few times before. Usually I’d been the one to violate the unofficial truce and attack the bad guy in spite of all the reasons not to.


The comparison was not exactly a comfortable one.


Inside the building, the throne room was full of activity. There were a dozen or so guards standing around, a roughly even mix of jötnar and ghouls. The rest of the people were mostly humans in my employ, some of whom knew who they were working for, some of whom didn’t. There were accountants in there, lawyers, mages, mercenaries, and all kinds of other useful people. I didn’t even know who all was working for me at this point. A lot of them had been recruited in the past few weeks, while I was way too busy to keep track of them all.


At this point, I was paying more in wages every week than I’d been worth for most of my life. But there was also an incredible amount of money pouring in, from all kinds of sources. It wasn’t just the magical community paying me protection money at this point. Legitimate businesses were paying me out of gratitude for having anyone to call for help, and Frishberg was funneling some cash from the police’s budget into mine, as well. I had the investments that Tindr made and managed on my behalf, including multiple companies.


And then there were the less legitimate sources of income, as well. When I brought Luna into my fold, I also brought her entire black market network. She dealt in arms, drugs, and secrets, and I made a cut on every transaction. Not only was I giving my tacit approval by taking the money, I was lending the support of my influence and talents to make the deals happen. Pellegrini’s local operations now paid me tribute for the privilege of operating in my territory, and even a small portion of the money they made was significant. Then there were payments for assassinations, payments coming from the Watchers, from the Pack, bribes from people hoping to buy my favor…money was coming in from everywhere.


It had gotten to such a scope that not even Tindr could manage it all on his own. For the time being he’d hired an entire accounting firm to help manage it.


Walking through the throne room, I was only seeing a small fraction of the people working for me. Mostly, there were representatives here. The heavyset man in the nice suit, for example, was just one of the accountants, here to drop off numbers with Tindr. The woman with a tattoo of a snake on her cheek was a gangster, dropping off the weekly payment for her business.


I passed through the bustle, and where I walked, the activity stopped. People turned to watch me pass. Many of those who were actually in my employ saluted me, in one way or another. The others mostly just watched.


I sat in the throne, and was almost immediately surrounded by my inner circle. Aiko was there, of course, and then there was Anna, who had flat-out refused to go back to Wyoming with Ryan and Daniell. I couldn’t be too upset by that, since she was basically the oldest friend I had at this point. Plus her presence was the only thing that let me see the room clearly.


Other than those two, most of the people were there for a reason. Kyi was my field commander, in charge of the jötnar, and also in charge of information gathering and scouting. Selene was the more general second-in-command, who coordinated all of my enterprises and kept me up to date on them. Tindr handled the financial aspects. Of the more recent additions, Luna was more up to date on local gossip and attitudes than maybe anyone else in the city. Jibril was there to represent the ghouls, and Shadow was there to represent the mages.


There was enough sheer firepower in that group to eradicate a small city, and it was only a fraction of the total forces available to me. It was a little scary, actually.


“Okay,” I said, sitting down in the throne and looking out over the room, through my own eyes and Anna’s. The activity continued, money and files changing hands. “Situation?”


“Financially, we’re sitting well,” Tindr said. “I’ve got access to about all of the accounts again, and your investments are doing well. I actually made a fair profit short selling stocks right before a company went under.”


“Spare me the details,” I said dryly. “I won’t understand them anyway. What’s the bottom line?”


He cleared his throat and said, “At the moment, we’re actually in the black. Net profit for this week is two thousand. I can’t predict where things will be soon, though. Things are too unstable.”


“Okay,” I said. “How much is in the accounts?”


“In your personal accounts, slightly over ten million,” he said. “In the operational account, three million. In investments, stocks, and real estates, an additional nineteen million.”


“Sounds good. Next?”


“No attacks today,” Selene said. “We’re getting reports of a group of vampires moving into the area, though. Apparently they’re looking to take over the territory now that Katrin is done. Kikuchi said that there’s a group of oni that might want a piece of the pie, but he thought he could handle them. We got a message from the pack in Denver congratulating you and asking for a public show of solidarity. There’s a message from a group of apsaras asking permission to visit the city.”


“Send a group to talk to the vampires,” I said. “No promises yet, just feeling them out. Send Kikuchi a message offering my formal support if he wants it; make sure it doesn’t suggest that he can’t handle it on his own. Tentatively agree to the pack’s request, depending on what they have in mind for the display. Tell the apsaras I need to know what they want, and they would have to agree to some ground rules. Next?”


Selene cleared her throat. “You have a visitor, jarl.”


“Who and when?” I snapped. “And why didn’t you already mention it?”


“She’s talking about me,” Brick said dryly.


I blinked and looked around. I hadn’t noticed him, even though he’d walked straight up to the throne I was sitting in.


Or, more accurately, I hadn’t recognized him. It was always a little tricky trying to translate from another body’s senses, and Brick looked different enough that I might not have known it was him if I were using my own eyes.


More specifically, he looked like shit. His face was burned, badly, almost half of it covered in blisters and blackened skin. His grey robes were also burned and torn, though I knew they were as strong as most armor. His left arm was in a sling made out of what looked like burlap, and he walked with a limp, leaning heavily on his staff.


“Brick,” I said. “What the hell happened to you?”


He grinned weakly. “You remember the situation in Russia I told you about, right?”


“Yeah,” I said. “The all-hands-on-deck thing, right? Did that lighten up enough that you could come back?”


“Not exactly. You remember I told you we might need to call everyone that might help if things got much worse?”


“Yes,” I said slowly. I thought I knew where this was going, and I was not liking it.


“Well, it’s worse.” He started to rub his eyes, leaning the staff against his chest, then remembered the burns and lowered his hand again. “We need help. We need all the help we can get.”


“Oh,” I said. “You want me to come, then?”


“Yeah,” he said. “You and anyone you can bring. I mean anyone. We’re taking all comers at this point.” He then paused. “What time is it, local?”


“Just before noon,” I said. “Why?”


“Shit,” he muttered, dropping the staff again and reaching into his cloak. He pulled out four unlabeled pill bottles. “You got something to drink?”


“Somebody get me some water!” I shouted, not watching to see who ran for it. Someone would. I was more interested in what Brick was doing. “What are those?” I asked him quietly.


“Broad-spectrum antibiotic,” he said, pulling one pill out of the first bottle. “Painkiller. Modafinil. Amphetamine.”


I blinked. “They’re handing out amphetamine?”


He smiled grimly. “They’re handing out anything that might keep people in the fight a little longer,” he said. “And I mean anything.”


“It’s that bad?”


“Let me put it this way,” he said. “You remember that one-to-twenty scale I told you about? We’re sitting at a fifteen right now. If it goes one step higher, we start dropping strategic nukes on this thing.”


I took a second to process that. “Okay,” I said. “Let me get some people together.”

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Interlude 11.a: Notsune

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In a certain world, there was a vast lake, and on the shores of this lake there was a great forest, and rising from this forest there was a towering mountain, and on the slopes of this mountain there was a mighty castle, and in the depths of this castle there was a long hall, and at the end of this hall there was a heavy door of purest silver. The door was locked three times.


The first lock took the form of an iron lock, as large as a grown man’s head and carved all over with ancient runes and dead languages, promising a dire fate to anyone who so much as dared to touch it. There was no keyhole anywhere on it, though it opened with a key.


The second lock took the form of a pair of guards standing ever vigilant outside the door. They could not be seen behind the crystalline shell of their armor, not their faces nor their hands nor any part of them, but they were tall Sidhe warriors, proud and ancient in their service to their wicked queen.


Or, at least, that was the form the second lock should have taken. Not even Sidhe could serve forever without break or pause, and many, many guards had rotated through this position over the past weeks and months. Some were all that they should be, but many others failed to live up to the duties of their position. It was difficult to get them to grasp the sheer magnitude of the threat they contained. It was difficult for most of them to conceive of a mere mortal who could pose a threat to them alone, let alone to this castle and everything in it, up to and including the queen herself.


It was difficult for the queen to conceive of such a thing, which was why this room contained its occupant. Had she grasped the peril she was in, the sheer magnitude of the threat she courted, she would never have dared to risk arousing his genuine anger.


But she had dared, and none had questioned, and thus we found ourselves here.


How much different, I wondered, how changed might the entire world might be, had but a single person presented a single choice chosen only slightly differently? Such a delicate web we weave, that a gentle tug to a single strand might bring the whole of the grand construction to the ground in a tangled heap.


But that was a matter of imagination. And I did not deal in imaginations. I dealt in realities, in truths, and the truth of this was that the choice had not been made differently. The queen of wicked faeries had made her choice, and placed her bets, and it fell to the rest of us to live with the consequences.


I had time to muse on this, and on a great many other things, as I walked down that long hall. The sound of my footsteps was my only company, echoing from the stone walls with each step, a furtive tap-tap-tap here meeting up with a more assertive click, there, until it sounded as though a whole company were walking beside me.


But I stood alone. Forever and always, I stood alone.


“Gentlemen,” I said, drawing to a stop outside the door. “Here for the usual.”


The guard standing to the left of the door nodded, once, and the two uncrossed their halberds from before the door. I was expected. A formality, this exchange, bereft of meaning and import.


It seemed so very hollow. More so than usual. My current assignment was wearing on me, in more ways than one.


“Has the prisoner woken or moved?” I asked, reaching for the key in my pocket.


“Nah,” said the guard to the right of the door, deviating from the script. “She is a sweet one, though, isn’t she? Doesn’t do anything but lie there, but we could still have some fun with her, I think.”


The air in that hall, buried under so many thousands of tons of earth, was deathly silent and perfectly still. It would be incorrect, therefore, to say that the hall went still at his words. It would be misleading to say that the fall of a feather to the floor below could have been heard in the silence after his words.


These things, however, would not be wrong.


Sound entered the hall again as I walked up to the offending guard, the sound of my footsteps quiet, a counterpoint that did not so much disrupt the silence as emphasize it, the way a candle could illuminate a cave while serving only to reinforce how very, very dark it was.


My current shape was smaller than his, by a wide margin, and there was nothing about it which at a glance would have given an impression of disproportionate strength hidden by the size of my frame.


But I had no difficulty in grasping the guard by the throat in one hand and lifting him off the ground, until my hand was above my head. The strength of my true form, showing through the glamour I wore. I held him there and pinned him against the wall, not saying anything. Not yet.


The other guard shifted his grip on the halberd, as though considering attacking me.


I looked at him. Not saying anything, not threatening or rebuking. My expression was blank and placid, with no hint of a growl or a grimace, a smile or a snarl. Simply meeting his eyes, and allowing him to see the choices before him, the ramifications which followed from each of the paths he might walk.


He made his choice, and the subtle tension, the hint of violence, faded away as though it never were. He set his halberd against the ground again and looked pointedly away, down the hall.


I turned my attention back to the other guard, the one who had misspoken. He was beginning to choke now, beginning to strangle. He clutched at my hand with both of his, his halberd dropped forgotten to the floor, but both of his hands together could not peel a single one of my fingers away from his throat.


“The prisoner is to be treated with all appropriate respect,” I said quietly. “Do you understand?”


“Can’t…breathe,” he wheezed.


I brought my other hand up and slapped him. Gently, by my standards, which meant it was only hard enough to rattle his skull within its helmet rather than crush it.


“If I want to know the status of your breathing, I will ask,” I said. “Do you understand?”


He nodded frantically, and I released him, letting him drop to the ground. He collapsed when he hit.


“The prisoner will be treated with respect,” I said. It was a statement of fact, not loud nor brash, but with the quiet certitude of someone with no doubts. “You will behave as though you were gentlemen. There will be no inappropriate contact. There will be no cruelties nor indignities. There will be no indulgences of your baser instincts. There will be no fun. Do you understand?”


Again, he nodded.


“Good. Because if you do not comply with these instructions, there will be consequences. Soon or late I will hear of it, and I will hold you personally responsible, without care for who is guilty. I will hunt you, and I will find you, and I will not be inclined towards mercy or reason. I swear this by my own given name. I will hound you, such that you spend weeks in fear, without rest or peace. Where you would find shelter, I will take it from you, that you may know only isolation. Where you would find succor, I will take it from you, that you may know only despair. I swear this by oak and mistletoe and blackest iron. I will make you beg for the mercy of death, and I will deny that mercy. I swear this by the honor and the name of my Queen.”


He was staring at me in shocked horror now, and even the other guard, who was still very carefully not watching, couldn’t entirely keep from showing his reaction to what I’d said. With reason; that was a very serious oath, something that was not said lightly or without reason. When people heard, and I had no doubt that they would hear, some would say that I had gotten soft, to invoke such an oath on behalf of a prisoner.


The rest would remember what happened the last time I was called on to fulfill a similar oath, and they would not question my resolve.


I left him there on the ground, and unlocked the door.


The room inside was, it seemed, too simple to merit such defenses. There was no hoard of treasure, no ancient weapon or caged nightmare. It was not even a particularly large room. On the contrary, it was quite simple and plain, a small chamber cut into the mountain and finished with silver. The walls and floor and ceiling were all coated with silver, a prince’s ransom of silver, and everywhere there were more of the runes and sigils, warning trespassers of the dire fates they courted by entering without authorization.


In one corner of the room was a bed, and on that bed was the reason I was there.


As usual, before so much as looking at the occupant, I examined the devices around the bed. Some—the intravenous line with its attached mixture of glucose and amino acids, the various monitors that hummed quietly around the bed—had been stolen from mortal hospitals. Other devices served to monitor and regulate other functions, things that mortal science was incapable of handling.


The devices were functioning as they ought to. I knew they were; a mistake here would not be tolerated. Knowing how seriously the queen took this work, none of the technicians would dare to risk failure.


But I also had no desire to risk it, and so I took the time to check on each of the devices. The intravenous line was clear, and the bag of nutrients would not need replaced for another hour at least. There were other bags, with blood to replace what had been taken for diagnostics and experimentation, with antibiotic drugs to help ward off diseases of the flesh, but these were not as critical.


An examination of the monitors suggested nothing amiss. The prisoner had not regained consciousness at any point, as the guard had said. She had had no contact with the world beyond these walls, excepting the regular visits of the nurses, physicians, and witches that kept her alive and in good condition.


I relaxed slightly, and sat down in the comfortable chair next to the bed. For the first time since entering, I looked at the prisoner herself.


She was slight of build, with classically Japanese features. Not unlike my own appearance, although there were slight differences. Efforts had been made, but there were limits to what could be done, even when both modern human technologies and ancient fae magics were in play. After such a long period of unconsciousness, consequences were to be expected. A certain amount of emaciation, of atrophy, was inevitable.


She was naked, making such comparisons easier, and making it so that there was no hiding the changes she had undergone. I looked her over with a knowledgeable and critical eye, marking and taking note of each of those changes.


Progressive loss of body fat from the breasts, buttocks, and abdomen. Progressive loss of muscle mass from all major muscles, most obviously the arms and legs, but also apparent in the torso, the abdomen, even the neck. Loss of muscle tone. Loss of skin tone. Mild but progressive hair loss.


It was, I thought, good that my memory was nearly flawless, so that I did not need frequent confirmations or reminders. If I were to use her current appearance as the basis for my own, I would fool no one at all.


I hesitated before reaching out to touch her, steeling myself and gathering my resolve. There were few things I feared, and in truth this was not one of them, but there was still a certain hesitation. Not out of fear, I thought, so much as guilt.


The prisoner looked unconscious, and in some ways she was. But that was a simplistic way to view it, an excessively binary one. For our purposes she could not be truly awake or aware, and thus the potion she had been dosed with removed consciousness and volition. But at the same time, I needed access to the knowledge locked within her brain, and thus genuine unconsciousness was not sufficient.


The state she was in, then, was something of an intermediate step. Not awake or aware, not cognizant of her surroundings, not capable of taking voluntary action. But conscious all the same, locked in her own mind in a manner very similar to a perpetual dream.


Or, as the case might be, a nightmare. Thus the twinge of guilt, the momentary reminder from the tiny spark of a conscience which remained within me that what I was doing was wrong.


I knew better than most how wrong it was. I had been dosed with the same potion, to establish myself in my current role. It had been a brief matter, just long enough to establish myself as her, drugged and hidden while an impostor took her place.


The subject of the deception had found the first impostor almost immediately, as predicted. But who would think to look at the person thus rescued with suspicion? Who would think to question whether the impostor they found had been only a distraction, a cover for another, greater impostor?


Such was the way of the Sidhe. One deception covered for another, and if you only thought to look, the truth was plain to see. But so few ever looked at what was closest to them.


Still, though, I remembered how this potion had felt. Not just the helplessness, but the consciousness, the awareness of my own condition. Left to its own devices, outside of my control, my mind had naturally gravitated to darker memories, all the things I had done which I had cause to regret.


From what I had seen of the prisoner’s mind, I knew that she had nothing so horrific weighing down conscience as what I had done. She had no memories of torment to match what I had endured.


All the same, her mind was not a place where I would wish to be trapped. Not at all.


And there, I supposed, was the true reason why I had been willing to stake my honor in her defense. I knew that what was being done here was wrong. I prevented the guards from raping her to soothe my guilty conscience for the far greater rape which I had been party to. They would have taken only her body, a terrible crime, to be sure, but one which would pass. I had taken her mind, and her life, and made them my own.


There were reasons I seldom indulged in introspection.


Finally, I worked up my nerve, and rested my hand on her forehead.


The room disappeared, replaced by the mad dreamscapes that spun and danced behind the prisoner’s closed eyelids.


Some time later, I opened my eyes again, and took my hand away. I had gotten what I came for, learned what I needed.


I had made mistakes. Too open on some topics, too concealing of others. Too many questions dodged. Too supportive when I ought to have been critical.


On the whole, I had been too quiet, too reserved. An inevitability, and a mistake that I very commonly made. It was generally safer to err on the side of quiet rather than noise. No disguise could be entirely perfect, and thus it was safer to avoid notice, to avoid drawing attention to myself. Not even my skills could stand up to scrutiny indefinitely.


In this case, though, it was a weakness. The prisoner was not quiet or reserved by nature; acting as though she were had the potential to attract precisely the notice that I wished to avoid. To this point, it had been overlooked or attributed to stress. Going forward, I could not afford to rely on those excuses. The danger of being caught out was too great.


I stood and left, locking the door behind myself, and went to another room, several floors higher in the castle.


This room was not guarded, although I knew that it was being watched. All rooms in this castle were watched. It was a fact of life among the Sidhe. Here, I stood as invisible attendants undressed me, bathed me, applied various poultices, wiped them away, bathed me again, draped me in a plain grey robe, and tucked me neatly into bed.


I was tired. Even with the protections I had been given, even with the poultices that had been applied, the presence of so much iron wearied me. A substitute had been made for the prisoner’s armor and weapons, but other sources of iron could not so readily be dealt with.


Thus, this room. Here, thanks to the power of the queen, the passage of time was dilated with respect to the mortal world. I could take days or weeks to recover from the iron exposure here, and return with the confident knowledge that only hours had passed.


I let myself relax into sleep.


Waking, I dressed myself. I could have had one of the invisible servitors do it, but I preferred to take care of it myself. It was a ritual, a chance to remind myself of my role.


My appearance still resembled hers, but there was more to it than that. It was a state of mind. I had to keep in mind who and what I was imitating, had to make the role an integral part of my thoughts. Now, I was not playing a role; I was a role.


Garbed appropriately, I returned, opening a portal to Transylvania. My true destination was far away, but my cover for my return to Faerie had been spending time in Transylvania, and thus I had to at least visit before my return. Otherwise I was too likely to be asked questions that I couldn’t answer.


Another portal, to a location within the city of Colorado Springs. The portal location was at a distance from anywhere I was likely to meet someone of import, giving me time to recover from the effects of the transition. The prisoner had no such reaction to them, which was one of the greatest weaknesses in my disguise. I had no ability to mimic that.


Returning to his house, I found that Winter was out accomplishing another task. A short reprieve, then, and an incomplete one, but still a reprieve. I sat and waited, observing the activity of those he surrounded himself with. It was an interesting observation, although not a terribly useful one.


Finally he returned, and I went to greet him.


“Holy shit,” I said as he walked up. “Did you seriously buy a limousine?” I already knew where the vehicle came from, but questions were by definition not lies. Deceptive in their implications, perhaps, but no one could say that they weren’t true.


“I’m not sure yet,” he replied, stepping inside the building. “How was your morning?”


I shrugged. “I’ve had worse. Yours?” Again, there was no real, definite meaning to what I’d said. I’d had worse, yes, but what did that mean? I’d had worse mornings? I’d had worse experiences than that morning? I’d heard worse questions than the one he just asked? Without clarification, any of those interpretations was possible.


We continued inside, and the conversation continued in the same vein, joke and implication without obvious meaning, until his attention turned elsewhere and I could stop engaging in the discussion.


Aiko. It was a good name, although not my name, for all that I was pretending to it just now.


It was my custom to take a new name for each target I mimicked. This time, I had settled on Notsune, before the job even started.


My queen had commented on how odd a name that was. She’d asked why I had chosen it.


“Well,” I replied, with my typical dry humor, “I’m certainly not a kitsune.”

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Clean Slate Epilogue 10

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Aiko and I sat and looked out over the city as the setting sun painted the city in amber and vermillion. Or, rather, Aiko sat and looked out over the city. I was sitting, but my vision was focused elsewhere, scattered through the eyes of a hundred ravens, hawks, gulls, and pigeons, giving me a literally birds’-eye view of the streets.


The scars were visible. Unmistakable, when the city was viewed on this scale, when the whole of the picture could be seen. There were gaps in the structure of the city, where buildings had been destroyed. There were gaps in the flow of the city, where the traffic was detouring around streets that were blocked or worse.


But there was traffic to stop. There was structure to interrupt.


It wasn’t nothing.


“My city,” I said, returning my consciousness to my own body and walking forward to stand by Aiko at the edge of the roof, my hands folded behind my back. It was a striking image, one that I could appreciate even if I couldn’t see it.


Theoretically this building was closed. About as close as Colorado Springs got to a real skyscraper, it was corporate offices all the way up. At the moment it was shut down, since nobody was going to the office just now anyway.


But I’d been in a melodramatic mood, and my name had been enough to open the door.


There weren’t many doors that were closed to me around here anymore. It was funny, in a way. Every door was open, and yet my choice of path was narrower than ever.


“Your city,” Aiko echoed. “How does it feel?”


“Odd,” I admitted. “This is…it isn’t something I wanted.” Then I frowned. “It’s funny, actually. I can say that, but…I did it, didn’t I? If I really don’t want this kind of power, why do I keep seeking it out?”


“Sometimes what we do has very little to do with what we want,” Aiko said. She sounded a little said, and a little thoughtful, almost meditative.


“I guess so,” I said. “It’s just…is it worth it? So many people dead. Snowflake still hasn’t woken up, and Kyra might never walk right again. All this, for what? Who gets to wear the biggest hat?” I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”


She turned to face me and leaned in for a hug. For once I wasn’t wearing armor, so it was more satisfying than most of our hugs had been recently.


Apparently she felt similarly, because she held me tight for almost a minute. It was more actual contact than we’d had since I’d started my campaign for control over Colorado Springs.


“I don’t know if it will all be worth it,” she said, letting me go. “I hope so, but I don’t know. Ask me after this is over.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I hope so too.”


We stood there and looked over the city as the shadows lengthened and the brilliant hues of evening faded into the muted greys and blues of a night without streetlights.

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Clean Slate 10.33

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The vampire didn’t burst into flame at the touch of the sunlight, sadly. Nothing that dramatic.


But suddenly Kyra’s struggles actually meant something. Crippled, in pain, unable to coordinate or direct her efforts to their best effect, she could still actually break Katrin’s grip. She fell to the ground a moment later, collapsing and whining in pain as her weight fell on her shattered leg.


Before any of the vampires could react, Daniell darted forward and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, her teeth set on Kyra’s neck. Kyra was larger by a considerable margin, but that didn’t necessarily mean as much to a werewolf; Daniell was easily able to drag the larger werewolf back to our position.


Meanwhile, the other vampires were edging away and hissing, an odd, eerie sound when multiplied across so many mouths. Apparently sunlight wasn’t instantly lethal to vampires, as I’d always suspected, but they still didn’t seem to want to be in it.


Which, in turn, made it exactly where I wanted to be.


I charged forward, straight at Katrin. She looked at me the whole time, still with that broad, mad smile. She had plenty of time to dodge, to escape, or fight back, but she didn’t even try. She just stood there and smiled as Tyrfing came around in a broad arc, reflecting the sunlight so brightly that it almost seemed to be giving off a brilliant light itself.


I heard shouts of surprise and pain from the periphery of the room as Katrin fell, as that beam of reflected sunlight swept through the darkness which still lingered at the edges of the room. I roared, brandishing Tyrfing in front of me, trying to buy time for the others to catch up.


It didn’t take more than a few seconds for them to realize what had just happened and start moving forward to join me in the pool of sunlight. The vampires caught on moments later and pounced on them, trying to bring them down before they could.


But they were disorganized, still off balance from the way things had changed in the last few moments. And the people they were attacking were ready for it. It was a close call, but in the end everyone made it into the light.


We quickly shifted into a defensive position again. Kyra was at the center—not even a werewolf could keep fighting on that leg—with the mages and soldiers around her. The outer ring consisted of me, Aiko, the jötnar, the other werewolves, and the shapeshifters.


The vampires were recovering now, but it was too late; they’d already lost the critical advantages which had made this fight so one-sided. They threw themselves at us, but now we were in a good position to defend ourselves, and they didn’t have the leadership to organize or coordinate their attack effectively.


I found myself fighting between Aiko and Ryan. She was holding her blade in both hands, warding off attacks. She couldn’t really kill a vampire with it, not even in the weakened state these ones were in, but she could keep them at bay, slashing at them when they got too close. She focused on crippling rather than killing, taking off limbs when they overextended.


Ryan, on the other hand, was holding a crucifix in one hand and a gun in the other, presenting both of them against the vampires. It was hard to shoot accurately in the chaos, the press of the fight, but he was good at it. He made it work.


He wasn’t the only one holding a religious symbol. A couple of the mages had various objects held high, a mix of crosses and more interesting, unusual choices. One woman had a dagger held high that shone with something a little bit more than reflected sunlight; vampires hesitated throughout that entire quadrant of the circle, and actively flinched away from the light. The man next to her was presenting a pipe, of all things. Another man had an actual scroll in his hands, and was chanting something in what sounded like Hebrew. It would not have surprised me to see someone pull out a pasta strainer and start reciting from the Loose Canon.


The nonhumans had their own symbols held high, as well. Anna’s collar had a large cross hanging from it. Vigdis had a silver chain in her hand, with a pendant in the shape of a wolf’s head. Appropriate for a shapeshifter, I supposed, and it might explain something of why she had signed up with me to begin with. It had never occurred to me that she might view the Fenris Wolf in a religious light, but it wasn’t that strange for a jotun, I supposed. Kyi had the runes tattooed on her arms, hands, and collarbone prominently displayed, and I knew that they had a religious connotation to them. Even Unna was holding a seashell overhead with an attitude that made it more than just an object.


For my part, I held nothing but Tyrfing. Appropriate enough in a way, I supposed. Certainly it would be reasonable to assume from my actions that I worshipped the sword.


The vampires attacked, but there was no real strength, no authority to it. They were slowed and weakened by the sun, by the wide array of holy symbols presented against them. I didn’t know much about vampires beyond the most practical level, I didn’t know why symbols of faith were such a hindrance to them, but they were.


I cut them down as fast as they came, having to consciously hold back to keep from advancing and breaking the defensive line. Ryan was shooting them, not able to kill them, but wounding, pushing them away. Anna and Daniell and Matthew were all able to trip them up and pull them down, keeping them still until one of the housecarls could finish the job. Similarly, Chuck was a force unto himself. A vampire was not stronger than a magically enhanced polar bear, not in the sunlight. A casual swat from him was enough to fling a vampire across the room, or tear its head from its shoulders outright.


Protected behind that wall of flesh, the mages were able to focus in relative safety. Some, too exhausted to use their magic, or lacking abilities that were applicable here, had to rely on other methods to make themselves useful. These mages focused on presenting the symbols of their various beliefs, or used the tools I’d provided, bombarding the vampires with holy water, with prayer beads and heads of garlic. Others were still able to contribute more directly, blasting the enemy with electricity or force, setting them on fire and locking them in place. The woman with the dagger just removed pieces of them before turning her attention back to the ceiling, widening the gap and letting in more light from the setting sun.


The soldiers were less useful here. Their weapons weren’t as effective, overall. But they also had the holy symbols and objects, and they did have some weapons that worked. They threw flashbangs into the crowd, further disorienting and debilitating them. Bullets weren’t particularly useful, but they did at least weaken and slow the vampires, leaving them more open to attacks that could actually hurt them. One of the gangsters threw a grenade that burst into incredibly intense flames, setting several vampires on fire. It was across the room from me, and I still felt the heat for the few seconds it was burning.


It only took moments before the vampires turned to run. But there were only two exits from the room. One was the hole in the roof, which led to an environment almost as hostile as what they were leaving. The other was the door we’d come in through, and it was there that the vampires ran.


They were brought up short when Unna gestured with that shell and crooned gently. The holy water on the ground swirled and then rushed over to the door, flowing up off the ground to form a thin barrier. One of the vampires tentatively reached through it, only to stop, apparently unable to move through it. I wasn’t sure whether it was that the aversion to the holy water was that strong, or if it was Unna’s doing, or if one of the mages was doing something.


The end result was the same. All of the vampires were crowded together for a moment, backed against the wall.


A hail of bullets, spells, grenades, and holy water rained down on them, and ended my war with Katrin once and for all.


“Neutral ground,” I said, walking into the shopping mall. “This is your idea of neutral ground.”


Newton smirked at me. I couldn’t see him, since this meeting was just the two of us, and I was guessing he was wearing the mask anyway, but I was confident he was smirking. “It’s neutral,” he said. “Unless you’re going to accuse me of owning it.”


“It’s public,” I said sourly. “Any moron could walk in and overhear this.”


“Yeah,” he said. “Consider it an incentive not to do something stupid. You pick a fight here and people get hurt.”


“We agreed to a truce,” I reminded him. “Until the discussion was over.”


“That’s fine,” he said. “I get it, you know, you’re old-school. Whatever. I’ll take my security my way.”


I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Under any other circumstances, something that close to an accusation that I would break a truce would require a response. Jötnar took that sort of thing seriously, and allowing it to pass uncontested was as good as an admission.


But there were mitigating factors. I thought I could get away with letting this one slide without comment.


“I don’t like you,” I said. “I don’t like what you stand for. I don’t like what you do. But I’m trying to be as fair as possible. So I’m going to give you one chance here. Stop the nonsense, stop picking fights with me, and swear that you’ll follow my rules and support me against outside threats. You do that, and I’ll leave you be. One chance, and once chance only.”


“Like hell,” he said, with a clearly audible sneer. “You’re a scared little bitch. We both know you can’t back it up. If you could take us on you’d have done it already.”




He hesitated, obviously thrown by that. “Okay? That’s it?”


“Yep,” I said. “I don’t think we have anything else to discuss. Do you?”


“No,” he said after a moment. “No, I guess we don’t.”


I nodded, and pushed the button on the remote control I was holding in my cloak pocket. I couldn’t see them, but I knew that two lights would have turned on the moment I pressed it.


A few seconds later, I hear two almost-simultaneous cracks of gunfire as Aiko and Kyi pulled their respective triggers.


Newton never had a chance to scream. I couldn’t see, but I could feel the motion in the air as various things were propelled out of his body by the impact. One of the bullets had hit him in the head, while the other struck dead-center in his chest.


A force mage could stop bullets. But you had to know about the bullet to raise a shield against it. There were ways around it, of course. This tactic would never have worked against someone like Alexander, or even most of the Watchers I’d met.


But Newton was a cocksure, arrogant man. It had never occurred to him just how rapidly he could die.


Once again, I found myself oddly grateful for blindness. It meant that I couldn’t see exactly what I’d just been splattered with, although I could imagine it well enough. It wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before. It wasn’t the first time I’d stood close enough to someone to be covered in blood and brains and chunks of organs when they got shot.


There was a half-beat of silence before people began running away and screaming. I ignored that, focusing on the handful of other people I could feel.


The people who were running towards the scene.


I picked one at random and turned to face them. “You,” I said, pointing. “I’ll give you one chance, and one chance only.”


They froze, head turned towards the corpse of their former leader. It didn’t take long for them to get the message. “I swear,” they said, with audible reluctance. “I’ll follow the rules.”


I pointed at each of the rest in turn. None of them refused to swear the oath.


“Okay,” I said, once that was done with. “Now get out.”

I waited for them to leave, then turned and walked the other way. Herjolfr rose from his seat on the bench nearby and fell in beside me before I’d taken ten steps. Aiko and Kyi would meet us outside, where Kjaran should already have the car running.


“You know,” the skald said to me, “that people will say this was a violation of truce. They’ll call you an oathbreaker.”


I smiled a little inside my helmet. “The truce was explicitly limited to the duration of the discussion,” I said. “With no leeway afterwards. And you heard me tell him that the discussion was over. It isn’t my fault that he failed to realize what happened.”


“True,” he agreed. “But people will question it.”


“That’s why I had you here to witness it,” I told him. “You’re a skald. Your word is trusted, even if you are my housecarl. If you tell them that it was properly done, that I didn’t break the oath, then they’ll believe you.” I paused. “Unless you’re saying that you question the validity of my actions.”


He made an interested noise. “No,” he said slowly. “I can’t find anything in your actions that violates the terms of your truce. Although I do recall that you made an oath to Shadow, and several of the other independent mages, that you would treat them fairly and mercifully in your power. When they swore fealty to you last night, you made that oath.”


“I was very fair,” I said calmly. “I offered him a chance to avoid his fate, and told him in advance that it was his one and only chance. And death is merciful.”


“Is it?”


“Sure,” I said. “Some prisoners in Italy actually lobbied for the death penalty, because life imprisonment was too cruel. And I made his death as quick and painless as possible.”


“A coup de main is not the same as a coup de grâce,” he said dryly. “But I take your point.” We walked in silence for several seconds. “Your actions were within the bounds of the acceptable,” he said at last. “But they will be noted. Your reputation is already fearsome, jarl. What you have done today will make it more so.”


“Fearsome is good,” I said quietly as we stepped out into the morning sunlight. “Fearsome means nobody causes trouble.”


“Perhaps. I only ask that you take care, jarl. Oderint dum metuant is a fine idea, but Accius was a playwright, not a politician. It worked rather less well when Caligula put it into practice.”


I stopped and turned to face him. “Okay,” I said. “What is with the Latin? Do you have something against English?”


“When I was young, if you did not speak Latin, you might as well not speak,” he said, a little stiffly. “Norse could carry you through the north, but if you went south, or east, Latin was the only language that truly mattered. The words may be old, my jarl, but the ideas are timeless.” For a second I was worried that I’d actually offended him, but his next sentence was much more relaxed. “And it is the nature of a skald to make allusions to great thinkers of the past,” he said. “The preservation of wisdom is a great task.”


“Fair enough,” I said, continuing towards the car. “But for the record, I’m aiming for Machiavelli here, not Caligula. Keep in mind that the people I’m applying these fearsome tactics to are already pretty hated themselves. Nobody much is going to miss Newton.”


“You have a point,” he said. “Just take care. You are walking a narrow path, jarl, and a misstep could end in tragedy. As could a push.” For a moment I thought he was going to say something else, but then Aiko and Kyi reached us, and he fell silent.

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Clean Slate 10.32

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Someone had taken Kyra, without any noise or struggle, and without anyone noticing, from the middle of the group, with three members of her pack right next to her.


That shouldn’t have been possible. There were so many ways that shouldn’t have been possible.


Apparently, someone didn’t care so much about that.


I cursed under my breath as we moved on to the final branch of the hallway, moving faster now. Attacking in the daytime, starting off by demolishing the building, it had all been intended to limit the danger. But I’d known that there was nothing I could do that would actually eliminate it.


In a fight like this, there were casualties. There was no way around it.


That didn’t make it any easier to face when it struck so close to home.


Down the last hallway, a little longer than the other two. I was walking faster now, the people behind me almost running to keep up. The world seemed to fade and blur around me, warping in the corner of my eye. I felt disconnected, almost more an observer than a participant in my own actions. I became aware of a discordant, staccato laughter, and realized it was my own.


Inside the door, a vampire fell from the ceiling towards me with hands outstretched, curled into claws. Almost before I was aware of its presence Tyrfing cleared the sheath and leapt through the air towards it. It was a once-in-a-lifetime sort of stroke, the slash perfectly timed and aimed.


The vampire hit the ground in two sizes of roughly equal size, and I kept walking at the same pace, not even breaking stride. I became aware, in a distant and detached sort of way, that the people following me were hanging back a little now, watching me. There was no meaning attached to the thought, no reaction. It was just an observation.


Next door, another slab of oak. I didn’t bother cutting it this time. I just slammed one booted foot into it. The door cracked; the second kick snapped it in half and I kept walking, pushing it out of my way.


The next room was another large dormitory, though the beds were unoccupied. Instead the room was filled with more of the twisted shapes that had formed the first wave when we assaulted the house. Some of them looked human, others were based on canine chassis. This close I could see the madness in their eyes, the same look in the eyes of men and dogs. Their bodies were warped and twisted, and their minds were even worse, broken in ways that went past fixing.


They threw themselves at me in a wave, scrabbling and kicking each other out of the way to be first. It was like watching a swarm of ants, any semblance of the individual subsumed into the horde.


As they got closer to me, they started to slip and stumble, their footing uncertain on the ice around me. I ignored it, cutting them down mercilessly as I kept walking forward. I didn’t bother aiming my slashes to target vital areas, didn’t bother with precision or care. I just cut in broad strokes, dropping several of the creatures to the ground with each stroke. A dog-thing bit my leg and clung there, its teeth scratching at my armor. I ignored it utterly, continuing to walk forward, the same as I ignored all of the twisted creatures that were outside of my immediate reach on the way across the room. They were beneath my notice.


Behind me, I heard gunfire, raised voices, screaming. I smelled smoke, firearm propellant, blood, strange magics that I couldn’t recognize or place. I kept moving, one foot in front of the other.


Another door, this one heavy steel locked into the surrounding walls, sunk into the floor. It was less a door than a wall, something meant to be closed once and never reopened. I considered it as I approached, and paused before it, though it made me feel strange, restless and frustrated.


It was more difficult to cut through than wood, actually presenting a certain amount of resistance to the cutting edge. But Tyrfing cut through it all the same, carving the steel the way a lesser blade might cut pine. Three strokes made a rough, ragged triangle in the wall. I kicked the section I’d cut out and it fell through, slamming against the floor.


Step through, ducking slightly. It felt better again now that I was moving, the restlessness fading. There was an acrid smell in the air now, somewhere between smoke and sulfuric acid. The next room was larger, more open. The ceiling was higher, almost twenty feet above my head. I tried to decide whether there was a hill overhead or I had been descending as I walked. I couldn’t remember, couldn’t focus, and a moment later the question faded.


There were vampires in the room, quite a few of them. The lurked in the shadows by the edges of the room, clung to the ceiling. Had we taken too long, so that the sun set outside? Or were all of these vampires strong enough to be up and active during the day?


The question really didn’t matter. Regardless, I was outnumbered, and the things outnumbering me were each killing machines unto themselves.


That didn’t really matter either. My attention was reserved primarily for the vampire in the middle of the room.


Katrin looked much the same as usual, tall and blonde, dressed all in black. A faint, twisted smile danced around the edges of her lips. It was an expression of amusement, in a sense, but there was a taint in it, something twisted and broken. There was an element of despair to it, a bleakness that went far beyond mere sorrow.


She held Kyra casually in her arms. One arm snaked between her legs to her abdomen, holding her back against the vampire’s chest. The other wrapped across her chest, holding her foreleg to the side. She had her hand jammed into the werewolf’s mouth, deep enough to be profoundly uncomfortable, muzzling, gagging, and choking her all at once. Katrin was bleeding where the teeth had cut her hand and arm, but didn’t seem to care, or even notice.


Kyra was still moving, struggling, but there wasn’t much she could do. Her spine was twisted sideways, two of her limbs were pulled out of alignment almost to the point of dislocation, and with how far the vampire had her arm shoved down her mouth, it would be a struggle to breathe, to keep from vomiting. In that position, held by someone vastly stronger than she was, all she could do was squirm feebly.


“Good evening, jarl,” Katrin said. Her voice was dry and rasping, a mockery of human speech. “How good of you to join us.”


“What do you want?” I asked quietly. My voice sounded more alien than hers, in a very different way. It was slurred, hard to understand, and there were overtones to it that didn’t belong in speech, sounds of snarls and growls, howls and barks, and above it all the endless scream of a raging storm.


She smiled, a fixed expression without any humor to it, showing teeth that were considerably longer than they’d ever been when I saw her smile in the past. “Mind your manners, my dear jarl,” she said. “Lest I grow offended. Or have you no care for your friends’ lives these days?”


“If you were going to kill her you’d have done it already,” I said. The storm had quieted now, a whisper rather than a scream, but still there was the hint of danger, the promise of a slow, freezing death. “Which means there’s a reason you haven’t. So, again, what do you want?”


The vampire looked at me for a moment. Then, faster than a snake striking, her hand shifted, sliding from Kyra’s abdomen down to her ankle. She seized it and twisted, pulling.


Bones snapped and crunched, twisting. I could see Kyra’s hind leg breaking under the strain, bones splitting in long spiral fractures, joints popping. Her hip dislocated, visibly distending to the side. She writhed, bucking hard against the vampire’s grip, but couldn’t move her arm so much as an inch. I could see her sides, her abdomen heaving as she threw up, chewing on the vampire’s arm reflexively, and still Katrin didn’t so much as flinch.


“She can heal that,” Katrin said. Her voice was still flat and dead, utterly lacking in any emotion. “Eventually. But how well will she fare if I keep pulling, do you think?” She smiled again, and it was maybe the single creepiest expression I’d ever seen. There was an absence there more terrifying than any amount of rage could ever be. “Werewolves can’t heal amputations, can they?”


I bit back my first response, and forced myself to stand still. “Good evening, Katrin,” I said instead. My voice was choked, and I was almost shaking with rage, but I managed it. “I’m pleased that we finally have a chance to catch up.”


“Ah,” she said. “As always you learn quickly.” She moved her hand back to Kyra’s torso, leaving the broken leg to dangle, and pulled her other arm out of the werewolf’s mouth, resting it under her chin instead. The limb dripped with blood, saliva, and vomit, but Katrin didn’t seem to care about that either.


Kyra whined quietly, as much of an expression of pain as she could manage right now. I looked at her for a long moment, then met Katrin’s eyes. “You know what this means,” I said. “Everything else, it was business. I didn’t like it, but there was nothing personal there. But this is…it crosses a line.”


“Yes,” she said simply. “I fully expect you to kill me for it someday. Maybe even today. But I’m hoping we can have a conversation first.”


“Why?” I demanded. “Why are you doing this? What the fuck are you getting out of this?”


“Ah,” she said. “Manners, remember?”


I gritted my teeth. “My apologies,” I said, my voice a growl now, almost unrecognizable. “But I would greatly appreciate an answer to my question.”


“In due time, I expect that you’ll receive one,” she said. “But right now, I want to talk about you. 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?”


“Right now, I mostly want you to let my friend go,” I said.


Katrin sighed. “Do your ambitions extend no further than that?” she asked. “No further than the moment? Is this the life you want for yourself? This half-life, always struggling without ever accomplishing anything meaningful, living at the whim of another? Do you aim no higher than this?”


“I really find it difficult to focus on long term ambitions with this going on right in front of me,” I said.


“Stop trying to change the subject,” Katrin said. Her voice showed a hint of emotion now, touched with just the faintest trace of frustration. “These questions are important. Answer them.”


I took a deep breath and let it out. My hands were clenched, I noticed. “I don’t really know,” I said. “You asked what I would sacrifice anything for. That’s a loaded question. I know what anything can mean, and that’s not a commitment to make lightly.”


“Quite true,” Katrina agreed. “But that lack of dedication, of commitment, it’s holding you back. You could be so much more than you are. You could be a force to dwarf anything I’ve ever done. But you hold back. You refuse to really commit.”


“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. “What’s the purpose?”


“I want you to think about it,” she said. “That’s what’s holding you back, you see. It’s not a lack of power. It’s a lack of vision. You could be so much more, but you refuse to really see. You’re trapped by the immediate, never making it past reaction to what’s in front of you. How can you expect to get what you want if you never look further than the day after tomorrow?”


“It’s hard to look to the future when the present is more than I can stand,” I said. “That’s not a change of topic, by the way. It’s a relevant answer to your question. Recently it feels like just living day-to-day is the only way I can take the pressure. Things are bad, and they’re getting worse, and when I think about the future I can’t see it getting better. And everything I try to do, every time I try to fix things, I end up just making it worse.”


“Exactly!” she said. Again, there was a hint of emotion to that dead voice, but this time it was excitement, not exasperation. “But the reason for that, the reason nothing seems to work, is precisely that your focus is so stubbornly on the immediate and obvious. Right now, for example, you’re fixated on this moment, this situation. Tell me, jarl, who is to blame for what is happening right now?”


“Well,” I said dryly, “given that you’re the one doing this, that would seem to be the obvious answer.”


“Oh, granted the immediate responsibility is mine,” she said. “That’s a given. I know what I am. I won’t deny that I’m a monster. I won’t say that I haven’t earned your hate. I deserve to die, no question about that. But think about it. How do you think I got to be a monster? I wasn’t born this way, I can tell you that. I was a vampire for twenty years before I could kill someone and not feel terrible about it.”


“It’s still a choice,” I said. “You could always have gone a different route.”


I didn’t sound convinced, though, not even to myself. There was no conviction in my voice. I’d seen too many times when the only choices were bad ones.


“Perhaps,” Katrin said. “But even so, do you truly imagine that the blame falls on me alone? Do you think that no one, in all these years, had the chance to prevent me from becoming a monster? That no one could have acted to prevent this from coming to pass?” She smiled again. “I think not. Res ipsa loquitur, jarl. The guilt is there. How many people had to stand by to allow this to happen? How many people chose to allow it, because it was easier than the alternative?”


“Plenty,” I said. “But only one chose to actually do it.”


She snorted. “That’s an illusion,” she said, almost gently. “The idea that you can point to a person and say that they are wholly responsible for their own actions. The idea that a single person is responsible for anything. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves because it’s more comfortable than the truth. The idea that the world is black and white, that there are good men and evil men and you can parcel out guilt without getting your own hands dirty is a myth.”


“I’ve had some doubts about good and evil,” I said quietly. “I’ve had reason to question whether there are any real absolutes. But when I see something like this, it settles that question for me. You can’t do the things you’re doing and tell me that there’s no such thing as evil.”


“Oh, I don’t deny that evil exists,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that genuine good and genuine evil are real. My contention is that you’ll never find the one without the other. The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And that, my dear jarl, is why you have found no success with your efforts. It is a lack of vision.”


I took a deep breath and let it out. I no longer had that disconnected feeling, I noticed. I no longer felt like an observer. I must have caught my metaphorical breath, somewhere along the way.


I was acutely aware of my surroundings. There were so many pieces in play. The people I had brought with me were close behind me, just inside the door. The vampires lurked in the darkness all around, in front, above, to the sides. All were silent, watching as though Katrin and I were actors on a stage, all else forgotten.


The situation was ugly. I couldn’t so much as move without Katrin maiming or killing Kyra, and the stalemate could only last so long. Sooner or later the tension would break, and when it did, unless it broke in exactly the right way, one of my best friends was going to die. All the rest of us might, too, but Kyra definitely would.


Oddly enough, I found myself thinking about what Katrin was saying. It was important, I thought, although not quite in the way she meant it.


Vision. That was what was lacking. I had to look past my surroundings, past the immediate.


I thought about pieces again. This was a bit like chess, when I thought about it. Both sides controlled certain pieces. This wasn’t a fight between vampires and vampire hunters, not really. It was a fight between me and Katrin. Everyone else here was…more a playing piece than an actual player.


In that context, vision was simple. My pieces were surrounded, probably outnumbered. They weren’t in a position where I could use their abilities for all they were worth. Katrin’s pieces had better position, and they were more powerful, on the whole. Many of my pieces were pawns, whereas all of hers were rooks or queens. And to top it off, Katrin herself was in a position to take a piece that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice.


Seen through that lens, it was easy to observe that the game was lost. My position was cramped, and obviously unsound. Katrin had the advantage in both position and material. The only way I could even aim for a draw would be if she messed up badly, and even then it would Pyrrhic in nature, requiring me to make sacrifices I couldn’t afford in the long term.


So. The game wasn’t winnable. That clarified things completely. It meant that what I had to think about now was how I could change the nature of the game.


And then I saw it. Bizarrely enough, it was Katrin’s own words that gave me the hint I needed. It was about vision.


Or more specifically, the lack of vision.


“You know,” I said, quietly slipping my hands into my cloak. I doubted she’d notice, not while I was talking. “You know, the funny thing is that you aren’t wrong. You aren’t wrong about people being responsible, and you aren’t wrong about me. About me lacking vision. But you are mistaken on one topic, I think.”


“Oh? And what would that be?”


“You said that the only way to accomplish your goals was to focus on them,” I said. “To focus on them entirely, to the exclusion of everything else. But that’s not right. If you focus that tightly, you’re really giving yourself tunnel vision. You’re making yourself blind to everything outside of your obsession.”


And then I pulled out what I’d been carrying, and threw it at the ceiling.


One of the objects was a grenade, plain and simple. A modified grenade, a special model, but still basically just an explosive. The other was a glass sphere with a spark of blue light captured within it.


The glass was reinforced, and it would take a great deal to break it. Normally I primed those stored spells with blood before using them, removing the protections, but this time I hadn’t had the chance. I would just have to hope that the grenade would be enough to do the job.


The two objects reached the apex of their arc together and started to fall before the grenade went off. It was shockingly loud, in the relative silence of the room. A concussion grenade this time, rather than fragmentation; I didn’t want to deal with shrapnel in this environment.


For a second I thought even that hadn’t been enough. Then I saw a flicker of blue light expanding out, and grinned.


Kinetic force poured out from the broken sphere, pushing everything away. Where it hit air, the effect was minimal, almost nonexistent. Somewhere along the lines of a stiff breeze.


But the stone of the ceiling was less flexible, less able to move without damage. It started to break, cracks appearing, damage done by the grenade being exacerbated by the magic. Chunks of rock started falling.


For a moment I thought even that wouldn’t be enough, and I’d just signed all of our death warrants. Then one of the mages, an independent I knew nothing about, raised one hand and started blasting at it with what looked like greyish lightning. Another, the woman who was apparently their unofficial leader, was exercising her will as well, although it wasn’t nearly so visible. All I knew about that was that I smelled magic, and then there were parts of the ceiling that were just missing.


The hole was small at first, just a pinprick. Then more magic started tearing at the edges of that hole, and Aiko threw another grenade.


Katrin looked up, and I was close enough to see her expression when she realized what was happening. I’d expected horror, or wrath, but instead I saw a broad, beatific smile, maybe the first real smile I’d ever seen from her, as the sunlight fell on her face.

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Interlude 10.z: Blind Keith

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It took a certain amount of work to convince the Wild Hunt to let the cub and his friends go. Not as much as I expected it to. The Hunt was already predisposed to leave him be, out of respect. It was in their nature to respect a predator, and he had adequately shown himself to be a predator this night.


People had always had a tendency to describe me as a leader of the Wild Hunt, or even a ruler of it. It amused me how badly they misunderstood it, how thoroughly they failed to grasp the basic concept of the Wild Hunt. It wasn’t something you could rule. You could lead only in the sense that the head of a spear leads the shaft. The Wild Hunt was made to be an entity unto itself, not to be subservient to the will of another.


It’s always made perfect sense to me. Which itself made sense, I supposed. My nature had always had something in common with that of the Hunt. It likely helped that I’d had the chance to discuss the topic with its creator. Or perhaps progenitor would be the more accurate way to phrase it; no concept as sterile as creation could be truly applicable to the Wild Hunt. But he had given me an understanding of what he made, at the same time as I had learned many other things.


I looked around, and saw the hole in the world, waiting to be pushed into being. As always, I saw it in only one eye; the second had been taken long ago.


I pressed against the weakness in the world as I rode forward, opening the hole. It led to a Way, one of the paths the gods had carved through the face of reality, tying their creation together. Slower than a direct portal, but simpler to use, requiring less power, and a great deal safer.


I didn’t look back to check whether the Wild Hunt was following as I entered the Way. It was a matter of confidence. Act as though no one could possibly question you, and no one will. Show weakness, show doubt, show even a moment’s hesitation and the mask shatters, the illusion of control gone in a heartbeat.


The Way was a short one, crossing a short distance between worlds that had a great deal in common. Through my other eye, I could see the magics holding it together, woven into the backbone of the world, as immutable as reality itself. You could as easily turn back time as argue with that magic. You could more easily tear the fabric of reality itself than pull the two worlds apart with this holding them together.


To someone else, that might have been a comforting thought. Having seen what happened when someone actually did, I found it less so.


Back in the lands of the fae, I turned and looked at my Wild Hunt. I could see each of them, and I could see the power that tied them together and made them a Hunt rather than just a group of hunters. It was as indestructible as the Way, though for an entirely different reason, almost the polar opposite. The Wild Hunt was so amorphous, so ill-defined and unstructured, that it couldn’t really be damaged. It took power from its lack of definition, rather than from being a definition.


“This night’s hunt is ended,” I said.


Towards the back, one of the Sidhe spoke up. “We have not hunted anything,” she said.


I turned my head to look at her, and she flinched away. Most people did when they met my gaze, though it had nothing to their reaction when they truly saw my face. Even with the blindfold, even with the power I’d woven into the blindfold, they could still sense the void that lay behind.


One eye taken long ago, in punishment for a crime so abstract that nothing mortal could really comprehend it. One eye given, in exchange for a greater sight.


“This night’s hunt is ended,” I said again. This time there were no objections.


I had lost something tonight. Something intangible, almost indefinable, but something that any fae, or anyone who had ever felt the touch of the Wild Hunt, would understand. It wasn’t precisely reputation, or honor, or prestige, or respect, although it incorporated elements of all of those things. You could touch the edges of it with the Roman concept of auctoritas, or the Chinese concept of guanxi, but neither one fully grasped the meaning.


What it meant in an immediate sense was that the next time I called the Wild Hunt, fewer hunters would come to my call. If I asked a favor, people would be more likely to make an excuse not to do it. If I gave advice, they would feel more free to ignore it.


In general, it meant that my words carried less weight.


On a larger scale, looking beyond the immediate consequence, it meant that the balance of power had shifted. It was a subtle thing, almost invisible to those not associated with the Wild Hunt already, but what had happened today would have consequences. Power had shifted away from me, in the great, intricate, infinitely complex game.


And on the greatest scale, it meant that the wheel had begun to turn. It was slow, quiet, so subtle that very few would have known it was happening at all, but I had a greater sight. I knew what this presaged, what it meant.


Fortune’s wheel had treated me kindly for a very long time, but now it had begun to pull me down. Slowly but surely, I would be brought low, crushed, and forgotten, as so many had before me.


I felt no great emotion at the thought. There was no anger, no anxiety, no dread, no sense of betrayal. I could recognize logically that a person might feel this way, I could even conceptualize what it might be like to feel these things, but that was all. The feelings themselves weren’t there.


It was not in my nature to feel anything. Mortals lived and died, and the world did not grieve their passing. Immortals came into being, were raised, and were cast down, and the world continued to turn.


One day even that would pass. The world itself would collapse, subsumed back into the chaos which had once given it birth. The end was already there, written into the structure of reality for those with the eyes to see. The world wound down to its ending, slowly but inexorably.


There was no emotion at the thought. There was no concern. It was not in my nature.


The distinction between a blessing and a curse has always been so very, very fine.

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Clean Slate 10.31

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The house burned hot and fast. When a section looked like it was dying out, the housecarls chucked a little more gasoline into the area, and the two fire mages focused their attentions on it.


I tried to ignore the fact that I could hear screaming coming from inside the fire. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. I’d known that the explosion couldn’t have killed everything, and I’d known that not everyone would have gotten out either to flee or attack. There would be people trapped inside where the exits were blocked, people who were crippled by their injuries, people who were just too scared to move.


I’d known all of that. And I’d given the order to burn it anyway.


It was the same problem I’d run into when attacking vampires before. I knew that not everyone in there deserved to burn. I knew that some of them were completely innocent victims.


But I also knew that some were monsters. Even the humans might be a risk I couldn’t afford. I knew that some of them willingly made themselves victims of the vampires for one reason or another. At worst, they collaborated with them, actively assisting them in hunting and killing other people.


And I had no way to tell the one group from the other. Not really. I could hope to catch them in a lie, but there was no guarantee it would work. I could try to quarantine them all, innocent and guilty, but I wasn’t sure what kind of quarantine measures I might need to take, and it would be a serious risk to try and search the house to take them in safely.


So I’d given the order to burn it. And them.


I stood and watched in grim silence as the screams slowly died out, until the only sound was the crackling of the flames. Anna seemed distinctly uncomfortable by my side; on the other side, Aiko showed no such signs of discomfort.


As for Jimmy and the other fire mage, they both looked dispassionate, caught up in the effort of their magic. A third mage had figured out what they were doing and walked up beside them. From what I could smell of his magic, and what I could feel in the air around me, he was directing the wind to keep a constant stream of fresh air flowing into the blaze. Smart; that would keep the fire healthy, keep it burning bright and hot.


Soon, the wreckage began to collapse further into itself. Key structural elements had been eaten away by the flames, and what was left was falling into pieces, being consumed by fire.


Jimmy paused and glanced back at me, apparently wondering whether they were done. I said nothing, gave no indication that I’d noticed, and he turned back to the fire, stoking it higher. All three of them were getting visibly tired, and I doubted they’d be good for much after this, but that was all right. I had plenty of metaphorical firepower without needing the literal stuff.


In the end, it took closer to twenty-five minutes than fifteen for me to be satisfied. There were still handful of timbers smoldering, sticking up from the ashes like the bones of a beached whale from the sand, but the house itself was gone.


It had been a tightly controlled demolition, I noted with some satisfaction. There had been a little bit of property damage from the explosion, and a few buildings were scarred by the fire, but nothing that would require a large amount of reconstruction.


“Good work,” I said, walking briskly up to the group of arsonists. “Now put it out.” I stumbled over my own feet when Anna looked away and left me blind, and she hurried to catch up to me. I hadn’t actually told any of the werewolves what was going on with my vision, but I was pretty sure they’d all noticed.


“Put it out?” Jimmy asked me, turning and staring. He was swaying on his feet a little, and I thought he’d pushed himself just about to the limit. It was gratifying, in a way, to know that he’d exerted himself that much to make something I wanted happen. I mean, it was probably more that he liked burning things than any actual obedience, but still.


“Yeah,” I said. “We’re moving through there. Don’t tell me you can’t put fires out?”


He flushed and looked away. “I never really practiced that,” he muttered.


The other fire mage rolled his eyes and closed one hand into a fist. The fires died out in a few seconds, even the coals turning from red to black. “There you go,” he said.


“Great,” I said. “You three coming with or staying out here?”


“I think we could all use a chance to rest before another fight,” the same man said.


“No time,” I said. “Wait out here with anyone else who isn’t coming.”


I turned, and saw that the housecarls had already started to gather by the edge of the ash field, holding their weapons and smiling eagerly. I supposed that in a lot of ways they’d been waiting for this day as long as I had. They were the first on the scene, but others were already starting to join them there. The shapeshifters were there, the werewolves, Unna. The lieutenant was standing a short distance away with a dozen soldiers, and the leader of Pellegrini’s gangsters had a similar number of his own people.


“Okay,” I said, as much to myself as the mages. “It’s time. Let’s go.”


I led the way through the ashes, drawing on the jotun in me to bring the temperature down. The fire was out, but things were still hot. I cooled it down a little, and the housecarls following in a broad arc behind me cooled it down further, until it was almost comfortable by the time the rest got there.


As we walked, I catalogued what forces I still had available. There was me, obviously, and Aiko was there as well. All seven of the housecarls with me were still in shape to fight, as were all four werewolves. The three shapeshifters were the only members of the Inquisition who were still ready to fight, but there were five independent mages still standing, and they looked ready for blood. The lieutenant and the gangsters, after some rather tense and awkward discussion, had settled on bringing four men each and leaving the rest to guard the wounded and make sure nobody followed us down.


A sizable force, at least by my standards. I was honestly more concerned that we’d be getting in each other’s way than anything. Not much that I could do about it, though; I couldn’t exactly tell people that they weren’t welcome, not without losing a lot of goodwill.


The entrance to the basement was easy to find, although I suspected it hadn’t been when the house was still standing. The hole in the ground was large enough to drive a car through, the trapdoor little more than a memory.


The stairs leading down were marble, cracked and crazed by the heat. I doubted any traps would have survived that, if there had even been any traps to begin, but I went first just in case. I was probably the toughest person here by a considerable margin.


And besides, it fit the image.


Downstairs, I was surprised at how spacious it was. The hallway was wide enough to walk four abreast with enough space to move. I was still leading, with Aiko and Anna beside me. After that came the housecarls, then the soldiers, the mages, the gangsters, and the werewolves and shapeshifters bringing up the rear.


Theoretically, the formation would give the mages the most possible time to hit back before an attacker reached them. It wasn’t perfect—I was concerned about being attacked from above, or below, or the sides—but it was the best I could do on short notice.


And short notice was what we had. At most, it would be an hour before it ceased to be unambiguously daytime. If we were still down here when that happened, if we hadn’t killed the vampires yet, I wouldn’t lay money on any of us getting out alive.


The hallway was maybe forty feet long, all marble, unlit. Several people started digging for flashlights once we were out of the light, but one of the mages beat them to it, producing a golden light bright enough to hurt my eyes a little.


At the end of the hallway it forked, one path continuing straight while another split off to either side. The light didn’t show the end of any of the three paths.


“We should split up,” the lieutenant said behind me. “Send a group to clear each direction.”


I snorted. “Have you never watched a horror movie?” I asked. “We stick together and check each path in order. Follow me.”


Nobody argued, and I led us down the left-hand path first. I walked about fifty feet before stopping in front of a heavy oak door. It was locked, and not just casually. I counted two combination pad locks and three deadbolts, and I was guessing it was also barred from the inside.


“I can probably get that open,” someone said behind me.


I ignored them, summoning and drawing Tyrfing instead. It took three swings to cut through all the locks, and another two to get rid of the hinges, at which point the only thing keeping the door standing was inertia. I sheathed the sword and stepped up, pushing the door up and back. It slammed to the ground with an almost deafening crash.


“Or you could do that,” the person acknowledged.


I was grinning as I stepped inside.


That grin faded as soon as I was inside the room. It looked a lot like the last room I’d seen where vampires hid from the day. There were some beds scattered around, each of which had a single occupant. The vampires looked more dead than asleep.


There was one obvious difference, though. There was another person in the room, a girl sitting by the opposite wall. She looked human, maybe eighteen to twenty, dirty and disheveled, dressed in something like a hospital gown. She had a heavy steel collar around her neck, which in turn connected to a heavy steel chain that was bolted to the wall. From where she was chained, she couldn’t reach the door, or any of the beds.


“Oh, thank God,” she said breathlessly when I stepped in. “Let me out, please!”


“Don’t go near her,” I said, ignoring her and walking up to one of the beds. There were fifteen of them in this room alone.


Fifteen more vampires. Bloody hell, I’d underestimated Katrin’s forces.


“What?” the lieutenant asked. “We can’t leave her like that. Johnson, Pepper, go get her out of that thing.” Two of the soldiers started forward.


“Don’t go near her,” I said again. Tyrfing came down and took the first vampire’s head off. Around me, Aiko and the housecarls were moving through the room, going to the other beds.


The soldiers ignored me, walking up to the woman. One of them reached out towards her neck, apparently to try and get the collar off.


I was watching the whole thing, and it was still hard to say quite what had happened. One moment, she was just sitting there motionless while the man reached for her neck.


The next, she had her hand around his wrist, pulling him forward. He stumbled towards her and she stood, one hand wrapping around the man’s head, pulling him down to meet her as she rose.


It still looked almost innocent. It could have passed for a kiss, with the mouth just a little lower than just usual, on the bottom corner of the soldier’s jaw rather than his mouth. It could have, and likely it did to the other soldier, who stepped forward and reached out to separate them.


She reached out and caught him as well, grabbing the front of his vest. Then she lifted her head from the other man’s neck, and it became horribly apparent what had actually been happening. Her mouth was stained crimson, and more blood poured from the bite in his neck when she moved her mouth away. He crumpled to the ground without her holding him up, and lay on the ground in a heap.


The other soldier panicked and tried to push her away. He might as well have been pushing the wall for all the good it did him. She picked him up and swung him into the wall easily, although he must have been twice her size. She pinned him there against the wall with her hand on his throat as she leaned in and whispered something in his ear.


She dropped him a moment later. He collapsed to the ground, and even at this distance I could see that his throat was crushed. A rapid enough tracheotomy could conceivably save him, I supposed, but I doubted the opportunity would arise.


“Not very polite,” I said, watching her carefully. “Killing the people who wanted to let you out.”


She smiled, showing very red teeth. “They disobeyed an order,” she said sweetly. “That must be punished.”


I shook my head. “No. Don’t try to put this off on me. You were going to kill them whether I’d said anything or not.”


“Yes,” she admitted. “But that does not change the truth of what I said.”


I nodded. “Fair enough. So why are you in here? I’m guessing you’re fae, and I can’t imagine one of the fae would be wearing that collar willingly. But if you wanted out, you could have just let them unlock that collar.”


“Or maybe I couldn’t,” she said with a coy smile.


“Maybe not,” I said. “I don’t suppose you could tell me the exact terms of the oath you swore?”


The smile got a little wider, until she was showing white teeth behind the bloody ones. “Oh, someone’s clever,” she said. “I swore that I would protect these vampires as they slept, keep them safe in their refuge from the sun’s rays.”


I glanced around, and saw that all of the vampires were already done for. The housecarls had made quick, efficient work of it. “It seems to me that they’re rather beyond any protection you can offer,” I said. “Which means that your oath is completed.”


“Clever, clever,” she said happily. “I always find it so delightful when a human takes the time to think before he speaks.”


I didn’t bother correcting her on the human bit, mostly because I was pretty sure she already knew. The way she’d phrased that had pretty clearly been meant to imply that I was human without stating it. She was doing me a favor, in a way, keeping my secrets from the actual humans present, while also subtly threatening me with the possibility that she could stop keeping those secrets.


Or maybe I was just reading too much into it. But considering that this was one of the fae, I didn’t think that was terribly likely.


“I’m going to come over there and let you out now,” I said. “If you try to cause problems for me while I do, I swear that you’ll regret it.”


“I’ll be good this time,” she said. “Promise.”


I walked over, ignoring the people staring on me, and hoping that none of them would notice that Anna was still following at my heel and put two and two together.


It was a forlorn hope. I’d just put my hands on the collar when the fae gripped them and leaned forward a little to whisper in my ear. “Someone’s eyes don’t shine half so bright as they ought to,” she said, so quietly that I doubted Anna could understand her with lycanthropic hearing from five feet away. “Would the puppy like me to fix them for him? I could give him a new pair, if he liked.”


“I’ll keep my own,” I said, just as quietly. “I have it on excellent authority that this is a temporary condition.” I started probing the collar, looking for the lock. It only took a few seconds to find it, and a couple more to open it with a twist of hardened air. I could damn near have picked the thing with my fingers, it was so clumsy. She’d been kept bound by her own word, not the lock.


She looked at me with a disappointed moue on her face as the collar fell to the floor beside her. “Very well,” she murmured. “I’ll simply have to find another way to repay you, then. Goodbye for now, dear puppy.”


She stalked to the door, and her posture, her movements were so confident that everyone got out of her way without even quite seeming to realize what they’d done.


I bent down to look at the soldiers, and confirmed that they were both quite dead. A moment later someone else stepped up beside me. I glanced up, expecting to see Aiko there, but it was the lieutenant.


Not that I could see that. It was a reflex to look up, an instinct, the same as it had been a reflex to bend down to look at the soldiers. In both cases, the actual visual was coming from Anna.


“How’d you know what was going to happen?” he asked me quietly.


“I didn’t,” I said, straightening and turning to the door. “I hadn’t even really looked at her. My priority was making sure that none of the vampires were going to wake up. This is a war,” I said to the lieutenant, not looking back. “And it’s one where you don’t know the enemy, and you don’t know the rules. Keep ignoring the people who do, and those two won’t be the last people you lose today.”


The next hallway we checked was the one directly across from us. It was basically a mirror image of the first, and we treated it the same way. There was no fae chained to the wall this time, but that didn’t make me feel any less suspicious.


That suspicion turned out to be justified. We’d killed two vampires when suddenly one of them got up and threw itself at us. It killed three of the gangsters and threw Ryan into the wall hard enough to break bones before the woman the independent mages had chosen as their representative earlier got to it.


I wasn’t entirely sure what kind of magic she threw at it. It was something exotic, a more abstract sort of magic. But there wasn’t much vampire left when she was finished with it.


I kept watch as the housecarls finished the job. I was breathing hard, though I hadn’t had time to actually get involved the fight. In a way, that was what made it so stressful—what made every fight with a vampire so terrifying. They were just so fast. They could kill people before I could even react.


That one could have killed people I knew and cared about rather than gangsters I hadn’t even met, and there wouldn’t have been much I could do about it.


No wonder I was feeling a bit stressed by it.


As we got ready to move on to the third branch of the hallway, I glanced over the group, then paused. The headcount was off.


I looked again, and again after that, with an increasing sense of desperation, but my first impression had been correct. At some point during that last fight, Kyra had disappeared.

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