Monthly Archives: July 2015

Clean Slate 10.30

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At first the difference between the latest arrival and the previous monstrosities wasn’t obvious. It looked a great deal like the humanoid monsters, bipedal and generally human in shape, but with a twistedness to its body and a speed to its movement that no human could match. No one really noticed it at first. They were too busy with the creatures that had already reached us, keeping things under control.


But I noticed. I was watching the wreckage more than the fight, for this specific reason.


“Watch out!” I shouted. “Vampire incoming!”


Apparently said vampire heard me, because it stopped pretending to be even remotely close to human. It had been maybe a hundred and fifty feet when I shouted, far enough away to give us a comfortable amount of time before it reached us at its current pace.


It covered that distance in all of three seconds, and jumped over our front line entirely, landing somewhere behind our entire group.


I spun to face it, reaching for weapons and snarling curses.


I was just in time to see it land, a few feet behind the ranks of gunmen. They’d heard my warning, and some of them managed to turn and start shooting before it could move from where it landed.


It didn’t seem to matter. The vampire rushed forward into their midst, and I thought most of them missed, unable to compensate for the sheer speed with which the thing moved. The handful of rounds that did hit it didn’t have a noticeable effect. Gaping holes appeared in its flesh, but it didn’t slow, didn’t even seem inconvenienced by the damage.


The same could not be said for the gunmen. The vampire moved forward into their midst, laying about itself with all four limbs as it ran forward, and every blow sent a person sprawling, if not flying. It wasn’t using a weapon, but I couldn’t really think of anything that would have helped it anyway. As fast as it was moving, a gun would have just gotten in the way, slowed it down. As hard as it hit, a knife or sword would have just slowed it down for no reason.


Within a handful of seconds, it had cleared a large area around itself. Gangsters and soldiers, it didn’t seem to make a difference; everything it hit went down, and the ones that were standing back up weren’t doing so quickly.


And then it stopped, and looked at me. I’d gotten to within the area it had cleared for itself, and I was holding Tyrfing.


“Ah,” it said. “And the jarl stands for himself at last. It took you long enough.”


I didn’t say a word, just threw myself at it, slashing straight for its center of mass. It tried to dodge out of the way, but I’d aimed where I did for a reason. It had to move half its body sideways to avoid the sword.


Normally, it could probably have done it. Normally.


But it was still broad daylight out here. While this vamp was apparently old and powerful enough to function in the sunlight, I had no doubt that it was functioning at less than its best. It was barely faster than I was, where before when I’d fought vampires they’d left me so far behind that it wasn’t even close to being a fight.


The end result was that it dodged the worst of the blow. I didn’t cut it in half, the way I would have liked to.


But it lost its right arm from the elbow down, and I cut halfway through its thigh on that side as well. Blood gushed out of its body momentarily from the stump, before slowing to a trickle. It took another few steps to the side, stumbling a little, and then stopped and stared at me.


I lifted the sword to a ready position and smiled at it behind my helmet. The vamp hesitated only a moment before rushing forward again, one hand snapping out at my face.


I dodged aside, only to realize at the last moment that it hadn’t been aiming for me.


It snatched the raven off my shoulder, and crushed it between its fingers in a heartbeat.


Instantly, I was blind again, and reeling from the pain I felt transmitted from the raven’s mind in the last instants of its life. I scrambled for other ways to piece together an image of my surroundings, focusing my magic to find another animal to look through, or enough awareness of air currents to track motion.


The pain made me slow and clumsy. I hadn’t gotten anything together when I felt a heavy impact to my abdomen. It didn’t penetrate the armor, but it picked me up and threw me backward. I landed hard on something soft.


I laid there for a few seconds, getting my head in gear and figuring out how to see. After a couple of seconds I managed to get a solid connection to the werewolves.


It gave me an odd, kaleidoscopic view of the battle. I was connected to the pack, rather than any individual, and the difference was incredible. I was simultaneously processing input from Kyra, Anna, Ryan, and Daniell, and they were all looking in different directions. I’d never have been able to manage it if I hadn’t been practicing handling multiple inputs, information from multiple animals at once, and even as it was it was a little dizzying.


Ryan was still watching the battle below. He’d been one of the ranged combatants this time around, using his submachine gun, and he had the ingrained discipline to keep to his role even when there was a fight with a vampire raging behind him.


Through his eyes, I could see that the mass of ghouls and monsters was still contained. They weren’t being shot nearly as much now that most of the soldiers and gangsters were down, but the barrage of gunfire had done enough to slow them down and weaken them that the housecarls could keep things under control. Some of them were injured, but I didn’t think any were down entirely.


Kyra, on the other hand, was in the thick of things, fighting beside the jötnar. In the moment I made contact, she was biting a ghoul’s shin. She bit down hard enough to crack the bone, then twisted, pulling the bone to pieces. When she let go her teeth pulled chunks of flesh loose, and the ghoul had barely been free for half a second when she lunged upward, catching it a little higher on the leg. She repeated the process three more times over the next couple seconds, pulling the monster down and leaving its leg as little more than shredded meat.


I didn’t see as much from her angle. But I did gain a renewed appreciation for what a werewolf was capable of in a melee.


Next was Anna. She’d been hanging back a little, taking a breather, at the moment that the vampire had attacked, and as a result she’d been free to turn and watch. At the moment she was mostly watching me, so I could see myself from the outside. It was a little strange, but it let me figure out where I was. I’d landed a short distance away from where I’d been standing, on top of a pair of downed gangsters. It was hard to say whether they were alive or dead at a distance and I didn’t have time to check myself, but they weren’t moving.


And last of the werewolves was Daniell. Like Anna, she’d been watching what happened behind the lines, but her focus was more on the vampire than me. She was running up to it now, running even faster than it had. Smart choice, given that she was one of the very few people quick enough to pose a meaningful threat to it.


I was still trying to stand when she jumped on it, biting and tearing. It tried to swat her away with its remaining arm, but she twisted aside with almost unbelievable agility, falling to the ground and then lunging forward again. She caught its already-wounded leg and bit deeply, tearing away another large chunk of meat.


Apparently the vampire had had enough of that, because it jumped again, a freakish fifteen-foot-high leap that carried it right over Daniell’s head.


The werewolf spun just in time to watch it come down in the midst of the mages. Once again, it didn’t hesitate a moment before lashing out. It caught the independent mage who’d been providing the force magic with its sole remaining hand and ripped his throat open to the spine, then swung its fist into the side of Doug’s head hard enough to cave the man’s skull in.


The force mage was dying, obviously and rapidly. But his face was locked in an expression of grim determination, something almost frightening to behold, and he was still standing. He threw his magic at the vampire, and I could smell it from here, disinfectant touched with the scents of blood and death. He landed only a glancing blow, I was pretty sure, but it still smashed the monster to the ground hard. The next hit visibly shattered most of its bones.


Some part of me was aware that this was magic on a scale I’d seldom seen. His attacks on the ghouls had been powerful, but nothing like this, and he should have been getting tired, not building up steam. He was using blood magic, had to be, throwing his life behind his magic. Made sense, I supposed; he was dying anyway.


The rest of me was too busy staring at Doug as he crumpled to the ground. I’d never been too close to him; he was nice, and a genuinely good person, while I could claim neither. But I’d gotten to know him fairly well while we were working together, and I’d liked the big guy. He was a decent sort.


And now he was dead, as fast as that. That kind of brain damage was the sort of thing that killed almost instantly, and there wasn’t anything much I could do about it. Not even magic was going to fix this. He was gone.


The force mage let out a final gasp and then collapsed. He’d bought some time with his life, but the vampire was still moving. Even with most of its bones broken, it was still trying to stand.


Mac was the next closest mage. She watched the force mage die. She spent a long moment staring at Doug, or rather at Doug’s corpse.


And then I saw something I’d never expected to see.


I saw Mac use her magic offensively.


She stretched out one hand towards the vampire, her mouth set in a hard line. A gentle white light glowed around her hand, twining between her fingers like streamers of luminescent cloud. I smelled her magic as well as I started to jog towards the scene—I wasn’t quite up to running just yet, not without risking an embarrassing fall.


There was something odd about it, though. The normally mild scent of her magic was touched with something darker this time, something very much akin to blood.


In fact, it smelled uncomfortably similar to the tone that had been in the force mage’s magic in the instants before he died. It smelled an awful lot like blood magic.


The vampire slowed dramatically. It was still moving, but there was less purpose to it now, less focus. It started to stand, then slipped and fell again.


I was moving as quickly as I could, but Aiko was closer, faster on her feet, and not blind. She reached the vampire before I was even close, and thrust her katana squarely through its neck.


It collapsed back to the ground as she severed the spinal cord. A moment later she pulled the blade out and thrust again, stabbing it through the heart this time.


It took only a few seconds for the last of the ghouls to be mopped up. A handful of the jötnar were injured, none of them seriously. The werewolves and shapeshifters were untouched by the battle, to all appearances.


I took the time to decapitate the vampire completely, and doused the body in holy water just to be careful.


Lieutenant Delaney found me there. Anna was standing beside me, providing me with eyes. She turned to watch as he got close. I didn’t bother. I didn’t need to with her watching him, and this would help my image.


“That was a vampire?” he asked quietly, watching me.


“Yep,” I said, dumping the last of the holy water on the body. I couldn’t have said whether it was working, but it probably didn’t matter. It was decapitated, and the heart was completely destroyed and removed. That was enough to kill even a vampire.


“Are they always that tough?”


I snorted. “Usually they’re a hell of a lot worse than that,” I said dryly. “That’s why we’re doing this in the daytime. It makes it easy.”


He stared. “Jesus motherfucking Christ,” he said. “That thing killed half my men. That was it being easy?”


“Yep,” I said. “I know it’s hard to believe, but it was. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some people I need to talk to. Preparations to make.” I started walking away.


“Preparations for what?” he asked, hurrying to keep up.


I didn’t glance back, although Anna did, giving me a look at him anyway. “You didn’t think this was over, did you?” I asked. “We’re going to finish the job. I’ll understand if you don’t want to participate any more.”


He paused, then nodded. “There are more of those things here,” he said. “This city won’t be safe until they’re dead.”


“Good,” I said. “Glad to have you with us. Go and take care of your people, get ready. We’ll be going in in about fifteen minutes.”


He left, and we kept walking. Aiko found us within a few moments, and we walked up to the mages together.


They were gathered in a clump around the bodies of Doug and the force mage. It looked like half of them were in mourning, and the other half were pissed.


I was pleased to see that second group. It was selfish of me, maybe, but I couldn’t help but think that pissed was good. I could use pissed.


“Hey,” I said. “Who here’s good with fire?”


Jimmy raised his hand without looking away from Doug. A moment later, so did another mage, one of the independents.


“Good,” I said. “Come with me.” I walked away without waiting for an answer.


At the wreckage of the house, the housecarls were dousing things in accelerant under Kyi’s direction, while the werewolves stood guard. They carried jugs of gasoline and kerosene from the cars and splashed them generously on the building. Kjaran set a crate on the ground and then started pulling out water balloons full of gasoline and holy water. He tossed them onto the wreckage in places that the housecarls couldn’t get, or threw them through windows.


“We’re going to torch the building,” I said needlessly. “I want you two to make sure it burns fast, and it burns completely. In fifteen minutes, I don’t want there to be anything here but ashes. Are we clear?”


Jimmy nodded, a wide pyromaniac’s grin on his face. After a moment, the independent mage followed suit.

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Clean Slate 10.29

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The scene outside the building was a madhouse by the time I got there. There were jötnar running around, a group of werewolves loitering next to a selkie, some mages. To say that it was chaotic would be a spectacular understatement.


I looked for an island of sanity in the midst of the madness, and found it in the form of Kyi. The housecarl was standing on the sidelines, watching. I walked up, and she turned to face me, nodding. “Jarl,” she said. “Why is there a raven on your shoulder?”


“Not your problem,” I said. “Situation?”


“We’re getting into position for the assault,” she said. “We’ve got most of the stuff you asked for distributed.”


“What’s missing?” I asked, frowning.




My frown deepened, and I pulled my cell phone out, dialing Tindr. “Garlic,” I snapped the second he answered. “Where is it?”


“I’m sorry, jarl,” he replied. “I couldn’t—”


“No,” I said, cutting him off. “I don’t want excuses. I want garlic. Make it happen and get it here now.” I hung up before he could say anything else. “Okay,” I said to Kyi. “That’s in the works. How many people do we have here?”


“For housecarls there’s me, Vigdis, Kjaran, Herjolfr, Thraslaug, Brandulfr, and Nóttolfr. All of the Inquisition mages are here, and the independent factions sent another eight between them. Four werewolves and a selkie.”


“Good,” I said. “Any word from Pellegrini or Frishberg?”


Kyi hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. “There are some humans over there that wanted to talk to you. I didn’t want to make any deals or anything without you, so they’re still waiting.” She pointed.


“Good,” I said. “Keep getting everything ready, and look for someone to be showing up with garlic. I’m going to go talk to them.”


“Does garlic even do anything to vampires?” Aiko wondered as we walked.


“Beats me,” I said. “But I want every advantage I can get. Garlic’s cheap.”


We passed in front of the Inquisition mages first. There weren’t as many as there used to be. All three shapeshifters had survived, oddly enough, which gave me a hawk, a bear, and a wolf. Jimmy provided very literal firepower, and while Doug’s control of plants and plant products was unlikely to be terribly useful here, he had some valuable secondary abilities. Aubrey probably couldn’t affect a vampire directly, given how alien and inhuman their mental functions were, but he could keep track of people and maybe handle communications in a pinch. Even Mac was there, to my surprise. I was certain that she wasn’t going to be going inside, but as field medics went, we could do a lot worse.


I didn’t stop or say anything to them. There were problems that could be fixed, and there were problems that couldn’t. My issues with the Inquisition were the second kind. Talking was more likely to make things worse than better, and I couldn’t afford that right now.


Next was the werewolves. Here I did stop, taking a hard look at them. It had occurred to me that a certain sort of person might try to slip an infiltrator in among this group, with the assumption that people wouldn’t be able to tell one werewolf in fur from another. But I recognized all of them. Kyra was wearing the heavy, custom-made armor I’d given her for her last birthday, giving her a grim, intimidating look. Daniell was smaller and leaner, built for quickness rather than strength, and Anna was somewhere in between. Ryan, back on two feet, and Unna rounded out the group.


“Status?” I asked.


“Ready when you are, sir,” Ryan. said. I noticed with some amusement that he’d fallen right back into old habits. His posture could have been the picture in a military textbook describing attention, and he was calling me sir again.


“You’ve got holy water?” I asked.


“Yes, sir,” Ryan said, touching the squirt gun on one hip, then the water balloons on the other. They looked a little comical next to a submachine gun and a handful of fragmentation grenades, respectively, but Ryan didn’t seem at all awkward about it. Unna just smiled, showing small, sharp teeth, and nodded. The motion was a quick bob, something that made me think of a bird more than a human.


“Good,” I said. “Be ready.”


Anna fell in on my left side as we walked away, butting her head against my thigh as we walked. It felt good, in an odd way. It wasn’t the same as having Snowflake there, but I’d gotten used to having Aiko on one side and a canine on the other in situations like this one. Going back to that was strangely comforting.


Next up was the independent faction. If you could even call it that; they were standing together, but it wasn’t the same as the other groups. There was none of that sense of solidarity. There was a subtle but noticeable distance between them, a sense of distrust bordering on barely-hidden hostility.


“Status?” I asked them.


“We’re ready,” one of them asked. He was shorter than I was, and stocky, but there was a solidity about him. I couldn’t phrase it any better than that, couldn’t even put my finger on what it was. It was just that I looked at him and got the impression that he was sturdy, like there just wasn’t a whole lot that would really phase him.


“How many of you have fought vampires before?” I asked.


There were eight mages there. Seven hands went up, and the only one who didn’t raise his hand still looked perfectly confident. He might not have fought vampires, but I was guessing he’d done his share of fighting and then some.


It was kind of nice to have some people who really knew what they were doing there. Eight mages who knew what they were fighting and how to deal with it was a significant force, and this group smelled considerably stronger than the Inquisition, overall.


“Good,” I said. “Be ready. We’re making final preparations for the assault now.”


Which, finally, left only the humans. There were two groups, both at a distance from the preparations going on around the building, although they were maintaining a distance from each other. There was definitely no kind of trust between them, judging by the way they treated each other. Both groups were gathered around vehicles, but the vehicles in question didn’t have much in common. One was a fleet of anonymous black SUVs, while the other consisted of military-style jeeps.


I went for the SUVs first. A guy in black body armor was lounging against one of them. He didn’t have any visible weapons, but I was confident he was carrying something where it couldn’t easily be seen.


He wasn’t the only one there, but his posture suggested that he was the leader, and that impression was reinforced when he waved at me. So he was the one I walked up to.


“Nice dog,” he said casually.


Anna bristled, hackles raising. I rested one hand on her head, reminding her of where she was, and watched the man in armor. He was looking at Anna, but there was no fear or surprise in his cool, flat grey eyes.


“You know better than that,” I said, fully confident that I was right. “Next time you go fishing for a reaction from a werewolf, there are probably smarter ways to go about it than that.”


“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said. His voice was just as casual as before, blank and dispassionate in the same way his eyes were.


“Why are you here?” I asked, not making an effort to sound polite or friendly.


“Mr. Pellegrini felt you could use some assistance,” he said.


“You’re here to help with the assault?” I asked.


He smiled. It didn’t touch his eyes at all. “That would be illegal. But I’m sure some of us are prepared to defend ourselves in the case of an attack. That would only be reasonable, with how dangerous the roads are recently.”


“I expect you to follow my orders while you’re here,” I said. “You and all your people. Clear?”


“Crystal,” he drawled. “We’ll follow your orders right up until they contradict our instructions from Mr. Pellegrini.”


“Fair enough,” I said. “You see the woman over there? Tattoos, carrying a compound bow, telling people what to do? Go tell her I sent you to pick up armaments.”


“We’ve got our own stuff,” he said. “No worries.”


I stared at him for a long, quiet moment. “That wasn’t a request,” I said. “Now get over there.”


He stiffened and glared at me for a moment, then nodded.


I went to the next group.


This one had a much different vibe to it, much more organized and formal. There were groups of people standing together by each of the vehicles. They talked quietly to each other, moved around a little, but they stayed in their groups, and they were obviously ready to move at a moment’s notice. They were all wearing identical uniforms, carrying identical rifles.


They looked uncomfortably military. I hadn’t really dealt with the military before.


I didn’t have to look for the person in charge here. The hierarchy was pretty obvious, and if it hadn’t been, I’d still have known when he walked over to meet me as I approached. He was young, maybe early twenties, with blond hair shaved close to his head and blueish eyes.


“Who are you?” I asked, stopping a short distance away.


“Second Lieutenant William Delaney,” he said, saluting. Literally saluting. “Platoon leader, Tenth Special Forces Group.”


I bit back a sigh, and resisted the urge to rub my forehead. It wouldn’t do any good anyway, given that I was wearing a helmet. “What are you doing here?” I asked.


“Sir, it is our understanding that you are preparing to lead an assault upon a fortified enemy location. I have been assigned to support you.”


“Okay,” I said. “And why exactly is the Army supporting me over her?”


“Sir, I am not privy to that information.”


“Oh, come off it,” I said wearily. “You might not have been there for the meeting, but you know the gist of what they decided. Give.”


“If I had to guess, sir? You don’t have the authority to do what you’re doing, but at least there will still be a city when you’re done.”


I nodded. “Fair enough,” I said. “How much support, exactly?”


“Anything within reason, sir.”


“Cool,” I said, eyeing the building we were here to assault. It was a big, old house, the sort that probably dated back a hundred and fifty years or more. It had been remodeled a few times since then, but the basic structure was the same. “I don’t suppose you have any explosives?”


About half an hour later, I was standing a little less than two hundred feet away, surrounded by a small group of very, very scary people. Each of the major groups involved in the assault had a person there to coordinate things. Kyi was representing the housecarls, and Kyra was there for the werewolves. Those two were the closest to me, literally and metaphorically.


The rest were a little further away. Pellegrini’s chief thug and Lieutenant Delaney were standing on opposite sides of the group, very carefully ignoring each other. Aubrey was there for the Inquisition, more because he didn’t have a place in the thick of things and I could tolerate his presence reasonably well than because he had any kind of leadership role. The independent mages, after considerable discussion, had settled on a tall, slender woman I didn’t know as their representative.


Aiko was there as well, as was Anna. But that was different. They were with me, not just acting as liaisons.

“The evacuation is complete?” I asked. “We’re sure?”


“Absolutely, jarl,” Kyi said.


“Good. Everyone is equipped and briefed on their role?”


There was a chorus of responses from that, all of which were some flavor of affirmative.


“Good,” I said again. “Lieutenant, I believe that’s your cue.”


He nodded and lifted a radio to his mouth, muttering into it. I didn’t bother trying to parse what he was saying. I didn’t know military jargon, and all that really mattered was that he was giving the order to begin.


A few seconds later, the explosives went off.


This was nothing like the last time we’d blown up a vampire’s lair. Those had been demolition explosives repurposed as weapons, and they’d been deployed with the intention of damaging the building rather than destroying it.


These were military-grade, and they’d been set out by someone who knew what they were doing with the specific intent of leveling the place. It was a whole different ballgame.


Two hundred feet away, the noise was still something painful. I had to make a considerable effort to keep the raven on my shoulder, acting as my eyes, when it wanted to fly away from the blast.


The effect on the house, though, was considerably more pronounced. It shattered, and the whole thing started to collapse in on itself in a cloud of dust and smoke.


“Be ready,” I said quietly. Well, quietly compared to the explosion, anyway. “It isn’t over.”


For several long seconds, nothing happened, and I almost thought it really was going to be that easy.


Then monsters started pouring out of the wreckage. Some of them looked like humans, at least superficially. But they didn’t move like humans, not in the slightest. They picked up timbers that must have weighed fifty or a hundred pounds and tossed them aside like nothing, just flicked them out of the way. Behind them came creatures that instead mocked dogs, but too large, too fast, and apparently unfazed by the building being blown up around them. After them came ghouls.


Most of the creatures were injured, some of them grievously. But they didn’t seem to care, didn’t hesitate, showed no signs of pain.


I had to admit, I was impressed by how smooth the reaction was. I’d expected Pellegrini’s men and the soldiers to hesitate, unable to deal with something so far outside of their comfort zone. And, to a certain extent, they did.


But after only a few seconds, they lifted weapons and started shooting.


There were about forty soldiers, and a comparable number of gangsters. Most of them were using automatic weapons, and while they were firing in short, controlled bursts, it still translated to a whole lot of bullets flying downrange.


But they’d gotten the orders I passed on. They shot long past the point where they would have stopped if they were shooting at humans. They shot until they were out of ammo, and then they started reloading to shoot some more.


It did some good. Some of the creatures, mostly those in the leading ranks, fell and didn’t stand back up. They were tough and they didn’t feel pain, but there was a certain degree of damage where that didn’t matter anymore. Once enough muscles and bones have been destroyed, you can’t stand up, period.


I wasn’t sure how many of them were actually dead, of course. The ghouls could probably recover given the opportunity, and if the other creatures were comparably sturdy the gunfire might have barely killed any of them. But it slowed them down, and it took some of them out of the fight. That was worth something.


But they couldn’t keep up constant fire. They had to reload. And these things were crazy enough to just keep charging right through the bullets, running towards us at full speed even as their fellows fell to the ground around them.


It only took a short time for them to reach us.


Our front line consisted of the housecarls, with the werewolves and shapeshifters mixed in for support. As the enemy got closer Kyra and Anna ran down to join in, providing a bit of much-needed bulk to the line.


There was a big part of me that wanted to do the same. I could contribute, maybe more than anyone else right now. This was the kind of fight that I excelled at.


But I was more valuable here, watching and coordinating, and waiting in case something nastier came out of the ruins of the house next.


They reached our front line, and the jötnar went to work, cutting them down and pushing them back. They’d heard my orders as well, and they followed them, focusing on defense more than doing lots of damage. They pushed the attackers away, picked them up and threw them bodily backwards. Here and there an axe or sword connected and took off limbs or heads. Decapitation was enough to finish most of them, but hard to manage. Taking off limbs didn’t put them down, and the wounds didn’t bleed nearly as much as they should, but once a creature had lost two or three they weren’t nearly as much of a threat.


Again, tactics had to be adapted based on the enemy’s capabilities. With foes like this, you had to assume that they’d keep fighting no matter what you did. Bleeding wounds, painful wounds, scary wounds, these things didn’t mean anything. You had to either kill them quickly or else just focus on making it so they weren’t physically capable of continuing the fight.


Where the fighting got particularly intense, or the enemy looked like they might break through, a werewolf or a shapeshifter was quick to jump in, tearing the creatures to pieces and throwing them away. They were the shock troops, not as good on defense, but when they hit back it was devastating. I’d expected Kris to play more of a scouting role, but I’d been forgetting just how much she’d practiced with her abilities. She got right into the thick of things, tearing at warped men and dogs with massive claws, knocking ghouls over and tossing them around.


And the whole while, the soldiers and gangsters kept right on shooting. They had to be more careful now, keeping their shots well away from the front, but still did plenty of damage. More and more creatures were falling now.


Then one of the mages stepped in, lashing out with raw invisible force. These blasts did more damage than anything yet, shattering creatures and tossing them through the air, leaving them lying on the ground like broken toys. One of them hit a ghouls straight-on, and the thing flew into the air. It didn’t land for a solid thirty seconds, and when it did it splattered.


All things considered, we were doing almost ridiculously well. We’d weathered their initial assault without a single casualty, and we’d almost wiped them out. And that wasn’t even considering how many of them we’d killed with the first explosion, taking the house down. I had a strong suspicion that the reason everything we were fighting was so tough was because anything else hadn’t made it through the demolition.


And then, just like I’d guessed, something nastier came out.

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Interlude 10.y: Miyake Kuzonoha

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I opened my eyes and caught my breath.


Always, the dreams are the same. Fire and blood, death and screaming. A moment caught in time so very long ago. I had seen many more since that time, but the first wound cut the deepest. So it always goes.


I stood up and dressed myself, my motions rote and mechanical. A simple grey kimono with a delicate floral pattern embroidered in black and white. Comfortable, casual, not suitable for leaving my home, but perfectly appropriate otherwise.


Having dressed, I went to the shrine. Set in a small room to the side, where visitors seldom had cause to inquire what lay behind that door, it was a relatively small and humble shrine. A wooden torii, made from a naturally crimson padauk, stood just inside the door. At the other side of the room was a simple wooden altar.


I took the bowl of inarizushi from the stand by the door and walked to the altar. I cooked the inarizushi before I went to sleep, the same as I do each night, so that now I could place it on the altar as a fresh offering, the same as I do each morning. On either side of the bowl a wooden fox statue seemed to watch with sightless eyes as I placed the fried tofu between them. One statue held a fox cub in its mouth, while the other rested one paw upon a carved jewel.


As I did each morning, I touched my own jewel, set in a fine golden chain around my neck. It brimmed with power, vibrating gently against my fingertips. There was a shimmer to the stone that had nothing to do with reflected light, although in the daylight it was barely noticeable.


Not all kitsune keep a star ball, although it is traditional. Many younger kitsune don’t. It takes a great deal of effort to create one, and though it does make one stronger, it also comes with a dependence that many of the younger generations prefer to avoid. There are many, many stories of kitsune investing too much of themselves in their star balls and dying from the loss of them.


Reassured once again that I was in no danger of this fate, I knelt before the altar and began to pray, as I did each morning. The same position, the same prayer. Let my family be at peace by your side, I prayed. Let my daughter come home to me someday. Let me be cleansed of sorrow and of anger. A simple prayer, but heartfelt. The best sort of prayer, I felt.


There was a part of me that wondered whether there was a purpose to it. I hadn’t spoken to my deity in nearly three hundred years. No one had spoken to Inari in that time, nor had anyone an idea what had happened to the kami. I still felt lost and alone, lacking guidance in a world where I needed it more than ever.


But the inarizushi was still gone from the bowl each day.


After I had finished that, I stood and adjusted my kimono, making sure that it was neat, and then walked out of the shrine and down the stairs into the public area of my home. Every motion was precise and graceful, turned into a ritual by thousands and thousands of repetitions.


Ritual, tradition, and routine were the cornerstones of my life. They were a refuge when a thousand years of life pressed too heavy on my mind, and I could not help seeing fire and death in my mind’s eye.


In the kitchen Katsunaga was almost finished making breakfast, as he usually was by the time I arrived. He’s too restless to sleep long or deeply, and he’s made a point of cooking for me ever since he realized he could irk me by doing so.


In truth, I no longer objected to it, though it would be more in keeping with tradition for me to do the work. Katsunaga was much better at it than I.


“Good morning, dear,” he said in English as I entered the room. “Any word from our absent lord and master?”


“No more than ever,” I replied in the language of my youth. It was Japanese, or more accurately a distant ancestor of modern Japanese. Very few people understand it these days. Even Katsunaga had needed several months of practice to become comfortable with some of the antiquities of the language.


“Pity,” he said, with obvious and genuine disappointment. It isn’t obvious to a casual observer, and it took me nearly twenty years to realize, but Katsunaga was as devout a follower of Inari as I was. He simply didn’t feel the need to discuss it. He lived his devotion every day, playing the role the kami had given us as kitsune.


I had always suspected that he was responsible for the disappearance of my offering each day. I had no intention of asking him, though. Even a false hope was preferable to true despair.


“It is what it is,” I said, stepping past him to grab a bowl of food. It was a simple meal, fried tofu and udon with a koikuchi soy sauce. Very traditional, with none of the modernizations or foreign influences he often introduced to his cooking.


“True,” he sighed, taking a bowl for himself and following me out to the dining room. “But I still hope that things will change one day.”


“I know,” I said, setting my bowl on the table and returning to the kitchen for tea.


He caught my hand as I set his cup in front of him. “Don’t lose hope,” he said seriously. “I don’t want to see that happen to you. Things will get better again.”


“I know, love,” I said, sitting on the floor across from him and reaching for my bowl.


I did love him, for all our differences. I had dallied with humans in my youth, as many young kitsune did. It wasn’t hard to see why. They were so vibrant and full of life, burning brightly in the night. And, like all my kin did eventually, I learned that such dalliances can only end in tragedy. Our natures are too different.


This was better.


I ate my breakfast with, if not great joy, at least contentment. Thoughts of death and fire were far from my mind.


Later, I was sitting at a table folding an origami crane. It was a simple task, rote and repetitive, something I had done ten thousand times or more.


It was another shield against dark thoughts, essentially. My people had needed to know about what was happening in Russia, as it was now growing serious enough to present a serious threat to the lands we had traditionally protected. I had agreed, since there were so few other kitsune capable of gathering information from the area without losing their lives.


I had gone, and seen what there was to see, and reported it back to my cousins and peers. There were so few of us left from the old days. I had outlived so many of the kitsune I knew in my youth, and so many others had gone their own ways over the years, that there were now hardly any left. But I had shared what I knew with those who remained, as well as my elders and a handful of gifted younglings. They would spread the word further, ensuring everyone knew what was to be done if the problem couldn’t be resolved soon.


It was a necessary task, and one that I didn’t regret. But now I couldn’t get the images I’d seen out of my mind. There had been bodies, burned and crushed, torn limb from limb or simply dead with no signs of how they came to be so. So many bodies. Fires had smoldered in many places, even in areas where the fighting had ceased hours or days earlier, hiding the moon behind a pall of smoke.


It was far, far too close to remembering what had happened to my own family. Thus the origami. Anything, to give me a refuge from those memories.


Katsunaga knocked on the door, stepping inside a moment later. “I’m sorry, dear,” he said. “I know you’re busy, but I think you’ll want to see this.”


I made two more folds, then set the completed crane on the table by the others. “What is it?” I asked, turning in my chair to look at him.


He handed me a plain white envelope of the sort that had become the standard among humans in recent years. “Aiko replied to one of your messages,” he said.


I stared. I almost asked whether this was his idea of a joke, but no. He wouldn’t do that. Not after the first time.


Eventually, I reached out and took the envelope. It was only through great discipline that I kept my fingers from shaking as I opened it and pulled the piece of paper out from inside.


It was a simple note, with no great meaning to the words. But it was in her handwriting, and she called me Mother.


I pressed my lips tightly together, returned the note to the envelope, and stood up.


“What are you doing?” Katsunaga asked, hurrying to follow me as I left.


“What do you think?” I asked, more snappishly than I usually would have. “I’m going to see our daughter. Something’s gone very wrong.”

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Clean Slate 10.28

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I never would have guessed it, but in an odd way, I was actually grateful to be blind. I’d picked up a stray cat on the way to the hospital, and I could have been looking through her eyes, but I wasn’t even doing that. It was easier to be blind.


Blind meant I couldn’t see Snowflake lying in a hospital bed like she was dying.


“She woke up earlier,” the attendant said. “Not for long, but she was awake.”


“Is that a good sign?”


There was a brief hesitation. “I think so?” he said. “I mean, I think it would be a good sign for a human. But I’m not a veterinarian, so I don’t have much experience with animals. I mean, I don’t really have much experience at all, but what I do have is with people.”


That phrasing annoyed me, but it wasn’t worth following up on. “You haven’t been a nurse long, then?” I asked. I wasn’t much good at small talk, typically, but at the moment I’d have done almost anything for a distraction.


“Eight months,” he admitted. “But you learn fast.”


“I’d imagine.” I thought for a moment, weighing and debating various options, and then came to a decision. “Get out, please,” I said.


“Excuse me?”


“Get out of this room,” I repeated. “Far enough away that you can’t hear anything going on in here. Go get lunch or something.”


“Why?” His tone was just a little belligerent, like he was offended that I would think that he was willing to abandon his patient.


“Because I told you to,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster. “And I’m thinking you’ve heard enough stories about me that you know better than to ignore me. Now hurry up.”


There was no reply, but I heard footsteps moving away, followed by the quiet click of the door closing. It was a perfectly normal sound, but context gave it an ominous sense of finality.


I dropped into the cat’s mind now, looking around. This was in part to check whether there was anyone else hiding quietly in the room, and in part because I really didn’t want to be blind for this if it worked, and mostly because it meant that I could put off the next part for a few more seconds.


Empty. There was nothing in the hospital room except for me, Snowflake, and a whole lot of medical equipment. She didn’t have quite so many tubes and monitors hooked up as the last time I’d seen her. That was a good sign, I was hoping.


It just wasn’t good enough.


“Loki,” I said. “Loki Lie-Crafter, Loki Sky-Traveler, Loki Laufeyjarson, I summon you.”


There was a long, pregnant pause. Then a voice behind me said, “Howdy. What can I do for ya?”


A voice. Not Loki’s voice, unless he’d changed it considerably.


I turned around slowly, managing not to jump or show other signs of surprise. I turned to face him more to maintain my image than anything, since I really didn’t need to. I’d already gotten a look at things through the stray cat’s eyes.


The being in the room looked like a man. He had sharp features, darkly tanned skin, and a broad, gap-toothed grin. He was wearing a black cowboy hat and cowboy boots, and a worn, battered leather jacket.


“Coyote,” I said. “What are you doing here?”


“You tell me,” he said. “Seein’ as you’re the one that called.”


“Not you.”


“Nope,” he agreed. “But Loki’s all tied up just now. He’s in a meetin’ with some of our peers to talk about whether he went too far with his little speech. So I figured I’d step in and see what it is you wanted, since he can’t.”


I frowned, thinking. Coyote had always, in my few interactions with him, come across as an easygoing, pleasant guy. But there was no way that was genuine, not with how old and powerful he was. If he was here, he wanted something.


But it was the only game in town, so I shrugged. “I was hoping I could get an answer from him,” I said. “As per our arrangement.”


“I don’t recall bein’ a part of this arrangement,” Coyote said. “But I hear you’ve done all right by the employee I sent your way. So go ahead and ask your question. Maybe I can help you out.”


“At what cost?”


He grinned a little wider. “Well, now, I reckon that’s going to depend on what you’re asking, don’t you? Come on, ask. We both know you’re gonna.”


I sighed. “What should I do to help her?” I asked, pointing at Snowflake. My aim was off by a few feet at least, but I figured he’d get the idea. “And don’t you dare say I should kill her or something like that. I’m not in the mood.”


Coyote shut his mouth, looking disappointed. “Well, shoot,” he said. “If you know the answer, why’d you ask?” He stood and looked at her for a moment, tapping one finger against his mouth. “I suppose I can handle this for you,” he said. “But you’ll owe me for this one, kid. You’ll owe me a favor, and when I come calling you don’t get to argue. Fair?”


It wasn’t remotely fair. Owing someone an unspecified favor of their choosing was maybe the single worst position to be in, in a bargaining sense. It was a situation I normally avoided like the plague.


But for Snowflake, it was worth it.


“Fair,” I said.


“I thought you’d agree with me,” he said. “Get the dog and let’s go.”


I disconnected Snowflake from the various machines, as carefully as I could, and picked her up. She didn’t stir, not even a little bit. I had the cat jump up onto my shoulder as I did, and then the three of us turned back to Coyote.


He was standing next to an Otherside portal, looking bored. “You ready yet?” he asked. If he was feeling any strain from holding the portal open, it didn’t show in his voice or posture.


“Yeah,” I said. “Where are we going?”


“Where we need to be,” he said. “After you, please.”


I grimaced and stepped through.


Unexpectedly, the experience sucked. A lot. I didn’t pass out, the way I used to, but I felt a similar wave of nausea, and developed an instant headache. I staggered on the other side, almost tripping.


What the hell? I thought, trying to figure out what was different about it, why I should suffer this time, when for quite a while now crossing through a portal hadn’t been unpleasant at all.


And then I realized I was blind again, and it became clear. I pulled my mind out of the cat’s, and the feeling went away entirely. Of course. I’d figured out a way to get around the blindness, but now it was just making things worse. It was the same as the dilemma I’d noticed when I first woke up. I had the choice, it was just that both choices were terrible.


I could really get to hate the fae.


“What do you want?” a female voice snapped. “I mean I’m right in the middle of my lunch right now and now I have you here and bloody hell does that dog have a catheter? And that cat just started throwing up on my goddamn floor, do you have any idea how long it took me to get that floor clean?”


I paused. I couldn’t see to confirm it, but there was something about this that was…familiar.


“You’ll deal,” Coyote said. “These two have work for you. On my tab.”


“I hate having to deal with him,” the female said. I presumed that meant Coyote was gone. “Hey, wait. I know you. You’re the one came in a while ago with a kitsune. Poison, right? That was a fucking awful night.”


“I remember,” I said. “But I’m kind of in a rush here.”


“Well let’s take a look at this since apparently now I’m a veterinarian, really wish someone had fucking told me that because you know it really isn’t my area of expertise. Well, hurry up now, put her on the slab. Can’t do a whole hell of a lot just standing here can I?”


I hesitated, but there wasn’t much of a way around it. “I’m actually blind right now,” I said. I really hope it’s just right now, at least, I thought grimly.


“Oh of course you are, because this day just wasn’t bad enough already. I suppose you want me to take care of that in addition to everything the dog needs done?”


“That’d be nice,” I admitted. “But it’s a lower priority right now.”


She snorted rudely. “Well you’re on Coyote’s tab, and I don’t mind saying that I’m just as pleased to charge him through the nose so let’s go ahead and see what we can do while you’re here. But for now I need to take a look at the dog so come here.”


She grabbed my arm roughly, pulling me forward. I jerked away instinctively, caught by surprise, but her grip was surprisingly strong, and I didn’t even come close to shaking her off.


She tugged me on until I walked into the heavy stone slab she used as an operating table, and caught me when I lost my balance at that. I set Snowflake down carefully and backed away, giving her room to work.


“Condition’s stable,” she said after a minute or so. “Don’t know how she’d have done on her own, but I figure I can get her back to shape almost perfectly. Maybe a little brain damage but I’ll have to take a closer look to see for sure on that one and it’s going to take some time. Now get over here so I can see what’s going on with your eyes.”


I started to move, but before I could she’d grabbed me again and started pulling me to the side. I stumbled once or twice, but she caught me and held me up easily, despite being maybe half my size at the most.


“Okay,” she said. “Now lie down on the slab and let me take this cat, not very hygienic but I suppose that isn’t such a problem for you and I can always just splash some disinfectant in your eyes after we’re done, you’re a tough guy so you can take it.”


She snatched the limp weight of the cat off my shoulder, and I felt around for the slab before easing myself onto it. It was hard, and I suspected it would have felt cold to anyone else.


“All right,” she said, talking to herself more than me now. “Pull off the helmet, pull of the blindfold, and what do we have here?” My helmet hit the floor with a metallic clunk, and I felt her start to prod at my eyes. Her fingers, through the latex gloves, were uncomfortably warm, almost hot. I didn’t open them, and she didn’t try to make me. “Interesting bruising here,” she mused. “And a rather odd coloration. How did this happen?”


“I saw what’s under Blind Keith’s blindfold,” I said.


“Fascinating. What’s he look like?”


“I don’t remember.”


She sighed. “Of course not. I’m going to open your eyes now. Try not to do anything stupid.”


She pulled my eyelids up, and once again, the world just sort of…went away. I was drifting, without any real anchor, and I had no idea what was going on. That went on for several seconds as she poked at my eyes. I was aware that I should have found that unpleasant, but I couldn’t actually connect that to a feeling of discomfort.


A few seconds later, she let me go. “Well,” she said, “the good news is I’m pretty sure this is temporary. The bad news is that it’s going to take some time.”


“How much time?” I asked.


I could feel her fingers pull away from my face and then return as she shrugged. “Hard to say. A few months, maybe? Probably less than a year.”


“Months,” I said, with a sinking feeling. “I really can’t afford for this to last for months.”


She shrugged again. “I don’t know what to tell you. I mean I can maybe do something to speed it up but this specific curse isn’t one that I’m familiar with so I can’t say for sure what will happen. I’m like seventy percent sure it will speed things up at least a little, so it maybe takes a few weeks instead of months, but the other thirty percent I have no idea what happens. Maybe it cures you instantly, or maybe it makes this permanent.”


I debated for a few seconds, then sighed. As usual, I was borrowing against tomorrow to pay my dues today. But if I didn’t live through the next few months, which might well be the case if I were blind at a key moment, this might as well be permanent.


“Do it,” I said.


“Cool,” she said. “I mean it’s up to you and everything, but I really kinda want to see what happens.” She disappeared, returning several seconds later. “This will hurt,” she said, reaching for my face again.


I didn’t fight as she peeled my eyelids back again, taping them against my forehead. Then she dumped something onto my face.


It hurt. More specifically, it hurt the way I imagined having battery acid dumped straight into your eyes might hurt. And then it got worse. The battery acid was boiling now.


I screamed, and kept screaming until I lost consciousness.


Waking up was easier than I’d expected. Harder in some ways—I couldn’t blink, and that made it feel rather strange—but easier in others. Quicker, if nothing else. I didn’t need to think to remember where I was, or how I’d gotten there.


“How’d it work?” I asked, sitting up. I reached out and found the cat a moment later, giving me enough vision to determine that the doctor was standing by Snowflake doing something inexplicable with a syringe. The cat was watching it with a sort of bored amusement. She’d been fed recently.


“Not bad, not bad at all,” the doctor replied. “I’m like ninety percent that your eyes are getting better now. Faster than I thought they would, too. You should be good to take the bandages off in about a week, and your eyes should be working within a week or two after that. I mean not working perfectly, there’s going to be some sequelae and, you know, side effects and shit like that. But you’ll be able to see, sort of.”


“You,” I muttered, “do not have a comforting bedside manner.”


“Slabside,” she corrected me. “And you know people tell me that sometimes, but I’m still the best at what I do so they keep coming back. I just figure, you know, fuck it. This deal with the dog is going to take a while you know, maybe a week or two? You might as well go, come back later and pick her up.”


“How do I get back here?” I asked, standing up. I was a little dizzy, and my eyes felt like they were the size of tennis balls crammed into sockets that couldn’t begin to hold them, but overall I was better off than I’d expected.


“There’s a room over there, behind the curtain, for people to show up. Open a portal there. You can open a portal right?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I can. Thanks.”


“Coyote’s paying,” she said, shrugging. “Oh, and leave the cat. I haven’t had one around in a while. It’s kinda nice you know, and it gives the kids something to cuddle with while I’m cutting them up.”


“I don’t think she’s that great at cuddling.”


“Neither am I,” the doctor said, grabbing a tool off the slab. She pushed a button and it started to spin, something like a tiny buzzsaw.


I decided to leave before I saw what she was planning to do with that. I took the time to study the alcove behind the curtain before I left, making sure I knew it well enough to open a portal there, and I left the cat behind.


“We’ve got them,” Kyi said excitedly. “Both of them, ninety-five percent confidence that we have the location of their headquarters.”


I started to look up, remembered, and borrowed a raven outside to do so instead. It was a little while after noon, early enough that it would be several hours before dusk. “Great,” I said. “We’re hitting Katrin’s base, ASAP. Call Kikuchi, Frishberg, Pellegrini, and the independent mages and see if any of them want to participate. Other than that, I want all of the Inquisition mages and about half the housecarls, the werewolves if they want to come. Leave the other housecarls, the ghouls, Jackal’s people, Jack, and any of the humans who can fight to defend this house.”


“Yes, my jarl,” she said, bowing slightly. “Which of the housecarls do you want with us?”


“You know what we’re likely to be facing here. Use your best judgment,” I said. “Selene!”


“Yes?” the succubus said, from right next to me. Apparently she’d been standing there all along, and I just hadn’t noticed.


I tried not to jump, and reminded myself that apologizing wasn’t something a jarl did. “Get equipment distributed,” I said. “I want everyone going on this raid carrying grenades, light sources, and at least one sharp edge to decapitate a vamp with. Anyone who can reliably use a holy symbol of some kind comes with us, and make sure they’re carrying them. Tindr!”


“Here, jarl,” Tindr said. He was a distance away, but I heard his footsteps approaching rapidly.


“Call every church and place of worship in town,” I said. “Everyone you can get in touch with. I want as much holy water and blessed objects as you can beg, borrow, or steal. Keep it separate, but distribute it out. I want everyone that goes with us to be carrying water balloons, squirt guns, anything you can come up with. Also, figure out a way to get everyone a head of garlic.” I looked around—well, turned my head around, at least. “Move, people!”


They ran off in different directions, all three of them shouting orders to their various underlings. I walked over and sat in my throne, smiling a little.


“Wow,” Aiko said, hugging me casually. “This is it, huh?”


“Yeah,” I said. “This is it.”

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Clean Slate 10.27

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Open my eyes, and the world went away.


Close them, and things were normal again. I couldn’t see, but I had an awareness of what was going on, I could hear and smell and feel things.


Open, and the world faded. I lost track of anything that might have been happening. I couldn’t see, or hear, or smell, or even think beyond the most basic of concepts. The world was just a blur, passing me by without my really being aware of what was going on.


Okay, I thought, closing my eyes again. I can deal with this.


So what did I know? Well, first off, the Wild Hunt was gone, or more accurately I was gone from it. There was no way I could have missed the sort of constant sensory input that connection provided, and I wasn’t feeling anything of the sort now.


I wasn’t in the forest. Again, I would have known that. There were scents associated with that environment, very distinctive scents, and I wasn’t smelling them. There was no odor of pine, no rich aroma of decaying humus. Instead I got the scents of clean fabric and soap. I was naked, but I could feel cloth against my skin when I moved, something that felt like flannel. Sheets, most likely.


So I’d been moved, and I was in a bed. That could be a very good or a very bad sign, depending upon who’d moved me. I tried to figure that out, and at first I didn’t make much, if any, progress. I could hear voices, but they were quiet enough or distant enough that I couldn’t make out words or meaning. I tried to reach out and feel for any animals that could give me a glimpse of what was going on, but I accidentally opened my eyes partway through getting the magic together, and dashed my concentration to pieces.


Damn, that was annoying. It struck me suddenly that if this kept up for very long at all, I would need some sort of blindfold to hold my eyelids closed. That made me think of Blind Keith, and that reminded me that this might very well not be a temporary problem. He was fae, the most powerful and deadly sort of fae, and a curse from that sort of being had a tendency to be permanent.


I tried not to think about that. I needed to focus right now, needed to keep my mind on track, and if there was one thing that was absolutely guaranteed to make me lose that focus, the idea of being permanently blinded was right up there in terms of what it might be.


I took a breath, forcing myself to keep still and calm in case anyone unfriendly was watching and waiting for me to wake up, and started to gather my magic again. Then I paused, noticing another scent, one which was considerably more welcome than anything else I’d experienced since meeting up with Blind Keith. The main tone was werewolf, with hints of olive oil and oregano, familiar and comforting.


“Anna?” I said. My voice came out as a croak, only barely comprehensible as speech.


A moment later, she hugged me, squeezing hard enough that my ribs wanted to scream. Had they been broken recently enough that it was a problem? I couldn’t remember offhand, which worried me more than if I’d known for a fact that they had.


I’d been warned by a rustle of cloth, and thus I managed to keep from making any noise in response. But I still made the mistake of opening my eyes again as she hugged me, after which it took a few seconds to get them closed again and get my head in gear.


I could really get to hate this. It wasn’t just the blindness, although that was more than bad enough. It was the fact that I had to choose blindness. If I’d had any doubts that Blind Keith was fae to the core, this dispelled them. The way it forced me to choose between bad and worse, the way it took something that should have been good and made it instead a devastating weakness, it was all in line with how the fae did things.


I could really get to hate them.


“Oh, my God,” Anna said, letting me go. “You’re finally awake.”


“Finally?” I said, as flippantly as I could. “How long have I been asleep?” My voice still sounded horrid, but I thought it was getting better.


“Around twelve hours,” she told me. “We were starting to worry whether you’d wake up. And your eyes.”


Anna stopped talking very suddenly at that. I couldn’t see her face, obviously, but I would have bet that she had the classic oh, shit expression on. She’d said something she hadn’t meant to, and she’d very nearly said something that she really hadn’t meant to. And somehow I was very confident that I wanted to hear the next line even less than she wanted to say it.


But what I wanted didn’t have a whole lot to do with what I needed to know. So I took another deep breath and asked, “What’s wrong with my eyes?”


There was another long, quiet pause. “I’m not sure,” she said at last, and now she didn’t sound so happy. “None of us have ever seen anything quite like it before. Not even Edward. It almost makes me think of a broken hollandaise. It’s like everything’s still there, it’s just…not meshing together right.”


“Except this is my eyes,” I said quietly.


“Yeah,” she said. “Except for that.”


“I’m blind, by the way. Or as good as. I’ll need some kind of blindfold, I think. Actually opening my eyes just makes it worse.”


“With how they look, I’m not surprised,” she said tartly. “How did this even happen?”


“I’m not entirely sure,” I said. Thinking back on it, there was just a gap. I couldn’t remember anything of what happened between the moment Blind Keith lifted his blindfold and the moment I woke up. “But if I had to guess, I looked at something I really shouldn’t have.”


“I thought it was something like that,” she said. She reached out and took my hand, holding it tightly. I couldn’t deny that I was a little grateful for it. I wasn’t normally the type to really express affection physically, but under the circumstances, that connection, that grounding in the rest of the world was very welcome.


“Is the pack all right?” I asked.


There was a pause before she said, “Yeah, we’re fine. Some bruises, but nothing serious. A couple of guys probably got a look at the same thing that put you down, but they woke up after a few hours, and their eyes were fine by this morning.”


So what was that pause about? I wondered. If things were that good, if everyone was fine, then what had made her hesitate to tell me so?


And then I realized that she hadn’t hesitated. She’d nodded, before realizing that that wasn’t enough, that I couldn’t see it. Because I couldn’t see.


There had to be some kind of cure, something I could do about this. This was…I was not prepared to go through life like this.


“So,” Anna said, and there was a hint of anger to her voice that made me sit up a little straighter. “I heard you asked Kyra for help with something back in Colorado. I heard this from Edward, because you specifically told Kyra not to tell me about it.”


I made the mistake of opening my eyes to gauge her expression, and lost another few seconds. “Yeah,” I said sheepishly once I’d managed to get myself together again. “Yeah, I did.” I reached out blindly and grabbed one of the sheets, wrapping it tightly around my face. It wasn’t an ideal blindfold, but it would do for the moment.




“Because I thought that you’d want to help otherwise,” I said quietly. “And you don’t have enough experience to handle this.”


“How am I going to get experience if you won’t let me do anything?” she asked, sounding more exasperated than angry now. “I have to start somewhere, Winter.”


“This isn’t a good place to start. Things are bad right now. Maybe the worst I’ve ever seen.”


“Well, that’s what I have to work with,” she said. “Or do you think this is going to blow over? You think things are going to magically go back to the way they used to be? Because I don’t think that can happen.”


I sighed. “You’re right,” I said reluctantly. “I suppose I could bring you with me when I go back. But you’d have to listen when I tell you to do things.”


“No problem! I’ll go and get everything I need. You won’t regret this, Winter.”


I was already regretting it, but I didn’t say a thing as she scampered out of the room. I just sat there with a sheet wrapped tightly around my face to keep me from opening my eyes by accident, thinking about just how badly things had gone wrong.


A minute or so later, I heard footsteps approaching, followed by a creak as weight settled into the chair next to the bed. “You’re flashing everyone that walks by with how you pulled that blanket off,” Edward said a few moments later. “In case you care.”


I didn’t, really, but I shrugged the blanket back into position on the off chance that someone else would. “What happened after the fight?” I asked. “I sort of lost it there towards the end.”


There was a rustle of cloth suggesting that he’d shrugged. “Nothing much,” he said. “After you went down, the fighting mostly stopped. The Wild Hunt left after a minute or so. They didn’t really care about us, once you were taken out.”


Somehow it didn’t surprise me that he’d recognized the Wild Hunt. “There were no injuries?”


“Nothing major,” he said. “A handful of young wolves tried to handle something they weren’t ready for and got themselves beat up a little, but it’ll heal. That sort of thing happens when young wolves get themselves into messes they can’t handle.”


I sighed. “This is about Anna,” I stated. “You really aren’t good at subtle.”


“Nope,” he said, and I could almost hear him grinning. “But it’s a valid point. You really sure you should take her with you? Might not be doing her any favors, getting her into a fight against these sorts of people.”


“Maybe not,” I said. “But I don’t see what else I can do. She’s young, and she thinks she’s invincible. So she’s going to act like it until she realizes that there are much scarier things out there than werewolves. I’ve seen it before. I don’t really like it, but I figure it’s probably better that she work through that when I’m around in case something goes wrong than if she does it on her own.”


“Maybe,” he said. “God knows I’ve seen enough younglings that think they’re immortal. I don’t like it, but…maybe she’s right. Things aren’t getting better from here, not that I can see. Maybe she does need to learn how to live in the new world.” There was a long, heavy silence after that, before he said, “Take care of my pack, Winter.”


“I will,” I said. “As best I can. Do you know where my stuff is?”


“Right next to you,” he said. “Let me help you into it.”


“Thanks,” I said, sitting up and swinging my legs off the bed. “And…do you have anything I could use for a blindfold? I really don’t think leaving without one is a good idea.”


“No problem,” he said, accompanied by a sound of tearing cloth. “Lean forward so I can tie this on.”


I did, and he tied it around my eyes. It was a strip of fabric torn from the sheet, longer than I needed and ragged-edged, but it was a lot more convenient than having the entire sheet trailing behind me, and it would keep me from opening my eyes by mistake.


“Thanks for this,” I said, as he handed me the pants and shirt I’d been wearing under the armor. “For the help, I mean. I didn’t mean to put your pack in any danger, but I had the Wild Hunt after me and I wasn’t sure what to do. I’m sorry.”


“Don’t worry about it,” he said, helping me into the armor. It was fairly involved process, pretty challenging to do by myself even when I could see all the buckles. “You’ve stuck your neck out for us a few times. As far as I’m concerned you’re as good as pack, and the pack looks out for its own.”


“Still,” I said. “Thanks.” A minute or two passed in silence as I finished donning my armor and checked that everything was on and secure. “Cloak?” I asked.


“Don’t know what you’re talking about.”


I frowned, and reached out for it with my magic. I’d made that cloak, and I knew it with an intimacy that was hard to even conceptualize, let alone describe. It wasn’t hard for me to feel it, pooled on the floor beside the bed.


I picked it up and draped it around my shoulders, reshaping it from a puddle back into a cloak, and making sure that all the weapons and tools that were supposed to be in it found their way back to the places I wanted them. The result wasn’t as pretty as it might have been if I’d been able to see, but I thought it was passable.


“Ah,” Edward said. “Cloak. Now I see what you mean.” He pressed something into my hand. By the feel of it, it was round, hard, maybe three feet long, and probably wooden. A cane. “This might help while your eyes are out of it,” he said.


“Yeah,” I said, although I didn’t like admitting it. “Thanks for the help.”


“Don’t mention it. Like I said, pack looks out for its own.”


“I know,” I said. “I will.”


Back in Colorado, the mansion looked like it had been the site of a pitched battle. I was looking at things through Anna’s eyes, which made the picture a little blurrier, but I could see enough to recognize that much. The building had taken a fair amount of damage, most of it cosmetic, but some of it structural. Nothing that concerning, in the immediate sense. The forest around the house hadn’t fared so well, with large areas being scarred by bullets, fires, or more exotic defenses.


Anna whined a little at the sight, and I picked up my pace slightly.


Inside, I went straight to the throne, ignoring the hush that fell over the room with my entrance. It wasn’t as busy as it had been a few days earlier, just after Loki’s pronouncement, but there was still a decently large number of people gathered there, talking, working. People read pages, scribbled on them, and then handed them to runners to be conveyed to the next person in line.


But when I walked in, the quiet hum of activity ceased entirely. It was a brief lull, but very noticeable.


I’d barely been on the throne a second before a trio appeared in front of me. Kyi bowed, Selene nodded, and Aiko hugged me tightly, slapped me across one armored cheek, and then sat down next to me.


“Okay,” I said. “What happened here?”


“Newton and his faction of the independents attacked us yesterday,” Selene said instantly. “Then Katrin led a raid on this location. Both attacks were rebuffed easily, and without any casualties or serious injuries.”


“We have people tracking them back to their hideouts?”


“Yes,” Kyi said. “Both groups. The werewolves, Vigdis, and Jackal’s people are all working on localizing them.”


“Good. Aside from those attacks, has anything of note happened?”


“Not really,” Kyi said. “We’ve been focusing primarily on maintaining our current status while you’ve been gone. Some minor skirmishes with the vampires and some independents on our borders, but nothing major. The rakshasas appear to be dead or gone, and the military are still sitting tight on the land they claimed. The cops have an alliance with some of the independent factions that look more favorably on us, and their territories are effectively joined together.”


“Which, considering our alliance with both parties, effectively brings that part of the city under our control,” I noted.




Very good. And finances?”


“Not great, not terrible,” Selene said. “Tindr’s managed to keep most of your assets afloat, and he’s converted some of them to cash if we need it. But we wiped out a lot of our ready cash hiring those people you sent down here. We’re getting by, but if something big comes up, we might not have enough to handle it.”


“Okay,” I said. “Good work, people. Excellent work. Anna, go with these people. They’ll send you to where Kyra is, and you can help her track our targets down. Selene, I want to be notified if anything changes, or the instant that we have a confirmed location for either of the groups that attacked us.”


“Got it, Boss,” she said. “Where will you be?”


They couldn’t see it, but I was confident my expression wasn’t a happy one. “I’m going to go see Snowflake,” I said.

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Clean Slate 10.26

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Pacing through the trees, I was surprised at how much I could notice the difference from adding the werewolves to the Wild Hunt. I felt stronger, but the difference wasn’t that serious in comparison to the power that was already there.


The real difference was in the sensory input I was getting. I could sense everything in a dozen miles, or at least it felt like it. The combined senses of a dozen werewolves, most of them in fur, were enough that very little could escape them. The scents and sounds flooding into my mind were so overwhelming that I felt like they should have incapacitated me, and they probably would have if not for the mediating influence of the Wild Hunt.


But with that influence, I could process and understand all of this input without even having to think about it. I could map everything in my mind, so that I knew where all of us were, and where every notable feature that we could see, hear, or smell was. I knew it all.


I also knew a couple of things that were a little more immediately important. First, I knew that my “side” of the Hunt was growing. More of the Hunters were wrapped in my ice storm rather than thunderclouds, and generally they were winning when the two came into conflict.


And I knew where Blind Keith was. He was still on his horse, but they were going barely above a normal running pace. There was enough frost and ice on the ground—enough people spreading the frost—that there weren’t many places where the animal could go much faster without running the risk of a potentially catastrophic fall. Apparently he didn’t think it was worth the risk.


That was all on the basic, instinctive level of awareness. That was going on in the part of my mind that was more animal, more predatory.


The rest of me was still occupied with being terrified out of my freaking mind. It was weaker now that Blind Keith was further away, and I thought that the weakening of his influence over the Hunt might matter too, limiting the influence he could exert on me through that medium.


So I was still conscious. I could function and observe, even process most of the information I was getting normally. I could think and make decisions other than just to gibber at myself or attempt to run away at maximum speed.


It was just very, very hard.


I could feel him getting closer, in spite of everything, and gathered myself to face him. I could feel the support of the others behind me, although very few were anywhere close to me in a geographic sense. The werewolves of the pack were the closest, both physically and in a more abstract sense, but I could also feel a few of the Sidhe, some goblins, quite a few hounds of various kinds. There were stranger things in the mix as well, creatures that I understood on a fundamental level through the Hunt but couldn’t have named.


It was a powerful force, almost terrifyingly so, especially with the magic of the Wild Hunt tying them all together. Hopefully it would be enough. It should be enough.


Against Blind Keith, when he was backed by his own contingent of the Hunt? It was anyone’s guess, really.


I saw him with my own eyes a moment later, riding up. His horse hadn’t struck me as obviously unnatural earlier, but now it was taller than it had any right to be, thin to the point of being skeletal, with dark fired burning in its empty eye sockets.


But it paled beside its master. Absolutely and completely paled.


Blind Keith was shrouded in his thunderstorm, but I could see through it as easily as I knew he could look through the fog and frost shrouding us. I could see him clearly, a tall, gaunt figure that seemed to loom out of the darkness, more a presence than a person. He still had that blindfold wrapped around his eyes, but now it didn’t seem a handicap. Rather, it contributed even more to the unnerving, disturbing nature of the sight. The dissonance there—a man who should by all rights be blind, coupled with behavior that was very much not—drove home how fundamentally wrong the scene was.


The werewolves whined and cringed, even those who weren’t in fur, and several of them took a step or two back. Edward was the only exception, but then that made a certain degree of sense. He was the Alpha. It was in his nature to stand when others ran.


“I really didn’t intend for things to go this far,” Keith said casually. His voice was quiet, almost silent; I could hear him more because of the Hunt communicating his meaning to me than because I could actually hear him. “I only meant to push you.”


Consider me pushed, I thought, as sarcastically as I could. The rational side of me didn’t have enough control or interaction with my own body just at the moment to express an idea that abstract, but I was confident he would hear me thinking it. He would get the idea, anyway.


“Doesn’t matter,” I said out loud. My words were as hard to understand as his, but for very different reasons. Blind Keith spoke so softly that a human couldn’t have heard from two feet away. I spoke in a snarl, more animal than human, the voice of someone who only vaguely understood how speech works.


“I suppose you’re right,” Blind Keith said, though which statement he was responding to was unclear. “What’s done is done. It falls to us to deal with the consequences.”


I wasn’t sure what he was going to do next. There was something about his attitude that said it was going to be big, and violent, and probably something I would regret deeply, but I couldn’t guess what it would be specifically. I mean, this was Blind Keith. Everything I’d heard about him said that there were so many things he could to that I couldn’t begin to guess at what he’d choose.


Before we could find out, Edward drew his gun and fired. He’d been practicing his quick draw for a couple hundred years now, and he was very, very good at it. It couldn’t have been more than half a second between when he decided to act and when the third bullet hit its target.


I’d been expecting him to shoot at Blind Keith, and apparently the fae lord had been expecting that too, because he didn’t do a thing to stop Edward, and I knew he could. He just didn’t need to. Bullets meant basically nothing to someone on that level.


But Edward was a canny old wolf, and he knew that as well as I did. So he didn’t shoot Blind Keith.


He shot the horse.


The bullets were precisely, perfectly aimed. The first two hit the creature in either eye, putting out the flames that smoldered there, and the third slammed home dead center in its throat. The horse staggered to the side and began to fall, and before it had moved six inches another two bullets hit it, aiming for the heart this time. Edward put one more round into it, in the side of the head, and then returned the revolver to its holster. I couldn’t see him, but I could feel his satisfied smile.


It was a perfect opportunity, and I capitalized on it, running forward and drawing Tyrfing. The power of the Hunt ran through me, carrying with it the speed of a werewolf and the grace of the Sidhe, and I was moving so fast that my thoughts and reactions wouldn’t normally have been able to keep up with my movements. But here, now, that wasn’t a problem.


At the same time, the more disconnected part of me was acting as well, reaching out through the bonds of the Hunt to the werewolves. They were tied together by pack bonds as well as the connection of the Wild Hunt, and once I got into those bonds it was easy to feel what was happening to them. They were scared, and while that was entirely reasonable, I could feel the external influence pushing them in that direction, making that fear just a little more compelling.


If it really got established in them, the pack bonds would become a detriment, amplifying the effect until they were incapable of doing anything other than running mindlessly away from Blind Keith.


But I could feel the magic affecting them, and through the Wild Hunt I could do something about it. First I thinned the connection between my mind and my body, as far as I’d ever gone, until there were almost two completely different people, the me that existed in a physical form and the me that didn’t.


Then I reached out to that fear that was threatening to destroy my allies, and did the same thing I’d done before. I couldn’t stop Blind Keith’s magic, couldn’t overpower it, but I could redirect it.


Into myself.


The power of the emotion crushed me. Absolutely crushed me. There was enough left to maintain the magic redirecting it away from more vulnerable allies. But that was about it.


Physically, though, I’d reached Blind Keith, and started swinging. He’d fallen from the horse when it toppled, and though he’d done it as gracefully as only one of the fae could, it still left him briefly vulnerable. I followed up on that vulnerability, pressing forward, swinging again and again. He dodged most of the attacks, but on the rare occasions that I did manage to hit him, it mattered. He was powerful on a scale that matched Twilight Princes and demigods, but I was using Tyrfing. The sword cut through storm, cloth, flesh and bone without any difficulty.


Other members of the Hunt were charging in now, trying to interrupt, but the werewolves kept them off me, giving me room to fight. Another creature was beside them now, something that looked like a wolf but walked on two legs.


I really ought to learn his name, I thought absently, before going back to being crushed by the fear.


For a moment, I almost thought I would win. Blind Keith was on the defensive, and I was keeping him there, unable to fight back for fear of taking a serious hit from Tyrfing. The rest of the Wild Hunt was either on my side or kept at bay by those who were, and my strength in that realm was growing by the second, as more and more of the Hunters defected. It was the nature of the Wild Hunt to respect competence, and as I continued to hold my own against an enemy that should have destroyed me easily, more and more Hunters found themselves thinking that I was a more worthy leader than they’d anticipated.


And then I slipped.


It was a small mistake. One foot placed ever so slightly wrong, at the same time as a particularly intense surge of fear leaked through from the other side of me, leaving my muscles shaky just when I needed them to be strong.


A small mistake, but it meant that for a second—just one second—Blind Keith could act freely.


He reached up and pulled his blindfold away.

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Interlude 4.a: Katie Schmidt

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“The question,” he murmurs, “is this. Knowing what you know, standing where you stand, do you pull the trigger? You can try to make it more complex if it makes it easier, but that really is the question. Do you pull the trigger? It’s that simple, little girl.”


I swallow hard, trying to block out the noises. The smells. The gun wavers for a moment before I get it under control again. Hopefully he won’t notice.


“What are you made of, little girl?” he asks, aping a smile. It isn’t a smile, it doesn’t even look like a smile, but the intention, the fakery is there. “Moment of truth.”


It took me a moment to realize where I was. Lying in bed, at home. Looking around, I could see, but it wasn’t quite seeing. I knew where everything was, I knew what colors were there and how bright it was, everything you would expect to see.


But when I actually opened my eyes, there was nothing. Just blackness, overwhelming and absolute.


The same as it was every time I’d woken up recently. I’d had to move out as a result. Couldn’t stay in the dorms, couldn’t move back in with my parents. Not when every morning found me blanketed in a thick, unnatural shadow, along with half of the room.


I couldn’t even leave a window open at night. Not when anyone walking by might glance in and see something that they really weren’t supposed to see.


I got up, dismissing the shadows that lingered around me. Much of my awareness of the room went with them, my knowledge of the lighting and the colors. Some of it remained, a vague impression of light and darkness, but it was so much dimmer when it wasn’t dark.


In the bathroom, I left the lights off. It was dark enough inside that my powers could give me a decent idea of what I was looking at, and there was enough light coming in from the bedroom that I could see well enough with my eyes. It was the perfect illumination level for me, dim rather than dark.


Looking in the mirror, I thought I could see a cloud of darkness behind me, like ink spreading through water. I glanced back to check whether I’d actually done it, without meaning to.


Nothing there. When I looked back to the mirror, there was nothing there, either.


I wasn’t losing control of my power, then. Just psychosis. Just normal, garden-variety post-traumatic stress disorder. It was almost a relief.


“You can’t do it,” he says, taking another slow step forward. His voice is expressive, in contrast to the blank, unnaturally still face, the expressions that are imitations of human expressions, by something that hadn’t ever seen them before. His voice is tender, caring, gentle. “Even knowing all that you do, you can’t do it. Can’t bring yourself to pull that trigger.”


I don’t look away from him. Don’t let myself look away, for fear of what I’ll see. The people in here, the things he did to them.


“Yes, I can,” I say, trying to suppress the waver in my voice. “If you don’t stop moving, I will.”


He pastes another fake smile across his face and takes another step. “No, you won’t,” he says. “You don’t have it in you, little girl.”


“Can you help me with something?” Mike asked, handing me a sandwich wrapped in foil. He’d taken to bringing food to these little meetings. He didn’t have much money to spare, but he had more than I did. I still hadn’t paid last month’s rent, and it was only going to take so long before the landlord got tired of that and rent ceased to be an issue.


“Depends,” I said, tearing open the foil and ripping into the sandwich. The bread was dense, the meatballs dry. But it was calories, and that was what I cared about right now. “It’s not a vampire, is it? I don’t think I can handle another vampire so soon.”


I looked around the park and, sure enough, I could see a family. Man and woman, both young, two children, both female. It was almost painfully reminiscent of the scene in the vampire’s lair. We’d gotten that family out, mostly because Mac was there to help, but they weren’t the same as they had been before. There were things missing, physically and mentally.


“Not a vampire,” Mike said, looking the same place I was. He had been there. We almost always worked together. He had the sensory capacity to work in my darkness, and his powers covered threats that mine didn’t. He dealt with the more abstract, mental and spiritual threats, while I took care of the immediate physical danger. “A demon.”


I raised my eyebrows at that. “A demon?” I asked. “Fire and brimstone? Shouldn’t you be calling an exorcist for that?”


He looked at me, and then looked away. “It’s not that kind of demon,” he said. “Come on. I’ll show you.”


“You can’t bring yourself to pull that trigger,” he says. “It’s not in you. You can’t make yourself make the hard choice, can you, little girl?” He takes another step, more sideways than forward. Not getting closer to me. “Can’t do what you know needs done.”


I open my mouth to deny it, but nothing comes out. I make the mistake of looking down, and almost gag as I force myself to look back at him.


He is smiling again, a warped, broken smile. It’s a smile, a human expression, but there is something fundamentally, profoundly wrong about it. “You can’t unsee it,” he comments idly. “Once you see it, it’ll be with you forever. Even if you try to forget.”


“I know,” I say quietly.


Three dead. My reaction to that was strange, even to me. The emotional part, the normal part thought that it was horrible. The cold, logical, rational part said that it wasn’t bad. Not nearly as bad as it could be.


Not as bad as it had been, other times.


“How’d it kill them?” I asked, dreading the answer. I’d heard from some of the others that they felt a morbid curiosity about that sort of thing, but I didn’t. I asked because I might need to know, not because there was any part of me that wanted to.


He looked at me and then looked away. “You don’t want to know,” he said. “Demons are…there are different kinds. They embody concepts, and how bad they are depends on what kind of concept they are. Some of them aren’t really bad at all, they just seem that way if you look at them out of context. But this one is bad. It’s as bad as it gets.”


“Okay,” I said. If he said I didn’t want to know, I believed him. “So what’s the problem if they killed it already?”


“That’s just it,” he said. “They didn’t. Six hours later, one of the policeman on site killed his mother-in-law and then shot himself. Different method, but enough in common to make you think twice about it. He bled out on the way to the hospital, and then the next day one of the EMTs was on a domestic abuse call and killed the abuser. Again, just enough similarity in the methodology to make some connections.”


“So the demon’s changing hosts,” I said, thinking it through. “It uses one until it’s useless or dying, then moves to another one. It takes time to twist them far enough to be useful, and when it does there’s still something left of them. Enough to choose targets in a way that makes sense to them.”


“Right,” he said. “And I think I know the next one. A bystander at the scene, who’s holed up across town. Hostage situation, in the worst way.”


“You sure this is a good idea?” I asked. “I mean, if it gets into one of us…we could do a lot more damage than some random EMT.”


“I can keep it from jumping hosts again,” he said. “I just need you to take it down while I do. Kill the host when it can’t change, and it should be sent back to the spirit world.”


“Okay,” I said. “Let’s go.”


He isn’t smiling anymore. He doesn’t need to be. “I could fix that,” he says. “Let me in, and I could make you into what you need to be. Make you harder, make it so you can make the choices you need to. I’d even let you go after. No harm done. I promise.” He smiles again, and it’s a parody, a caricature of a real smile. “You know we keep our promises.”


I look away again, intentionally looking at the victims for the second time. There are three of them, two men and a child. One of the men is dead, hanging from the ceiling from ropes tied around his ankles, bled out from two dozen small cuts on his face and hands.


He’s the lucky one.


The child is burned, burned badly. The monster heated metal wires on the stove and pressed them against her skin, branding her. Over and over again, until it was impossible to see what shapes the burns had initially been, they overlapped so much. She’d been cut as well, but the knife had been heated, so that the wounds were cauterized. She isn’t bleeding.


But she is alive. She is awake. She’d have been screaming, if she still had a tongue.


The other man is behind me. I kept walking past him, specifically so that I wouldn’t have any chance of seeing him again. My power—my magic, as much as I hate to use that word—still tells me what it looks like, but it lacks the visceral immediacy of seeing it with my own eyes.


But now I look back and see him again. He is lying on the ground, on his stomach, with his arms and legs tied down in an X shape. He pulled against the bindings, going past the point of rope burn until he started tearing the skin from his body, and just kept going after that.


The reason for his struggles is obvious. There are two holes in his back. The monster sliced him open with a hot knife, opening long gashes on either side of his spine. Then he had reached in and broken off the man’s ribs from the spine, pulling them aside, and pulled the man’s lungs out, resting them on his back.


I’d heard of it before. The blood eagle, they’d called it. The cruelest means of execution the Vikings could come up with.


Except it was supposed to kill you before they’d actually gotten the lungs out of your body. I didn’t think this man had been that lucky.


The room stinks of blood, of feces. Underlying that is the sharper scent of vinegar and alcohol. He’d mixed them together with salt and poured it over the wounds.


Make it so that you can make the choices you need to, he’d said.


“You already did,” I said, looking back to him.


He smiles again. “There’s a piece of me in you now,” he says conversationally. “Even if you try to forget. You can’t unsee this.”


I pull the trigger, ending his life. It might have been just a bystander before, but you can’t come back from something like that. The demon broke him, twisted him, and there was nothing on earth that could bring him back. Mike had said that, and after seeing the things he’d done here, I believed it.


I shot the girl as well, and then went to throw up.

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Clean Slate 10.25

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I was running through the trees. I blinked, and I was standing in a forest, but it was an entirely different forest. The trees were larger, the snow was deeper, and the moon overhead was a huge full circle rather than just a sliver.


“What the hell is going on?” I demanded of no one in particular.


I stepped up next to myself, grinning widely. The new me looked almost exactly like me, except that he wasn’t wreathed in storm and he wasn’t wearing a helmet, presumably so that I would be sure to recognize my own face. “I’m guessing it’s a lot of factors at play,” he said. “If you think about it, you’re something of a special case.”


I blinked again and was running through the forest. There was blood on my mouth, and the fog around me had grown, painting a ten-foot swath of the forest white with frost.


Blink again, and I was standing still beside myself.


“What the hell is this?” I asked, not blinking. It was more a mental exercise than anything. I didn’t need to blink, not really. I didn’t really have eyes here.


“You ever really think about what it means?” my double asked. “What you’re doing right now, to a lesser extent what you do all the time, splitting up your consciousness, moving it out of your body. You ever wonder what you’re really doing to yourself, like that? Whether there’s some kind of damage involved?”


“Of course I do,” I snapped. “Or else my subconscious wouldn’t be asking about it. But what’s that have to do with what’s going on now?”


“Well, if you think about it, there’s a lot of sources of damage,” he said, walking casually along. “You Saw the Hunt last time, remember? That’s the kind of thing that, you know, it’s going to have an effect, right? Or, oh yeah, you died.”


“Pretty sure I’m alive,” I said.


“Nooo,” he said, dragging the word out. “Nope, you definitely died. You got most of your arm torn off by some kind of abomination from the void, you got shot in the chest, and you bled out on the floor of your own house. Sure, Loki brought you back after, but there’s no guarantee he put you back together the way you were.”


“I’m still the same person I was,” I said irritably. “In every way that matters. I’m sorry, did you have a point with all this rambling?”


“I’m just saying,” he said, grinning. “If you think about it, there’s all kinds of things about you that are just messed up, you know? So I figure what happened is when Blind Keith hit you with that magic, making you lose control of your fear, it had a weird interaction with something. It broke you on a level, making this happen.”


I frowned. “Okay,” I said reluctantly. “I can buy that, I guess. So that would make this…the spirit world,” I said, realizing it with a sinking feeling.


He clapped slowly. “Congratulations,” he said, his voice almost dripping with sarcasm. “I mean, it’s not like this is almost the exact same thing that you saw the last time you were trapped on a spiritual level. Or like you know for a fact that the last time you ran into the Wild Hunt you saw them on a spiritual level and it disrupted your ability to distinguish physical and spiritual perceptions. Seriously, there’s no way you could have figured this out more quickly than that.”


“My subconscious is kind of a dick, isn’t it?” I commented.


He snorted. “Again, congrats, Captain Obvious. I feel I should point out that time is still passing while you’re standing there babbling.”


“No pressure,” I muttered to myself. “Okay. So the more animalistic parts of me, the werewolf, it’s running my body. Probably taking the worst of the fear, too, so I can think things through. Make a plan.” I frowned. “Not sure how much I can do here, though. I don’t see a lot of openings I can exploit.”


“It’s not his magic,” my double said, his voice oddly intense. “The Wild Hunt. It isn’t his, not really.”


I frowned and nodded. I’d noticed that—of course I had, or I wouldn’t be telling myself about it—but I hadn’t had a chance to really think through the implications. “He summoned it,” I said, thinking out loud. “But he doesn’t own it. I don’t think he even controls it, really. He brings it to him, but after that it does its own thing. And this time it split in half, sort of. One half looks like the last time I saw it, but the other half is pretty clearly associated with me. My kind of magic, my kind of environment. Which mean…oh, hell no. You have got to be kidding me.”


“There’s nothing funny about this,” my double said. It would have been more convincing if he weren’t grinning from ear to ear.


“The Wild Hunt thinks I should be leading it?”


“Or it thinks you have the potential, at least,” he agreed. “That’s the best explanation I’ve got.”


“Okay,” I said. “This…I don’t know how to deal with this, really.”


“Don’t worry about the implications,” he said. “Worry about right now. What does this mean, in the immediate sense?”


“It’s something I can use,” I said, thinking it through. “A weapon. A dangerous weapon, but that’s the best I’ve got. Now I just need to figure out how to use it.”


It took me a minute to see it, but when I did I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen what I needed to do right away. It was a terrible plan, foolish and self-destructive and very likely to have consequences later on, but I thought it had a decent chance of solving the problem at hand.


In short, it was one of my plans. Now I just had to put it into effect.


I blinked again.


I was running through the forest. My heart was pounding, my lungs were heaving, my mouth was flecked with blood and spittle. Blood oozed from my hip as well, where a razor-sharp blade had slipped through my armor like it wasn’t even there to draw a narrow line of fire on my skin.


I was still human in shape, generally, but not remotely human in thought. There was nothing in my mind but fear. There was nothing to do but to run. Rational thought, planning, any idea of fighting back, they were all impossible.


I looked at this, then turned my attention outwards, to the Hunt as a whole. I could feel that there was still that split in it, with some members being wrapped in a thunderstorm, and others in a freezing fog.


There were fewer of them in “my” storm, now. The Wild Hunt shifting its focus to the candidate it felt was more deserving? Or was it on an individual level, people subconsciously aligning themselves with the person winning the contest? Either was plausible, and it didn’t really matter. The split existed, and that was all I really needed for my plan.


I turned my attention to the magic affecting me. Blind Keith’s magic, rather than the Hunt’s, this time. I could detect the effect, the way it was removing the limits and controls on my emotions. And, having detected it, I could affect it.


I couldn’t stop it. This was Blind Keith, a being on par with Twilight Princes and demigods. I couldn’t hope to overpower his magic, and I didn’t even try.


But I could redirect it.


I stepped in the way, redirecting it slightly, changing what part of me it was targeting.


The world went white.


Fear. Terror. Blind, absolute panic, the kind of fear where thought was impossible, where doing anything to resist the emotion was out of the question. Get hit with this, and you were going to run, and you weren’t going to stop until you literally could not move.


Except I wasn’t moving. I had totally ceded control of my body to another part of my mind, and what I’d done, stepping in to take the effect with the more rational, analytic part, was enough to largely shield that part from the fear.


Parallel processing, I thought dimly, through the haze of terror. Blind Keith could shut me down, but he couldn’t shut all of me down when my consciousness was split this deeply, and he wasn’t paying enough attention to pick and choose what parts of me were affected.


I was still running, but I’d stopped and reversed my direction on the spot. A goblin was close behind me, but it didn’t have the traction on the ice to change direction so swiftly, and it ran right past me, slipping and falling to the ground. The next creature on my trail was a mounted Sidhe, wielding a crystalline blade that crackled with lightning. I ignored the weapon and went for the horse instead, putting one hand on its chest and pushing.


I’d expected to just push it aside a little, maybe cause it to slip on the frost-covered ground.


What I got instead was a surge of power from the Wild Hunt, wolves and blizzard winds howling in my ear, and a push that picked the horse up from the ground and hurled it bodily through the air. A thousand pounds of charging horse, and I tossed it through the air with one hand.


A new note of fear entered the mass already within me, and was promptly magnified a thousandfold by Blind Keith’s magic. I wasn’t supposed to be that strong. Not remotely.


I kept running, borrowing speed from the hounds, grace from the Sidhe, using my knowledge of the Hunters’ locations to navigate. It was easy to run through the forest. I didn’t even have to look. Everything that fell within the storm around me was outlined in my mind, so that I was perfectly aware of every single thing at once. I didn’t even have to think to know when to duck, where to step, when to jump or dodge.


There was a slight shift in the Hunt’s composition, I noticed. A few more on my side, rather than Keith’s. Responding to my success, perhaps?


Moving forward, I sped up, moving even faster. I was going almost as fast as I would have in fur now, slipping back through the middle of the Wild Hunt, and it was so easy. I was stronger, faster, and there was so much knowledge pouring into brain with every second, being processed so quickly, that I could hardly even grasp it all. I was almost prescient.


I could see how this feeling got addictive.


The rest of them had all the same advantage, of course. I was operating on a level I’d hit maybe once or twice in my entire life, and they were still keeping pace with me easily, all around me. Maybe half of them were with me now, wrapped in my fog, coating the world in frost. The other half were solidly on Blind Keith’s side.


Where the two met they clashed, violently. Weapons and magics were turned against the other Hunters, not inflicting much damage, but still very much a battle. Even the different storms seemed to be in conflict, sparking angrily where they met, one melting the frost and ice as fast as the other laid it down.


I could probably have stepped in, altered the course of the conflict. I didn’t, and neither did Blind Keith. It might have been out of some sort of honor, but I doubted it. The Wild Hunt wasn’t about honor, not in any sense that human society recognized as such. No, we were staying out of it because we had other things to do, bigger things to worry about.


In my case, it was getting to my destination. I still had a plan, and the wolf was a part of me, which meant it knew the plan. I had a goal, and getting to it was more important to me than making a small difference in a fight here and there.


Blind Keith had a goal as well, but it was a very different one. He was hunting me, personally.


He was blind, obviously, but I didn’t imagine for a moment that that actually handicapped him at all. He was mounted, and he was far more experienced than I was.


I had two slight advantages over him, though. The first was, ironically, his own magic. Much of the fear was being intercepted by another part of me, but what got through was still enough to spur me to new heights of effort. If you want to run, there’s nothing quite like being terrified for your life to make you run fast.


The second thing was also his fault, in a way. This was my place. I knew it, not just through the Hunt, but also from my own memories. I’d run through these hills and trees more times than I could remember. It had been a long time since I lived here, but I still knew the lay of the land, where the shortcuts were, which way to turn at critical junctures. He’d had the choice of terrain for this little conflict, and he’d chosen one of the most advantageous locations for me possible.


They weren’t big advantages, but they were enough that I had a slight lead as we came into town. I sprinted through the streets, everything put into speed now. The asphalt was smoother than the ground of the forest had been, taking the frost more evenly and thoroughly. Blind Keith had to slow down a little so that the thunderstorm around him could melt the frost, or else risk a fall. He chose the former.


I’d crossed most of town by the time I found the people I was looking for. Edward was still human, Anna was still in fur. I recognized most of the rest, couldn’t put names to them right now.


“Hey,” I said, slowing. It was a struggle to slow, to speak, when I had the Hunt and the fear both pushing me to move, to revert to more primitive, animalistic behaviors. “I…I need help.”


Edward stared at me. “Winter?” he asked. “Is that you?”


“Yeah,” I said, pushing the fog away from my face with a struggle. I pulled my helmet off, wincing at the light. It was only a crescent moon and some stars, but it felt like I was staring straight into the sun at high noon. “Yeah, it’s me.”


He looked at me, sniffed the air, and then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “What do you need?”


“To hunt,” I said. “Are you with me?”


“Of course,” he said, sounding almost offended.


I smiled, relieved, and put my helmet back on. I’d been pretty sure he would agree, but pretty sure isn’t really enough for something like that.


“Good,” I said, as the cold, stormy fog began to spread across my face again. “Let’s go.”


The werewolves followed as I walked back towards Blind Keith and the Hunt. As we moved, the storm began to wrap itself around them as well.

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