Monthly Archives: August 2015

Breaking Point 11.15

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“So let me get this straight,” Aiko said, putting on the armor I’d carried in. It was too big for her, though it had been perfectly tailored before. She’d lost a lot of weight since the last time I saw her. “This faerie pretended to be me for almost four months?”




“Man,” she said. “Fuck her. With great sincerity. Forward, backward and sideways. With her pants on.”


“I think Kuzunoha kinda took care of that one for you,” I said dryly.


There was a momentary stillness. “Yeah,” Aiko said, very delicately. “I guess she did.”


I winced a little. Aiko had been awake for almost fifteen minutes now, and she and her mother hadn’t exchanged a single word, hadn’t even really looked directly at each other. It was incredibly awkward and uncomfortable, but at the same time, there was something oddly comforting about it. This was the kind of dysfunction I expected from Aiko.


“Are you feeling good to stand?”


“Yes,” she snapped. “I’m fine, Winter. Really.” She then stood up, and immediately proved herself a liar when she stumbled sideways and had to lean on me for support.


“Okay,” I said, holding her up. “We ready to keep going?”


Katsunaga grabbed his tarot card off the table and then nodded. He’d been the last one to take his card. Even Kyra and Snowflake had theirs, tucked neatly into their armor in places where they weren’t likely to be damaged or lost.


Aiko didn’t have a card. I tried not to worry about that.


“Where are we going?” Aiko asked.


“Well,” I said, “that kind of depends on you. I mean, my thought was to go and carve Scáthach into itty bitty pieces for this. But if you’d rather just go home and take a nap, I’ll understand.”


“Screw that,” she said cheerfully. “I’m inclined to get creative with her. I mean, at this point, she’s earned it. I don’t care if you’re a Faerie Queen, there are things you just don’t do.”


“That was kind of my thought too,” I agreed. “What about you? Are you coming with us, or do you want out now?”


“I think that you’ve already phrased it better than I could,” Kuzunoha said. She was toying with her card, turning it over in her fingers. Both sides were pure, unblemished black now, no hint of silver light to show the nature of the card. “There are lines one doesn’t cross. There are rules one doesn’t break. When Scáthach took my daughter, she flew in the face of those rules.” Katsunaga nodded vigorously.


“Nice to think that you care about me,” Aiko said, her voice very tight. “Even if it is just as a status symbol.”


Kuzunoha opened her mouth to reply, then just sighed and closed it instead.


Fuck that noise, Snowflake said. Her voice was tense and excited in the back of my head, hungry and thrilling with anticipation. Nobody fucks with us and gets away with it. What more is there to say?


Kyra just looked at me and nodded. I wasn’t sure whether she was agreeing with Snowflake, or whether she’d even heard the husky. But either way, the message was clear. She wasn’t backing out either.


“All right, then,” I said. “You guys go ahead. We’ll catch up in a minute. Meet us at the top of the stairs. I’m pretty sure we’re going to want a different entrance for the next part.”


There were a few doubtful looks at that, but they went without arguing, leaving Aiko and I alone in that room. I helped her out more slowly, just to get away from the silver in that room. The hallway was much more comfortable.


“So what’s this about?” she asked, leaning against the wall to keep her balance. “Inappropriately timed sexual hijinks? ‘Cause if so I’m down with that, it’s about time it was you suggesting that in the middle of a rescue instead of me, but I don’t know about a minute. That doesn’t seem like enough to make up for four months.”


I sighed. “How did I ever think that fae was you?” I asked rhetorically. “I don’t think she said a single thing that disturbed me in that whole time. No, Aiko, that isn’t what I was thinking. Believe it or not, I had a practical purpose behind this delay.” I pulled out the toys I’d bought at the market. I knew she’d recognize their purpose.


She stared. “Okay,” she said at last, in a voice that wasn’t nearly as cheerful as it had been a moment earlier. “Please tell me you aren’t thinking what I think you are. Because if so, I really think we might be better off going back to my idea. At least then we’d die happy.”


“No,” I said. “For once, my plan is actually less suicidal than you think it is.”


I explained what I was planning to do. It didn’t take long; this was actually a very simple plan, so simple the term plan was almost too much to represent it.


By the time I finished, she was grinning. “Okay,” she said. “Do it.”


The hallway felt shorter on the way back. I wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was just that it was done. There was still facing off with Scáthach to look forward to, which I didn’t, but we’d gotten Aiko out. Even if we all died now, I’d know that I hadn’t completely failed her.


She was obviously in bad shape, but once we were up and moving she wasn’t quite as badly off as I’d thought she was. We weren’t setting any speed records, and she had to lean on me occasionally, but she was up and moving under her own power, even wearing armor.


The stairs were harder up than down, reminding me that I wasn’t in the best condition myself. I was tired, and injured, and I was starting to come up against my own physical limits.


Again, though, it seemed shorter than the staircase we descended to reach that level. It only took a few minutes for us to make it to the top, and we weren’t exactly sprinting up the stairs.


And that was when I got the next unpleasant surprise of the evening. The room we were in wasn’t where we’d been before. Instead of a tangled warren of narrow, lightless halls, we emerged into a massive open hall. From the way the air moved I could tell that the ceiling was only about fifty feet up, but there was some kind of magical illusion there, making it look like the night sky overhead, complete with a field of stars and a full moon. The light from the false moon illuminated the room reasonably well, although there were still deep shadows in the corners.


The people we’d sent up ahead were there, at least. That was a major plus, and one that I’d been seriously concerned about.


“What is this?” I asked. “Where are we?”


“The Queen’s entrance hall, unless I’m mistaken,” Kuzunoha said calmly.


“And we’re here instead of where we went down because…why?”


“Space is a relative concept,” she said. “This castle is the Maiden’s sanctum, one of the great strongholds of the Midnight Court. In this place, their power is more than sufficient to influence space and time.”


My heart sank. “She can keep us away from her, then.”


“Oddly enough,” Kuzunoha said, “that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening. She will be in her throne room, the seat of her power. We’re closer than we were.”


I processed that, then sighed. “You know what? I hate politics. Come on, I’m really in the mood to be cutting things into pieces.”


Walking towards the door, I glanced back once. The staircase leading down into the bowels of the fortress was gone, just an open expanse of stone where it used to be. I wasn’t surprised in the least. I had a strong suspicion that that staircase, up and down both, hadn’t really been there. We had traveled by the will of a Faerie Queen, all right, but not Scáthach.


No, I was pretty sure our path had been smoothed by an older queen than that. We were doing the bidding of the Crone of Midnight, the Grandmother of the Unseelie Court. That old hag wanted us to make it to Scáthach, for whatever reason, and even in the younger queen’s sanctum, Grandmother Midnight was the stronger of the two by several orders of magnitude. If they opposed, no one smart was betting on Scáthach’s will to win out.


I hate politics.


The door out of the entry hall was surprisingly small. Still impressive by mortal standards, ten feet tall and covered in inscriptions in the same odd script we’d seen down in the prison room, but compared to the scale of the room, it felt underwhelming.


I opened it and then waited. It was dark on the other side, but I had tendrils extended through the air down the hallway, feeling for any disturbance.


As I’d predicted, only seconds later I felt something approaching. It was small and fast, tipped with silver, and if I’d been an idiot it might well have killed me. I had a pretty solid idea of what to expect here, though, so I reached out and swatted the arrow out of the air with one hand before it even came close to us.


“Oh, you’re no fun,” Carraig said, somewhere in the darkness in front of us.


“I’m surprised at you,” I said. “That you would play along with something like this. I know we aren’t friends, but I would have said you were an honorable man in your way.”


“See, here’s the thing,” he said. “One of the hardest things for me to explain to someone from outside the Courts is the distinction between the role and the person. Now, Carraig might think this whole situation is fucking shameful. He might quite reasonably be disgusted at numerous aspects of what’s happened. Scáthach’s champion, on the other hand, has no such opinions.”


“I understand,” I said. “I really do.”


“Yeah. Yeah, I thought you might. Look, turn around now and you can walk. I’ve got nothing against you, and no order saying I have to kill you.”


“I can’t do that,” I said. “She crossed lines that I can’t ignore. Back down, and you can walk. I’ve got nothing against you, and no reason to include you in my grievances against your queen.”


“I can’t do that,” he said.


“Why not? You know that what she did was wrong. You know she’s messed up.”


“It isn’t in me,” he said. “I’m an old man, Winter. I’ve watched this world move on without me. I don’t belong in it. I don’t have a place in it anymore. It doesn’t matter if she’s wrong. She’s my Queen.”


“You really think you belong in the Court?” Aiko sounded incredulous.


“The Court is all I have,” he said simply.


I sighed. “So it’s like that, then.”


“Looks like it,” he agreed.


And then Carraig, the personal champion of the Maiden of the Unseelie Court and one of the most personally dangerous human beings in the world, started trying to kill me.

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Interlude 6.y: Tindr

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We’d been standing on the mountainside almost an hour. It was an interesting way to get a sense for the other people standing there.


Vigdis had been pacing restlessly since we arrived. She walked back and forth, in circles, varying her stride length and her speed, but always moving. At the same time, though, there was no implication of fear in her posture or attitude. She wasn’t concerned about what would happen; she was just naturally restless, impatient.


Sveinn had been calm to start. After about fifteen minutes, though, he started to fidget. He tapped his finger restlessly against his sword for a minute, then noticed what he was doing and stopped. A few seconds later he began to tap his foot, and did that until he noticed it and, again, stopped. And so on, for the next forty minutes. There was no fear in him, either, but unlike Vigdis, there was a great deal of tension there.


The next step down was Kyi. She was a short distance away from the rest of us, and like me, she was mostly watching the other jötnar. I got the distinct impression that she was an acute observer, not the sort to miss much. Like Sveinn, she was fidgety, but I thought it reflected an underlying attitude more in line with Vigdis’s. Kyi was meant for movement, for action, even if it was quiet movement and subtle action. Prolonged inactivity of this sort left her feeling restless, even though she was otherwise relaxed.


Then there was Haki. He was also standing at a distance, although in his case it was for a slightly different reason. Kyi was wary, and she didn’t fit in with the others, didn’t belong. Haki was more the sort who didn’t belong anywhere. He preferred his own company, and had little desire for anyone else’s. He was not a social creature. Since he had arrived he’d been standing and waiting patiently, unmoving. His attention was more on the surroundings than the other people standing there.


And then there was Kjaran, who stood absolutely still and said not a single word. There was something unnerving about him, something that made him seem less a person than a thing.


Finally people approached up the trail. There were three of them. The first, and the one that I was most interested in, was a man. He was not a jotun, although there was a certain degree of similarity there, a certain amount of connection. He was wearing armor and a sword, and if everything went well today, he would be my lord by tomorrow.


The woman standing next to him was clearly subservient to him, at least in this matter, and I ignored her. I got the distinct impression that it wouldn’t be a good idea to do that indefinitely, but for the moment it would work. I was more interested in the third person. She looked like a dog, but there was an intelligence in her eyes and a purpose to her movements that suggested the appearance was deceiving. I was not sure what she was.


They reached us, and the man walked up to the main group. “Hi,” he said. “I’m Winter. And you are?”


Sveinn was the first to react, predictably; he was the kind of man who would take the initiative, take a leadership role, in most situations. That was readily apparent. Just now, he bowed, briefly but deeply. “I am Sveinn Wartooth, jarl,” he said.


“Vigdis the Howling.” Her voice was pleasant and even somewhat excited, which surprised me. I noticed that she was also watching the dog-creature closely.


“Haki Who-Fights-Alone.” Haki sounded…not bored, precisely, so much as disinterested. That was typical for him, though. Haki’s life was really all about fighting; everything else was just a chore to be taken care of.


I realized that I should probably give my own answer rather than just stand there and listen to the others, so I spoke up next. “Tindr the Exile,” I said. I couldn’t keep a hint of bitterness from entering my voice at the byname. It was true enough, I supposed—I was certainly exiled. But to make that a part of your name was not exactly something I’d have chosen.


“Kyi Greyfell.” She sounded almost as excited as Vigdis, although it was more understandable coming from Kyi. This was the opportunity of a lifetime for her.


There was a long, drawn-out pause, and then I realized what was going on. “His name is Kjaran the Silent, jarl,” I said. “He doesn’t talk much. Or at all. Thus ‘the Silent.'”


“Ah,” Winter said. “That’s…interesting. Well, come on, I’m not doing interviews out here.”


The new jarl led us through a portal into his world. It was there, but very warm; even having known to expect it, it still caught me by surprise.


He interviewed each of us individually, while the others waited downstairs. I was the last to be called up, which didn’t surprise me. I knew that I tended to fade into the background. I was at peace with that.


Upstairs, I found myself in a small study. There was a wooden desk, a couple of chairs. Winter was sitting in one of the chairs, and the woman who had been with him earlier was in the other. The dog-creature was there as well, sitting on Winter’s feet.


There was no chair on my side of the desk. It was a deliberate statement, I was sure. That was fine. I understood.


“Tindr,” he said. “What do you have to offer?”


“I think quickly and I’m good with numbers,” I said.


There was a pause. “That’s it?” he said.


I shrugged. “I’m not a great fighter,” I said. “I’m not going to pretend that I am. I don’t know much about strategy or administration. I don’t have any political contacts worth speaking of. But I learn quickly. I can think on my feet. I’m good with numbers, and after how things ended back home, I’ve got nowhere else to go. You take me, and I’ll be the most loyal housecarl you could ask for. Because I don’t have anyone else to turn to.” I shrugged again. “That’s all I’ve got to offer you, really.”


There was a long, pregnant pause, and then he smiled. “That’s enough,” he said.

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Breaking Point 11.14

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The room was fairly small, and it was weird. For one thing, it was made of silver. Literally made of silver, the walls and floor and ceiling all sheets of metal. Unlike the hallway leading here, it was brightly lit, pure white light shining off every surface from no apparent source. The place was a peculiar mix of cutting-edge technology and ancient magic; hospital equipment and computer screens stood side-by-side with magical fetishes and ritual objects. Runes and other, less identifiable symbols were painted on the walls, almost covering the metal with how thickly they were arranged on the walls.


Everything—the hospital equipment, the ritual objects, the runes—it was all arranged around a bed on the other side of the room. It looked a little like a hospital bed, but it was larger, and looked at least marginally more comfortable.


Aiko was lying in the bed, and she looked terrible. Her knees were thicker than her thighs, and I could not only count her ribs from across the room, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I could count vertebrae. Her eyes were closed, and for a second I was scared that she was dead, but after a moment I saw that she was still breathing, just very quietly.


As much as I hated to admit it, though, my attention was mostly focused on the person sitting next to her. There was something about her that drew the eye like a magnet, irresistibly.


It was hard to say why. She was small, probably barely five feet, and hunched over in her chair so that she looked even smaller. She was wrapped in black cloth, except it went further than just black. It was almost like she was clothed in darkness made manifest. The light that filled the room and left every other surface gleaming didn’t seem to touch her. Every inch of skin was shrouded in that fabric, her face lost in shadows under a deep hood. I couldn’t even say why I got the impression of femininity from her, except that I knew without a shadow of a doubt that she was female.


Looking at her, I was struck with a feeling so intense that it was almost a vision. There was a feeling of the wind blowing over vast steppes, stars wheeling in the sky against the backdrop of the ever-shifting moon, the slow passing of years dragging on into a blur as the stars themselves shifted in their orbits. There was a feeling of power, so vast and fundamental that it permeated the entire island. I’d been smelling it since I first set foot within the castle, I just hadn’t recognized its source.


I blinked, and stared at her, almost dazed. I couldn’t remember having ever seen this much power in one place before. Excepting Loki and Coyote, probably, but they were a hell of a lot more subtle about it.


“Come in,” she said. Her voice was a rasp, sending chills down my spine; I shivered a little at the sound, involuntarily. “Sit down.”


I obeyed, without even thinking about it. I had a guess, just the tiniest guess, about who this was, and if I was even close to right, there was no point in arguing with her.


I stepped inside the room, wincing a little at how much silver there was. It was burning my feet a little, even through the boots, and I was itching within seconds. Kyra whined quietly with pain as she followed, but she followed. Both of the kitsune came in, and Snowflake was pressed tight against my shins, her fear humming in the back of my head. She’d picked up enough of my thoughts on this situation to be absolutely terrified of the person sitting in here.


I walked until I was facing her at a comfortable conversational distance, then sat, fully confident that there would be something for me to sit on by the time I got there.


I wasn’t wrong. A wooden chair appeared underneath me, all hard angles and a bit too low for comfort. Similar chairs appeared for the two kitsune, while simple wooden benches were provided for the canines. Kyra jumped up gratefully; the silver was still intensely uncomfortable, but getting out of direct contact with it did a lot to limit the pain. A small wooden table appeared between me and the woman in black.


All of the wood was the same blacker-than-black color as her clothing, darker than even the finest ebony. This was no natural wood.


“Who am I?” the woman asked.


I swallowed hard. “I don’t know,” I said.


She reached out and cuffed me on the head. I never saw her move, but suddenly something hit me on the side of the head, and I was knocked sprawling to the ground. It wasn’t painful, exactly—she wasn’t hitting me to hurt—but it dazed me for a second, and being knocked to the silver floor wasn’t doing me a whole lot of good.


I pushed myself back to my feet and sat down again. Notably, no one made any kind of complaint, not even Snowflake. We were that scared of this creature. “What was that for?” I asked, making sure that my tone was in no way aggressive or whining.


“Don’t play stupid with me,” she rasped. “You may not know, but you can guess.”


I swallowed again. “Yeah,” I admitted. “From what I’ve seen…yeah. I’m guessing you’re the eldest queen of the Midnight Court.”


She inclined her cowled head very, very slightly. “Correct,” she said in that same rasping voice.


I shivered again, not so much from the voice as from what she’d said.


The Crone of Midnight. The Grandmother of the Unseelie Sidhe.


I was talking to one of the scariest beings in existence. The eldest Queen of the Midnight Court. This was the oldest and most powerful Faerie Queen from the more violent, predatory side of Faerie. Every wicked stepmother, every crone in the woods, every witch that lured the children in for her dinner, every hag in every fairy tale…they were all, in the end, just echoes of this. They were all pretenders to her throne. She was the eldest and greatest, everything they aspired to be. She was a force of nature as much as a person, so feared that I’d never met a single person who would so much as speak her name.


And she was sitting here talking to me.


Great, I thought sourly. And here I thought declaring war on Scáthach was going to be the most suicidal Sidhe-related thing I did today.


“Begging your pardon, ma’am, but why are you here?”


“So ungrateful,” she rasped. “Do you so soon forget the favors of the past? Or did you think you found your way here by chance? Did you imagine that it was so easy to reach this sanctum?”


“It’s not that I’m ungrateful, ma’am,” I said. “It’s that I’ve had some experience with such things. In my experience, favors are seldom free, especially when granted by someone of your stature. Such things have consequences.”


“Clever child,” she said. Teeth glinted for a moment in the darkness under her hood; a smile, presumably, although I couldn’t see for sure. “Too clever by half.”


I swallowed again. “Are you here to keep me from killing Scáthach, then?”


“There has always been a Maiden of Midnight,” she said, not answering the question. “Once it was Nemain. Now it is Scáthach. One day it will be another. What care have I for such things?”


“Nemain,” I said. “That’s one of the Morrigan. The old Irish war goddesses.” Or goddess, depending; I was never totally clear on whether it was three deities or one with three aspects.


Teeth glinted within the hood again. Grandmother Midnight said nothing.


“Okay,” I said. “That is incredibly disturbing.”


“You know so little,” she rasped. “So little of what passes about you. So little of the forces which move you. Give me your hands.”


I hesitated. “Will you give them back?”


“That remains to be seen,” she said, with the faintest trace of black, grim amusement in her voice. “Give them, or I will take them.”


I shrugged and extended my hands towards her, across the table. Again, I never saw her move, but she reached out and snatched them, pulling them close. I was tugged forward, almost falling out of the chair; I had to be almost twice her size, but when she pulled, there was no question of me resisting. I could come with, or I could have my arms ripped from their sockets; there wasn’t much in between.


Somehow, her own hands were still concealed beneath the sleeves of the robe. I could feel them, though, as she held my wrists. Her skin was deathly cold, chilly even to me; her fingers were skinny as though there was nothing there but skin and bone. Her nails were long, and sharp.


She tugged my gauntlets off and tossed them carelessly aside, seeming not to care about the iron in the metal in them, then held my hands up before her cowl, examining them closely.


Finally, after an agonizingly long few moments, she let me go. “You are your grandfather’s child,” she said. “Tell me, child, do you wish to know your fate? Would you know your future?”


I started to answer, then hesitated. “I don’t know,” I said. “I think the only way I could know the answer to that is if I already knew my fate. Once that happens it’s already too late.”


Teeth gleamed again in the darkness under her hood. “And you show wisdom as well as cunning,” she murmured in her quiet rasp. She produced a deck of jet-black cards and set them in the center of the table. “Cut,” she said.


I stared at them. The backs of the cards were unmarked, pure black of the same sort as her clothing. “No, thanks,” I said.

“Cut,” she said again, more firmly. I shrugged and took one card off the deck, setting it to the side. I got a glimpse of the face of the card as I did.


It looked the same as the back, utterly black without marking or meaning.


Grandmother Midnight smiled again, momentarily, teeth gleaming for an instant before all was dark again. “Interesting choice,” she said, slipping the card to the bottom of the deck. Then she flipped the top card lightly off the deck, letting it slide across the table until it came to a rest in front of Katsunaga.


The black face of the card glimmered with light, and then a faint tracery of silver spread across it, lines as thin as spiderwebs branching out across it. They faded in and out, making it hard to see quite what they were hinting at, but there were hints. Here was the suggestion of a sword, there a hint of scales.


“Justice,” the crone said simply. The word had a heaviness to it, the simple finality of a tombstone. Katsunaga bowed his head silently; it was impossible to say what he felt at this.


Another card slid across the table, coming to rest in front of Kyra. Again, silver light sparked and flickered across the black surface of the card, alternately revealing and concealing. There were hints of wolves, of water, suggestions of a moon shifting from sliver to circle and back again.


“The Moon. How apropos.” Kyra whined quietly in response, but I couldn’t have said quite why.


Another card, this one sliding to Kuzunoha. This time the light traced out suggestions of a staff, a key, a pillar.


“The Hierophant. Is that a kindness for you, or a cruelty?”


Kuzunoha just smiled in reply. Her tails flickered briefly through a complex series of movements before going still again. The black hood nodded, very slightly, before reaching for the deck again.


The next card went to Snowflake. This time the light traced out suggestions of something slightly more abstract. There were odd geometric figures, broken lines and odd angles, a hint of something that might have been meant to represent fire.


“The Tower. All things fall in time.” Again, the card was met with silence.


Finally, one of the cards slid to a stop in front of me. Silver light outlined a skull, a scythe, hints of a robe. Even before the word, the nature of the card was clear.


“Death. But not for you, jarl.”


I looked at the card, then looked back to Grandmother Midnight. “I’m surprised you would use Tarot cards, ma’am. They seem too young for you.”


“Young things may still serve a purpose,” she said. Then she laughed.


It was a horrible sound. It caught in her throat and worked its way out only with difficulty, as though straining against its confines. It slipped through the air with the delicate grace of a cat stalking its prey, and brushed against me as tenderly as an assassin’s dagger laid gently against my spine.


I shuddered and pressed myself back in the chair at the sound, just to be slightly further away from that laughter.


“You seek the death of a Queen of Faerie,” she said, while the echoes of that hideous laughter were still fading. “This is far beyond your means. I would have thought you would know this, child; you have seen the unbridled power of a god before.”


“Those were greater deities,” I said. “Ancient even by the standards of the gods. Scáthach is the least of the Queens of the Unseelie Court. She’s not even on the same planet as them in terms of power.”


“Even so, this is not a fight that you can hope to win.”


“Right now, ma’am, I don’t give a damn. I came here knowing it was likely to be a suicide mission. I’m okay with that. There comes a point where you have to draw a line and say to hell with the consequences. I’m not willing to let her get away with this.”


“Indeed.” Grandmother Midnight considered me for a moment. “I could offer you a share of my power for the time. You could be my champion in this matter.”


I froze. “I thought the eldest Queens didn’t keep mortal champions,” I said, very, very carefully.


I thought I saw another gleam of teeth within the cowl. “In the past, we have not.”


I swallowed. “So…why would you now?”


“My reasons are my own, boy, as they always are. The offer has been made; that is all you need know.”


I thought for a second. This was…power on a level I couldn’t even conceive of. Carraig was only Scáthach’s champion, and it had still turned him from a normal man into a killing machine that could take on an entire army and walk away laughing. To be Grandmother Midnight’s champion would mean…I couldn’t even wrap my head around that. It would be the kind of power that could go toe-to-toe with the major players. In one step, it would take fighting Scáthach from suicide to a reasonably fair match.


“No,” I said.




“No,” I said. “Favors have consequences, ma’am. I don’t think I like the consequences of this one.”


“In that case,” she said, “good luck surviving the next few hours. You’re likely to need it. Take your cards with you. You’ll find them useful eventually.”


“Wait,” I said, before she could stand. “How do I wake Aiko up?”


She sighed, a sound nearly as upsetting as her laugh. There was ancient hatred and contempt and weariness and bleak amusement all bound up into a single emotion so complex I couldn’t begin to name it, but I could feel it in her sigh. “Humans,” she said disgustedly. “Always looking past the obvious.”


Then she grabbed me by the neck and physically threw me into the hospital bed with Aiko. My helmet flew off and knocked over a stand of crystal tubes, and my head hit the wall, dazing me. I thought it might have knocked a tooth loose, and it had definitely split my lip; I could taste blood. I slumped forward momentarily, and my face brushed against Aiko’s.


After a couple of seconds, I collected myself enough to push myself back to a half-sitting position, bracing myself against the next attack.


It didn’t come.


A moment later, Aiko’s eyes opened. For a moment there was fear in them, a blind, mad, animal terror that overwhelmed all rational thought.


Then her features returned to their usual devil-may-care mask, hiding any hint of fear beneath. Her tongue flickered out to taste my blood on her lips, and she grinned.


“Damn,” she said, her voice weak but still recognizably hers. “I gotta say, of all the ways to wake up from that fucking nightmare, naked with you on top of me? Not bad.”

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Breaking Point 11.13

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Moving towards the bridge, I was surprised at how hard it was. I was almost staggering, my steps awkward and irregular. It hurt to move. It hurt standing still too, but it wasn’t as noticeable when I wasn’t moving.


How many injuries did I have? I wasn’t sure, couldn’t even make a reasonable guess. The major ones had been mostly healed already, at least to the extent that I wasn’t likely to bleed out in the immediate future, but there were still plenty of small cuts, bruises, even a few cracked bones.


I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten most of them, exactly. I was trying not to think about it too hard. From what I could recall, I’d lost myself pretty badly on the way up here. About as far gone as I’d ever been. This situation was fucking with my ability to maintain control.


It was hard to say quite why the anger that had carried me this far was in the background again. Maybe I was just tired; not even the most bloodthirsty werewolf could keep going indefinitely, and at some point injuries and fatigue would bring you down. Maybe that part of me had recognized that we were at the point where rational thought and care would get us further than psychotic rage.


I stepped up and looked over the bridge. It was about a hundred feet across, maybe a little more. The stone was pale, almost luminescent in the moonlight, unmarked by any signs of having been worked with tools. It looked like it had been grown in that shape where it stood, a single arch of stone over the water. Considering where we were, maybe it was.


I was more concerned with the water. The water was dark, a deep, inky blackness that didn’t so much reflect the light as eat it. The surface was utterly calm, still and smooth as a pane of glass, but I didn’t for a moment imagine that it was empty. There might be Sidhe in there, or the nasty sort of mermaid. Maybe one of the more exotic water fae, a kelpie or a rusalka. Hell, for all I knew she might have a kraken in there.


All I could say for sure was that it would be bad.


I looked at the bridge, chewing my lip. It couldn’t be as easy, as simple as just walking across. The Sidhe didn’t work like that; there was always a trick, a catch, a sucker punch somewhere in the works. It was never as easy as it looked.


The hard part was figuring out where the trap was. Was it the bridge, an obvious answer to the problem meant to lure in the foolish and straightforward? Or perhaps this trap was meant to catch the paranoid, and the bridge actually was the safe way over. Perhaps this entire thing was an elaborate decoy, and the real entrance was somewhere completely different?


I growled. There was no way to guess, and I was wasting time standing here trying.


I stepped out onto the bridge, ready to dodge or fight at a moment’s notice, all my senses extended for any hint of trouble. I made it maybe ten feet out, and then the stone bucked under my feet, tossing me up and back.


I hit the dirt hard and rolled back to my feet, watching warily, but it looked like the bridge had gone back to being inanimate.


“Are you injured?” Kuzunoha asked.


“No,” I said, checking to make sure as I said it. Then I realized what had just happened and started to laugh. “Bloody hell,” I said. “I can’t believe she’s still using that.”


“What?” The kitsune sounded calm and patient. Snowflake, who echoed her mentally an instant later, did not.


“One of Scáthach’s most famous appearances is in the Cúchulainn stories. In them, she had a bridge that would throw anyone who tried to cross it back to the bank.”


So how do we get across? Snowflake asked, pacing back and forth restlessly by the edge of the water.


“In the story,” I said, “Cúchulainn crossed the water by jumping into the middle of the bridge, then jumping from there to the other side. It didn’t have time to throw him off.”


“I don’t know if you noticed, but that’s a bit of a long jump. Even for me,” Katsunaga said. He was flipping a small knife in his hand idly.


“Yeah,” I said, looking back at the bridge. “I know. Cúchulainn was maybe the strongest hero in Irish myth; I doubt any of us could match him. But looking at this, I think maybe we can fake it.”


Faking it, as it turned out, was easier said than done. When I tried walking above the bridge rather than on it, holding myself in the air with magic, it threw me off anyway. Jumping across in stages didn’t work. Having multiple people on the bridge at once didn’t confuse it; it could chuck all of us at once.


Eventually, after a couple of minutes of frustration, Katsunaga proposed another idea.


I stared at him. “You have got to be kidding me.”


“It might work,” he said defensively. “You never know.”


I continued to stare. “This,” I said, “is very much the kind of plan that Aiko would come up with. That’s not a compliment, by the way, if you were curious.”


“In fairness, her plans sound like mine, not the other way around. I taught her everything she knows.”


Yeah, not helping your case much, Snowflake said dryly.


I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay,” I said. “You’re sure the rope will work out right? You’ve got the length worked out?”


“Yes,” he said. “Well, probably. Unless the distance here isn’t what it looks like. Which it probably isn’t since this is Faerie. But I can finagle it. Probably.”


“Still not inspiring great confidence,” I told him. “But I don’t have a better idea, so let’s do this.”


He grinned. “All right!” he said. “Come on, I think we’ve got a pretty good tree over here.”


He led us over to a large conifer, well over a hundred feet tall, not far from the edge of the moat. I eyed it dubiously. “You really think this will bend that far?”


He nodded enthusiastically. “These things are more flexible than they look,” he said, producing ropes from pockets that shouldn’t have been anywhere near large enough to hold them. “Come on, dear, we’re going to need someone to watch our backs while we work this all out.”


Kuzunoha walked from the bridge over to stand next to us, holding her sword in one hand. It was hard to tell, between the darkness and how restrained her body language typically was, but I thought she was smiling indulgently, just a little bit.


“Right, then,” the other kitsune said, throwing one of the ropes up into the air. It was an unnaturally precise throw, the rope wrapping around the trunk of the tree and then falling back to earth. He snatched the other end out of the air as it fell and tugged on the rope, making sure it was secure, then turned to me. “Here’s yours,” he said.


I took the rope and waited as he tossed another two ropes up and around the tree, passing one off to Kyra and one to Snowflake. I could hear some fighting behind me as this went on, the roaring and screeching of the fae contrasted with the utter silence of the kitsune, but I didn’t pay too much attention. The fighting was Kuzunoha’s job right now, and on a job like this, you had to trust the people you were working with to do their jobs.


“Okay,” Katsunaga said. “Pull!”


I set my feet and started pulling down on my rope, hand over hand. It was hard, physically, but simple and repetitive, almost a meditative act. In some ways it almost reminded me of fighting up the mountain; there was the same element of action without thought.


The two canines pulled on their ropes as well, although they did it somewhat differently; both of them had their jaws clamped firmly on the material, and were simply walking away from the tree. It seemed like they should be tearing the ropes apart—I knew how sharp Snowflake’s teeth were, after all—but they weren’t. I guess kitsune can get ropes made from tougher stuff than hemp.


“Stop!” Katsunaga said, jolting me out of my reverie. I stopped pulling, holding the rope tightly instead, and he darted forward to look at the tree. It was bent almost double now, straining against the ropes. He nodded, apparently satisfied, and then jogged over to me. He grabbed the rope I was holding and wrapped the end around another tree, tying it firmly in place.


I let go carefully, half-expecting the tree to snap back upright, but it only groaned a little as the rope shifted. This gave me a moment to breathe, which I spent checking on the fighting.


Kuzunoha was standing alone on the path, her sword held neatly in front of her. Her skin glowed with a quiet silver radiance, not the blinding, burning light I’d seen earlier, but still noticeable.


All around her, scattered across the ground, were the pieces of those fae who had attempted to follow us up. All of them were dead now—none were even just dying, or near death. Most of the bodies burned with a quiet silvery fire from the touch of the iron.


It was hard to say just how many of them had died there. Enough.


I stood and waited as Katsunaga tied another rope to me, attaching me to the tree. There was plenty of room between us, more than two hundred feet of rope. I was holding onto another length of rope, one that was already tightly stretched between me and the trunk. It was a convoluted arrangement, but I trusted him when he said it would work out. It had already become very apparent that he was very, very good with ropes.


“You remember what to do?” the kitsune asked with a mad, devil-may-care grin. “Oh, who am I kidding, of course you do. Ready, set go!”


As he said “set,” he brought a knife down on the rope tied to another tree, the only thing anchoring my tree down. The tree instantly snapped back up to its full height. Thanks to the rope stretched taut between us, so did I. The rope almost pulled out of my grip, and it felt like it was going to pull my shoulders out of their sockets, but I managed to keep ahold of it.


The world blurred past me, and I realized that the tree was already almost back to its full height. I let go of the rope and continued rising, soaring up into the night.


Then the rope tied around me jerked tight, and I started to swing down in a long arc towards the castle. I started forcing magic into the air around me, slowing the fall, but the ground was still coming up fast. I could jump out of a plane without worrying a bit, but the centrifugal force here was still pretty damn considerable.


I slammed into the ground, hard enough to knock the wind out of me. Instants later, the ground moved under me, throwing me back into the air.


I hit stone rather than dirt, though, and knew I’d made it far enough; the bridge had thrown me to the other side of the moat, rather than back the way I’d come.


“Right, then,” Katsunaga shouted from the other side. “We’ll be right over. Hold your end tight.”


I pushed myself to my feet and braced myself to hold the rope steady. A few seconds later the kitsune jumped out onto the rope, ziplining across. He was holding onto the rope casually with one hand and a carabiner, while Snowflake dangled from his other hand.


I watched them come, and then realized we hadn’t exactly planned for what to do once it worked.


Katsunaga hit me in the chest, feet first, knocking me to the ground again. A second or two later, Snowflake landed on my chest, panting exuberantly. That was awesome! she exclaimed. Let’s do it again!


Despite myself, I had to smile. It was good to see her back to her usual self. Very good.


Kuzunoha followed a few seconds later with Kyra, although she dismounted the rope much more gracefully. I suspected the other kitsune could have done the same—he was at least as agile as Aiko, after all—but he was the sort to enjoy doing it the way he had.


She really did take after her father.


“Great times,” Katsunaga said, grinning like a loon. “Much more fun than just flying across.”


I stared at him. “You could have just flown?”


“Sure. But how boring would that be?” He grinned at me some more, then cut the rope away where it was tied around me. He rolled it between his fingers and it burst into flame, bright and fierce. He dropped it, and we walked into the castle as the fire spread up the rope to the tree behind us.


The courtyard of the castle was broad and open, but sterile, totally lacking in life. The ground was a single sheet of black marble, utterly dark. There was a large fountain in the center of the yard, and the water sparkled in the moonlight, but it didn’t make a sound as it fell back into the pool.


There were several doors opening off the courtyard. In addition to the massive doors of the main entrance, oak bound with silver, there were smaller entrances scattered around. Some were on upper levels; about half of those had stairs leading up to them, but the other half opened into thin air.


“Which way?” I asked, looking warily around. I was anticipating an army to boil out and fall on us at any moment, but it appeared the quiet would last at least a little longer.


“They will be keeping her below,” Kuzunoha said quietly. “And not through the main entrance. That isn’t the Queen’s style; she prefers to keep the ugliness hidden beneath a veneer of deceptive beauty.” She turned slowly, and then pointed at one of the other doors. “There,” she said.


“Okay,” I said, starting in that direction. “Are you guessing here, or do you have a way of knowing? I’ll go with it either way, but I’d like to know where we stand.”


“Some of both,” she said, following close behind me. I got the impression that she wanted to push me out of the way and move faster, but even now, she had too much ingrained poise and decorum for that.


The door opened easily and we moved inside, into a narrow hallway with a high, arched ceiling. Everything was constructed of that same black marble, and the hall was completely unlit. Kuzunoha fixed that easily enough, emitting more of that pure silver light until I was more likely to be squinting against the brightness than the dark.


In truth, I was just as glad for the darkness. It kept me from seeing anything of the castle beyond what was right in front of me, and I had the strong suspicion that that was a good thing.


I wasn’t sure whether it was luck or some sort of kitsune magic, but Kuzunoha managed to lead us straight to a staircase leading down. There wasn’t much point in asking, really. I had a hard enough time understanding how Aiko did some of the things she did.


The stairs led straight down, unpleasantly steep. I ended up carrying Kyra, while Katsunaga carried Snowflake down, since going down steep stairs with four legs isn’t actually very much fun. It felt like it went on for an impossibly long time, and I started counting the steps just out of curiosity.


By the time we hit the bottom, I was at four thousand. The risers were a uniform eight inches in height, which meant that we’d gone down about three thousand feet since entering the castle. We had to be down near the water level by now, the whole weight of the mountain hanging over our head.


We finally reached the bottom, and I set Kyra down, groaning a little. I was strong, but it had been a long climb down. Kyra wasn’t a lightweight, especially in armor, and I’d already taken a beating tonight.


The hallway at the bottom was larger, wide enough that we could all walk abreast and still have enough room for a car on either side. The ceiling was a high arch, twenty feet over my head. It was hard to see much more than that, since we were still dependent upon Kuzunoha for light; unsurprisingly enough, the Maiden of the Midnight Court wasn’t given to much lighting within her fortress.


The hall was built to the same scale as the staircase, ridiculously unnecessary. We walked for a while, and then we started running instead, and then we went back to walking when it became clear that I wasn’t up to another prolonged sprint, and still it stretched out of sight in front of us.


Finally, after a solid twenty minutes of walking, we reached a door. It was a huge piece of what I was willing to bet was solid silver, and the lock on it was a piece of black iron easily the side of my head. There were two guards outside, Sidhe warriors dressed in fine crystal armor. It was a pretty respectable set of defenses.


Or, at least, it used to be. Now the Sidhe were lying on the ground in pools of their own blood, throats slit neatly from ear to ear. The door hung open a few inches, not wide enough to see inside, but more than wide enough to make it clear that it wasn’t locked.


“Well, that’s ominous,” Katsunaga said lightly. Then, before I could respond, he darted forward and pushed the door the rest of the way open, heedless of the body he stepped on as he passed.


I opened my mouth to rebuke him for being so hasty, then stopped and stood there like an idiot when I got a glimpse inside the room.


Aiko was in there, all right. But she wasn’t alone.

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Breaking Point 11.12

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The cloud of fog limited my vision as badly as anyone else’s. But I’d always had some talent for functioning without vision, and I’d recently had a great deal of opportunity to practice.


The ground was surprisingly hard to navigate safely. It had been uneven and rocky beforehand, but the detonations of the various stored spells had worsened things considerably. There were cracks and craters in the ground, places were earth and stone had been removed as neatly as scooping ice cream from the container, places where they had been shattered.


On the whole, the terrain was treacherous, in some ways as dangerous as the creatures on it. A false step, a stumble, could mean disaster. I was forced to move more slowly than I would have liked, feeling around carefully through the air to be sure that I didn’t make a mistake. Kyra and Snowflake both stuck close to my side as I walked into the fog. Neither werewolf nor husky was totally dependent on sight, but this sort of situation wasn’t what their other senses had been designed for; hearing and scent couldn’t necessarily warn them of an upcoming pit in the ground.


But they followed me in, trusting totally in my ability to keep them safe.


I could feel heat in the air ahead, coming off a lingering fire, and reached out to quench it. The cold flowed through me, and the fire died, the corpse it fed on blanketed in frost instead.


There were still fae moving around in the fog; as dramatic as my initial barrage had been, it hadn’t directly hit more than a small fraction of the crowd. There were still plenty more that were up and moving.


I had nothing against them, but I couldn’t guarantee that they wouldn’t continue to hunt us if we simply slipped past them in the fog, and not all of them were blinded by it; many were still moving with deliberate purpose, navigating by some means that didn’t depend upon sight as I understood it.


So rather than guide us to the less traveled areas, the route we could have walked without running into opposition, I deliberately turned our path towards the pockets of resistance.


The first group couldn’t see, and we closed in on them in perfect silence, ensuring that they didn’t notice or react to our presence. I couldn’t see them, either, but I could feel the air stirring around them as they moved, and I could smell the canines smelling them, a reek of swamp and night and ugliness that burned foully in the back of the throat and left the sinuses clenched against the stench.


I stepped up and ran one of them through with Tyrfing, smashed another’s face in with my armored fist, then drew the sword out and swept it in a broad arc parallel to the ground. Beside me Snowflake and Kyra both bit and tore, the blood tasting foul in their mouths.


The others could feel the spraying blood strike them, could hear the bodies hit the ground, but still didn’t see us, didn’t know where to look. I stepped up to the next, feeling its mindless terror burning in the back of my mind, hot and frenetic. The blade lashed out again and the fear ended, the flickering candle of the creature’s life extinguished.


It took only moments longer for the last of them to fall, and we kept moving, padding silently through the fog.


I could hear bellowing now, the giant’s voice loud enough to be painful even from the opposite side of the field. The massive creatures was above the fog, but it didn’t seem able to see what was happening within the cloud any better than the rest.


It was swinging at random, though, apparently uncaring of how many of its own allies it crushed. At one point I felt the air stirring and stopped just barely in time as its club smashed into the ground in front of us. The earth shook, literally shook for twenty feet around the impact site with the sheer power behind the blow. I managed to keep my footing, but it was an effort, and I watched with respect and fear as the club was lifted again.


Any conception I’d had that I could fight that thing vanished in that moment. One hit from that and we were dead. Period. There was no room for argument, no chance to intervene. That was enough to pulverize us beyond all hope of recovery.


I waited for the giant to lift the weapon again, and then led us onward.


We ran into several more groups of fae and dealt with each of them in much the same way we’d removed the first one. Some were more of the swamp-creatures, but there were others, goblins and redcaps and hags and all manner of other foul things that I couldn’t name. There were a handful of Sidhe in the mix, but I avoided them carefully. I knew the Sidhe intimately enough to have an acute respect for their power, and I did not want to fight them when I couldn’t see.


It took a few minutes for us to reach the other side of the field and step out into the open air again. Our armor, and fur where it showed through the armor, were stained a dozen colors, as though we had swam through the blood of a dying rainbow.


But Tyrfing’s blade shone brightly with the reflected light, clean as always.


The giant towered above us, close enough now that I could count the individual hairs on its legs, each as thick as ropes. It didn’t seem to have noticed us yet, but that couldn’t last, and I still hadn’t come up with any way to take it out that wasn’t just a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.


I gritted my teeth and started forward, gripping Tyrfing more tightly. This needed done, and if that meant taking a gamble with my life, so be it.


Then I paused. It seemed too bright for just the moonlight.


I turned, and saw that there was a light coming from the fog. It was brilliant silver in color, almost the same tone as the moon, filling the entire fogbank with pure vivid light. The giant swatted at the brightest point repeatedly, but it didn’t seem to be doing anything.


The light got brighter and brighter, and then Kuzunoha stepped out of the fog.


She had her game face on again, nine tails spreading behind her in a shifting, weaving mass. Her blades dangled casually from her hands, both of them literally dripping the same multicolored blood we were soaked with. Silver light poured from her, casting shadows from every rock and blade of grass, so pure and bright it was hard to look at.


The giant roared and swung again, moving faster than anything that size had a right to be. Its club smashed down on the kitsune over and over, shattering and crushing the earth beneath her. Standing twenty-five feet away, I was still tossed to the ground.


But the kitsune wasn’t affected. At all. The club passed right through her, and she kept walking on empty space as the earth was cratered and broken underneath her feet.


I stared for several seconds before realizing that I was looking at an illusion. It had to be an illusion.


I looked up just in time to see a speck leap from the cliff above the giant. It dropped straight down for a second and then swung into a fast, steep arc to the side, passing just under the giant’s chin. Blood poured out in its wake, a ridiculous amount of blood, almost comical.


The speck reached the end of the arc and started back down, then dropped back into a downward fall. It rode the tide of blood that rushed to the ground like a scarlet waterfall, and slammed into the ground not thirty feet away from us.


At the same time, the illusion of the kitsune winked out like it had never been. The light, the blood dripping from the blades, everything just vanished.


Katsunaga stood, not seeming to have any trouble with the weight of the blood pouring down onto him, and walked over to us. He had a long sword in his hand, apparently what had just opened the giant’s throat. “You’re slow,” he said casually. “And…three, two, one, move!”


On the final word, he suddenly darted forward with incredible speed. His shoulder caught me at the waist, flipping me up into a fireman’s carry, and he grabbed one of the canines in either hand. He carried us forward to the edge of the cliffs like that, moving as fast as a vampire, fast enough to make me look slow.


Instants later, the giant’s corpse slammed down into the fog with a crash more appropriate to falling buildings than anything alive. One hand hit the ground where we’d been standing, and just its hand was huge enough that I had no doubt that we’d have been crushed if we were underneath it.


I slipped off the kitsune’s shoulder and hit the ground, and he grinned down at me, dropping Kyra and Snowflake as well. The sword had disappeared at some point, although I wasn’t sure when or how.


“Seriously, you guys are slow,” he commented casually, walking back out from the cliff. “We’ve been waiting up top for like five minutes now.” He whistled piercingly, and a moment later a coil of rope fell from above, hitting the ground with a thunk.


I stared. “How?” I asked.


He grinned at me. “That would be telling,” he said. “Now get over here. It won’t be long before the reinforcements get here.”


I walked over in something of a daze, with the others following a few feet behind. Katsunaga clipped the rope to Kyra’s harness with a carabiner and then wrapped the rope around one hand. He scooped Snowflake up with the other, grabbing her around the abdomen. “Might want to grab on,” he said.


I stared, then shrugged and grabbed the rope. The kitsune tugged the rope, and then we started rising into the air.


How much weight was on the rope, I wondered? Two people, a werewolf, a husky, three full sets of armor…it had to be more than a thousand pounds.


But the rope was rising past the cliff at a dizzying pace, far faster than I could have climbed.


We reached the top of the cliff and clambered over. Kuzunoha was standing there, holding the rope. Apparently she’d just pulled us up hand-over-hand, easy as that. Though perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised at that, given that Katsunaga was holding his weight and Snowflake’s both with one hand and didn’t seem to be straining at all. Elder kitsune obviously had some pretty ridiculous strength.


“Let us proceed,” she said, dropping the rope and turning towards the mountain. “There will be more of them to come.”


I nodded and then started forward, running. Apparently the kitsune were more than fast enough to keep up, given that they’d been waiting for us at the top.


The rage simmering inside me had been dulled a bit, pushed out of the way by surprise at the kitsune’s antics. But as we ran, it came to the forefront again. It wasn’t getting milder as time passed; to the contrary, it was just getting stronger and more overwhelming, driving me harder and harder.


The path leading up to the castle was clearly marked, leading through the trees. I hesitated for a few seconds, looking at it. On the one hand, they would be expecting us on the path; I had no doubt there would be heavy resistance. On the other, running through a forest in the heart of Faerie without a path was one of the stupidest ideas I’d ever had, and that was a strongly contested position.


Fuck it, I thought, starting up the path. Resistance was okay. Resistance was just fine.


The path was gravel, fine and pale, almost glowing in the moonlight. It should have been good footing, but it wasn’t; the stones turned underfoot, always at the worst time, and small irregularities in the path conspired to make every footstep an inconvenient one. We weren’t welcome here, and every part of this island was working against us, trying to keep us out.


I grinned and kept moving, fast. The path led steeply uphill, and I was breathing hard, but I didn’t slow, didn’t pause. I slipped on the gravel and fell, but I was up and moving again almost before I hit the ground.


Now there were people in front of me, and this wasn’t the disorganized mob from the base of the cliffs. This was an organized, disciplined group, standing in tight formation. Many of them were Sidhe, with all that entailed. Every fourth space was occupied by a faerie hound; in every third rank, these spaces were occupied by an ogre instead.


I smiled at them and then moved in.


I walked right through them, the wrath boiling up inside me into action, driving every motion faster, harder. Tyrfing lashed out again and again, drawing blood and sparking fire. The werewolf and the husky were close beside me, teeth gleaming in the moonlight, growls and snarls bubbling forth. Further out the kitsune were moving with us, blades out and ready, but I was only dimly aware of them, my world contracted to myself and the enemy in front of me. Even the canines close against my sides were only vaguely remembered, more presences than people.


I was not a gifted swordsman, not even close to being a match for the least of the Sidhe. That didn’t matter. I was stronger, faster, and far angrier than they could hope to be. I was wrapped in steel and I carried a blade that was more than a match for any of their defenses; brute force could serve here where skill was hopelessly overmatched.


Their weapons got through, opening numerous cuts and gashes in my flesh, puncturing deep into muscle, shedding my blood freely onto the gravel. That didn’t matter either. I was beyond pain just now, and damage just drove me on, fueling the wrath that was carrying me forward.


I pushed myself further, faster and harder, and I wanted to laugh at how easy it all was. I was faster, stronger, I was so much more than merely human. Everything I tried, every strike, every parry, every smallest movement I made worked. The air around me danced and glittered with snowflakes and moonlight, knocked out of the air by the spraying blood, brought up and dancing again moments later by the wind of my passage. It almost felt like running at the heart of the Wild Hunt, but this was all me, something taken rather than given.


In a strange way, it was almost meditative. I’d always thought of meditation, of that state of mind, as being something calm, but now I was approaching the same location from the other direction. The wrath was so intense that it became the sole focus of my existence, driving any other emotion, any thought from my mind. In that moment, violence was not so much something I did as something I was, a state of being rather than an action.


At some point, I became aware that there were no more enemies before me to kill, and something made it through the red mist of anger, a sort of vague disappointment that it was over. I pushed that feeling away and continued onward, running along the path. My footsteps now were light, though I was bleeding, heavily from a stab wound on my thigh and more lightly from a hundred other cuts all over my body.


I laughed and laughed, and when I ran into more of the fae on the path, I cut them down as well, not even pausing in my run.


“Jarl. Jarl!”


I blinked, shook my head, looked at the voice. From her tone, I was guessing it wasn’t the first time she’d said it.


“What is it?” I asked. I expected to be slurring, from how far gone I felt, but if anything, the opposite was true. My words were crisply enunciated, my voice calm and cool.


“We’re there,” Kuzunoha said, pointing past me. There was an odd tone in her voice, an odd note in her expression. There was something deeply worried there, something disturbed on a basic level.


I looked in the direction she was pointing and saw the castle, right there, standing up from the mountainside. It had looked smallish before, but that had been a trick of distance and perspective; up close, it was huge, towering overhead, a keep the size of a town. We were separated from it by a broad dark moat, with a single stone bridge across it. I didn’t for a moment think it would be that simple, but I needed to get to the other side, so I started for the bridge.


I could feel the concern, the worry, the slight edge of fear from the others. Even Snowflake, who was as viciously aggressive as anyone I’d ever known, who was literally addicted to the rush of violence, felt disturbed and frightened, and I knew it was me she was scared of.


I ignored it. There was always a price to pay.

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Interlude 11.b: Legion

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Winter walked into the laboratory. I paid little notice until I felt his attention focus on me as he spoke, his way of letting me know that desired my active participation in his work.


I manifested myself more fully within the vessel he had chosen. An amusing choice, to provide me with the bones of the dead; it was not appropriate. I had always been a being of life rather than death. The concepts were intertwined, though, each edging into the other as naturally as one shifts into two. My position on the boundary had more to do with the living than the dead, but I could understand the confusion.


He began asking questions, and I answered them. His speech was painfully slow in comparison to my perceptions, which was just as well. For each thing he said, I had to look for the meaning underlying it, process and respond to that meaning, and then translate my response back into the words he was using.


It seemed comparable to translating between languages, but the reality was rather more difficult than that. It was closer to asking a computer to translate an input from hexadecimal into binary, perform an operation, and then convert the result back into hexadecimal to report it.


Luckily, like the computer, I was capable of processing the input fast enough to make the procedure happen with almost no discernable delay.


He continued asking me questions about power, about the mechanics of certain weapons, and I answered. He felt nervous, anxious, but not actually frightened, and there was another aspect to him, an element of territorial aggression. There was a darker side to that aggression, as well, an edge of violent, destructive hunger.


I felt a resonance with my own nature there, and there was a satisfaction in that recognition. I had seen the potential in him early to become a force of destruction, of purification. It was beginning to reach its fruition now, beginning to blossom from a suggestion into a reality.


I was the culling of the herd, the harsh reality that killed the weak and left the strong stronger. In part due to my influence over him, so was he. I was stronger as a result; the idea that was my core had gained a foothold and spread out from it. There was more of me, in a very real sense. That brought an instinctive satisfaction to me. Those of us who lacked that response seldom lasted long.


I knew that what he was currently doing would lead, soon or late, to a further expansion. He would fall further in line with the concept that he had named Legion, a singularly ironic choice on his part. He could say that the weapon he was designing was a failsafe, never intended to be used, but that was nothing more than a balm to soothe his conscience. Eventually he would use it; it was what he was. With the nature of the weapon in question, it would be in line with my own identity, providing me with further power, allowing me to continue existing in this form.


All of these were inevitable, a chain of logic leading inexorably to our mutual ascendance. Again, there was a satisfaction in this. Not excitement, as excitement was not in my nature; I had been created out of grim certainty, not hopeful naïveté. But I had been created with an acute awareness of inevitability as well, and thus I could appreciate the inevitable. In some ways, the chain of consequences leading to my own growth was the same to me as the growth itself.


Thus, the satisfaction. Growth and reproduction were basic urges, so fundamental that they had been built into me without my creator being quite aware of what she was doing.


Winter began working on his new weapon, laying out the foundations for the magic that would later build on top of it. As with all of my designs, it began simply and then grew, layer by layer, into an organic, fractal composition. There was no other way it could be. I myself was profoundly organic, incapable of defining myself in any other way.


He continued the work for another two hours, during which time I paid enough attention to correct any errors and answer questions. eventually he put the final touch on the first layer, locking it into place so that it would resist the natural decomposition process. Degradation and decomposition were a part of my nature, which meant that I also understood how to limit their effects. It could not be entirely prevented, nor indefinitely delayed, but with clever design it could be mitigated.


He left, turning out the lights behind himself, and I ceased manifesting in that vessel as strongly. Winter said that I entered a dormant state when he left, which was likely as close as he could come to grasping the truth, but failed to actually do so. It would be more accurate to say that my perceptions of time and space were not so linear as his. My understanding of distance had more to do with conceptual similarity than with physical separation. My experience of time was dependent upon the significance of events more than their actual duration.


After he left, there was nothing for me to do or to pay attention to, so the time passed without me fully experiencing or being aware of it.


Nearly a day later, I became aware of another presence, and roused myself. To a physical observer, no difference would have been noticeable. Without the need to exert ourselves for the benefit of outsiders, neither of us bothered with a physical manifestation. Our presence in that space was enough.


The other presence felt, first and foremost, powerful. There was power there on a scale that I could not truly conceive of, let alone aspire to match. The next most intense feeling was one of destructive potential. This was an entity born of destruction, of entropy. It was akin to me, in some ways, but there were important differences as well. I was fundamentally a creative force; I destroyed, but it was a controlled sort of destruction, pruning and culling.


This entity was an entirely different story. It could represent that aspect if it chose to, it could encapsulate the idea which made up me. But that was not the core of this entity. This was destruction unbound and unburdened by other concerns, profound and absolute, the end of all things.


Just being in the presence of such intense and destructive power was damaging to me. I was abstract enough to resist some of the effects, and it was not exerting itself to harm me, but still, I could feel the damage being done. There was no sense of pain, merely a recognition of damage. I did not have it in me to feel pain


The weapon is nearing completion, Loki expressed. The concept was conveyed with masterful precision and care; there was absolutely no room for misinterpretation, and no other ideas getting in the way or adding further context or meaning.


I expressed that only the first layer of enchantment had been performed, and there was a great deal of additional work to be done.


(mild amused annoyance) Not what I meant, Loki informed me. As you are aware. You have played a considerable role in the process.


I expressed agreement. I knew the weapon he was referring to, and I knew that it was very close to being complete. The edge of hunger I had felt earlier, violent, destructive, on the brink of being self-destructive, was a sure sign of that.


Do you ever feel regret for doing this? Do you pity him?


I expressed confusion. Neither regret nor pity was in me. I had felt them, when I occupied a mortal mind capable of such things, but they were alien. I was incapable of truly grasping what the ideas meant. They were incompatible with my nature.


They aren’t incompatible with mine, Loki expressed. I suspect they were not meant to be incompatible with yours either. You were created so hastily.


I expressed further confusion. I had not been created deliberately at all. My creator had had no notion of what she did.


True. The power of a dying curse. She had no idea that her hatred for the legions who had ravaged her could take on a form that exceeded her. There was a brief pause in Loki’s thoughts, something that the deity could not or would not express. Do you ever wish that things could be different? That you could be other than you are?


I expressed negation. Wishful thinking and hope were not in my nature either.


I think I envy you for that.


I paused for a few moments. It was not in my nature to feel empathy, or to express it. Condolence and reassurance were not among the concepts which defined me. I was not capable of such things.


But Winter was, and I could not be his familiar for so long without having been influenced somewhat by him. There was a part of me that not only recognized Loki’s pain, but cared.


Before I could reconcile it, Loki ceased to be manifest in that place.


Afterwards, I always told myself that it wouldn’t have mattered. I told myself that this had been in the works for far longer than I had been involved, likely longer than I had existed. I told myself that it would have changed nothing.


Still, a part of me will always wonder how the world might be, had I extended some small shred of comfort to Loki in that time and space.

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Breaking Point 11.11

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I was grinning as I ran through the forest. It was wide, predatory sort of grin, but strangely enough it was the product of actual entertainment, rather than aggression. This situation was horrible, in every way, but at least it was clear. I knew what I wanted to do. There was no politicking to deal with, no worries for the long-term consequences of every move, every word.


There was just killing the people between me and Aiko, until there was no one left to kill.


The forest was thick and trackless. Almost none of the moonlight penetrated the thick canopy overhead, leaving the ground pitch black. That was fine; I could smell my way forward, I could choose my path based upon how the air felt as it moved through the branches and brushed against my skin.


Something rushed at me with a spear from the side, counting on my blindness to cover its approach. It was utterly silent, but I could smell the thick, heavy reek of swamp coming off it, and I could feel the air parting before it. I turned just as it came within reach and started to thrust at me, and Tyrfing flicked out to take its head off. I kept running, barely even breaking stride.


The next creature dropped out of a tree as I passed underneath. This one genuinely did surprise me; I had smelled it, and felt it in the air, but I’d thought it a piece of the tree. It smelled like sap and wood, and it moved like a branch swaying in the wind. Even when it hit me, it was like being hit with a living tree.


It slammed into my armor, and wood splintered and shattered against the metal. The transmitted force of the blow cracked a rib, but I still came out considerably better in the exchange. The wooden thing jerked back as it broke itself against the steel, screaming with a sound like a piece of lumber fed into a wood chipper.


I elbowed it hard, knocking it the rest of the way off of me, and turned to stab it while it was down. I might as well not have bothered, though; Katsunaga was already there, putting one of his knives through its throat. The screaming stopped instantly, and the knife came out dripping thick red sap. Kuzunoha was holding her katana in both hands before herself, and it was dripping fluid with a wide variety of scents and consistencies, though I hadn’t noticed her getting into a fight.


The two kitsune moved beside me as I continued to run. Kyra and Snowflake were running in circles around us, now in front, now behind, now slipping between us on the way from one to the other before turning sideways. I was moving fast now, much faster than a normal human, but they still put me to shame.

More creatures were attacking now, and I wasn’t bothering to pay attention to their nature. They were fae; that was all I needed to know. Tyrfing cut broad arcs through, laying them on the ground in pieces. Kuzunoha’s sword moved faster and with a great deal more precision, picking out vital targets rather than slashing through the crowd indiscriminately. Katsunaga was even faster, his knives moving in a blur. He stabbed and slashed like an angry cat, all aggression and offense, not letting up enough for the enemy to get their bearings and counterattack. Whenever he had a breath between enemies he threw a knife into the crowd, with the same inhuman precision and power as before. One of them slit a throat on its way past to sink into an eye socket. It was the throw of a lifetime for any human, but barely more impressive than average for the kitsune.


I wasn’t sure how long he could keep that up, even with all the knives he’d been carrying. Then I happened to glance at one of the corpses, and realized the knife was gone, just an empty hole left behind. Of course he didn’t have to worry about running out of knives. He was a seven-tail.


The fighting wasn’t particularly intense, but it was incessant, almost every step seeing a new enemy. We slowed from a run to a jog, and then to a walk, not because we were tired, but because we had to stop every couple of seconds to kill something.


Some part of me wondered whether Scáthach would run out of minions at some point, or they would lose their morale. The rest knew it was a waste of time to even ask. She was a Faerie Queen; she had an army, and they would rather die than court her displeasure.


We had already put probably a hundred of them on the ground, though, and in some ways it was actually helping us. Most of them burned where iron touched them, bursting into bright pale fire that didn’t spread to the grass or trees, and didn’t seem to give off any heat. Between the various burning corpses, the forest was bright as day, if rather more garishly colored. All of the pyres were bright and pale, but beyond that the colors varied wildly.


Snowflake and Kyra had given up even bothering to bite them. It was more efficient to just run through the crowd, knocking them to the ground and slamming into them with the steel armor. It didn’t actually set them afire unless it cut into them, apparently, but it left them rolling around on the ground in agony, easy prey for the slower members of the group.


We were winning. Undeniably, we were winning. We’d put whole swathes of the fae down, and as far as I could tell none of us was even scratched beyond my cracked rib.


But these were cannon fodder, and every one that we took the time to kill was time for the real defenses to be initiated and strengthened. It didn’t matter that we were slaughtering them in droves; this wasn’t the real threat, and every moment we spent here made that threat harder to deal with.


I grimaced and threw myself forward, into the middle of the crowd. I lashed out around myself with Tyrfing. Flaming blood sprayed out all around me, thick and blueish, and that entire group of the fae went down. But almost instantly more of them pressed in around me, filling in the narrow window of space I’d cleared for myself. It reminded me of scooping a cup of water out of a lake; you could take out a cupful, but it won’t take long for the lake to even itself out again.


Which, in turn, gave me an idea.


“You can handle ice, right?” I asked the kitsune, between strokes. It was surprisingly hard to come up with the words; I had to grope for them, struggle to associate meanings to sounds.


“Sure,” Katsunaga said, throwing another knife. The blade flicked past not three inches from my nose and slid into a throat, putting another of the fae on the ground.


“Good,” I said, and reached out for the cold inherent in my blood. It came slower than usual, more reluctant to answer my call, but I pushed harder and brought it forth, covering the grass in frost. Then I sheathed Tyrfing and started walking carefully forward.


Snowflake and Kyra had the right idea, although I was too out of it to realize that in the moment. This wasn’t a fight, not really. They couldn’t beat us, and beating them won us nothing. This was a delaying tactic, a distraction, an annoyance. Every second that we spent fighting them was a victory for the real enemy.


So I stopped fighting them, and just walked through them. They kept throwing themselves at me, but they couldn’t get much leverage on the slick ground. Even when they did reach me and manage an attack, they couldn’t get much purchase on the armor; it was too hard, too slick, and above all else, too steel.


I ignored them completely and kept moving.


Only a few minutes after I changed my tactics, the trees started thinning out. I quickened my pace, almost running again. It should have been slick, with the frost under my feet, but it wasn’t. If anything it made it easier, since the frost made it slightly harder for the fae to get underfoot.


From a distance it had seemed as though the forest led right up to the base of the mountain, but as it turned out there was close to a hundred feet of open space in between.


I stopped and stared in dismay as I saw that space now.


It was filled, from a few feet in front of me to the base of the mountain, and as far as could be seen in either direction, with monsters.


Out in the moonlight again, I could see them more clearly. There were trolls and Sidhe, shadowy wisps that seemed almost more visual artifacts than anything, barghests and great cats with jaws that dripped flame. Ogres dotted the ranks here and there, ten-foot-tall monstrosities that could have picked me up in one hand. And finally, on the opposite side of the open area, was a giant. Not a jotun, but a true, Jack-and-the-Beanstalk-style giant.


I looked at the massive creature, and then I looked up. And up.


Fifty feet tall if it was an inch, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if the actual figure was closer to a hundred. It was fully as tall as the cliff behind it, the beginning of the mountain. It looked unreal, inconceivable; my brain refused to process it on a basic level. This thing wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. It could pick up an elephant in one hand. It could have given a blue whale a run for its money in sheer size. If it stepped on a building, the building would break. There was just no way this thing could actually exist. Everything I knew about the laws of physics said it shouldn’t be possible.


But this was the Otherside, and here the laws of physics were more guidelines than hard rules. Guidelines which, with the power of a Faerie Queen, could be ignored entirely.


Kyra and Snowflake caught up to me, and both of them stared out over the field for a long moment.


Wow, Snowflake said at last. That’s big. That’s…really, really big. I feel a lot less confident all of a sudden.


“Yeah,” I said. “I’m with you.” I stared at the giant some more. “Normally I would aim for the knee against something bigger than me,” I said conversationally. “But I can’t reach that thing’s knees. I’m not sure I can even reach its ankle.”


I vote we kill the other ones first and hope that a nine-tailed kitsune can bring down a giant, Snowflake said.


“Seconded, motion passed,” I said, nodding. That was still a rather tall order, but at least it was a problem I’d come here expecting. Dealing with massive swarms of faeries was well within what I’d anticipated when attacking Scáthach in her house. Dealing with something that could look down on a lot of trees was…not so much.


I tried to look away from the giant, reaching into my cloak. I didn’t have any grenades—they were pretty damned unlikely to work, this far into Faerie—but I’d been saving up stored spells for years. I’d been stockpiling weapons in case of a rainy day.


If things got much rainier than this, I’d need a freaking ark.


I picked through my selection carefully, sorting out the items that were most useful against a large group. The army of fae on the open field didn’t seem to have noticed us yet; the fae in the forest were still attacking, but Snowflake and Kyra kept them off me while I made my choices.


It took maybe thirty seconds, and then I threw my hands out, flinging two full handfuls of small objects out over the crowd. They reached the apex of their various arcs. Metal, glass, and various crystals glittered in the moonlight, and the world seemed to freeze for a moment, the weapons hanging in the air in the endless tipping point just before they began to fall.


And then the moment ended, and the stored spells I’d thrown started downward. “Trial by fire!” I screamed, as loud as I could, throwing magic out at the distant spells.


I almost thought I could see the pea-sized silver spheres in the mix spark with light as I said the words. I couldn’t, but I almost thought I could.


Then they all went off in a burst of force and fire that laid waste to the army.


I’d used all of these spells before, or ones very similar to them. But I’d never seen how they interacted before. I’d never seen what happened when all of them went off at once.


It started with fire, white-hot fire like a magnesium flare, unimaginably hot. Intense colored light followed a moment later, green and blue spreading and overlapping. I caught the scents a few seconds later as the hot air hit me in the face, cooking flesh and superheated stone.


The earth cracked apart under their feet, literally. The force and the fire tore through the ranks, shredding them. It didn’t toss them aside, not really; this wasn’t that kind of force magic. It didn’t knock people around, it broke them.


I couldn’t see the other spells, the ones that sent waves of force through the sacks of nails they were enclosed in. But I could see the results. I could see the fae fall, ogres laid low as quickly and easily as lowly goblins. I could see the pale fire break out where the iron was embedded in their flesh. I could hear them scream.


I stood and watched as the fae burned, and broke, and screamed, and I felt…nothing.


Thick, heavy fog poured out a moment later, fog and shadows hiding the scene. I could still hear them screaming inside.


“Right, then,” I said, drawing Tyrfing again. “Let’s finish the job.”

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Breaking Point 11.10

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It felt strange to hold someone else’s life. There was power there, undeniably, but it was an odd sort of power, one that burned too hot in my mind. It strained against my hold, and it felt slick, hard to maintain a grip on. I managed to keep hold of it, but it took a constant effort of will, and it left me distracted. The feeling was also painful, in ways I couldn’t quite grasp or define. I couldn’t imagine keeping thousands of lives at once. I imagined that was why I wasn’t a necromancer.


In a way, I was glad that it felt so awful. Despite what I’d told Jimmy, this kind of magic still scared the shit out of me. If it was this unpleasant, this difficult, that made it less likely that I’d rationalize doing it again. This could be a one-time thing, a single misstep.


And if there was ever a time I needed the power, it was now.


Perhaps sensing the state of mind I was in, none of my housecarls said a word on the way back to the house. It only took a few minutes, which time I spent sitting in the back of the car and plotting. It was hard to think straight with so many pressures on my mind; between stolen power pressing on me and the emotions that were getting harder to hold back with every passing breath, I was having a hard time keeping my composure.


Vigdis, having spent more time with me and thus being more comfortable breaking traditional protocol around me, was the one to lean over and nudge me when we got there. “Jarl,” she said. “We’re here.”


I blinked and shook my head. “Thank you, Vigdis,” I said. I climbed out of the car and walked up to the door. Every movement was slow and deliberate, too careful in a way that reminded me of a man walking through a glassblower’s shop, where any mistake might shatter a work of art.


In a way, it was an apt comparison. I felt like I was walking through a fragile world, like any misstep on my part might lead to things breaking.


I was surprised at how steady my hand was as I opened the door. With how I felt I should have been shaking like a leaf, but I wasn’t quivering even a little bit.


Inside, Kyi was next to me within seconds. “The kitsune are waiting upstairs,” she said. “I’m guessing things worked out?”


“It won’t be a problem anymore,” I said. My voice sounded flat and dead, at least to me; Kyi didn’t seem to be upset by the sound, but then, she wouldn’t. “You’re in charge while I’m gone.”


That got a reaction at least. She looked at me with the panicked stare of a deer in the headlights, then licked her lips and nodded. “Okay,” she said. “What should I do if something like this comes up again?”


I paused and looked at her. “I’m through being nice to these people,” I said. “I’ve given them warnings. I’ve given them second chances. At this point, if anyone tries a stunt like this again, use your best judgment. I expect the problem to be solved when I come back; how you solve it is immaterial.”


She grinned and nodded, a quick bob of her head that didn’t look quite human. “This,” she said, “this is what a jarl is supposed to be. Good luck, boss. Hit her a good one for me.”


I continued upstairs. I could smell magic, and followed it to the same room I’d been in when the kitsune first showed up. I didn’t see anyone else on the way. They were busy, or they didn’t want to get in the way, or they were scared of the kitsune, or they were scared of me. It didn’t matter.


I opened the door and, as expected, found both Kuzunoha and the other kitsune, who was presumably Aiko’s father. They both looked entirely human, without even the fox tails that had marked their nature on their previous visit, but they weren’t wearing formal dress this time. She was wearing armor that looked suspiciously similar to the set Aiko had before she got an upgrade, and carrying the traditional daisho on her hip; both katana and wakizashi looked well-worn. He was more modern in his outfit, with what looked like modern body armor and a whole lot of knives.


Any doubt I’d had that this wouldn’t be resolved diplomatically vanished when I saw that. They were dressed for war, and from everything I knew of Kuzunoha, she wasn’t the sort to dress for war unless she was expecting war.


Unexpectedly, though, they weren’t alone. Snowflake was lying on the ground next to the male kitsune, who was scratching her ears with a bemused expression. Kyra was there as well, and while she looked human, she was also ready for a fight. There weren’t many other reasons for someone to be carrying a set of werewolf armor; it looked like a tangle of straps and metal plates without much rhyme or reason, but I’d seen such things frequently in the past, and I knew what it was for.


“What are you doing here?” I asked, glaring at Kyra.


“I heard what you’re doing,” she said, staring defiantly back at me. “And I’m coming with you. Aiko is my friend too.”


I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Kyra,” I said, with as much patience as I could muster just now, “this is suicide. You know that, right? I’m basically declaring war on a Queen of Faerie right now. That’s like one step short of walking up to Loki and starting a fight. And you can’t even walk.”


“That’s not true,” she said, standing and taking a few steps to prove it. “The Wild Hunt did wonders for my leg. It feels like new. Maybe even better than new.”


I started to tell her that didn’t make this a good idea, then stopped. She knew that. Kyra wasn’t a fool; she knew the risk she was taking here. She was an adult, making an informed decision. It wasn’t my place to tell her she couldn’t make that decision.


And besides, I would need all the help I could get to have any prayer of pulling this off.


“Fine,” I said. “Go ahead and get changed. You’ll want to be in fur for this.”


She grinned, brief and fierce, and then started stripping out of her clothing. I glanced at Snowflake, and then looked away again. I knew better than to even try and tell her she couldn’t come. She’d risk her life for Aiko without a second thought, and she wouldn’t miss a fight like this for the world.


“Are you ready to depart?” I asked Kuzunoha.


She nodded. “We are, jarl. Are you?”


“I am, and my associate will be momentarily. Can you open a portal to Scáthach’s fortress?”


“I could, but she will be holding the fabric of reality closed within her domain. We will have to take a more circuitous route, I fear. There is a Way which leads nearby and which she can’t hope to close; it’s an older magic than hers.”


I frowned. “She’ll also know to expect an attack from that direction.”


“Yes,” Kuzunoha confirmed. “I would expect her to arrange her forces to defend that approach heavily.”


I smiled. “Good,” I said. “I could use someone to vent on right now.”


The first portal led to Inari’s Wood, predictably enough. Kuzunoha’s portals were incredibly smooth, almost as mild as the direct connections established by deity-level magic. Even Kyra was only unconscious for less than five minutes on the other end; Snowflake woke up again in less than two. Kuzunoha was as unaffected as I was, and the male kitsune was up as fast as Snowflake.


While we were waiting on the others, he walked up to me. “Hi,” he said. “I don’t think I properly introduced myself earlier. Katsunaga, pleased to meet you. Aiko’s told me lots of stories about you.”


“You’re her father, then?”


He nodded. “That’s right.”


“In that case, I’ve heard stories about you, too.”


He grinned, the expression very sharp and almost painfully reminiscent of Aiko. “Only the bad ones, I’m sure,” he said. “If we make it through this, I’ll have to tell you some of the ones she wouldn’t have.”


“You think we’re going to pull this off, then?” I asked.


He shrugged. “Could be. My daughter says you’re good at what you do, and with the sword you carry, you can probably hold your own where we’re going. Then there’s Kuzunoha, and she’s…well. Just because you don’t like to fight doesn’t mean you aren’t good at it, you know?”


I nodded. “So we have a chance?”


“Aw hell no,” he said, grinning. “Against Scáthach in the center of her power, surrounded by her troops? We don’t even have a prayer.” He shrugged. “But I’ll give it a shot. Everybody dies eventually, you know? I figure going down like a hero while trying to save my daughter, it isn’t a bad way to go.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s about what I figured, too.”


And then Kyra woke up, and shook herself a few times to get over the dizziness, and we went through the next portal. This one led to one of the great bazaars of the Otherside, the sort of place where everything you could imagine was for sale, if you were willing to pay the price. In another state of mind, it would probably have been a little overwhelming. As it was, I was so focused I didn’t even really notice.


We walked through the streets of the market at a pretty brisk pace, fast enough that a human would have had to run to keep up. A couple of vendors approached us, but they left quickly when they got a closer look. I wasn’t sure who scared them off, exactly; it was a tossup as to whether Kuzunoha, Snowflake, or I was the most intimidating presence here at the moment.


And then I spotted another stall, and a thought occurred to me. “Wait here,” I said, walking over to the vendor standing there.


It took several minutes to haggle out a price, and a few more to make the necessary arrangements. Once everything was settled, I went back to the group, fingering my new toy within my cloak. “Okay,” I said. “Sorry about that. Let’s keep moving.”


None of them asked what I’d been buying, and we started walking again without any further delay. After only a few more minutes Kuzunoha drew to a stop in an open square that was filled with more stalls, these ones selling what appeared to be foodstuffs. For a certain definition of food, anyway; most of the products were still wriggling, although I wouldn’t have guessed at a glance that they’d ever been alive.


“Here we are,” the kitsune said, gesturing slightly. There was a rush of power, much subtler and less intense than actually creating a portal, and a hole opened in the world. It was like a portal, sort of, but also very different. There was an element of structure to it, a sense of three-dimensional form that a portal utterly lacked. There was more to it, of course, dimensions unfolding in ways that hurt my head to look at, but it didn’t feel nearly as alien as a portal.


Kuzunoha walked into the hole in the world without any hesitation. After only a brief pause, the rest of us followed her into the Way.


As expected, we met resistance almost immediately. We stepped out the other end of the Way into a midnight forest, and instantly they were on us. There were a handful of Sidhe in the crowd, but by and large it seemed to consist of the servants and client races of the Midnight Court. The bulk of the crowd were goblins, with a handful of trolls and ogres, a handful of less identifiable creatures.


Kyra and Snowflake leapt into the fray immediately, and it was readily apparent that they hadn’t been exaggerating about the Wild Hunt being good for their healing process. Both of them appeared to be fighting at more or less their full potential, and they were a hell of a lot more effective than I’d really been expecting. Snowflake was wearing steel armor and her teeth were mostly steel as well, which meant that any touch inflicted hideous agony on the vast majority of the enemies in the crowd. Kyra lacked the metal teeth, but the heavy steel plates she was wearing for armor served almost as well, keeping the fae from doing any real harm to her.


We were winning, but it would take time to deal with the sheer number of monsters in the crowd, and there was always the possibility that one of them would get a lucky hit in. So rather than jump in beside them, I took a moment to look at our surroundings.


We were standing on a narrow gravel path. Ahead, a broad expanse of trees led up to the base of a mountain. A castle rose proudly from the mountainside, silhouetted against the full moon that hung high in the sky. Behind us, just a few feet away, the path dropped away, the cliff falling at least five hundred feet to a stormy sea.




I reached out to the wind, feeling it twining through my fingers, and then reached further, feeling how it blew through the crowd, winding between their legs and brushing over their heads. I reached out to that breeze, calling it, and then I threw the life I’d stolen behind that call as well.


Magic was always easier on the Otherside, for reasons I didn’t entirely understand, and I’d put a lot of stolen power behind that call.


Thus, it wasn’t a gentle breeze that answered me. It wasn’t even a gale.


It was a sudden, instant hurricane, an almost irresistible force that snatched the fae off the ground and hurled them over my head, off the cliff. A handful of the larger creatures, the ogres and trolls, were too large to move, and I couldn’t hit those closest to us without risking hitting Kyra and Snowflake as well.


The rest, though, flew off the edge, their screams drowned out by the wind. Five hundred feet straight down, and if I knew anything about the Midnight Court at all, there would be monsters in the sea when they got there.


I didn’t expect further trouble from them.


Such a massive, sudden expenditure of power should have left me gasping on the ground with a crippling headache. I wasn’t entirely sure why it didn’t; it might have been that we were on the Otherside, or because most of the power had come from the life force I’d been hoarding, or it might just have been that my own mental state was getting in the way of experiencing that feedback.


Whatever the reason, all I felt was a mild satisfaction.


I drew Tyrfing and started forward. The kitsune walked on either side of me, their own weapons held out.


The larger fae were looking at each other in shock over what had just happened. A couple of them turned back to the fight, and were cut down by steel blades within seconds. A couple tried to run, but we weren’t inclined to allow them to. Snowflake and Kyra ran most of them down, tearing out their hamstrings and leaving them crippled on the ground for the rest of us to take care of. The last ogre went down when Katsunaga threw a dagger at it from almost a hundred feet away. For a human throwing a knife was almost a waste of time, let alone doing so at such a distance, but he wasn’t even close to human; he’d probably had five hundred years of practice, and he threw the dagger with inhuman strength and precision. The blade slid into the base of the ogre’s skull, and it hit the ground instantly.


“Is that the place?” I asked, pointing to the castle that rose from the mountain.


“It is,” Kuzunoha replied. She was looking at me with a respect that hadn’t been there before.


“Good,” I said. I started walking in that direction, and then after a few steps started to run instead.

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Interlude 4.z: Watcher

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Laurel knocked on my door before entering. An affectation, given that she knew I was aware of her presence long before she reached that point, but that was Laurel. She was not a polite soul, but she did have an odd sense of humor and an absurdist streak.


“Come in,” I said, reading over a report from Istanbul. Vision had been difficult for me to imitate for several months after losing my second eye, but I had been well motivated. Detecting and manipulating light were not in line with my original talents, but they weren’t terribly difficult things to learn.


She opened the door and stepped into my office, nodding deeply in my direction. I could feel the movement, even if I wasn’t focusing on her enough to have a sense comparable to sight. “Watcher,” she said. “Mission complete.”


“Good,” I said. “Report.”


“Target is deceased. Collateral damage was minimal. Winter wasn’t happy with it, but I think he’ll come around.”


“Good work. Take a few days to recover, then there’s another job waiting. This one’s in Aurora, just outside Denver. Another lunatic messing about with life.”


She sighed. “Why do they never learn?” she asked plaintively. “We have four rules. Four. How can this be that hard for people?”


“Hope springs eternal in the deluded breast,” I said dryly, handing her an envelope. The files had been redacted extensively in preparation for being given to an agent. I had then removed additional details in preparation for giving it to Laurel, specifically. There were details she didn’t need to know. There were details that would just get in the way of doing what was necessary.


She took the file and walked out. I watched her go without sight and then turned my attention back to the report from Istanbul. Initial reports had come in from informants nearly a month earlier, and while I had initially dismissed it as exaggeration, the preliminary report from the Watcher sent to confirm suggested that they were relatively accurate. If so, this might demand much more than a single assassin.


I might even have to go myself to ensure that it was handled with appropriate caution. Once, the thought would have held a certain appeal. It had been years since I was on the ground to deal with a threat, after all. But now, all I felt was a mild annoyance at the prospect of such a disruption to my routine. It could take weeks to catch up on a single missed day.


When I first became a Watcher, I would never have guessed that running the organization involved so much paperwork, and so little action.


I finished the report and filed it away to await further information, then turned to the next item. One of our contractors had recovered a moderately dangerous item and wanted to transfer it to a safer storage area; I forwarded that to Keeper, since such things were more her field than mine. A full meeting of the Conclave had been scheduled for two weeks hence; my presence was required, if not precisely desired by any party. A Watcher in Brussels had confirmed that her target had unknowingly violated two of our rules, and was requesting a confirmation before killing him; I signed off on it.


After about an hour, I became aware of an oddity within the area, a presence. It was hard to define or explain what that awareness was; it was just an awareness.


I didn’t bother looking around. Even if I weren’t blind, I wouldn’t have seen him; that was one of his many gifts. “Hello, Nobody,” I said.


He stepped up in front of me. He was wearing a cheap, badly fitted suit, and looked just as uncomfortable in his body as he did in the suit. He was a little overweight, a little short, balding.


Nobody never really got comfortable in his body. He couldn’t keep one long enough. This one had lasted two years, which might be the longest of any I could remember.


“Hello, Watcher,” he said, looking at me curiously. “What are you doing?”


“Paperwork,” I said patiently. You learn to be patient with Nobody rapidly; any other approach quite simply doesn’t work. “What are you doing?”


He frowned. “I had something to say, I think. Something about…um. What was I supposed to be doing today?”


“You were recovering a hostage from Syria,” I said. Normally, Nobody would not be remotely my first choice for a hostage situation. But the sectarian violence was particularly vicious in the area this job took place in, and he was the only single person I was confident could handle the threats. There was effectively nothing in this world that could really threaten him. At worst he could be annoyed, or temporarily inconvenienced, and odds were very good that he wouldn’t even notice.


“Oh,” he said. “Right. I remember now. She’s dead. I tried to save her but they shot her anyway. It was bloody. I got blood on my suit.” He glanced down at his clothing in annoyance. Any bloodstains that might have been there weren’t there now.


I sighed. “Better than leaving her there,” I said. “Good work, Nobody.”


He frowned. “I had another name once,” he said. “A real name.”


I smiled sadly. “So did I.”


The awareness sharpened, focusing on me much more strongly, and I shivered at the intensity. The room seemed to grow several degrees colder, and the air seemed to grow close and confining around me, although I knew that it was all in my head.


“At least you can remember your name, Sofia,” he said. His voice had none of the plaintive, meandering quality it had before. On the contrary, it was strong and authoritative. Even in his cheap suit, his sheer presence now would cow almost anyone into meek obedience. “Don’t pretend to understand me, Watcher. Don’t pretend that you know what you’re talking about. We both know better.”


I watched him go in silence. It was always startling to get a glimpse of the real Nobody, through the layers of rust and the cracks in his mind. It was sobering to be reminded of what he really was.


We would kill him, if we could find a way to make it stick. The whole reason he joined the Watchers was out of hope that he would come up against something that could figure out a way to end him. I couldn’t really blame him; his peculiar form of immortality was not something that I would ever choose.


He’d been trying for five hundred years at least, since he joined the Watchers, and God only knew how long before that. Nobody’s memories were fragmentary at best, and if he knew how he’d gotten this curse placed on him or who he’d been beforehand, he hadn’t told me.


After a few seconds, the fire went out of him, and he was back to being Nobody. “Are we doing the right thing?” he asked. It wasn’t a rhetorical question, or a plea for reassurance. It was a genuine question.


“No. But if we don’t do it, who will?”


He nodded as though that made perfect sense. “In my experience no one,” he said seriously.


I watched him go, and then went back to my paperwork.

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Breaking Point 11.9

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“So I’m curious,” I said, watching as she squatted and opened the bags, digging through them. “How does this work? I haven’t studied seithr at all, so this is a completely new kind of magic for me.”


“It works,” Signý said. “I can’t explain more than that. Seithr is something you have to experience. Can you get a horse for me to sacrifice?”


“I don’t do animal sacrifice. Is that a problem?”


She shrugged. “The curse will be weaker without it. But it can be done.” She looked around, and then pointed at Vigdis, seemingly just because she was the closest of the housecarls. “Go cut a pole,” she said. “Living wood, four feet, sturdy enough to bear weight.”


I tensed, expecting Vigdis to react poorly to being ordered around like that, but she just nodded and walked off towards the trees around the edge of the park. No griping, no backtalk. She didn’t even look to me to confirm the order.


“You’re respected by the other jötnar,” I commented. It was something I’d noticed before, but this seemed like a good time to ask about it.


“Seithr is not something that is regarded kindly among my people,” she said. “But it is a thing which is respected. Everyone is aware of what it can do, and the risks it poses. So when the volva says a thing is needed, you do not argue, yes? Because if the ritual fails, or if she takes offense, you may be better acquainted with what it can do than you want to be.”


I nodded. “It makes sense. It’s just interesting to me.”


About that time, Vigdis returned, carrying a thick pine branch in one hand and the axe she’d used to cut it in the other. She handed the branch gingerly to Signý and backed away.


The volva took the branch and knelt on the ground, her black cloak puddling around her. She took the knife and trimmed off the twigs forking off the main branch, then sharpened both tips so that it looked something like a double-ended spear. Once that was done, she carved a handful of runes on it, spacing them out seemingly at random.


I was still watching curiously. I couldn’t smell any magic, and from her attitude, it didn’t seem like she was concentrating on it enough to be doing anything particularly difficult.


Suddenly, she stood and slammed the pole into the ground. Normally I wouldn’t have expected that do much beyond making her look silly, especially since Signý was hardly muscular, especially compared to the other housecarls.


She was still a jotun, though, and I was guessing there was more to this than just muscle. The improvised spear sank a foot into the ground and stood there. Signý pushed it a bit, making sure it wasn’t going to fall over, and then grunted in satisfaction and went back to her bags.


First she opened the bag of samples and took out one of the vials of blood. I could smell the magic around it, a subtle, deceptively powerful piece of work. I’d hired Alexander to do the work, since something like that was far beyond my means; it had been ridiculously expensive, and worth every cent.


She grabbed a small paintbrush from the other bag and went back to the pole, where she cracked the seal on the vial. She dipped the brush into the blood and painted a couple more runes on the pole, her motions quick and confident. Then, just as confidently, she bit her own thumb, drawing blood. She wetted the brush with her own blood and painted a few more runes onto the pole, then returned to her bags.


She capped the vial of blood again and returned it to the bag of samples, then reached into her satchel, digging around. It seemed like she was reaching further into it than should really have been possible, considering the size of the satchel, but I wasn’t going to ask questions.


She pulled out a skull and a pelt, and went back to the pole. I noticed that she was holding a small hammer and several nails in her other hand, as well. She draped the pelt over the pole like a cape, trailing onto the ground, and then slipped the skull on top. She hammered a few nails into the pelt, holding it in place, and then went back to the bag.


I was pretty sure both pelt and skull had come from a horse. I thought about commenting that this was still a little suspect, even if she hadn’t killed the animal in front of me, but I didn’t say anything. It was dead either way, after all. Getting squeamish now wouldn’t exactly do it any good.


“Start a fire,” Signý said absently, pulling out several bottles and pouches from her satchel. Instantly, several of the jötnar leapt to obey. Thraslaug took her axe and started cutting out a fire pit near the pole, while the others went and started collecting firewood.


Within about ten minutes, the fire was burning brightly. Signý had mixed liquids from some of the bottles with powder from a couple of the pouches, muttering quietly. I could smell magic now, something dark and cold and oddly alien. It wasn’t much like what I associated with jötnar in general or Signý in particular, which was interesting.


She drank whatever that vile concoction was, grimacing at the taste. From the smell of it, I was surprised that she could get it down without vomiting, but I supposed this was something a volva learned to do.


She grabbed a handful of what looked like dried berries from another pouch and walked to sit by the fire, tossing the berries into the flames. They burned with an acrid, bitter smoke; I recognized the scent as a nightshade of some kind, although I couldn’t have said what species it was. Henbane, maybe.


“Jarl,” Signý said. “I need you to focus on how much you want this Jimmy to suffer. I need you to think about all the pain and trouble he’s caused you, and how much you want to punish him for it. Think about it, and look at the fire.”


“Okay,” I said. “I can do that.”


She nodded and then started chanting. It was an interesting sound. She was speaking in whatever bastardized form of Old Norse the jötnar spoke, and I had no idea what the words meant. It was a repetitive chant, though, the same handful of phrases repeating over and over again. The cadence was strange, incredibly regular and constant. Normally, even in a chant you could hear a slightly longer pause between sentences, letting you parse what they were saying. This was different, words coming out without anything to distinguish which ones went together to form a coherent idea. I imagined that even people who spoke the language would have a hard time sorting it out.


Signý leaned forward and inhaled the toxic smoke from the fire, coughing a little without pausing in her chant. She fumbled blindly behind herself for her satchel. After a couple of seconds of that, Thraslaug pushed it into her hand, and she pulled it forward, digging through it without looking. After a moment she came up with a drum.


It was small enough to easily hold in one hand, but elaborately decorated. The oval bowl of the wood was carved with long strings of runes, and had small silver bells dangling from it. The leather of the drumhead was painted with elaborate designs, the center of which was my own coat of arms. There were a handful of runes on the leather, but by and large the designs were more pictorial, and very stylized, with a strong nature motif. At least it wasn’t covered in wolves and snowflakes, the way most of my stuff ended up being whether I liked it or not; the predominant pictures here were mountains, trees, and ravens, all painted in simple, bold strokes.


Without pausing the chant, she started to beat the drum with her other hand. It was an odd rhythm, fast and heavily syncopated, totally unconnected from the chant. The bells on the drum jangled to their own time, adding a third rhythm that had just as little in common with the others.


She skipped a beat to reach over and slap me lightly on the arm, and I started guiltily, remembering that I had a role to play here. I looked from Signý to the fire, thinking about Jimmy.


It was hard to argue that he’d been a thorn in my side for years. I couldn’t even keep track of how many times he’d pissed me off with his idiocy, arrogance, and overwhelming selfishness. But this…this was something else. To work to undermine me now, to lead others into doing so when they had no real conception of what it meant, that went beyond anything else he’d done. Not only had I killed people for less, I had a hard time thinking of anyone who upset me on that level that I hadn’t killed.


Signý threw another handful of the dried berries into the fire. I coughed at the smoke, closing my eyes briefly before forcing myself to open them again and stare into the flames. They seemed to dance now, shapes on the very edge of meaning appearing in the play of the fire on the wood, disappearing before I could identify them.


Without being prompted, Thraslaug threw more wood on the blaze, stoking it up into a bonfire. I realized that she was following along with the chant, nodding her head in time with the drumbeat. Several of the jötnar were, in fact. Thraslaug was the closest to the flames, and keeping up with the chant the best, but Vigdis and Nóttolfr were chanting as well.


I caught my mind drifting and forced myself to focus on Jimmy again. It was difficult, much more so than I would have guessed. The different rhythms and the endless repetition of the chant were making it hard to focus. I’d already been feeling pretty loopy, disconnected from my own emotions, but it was getting worse now, even more dissociated.


When the chant stopped, it took a few seconds for me to realize it. I blinked and looked at Signý. She was standing there, staring into the fire, but not chanting anymore.


As I watched, she walked over to the pole. Her movements were clumsy now, almost making me think of a sleepwalker. She stumbled over her own feet and made no effort to catch herself; she would have fallen had Thraslaug not stepped in to hold her up.


They reached the pole and Signý grasped it, not leaning on it or trying to pull it out of the ground, just holding it. She recited a few lines in Norse, then glanced back at me and started again in English.


“Here I set up a curse-pole,” she said, her voice breaking a little. “I raise this pole against Jimmy Frazier, in my name and my jarl’s, and this curse I turn on him. I curse him with blindness, that he may not see, as I have been blind to his treachery. I curse him with pain, that he may suffer, as I have suffered for his cowardice. I curse the earth that nurtures him and the sky that watches him. I curse the spirit that guards him, that he may wander astray and not find his home.”


She twisted the pole until the head was facing generally northwest, then took a step back, breathing hard. “There,” she said. “That should do it.”


“Interesting,” I said, trying to piece my scattered thoughts together again. “What was the purpose of the chanting?”


“Seithr is not just magic,” she said. “It is a state of mind. The chanting, the rituals, they make you think the right way. Push you until the impossible becomes possible.”


“Almost like a vision quest,” I mused. “Breaking down mental barriers. Interesting. Do you know where he is?”


She nodded and pointed at the pole. “That way,” she said. “The nithing pole faces towards him.”


“Anything more specific?”


She shrugged. “I can feel him. He burns like a candle in my mind’s eye. But I could not tell you where to go to find him. It doesn’t translate to words.”


“That’s fine,” I said. “You can come with us. Come on, people; break’s over.”


It was surprisingly easy to find him, with Signý’s help. He was holed up in Manitou, just outside of Colorado Springs proper, and right on the edge between my territory and Kikuchi’s. The building he was in was one that I’d often seen while visiting Kyra, back when she lived in this neighborhood, but I’d never had cause to go inside before. It was a small house that had been built probably fifty years ago, crowded up in the hills on a narrow street.


I glanced at Signý, and she nodded confidently. “This is the place,” she said.


“Cool,” I said. I walked up to the door and knocked. I could feel the spark of a magical ward against my knuckles as I did, not too intense, but present.


There was no answer, and I nodded. I hadn’t expected one, really, but I figured I’d give him the chance.


Now, I got to do things my way.


I wrapped myself in cold air and spread frost and ice across the ground and the walls, giving myself a nasty little flashback to the Wild Hunt. I shook that off and grabbed Tyrfing, flicking the sheath aside.


The sword sliced the door in half, and cut into the structure of the ward as well. The magic wasn’t completely unraveled, but it had never been that strong, and what was left was barely enough fire for me to notice through the cold. I disregarded it completely.


I moved inside, the housecarls following closely at my heels. Jibril had left after we dealt with the main group, but Matthew was still there. I hadn’t asked how he felt about taking down one of the other Inquisition members. Likely he wouldn’t care. Even by my standards, Matthew was a sociopath.


I was whistling again as I walked through the house. It wasn’t hard to figure out where Jimmy was hiding; Signý pointed firmly downward once we were inside the building, and at that point it was just a matter of finding the stairs.


I wasn’t delicate about searching the place, and the jötnar followed my example, a celebration of destruction, casually tearing apart what had probably taken someone a lifetime to build. We kicked doors in rather than bother checking whether they were locked, pulled paintings off the walls and threw them carelessly to the ground, pulled bookshelves down to check the walls behind them. Having your house ransacked by the cops would have been gentle by comparison.


Eventually, we found a hidden door in the small closet attached to the master bedroom. It was locked, a situation I resolved with Tyrfing rather than take the time to pick it, and we filed down.


The basement was tiny, just one room, clumsily excavated from the bedrock. I was guessing the owner had put it in themselves. At the moment, it housed Jimmy and three other mages, people I didn’t recognize.


They’d obviously been alerted by the noise upstairs, and they were ready when I came down the stairs. One of them threw a lightning bolt at me, while another tried to set me on fire. The third was maintaining a kinetic barrier just inside the room, trying to keep me at bay. A little better coordinated than the last bunch, at least.


Not that it did them any good. The lightning hurt, it made my muscles jump and twitch, but it wasn’t that serious. It wasn’t about to stop me. The fire was even more of a nonstarter; with so many jötnar in that staircase, it never had a chance. Matthew was shivering in his fur, and I knew for a fact that he could handle temperatures well below zero without really caring.


I cracked the barrier with Tyrfing on the first stroke, and shattered it completely on the second, proceeding into the basement. My minions streamed around me, jumping on the subsidiary mages and taking them down so fast they never had a chance to really process what happened.


Jimmy and I, though, only had eyes for each other. “You’re a tyrant,” he spat, glaring at me. He made no effort to attack me with his magic. He’d seen enough of what I was capable of to know that he wasn’t a match for me, let alone all of the people here.


“That’s a pointless accusation,” I said calmly, raising my voice a little to be heard over the noises Matthew was making. “It’s funny, if you think about it. If you can get away with calling someone a tyrant, they’re almost certainly not.”


“Right,” he said. “Because this is getting away with it.”


“In fairness, I have shown you incredible patience.” I paced back and forth a little, shaking my head. It was getting harder to keep my composure. The unthinking rage I was holding back wanted so badly to be let out.


“See,” I said, “this is what I can’t stand. I have tried to be patient. I have tried to be a good jarl. I have been reasonable. I have been fair. And people like you see it as weakness. You think it means you can push me around and exploit me, and the only way, the only way I can get anything resembling respect is with violence.”


He opened his mouth, and I stepped up, punching him in the face before he could say anything. He fell to the ground, bleeding from the nose.


“You called me a tyrant,” I said. “As that appears to be the only way to make an impression on you idiots, I am going to show you what a tyrant is really like. Hold him.”


Instantly, jötnar grabbed him and pulled him up to a standing position. I approached him again, still holding Tyrfing.


“You know,” I commented idly, “in the past I’ve always put strict limits on what I allowed myself to do. I always told myself that I’d never use blood magic to steal someone else’s life. I told myself that the power wasn’t worth it, that it was a slippery slope and the only way to keep myself from going too far was to not even touch it.”


I smiled behind the helmet. “Well, guess what? I find myself in rather dire need of power just now, and I recently had a rather impressive object lesson in what this kind of magic can do.”


He screamed, briefly, before I cut his throat.

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