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.