Monthly Archives: August 2015

Breaking Point 11.8

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I whistled as we walked down the street. I wasn’t very good at whistling. That was okay.


There were only a handful of people with me. Vigdis was there, as were Ragnar, Thraslaug, and Nóttolfr. Jibril walked in the crowd, the ghoul’s human mask slipping further with every step. Jack, the mage I’d hired for his talent with barriers, slouched along at the back of the group, arrogant and smirking in his casual shirt and slacks. Matthew skulked along at the periphery, with the skin of a wolf, but not the mind.


Only the most aggressive, violent, amoral of my minions had come. There was a very good reason for that. I was not in a moral state of mind.


Anna had stayed back at the house. I knew she didn’t want to be here for this, whether she knew it or not. And my vision had recovered enough that I didn’t need her to provide eyes.


Not for this, anyway. You needed delicacy, care, and precision to create. Destruction was easier. Destruction was easy as breathing.


I’d worked so hard to build something here. To make Colorado Springs into something better. I’d worked for it. I’d bled for it. I’d sacrificed so much. And less than twelve hours later, the people I’d been trying to help started tearing it down again.


So be it. We all made our choices. We all faced the consequences.


We knew where they made their home. They did not rely on secrecy to protect them. They did not rely on defenses to protect them, either. They relied upon the hesitation of my housecarls to act without my order, and my hesitation to endanger the innocent.


On another day, these might have been good things to rely upon.


The college was quiet. Naturally; anyone could be forgiven for running for cover when they saw us coming. We were not pretending to be kind and harmless. Not today.


The door to the lecture hall was locked. A security measure, most likely. Meant to keep the building secure from vandals and such. There was little reason for those without keys to be there when class was not in session.


That wouldn’t do. I was here to teach a lesson today. The students had perhaps not realized that yet.


I kicked the door once, twice, and it broke. The metal was too strong to break, but the glass inset was not; it shattered under my boot and fell to the ground in shards. There was something pleasant about the sound, the cracking of the glass, the pieces falling broken to the ground. There was something comforting there. I didn’t ask what.


Stepping inside, I found myself in a large lobby. I didn’t recognize it; we were at the community college, and I’d gone to the more expensive private school on the other side of town. It didn’t matter; I knew where we were going. I could smell them.


I looked for a staircase, couldn’t see one. The sign said there was one around the corner, so I walked that way, the minions trailing behind me.


I realized that I was still whistling, and debated stopping. I couldn’t come up with a reason to. They would know I was coming, but I didn’t care. The sound pleased me, so I kept whistling. It sounded bad even to me, but was still recognizable as a tune, albeit a simple one. “A-Hunting We Will Go,” if I wasn’t mistaken.


Appropriate enough, I supposed, though I had no intention of letting anyone go.


Upstairs, to the second floor. The hallways were floored with plain white tile, clean and gleaming in the harsh fluorescent light. It seemed wasteful to have the lights on when no one was supposed to be here. Did they ever turn them off? I supposed not. I wouldn’t have cared, except that the humming of the lights was annoying me.


I started to hear voices and knew that we were getting close. I picked up the pace slightly, until Jack was almost running to keep up. Unsurprising; he was only human. The rest of us were, in various ways and for various reasons, more and less than that.


We reached the specific classroom I was looking for and I kicked the door, planning to knock it in the same way I had the front door of the building. It should have worked easily, since this door was simple pine, but instead my boot bounced off without even making it shiver in its frame.


Reinforced with magic, I didn’t doubt. So be it. I drew Tyrfing and took a moment to appreciate it, the beauty of the blade, the delicate play of light on the metal.


Then I slashed straight down the center of the door, from top to bottom. The sword passed through wood and magic with equal ease, slicing a gaping hole in the ward. I heard a shout from within as the mage responsible realized that his spell had been destroyed, and I kicked the door again.


This time it worked, breaking the lock and knocking the door open. Almost half the door fell to the floor, cut off by Tyrfing; the rest looked sad and inadequate in a doorway far too large for it.


I stepped in and saw them gathered there, the men and women who would tear down all that I had sacrificed so much to build. They looked young, and mostly they were young.


As I entered, with various minions following behind me, one of the males stood and ran for the other door out of the room. He opened it in a panic and started to exit, then stumbled back into the room, blood leaking out around the head of the axe buried most of the way to the eye in his skull.


Vigdis followed him in, grabbing her axe and tearing it back out, shoving the corpse to the side. She was grinning like a child in a candy store.


The giants and the ghouls started moving up into the student area. The seats rose up in curved, tiered ranks, something like a small amphitheater. The room could have seated perhaps a hundred, but only a quarter or so of the seats were filled.


I left them to it and went to the podium, where another young man was standing. He had been in the middle of talking when I opened the door, I thought, but now he was silent.


“I surrender,” he said as I approached, stepping away and holding his hands above his head. “Oh God, please don’t hurt me.”


Tyrfing reached out and took his head off. The body fell to the ground in two pieces, spraying blood all over the place.


“He surrendered,” one of the mages in the audience said. She sounded stunned and horrified. I got the impression she’d likely never seen anyone die before.


Thraslaug grinned and chucked her axe at the girl who’d spoken. It wasn’t a spectacular throw, and throwing an axe is a pretty weak attack at the best of times, but she was a giant. It didn’t really matter that it wasn’t the best performance I’d ever seen. The girl still fell like a puppet with her strings cut.


“Funny thing, we just don’t care,” the jotun said cheerfully, pulling a large knife from her belt to replace the axe. “The jarl was very clear on this topic.”


People started screaming and running, getting in each other’s way in their desperation to get out of ours. After a few seconds, they remembered they had magic, and some of them started fighting back.


But here, too, the lack of coordination showed. One whole group attacked in a ridiculous variety of ways, interference between their magics and their own poor aim combining to make sure that not a one hit its target. None of them thought to put up a defense of any kind, and when Matthew reached them, he ran amok like a fox in a henhouse, biting and tearing and pulling them apart.


I stood and watched the carnage, not moving. I felt no real urge to participate. I wasn’t quite sure why. It wasn’t that I wasn’t angry; on the contrary, the undercurrent of rage I was feeling right now was still indescribably intense. It just didn’t feel quite real. There was still that sense of disconnection, of detachment. I couldn’t quite fit my emotions to my thoughts, and neither one had any real connection to what was going on around me.


I felt, more than anything else, numb.


I didn’t fight that feeling. I got the impression that doing so would be a very, very bad idea. I hadn’t been lying when I told Kuzunoha that my reaction to this was beyond anything I could control. If I let my current state of detachment slip, I really couldn’t guess what I would do. I mean, in the past when I’d thought Aiko had been killed, I went completely berserk. And I’d been a lot less powerful then.


Anyone can lose control of their anger. When a normal person does it, it’s bad. People get hurt. People get killed.


When it happens to someone with the kind of power I’d accumulated, insurance companies have to invoke the line about acts of God to keep from going broke, and the reconstruction process takes years.


Which was fine with me, but I wanted to make sure that if I snapped, it happened in the right place, at the right time.


So yeah, I was fine with autopilot now. Just fine.


“Keep one alive,” I called, watching the slaughter. Any pretense of fighting back was gone by now. These mages had barely any combat experience, and taken by surprise, with giants and monsters getting up in their faces, they couldn’t use that to any real effect.


It was sort of crazy to watch, when I contrasted it with the fight in Russia. Those had been serious mages, forces of nature. That necromancer had been an army on his own, literally. These guys were…not even in the same realm. it was hard to conceptualize them as being the same sort of creature.


They finished up and dragged the one I’d requested down to where I was standing by the podium. She was older than some of the others, maybe early twenties, with long dark hair, running mascara, and a bite wound on her thigh.


I glanced at the injury as they dragged her closer. Lethal, I thought. Not immediately, but Matthew had bitten through some major vessels. She would bleed out within a few minutes.


“Who is your leader?” I asked, looking down at her. My voice sounded bizarrely blank, almost like flat affect. I realized I was spinning Tyrfing in my hand again, and forced myself to stop.


“J-Jimmy,” she said. “Jimmy J-Justice.”


“Jimmy,” I said. “Pompous asshole? Good with fire magic?”


She started to talk, nodded instead.


“I’m going to eviscerate him,” I said calmly. “He’s had more than enough chances. His last name is Frazier, by the way. Would you like something to drink?”


She swallowed and shook her head. “What’s going to happen me?” she asked.


“You’re dying. I suppose I could save you if I wanted to.”


“Please?” she whispered. “I’ll work for you if you want. Anything, just…don’t let me die.”


“From someone in your position, that sort of offer is unreliable to say the least.”


“Jarl,” Jibril said disapprovingly. The ghoul was chewing on something; I didn’t think about what. “Kill her or don’t. It’s cruel to keep her waiting like this.”


I looked at her for a moment longer, then shrugged. “I suppose you might be useful,” I said. “Someone put a tourniquet on that and call an ambulance.” I dismissed the matter, pulling my own phone out of my pocket and dialing a familiar number.


“Jarl?” Selene said. “Are you…feeling better?”


“No,” I said. “Send Signý down here. Have her bring everything she needs to curse someone, and the collection of samples I took from the employees.”


It took less than twenty minutes for Signý to get there. By that point we’d moved from the college to a nearby park. The sole survivor of the attack was unconscious in an ambulance, on her way to the hospital, where she might or might or might not die. I wasn’t concerned about the wrong sort of questions being asked about the event. I practically owned the hospital she’d gone to.


The jötnar were standing around eating tacos they’d bought at a truck on the way to the park, and talking about the “fight” in much the same manner as normal people might discuss a particularly rousing football match afterwards. Matthew was eating as well, though he was still in fur, and thus not participating in the conversation.


I wasn’t eating or talking. I was in no mood for casual conversation, and I wasn’t hungry. Or, rather, I was hungry, to an extent that would have left me afraid that I was about to starve to death before that ceased to be a plausible concern. It was just separated from my conscious thoughts, in the same way as the anger that was still continuing to build in my subconscious.


I wasn’t concerned. I’d started to put two and two together about what made me feel that unnatural hunger, and what made it go away. If I was even remotely close to right, I wasn’t going to be feeling hungry at all here in a little while.


“Jarl,” Signý said, walking up to me. “You have something for me to do?”


“That’s right,” I said. “I need to find Jimmy as soon as possible. Ideally if you could also kill him that would be nice, but I remember you saying that was more difficult with your approach.”


“That’s right,” she said, dropping the packs she was carrying on the ground. One was a heavy backpack, which contained the hair and blood samples I’d taken from all of the Inquisition and arranged to have kept fresh in case I needed them. The other was more of a satchel of black leather; I didn’t know what it contained, beyond that it was presumably what she needed to do her thing. “Why do you want him dead?”


“Does it matter?”


“Not for the magic,” she said. “No. But I like to know.”


“Ah,” I said. “In that case, it’s because he betrayed my trust, repeatedly refused the offers I gave him to change his ways, worked to tear down what I’ve given everything to build, and led numerous idiots to their unnecessary deaths.”


“I see,” she said. “In that case, let’s start the cursing.”

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Breaking Point 11.7

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“Why did you send me that note?” Aiko’s mother demanded, advancing on her daughter at what could only be called a stalk.


Aiko gulped. “I didn’t realize I’d written anything that bad,” she said nervously.


“This is the first time you’ve replied to one of my messages in twenty-nine years,” her mother replied, continuing to advance. “What you wrote seems quite immaterial in comparison.”


Aiko hesitated, then sighed. “I don’t want to be your enemy anymore,” she said. “You were never trying to hurt me. I see that now. It’s just…can we move past all this? Can we be a family again?”


There was a brief pause, during which I could see her mother’s composure crack. It was hard to say just what the emotion on her face, but it was so intense it was painful to see.


Then she rushed forward and swept Aiko up in her arms, holding her so tight that the younger kitsune squeaked. All nine of her tails were held stiff now, as though she were afraid to let them move for fear of what they would betray. The male kitsune kept his distance, but he was watching intently, and his smile was profoundly satisfied.


It felt good to watch it, I couldn’t deny. I didn’t know much about the history there, but I knew her relationship with her family had always caused Aiko a lot of pain. To see it being resolved, to see the wounds being healed like this…it was good. It was very good.


And then I paused as something odd occurred to me.


Since when was Aiko the sort to forget and forgive? I loved her, but I also knew her. There was no question that she was a vindictive bitch. I could count on the fingers of no hands the number of times she’d just forgiven someone who really upset her.


I told myself this was just a side of her I didn’t usually see, but I still just couldn’t make it fit. Even if she were to make up with her mother and move past their history, it was hard to imagine it happening like this. Aiko wasn’t the sort to make heartfelt emotional speeches. She masked the important emotions behind a shell of mockery and apathy so thorough it had taken me more than a year to even realize she was doing it.


She hadn’t made a single crass joke or smartass comment since her mother showed up. She hadn’t done a thing to deflect attention or pretend this didn’t mean anything to her.


The more I thought about it, the more this didn’t feel right. It was natural, and good, and simple, people moving past their history in a way that was healed old wounds. Everything about it was so perfect.


This just wasn’t fucked up enough to really be Aiko making peace with her mother.


And then I had a thought. I had a terrible, horrible thought.


They were still embracing when I spoke. “Aiko?” I said, my voice sounding flat and dead to my ears. It was a bit like the remote, disconnected feeling I got when I was really angry, in the same way that a hydrogen bomb is a bit like a hand grenade. “How did we meet?”


She let go of her mother and took a step back, looking at me oddly. “It involved a demon and a werewolf and people getting killed,” she said. “Don’t tell me you forgot.”


I nodded slowly. She knew the answer. Of course she did. But in a way, it was another crack in the facade. Why had she actually answered me?


“What’s your name?” I asked, watching her fixedly. I felt odd, sick and angry and hungry.


“Pretty sure you said it a minute ago,” she told me. “Aiko, remember? You’re starting to worry me now, Winter.”


I nodded again. Further confirmation. Not actually answering my questions. Trying to change the subject. Why was she worried? Because I was asking questions. I was paying attention.


In a way, it was brilliant. Anyone else I would have caught by now. But I’d decided long ago to exempt Aiko from my usual paranoia. There was no other way I could keep our relationship intact.


On an intellectual level, I could appreciate the cunning nature of the scheme. I could respect them for arranging it and carrying it out. I could respect her for playing the role so skillfully.


On an emotional level?


Don’t think about that, I told myself. Even considering it, even contemplating how I felt right now was enough to scare me.


“Jarl?” Selene said quietly. “You’re shaking. Is something wrong?”


I ignored her completely, keeping my attention firmly on “Aiko.” “Tell me two plus two is five,” I said to her. “Come on. Say it.”


“Okay then,” she said, drawing it out to make it sound sarcastic. “I am now officially creeped out. What the hell is wrong with you?”


“Too little, too late,” I said. I reached out for power and twisted my thoughts into a different pattern, a different level of interaction with reality, one that focused less on the material and more on the concepts underlying that matter.


The Second Sight was always unpredictable. There was no telling quite what it would show, no guessing what you might see or how your mind would choose to portray the information you get. It changed from one day to the next, though there were elements that remained constant. It was always an intense experience. It was always hard to describe, hard to even grasp and conceptualize in words. It always took the form of a sort of hallucination, as though what it showed was too real for the brain to process directly.


This time, the experience manifested as a combination of sights, sounds, and scents, all blending together into a psychedelic cocktail that put me right back on the bed.


The first thing I saw, overwhelming and pulling all attention from what I actually wanted to look at, was Aiko’s mother. The nine-tailed kitsune blazed with silver light in the spiritual spectrum, so bright it would have blinded me if it were really there. It almost did anyway. The nine tails spreading out behind her seemed more beams of light than physical objects, spreading and interlacing in fractal patterns that seared themselves into my brain, leaving me gasping for breath. To look at her was to hear resounding drums and horns singing out over the hills, to smell fox and spice and salt and the endless passage of time.


I fell back onto the bed, and in the falling I brought Selene and Aiko’s father into my view. The kitsune burned with crimson light and resounded with the sound of flutes and laughter, but next to the nine-tailed kitsune, a seven-tail was almost a relief. Selene was another story. Seen with the Second Sight, she did not so much give light as take it, almost like a void in the world. There was a hint of wings, a hint of a humanoid form, but beyond that there was no definite form there. She smelled of blood and brimstone, sounded like quiet contemplative organ music, and felt like distance and unconcern, calculation and patience.


I forced myself to sit up again, the world spinning around me a little as I did, and got a glimpse of myself. My body was made of ice, hard and cold, glittering in the light. Dark shadows moved under the surface, hiding my core.


I didn’t look any closer than that. I didn’t want to look too long in the mirror. Easy to see too much, even when you aren’t transparent.


I looked back at Aiko, forcing myself to disregard the blazing power that was her mother. And this time I saw what I’d been looking for.


On the surface, it looked like Aiko should. The light of her power was red and gold in equal measure, the scent was fox and spice, the sound was laughter and metal music. But once I looked a little deeper, I saw the gaps, the inconsistencies. Behind the light was a void not unlike that I’d seen in Selene, vague and shapeless, with flickers of odd lights and shapes within, a patchwork that was somehow less than the sum of its parts. The scent was a fake, closer to skunk than fox; it might have fooled someone else, but I knew the scent this was mimicking, and this wasn’t it. The laughter was feigned, a mask over a face that wasn’t happy, or sad, or anyting.


I closed my eyes and forced the Second Sight away. It took a few seconds, and when it was gone I slumped back to the bed for a moment, gagging at the instant headache. It lasted only a few seconds, but while it was there, it was hard to even think past the pain.


“Okay,” I said, forcing myself to sit upright again. “Who are you, and what did you do with Aiko?”


The impostor grinned at me. “Um,” she said. “Winter? I was serious when I said that you were scaring me with this. You’re still shaking, by the way.”


I stared at her for a few seconds, then said, “You don’t understand your situation. I can kill you right now. I could freeze your blood inside your veins so that it tears you apart from the inside out, and with the way I feel right now, I might.”


Aiko’s mother turned to face me. “I will not suffer you to threaten my daughter,” she said quietly. “Should you try to harm her, I will see you dead.” Her voice was quite calm and polite, which in a weird way made it even scarier.


“I would never hurt Aiko,” I said. “But that is not your daughter. She is an impostor, attempting to fool us into thinking she is.”


The nine-tailed kitsune went absolutely, utterly still, then turned to look at the impostor in question. “Is this true?” she asked, in that same calm, polite voice.


“I should hope you’d—”


“Answer me!” the kitsune shouted, losing her composure completely. Her tails started to lash violently back and forth, forming a complex and ever-shifting web of fur in the air.


“Aiko” said nothing, which in itself was an answer.


The male kitsune whistled quietly. “Oh, no,” he said quietly. “You might want to back away.”


“What?” I asked, like a fool.


Then I saw what happens when a nine-tailed kitsune absolutely snaps.


I didn’t see her move. Not really. Not even a blur. It was more like I was watching a flipbook animation that had a handful of pages torn out. One instant, a mostly-human kitsune was standing a few feet from an entirely humanoid pseudo-kitsune. The next, both of them had moved seven feet sideways. The nine-tailed kitsune had abandoned any pretense of humanity, her body as much fox as human, her face almost completely animal. She had the impostor pinned against the wall with one hand.


That was about all I could see. The ancient kitsune blazed with light, much like what I’d seen with the Second Sight, except this was real. It hurt, it physically hurt to see that light, to be in it. I smelled smoke, and realized that the walls and floor were smoldering around her, burning from just her presence.


“Who sent you?” she screamed at the impostor. Her voice was unpleasant to hear; I couldn’t say what about it was so distressing, but I cringed away at the sound, and I wasn’t alone. It almost made me think of nails against a chalkboard, except that it still sounded beautiful.


The impostor screamed and lashed out at the kitsune, trying to punch her. It had no effect, not little effect, but none. She could have been hitting a brick wall for all the apparent good it did her.


“Tell me,” the kitsune said, tightening her grip. Then she said something in else in Japanese.


The impostor screamed again, louder and more agonized than before, and flailed, bucking against the kitsune’s grip, to no avail. “Scáthach,” she gasped after a few seconds. “Scáthach sent me to replace her!”


“Where is she now?” I asked. It was a risk, stepping into this, but I needed to know.


“At the castle,” the impostor gasped. “The Isle of Skye. Dún Scáith. Please, have mercy. I only served my queen!”


“You served too well,” the kitsune said, her fist closing tightly around the impostor’s throat. That action, just clenching her fist, was enough to shatter the impostor’s spine. A moment later the body burst into brilliant silver flame, reducing it to ashes in an instant. Not even the bones survived intact.


The light faded a few moments later, and we all let out a sigh of relief as it did.


The other kitsune shot me a warning look as he walked by, telling me very clearly to be still and silent, without saying a word. I didn’t argue with that look. I wasn’t that stupid.


The two kitsune stood together, with her leaning heavily on him for support, for several moments before she returned to the mostly-human form she’d had on when she first came in. “I apologize for my hasty and unseemly behavior,” she said, turning to face me. Her tone was very formal now. “It was inappropriate of me, particularly as I am a guest in your home. Please, excuse me. This is unlike me, but to hear this struck me deeply.”


“Yeah, I could tell,” I said, watching her now with the same feeling of intense disconnection that I’d felt while watching the impostor. “You really love your daughter, don’t you?”


“Very much so,” she sighed. “Though I have never been able to express it as I might wish to.” Left unspoken, but not unheard, was the fear that now she might never have the chance.


“I love her as well,” I said.


“You do not seem to care about her abduction,” she said. It didn’t sound like she was disagreeing with me, exactly, more just making an observation.


“I am intimately aware of the limits of my own control,” I said. “This goes well beyond them. If I allow myself to care about it right now, I will begin destroying things, and I don’t know whether I will be able to stop once I start.” I smiled. “Better for that to wait until I am in Scáthach’s home, it seems. Do you know the way, or should I seek another means of transport?”


“Um,” Selene said, sounding like she would rather shove bamboo splinters under her own nails than speak up right now. “We, um. We do have news. Um. If that’s okay?”


“Please continue,” I said. I was still smiling. It wasn’t a good smile.


“Um. While you were in Russia, a few of the mages started a sort of a rebellion? I don’t know what else to call it. They haven’t really done much, but they’re speaking out against you, and they ambushed a couple of our patrols. No deaths yet, but it was close. I don’t know if you want to leave them be while you go do…this.”


“I see,” I said. “Thank you, Selene.” I looked at the two kitsune. “My apologies,” I said. “I have handled this poorly, and caused you unnecessary pain as a result. And now I find that the timing of this affair is also quite unfortunate. As the jarl of this town, I should tend to this uprising myself. However, if you would prefer to leave now, that’s fine too.”


“Go and tend to your business,” Aiko’s mother said. “I will attempt diplomatic channels to resolve this. Once.”


“Thank you for your understanding, ma’am. Shall I meet you here in two hours, that we might go to Scáthach’s home, rescue Aiko, and bring her world tumbling down around her?”


“You’re willing to anger a Faerie Queen to save my daughter?”


“Yes,” I said, smiling. “Yes, I think I am. I warned her that some things were off limits, after all. It’s hardly my fault that she didn’t take me seriously.”


“In that case,” she said, “you may call me Kuzunoha. I will meet you here in two hours.”


“Excellent,” I said, standing and stretching. I still hurt, a lot, but it didn’t seem to matter much. I walked out of the room and went downstairs, calling Tyrfing and spinning it idly in my hand as I walked.


Activity came to a standstill when I walked into the throne room. An absolute standstill. I supposed that made sense. It isn’t every day that your jarl walks into the throne room naked and smeared with blood, grinning like a lunatic and spinning a sword in his hand.


“Hi,” I said. “I’m about to go kill a whole lot of people. Who wants to come with?”

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Interlude 8.b: Anna Rossi

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I wanted to slam the door to my apartment behind myself. I didn’t. I’d never really been the sort to indulge myself like that. I knew it would just make things harder for me in the long run. Dealing with complaining neighbors, with the landlord, maybe even fixing the door if I slammed it hard or often enough. It wasn’t worth it.


But it would have felt so good in the moment. It had been a bad day in a bad week in a bad month, and if I was going to be honest, it had been a pretty damn bad life. I couldn’t remember how many times people had told me I only had to do one more thing and it would get better, and none of it had worked. My parents finally moved out of the slums, and the few friends I had in school were gone. Moved on to high school, and the ostracization got even worse. Finally find a social niche, and it’s the kind of niche where admitting you belong there is a death sentence for the rest of your social life. Graduate and go to college, and develop a major anxiety disorder before dropping out when the money cuts off.


Get a job and support myself, and I had this bullshit to deal with, day in, day out. Every day the same tedious, pointless crap, the same meaningless posturing and drama queens, the same petty squabbles over who was supposed to do what.


No wonder I was frustrated. A year and a half of this shitty job, and things hadn’t gotten any better, and I no longer believed that they were going to.


I turned on my computer and then went to take a shower while it started up. It wouldn’t take that long, but I really wanted to wash up and change out of my work clothes. I reeked like grease, and the last thing I needed right now was to be reminded of the restaurant.


After my shower I put on an old, greying bathrobe and went looking for dinner. I was a good cook, but after spending the day working in the kitchen the last thing I wanted to do was make food, so, as usual after work, I just grabbed something out of the fridge. Usually it was leftovers, but I hadn’t been able to work up the energy to cook for myself in days, which made that hard. I ended up throwing a premade sandwich from the grocery store into the microwave. They tasted like crap, but after a day at work, everything would taste like crap.


While the food was heating, I went back to my computer and launched an Internet browser, mediated through a VPN for slightly more security. Once that was in progress, I went back to the kitchen. I flipped the sandwich to ensure even heating, and then grabbed a bottle of beer out of the fridge before returning to the computer. You weren’t supposed to serve beer cold, but I was just enough of a philistine to prefer it that way, and with the kind of beer I could afford, it really didn’t matter.


At the computer, I pulled up my usual assortment of sites. a couple of social networks, a couple of news sites, some comics and entertainment sites. And then there was the one I was actually here for, a simple login page. The background of the site was a simple CG picture of a mountain glen with some rocks and a stream, visually attractive without being terribly memorable. Aside from a notice that much of the content of the site wasn’t available to guest users, there wasn’t anything to really suggest what the purpose of the site was.


It wasn’t that we were secretive, exactly. It was more that the people who actually wanted to be there already knew what we were there for, and people who stumbled on it by accident didn’t want to know. Besides, people didn’t really spend much time on the login screen. All the good stuff was restricted.


I typed in my username and password, then hit enter. It went to a loading screen, then brought up a screen that displayed:

Welcome, xXDarkWolf18Xx. You will be automatically returned to the previous page in 5 seconds.


Once it brought up the welcome screen, I went back to the kitchen to grab my food. I’d only waited to confirm that I hadn’t slipped up on the password. I was usually fairly good about that, but it was thirty characters; the occasional miskeying was inevitable.


I wasn’t entirely sure why I bothered with that kind of password anymore, really. No one was likely to try to hack my account here, after all. I supposed it was a sort of nostalgic throwback to when I’d actually had to take care that no one knew I was logging into these sites. They weren’t illegal, technically, but they weren’t the sort of thing I’d wanted my family to know about.


Which would have felt more excessive, if they hadn’t literally disowned me when they found out about it. I’d sent them a couple of Christmas cards, but gave up after a few years when they were returned unopened. Enrico was the only one who was even still on speaking terms with me, and even then, there was always a certain disconnect. Any topic which even hinted at my interests or proclivities was ruthlessly avoided. When I brought them up by accident, the result was a chilly silence that could last for days.


Frowning at that thought, I got my food and drink and returned to the computer. I’d planned to browse while I ate, trying to move past the aggravations of the day, but I paused when I saw a notification window on the screen.

You have a new private message.

From: leporine4life

Subject: Made up your mind yet?


I opened the message, and found that it was blank. No real surprise there; the message was all in the header for this.


I sighed, and typed a quick response. xXDarkWolf18Xx: Not sure yet. I still can’t believe you’re serious about this.


I was almost halfway done with the sandwich before I got another message. leporine4life: u know i am. u saw the video. y u r not convinced i have no idea


xXDarkWolf18Xx: Videos can be altered. Or faked completely. I hit the send button and then took another drink.


This time the reply came almost immediately. leporine4life: id have known. that is literally my job. literally. whats your problem?


xXDarkWolf18Xx: It’s just…werewolves? Seriously? This can’t be real. Where did you even get this video?


leporine4life: *shrug* some nut sent it to the paper and told us to publish it. editor wont touch it but i saw it and saved a copy. course i did right? lol


xXDarkWolf18Xx: And you’re sure the video is genuine?


leporine4life: absolutely. and get this, i think i tracked down the person who made it. took some work but its my job anyways so whatev. girl in colorado sent it in n from her note i think she maybe knows the werewolf. you live around there right?


My heart sank a little, and I took another bite before writing my reply, giving myself a second to make sure that it wasn’t too obviously disappointed. xXDarkWolf18Xx: Not really. California isn’t that close.


leporine4life: in the US at least. you could visit there and see whats up. or move. we both know you don’t have a lot to stay for.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: I don’t have the money to move right now. And before you ask, no, I can’t take out a loan even if I wanted to, which I don’t. My credit is shit. Why don’t you go?


leporine4life: i cant even get in the country. its easier for u than me. …look, i should maybe not be mentioning this, but i think i know someone who can help with the money. paybacks a bitch (no offense) but he doesnt give a shit bout your credit score or whatever. you want me to shoot him an email for you?


xXDarkWolf18Xx: …maybe. Why do you care so much about this anyway? And don’t say it’s for the paper. We both know a Dutch newspaper isn’t printing a story about this, and even if they were there are easier ways you could do it.


leporine4life: u caught me. this is personal, not business. any chance werewolves are real i have to check u know? lol of course you do. look where we are there are like 100 threads about that in the forum right now. ppl here would give their right arm for this n u know it.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: So why not go yourself? You could get a visa if you really wanted one.


leporine4life: roflmfao what? me? you know im not the canine here you dweeb. this has u written all over it. don try and deny it iv seen your faves on this site u perv.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: You’re one to talk. You think I didn’t watch the video you uploaded last month? Never mind canines, some of the rabbit pictures you get off to make me throw up a little.


leporine4life: to each her own my friend. look, iv gotta go to bed. work in four hours. you want me to send my guy an email n send you what iv got about the girl that sent that vid?


xXDarkWolf18Xx: …Yes please. Don’t know whether I’ll follow up on it but I should at least look into it, I guess.


leporine4life: cool. good luck with work.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: Lost cause with that, I’m afraid. Almost stabbed the new waitress with a carving knife today. She grabbed a plate before I put sauce on it and then had a hissy fit when the customer flipped out on her! Who does that?


leporine4life: lol send pics if you do. gnight.


It still creeped me out that leporine’s mysterious loan shark had arranged the meeting in my own damned restaurant. I supposed it was possible that it was a coincidence, but not even I believed it. There were so many restaurants in Los Angeles that you’d have a hard time picking the right one if you meant to. And it wasn’t like it was a particularly good venue; the place was just another mediocre Mexican place that was more cheap than good.


It was a pain in the ass for me, too, in that anyone who recognized me would be a disaster. I’d ended up putting on heavy makeup, sunglasses, and a hat; hopefully that would keep the other employees at bay. I’d briefly considered wearing a fursuit, more as a joke than anything, but in the end decided it wasn’t worth the risk. The restaurant wasn’t in the really bad part of LA, but there were still some things you didn’t do. Fursuiting on the street, especially after dark, was definitely one of them.


I didn’t have a party name, but it was very easy to find the man I was here to meet. Pasty pale and dressed in a black suit that must have cost more than I made in a month, he stood out from the mostly poor, mostly Latino clientele of that joint like a shark in a tank of goldfish.


I sat down across from him, and he smiled warmly. “Ah, Miss Rossi,” he said. “How good of you to join me. I have taken the liberty of ordering food for you; I trust you will not object. I will, naturally, cover the price.”


Less than five seconds later, the same waitress I’d been complaining about to leporine set a plate on the table. Steak fajitas with rice and refried beans, glass of soda.


I stared for a couple of seconds before stuttering out a thank you to the waitress, who sneered and walked away without replying. Not only was this one of the very few meals that I could still stand to eat here, it was a particularly annoying one to serve. The fajitas were served in a hot skillet that could and routinely did leave burns on the waitresses’ arms.


Somehow, I didn’t think that was a coincidence.


“Now,” the man in the suit said, “I believe you had something you required financial assistance with, is that correct?” He was staring at me with an intensity that I would have called lecherous in anyone else, but there was no hint of lust in his grey eyes. This reminded me more of the way that a cat watched a mouse, which was somehow even more uncomfortable.


I didn’t miss that he had no food in front of him. The only dish on his side of the table was a glass of water, untouched, which had been sitting there long enough for the ice to melt.


“Maybe,” I said cautiously, not touching the food. “Is that something that you could help me with?”


“Certainly I might consider it,” he said. “But let us consider this more carefully, Miss Rossi. Now, it is true that I could extend you a loan, and perhaps that would suffice for your immediate goals. But in order to move to another state, you would require more than simply a sum of wealth. You will need transportation, as you have none of your own at this time, as well as lodgings and employment in your new home.”


“How do you know all this?” I asked suspiciously.


He smiled. “I know many things,” he said. “And before you ask, no, your rabbity friend did not betray your trust. I have my own resources, which I believe you will find to be quite considerable.”


“Okay,” I said. “And you’re talking about this…why?”


“Because I can offer you considerably more than simple money. I am prepared to give you one hundred thousand dollars in cash, transportation to your destination, a one-year prepaid lease on an apartment, and an employment position comparable to that you currently have.”


“And this would cost me…what?”


“Why, Miss Rossi, it would cost you nothing. All I ask is that in the future, you perform a favor for me in turn, and ask no questions about it. Three times, and your debt will be paid in full.”


“Okay,” I said slowly, “this is getting a bit more of a Godfather vibe than I’m happy about.”


He smiled, and this time there was a hint of sharpness to that smile, an edge to match the one in his eyes. “Oh, that is where you are mistaken, Miss Rossi,” he said. “An organized crime syndicate could, perhaps, have offered you what I have mentioned thus far. However, they most likely could not promise what I will now. Accept my bargain, Miss Rossi, and you will achieve your true goal. The road may be hard, and it may be long, but one day it will lead you to the end you seek.”


“Right,” I said. “And…what mysterious goal is this? Because last I checked I just wanted out of this shithole of a town.”


“You wish to leave humanity behind,” he said calmly. “And I can make that happen. Three favors, Miss Rossi, in exchange for your heart’s desire. A bargain, is it not?”


I took a deep breath. “Okay,” I said. “This is…we’re leaving Godfather territory behind now. This is starting to sound like I’m talking to the devil.”


“A better analogy than your previous one. But I am not your devil. Now, Miss Rossi, do you agree to my terms?”


I took a deep breath and then nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “What now?”


He smiled and handed me a thin paper envelope. “There is your bus ticket,” he said. “Good day.” He collected his cane, a fancy wooden one with a grip in the shape of a wolf’s head, and walked out the door.


The second he was out of the building, I rushed to the window, looking for him.


He was already gone.


I looked at the piece of paper, then frowned and looked again. It still read the same way. Call your brother tonight at 9 P.M. Ask him to join you in Colorado Springs.


That simple. I didn’t understand. But it had been in the envelope with my bus ticket when I made the last transfer, and it definitely hadn’t been there before. So I supposed this must be the first of my three favors. I hadn’t been expecting to pay it back so soon, but I couldn’t say I was sorry about it.


I didn’t expect it to do much good, either. Enrico and I were still on speaking terms, but I didn’t see him leaving everything behind to follow me halfway across the country. I could ask, though; the note hadn’t specified that I had to be successful.


I waited with my phone in hand that night in my new studio apartment, and pushed the call button exactly as the clock hit 9. I had no intention of letting him tell me it didn’t count because I was off by a minute.


It took almost thirty seconds for Enrico to pick up, long enough that I didn’t think he was going to. When he did, he sounded tired. “Hey,” he said. “What’s up?”


“I don’t know. Is something wrong?”


He sighed. “Not really, but the police force just laid me off. Or something. They didn’t give me a whole lot in the way of reasons, but I don’t have a job anymore.”


“That’s weird,” I said. “But interesting timing. Is there anything keeping you in LA now that they fired you?”


“Not really, now that dad’s dead,” he said cautiously. “Why?”


“I was wondering if you wanted to join me in Colorado,” I said. “I just moved out here today. One of my online friends hooked me up with a job. Sorry, I meant to tell you sooner, but it was a really short-notice kind of thing, and it’s been crazy hectic for the last few days.”


“Oh,” he said, a little awkwardly. Online friend had long been our code for people I met on websites and at conventions that he’d rather not know about, and any mention of them could get that instantaneous awkward pause in the conversation. “Um…okay. You have somewhere to stay?”


“Yeah, that was all set up in advance. It’s not big enough for both of us, but you could stay here while you get a place of your own.”


“Oh,” he said again. “Huh. You know, I might just take you up on this. It’d be nice to get out of Cali for a while.”


I stood in the parking lot and glanced back at the slip of paper I was holding. It had appeared on my keyboard the previous evening, and though it didn’t have a name on it, I knew damned well where it came from, literally.


At first the favor had seemed easy. Go to a certain address and talk to the guy there. No commitment about what to do once I got there. Harmless.


Except there was nobody here. The guy in the suit was nowhere to be seen, and I didn’t see anyone else interesting, either.


And then I suddenly spotted a guy cutting across the parking lot. He was carrying a cardboard sign and whistling, badly.


It seemed ridiculous, but I didn’t see anyone else, so I walked up to him. Up close, he looked a little more interesting. I’d seen the grey hair at a distance, but his face looked younger than mine, and his eyes were a shade of almost-gold that didn’t look quite human.


“Hi,” I said. “I’m Anna.”


He glanced at my face and then looked away awkwardly. “Hi,” he said. “My name is Winter.”


I stood by the side of the grave and watched as they lowered the coffin inside. Well, I thought bitterly, there goes the last of the family. Guess that’s done with, anyway.


I wanted to believe it wasn’t my fault. The two scraps of paper in my pocket, both worn by years and covered in creases but still legible, said otherwise. I might not have meant to, but I’d been the one to bring Enrico and Winter together, I’d been the one to give my brother the idea that there were werewolves in this world, and in the end those two facts had undeniably been what led to him dying.


That’s what you get for making a deal with the devil, I told myself. Did you think it would be a good thing?


I wanted to cry, found that the tears didn’t come.


leporine4life: hey. seems like i never see you on here anymore. you get busy or something?


xXDarkWolf18Xx: Sort of. Busy with the new promotion. Also my brother died recently. Just finished sorting out the estate and everything.


leporine4life: oh damn im sorry. put my foot in it there lol. you want me to go away now?


xXDarkWolf18Xx: No, it’s good. Something to take my mind off it, right?


leporine4life: now that i can do. so how’s that werewolf lead working for you? damn im sorry to have sent u on that. didnt realize it was a hoax.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: I don’t know…there’s a lot of videos coming out now. Could be for real. That’d be something, right?


leporine4life: piss on that iv seen those vids. edited to hell or total frauds, every one of them. and they wont let anyone look at the actual film? i smell a hoax. betcha money it blows over in a few months and everyone that fell for it feels real silly.


xXDarkWolf18Xx: Maybe. I don’t know…some of it looks very convincing. But I’m not the expert here.


leporine4life: damn straight. im telling u its fishy as hell. no way this is all legit.


leporine4life: shit i have to go. kids are gettin out of school soon and im supposed to pick them up. g2gbye.


It was a long drive to Wyoming. I had more than enough time to think about things. I had enough time to move past second and third thoughts into the mid teens.


But I kept driving. It was scary, to finally take the plunge, but it was better than living the rest of my life knowing that I’d had the chance and I hadn’t taken it.


I reached the edge of town and pulled over, getting out. Edward had told me that the pack would find me, and I trusted him on that. I’d seen some of what they were capable of.


I took my last dose of poison before I got out of the car. I’d taken the time to research what went into that concoction, and I knew what it was doing to me. They said it made it easier to make the change from human to werewolf. They didn’t advertise that it did so by killing you a little at a time. They were natural poisons, raw plants rather than pills, but the effect was the same. With how much had been in that last dose, I’d just killed the person I was.


The only question was whether I’d come out as something else, or I was just plain dead.


I supposed I’d find out soon enough.


I stood by the side of the road and waited. Within minutes I started to feel dizzy, and had to lean against the car to stay standing. My balance was bad enough already, since I lost the toes.


About the same time, I heard the howling start. The wolves appeared minutes later, great creatures that dwarfed any dog, watching me with bright, intelligent eyes. One of them stepped forward and locked gazes with me, and I knew I was looking at Edward.


I nodded, once, and then lost the last bit of control in my legs and slipped to the ground.


The wolf moved in and bit me, tearing and savaging. It was painful, but the poisons I’d taken numbed it, made it feel distant.


Then the moonlight poured into me, and filled what the wolf had emptied, and for the first time ever I felt whole.

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Breaking Point 11.6

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Before I could move to chase the fleeing prey, I became aware of a change in the atmosphere, a shifting of the air.


A handful of men and women were stepping out of the crowd. They were dressed in simple robes, one and all, but there was a power and a confidence to them that defied anyone to think them insignificant.


There were nine in total, forming a broad arc between us and the rest of the prey. Most of them looked tired, favored injuries, but they weren’t running, and their attention was focused on me.


A werewolf’s ears were sharp enough to hear as one spoke to another. “Fool got himself killed,” the blue robe said.


Black shook his head, though he kept his eyes on us. “Not quite yet,” he said. “Though it was a rash choice. To call the Wild Hunt with so weak a will…he will be lucky to survive.”


The darker blue snorted. “The Hunt might not kill him,” he said. “But the stupid is terminal. Trust me on that.”


“Enough,” white said, with a tone of command that silenced the others instantly. “Walker, begin evacuating. Arbiter, Keeper, establish defenses. The rest of us will keep them off you.”


Their conversation had been interesting at first, but I was losing interest. So I threw myself forward, and the Wild Hunt came with me, moving as a single unit. They were half a mile away or more. We could reach them in a matter of moments.


The white robe was almost within the storm when he sighed and raised his hand. With that warning I wrapped the Wild Hunt around myself more thickly, the storm thickening to something closer to a sheet of ice, the defensive magics of the Sidhe sliding over my skin like chilled silk. Secure behind my defenses, I grinned and kept moving.


The storm took something of the force out of the blast, and the warding spells took more, draining its energy away.


What was left was enough to pick me up and send me sailing backwards through the air faster than I could run. Bones broke and flesh tore from the acceleration.


The storm cushioned my fall when I finally came to earth again, softening the blow. I still broke further, and bounced, skipping and skidding along for another fifty feet before hitting a dead tree and knocking it down.


I lay there for a moment, panting. It was hard to breathe with my ribcage crushed, and every movement sent a shock of sensation through me as it pulled against broken ribs, broken spine, shattered pelvis.


Ice sealed the gaps in my flesh and pulled them shut, and as I pushed myself to my feet the storm tugged and pulled at me, tugging bones back to where they should be. It felt good, little spikes of cold pleasure going through me with every movement. The bones would take a few minutes to heal, but in the meantime ice would serve to fill the gaps, adjusting to my movements as necessary.


Only the Hunt could see me through the storm—it was so thick now that I had no doubt of that—but I took a moment to cover my skin in frost anyway, mimicking the fur that had been torn away. I couldn’t have said why, except that it amused me.


I saw that the prey were escaping, marching through holes between the worlds, and snarled in cheated wrath. Standing again, I threw myself at them again, faster than before. Every step, every breath, sent more sensations rushing through me, and I laughed to feel them, my own blood dripping onto my fur and freezing there.


The rest of the Wild Hunt had reached the humans in robes, but were faring no better against them. In a sense, I could see that this was very nearly the worst-case scenario for us. We excelled at culling the weak, the slow, the young. Against a single strong target we could surround them, keep up the pressure and capitalize on any mistake, the way we had against the necromancer.


Here, the prey were much too powerful to be taken down with the casual brutality with which we had killed the dead. But they were too numerous and too quick to be overwhelmed as the necromancer had been. They hit back just as hard as he had, though. A direct hit from the white’s force magic sent us flying half a mile or more, and even with the storm to guide and protect us, not all of the Hunters rose again after being struck with such power. The violet’s lightning sliced through the storm with startling precision. She was as blind as I and lacked the Hunt to compensate, but she did not miss her targets. Even the Sidhe could not dodge aside swiftly enough to escape.


The last of the other prey in sight stepped out of this world, and the last hole sealed shut behind him. The nine people in their colored robes fell back and formed a tighter group. I could smell the barriers around them, defensive spells that would keep us at bay. There was layer on layer of barrier there, and I knew just from the smell that there was no way we were going to be breaking through.


And then we were all forcefully reminded that there were more people there than just the Wild Hunt and the prey. When we’d first entered the field of the dead, a small group of alien beings had come with us, too strange and abstract to join the Hunt, but also so far removed from anything we knew that it was impossible to categorize them as prey.


They had entered the darkness beside us, and they had stayed beside us as the necromancer fell, and they were still beside us now. Except now one of them reached out and did something. It was impossible to say quite what; the thing’s magic was as alien and abstract as the thing itself. It felt somehow sideways to reality, a line drawn perpendicular to everything I understood.


I might not know what it was, or what it had done, but I knew what the results were. Their protections, the defenses they had raised to keep us safely at bay, were gone, wiped away without a trace. It was odd; they hadn’t been dispelled or overpowered. I would have understood that. This was more like they had been entirely erased, simply wiped out of existence.


I leapt forward, grinning widely. They lashed out with their power, but they had been caught by surprise by the disappearance of their defenses, and they were slow to react. Before they could do anything to stop me I had pounced on the woman in the green robe, bearing her to the ground with my weight. I bit her neck and she screamed, pulled and bit deeper and the screaming stopped.


The pale woman in the blue robe stopped trying to burn me and gasped a few words. A moment later, as I released my prey and turned for the next, she let out a powerful surge of magic, scented with disinfectant and wide-open spaces, a long breeze flowing over the plains.


All of the prey vanished, leaving the green behind. She was dying, if not dead already. I looked around and saw them standing on a hill a quarter of a mile away. The blue fell to one knee, gasping, needing to lean on a piece of wood to stay even that close to upright.


I started in that direction, grinning, then paused. Something was holding me back, though I hadn’t noticed until I tried to move.


I looked back and saw that the yellow had her hand clasped tightly around my hind leg. She spoke a few words in a language I couldn’t place. Chinese, perhaps, or something from the same vicinity. Even had I known the language I couldn’t have understood her. Her voice was halting, choked with blood.


I smiled indulgently and watched her die.


And then a hammer of magic slammed me to the ground, knocking me out in an instant.


Things got confusing after that.


There was darkness, and pain. I felt cold, and then very hot, and then cold again. Odd colors burned against the blackness. I heard singing, quavery singing in a language I didn’t know, and then the singing turned into screaming and a massive technicolor macaroni penguin swallowed me. I rolled over, and that really hurt, and someone told me to be quiet, which was funny because I hadn’t said anything. I tried to tell them so, but all that came out was a growly sort of whimper, and that hurt too.


At some point, I realized that a lot of what I was feeling and seeing was probably a hallucination. The penguin was a bit of a giveaway, really. The hell of it, though, was that knowing it wasn’t real didn’t do me any good at all in terms of knowing what was. I opened my eyes and saw storm clouds swirling over my face, a beam of vivid green light tying itself in knots, a giant wearing velvet and carrying a massive axe with a head made out of ice. What, if any, of it was real? I couldn’t say, couldn’t even guess.


Unconsciousness would have been nice. But I didn’t have that luxury. I couldn’t tell what was real, couldn’t process or think about what was going on at all, couldn’t move beyond the occasional twitch, but I was conscious.


I closed my eyes again and lay there shuddering while the world spun around me.


The next clear impression I got was someone talking in my ear. It was a quiet female voice, which I recognized as Selene after a few seconds.


“Change,” she said. “The doctor’s here, but she needs you to change. Come on, jarl, change for me.”


I had no idea what she was talking about, not really. But Selene was one of my most trustworthy followers, and if she told me to change, there was a reason for it. So I reached inside, to where skin met fur, and twisted.


It’s hard for a werewolf to scream during the change. Your body’s all twisted around, things don’t connect right and it isn’t doing what you tell it to.


I screamed. There were times it was loud and piercing, times when all I could manage was an agonized whimper, but I screamed. It wasn’t just the pain, though there was plenty of that, enough to make most changes look like a pleasant trip to the spa. Worse than that was the feeling of intrusion, the sense that there were things inside me that did not belong there and weren’t responding the way they should to my magic. It felt like it took me an hour to tear myself apart, and five to put myself back together.


The whole time, Selene was murmuring gentle encouragements into my ear. It was weird, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me a little to have a demon sitting there encouraging me, but it did give me something to focus on other than the pain.


Finally, after what felt like a small eternity, it was over. I collapsed back against what felt like a stack of pillows. I was lying in a bed on the upper floor of the mansion, back in Colorado, in one of the housecarl’s rooms. I recognized it, even if I hadn’t spent much time there.


The sheets were damp, and shredded where I’d torn them during the change. It smelled like blood, sweat, and urine in there, and I knew I was to blame for all three. I was naked, of course.


Another time, I might have felt awkward about this combination of circumstances. At the moment, I was mostly too busy feeling exhausted and in pain. Mostly.


“Good,” Selene said, standing from her chair by the head of the bed. “I’ll go get her. You just lie still.”


I was too tired to argue, so I just lay slumped against the pillows as she left. She came back in about a minute later, with two people following her. The first was the same doctor I’d taken Snowflake to, her pristine white lab coat flapping around her legs as she walked.


The second was Aiko, who looked about as tired as I felt. “Hey,” she said, moving over and sitting by my side, grabbing my hand and holding it tightly. “Sorry I couldn’t be here earlier. The doc said I shouldn’t be in the room with you.”


The doctor snorted. “I should bloody well say so,” she said. “I mean bloody hell I really don’t think you people have even the foggiest idea how much danger you were in here. Do you have even an idea and I mean even the tiniest idea of how much damage he’d have done if he woke up in the wrong way? Jesus, the way you amateurs fuck about with that which you don’t understand scares me some times. Now lie still.”


This last was directed at me, and made more ominous by the fact that she had a scalpel out in one hand and a mouth mirror in the other. “What are you doing?” I asked, edging away a little.


“I’m taking a looksee at what we’re dealing with here, what d’you think I’m doing, really, this isn’t that complicated, people. Now lie still, and yes, this is going to hurt, what kind of pansy are you anyway?”


It did hurt, but it wasn’t actually as bad as I’d been expecting. She mostly just used the scalpel to hold open cuts that were already there while she probed around inside with the mirror. Only once did she actually cut deeply into flesh, and even then it was so sharp that I didn’t feel much pain.


“All right,” she said, taking a step back from the bed and wiping the tools off on the sheets before dropping them into a pocket. “Now I first want to make it very clear that this is a special case and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen someone with their bones turning into ice before so you get no guarantees on any goddamn word out of my mouth right now. That said, it looks like it’s healing okay and the ice is apparently fused with your flesh in a way that will eventually recover, so aside from being a total freak of nature you don’t have a think to worry about.”


“Gee,” I said dryly. “How comforting. My bones are turning into ice?”


“Turned,” she corrected me. “In a few places mostly around the ribs and joints. And honestly you should be grateful, because if they hadn’t you’d probably be dead and definitely be paralyzed, since it looks like you snapped your spine like a fucking toothpick. How the hell did this happen anyway?”


I coughed, wincing as I did so. “I kind of joined the Wild Hunt for a while,” I said weakly. “Um. As the leader.”


She stared at me, and something about the expression emphasized the odd, almost reddish tone of her black irises.


It wasn’t until then that I realized I could see again. It was a bit blurry, especially for things more than about ten feet away, but I could see. That was pretty freaking nice.


“That,” she said, “is possibly the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”


“It wasn’t my fault,” I protested. “Loki roped me into it!”


She continued to stare. “You are not improving things,” she said solemnly before turning to Selene. “He’ll be wanting a few days of bed rest that we both know he isn’t going to get but I kinda had to say it anyway,” she said. “And maybe keep him out of the heat for a while, ’cause how the fuck do I know what happens to him if that ice melts? I mean it should be melting already and it isn’t so maybe it doesn’t matter but I, personally, wouldn’t be taking chances with that if they were my bones. I checked up on the dog, too, and apparently being in the Wild Hunt of all fucking things to do with a brain injury was actually good for her. Passed out right now, but condition’s stable and actually better than it was.”


“Thanks,” Selene said.


The doctor snorted. “You thank me with payment,” she said bluntly. “Send it to my Cairo address. Okay, good luck and whatnot, buh-bye now, please don’t call me again for at least a week, you people need help from another kind of doctor if you know what I mean, have a nice day!”


She swept out of the room with another swish of her lab coat, leaving the space feeling much emptier. Which was odd, considering that she was the smallest one in there by a considerable margin.


“So,” I said. “Killed the necromancer in Russia, along with a whole lot of other people. Most of them were dead already, though, so that’s okay. Might have killed some people that I wasn’t supposed to kill; my memory’s a little fuzzy. How’d it go here?”


“Nothing like as exciting as your evening,” Selene said dryly. “Though we do have some news.”


Before she could say anything else, the door opened again. This time I wasn’t the only one to cringe away from the people that entered.


There were two of them, one male and one female, and both of them carried power around them like a mantle, thick and rich. The intense, musky scent of fox was heavy in the air, almost choking even to me, and I liked the way foxes smell. He was dressed in a sharp black suit, while she was wearing a grey kimono with a simple floral pattern in black.


And, in case there were any doubt of what they were, bright red fox tails protruded from the rear of their clothing. He had seven, tipped with white and waving cheerfully. She had nine, lacking the paler tip and very, very still.


I gulped hard. Seven tails was bad enough. Nine was…well, it made an impression.


He waved to me, but she dismissed me as completely as if I weren’t even there, all her attention on Aiko. “What is the meaning of this?” she asked, her voice so calm and level that you just knew there was something else underneath.


Aiko looked at her mother and swallowed. “Um,” she said. “Hi?”

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Breaking Point 11.5

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The darkness instantly started pulling at me. It was the strangest feeling, somewhere between being tickled and having my fur pulled. I got the strong impression that it would probably have felt a great deal less pleasant without the combined influence of the full moon and the Wild Hunt running through me. Someone could probably have skinned me alive right then and I’d have been giggling and getting off the whole time.


I knew that it was a bad thing, though, so I reached out to the Wild Hunt, trying to find something that would protect us from the danger.


There was nothing that quite fit. I’d always had a bit of a knack for blood magic, nothing like this kind of scale, but enough that I understood the principles at work here. I could use that to work against it. The Sidhe weren’t alive in quite the same way humans approached the concept, and that alien nature gave them a certain protection, a certain resistance to the magic. The vampires were very alive, absolutely brimming with life, but they’d been designed to take that energy in, not to give it back out. It was hard to take what they didn’t want to give. Two of the mages who’d joined the Hunt had talents that could do something to block this draining effect, although neither was quite suited to the task.


A lot of kinds of defense, none of which was really sufficient. Taken all together and spread out through the medium of the Wild Hunt, they could do something to protect people.


I gathered up the protections, and through the Hunt I could feel as the others did so as well, instinctively reaching for the right powers to shield them from this threat.


The pulling sensation slowed, though it didn’t stop. We weren’t in danger of dying immediately, I thought, but this environment was still hostile. We could only spend so long here before people started dropping.


I grinned. That was good. A hunt with no challenge and no threat was a boring hunt. Having a time limit added some spice to the chase.


It was impossible to see here, and I fell back on other senses. I could feel everything that fell within my winter storm, and with that storm blanketing miles now, sight was unnecessary, more a distraction than a help. I could hear every movement, I could smell every breath of air, and there were stranger senses as well, things that I couldn’t possibly have known how to process without the Hunt. The vampires could feel the life around them with an intimacy that defied description, and the Sidhe could sense the currents of magic with a precision that put my senses to shame.


There were more of the dead here, packed in shoulder-to-shoulder, tight as lemmings on parade. They marched forward in a tight crowd, almost like a siafu swarm, but without any of the discipline or coordination the ants would display.


We hit them and kept going, even as I was wrapping what protection from the blood magic I could around myself. They fell, and were trampled by the ranks behind them before the other Hunters could even reach them.


The hard part now was just finding a way to advance. They were crowded together so tightly that there wasn’t room for me to fit between their legs, and killing them again didn’t do much good. They fell to the ground, the next rank moved forward, and then in just a handful of seconds they were standing again, the necromantic energy getting them back on their feet almost before they hit the ground.


I growled and renewed my assault, lashing out, faster and harder. My jaws and paws were coated in ice now, sharp as razors, tearing large chunks of flesh out of their bodies with every movement but it didn’t matter and they kept coming. They were slipping on the ice upon the ground and when they fell the ice clutched at them, piercing them; when they stood pieces were left behind and they stood anyway, hideous and grotesque. The wind flowed over their bodies, simultaneously giving me another way to feel them and tearing at them, a windstorm blasting them with tiny slivers of ice like a sandblaster.


The Sidhe lashed out with their weapons, impossibly graceful, dancing through the darkness with utter confidence and terrible beauty. Their steeds broke the dead, sending them flying through the air as they were kicked. When those fae blades met dead flesh they passed through like it was air, flicking casually through them and dropping them to the ground in pieces.


Hounds and wolves bit and tore, crushing bones and pulling the prey down, mobbing them on the ground, and they were pulled to pieces that still, horribly, moved. The enemy kicked them, striking at them with fists and stones and ancient weapons, but nothing could penetrate the storm around them.


The mages had turned to broad attacks now, crushing whole crowds of the dead with their powers. A column of fire twenty feet across roared down out of the sky, leaving little more than ash, and the ground steamed for a few moments before the storm swept in and blanketed it in ice again. A blast of force swept through the crowd like a bulldozer moving as fast as I could run, pushing the mangled corpses along before it and leaving an open trail behind it, until the press of the dead filled the space again.


And still, in spite of all of this, they pressed in tight around us on all sides. It was nothing like a fight, not really. In a fight there was something you could do to win, and no matter what we did here, they just kept coming. There were too many of them, and it was too hard to put them down beyond the necromancer’s ability to pick them back up again.


It was, in many ways, more like dealing with a flood. There was a constant press, threatening to overwhelm us if it was ignored for even a moment. You could create a temporary reprieve, essentially bailing out some of the water, but it only took moments for it to return.


On some level, I recognized all that.


The rest of me was entirely focused around the joy of the fight. I kept pressing forward, tearing the dead apart and tossing them aside, pulling them down and stepping over them without pause, ignoring their feeble attempts to hurt me.


I had not forgotten my aim here. This was a hunt, not a battle. These pitiful creatures were not my quarry, not truly. They were a distraction, an obstacle, a pleasant diversion on the way to my true goal.


The spear had narrowed now, our formation tightening to present less area to the exterior. I was still at the cutting tip, with Snowflake on one side, Kyra on the other, Anna directly behind. I could feel the husky exulting in the battle, the thrill, the joyous madness of the hunt. The werewolves were only slightly more reserved, if at all. The moon was singing in their veins the same as mine, the Hunt was driving them on, and any hint of fear or hesitation was buried beyond recognition.


We kept moving forward, slowly but surely, and I knew that the center of this vast aura of death was moving towards us as well, every step bringing us closer to the grand culmination of this hunt. I shuddered with pleasure at the mere thought, throwing back my head and letting out a howl of thanks to the unseen moon. The Wild Hunt took up the call, a chorus of howls and yips that rang out in the night. The Sidhe called out in voices high and sweet as silver bells, a sharp ululating battle cry that seemed to shiver in the air. The jötnar roared their approval, screaming threats and praises to their gods.


And everywhere, running over and under and through the sound, was the call of the Wild Hunt, thunderclaps and howling winds, an avalanche pouring down the mountainside, wolves racing along the snow and the prey screaming beneath the sharp teeth.


Even the dead seemed to draw back at the sound.


With a wide, mad grin I lowered my head and bit down again. This corpse was fresher, its blood only slightly tainted with the flavor of decay, and its sweet taste was a balm in my throat. It spurred me on to greater and greater heights as we moved forward.


Time was a meaningless concept in the embrace of the Hunt. I understood that, on a level that went beyond rational thought. The Wild Hunt was timeless. This Hunt was at once my hunt and all hunts, the very concept of hunting distilled down to its purest essence. This was nature, red in tooth and claw, an idea as old as time and one that would never really die.


Could I hunt forever, wrapped in the endless storm and mad joy of the Wild Hunt? I thought I could. It was a frightening prospect, in a way, but there was also a sick temptation to it. It was the feeling you got when you stood at the edge of the building and thought, I could jump. It was seeing a stranger in the night and thinking, for just a heartbeat, of blood and sex and laughter in the dark without thought for morning.


This is how werewolves go mad, I thought again, but this time there was no fear. On the contrary, there was that same sick edge of hunger.


I could jump, and I would fall forever.


I shook my head, trying to drive that thought out. It wasn’t hard. Here, now, not to think was the easiest thing in the world. Another of the dead was in front of me and my teeth closed around its leg, pulled it down within my reach, and then I bit into its torso and ripped it almost in half.


And then, suddenly, the night was clear. I could feel my storm around me, and there were no more of the dead in front of me. I looked, and though there was no light to see, I did not need to see to see now.


And then I grinned and howled again, shuddering with joy. At last, we had reached our true prey.


At a glance, I wouldn’t have known him for a man. He was taller, close to ten feet tall, as though he’d been stretched. His movements left a trail in the air, a lingering darkness that went beyond the mere absence of light. He couldn’t see, but there was no hesitation in his movements, not even a momentary doubt.


More than anything else, though, what struck me about him, what told me just how far behind he’d left any pretense of humanity, was his scent. He reeked of death and decay, stank of maggots and worms, rotting meat and corruption. He breathed out and I would have flinched, but for the influence of the Wild Hunt that made the stench of rot and decay on my prey’s breath as sweet as blood and honey.


Another night, in another mind, I would have hesitated to attack someone like that. He was powerful enough to make an army of Watchers hesitate, and that meant he operated in an entirely different world than I did.


But here, tonight, with the moon singing in my blood and the Wild Hunt wrapping me in an arctic storm, there was no thought for that. He was my prey, and that was all that mattered.


Running forward, I leapt at him, jaws open. He swatted me out of the air with one arm, moving with a speed that left me breathless, but my teeth closed on his hand as he did, and the force of his own blow tore the flesh. I flew away with a mouthful of black blood and foul-smelling meat, and I gulped it down hungrily, and it tasted delightful, an explosion of flavor on my tongue that left me breathless.


His body repaired itself almost instantly, and he was whole as the rest of the Wild Hunt followed me in, circling around him. He kept walking forward at the same pace, uncaring for the forces that had enclosed him.


Hounds and wolves leapt at him, and he knocked them aside without breaking stride. The storm protected from the worst of it and they didn’t die, but neither had they accomplished anything much. The Sidhe were shooting at him now, long arrows that gleamed brightly in the darkness though there was no light to reflect. Most of them glanced off his skin, and those that struck did little. He kept walking, disregarding them though they stood out from his flesh on both sides.


Jötnar charged him, screaming and roaring almost incoherently, chopping at him with axes and swords, and again, they simply didn’t have an effect. He dodged the worst of the blows, his skin was tough enough to mitigate many of the others, and when he was cut the wound sealed itself within instants. It was like cutting water.


Then he reached out and grabbed one of them. The giant was as large as he was, but still the necromancer lifted him off the ground easily, as though he weighed nothing at all. He broke the jotun over his knee and tossed him aside, the storm already fading from around him when he hit the ground.


The other jötnar faded back warily. There was no fear—there couldn’t be fear, in the midst of the Wild Hunt—but there was a reasonable caution, an awareness of tactics.


I picked myself up and rushed forward again, and this time I did not try to kill him. I bit down on his ankle instead, tugging it backward with all my strength just as he lifted his other foot. The ground was slick with ice and the wind was pushing him and my teeth were deep enough in him to crunch bones, and in that moment he was still strong enough, he was still strong enough to stay standing.


Until Snowflake threw herself at his face, moving at a speed that put even the other hounds to shame, her white fur fading into the white storm, nothing visible of her but iron teeth glinting in the moonlight that wasn’t there.


Finally he overbalanced and fell, and I slid out of the way just in time for him to land on a spike of ice rather than me. The ice shattered, but sharp edges dug into his skin, helping to hold him down.


The pack fell on him while he was down, biting and tearing and keeping him from rising. I was beside the vampire who chose the form of a great wolf now, with one of the great wolves of the jötnar on my other side. The giant on his back swung a bearded axe in a long arc that slammed home between the necromancer’s shoulder blades and cut deep.


Still, nothing we were doing was obviously harming him. The wounds sealed themselves, the flesh we took was replaced, and afterwards all was as it had been before.


But I knew that we were depleting his life, I knew that this was accomplishing something. He only had so much stolen life hoarded up, and if we could wear him down, he was as mortal as anything else.


But that was little consolation when he reached out and grasped one of the wolves, and tore its life out in an instant. Our protections had done something against the aura of necromantic power, but against the directed power of the necromancer himself, they were nothing.


He dropped the wolf lifeless to the ground and a moment later it stood and began attacking its fellows, the cloud of the Wild Hunt gone from it. The necromancer reached out again, and only the swift intervention of the most human-looking vampire kept it from claiming another of the hounds.


Once again, many of the Hunters had to pull back. Every life he claimed made him stronger, undoing the work we’d done, and thus to surround him with the living was to threaten ourselves. The hounds, the wolves, the mages, all of them pulled back again, leaving him room to stand. I remained, tearing and biting and pulling at him, and the vampires were there, and so were some few of the jötnar.


Too few, I thought. He was standing again, and though I was pulling at his leg, he was braced against it now and he was stronger than I was. Even with the Wild Hunt lending me the power of giants and werewolves, even with the ice beneath his feet and the storm winds howling around us, he was stronger.


Three of the mages were talking to each other, or at least their lips were moving; the meaning was carried by the Hunt, not by the air. I could catch that meaning even if I couldn’t catch the words, and thus I knew to brace myself as they coordinated with each other and blasted at the necromancer with force and lightning. His muscles jerked and the force sent him reeling and now I could pull his leg out from under him and he fell again.


The lightning ran through his body and into mine, and I shuddered ecstatically at the feeling of the electricity surging through me to the ground. I knew that it was hurting me, that my fur was smoldering and my muscles were twitching and my pounding heart had skipped a beat in its course, but it just felt so good that I couldn’t help myself.


He was down again, and I was tearing at his flesh and the creatures beside me were biting and cutting at him while the rest of the Wild Hunt kept the dead at bay, and still, still nothing was visibly harming him.


And then I saw another figure, wreathed in the ice storm without quite being of it. It was dead, but it didn’t belong to the necromancer. Its bones were sheathed in ice, and over that there was a layer of dark fog that kept the storm of the Hunt at bay. Pale blue lights blazed in the skeleton’s empty eye sockets, bright and pure as tiny suns in the darkness.


I looked at the skeleton, and suddenly I had an idea. I had a wonderful, terrible idea.


I thought I could feel Legion smiling as the demon moved off into the darkness. It didn’t matter. I knew what to do.


Tyrfing came readily to my call, appearing by my side. The storm caressed it gently, and it was an easy thing for the wind and the ice and the darkness to undo the catch and slide the cursed blade gently out of its sheath.


The storm stood still, for just a moment, and the necromancer turned to stare, stopping momentarily in his attempts to stand.


The air lifted the blade and I took the hilt in my mouth. Ice formed around it, twisting it around and holding it tightly in place. More ice coated the cutting edge, glittering gently in the glow of the lightning which cracked the night again, slamming the necromancer back to the ground.


I lunged forward and bit down again, and this time it wasn’t teeth that hit the necromancer’s flesh, it was Tyrfing.


The sword sliced off a chunk of flesh, and this time it didn’t grow back.


The necromancer screamed and swung one fist at me, but one of the jötnar seized his arm and held it in place, pinning it to the frozen ground. Another jotun grabbed his other arm and held it down, and a swarm of wolves piled onto his legs, so that he couldn’t move at all.


I moved into position and bit down. Tyrfing plunged through the center of his head without slowing at all, and the tip bit into my own lower jaw.


I shuddered in pleasure at that, letting out a low, incoherent moan.


The necromancer jerked against the hunters holding him down, and then went still.


And then the darkness began to fade, letting the moonlight shine down on the scene.


All around us, the dead fell to the ground again, clumsy and lifeless.


A crowd of mages and other fighters stood around the edge of the area which had been drained in life. They watched in shock as I pulled the sword back out of the necromancer’s body and threw my head back, howling once again as the moonlight flooded down onto me. Blood dripped red and black from my jaws as I howled, and the Wild Hunt howled with me.


Then I looked out at the crowd again, grinning a broad, bloody grin. Some part of me could recognize that they weren’t my enemy. Some of them were even friends of a sort.


But I could smell the hot blood of my prey, bright and red and full of life, and after so much dead meat and corrupted blood, it would be a great pleasure to hunt another sort of prey.


We howled again, jötnar prayers and Sidhe war cries and above all else the high, sweet howls of wolves delighting in the moon and the hunt and the victory.


The smarter of the prey began to run.

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Breaking Point 11.4

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I started to curse Loki, but stopped myself. Getting a reaction out of me would just encourage him. Besides, he was already gone.


And I had bigger issues to worry about. The wintry storm of the Hunt, of my Hunt, was gathering rapidly about me, wreathing my hands and feet, climbing up to surround me completely. It would only be a minute or two before I was entirely shrouded in the freezing fog, and I somehow knew that once that happened, the Wild Hunt would begin in earnest.


Then I felt something else, and my eyes widened. It was the full moon, and I’d been feeling the urge to change into fur for quite a while, but I’d been able to keep it under control. It helped that I’d been in and out of the Otherside so much. Then I’d changed to run across Romania. Running was the next best thing to hunting, and it had done a lot to satisfy the wolf in me.


But now that primal, basic urge was intensifying, the need to change swelling in time with the fog that wrapped itself around me. My hands started to change, twisting into paws, drawing a scream from me as the changing shape came into conflict with the gauntlets I was wearing.


I tried to choke it back down, and I managed it, but the urge was still getting stronger, and for all my discipline, I didn’t think I could keep the change away once the Hunt was here for real. It just wasn’t possible.


I started stripping the armor off with hasty, near-panicked movements, throwing it on the ground carelessly. I thought about keeping my foci, adjusting them to my new skin the way I sometimes did for a fight, but there was no time. By the time my armor was off, I was panting, my fingers fumbling and clumsy. The fog was starting to spread across my chest now, over my face.


With shaking hands I pulled off my clothing, dropping it on the ground in a heap. The jewelry went next, leaving me naked in the moonlight, hidden only by the storm of the Wild Hunt gathered around me.


Naked in Russia on an autumn night, and I wasn’t freezing. I wasn’t even uncomfortable. On the contrary, it felt right, felt natural. This was good.


I stopped resisting and the change hit me like a ton of bricks, smashing me to the ground. I was already starting to twist by the time I hit the ground, limbs warping and shifting, my skin splitting and reforming as the flesh underneath moved around. Joints popped in and out of socket as the bones snapped and then knit themselves back together.


Unusually, there was no pain. Normally the change was agony from start to finish, and while the influence of the full moon eased the pain, there was still pain. This time, there was still sensation, but it was altered, transmuted by the storm and moonlight and the thundering rush of blood in my ears into something entirely less straightforward. I knew what I was feeling was supposed to be painful, but the actual sensation wasn’t there. On the contrary, all I could feel was pleasure, mad, overwhelming, almost orgasmic pleasure, wiping everything else away.


I stood, and I was shaking a little, panting, hyperaware of everything around me. The breeze hit me with the scents of blood and death and I shuddered, barely able to stand, my attention narrowing down to nothing more than that scent and my own intense, overwhelming hunger.


Changing under the full moon was always like a drug, but it was a drug that I knew. This was entirely different, the Wild Hunt’s influence pushing it far beyond what I’d been prepared for. It was like giving someone crack when they were expecting coffee. I couldn’t even think.


This is what it feels like to go moon-crazy, I thought distantly. This is how werewolves go mad.


And then, when I was just beginning to come to grips with the feelings, the mantle of the Wild Hunt finished wrapping itself around me, and added another layer to the madness.


I’d been in the Hunt before, but being the center of it, being the seed crystal that the Hunt grew from, was an entirely different experience. As it finished engulfing me, I felt it snap into place and reach out, trying to make connections with other Hunters.


I couldn’t say why, but somehow I was convinced this was an important moment, a definitional moment. This was my first time as the leader of the Wild Hunt in truth, and in some ways it was when the Wild Hunt decided what that meant. Who it brought to me, who it felt belonged in my Hunt, would in large part decide what that Hunt became.


And there was nothing I could do to influence it. At this point, there was nothing for me to do but sit and watch.


The first person it found was Anna, sitting nearby and watching me curiously. The fog started at her feet and climbed rapidly up her body, first in thin streamers, then coming in heavier, until her fur was completely hidden. I could feel it as she was brought into the Hunt, could feel her excitement and anticipation not quite covering a thin edge of fear. She’d been a part of the Hunt in the past, and while I could feel that she was looking forward to feeling that way again, looking forward to it enough to be a little disturbing, there was also an element of dread. The loss of personal identity, the loss of individual choice, was a frightening prospect even to someone who was otherwise entirely on board with the concept.


After that, it began reaching farther afield. I could feel the Hunt reaching out in directions that didn’t quite make sense, and after a few moments holes opened in the world, somewhere between Otherside portals and tunnels leading sideways from the world.


A wolf on two legs stepped out of the first one, accompanied by half a dozen faerie hounds. He watched me with an odd, knowing smile as the storm began to wrap itself around him. The next produced four Sidhe on large black horses, wearing dark, delicate-looking armor. Their eyes gleamed with fey light, and their half-smiles were sharp enough to slit a throat. More hounds accompanied them, huge lean animals with blazing eyes. A third, after a few moments, dropped Kyra and Snowflake beside me. Neither one should have been capable of getting there, but the influence of the Wild Hunt changed all that. If Snowflake’s brain wasn’t in shape to direct her movements, the Hunt could do it for her; if Kyra’s leg couldn’t bear her weight, the storm could carry her along.


The next three openings all dropped jötnar onto the hill. Some I recognized as my housecarls, but many were strangers to me. A handful rode horses, and one trio were seated upon unimaginably huge wolves, but most walked. More wolves followed them, easily the size of werewolves if nowhere close to as large as the creatures the other jötnar rode.


The freezing cloud closed around all of them, and I felt the accumulated powers of the Wild Hunt flowing into me. I was stronger, faster, more graceful. There were enough werewolves in the mix that I could smell everything for miles around, enough Hunters that I could feel and see everything in the vicinity.


I debated saying something, decided against it. I could have gotten around my current body easily—if nothing else, the other Hunters would probably understand exactly what I meant even if all I did was snarl a little—but there was nothing to say, nothing that needed said.


I started down the hill towards the fighting, moving at top speed. I was running flat out, and it made our run across Romania look slow. I started at around forty or fifty miles an hour, and sped up from there, until we must have been doing something like seventy through the trees. It should have been suicide, even if I could have managed it, but just now it didn’t matter. I had the grace of the Sidhe, ensuring that every footstep was perfectly placed. Even more, the storm of the Wild Hunt extended close to ten feet from my skin now, painting the world in a thick coat of frost and ice. I could feel everything that fell within that space, and the ice provided exactly the footing I needed from one step to the next.


I was running through a forest without a trail, going at a pace that would have normally been frightening to maintain on an open highway, and it was easy. The rest of the Hunt was following me, but not a one of them could pass me, not even the Sidhe horses.


At such a ridiculous pace, it took only a few moments to reach the beginning of the fighting. Twisted creatures stood in front of me, things that used to be people, but had left that behind long ago. Death had claimed them, but even in death they couldn’t rest.


Something about that made me angry. Not that it mattered—I would have killed them again just for the joy of it, just to taste the blood and feel the moon singing in my ears. But it was good. This was a good hunt.


They fell within my storm and they died. It was as simple as that. They couldn’t see, blinded by fog and frost, but my vision was as clear as it had ever been. They couldn’t move, slipping and stumbling on the ice, but to my feet it was as smooth and certain as an open field.


The rest of the Wild Hunt came behind me, spreading out now into a broad arc, and we swung around, encircling the group of creatures. Trapped, blind, and surrounded, it was only moments before the group was torn to pieces.


Moving on, just as fast. I ran through the midst of the Hunt to reclaim my rightful position at the front, panting and laughing. Bloody drool, tainted with decay and ugly magics, dripped onto my fur, and I didn’t give a damn. I couldn’t stop laughing.


Further, faster. I could hear the sound of fighting now, screaming and gunfire, explosions, the sharp crack of thunder.


The main body of the enemy is in front of us now, hundreds of thousands of walking corpses, monsters with no conception of fear, or pain, or self-preservation. If what Prophet said was true, there might have been millions, everyone who died in the bloodiest battle in history, along with who knew how many people killed between there and here.


I grinned wider at the thought, mad and hungry. Millions of them was good. It meant I wouldn’t run out of prey any time soon.


I hit them and, again, they died as they came near me. There were far more of them now, and I was surrounded almost instantly, but it didn’t really matter. They couldn’t touch me. They were slipping and stumbling now, falling before I could even pull them down, and it disappointed me but I didn’t allow that to prevent me from biting them while they were down. There was no purpose to targeting vital areas here, but a hard bite to the neck could remove the head, and that was enough to end them.


The other werewolves, the hounds, the wolves, they were all beside me now, running into the crowd and bringing the enemy down. Behind us came the Sidhe and the jötnar, moving through the storm and the snow with the same smooth assurance I felt. They killed many of the fallen dead without even trying, as the hooves of horses crushed skulls and spines, left their victims broken on the ground. Axes and swords and long sharp knives flickered in the moonlight and more of them fell.


One of the mages miscalculated, deliberately or otherwise, and a bolt of lightning fell from the sky onto me. I smelled it coming and reached out through the Wild Hunt on instinct, reaching for the defenses to shield myself. They came in the form of wards spun by the Sidhe to protect themselves from mortal magic. Any one of the wards might not have held against the blast, but all of them together were more than adequate. The lightning ran over me into the ground like water off a fish’s scales.


In the moment of distraction several of the dead struck at me, lashing out with hands, with stones, with ancient rusted guns rendered into makeshift clubs. None of them meant a thing to me. The storm protected me, slowing them, taking much of the force away. The ice on my fur did the rest of the work, absorbing the blow, as good as armor and a hundred times lighter, moving with me.


I didn’t fall down, didn’t so much as hesitate, and all of the prey that struck at me died again within moments. We continued moving, dancing through the ranks of the enemy, cutting a broad swath through them, and they couldn’t touch us.


There were more werewolves beside me, I realized at some point, and they were slipping on the ice, they were slow and clumsy and blind. Not a part of my Hunt, though the Wild Hunt was aware of them. I could feel it reaching out to taste them, could feel the tendrils of the storm gliding over their fur. Without even thinking I stretched out into their minds, feeling the touch from both sides, the gentle, almost insubstantial chill. I shivered in pleasure at the sensation, though that might also have been from the spine I was crushing between my teeth at the time.


It was my choice whether they might hunt beside me, I knew. I was hesitant to share this glorious joy with anyone more than was already here, but there was prey enough for all of us and more here tonight, and so I brought them in, the icy winter storm wrapping around them entirely.


There were more after that, mages of various sorts. Some few I accepted, but most were too alien, too far removed from what it meant to be a Hunter. They were prey, not predator. Most I left alone, there being more than enough prey here to be discriminating in my hunting, but some refused to listen, and these the Wild Hunt fell upon with abandon. I enjoyed the dry, decayed flavor of the dead prey, but the taste of life and fresh blood was beyond compare, a thrill unlike any other.


And there were others as well. Some were things that had no names, so strange that even the Wild Hunt couldn’t begin to grasp their nature. That group walked beside us without joining the Hunt, without needing to join, and where they went strange and terrible things happened to the dead prey, things so horrid and incomprehensible that it hurt to look at them. A group of kitsune joined the Hunt, and a handful of raiju that had been nearby, their lightning lighting the storm from within.


Last of all were a trio of vampires, one that looked like a massive wolf, one that was wrapped in shadow and seemed almost incorporeal, and a third that was human in appearance but killed the dead again with no more than a touch, or even a glance. There was a reluctance in me to accept the vampires, but I could not think of why, and there was no doubt that they were predators and not prey. They joined the storm, and a new element entered the Wild Hunt, a hunger and a profound awareness of the creatures around us.


We kept moving, kept killing, and now we sprawled across the land, a spearhead almost a mile across with me at the very tip. I continued running forward, laughing all the way, and the storm around me laughed with me in a voice of wind and ice and death. Nothing could stand against me, or stand before me and hope to live.


And then there were no more of the dead to kill. Instead, there was a wall of darkness in front of me, the leading edge of the aura of death around the necromancer. From what I’d heard nothing and no one could survive that magic; it would tear the life right out of you just to touch it.


I laughed and ran inside.

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