Monthly Archives: September 2015

Breaking Point 11.28

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Frishberg looked about as unhappy as I’d ever seen her. “Are you sure?” she asked.


I shrugged and nodded. “Yeah,” I said. “Sure as I can be.”


She grimaced and looked back at the crowd. “Jesus.”


I could see why she was upset. The people looked normal enough. At a glance, they weren’t psycho monsters waiting for a chance to happen. They were sitting or pacing with the same anxious, helpless frustration as anyone else. At a glance, the quarantine building could have been an airport.


But if I hadn’t believed Selene before, some of the incidents that had already taken place were more convincing than I would have liked. The random violence, the arguments that went from mild words to attempted murder in seconds, would have been concerning enough, but if that was all it was I could have told myself that there was still a chance that she was wrong. Those could be written off as the frustration and pent-up anger seeking an outlet.


No, the incident that really convinced me was the one that was more calculating. An eight-year-old girl had cut herself with a smuggled knife, doing it in a way that would look messy and spill a lot of blood without meaningfully crippling her. When that lured one of the police officers maintaining the quarantine in, she’d stabbed him twice in the neck before he managed to get away and backup got there. As far as I knew, that poor bastard was still in ICU.


That wasn’t an act of passion or frustration. That was a calculated attempt at murder, targeted at someone who’d done absolutely nothing to provoke it and carried out in one of the most underhanded, contemptible ways I could think of. And that was an eight year old. By all accounts, before the demon she’d been as peaceful and gentle a soul as you could ask for.


If the demon’s influence had managed to twist her that far, then I had to assume that Selene was correct. Every one of these people was a ticking time bomb.


“Believe me, I’m no happier about it than you are,” I said. “But it’s the only way to minimize the damage.”


“You’re asking me to kill a couple hundred people,” she said. “You call that minimizing the damage?”


“Yeah,” I said. “I do. Look, these people are already dead, in every way that matters. This is just…what’s left behind after they’re gone.”


“Yeah,” she said dryly. “Somehow I doubt my people will see it that way when I tell them to pull the trigger.”


“I’m not asking you to kill anyone,” I said quietly. “Just stay out of the way. We’ll take care of the rest.”


She glanced at me, then looked back at the crowd. Seen from above, from the other side of the one-way mirror, they felt very distant. Not even really real, as such.


“How can you be so sure?” she asked.


I considered for a moment, then sighed. “Look,” I said. “The thing that did this is a literal demon out of Hell. Not in the theological sense, but someone read those stories and thought it would be hilarious to build it. I’ve got an employee who used to work there, and she says she’s familiar with this effect.”


Frishberg turned and stared at me. “You have an employee who used to work for Hell,” she said.


“Yeah. Her name’s Selene. I think you might have met her?”


“I’ve met her,” the sergeant confirmed. “She’s a demon?”


“Yep,” I said. “She used to work as a succubus. She’d seduce people and then tempt them into sin, or convince them to do something that would advance her agenda.”


“Damn.” Frishberg didn’t look surprised, exactly, but she didn’t look happy either. “You trust her?”


“As much as I trust anyone,” I said, shrugging. “She’d know what she’s talking about on this topic, and she’s got no reason to lie to me about it that I can think of. It’s about as reliable of information as I can get.”


She went back to looking at the people. “It disturbs me a little that we’re taking advice from Hell on this,” she said. “It makes me wonder where we’re going after this is done.”


I smiled wryly. It was a broken, lopsided sort of smile, without any humor in it. “I don’t think either of us has to wonder about that,” I said. “I’ve got worse things than this on my conscience, and I’d be surprised if you don’t, too. We aren’t good people, sergeant. Good people couldn’t do the things we do.”


She sighed. “Yeah,” she said. “I guess you’ve got a point.” There was a long, sullen pause. “Let’s get this over with,” she said at last. “Come on.”


Most of the exits to the building had been closed up as part of the quarantine effort. Only one door was still open, and it was guarded around the clock by four police officers with guns and riot gear.


The inhabitants could have overwhelmed them and escaped, of course. They outnumbered the guards fifty to one; at some point, numbers will tell. And I doubted the officers would fight back, not effectively. There were a lot of kids in there, a lot of their former coworkers. They wouldn’t want to hurt them, not until it was too late.


I wasn’t sure why the prisoners hadn’t done that yet. Maybe it was a very human reaction to being scared and isolated. People feeling unsure, hesitating in the face of authority, not wanting to be the one to throw the first stone—those were all very normal. And they might be enough to do this. It wouldn’t be the first time that a group was cowed by a force they could easily have beaten, if they’d only thought it through and worked together. It could be that was all the explanation I needed.


Or it could be that the demon in them was biding its time and waiting for an opportunity to do more damage. Either way, it was best to resolve this as soon as possible. Nothing would be gained by waiting.


I collected my troops on the way. I’d brought only a very specific selection of people to this job, the people I could trust to carry it out without hesitating or turning aside. Vigdis was there, a broad psychopath’s grin on her face. The only other housecarls there were Thraslaug and Nóttolfr; the rest of the jötnar were too honorable, in their own way, for me to be certain they would follow my orders here. Nóttolfr still looked hideous, his body warped in ways that didn’t entirely make sense, but as Selene had said, he was as functional as ever. Of the men that Pellegrini had loaned me, a couple of the hardest were accompanying us, and there were more on nearby rooftops with large rifles. One of the mages who’d signed on with my crew recently was there as well; a fire mage with a penchant for flashy and indiscriminate destruction, he wasn’t shy about the fact that he was a serious pyromaniac. The thrill was in the burning itself for him, rather than in who got hurt or killed in the fire, but he freely admitted that he didn’t care as much as he should about hurting people in the process of getting his kicks.


Matthew wasn’t there; the shapeshifter was a lunatic, but he wasn’t totally without standards, and he had no taste for slaughtering helpless people. Neither of the werewolves was there, and even Snowflake wanted no part of this, so for once there were no quadrupeds with me. Aiko hadn’t come, either. She was physically recovered by now, but she’d made it very clear that she didn’t want to be here for this.


I didn’t blame her. I didn’t want to be here either.


“Clear out,” Frishberg said quietly, walking up to the door.


“Why?” one of the guards asked. He sounded more defensive than curious.


“You don’t want to know,” Frishberg said. She sounded very, very tired. “Trust me on this one. All you need to know is that you’re being relieved. Go get some coffee or something.”


“These people don’t look much like police officers,” the man commented. “Kind of the opposite, actually.”


Frishberg sighed. “Anderson, I’m going to say this once and once only, so pay attention. You never saw these people. None of you did. They were never here. We clear?”


“I don’t understand,” one of the other guards said.


“You’re happier that way,” Frishberg said. “Trust me. Now skedaddle.”


They obviously weren’t happy about it, but they left. I waited for them to be gone, then waved my merry little band of killers inside. The prisoners drew back a little, recognizing by some instinct that something had changed.


“You don’t have to be here for this,” I said to Frishberg, staying outside.


“I signed off on this,” she said, not looking away as the screaming and the bleeding started inside. “I’m not going to pretend that I’m not responsible. I owe them this much.”


“I can respect that,” I said.


“Yeah. I thought you might.”


The fighting, such as it was, was quick and ugly, and completely one-sided. One of the former cops managed to beat her way out through one of the boarded-up exits, but the snipers did their job. She didn’t make it two steps before she hit the ground in a cloud of blood and ravaged organs.


When the slaughter was over, they dragged the few escapees back into the building and splashed enough accelerant around to make the mage’s job an easy one. The fire started moments later, and rapidly grew to engulf the entire building. The flames crackled merrily, warm against my face even at a distance. I wasn’t concerned about the fire department getting there any time soon. They were still busy with the last bits of work from the wildfire.


“The White House issued a statement today,” Frishberg said as we watched the fires burn. “I don’t know if you saw.”


“I saw.” It had been the first thing Selene showed me when I got to the city.


“Apparently the crisis is winding down. In this country, at least. Most of the cities have restored some kind of order, apparently. Even if it is martial law in some places. We’ve got an estimate of the death toll.”


“Oh?” I asked. “That wasn’t in the version I saw.”


She grimaced and nodded. “It isn’t being released to the public yet. Too demoralizing, I think. Close to twenty million so far. They’re still getting numbers in from other countries, but the current guess is close to three hundred million dead worldwide. I can’t even think in numbers big enough to get at the cost of damages.”


“Not surprising,” I said. “This is the biggest thing to happen to the world in a thousand years, probably.”


She grunted. “Yeah.” She watched the fire for a minute. “I asked you to get the city through it in one piece,” she said. “Killing a couple hundred of our own citizens and torching a building to cover it up isn’t quite what I had in mind.”


“Have you seen what’s going on in some other places?” I asked dryly. “As far as I can tell, this is a win. I don’t have an exact death rate for the city, but I’d be shocked if it’s much over one percent. The infrastructure is in good enough shape that it stands out when it isn’t working. From where I’m standing, things look a hell of a lot better than they do in some places.”


“Of course they do,” she said. “You’re the one who took the opportunity to set yourself up as a tin-pot dictator. I’m sure this outcome does look good to you.”


Most of my people were still standing near the building, making sure it burned to the ground without damaging the surrounding property. But Thraslaug was nearby, as were a couple of the mercenaries and thugs I’d brought.


As Frishberg said that, they all went dead still and stared at her.


I slowly turned to face her myself, and I could see her flinch back a little as she realized that she’d gone too far. She didn’t say anything, though, and her expression was defiant.


“Fuck you,” I said, my tone calm and remote. “You think I wanted this? You think I wanted this job? Fuck you, sergeant. You have no idea what I’ve given, what I’ve sacrificed for this city.”


She opened her mouth. “No, let me finish,” I said, cutting her off. “I’ve got something to say. You see those people in there, Frishberg? They died because of you. My people contacted you right after you found that thing and offered to help you set up appropriate security measures. You turned us down because you were too concerned with who had jurisdiction to listen to the people that know what they’re talking about.”


She looked like she was about to be sick. She shut her mouth and looked at the fire again.


“I could have walked away from this,” I said. “I could have written this city, this whole fucking world off as a lost cause and gone off on my own. I didn’t, because I wasn’t willing to let that many people die. I stepped up to help, even though I never wanted a position of authority. I spent years wanted for terrorism because I stepped in to stop this entire city from being destroyed. You threw me in prison, you starved me, you beat the shit out of me, you locked silver manacles around my wrists, and I just took it like a submissive little bitch, because I didn’t want to murder people for doing their jobs.”


I took a deep breath and gestured vaguely at the city around us. “And then this,” I said. “Do you have any idea how easy it would have been for me to pitch in on the other side? To just let go and rampage with the rest of them? Hell, I’d probably have been rewarded for it. But no, I agreed to fight for stability and get you guys through the chaos of the transitional period. When those demons showed up, I could have been forgiven for turning my back on you, and they’d have gone through this city like tissue paper. Instead, I made a deal with the devil to get rid of them for you guys.”


She blinked. “You made a deal with the devil?” she asked.


“Effectively,” I said. “But the point is this. I have given up more for this city than you can imagine. And at every step, I have been met with suspicion and ingratitude. You’ve heard of biting the hand that feeds you? You people turn it up to eleven, you know that? And now, when I’ve finally managed to get this under control, you get upset about the methods I’ve used? You call me a dictator because you don’t want to accept that your people couldn’t deal with this?”


“That’s not how it is,” she said.


“Bullshit,” I snapped. “Are you really going to tell me that the mayor could have found a way to handle a bunch of demons? Do you think the city council would have held its own in negotiations with a bunch of vampires?” I snorted. “You have no idea how to deal with this world. After the insult you just gave me, for example, I could tear your head off in the middle of the street and I guarantee you that none of the people here would be shocked or think I was going too far.”


“We’d probably applaud,” Thraslaug said helpfully. “And maybe play a game of football. I’ve always wondered whether that would actually work.”


“Is this supposed to be making me feel better?” Frishberg asked.


“No,” I said. “I don’t really give a fuck how you feel right now, honestly. That’s kind of the point. I’ve had it up to here with this. As far as I’m concerned, this is your last chance to back out. You want me to stop helping you, you tell me right now and I’ll go back to just being the jarl of my own little fiefdom, the way I was for years without upsetting you at all. Otherwise, you can accept that this is my area of expertise and I’m doing the best I can. I don’t tell you how to do your job; kindly return the favor.”


She was staring at me. “You know,” she said conversationally, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this.”


“You’ve never needed to hear it before,” I said. “But I’ve lost my patience. Choose.”


She took a deep breath and then nodded once. “You’ve got a deal,” she said.


“Good,” I said. “Looks like the fire’s finished. I trust you’ll ensure that there’s no legal difficulty?”


“Already taken care of,” she said dismissively.


“All right, then,” I said. “Things should be quiet for the next few days. I’ll be working in the background to set up deals with some other people, establish relations, that sort of thing.”


“Thanks,” she said.


“You know,” I commented, “I think that’s the first time you’ve ever told me that.” I waved to my minions and walked off to where a pair of hired drivers already had the vans running.

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Breaking Point 11.27

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Nineteen hours later, I staggered back into the building and collapsed into the throne.


Selene was there almost before I sat down, handing me a cup of tea and a cheese Danish. The room was otherwise empty. “Where’s Aiko?” she asked.


“Sleeping,” I groaned. “Which is where I want to be, by the way.”


She smirked. “I could have warned you about that one. Leaving the client too tired to walk is considered a point of pride.”


I sighed. “Yes, well, they should be very proud.” I downed the tea, ate the pastry in three seconds flat, and then rubbed my forehead. “Did I do the right thing?” I asked quietly.


She was silent for a couple of seconds. Then she said, “Well, keep in mind that I used to do that job. So to some extent this is the party line talking. But honestly, this kind of deal makes a lot of sense to me. From where I’m standing, you didn’t do anything wrong.”


“That’s kind of what worries me,” I said. “I’m agreeing with the party line of Hell right now. That seems like it should be grounds to take a serious look at your morals, you know? And on the surface, this feels like it was horribly unethical. But when I try to figure out how it was unethical, I keep coming up blank.”


“Well,” she said slowly, “I’m just throwing this out here, so feel free to tell me if I’m out of line, but has it occurred to you that the problem might be that you’re talking the party line?”


“I don’t get it.”


“Look,” she said. “You said that it feels unethical even though you can’t figure out why it would be. What if that’s because you’ve been taught by society that what you did was wrong, but it actually isn’t? That’s just years of conditioning talking.”


“I think,” I said after a few seconds, “that that’s a very tempting line of thought. Under that reasoning I could justify anything by saying that the argument against it is just the product of an irrational society.”


“No,” she said. “Because you still asked yourself whether it was right. As long as you ask the question, you aren’t going to dismiss those arguments without thinking.”


“And you’d trust my opinion to that extent?”


“Yes,” she said. That simple. No hesitation, no doubt.


“That makes one of us,” I muttered, rubbing my forehead. “Okay. You know him better than I do. How likely is Iblis to screw me over on this?”


“Not very,” Selene said with a shrug. “He’s not a bad sort as long as you deal with him on his level. I mean, don’t get me wrong, he’ll make your life hell if you cross him, no pun intended. If you had decided to never have kids to get around the contract you signed, he’d have found a way to get you on it anyway. Guaranteed. But if you’re dealing with him in good faith, and you keep your side of the deal, you don’t have a whole lot to worry about.”


“That’s some comfort, anyway,” I said. “So how bad is it? You should have had time to get solid intel by now.”


She hesitated. “Are you sure you don’t want to get some rest first?” she suggested hopefully. “You know, before you hear the damage report?”


I closed my eyes for a moment. “You know,” I said, opening them, “there’s not a chance that I’ll be getting any sleep before I hear it after you said that. Tell me the damage, please.”


“If you’re sure,” she said dubiously. “You want me to take it one by one?”


“Yeah,” I said. “One demon at a time should be fine.”


“All right. The first one, the flesh-twister, it got fourteen people before we managed to isolate it. Five of them are dead now. The other nine…if the surgeons are skilled enough, the victims might be able to move on some day. They’ll never be what they were, but they might recover to some extent.”


“Might,” I said. “To some extent. That doesn’t sound very hopeful.”


She looked me in the eye and then looked away again. “It isn’t, jarl. But that’s still the best news I have for you today.”


I nodded. Not surprising, really. We were talking about demons, after all. Creatures made explicitly to be evil, to be destructive. Small wonder the news wasn’t good. “What about Nóttolfr?” I asked. “He was exposed to that demon, correct?”


She didn’t meet my eye. “He is…alive,” she said. “Functional, broadly speaking. In some ways more so than before his encounter. The primary effects on him were aesthetic. It is…unlikely that he will be able to interact normally with others again. His social life is effectively dead.”


I nodded. “Okay. Next demon?”


“The one in the school,” she said. “It got most of the students, the faculty and staff, two squads of police officers, and quite a few people that just wandered too close. The total count is at two hundred and fourteen.”


I winced. “More than two hundred?” I asked.


She nodded. “Yes, jarl. That situation was not quarantined swiftly or effectively. It would have been less harmful if we had been handling it, probably, but as it was the damage was very considerable.”


“Apparently,” I said. “Do you have any better idea of what it was doing to them? The last I heard, it was still pretty vague.”


“We know,” she said. “Broadly speaking. Individual details are harder to find out, since only the victims could tell us the full nature of what happened, and most of them are not reliable witnesses at this point.”


I winced. “How many are still alive?”


“One hundred and sixty-four.”


“Any chance of them recovering?”


“No.” Again, it was very simply stated, without any hesitation or the slightest hint of doubt.


“You’re confident of that?”


“Absolutely,” she said. “That demon was a creature of madness, jarl. Its purpose, its nature, is to break down minds and reshape them to suit its will. Those who were subject to its influence are mad. They are mad, entirely and dangerously insane. It might be subtle, they might seem healthy for the moment, but they are still broken.”


I was silent for a long moment. “Is there any way to help them?” I asked at last.


Selene shook her head. “No,” she said. “There is a degree of damage from which recovery is not possible. All of those victims which are still alive spent enough time in its presence to cross that threshold and then some.”


“Okay,” I said. “You’re the expert. Where are they now?”


“In police custody,” she said. “I tried to convince the police that a merciful death was the best those unfortunates could hope for, but they didn’t seem amenable to the idea. For the moment, they’re under quarantine for the foreseeable future.”


I grunted. “Well, at least they can’t do too much harm for the moment,” I said. “What’s next?”


“The body-riding demon,” she said. “We managed to keep that one isolated much more effectively. It only claimed seven victims total, all of whom are dead.”


“Well, at least that’s something. Is that demon finished, then?”


“Yeah,” she said. “Which only leaves the last demon.”


“The one that was erasing people,” I said.


Selene nodded. “That one is…very hard to gather information about,” she said. “For obvious reasons. We’re trying to coordinate an effort to identify all the victims, but it’s been very slow going. The only way we can find information about them is that people don’t remember them, and it can be harder than you’d think to realize that there’s a hole in your memory. We’re sure that at least fifty people have been taken, but there might be two hundred or more. We might never know about all of those that were taken.”


I sighed. “Fair enough. Do you have any idea what that thing was? Or what it did to those people?”


She shook her head. “You have to realize, I was very low in the hierarchy back there. I only really dealt with my own, ah, department.”


I nodded. “So what you’re telling me is that I probably made the right choice. If we lost close to five hundred people in that little time, it was worth it.”


“I don’t see any other way we could have dealt with them,” she admitted. “I know you weren’t happy about that contract, but yeah, I think it was the right choice.”


I sighed. “What about the rest?” I said, changing the subject. “The fire?”


“Contained and extinguished,” she said, with a hint of pride. “Minimal damage and very few deaths. Kikuchi’s people did most of the work, but we did provide some assistance. He’s having some issues maintaining his rule, apparently; he’s been withdrawing from some of the areas within town that he had been managing. We’ve been moving in behind him and adding those areas to the territory that we personally maintain. So far the transition’s been as smooth as you could ask.”


“Offer to back Kikuchi,” I said immediately.


Selene raised one eyebrow. “Are you sure you want to get involved in their internal politics like that?”


“Yeah. We’re all in on Kikuchi; there’s no point trying to hedge our bets now. Do it politely, though. You know how to handle him.”


She nodded. “I’ll see to it. I don’t think there’s anything else pressing, jarl.”


“Good,” I said. “I’ll smooth things over with the police when I’m feeling more conscious. For now, I’m going to go crash. Hold down the fort while I’m gone. Hopefully things should start settling down soon. When I get back, I’ll want a full report on what’s going on, what possible threats we’ll still need to deal with, and how our allies are coping. Coordinate with Luna and Kyi’s scouts on that and get it ready.”


Selene smiled. “It will be done, jarl,” she said. “And boss? Well done. After this, no one will doubt that this city is yours.”


“Thanks,” I said, and stumbled back out of the building.


Back in Romania, the bedroom was dark and pungent. It smelled of sex, sweat and musk, incense and perfume, with just a hint of stranger things, blood and camphor and candlewax.


We hadn’t brought the demons back here, of course. There was no way I was going to tell them where we lived, let alone invite them in. That was what we had safe houses for, and after what happened in that one I expected it was going to have an unfortunate accident involving fire and large amounts of bleach. But when we got back here we’d both reeked, and Aiko hadn’t had the energy or ambition to take a shower before she passed out.


At the moment, Aiko was sprawled in bed, halfway under the covers, snoring loudly. She didn’t so much as twitch as I walked in. Snowflake, curled up at the foot of the bed, seemed almost as exhausted. She hadn’t had any direct involvement in what happened, of course, but apparently it had been impossible to sleep through it. Considering the source, that was a pretty significant statement.


I undressed and slipped into bed next to Aiko. The kitsune woke up just enough to snuggle up to me and mumble something incoherently before going back to snoring.


It didn’t take me more than a minute or two to drowse off myself. I wasn’t sleepy, exactly, but I was physically and mentally exhausted, and now that I knew there were no emergencies clamoring for my attention right at the moment, I was quite glad for the opportunity to just turn my brain off for a little while.


The next thing I was really aware of was waking up when Aiko stirred against me. Snowflake was gone. I could feel her in my mind, though, so she couldn’t be too far; probably just downstairs getting some food.


“Hey,” Aiko murmured. She still sounded pretty out of it, but she was conscious. “So my doppelganger proposed marriage to you, right?”


“Oh, right,” I said. “I’d almost forgotten. She started to, I think, but she didn’t manage to actually get the question out. We were interrupted. The cops picked that exact moment to arrest me.”


She snorted. “Man, that is so typical,” she said. “You have the most ridiculous timing.”


“Yeah,” I sighed. “I know. At the moment I thought it was the worst timing I’d ever seen, but in hindsight they were probably doing me a favor. I don’t think I’d have liked what happened if I said yes to her.”


“What, to marry a fae impostor who was probably sent specifically to trap you somehow? What makes you think that?” We both laughed a little, and then Aiko asked, “Do you want to?”


“Do I want to what?”


She gestured vaguely, the motion more felt than seen in the dark. “You know. Get married.”


I paused, then said, “I guess so. I hadn’t really thought about it. Why? Do you?”


She shrugged. “Sure. It might be fun.”


I smiled and held her close. “Well, then,” I murmured, as I drifted back to sleep, “let’s get married.”

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Interlude 6.a: Katsunaga

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A woman got off the train in Chicago, as she had for almost every day of every week of the past month at this hour. In London I could have called it the Tube or the Underground, but I didn’t know any fancy terms for it in Chicago, so it was just the train.


She went to the bank, where she cashed a pair of checks. In the laundry next door she paid a few dollars for the clothing she had left to be dry cleaned, and in the restaurant three doors past that she bought a small vegetarian pizza. Carrying her purchases carefully in her arms, she walked east, not looking back.


She walked for perhaps ten minutes passed neatly mown lawns and neatly washed cars. Then she turned down a narrow alley leading between a bank of houses and a shopping center that had seen better days, many of its buildings sitting empty, many of the rest occupied only by their own employees and a collection of vermin seven days in ten. The only really thriving businesses in that shopping center were a mob-owned bowling alley where all one’s problems could find solutions at the right rates, a liquor store for the drowning of sorrows and a bookie to help one make some more, and a pawn shop that promised reasonable returns in the event that it all went wrong.


Halfway down this alleyway, which she walked nearly every day, she hesitated.


Did she hear a step behind her?


Did her heart skip and stutter at the thought that she might be being watched?


Of course not.


It was just her imagination.


She kept walking.


So I met my daughter for drinks and she told me she’d met someone.


I snorted. “You’ve met more than a few, yeah?”


“Well, yeah,” she said. “But I think this one is different. I think he might be for real.”


I asked whether she was joking and she asked whether it looked like she was smiling and I told her it sort of did and she punched me in the face. From there on out the night was more or less par for the course for our little get-togethers, and no more mention was made of whether this one might in fact be the one, or whether that concept even made sense for someone like her. And then I went back home, and told her mother all about it.


As usual she hung on every word, desperate to hear about a child she no longer had any real contact with. But somehow I forgot about those few seconds of the conversation, and then afterwards it would have been awkward to go back to the topic. I figured it didn’t matter, that it would soon pass.


That was the first time I heard of Winter Wolf. It wasn’t going to be the last one.



At the end of the alley she turned onto a quiet street of detached houses, each as akin to the next as cookies made from the same mold, fronted with uniformly perfect lawns. Here and there was a hint of personality, a suggestion of individuality, but they were easily overlooked and lost in the endless succession of uniform homes.


She walked along until she reached one of them, distinguished from the rest by a small Zen garden of raked gravel providing an accent to the lawn, a few more locks on the front door, and a slightly more sophisticated security system. A light came on automatically at her approach and she walked up to the door, humming tunelessly under her breath as she retrieved a ring of keys from her pocket. She unlocked each of the locks and passed through the front door. The interior of the house was calmer, warmer than the windswept streets beyond its walls. There, in a dark and windowless room, she removed her coat and her shoes, exchanging them for a soft robe and a pair of bunny slippers. She moved with the ease of familiarity so great that it does not need eyes to see.


She turned on a few lights as she continued into the house. They illuminated an austere domicile, the home of someone with little need for luxury. The few pictures on the wall were simple, drawn in a minimalistic style that left much to the imagination. There were no images of people, nor were there any photographs.


She walked straight through into the kitchen, with its white tile floors and white walls, its granite countertops and black cabinets and stainless steel appliances. She set the pizza on the counter and continued into the bedroom, where she hung her dry cleaning in the closet.


Back in the front room, she collected the few bills that were waiting on the floor, stacking them into a neat, tidy pile on the table. There was no other mail. There was never any other mail.


The mundane tasks of homecoming thus resolved, she returned to the kitchen. She took a piece of pizza from the box and placed it on a pristine white paper plate. It was eminently disposable. All of the dishes in this house were disposable.


She did not turn the light on as she carried the food into the study. This was a home where things were not left on the floor to be tripped over, where all things were returned to their places after being used.


She set the plate down on the desk and sat. Now that her hands were free, she turned on the lamp. Its soft warm light illuminated a set of folders stacked neatly one atop the next, a notebook written in code, and a pair of sociology textbooks.


It also, quite deliberately, illuminated my boots, crossed at the ankle and resting on the desk.


Once the light turned on I let the rest of myself become visible, sitting in a chair across the desk from her. “Good evening,” I said. “Let’s have a chat.”


A while later we went to a concert and the topic came up again. There might have been a couple of years in between; I sort of lost track for a while there on account of being busy with other things. Travel and the like. I might have accidentally introduced a backwater Otherside domain to organized crime and pizza, in two completely unrelated incidents. That sort of thing. Not important right now.


Anyway, the next time I talked to Aiko was at a concert. Weird Al was playing live and I was eating a really nice dish of escargot when she said, “I’m serious.”


I ate another snail and said, “You’re never serious.”


She elbowed me and I had to juggle a little to not drop my food. “No, I’m really serious.”


“You’re a very violent person, you know,” I said. “What are you so serious about, then?”


She stared at me. “You weren’t listening?”


I sighed. “Aiko, there’s music,” I pointed out. “You think I’m even paying attention to you right now?”


She sighed. “Not really,” she said. “Yet I remain perpetually optimistic. Look, I think this is for real.”


“You know how many times you’ve told me that?”


“Twenty-three,” she said.


I nodded. “You know how many of those people turned out to be for real?”


“None,” she said. “I’m aware. Although I did stab seven of them.”


“Which is certainly real,” I admitted. “But not quite what you mean here, I think.”


“Gosh, you think? But this guy’s different than any of them.”


“How so?”


“Well,” she said, “for one thing he’s as crazy as I am. Maybe more so, depending on how you score it.”


“I doubt that,” I said. “Very much. Unless you managed to chase down old Jack the Ripper or something like that, I’m guessing you’re crazier than this mystery man.”


“You might be surprised,” she said. “But it’s the good kind of crazy, you know? The kind that makes me think he might be able to put up with me. Hell, he actually gets in more scraps than I do. I’ve barely even had to pick fights to keep myself entertained, he does such a nice job of it. He isn’t into all the shit I am, but he’s at least willing to play along with me. And the stuff he is into is pretty intense. Keeps it interesting, you know?”


“Aiko,” I said, interrupting her. “You remember my rule about your bedroom activities?”


“I can do whatever the fuck I want, so long as I don’t tell you about it?” she guessed.


“That’s the one. If you say he’s fun, I believe you. More than that is really not my business.” I thought a moment. “You really think this guy’s something special?”


She shrugged. “I think he might be,” she said. “If nothing else, I still want to find out, which is a hell of a lot longer than most people manage to hold my interest. That’s a promising sign.”


I nodded. “Well, in that case, you certainly have my blessing to continue pursuing it. If he breaks your heart, I’ll gladly stab him for you.”


“If it comes to that, I’ll do it,” she said with startling fierceness. “I like him too much to let anyone else kill him.”


“The surest sign of true love,” I said dryly. “Would you like me to tell your mother, then?”


She hesitated. “Maybe,” she said. “But…not yet?”


“Fair enough,” I replied. “In the meantime, I think the next song’s starting. We’ve already missed out on this one, but I would rather hear the rest of the concert.”


The woman sitting across the desk from me looked confused. Not surprised or frightened to have found someone waiting for her in her study; merely confused at the direction the encounter had taken.


“Why are you telling me this story?” she asked.


I leaned back in the chair. “Well, that’s an interesting question,” I said. “See, I try not to really do much. I don’t like people thinking I’m a hero. They start expecting things from me, right? But I figure tying up the odd loose end in the background can’t hurt too much.”


“I don’t know what you mean.”


“I think you know considerably more than you’re letting on,” I said. “You’ve heard of the whole thing with the Gáe Bolg? Of course you have, it’s the story of the year. But the funny thing is that the versions I’ve heard talk a whole lot about how it happened, and don’t really seem to mention the why of it at all. When I looked into it I couldn’t seem to trace it much farther than a certain pawn shop. You have any idea what happened to the person who owned that pawn shop?”


“She was murdered,” the woman said.


“Is that so,” I said with a faint smile. “You’re sure of that?”


“Very much so,” she said. “I was there when she died.”


“I imagine you were,” I said. “But there’s an interesting thing here. I couldn’t really come up with much of a reason for anyone to have killed her. Hell, if anything she was worth more alive. She might have known something useful, and I’m sure there were all kinds of people who would have loved the chance to ask her some questions. In fact, it seems like the only person who really benefited from everyone thinking she was dead was…her.”


She stared at me and said nothing.


I grinned. “So that got me thinking, yeah? I’ve got this friend, name of Jacques. Great guy, I’ve never seen him sober but he knows his stuff. Guy’s got a lot of connections, you know, fingers in every pie. I told him I was curious about it and he turned up some interesting things. The kind of thing that made me think, hey, what if she wasn’t dead after all?”


The woman was surprisingly quick, for a human. It took about a second for her to open a drawer, produce a revolver, and point it at me.


“So my friend,” I said. “He knows everybody, pretty much. Man’s got a gift, is the truth. He managed to track this hypothetical shop owner down. Surprisingly easy, as I hear it, once he got past the idea that she was dead. Apparently she had a couple of houses already bought and paid for in other cities under other names. Almost the sort of thing that would make a person think that she was expecting some trouble, don’t you think?”


“You can’t prove anything,” she said.


“Prove?” I asked, with a smirk. “You don’t seem to get how this works. I don’t need to prove a thing. All I have to do is ask the question. If people even start to suspect, your mask won’t last long.”


“Are you trying to threaten me?” she asked, pulling back the hammer of the revolver. “Because that’s not a very good idea. Even disregarding the gun pointed at your head, what are you really accusing me of? Faking my own death and running away when my life was in danger? That’s not a crime, that’s just good sense.”


“If that’s the worst you did, it might not matter,” I agreed. “But like I said, it almost seems like you were expecting some trouble. That’s a little suspicious, don’t you think? And if people start to think that you started this whole mess on purpose, death is the least of what you can expect.”


She pulled the trigger.


The gun clicked. Nothing much happened.


“My buddy Jacques,” I said. “You remember him? He knows all sorts of people. He knows where they live, where they make their homes away from home. He knows their habits and their hobbies, their hours of work and their days of rest. And hey, he even knows where they keep their guns. Isn’t that nifty?”


She pulled the trigger again. Nothing happened.


She nodded and set the gun down on the desk. She looked at me with hatred, but it was the hatred of resentment, the hatred of the beaten. “What do you want?” she asked.


“Oh, nothing much,” I said. “I actually respect you a lot. I’m guessing you have a beef with the Courts, right?”


“They murdered my brother,” she spat.


“See? Like, respect. You actually managed to play the Courts, and so far they haven’t even caught you at it. That takes skills. And I have to admire anyone vengeful enough to go to this kind of length to get even. So yeah, I’ve got nothing against you personally. Which is why I told you that little story.”


“I don’t get it.”


“Well,” I drawled, “here’s the thing. My daughter, she lives in that town. So does this Winter fellow she’s so hot and bothered about, and your little game caused him some serious problems. Now, I don’t give much of a damn about him, but she doesn’t want him killed yet, so I would prefer that he stay alive. Those problems also spilled over onto her, which I take much more seriously.”


She stared at me. “I’m getting some mixed messages here,” she said.


“Yeah, I don’t actually care. The point is this. I don’t want you going back there. As far as anyone is concerned, you really did die. I find out otherwise, and you and I, we’re going to be having another little chat. One that won’t be half so friendly as this, you understand me?”


She kept staring, but now there was an element of belligerence to her expression. “I think you’re bluffing,” she said. “I don’t think you could really go through with it. You aren’t mean enough.”


I smiled at her. Still smiling, I reached out faster than the eye could follow and grabbed the pistol off the table. I lifted it, cocked the hammer, and fired in a single motion, too quickly to have aimed.


Or that was what she would think, at least. You can actually aim very quickly with about four hundred years of practice. The bullet went exactly where I wanted it to.


She stared at the hole in her knee. “I thought the gun wasn’t loaded,” she said. Her voice sounded shocked. She hadn’t had enough time for the pain to set in yet.


“Only the first two chambers,” I said. “That won’t heal properly, by the way. I don’t care how good the surgeon is. You’re never going to run properly again. Consider it an affirmation of intent.”


“But the gun was loaded,” she said numbly. “Why would you leave me with a loaded gun?”


“You couldn’t hit me on the best day you ever had,” I said, letting her hear the simple truth in what I said. “I only did it this way for the sake of the dramatic scene.” I set the gun back on the desk with a smile and turned to leave.


She didn’t try for the shot as I walked away.

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Breaking Point 11.26

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I blinked. “Wait a second,” I said. “You already sold our kid?”


She shifted uncomfortably. “Well,” she said. “Not ours. Just, you know. Mine.”


Iblis broke out laughing. It was a full-throated laugh, unrestrained and unselfconscious, while still managing to sound sophisticated. “Oh, my,” he said. His voice sounded completely smooth and normal, even though he was still laughing. “That is choice. Do tell, miss. I must hear the details.”


“The details are none of your business,” she said testily.


“Au contraire,” he said, with the same sharp, snaky smile on his face. “As your arrangement is apparently interfering with my ability to complete a bargain with the jarl, it is quite literally my business. I’m afraid I simply won’t be satisfied until I know the full details of this prior arrangement.”


Aiko took another deep breath and let it out slowly. “Fine,” she said. “Winter, you remember we talked about how I got out of the Courts, right?”


“Sure,” I said. “You made a deal with Ryujin. I believe your exact phrasing was that you gave him ‘ten years of service, and a few other things.'”


“Yeah,” she said. “Well, uh…this is the other thing. I promised I’d let him raise my eldest son. I didn’t tell you before now because, you know, not really relevant? Like you said, we’ve both always been pretty clear about not wanting anything to do with children, so it didn’t seem important.”


I was still trying to figure out how to respond to that when Iblis beat me to it. “What about a daughter?” he asked reasonably. “I mean, there are ways to take care of these things, yes? I’m sure you know people who could provide assistance, or I could make arrangements at a very reasonable rate.”


Aiko cleared her throat. “I, ah. I did also make a deal about that. I promised my eldest daughter to a noble of the Daylight Court. I never got entirely clear on what she wanted to do with said daughter, but the impression I got was that I probably wouldn’t be seeing the kid again.”


Iblis broke down laughing again. I was staring at Aiko. “This is impressive,” I said. “I mean, even by your standards.”


“What?” she said defensively. “It isn’t like you weren’t about to do the same thing! I just beat you to the punch.”


“I cannot believe you two,” Selene commented. She had stopped writing and was now just watching the scene with a sort of amused disgust. “This is…only you, only you, could seriously be having this discussion.”


I tried to maintain a properly indignant air, but lost it and started laughing just as hard as Iblis. The absurdity of the whole situation was just too much for me. Aiko kept her innocent facade for a second or two longer before she broke down as well, and the two of us wound up leaning on each other just to stay upright in our seats.


“Okay,” Iblis said after a minute or so of laughter, in which even some of the jötnar joined. “As delightful as this is, and I assure you that that is quite, business is still waiting. Now, as much as I do enjoy this sort of bargain, I believe the kitsune has a valid objection. You can hardly provide both me and whichever of her creditors ends up with a valid claim to the child with a valid recompense. I am bargaining for the whole of your offspring, not a reduced portion or a partial payment, so a conflict there would be very serious.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Aiko? I’m guessing you don’t want to pay the default clause on your deals?”



She shifted a little. “No,” she said. “Definitely not.”


I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “So there’s a few ways I could see this going. First off, we could make the bargain and count on never having to pay up. If the debt ever comes due, we’d have to pick one side or the other to default on. No offense intended, Iblis.”


“None taken,” he said with a sly smile. “I enjoy this sort of dealing.”


“Bad idea,” Aiko said. “Eventually something would go wrong. You just know it would. Either one is one thing; we fuck up as it is and the worst thing that happens is we have to hand over a baby to the fae. Which, you know, is a horrible thing to do and all that, but we could deal with it. Setting ourselves up to default on one of these bargains is a lot riskier.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That was kind of my thought, too. So that brings us to option two. We go back to square one and try to come up with something else that I could offer Iblis for his help. But we weren’t having a lot of luck with that earlier, and I don’t know whether we’d be able to work out another deal.”


She grimaced. “And the whole time there are demons laying waste to shit. Pass.”


I nodded. “Option three,” I said. “Tell Iblis thanks but no thanks, and try to deal with the demons ourselves.”


“We would lose,” Selene interjected quietly. “I’ve been trying to think of ways that you could beat them, and I don’t have anything. Every way I can imagine any conflict between you and them going ends with your forces being slaughtered or worse. Not taking into account any other demons or allied forces that may be present.”


“That’s kind of how I see it going too,” I said. “Theoretically we could ask someone else for help—Skrýmir, Loki, and Coyote spring to mind—but I doubt they’d be any easier to deal with than Iblis.”


“Most of them wouldn’t help at all, actually,” Iblis said helpfully. “Poaching, again. It was a cooperative affair, but Hell is very much my project. It would be quite rude for my associates to interfere with this situation, particularly given that you’ve already approached me.”


I sighed. “Of course,” I said. Then I looked at Aiko and shrugged helplessly. “That’s all I’ve got,” I said. “You have any other alternatives? Because I’m open to suggestions right now, believe me.”


“Run away?” she suggested hopefully. Then she sighed. “No, I guess not. Your whole actually taking responsibility thing can be so inconvenient.”


“You know you love that about me,” I said dryly. “I believe the term you used in the past was adorable.”


“Well, yeah. But still. Inconvenient.”


Iblis cleared his throat. “If we may,” he said. “There is one alternative I don’t think you’ve mentioned.”


“Please enlighten us,” I said. “Because right now I think we’re getting nowhere.”


“Actually fulfill your end of the bargain,” he said. “Give me a child.”


I stared at him. “I thought we just covered all the ways that’s a terrible idea.”


“Not at all,” he said impatiently. “We’ve established that for your bargain to come into conflict with the kitsune’s is an undesirable outcome. However, those two bargains are not necessarily in conflict. Her deals were both focused on her own eldest children; the one you have outlined is focused on your firstborn. There is nothing whatsoever forcing these entities to one and the same.”


I continued to stare. “Are you suggesting that we try to establish the same kid as two different legal entities?” I asked. “Because I don’t think that’s going to work. I mean, politics get weird, but I don’t think you can sell the same commodity to two different people under different names. Unless you work in finance, I guess, but I thought even you had standards.”


Iblis sighed. “Are you always this slow?” he asked, tapping one foot impatiently. “Let me make myself plain, then. What I propose is the following. You, Winter, conclude the deal we’ve largely outlined here and agree to it. I will remove the demons, as contracted, leaving your city in a state of relative peace. You then procreate with someone other than the kitsune. The resulting child would have no legal or hereditary connection to her; her creditors could make no plausible claim on its life. You would still have to worry about possible consequences from the debts she owes, but nothing any worse than you already have been. Your debt to be would already be paid, removing any possible conflict between your respective contracts.”


“I notice,” I said, “that this plan entails me giving you a kid.”


He smiled. “Naturally.”


I regarded him for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I honestly cannot believe I’m even considering this, but…why the hell do you even want my offspring? I only offered because it seemed like a traditional sort of bargain to make. What would you be doing with this hypothetical child?”


“Suffice to say that it need never trouble you again,” he said. “I would not be sending it after you as an assassin, if that’s what concerns you. You would make a poor Arthur.”


“Actually,” I said, “that doesn’t suffice. What would you be doing with it?”


“Neither you nor any of your associates would be harmed,” he said.


“You aren’t answering my question,” I pointed out. “That makes me think you know that I wouldn’t agree if I knew the answer.”


He looked around. “Everyone not a demon or involved in this discussion, clear the room,” he ordered. There was steel in his voice. The easygoing, deal-making devil was gone, replaced by the General of Hell’s Legions, the fallen angel who stood against the holy host and didn’t flinch, the being whose pride was so great that he had shattered the world rather than bow. The note of command in his voice was so strong that I damn near jumped to obey myself, and it wasn’t even directed at me.


The room was empty within a few seconds. The only people who didn’t head for the exits were me, Aiko, and Selene. Even Snowflake got up and left, though I could feel that she was pissed at doing so.


“All right,” Iblis said once the rest were gone and the doors were firmly closed, settling back into the former persona again. “I’ll be frank with you, Winter. Truth is, I don’t entirely know what I’ll do with your child yet. It’s going to depend on how the kid turns out. If you breed true, then yeah, I might get some use out of it. I’m guessing it’ll turn out to be a bruiser, but you’ve got some other skills and influences going on as well, so it might end up filling a different role. Even if it turns out useless, though, it’ll still be a status symbol and some new blood. Your bloodline could be pretty useful, actually; we’d have to see how it goes, but I think there are some pretty promising hybrids that could come out of that.”


I closed my eyes briefly, fighting back an inexplicable wave of nausea. Even by my standards, this conversation was just…unreal.


“This is freaking bizarre,” Aiko said, echoing my thoughts. “Are you seriously talking about breeding his kid?”


“Sure,” Iblis said. “Why not?” He sounded genuinely curious.


“Why would you even want to?” I burst out. “What in Hell, literally, would you want with my bloodline? It’s not like I’m freaking pedigreed!”


“Are you seriously asking me that?” he asked incredulously. “You’re Fenris’s grandchild. All else aside, that alone would make this a valuable opportunity. Add in the jotun heritage, the werewolf in you, and the unique blend of influences you’ve been subjected to since birth, and this is easily one of the best chances I’ve had to add some new blood to Hell in this century. And that’s not even taking into account the performance of your child itself, which I fully expect to be respectable. If it takes after you at all, it might be very useful.”


I closed my eyes again. “Okay,” I said after a few seconds. “So…well, that answers that, I guess. Now that I know far more about why you want this than I’m really comfortable with, how would this prospective child be treated? Because, no offense or anything, but Hell doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being pleasant to live in. Kind of the opposite.”


“It would be treated as the child of one of my allies,” Iblis said. “You can ask your employee whether that is suitable.”


I looked at Selene, who shrugged. “It isn’t a bad life,” she said. “There are better, but there are also a lot worse. They wouldn’t lack for much of anything, and people would be trying to get on their good side. There’s a hierarchy and you’re expected to pull your weight, but it isn’t terrible. The rules aren’t ridiculous, and mostly they only give people jobs they’re all right with doing. Starting off with the respect and prestige they’d have for being related to you and being under Iblis’s protection, they’d be about as safe as you could ask for, and they’d have plenty of opportunity to climb the ladder if they want to.”


I stared at her. “I thought you got kicked out for saying bless you,” I said incredulously. “That doesn’t exactly sound like rules not being ridiculous.”


She snorted. “Oh, come on,” she said. “Don’t tell me you believe that. I was tired of the job, and I wanted to move on to working somewhere else for a while. Getting kicked out was a convenient fiction; it made it so that I could leave in a way that left the door open for me to come back if I wanted to. Making it ridiculous and insane was my grandfather’s sense of humor at work.”


“Oh,” I said. “So…you might go back?”


She shrugged. “Maybe eventually. Not any time soon; I like working for you.”


“Okay,” I said. “That’s good. So…you’re painting a pretty idyllic picture here.”


“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “It’s still, you know, Hell. It isn’t a nice place. But the point is more making things miserable for the people we bring in than for the actual demons. For the people working there, it isn’t half bad.”


“So the opposite of a theme park, then,” Aiko chipped in.


Iblis cackled delightedly, and even Selene grinned. “Yeah, I guess you could say that,” the succubus said. “It’s up to you, boss. But Iblis is good to his word, and from what he’s described this isn’t a terrible fate.”


“And the kid could leave any time,” I said.


Iblis shrugged. “Sure. It would be the same sort of arrangement Selene has. If it decides to leave, an excuse would be fabricated to let it happen; if it comes back, an excuse would be fabricated for that as well.”


“In which case it would be in your best interest to treat them well,” I noted. “That way they wouldn’t want to leave.”


Iblis’s smile was sly and knowing. “Hell can be a very pleasant place,” he commented. “You can get things there that are only available in a handful of places in the world. And we don’t even charge the employees for most of them.”


I took a deep breath and then nodded. “I’m guessing you have a way of arranging for the child to, you know, happen,” I said.


“Naturally,” he said. “I have people who would be grateful for the prestige they would be accorded them as a result. They can ensure that it only takes one, ah, session to achieve the desired goal. Although their methods are rather…traditional, so you’re aware.”


“Okay,” I said. “I think that’s all my questions.” I looked at Aiko. “What do you think?”


She looked surprised, although I could tell it was an act. “Me?”


“Yes, you,” I said dryly. “Come on. I’m not about to make this decision without asking you first. It feels all kinds of wrong, but I really think this might be the best option. If you aren’t willing to go there, though, it’s off the table, no questions asked.”


“Oh, sure,” she said. “Put this on me.” She sighed. “Honestly, this sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me. You’re the responsible one here, so it probably isn’t a huge surprise that I would go for an offer like this one. This is actually a lot better than either of the bargains I made, for everyone involved. I’d probably go for it. One condition, though.”


“What’s that?” I asked.


“I want in on it.”


I must have been staring, because she snorted. “Not the kid thing,” she said. “Hell, no. I am still solidly opposed to having children of any sort, in any way. But if you’re having debauched sex with a bunch of demons, you are not leaving me behind.”


“The family that plays together stays together, eh?” Iblis said, sounding amused.


“Something like that,” Aiko agreed. “And also it sounds like fun. I’ve never done it, and I might not get another chance.”


“It can easily be arranged,” he assured us. “It’s a slightly unusual provision, but I doubt it will give my people any trouble.”


“Also, Selene doesn’t have any involvement in it,” I mentioned. “I made a prior agreement not to have any interaction of that sort with her.”


Iblis shrugged. “She doesn’t work for me at the moment anyway,” he said. “But we can add a clause to that effect, sure.”


“Good,” I said. “Also, if this session doesn’t work out for any reason, our deal is still over and done. You don’t keep hounding me, you don’t show up in the event of any other children and exert a claim.”


He smiled. “I wondered if you’d catch that one,” he murmured. “Yes, that can be arranged.”


I took a deep breath, and then nodded. “Okay,” I said. “Let me see the contract.”


“Allow me to consolidate it for smoother reading,” Iblis said, snapping his fingers. A large scroll appeared in front of me, along with a knife and a pen.


I took my time reading over the contract. It looked legitimate. As far as I could tell, all of the provisions and clauses I’d asked for were there. There were even some protections I hadn’t thought to ask for, like an agreement to ensure that the blood connection between me and the child couldn’t be used to target harmful magic in either direction.


I didn’t like that one bit. Being given freebies like that made me nervous and suspicious. But the deal still looked legitimate, and unless I was overlooking something big I wasn’t actually getting screwed. As far as I could tell everything checked out.


It took me almost an hour to work through the full length of the contract and read it over for loopholes and vulnerabilities. Iblis just stood and watched the whole thing, silently, with a slight smile.


Finally, I took a deep breath and picked up the knife. It wasn’t hard to draw enough blood to sign on the dotted line.


Iblis was next to me almost before I was finished, scrawling something on the line under mine. It was a complicated, twisty sigil that seemed too intricate for the number of strokes he’d made to draw it. The edges were strangely blurry, and it was hard to really look at the symbol; my eyes didn’t want to focus on it, and trying gave me a headache.


“This is my copy,” he said, taking the scroll and rolling it up. The scroll also stayed on the table, identical right down to the signatures. “That one’s yours to keep, and I’ll also leave a copy with a neutral party. Loki work for you?”


“One with Loki,” I said. “One with the eldest Queen of the Midnight Court. I don’t like only having one backup copy.”


He smiled sharply. “Someone’s been taking lessons,” he purred. “Well, it’s been a pleasure doing business with you, jarl.”


“You’ll remove the demons, then?”


He waved one hand carelessly. “Oh, I did that as soon as we started negotiations. I was confident we’d reach a deal, and I felt good faith required that I didn’t leave them to continue their depredation through the negotiation process. My people will be along shortly to finalize the process. Have a good day, children. You’re both quite welcome to visit Hell.”


He sauntered off, whistling “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” as he did.

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Breaking Point 11.25

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I wasn’t sure what to expect when Iblis showed up.


I mean, Selene wasn’t sure he’d show up at all. She was very low in the hierarchy of Iblis’s little theme park, even before she got kicked out entirely. He wasn’t remotely obligated to come when she called.


I was fairly confident that he would come. I mean everyone else seemed quite eager to jump at any chance to screw me over; why would the deity who had deliberately built himself in the image of the devil be any different?


But the problem with using the devil as inspiration was that there were an effectively unlimited number of ways one could do so. Would he go for the mindless, tormented beast of the Divine Comedy? The smooth-talking businessman who held a debate with Mr. Webster, won every point of discussion, lost the battle, and won the war? Or maybe he would end up going full-on Sorrows of Satan with a tragic, tormented aesthetic?


There were just so many versions of the role he’d cast himself in that I couldn’t predict which one he would go with. That was a source of considerable stress. If he went for the more deal-making style of devil, I was screwed in the long run, but not really any worse than I already was; I already had Loki playing that role, after all. On the other hand, if he went for a more brutal, destructive approach, deliberately calling him here might be the equivalent of putting out a fire by dousing it in gasoline.


There wasn’t much I could do to prepare for it, though, and my situation was already so precarious that the risk seemed worth it. In the time it took for Selene to call her old boss, we got reports of another three demons in the city. On the north end, one of them had claimed an elementary school and was doing things that made even the ghoul who brought me the report a little nauseous. The police had gotten to that one before I did, which turned out to be unfortunate for them, because they were pretty helpless to do anything about it. The squad they’d sent in had been just more puppets for the monster’s games, as had the handful of passerby who wandered too close by accident. Now they were maintaining an armed perimeter a thousand feet from the school, and shooting anyone who managed to slip through. It was, by all accounts, much kinder than allowing them to get near to the building.


The second was either a demon in the same vein as Legion, or a denizen of Hell that operated similarly. Its favorite tactic was apparently possessing someone and provoking someone else to violence. It stood there and took whatever they did, not fighting back at all, until its current host was on the brink of death. Then it switched bodies with the aggressor, leaving them to slowly die from the wounds they’d inflicted, while it continued the cycle in their body. It was on the fifth round of this already, and while my people were working with the cops to keep its current host isolated, it could only work for so long.


The third was more of an enigma, if only because we couldn’t figure out what it was actually doing. When it got someone, they just…disappeared. Completely. There was no sign that they’d ever even existed. People’s memories of the ones that vanished got fuzzy; they couldn’t remember having interacted with them, couldn’t remember their names. The only reason we even knew about it was that one of Luna’s contacts had realized that he didn’t recognize the woman in his wedding photos, and he’d managed to figure out what happened.


Of the four demons we knew about, that one scared me the most, simply because it was such a total unknown. It could pick us off one by one and we wouldn’t even know until too late. Already I was keeping close track of everyone I relied upon or cared about, making sure that the list wasn’t getting shorter, and terrified that I wouldn’t know if it was. Hell, we didn’t even know what happened to the people it took. I was hoping they were dead, that they’d simply ceased to exist at the same moment that they vanished from everyone else’s world. But I had a nasty suspicion that it wasn’t anything that merciful and gentle.


Between the four of them, fighting back on my own was out of the question. One demon had been a serious challenge for roughly half of my available forces, when they were fresh and prepared. Four of them against us when we were tired and wounded was not a fight worth considering. Particularly when Selene, our one and only expert on the topic, readily admitted that she had no idea how we could win. She thought we might be able to beat the body-warping one that had gotten to Nóttolfr, and she was moderately confident that she personally was immune to the influence the demon in the school exerted on everything around itself. But we would probably suffer major losses against the first one, and she had no ability to extend her resistance to the second to anyone else.


Against the other two, she was as out of her depth as the rest of us.


Thus, about twenty minutes after first hearing about the demon in town, I was sitting in my throne when the door swung open.


The man that walked in was…well, I wasn’t disappointed. He was tall, well over six feet, and very pale. He had black hair, with a prominent widow’s peak, and black eyes. He was wearing a black silk suit that looked like it cost more than most cars; the only splash of color was a handkerchief the deep, intense red of freshly spilled blood tucked into his breast pocket.


“Good morning,” he said, taking off his black fedora and handing it to Kyi as he walked past her. The jotun took the hat without hesitation or apparent thought, then looked at it like she didn’t know what to do with it. The man in the black suit kept walking without breaking stride, his black leather shoes clicking against the floor.


“Good morning,” I said, watching him carefully. My housecarls moved to surround him, as did the ghouls, though none got within about twenty feet. It wouldn’t do a damned thing if he decided to start something, of course, but I could understand why they did it. You had to do something.


“You called?” he asked, smiling. His teeth were a little too large, a little too sharp. Nothing obvious, but if a normal person were to see that smile walking by them on the street, I was guessing they’d walk quickly and look behind themselves a lot until they were safely ensconced in their home, and they wouldn’t know why.


“Depends,” I said cautiously. “Are you Iblis?”


“I’ve been called such,” he said, continuing to walk closer. I could smell fire now, and smoke, with just a hint of sulfur.


Next to me, Aiko was sitting very, very still, and I could practically smell her tension and anxiety. I couldn’t blame her. Even by my standards, this was a pretty insanely dangerous thing to do.


“I’ve heard a story,” I said. “I’ve heard that when you heard about Hell, you thought it was an interesting concept. So you got together with some friends and built it.”


He kept smiling and walking. He was pretty close now, within ten feet of me. “That’s an interesting story,” he said. “Where did you hear it?”


“From one of the friends in question,” I said. “But he said that you were the architect, the driving force behind the project and the one that did most of the work.”


“How intriguing,” he said. “And why do you feel a need to tell me this story?”


“Because I’m having problems with Hell right now,” I said. “And it seems like the architect of its design could probably make those problems go away.”


“I could,” he acknowledged, starting to circle around me. He was still walking at a very slow, regular pace.


I swallowed. “So what’s the price?”


“Traditionally I should ask for your soul,” he said, almost directly behind me now. “But that would make me a poacher, and I cannot abide a poacher. I could take your tongue, I suppose, but you don’t sing so sweetly as the mermaid. The chance to whisper sin into your heart seems redundant.” I wasn’t turning to watch him—I couldn’t afford to, in terms of image—but I could hear that narrow, too-sharp smile in his voice. “We are faced with a conundrum, it seems.”


He stepped back into view, and I relaxed a little. Only a very little, since whether I could see Iblis really had no bearing on what he could do to me if he chose, but there was something about having him walking behind me that really ratcheted up the tension level.


Suddenly, without any warning, he reached out and grabbed Selene by the wrist, pulling her close. “Or perhaps I should take all your problems with Hell,” he said, watching me rather than her. For her part, Selene wasn’t struggling at all, wasn’t even breathing. “Including this one.”


“No,” I said.


“Oh?” Iblis was still smiling. He was close enough that I could see fire in his eyes, behind the black. I didn’t think it was my imagination.


“No,” I repeated. “Even if that weren’t a suicidal trade for me, I don’t sacrifice my people.”


“Very well,” he said, releasing her. The succubus stepped back to where she had been standing, her features so blank and serene that it had to be a mask. “What else? A year of your life…but you don’t age. A year of service…but, again, poaching. This is proving quite troublesome. Tell me, jarl, what do you think would be a fair deal?”


I swallowed again. This was…well, it wasn’t good. If my offer was too low, I might lose my chance at any kind of deal. Too high, and I would effectively have already accepted; I wouldn’t be able to haggle it down, not when it had been my offer. And I had no idea what to expect from Iblis. I’d never dealt with him before; I didn’t know what to expect from him, beyond the vaguest of generalities. On the whole, this was very nearly the worst bargaining position I could have been put in.


And, judging by the quietly malicious quality of his smile, Iblis damn well knew it.


“You’ve already covered most of the traditional options,” I said, more just to buy time than anything. “I’m not willing to give my people to you, which rules out mass sacrifice. With a lesser demon, I could offer power, but I don’t know that I have anything to offer you in that regard. If you were caged, I could offer freedom, but obviously in your case that is, again, not an option.”


“Are you trying to flatter me?” he asked. “It won’t make me more amenable to a deal.”


“No, actually,” I said. “I’m just stating facts. Thinking aloud, mostly. Like you said, this situation makes it hard to come up with something appropriate.” I kept thinking, and then a particularly ugly thought occurred.


I thought about it for a few more seconds, and it still seemed like the best idea I could come up with. It was a terrible idea, the sort of thing that always, always backfired; people always tried for clever ways to get around it, and they always got screwed in the end. In a way, though, that made it perfect for this. The fact that it was such a classic mistake should make it alluring to Iblis, since he was apparently a traditionalist.


And I, like every schmuck in every Faustian story, thought I was the guy who would actually get away with it.


“Well,” I said slowly, “I could always offer you my firstborn child.”


He froze in his slow circle. “Oh, now that is interesting,” he said quietly. “You did mention not giving your people to me…but, of course, you would plan never to have children. You don’t have any progeny yet, so I couldn’t simply claim one that’s already born. And naturally I would expect that you would make a mistake, or forget, and I would get my prize anyway…oh, you are a clever one.”


Aiko shifted uncomfortably in her seat next to me. “Um,” she said. “I don’t think this is such a good idea.”


“Don’t be so hasty,” Iblis said. “There are details to work out, of course. I think we would both appreciate a precise legal definition of what would qualify as your offspring. Other than that I think this is a very promising arrangement.”


“Speaking as the probable mother of the child in question,” Aiko said dryly, “I do think I should have a voice here.”


“We don’t want children anyway,” I said reasonably. “We’re both pretty clear on that, last I checked. As long as we make the terms clear, we should be fine.”


“Many have said as much,” Iblis said with a sly smile. “Some have even been right.”


I took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay,” I said. “I would expect this to be limited to my physical, genetic children. You don’t get to claim ideas, intellectual works, physical creations, or any other metaphorical children.”


“Fair enough,” Iblis said. “Selene, take this down. We’ll want a physical copy of the contract. So, literal children only. In return, I would expect you to agree not to adopt a child. Taking on a protégé or apprentice is acceptable, but you can’t formally adopt anyone as your heir and inheritor. At least, not until your debt is paid.”


“Guys,” Aiko said. “I’m serious. This is not a good idea.”


“I’m aware,” I said dryly. “Okay, no adoptions. I can live with that. That doesn’t limit my ability to pass on an inheritance. I can’t pass on the title or authority to a designated adopted heir, but I can give my possessions to whoever I want. You don’t get anything if I kick it.”


“Fair,” Iblis said. “Let’s see, what else…severance clause and rules for default. If you die without producing offspring, the deal is null and void and neither you nor any inheritor owes me a debt. If you have a child and refuse to give it to me, you’ll be considered in default of contract, and you’ll owe me any one service of my choosing. If I fail to remove the servants of Hell from this city, I will be in default, and I will owe you similarly.”


“Fair,” I said. “But let’s get more specific. You will remove all demons with an origin in or affiliation with Hell from the bounds of Colorado Springs, other than Selene, as well as any and all entities which were contracted or directed specifically to cause harm to the city by the skinwalker I recently killed. You will do so immediately upon the conclusion of our deal. You will remove them permanently. You will ensure that none of them seek redress from or revenge on me, or for any reason return to Colorado Springs, or send any of their employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to Colorado Springs, or exercise any power upon me, my employees, agents, proxies, affiliates, or associates from outside the city, or to encourage, direct, or allow any of their employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to do the above. You will additionally take no action to cause me to produce a child by any means, nor will you direct or allow any of your employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates to do so. Any child which results from any active interference by you or any of your employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates will not be regarded as my child, will not be eligible as my heir and inheritor, and will not be applicable as my payment to you under this bargain.”


“You’re surprisingly good at this game,” Iblis commented.


My smile was just about as friendly as his, although it had more wolf and less snake in it. “I’ve had good teachers.”


He nodded. “Very well, those terms are acceptable. You will take no action to destroy or otherwise render unsuitable any offspring you do produce, nor will you allow or encourage any of your affiliates to do so. Contraception is reasonable, but any form of abortion or infanticide is not. Additionally, you will not deliberately produce offspring which are in any way deformed, physically or mentally impaired, or otherwise of lower value than would be expected. If you do, you will be considered in default of contract.”


“Fine,” I said. “But the clause against harm or destruction applies only to viable offspring which are fertilized and whose existence I am aware of. Gametes do not qualify. I am not responsible for naturally occurring events or force majeure events, nor am I responsible if I do not have reason to think that an action or instruction will lead to these consequences. If I or an associate has reason to believe that carrying the child to term will place anyone in danger, or that the child is for any reason unsuitable, this person may contact you and you will be obligated to resolve the situation in a manner which resolves the danger and any unsuitability without in any way harming me or any of my employees, agents, proxies, representatives, affiliates, or associates. If you are unable or unwilling to do so, that child is no longer covered by the clause against harm or destruction.”


“Reasonable,” he said. “You may not act or instruct or allow anyone else to act in a manner which would produce such a situation.”


I opened my mouth to agree to that.


Then Aiko punched me in the face.


It was not a playful punch. In fact, it really freaking hurt. I’d taken my helmet off for this meeting, and she hadn’t taken off her gauntlets. Her gauntlets weren’t spiked, at least, but it still drew blood.


“Ow,” I said, wiping the blood away with my hand. “What was that for?”


“Winter,” she said. “You can’t do this. You can’t.”


“You have a better idea?” I asked. “Because I don’t. I really, really don’t.”


She took a deep breath and let it out. “Get one,” she growled. “Because this? This is a really shitty idea. You cannot agree to sell our firstborn child.”


“Whyever not?” Iblis asked reasonably. “It isn’t an unheard of bargain to strike, by any means.”


Aiko looked away from me. When she spoke, she sounded a great deal less unsure of herself, and not happy in the least. “Because I already did.”

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Breaking Point 11.24

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It took a minute for people to catch up to me. Most of them couldn’t casually drop twenty feet from the window to the street at the bottom of the hill, after all. They had to go back to the door and then circle around.


Aiko was the first to reach me. She was breathing hard, more so than I would normally have expected to be the case from such a short run, but at the moment I thought it could be forgiven. “Is it dead?” she said, slowing to a walk.


“Pretty sure,” I said, not looking away from the skinwalker. “I cut his head off with Tyrfing; that’s usually fairly reliable. All things considered, though, I’d rather not take any chances.”


She snorted. “You never want to take chances,” she pointed out. But on this one I’m with you.”


I nodded and kept watching for any sign that the corpse wasn’t quite as dead as it was supposed to be. I’d sheathed Tyrfing, since I’d already been exposed to a lot more of its curse than was healthy in the past few minutes, but I was ready to hit the skinwalker again at a moment’s notice.


Unsurprisingly, the canines were the next to catch up. Kyra stopped not far from me and sat down; she was limping a little on the last few steps, and I knew her maimed leg was hurting her. Even with the assistance of the Wild Hunt’s magic, she still wasn’t fully healed. Snowflake circled around to stand on the other side of the corpse, staring at it with her iron teeth bared; if it sprang back to life and tried to run in that direction, she would be ready. Anna was even more direct, walking straight up and biting one of the skinwalker’s arms completely off at the shoulder.


I couldn’t really blame her for that. She was still missing some toes thanks that freak. Besides, it was helpful. When the body didn’t even twitch during its violent amputation, it was probably dead.


Probably. I still wasn’t looking away from it.


“Okay,” I said, as the housecarls and ghouls started catching up. “We need to be back in Colorado Springs soonest. Before I cut his head off, the skinwalker said something about ordering an army of demons to attack the city if he died.”


“You think he was telling the truth?” Aiko asked.


I shrugged. “Hard to say. On the one hand, he was an untrustworthy bastard who’d absolutely lie about something like that to save his own skin. On the other, he was a vicious bastard who’d actually do it.”


She snorted. “Good point.”


“Anyway,” I continued briskly. “Most of us will be going back to Colorado. Thraslaug, I want you to stay here and deal with the corpse. Can you do that?”


She nodded sharply. “Yes, jarl.”


“Good,” I said. “I have very specific instructions. Listen carefully, because I’ll hold you personally responsible if this doesn’t get done the way I want it to. I want this body dismembered, into pieces weighing no more than ten pounds each. I want each piece to be burned separately, and the ashes stored in separate containers. Mix the ashes with at least ten percent salt by volume and keep them in airtight containers. Have the ashes blessed by at least three different priests, from different religions. Once that’s done, dump a third of them in the ocean and bring the rest back to the city with you. Do you understand?”


She nodded again. “I understand, jarl.”


“All right, then. Take two of the mercenaries and two of the mages and make it happen.” I grunted and stretched, feeling my shoulder pull a little where I’d cut it with Tyrfing. It wasn’t bleeding much, at least. Probably plugged with more ice. At the rate I was going, it wouldn’t be long before I was more ice than flesh.


I felt a twinge of dread at the thought. It felt like a tangible indicator of what I’d been feeling for a while, that I was moving further and further away from what I was and what I wanted to be.


As usual, though, there wasn’t time to really worry about it. For now I could just be grateful that I wasn’t bleeding out, since wounds inflicted by Tyrfing were ridiculously difficult to heal.


“Okay,” I said. “Portal time.” I took a deep breath and started gathering power.


“I’ll do it,” Aiko said abruptly. Her voice was still a little hoarse, but she was breathing easier.


I shrugged and let the magic go. “All right,” I said.


She was faster than I was, as always. She was a lot better at this kind of magic. I wasn’t sure how much it really meant that she had two tails now instead of one, but I was reasonably confident that she was even quicker and more efficient about it now than she had been before. It barely took two minutes before a hole appeared in the world in front of her.


The two of us went through first and moved out of the way as the others came through. It was always interesting to watch from the outside as people went through an Otherside portal. They weren’t conscious, but the way they moved wasn’t random, either. They were clearly in control of themselves, and on some level they were aware of their surroundings, even though I knew from experience that most people had no conscious experience of what happened during that time.


There was a sizable pile of bodies on the ground by the time everyone made it through. I checked it over enough to make sure that the worst anyone would have to deal with was intense awkwardness, and then turned to start on the next portal.


To my surprise, Aiko was already working on it, spinning the first tendrils of magic between a pair of enormous trees at the edge of the river.


I frowned. It was a pretty typical place for her to put her portal, but normally we traded off when we could. Not to mention that we were using Inari’s Wood as a layover, and Aiko almost always took a few moments to just appreciate it when we passed through there.


“Hey,” I said, walking up beside her. “Is everything all right?”

She turned her head towards me a little. I couldn’t see her face behind the foxlike mask of her helmet, but her voice was tight. “I was useless back there,” she said.


I snorted. “You were the only one who stayed standing when that demon hit us with the psychic bullshit,” I pointed out.


“Yeah, but then the other guy took me down like that.” She snapped her fingers. “Just totally thrashed me. Not even a fight.”


“We all have off days,” I said gently.


“You don’t get it,” she said. “I always told myself I wasn’t going to be this person. I’m not the fucking damsel in distress, you know? I don’t need anybody to come and rescue me. Except that apparently now I do.” She turned her attention back to the half-formed portal, and for the space of a long breath nothing more was said. “I’m not good enough,” she said at last. “You deserve better.”


I took a few seconds trying to think of what to say.


Then I sighed. I never had much luck trying for clever wordplay. It always ended poorly for me. Better to just say what I meant.


“You know I love you, Aiko,” I said. “But if you keep talking like this, I might have to smack you.”


She looked at me. “What?”

“You’re seriously going to whine about not being good enough for me?” I asked. “Seriously? Because, what? Scáthach kidnapped you and then there was one fight where you didn’t do quite as well as you wanted to?”


“It does sound a little stupid when you phrase it like that,” she admitted.


“Is there another way to put it?” I asked. “And yeah, I came to bail your ass out. Because that’s what we do. If you think that makes you a damsel in distress, then I guess I have to join the club too, because by my count I’m still at least two or three kidnappings ahead of you.”


“You know,” she said, a little testily, “it makes it pretty hard to have a properly dramatic scene when you keep being all logical about it.”


“You’re just upset because I’m right,” I said smugly. “Now come on. Let’s go and kill a bunch of demons. That’ll make you feel better.”


I could practically hear her rolling her eyes. “Well, when you put it like that how could I say no?” A moment later, she said, “Thanks.”


I grinned. “Any time.”


Snowflake made a gagging sound in the back of my head. God, you two are syrupy, she said in a disgusted tone. If I wasn’t feeling nauseous anyway, I would be now.


“Okay,” I said, walking up to the door of the house. “Selene, Kyi, I want information. Talk to the scouts, talk to Luna’s network, talk to anyone who might know what’s going on in town. I want a full report ready for me in an hour. Make sure all our people hear about what might be happening.”


Kyi nodded and hurried off, barking orders in a tangled pidgin of English and Norse. Selene was slower to react, and when she did move she stumbled.


I hurried to catch her and keep her from falling. “Hey,” I said. “Are you okay?”


She grimaced. “I should be fine,” she said. “I’m pretty sure my physiology is already unnatural enough that I should be able to get over what that thing did to me without any permanent effects. It just hurts for the moment.”


“If you’re sure,” I said, holding her steady as the crowd cleared out around us. After a few seconds, I quietly asked, “If this is for real, how scared should I be?”


Selene sighed and shrugged. The succubus must have been feeling better, because the shrug did things to her anatomy that made Aiko whistle appreciatively and reminded me rather forcefully that we were currently in close physical proximity.


“I don’t really know,” she said. “I mean, it’s always possible that he meant the spiritual kind of demon, like your familiar. If that’s what it is, you’d know better than I what to expect. If not, it’s still hard to say. It really depends on what kind of demons he brings in.”


I nodded, letting go of her. “The ones we fought earlier,” I said. “Where do they fall in the hierarchy, roughly speaking?”


She shrugged again. “Middle of the road?” she said. “They aren’t bottom feeders, for sure. They’re higher up than I ever was. But they aren’t the strongest there is, for sure.”


“Okay,” I said. “That’s…well, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now get me that report.”


Selene nodded. “Will do. What are you doing?”


“Sleep,” I said. “I’m exhausted, and I don’t think things are going to get easier any time soon.”


“I’ll come with,” Aiko said. “I could use a nap after being, you know, mostly strangled.”


Selene smirked. “And here I thought the point was to get some rest,” she said dryly. “Well, I’ll go get started on that. See you in an hour.” She nodded to me again and then walked off.


About ninety minutes later, I was sitting at my desk hearing a rather disappointing report.


The good news was that it appeared that either the skinwalker had lied or else his army of demons was pretty slow off the mark. Thus far none of them had shown up that anyone had heard.


The bad news was that the situation was still pretty terrible. The fire was already contained, which had to be a new record, but it had done a lot of damage in the meantime. Vandals and looters had taken the opportunity to wreak havoc in the part of the city Kikuchi had been keeping more or less pacified; there were ten dead that we knew of, and probably more that we didn’t. Several residential areas on the west side of the city were burning or reduced to ashes, and while almost everyone had managed to evacuate in time, it was proving difficult to find places for all of them to stay.


And I was the only one in a position to do anything about it. The local government was still in shambles; apparently the mayor had been killed by a particularly nasty-minded fae of some sort, and no one was sure who would replace him. State resources were doing better at recovery, but mostly focused in Denver; the local werewolves there were doing a lot to keep things intact, but they were still struggling with the much larger population.


I arranged to commandeer a few hotels that still had functioning water and power to house the refugees, then turned my attention to the vandals. I didn’t have a lot of pity for anyone who would take advantage of the current situation to serve their own ends. If they’d just been stealing to feed themselves, I might have forgiven them. Given that they’d taken to raping and murdering innocent people, I sent a group of housecarls and didn’t tell them too much about what to do, beyond that I didn’t want to hear about this problem any more.


Then someone knocked on the door.


I looked at it. Kyi looked at it. Selene looked at it. Aiko looked at it.


They knocked again. I said, “Well, somebody better answer that.”


Kyi leapt to obey. The person on the other side staggered in and collapsed into her seat.


He looked like a person. But he…wasn’t quite right. I couldn’t think of any better way to phrase it than that. His features were warped, his face asymmetric in a way I couldn’t quite place. The muscles under his skin did strange things when he moved.


It took me several seconds to recognize him as one of my housecarls. Nóttolfr, his name was. One of the few new recruits that Kyi had respected.


He sure as hell didn’t look like this the last time I saw him.


“What happened?” I asked.


“I was patrolling to the east,” he said. His voice was slurred and warbling, barely comprehensible. “Heard a noise inside an abandoned building and went inside. Saw something weird. Tried to kill it, didn’t get close. It did this to me.”


I glanced at Selene. “Demon?”


She nodded, her lips pressed together into a thin white line. “The same one that got me earlier, or one very similar to it,” she said.


I took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay,” I said. “Did you see any others with it?”


“No,” Nóttolfr slurred. “Just the one.”


“Okay,” I said again. In a lot of ways, it didn’t matter. One, a dozen, either way it meant the same thing. It meant the skinwalker hadn’t been bluffing, not entirely. Besides which, if it was comparable to the three he’d summoned earlier, one was a threat in itself. One had been enough to incapacitate everyone I had put together.


“Selene?” I said quietly. “How hard would it be for me to get in touch with Iblis?”

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Interlude 11.c: Hinzelmann

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Asphalt streets. Concrete walls. Chain link fences. Metal towers faced with glass.


It had been a long time since I visited. The old castle was long gone. In its place stood this town, full of modern conveniences and the high technology of a world that had moved on since my heyday.


I was not entirely sure whether I approved.


It is in my nature to weave a web of half-truths and partial statements. I piece together bits of truth into a whole. It is what I am.


Likewise, I always fulfill my word. It is what I am. The notion of doing otherwise is inconceivable. My word is my bond, and I could not break it.


But neither of these is the whole of my nature.


My song had been a simple one, back in the day. Treat Hinzelmann with respect, and you shall be rewarded with kindness and convenience. Your house shall prosper, your crops shall flourish and your herds be fruitful. Anger Hinzelmann and reprisal shall come swift and sure, merciless and pitiless. Drive Hinzelmann from your home, and his place shall be taken by misfortune and evil luck.


A pity that they hadn’t listened. A pity that others hadn’t learned from their example.


Walking through the streets, I was not bothered. The humans did not even notice I was there. It was simply done, not even a thing of magic and mystery. It was merely a matter of walking in the places no one was looking, moving with a confidence such that they did not question. A quiet sort of invisibility that could be seen but was not remarked upon, a sight soon forgotten.


A maiden once asked to see my true face, and I showed her, though she did not understand the truth of what she saw. She still saw enough and more than enough to convince the master of Hudemühlen Castle to drive me forth with iron and fire and the prayers of his church. Iron held less terror for me than for many of the fae, and fire held none at all, nor did the holy words of any god. But I went all the same. It is not the way of kobolds to linger where we are not wanted.


I reached the part of the park they called Animal World, and with a brush of my hand I persuaded the fence to open long enough to let me through. I stepped into the enclosure and no one noticed or commented, though the sight of a child entering the home of tigers should have been an alarming one.


One of the white tigers that lived in this enclosure made as if to bite me, incensed at my invasion of its territory. Then it drew back in confusion, perplexed by my odd scent, which did not match that of the child it had expected.


I smiled and stroked the beast, its fur smooth and sleek under my fingers. We were similar, in a way. We had certain attributes in common.


In a way, I almost regretted what I was about to do to it.


I looked out at the street again and saw a child watching me, her eyes wide and fascinated. Children were often less easy to fool with simple tricks of attitude and demeanor than their elders, but that wasn’t why she saw me and remembered.


I grinned at her and waved. It took only a little magic to push her into walking in my direction, her interest and excitement overcoming caution and hesitance. A little more was enough to cloud the vision of those around her, to keep their attention elsewhere for the few critical moments.


The child reached the fence and found a hole in it, just large enough for her to squeeze through. She hesitated, looking at the tigers, but I waved her on with one hand and caressed the tiger’s neck with the other, and she continued on.


She reached the tiger and reached out to pet it. She ran her hand over its fur once, twice, her expression delighted beyond words.


I relaxed my hold on the adults at the same time as I tweaked the mind of the tiger. The girl’s father looked over just in time to see the cat bite his daughter’s neck, sinking its teeth deep into her flesh.


He screamed and ran towards us, but found no hole in the fence to let him through. He looked up, thinking to climb over it, but the razor wire discouraged.


Ah, what an exquisite torture this was. A veritable feast for every sense. A thousand thousand details of body language, shock and horror written in every line of every person watching. The child’s own expression was betrayed, upset, though the pain hadn’t yet registered. Even the tiger seemed horrified at what it had done; it was a peaceful beast, and would not have hurt a hair on her head without my intervention.


The moment seemed to last a thousand years, the first drops of blood sparkling as they caught the light, the red nectar a lovely crimson against the girl’s white dress and white skin.


Then the eternity shattered, and time began again. The tiger dropped the child, mewling in piteous confusion at its own actions. The father screamed helplessly, gripping the fence tightly; other sightseers were screaming as well, some fleeing, others trying to help and unable to do so. Park officials came running, as horrified as anyone else. The details of word choice, volume and inflection, the way they moved, the white knuckles of the father’s grasp, all added to the delicate bouquet of the scene. The child herself could not scream, her throat being too badly damaged for that. This was intentional, another small artistic touch; the quiet whimpers, the gurgling sound as she tried to breathe, the soft patter of blood on the grass, it was all a lovely counterpoint to the screaming and chaos outside the enclosure. Noisy, chaotic life contrasted beautifully with quiet, peaceful death.


Scáthach told me to come and assist her with a battle she was planning. Mention was made, at that meeting, of my actions. Of the things I had done to the residents of the castle, after they drove me away. Of the fact that I was, as a kobold, not supposed to return to a home from which I had been cast out.


She did not precisely threaten me with exposure for my actions. That would have been unbearably rude, and the Maiden of Midnight was not foolish enough to be overtly rude. But mention was made, very deliberate mention.


My fellows knew of only a small portion of what I had done to that maid and her friends, afterward. That had still been enough to earn five hundred years of exile. If the Court were to learn of the rest, of all the things I did, and how close I had walked to the crumbling edge of my word and my bond, then they would kill me.


I had done things during my exile as well, things such as this. They had condemned me to boredom, idleness, and inactivity. If the Court found out that I had amused myself in my exile, they would not be so kind and merciful as to kill me.


The Lady of the Isle of Shadows did not truly know the punishments that waited for me if that happened. Who can hope to know, without having experienced them? And Scáthach, it was impossible to deny, was more inclined to the infliction than the experience of agonies.


But she had some idea of what would happen. That made exposure a very credible threat, and she well knew it.


I stood and watched as park officials came in to see to the child. The tigers let them pass without question or interference, but they were still too late to save the child. She bled her life out on my feet, with the rich smells of blood and sun-warm grass tickling her nose.


I watched her breathe her last, then turned my attention to the crowd watching. The tension, the fear and anger and horror, was still running high, delicious and heady. I nudged it a little here and there, making sure that people were looking where I wanted them to, stoking emotions higher and wilder. A mild effort on my part was enough to ruin any hope of reconciliation. My influence would wane when I left or they did, and emotions would calm with distance and time, but words once said could not be unsaid.


Scáthach thought to blackmail me and force me to do her will, but she made three simple mistakes.


The first was that I didn’t fear the Court’s reprisal. On the contrary, I wanted them to come hunting me. What fun, what excitement, what a thrill that chase would be!


As expected, none of the humans noticed that I was standing in the tiger enclosure beside the child. None of them saw me as I decided that my work here was complete and left. There were humans with cameras watching now, many of them, but it was not difficult to ensure that I was not in their photographs. The looked right, and I stood to the left; they looked left and I slipped to the right. It was a trick I had practiced for a thousand years.


Once out of the crowd, I turned my steps towards the old foundations. My clothing was bloody, but that was why I had always favored red velvet; it would not show the blood until it was dried, and I did not intend to stay here that long.


The castle was long gone, but the echoes of its presence could be seen by those who knew how to look. I stood nearby and looked at it for a time, reflecting on the things I had done there, and the things I had caused to be done. When I left, I started a fire in a small house in passing, dark flames dancing from my fingertips to its walls. Within an hour the building would be consumed entirely.


Her second mistake was in thinking that I would forgive her presumption. That was not in my nature, any more than the breaking of oaths. I did not forgive, not anything, not ever. I paid all my debts, soon or late. She should have known that. These people had cast me out and driven me away more than four hundred years ago, and still I punished them for it. They had driven Hinzelmann from their home, and misfortune and evil luck took his place. I can go by many names when it pleases me.

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Breaking Point 11.23

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“I’m sure you know what this is,” I said, holding the card lightly between my fingers. “I’m guessing most of you know where it came from. So, you know. Who here wants to test their power against hers?”


None of the demons moved, not even to breathe or blink. Even the skinwalker was totally still. You could have heard a pin drop, were it not for the sound of ragged, labored breathing from those struggling to shake off the effects of what the various demons had been doing.


I grinned. “That’s what I thought,” I said. “So let me tell you how this is. I can’t take you three. We all know that. But the first of you that pisses me off right now is dead. And considering the source, I’m guessing this is the kind of dead that nobody’s coming back from. I use this on you and you’re done, permanently.”


Snowflake pushed herself to her feet. She was staggering back and forth, apparently unable to keep her balance, and she was panting hard like she was about to throw up.


“I’ve got no problem with you,” I said, although watching that it was hard to convince myself it was true. “My only quarrel here is with the skinwalker. The rest of you can leave now, and I won’t seek redress for this.”


There was a moment of silence. Then the thin, abstract-looking demon Selene had been fighting folded itself up into nothing. I wasn’t sure how to describe it better than that. Its limbs started tucking themselves up into its torso, collapsing into a much smaller space than they should have been able to fit into. Once the limbs were put away its torso compacted itself down into a single point that then vanished completely.


The horseman grinned at me out of both of its mouths, then slapped one hand against the floor. Thick, oily shadows gathered underneath it, stinking of poison and corruption. It sank slowly down into the darkness, taking its scepter with it, with a slow, sucking noise like a body sinking into quicksand. After it was gone the unnaturally thick shadows slowly evaporated, leaving behind nothing more than a foul-smelling black stain on the floor and a lingering sense of unease. I was guessing nothing short of burning down this entire building was going to get rid of those.


I looked at the third demon expectantly. It grinned back at me, a mouth full of needle-like teeth crisscrossing each other in a tangled net of pointy bits. It didn’t move, but its whip thrashed and snapped with a sound like a dozen firecrackers going off, and the flames crawling over its skin burned a little hotter and more sulfurous.


“Okay,” I said, slipping the card carefully back into my pocket and calling Tyrfing. “I can deal with this.”


Then the moment of calm in the eye of the metaphorical storm passed, and we all went back to trying to kill each other.


It started with the demon’s whip, moving faster than any of us could react. One lash picked Aiko up off the ground again, cutting her air off just when she was starting to get her wind back. Another tried to do the same to me, but I was quick enough to dodge. Snowflake wasn’t, and a third lash wrapped around her neck and pinned her to the ground. She struggled against it, squirming and writhing, but it was pretty obvious she wasn’t going to be able to get loose.


The other six reached out to the people I’d brought, snaking through their legs and tripping them up. Normally I wouldn’t have thought that would be an effective tactic, but people were still dazed and off-balance. More than a couple hit the ground.


I ignored all that, though I wasn’t happy about it. I was pretty freaking upset, in fact, but I wasn’t stupid. The demon wasn’t the main threat here.


I ran at the skinwalker, brushing the whip out of my way. It had been hot earlier, so that wasn’t exactly a surprise, but now it was burning, nasty yellow-green flames flickering along its length. I touched it through my gauntlet, rather than with my bare hand, and it still scorched me.


The skinwalker was gesturing slightly, and the reek of his magic filled the air around him like an abattoir on a hot day. I got the impression that he would have liked more time to work on whatever he was doing, but I was already getting too close, so he unleashed it on me ahead of schedule.


If so, I was pretty damn glad I’d chosen to charge him when I did. Even at reduced power, the magic hit me like a truck. There was no impact, physically, but agony like I’d seldom felt hit me all at once. My muscles jerked and spasmed convulsively, almost like I’d been hit with an electrical current, although it didn’t feel quite the same.


Standing still, I could probably have stayed standing. Moving at a run I tripped over my own feet and went down hard and fast. I landed badly, cutting myself deeply on the shoulder with Tyrfing and cracking my head against the floor. That dazed me for a second.


The demon was fighting now, and it was doing a pretty damn decent job of it. It was using its whip to tangle and trip people, spreading chaos and knocking people down. It had Aiko dangling on one lash of its whip and a human mage on another, and it swung both of them into people, further disorganizing its enemies and making it hard to attack it without risking friendly fire. Aiko was still clawing at the cord around her neck, but her struggles were getting weaker. Her breathing had been restricted for a while now.


But as effective as it was, there was only one of it, and there were a lot of people attacking it. Some of them were getting through. There were ghouls biting, clawing, and kicking at it, growling in pain as they got burned, but not stopping. The jötnar were more effective; with the cold filling the air around them they were hard to burn, and their axes and swords were doing a better job of penetrating the demon’s hide.


I saw that, and then got my head in gear again and pulled Tyrfing out of my shoulder. I was bleeding, but I didn’t think it was life-threatening. If it was there wasn’t a hell of a lot that I could do about it, so I pushed myself back to my feet.


I was a little unsteady, my muscles still twitching and convulsing in ways that made it hard to keep my balance. But I managed to stagger towards the skinwalker, growling under my breath.


He hit me with yellow fire that smelled as bad as the demon’s; I cut part of it out of the air with Tyrfing and endured the rest, wrapping myself in cold. It began to spread, burning across the floor hungrily, but I ignored it. I hadn’t had any intention of leaving this building intact anyway.


He hit me with force, and it was only because I could smell his magic building that I was able to react in time. I dodged to the side, and only the edge of his magic clipped me as it passed. It knocked me down and I rolled ten feet backwards, through the fire. I growled, picked myself up again, and resumed my slow stagger forward.


He hit me with lightning, forking yellow electricity leaping unerringly across the space between us. I couldn’t take much of the credit for that attack not having the intended effect; Alexis had been the one to work a warding spell against electricity into my armor. The skinwalker hit hard enough to overload that protection, and enough got through to really hurt, but it didn’t kill me.


I was getting close now. I could hear shouting behind me, people coordinating against the demon, but I wasn’t paying enough attention to really notice what they were saying. My focus was on getting to the skinwalker and bringing him down.


He threw more magic at me. A too-real shadow grabbed at me and tried to pull me down; I cut through it with Tyrfing and shredded what was left with my own power. A cloud of harsh-smelling brown vapor filled the air between us; I held a bubble of clean air around myself as I pushed through. An odd yellow light spread onto the floor between us, strange almost-patterns moving within the light; I held myself in the air and walked over it without touching it.


The skinwalker should have been getting tired by now. Everyone had limits, and he should have been coming up against his, with how much magic he’d been throwing around. But his resources seemed inexhaustible, and he was still going strong.


I was almost in reach, and he backed away, conjuring up a wall of howling wind between us. But I used magic and Tyrfing to force a way through his wall, and he had been standing near the wall already. He didn’t have far to run.


The skinwalker still looked calm and collected, but he was moving quicker now. He reached into his coat and threw a cloud of dust into the air. I could smell silver, and the magic in the silver, and I pulled up short, not wanting to touch that dust. It was coming towards me anyway, and I grabbed some of the wind right behind me and twisted it so that it blew the silver dust back towards the skinwalker.


He grimaced and touched something else under his coat, his lips moving although I couldn’t hear what he was saying. I felt a surge of power, heavier and muskier than the skinwalker’s norm, and then he worked his signature magic.


It was entirely unlike a werewolf’s change. There was no intermediate state, no prolonged and painful process—no real process at all, really. One second there was a guy standing there, a Native American man who was expensively dressed but otherwise pretty unremarkable. The next there was a freaking grizzly bear, its shoulder damn near as high as my head. It had to be around two thousand pounds, and it didn’t look happy in the least.


I stopped and stared for a second because, really, you had to for that. It was an incredible specimen, and even knowing what it really was, I still had to pause for a second to admire the sheer physical prowess I was looking at.


I didn’t think I’d have been fooled into thinking it was a real bear, though, even if I hadn’t known better. Aside from its size, which was remarkable even for a Kodiak, its fur had an unhealthy, jaundiced sort of yellow tone. Its eyes were also intensely yellow, the same yellow as the skinwalker’s human form.


He roared and lunged at me, jaws spread wide enough to fit my entire skull inside. His breath hit me and I almost gagged, the stink of carrion on it mingling with the foulness of his magic and producing something worse than the sum of its parts.


It wasn’t incapacitating, though, and I dodged aside easily. It felt almost too easy, even; my muscular coordination had still been pretty crappy a second before, but now I wasn’t having those problems. If anything it felt like I was moving quicker and more easily than usual. I felt stronger.


The skinwalker tried to bring a paw into my head as I slipped to the side of his jaws, and I had to bring my mind back to my immediate surroundings. I ducked under it, and slashed his arm with Tyrfing over my head as I did.


I was beside it now, and it was spinning to face me, teeth snapping at me again. I was expecting that, though, and I was ready. Tyrfing bit into his side above the shoulder and hot blood spurted out, spraying my face. His jaws were still a threat, but I was quick enough to get out of the way, dancing back out of reach.


The skinwalker followed me, but he was clumsy. It was kind of hilarious, really. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing in this body. He was all muscle and no grace, no real experience fighting as a quadruped.


He was fast, lunging forward, but I was faster, and a lot less massive. I reversed direction, dropping as I did so to pass under his teeth. I slid under him, again cutting above my own head, opening a long slash from his breastbone down towards his tail. More blood poured over me, getting in my mouth and my eyes, although I didn’t quite cut deep enough to open his abdominal cavity.


He could have stepped on me and probably done some damage, but he didn’t know his body well enough to know that. He kept moving instead, stepping past me and then turning to bite at me while I was on the ground.


Except that I wasn’t. The instant he was passed I was on my feet, and then I was jumping. I normally wasn’t good at jumping, but this time it felt easy as breathing. It was like I weighed nothing at all; for a moment at the apex of my leap I almost thought I was going to just keep going, never falling back to earth.


Then I landed on the skinwalker’s back, sword first.


He screamed, a sound that didn’t remotely resemble a bear. It didn’t resemble a human much, either; the closest I could come to a comparison was screeching metal in a car wreck. It was loud, enough to hurt. Between the sudden pain at the noise and my damaged shoulder, he managed to shake me off. I flew off and hit the ground hard, rolling.


As I pushed myself to my feet, I got another look at the demon. It was surrounded by jötnar now, carving pieces out of its hide. The flames on the demon’s skin were struggling to burn, having a hard time in the cold. Aiko was still dangling by her throat, but she’d stopped moving. As I watched Kyra jumped up onto that lash of the whip and dragged it down to the ground, trying to bite through it. Another of the lashes tried to pull her off, but a pair of ghouls jumped on that one and tackled it down.


Selene wasn’t fighting. Her body still looked not-quite-right, but she was coordinating things, giving everyone directions to make sure they were where they needed to be.


Something hit me from behind before I could get up and turned back around, knocking me sideways to the ground. A second hit sent me skidding across the floor, rolling over and over. This time I was lucky enough not to hurt myself with my own sword, at least.


I managed to get upright in time to dodge the third hit, feeling it coming from the movement of the air, and turned to face the skinwalker.


He’d changed while I wasn’t looking. Instead of a massive bear, he was now in the skin of a truly enormous cat. It was the size and general shape of a tiger, although again, there was something subtly wrong with it. Its fur was yellowed, almost mangy-looking, its frame weighed down with more muscle than it could really support.


He swatted at me again, aiming for the head to break my neck this time. I knew what I was fighting now, though, and I could behave appropriately. Rather than try and get away, I stepped in, getting closer to him. He still hit me, but I was inside the arc of the swing, and he couldn’t do much more than bump me off balance a little.


I, on the other hand, was close enough to be effective. I punched him in the face with my off hand. I hit him hard enough to knock him off balance, and his eyes crossed a little.


That bought me time and space enough to cut him again, a heavy slash on his upper front leg. I’d seen the skinwalker’s healing in action before, but apparently it wasn’t up to overcoming Tyrfing’s effects, because he was bleeding heavily.


I heard a sound like a thousand damned souls screaming in agony, and for a second I thought I saw fire and darkness in the room. Then the moment passed, and I couldn’t smell the blood and shit and sulfur of the demon any longer. It didn’t take a genius to figure out what had just happened, at least in the general sense.


I knew how this fight was going to end, and apparently the skinwalker could see how things were going, too, because he went from fight to flight.


Flight was hard, though. He couldn’t run through me, not without risking another cut that he couldn’t shrug off or heal. He couldn’t get past the entire crowd of jötnar, ghouls, and mages, not now that the demons weren’t there to distract them.


So he did what I’d expected. He bolted for the large window that looked out over the sea. He jumped through the glass and hung in midair for a moment before the cat melted into a dirty yellow eagle.


The eagle flew off. I watched for a second as it flapped off towards the water.


Then the mercenaries I’d brought opened fire.


Bullets didn’t bother the skinwalker. Not really. I’d seen him get shot before, and it didn’t do a whole lot.


But that was being shot once or twice, with a shotgun. This was having ten guys open fire with assault rifles.


It was an entirely different story.


Blood and feathers sprayed, and the eagle tumbled to the street. It hit hard and broke.


I jumped out the window, cushioning my fall enough not to injure myself. I walked over to him, still carrying Tyrfing.


He turned back into his human form. It looked pretty abused; most of the bullet holes were already healed, but his clothing was shredded, hanging off him in rags. I could see the numerous, deep wounds Tyrfing had made, and they were bleeding.


“Not bad,” he said. “I don’t remember the last time someone got me this bad.” He coughed. It sounded painful. “Maybe your mother. She must have bit thirty pounds off me. At least I could heal that.”


“I said this was the last time,” I said. “I meant it.”


He grinned at me as I raised Tyrfing. “I told an army of demons to go wild in your city if I died,” he said as the sword started down.


I didn’t have time to stop, and wouldn’t have if I could.

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Breaking Point 11.22

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The nice thing about being reduced to a slow, half-dazed stumble was that it gave me plenty of time to think. Admittedly, thinking was hard right now, a struggle to get words through the ringing bells and screaming voices in my head, but I was motivated.


The problem was that I had no idea how this demon was doing this. Not even a little bit. Selene was the only demon of this sort I’d ever interacted with, and I was reasonably confident that this kind of thing was well outside of her repertoire. I supposed I could have made more of an effort to learn about them, but I hadn’t wanted to go anywhere remotely close to that topic. I was already in too deep with Loki, Coyote, the Conclave, and the Courts; adding Hell to the list was a step I wasn’t in any hurry to take.


Except the skinwalker hadn’t asked me.


The only thing I could think of to do to figure it out at this stage was to look at who was being affected the worst, and who was getting off light, and see if I could find commonalities. So that’s what I did.


Selene, I thought, I could safely dismiss. She was a demon herself, a succubus, and Coyote’s granddaughter to boot. She was probably damn near as powerful as I was, and presumably her origin made her more resistant to the powers of other demons.


Similarly, I didn’t want to base anything on myself. I was reasonably confident I was still suffering as badly as ever, and probably should have been curled up on the ground shaking and throwing up. It was just that my mind had fragmented, one part taking most of the brunt of it while the other was free to act. Probably it was my more bestial aspect, the wolf inside my skin, that was really hurting.


That left Aiko, who had managed to reload by now and was firing quick, measured bursts at the demon that actually looked like the pop culture image of a demon. The bullets didn’t seem to be doing much, but the sound was helping, loud enough to break up the literally Hellish noise I was still hearing. Kyra was on her feet, but not accomplishing much right now; Snowflake was managing forward motion, although it looked like she’d have had an easier time if her intestines were dragging on the floor behind her than she was now.


The housecarls were doing better than the ghouls, by and large, and both were doing better than the mages. One of the humans was still on his feet, doing better than anyone other than Aiko, but most of them were solidly down.


I growled a little, the sound lost in the noise. This wasn’t getting me anywhere.


Okay, I thought to myself, taking another slow, dragging step forward. Change tack. Look at differences within groups, not between them.


I didn’t know the mages or the ghouls well enough to really say much, so I focused on the other groups. Kyra was doing a lot better than Anna, who was lying on the ground and throwing up with her paws over her ears. Of the jötnar, Vigdis seemed to be doing the best, with Kjaran and Signý close behind. I wasn’t sure whether that last one counted, though. That might just be her magical protections showing; seithr could do some crazy things, that much was obvious even to someone with my extremely limited knowledge. Admittedly it hadn’t helped the rest of us much, but presumably she had more powerful defenses on herself than she did on the rest of us.


So. What did the people who were least affected have in common?


Looked at like that, it was pretty straightforward. I loved Aiko, but she was pretty unhinged at the best of times. Snowflake was worse, a violent psychopath who got off on hunting things down and killing them. Again, I loved her dearly, but I didn’t let that blind me to the fact that she was pretty nuts.


Kyra and Anna had a lot in common. But Kyra was brutalized pretty severely when she first made the change to a werewolf; Anna wasn’t.


Similarly, looking at the jötnar, what did Vigdis and Kjaran have in common that the others didn’t? They were totally nuts. I mean, Vigdis was even more psychotic than Snowflake, and she had no morals whatsoever. Kjaran was…actually, I had no idea what the hell was going on inside his head, but it was safe to say that Kjaran the Silent was not a mentally healthy individual. Even Aiko thought he was creepy, and that took some doing. Hell, that might explain Signý, too. From what I’d seen of seithr, a lot of it revolved around rituals specifically intended to break down certain barrier’s in the practitioner’s mind. Even approached carefully, that kind of thing left a mark.


Taken as a whole, the people who were suffering the least from what the demon was doing were those that were already broken on some level. They were the people who were already mentally damaged to one extent or another. They—we—were the people who were already fucked up.


In a way, it made a sick sort of sense. It was typical of the supernatural, the sort of Morton’s fork I expected from the fae. The demon was driving us mad; the only way to avoid this was to already be mad.


I found myself grinning a little. It was funny, in a not-funny-at-all sort of way. We were almost literally damned if we did and damned if we didn’t.


But I couldn’t think of a way to use that. I couldn’t make the people who were out of commission more messed up, or at least not any faster than being exposed to this already was. Given time I could maybe have come up with some kind of way to protect against it, or disrupt the effect, but I didn’t have that time and I couldn’t have managed to focus enough for that kind of work if I did.


All I could really come up with was to cut it off at the source, and hope they recovered fast enough to help against the rest of the monsters in this room.


I kept moving forward, staggering and stumbling. Another particularly strong wave of stench hit me and, even through the buffering effect keeping the experience to a minimum, I gagged and had to spend a few seconds keeping myself from going into dry-heaves again.


Ten feet between me and the demonic horseman now.


Selene had reached the thin, abstract-looking demon by now, and the two were facing off. I couldn’t really process what I was seeing, there. Selene’s formfitting black armor seemed to have merged with her flesh, making her look almost like she had through the Second Sight, a void in the world that devoured the light. There was a hint of wings to the shadow, and it wasn’t just my imagination saying that.


The thing she was fighting was just as alien, if not more so. It reached out and grasped at her with its long stick-figure arm, a limb so crooked in so many places that it almost looked like more of a tentacle. She cut at it with her dead black knife, cutting deep gashes that didn’t bleed at all. The thin demon’s flesh was blank and undifferentiated without skin or muscle or bone, like cutting into a mushroom.


The demon missed Selene, hitting the wall of the building instead. Where it touched, the wall began to decay and fall apart, wood rotting away, concrete crumbling, metal rusting into nothing.


I kept moving forward. The noise redoubled itself again, like a dozen noise metal songs being blasted into my ears at a volume far in excess of anything healthy. The demon was spinning its scepter at an unbelievable pace now, the metal not even visible except as a blur. Its long fingers were flickering and dancing like a video of a pianist played at double the normal speed.


Five feet now.


Aiko put a bullet into the red-skinned demon’s eye. Apparently this annoyed it, unlike the other bullets, because it finally moved. Its arm moved slowly, almost lazily as it cracked its whip at her. The nine lashes moved through the air independently, and not in a natural way; it was almost like each was a living creature, directing its own movements like a striking snake.


It should have been too far away from her for the whip to reach. Somehow, it wasn’t. Four of the lashes wrapped around her carbine and ripped it out of her hands. Two more twined around each ankle and pulled her feet out from under her; the last caught her by the throat before she could fall and held her up, choking off her air.


I took one last step forward and I was within reach of the demon. I brought Tyrfing around in a slash at its head, the strike coming so slow it seemed almost like I was moving underwater.


The thing snapped that rod into the path of the blow, and Tyrfing bounced off it with a sharp, pure chiming sound. The chime felt good, cutting through the noise in a way that even the gunshots hadn’t.


The horse bit at me, and I saw that its teeth were as sharp as those of the creature riding on it were blunt, a shark’s teeth in a horse’s mouth. I ducked away, and then had to dodge further to avoid the rider’s fist. I had a nasty suspicion that I didn’t want that thing touching me, not even when I was wearing armor.


I cut at it again and again, and both times it put the scepter in the way without even pausing in its spin. The noise continued, howling and screaming and ringing in my ears, but it seemed like it was getting quieter every time I landed a hit on that scepter. I could think straight again, and my movements were coming quicker.


The demon reached out with its other hand, grabbing at me. Again, I ducked aside, but this time it was a feint, and I’d bitten hard. I ducked to the side, and I ducked straight into the horse’s rising hoof.


It hurt. A lot. I got knocked down, and when I hit the ground I didn’t move for a couple of seconds.


At least it hadn’t kicked me in the head. I hadn’t put my helmet back on after I took it off to vomit, and even just knocking my head on the ground when I fell was enough to hurt. If it had actually kicked me in the face, I was pretty sure I’d be wheezing my last few breaths out through a broken face.


To my left, Selene screamed. It was a short and ugly scream, rising towards the end into a sort of breathless shriek before fading out entirely. I couldn’t see what had happened to her, but it didn’t take a genius to figure that it wasn’t good.


To my right and behind me, there was an even more ominous silence from Aiko. There wasn’t the sound of a scuffle, not even whimpers or gasps as she fought for air. Not that I would necessarily have heard them if they were there, between the ringing in my ears and the background of screams, moans, and whimpers from the rest of the people in the room. Still, the silence was not a good omen.


I saw a bolt of yellow fire pass over me, leaving the stench of rotting meat in its wake, reminding me that the demons were only the appetizer here. Even if we could beat them, and that was looking less likely with every passing second, there was still the skinwalker to deal with.


For a second, I almost did something rash. It was very, very close.


Then I convinced myself that things weren’t quite that desperate yet, and pushed myself back to my feet instead.


The mounted demon was still sitting—or standing; it looked like horse and rider were actually fused together, confirming my initial suspicion that they were actually a single conjoined entity—right where it had been. It was spinning that scepter, as fast as ever.


I staggered forward, almost tripping over my own feet, sword raised as though I was planning to cut at it again. It raised the rod to block, still spinning it through that madcap dance.


This time, though, I’d gotten a little smarter. Rather than slash at the rider again, I went after the horse, dropping into a thrust with the weight of my body behind the sword.


Tyrfing slipped into its flesh like it was cutting paper. This one bled, at least, although it was freaking weird blood, silver in color and too thick.


The horse staggered to the side, but didn’t fall, though I’d run it through where the heart should have been on a real animal. Further confirmation that this wasn’t really a horseman.


I hadn’t even seen her get close, but Snowflake was next to me, her teeth anchored in the horse-thing’s other side. She set her feet and began pulling; I braced myself, gripped the sword more firmly, and pushed. Between the two of us we managed to topple the horse-thing.


It hit the ground, not as hard as it should have. From how it landed I’d have thought it weighed almost nothing, as though it were hollow and made of paper. It had been as hard to push over as a real horse, though.


I could really get to hate these things and the way they just didn’t make sense.


The horseman went with its mount, not even trying to get away. The horse glared at Snowflake, while the rider glared at me, the exact same expression on both faces. Despite that, though, it was the horse that attacked me, lashing out with two hooves.


I barely managed to duck aside, and Snowflake jumped on the rider, biting at its hand. She tore a couple of fingers off, recoiling at the taste of blood, and it dropped the scepter to the ground.


It hit the floor with a ringing clang, and the noise in my ears cut off, as did much of the vile scent and the nausea, the strange appearance of the shadows.


It growled and reached for the scepter with its healthy hand, swatting at Snowflake with the maimed one. It hit her and she hit the deck, writhing in agony.


I grimaced. I’d scored a victory there, but it would take time for the people who had been put down by the mental assault to recover, and I was guessing it would be able to resume what it had been doing the second it had that scepter in its hand again.


Past it, Selene was losing the fight with her demon. I thought she was, anyway; it was hard to tell. She was moving more slowly, clumsy, and while it had lots and lots of chunks missing it didn’t seem to care. It was hard to say at a glance, but I thought that what I could see of Selene’s body was warped, twisted and distended in much the same way as that of the demon that she was fighting. Aiko was still worryingly silent; Snowflake seemed to be the only other person in the room who’d recovered enough to fight, and direct contact with the demon had put her right back down again.


Then the tendril of the third demon’s whip twisted itself around my ankle, and tugged my foot out from under me. I went down instantly. The whip felt unpleasantly hot and slippery, even though it wasn’t actually touching me, and it was strong, maybe stronger than I was.


I growled. It still wasn’t working.


It was time to do something rash.


Another lash of the whip was wrapping itself around my throat and hoisting me into the air, but I ignored that, fumbling in my pocket instead. I found what I was looking for and held it up, making sure that they could see it.


Everyone stopped. Everyone.


I’d had that reaction from Tyrfing, in the past. It was like when the cursed sword entered the fight, everyone had to take a moment to appreciate that fact.


This was a little like that. Except that this time they didn’t start again.


“Put me down,” I said, wheezing a little.


The lash around my throat lowered me to the ground, very, very slowly, and then unwrapped itself from around my neck.


I got my feet steady and then looked around again, checking on things.


Selene and her guy had stopped fighting, and both of them were just staring in my direction. The horseman had the scepter in its hand again, but it wasn’t spinning it, and it wasn’t trying to stand up.


The third demon was standing dead still. Even its whip was just floating midair like a frozen frame out of a particularly odd film. Including the tendril holding Aiko in the air, where her struggles to get free were getting noticeably weaker.


“Put her down,” I snapped at it. The demon responded instantly, lowering her slowly to the ground.


“How did you come by that?” the skinwalker asked. For maybe the second time I’d ever heard, he actually sounded scared. “You don’t even know what that is.”


“Oh,” I said lightly, grinning. Rash, maybe, but I’d definitely shaken his control of this fight. “I think I have a pretty good idea what this is.” I twirled the blank black card in my fingers, and the demons and the skinwalker alike flinched away a little.


“Death,” I said. “But not for me.” I grinned. “I’m sure I can think of someone else, though.”

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Breaking Point 11.21

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Well, crap.


“What the hell is wrong with you?” I asked. “Seriously, dude. What the hell?”


“Oh, come on,” he said with a casual, infectious grin. “Don’t tell me you didn’t see this coming. You made me look like a fool. I don’t forgive that.”


“Sure,” I said. “I knew that. But this? Why not keep things between us? What earthly freaking reason did you have to take it out on every person in Colorado Springs?”


“Because I wanted to,” he said. “What more reason do I need?”


“Plenty!” I shouted. “Or you should, at least. You don’t declare war on an entire city just because one guy that lives there annoyed you.”


He rolled his eyes. “You’re one to talk,” he said. “Or are you going to tell me the kitsune would do anything less?”


“Oh, screw you,” Aiko said instantly. “I mean, sure, I can appreciate the übermensch vibe you’ve got going. ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law’ and all that. I can respect that. But even I have limits. You don’t try to murder an entire city because you’re pissed off at one person.”


“Why shouldn’t I?” he asked reasonably. “You and I, we’re the same. I mean that to include you, as well, Winter. The only difference is that I’m not in denial. I don’t try to pretend that I’m something other than what I am.” Still grinning, he turned back to the window and pointed out over the water. “Do you see that boat?” he asked.


I looked where he was pointing. I could, just barely, see the boat he meant, a sailboat out on the ocean.


As I watched, that bright white sail burst into yellow flames. The fire spread rapidly, until the entire boat was burning. I could see a handful of people jump off into the water, and I could imagine the screams. Odd, twisted limbs picked them up and threw them back into the flames.


It only took a few seconds. Even if I’d been able to get there, there was nothing I could have done.


“I just killed those people,” the skinwalker said casually, turning back to face me. “Not for any particular reason. They hadn’t done anything to upset me. I just wanted to watch them burn. So I did.”


I stared at him for a second, then let out a mental sigh. There was no point to trying to get through to him. There was nothing there to get through to. The skinwalker wasn’t misguided, or misunderstood. The problem here wasn’t that he didn’t understand what he was doing, or that he didn’t know what it meant. He knew exactly what it meant, and he did it anyway.


Falling from grace is a funny thing. Some people look into the abyss and back away. Some people teeter on the edge. Some people slip and fall in. Some people are pushed.


The skinwalker was the kind of guy that jumped.


And my mother had, apparently, been his buddy. It was funny, in a not-funny-at-all kind of way. I’d often been embarrassed about being her son. I’d had a lot of awkward moments as a result of it.


But this was the first time I could think of that I’d actually been ashamed to be related to her.


I raised Tyrfing, moving the sword into a guard position. At that signal, the jötnar drew their weapons as well, and the ghouls shifted fully into their natural forms, claws and teeth and hooves at the ready. The werewolves bared their teeth and snarled, the kind of quiet snarl that didn’t so much threaten violence as state it.


“Are you sure you’re ready?” the skinwalker asked mockingly. “I thought you might want to stand around outside for another hour or two first.”


“No,” I said. “No, I’ve pretty much had it with you. This is the last time you’re going to cause problems for me.”


“On that,” he said, “we’re agreed.”


Then the skinwalker gestured slightly with one hand, murmuring in a language I couldn’t place. The room filled with yellow light, almost the same tone as the skinwalker’s eyes. It was drawn in elaborate patterns on the ground, on the walls, geometric figures and letters and strange fractal designs that hurt my head to look at. The light burned brighter, and it seemed strangely deeper as well, stretching off in directions that I couldn’t name or place. It was almost like looking at a permanent Way between worlds, a line drawn perpendicular to the world.


I could smell the magic underlying that light, a terrifyingly powerful stench of rot and decay and corruption. As it faded, other smells took over, and they were hardly any better. There was a hint of sulfur, rotting blood and burning hair, shit and death and the sharp tang of ozone, an odd and unpleasant incense.


The light winked out, and I blinked away the afterimages, shaking my head.


When I could see again, I had to work to keep from shaking in sheer terror. The skinwalker was still there, all right, but he wasn’t alone. There were three other things in the room now, standing between us and him, and from the context I could only assume that they were demons. Not even spirits, like Legion, but physical demons.


The first looked like the classical, typical sort of demon. It was nine feet tall, with red skin and black eyes, a mouth full of long thin fangs, and black leathery wings. It held a whip in one hand, a long nine-tailed whip that twined in the air under its own power. It stank of fresh blood and sulfur and feces, and flames crawled over its skin.


The second was more human in its appearance, if not any more pleasant. It looked like a tall man with skin and hair as white as snow, wearing a gleaming silver crown on its head. It carried a silver scepter studded with diamonds in its right hand, twirling it casually. It was riding on a horse as pale as it was, although I was pretty sure they were one being.


The third was the most abstract of the group. It was vaguely humanoid, but stretched out in ways that didn’t make sense. It would easily be fifteen or twenty feet tall if it stood straight, but it was hunched over, its limbs bent in too many places, until it wasn’t even as tall as the demon with the whip. Its limbs were too thin, making it look more like an arrangement of lines than a person. As far as I could tell, this demon was the source for the odder scents, the ozone and the incense.


“I hope you don’t mind that I brought friends,” the skinwalker said. “I didn’t want you to feel like I wasn’t being hospitable.” He smiled. “Why don’t you get to know each other?”


I started to rush at him, hoping to kill him before the demons could do…whatever the hell they did. I couldn’t even guess.


I hadn’t made it two steps when the demon on the horse spoke. Its voice was smooth and melodious, beautiful in an utterly inhuman way, and though it wasn’t loud, it was incredibly penetrating, filling the space and leaving no room for anything else.


Despite the strange sound of it, though, I could easily understand what the demon said. “I am God,” it said with a quiet, alien smile, “and King, and Law.”


I felt its magic brush against me, as it brushed against everything in the room, and the world broke.


I was standing in a frozen forest, the trees all around me. The ground was covered in snow, all around. There was no sign of the building I had been in, no sign of the city around me, no sign of the ocean.


But I could smell smoke. Looking around, some of the trees were smoldering, and when I looked up I could see clouds of smoke drifting across the sky. I looked at myself, and I wasn’t sure whether I was in the shape of a human or a wolf; it seemed to change from moment to moment, my body’s shape and orientation shifting back and forth.


Suddenly I heard ringing, like a dozen bells all around me, too loud and too close and with no semblance of order in their ringing. It was hard to think through the noise, hard to focus.


I took a step forward and the world changed around me, shifting and twisting. I was standing in the building again, but it wasn’t how I’d left it. The walls were burning sickly green flame, and the shadows in the corner were shifting crazily, too dark and with an odd substance to them. It smelled foul, unimaginably foul, blood and sulfur and feces and rotting meat and noxious smoke. I thought I was about to vomit, but I knew somehow that throwing up would only make things worse.


Looking around, proportion seemed broken, things not positioned in a way that made sense. The demons, as strange and surreal as they were, looked somehow more real than the rest of the room, looming over the madness and the chaos. Their forms shifted and spun in ways that, again, didn’t make any sense. Like the shadows, they seemed to have a terrible significance to them.


And over all of it was the noise. It was a cacophony of ringing bells, far too loud and chaotic, overwhelming. It was horrible, the noise affecting me like nails on a chalkboard, but far stronger. It was almost impossible to think through the noise, to focus or concentrate. I could barely even move.


A gunshot went off right next to me and I was grateful, even though it was nearly deafening, painfully loud. Anything, anything was better than that ringing.


Then I was back in the forest, except it was worse than before. Shadows moved under the trees with nothing to cast them, their shapes strange and asymmetric, hideous and disturbing. I could smell fire and death and blood and smoke and death and shit and acid and death and it was vile beyond words. The ground cracked open around me and black tentacles reached out, slimy things as thick around as my torso, covered in fur that moved of its own accord.


The ringing was joined by voices now, chanting and screaming and howling. It was hard to stay standing, hard to stay conscious. If I looked too closely at anything, or if I took a deep breath and really got a good whiff of the stench, I didn’t think I would be able to take it.


Back in the room. The fire wasn’t there, had never been there, but the shadows were thicker and there were pools of black liquid in the corners of the room. It was too thick, a noxious sludge that I knew was poison like no poison I had ever seen before, and it was spreading. The demon on his pale horse was spinning his scepter in its hand with a broad smile on its face, his teeth broad flat slabs like a horse’s. I could smell the poison, in addition to the rest, a harsh caustic smell that made me gag. I doubled over and started to throw up, only managing to choke it back down after I could taste the bitter acrid acid of my own vomit in my mouth.


I heard people screaming and sobbing and moaning, and it sounded good. Any noise that could break up the hideous monotony of the ringing bells and the howling voices in my ears was good, was something I was grateful for.


Someone was hitting me, clawing at my armor and trying to drag me down to the ground. They looked like a demon, taller than me and stronger than me and they were trying to hurt me and they were screaming and howling and begging and crying. I panicked and pushed them away reflexively, and they stumbled away and fell. They hit the ground and curled up into a fetal position, moaning and whimpering. It wasn’t until that point that I recognized Thraslaug, one of the jötnar who had followed me here.


I took another slow, shaky step forward. As I did I got another breath of the vile, intolerable odors in the air, and this time I knew it was too much. I fell to my knees, and I barely managed to get my helmet off before I was throwing up. Stomach acid and half-digested food spilled out of my mouth, splashing on the floor and splattering my legs. It didn’t take long to vomit up everything in my stomach, but I couldn’t stop, dry-heaving and coughing. Every breath brought the stench of demons and skinwalker into my lungs, making me puke even harder. My ribs were screaming agony, and I could barely even hold myself upright on my knees. I heard more gunshots and they were a relief from the clamor in my ears, but it wasn’t enough, the noise was still agonizing and overwhelming and I couldn’t even think.


And then something snapped, somewhere inside me. It was hard to say quite what it was. All I really knew was that suddenly I couldn’t smell anything, not really. My hearing was dulled as well, my vision dimmed.


It didn’t completely soothe the agony, the sensory overload that had put me down to begin with. My chest was still heaving, trying to vomit out something that wasn’t there. It was still hard to think, hard to concentrate, hard to focus, hard to even process what was going on.


But I was able to push myself to my feet, even if they were unsteady. I was able to look around and see what was going on.


Most of the people I had brought with me were on the ground, curled up into balls or writhing in agony. Some were screaming, but most seemed to have progressed beyond that stage; they were unable to do anything but sob and whimper. A handful of them—Anna, a couple of the ghouls, one of the fire mages I’d brought—were lying on the ground and vomiting.


More interesting were the people who weren’t affected as badly. Aiko was still standing, her lips pressed into a tight white line, fumbling as she tried to reload her carbine. Snowflake and Kyra were both standing dead still, their sides heaving as they struggled not to vomit. Selene was seemingly unaffected, striding towards the too-thin demon with a matte-black thornlike dagger in her hand. None of the housecarls were on their feet, but some of them were moving, struggling to stand or dragging themselves forward. Vigdis was one of those, as were Signý and Kjaran.


I felt something strange, my skin crawling. It felt like a thousand feathers being dragged lightly over my flesh, but from the inside. I tugged my gauntlet off and saw that it wasn’t my imagination. Marks were appearing on my skin like a bruise, except it was drawn in fur and ice rather than color and swelling. The fur and the ice shifted and flowed across my flesh, pressing up and receding again.


I was hoping it was a hallucination, just one more part of the sensory mindfuck this demon was delivering. But I didn’t think I was that lucky. I thought I knew what had happened there at the end, why I was able to function better than most of the others. I might be wrong, but I didn’t think I was. It all fit together so freaking nicely.


I looked at the demon where it sat on its horse. It looked back at me and smiled, still twirling its scepter lightly in its hand. The noise intensified another notch, and despite the block keeping it from having its full effect on me, I winced and stumbled.


That was my first target, then. Now I just had to figure out a way to take it down, effectively alone, when I had no idea what it was capable of or how I was supposed to fight it. And then find a way to deal with its two buddies. And then beat the skinwalker, who was himself a force far beyond anything I’d ever managed to actually fight.


I could do that. Right. No problem.


I gritted my teeth and took another slow, shaky step forward.

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