Skrýmir opened the Way back to Jotunheim. I wasn’t sure why there was a direct, established path between a seemingly random mountainside in Jotunheim and Scáthach’s throne room, and I wasn’t about to ask. I figured I’d done enough wildly stupid things already today.
I’d rather have taken a portal directly home, but Otherside portals were impractical for so many people when not all of them were inured to the effects. I could have opened one just for us, but it would have taken time, and at the moment I thought it was probably a good idea to get the hell out of Faerie as soon as conceivably possible.
And besides, it would have been rude not to take Skrýmir’s offer of a ride. And given that he’d just saved our asses from maybe the single worst situation I’d ever been, rudeness seemed like a bad idea at the moment.
I was really trying not to do more stupid things today. Now that everything was settled out my head was starting to clear a little, and I could actually appreciate just how many insane risks I’d taken in the past day. It was a sobering thing to think about.
The jötnar walked or rode through the Way, talking, laughing, casually shoving or cuffing each other. It was more like they were leaving a party than a small war; some of them had even produced horns of alcohol and started passing them around already. They were carrying their few casualties with them.
The rest of us followed. I was feeling pretty brutally exhausted, and I hurt. Aiko wasn’t in much better shape, if any; she wasn’t injured, but spending that long in captivity had not been kind to her. Snowflake was happy and satisfied and a little bit dizzy from being too long on her feet; she was in better shape than before, but that didn’t mean the brain damage had just gone away. Similarly, Kyra’s damaged leg was starting to ache, and she had some shallow cuts and gashes on her back and shoulders as well.
The elder kitsune were both fine. The tension between them and their daughter was painful to watch, though. She hadn’t spoken to either of them, and she still wasn’t even looking in their direction when she could help it.
I stepped through the door into winter, and blinked as the cold hit me in the face. It felt good, crisp and bracing. Jötnar carried something of the eternal winter of their homeland, wrapped around them like a cloak, but nothing compared to getting it straight from the source.
The jötnar kept walking, but Skrýmir stopped beside me, dropping one hand onto my shoulder. He wasn’t pushing me down, wasn’t squeezing. It still felt heavy, more with meaning than with a physical weight.
I’d gotten what I wanted, then. Time to pay the piper.
“Are you satisfied with how this turned out?” he asked, leading me away from the others. None of them tried to follow.
“No,” I said. “Not really. Nothing on you, it’s just….” I trailed off, shaking my head. “Why?” I demanded. “Why did she do this shit? Why does everyone always make things hard?”
“That’s life,” he said dryly. “Nothing is ever easy.”
“But that’s just it,” I said. “What if it could be? What if I could make things easy?”
“Better men than you have tried.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess they have.” I shook my head, trying to clear it, and then looked at Skrýmir. “I guess I owe you,” I said.
He shook his head. “No more than you already did,” he said. “Like I told her, where I come from an oath still means something.”
I looked at him oddly, and things started to click into place in my head. Slowly, given how bad of shape I was in, but they were clicking. “That isn’t all there is to it, is it?” I said. “You got something out of this. Reputation, maybe. I gave you free access to your enemy’s sanctum and a legitimate grievance against her. An excuse.” I shook my head again. “You were using me the whole time.”
He sighed. “We all use each other, boy,” he said. “All the time. That’s life. It’s nothing personal. It’s nothing to get worked up about.”
“Nothing to get worked up about?” I asked. “My friends could have died in there.”
“And how many of my people did die?” he asked. His voice was still calm, but there was a hint of iron to it, something that suggested I’d be wise not to push any further.
I sighed and looked away. “Sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean to make light of that. It’s just…it all seems so pointless, you know? So much suffering, so much death, and why? So one person could fight another in a politically acceptable way? It seems like such a fucking waste.”
He grinned and slapped me on the back. “That’s because you’re one of us,” he said. “Nobody’s going to argue that after tonight.”
I staggered a little as he clapped me on the back. “Thanks,” I said dryly. “I think.”
He laughed and let go of my shoulder. “Ah, get out of here,” he said. “Take your lady somewhere warm.” He turned and followed the other jötnar, whistling a simple tune as he walked.
The three kitsune were carrying on a quiet, intense conversation in Japanese when I got back to them. I didn’t interrupt. I was pretty sure this was the most pleasant interaction Aiko had had with her parents in a very long time, and I wasn’t going to be the one to interrupt it.
A couple of minutes later, the conversation trailed off. Aiko embraced both of her parents, two of the most awkward and stilted hugs I’d ever seen, and then they walked off as well.
Aiko watched them go with an odd, almost sad expression, and then turned to face me. She was shivering a little, but not terribly so. “Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home. It seems like it’s been forever since I was home.”
I smiled, and started working on the portal.
Much later, I was lying in bed back in Transylvania. I’d sent a message back to Colorado to let them know that we’d made it through more or less unscathed, but I hadn’t been remotely up to going there.
I reached out and lazily stroked Aiko’s fur, running my hand from her forehead down to the tips of her tails. The second one had been as much a surprise to her as me. Apparently being trapped and unconscious and surrounded by high-intensity fae magic had done something to accelerate the development of her own power. A small compensation, maybe.
Not remotely worth it, of course. But I was trying to look on the bright side, and I’d been drifting in and out of sleep long enough to manage it.
She arched her back against my hand and then rolled over to face me. She returned to human form as she did, throwing one arm around my shoulders and snuggling close. “You’re cold now,” she said sleepily.
“I know,” I said. She’d told me years ago that my low body temperature was the most disappointing part of cuddling.
“Not like this,” she said. “You used to just not be warm. Now you’re cold. Like a snowman.”
“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.” I started to move away, but she made an unhappy noise and pulled me towards her. I relented and pulled the blankets up instead, wrapping them more tightly around her. “Some of my bones are made of ice now, apparently,” I said. “That’s probably why I feel colder.”
She giggled a little. “Made of ice?” she said. “That is so awesome.”
“Yeah, sort of,” I said. “It’s…I’m worried, Aiko. I feel like I’m losing my grip on me. Everything like this that happens, I’m stronger, but at the same time, it seems like I’m moving further and further away from the person I was. It’s like I can only get anywhere by turning into more of a monster, one step at a time.”
“S’okay,” she mumbled. “I’ll still love you when you’re a monster.”
I lay there and stroked her hair for a minute. It wasn’t as thick as it had been, some of it having fallen out while she was imprisoned, but what was left was still soft and sleek. I wasn’t sure why her hair would have been affected when as a fox her fur was still as full as ever. Another question not worth asking.
“Thanks,” I said at last. “That means a lot to me.”
But she’d already dozed off again, and a few minutes later I had as well.
The next morning started out nicely enough. I woke up a little after noon, local time, and took a shower. Aiko joined me a few minutes later, which predictably made it take a little longer, but I had a hard time getting too upset about that.
We got dressed and went downstairs, where we found Kyra and Snowflake sitting at the dining room table. The werewolf had changed back to human at some point, and was currently staring into a cup of coffee. Caffeine didn’t have much of an effect on werewolves, but if you drank enough coffee you could still get a little bit of a buzz, and a lot of them drank it anyway for the taste.
“Food,” Kyra said. “I’m starving.”
“Now that you mention it,” I said, “so am I. I guess I could cook something.”
She shuddered. “Hell no,” she said. “I said food. Not the toxic pig slop that is the result of you cooking.”
Oh, come on, Snowflake said. Even pigs don’t call that food. I’m pretty sure even goats don’t eat your cooking.
I laughed. “Okay, fine,” I said. “We’ll go out somewhere. Let me just get my armor.”
Breakfast ended up being a seedy London cafe, the kind of place where you paid cash and a little bet extra was enough to convince them to overlook the fact that you had a dog with you. The food was surprisingly good, too, which was a nice added bonus.
I didn’t see any kind of supernatural threats there, and I noticed a handful of wards and protections in the area. The graffiti painting of a traffic warden with his sign turned to STOP burned with defensive magic, and someone had drawn the cross-in-cross symbol of the City of London on the wall in blood. On these streets, that was one of the strongest symbols of protection and defense that there was.
In London, at least, the chaos was coming back under control.
Kyra flat out refused to let us drop her off in Wyoming, so the four of us went back to Colorado together.
As soon as I stepped out of the portal into the city, I knew that my pleasant little holiday was over. The air smelled like smoke, and the air was hazy, a thin pall of smoke hanging in the air all around. The mansion wasn’t burning, but it wasn’t in good shape, burns and gashes in the walls showing where it had been damaged.
I hurried up and opened the door. Inside, things weren’t much better. My housecarls were scattered around the room, and they were beat to shit. Almost all of them had bandages in multiple places. Several had arms in slings, and a couple were missing ears or fingers.
Kyi walked up to me a couple of seconds later. She wasn’t particularly steady on her feet, and she was in the worst shape of anyone there. Her right arm was in a sling, and she had a black leather eyepatch over her right eye. There were fresh cuts on cheek and her forehead, and she had bandages on her chest and her left thigh.
She knelt slowly in front of me and bowed her head, as formal as I’d ever seen her. “Jarl,” she said. “Forgive me. I have failed you.”