“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.