Monthly Archives: September 2015

Interlude 8.y: Kjaran the Silent

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There was a boy. He was hurt, and he healed broken.


There is more to the story. There are reasons and there are justifications and there are explanations. There is tragedy and there is horror and there is black sorrow that binds the heart and makes breath come slow and heavy. There are things that could be said to sharpen the edge of the story, make it cut cleaner and hurt less.


But at the heart of it, the story of any life is a simple one. And the story of my life is this. A boy was hurt, and he healed broken. It is a tragedy, one of many, one of the thousands that plays out every day, on every world. There are as many tragedies as there are once-fighters in the hall of the slain.


We cannot feel the pain of so many sad songs, and so we pick and choose, we select the sorrows and scars which we shall pity. We sharpen them so that they will cut us cleanly, and we bear their wounds upon our souls, and tell ourselves that this sacrifice is enough.


Take away the flourishes and details that we use to hide the true extent of the horror from ourselves, and the story becomes simple once again. A boy was hurt, and he healed broken. It is a simple, quiet tragedy. It is a pain that never truly ends. It is a story that, like any other, is unlike any other.


The metal flattened out under the force of my blows. The bar of steel was beginning to take on a recognizable shape as a longsword. Two edges, one point. The guard and the grip would be added later.


The metal began to cool and I thrust it back into the forge. Mortal smiths used tongs for this. I used nothing more than a leather glove and the touch of my homeland. The blade-to-be was still painfully hot beneath my fingers. I tightened my grip slightly and held it steady in the coals.


I pulled the glowing metal out of the heart of the flame and rested it on the anvil once again. Again, my hammer fell upon it, until the ringing of steel on steel echoed through the room and drove the silence out.


I listened, and I heard voices in the ringing, half-heard voices heralding war and blood and death. I looked, and I saw shapes in the twisting smoke and hazy air of the forge, wolves and eagles and grim-faced men sitting at their oars. I breathed, and I scented odors in the coal smoke, heated metal, and sweat in that room, salty sea air and death and hot breath that reeked of carrion.


I saw the feeders of eagles going to the field of battle, and I saw the iron game played there. Gaut’s fires cut the circles of shields, and forest-dragons danced and darted and shed blood upon the ground. Many men were given the hanged god’s hospitality, and many more were sent to Fólkvangr. I watched the raven banner flying over the field, and the ravens ate like kings.


I saw all of this and I hammered the steel and the blade took shape and form beneath my blows. My hands were burned, and when I plunged the newborn mail-coat’s flame into the cooling water, it burst into steam and scorched my face as well.


I did not scream or growl or curse or cry, and my movements were calm and controlled as I set the blade aside.


I reached out and moved a piece on the tafl board. The attacking pieces had the numerical advantage, as was usual in a game of hnefetafl, and currently they had the advantage of position as well. But my defenders were not without all hope. The game was not yet over.


Haki instantly pushed his own piece ahead. The new location was more aggressive, threatening to capture on the next turn. Unsurprising. Haki Who-Fights-Alone was inclined to rapid, aggressive play. The play was an obvious threat, a straightforward attack, and these things appealed to him.


I regarded the board for a moment and then slid one of my defenders over to the edge of the board. On the surface it was a foolish, useless move. It did nothing to avert the impending capture of my imperiled piece, and my defender was now so far removed from the main action of the game that it could do little.


Haki moved his piece into position to complete the capture, and plucked one of my defenders off the board. My forces were dwindling rapidly; aside from my king, I had only six pieces remaining.


“I feel like we’re losing,” Haki said as he removed my piece, setting it to the side.


As I’d expected, he added nothing to this statement. He had said what he meant, and Haki was not the sort to feel any need to add clarifications and niceties to what he meant. He was not the sort to waste his words at all.


I said nothing as I moved another piece, shifting it sideways. Several of my defending pieces were left more vulnerable by this play, the organized defenses I had established beginning to collapse.


“The jarl is in over his head,” he added, capturing another of my pieces. “He’s a tricksy bastard, no argument, and not one I’d like to come up against. But there’s too many of them, and they’re too big. We don’t have a prayer.”


From Haki, this was a great statement, as many words as he might use in a whole week. That was meaningful. It meant that he really, truly believed what he was saying, that he felt strongly about it.


I still said nothing. Haki spent his words carefully, but I had none left to spend.


The next several moves passed quickly and silently. He pressed further in, capturing another piece and threatening my king. I took five of his in quick succession, the collapsed defensive position of my pieces proving much more powerful in the counterattack than it had been in protection.


But my position was still very weak, and Haki moved another two pieces in, threatening my king again. It was now only one move from capture, and Haki was smiling with satisfaction. He thought this game was won.


Then I slid the piece I had moved to the edge earlier back into the center of the board. It was a self-destructive play; that piece would be captured almost instantly. But it disrupted his attack, capturing one of the key pieces in his structure and requiring others to move out of position to capture it.


The ensuing trade of pieces was swift and brutal. None of my pieces survived the exchange. But the sacrifice left my kin with a clear route to the edge of the board which Haki could do nothing to prevent. I moved it out to escape, and the game was mine.


Haki regarded me with an annoyed expression. “For somebody who doesn’t talk,” he said, “you sure as hell have a way with words. But notice that your defenders all died.”


I began putting the pieces back into the box. After a moment, Haki joined me, and then slipped the box under the game board. By the end of it he was smiling, any annoyance overridden by the satisfaction of a good game.


I did not smile or laugh, and my movements were calm and controlled as I stowed the game away.


The fae warrior danced past the wall of life-protectors and thrust his blade up under my ribs. The fine point of the sword pierced my ring-short chain coat and slid into my flesh, stabbing up toward my heart.


I braced my shield against the blade and brought my own sword down upon it. The sword shattered under my steel and the bold child of the courts of laughing killers laughed no more. I took his heart and left him on the ground for the ravenous ones. Freki’s kin ran beside my feet, the grey, dusky howlers pouncing on the screaming and sending them on to the Screamer. They lapped up the battle-dew and sang their gratitude to the sky.


I stepped forward and cut another of the fae down, then another. To my left and my right were my kinsmen, walking beside me and bringing the enemy down beside me. Past them were ghouls and magic men, spinning their seithr and casting it out against those who stood against us. Odin’s storm raged all around, and over it all I could hear the howling of the terrible one’s dreadful creatures, the harsh cries of war-gulls circling overhead.


The last of the fae fell and died, and the battle was over. I was bleeding, my arm injured, the shard of a crystalline blade sticking out of my flesh.


But I did not scream or cry or pray, and my movements were calm and controlled as I gathered up the dead for the pyre.


On the first day, I cursed until I could curse no more. I uttered vile imprecations and I spoke horrid words. I wished the most terrible deaths I could think of upon my captors, and they did not care.


On the second day, I talked until I could talk no more. I told them everything I knew, and much that I only guessed at, but they were not satisfied.


On the third day, I begged until I could beg no more. I pled for mercy and for kindness and for death, but they were not moved.


On the fourth day, I sang until I could sing no more. I sang the songs of my people, the ancient sagas and heroic lays that we called our own. I sang of birds and beasts and the turning of the heavens. I sang my own poetry that I had never before spoken aloud, and I sang without any words at all, and they did not listen.


On the fifth day, I prayed until I could pray no more. I asked for help from the gods of my people, from Laupt lightning’s son and the fen-dwelling wolf and the great serpent of the middle world and the huntress that hung the snake. I prayed to the gods who I had been taught to call on only in direst need, from the hanged god and the one-handed one and the bloody lady of cats and gold. I prayed to gods that were not of my people at all. I prayed to every god that I could think of, but they did not answer.


On the sixth day, I screamed until I could scream no more. I howled and ranted and raved and tore my throat with the screaming, and they did not heed me.


On the seventh day, I cried until I could cry no more. I wept and sobbed until I had no tears left to shed, but they did not console me.


On the eight day, I laughed until I could laugh no more. Now, at last, my captors reacted. They looked at me with fear, and they knew that I was marked for more than this.


On the ninth day, I was silent.


When others came and finally cut me down from the tree, it was too late. I was not the boy who had been hung there, a sacrifice of myself to myself. There were things missing that should have been present, and there were things present that shouldn’t have existed. I had seen too much.


As the years rolled by, I recovered from the ordeal. The visions came more rarely. I recovered my strength and my coordination. I grew from a boy into a man. I healed.


But I healed broken. I was strange and fey, an outcast and an outsider. I did not learn the charms and the runes, as Odin had, but still I was not what I had been. I saw too deeply, and too much. I do not speak; there is nothing left to say. The silence of the ninth day lives in me now, and I wear death and sacrifice as a cloak.


There was a boy. He was hurt, and he healed broken. It is a simple story, one more tragedy in a world that has known more tragedies than there are stars in the sky.

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Breaking Point 11.20

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“Okay,” I said, grabbing Kyi’s good arm and hauling her to her feet. I wasn’t as polite about it as I might have been another time. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’ve been gone for two days, yes?”


“A little more,” she said. “Fifty-two hours or so.”


“Right,” I said, nodding. “So can you please explain to me just how the hell you let things get this bad in two freaking days?”


“Most of our allies started backing out as soon as you left,” she said. Her voice was crisp and professional, although I could tell she would rather have eaten ground glass than described just what had gone wrong here. “They were more your personal allies than associated with your people as an organization, and most of them didn’t expect you to come back. Most of them assumed that you were going to get slaughtered by Scathach; the rest figured it was all a cover and you were taking the money and running.”


“I hope you have a list of who was saying that,” I said.


“Selene does. She kept very careful note.”


“Good. Continue.”


Kyi nodded. “We were able to keep the situation under control at first,” she said. “I kept the housecarls loyal, and most of the mercenaries you hired stuck around. Some of the mages, some of the ghouls. Then, about a day ago, someone started a fire in the forest west of town.”


I winced. “Oh.”


Wildfires are a perennial danger in Colorado. Most of the forests are full of standing dead, and it’s often so dry that even a simple spark could set things off. I couldn’t remember the last year we didn’t have some kind of fire.


Usually, though, there were resources in place to fight those fires. There were people ready to limit the spread, and keep them away from populated areas. It was rare that a fire got anywhere near the city, and when it did, it usually got dealt with fast.


But now those resources were in shambles.


“How bad is it?” I asked.


Kyi looked away. “Bad. Very bad. The fire’s already spreading through the forest, and it’s getting close to the city. Maybe in the city by now, in places. I don’t know for sure.”


“Okay,” I said. “That explains the smoke. But why are you guys injured? What happened?”


“After the fire started, Kikuchi pulled his people out of the city,” she said. “He has all of them working on fighting the fire. Keeping it from spreading into their territory, mostly. That took our main ally out of the picture, and then someone told the police that the fire was your fault. Selene managed to talk them out of attacking us, I think, but they completely withdrew their support, and they took the military with them.”


I groaned. “Leaving us overextended and isolated,” I said.


She nodded. “Precisely. The attacks started almost immediately after that. They attacked us here, targeted our people out on patrol, attacked shops and associates under our protection. We’ve been holding our own so far, but it’s taking a toll.”


“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Who’s attacking?”


“That’s the thing,” she said. “We aren’t sure.”


I considered her for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go over the details upstairs.”


A few minutes later, I was sitting in my office upstairs. Aiko was sitting half in the chair next to me and half in my lap, and Snowflake was lying across my feet. Kyra was sitting in another chair, looking slightly uncomfortable to be there. She’d been the Alpha in this town for a while, though, and she probably knew the city at least as well as I did. I’d have been a fool to ignore her opinions.


Selene and Kyi were standing on the other side of the desk. I’d offered the jotun a chair, since I knew she had to be in a good deal of pain, but she’d refused without even considering it. Selene, for her part, was totally uninjured, and seemed as poised as ever.


I looked at the map between us with a certain amount of distress. It wasn’t good news. It wasn’t even a little bit of good news. There were pins stuck in the map to show the extent of the recent problems, red for the fire and black for attacks.


There were an awful lot of pins in the map. An awful lot.


“Okay,” I said. “Start with the fire. How current is this estimate of the size?”


“Very,” Selene said. “I’ve been keeping the reports as current as possible. Kikuchi has also been providing us with regular status updates, and his people have a very good idea of what’s going on with that situation.”


I grunted. “Looks like it hasn’t really dropped into the city much, then. That’s good.”


“Kikuchi’s people have been doing very good work,” the succubus said. “Extremely good. My understanding is that he’s brought in multiple people from outside his core group to help. Kappa and kitsune for the most part, although the rumor mill suggests that he might have a dragon assisting as well.” She shook her head. “It was unfortunate to lose his military support so suddenly, but it’s likely worth it to keep this fire under control.”


“Yeah,” I said slowly, thinking that through. Then my eyes went wide. “Contact him,” I said. “Now.”


“On it,” Selene said, standing. “What should I tell him?”


“His people aren’t safe out there,” I said. “And his territory isn’t safe either.”


“I think he knows that,” she said dryly.


I shook my head. “Not what I meant,” I said. “They’re going to be attacked. Maybe already have been. This fire, I think it was planned. It was meant to draw us out, leave us vulnerable. I don’t know whether it was targeted at me or Kikuchi or both, but I’m sure that it’s a setup.”


“I’ll tell him,” Selene said. “Excuse me.” She got up and left.


“Okay,” I said, looking back at the map. “Tell me about these attacks.”


“They’ve been coming frequently,” Kyi said. “Not consistently, but frequently. They started less than an hour after you left; there have been eighteen of them so far.”


“What’s attacking?”


“That’s just it,” she said. “There’s no consistency. These four were constructs. Cheap ones, something that anyone could buy. Here, here, and here, these were all demons.”


“Whoa,” I said. “Hold up a second. Demons? You mean possessed people?”


She shook her head. “Not that kind of demon. More like Selene, except not as nice as her.”


I blinked. “Okay,” I said. “So somebody literally summoned demons out of Hell to attack us. Keep going.”


She nodded. “These three were fae. Ogres, trolls, that kind of thing. Another three were humans. Trained humans, with assault rifles. The last five were…I don’t even know what to call them. Animals, maybe, dogs or something like it, but…wrong. Twisted somehow.”


“Got it,” I said, looking at them. “Of all of these, how many of the attackers got away?”


The jotun gave me an offended look. “Jarl. Please. I recognize that this situation does not inspire great confidence, but give us some credit.”


I snorted. “Sorry. So we’ve been winning so far?”


She shrugged. “So far, yeah. But they’re wearing us down. You saw the shape we’re in. The ghouls and the mages have taken over for the moment to give us a chance to recover, but they aren’t a whole lot better off. We’ve all taken some licks.”


I nodded. “Yeah, I saw that. What happened to the eye, by the way?”


“I was sneaking up on a demon,” she said. “Nasty one. It was actually holding its own against Haki one-on-one, if you believe that. I put a knife in its spine, but it tore like half my face off before he finished the job.”


Aiko whistled. “You snuck up on a major demon and knifed it in the back? Badass.”


Kyi grinned briefly. “I know, right? Wish you could have seen it, jarl.”


“Congratulations,” I said dryly. “I hope it was worth it.”


She nodded. “Totally.”


“Well, that’s good. Back to business, though.” I looked back at the map. “What I’m seeing here,” I said, “is minions. These are all very anonymous, very disposable troops. I’m guessing you haven’t been able to take any of them alive?”


“We got a couple of the humans,” she said. “But they killed themselves before we could ask much in the way of questions.”


“Figures.” I shook my head. “Somebody’s willing to throw a hell of a lot of resources away just to wear us down.”


“Yeah,” Kyi said. “That was about the read I got on it too. You think the fire’s part of that?”


I shrugged. “Well, it fits the pattern. The fire wears us down, it takes resources and energy, it makes us overreach ourselves if we want to deal with it. Even if it isn’t the same person responsible, I’d bet they’ll jump on the opportunity.” I looked at Kyra. “You know those neighborhoods better than I do,” I said. “Is there anything in there that would make them particularly valuable targets?”


“I’ve been out of the city for years,” she protested. “How would I know?”


“You lived on the west side for years,” I pointed out. “You know that area, and you spent more time in these neighborhoods than I ever did. The kinds of things I’m looking for wouldn’t have changed, I don’t think.”


She sighed, but leaned forward to look at the map more closely. “These are mostly more expensive districts,” she said after a moment. “Gated communities and such. I used to run through them every now and then.” She wrinkled her nose. “They ran their sprinklers all night,” she said darkly. “Even in the middle of a drought. Stuck-up assholes.”


“How enlightening,” I said dryly. “You don’t know anything else about them? Nobody important that lives there?”


She thought a moment longer, then shrugged. “Nobody comes to mind,” she said. “I mean, there were a few wolves that lived over in that area, but they’re all gone now. Jack went to New Orleans, Daniell came with me to Wyoming, Dave and Mikey moved to San Francisco, Chris is in Texas…I don’t think any of them even have any friends or family still around there.”


I sighed. Well, it had been worth a shot.


“Okay,” I said. “As I see it, the only way we can really settle this is to find the person sending these minions at us and confront them directly.”


“I already tried that,” Kyi said. “I haven’t been able to track them down at all. I even got the werewolf out to see if she could follow the trail. Nothing.”


I nodded. It wasn’t exactly a surprise, after all. Everyone who was likely to be targeting me knew that I’d bring in werewolves to try and hunt them down. They’d have a way to deal with that.


“That’s fine,” I said. I was smiling again, and my voice was a little bit too cheery considering the circumstances. I was just as glad, though. A little too happy was well within my normal response to this sort of thing, vastly better than the disconnected numbness and psychotic rage I’d been feeling earlier.


Kyi looked at me warily, though. “Jarl?” she said. “What are you planning?”


“Well,” I said, “Anna couldn’t find them, and we don’t have the time or resources for a large-scale manhunt right now. So I’m going to have to call out the big guns.” My smile faded. “Clear the room, please.”


The jotun nodded and left without another word. Kyra looked considerably less happy, but she did stand and walk out.


Aiko didn’t move, and Snowflake just settled in on my feet a little more comfortably. That was fine. I hadn’t been expecting either of them to leave. Realistically speaking, it just wasn’t going to happen, and there was a limited amount of harm that either of them could come to as a result. They were both screwed enough already that a little bit more was unlikely to matter.


I took a deep breath, making sure I was ready for this. Then, in a clear and authoritative voice, I said, “Loki Lie-Crafter. Loki Sky-Traveler. Loki Laufeyjarson, I call you.”


There was a sudden noise, something like a clap of thunder six inches behind my head. Snowflake and I twitched, and Aiko actually jumped, ending up mostly in my lap.


A second later the door burst into bright, piercing golden flames that burned it away to ashes without touching anything else, not even scarring the doorframe with heat. A similar flame erupted from the floor between the door and the desk, although that one didn’t even burn the carpet, just flickered and danced in the air above it.


Loki swept through the doorway with a grin. The fires on the floor rolled away from his feet, something like a red carpet laid out just for him. He came to a stop in front of the desk and dropped into a low, elaborate bow, pulling a Robin Hood-style bicorn from thin air over his head as he did. He straightened with a snap and settled the hat onto his head and grinned at me.


“Hi,” I said dryly.


“Aw,” he said. “You two are so cute now that it’s actually you two again. It’s adorable.”


Aiko stuck her tongue out at him and nestled in more comfortably in my lap. I just looked at him in a not particularly happy way. “And why didn’t you tell me it wasn’t actually us two before this?” I demanded.


“Then I wouldn’t have gotten to see the cutesy lovey-dovey moment when you got together again,” Loki said. He smiled his twisted smile, pulled out of shape by the scars around his mouth, and leaned back against a wall that didn’t exist. “Or the delightful action scene when you went in for the rescue operation. Nine out of ten for that one, by the way. Wonderful performances all around. You should have seen what they did to her after you left.”


I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was, in a way, fair enough. I’d known Loki wasn’t my friend. It wasn’t like it came as a surprise that he’d screw me over for the sake of a good show. Not that I seriously believed his motives were that innocuous, but I believed he would have done it for no more reason than that.


“Okay,” I said. “I want to take another of my questions.”


“So soon?” He shook his head disappointedly. “You’re so needy,” he complained. “Always asking me for help. Well, go on. Out with it.”


“Someone’s been attacking my people and my interests recently,” I said. “They know how to hide from me, and I’m guessing that if I don’t take them out they’ll keep pulling this hit-and-run crap until they eventually bring me down.”


“He will,” Loki assured me. “At this point, there’s basically zero possibility of a nonviolent resolution there. That one’s a freebie.”


“I figured as much,” I said. “So where should I go to resolve things violently?”


He grinned again. “Let’s find out,” he said.


I blinked, and the world changed.


When I opened my eyes again, I was standing on a city street rather than sitting in my office. Aiko was standing next to me with her arms around my neck; she stumbled a little in surprise as the new situation resolved itself, and I ended up holding most of her weight for a few seconds while she got her feet under herself again.


Snowflake, for what it was worth, was still lying on my feet.


I looked around as Aiko got her footing again and unwrapped her arms from around my neck, grabbing my hand instead. It was hot and muggy here, the air humid and calm. I could smell salt, and between that and the humidity I was guessing the ocean was within walking distance. I glanced up and saw that the light was slightly wrong, late morning instead of early afternoon the way it had been in Colorado.


“Honolulu,” Loki said, walking briskly past us. “Not far from the coast. It isn’t a part of town that most tourists visit, but I think there are things here you’ll appreciate more than nice views and shopping malls.”


“What are we doing here?” Aiko asked, still holding my hand as we followed him. She didn’t sound happy.


“I was asked a question,” Loki said. “I am answering that question in the most efficient way available to me. I fail to see how this is confusing to you.”


“I think a better question is what the hell this jackass is doing in Hawaii,” I said. “Usually the people that are starting problems for me are at least in the same state as I am, not on an island three thousand miles away.”


“That’s because the people starting problems for you are usually either local threats or else looking to take your territory,” Loki said. “Whereas this time he’s really only interested in destroying your territory and your organization. It’s a rather important distinction. You don’t need to be on site for that, and if you want a secure place to plan your attacks, this isn’t a bad one. Especially now, since this city is one of the safest just now. You’d be surprised how many people around here still remember the old charms and protections.”


“So why does he have it in for me to that degree?” I asked. “That’s a hell of a lot of resources he’s put into this just to bring me down.”


“I suggest you ask him yourself,” Loki said with a twisted grin. He gestured at a nearby shop, somewhere that looked like it had once been a restaurant. Now it had a FOR LEASE sign in the window, and the parking lot out front was deserted. “Just in there,” Loki added helpfully.


I looked at it, committing the building to memory, then nodded. “Got it,” I said. “Will he still be there in a few hours?”


“I’m guessing so,” Loki said. “Now, I believe I’ve answered your question satisfactorily. I’ll be going, then. Have a pleasant day, try not to get your spine torn out, and all that.”


He disappeared with another crack of thunder, leaving us standing alone in the middle of the street. I looked at where he’d been for a moment, running through my usual list of curses on Loki’s name.


Then I turned to Aiko. “Well, here we are,” I said. “You in the mood for a fair fight?”


“Never,” she said.


“Well, that’s good. Neither am I.”


She grinned impishly. “Well, then,” she said. “Let’s fight dirty.”


About three hours later, the three of us were standing outside the abandoned restaurant again. This time, though, we were very much not alone. About half of the housecarls were there, along with a couple of the mages more suited to this kind of work than patrols and open spaces. Some ghouls lurked and waited, most of them already distinctly inhuman in their appearance. Kyra and Anna were there, both of them already in fur and wearing heavy armor. Half a dozen human mercenaries with body armor, grenades, and assault rifles rounded out the group.


Selene was standing next to me. She was wearing a suit of skintight black armor made out of an odd, almost chitinous material. I’d never seen her wear armor before that I could remember, but she wore it as well as she wore everything else.


There was something odd about her bearing, though. Selene’s incredible, stunning beauty had always been more a matter of attitude and bearing than her physical features; she knew how to carry herself, how to walk and behave, to make herself into an object of admiration and lust. It was second nature for her, something so habitual that I was certain she typically didn’t even know she was doing it.


And, in some ways, she was still doing it, even dressed in armor and about to go on a raid. But there was something different about her, something lithe and predatory. It made me think of watching a leopard, beauty and grace and speed all wrapped up in a lethal little package, utterly without mercy.


Looking at her now, I was reminded of why I didn’t bring Selene to fights, even though she had volunteered a few times. She scared the crap out of me when she got like this. She was pleasant, and entirely reliable, and I didn’t hesitate at all entrusting my fiefdom to her hands. But she was still a succubus out of Hell, or the closest thing there was to it. She might work for me, we might even be friends, but that would never change the fact that she had been designed and trained to tempt, seduce, corrupt, and destroy people just like me.


I imagined it was something like a normal human found out their best friend was a werewolf. Sure, they’re friends. And they know he isn’t going to eat them. But on some level, they’ll always be aware that he could.


But this guy’s attacks had included demons out of the same version of Hell as Selene, so I sucked it up and brought her with us. If he summoned more of those demons, she was the only one who had any real idea of what to do about them.


Aiko and I stood and watched as the last few preparations were wrapped up. Signý was chanting in Norse, a constant cyclic chant much like the one she’d recited while preparing to curse Jimmy. The volva was breathing somewhat toxic smoke from the fire again, too, although this time she had a broad dish laid out in front of her rather than a nithing pole. The mercenaries were checking their weapons and conferring with each other, making sure everyone was ready to go. The jötnar did something similar, although their pregame ritual involved less quiet conversation and more drinking; some of them were also chanting along with Signý. The ghouls mostly just chewed on hunks of meat.


The volva picked her dish up off the ground, still chanting, and grabbed a horsehair brush with her other hand. The jötnar walked up and knelt before her one at a time so that she could mark their foreheads with her brush. She painted an algiz rune on each of them, three quick and confident brushstrokes per person. I wasn’t totally sure what she’d done to the water in her bowl, but it seemed to sparkle a little more than it should have, and I could smell the dark, quiet magic in it.


I thought about asking what she was doing. Then I got my own rune instead, pulling my helmet on over it. I might not understand how Signý did what she did, but I could respect her skill, and I wasn’t going to say no to any kind of protection right now.


Once everyone was marked, including Snowflake, Aiko, and even some of the mercenaries, Signý stopped chanting and set the bowl down again. “I am ready,” she said, standing a little uncertainly. Thraslaug was there almost instantly to support her until she was steady on her feet again.


“Great,” I said. “Let’s do this.”


I drew Tyrfing and walked up to the building, kicking the door in. I rushed in, jötnar and werewolves and ghouls following me, growling and snarling and brandishing all manner of weaponry.


At first it seemed like it was a ridiculous amount of overkill. There was only one person even in there, a tall slender man standing by the windows on the other side of the room, looking out over the ocean. For a second I felt pretty smug.


Then he turned, and I saw the vivid urine-yellow color of his eyes, and I smelled his rotting-meat magic, and suddenly I wished I’d brought rather a lot more firepower. A tank battalion, maybe.


“Finally,” the skinwalker said, sounding rather bored.

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Breaking Point 11.19

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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.”

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Breaking Point 11.18

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Technically, this wasn’t the biggest fight I’d ever been in. That title went to the battle against the necromancer back in Russia. That had been literally global in scale, with the battlefield proper sprawling across miles.


But in a way, that fight had been too big to really register in an impressive way. It was too massive for me to take it all in or grasp the reality of what I was seeing. It was also hard to see, and I’d been effectively high on magic and the Wild Hunt for most of it, so it wasn’t all that surprising that it hadn’t quite seemed real.


This, on the other hand, was entirely real.


When Scáthach said the talking was over, nobody hesitated. The fae, in all their horrid and lovely varieties, threw themselves forward. Strange and confusing magic blazed in the air, things I didn’t understand and couldn’t fully perceive. Light blazed and pulsed in colors that didn’t make sense, weapons were raised, and the fae screamed their war cries as they threw themselves into the fray. The high, ululating calls of the Sidhe, the mad cackling of the hags, the roaring of the goblins, the sad broken songs of the rusalki, the laughter and stamping feet of the redcaps, all blended together into a deafening cacophony.


Had it been just me there, I would have quailed before that noise. It would have left me trembling, and with reason; I’d gotten stronger over the years, but against this, I was nothing much.


Against a small army of jötnar, it was…insufficiently impressive.


The giants gave their answer, screaming and singing and roaring, gnashing their teeth and beating axes against shields, rapping spears on the floor. They actually drowned the faeries out, deafening me, and even the Sidhe paused at that, seeming to hesitate at the thought of fighting these lunatics.


Then they got over it, and the fighting started in earnest.


I couldn’t really keep track of it. It was too big, and it was all around, to every side. Even overhead; sylphs flew above on their insectile wings, and jötnar swatted them down or threw spears of ice at them, tearing gaping holes in those wings.


Mostly I only got snapshots. The group of jötnar who had been chewing their shields rushed forward into the melee, howling like wolves and screaming something about Odin. They lashed out viciously, brutally, without any thought for their own defense. They were using their shields more as weapons than defensive tools, knocking the fae down and breaking their bones by main force. I watched as one of them lost his spear. He didn’t even slow down, just crushed another goblin’s skull with his fist and picked up the corpse, swinging it like a club.


On the other side, the fae pressed in. A group of Sidhe managed to make headway, moving with unnatural speed and grace as they cut down one jotun after another, and other fae were following them, goblins, an ogre. Then one of the jötnar, a female wearing a dark cloak rather than steel armor, struck a staff against the ground and said a line in Norse. I felt a surge of magic, dark and hostile, and all of those fae fell to the ground, screaming and writhing in agony.


Some of the fae tried to bring their own magic to bear, countering the jotun’s seithr or attacking in return. But it didn’t seem to be working. There was a lot of iron in that room now, and almost all of the jötnar were solidly encased in steel. Given time, the fae might have been able to deal with it; they were nothing if not resourceful, after all, and iron was a well-known weakness of theirs, something they would be prepared for an attacker to know about. But they didn’t have time. They were in the middle of a fight, and by and large, they were losing.


All of that, though, faded from my awareness when Skrýmir reached Scáthach. Because that was…well, it wasn’t something to look away from.


Skrýmir’s honor guard peeled away as they got close. Two of them went to fight Black Annis, dodging in and out of reach of her iron claws, cutting into her with their weapons little by little. The rest of them spread out, holding off the lesser fae that would have moved in to interfere. They fought as fiercely as the rest of the jötnar, but at the same time there was strict discipline and a great deal of coordination there. They didn’t slip, didn’t advance too far, didn’t interfere with each other’s movements.


Hinzelmann was standing quietly to the side. His hands were clasped behind his back, and a quiet smile played around the corners of his lips. He still looked like a young child, but the look in his eyes was ancient and alien, and out of the corner of my eye I could see dark flames burning in their depths. I noticed that no one, not a single one of the fae or the jötnar, got within ten feet of the ancient kobold.


That left Skrýmir and Scáthach dueling each other, and it was one of the most impressive things I’d ever seen. She had a long sword in one hand and a shield in the other, both made out of glittering crystal, though she’d been unarmed when we came in. He had just his axe, and disdained any shield or armor.


The Faerie Queen was faster, more graceful, and more precise than possibly anything I’d ever seen. She moved so fast that she was little more than a blur, her long black hair whipping around her. It was beautiful to watch, even more than usual for the fae. The Sidhe are never more beautiful than when they dance, and this was one of the greatest of the Sidhe in the purest, most intense dance there was. It was lovely beyond words, and the fact that she’d have cut me to ribbons in a matter of seconds just made it more so.


Indeed, had it been anyone other than Skrýmir standing in front of her, she might have been winning.


But it wasn’t.


Skrýmir’s fighting was not beautiful. It was not delicate. It didn’t look like a dance. It wasn’t that he was slow or clumsy, and it certainly wasn’t that he wasn’t skilled. It just looked like what it was: a huge, incredibly strong man trying to cut someone into pieces with an axe.


She was faster than he was. She was subtler than he was. But he was just as skilled as her, if in a very different sort of way, and he was far stronger. Thus far she’d dodged or deflected every strike of his axe, but it was obvious that if he could connect solidly with even a single stroke, it would all be over for her. Meanwhile, she’d cut him several times, but it didn’t seem to matter. He was just too big and too tough and too relentless for the small, stinging wounds to matter.


I wanted to do something, to contribute something to the fight, but I wasn’t sure how. Things were opening up a little more now, giving me more space, but I was still in the center of the jotun contingent, with several ranks of friendlies between me and the nearest of the fae. I could throw weapons into the crowd, but the clean division between the two sides had collapsed, fae and jötnar tangled up like water and oil after being shaken. My weapons were mostly indiscriminate, the sort of thing that I couldn’t use to hit just one person.


Kuzunoha was throwing balls of silver fire with uncanny precision, and Katsunaga had vanished at some point, presumably to stab some of the fae from behind with his many, many knives. Snowflake and Kyra had both run into the crowd, low enough to the ground to avoid the press and the violence. They slipped between the legs of the jötnar and attacked the fae, biting and tearing, tripping them and pulling them down.


That left just Aiko and I standing in the middle of the room, not doing anything beyond watching. She was still leaning on me to stay standing, and she was shivering.


It was cold, I realized. I hadn’t quite been aware of it, not consciously, but it was well below zero in that room now. The jötnar had brought the eternal winter of Jotunheim with them, snow flying through the air, frost and snow on the ground.


I pulled Aiko close and wrapped my cloak around her, sharing what warmth I could. It wasn’t much, but she took it gratefully.


We walked forward towards Scáthach and Skrýmir. We had to move slowly, since Aiko still wasn’t steady on her feet and she was slipping a little on the ice.


I wasn’t. I wasn’t slipping, and I wasn’t unsteady. If anything, I felt better than before. I had been feeling a little weak, a little clumsy, the wounds I’d sustained getting in here dragging me down. And I was still aware of that feeling, but it didn’t seem to be affecting me as much as it had been.


I had a distinct and uneasy suspicion that my improved condition and the presence of so much unnatural cold were not unconnected. But that was something to be dealt with another time.


Skrýmir finally got a solid hit in, a two-handed swing coming down on Scáthach at a diagonal. The Sidhe queen got her shield up to block the attack, but the hit was brutally powerful. The shield shattered under his axe, and the sheer force was enough to break Scáthach’s arm behind the shield and knock her back close to ten feet.


Elsewhere, the tide had turned against the fae, to an extent that couldn’t be denied. In the end, they just weren’t a match for what they were up against. The fae were creatures of deception and trickery. They were powerful and deadly, to be sure, but at heart they weren’t creatures of open battle and direct conflict.


The jötnar? They were. These were some of the greatest warriors of a warrior culture, a culture where prowess in battle was everything. They lived for moments like this.


Oh, some of the giants fell. Some of them died. But there were far, far more fae bodies on the ground. The berserks had carved a path through the ranks of fae, with Snowflake biting and tearing beside them, as mad and gleeful in battle as they were. Skrýmir’s personal guard were pushing the fae back to the edge of the room, still tight and disciplined; not a one of them had fallen yet. I didn’t think any of them were even wounded. The jotnar mounted on wolves rode back and forth, trampling the wounded and launching quick attacks against the wounded, disrupting any semblance of coordination.


Here and there a pocket of the fae started to turn the tide, but it never lasted. The volva chanted and worked her magic, and bad things happened to them, everything from stumbling at an inopportune time to dropping to the ground with blood pouring from their eyes, noses, and ears.


I shuddered a little at that one, and reminded myself to never, ever make Signý mad at me. Seithr was a hell of a nasty tradition of magic when it chose to be.


Scáthach was standing and fighting again, but she was more hesitant now. With one arm shattered beyond use and her shield broken, she was off balance, not as capable as she was. She was still beautiful as she fought, but it was a broken, off-kilter sort of beauty, a bird with a broken wing.


“You brought this on yourself,” I called, helping Aiko over the corpse of an ogre in the way. Some of the jötnar were moving with us now, a loose formation trailing behind us. “Remember that, Scáthach. You started this fight.”


She snarled and threw herself at Skrýmir, a straightforward lunge that buried her blade in his side.


The giant just smiled indulgently down at her and chopped at her leading leg with his axe. It was a short stroke, inside the effective range of the weapon, but it still cut halfway through her thigh, slicing through her femur and leaving little more than a chunk of meat holding her leg on.


On a human, either of the wounds they’d just traded would be lethal and then some. But they weren’t human. They weren’t even like human. Scathach threw herself back, wrenching the sword out, and passed her hands over the cut in her leg, murmuring quietly in a language I didn’t recognize. Shadows followed her motions, weaving themselves through and around the cut to hold it closed. She left some blood on the ground and she was clumsier than I could have imagined her being yesterday.


Skrýmir just grinned as the blade was pulled out of him. Blood followed it, but not as much as I’d have expected. I couldn’t see, but I was guessing there was a plug of ice in the wound, keeping it from actually doing much.


Elsewhere, the last ogre went down in a tangle with the bear-headed jotun. The giant’s jaws bit done once, twice, and then something tore on the third bite and the ogre stopped struggling.


“Stop!” Scáthach shouted, backing up to stand next to her throne. “You fools, you haven’t even considered the ramifications of your actions!”


“Really?” I said. Aiko and I reached Skrýmir’s position, and the three of us kept moving, advancing on her. “Because it seems to me that you’re only saying that now that you’ve lost.”


“There will always be a Maiden of the Midnight Court,” she spat. “There always has been, there always will be. Nothing you can do will change that.”


“The Midnight Court must always have its queens,” Skrýmir said. “Nothing says it has to be you.”


“Ah, but who will it be?” Scáthach said. She was grinning now, and she looked genuinely insane, her smile too broad, her eyes too wide and staring. “Have you thought about that? The role will not sit idle and wait to be filled. Kill me, and it seeks out the nearest person that can fill it.”


“Do I care?” I asked.


“You should. It has very specific requirements.” She was still grinning and staring, and it was starting to creep me out. Her eyes were too green, her teeth too sharp. She did not look beautiful anymore, not even in a scary way. “It will seek someone female, young by the standards of her kind. Someone with power. Someone who has a longstanding connection to the Courts. Someone who has been touched with the power granted by the role in the recent past, who carries it on her like a stain. Is this ringing any bells, oh jarl?”


I wasn’t stupid. “You’re talking about Aiko,” I said flatly.


She laughed and clapped delightedly. “Aha!” she said. “Enlightenment dawns! Tell me, is it worth it? Will you condemn your lover in that way for the sake of revenge? Will you burden her with my crown if that’s what it takes to kill me?”


I came to a halt about ten feet away from her. Skrýmir stopped next to me, glancing at me. I wasn’t sure quite how, but I was absolutely certain that the ball had just been put back into my court. He wasn’t calling the shots right now; I was. As far as he was concerned, it was my choice what we did next.


I stood there and tried to make it. This was…it was so typical. It was so fucking typical of the Sidhe. Not just screwing us over, but manipulating us into screwing ourselves. Giving us a choice where every path led to disaster, where we had to hurt ourselves just to survive.


I was so sick of it all. Sick of these choices. Sick of winning the battle to lose the war.


Before I could settle on a decision, Aiko walked up and shoved an iron dagger into the small of Scáthach’s back.


The Faerie Queen gasped in shock and sagged to the ground. Aiko let her fall, leaving the knife in place.


Nobody else moved. We were all staring, unable to look away from what was happening before our eyes.


“You think I’m stupid?” Aiko said. “You think I don’t know what you’re trying to pull here? I’m not stupid. I’ve spent long enough around you people to know how the game works.”


Scáthach opened her mouth, but didn’t say anything. Maybe she couldn’t. Even for someone on her level, she’d taken a lot of physical abuse in the past few minutes.


“I’m not going to kill you,” Aiko continued. “I wouldn’t take your job for the world. But even if you hadn’t told me that, I wasn’t going to kill you. Like I said earlier, I’m inclined to get creative about this. So you can take your threats and shove them up your ass.”


The kitsune squatted down next to the Sidhe, and grinned. It was a nasty grin, sharp and humorless. She was enjoying herself, I was pretty sure. Aiko had always had a vindictive side.


“I’m going to leave you here,” she said. “Just like this. You’re wounded. Not just wounded, but crippled. You won’t be fighting any time soon. You won’t even be walking. How do you think your subjects will treat you, do you think? Knowing that you’re weak? That your most loyal followers all just died in this room? That you failed? Do you think the Midnight Court will be kind to you in your moment of need?”


Scáthach glared at her, took a swing with her good arm. It was slow and clumsy, and Aiko slipped aside easily.


“Yeah,” the kitsune said. “That’s what I think too. That’s what’s going to happen to you, Scáthach. You’re going to lie here in agony, surrounded by the corpses of your loyal retainers, until your own followers find you and fight over which one gets to kill you. And they won’t kill you clean, either. You don’t rule the nice Court, after all. You’re going to die slow and nasty, and you’ll know the whole time that you’re helpless to do anything about it. I don’t normally do this kind of thing, but for the shit you did? I think this is fair.”


Everyone in the room was looking at her with new respect now. I mean, I wasn’t, since I already knew she had this side to her. And besides, she was right that this was pretty much what Scáthach deserved. Turnabout is fair play, after all.


But most everyone else was looking a little scared, or even a little bit queasy.


“Well,” Skrýmir said after a few seconds, “I believe your sentence has been pronounced, Queen. We’ll be leaving now.”


“Someone should restrain her,” I pointed out. “That way she can’t just kill herself when we turn our backs, and screw Aiko over anyway.”


“Allow me,” Hinzelmann said, the first thing he’d said. I’d almost forgotten he was even there. He gestured slightly, and I could smell his magic on the air, a dark, secretive sort of smell, earth and fire and bloody secrets kept hidden from the light of day.


A few seconds later that magic congealed into chains of black metal, wrapped tightly around Scáthach from head to toe. They were covered in barbs, which dug into her skin, and pulled tight enough to cut into flesh.


Scáthach screamed then, a high, piercing, agonized scream, and kept screaming until another chunk of metal appeared in her mouth, gagging her.


I stared at the kobold. “Why?” I asked.


“She ordered me to be here tonight,” he said in a sweet, calm voice. “No one gives me orders.” He brushed a fleck of dust off his jacket and walked away, leaving her there wrapped in those chains.


Aiko stared down at her for a few seconds longer, then walked back to me and hugged me. I hugged her back, although the armor got in the way a little on both sides.


“Come on,” she said. “Let’s go home.”

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Interlude 3.z: Carnivora

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I am tired and I am dozing in the sun when I feel something pulling me northwards. It is a familiar feeling and I follow it eagerly. This feeling means food and I am hungry since hunting today was poor. I have eaten only a mouse since waking and it is not enough to keep me happy.


He is further into the asphalt and the fake stone than I like to go and I hesitate. But he calls me on, pleading for me to come closer, and I continue. He needs me to be there and I want to make him happy. I do not understand more but that is okay.


There are humans and I am scared because I know that humans are trouble and they will hurt me or put me to sleep and I do not want to go to sleep. But the feeling is there again and it is telling me which way to walk and I do. There are no humans on the fake stone here. I keep going and soon I know from the feeling that I am in the right place.


He steps out of one of the buildings and I am happy. He looks like a human but he smells like a dog except different. I do not understand what this means but that is okay. I do not know what he is but I know that he is good because he never tries to hurt me and he gives me food.


I trot up to him and he makes human noises to the person standing next to him. She looks like a human too but she smells like he does so maybe they are the same?


He bends down and scratches me, rough scratches on my back and neck and it feels good. I flop on my back and he scratches my neck and belly and that is even better.


As he scratches me the feeling comes back and it wants me to think about things that happened when it was dark. I want to just be scratched but he isn’t scratching me now and I know that I have to do this to get more scratches. It is hard to remember things but the feeling is there to help me and I can think about things.


There were humans with dogs running through my territory and it was annoying because I don’t like humans and I don’t like dogs and I especially don’t like them in my territory. But that happens every day and I know that there are many of them and only one of me. So I let them go by even though I wanted to run them out of my territory.


There was a rabbit and I caught it and ate it. It tasted good and then I chewed on the fur and the bones for a while and that was fun too. Thinking about that reminds me of food and I look at him pleadingly but he doesn’t give me food so I haven’t thought the right thing yet.


There were birds in the sky and they flew all together and made loud honking noises. It wasn’t quite dark when that happened, but it was close to dark, and I think maybe that is good enough? But the feeling pushes me away from that thought so I guess it isn’t dark enough.


There were humans after it was really dark and they were talking to each other. That wasn’t normal the way the humans with dogs were and I wanted to run them off but I fear humans and so I just watched them instead. Then I smelled guns and guns are bad so I knew that I really really didn’t want to run them off, but I still watched them because I didn’t want humans in my territory that I didn’t know about.


He shows me his teeth and I am afraid that I have done something wrong but the feeling is happy so I don’t think I did. “We’ve got them,” he says, and I don’t understand the human noises but I know that he is happy so that is okay. Then he gets out food and gives it to me and I understand that. He and the other dog-human walk away and I watch them go.


I eat part of the food and then take the rest back to the dirt and the bushes where I know that I belong. I eat the rest and then I go back to sleep and I am happy.




I am napping with my human in the sun when I feel something ask me to get up and look outside. I consider staying where I am but I am awake now anyway, and I am curious what will happen. So I stand and jump down to the floor, where I stretch and yawn. I walk out onto the balcony, where I jump up onto the railing to look down at the street.


A big ugly human runs around the corner and then runs into the building across the street from my balcony. As soon as I’ve seen which building he runs into the feeling thanks me and goes away.


I go back inside and drink some water. I stretch again and then jump back up onto the couch with my human. He mumbles something and reaches out to stroke me. I curl up in my spot and rest my head on his leg again. He is warm so my spot hasn’t even gotten cold while I’ve been gone. I go back to sleep, purring a little.


Later a bird drops a dead mouse on my balcony. It seems like a coincidence but I know it is not. I eat part of the mouse, and then I push the rest of it off the balcony.




Walkies are my favorite thing. I get to stretch my legs and there are so many new smells! Every time we go for walkies I get to smell all new smells that I never smelled before.


I am happy and excited but I remind myself not to pull on the leash. Good dogs do not pull on the leash and I am a good dog.


But oh, so exciting! I smell pee and go to sniff at it and I know everything about the dog that peed. It smells too sweet, like being sick and being too fat and being an old dog. I snarl a little and mark over it. That is not a good smell.


Master tugs on the leash a little and I hurry to catch up. Good dogs do not need reminded to keep moving.


We come to the street and I sit and wait. I am only supposed to walk on the street when the cars are not on it. The cars stop moving and then start moving in the other direction and I stand and start walking again. Master is walking too so I know that it is okay.


Then there is a loud noise and Master is not walking and I do not know what is happening. The cars are not moving anymore. Then there are is another person there and Master is shouting at him and he is shouting back. Master calls him a “fucking idiot” and she only says fucking when she is mad, and she only shouts when she is mad, so I know that this is not good. But she is not shouting at me so that is okay.


The shouting goes on for a while and then we go back home. I am sad because it was short walkies. But that is okay because Master gives me a treat when we get back. I eat the treat and my tail is wagging and I am happy because I know that I am a good dog.




I am sorting through garbage. Most garbage tastes vile but sometimes one of the humans threw out a perfectly good hamburger, and that was about as good as I could hope to get for dinner. As good as rat or rabbit, if not quite as good as pizza.


I get the feeling that I should be somewhere else, and I don’t question. Some feelings you don’t question if you know what’s good for you. I slip back out of the garbage and walk to the end of the alley, where the feeling is pulling me. A few seconds later a human and a dog walk by at the other end of the alley.


That is not why the feeling wanted me to move, though, and I keep moving. I cross the street, running across between cars, and move into the alley on the other side. I know what I am after now, the feeling getting more clear now. I do not know why but I am curious, and now I am hunting, the same excitement and drive as I feel when I am chasing a rabbit down. This excitement and this curiosity are pushing me on now as much as the feeling pulling me forward.


I am running down the street now at the edge of the sidewalk. I see a man ahead of me running as well, stumbling over his own feet. He is moving away from a crashed car, the vehicle obviously incapable of functioning, and he does not seem to be moving well, he is dazed and off-balance.


The feeling sharpens in the back of my head and focuses in on him, and I know that this is my prey. I could never hope to take him down myself, but I know that this isn’t important. I know where this feeling comes from, and he is more than a match for this man.


He runs into another building and the feeling fades. I settle down in the mouth of an alley to watch. I have no place in the finale of this hunt, but I have no intention of leaving before it reaches its conclusion. It will be fun to watch.


And afterward he will give me something better than stale hamburgers to eat and that will be fun too.




I blink and look up as the door bursts open. A man comes inside and I do not recognize him. My keeper approaches him and he is angry but the stranger pushes her aside. He falls and backs away from the stranger on the ground. He is frightened.


The strange man approaches me and grabs me as another stranger enters, closing the door behind himself. The first one grabs me. I am not happy and I do not like him and my keeper does not like him and he smells foul. I squirm and bite at his hand. He snarls but does not let me go.


“Got to get rid of this thing,” he mutters to himself.


“Won’t he be pissed you killed one of his pets?” the other man says.


“He’s already pissed,” the one holding me says. “Besides, animals die all the time.”


I do not understand any of this but there is something in me that does, and it lets me know much of what they mean. I still do not fully understand, but I know enough to be scared.


The man holding me walks to the window and opens it, holding me out. He lets me go and I do not want to fall so I grab hold of his arm, my claws catching in his jacket. He hits me and I lose my grip. I try to catch him again but I am too slow and now I am falling.


The air feels good as it passes over my fur. Seconds ago I was fighting and scared and angry but now I am at peace. There is nothing more for me to do but fall. I twist in the air and look up at the sky as I fall. I do not remember having ever seen it so clearly before and I am happy to see it now.


Then I hit the ground and I break. I hurt. I cannot stand or walk or even crawl. I cannot breathe properly. There is still that presence in my mind which soothes me and tells me that I will be okay but I still hurt.


I watch as two more people walk up from further down the street. One is a man and one is a woman but they do not smell like men and women should smell. I don’t understand.


The woman goes inside. She is angry and she moves like she is hunting. The man stops next to me and crouches down. He is holding a knife. He pets me and it hurts but it feels good. He puts the knife against my throat and that hurts too but the presence in my mind soothes me and tells me to relax and that the pain will go away. The man goes inside and he is still holding that knife but now it is bloody. He is moving like he is hunting also. The presence in my mind is still soothing me but I can feel that it is angry as well. It is not angry at me.


I lie there and bleed for a little while, and then I go to sleep.

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Breaking Point 11.17

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Scáthach looked smaller than I remembered.


Before, I’d always approached her with the attitude that she was so far beyond me that a comparison was a waste of time. I’d seen her as a force of nature, something to be placated rather than opposed, with any thought of actually fighting her instantly dismissed.


Seen without that attitude, she was…less impressive. She was still tall for a woman, taller than I was, but she didn’t loom over me nearly as much as I remembered her doing. She was beautiful, her features as perfect and remote as a marble statue, but I could detect a degree of uncertainty there as well. I’d never have dared to use the term to describe her before, but her expression was actually petulant, like a spoiled child denied her own way.


Of her power over me, how much had I given her, by my own attitude? I suspected it was a lot of it. Oh, she was still vastly stronger than I was—Grandmother Midnight had straight-up told me so, and she was neither capable of lying nor likely to be mistaken on this topic.


But she was neither omnipotent nor infallible. I could defy her, and while I might lose, that wasn’t the only possible outcome.


We walked into her throne room, and found her sitting on the throne. It was much like the throne I’d seen her use before, a massive piece of crystal like an unbelievably large chunk of gem-quality amethyst. The violet crystal flared out behind her like a cobra’s hood, simultaneously providing a dramatic backdrop to the person sitting in it and making her look insignificant by comparison.


It occurred to me to wonder what that might feel like to Scáthach. A palpable, ever-present reminder that the office she held was more important than she was? It seemed likely. I thought I got her a little better now, between having been a jarl and having seen something of how the Midnight Court functioned. I’d thought of her as a titanic force, but now I could see that she was if anything more of a middle manager. She had pressure from above and resentment from below, and she lived every day with the keen awareness that she could be replaced as the Maiden of the Midnight Court without the other queens giving a damn.


It didn’t excuse what she’d done, and I had no intention of forgiving her for it. But I could sympathize with her a little more. I wouldn’t take that job for the world.


“I take it you killed Carraig,” she said calmly as we walked into the room. It was a vast hall, the ceiling lost in shadows overhead, the edges of the room fading into darkness. A narrow strip of light illuminated the path from the door to Scáthach’s throne.


“Yeah,” I said. “Do you even care?”


“He came to me seeking death,” she said. “Should I cry now that he has finally found it?”


It wasn’t an answer, but I didn’t press her on it. I was self-aware enough to know that there was nothing she could say now that would really satisfy me. I reached into my cloak instead, snapping a piece of slate between my fingers.


Aiko, understandably enough, was less willing to let Scáthach off the hook. “Why?” she snarled, gripping her wakizashi so tightly that her knuckles were white. “Why the hell would you do this?”


“Does it matter anymore?” Scáthach asked, leaning back idly. She was draped across the throne now, lounging with her head on one armrest and her feet hanging over the other.


“It matters to me,” Aiko snapped. “You stole four months of my life, and did a hell of a number on the rest of it. I think an explanation is the least you owe me for that.”


The queen shrugged. It was an apathetic shrug, disinterested. “As you wish,” she said. “I can see which way the wind blows, oh jarl. I knew that I was being used. I could see how the story would end. I simply chose not to comply with their desires.”


“You play the victim very well,” Kuzunoha said. Her voice was calmer than her daughter’s, sweet and polite, but I could hear the edge underneath, the raw anger burning just below the surface. “Your hand was forced. You were compelled by circumstance. You did nothing that would not have happened anyway. Cast yourself as a victim if you please, but your actions are still your own. You chose to do this. You made the choice to cross lines.”


“Don’t pretend you understand me, fox,” Scáthach said coldly. “You are not even a player in this drama. You have no part to play here. You have no place, here or anywhere. You never had anything to say on your own behalf, You are a servant of a dead god, a messenger without a message to carry. Your time has passed; kindly leave this conversation to those who still have some relevance to the world.”


Well, damn. I glanced over at Kuzunoha to see whether she was about to start trying to claw Scáthach’s eyes out, but apparently not even that provocation could really crack her composure. The nine-tailed kitsune’s expression went blank and cold, and her posture stiffened slightly, but beyond that there was no reaction.


“So,” Scáthach said, her vivid green eyes focusing on me again. An odd, unsettling smile played about her lips. “What shall it be, jarl? Will you take your lover and go? Or do you think to demand recompense from me, in exchange for the perceived crime that you accuse me of?”


I looked at her for several seconds. “Do you remember,” I said at last, “when I made my bargain with you a few years ago, I turned down your first offer. I told you then that there were some things that were off limits. When you told me that you’d wake Aiko, the one that was actually your impostor, I told you the same thing. I told you that she was off limits, no questions asked, not negotiable. I straight up told you that if you pushed me on that it would be one step too far. Do you remember that?”


There was a long, long moment of silence. “I remember,” she said, finally. Her voice had an odd tone to it, something I couldn’t quite place. In a human, I might have called it regret. Even if I thought Scáthach was capable of that emotion, though, this wasn’t quite right for it. There was another note to it, something subtler.


“So why do it?” I asked. “Why cross that line? Why couldn’t you just leave things be? All you had to do was stay away from that one thing, the one thing I told you not to mess with, and things could have been just fine. So why did you have to push it?” My voice rose as I spoke, until I was almost screaming by the end of it.


Scáthach seemed totally unfazed. “I am what I am, jarl,” she said calmly. “We cannot change our nature by wishing. In the end, we can all of us only be what we are.”


I sighed and nodded, feeling suddenly very, very tired. “Yeah,” I said. “I guess you’re right. And I guess we both know what happens next. I’m as bound by my nature as you are by yours.”


“Yes,” she said pensively. “I suppose you are. I want you to know that I never harbored any ill will for either of you, children. Had it been my choice, I would not have harmed you. But we all march to another’s beat in this matter. You and I were always going to reach this point, jarl. To apologize for this would be neither warranted nor deserved.”


Then she raised one hand and snapped her fingers. It was a small gesture, and a small sound, fading into the darkness almost instantly.


The result was immediate. Lights came on in the hall, bright silvery light like a half-dozen full moons shining down on us. And with that light, I could see what the darkness had hidden from me.


The room was full of monsters. Packed, wall to wall, with only a small space around the path left clear. There were Sidhe, sharp and lovely as well-honed swords, with cruel smiles on their lips. There were goblins, small misshapen creatures with too-large teeth and claws, grinning and gnashing their teeth. There were bogeymen, tall and slender things half-seen out of the corner of my eye, lurking at the edges of the shadows that still remained in the room. There were kobolds, ugly fae the size of children that walked wreathed in fire and dark magics and smelled of blood and secrets. There were rusalki, beautiful young women with their long wet hair hanging down over their faces. There were redcaps, ugly fae with metal-toed boots and bloody hats.


I stared. I’d been expecting something like this, but still. It was an impressive sight.


A pair of creatures stepped up behind Scáthach, one to either side of her. To her left was a tall, stooped hag, something that looked like an old woman until you looked close. Her hands were iron claws, long and sharp, and her teeth were jagged and too large, more appropriate to a shark than anything human. On the other side was what looked like a human boy in an expensive, if antiquated, red suit.


“Jarl,” Scáthach said, not looking away from me. “This is Black Annis, and the child is Hinzelmann.”


Wonderful. Just wonderful. Both of them were famous enough that I’d heard of them, and neither one was anything pleasant. Black Annis was a hag, the sort that liked to eat children and wasn’t picky about how she got them; Hinzelmann was a truly ancient kobold, who might appear benevolent at first but could turn vicious at a moment’s notice.


Either of those two was probably a match for me, and then some. Add in the army of lesser fae, some of whom were probably lesser only by comparison to the insanely powerful ones in front of me, and Scáthach herself, and I was about as far out of my depth as I’d ever been.


Then I noticed something else, and grinned. It was hard to say quite what the feeling was; it was something that I’d never have noticed if I hadn’t known to look for it, and even then I suspected it was only possible because I was on the Otherside. The closest analogue I could think of was something scratching at the door, except that the door in question was more fundamental and abstract than any physical object.


“Finally,” I said, grinning. “Kuzunoha, could you get the door, please?”


The kitsune looked at me oddly, but she gestured slightly, all of her tails moving as she did. The silvery light around her strengthened, and I could smell her magic on the air, fox touched with ginger and cinnamon.


That scent strengthened over the next several seconds, and I began to notice another as well, something cold and hungry and flavored with freshly spilled blood. Scáthach and her army just stood and watched, apparently content to wait and see where this was going.


Then, with a palpable release of tension, the force holding the Way closed shattered. The hole appeared in the world, leading off in a direction I couldn’t place or name. A wind rose up all at once, blowing out of the Way as fierce and cold as if it had come down off the slopes of the Transantarctic Mountains. Snow flurries blew in with it, momentarily blocking my view.


When the snow cleared again, most of the clear space in the hall was no longer clear. It was full of jötnar, and more were pouring out of the Way, filling in the last few gaps. Some of the giants were barely larger than a really tall man, while others were much larger, easily the match of the ogres in the fae crowd. Most of them looked human, but a handful were very, very different. Here was one with two heads, there one that looked like a bear from the neck up. A handful rode on ridiculously huge wolves, the same as I’d seen back in the Wild Hunt.


They had one thing in common, though. They were armed and armored with bright, gleaming steel. There was chainmail and plate armor, swords and shields, axes and spears and massive hammers, all of them steel. One whole group was carrying wooden shields and steel-tipped spears, and had no armor other than the wolf pelts they wore as cloaks. Some of those giants were shaking, and others seemed to be chewing on their own shields; I didn’t miss the fact that even the other jötnar were giving them a wide berth.


The jötnar were muttering, shouting, and roaring. They were speaking Old Norse, but I could pick out a word here and there, mostly names. Loki was frequently referenced, as were his children; Fenrisúlfr seemed to be the favorite, but I heard Jörmungandr and Hel referenced as well, and even Váli and Narfi were mentioned a couple of times. Odin’s name was more common than I would have guessed, although they pronounced it differently than I was used to, almost more like Othin.


I was pretty sure I heard my own name in that mix, too. I optimistically wrote it off as my mishearing something, and decided to pretend that I hadn’t actually heard it at all. The alternative was too disturbing to contemplate right now.


There was a moment of stunned stillness from the fae as the jötnar marched into the hall. Even Scáthach seemed shocked into silence.


That silence was broken when Skrýmir stepped up to face Scáthach, only a few dozen feet separating them. The master of Utgard had the skin of a polar bear thrown around his shoulders, and an axe as large as I was in his hand. An honor guard of jötnar accompanied him; they weren’t as visually impressive as he was, but I had no doubt that they were absolutely lethal fighters. “So,” he said, “one of my kin has a grievance against you.” Skrýmir’s voice wasn’t loud, exactly, but it was so big that it damn near shook the floor.


Scáthach glared at me for an instant, and if looks could kill, I’d have dropped dead where I stood. Then she looked back to Skrýmir and smiled, smooth and sweet as honey. “I have no grievance with you, king of Utgard. This matter is between me and the jarl.”


“That isn’t how this works,” the jotun said lazily. “See, the boy told me he has a legitimate grievance against you, and from what I heard here, I believe it. You went after one of his people, and you did it in about the least honorable way possible. You don’t do that, Scáthach. Not to my people.”


“And since when is he your people?” she said. Her voice was still sweet, but there was an ugly undertone to it now, something vicious and nasty. “The child is hardly of your blood, and he is more a liability to you than an asset.”


“He drank my mead and took me as his liege,” Skrýmir said. “Maybe the Courts have lost their honor, but where I come from oaths still have meaning.” He then sighed. “You really don’t get it, do you?” he asked. “I don’t like you, Scáthach. I don’t like the way you operate, I don’t like what you stand for. And now you try to screw one of my people over in about the most underhanded, despicable, cowardly, contemptible way I can think of, and you have the gall to tell me I should thank you for it?”


Scáthach nodded. “I understand what you are saying,” she said. “Will you accept weregild as reparation?”


“No,” he said, hefting his axe. “I don’t think so. I don’t care to take your reparations. I name you ergi, Scáthach. I call you a nithing.”


When he said that, every single one of the jötnar in the hall went silent. Absolutely silent. Every single one of them. I wasn’t sure quite what he’d just said about her—given that he’d used the Norse words, I was guessing the concepts didn’t even have an equivalent that I could fully grasp. But from their reaction, I was pretty sure it was about the worst thing he could have called her.


“Well, then,” she said. “I believe we’re done talking now.”

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Breaking Point 11.16

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Given his choice, I knew that Carraig preferred to fight up close, with his sword. He enjoyed it more that way. But this was business, not pleasure, and he would be trying to kill us in the most practical and efficient way he could, not necessarily the one he liked. That meant a barrage of arrows from the darkness, too many for me to bat them away like I had earlier. He’d be using silver arrows, and he’d be using poisons.


I dealt with that attack the only way I could think of, with a trick I’d only used a couple of times before. I conjured up a wall of ice, blocking the hallway from edge to edge and thick enough to stop an arrow without any difficulty.


Or, at least, that’s what I tried to do. The ice was slow in coming; I felt like the cold was far away. I called it and it came, but it was slow and clumsy, the frost spreading across the stone as lazily as if it were a summer day in the sunshine. There was no way it would be fast enough to keep us from resembling a group of porcupines.


Kuzunoha saved our asses. With a gesture and a quiet word, she filled the hall with a curtain of white-hot fire. The little frost I’d been able to spread burst into steam in an instant just from being near the flames, and the stone of the walls was glowing, but I couldn’t feel the heat from where I stood; it was very tightly controlled, unnaturally so.


A handful of arrowheads made it through the flames. But they were misshapen, no longer anything like as sharp as they once were, and they were tumbling through the air without much in the way of direction. Most of them bounced off my armor harmlessly; one hit Kuzunoha, but as expected, her clothing was a great deal more than it looked like, and the arrowhead had no more luck there than it did with my armor.


I started to turn, knowing what Carraig’s next move would be, but Aiko beat me to it. She spun and snatched the arrow coming from behind us out of the air with one hand, making it look effortless. She twirled the arrow in her fingers once before flicking it aside.


“Damn,” she said. “Winter, that trick is a hell of a lot more fun than you make it look.”


“Focus, please,” I said, stepping away from the doorway and looking around. The entry hall was dim, but Scáthach’s vanity was working against her now. The illusion of the night sky overhead gave me something to work with.


There. A patch of stars was occluded by something that looked suspiciously like a person pressed against the ceiling. He would be lining up his shot carefully this time, hoping to take us down with surprise and precision now that the initial barrage had failed.


I pretended that I hadn’t seen him, walking back towards the center of the room a little. That took me closer to Carraig, but not directly towards his position, hopefully keeping him from suspecting anything.


Then, once I was close enough, I suddenly pulled out one of my few remaining stored spells and threw it at him. At almost the same instant, he loosed the arrow at me.


The spell detonated on impact and shattered most of Andromeda, but Carraig was long gone by then. His arrow hit me, but clattered off my armor without doing any real harm.


A no-score game, except that I had a very limited number of those spells. I had a strong suspicion that his ammunition wasn’t limited in that way.


And now we needed to find him again.


Before I could even try, I felt another stirring in the air, and barely managed to slow the passage of the arrow enough to reach out and knock it down.


We couldn’t keep this up. Sooner or later, we’d miss one, and he’d get lucky enough to hit a weak point in the armor. Once that happened, it was all over but the crying.


“We need to light the room!” I shouted to Kuzunoha, barely slipping aside from another arrow. “Bright as you can get it!”


The kitsune nodded and gestured. She began to burn with a pure silver light again, within seconds brighter than the false moon overhead. For my part, I pulled out a couple more stored spells from my pockets. These weren’t weapons, and normally I would never have wasted pocket space on them, but it hadn’t exactly been a surprise that we’d want our own light within the sanctum of the Maiden of Midnight. I threw the crystals into the corners of the room, where they cracked against the walls and began to emit a bright light of their own.


I felt an odd, creeping despair as I did. We could light the room, but we couldn’t kill the darkness. Every spell we cast, every light we made, they just made the shadows that much deeper. In addition to being a depressingly apt metaphor for reality as a whole, that was distinctly unfortunate for our immediate future. Carraig walked through darkness, and to my knowledge the only way to stop him was to take away the darkness.


I growled to myself. This wasn’t working. We were fighting Carraig’s way, and we were losing. We would inevitably lose, if we kept this up. He was built to fight this battle, everything about his powers and his training designed to hunt and kill his prey from the shadows. We couldn’t win against him. It just couldn’t be done.


“So much for honor,” I shouted, backing up until my back was against the wall. The others came with me, until we were all pressed against the edge of the hall. He couldn’t appear behind us, at least. “Shooting at us from the dark? Is that really the best you can do?”


The only answer was another arrow. I thickened and pushed the air it was traveling through, slowing it down, and Snowflake bit it out of the air.


Shit. He wasn’t interested in talking. That made it hard to lure him in.


Another arrow came in, and this time it was easier for me to catch it. I looked at it for a moment, and then an idea occurred to me.


“Take this,” I said quietly, handing it over to Aiko. “Everyone get something to throw. On my signal, aim for the areas of darkness.”


I waited long enough to grab another arrow out of the air. It was bizarrely easy. I remembered the first time I saw Carraig, catching arrows in flight had been incredibly hard, such an achievement that I had been shocked and disturbed that I was capable of it. Now, it felt almost casual.


The next time, I focused less on being ready for an arrow, more on finding Carraig before he could shoot. It was a risk—if he got the shot off, I probably wouldn’t be able to stop it—but a calculated one. I had to do something to change the nature of the fight, and if that meant taking a risk, so be it. It wasn’t like I had time to think of a better plan.


There, I thought, focusing on one of the patches of darkness between the various lights. It was a little too dark, it had a little too much substance to be just a patch of shadow.


I didn’t hesitate for an instant, snapping my arm out and throwing the arrow I was holding at that spot. It wasn’t a spectacular throw, certainly nothing near actually shooting someone with a bow, but it wasn’t terrible.


In the same instant, Carraig sent an arrow back at us. I couldn’t react in time to slow or deflect it with magic, and as fast as I was, I couldn’t grab an arrow out of the air without some kind of assistance. I twisted desperately aside and it slipped past me, missing by less than an inch.


Carraig vanished before the arrow I’d thrown reached him, of course. That had been a pitiful attempt, unlikely to connect even against a normal person; against a champion of the Courts, it was about as serious of a threat as a falling anvil.


But I wasn’t the only one who threw something. Instants after I threw my arrow, at about the same time he disappeared, all three kitsune hurled their own weapons, a mixture of knives and arrows.


Normally, that would have been an idiotic move. But just now, the number of places Carraig could reappear in was sharply limited by the intensity of the lighting in that hall. With three people throwing two sharp things each, the odds of someone getting lucky and aiming for the right spot started to look pretty reasonable.


And not even Carraig was fast enough to reappear, realize that he was in danger, and vanish again before the weapons reached him.


There was a brief, pregnant pause. Then Carraig said, “Nice trick.” He sounded somewhat pained.


I fully expected that to be a deception, and for more arrows to follow the words as soon as we got complacent. But a few seconds later, Carraig walked out into the light, holding the bow in his left hand. One of Katsunaga’s knives was embedded in that shoulder, almost to the hilt. If it was an act, it was a damned good one. I could smell the blood.


“Have it your way, then,” Scáthach’s champion said. He let the bow drop to the floor, and shrugged off a quiver of arrows from his other shoulder, letting that hit the ground as well. He’d shot more arrows at us than that quiver should have been able to hold, but it was still full. Typical fae bullshit.


He drew a short bronze sword with his right hand, and a nasty-looking iron dagger with his left. He spun each weapon once and then started pacing forward. If the knife in his shoulder bothered him at all, it wasn’t immediately obvious.


Well, we’d gotten him out to fight directly. That would have been more comforting if I hadn’t seen him fight before.


I stepped away from the wall, drawing Tyrfing. I could see the others moving with me in my peripheral vision, spreading out to surround him. None of us looked to be injured, which was a nigh-miraculous piece of good fortune. I’d been sure that the arrow I dodged had hit someone behind me, but apparently it just shattered on the wall.


I had Tyrfing. Aiko had her wakizashi, which I’d carried in; she had her tanto too, but her hands were still a bit unsteady, and I wasn’t surprised that she’d decided not to use two blades at once. Kuzunoha was holding her katana in both hands, and Katsunaga had a pair of long knives. Kyra and Snowflake both bared their teeth eagerly, hungry.


Taken as a whole, it seemed like a ridiculous degree of overkill. Way more than could be necessary for one man.


But Carraig was hands-down the best fighter I’d ever seen, full stop. There were no qualifiers there, no maybes. He’d spent the last few thousand years dedicating himself to violence, and he carried the mantle of Scáthach’s champion, making him stronger and faster and tougher than a person had any right to be.


There were six of us, and we were all practiced and lethal fighters in our own right. But I had the sinking feeling that we were still the underdog here.


He reached us and cut at my head. It was a simple, brutal sort of attack, without any subtlety or artistry to it, and if it connected it would be lethal, instantly, even with my armor. That, more than anything else, convinced me that this was a real fight. There was no playing around, no striking to wound so as to make the fight last. Carraig wanted me dead, right here, right now.


I blocked his attack. I’d gotten stronger since the last time we fought, and I knew exactly how hard he could hit. I still barely managed to keep my grip on Tyrfing. He pulled his sword back and cut at me again. This time I knocked the blade up and away, rather than trying to block it outright, and even so I had to give ground under the sheer force of his swing.


At the same time, with his other hand, he fended off the others. All of them, with one hand. I watched it happen, and I still wasn’t sure how the hell he did it. He parried Kuzunoha’s katana with his dagger, in such a way that it fouled Katsunaga’s movement, keeping the younger kitsune from closing in far enough to attack with his daggers. One foot snaked out and tripped Aiko up, and at the same time he sidestepped both Kyra and Snowflake, their teeth closing on empty air.


For my part, I wasn’t even considering attacking. It was all I could do to stay alive in the face of his assault. He was stronger than me, he was faster than me, and he was so much more skilled than me that it wasn’t even funny. The only advantage I had, and the only reason I wasn’t dead in the first two seconds of the fight, was that I wasn’t alone, and he had to put some of his attention to keeping my allies off him.


He kept attacking me, moving through the crowd so easily it seemed like it wasn’t even there. They slashed and cut and stabbed and bit at him, and he slipped aside from every strike without even really seeming to notice it. I kept deflecting his attacks, but I was still giving ground, and there was no question of a counterattack. If I took the time to so much as look at him funny, I’d get stabbed, and I had the nasty suspicion that my armor wouldn’t do jack shit here. His sword was comparable to Tyrfing. Armor, even world class armor like what I was wearing, wasn’t something you wanted to rely on against a weapon like that.


I was still uninjured, but I was getting dangerously close to the wall again. Earlier having my back to the wall had been a blessing, keeping him from coming at me from behind, but now it would be a death sentence. I was barely keeping myself alive with a full range of motion, where I could retreat before almost every attack. Take that away, and it would only be seconds before he gutted me.


The rest of my group was behind him now, and they should have been taking him to pieces. But he was just so freaking quick. He was in constant motion, bobbing and weaving, never still for even a heartbeat. It made him a damned hard target. A couple of times they managed to hit him, grazing him with a thrust or slash, but none of it was affecting him any more than the dagger still stuck in his shoulder. Kyra looked like she was going to take a bite out of his leg at one point, but he casually punched her in the face with his off hand and she hit the ground, dazed. She was up again in seconds, but the opportunity was gone.


It was unbelievable. He was alone, outnumbered and surrounded, already wounded, and yet he kept fighting, unwilling to abandon his oath to a queen he didn’t even agree with. In a way, it was admirable, almost heroic.


In another way, of course, he was about to kill me, and odds were good that he would then proceed to kill everyone else here. The last I checked, that was an undesirable outcome, so I had to do something about it.


And that meant I had to take another risk.


Up to that point, I’d been fighting a strictly defensive battle. I hadn’t so much as taken a swing at him. I’d relied on my allies to take him down. And it wasn’t working.


It was time for a change of plans.

Against a lesser foe, I might have left an opening, lured them into overextending to take advantage of it.

Against Carraig, that was suicide, plain and simple. Any opening was too much opening with him.


Instead, I just took one moment to counterattack, slashing at his chest. He slipped forward in the instant I was vulnerable, and thrust his sword in under my ribs.


Against a lesser foe, that might have been the end of it. He stabbed me, I cut him, and the fight ended there. Against Carraig, that wasn’t how things worked. Even while running me through, he had plenty of attention to spare for blocking my attack with his other hand.


But, and this was the essence of my plan, in order to do so he had to be focused on me. For that one instant, he wasn’t paying attention to anyone else.


And they, unlike me, could make him pay for it.


Snowflake lunged in and bit down on his leg, breaking and tearing it. Bones crushed under her jaws, and flesh shredded between her teeth. He screamed at that, and started to fall; apparently not even he could ignore that degree of damage. Aiko’s blade batted his dagger away in the moment of shock, while her father darted in to catch his other wrist between two knives. They snapped shut like a pair of shears, and suddenly Carraig was missing a hand.


The champion of the fae hit the ground between Snowflake and Kyra, disarmed and crippled. The rest of the fight was quick and messy, and at the end of it you’d have been hard pressed to identify the remains as belonging to a human being.


I didn’t pay too much attention to that. I had more pressing matters to occupy myself with, most notably an acute case of stabbing. More specifically, the one I should have had, and inexplicably didn’t.


Carraig had had a clear shot at me, and his blade had slipped through my armor without slowing at all. I should have a nice big hole in the liver, pouring blood out onto the floor fast enough that even I couldn’t shrug off or recover from the wound. Instead, all I had was a thin red line, barely even parting the skin on my flank, just under my ribs.


“He missed,” I said, looking at the little bit of blood on my fingertips.


“Carraig doesn’t miss,” Aiko said instantly.


“Yeah,” I said. “I know. But the fact remains that I’m not actually dying, over here.”


I looked back at Carraig. He was dead. He had to be dead. You couldn’t lose that much blood, you couldn’t be missing that many pieces and not be dead.


But for just an instant, I’d have sworn that Scáthach’s champion winked at me from his ruined face before his eyes closed for good.


So died Carraig, a man with more honor than sense, who gave his life for a Queen he never loved, but who in the end proved himself to be more than just a champion of the Midnight Court.

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