Monthly Archives: October 2015

Building Bridges 12.10

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The warehouse was quiet, in a neighborhood that looked abandoned. Chicago had fared better than almost any major city in the madness, from what I’d heard, but it hadn’t been totally unfazed by things. Although I supposed it was also possible that this was just the product of standard urban decay, without any need for magic and monsters. The weeds growing through the sidewalks, the bricks in the buildings across the street beginning to crumble…there were numerous signs pointing to this area having been at best depressed since long before the world went to pieces.


No other cars around, Snowflake reported, moving back into sight after circling the building. And the windows are all blocked with blackout curtains.


Not necessarily suspicious, all things considered, I said back, walking up to the door. These people have some very good reasons to not want anyone to realize they’re here.


Think I’m still going to assume that they want to kill us all, she said.


I snorted. Well, duh. Let me know if anyone comes in after us?


Yep, she said, slinking off into an alley.


I smiled grimly and opened the door. Having Snowflake around wasn’t anything like perfect insurance, and there was still a very good chance that things would go horribly wrong. She knew that at least as well as I did. But making the attempt made both of us feel better, if nothing else.


Aiko rested her fingers on my arm as we walked in, more for style points than anything else. Given that we were both fully encased in armor, the image was probably more than slightly peculiar. Inside, the warehouse had been partitioned out into multiple rooms. The first room inside was a sort of foyer, a transitional space between the outside world and the building’s interior. The door was open and we strutted inside without hesitating. Hesitation could easily be seen as weakness, and given that we were quite literally walking into a meeting of monsters and predators, weakness could easily become death.


The next room was fairly large, and hollow. I wasn’t sure what purpose it had once served, but it had been gutted, left as nothing more than an open space defined by open floor and empty walls, concrete and brick without decoration of any kind.


I was a little surprised at how informal the setup was. There were a couple dozen small tables around the edges of the room, with one or two people sitting at each. The only one I recognized was Conn, sitting at a square table on the other side of the room. He was wearing a suit so black it made his hair look pale, and for once he seemed exactly like what he was. Just sitting there, not even looking in my direction, his sheer presence was so imposing that it was hard to keep from staring at the floor in reaction.


Other than that, there were a wide variety of things in that room. There were a couple of werewolves; I didn’t know them, but the day I couldn’t recognize a werewolf when I smelled one, they could put me to bed in a hole.


A couple were shapeshifters, mages who had a talent for magics of flesh and bone, artists that used their own bodies as the canvas; I could smell it on them. One looked and smelled like a kitsune. Another had a distinctly fae scent about it, and its face moved strangely, like a mask that wasn’t quite attached to the face underneath.


Most of the rest, though, I couldn’t have put a name to if my life depended upon it. I was guessing most of them could eat me, though. That seemed like a safe bet here.


I didn’t want to let them see me flinch, though. Confidence was nine-tenths of what was needed here. The Pack had always attracted mostly predators, and predators had some common traits. One of the big ones was that when they went hunting they wanted a meal, not a fight. If they got the idea that you were easy prey they’d be on you like white on rice. It was much, much safer to seem like an arrogant jackass than to give them any reason to think that you were weak.


So, while I was probably supposed to stand in the open space in the middle of the room, I walked straight to one of the tables on the periphery and sat down. There were plenty of empty ones; these people valued personal space, to the degree that they left four or five times as much room between themselves as they needed.


They couldn’t see my face—unless they could see through metal, I supposed, which a couple of them might actually be able to do. Either way, I was smiling behind the mask, a broad grin like I owned the place and I dared anyone to tell me otherwise.


“Hi,” I said, leaning back in my chair as Aiko lounged in the one next to me. “Anyone mind moving this along? I’ve got things to do.”


“As do we all,” a slender Central American man said.


“Agreed,” one of the werewolves said. Not Conn; this one was female, and sounded French, though her English was very, very good. “Moving along, then. You killed a member of this Pack.”


“With cause,” I replied. “Very good cause.”


“Be that as it may,” a shapeshifter said. He had a thicker accent than the werewolf, something Middle Eastern. “We survive because we are pack, and not each alone, yes? We must stand together. Now more than ever.”


“Well, then somebody should have told him that,” I said, exasperated. “The guy tried to kill me three or four times, at least. He called up an army of demons to lay waste to my territory. I’m telling you, polite conversation wasn’t going to get anywhere with him.”


“He has a point,” Conn said. “He’s got a right to defend his territory.”


“You’re biased, Conn,” the French werewolf said, not unkindly. “The boy’s practically your kid.” She paused, turning her attention back to me. “Normally, that would be a valid point,” she said. “But this situation is an unusual one. More than any other point in recorded history, we cannot afford any weakness now, and the man you killed was a powerful asset. You should have sought some means of peaceful resolution, rather than killing him.”


I gritted my teeth. “You’re not hearing me,” I said. “He was evil, and that is not a word that I use lightly. He was messed up on a level that puts me to shame, which is not something that I can say about many people. Peaceful negotiation was not going to get me anywhere with him. Nonlethal measures were not going to work with him. Literally any means I had to plausibly resolve the problem entailed permanently removing him.”


“I can vouch for that,” another woman said. She drawled the words, lingering over the vowels like she didn’t want to let them end. “He was not a man to be swayed once he had settled his mind. Having decided to set himself against our young friend, he would have broken any agreement to the contrary that he made.”


I opened my mouth to thank her for backing me up, then paused. As nice as it was, it was also a little…odd. I supposed it was technically possible that she had risen high enough in the world to be at this meeting while still being nice enough to help a total stranger out of the goodness of her heart. Possible. But not likely.


I only had to consider her for a moment to figure out what was going on. Her appearance was similar to the Middle Eastern guy, broadly speaking, with tanned skin and dark hair. But she had startlingly orange eyes, an intense orange color that looked more like a pigeon’s eyes than anything that belonged in a human face. And she was wearing a coat that looked like it had been made from a wolf’s pelt.


I’m not that fond of math, but I can add two and two and come up with the right number. I was pretty sure I knew exactly what the story was here, or at least close enough for my purposes.


There was no sense in taking a needless risk, though, so I focused on the magic in the room for a moment, trying to get a feel for hers. It was hard to get an accurate read on things with so many competing auras in the room, but I managed to taste the edges of her power, enough to get some idea of what it was. There were smells of death, blood and sweat, and a hint of something more chemical, formaldehyde and alcohol. The scent was awful, nauseating, and strangely fascinating.


Good enough. It wasn’t quite the same—a more clinical, removed sort of awful, preservation rather than decay—but it was close enough.


“And how would you know that?” I asked her. It had only taken a couple of seconds for me to sort things out. Long for a casual pause, but not ridiculously so.


The skinwalker smiled at me. Her teeth were very even and very, very white. “We knew each other as children,” she said. “A long, long time ago. We were friends once. We’d drifted apart since then, but I know what sort of a man he was.”


“I see,” I said. “I suppose I should apologize for killing your friend, then.”


I didn’t actually apologize, though. I regretted a lot of things, but chopping that bastard’s head off was one of the few things in my life that I had no regrets about at all. I couldn’t think of any apology I could give that wouldn’t require me to lie through my teeth, and lying here was a bad idea. Considering the people I was surrounded by, I was nearly guaranteed to be caught.


“Don’t worry about it,” the skinwalker said with a casual, charming smile. “You saved me the trouble of doing it myself.”


She was already pretty high on the creepy scale, just by dint of her nature. I’d seen enough out of the last skinwalker to have a healthy fear of the breed.


But that line bumped her a few notches along, both what she said and the delivery. Even Aiko stared at her for a couple of seconds, her posture suggesting that she wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or terrified, and was settling on half of each.


“Okay,” I said, once I was confident I could do so without embarrassing myself. “So, again in the interest of moving things along, does anyone have anything else to add to this? Because from where I’m standing, it seems like we’ve pretty much covered everything. I killed him, nobody’s arguing that. I also had cause, which again, nobody’s arguing that point. If your concern is that I’m a liability to the Pack as a whole, all I can really do is say that I’ve got no intention of killing anyone from the Pack. We won’t have any trouble unless you start it, and even then I won’t kill you unless I don’t have any other way of resolving things.”


“And we are to take your word for this?” someone asked. A werewolf, I thought, but not one that had spoken so far.


“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’ve earned some credit, here. I’ve helped the Pack in the past. I’ve gone out on a limb for you, and I’ve never really asked anything in return.”


“That’s true,” Conn said. “He’s helped me take care of some problems before. And even know, he’s been helping the werewolves around his territory. Establishing political connections and alliances.”


“So he helps werewolves,” the kitsune said. “Why should the rest of us care?”


Before anyone could respond to that, Aiko rattled off something in Japanese. I had no idea what she was saying, but from the expressions on some of the faces I could see, it was worth hearing. Maybe I could get her to repeat it for me later.


He opened his mouth, but Aiko just kept going, talking right over him. She ranted at him in Japanese for a solid minute, while those who knew what she was saying got increasingly amusing looks on their faces.


When she finally fell silent, still glaring at him from behind the mask of her helmet, the silence was resounding. “Objection withdrawn,” the other kitsune said after a couple of seconds, his voice choked.


“Anyone else feeling a need to officially discipline the jarl?” Conn asked.


Winter? Snowflake said a moment later in the back of my mind. There’s something odd…oh shit!


And then the building blew up.

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Building Bridges 12.9

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“That door doesn’t open from the outside!” I shouted at David, peeling off to the side. “Window!”


He instantly veered off to follow me, running impressively fast for a human. He practiced, regularly. The jötnar kept pace easily, of course, and the Guard mercenaries were pretty quick on their feet as well.


Just not quick enough. A burst of fire caught the hindmost of the mercenaries, wrapping him in the same dull scarlet flames the mage had been shrouded in until the wind blew them out. Except he didn’t have her control over the fire, and she wasn’t inclined to be merciful.


He died too fast for screaming, long before any of the rest of us could do a thing about it.


Well, that didn’t bode well. I could get through the window, sort of, but we still had the wards to contend with, and I hadn’t designed those with the intent of letting people through the windows easily. Not even me. I could break through them, but I couldn’t do it clean, and I couldn’t do it quick. I’d kind of been counting on that blast of wind buying me a window of opportunity to get inside the house, where we’d be in a much stronger position than we were now.


Except that I didn’t need that window, as it turned out. As we got close, I realized that the wards were gone. Not broken, not nonfunctional. Gone, like they’d never been there at all. And not just on the window, either. A quick sniff, even the most cursory of inspections, showed that there were no wards on the entire building.


Well, that wasn’t good. I mean, it meant that I could get inside more quickly, which might mean the difference between life and death right now. But it was very worrying in the long term.


And wasn’t that just my life in a nutshell? Bloody hell, this game was getting old.


But right now it was a good thing, sort of. It meant that Tyrfing chopped through the shutter over the window on the first try, rather than the third or fourth. I slashed at it again, planning to cut it out entirely, but I smelled more magic and there was screaming behind me and I could smell cooking meat and there was no more time to spend on this. So I bodily threw myself into the shutter, counting on physical strength and momentum to get me through.


Somehow, in the rush and the chaos, I’d forgotten that I didn’t have a shell of metal to protect me from the consequences of my own dumbassery right now.


It turns out that breaking down a heavy security shutter with your shoulder hurts. Rather a lot, in fact. I picked up some burns where I brushed against the silver inlay, and that hurt too.


Then I landed on the shattered glass of the window on the floor inside. That was worse. The clothing I was wearing was reinforced enough not to get cut, but it didn’t cover my hands, or my face. And even in the places that were covered, it still hurt landing on a bunch of small points. They might not break the skin, but that didn’t mean they were anything like comfortable.


I just lay on the floor for a few seconds, pondering what a foolish decision I’d just made. It was worth pondering. Although I supposed that I was still alive, just not very happy. Seen from that perspective, diving headfirst through a secured window onto broken glass actually might have been the best option.


And again, wasn’t that just typical?


After I indulged myself with a couple of seconds of self-pity, Aiko gave me a hand and I pulled myself to my feet. That drove a couple of the shards of glass further into my flesh, making me glad that I still didn’t have all that much feeling in my left hand. The pain that did get through was more than enough for my liking.


“That was a stupid thing to do,” she said, still holding my hand. I was leaving small, bloody marks on her armor. It didn’t stand out that much against the red and gold, but there’s no red quite like fresh blood.


“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I said. “Who’s the fourth guy? We only saw three out there.”


“He’s good with illusion,” she replied. “Making you see things that aren’t there, or not see things that are. Took us a bit to catch on to what he was doing.”


I tensed. “So he could have snuck in with us. He could be standing right next to us.”


“Maybe,” she drawled. “Or maybe he’s not actually as good as he thinks he is.” She reached out almost casually with her other hand, holding her tanto. I hadn’t quite noticed when she drew it.


I stood there looking silly for a couple seconds. Then a skinny man with features that made me think of a rodent faded into sight right behind me, with her knife in his abdomen.


“How?” he gasped, seeming more upset at having been caught than at having been stabbed. The pain hadn’t really set in yet.


“This is my game,” Aiko said, sounding almost insulted. “You didn’t seriously think you were going to beat me at it, did you?” She pulled her knife back out and then flicked it up and across his throat. He dropped like a puppet with its strings cut. Which, from some perspective, I supposed he was.


“Jesus Christ,” David said, staring. “You just killed him.”


“He was in my house, concealed, after announcing his intent to kill me,” I said. “If the clans want to challenge my claim that this was legitimately in defense of my life and territory, they’re welcome to try.” I looked at the body, confirming that it actually was a body. I was pretty sure it was. It looked very, very dead, and if it was an illusion this guy was one of the best I’d ever seen. “Throw him out the window,” I said. “It might make them hesitate. And someone work on closing that window. You should at least be able to hold that shutter in place, or nail it to the wall or something.”


“Jesus,” David said, as my minions hurried to comply. “That’s cold.”


“Yeah, well, so am I,” I said, as Snowflake hurried up to me. I scratched her head, smearing blood on her ears. Her jaws were already wet with…not blood, but whatever those constructs had instead. “Working for the Guards, I’d have thought you’d be used to killing by now.”


“I’ve killed people,” he said. “But I’ve never taken it that casually. And I usually at least try to solve things without murder.”


“We haven’t all had that luxury,” I said. A pair of the canine constructs jumped in through the open window, but they were cut down in seconds, and Kjaran slammed the shutter back into the opening a moment later, holding it in place by main force. Fire magic hit it a few seconds later, but with at least four jötnar actively focused on keeping it cold, she’d have a hell of a time heating it past mildly uncomfortable.


“I’d like to think that you could at least make the attempt,” David said.


I met his eye. “You’ve read my dossier,” I said. “You have an idea of what I’ve done. The people I’ve brought down. Do you really think I could have managed those things if I hesitated to solve problems in the most efficient way available to me?”


He blinked first, and looked away. “Was that guy telling the truth about you killing his grandmother?”


“How the hell should I know who his grandmother is?” I asked.


“That’s not an answer.”


I sighed. “David, let’s get real. I’ve killed a lot of people, okay? A whole lot. Some of them were probably somebody’s grandmother. It isn’t like I ask them first.”


“You’re still not answering my question,” he commented. “That worries me. Those people seemed to have something very specific in mind.”


“I killed Guide,” I said after a few seconds.


He blinked. “Wait. You mean, like, Guide? The one on the Conclave?”


“That’s the one,” I said. “I’m surprised they didn’t tell you.”




“I don’t really know,” I said, feeling very tired, and very hungry for something I couldn’t quite name. “This was back in Russia, towards the end. I…kind of called the Wild Hunt. I didn’t mean to, but it happened.”


“The Wild fucking Hunt?” he shouted. “How in hell did you call the Wild Hunt and not mean to?”


“It’s a long story,” I said defensively. “Loki kind of did it on my behalf. I don’t remember a lot of what happened after that, the things I did. It’s just a blur. We got the necromancer, but apparently somewhere along the way I also killed Guide.”


He just stared at me for about thirty seconds. Outside, the sounds of violence had stopped. Apparently, the mages were trying to figure out a new angle of attack.


“Jesus motherfucking Christ,” he said at last. “You know, they offered me double pay to come here. This was before you were joining up. That was just to work in the same city you live in. And I’m suddenly feeling like that isn’t remotely enough in the way of hazard pay.”


“I’m not that bad,” I protested.


He stood and stared at me.


“Okay, I might be kind of bad,” I admitted.


He continued to stare at me.


“All right, fine,” I said. “Double pay isn’t nearly enough for getting dragged into the mess that is my life. Happy now?”


Aiko laughed. So did Snowflake. And Selene. And most of my employees, actually.


David just looked back at the window. “They aren’t attacking,” he said. “They might be giving up.”


“Maybe for the moment,” I said. “What happened to the wards, anyway?”


“Don’t know,” Aiko said. “The guy in the suit walked up to the building with a bunch of the dogs to cover him. We took out the dogs from the window, but he touched the wall and the wards just unraveled like that.” She snapped her fingers. The gauntlets made it a somewhat difficult gesture to perform very well, even for her, but it got the point across.


“Wolf!” a voice shouted from outside, just barely loud enough to be heard through the shutters. It took me a second to recognize it as belonging to the guy in the suit. “We’re leaving now. You have the advantage here, and we all know it. But we’ll find you again, and we’ll kill you. You will face justice for what you’ve done. I promise you that.”


I snorted. There was an empty threat if I’d ever heard one. If justice existed at all, the world would look rather different than it did.


“Are they actually leaving?” I asked.


Kjaran pulled the shutter away from the wall, just a little, and Selene peeked outside. “Looks like it,” she said. “There’s the portal, and…yep, they’re gone. Took the dead one with them, too.”


“Good,” I said. “Start working on taking the house off lockdown. David, thanks for your help. I couldn’t have done it without you.”


“Bullshit,” he said, without any particular anger. “You’d have figured something out.”


“Yes, but I couldn’t have done it in this specific way without you, so that statement is still technically true. Anyway, your help is appreciated. Thanks.”


“You’re welcome,” he said. “I’ll see you tomorrow for training. Probably best I get going, though, now they’re gone.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “We don’t want too much of an obvious connection between you and me. You want to wait for the door to be open?”


“The window’s fine with me,” he said. Kjaran pulled the shutter away as he got close, and he jumped out the window. Just as he hit the apex of his leap a roaring wind caught him under those wingsuit-style flaps of cloth, carrying him up and out of sight. I’d been right. He could literally fly.


I felt that spike of jealousy at the sight again, then turned to Selene. “I’m worried about how easily they took out the wards,” I said. “If he can do that, we’re going to have a hard time keeping this place secure. I’m thinking we need expert assistance with this one.”




“Meaning I want you to call Alexander,” I said.


It took more money to get Alexander to come out to the mansion than a lot of people made in a year. Even at that, I was guessing he only came because he liked me. Cash really didn’t mean a lot to someone like him.


When he did arrive, he and Legion spent around half an hour talking shop. I tried to participate in that conversation, thinking I could contribute something or at the very least learn something, but demon and wizard both brushed me off.


Not that I was missing a lot. They were talking about things a lot more abstract and theoretical than I was accustomed to working with. They lapsed into Greek and Latin sometimes, and even when they were speaking English I didn’t know a lot of the words they were using. The parts I did understand sounded like they were borrowing from a fairly impressive range of fields, everything from magical theory and philosophy all the way to computer science and information theory.


Finally, Alexander walked over to me. He was wearing a ratty old bathrobe, rather than the formal robes he wore in his role as the Maker of the Conclave, but there was still no missing the authority he carried. There was a sort of precise, calm confidence to his movements that spoke of power more clearly than any ostentation could. He held himself like a man who carried the weight of the world on his shoulders, but who could carry that weight.


I wondered idly whether he’d hid himself better when I was his apprentice, or I just hadn’t known to look.


“Looks like your guy is a specialist with abstract energies,” he told me. “His magic works on energy before takes it a physical form.”


“So…what? He can pull wards apart before they do anything?”


“Among other things,” Alexander said. “Odds are good that he’ll be able to unravel anything you build. You probably won’t be able to touch him with magic, either. You aren’t good enough to get anything through the kind of defenses this style of magic can put up.” His voice betrayed nothing but a detached interest, as usual.


“But he can’t actually do anything physical,” I said.


He shrugged. “It isn’t in line with what he did here, anyway. I wouldn’t count on him having no skills in other fields at all. But that isn’t really what you have to worry about from someone who can work with energies on that level.”


“What is?” I asked.


“What he breaks, he can also build. You tell me what you have to worry about from someone with that degree of control over the basic building blocks of magic.”


I thought about it, then groaned. “He can make people stronger, can’t he,” I said. “Other mages, I mean.”


Alexander smiled thinly. “Yes. Not literally, he’s feeding them energy to use rather than actually changing their capabilities, but the end result is much the same. That’s a basic enough application of this sort of thing that I would be very surprised if he can’t do it.”


“How much stronger are we talking here?”


He shrugged. “It depends on many things. The exact nature of his approach to magic, how much he and his partner have practiced together, how neatly their respective powers fit together, efficiency of transfer…it isn’t something that I can quantify or predict. But if he’s any good at it at all, it’s a substantial difference.”


“Wonderful,” I said sourly. “Okay, priorities. Wards. Can you set them up in a way that he can’t just take them down?”


“I can tie them to a physical structure,” he said. “That will make it considerably more difficult for his approach to affect them, and if he does unravel them it will be much, much easier to put them back in place. But it will take time, it will take materials, and it will be expensive.”


“Talk to Tindr,” I said. “The money can be arranged. In the meantime, I have to go pull some glass out of my skin.”


He smiled. “Good luck with that.” Then he turned back to Legion, going back to the conversation they’d been carrying on earlier. I felt a little like a child being told to go and play while the adults talked about business.


Which I was fine with, honestly. Abstract theory and mathematical modeling had always been my least favorite parts of magic. If I could spend a fortune to get Maker to do that work for me, it was a fortune well spent.


Astonishingly, the next few days passed without much incident. I did the training with the Guards, and while the others were clearly not comfortable around me, we were learning to work as a unit. We were getting more efficient. That was all we could really expect, I was guessing.


I got jumped by constructs a handful of times, but I didn’t see the actual mages again. The constructs were no threat to me, of course. I broke them without even really paying attention to them. I knew I’d have to deal with their maker eventually, along with his associates—I didn’t for a moment believe that they’d given up. But for the moment, it wasn’t too much of a problem.


Alexander got to work on the wards, although other people were doing most of the work. He drew up the plans, and the housecarls did the grunt work of installing the physical structures that would act as the skeleton for the wards. He put in around an hour a day, which was still more expensive than the material cost—and that wasn’t cheap. But I could afford to throw a few million at this project. If it worked, it would be worth it and then some.


And then, finally, the day I was supposed to meet with the Pack rolled around. We took a portal to Chicago, then bought a car to drive to the suburb where the meeting was being held. I wasn’t doing public transportation. I hadn’t ever liked public transit at the best of times, and from what I’d heard, Chicago after dark was pretty far from the best of times.


Aiko drove about three times faster than was safe for anyone involved, and skidded to a stop out front of the warehouse. She grinned at me and shut off the stereo.


“You know,” I commented, “it isn’t that I have anything against songs about insane asylums being converted into brothels, exactly. But did they actually have a little girl doing the vocals for it? Because that would be fairly messed up.”


“Nah,” she said. “That was just the nightcore remix. So are we going in?”


“You’re sure you want to come?” I asked dubiously.


“Hey, I’m allowed,” she said. “Kitsune are technically allied with the Pack. And I have two tails now, so I’m not a total chump. They don’t want to let me in, they can suck both of them.”


“As much as that mental image is now dominating my thoughts,” I said, “that wasn’t actually what I meant. Do you want to come? Because odds are good this is going to be ridiculously boring and aggravating.”


“See, here’s the thing,” she said. “Mostly I only get to see your unique ability to turn any situation into a total clusterfuck while we’re actually fighting. I’m looking forward to seeing it in action in a diplomatic setting, and I’m not actually allowed into diplomatic settings all that often.”


“If you say so,” I said dubiously. “Just don’t say I didn’t warn you. Let’s do this, then.”

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Building Bridges 12.8

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The black SUV pulled up in front of the building almost exactly as we walked outside. I wanted to think that it was great timing, but considering it was Kjaran driving, it was more likely that he’d been waiting outside for several minutes and just timed the final approach to suit. For a guy who didn’t talk, he had a surprising appreciation of the dramatic.


Kjaran was driving, and Kyi was in the passenger seat. There were more of my minions in the second row of seats—Nottolfr for sure, along with Jack and a ghoul I didn’t recognize. That left David and I to take the very back row.


“You have a driver?” David asked, buckling himself in.


“Not specifically, no,” I said. “People swap out for the job. But Kjaran does it most often, because he’s the best at it.”


There was a thump and some muffled shouting from the cargo area behind us. I didn’t react.


David did. He pushed himself up in his seat and looked back there. “What the hell are you doing?” he shouted a moment later, fumbling with the seat belt.


I glanced back. As expected, the three gunmen from earlier were back there, hogtied and gagged with heavy black duct tape. “How was I supposed to know they were in on the game?” I said irritably. “You should be glad I told my people to be fairly passive or they’d probably have been in an incinerator by now.”


One of the guys twitched at that, as best as he could. It wasn’t much. They’d been very effectively restrained.


“It was just a training exercise, for God’s sake,” David said. “There was no need to bring ‘your people’ in at all.”


“Well, then, maybe you shouldn’t have played it up like it was a real problem,” I told him. “You wanted me to take it seriously? Well, you got your wish.”


He narrowed his eyes at me. “You need to learn to trust us.”


I snorted. “Trust you? Maybe. The rest of them? Let’s get real. Have you seen those people? I wouldn’t trust them to prepare a sandwich without screwing things up. They’re still in the equivalent of boot camp. I don’t think it’s unfair of me to hesitate a little before trusting them to keep me alive.”


“And how are they going to learn if you don’t give them a chance?”


I shrugged. “I’m giving them a chance. I told my people to hang back and stay out of sight. They were there strictly as a safety net, and the newbies don’t ever have to know the net was there, any more than they have to know the whole thing was a drill. I’m trying here, David, but you’ve got to meet me halfway if this is going to work.”


He stared at me for a few seconds, then sighed. “We’ll talk about this later,” he said. “For now, you said you had a crisis?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Kyi? Details, please. Oh, and I guess we might as well take the tape off.”


“I’ve only heard this secondhand, since we’ve been here waiting,” she said. “But the report is that four mages showed up around fifteen minutes ago asking for you. Selene kept them outside and put them off for a while, but once they realized that you weren’t there, they got aggressive. No casualties as of three minutes ago, but there’s some structural damage and things are getting tense.”


“Why can’t they deal with it on their own?” I asked, trying to think about who was there. I couldn’t remember all of them, but from what I could remember, there was a reasonably substantial force at the mansion. Selene was there, obviously, since she’d been the one to contact me, and she had several housecarls with her, a few ghouls, at least a couple of low-power mages, and probably a couple of human mercenaries. The last I heard Aiko and Snowflake were planning to hang around there, too. Not an army, but it should have been enough to scare off four people.


“I don’t know,” Kyi said. “Selene wasn’t all that clear. Things were a little rushed on her end.”


I grunted. “Yeah,” I said. “Well, I guess we’ll see soon.”


It was easy to see what Selene had meant by “structural damage.” The jötnar and ghouls were about as good in the dark as I was, but some of the people working for me were human, and in any case I’d felt that it was better to not take any chances we didn’t have to. So there were floodlights tucked away unobtrusively on the mansion’s exterior in case of an attack in the night, and currently they were turned on, lighting up the snow like it was broad daylight.


Thus, it was easy to see that some of the trees around the building had been reduced to charred stumps. There were some burn marks on the walls of the mansion as well, although it didn’t seem like the fire had been able to find any real purchase there. No surprise; we’d prepared for fire pretty extensively.


A couple of the windows were shattered as well, which had apparently prompted the residents to close the shutters. Heavy sheets of steel worked with geometric patterns in silver, they were tougher than the walls around them.


The front door was broken as well, cracked in half and lying on the ground fifteen feet from the door. But again, that hadn’t gotten the attackers much of anywhere. The gap in the wall was blocked by the security door, a slab of steel a foot thick with a silver core. I didn’t think they were going to have much luck getting through that door. I’d based the design on the vault doors they used on werewolf safe rooms, and built up from there.


It was impressive that they’d even managed to get that far, though. The windows and doors were still behind the wards, and we’d beefed those wards up heavily since Loki’s little announcement.


The attackers were also pretty easy to see. Selene had reported four of them, but there were only three in sight when we pulled up outside the building, two men and a woman. One of the guys was surrounded by vaguely canine shapes woven out of darkness, little more than vague shapes and gleaming teeth. Constructs, I was guessing, but not the sort I was used to dealing with. These were more temporary, the pattern of their construction not tied together as tightly. They were meant to be used, not to be kept or sold.


The woman, on the other hand, was surrounded by a nimbus of flame. It was a dull crimson in color, clinging tightly to her skin and flickering across her fingers. I noticed that it wasn’t actually touching her clothing, which looked to be a loose silk shirt and pants. She had impressively fine control over the fire, then. Odds were good the flames around her were as much a demonstration of that as anything.


The other guy had no obvious demonstration of his magic. He looked like just a normal guy, a fairly short fellow wearing a cheap suit and glasses with plastic frames. He actually had a pocket protector. I hadn’t realized they even made those anymore.


Of the three, I was by far most concerned about the third. The first two, I had some idea what they could do, what I had to worry about from them. Fire was a bitch to defend against, but I had a decent idea of how to go about it. I’d had lots of practice at it. It was probably the most common talent out there, after all. Constructs were a bit trickier, since they were potentially a lot more versatile. I’d never actually fought someone who specialized in making them that I could remember, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the real thing. But the constructs I’d fought in the past had been pretty wimpy, and while I was guessing these things were going to be tougher, I didn’t really expect them to be a serious threat.


The other guy, though? I didn’t know what to expect from him. Not at all. He didn’t look like much, but neither did most of the really terrifying people I’d dealt with. There were exceptions, but generally speaking, the people who you really had to worry about didn’t look like anything much.


“This one’s your show,” David said, handing the binoculars back to me. “How do you want to handle it?”


I grimaced. “Do you recognize any of them?”


“The guy with the dogs, I think,” he said. “His name’s…Bob, Bill, something like that. I’ve seen him around a few times. Seemed all right, as far as I could tell. I don’t know the other two.”


“Damn. If you know him, that probably means they’re legitimate.” I frowned, staring up the hill at them. “I can’t kill them out of hand, not if they’re really with a clan,” I said. “Not without getting myself into even more trouble. And I can’t afford to leave them be. That’d be hell on my rep, plus they’d probably do some serious damage to the house. So I guess that leaves talking.”


I wasn’t sure, but I thought I heard a disappointed sigh from one of the minions.


“You’re with me, please, David,” I continued. “Having you around will make look a lot better, and hopefully they’ll hesitate to just set you on fire. Kyi, Nóttolfr, I want you somewhere they won’t see you and you can do some damage if necessary. On my signal, go after whoever I target first. After that, use your own best judgment. The rest of you, with me, hang back ten feet. Same instructions, bring down my first target fast and then use your own judgment. Jack, you’re playing defense; keep them off us if you can. Everyone clear?”


David said, “Clear.” The others just nodded.


“All right,” I said. “Let’s go.”


I felt almost naked as I started up the hill. I hadn’t thought to have Kyi bring my armor; I was so used to wearing the stuff that the notion of having someone else bring it for me was foreign.


Not that it would necessarily have done much good. My armor was good for a lot of things, but stopping heat transfer wasn’t really one of them, and in the past it had never really done me much good against fire. If those constructs were powerful enough to matter, and from the guy’s attitude I thought they were, odds were very good that they had a way to deal with it as well.


But still. It would have been nice to have it along. As a security blanket, if nothing else.


I didn’t have it, though, and there wasn’t much point in standing around wishing I did. So I tugged my shirt into place, made sure the knife on my belt was very obviously visible, and hiked up to where they were standing just outside my door.


“Hi,” I said, once I got close enough that they could see me. “Can I help you guys?”


Apparently I’d been quieter than I thought as I got close, because all three of them startled and turned in my direction. One of the constructs tensed as though it was about to charge me, but the guy standing with them put his hand on its back and it relaxed again.


“I don’t think so,” the man in the suit said. “Move along, please. This is none of your business.”


“See, it actually kind of is my business,” I said dryly. “On account of you’re standing outside my house.”


He turned his attention fully to me. “Are you Winter Wolf?” he asked.


“That’s me,” I said cheerfully. “And you are?”


“So you really weren’t here,” he said, ignoring my question completely. “It seems I owe your employee an apology. I had assumed she was lying in hopes that we would go away.”


“Nope, she was telling the truth.” I paused. “I mean, probably. I don’t know exactly what she told you, but I’m guessing she probably wasn’t lying. Anyway, I’m here now, so you can go ahead and leave.”


“I don’t think so,” he replied. “We’d like to have a chat with you about certain incidents.”


“More specifically, we’d like to pull out your guts and strangle you with them,” the guy with the dogs added helpfully.


“Ah,” I said. “Any chance I could talk you out of that?”


“I don’t think so,” he said, stroking the back of one of the constructs. It didn’t react. “I really, really don’t.”


The woman hadn’t said anything. But I noted that she was flexing her fingers rhythmically, and the flames around her were moving in time with that rhythm, flaring up and then dying back down to a slow, intermittent smolder.


“Hold up,” David said, stepping between us. “This man is doing good work. He’s making things better. Don’t you think you should at least hear him out?”


“You’re with the Guards, aren’t you?” the man in the suit asked him.




He nodded. “I thought so. I saw you back in Russia. You did a lot of good in the early stages of that mess.”


“Thanks,” David said cautiously. “I got taken out pretty early on. One of his creatures had a rifle, and I didn’t see it in time.”


“Happens to the best of us,” the man in the suit said sympathetically. “That’s a little disappointing, though. I thought you were a decent guy. I’m sorry to see you working with this man. Do you know what he did?”


“He hasn’t been convicted of anything that I know of,” David said. “And the only thing he’s even been accused of was killing someone who earned it ten times over.”


“He killed my grandmother,” the guy with the dogs snarled.


“And my mentors,” the one in the suit added. “Both of them, which is fairly impressive, when you think about it.”


I raised my hand. “Um,” I said. “Do you mean, like, a metaphorical grandmother?”


“No,” he said coldly. “My actual, literal grandmother.”


“Oh. Well, shit. Sorry?”


“Even if that is true,” David said, cutting off the inevitable and disastrous reply, “it’s beside the point. He hasn’t been convicted of anything, and he joined the Guards specifically to improve things. I think it’s the least you could do to let him have a fair trial.”


“We won’t get justice in a court,” the man in the suit said. “The system is corrupt, and he has too many friends in high places. The only way he’ll get what he deserves is if we do it ourselves.” He looked at David seriously. “Walk away, Guard. We don’t have anything against you.”


“And if I don’t?”


“Then you’ve obviously been deluded by a dangerous criminal. And I won’t be responsible for what happens to you as a result.”


David nodded slowly. “So you want me to stand by while you illegally lynch a man who hasn’t been found guilty of anything, and who I’ve accepted as a comrade in arms, with all that implies. And you’re threatening to kill me as well if I don’t allow you to do this.”


“Pretty much,” the man in the suit said. “You seem to have an admirable grasp of the situation.”


“Well, I think there’s only one way to respond to that,” he said. Then he threw his arms forward, accompanied with a sudden, massive surge of power.


I’d seen air magic in use before. I considered it one of my stronger suits. I could do some fun tricks with it, and occasionally it even came in handy. I wasn’t spectacularly good at it, but I was decent.


That being said, nothing I’d ever done had come anywhere close to this. The sudden tide of air was more like a hurricane than a heavy breeze. It physically knocked people over, sent them sprawling and rolling across the ground. One of the constructs was actually lifted off the ground and thrown through the air, where it hit a tree and shattered into drifting shadows before dissipating entirely.


David staggered to the side a little, the effort of moving so much air so quickly obviously exhausting even for him. Then he started running for the door, a little bit unsteady on his feet, with the rest of us close behind him.

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Interlude 12.c: Tawny Hutchinson

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“Oh God,” Frankie said, staring out the window. “Ohgodohgodohgod, it’s getting closer. It’s coming this way.”


Mom grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back down. “Quiet,” she hissed. “It’ll hear you. We need to be quiet now, okay, Frankie? Can you do that?”


He sniffled and nodded, clutching at her. He was eleven, just at the stage where he was starting to pull away from her, but this had made him regress a few years to the point where he wanted nothing more than the comfort of his mother.


I didn’t blame him. I might have been right next to him, but I was too tangled up inside, fear and dread tying me in knots inside. And besides, they were counting on me. She hid it, but I knew the last few weeks had worn mom ragged. If I let myself go now, if I dropped the mask, I thought she might crack, and then where would we be?


Hiding won’t help, I thought, with a quiet, numb sort of despair. It knows where we are.


But I couldn’t bring myself to say it. There wasn’t anything we could do anyway. Couldn’t run, couldn’t hide. Fighting was a joke, and not even a funny one. At least if I didn’t tell them, they could spend a few minutes more thinking that we had a chance.


Besides, if I told them I’d have to tell them how I knew, and that would lead to all kinds of other things I hadn’t told them. That conversation would get ugly; you could see it a mile away. I’d rather not have that be the last thing I said to my mom.


We sat there in the shelter and waited for the world to end, and I tried not to cry, and I failed.


“They say things aren’t this bad everywhere,” Nicole said, rubbing her hands together to try and warm them.


“Yeah,” I said, glaring at the back of the next person in line. Not that he’d done anything wrong; he was just there. “I figure it’s like hurricanes. Some places get hit by a hurricane and they come together, you know? People help each other through it. And then you’ve got places where people turn on each other, and there’s all this rioting and looting.”


“And we’re one of the bad places,” she said. “One of the places people are breaking apart, instead of coming together.”


I glanced at her face, then glanced away. She’d taken the piercings out, leaving just holes behind in her nose, her eyebrows, her lip. It made her look tired, wrung out, and much older than seventeen.


“Yeah,” I said. Nothing else. We both knew the way things were. We’d been run out of our house by a gang of thugs, and her house had been burned to the ground.


I stamped my feet in place, feeling the snow crunch under my shoes. My feet were freezing. We’d been standing in the snow for almost an hour now, and I didn’t have good boots. I hadn’t had time to grab mine when we were running, and the only pair I’d been able to scrounge up since was worn out, and two sizes too big. I’d stuffed them with newspaper, trying to make them fit a little better and give them a bit more insulation, but they still let the cold right through, and rubbed my feet raw.


After another half an hour or so, we finally made it to the front of the line. The guy in the National Guard uniform handed us both a box with an apologetic sort of shrug. When my numb, freezing fingers fumbled and dropped mine, he helped me scoop the food and medical supplies back into the box and gave me a chemical hand warmer before I left. I almost broke down crying in the middle of the street right there, because it was the first time a stranger had done something nice for me in weeks.


Nicole and I trudged back to the shelter we were staying at. We didn’t talk. There was nothing to say.


We all heard the crash as the thing smashed a pair of cars together. It sounded almost exactly like a car crash, screaming metal and breaking glass. It was shockingly loud, though. The monster was only a block or two away now. It was getting closer fast.


Most of the people in the shelter jumped at the noise. A baby started to cry, and it took a few seconds for an adult to hush it. Frankie squeezed mom even tighter, burying his face in her shoulder. She seemed to be taking almost as much comfort in the contact as he was.


I just sat where I was. I didn’t react to the noise. In a way, I felt like I was past being surprised. The last three weeks, and especially the last five hours, had left me numb.


I didn’t know the guy’s name, but I’d seen him around the shelter a few times. He was a scary-looking kid, around my age but a hell of a lot older in the head. He looked like he’d been living on the street since long before the world went crazy. I’d noticed that even the people who worked at the shelter gave him a wide berth. They didn’t want to turn him away—they didn’t want to turn anyone away, not now when it might well be a death sentence—but they obviously weren’t happy having him there.


And now he’d cornered us with three of his buddies a few blocks from the shelter, and he had a knife, and nothing I’d ever done in my life had prepared me for this. Not even a little bit.


“P-please,” I said, stuttering a little. I wasn’t sure whether my teeth were chattering because of the cold or the fear. It hardly mattered. “Please, my brother, he’s sick and he hasn’t been eating enough.”


“Do I look like I care?” he asked with a casual, mocking grin. “Come on, hand it over.” He waved his switchblade in front of me. The blade caught the light, gleaming in an almost hypnotic way. Logically I knew that waving it around right like that was probably stupid, that it was just a scare tactic, but damn if it wasn’t working on me.


I wanted to do something, but what could I do? There were four of them, with knives, and I’d never been in a fight in my life. Not a real one. Nicole hadn’t either, I was pretty sure. She’d looked pretty intense with all the piercings and tattoos, but she was from an upper-middle-class family, the same as me. She wanted to look tough, but these guys were the real thing.


We couldn’t fight. There were no police to call, not really. The response time in this part of town was somewhere around fifteen minutes, even if I could get to a phone. There were people close enough to hear me if I screamed, but they weren’t looking. More than that, they were not looking in a way that made it clear that they didn’t want to see. They knew what was going on, but it was inconvenient to pay attention to it.


I almost thought about using my magic—Christ, even in my head that sounded ridiculous. A month ago I’d dismissed the things I felt as a trick of perception or a sign of pending insanity. I’d actually managed to do something with it once, back when I was a kid, but over the years I’d convinced myself that was just my imagination. Now, though, crazy things were so normal that I had to actually think about it. I’d played with it a couple times since then, just to see whether it was for real, and if it was just my imagination I was a few steps beyond pending insanity.


But that didn’t work, either. It was too slow, and if what I got was anything like what had shown up in the past, it wouldn’t do much good anyway. It might keep one of them busy for a while, but that still left three more than we could handle.


So as much as I hated to do it, I bit my lip and handed the box over to one of the thugs. The food and medicine Frankie needed, the blankets and the camp stove to keep us warm, I just gave them away. Nicole waited a few seconds longer, but eventually she gave her box of relief supplies up as well.


“That wasn’t so hard, now, was it?” the ringleader said, smirking. He folded his knife closed again and slid it into his pocket.


I shook my head, looking at my feet, and started to walk away.


He put out his hand, blocking my path. I could probably have pushed past him, but I didn’t.


“You don’t get off that easy,” he said quietly.


The seconds ticked slowly past. I found myself thinking again that I could try to do something with magic, but it wasn’t a good idea. I knew that.


And besides, I couldn’t feel as much as usual. The doors weren’t there for me to open, not half as many things waiting to happen as usual. I wasn’t sure how much of it was because I was feeling so numb, so overstimulated that I was barely even conscious, and how much of it was because of what I wanted them to do.


Not even the monsters wanted to fuck with this. I couldn’t blame them, really. After seeing what this thing was capable of, I understood why they wouldn’t want to go near it.


In hindsight, it would probably have been a good idea to think about that sooner. In a way, I’d brought this on myself. I could almost convince myself that I deserved this for having been so thoughtless. I’d known that I was screwing around with things I didn’t understand, I’d had all the evidence I needed to know that it might go very badly for me, and I’d done it anyway. Was it a surprise that it had all gone to shit? Not so much.


And then I caught my breath as I realized there was something else I could do. It might not work—from what I knew, from the tiny little scraps I’d heard from someone who heard them from someone who had some idea what was going on, I didn’t think it was likely to do much at all. But it might work, which was more than I had otherwise.


And besides, it wasn’t like I could make things that much worse. I’d already screwed up about as badly as a person could.


I stood and started for the door.


Almost instantly, mom was standing next to me. “Tawny?” she said. “Honey, what are you doing?”


“I’m going outside.” I felt like I should be choked up, but I wasn’t. My voice sounded almost disinterested. Numb.


“But that…thing is out there,” she said.


“I know,” I said. “It’s after me, not you guys. It might not keep coming for you if it gets me.”


She didn’t ask how I knew. Anymore, things were so crazy that practically anything was believable. The other day some guy had walked into a bank throwing fireballs from his hands, and set a clerk on fire just by looking at him when he didn’t hand over the money fast enough. If I were to walk up to a guy on the street and he told me he was Jesus Christ, I’d think twice before telling him otherwise. It was that crazy.


So I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t ask questions, or try to argue. She just said, “I love you, Tawny.”


“I love you too,” I said. I didn’t sound loving. I sounded numb. I hugged her mechanically, and then walked outside.


On cue, one of the other thugs grabbed Nicole, on cue. She struggled a little, but he was a lot better at holding people than she was at getting out. Then one of the other thugs punched her in the solar plexus, and she stopped fighting, sagging in his grip. She coughed, but the fight had gone out of her, as quickly as that.


“All right,” the ringleader said. “Drag the bitch over there. She can pay us back for making us work for those boxes.” He started walking in their direction.


I tried to run, while they were distracted, but the last thug was standing right next to me, and he caught me before I could go anywhere. They’d set the boxes of supplies down at some point. They would get ruined, if they were left to sit in the snow for long, but they didn’t seem to care.


I knew what was going on. The way they were moving, the expressions on their faces, made it pretty obvious what they were planning. I knew I was sheltered, but I wasn’t a total idiot. They were going to rape Nicole, and then they were going to rape me, and if we were very lucky they would leave it at that rather than killing us.


I wasn’t feeling lucky.


I looked around frantically, hoping I could do something, anything, but nothing had changed. Actually, that wasn’t entirely true. The people who’d been looking away were gone entirely now.


In an odd way, that was what got under my skin. I could deal with the monsters. Werewolves and vampires and people throwing fireballs from their hands? I could accept that. It was huge and terrifying and confusing, but I could accept it. When a werewolf ate the neighbor right in front of me, it was terrifying and it gave me nightmares, but I could accept it. Monsters doing monstrous things made sense, at least as much as anything made sense right now.


But these guys were just…people. They were just normal people, just human fucking beings like the rest of us, and they were doing this. The idea that people could do this was more than terrifying, it was disgusting. I hated that there were scum who’d just been waiting for the chance to do these things, and I hated that people just turned a blind eye to it rather than take a risk themselves, and I hated myself most of all. I hated that I’d tried to run, that if that thug hadn’t grabbed me I’d have abandoned Nicole to her fate and never looked back.


And in that moment all that hate, the resentment, the disgust, the terror, it all seemed to coil together in my chest, a big ball of the worst emotions imaginable filling me up until it was hard to breathe.


I saw—except it wasn’t seeing, not really—another door, bigger than any of the others. And the fear and the anger and the hate were so intense that I broke the rules I’d set for myself, when I’d said that I would be careful and cautious and not do anything stupid.


I’d reached out to that door, and I’d given it a push.


Something came through. There was a moment of total silence, as everyone present tried to process what had just happened.


Then the screaming started.


It was snowing again, small dry flakes falling from the cold, slate-grey sky overhead. The snow crunched dully under my feet. I was cold, but I wasn’t feeling it. It was that odd state you get sometimes when the cold’s set its teeth in you so deeply, and for so long, that it isn’t really a feeling anymore, it’s more of a state of being.


My tracks from earlier had been erased, wiped away by fresh snow and wind. No one was moving, and the street was essentially just a blank expanse of white. It felt oddly clean, like a new beginning, which was ironic considering that this was my ending.


The thing I’d called through that door was standing in the road, ambling towards me. It wasn’t moving quickly. It had taken hours for it to get from where it had shown up to the vicinity of the shelter. It was in no hurry, obviously.


It looked almost beautiful, in an odd way. It was seven feet tall, but probably didn’t way much more than I did. It had ashen grey skin and jet black horns like a goat’s, protruding from its forehead above its huge golden eyes.


“Hello there,” it said, loudly enough for me to hear it clearly despite being several hundred feet away. “Did you finally come out to play?”


I swallowed hard and walked forward. “I called you here,” I said.


It smiled, showing very human-looking teeth and shockingly red gums. “I know,” it said. “And you obviously forgot the first rule of summoning. Do not call up what you cannot put down, little girl.”


I thought about fighting it, but again, it was a ridiculous concept. I’d seen at least a little of what it could do, and I couldn’t even come close to it. I’d have had a better shot at fighting the thugs with knives. I could maybe have talked to it, but I didn’t think that was going to get me anywhere. I didn’t know what this thing was, but I knew what state of mind had let me find the door that it came through, and somehow I knew that it was connected. I’d been feeling angry and destructive. In that moment I’d wanted to destroy everything in that moment, myself included, and it was that wanting that had let me form a connection to this creature.


It wasn’t going to be swayed by talk. It wasn’t a reasonable creature. When I’d opened that door, I’d been about as far from reasonable as it was possible to get.


Instead of talking, I tried to reach for it with my power, with my magic.


I could feel it, but it was dim, cloudy. It was like there was a curtain between us, masking the light it cast.


It was getting closer, though, and I knew that I only had one chance at this. I tried to put myself back in the state of mind I’d been in when I first called it, but it wasn’t working. The connection was getting a little clearer, but it was too slow.


In the end, it was disgust at my own incompetence that pushed me over the edge into that violent, destructive mindset. The second I did, that door snapped back into focus. I reached out and pushed the creature, trying to shove it back through.


It fought back. I wasn’t sure how; I didn’t have the words to describe anything that I was feeling now. But I could feel it fighting.


It had stopped moving. The two of us stood in the street, staring each other down. I was shaking with fatigue, but I didn’t, couldn’t let myself fall. Somehow I knew that falling now was as good as losing, and losing was as good as dying.


Finally, it lost its traction on the world. It wanted to stay, but there was something that wanted to pull it back as much as I wanted to push it out, and in the end it couldn’t hold on against both of those forces. It faded out of existence, sliding sideways from the world.


As it vanished, I collapsed on my face in the snow, like the struggle against it was the only thing holding me up. I laid there for a minute or so, getting colder and wondering why I was supposed to care. I knew I should get up, but I was so tired, and it would be so easy to fall asleep here.


Then I heard slow, measured clapping. I pushed my head up, more to see who was clapping than anything, and saw someone offering me a hand. I took it, and he pulled me easily to my feet. It was a man in a neat black suit, with a copper pin on his lapel.


“Well done,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of potential, Miss Hutchinson. Creatures like that are a fair bit beyond what you can safely handle, still, but that you managed to contact it at all is a promising start. Not many people find something that powerful the first time they call something out of Limbo.”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said. My voice was shaking, both from chattering teeth and sheer fatigue. I couldn’t remember having ever felt so tired before.


He smiled. “No,” he said. “I don’t think you do. That’s why I’m here, in fact. I work for a group that would like to offer you a job.”


I considered him, and I wasn’t sure whether it was having immersed myself in that attitude so thoroughly or just the reaction to weeks of tension and fear, but I wasn’t fooled for a moment. “This is one of those ‘offer you can’t refuse’ sort of offers, isn’t it?”


“I’m not threatening you,” he said. “But I doubt you’ll find anyone else to teach you how to use your power, and with what you just did, I don’t think you’ll last long without some instruction. You’ll summon something that you really can’t put back down, or someone who isn’t as nice as I am will come to recruit you by force. A knack for pulling things across worlds is a rare thing. There are plenty of people who would be interested in using you, whether you like it or not. I’m probably the best offer you’re going to get.”


I sighed. “Fine,” I said, still feeling exhausted and numb. “Let me talk to my mom. But fine. I’ll do it.”


He smiled and handed me a business card. “Talk to your family, and then call that number,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure doing business, Miss Hutchinson.”

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Building Bridges 12.7

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David hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that the “situation” was nearby. It was literally just a couple of blocks down the road, not even a mile away.


None of us had the armor—or clothing, or costumes, or whatever the hell I was supposed to call it—that we would end up using. For the moment, we were faking it with what we had on hand. Derek was wearing his riot gear, with the transparent shield pulled down over his face. Elyssa and Tony had black balaclavas pulled down over their faces. Tawny went with a more basic approach, but it worked surprisingly well; with her hair down, some heavy makeup, and a pair of sunglasses, she was almost unrecognizable.


David and I, naturally, didn’t have any trouble with it. I wasn’t wearing my usual helmet—the snarling wolf’s mask was simply too recognizable when I was trying to keep people from realizing who I was—but I’d brought another helmet from home. It was fairly simple, not much more than a metal bucket with eyeholes, but it covered my face. David, on the other hand, had his full kit on hand. The clothing looked something like a wingsuit, with an intricate, vaguely feathery pattern in blues and greys. The mask, similarly, was vaguely suggestive of a bird, feathery patterns and a beak.


I found it amusing that the people who least needed to care about concealing their identities were the most capable of doing so. I didn’t want people to connect “Jonathan Keyes” to Winter Wolf, but that was more a matter of convenience than anything. If someone did draw the connection, it wasn’t like it was a serious problem. I didn’t exactly have much of a civilian life for them to target me through. I mean, if somebody was dumb enough to kidnap Aiko, they deserved what happened to them.


Similarly, while I didn’t know much about David, I was guessing he didn’t care that much about it. He was a Guard back when that actually meant something, and you didn’t get to that kind of position without being fairly invested in that life.


Once we were as ready as we were likely to get, and we’d gotten through some mild hysterics on the part of the newbies, we packed into the back of a van and started in the direction of the situation. It seemed a little like overkill to me—there wasn’t a whole lot of need to get a van to go a couple of blocks—but I supposed that it could be excused. I was working with humans again, after all, and while none of them was markedly out of shape, they weren’t exactly star athletes either.


As I understood it, the situation was fairly simple. Three gunmen had burst into a local grocery store, ranting and raving incoherently. Most of the people had managed to get away, but they’d taken one of the shoppers hostage, and they were threatening to kill her if their demands weren’t met. Precisely what those demands were was less than clear, but effective communication skills weren’t something you really expected from lunatics that launched armed assaults on grocery stores. Apparently the police weren’t going to be able to get there for several minutes, and even once they showed up there was no guarantee that they could do anything useful. Thus, it fell to us to deal with things.


I had my doubts about the whole thing, but I didn’t voice them. It wasn’t important right now.


Instead, as David drove towards the scene, I pulled my phone out and sent a text message to Selene. Hostage situation downtown. Establish perimeter at 400 ft, remain hidden, do not engage.


The reply was almost immediate. Confirmed. Kyi is en route with enough people to set up the perimeter. You are dealing with it?


Yes, with reservations. Not expecting trouble, but have them ready to step in if needed.


“What are you doing?” Tawny asked, leaning in to look.


“Not really your business, is it?” I asked, turning off the phone.


“We’re here anyway,” David said, before things could escalate any further. “Everybody remembers the plan?”


There was a chorus of affirmatives as I got out of the van. I didn’t bother saying anything; he knew that I remembered what to do, and I knew he knew it. There wasn’t much point in talking about it.


I was on point going in, for obvious reasons. Even without my armor, I was an order of magnitude tougher than anyone present with the possible exception of David. If anyone was going to walk around the corner and run right into the enemy, there was no question that it should be me.


I felt an odd thrill as I opened the front door of the occupied building. It had been ages since I deliberately went into a fight without my armor; the notion of actually being threatened by punks with guns was one that I had become unaccustomed to. Not that I was unprotected—the clothing I was wearing was still moderately reinforced—but I felt almost naked. It was an odd experience, especially with a bunch of virtual strangers at my back.


The supermarket wasn’t one that I could remember having been in before, but it was fairly typical of the breed. About half the lights were out, casting many of the aisles into shadow. It was almost completely silent, an echoing, cavernous sort of silence. It was eerie, the way silence in a place that should have been bustling with activity almost always was. The only break in the silence was a quiet, intermittent conversation from the back of the store.


“This is crazy,” Tony said in a whisper. Quieter than he needed to be, really, but I could understand it. The silence in here seemed to demand a matching hush from us, and I was certain he was feeling nervous, terrified of being discovered. “We just finished sparring. We’re already tired.”


“Get used to it,” I said calmly, scanning the store for any hint of motion. “People aren’t usually nice enough to let you rest before they try to kill you.” I didn’t see anything moving, no hint of someone watching, so I started forward towards one of the darker aisles. “Sounds like they’re in the back,” I said.


“Yep,” David agreed quietly. “Shrike, you’re in the lead. The rest of you stay behind him, watch for anything he doesn’t seem to be noticing. I’ll be above you.” He leapt off the ground without waiting for a response, easily landing on one of the shelves and balancing there.


I almost whistled in appreciation. No wonder he was wearing a wingsuit if he could jump like that. Hell, odds were good he could actually fly.


I felt a spike of jealousy at that, but dismissed it easily enough. I couldn’t fly, but I was close enough. And besides, there was work to do.


Creeping down the aisle, I could clearly feel it when Elyssa started working on me. It was easy to feel, but hard to define or explain. It was like the feeling I’d had sometimes, where I was so focused on some stimulus that the rest of the world seemed to disappear. Except that right now I was focused on everything to that degree. Everything, from keeping track of where the shadows were that I could hide in all the way down to the slightly too-tight fit of my left boot, was in almost painfully clear focus. It should have been distracting, trying to keep track of that many things in that degree of detail, but it wasn’t. That was the whole point of her magic, after all.


We weren’t silent. Not even close. I was pretty damn quiet, and David was utterly silent overhead. Even Elyssa was impressively quiet, probably because her mind was augmented even beyond what she was doing for me. The other three, though…well, after a minute or so I gave up on wincing when they made noise, because it was happening too frequently to keep up with.


I made it to the end of the aisle and crouched there, wrapping myself in a web of air and shadow. It would make me nearly invisible so long as I stayed in the shadows, and muffle any noise I made as well.


It was surprisingly challenging to maintain my shroud without the cloak. I’d gotten spoiled, having my toys all the time. In a way, it was probably good for me to do without. Which didn’t mean that I didn’t resent it.


At this point, the plan called for me to sneak in and get the hostage out, since I was actually the most sneaky of the group. Again, it wasn’t something I’d had much need to do in recent years. Most of my work had been blatant and highly visible for a long time now, and when I did need something done stealthily I’d mostly sent Kyi to take care of it.


I hadn’t completely lost my touch, though, and it turned out that being hyperaware of everything around me was a pretty considerable help when it came to moving quietly. I managed to slip up to the meat department, where it seemed like the conversation had been coming from, without screwing anything up.


Behind the counter, I eased through the door into the area where the butchers worked. It smelled like blood and fresh meat, reminding me with an uncomfortable intensity that I hadn’t eaten since before the sparring session started. I tried to put it out of my mind, but now my heightened awareness worked against me, making it pretty freaking hard to ignore. It was distracting, and distracted was a very bad state of mind to be in for something like this.


In the end, I picked up a shrinkwrapped package of steak that had been knocked to the floor, tore it open, and stuffed a chunk into my mouth. It felt embarrassingly unprofessional, and it was actually pretty freaking worrying that I needed to stop for some raw meat in the middle of sneaking up on the enemy, but it was better than being unable to function as well as I was supposed to because I was distracted by hunger.


The conversation was coming from the left, but now that I was closer I could also hear noise from the right, a sort of muffled banging and shouting. I went for that one, since conversation was much more likely to be the attackers.


The butcher shop was a cramped, brightly-lit maze of counters and boxes, with lots of sharp bits of metal gleaming in the fluorescent lights. I crouched low, making sure that I wasn’t visible above the counters.


I managed to track the muffled noise down to a supply closet on the edge of the room. It wasn’t hard to figure out where I was going; they’d thrown the contents carelessly out on the floor, various cleaning supplies pooling on the vinyl flooring. It smelled harsh, ammonia and rubbing alcohol blending together into a noxious mix that almost overpowered the scent of blood.


Technically, I wasn’t supposed to know how to open locks. I hadn’t actually asked about it, but given that we were supposed to be some kind of force of law and order, it didn’t take a genius that picking locks was a skill I probably shouldn’t advertise.


But nobody was watching right now, so I went ahead and twisted the lock open with a bit of hardened air and a slight effort of will. I’d gotten pretty quick at that trick over the years.


I pulled the door open, and as expected I found the hostage inside the closet, tied to a chair and gagged with what looked like a couple of socks. She was young, maybe twenty, and reasonably attractive. She looked like she’d been crying, her makeup smeared, and her expression when I opened the door was one of near-terror.


I started to move forward, planning to untie her, then hesitated. There was something odd about this.


After a second, I realized what it was. She didn’t smell afraid. I mean, I couldn’t actually smell emotions, but people who were terrified that they were about to die tended to have certain physical reactions. They sweated, and more often than they wanted to admit they pissed themselves or threw up. She didn’t smell like any of those things.


I might not have noticed it if I hadn’t already been suspicious, or if I hadn’t had some lingering degree of magical assistance—my awareness had started going back to normal once I put some physical distance between myself and Elyssa, but it wasn’t an instant process.


Once I caught on to that, though, I noticed some other small details. She was tied up with rope, but she didn’t have any rope burns, no abrasions. If someone was really tied up and struggling, they usually rubbed their skin raw and bleeding trying to get loose; she hadn’t. Similarly, the gag wasn’t pulled nearly as tight as it would have to be to really be effective. She hadn’t struggled with it, trying to get loose so she could really scream.


I paused, then it clicked into place with the suspicions I’d already had. I almost laughed, but managed to restrain myself. This wasn’t about me, not really, and it would have been the height of rudeness to ruin it for everyone else.


I was grinning as I cut the ropes off her wrists and ankles, but it shouldn’t matter; nobody could see my face anyway. The placement of the ropes was, once I thought about it, another tipoff. She could have unlocked the door, maybe even managed to untie herself from the chair completely if she were flexible and motivated enough. The fact that she hadn’t even tried was rather telling.


“We’re going to get you out of here,” I said quietly, playing along. “But I need you to be quiet. Can you do that for me?”


She nodded frantically, eyes wide and teary, flexing her hands and rubbing her wrists where they’d been tied. I untied the gag and pulled it off, and while she worked her jaw, she didn’t actually say anything.


“Okay,” I said. “Follow me, and stay quiet.” I opened the door and started out without waiting for a response.


The emergency exit was closest, but it wasn’t a good idea. The power hadn’t been cut, so the alarm was probably still active, and triggering the alarm would kind of negate the purpose of sneaking in in the first place. Furthermore, now that I was getting a better idea of what was going on, I thought I knew what was expected of me. I was supposed to go back the same way I’d come in, leading the girl past the waiting Guards. I could play the role I was assigned.


She followed me almost exactly, even crouching down in the same way I was. She was shaking, breathing hard, and crying silently. It wasn’t the smoothest exit I’d ever seen, but in a way that was probably a good thing. Her obvious emotional reaction would make my casual stoicism stand out, giving it more impact.


As expected, nobody challenged us on the way out. Outside, I hurried her into the aisle, well away from the gunmen, then sat her down and told her to wait. She nodded, still crying a little. She clutched at my hand a little when I went to leave, but I tugged free and went back without waiting. I did snag a can of beans off the shelf on the way, though.


Unsurprisingly, the others had noticed me leaving, and they’d already left their own positions and started for the meat department. I fell in with them and quietly said, “Turn left inside. Didn’t see them, but I could hear them talking over there.”


“Got it,” David said back, just as quietly. “Let’s do this.”


Inside, we turned left and made straight for the sounds of conversation. It cut off as soon as we were inside—there were reasons I’d come in alone when I wanted to be sneaky, after all.


There were three of them, as we’d heard, two with pistols and one carrying a shotgun. They were standing around in a stockroom arguing about something, but when they heard us they came out into the main area of the butcher shop, looking around. They weren’t as good as she was; there was a stiffness to their movements, a hesitation, that gave the game right away.


Not that it probably mattered. The rest of these people did not give the impression of being comfortable with people pointing guns at them. They were probably so freaked out that they wouldn’t have noticed if the gunmen were wearing frilly tutus.


It took them a second to really key on us, probably because of Elyssa. I didn’t think she could screw with somebody’s head enough to really make us invisible, but she could slow their reaction down a little, buying us that crucial second to act.


Once again, I was the first to respond, the quickest trigger finger. I chucked the can I was holding at the guy with the shotgun. I threw it hard, and I put a tailwind behind it, propelling it a little faster and keeping it on track.


Left to my own devices, I’d have thrown it at his head. But I’d killed people like that before, and I hadn’t forgotten that killing was Not Allowed. So this time I aimed at his abdomen instead, just in case I was wrong. It would hurt like a son of a bitch if it hit him, and it might still rupture things inside him, but he’d live long enough to get to the hospital, and they could probably fix him there.


As expected, though, he didn’t really have to worry about it. The can swerved ever so slightly off course as it flew, and smashed into the wall next to him. I glanced at David, and while I couldn’t see his face, his posture was a little stiff, and he was looking in that direction a little bit too intently. Enough confirmation for me.


Tony was only a little slower on the draw than I was, hurling a stream of fire at the shotgun-wielder. It hit, and singed him, but there wasn’t enough power behind it to really burn. A second or so later, Tawny poured out another packet of salt around herself—not actually reaching for anything yet, but getting ready to.


The gunmen ran, bolting for the emergency exit I’d noticed earlier. Tony and Derek both started to follow, but I caught Tony at about the same time David grabbed Derek’s sleeve. “Let them go,” I said. “The hostage is still here. Getting her to safety is the priority here.”


“Yeah,” David said. “The police can take it from here.”


Tony didn’t seem too thrilled, but he didn’t argue.


I didn’t miss that David gave me an almost appraising look on the way out.


Afterwards, we had a celebration of sorts at the base, in the living quarters. There was music involved, and alcohol, although I was reasonably confident that at least a couple of the younger Guards weren’t legally allowed to drink. I didn’t say anything. I didn’t care that much.


Instead, I found an opportunity to talk to David alone. The senior Guard was back in his civvies, standing on the periphery and sipping the same beer he’d been sipping for the past hour.


“So where’d you find the girl?” I asked, quietly enough to be masked by the pounding of the beat. It wasn’t hard. They were blasting the music loud enough to get noise complaints if we’d been in a residential neighborhood.


He glanced at me. “Excuse me?”


“The girl,” I said again. “She’s fantastic. Is she local, or did you bring in your own talent from out of town?”


“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. “And she’s local. Works with a theatre troupe out of Denver.”


“Damn,” I said. “I need to go to the theatre more, apparently. She was excellent. Easily one of the best actors I’ve ever seen.”


“What gave it away, then?”


I shrugged. “Critical thinking, mostly. I mean, come on. You just happened to get a call, right as we were wrapping up the sparring, for something that just happened to be right down the street? And wasn’t a real threat to us, but could maybe feel like one if you didn’t know better?” I snorted. “You aren’t that lucky. Then the actual scene wasn’t quite real enough. She’s a great actor, but it was still just an act. Then there was the way all of the gunmen just happened to run, thus ensuring nobody was in real danger and everybody got away clean. They were your guys, I’m guessing?”


“Mercenaries who work with the Guards sometimes,” he confirmed. “We could have hired actors for that too, but I don’t like trusting civilians with weapons.”


“Fair point,” I said. “It was a good game, by the way. Very nicely arranged.”


“We do something similar for all our new recruits who don’t have combat experience,” he said. “You have to ease people into it, you know?”


I nodded. “I get the idea, yeah. It’s not how I do things, but I’m a bit of an asshole. And I mostly only work with people who already have at least some grounding, so I guess there are different needs there.”


“Yeah,” he agreed. “Although even most of the people who already have some experience don’t catch on that it’s a sham. You’re a bit paranoid, aren’t you?”


I snorted. “More than just a bit.” I paused and pulled my phone out as I got another text message. I read it over, then sighed. “I have to go,” I said




“Let me put it this way,” I said dryly. “When I get urgent messages, it actually is a crisis. Right now, for example, some of your people are apparently down at my place trying to kill me, and my associates are having a hard time dealing with it on their own.”


He sighed. “All right,” he said. “Let me get my stuff, and I’ll come with you.”


I paused. “Why?”


“You’re one of us now,” he said. “At least a little bit. That means something for me. If you’re having trouble with ‘my people,’ I can at least make an effort to help you out with it.”


“Why am I having a hard time believing your motives are really that pure of heart?”


He snorted. “Because you’re more than just a bit paranoid, maybe?”


I had to laugh at that. “You might have a point,” I said. “All right, I’ll wait a minute for you. My ride will be here around then anyway.”

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Building Bridges 12.6

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“Okay,” I said, sitting down across from Tawny. “So tell me about these demons.”


She grinned and set the book she was reading back on the table. At a glance, it seemed to be some sort of pop science book, less rigorous than an actual textbook but still much more inclined to educational than to entertaining. “Finally,” she said. “Thought you’d never ask.”


“Things have been busy,” I said, shrugging. “So what do you do? Are you actually summoning things from somewhere else, or is it more like a construct or something?”


“I don’t know the right terms,” she said, shrugging. “But it’s like…there’s always things wanting in, you know? Wherever you go there’s going to be something that wants to come through there. So it’s not like I have to bring them here or whatever. I just have to open the door for them.”


“Would you mind showing me?”


Tawny grinned again. “Of course not.” She stood and rolled back the rug under her chair, getting at the tile floor underneath. She pulled a couple of little packets of salt, like they had in some restaurants, out of her pocket and tore them open, pouring out a line in a rough circle on the floor around her. “I don’t actually need to draw a circle,” she told me. “It just makes things a lot easier.”


I didn’t bother telling her that was true for most kinds of magic, not just hers. I could already tell that I wasn’t going to be passing myself off as being as new as most of them, but I was supposed to be seeming at least a little clueless. If I let on how much I already knew they’d start asking how, and that was a topic that would pretty much inevitably lead into discussions I was definitely not supposed to have with them.


I felt her power pushing on the world as she started to do whatever it was that she did. It smelled sort of similar to opening a portal, but a little less focused, like the difference between a knife and a needle. It was also surprisingly strong. Not, like, ridiculously, but Tawny wasn’t a pushover in the sense of how much raw power she could throw around.


A couple of seconds passed without anything much happening, then the air in front of her sort of twisted. It was hard to say quite what I was seeing; it was almost like a heat haze, but there was also a sense of the image warping, something like I was looking through a pane of thick glass. For just an instant I got the impression of lines stretching off in directions that didn’t quite make sense, dimensions beyond just the usual four converging onto that point.


Then the moment passed, and things went back to normal. Except now, rather than air, there was a creature in front of Tawny. It was small, no larger than my head, and it looked like the stereotypical conception of an imp. It had red skin, black batlike wings, and a thin barbed tail. It opened its mouth and hissed at me, and its jaws seemed to open wide enough to swallow its own head. Its teeth were heavy and triangular, like a shark’s, but much smaller relative to its mouth, almost like it just had serrated jaws rather than actual teeth.


“Damn,” I said, staring at it. “I’m impressed.” I was, too. I hadn’t seen anything quite like this before, either the creature or the summoning of it. That wasn’t a magic to take lightly. I was guessing I could take the imp-thing, but I couldn’t help but think of all the scarier things she could have summoned instead.


She beamed. It only lasted a second before she covered it with the tough-girl facade again, but I saw it. “The little ones are harder to bring through,” she said, holding her hand out. The imp-thing flapped over and perched on her finger, glowering back at me. “They don’t push as hard to get in. But they’re easier to control once they get here. I like to use the smallest I can and still get things done.”


“You mean physically smaller?” I asked.


Tawny waggled her hand equivocally, causing the imp-thing to flutter its wings for balance and hiss again. “Sort of?” she said. “The size isn’t what matters, but it tends to line up with what does. This guy’s a great example. I don’t think he’s really intelligent, maybe not even as much as a dog. There’s no real thought there, just a whole bunch of emotion. I don’t even have to try to make him do what I want. The bigger ones tend to be smarter, and a lot harder to keep a grip on.”


“Huh,” I said. “So you mostly use the smaller ones, then?”


She shrugged. “When I can get away with it,” she said. “The bigger ones are stronger too, so sometimes I need more than one like that can do. But I try to stick with the smallest I can and still get things done.”


I nodded, mostly looking at the imp-thing. Something about the way she’d said that made me think she’d summoned a really big one once, and it hadn’t ended well for her. When she’d first started developing her magic, maybe, before she’d figured out the rules.


“That isn’t a demon, though,” I commented. “It looks a little demonic, but it isn’t a demon.”


Tawny looked at me curiously. “How do you know?”


“I’d recognize a demon,” I said. “I guess you conceptually could bind a weak enough demon, but this isn’t one.”


She looked at me for a moment longer. “You know, Jonny,” she said, “somehow I’m getting the impression I should be a little scared of you.”


“I feel the same about you,” I said dryly.


Tawny laughed at that. “Well, I’m glad we’re on the same page, then,” she said. “It’s about time for sparring, though. This should be fun.” She closed her hands around the imp-thing, and I felt another burst of magic as she sent it back to wherever it had come from.


Tawny and I were the first to show up for the sparring session, which gave me plenty of time to look around.


The training area was on the fifth floor, with the other work areas set aside for the Guards themselves. It wasn’t a huge room, but it wasn’t small. The room itself was roughly square, around thirty feet on each side. A circle was painted on the floor, almost touching the walls on each side; one of the corners this left had a few chairs in it, while the others held various targets and dummies.


The space felt comfortable and familiar, which was interesting, because I couldn’t remember having been in a similar room…pretty much ever, actually. But the intent of the room, the feeling of it, was one that I was very much familiar with.


Tawny didn’t seem interested in small talk, so I wandered around the room while she sat and went back to her book. I walked around, getting a feel for the texture of the tile floor and the amount of space I had to work with. If I had to participate in this little sparring exercise, I wanted to be able to do so at least somewhat competently.


The others trickled in over the next five minutes or so. Derek came first, wearing a set of police-style riot gear that he didn’t look at all comfortable in. I could smell the magic on the armor, reinforcing and strengthening, but it was somewhat simplistic. David followed a minute or so later, with Elyssa right behind him. Another five minutes passed before Tony finally walked in, yawning and scratching his ass.


“All right,” David said, once everyone was there. “Let’s get started. Jonathan is new here, so how about we let him start.”


I shrugged. “Fine with me. What do you want me to do?”


“We’ll start by having you spar with Tony,” David said, giving me a significant look. I wasn’t entirely sure what it was supposed to signify, but it was clearly supposed to be significant. “Remember, this is just practice. Don’t do anything that might really hurt your sparring partner, and if they or I say to stop, you stop, immediately.”


“Got it,” I said, stepping into the painted circle. “I’m ready whenever.”


Tony grinned, a brash and overconfident sort of grin, and walked to the other side of the circle from me. “Let’s do this, then,” he said.


“All right,” David said, stepping out into the spectator area with the others. “On my mark. Ready? Go!”


Tony started cautiously. He wasn’t sure what I was capable of, not really, and it showed in his behavior. He started gathering power, getting ready, but he didn’t do anything aggressive right away.


I did. The instant David said go, I took off, sprinting straight at Tony. I didn’t know any more about his capabilities than he knew about mine, but I knew enough to want it over fast. He’d said he was good with fire and electricity, and I knew from experience that hanging back and trading blows with someone who had that skillset was unlikely to end well for me. Instant and decisive aggression was the best tactic for me to take.


He managed to get an attack off, throwing a fistful of fire at my head, but he wasn’t used to being rushed and he hadn’t accounted for how quickly I could move. I didn’t even need to dodge to be perfectly safe as I kept moving in.


He started to get more fire together, but I was already on him. I threw him to the ground with more muscle than skill—they’d been told I was a werewolf, so they knew I was strong, but they didn’t know I was skilled and I had no intention of telling them if I didn’t need to. He hit the floor hard enough to knock the wind out of him, and he lost his grip on the power he’d been collecting.


Before he could get his bearings again, I was sitting on his chest, holding a knife against his throat. “We good?” I asked calmly.


He froze, and then very carefully nodded. I got off of him and stood up, folding the knife closed and tucking it back into my pocket. “That was embarrassing,” I said. “That was literally shameful. You guys are supposed to be fighting serious bad guys, and if that was a serious fight, you’d just have gotten murdered by a guy with a cheap knife.”


Tony flushed. “You caught me by surprise,” he said defensively. “That wouldn’t have worked if I’d been ready.”


“Okay,” I said. “Prove it. I’m ready to go when you are.”


Tony hesitated, but he couldn’t say no without losing face, and it was already quite obvious that he wasn’t willing to do that. I wondered idly whether all fire mages had the brashness and the ego, or it was just the ones I knew. It seemed like too much of a common trait to be entirely coincidence.


“All right,” David said as we went back to our positions. He caught my eye and nodded a little. Approval? Maybe, but why?


Then I caught on, and almost laughed. Of course. He was a real Guard, one with serious power and experience. Odds were good that he was at least as experienced as I was, which meant that he knew how dangerously overconfident Tony was. He knew damned well that these kids weren’t remotely prepared for the kind of threats they were supposed to be dealing with. They were still riding the high of having magic, of being special, and they hadn’t yet processed that they were still very definitely not the top of the food chain.


And they needed to have that bubble burst. Of course they did. As long as they went in with their current attitudes, they were more liability than asset. They’d get slaughtered in their first serious fight.


But David couldn’t be the one to actually do it. He was supposed to be their leader, and that meant that they had to like him. This wasn’t like my relationship with my housecarls; David was obviously trying to set himself up as first among equals, rather than an absolute ruler. That was probably the best approach with these kids, since they weren’t accustomed to the more old-fashioned modes of government that most of the people I dealt with used. But at the same time, it meant that he wasn’t able to smack them around and call them morons.


No wonder he’d set me up to fight the most overconfident of the bunch first. He was using me as his bad cop. I was intended to convey the stuff they didn’t want to hear, so that David could go on being their buddy.


For a second, I almost didn’t want to perform, just to make a point. I didn’t like being used like this, especially when he hadn’t even had the decency to tell me first.


Then I had to laugh at myself. It was a good plan. It was scheming, manipulative, and underhanded, but it would work I could recognize that it needed to be done, and I wasn’t likely to be their friend regardless. I just didn’t have a lot in common with these kids. And, if I was being entirely honest with myself, I didn’t want to. I already knew that this line of work, this entire world, would suck any youthful innocence and optimism right out of them, leaving them as bitter, cynical, and psychotic as the rest of us. I’d seen it before. Knowing them better would just mean that I had to care.


So when David said, “Go!” the second time, I didn’t hesitate. I sidestepped the blast of fire that Tony instantly and predictably threw at me, drawing cold around myself to mitigate any heat that might have otherwise reached me. As I moved I pulled a flashbang out of my hip pocket, pulled the pin, and threw it in his general direction, turning my own head away as I did. The whole thing looked like a single smooth and practiced motion, mostly because it was. I usually preferred to keep the grenades in my cloak, but this wasn’t the only place I couldn’t wear it, and I’d practiced with a simple pair of pants as well.


Even with my head turned away and my eyes closed, ready for what was going to happen, the detonation of the flashbang was intense. It was deafening and disorienting, leaving me with little more than afterimages and ringing ears to work with.


Unlike the rest of them, though, I knew how to handle that situation. I knew generally where Tony was, and I knew the feel of the floor, the small irregularities that I had to be careful of. I could run at him almost as quickly blind as I could with full vision. I could track the motion of the air well enough to have a decent idea of his movements, and adjust appropriately.


Again, it was a matter of experience. Being blinded was a common, basic tactic, and one that anyone should be ready to deal with. A more practiced mage would have had some way to detect me without vision, or at least been ready to blast at random, hitting me by random chance or at least keeping me at bay.


Tony didn’t, and he wasn’t. When the flashbang went off he was disoriented and stunned, and he didn’t recover before I reached him, literally jumping on him and dragging him down to the floor.


Once I had my hands on him, it didn’t really matter that I couldn’t see. Working by feel, I quickly secured him in place and put one hand on his throat. I didn’t actually apply any real pressure, just made him very aware that I could.


I didn’t have a knife out this time—too likely to go badly when I couldn’t see where he was with any confidence. But I didn’t need one. Again, they knew I was a werewolf. It wasn’t a secret that I was stronger than a human. I could break him in half and everyone in the room knew it.


“We’re good,” he said, sounding just a little choked. It might have been a mental thing, or I supposed I might have put a little more pressure on his throat than I thought. I’d only meant it to be a threat, but I might have gone a little bit too far.


I wasn’t used to working with humans. They were so…fragile.


I took my hand away and got off him, sitting down to wait for my vision to recover. It wouldn’t take long. Those flashbangs were intended for instant but brief incapacitation, and I healed faster than a human on top of that.


“You cheated,” Tony said. “You threw a grenade at me.”


“What, and you think other people won’t?” I snorted. “Please. Those things are pretty standard. Human beings are dependent on sight, and everyone knows it. If you want to put a mage down without killing him, flashbangs are one of the first things you’re going to go for. So if I were you, I’d get used to it, because I won’t be the last one to use them against you.”


“I’m with Jonathan on this one,” David said. “It’s a valid tactic. The only rule for this match was that you couldn’t do permanent harm, which this shouldn’t, correct?”


“Nope,” I said. “It’s just a flashbang. You should all be fine in a few minutes. They use these things on civilians.”


“It’s a valid tactic,” David said again. “If you weren’t prepared to deal with it, that’s on you, not him. Now, I think you could both use a bit of a rest, so when everyone can see again we’ll have Elyssa and Derek go a round.”


I was expecting to think that the new Guards were rather pitiable and useless. And, in all honesty, I did think that, but I was actually fairly impressed with them, on the whole. They were new, and it showed, but they did have potential. They were even making strides to develop that potential, which was even better.


Tony was all offense, all the time. I couldn’t really blame him for that, though; when your gift is in fire and your only real backup is a little bit of a knack with electricity, you don’t have a lot to work with defensively. He was overconfident, but he seemed like he wanted to make that confidence justified. After I thrashed him, he was pretty quiet for a while, and he gave the impression that he was really pushing himself for the rest of the sparring session.


Derek was almost the opposite, as far as attitude went. He was shy, reserved, and desperate for approval. He practically glowed from any compliment, even halfhearted or mixed ones. In terms of talent, or what role he would play, I couldn’t get much of a fix on him. He was the only one aside from me who’d brought any equipment, which made sense if his primary ability was to make things, but he didn’t seem at all confident when it came to actually using that equipment. There was still a lot of potential there, but he had the furthest to go until he was really functional.


The two females were definitely more of wild cards. Elyssa could blur someone’s attention to a degree that was actually a little scary. She snuck up on me and almost had me beat before I took my own advice and just started swinging wildly. Eventually a gust of wind tripped her up and she lost her focus when she fell, and from there out it was my game. She took it well enough. She didn’t really seem to have much of an emotional reaction to anything, or what she did have was a little bit off. From what she’d said she routinely used her magic on herself, focusing her attention beyond what a human mind could do unaided or spreading it out so that she was aware of her surroundings to a preternatural degree. If that was the case, I wasn’t surprised that she seemed a little nuts. I of all people should know that prolonged use of magic to alter your own perceptions and thoughts could make you more than a little strange. I was glad to have her on my side, but at the same time, both her magic and her personality were a little bit creepy, even by my standards.


And then there was Tawny. In terms of magic, she was an almost total unknown. From what she’d said, I got the impression that what things were available to her to let in was dependent on a lot of different things—everything from location and time of day to what mood she was in and who was around. She wasn’t willing to summon up anything but the smallest of creatures for sparring, things so fragile and weak that even the other newbies had no trouble taking care of them. At the same time, though, we were all acutely aware that she could probably come up with something that none of us could easily handle if she were willing to face the consequences of doing so. As far as attitude went, she was willing to admit how inexperienced she was, and enthusiastic about changing that. She hadn’t even fully recovered her vision before she was asking me about where she could get some flashbangs of her own, how expensive they were, how they could be used, and so on.


David didn’t participate in the sparring at all. I still had very little idea of what his magic was, beyond a vague sense of movement. Nothing much of his personality showed through the generically pleasant and genial mask.


The sparring went on for several hours. I paired off with everyone other than David at least twice, and then started fighting them two at once when I kept winning. I made sure to be pleasant about it, not doing anything that would make them really hate me, but I didn’t throw any of the matches. That would have been bloody stupid, since I might be depending on these people to cover my ass in the future. I’d rather they not like me very much than that they think they were competent when they weren’t.


Finally, just when David was calling it good and the last fight was wrapping up, he got a call. The senior Guard answered his cell phone and listened for a few minute or so, then hung up with a grin. “Well,” he said. “Looks like we’ll be getting a little more exercise after all. There’s a real-life situation going down a couple of blocks away for us to use for practice dealing with real threats.”


I sighed. Of course there was.

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Building Bridges 12.5

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“You have got to be kidding me,” I said.


David glanced at me. “Was I not clear earlier?”


I stared at the sign, reading it again. It still said PUBLIC RELATIONS. “I assumed you were kidding,” I said. “You seriously have a PR guy?”


“We have a whole team dedicated to it,” he said dryly. “This is just the guy that calls the shots.” His smile was rather chilly as he pushed the door open. “This is the last thing I have scheduled for you today,” he said. “You can stay here, go home, whatever. Tomorrow is the first practice session with the full group. Have fun.”


He turned and walked away, whistling a jaunty tune. I watched him go, and then sighed and stepped into the office.


The first impression I got was that it was a very constructed sort of place. Everything was arranged just so, everything precisely in its place. It was set up to look more chaotic, like it was the office of a busy man who couldn’t quite find the time to straighten it up, but the little details gave it away. The open books were a little too neatly spaced out, the disheveled stacks of paper were disheveled in precisely the same ways.


The office’s owner, currently sitting at the desk, was much the same. His coat was hung over the back of his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his tie pulled loose. It was a very good act, a very good presentation of the harried office worker who was too busy with his work to pay attention to the little things. But I still got the feeling that it was artificial, that it was all very deliberately arranged. It was almost like talking to one of the Sidhe, except he wasn’t quite good enough to cover up the hints of artifice.


“Hi,” I said, walking up to him.


“You must be Jonathan Keyes,” he said. “I’m Frank Gosnell, head of the public relations department here. Pleased to meet you.”


“You do know that isn’t my real name, right?”


He regarded me for a moment. “In this office,” he said at last, “it is. You’re Jonathan Keyes, or failing that, Shrike. Whatever you might call yourself elsewhere, here those very much are your real names. Are we clear?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I think so.”


“Good. Please, take a seat.”


I grabbed one of the chairs and spun it around, resting my arms on the back as I sat down. It was meant to annoy him, deliberately upsetting the carefully ordered layout of his office, and from the way his shoulders tensed I thought it was working.


His voice, though, was easy and relaxed. “You know,” he said, “I really have to hand it to you. I think your file is the most heavily redacted, classified one I’ve ever seen. There are whole pages blacked out in that thing.”


“Did you read them anyway?”


He held his hand in front of him and rocked it side to side. “Eh,” he said. “My clearance is high enough to read some of it, and I pieced together some of the rest from what I already knew.” He lowered his hand to the table again, looking at me seriously. “I won’t pretend to understand you,” he said. “We both know I don’t. But I’ve got enough of an idea who you are to know that we’ve got an uphill battle in front of us.”


“Why’s that?”


“I think it’s fair to say that you’re used to getting your own way,” he said. “You think you know best, and you’re accustomed to acting on that knowledge, without necessarily getting another opinion first.”


I frowned. “Pretty fair,” I admitted.


He nodded. “Yes, well, as of now that’s not how you do things. You’re a part of a team now, understand? And while I’m sure you’re good at what you do, this is a very different world you’re entering now. You’ve got to learn to play by different rules than you’re used to.”


“How so?”


“First off,” he said, “no killing. Just don’t. You use nonlethal measures unless you’ve got an explicit order to kill the enemy, and even then you check with me first if you can.”


“That’s ridiculous,” I protested. “That’ll just give us a reputation for being soft. Nobody will respect us if we aren’t willing to finish the job.”


He sighed. “Look, Jonathan,” he said. “From your file, I’m sure that you’ve had to worry about what impression you’re making in the past. But I’m guessing you’ve mostly been concerned about what people like you think, correct?”


I hesitated. “Broadly speaking, yeah,” I said. “I mean, not exactly like me, but people that move in somewhat similar circles.”


“I thought so. Well, your approach might work with them, but now we need to think about another demographic. We need to think about what regular people think. The general public, your average human being that knows nothing about how things work behind the scenes, that is the most important opinion for us right now.”


“I don’t know,” I said. “I think they might still prefer the lethal option.”


He regarded me for a moment, his hands folded on the desk in front of him. “Let’s make a deal, Jonathan,” he said. “I won’t tell you how to do what you do. When it comes to fighting you’ve got experience and skill, and I don’t. So if you tell me something about what the best way to fight someone is, I’ll just assume you know what you’re talking about rather than try to play armchair general. In return, you do me the same favor and trust that I know my job. Does that sound good?”




“Excellent,” he said. “Then believe me when I say that killing people actually doesn’t endear you to society. I don’t care if it’s justified; if the first thing people learn about us is that we have a habit of killing suspects while trying to apprehend them, we’ll lose any chance we might have had to earn their trust. So for now, you’re using strictly nonlethal methods, are we clear?”


I frowned. “I suppose,” I said reluctantly. “But I’m really not much good at pulling my punches.”


“That’s what training is for,” he said pitilessly. “Most of the others will be working to build themselves up. You, on the other hand, need to learn to hold back. As a part of that, I don’t want to hear that you’ve won any sparring matches with your new teammates for at least a week.”


“What? Why?” I demanded.


“Several reasons,” he said. “First, it will show me that you’re capable of holding yourself back. Second, most of these people need a confidence boost; for you to walk in and thrash them all would be the worst thing you could do for team cohesion. Third, you need to get used to not being in the spotlight.”


I considered that for a moment, then sighed. “Okay,” I said reluctantly. “Fine. But I think we need to go back real quick. This isn’t a matter of me holding back. The things I do are inherently likely to kill people.”


“How so?”


I thought about it, then decided that words weren’t likely to get me anywhere with Gosnell.


I summoned Tyrfing instead, the sword appearing in my hand with a sudden, familiar weight. I flicked the clasp open and dropped the sheath, then thrust the sword straight down into the floor. As expected, it easily punched through the flooring and stood there, sticking straight up into the air.


“Explain how that’s supposed to not kill people,” I said, not looking away from him.


He pursed his lips. “Interesting. That’s the weapon you use?”


“Usually, yeah.”


He nodded. “You’ll have to use something else with us, of course,” he said. “That’s far too distinctive; you’d be recognized easily. We can get another sword for you. Derek can probably do something with it.”


“I don’t think that’s a very good idea,” I said, pulling Tyrfing back out of the floor and grabbing the sheath. “Me using another sword, I mean.”


It took me a couple of seconds to sheathe Tyrfing. I’d almost forgotten how hard it was to put the cursed sword away without using it first. It wasn’t something I’d needed to do all that much.


“That’s fine,” Gosnell said. “But that sword stays out of sight, on these premises and when you’re in the field. We can come up with some other weapons for you to use.”


I gritted my teeth. I wanted to argue, but he had some valid points. “Fine,” I said. “Any other restrictions you want to put me under?”


He smiled a little. “Not yet, but I’m sure we’ll come up with some later,” he said. “That does bring up the next point, though. What’s your look going to be? There are a couple of things I’ve been specifically instructed to avoid—wolves and snowflakes, mostly—but otherwise it’s fairly open. Going by Shrike, I’m assuming you want some kind of a bird theme, right?”


I shrugged. “Sure.”


“Excellent,” he said. “Now, your features are fairly distinctive, so we’ll want your face fully covered. Probably a fully enclosed helmet, just in case. Do you have a preference for the rest, whether you want to show some skin or be mostly covered?”


“Covered,” I said decisively. “I’d rather not have any exposed skin, actually.”


He nodded and wrote a couple lines on the corner of one of the papers on his desk. “Okay,” he said. “Colors? Any preference?”


“Something fairly bright,” I said. “No black or white.” I paused. “Not dayglo bright or anything, though.”


“Bright without being ridiculous,” he said. “We can do that. I’ll get back to you with some choices for what colors you like after we settle out how we want to handle color selection for the team. We want to have some similarity between you, as far as appearance goes, but it looks like that’ll shape up all right without making you all wear the same color, so there’s more flexibility there.”


“How are we looking similar without color?”


He paused. “Let’s just say you aren’t the only one who’s going to have some feathers,” he said. “Now, this should be enough to get the design people started. We’ll want your measurements before we actually finalize the design, but that can wait.”


“I can handle this,” I said.


He eyed me. “Jonathan. We agreed that you wouldn’t argue with me about my side of things.”


“And that you wouldn’t interfere with mine,” I reminded him. “This isn’t just an aesthetic issue. I wear armor, and I rely on it to keep me from getting killed. And I know a guy who I trust to make a decent set more than your designers. You get the look however you want it, and I’ll take it to my supplier to get the actual armor made.”


“That’s reasonable,” he said. “You’ll have to cover the cost yourself if you get your equipment out of house, though.”


I snorted. “Not a problem.”


“That’s good.” He glanced at the paper he’d written on earlier, then nodded. “All right. You won’t start actually interacting with the public for probably at least a week, so you don’t need to have your public persona down yet. But you should start thinking about how you want to present yourself as Shrike. My understanding is that you’re supposed to be fairly reserved, rather than being in the spotlight, but beyond that you’ve got a lot of latitude in what you want the persona to be.”


“All right,” I said. “Is there anything else?”


“I don’t believe so, no,” he said. He smiled again, just as false and artificial as his other smiles. “Thank you for your time, Jonathan. Have a good day.”


Aiko listened to me gripe without saying anything, then burst out laughing once I was finished. “Goddamn,” she said. “They’ve really got you whipped, don’t they?”


I glowered. “They don’t own me,” I said.


“Nope,” she said happily. “They just sat you down with a PR guy and had him spend half an hour telling you what to do. And you listened.” She grinned. “Totally whipped.”


I sighed. “I’m still not thrilled at the idea of doing this at all,” I said. “But they had some valid points about why I should consider it, and it hasn’t been terrible so far. I just wish it wasn’t taking so much of my time. I didn’t have a lot of free time before signing up for this.”


“Not having much time just means you have to play harder when you can,” she said. Her sly smile as she glanced at me made it pretty obvious what she had in mind.


“I wish I could,” I said. “But I told Tindr I’d be by to go over the financial information tonight, and I’ve got new reports from Selene and Luna to look at.”


“How long’s it been since you slept?”


I shrugged. “A few days, I think. Why?”


“I know you’re a freak of nature and all, and that’s terrible. But that part, specifically, isn’t bad.” She sighed. “Okay, fine. You’ve got more work to do. I’m going home, and I expect you to come back there before this training tomorrow. I know you don’t need rest as much as you used to, but not even you can just keep working indefinitely.”


“I know,” I said. “I’ll be home as soon as I can manage it.” I hugged her. “Love you.”


“Love you too, you oaf,” she said, hugging me back. Then she walked away, gathering the magic for the portal around her.


The mansion was quiet as I walked up. It was only a little past sunset, though it felt much later. Between not sleeping much and traveling all the time, my sense of time was pretty disconnected from the clock anymore.


Inside, Snowflake was curled up next to the throne, her paws and muzzle stained a dull crimson with dry blood. She’d gone hunting again while I went to meet my new coworkers, apparently successfully. She twitched a little as I scratched her ears, sitting down next to her, and I could feel a sort of dim happiness from her, but she didn’t move or really wake up.


As usual, it was only a moment before Selene appeared next to me. “Good evening, boss,” she said, handing me a cup of tea and a sandwich. “How’d it go with the Guards?”


“Well,” I said, “the good news is that I still have a job. And the bad news is that I still have a job.”


She chuckled. “I understand. Well, for once I’ve got mostly good news. We’re finally making progress on talks with the vampires. They still haven’t formally acknowledged your claim on the city, but they’re willing to talk. I’m setting up a meeting for next week, around midnight in Rome. Do you think that will work with your schedule?”


“If necessary I can make it work. We’ve been trying to set this up for a couple of months now.” I frowned, tapping one finger on the arm of the throne. “Do you think they acknowledged us because Hrafn backed us up?”


She shrugged. “No clue. We still haven’t heard back from him. They did change their tune surprisingly quickly after we contacted him, though. He’s apparently doing all right, by the way. After Katrin died he went straight to northern Europe, and he’s apparently been there since, moving around frequently enough not to draw much attention. That’s why it took us so long to find him.”


I grunted. “Good. He was an all-right sort, for a vampire. I’m glad he’s doing all right.”


She nodded. “Other than that, news from the Pack is mixed. We just finished making a formal alliance with the Wolf Creek pack, which means we’re now officially on good terms with all of the publicly recognized werewolf packs in the state. But the Pack as a whole wants to have a long conversation with you about the skinwalker you killed. Apparently he was pretty highly placed in their ranks, and they aren’t thrilled to lose him right now.”


I groaned and stuffed the last of the sandwich into my mouth. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, swallowing. “Somebody’s actually sorry to see that bastard go?”


“Apparently. Anyway, we’re working to set that up as well, but I don’t have a confident date set yet.”


“All right,” I sighed. “Is there anything else?”


“Nothing major,” she said. “Tentative overtures with some smaller groups, but nothing confident yet. We’ve had a few people contact us considering joining up, but none of them are that serious about it yet. Nothing that needs your attention.”


“All right,” I said. “Send in Tindr with the financial information, please. And another sandwich.”


She nodded. “You’ve got it, jarl.”


I watched her go, and tried to pretend that I didn’t feel like things were spiraling out of control.

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Interlude 12.b: Bailey Swanson

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Somehow I’d always expected dying would hurt. I wasn’t quite sure why; it just seemed a logical connection. As much as we struggled against it, as much as every living thing tried to avoid death, I’d sort of assumed it would be painful. Despite having euthanized more animals than I was comfortable remembering, and seeing that it was a gentle thing, I’d assumed that the subjective experience must be agonizing, full of drama and fear.


The reality, for me, was a great deal less impressive. I failed to recognize how much danger a stranger posed, and turned down an offer without considering what the consequences of doing so might be. Then the world went black, and I had just enough time to feel like I was falling before my experience of the world turned off entirely.


That quick. That simple. There was no pain, and I didn’t have enough time to process what was happening and arrive at the conclusion of terror. Things just…ended, like someone walked away halfway through writing a sentence.


It was, in a perverse way, almost disappointing.


The next thing I knew, the world was completely different. My clinic, with its familiar shapes and sounds, was gone. In its place was a broad plain, jagged and harsh, cut by cliffs and canyons. There was no light above, no hint of a sun or moon in the sky. If it was sky; the blackness could just as easily have been a ceiling. Ten feet above my head or a thousand, it didn’t seem to matter.


The only thing that stayed the same was the person there with me. He was pale, the sort of nearly-albino pallor that suggested he seldom if ever saw the sun. That pallor stood in sharp contrast to the unrelieved black of his tailored suit, a suit that looked like it cost more than some cars. I might have been wildly off-target with that guess, but somehow I didn’t think so.


“What the hell just happened?” I demanded, looking around in a panic. I might not have felt afraid before, but it was catching up to me now.


“Good day, Doctor Swanson,” he said with a polite smile. “To answer your question, what just happened was that I woke you up. What happened before that was a heart attack.”


“I’m dead,” I said numbly. I felt like I should be arguing the point, like I should be in denial over it, but I wasn’t. The truth was that it wasn’t a surprise. That sudden blackness had felt like death; it had a sort of undeniable finality to it that I couldn’t put into words.


“For some meanings of the term, yes,” he said. “Your vital functions ceased. You were legally declared dead by a competent authority and cremated. In that sense, yes, you’re dead. But you, the thinking entity which calls itself Bailey Swanson, still exists. From that perspective, you are no more dead than you ever were.”


I took that in for a moment, looking around. In all directions things seemed the same, as far as I could see. It occurred to me to wonder why I could see him; I wasn’t sure, since things were otherwise dark.


“If I’m dead,” I said slowly, “then where is this? And who are you?”


“This world has never had a name,” he said. “Or rather it has had a great many, none of which can claim any real superiority over any other. The simplest way to describe it would be as the place behind the scenes where things go to be recycled once they no longer belong onstage. And I, Doctor Swanson, am the person who killed you, and who arranged for you to come here rather than proceed to oblivion as most of the dead do.”


“Oblivion,” I said, fixating on the one part of that explanation I might have understood. “So…there’s no afterlife, then? Things jut end?”


He smiled again, a slightly different smile than before. “An interesting question, and one which I am not equipped to answer. Perhaps there is an eternal life waiting for you after you pass beyond my reach; I have no more way of knowing than you do. But I, personally, would not bet on it.”


I took a deep breath and slowly let it out. I felt like my mind was working strangely, fixating on some things and letting others pass almost without noticing them. He’d dropped some bombshells there, said some things that were huge and important, but I focused on something else completely. “You arranged for me to come here,” I said. “Why?”


“Because I do regret your death,” he said. “I felt that it was the most expedient way to achieve my goals, but I feel no actual ill will towards you, and I do respect your professional integrity. This, then, is a compromise. Your old life is gone and you cannot get it back, but you may be able to survive here in some form.”


I opened my mouth to ask what he meant by that, but he cut me off before I could. “Pardon me, Doctor Swanson,” he said, “but my time here is limited, and there are things you need to know if you would have any chance of surviving in this environment.”


I wasn’t happy about essentially being told to sit down and shut up, but I did it. This person—or thing, or whatever—had killed me once for being too dumb to take him seriously. It was a pretty convincing argument for paying attention to what he said now.


“The primary thing to keep in mind is that this is a hostile environment,” he said. “It was designed with the explicit intent of wearing things down, including people. The residents may be genuinely helpful; it is unlikely, but possible. Everything else should be treated as a threat. Second, as I said earlier, this place was designed as a sort of cosmic recycling center. It breaks things down and builds them up again in a new form. You may find yourself changing into something other than what you have been, as this process is applied to you. If so, do not worry excessively; it is a natural part of life here. The more you can embrace and make use of these changes, the better you will do here.”


He smiled at me and tipped his hat, then turned and started to walk away.


“Wait,” I said.


He paused. “Keep it brief, please, Doctor Swanson. I do have an appointment to keep.”


“What am I supposed to do?” I asked.


“That question cannot reasonably be answered without reference to purpose,” he replied calmly. “And I do not know what your purpose is. Do you?”


“I don’t even know what’s happening,” I said, a little desperately. “How am I supposed to know what to do?”


“Ah,” he replied. “If your goal is a greater understanding of your circumstances, you should stick to the left-hand path ahead. Beyond that, I am afraid you are on your own. Good day, Doctor Swanson.”


He walked away, and the darkness swallowed him within a few steps, leaving nothing behind.


It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized how much his presence had been insulating me from the full reality of this place. Once he was gone, it was easy for me to understand what he had meant about it being a hostile environment.


The first thing I noticed was the wind. It was a constant presence, sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker, but never really stopping. That wind was an assault on every sense, a constant, unrelenting attack. It was bitterly cold, piercing my coat and chilling me to the core; my fingers started to feel numb after just a couple of seconds of exposure, and my teeth were chattering despite a coat that had been sufficient in even the cruelest of Maine’s winters. The sound was almost as bad, a howl, a roar, sometimes even a whistle, but never silent. The wind pelted me with dust, with sand and grit, like standing in a low-intensity sandblaster; it threatened to push me over, robbed me of any confidence in my balance.


In a way, the inconsistency of the wind was worse than if it had been stuck at the highest intensity. It made it hard to get used to it, hard to adjust. I couldn’t even brace against it, since it seemed to swirl around me, hitting me from a different direction every few seconds.


Looking around, I saw that it was pitch black, a darkness somewhere between a moonless night and being trapped in a dark closet. What little light there was was intermittent, inconsistent. Every few seconds the darkness overhead crawled with light, a little slower than lightning, giving me just enough time to look at my surroundings. I couldn’t quite take a second look at anything in those brief moments of illumination, leaving me with nothing but frightening, nightmarish afterimages dancing in my vision. It was like seeing a monster or a man with a knife while walking home, except that I couldn’t do a double take and realize that it was just a tree or an oddly shaped rock.


From what I could make out in these moments of half-light, I thought my initial impression had been correct. I was standing on a vast plain, stretching in all directions. Except that plain implied flat, even ground, and this was anything but. I could make out hills, enormous cliffs that towered overhead like the skyscrapers in Boston. They weren’t skyscrapers, they were obviously stone cliffs, but there was the same sense of being dwarfed, the same inconceivable scale. Here and there the ground dropped away just as steeply; I couldn’t see how far down these crevices and canyons went, but if the scale was comparable to the cliffs above me, the fall would be enough to kill me and then some. The result was a harsh, dangerous sort of terrain, where a wrong turn might mean hours of backtracking, a false step a lethal fall.


In keeping with that desolate atmosphere, the ground was rocky, dry, and barren. Here and there I saw a patch of scraggly grass, or a stunted bush, but in a way that only served to emphasize just how desolate things were. The fact that life could survive here, that it was possible for plants to grow, but in most places they didn’t. Like the sound of water dripping in a cave, they didn’t so much fill the emptiness as emphasize it.


For a moment I just stood there, thinking about what to do. I seriously considered just lying down and waiting for one of the less helpful residents to find me, at which point I would presumably be dead in every sense of the word rather than just some of them.


Then I shook my head. I might die, but I wouldn’t just lie down and take it. I had to at least try.


My fingers shook as I unzipped my coat. They felt clumsy, wooden, barely responding to my commands. I couldn’t bend them, not really. Too cold.


I pulled my scarf out from the inside pocket of the coat, then zipped it closed again with my shaking fingers. It hadn’t been cold enough to need a scarf before I’d come here, but I’d gotten in the habit of carrying one years ago. They were useful for so many different things.


Right now, it was useful as a facemask. I tied it around my face several times, then tied it off. The result was clumsy, and I was sure it was ugly as hell, but it did what it was supposed to. It put a layer of cloth between my face and the outside world, kept the dust and grit away from my skin. When I pulled my hood up and cinched it down tight around my face, the only exposed skin was a thin strip around my eyes. I drew my hands up into my sleeves, clenching and relaxing them in an effort to keep them at least marginally flexible, and it was almost bearable.




I was standing on a narrow path, a strip of dirt about twenty feet wide. To the right was a cliff, jagged stone a hundred feet high. To the left the ground dropped away, sloping steeply down for around fifty feet before it plummeted. Both of those options left a lot to be desired.


That gave me, essentially, two choices: forward, or back. Or stay here, but I’d already decided against that.


I went with forward, the same direction he’d gone. I walked carefully, slowly, stepping only when there was light, testing the ground before I put my full weight on it. I hadn’t forgotten that warning about the environment here being hostile.


A few hundred feet further along, the path I was on forked. To the right, it turned down and looped around the edge of the cliff. To the left, it ascended the side of another mesa, a steep climb up, even with the many switchbacks worked into the narrow trail.


I stood there for a moment, then turned left and started climbing.


I went to the Badlands National Park in South Dakota once, when I was a kid. I hadn’t thought of it in years, but now I found myself remembering it with shocking intensity. The memories were vivid, somehow more real than my current surroundings.


As I walked, I found myself thinking about that with a sort of bitter amusement. If they thought those were bad, I thought, they should have seen this place.


As simply as that, I found my own name for this place. It was the Badlands. In a way, it seemed appropriate. Not only was the geography similar here, at least in the broad sense, but there was something about the term that seemed fitting. This was the Badlands, the bad place. It was a place where everything worked against you. It was offensive on every level, grinding you down.


I wasn’t sure how long I’d been walking. Time seemed not to have much meaning, here; there was only the next switchback, the next climb, the next step. When I tried to think of something beyond that, the Badlands were quick to punish me. A stone turned underfoot, or broke off in my grasp, threatening to drop me off the edge and into the abyss. I couldn’t see how far down it was. The light didn’t penetrate to the bottom.


It had been a while, though. Hours, at least, though I hadn’t made as much progress as I felt I should in that time. I was cold, and the footing was poor. It seemed like for every two steps I took, I slid one step backward. I was hungry, and thirsty, although both feelings were distant. I couldn’t take the time to think about them, couldn’t focus on them. The wind seemed to be waiting for me to be distracted before it spun around me again, trying to snatch me away from the cliff.


It was hard to tell, but I thought I was about halfway up when I caught a glimpse of motion. Something ahead, beside the path.


The light flicked off. I stood where I was and waited.


When the light came on again, it was gone. I waited through another cycle, but there was still no sign of whatever it was, and I couldn’t just stand there forever. My teeth were already clenched together, but I ground them a little tighter together and started forward again. I picked up a stone, about the right size to throw; it was a pitiful weapon, but better than nothing.


I saw it again halfway up that section of path, and again at the next switchback. It was a narrow figure, somewhere between a human and a lemur, all long limbs and corded muscles, without an ounce of fat on its frame. Each time, it vanished after I’d just barely glimpsed it.


The third time, I’d finally had enough. “Hello?” I said. My voice came out dry and weak, my throat so dry it hurt to talk. I swallowed twice, trying to moisten my throat, and then spoke again. “Hello?”


There was a pause, then a head poked up over the edge of the path. It was roughly human, but with huge white eyes, and no hair at all. When it spoke, I saw long narrow teeth and a long narrow tongue.


“Hello?” it said. It sounded hesitant, like it wasn’t quite sure whether that was the right thing to say.


“You’ve been following me,” I said. I had to almost shout to be heard over the wind.


“I’m hungry,” it replied, its voice a plaintive wail now.


The lights flickered out.


I wanted to panic, wanted to freak out and throw the stone I was holding and run away. But I couldn’t throw my only meager weapon at a target I couldn’t see, and there was nowhere to run. There was nothing to do but choke that terror back down and wait.


A few seconds later, the light came back. The creature was nowhere to be seen.


“You could have pulled me off,” I said. “You could have just grabbed my ankle and pulled me down.”


“Could have,” it agreed from behind me. I turned and saw its head poking up from the side of the path behind me.


How had it gotten behind me so fast?


“But?” I said, taking a half-step back before I could stop myself.


“Don’t want to,” it said. “There’s a hole in the path up ahead. That was me.”


I blinked, trying to follow this thing’s conversation. It should have been surreal, but somehow it wasn’t. I was too tired, and next to what had already happened to me, who was I to say that this was strange?


I remembered what the person who put me here had said about things changing, and thought I might be looking at what he meant. “You were a person, then?” I said, then quickly corrected myself, “A human, I mean.”


The head bobbed in a quick, almost rodent-like nod. “I was walking along, just like you are now. Then the path fell out from underneath me.”


I shivered at the thought—more than I was already shivering, even. I was acutely aware that the same thing could happen to me at any moment. Would I be quick enough to catch something before I fell? I didn’t think so. I was too cold; it was making me slow and clumsy.


“This is a bad path,” the creature added. It didn’t sound like a warning so much as a statement of fact. It made me think that every path was probably a bad path.


“It’s the path I need to walk,” I said.


It nodded like that made sense. “Do you mind if I walk with you? I haven’t talked with anyone in a long time.”


The light went out, leaving me blind again. I managed to keep from panicking this time, and my voice was even fairly steady as I said, “That would be good.”


When the light came back on, I got my first real glimpse of the thing I was talking to. It was perched on the cliff face beside me, clinging to the stone as casually as if it were just walking along.


My first impression had been more or less correct. It was human in its rough shape, but with very long limbs that ended in very long fingers and toes. It was naked, but I still couldn’t have placed its gender; there was no hint of genitals. Or, for that matter, many of the other features I would expect from a human body; there were no nipples, no belly button, no hair. Its skin was grey, with a gritty texture that reminded me of the dirt that had been pelting me since I arrived.


And it had a broad flaps of skin stretching from elbow down to knee, like the “wings” of a flying squirrel.


I tried not to flinch away the thing’s appearance, so far removed from humanity that I honestly would have sooner guessed it was some kind of freakish bat. I don’t think I did a very good job, but it didn’t seem to notice. It crawled headfirst along the cliff face as I walked, looking almost like a spider.


“Do you have a name?” I asked, heading up the path.


There was a pause. “Not anymore,” it said. “I lost it somewhere, I think. Now when I think about my name the words get mixed up with the wind.”


“Oh,” I said. “My name’s….” I paused.


“It’s okay if you don’t have one,” it said. “Lots of people don’t.”


“No,” I said. “I have a name. It’s Bailey.”


Why had it been so hard to think of that?


I lost it somewhere, I think.


I shivered again.


The light went out, and I stopped again. In the dark, its voice came from ahead of me. “How did you get here?”


“Someone brought me here and left me,” I said. “How did you get here?”


Again, there was a long, long pause. “I ran away,” it said at last, slowly, like it was having to struggle to bring the memories to mind. “It was cold, and I was scared, but he was hitting me and then he had a knife and I was…yeah. I had to run. And then I tried to sleep in an alley, and the wind was so cold, but I didn’t have anywhere else to go. The next day I kept walking, but things were different, and then I was here.”


“You slipped through the cracks,” I said. How old had he—or she, I supposed, but somehow I got the feeling of a he from it—been when that happened? Young, I thought. Probably not even to puberty. He seemed like he was still there, somehow, the mind of a child in the body of a monster.


“Maybe. Yeah.”


“How do you live here?”


“I stay by the cliff,” he said. “There’s things to eat. Not much, but some. I can’t go out too far, or the wind gets too strong and I can’t fly. But close to the cliffs it’s all right, mostly.”


That sounds awful, I thought.


I didn’t say it, but it must have shown in my expression or something, because he said, “It isn’t so bad here. You get used to the dark and the cold eventually. And…there’s something good about it. It’s like, you fell, but now there’s nowhere further to fall.”


“You don’t have to worry about what tomorrow’s bringing, because yesterday brought it,” I said. A friend of mine had said that after the doctors told her the cancer was terminal. At the time, I hadn’t quite understood.


“Yeah. That. And the things that were bad before, whatever made you come here, it can’t hurt you anymore. Watch out, that hole is just up here.”


With that warning, I slowed down, beyond my already glacial pace.


The gap in the path wasn’t too large. Five feet, maybe. Under normal circumstances I could have jumped it easily.


Now? In the dark, with my muscles numbed and weakened by the endless cold, in the Badlands? Maybe not.


“I don’t go much past this,” he said. “There’s things up higher, and this is where…yeah.”


“Okay,” I said. “I think I have to keep going.”


“Yeah,” he said again. “Good luck. If you want to come back and talk some more, that’d be cool.”


I swallowed hard, then took a couple long steps forward and jumped.


The light flickered out as I left the ground, and for a long moment I hung there in the dark, not knowing whether I would fall or not. The wind, for once, was quiet, just a soft whistling through the canyon.


Then my feet hit stone on the other side, and I let out the breath I’d been holding. I was, for the moment, safe.


Except not, because a moment later the ground started to crumble under my heels, where I’d landed too close to the edge. I windmilled my arms, grabbing at the cliff, but I was already leaning backwards and I knew that it wasn’t going to be enough, that I was going to fall.


Something hit me hard in the back, knocking me forward. I fell onto my hands and knees, listening to the rocks tumbling down the cliff.


When the light came on and I looked down, I saw him several hundred feet down, falling fast. His false wings snapped open, catching the air and spinning him out into a long, steep glide out of sight.


I watched him go with a vague feeling of jealousy and then kept climbing, panting with exertion and fear.


One of the maddening things about the Badlands, as I learned fairly quickly, is how inconsistent it is. There’s no login, no fairness in how it treats people. Five people might walk safely across a bridge, only for it to collapse on the sixth. The wind might hold one person up and smash another to the ground, with the two standing right beside each other. If there’s any logic to it, it’s a logic that human minds can’t begin to fathom.


In the Badlands, the only thing you can rely on is that nothing—nothing—can be trusted.


In some ways, that’s what wore me down the fastest. More than the pain, the cold, the constant danger, the hunger, more than any of it, it was tension. It was always having to look twice, having to test everything. There was only so much of the constant fear, the paranoia, that a person could take before things started breaking.


The top of the mesa was a city, of sorts. There were just a few shacks, cobbled together out of what looked like sheet metal and tarps, or cut into the stone. Back when I was alive, I’d have said that it was more pitiful than most of the tent cities I’d seen. Here, it was the only sign of civilization I’d seen, which automatically made it a haven of luxury.


I was very, very cautious as I approached it. I hadn’t been here long—no more than a day, I thought—but I was already getting a sense of what the Badlands were like. There was no safety here, no respite. That was the whole point. And you couldn’t survive here without, in some way, belonging here.


The kid who’d saved me was one thing. He was a scavenger, living on the outskirts, barely more a part of the Badlands than I was. But these people were different. They’d obviously been here a while, and they’d scraped out some kind of stable living there.


My instincts from my old life and my growing understanding of this new one both told me the same things. First, these people would be hard, mean sons of bitches; nobody else would have made it this far down here. Second, they would expect the same from me. They hadn’t managed to hold on to this by assuming the best of people.


Walking up to the settlement, I saw a handful of people moving around. Using that term loosely; most of them looked only a very little bit like what I was used to thinking of as people. At the very least, most of them had open wounds, most of which were obviously festering. Others were more dramatically warped, the way the child had been earlier. Here was one with a leg cobbled together out of bits of scrap metal and stones; there was a woman with three arms, one of which looked like a spider’s leg. I was too far away to make out many details, still, but even at a distance, even at a glance, they couldn’t have passed for human, by and large.


As I got closer, they started turning to face me, hands going to weapons. Those who weren’t already weapons in themselves; several had teeth and claws. They were chipped and broken, but I’d spent enough time working with animals to recognize the threat they posed.


I tried to seem nonthreatening as I walked into the city, and it seemed to work. They didn’t attack me, anyway. It probably helped that compared to them I was nonthreatening. I didn’t have a weapon, having dropped the rock I was carrying a ways back, and physically I’d never exactly been imposing.


I was almost to the center of the town when one of the residents grabbed me by the arm. She looked like a human teenager, emaciated to the point of being almost skeletal. But her fingers were too long, fading from flesh into something shiny and black, and a snake protruded from one of her eye sockets.


“Hey,” she said, a long forked tongue flickering out of her mouth. “You’re new, right?”


“Yeah,” I admitted.


She nodded, the gesture more in the shoulders than the neck. “Thought so. You’ve got the look. Listen, you should talk to the man. He can answer your questions.” She turned me to face one of the shacks and pushed me forward. “Go on now,” she said.


I stumbled forward to the shack indicated. It was one of the larger and better ones, cobbled together out of small stones mortared together with some sort of mud.


I stepped inside and found myself staring at a machete from about six inches away. “What are you doing here?” the man holding it demanded.


I held my hands out to the side and very carefully didn’t move. “I’m new here,” I said. “Some girl told me I should come to you with questions.”


There was a momentary pause before he lowered the machete. “All right,” he said. “Give me a moment.” He walked a few feet away and bent over, visible only dimly in the intermittent light coming in the door. After a few seconds of muttered cursing he got a lantern of some sort lit, giving me my first look at him.


He looked more human than most of the people here. His legs were too short and thick, his skin an unhealthy shade of greyish brown with necrotic sores on his face and solid black eyes, but nothing too extreme. He could pass for human with sunglasses and a long coat.


“It’s customary to provide some form of payment,” he said, sitting in a crude wooden chair at the table with the lantern. There wasn’t a second chair. “Whatever you can. So you know.”


“I’m a doctor,” I said. “Or I was. I could look at those sores on your face.”


He looked at me curiously. “Were you really?”


“Yeah,” I said. I hesitated. “I worked on animals, not people. But….”


“But I’m not a person anymore. Yes. Fair enough, then. Ask your questions.”


“How do I get out of this place?”


He smiled, showing blocky teeth like those of a horse. “Well, you’re direct,” he commented. “Most people beat around the bush a little first.”


“But they all want to know.”


He snorted, the sort of wet, heavy snort that requires either very specific circumstances or serious illness to pull off. “Of course they do,” he said dryly. “Who wouldn’t? But there isn’t much of an answer. The vast majority of those who end up here will never make it out.”


“I didn’t ask how not to leave,” I said.


He nodded slowly. “Of course. Do you know anything of what this place is?”


“I heard that it’s a sort of recycling center,” I said. “Somewhere that things go to be broken down and repurposed.”


“That’s as good an explanation as any,” he said. “Well, it shouldn’t be a surprise that it uses escape as an incentive. If you want out, you have to let it change you.”


“I don’t understand. How does that work?”


He sighed. “There are a few exits,” he said. “Not many. They aren’t accessible to you as you are now. You would need to be able to fly, or breathe underwater, or something else. Even after you reach the exit, there’s usually a guardian, a challenge, something to keep people in. If you want to survive past that, you have to be strong or smart or lucky. Most don’t make it. Even if you do, you won’t likely be back home. There are many, many worlds that touch on this one, and while leaving is almost certain to be a step up, you’ll probably still be in a strange place.”


Once again, I found myself casually disregarding profound revelations about the world to fixate on the immediately important information. He’d just mentioned multiple worlds, and I ignored it completely. “That doesn’t sound like a good plan. Too many variables.”


“True. The other alternative is to count on someone else for your escape. People don’t come here often, but occasionally someone wants a monster. This isn’t a great place to come for one—the residents tend to be unpredictable, at best—but if you want something strong enough and nasty enough to tip the scales, you could do worse.”


I considered that for a moment. “That would still require you to be strong, though,” I said. “You’d have to stand out enough to be worth their time.”


“Yes,” he agreed. “Of course, you can’t really get out with either of those ways. By the time you’ve changed that far, you’re only barely you.”


“But I don’t want to change,” I said plaintively. “I want to stay human.”


He looked at me like I was an idiot. “Have you looked at yourself recently?” he asked.


“No. I haven’t had the time.”


He nodded like he’d expected that, and went to the lumpy sack on a stone frame that apparently served as his bed. He picked something up from the floor nearby and carried it back to me with obvious care. “You break this, and I break you,” he said, handing it to me.


It genuinely took me a second to realize it was a mirror. I didn’t recognize my own reflection. Not at all. My face and hands were covered in blood from small cuts and abrasions. The skin was grey and gritty, the dust and dirt of the Badlands embedded into it. I tried to brush it away, and succeeded only in smearing blood and grime across the skin. The Badlands dirt seemed to be a part of my skin now.


“That’s after, what, a day?” he asked. “Less? Face it, girl, you’re already changing.”


“Bailey,” I said. “My name’s Bailey.”


“Good for you,” he said. “But it doesn’t change the facts. If you want to stay human, you might as well off yourself right now, because you’re as close to that as you’re ever going to be.”


I frowned and set the mirror on the table. The shack was silent for several seconds.


“Okay,” I said at last. “How do I go about changing?”


He shrugged. “It’s not really something you do,” he said. “This place will do it for you. You let it in and it’ll give you what you need to survive; keep that up long enough and you’ll be a monster before you know it. But if you want to speed the process up, you could get to know the place. Learn to feel its rhythms, understand what it is and how it works. Limbo always takes as much as it gives or more. The better you understand it, the more you’ll be able to do what it wants; the more you give it what it wants, the more power it’ll give you in return.”


“Limbo?” I said. “You mean the Badlands?”


He gave me an oddly evaluating look. “You already gave it a name? That’s a good sign for what you want. It suggests you’ve already got something of a connection.”


“You talk about it like its alive.”


“And I’m not convinced it isn’t,” he said. “But it doesn’t really matter. Whether the place is alive, or there’s a person in charge of it that makes decisions, or it’s just an automated process, the result is the same. Some behaviors are rewarded; others are punished.”


I nodded slowly. “Okay. I can buy that. I think I only have one question left, then.”


“That’s good,” he said dryly. “I was about to start charging you more.”


“What about you?” I said, ignoring his joke. “If you know all this, why haven’t you tried to leave? Hell, how do you know all this?”


“What makes you think I haven’t?” he said seriously. “I got close enough to see the exit, and I know this place well enough to have a good idea of what it was going to cost me to get through it. As to how I know…well, how did you think I knew what people are looking for when they come here for monsters? One of the easiest ways to wind up here is to summon something and have it drag you down with it.”


I was not sure how long it had been. More than weeks and less than years. A coherent perception of time had been one of the first things to go. I’d recognized that first day that looking beyond the moment was risky, that it left me vulnerable. Giving up the capacity to fully conceptualize time was a logical next step in that progression, one that bought me a vastly heightened degree of focus.


I slid forward to the edge of the mesa, slow and silent. The light still flickered, but I had very little appreciation of it. Light and darkness were much the same to my eyes. The right one still required light to function, but the left had been gouged out by a wind-carried stone a long time ago. The replacement, which had grown out of bone and dirt in the empty socket, saw better in the darkness than the light. Between the two, it didn’t matter to me much at all.


“I think I’m ready,” I said to my pet. Barely the size of my hand, it was a sort of lizard with scales like jewels. I didn’t know what it was, whether it had been a person, or a lizard, or some creature that I didn’t know. Maybe it was a creation of this place, born wholly of the Badlands. Regardless, it was a good listener and it didn’t eat much, which made it a good pet.


It was so hard to find food. I didn’t need to eat, I couldn’t starve; I’d learned that the hard way, back in the beginning. But food was power and power was what I needed, so I found food. I hunted and I scavenged, and while it had often been tight, somehow I scraped together enough for my pet as well.


It amused me that I’d kept a pet, after sacrificing so many things. It was something to talk to. The first boy I’d met in the Badlands hadn’t been exaggerating that. He’d done me a good turn, warning me like that. I tried to honor that by helping out other new people when I could, showing them the ropes or helping them out of a hard place. Sometimes I forgot and ate them instead, but I figured that couldn’t be helped. It was so hard to remember.


Even more than that, though, my pet helped me remember who I was. I’d cared for pets once. It had been important to me. I wasn’t entirely sure why, but that wasn’t surprising. I’d lost a lot of the mental functions I’d once had. I just had to assume that I’d had a reason for it back then, and continue to do so now.


I stepped up to the edge and gazed down into the abyss. With my Badlands eye, I could see exactly how deep it was, unlike the first time I’d looked down into the canyons. Three thousand, seven hundred and twelve feet. I was very good at gauging heights.

One thousand and four feet above the ground, a tunnel opened in the side of an otherwise blank wall. I’d started down that tunnel, and gone far enough to feel the shift in the Badlands around me. I’d seen the texture of the darkness lightening up, heard the wind quieting down, and I’d known what it meant.


Somewhere down that tunnel was an exit. A place where the Badlands ceased to be the Badlands. A way out of this hell.


Since then, I’d been getting ready. I’d been eating, stockpiling power, stockpiling weapons. This was the final exam. The Badlands had made me what I needed to be, given power and stripped away weakness. Now I just had to prove that I was capable of using it.


In theory, this was what I’d been searching for all this time. This was what I’d wanted, what I’d needed.


But now that I knew where to go, I’d spent a while putting it off. Maybe a week. Maybe more. And even now that I’d come back, with the intention of finally ending this torment one way or another, I was hesitating. And I knew why.


Deep down, I suspected I couldn’t.


Almost no one made it out on their own. I’d asked all sorts of people, everyone I could get to talk to me and who might know anything. The stories changed with every retelling, every person I asked had slightly different information, but that detail always stayed the same. Almost no one made it out.


I didn’t feel fear anymore. Not the way I used to. There was no visceral reaction, no piss-yourself-and-run-away terror. The Badlands had gotten rid of that a long time ago. But I could still experience fear on some level, could still recognize intellectually that I was afraid. And I was afraid that I was not one of the lucky or talented few who would get to leave.


I was afraid that if I went down that tunnel, there was nothing waiting for me but death.


“You know,” I said to my pet, stroking its neck and looking at my destination, “I used to think I wanted to die. I even tried to do the deed myself a couple of times. But now that I’m actually looking at the decision, I find I’d rather not.” I didn’t remember much from before…before, but I remembered that. I didn’t know why I’d attempted suicide, but I had.


It occurred to me, as I stood there, that that boy had warned me about this too. He’d said something about how you could get used to the Badlands, how it wasn’t so bad after a while. At the time I hadn’t been able to see how that was possible, but now I did. Things were bad here, but they were a bad that I understood. I knew the Badlands. I had food, had a decent life. Risking that, even for the chance at being out, was a scary thought.


Recognizing that was just what I needed to give me that final push. I tucked my pet away in my coat where I wouldn’t lose it and stretched my neck, getting ready for what was next.


That boy really had done me a huge favor, the one and only time we’d talked. I’d have to remember to thank him for it if I ever saw him again. What had his name been, anyway? I couldn’t quite bring it to mind.


Names could be slippery things, down here in the Badlands. Hard to hold onto. I’d lost mine somewhere along the way, I thought. I’d lost a lot of things.


I turned back to the mesa’s edge, and jumped out into the darkness.

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Building Bridges 12.4

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“That’s the place?” I asked, looking at our destination. It was a moderately-sized office building in the heart of downtown, all worn concrete and gleaming windows.


“That’s it,” my escort said. He’d introduced himself to me as David Brunner; I could smell the movement in his magic, quick and light, but beyond that I didn’t know much of anything about him. He was a Guard, apparently the person who was going to be in charge of their public branch in Colorado Springs.


“Nice digs,” Aiko said. “You own the whole building?”


“Yeah,” David said. “No offense, but you aren’t actually invited in. We’re planning to open areas of the building to the public once we have things up and running for real, but for the moment it’s still restricted to members of the Guards. Not to mention that having you around would make it a little too easy to figure out who Winter really is.”


“No problem,” she said easily. “I think we all knew that I wasn’t exactly going to be signing up with this crew. You don’t want to let me into your clubhouse, that’s fine.”


I eyed for a moment. “Please don’t break in,” I said. “We know you can. You don’t need to prove it.”


“Oh, come on,” she said. “You don’t seriously think I would do something like that, do you?”


“Yeah,” I said dryly. “Given that I’m pretty sure you were already considering it, yes, I do.”


She sniffed. “Fine. I’ll wait outside like a boring person.”


“Thank you.” I turned to David. “Okay, what do I need to know?”


“To start with, I’m the only other person on the local team who knows about the Conclave, the Guards as an organization beyond what’s being developed for the public, or pretty much anything about the political structures you’re used to dealing with. As far as everyone else is concerned, none of that exists, and we’d like to keep it that way.”


I blinked. “These people are that new?”


He smiled thinly. “You have no idea. Speaking of which, I’m also the only one who knows who you are. To the rest of the team, you’re Jonathan Keyes, using the alias Shrike. Here’s your paperwork for that, by the way.” He pulled an envelope out of his pocket and held it out to me.


I didn’t take it. “Shrike,” I said. “Seriously? That’s the name you guys came up with for me?”


“You’re the one who put it on the form. It’s not my problem if you changed your mind.”


I opened my mouth, then sighed and turned back to Aiko. “Shrike,” I said. “You filled out a form saying that I wanted to go by the name Shrike.”


“What?” she said, smirking. “I told you I wanted to have a pet name for you. It just took a little while to actually make it happen.”


“Okay,” I said, taking the envelope. “So apparently I’m going by Shrike now. Joy. You said my fake real name is Jonathan Keyes?”


“That’s right,” David said. “Now, the team does know that you’re a werewolf, as well as very basic information about your magic and your skills. So don’t worry about keeping any of that secret. But your real identity, your political affiliations, and your heritage are all very much secret.”


I snorted. “What do you even know about my heritage?”


“Enough to know that we don’t want them knowing much of anything about it. That means you also have to seem like a different person. So the wolf motif? That’s going to have to go.”


I stared at him for a moment. “You know,” I commented, “I was just thinking that there was not one single thing about this arrangement that I actually liked. Thanks for proving me wrong.”


“What?” David said. He shook his head a moment later. “No, never mind. Not important. Here’s your ID; that’ll get you through the security. Now come on, let’s introduce you to the rest of the team.” He started across the street without waiting for me to answer. I hugged Aiko and then followed.


“You don’t like me very much, do you?” I asked.


David glanced at me, then continued walking. “I think you’re dangerous,” he said. “You’re disruptive, destructive, and you have a history of doing stupid things. To be blunt, you’re exactly what we’re working against here. You just happen to be pointed at even worse things right now.”


I took a few more steps, then said, “You smell sort of bad. Like, whatever cologne you’re using? It’s starting to go rancid. Just so you know.”


He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, reminding me very strongly of Guard. Apparently I had a gift for annoying all of his people, not just the boss.


He swiped his own identification card through the reader at the door. The reader beeped and then the door unlocked with a sharp click. He pulled it open and waved me inside.


I paused outside. “This building is warded?” I asked absently, most of my attention on the wards themselves. I sniffed, analyzing the scent of the magic, and felt around at the edges of the spells.


“Of course,” he said impatiently.


“These are, like, cookie-cutter wards,” I said. “They’re ridiculously generic. And the joints between the different wards are weak. A moron could take this apart.”


“And you think you could do better?” he asked.


“Of course not,” I snapped. “Defensive magic isn’t exactly my strong suit, as you’re well aware. That’s why I hired someone who is good at it, rather than try and cobble it together myself and end up with this kind of sloppy, standardized crap.”


He sighed. “I’ll pass on your recommendation to the higher-ups,” he said, sounding tired. “Now come on. The rest of the team is waiting to meet you.”


The building was in the middle of some fairly extensive renovations. There was a demolition crew gutting the ground floor, clearing out the walls to leave a large, open space, and David said that there was more work being done elsewhere. Apparently the elevators were down for the time being as a part of the renovations, which I was just as glad for. I’ve always much preferred stairs.


“The ground floor is going to be the public area,” David said, climbing the stairs as quickly and easily as I could. That was pretty impressive, for a human, enough to make me wonder whether he had some means of making it easier magically. “We’re going to have a gift shop, a cafe, that sort of thing.”


I blinked. “A gift shop? That’s…why?”


He shrugged. “We need cash,” he said simply. “To pull this arrangement off, we’re going to need a lot of money. We’re planning on getting support from the government once we’re up and running, and until then the funds from our donors should be plenty.” He glanced at me as he said that, a silent reminder that the precise nature of those donors was not public knowledge even here. “But we’ll want to be bringing in some cash on our own, and a gift shop isn’t a bad way of going about that.”


“Who in their right mind would be shopping at a gift shop here?” I demanded.


He snorted. “You might be surprised,” he said dryly. “Remember, this is going to be a high-profile, publicly known organization. People are going to be talking about us. Hell, I’ll be surprised if it takes more than a couple weeks for you to be a celebrity.”


I groaned. “Oh, no,” I said. “I’ve done the celebrity thing before. Vastly overrated.”


“When were you a celebrity?”


“First time the werewolves came out to the public,” I said. “I was one of the names on the list. I didn’t have it as bad as a lot of them, but it was still pretty ridiculous. People barging into my store and ranting about it, or trying to take pictures of me whenever I went outside.”


He laughed. “Well, at least you know what you’re in for.” He glanced at me curiously. “Maybe you can tell me something, though. Why did the werewolves pull that stunt? The whole thing seemed a little…random.”


“You know,” I said slowly, “at the time I agreed with you. Thought it was a terrible idea. But looking back on it, I’d wager the Khan knew that this was coming. The whole supernatural world going public, I mean. The first time was a sort of trial balloon, seeing what the reaction would be and who the most strongly-opposed people were. Then when they went back into the closet for a while, they could arrange for those people to have unfortunate accidents before we went public for real.”


“That’s pretty terrifying,” he said after a moment. “That kind of thinking, I mean. And the way you just talk about them having accidents like it’s nothing. You really think that’s right?”


“We’re talking about people who were lynching werewolves in the streets,” I said coldly. “Or just random people that maybe looked a little like a werewolf if you squinted hard enough. I don’t have a lot of pity for them.”


“I guess that’s fair,” David said, though he didn’t sound convinced. “Anyway, where was I? Oh, right. The tour. So the ground floor is open to the general public. Then the next couple floors are where we’re putting in the support staff and the bureaucracy. Fifth floor is our work area—lab space, workshops, and such.”


“I’m going to want to check that out,” I said. “Is it fully equipped?”


“I thought you might like that part,” he said. “And no, we’re still getting it set up. On the plus side, that does mean that you can put in any special requests. I’ll show you where after you meet your new coworkers. Speaking of, here we are.” He opened the heavy fire door at the next landing and waved me through. “Sixth floor,” he said. “This is our common area. Seventh is the top floor, and that’s where our personal quarters are.”


“Seems a little awkward for us to get to,” I commented. The door opened into a hallway, across from the elevators. To either side there were a handful of doors opening off the hall.


“It’s also hard for anyone else to get to,” he pointed out. “Kind of have to pick one, right?”


“Fair point.”


“Glad you think so. Well, here we are.” He grinned at me and opened one of the doors.


Looking in, the first thing that struck me was how cozy it was. The floor was covered in pale grey carpet, saved from looking institutional by the thick, plush shag. The walls were a warmer cream color, with several paintings, drawings, photos, and posters on them. There were several leather couches and armchairs scattered around the room, as well as a beanbag and some large cushions. Somebody had hung a green-and-black hammock in the corner, which looked like it was made of parachute fabric. There was a television, a stereo, some video games. The result should have been cluttered and chaotic, but somehow it all seemed to fit together into a harmonious whole.


There were four people in the room when I walked in. A man and a woman were curled up together in the beanbag, a skinny guy was sprawled in one of the armchairs, and a girl with an aggressively red mohawk was lying in the hammock.


“Hey, folks,” David said, following me in and closing the door behind us. “Last one of the team’s finally here. Meet Jonathan. He’s going to be our tank.”


“Nice to meet you,” the guy on the couch said, looking up at me and smiling awkwardly. Now that I looked at him again, I saw that he wasn’t much older than the girl in the hammock; he might be in his twenties, but not by much. “My name’s Derek. I’m mostly good at making things. Like armor and stuff, yeah?”


“That’s an useful ability,” I said.


His awkward smile blossomed into a broad, ecstatic grin. “Thanks,” he said.


“Yeah, yeah,” the girl in the hammock said impatiently. “I’m Tawny and I summon demons. Christ, this is like an AA meeting.”


I considered her for a moment. “I think you and I should have a conversation about that.”


“What, you want me to renounce my heretical ways and go back to being a good girl?”


“Nah,” I said. “Mostly I just want to know what kind of demon you’re summoning. Some are a lot better to work with than others.”


She looked directly at me for the first time, apparently trying to figure out whether I was serious, and then grinned almost as widely as Derek. She was missing some teeth. “I think I might like you, Jonny,” she said. “Tell you what, I’ll have that conversation with you. Who knows, I might even learn something.”


“I look forward to it,” I said.


“Well, not to rush you or anything, but we are on a schedule,” David said. “You already know me. I mostly focus on mobility and providing ranged support.”


“My name’s Anthony,” the guy in the beanbag said. His eyes were solidly closed. “But you can call me Tony. Everyone does. I’m good with fire, primarily, although I do a little work with electricity and light.”


“And I’m Elyssa,” the woman with him said. Despite their physical proximity, they seemed like polar opposites; her eyes were wide open and darted around in a way that made me think she was taking in everything that happened. “I mess with people’s perceptions, especially with attention. Now run along; you don’t want to keep the bossman waiting.”


“Hang on a second,” I said. “What’s the rush?”


“You have some paperwork to file,” David said. “Financial information and such. And then you have a meeting with the public relations team to talk about how your image is going to need to change now that you aren’t operating on your own.”


Tawny laughed. “Good luck with that, Jonny,” she said. “Play nice with the pencil-pushers.”


And on that less-than-comforting note, I was whisked right back out to arrange for the less dramatic aspects of a job that I was already deeply, deeply regretting having agreed to.

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Building Bridges 12.3

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“Okay,” I said to Guard as the rest of the mages got up and started drifting towards the door. “If this is all about you offering me a deal, why did all of you need to be here?”


“You’re not the only one asking that,” the pale woman in the blue robe grumbled. Thinking back on it I was pretty sure it was the first thing she’d said. It took a moment for me to remember who she actually was, since I didn’t think I’d seen her except for a few minutes while they were trying to decide whether to charge me with murder or not. I was reasonably confident her title—or name, or whatever—was Walker. She’d voted not to kill me, as I recalled.


Come to think of it, Guide had been against me that day. That probably made it a little harder to say that it was a total accident that I’d killed her.


Guard glared at her, then turned back to me with a very badly faked smile. “Some actions can only formally taken by all members of the Conclave together. Technically, offering a complete and total outsider a major position with one of our organizations is one of those actions. I wonder why.”


Prophet looked from me to Guard and backed, then grinned maliciously. “Have fun,” he said, snapping his fingers. His haze of magic faded from around the walls, and he walked out the door.


I eyed Guard as the Conclave members finished leaving, then shrugged and sat down across from him. “Given that we’re already in a restaurant, you actually want to get some food? Because I’m thinking this conversation will be a lot more endurable if I’m stuffing my face during it.”


“Fine with me,” he said. “Watcher!”


Moray opened the door and poked his head inside. “Yes?”


“Send the wait staff in,” Guard said.


The next twenty minutes or so passed in total and uncomfortable silence. Literal silence; I wasn’t in the mood to be making casual conversation, and Guard was apparently content with awkwardly intense stares and a fake smile that got even less believable with each passing moment.


Finally, when I was seriously starting to consider actually talking about important things just to break the silence despite knowing how dumb that was, the waitress showed up. And then another half a dozen people following her.


They started laying out plates, and didn’t stop until most of the conference table was covered. Moray stood and watched the whole time, which seemed to be creeping the restaurant employees out more than a little bit. I could not in all honesty blame them for that. When you’re serving two people an amount of food suitable to a small army while a guy in a three-piece suit watches you work is the kind of thing that probably should leave you feeling a little weird.


They finished and filed out, with Moray following close behind them and closing the door. Guard looked at his one plate of enchiladas, then looked at the rest of the food on the table.


He quirked an eyebrow at me. “Is this really necessary?”


“I’m starving, and the food here is passable. If you don’t want to cover the bill, I can handle it.” I grabbed a platter of nachos and dragged it close. “Okay,” I said. “Details. What kind of work are you expecting me to do?”


“It would entail a mixture of direct action and politics,” he said. “To begin with, you would be expected to enforce minimum standards of law and order within your area of influence, particularly upon the supernatural residents. While you certainly can enforce the law, it isn’t a priority, particularly until the legal system catches up with the recent upheaval. We’re more concerned with maintaining basic standards of order and stability, and minimizing destruction and civilian casualties.”


I swallowed and then gave him a funny look. “You do realize these are things I already do, right?”


He smiled. It was wider and more mobile than the faked smiles earlier, his teeth startlingly white against the dark skin. The expression didn’t last more than a second, but it still conveyed more genuine emotion than I’d seen out of him during this whole meeting. “So now you’ll do it for us,” he said.


I snorted. “Okay. So that must bring us to the politics bit, I guess.”


“Yes,” Guard said in a tone of deep, profound distaste. “The worst part of the arrangement, as usual. The gist of it is that you would be building connections and establishing positive relations with other groups. You would have to represent us, both to other political entities and to the citizenry; we would expect you to represent us well to both. As we begin to integrate ourselves with existing political structures, you would also have to work with them. We expect to also begin drawing a great many new recruits; you would be involved with attracting, vetting, training, and coordinating them.”


I sat and processed that for a few moments as I polished off the nachos. “So let’s start at the beginning,” I said, once I’d thought it through. “You realize that I am the main political group in the area, right? I mean, my organization is probably the strongest one in the region, and most of the rest are either allied with or explicitly subordinate to mine. So you basically want me to establish relations with myself?”


“Well, that should make it easy, shouldn’t it? If you can’t manage that, I don’t know why my colleagues would be as impressed with you as they seem to be.” He sighed. “We wouldn’t be offering you this opportunity if you weren’t useful. Your political capital is one of the main reasons we’re doing so. While your observations on this topic are amusing in their own way, this isn’t either surprising or accidental.”


I nodded. “Fair enough. Okay, point two. You want me to represent you in a positive light? Are you nuts? Because I’m not exactly on the best terms with a lot of people. There are a lot of them that would probably tell you to screw off as soon as they hear that I’m involved.”


Guard considered me for a moment, then sighed again. “Do me a favor,” he said. “Consider whether maybe, just maybe, we aren’t total morons. We might even know more about politics than you do. I mean, I’d like to think that we didn’t get this position without some degree of qualification.”


I chuckled. “Again, fair point. So…what do I actually get out of this deal?”


“What, aside from the chance to completely shape the future of the world in a major way? I thought we already went over this.”


“Yeah, I’m just messing with you.” I grinned at him. “Quick question, though. I was under the impression that I couldn’t hold any kind of official position on account of the whole, you know, internationally wanted for blowing up a decent chunk of a city. Do you have any way around that little problem?”


Guard closed his eyes for a moment and I got the distinct impression he was counting to ten to keep from murdering me. “All of our people will be using aliases,” he said, opening his eyes and plastering on an even more obviously fake smile. “The general public should never become aware of who you are. The government will have your identity on file, of course, but we can provide falsified identification for you if you can’t manage it on your own.”


I blinked. “Really? Just use a false name? It’s that easy?”


He shrugged and took a sip of water. “Why shouldn’t it be? You already keep your face covered while you’re working, and I imagine most of the others will be as well. Many of those who will be involved in this project were raised on superheroes and the like; they’re likely to jump on the excuse to wear a costume and use a dramatic name, aside from the practical benefits.”


I winced. He laughed.


“Okay,” I said. “I think that’s the last question I had. Was there anything else you had to tell me?”


“Just one thing,” he said with a smile. “You won’t be in charge of operations within Colorado Springs. You’ll be starting at the bottom and working up, in fact. So to begin with you’ll be at the very bottom slot on the totem pole.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “Why? I’m not exactly a newbie at this stuff.”


“Several reasons,” he said, smiling. Clearly, Guard was enjoying this part of the interview. “First off, as you pointed out, you have an organization of your own to be running. Expecting you to manage ours on top of that would be unreasonable. Second, you’re far too high-profile. If you were the head of the local team, it would be extremely likely that someone would figure out who you are. It’s also likely that you’ll be required to meet with the Guards in your capacity as jarl, which would be one hell of a trick if you’re the head of both groups. And finally, in this sense you are a total newbie. You have no experience with how we operate, no familiarity with the system. There’s no way that you could act as a viable leader without even having worked with us in the past.”


I glowered at him for a second or two, then nodded. “Fine,” I said grudgingly. “But you realize what it would do to my reputation if I’m taking orders?”


“Just one more reason not to let anyone connect the two personas,” he said smiling. “So I think that’s everything we needed to cover. What do you think?”


“I’ll need to consider it,” I said, grabbing another plate. “I’m not sure whether I even have time to add this to what I’m already doing. But I’m not going to rule it out entirely.”


“Honestly that’s more than I was expecting,” Guard said, rolling up the sleeves of his robe and grabbing his fork. “You’ve got a few days to decide. I’ll get back to you.”


I grunted and stuffed another taco in my mouth. I’d already polished off enough food for a dozen people, but I was still profoundly hungry. I knew that there was no way just eating would make that hunger go away; it was deeper than that, a simplified experience of a more metaphysical need. But there was still a sort of satisfaction in eating.


Guard also started eating. His one plate looked a little ridiculous in comparison to the dozen or so others on the table, but he was fairly enthusiastic at first, stuffing his face with apparent satisfaction.


Then he started slowing down.


Then his face hit the table.


I sat in the hospital waiting room and, shockingly, waited. I’d taken the time to tell Snowflake, Aiko, and my thugs what was going on and not to expect me back soon, but other than that I’d just been sitting here for the past half-hour or so. It already looked bad enough; for me to then disappear from the scene would be a little bit suspicious.


Finally, Moray walked into the waiting room and sat next to me. “I hate hospitals,” he commented.


“Me too. They creep me out.” I glowered at the aquarium on the opposite wall. “And they smell bad. Like, I mean just awful.”


He snorted. “You would fixate on that.”


I chuckled. “Yeah, well. Is there any word?”


He nodded. “Definitely poison, but I don’t know enough to understand half of what they’re saying. It sounds like he’s probably out of it for a while, but the doctors don’t think he’s going to die.”


“Good,” I said.


“Is it?”


I nodded. “I don’t know if I like him and I don’t get the impression he likes me at all, but I don’t want him dead. Not to mention that I really don’t think it’d have gone well for me if he died.”


“Yeah,” he said. “It does look pretty fishy. Especially right after another of the Conclave members that voted against you died.”


“That would be why it’s a good thing that he isn’t dying,” I said dryly. “You have any idea who poisoned him? Or how?”


“Not yet. There was nothing in any of the other dishes, so it was pretty clearly targeted at Guard. He’s got more enemies than just about anyone alive, though, so that doesn’t narrow it down much.”


“Somehow that doesn’t surprise me,” I said. “Have you looked into the restaurant staff at all? Maybe it was one of the waiters that put the poison in, or a cook?”


“There are people investigating them, but I haven’t heard what they’ve found,” he said. “Of course, there is another possibility.”


“What is that?”


“He did it himself.”


“That makes sense,” I said. “Oh wait, no it doesn’t. What the hell?”


“Think about it,” Moray said. “Pretty convenient that he got just enough of the poison in him to make him sick, but not enough to kill him. That’s a lucky coincidence, and I’m not a fan of coincidence.”


“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Even by my standards that’s impressively paranoid. Why would he be almost killing himself, again?”


“To make you do what he wants,” Moray said. “Think about it. He was making you an offer, right? I didn’t hear what you said, but I know how things were shaping up. Well, I think this is a bit of a high-pressure sales tactic, don’t you?”


I frowned. “Well, I can see how this would influence my decision, yeah. But I have a hard time seeing me being that important to him. This is a pretty huge risk for him to be taking for the sake of…what? Making it a little awkward for me to say no?”


“It’s the kind of tactic I could see him using,” he said seriously. “I’ve known Guard for a long time now. He isn’t the sort to shy away from a risk. If he wanted you to take the deal he was offering, I could see him pulling this kind of stunt.” He glanced at me over his sunglasses, his expression carefully blank. “Like I said, I’m not sure. But you should at least think about it.”


He looked at me for a moment longer in silence, then walked back into the hospital.

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