Monthly Archives: November 2015

Building Bridges 12.19

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I shoved the rakshasa off the knife and then cleaned and sheathed it. The rakshasa looked like he was thinking about doing something stupid, but he thought better of it after a few seconds. It probably helped that nobody looked that interested in helping him out.


We stood there for a few minutes, waiting for Lucius to get back to us. The silence was a bit awkward—or would have been, anyway, if there had been silence. As it was the music had switched to another track, one that was even louder and faster than the last. It was just as well that I didn’t have much to say, because even if I were screaming, I wasn’t sure anyone would be able to understand what I was saying.


After around five minutes, another girl walked up. She was small, and she looked pretty awful. She was visibly underweight, and her pale complexion was almost ashen. Her lips were gashed, like they’d been bitten repeatedly, and the numerous piercings in her face likely weren’t helping. She smelled foul, sick, and she stank of chemicals, of which alcohol was the most innocuous.


But for all that, she seemed confident and assured as she made her way over to us. She was swaying in time to the music, slipping through the crowd so smoothly they probably never even realized that she was moving towards a destination rather than just dancing. She had violet armbands around either arm, confirming my guess that that was used to mark house employees here.


“You’re the ones who are here for a meeting with the boss?” she asked. I didn’t feel like trying to scream loud enough to be heard over the music, so I just nodded, and she gestured for us to follow.


We weren’t half as smooth as she was getting across the dancefloor. Well, I wasn’t, anyway. Aiko was almost as good as our guide, which probably wasn’t a huge surprise. I managed to keep up with them, pretty much by brute force. The nice thing about a party where more than half of the people present were food animals was that I didn’t have to worry too much about starting a fight by pushing the wrong person out of the way.


“You aren’t much like the usual people we get here,” she said, detouring around a young man who’d passed out in the middle of the dancefloor. He was pale from blood loss, and he smelled like the pill Aiko had given me. As we walked past, one of the security guards came to drag him off to the darkened corner of the room.


“No,” I shouted back, watching the scene distastefully. “I don’t imagine we are.”


“Maybe you can help me, then. Will you let me out?” I wasn’t sure how her voice carried so well through the music; it didn’t sound like she was screaming, but I had no trouble understanding her. Practice, I supposed.


“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.


“It doesn’t have to be. Please, I didn’t know. I want to go home. Won’t you take me out of here?”


“I can’t.”


“You can,” she said, clutching at me. She was standing between a strobe and a black light, leaving her face alternately crimson and violet. The mirrored wall just beside her threw the light back on her from another direction, further confusing it, and the reflected beams of lasers played over her skin strangely. “Please. Just say you’ll help me. I’m begging you.”


“I think I’m insulted,” I said, carefully pulling her hands off without making skin contact. “Did you really expect me to fall for this? Seriously?”


“What do you mean?”


I sighed. “Come on. You might as well drop the act. You’re apparently one of Lucius’s higher-ranking minions, if he sent you to fetch me. You work for the house here. You seriously think I’m going to believe that you’re still this pathetic? Because I’m pretty sure that if you were as innocent as you want to seem, you’d have been eaten up a long time ago.”


“Maybe so,” she said. “You’d be surprised how many people don’t take the time to think it through, though.”


“You really thought the hard sell would get me to agree to something without knowing what it was?”


“No, but I had to try,” she said, grinning. Grinning too wide. Her bloody, tattered lips were stretched across her face, showing sharp teeth that were stained crimson by more than just the lighting. The expression accentuated the gaunt lines of her face, her narrow features and sunken eyes. I hadn’t quite grasped just how thin she was. Or possibly she had a way of masking it when she wanted to seem human. Now that she wasn’t, she looked almost skeletal.


Suddenly I could smell her. Not just the faint scent of sickness that I’d caught earlier, but a stench of decay and corruption, like a cold wind blowing across an open grave. The smell was cold and isolated, and carried a powerful feeling of hunger. There was magic in that scent, a magic of guilt and need.


It was the olfactory equivalent of seeing myself through a glass darkly. That scent had a lot of the same elements as my own—the cold, the hunger. But there was an ugliness to it as well, the corruption and decay, something much darker lurking under the surface.


Under other circumstances, I would have been hard pressed to identify it. But here and now, it was a bit simpler. This party attracted a very specific sort of clientele. It was a place for things that preyed on humans, in every sense. That narrowed things down a lot.


The stench of death and decay was pretty standard; that was how my brain interpreted the energy associated with a lot of nasty things. The cold was more unusual, but hardly unique. The yuki-onna was evidence enough of that. But the feeling of hunger and isolation, and especially of guilt, narrowed it down some. Her physical appearance, now that she wasn’t hiding it and I was paying attention, left me with only one real guess for what she might be.


I wasn’t sure, not completely. Not enough to call her on it. But I was confident enough to be very, very glad that I hadn’t agreed to help her get out. If I was right about what she was, I had some ideas what form that help might have taken, and it wouldn’t have ended well. I was guessing that by the time I’d died there would have been a whole lot of bodies on the ground, and people would have told stories about the whole thing for years afterward. There are some things that just shouldn’t go together.


She opened a concealed door in the mirrored wall and waved us inside. I went first, catching another glimpse of her grin in the mirror. Even by my standards it was a ghastly expression. I’d already noticed that her teeth were too large and sharp, and I’d seen that those teeth were red. But she wasn’t a vampire; she took more than just blood when she fed. If I’d had any doubt of that, it vanished when I saw a bit of flesh between her teeth, a scrap of stringy muscle.


As though she’d noticed me noticing, a long wet tongue flicked out. It looked almost prehensile as it wiped that bit of raw meat away. She slurped it down and grinned at me in the mirror.


I repressed a shudder and kept walking.


The hallway behind the mirror was narrow, and it was spooky. It would have been spooky even without the context, I was pretty sure. It was too small, lit only by dim red rope lights that would have been barely enough for a human to keep from tripping over their own feet. I could still hear the music in the main room, loud enough that I could feel it vibrate in my chest.


The hallway didn’t run quite straight, and it split several times. Our guide kept us in the halls that stuck close to the room we’d just left. We went up a cramped set of stairs in which the risers were all slightly different heights, and then stopped outside of a massively heavy vault door. Our guide stepped past us and rapped a complex pattern on the door before unlocking it with a key from around her neck.


The room on the other side was…well, it was one of the stranger offices I’d seen. It was large, and luxuriously furnished—a couple small couches and some chairs, all upholstered in leather, and a couple of hardwood tables. It was very dim, though, considerably darker than the room with the party. I knew that, because the wall across from the door was one huge window, looking out over the dance floor. From the other side it had been a mirror; I hadn’t been able to see any hint of this room from in there.


Lucius was looking out over the party, sitting in an expensive-looking leather chair. He was wearing a purple suit this time, with pinstripes that fluoresced under the ultraviolet lights.


“Your guests are here,” our guide said as she stepped in. She nodded, not quite bowing.


“Thank you,” Lucius said. “You may go.”


She straightened and left, closing the heavy door behind herself. The sound of the music cut off abruptly as she did, leaving the room silent. It was soundproofed. It was very well soundproofed, to keep out that music.


“She kinda creeps me out,” I said, watching her leave.


“Annabel has that effect on many people,” Lucius said. “But she’s very good at what she does.”


“She’s a wendigo?” I asked. More for confirmation than anything. I was feeling pretty confident in my identification by this point.


“Indeed. You’re quite good at that, you know.”


I sighed. “This place just gets better and better. Was this really necessary? The secrecy, the mind games…it just feels like a waste.”


“We could hardly have a civil conversation out there,” he pointed out. “I’m familiar with lycanthropic hearing. I’d be surprised if you could understand a word I said over the music. And while I appreciate that you find Annabel’s nature discomfiting, she’s the one I typically send to escort guests up to my office. It isn’t as though I singled you out.”


“I get that,” I said. “And honestly, that’s not the part that bothers me. No, I’m annoyed by the guy that you sent to cause trouble. Thinking that moron was even a consideration for us is just…insulting.”


Lucius paused. “What are you talking about?”


“Some rakshasa tried to hassle me at the bar on the way in,” Aiko said. “It was pretty much a nonissue.”


The vampire’s expression tightened slightly. It was a tiny change, but considering who it was, that was still pretty damned significant. Vampires didn’t really react to much. They didn’t have much in the way of automatic responses, which meant that any such response they did have was much more important than it would be on a human. When it came to someone like Lucius, any tell was something to take seriously.


“I see,” he said. “That wasn’t my doing. I wouldn’t have insulted you in that way. A moment, please.” He pulled a phone out of his pocket, tapped a few buttons, and then sat and waited.


Vampires didn’t wait like people. They didn’t fidget. They didn’t even blink, or breathe. It was more like they turned themselves off entirely.


I was impressed by the speed of the response. It was probably less than a minute later that the door opened again, and a pair of guards dragged the rakshasa inside. He wasn’t struggling. No surprise there; he could probably have taken out two humans without any trouble, but these guys were Lucius’s personal employees. You’d have to be a special kind of stupid to attack them here.


“These two say that you accosted them as they were trying to reach me,” Lucius said. “Is that true?”


The rakshasa shifted uncomfortably. “Don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.


“You’re lying,” Lucius said instantly. “And badly.”


“All right,” the rakshasa said. “I may have stopped them. And said some things. But it was all in fun. Nobody got hurt.”


Which was pretty much true. From the smell he’d already healed the knife wound I’d given him.


“You accosted one of my guests,” Lucius said, not sounding terribly impressed with this excuse. “We have rules here. That invited guests are not to be bothered is one of them.”


The rakshasa licked his lips, then started to run.


I never saw Lucius move. Not even a little bit. He was just standing on the other side of the room, seemingly without having crossed the space in between.


The rakshasa ran into him at full tilt, and bounced off. It was like he’d run into a wall. The vampire didn’t even rock back on his heels.


“I take it that you’re aware of the consequence of breaking that rule, then,” Lucius said. The rakshasa fell backward and scrabbled away.


In another of those blindingly fast movements, Lucius snatched him up off the floor and shook him. I could hear bones shatter from where I was standing, one after another.


I smelled magic in the air, something very dark and very empty and very, very old. And then the rakshasa crumbled into dust.


I gulped. I’d seen a lot of rakshasas die. I’d killed more than my fair share myself. And admittedly this one had been low on the totem pole. The strongest of their kind were basically demigods, but this guy hadn’t even been comparable to me. But still, seeing him get killed that easily was more than a bit intimidating.


Which had been Lucius’s intent, of course. He said that he hadn’t actually sent that rakshasa to cause trouble, and I believed him. I didn’t have all that much of a grasp on Lucius’s personality, but from what I’d seen he wasn’t the type to lie. Why would he? In a weird way, it was the same as those painfully tasteless suits. Lucius liked to announce that he was so powerful that he didn’t have to care what people thought of him.


So when he said that he hadn’t sent that rakshasa, I believed him. But he’d dealt with it like this for a reason. You didn’t get to be that old and powerful by doing things without a reason. It was yet another statement of power. He wanted to remind me that any fight between us could only end one way.


“I’m sorry for the inconvenience,” Lucius said, brushing a bit of dust off his suit. “Now that we have that bit of unpleasantness out of the way, let’s get down to that chat I mentioned.”


“Yeah,” I said, eyeing what was left of the rakshasa. “Let’s. What did you want to talk about, anyway?”


“You, essentially,” he said, grinning. His teeth were very white, and very even. They didn’t look like fangs at all. “Please, have a seat.”


Aiko and I sat on one of the couches, a little gingerly. I wasn’t comfortable sitting down around Lucius. Not that it would matter if he decided to kill us; that was abundantly clear by this point. The two humans left, closing the heavy door behind themselves. Once again, the music cut off as the door slammed shut, leaving the room in utter silence.


Lucius sat in his chair again, spinning around to face us. This left him framed by the party, the mad, darkly hedonistic revelry going on just on the other side of the glass. Seen like this, it was hard to remember that those were real people. The mirrors and the lights made the scene seem unreal. I could see people dancing and shaking in time to the music, but in here it was dead silent.


“I confess I don’t fully understand you, Wolf,” Lucius said. “What do you want? What drove you to seek me out?”


“We’ve already been through this,” I said. “I don’t want to have to defend my territory against hordes of vampires and rakshasas all the time. Plus I’ve had more than enough legal problems related to killing people that earned it. If I have to kill some of your people because they’re too dumb to know when to quit, I’d rather it not turn into another of those situations.”


“Those are proximate causes,” he said dismissively. “I’m looking for something deeper. I’ve seen a great many people take power in my life, Wolf, for a great many reasons. And I’m curious what reasons drove you. By all accounts, you were fairly unambitious for most of your life. I want to know what changed that.”


“I didn’t have a choice,” I said.


He snorted. “Bullshit.”


“No, for real. I’ve got Loki breathing down my neck. That’s the kind of thing that doesn’t leave a lot of room for disagreement. The only choice I had at that point was to grow or die.”


“To an extent that’s true,” Lucius said. “But only to a point. I’ve looked into you a bit since our last meeting, Wolf. Loki didn’t force you to take over a city. He might have encouraged, he might have been glad to see it, but the choice was yours. So why?”


I frowned. “It’s hard to explain. At the time I needed the fighting over the city to stop, and exerting my own claim was the only way to get the other sides to reach a compromise. Afterwards, I couldn’t get rid of the job. Things have just…sort of spiraled from there.”


“You see it as a means to an end, then,” he said.


“Yeah. Yeah, that’s a fair statement, I think.”


“That’s good. Too many people think power is its own reward. That’s not a healthy attitude for a ruler to have, in my experience.”


I noticed that he didn’t say whether he shared it.


Lucius nodded. “I would like to make you an offer, Wolf.”


“You said this conversation was payment for what we agreed upon,” I said sharply. “Not that we would agree on payment here.”


“Yes, and I’ve already done what I said. It should work out just fine, by the way. It’ll be a few more days before we know for sure, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest that there will be problems.” He smiled. “You did, however, agree to this conversation. Including listening to additional offers I might make.”


I sighed. “Fine.”


“Very good,” he said. “So here’s what I propose. I happen to have a certain problem, a person trying to challenge my hold over the city of Alexandria. Due to the specifics of this person it’s difficult, both politically and practically, for me to deal with him myself. I think it would be quite simple for you to do so, however, and I would be very willing to express my gratitude for such a service.”


“See, here’s the problem,” I said. “You aren’t the only one who’s been doing research recently. And it turns out there aren’t actually that many African emperors named Lucius who would have been in a position to see the Colosseum in its glory days.”


“Aren’t there?” he asked mildly.


“No,” I said. “Not many at all, in fact. Add in the fact that you’re savvy enough to still be around, and there’s really only one I could find that makes any sense. And this offer is starting to sound an awful lot like how you got to be the emperor of Rome in the first place. Which, as I recall, really only ended well for you.”


He smiled. “Most people assume it’s just a false name,” he commented.


“Is it?”


“No. But you may be ascribing too much importance to events that happened thousands of years ago. Have I actually given you any reason to think that my offers are untrustworthy?”


“You mean aside from that?” I asked, gesturing at the view through the window.


Including that,” he said. “Really, Wolf. I would have hoped that you would be more open-minded. I’m not betraying anyone with these parties. I’m not even hurting anyone. These people chose to be here. They want this.”


“Just because you want something doesn’t make it a good idea,” Aiko said. She was watching the party through the window. Her expression was calm and blank, which was never a good sign.


“That’s a rather amusing thing for you, of all people, to say,” Lucius commented.


She shrugged. “Hey, I’m fine with bad ideas. Don’t think that’s ever been in question. I’m just saying, the fact that you’re giving people what they want doesn’t excuse what you do to them.”


“You don’t seem to understand,” he said. “I don’t do anything to them. Those who come here make their own choices. I simply don’t feel a need to restrict their choices because some long-dead puritan said that pleasure is evil. For these people, sweet dreams are made of this. Who am I to disagree?”


“Cute,” I said. “But by that logic, you have just as little right to disagree when I say that I want nothing to do with what you do here.”


“Quite so,” he agreed. “I believe you know where the exit is. I would have Annabel escort you, but from how you reacted to her I suspect that you would rather I not.”


I paused. “Wait. Just like that? I can just…leave?”


“Of course,” he said. “I have plenty of people who are happy to work for me,” he said, gesturing at the crowd. “Why would I turn to someone who would rather oppose me? No, Wolf, I’m not going to strong-arm you into making a deal with me. You two are free to go. I will send you the details on that problem I mentioned, in case you change your mind, but if you’d rather not deal with it, I won’t force you to.”


I hesitated, wary, but Aiko was already leaving. I joined her, walking just a touch faster than we usually might have.


Lucius sat and smiled as we left.

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Building Bridges 12.18

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The security guards were expecting us, apparently. They waved us in without question, without even searching us. I was almost disappointed.


The actual party was downstairs, underground. I could feel the wards parting around us as we went down into the belly of the beast, one after another. There were some impressively strong ones, easily as strong as anything on my house. I wouldn’t have liked to be the one assaulting this place with the defenses up. But at the moment they weren’t active, and we passed through without any trouble.


I could hear the music, as we started getting closer. It was dance music, fast-paced electronica with lots of synthesizers and a pounding bassline. It was loud, too; as we started getting closer to the party it got to be almost painfully loud, and I started wishing I’d brought earplugs.


The stairs ended at a heavy steel door with another pair of security thugs watching it. This pair looked a little more serious than those aboveground, openly carrying assault rifles and wearing body armor. One of them looked at us in a way that suggested he’d be glad for the excuse to do something and break up the monotony of his day, but they didn’t actually stop us. One of them opened the door and waved us inside, and we walked into the party like we owned the place.


We’d showed up exactly on time, but the party was already in full swing when we walked in. Not a surprise, exactly, but I hadn’t wanted to come to early. That was something that could easily be seen as rude.


The room was dim. That wasn’t a surprise; this wasn’t the sort of place that was brightly lit. I’d expected that. What I hadn’t expected was how it was dim. I was used to the people I dealt with being somewhat old-fashioned, and I’d sort of assumed that Lucius would be similar, since in my experience you didn’t get to be that powerful without being at least mildly ancient. Thus, I’d somewhat naively been expecting lanterns and candles, or magical light.


What I got instead was strobes and black lights. The result was a room that was barely bright enough for me to see, but the light was inconsistent. It was a good thing I didn’t have epilepsy, because the intense colors and flashing lights were already giving me a headache. The walls were mirrored, creating an illusion of space and making the lighting even crazier than it would have been otherwise. It didn’t help that they were set to a rhythm totally distinct to that of the music, and trying to reconcile the two was a constant irritation.


The second thing that caught me by surprise was how many humans there were. Almost half the people in the room seemed to be normal humans, dressed for a night of clubbing. Most of them seemed to be in their teens or early twenties, and they looked like locals, although a handful were Asian or European in appearance.


A lot of them were probably something else. I was guessing some of them were vampires, or one of the many, many other things that could look a human being. Some of them were probably mages. But most of them looked and smelled human, and I wasn’t all that easy to fool about that.


It wasn’t hard to figure out why a vampire would have so many humans at his party—especially not humans like this. They were young, attractive in one way or another, mostly dressed in either very little or a whole lot of the kind of clothing that looked more naked than nothing at all. More than anything, they looked vulnerable.


They were food. And a lot of them knew it, too. Not all—some looked blissfully ignorant of their role here. But at least half clearly weren’t so innocent. Roughly half of that group looked scared, while the other half looked like kids waiting while the adults finished their dinner so that they could have dessert.


The unsettling thing about it, though, was how normal it all looked. At a glance, you could have mistaken this for any slightly edgy but basically harmless party. It wasn’t until you looked closer that the wrongness became apparent. The figures moving through the crowd with the smooth grace of predators, eyeing people with a hunger more literal than what most people were accustomed to seeing in such a setting. The way that a sizable proportion of the humans here were tagged in one way or another, marked as property—wearing collars, or colored armbands, or in one case actually branded with a set of initials. The people lying in the shadows at the edge of the room, unconscious or dead. The way that the guards were letting people in, but nobody was really leaving.


I could easily picture some poor sap wandering in here, and not realizing until too late just what this place was. There was one born every minute, after all.


“Oh,” Aiko said, pausing just inside the door. “Fun. It’s been a while since I went to this sort of party.”


“I never have,” I said, looking around suspiciously. I had to shout to be heard over the music, and the lightshow was already getting a bit disorienting. I could smell smoke and various chemicals, and I was willing to bet that only a fraction were anything like legal.


“Of course you haven’t,” Aiko said, patting my arm. “It’s adorable how innocent you are. Hang on, I’m going to get us something.”


She skipped over to one of the humans who looked more at home here, and who was surrounded by a small crowd. A minute or so later, she came back with a pair of blank white pills and a paper cup of water, and handed one of the pills to me.


“What is this?” I asked, looking at it curiously.


“Special K,” she said happily.


I eyed her. “Aiko….”


“That dosage of ketamine won’t do a thing to someone with your metabolism,” she said, much more quietly and in a deadly serious tone. “But it will make you look like you belong here. As it is some of the wrong people are starting to pay attention to us, and believe me when I say that you do not want to attract that kind of attention.”


“You’re sure it’s harmless?” I asked, similarly quietly.


“Under the circumstances, yes,” she said. “It takes a ridiculous amount of that stuff to get a werewolf dopey. Just don’t take any other pills. Some of the things here like their meals seriously fucked up, and you don’t know how to tell the difference between the safe stuff and things even you don’t want to touch.”


“Your skills never cease to amaze,” I muttered, swallowing the pill. I didn’t bother with the water.


“I do my best,” she said, swallowing her own.


“So what about you? Do I have to worry about you passing out?”


“Kitsune aren’t susceptible to ketamine,” she said. “That’s why I picked it. Now laugh and grab my hand. Try to look nervous. We’re playing you up as the nervous newbie going to his first party with an experienced friend.”


I did what she told me, though the laughter was a bit forced. That was probably not a bad thing, really. “Are you sure this is necessary?” I asked, under my breath. “Lucius guaranteed our safety, remember?”


“That was before I knew what kind of party this was,” she said, tugging me forward. “Standards are different here. You can get away with a lot before it starts falling under definitions of harm. Speaking of, though, we should go and find him. Come on.”


I followed along somewhat bemusedly as she pulled me through the crowd. We passed several vampires, a yuki-onna in her shroud of icy fog, two unnaturally perfect figures that smelled the same as the succubus who’d been with Lucius last time, and a rakshasa. None of them said or did anything to us, although a couple looked at us in disturbingly appraising ways as we passed.


On the way through, I heard some of the most bizarre and disturbing snatches of overheard conversation I’d ever encountered—a pretty impressive claim, really, all things considered. A few of the marked humans were discussing the relative technique of several different vampires in strangely matter-of-fact tones. One of them mentioned having never experienced a yuki-onna’s touch, and another raved about the peaceful feeling she’d had with one before when she was on the verge of losing consciousness from hypothermia.


The strange thing about it, though, was that I really wasn’t sure how much of their attitude was genuine. I was sure that they were encouraged to present themselves that way, but I got the impression that their enthusiasm wasn’t entirely a lie. And if not, how much of it was because the creatures here had trained them to feel that way, and how much was that they’d deliberately preyed on those who were already susceptible?


Either way, there was something profoundly disturbing about people who were being eaten alive piece by piece, and knew it, and willingly came back for more.


The bar was on the other side of the room, lit with a particularly intense blue-violet strobe. The bartender was a tall, bald human man with a prominently displayed violet cloth around his arm. I’d seen several other humans with that particular marker, now that I thought about it, and they hadn’t been being hassled by anyone. No wonder, if that indicated a house employee. They might just be humans in a crowd of far more dangerous things, but they were humans with Lucius’s favor. That was the kind of thing that you didn’t ignore lightly.


“I’m looking for the boss,” Aiko said, elbowing her way through the crowd around the bar and pulling me along in her wake. “He’s expecting us.”


“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” the bartender said, mixing another drink. It fumed, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to know why.


“Talking about Lucius,” Aiko said impatiently.


The effect of that name was pretty dramatic. The bartender practically dropped the drink he was mixing, and the vampire that had been about six seconds from getting my fist in his face found something else to be interested in.


“You aren’t one of the rabble, are you?” the bartender asked.


“Bingo,” Aiko said. “Now come on, time is money. Who do I need to talk to make things happen?”


“That would be me,” a rakshasa said, stepping up next to her. “I thought I recognized you, but I wasn’t sure. You hang around with the man that killed my brother. If I can’t get my revenge on him for that, you’ll do.”


He started to reach for her. I didn’t wait to see what he was going to do before I stepped up behind him. I grabbed his hair with one hand and shoved a knife into his back with the other—not enough to kill, or even really wound, just enough to make him really aware of my presence.


“I’m almost insulted,” I said. “I get that I look different when I’m not wearing the armor, but you could at least have noticed that she wasn’t alone.”


“Neither am I,” he said, sounding surprisingly happy for someone with a knife in his back.


“Yeah,” I said. “I know. If your friends decide to start something, I can finish it. Now listen, because I’m only going to say this once. The tip of this knife is about a quarter of an inch from your spine. It didn’t have to stop there. It doesn’t have to stop there. The only reason I haven’t already killed you is out of respect for our host. Speaking of, where should I go to chat with him?”


The bartender looked at me, then shrugged. “I’ll let him know you’re here,” he said.

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Building Bridges 12.17

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“Okay,” I said to Aiko, as the rest of the crowd dispersed. Crimson was walking back to the Guard headquarters, where she would have a lot of stories to make up. Jack was driving the thing from the Badlands back to the house, since he was one of the few people who could reliably survive if she turned violent. The rest of my minions were going back to whatever they’d been doing before I called them. “So what was that about?”


“What?” she asked innocently.


I sighed. “Come on, Aiko. Why did you feel the need to offer her a place to stay?”


“I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just…look at her. She obviously doesn’t fit in anywhere. It’s like looking at a puppy out in the rain.”


“Since when do you give two shits about puppies locked out in the rain?”


“You oughta know,” she said, elbowing me in the ribs hard enough for me to feel it. “Puppy. So are you going to let her stay?”


I sighed. “Until she causes problems,” I said. “I get the impression that’s more of a when than an if. But I’ll give her a chance if you want.”


“You’re adorable,” she said. “Also, this is seriously messing with my head. How often do I convince you to do the nice thing?”


“Trust me, my mind is equally blown,” I said dryly. “Although knowing you that’s probably the whole reason you did it.”


“Nah,” she said. “I mean, I would, but in this case I actually did feel sorry for her. So how’d your evening go?”


“Couple of the mages who attacked the house set a trap for me,” I said. “I blew it on an easy fight and had to get rescued by a girl that dresses in a silly costume and calls herself Crimson. Then I chased down a monster that used to be human and comes from somewhere called the Badlands that I’ve never heard of, and now I feel terrible because I was going to kill her for something she might do before you stopped me.”


“That’s rough, Shrike,” she said sympathetically.


I growled. “I’m already sick of that name,” I said. “I’m sick of this game, the false identity, the whole thing. This isn’t me, you know?”


“I know.”


I sighed, walking towards the Lamborghini. “Anyway. How was your night?”


“Not half as exciting as yours,” she said. “I’m jealous. There was a guy who was behind on his payments to you, so I went and burned his place down. Other than that nothing much happened.”


“Aiko. You know I’m not actually running a protection racket. I don’t burn people’s shops down when they don’t pay me.”


“Of course not,” she said lightly. “Fire isn’t really your thing. You’ve got minions for that part.” After a few moments, she added, “This guy earned it. I’ve heard some stories; trust me, you don’t need to feel guilty. Sorry you missed it, maybe.”


“If you say so,” I said. “Still, I should go look into it. See if there’s anything I need to do as a follow up measure to make sure this doesn’t get blown out of proportion. I need to talk to Selene anyway, make sure those new wards are finished and operational.”


“No,” she said, not reaching for the ignition. “You need to come home with me and get some sleep.”


“Why?” I asked.


“Because it’s already one in the morning,” she said. “Meaning we have to leave for Lucius’s party in around six hours.”


I blinked. “Seriously? It’s already that soon?”




“Okay,” I said. “But that means I need to take care of this even more. It needs dealt with, and I might not be able to get to it for a while otherwise.”


“Winter,” she said, in a tone somewhere between the one you use with a person standing on the edge of a bridge and the tone Aiko would use with such a person. “Just because you don’t need sleep anymore doesn’t mean you don’t need rest. You’re trying to do too much. You’d completely forgotten about this party, hadn’t you?”


“Not completely,” I said defensively. “I’d just…sort of forgotten when it was.”


“See? You go there with your head in that state, they’ll eat you alive. Maybe literally.”


“All right,” I said. “You might be right. Let’s go home, then. Take a few hours to get ready before we leave.”


I’d been to quite a few dangerous parties by that point in my life. This one was different than the rest, for a handful of reasons.


The first was that it was in my world, rather than an Otherside domain. That, in itself, was a pretty huge difference. For all that I’d spent a lot of time in the Otherside by now, I was still a stranger there. I was a visitor, not a native. It made everything that happened there feel a little removed, a little bit less than wholly real. Going to a party in Alexandria, there was none of that comforting distance. It didn’t feel like a dream, or a visit to another world.


The second distinction was that this party wasn’t being thrown by the Sidhe Courts. That was terrifying. Oh, the Sidhe were dangerous, and only a complete moron could fail to recognize the threat posed by going to one of their parties. But with them I knew the rules. I had an idea of what I could and couldn’t safely do, and I knew how to navigate the environment. It wasn’t much of a safety net, but it was better than nothing.


Here, I didn’t even have that. I didn’t know the rules here. I didn’t know what mistakes were just unfortunate, and what mistakes would get me horribly killed. Hell, I didn’t even know who was going to be at this party. All I’d gotten was an address and a time to show up. I had no idea what the scale of the party was going to be, whether it was just a few other people or there would be enough attendees to fill a stadium.


That made it hard for me to plan ahead. It’s hard to know tools to bring when you don’t know what situations you might need to deal with. I wasn’t even really sure what weapons were best against vampires. I’d mostly tried to just limit my interaction with them in general, and while I had an idea of what tactics were and weren’t effective, I was far from an expert on the topic.


And that wasn’t even considering the other things that might be here. I wasn’t too concerned about succubi—their only real tactic under the circumstances was seduction, from what I’d heard of them, and I was pretty thoroughly vaccinated against the honey trap. Similarly, once I’d refreshed myself on yuki-onna I wasn’t too worried about them. When you’re a heat vampire, and your main tactic was freezing people to death, I was just about the last guy you wanted to attack.


But I had no way of guessing who else might be at this. There were enough factions that were politically aligned with the Vampires’ Council that it was essentially impossible to guess what I might see, and that wasn’t even counting other things that Lucius might have invited. I hadn’t been able to get much, if any, reliable information on him. Apparently the guy was obsessed with security. I’d hired Jacques to put together a dossier on him, and I was confident I’d get something, but it was going to take more than a couple of days.


So in the end, after much agonizing, I went with a very generic loadout. I had some knives, an assortment of stored spells, and some generally useful things—powdered silver and iron, chalk, permanent marker, lengths of string and chain, and such. I had a flask of holy water and a handful of holy symbols that I’d arranged to have blessed by various priests. I also had my amulet around my neck, the wolf’s head gleaming on my chest. I’d never had a whole lot in the way of faith, but if I had to pick a symbol for what I did have, that was the best I could do.


Aiko was a lot less dependent on toys than I was, and I was more than slightly jealous of how little equipment she was bringing. She did have her own flask, though, and she had a gold pendant in the form of a apple prominently displayed.


I felt a momentary gratitude that neither of us was particularly religious, at least not in any way that most people would recognize. A crucifix, or a Star of David, was easy to recognize as a symbol of faith, and faith was a legitimate weapon against vampires, for reasons I’d never fully understood. But a wolf’s head and a golden apple? Not so common.


Neither of us had ever been to Alexandria, which made going straight there with a portal sadly impossible. But I knew a guy who could open a portal to Cairo for us, and after that it was fairly easy to drive. The man we bought the car off of didn’t speak English, but Aiko managed to work out enough pieces of various languages in common to make the deal.


“We definitely overpaid him,” she said, as we were driving through Alexandria looking for the address. “This thing doesn’t handle worth shit. And the stereo? Useless.”


“You only paid him a couple hundred bucks,” I pointed out.


“And stole half of it back while he was trying to cop a feel,” she agreed. “And it still isn’t worth it. Can we set it on fire after we’re done with it?”


“Let’s wait on that one,” I said. “I’m thinking we might need a getaway car if this party goes wrong. Or failing that, a pick-me-up afterwards.”


“Cool,” she said. “Just so long as you don’t forget. So how wrong do you think this is going to go?”


“It might not go wrong,” I said defensively.


She eyed me. “Winter. You remember what I said before we went to that meeting with the Pack?”


“I remember.”


“I think it was something about how I was looking forward to seeing you turn a diplomatic meeting into a total disaster?”


“I said I remember.”


She grinned. “Was I wrong?”


“Well, it wasn’t a total disaster,” I said. “It turned out all right in the end. For me, anyway. Mostly.”


“Point stands,” she said. “When you’re around, it’s going to go wrong. We might as well be honest here. So how wrong?”


I looked at the building. It was dark and quiet, with some security guards outside showing people inside. The building looked ominous, and it reeked of vampire.


“If I had to guess? I’d say about as wrong as it can get.”


“Sounds like fun,” she said, getting out of the car. “Let’s do this.”

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Building Bridges 12.16

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The car I had handy was a rather bland SUV, rather than Aiko’s high-powered sports car. Which was probably a good thing, since I doubted Crimson could really handle the Lamborghini, but I still found myself wishing for it. We were in a hurry, and the difference in speed between the two was rather substantial.


She made decent time in the SUV, though, certainly much better than we could have managed on foot. The empty streets helped a lot. With almost no one out and about after dark, little things like “speed limits” and “traffic signals” weren’t so much rules as casual guidelines.


While she was doing that, I grabbed my phone. It was still intact despite the falls, bites, and fire, for which I was once again grateful for the magically reinforced, industrial-strength case I had on it.


Some people can send text messages faster than they can talk. I’m not one of them—it just isn’t something I do often enough, and it’s not like I learned it as a kid. They barely even had cell phones when I was a kid.


But I was in a rush, and Crimson had already heard and seen enough suspicious things from me that one more wasn’t the end of the world. So I dialed a number from memory and tried to pretend that this wasn’t a terrible idea.


Kyi answered on the first ring. “Jarl?” she said.


“Three suspects fleeing on foot from my location,” I said. “Two human, one something else. Take the humans down if you can, preferably without killing them. The other one is fast and tough; don’t engage with it, but try to keep aware of its location.”


“Got it,” she said instantly, hanging up a moment later.


And that, essentially, was what I liked about Kyi. She could be a bit of a hassle at times. She could be obnoxious and even a touch disrespectful, though she never went so far that I had to do something about it for the sake of my reputation. But when things were serious, she was all business.


I frowned, trying to think of who else was in the area, then called another number.


Selene, also, answered on the first ring. “Boss?”


“There’s a nonhuman entity in this area,” I said. “Moving west, fairly quickly. I want to know where it is and where it’s going, and I want the option to bring it down if necessary. Call Kris for surveillance, and see if Jibril has people in the area. Once you’ve contacted both of them, send a car this way with a group of thugs and Jack.”


“Jack’s sleeping.”


“For what I’m paying him,” I said irritably, “you can wake him. Clear?”


“Crystal, boss. I’ll send them your way.”


“Okay,” Crimson said, a couple seconds after I put the phone away again. “That wasn’t David.”


“Nope,” I said. “Something like this, I think we’re better off not bringing the others into it.”


“Why?” Her tone was a little harsh, maybe even accusatory.


Because David would want to take control of the situation, and the others are about as much use here as minnows fighting a shark, I thought.


That was very much the wrong thing to say right now, though. So instead, I just looked at her and said, “They’re impulsive, and she obviously isn’t that stable. Putting the two together doesn’t seem like a great idea.”


“I suppose,” she said reluctantly. “What about David, though?”


“I don’t know him well enough to trust him to do the right thing here,” I said. “Whatever we decide the right thing is.”


Crimson looked like she wanted to argue, but she didn’t. “So who were you calling?” she asked instead.


I shrugged. “Just some people I know,” I said. “Friends, guys that owe me favors, that kind of thing.”


“What kind of friends are we talking about?”


I sighed. “Crim,” I said, “there are questions you don’t want to ask. You don’t want to think too hard about this, understand? We’ll all be happier that way.”


“No,” she said. “No, I don’t understand. What the hell is going on? Who are you, why don’t you trust the other Guards, and why the hell do you have an army on speed dial?”


“There are two ways this can go,” I said. “The first is that you can take this at face value. I’m Jonathan Keyes, also known as Shrike. I’m a violent, antisocial guy with severe paranoia and multiple other psychological disorders who joined the Guards as a form of work release. Anything you hear or see which suggests otherwise is either a trick of your imagination or an elaborate deception on my part.”


“I don’t like that option much,” she said. “What’s the other one?”


“You keep asking inconvenient questions,” I said. “Sooner or later, one way or another, you’ll learn some things you really aren’t supposed to know. The Guards will be pissed at me, but they can’t really do a whole lot about it, so they’ll take it out on you. Between that and the fact that you’ll have taken a nosedive onto the ‘liability’ side of the fence, I’d bet dollars to donuts that something happens to take you out of the picture. Maybe you have an unfortunate accident, or something goes wrong in a fight, or you just disappear one day and we never find out what happened. Something.”


“You’re making it sound like there’s some conspiracy or something,” she said. Her fingers had tightened on the wheel, though she was still driving quite competently.


“No,” I said. “I’m spouting insane conspiracy theories, because I’m a paranoiac and I’m enough of a sociopath to get off on drawing other people into my psychosis. I’m nuts, remember?”


She laughed, though it sounded a little uneasy, and she hadn’t relaxed her grip on the wheel.


I caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of my eye, and stuck my head out the window to get a better look. Sure enough, there was a hawk perched on a building nearby. As soon as I saw, it took off and flew across the street, disappearing behind the garage to my left.


“We’ve almost caught up with her,” I said, pulling my head back into the car and rolling the window up. It was a cold night out there, and while I registered the cold breeze only as mildly refreshing, I knew Crimson would find it uncomfortable. “Turn left at the next intersection.”


“How do you know that?”


“Because I’m crazy, remember?” I said lightly. “Although I’m also right, so do take that turn.”


She snorted. “If I can keep all of this straight,” she said dryly, “I think I’ve got a future in politics. This is too much doublethink for any other line of work.”


I laughed, and she was grinning as she turned at the next intersection. But there was still a tension in her posture that she couldn’t quite cover up, and the silence after I stopped laughing was deep, and ugly.


This lie that the Guards wanted me to tell had a limited shelf life. I couldn’t realistically keep this mask up indefinitely; I wasn’t a good enough actor, and doing my job without the people I was working with realizing that there was something strange going on wasn’t possible. The Guards were smart enough to have realized all of that, too. Guard hadn’t fallen off the truck yesterday.


I was more than a little concerned by the implications of that.


Kris led us further west, and slightly north, towards the outskirts of town. It seemed clear that our quarry was trying to get out of the city. I doubted that she knew the layout of the city, but there were enough lights towards the center of town that she surely knew where the population was concentrated.


She was moving fast, but Kris was a bird, and we had a car. She wasn’t fast enough. Kris mostly stayed out of sight, high enough to track our target easily; she only dropped down occasionally when we needed a course correction.


The streets started to feel more and more familiar, as we got back into a part of the city that I knew very well indeed. I wasn’t surprised when I saw the Lamborghini parked at the side of the road. It figured that the chase would end here.


Crimson parked next to the Lamborghini and we got out. I could see figures in front of us, and hear voices, so I started walking that direction.


Crimson stumbled a little as she started to follow me, reminding me that she couldn’t see in the dark. It was after midnight, with a cloudy sky, and there were no streetlights around here; it was more than dark enough to cause problems for her. She was, after all, only human.


I offered her a hand to help her. She didn’t seem too thrilled, but she took it. She was too practical to turn down help just because she didn’t like me very much at the moment.


The people were gathered on the spot my house had stood on, once. It took me a second to recognize it. It had been a lot of years since my cabin burned to the ground, now. At first there had least been a scorch mark to show where it was, but that had faded long ago. If I hadn’t known better, I wouldn’t have guessed that a structure had ever stood there.


Crimson fell behind a bit as we walked up to them, letting me take the lead. There were around a dozen people there. Most of them were ghouls in their human masks, spread out in a loose semicircle. There were three people standing in the center. Closest to us—and furthest from the ghouls—was the creature we’d chased here. Aiko was standing across from her, fully armored; next to her, Jack looked surprisingly good in his tailored suit, considering that he’d been asleep not that long ago.


“Hi,” I said, walking up to them.


The creature Crimson had summoned spun to look at me. I was impressed at the speed of her movement. Even though I’d seen very well just how quickly she could move, it still seemed strange to watch. She looked like she should be slow.


“Leave me alone,” she said, in that strange, slightly stuttering voice.


“Can’t do that,” I said. “Not without knowing what you’ll do. You’re obviously dangerous, when you choose to be. I can’t just let you loose in the city without some assurance that you won’t turn into a menace.”


She frowned, with a creak of breaking stone. It was a fairly intimidating expression, all things considered. “I just want to be out,” she said. “Just want to not be there.”




“The Badlands,” she said, shuddering slightly.


I glanced at Aiko, who shook her head. It was a small enough gesture that I doubted anyone else had noticed it, but I knew what it meant. She didn’t have any idea what the Badlands might be, either. Not that that was so surprising. We’d both been around a while, but the Otherside was pretty incomprehensibly huge. For every domain that either of us knew, there were probably a dozen that we didn’t.


“And you can’t get out on your own?” I asked. It seemed like a natural conclusion, but I was still trying to get a grasp on how Crimson’s magic worked.


She shook her head. “Never out,” she said. “It wants me back. I can feel it pulling me back down now. I’ve gotten this far before, but eventually something happens and I’m back there. Can’t leave, can’t even die. I just wake up back in the Badlands.”


“I could probably kill you permanently, if you’d like,” I said. I started to call Tyrfing, then remembered that I wasn’t supposed to have it as Shrike and stopped. I got lucky; it didn’t decide to come anyway.


She shook her head again, more vehemently. “Don’t want to die,” she said. “Just saying. Can I stay here for a while?”


“How long is a while?” I asked suspiciously.


She shrugged. “A while.”


“She doesn’t have the best grasp on time,” Crimson said. “She understands the concept, but she doesn’t really get it. I don’t think she fully understands the idea of the future, or intervals of time.”


“How do you know that?”


“This is what I do,” Crimson said. “I’ve got enough of a connection to her to get some idea of what she is.”


“Okay,” I said. “Are there other concepts she doesn’t get?”


“Self-consciousness, for one. You know how you’d feel awkward having strangers talk about you like this right in front of you? She doesn’t have that reaction. There are others, but I don’t have enough of a grasp on them to put them into words yet.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered. I had a killing machine who was seemingly made of stone and lacked basic concepts in her mind that would make interacting with humans nearly impossible. How special.


I eyed her, considering how to take her down. I wouldn’t be using Tyrfing, for numerous reasons, but I was guessing that at least one of the knives I was carrying could make an impression on that skin. The ghouls could hold her down with sheer numbers, and Jack could probably ensure that nobody was injured. It was a basic plan, but I thought it should work.


About a second before I could give the order, Aiko suddenly said, “Sure, why not. You can stay at my place for however long you end up being here.”


I grimaced, but I didn’t want to openly contradict her. So instead I just said, “All right, then. Well, if you don’t cause problems for the people of the city, that should be fine.”


“I thought you wanted her dealt with,” Crimson hissed at me.


“This is dealt with,” I said, not bothering to keep my voice down. I was guessing it didn’t much matter; this creature gave the impression that it could hear a heartbeat, let alone a whisper. “The situation is resolved and she has a place to stay.”


“How am I supposed to explain this?”


“Don’t,” I suggested. “Tell them it was a totally routine patrol, and any doors you happen to have opened were closed shortly thereafter, the same as usual. In fact, if anyone other than David asks, we never ran into those two to begin with.”


“I don’t like this,” she said.


“I’m not exactly thrilled about it myself,” I replied, looking at the creature from the Badlands. “But we work with what we’ve got.”

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Interlude 9.c: Tyrfing

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Luck is a strange thing. Men speak of good luck and bad luck, but who is to say which is one, and which the other? One man’s pain is another’s pleasure, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, and often neither knows which he’s found until much later.


So when they say that Tyrfing is bad luck to everything it touches, who’s to say whether it’s the truth? Liberty for the wolves means death to the lambs. So if a wolf should die, that may be tragic to the wolves, but the lambs rejoice. But liberty for the lambs can often be the death of the grass. So is this good luck or bad? Who’s to say?


Some call the sword a force of destruction, and these folk are wiser than the first. But the line between destruction and protection, as well, is a narrow one, and more blurred than a casual onlooker might imagine. Protect a man, and live with the destruction he causes. Destroy a man, and protect those he might have harmed. It is not an easy thing to find the one without the other.


Consider, then, the proud and powerful king, betrayed by his servant and laid low by his own sword. This is a tragedy, it seems, but dig deeper. Is the king a good man? Is he wise, is he kind, is he noble, is he just? Does he deserve life? Those who his armies laid waste to might have a different answer than the king himself.


The man who slew him gives the sword to his eldest son, the first of twelve, and every one a savage berserker. The dozen of them raid and ravage their way across the land, and kings tremble in fear of them. Are these good men? They would say that they are great, and those they fight for would agree, and even those they fight against could be persuaded. But what of the wives and children of those they slay?


One of twelve lusts for a king’s daughter, and though she favors another, he will not be dissuaded, and challenges this hero and his companion. Twelve fight two, and of the lot only the companion of the man challenged walks away from that island. The king’s daughter chooses death rather than to live with the loss of the man she truly loved. Is this a sad story? Perhaps, but where lies the blame? Is it with the sword that killed the hero, or with the men too proud to listen to the truth when they hear it?


The father lays his sons in state upon the isle of his death, and leaves the sword in the barrow of the eldest. But his daughter will not be satisfied with things of peace and plenty, and makes of herself a raider and a killer. She hears of her father’s sword, and decides to claim it for herself. The captain of a ship dies and she takes his place, and none think to ask why such things would happen.


She goes to her father’s barrow, though forewarned by peers and kin, and asks of him the blade. He warns her away, but she will not listen, and in the end she goes away with the sword in hand. Is this the sword’s fault, then, that she rejects the wisdom of all those who would warn her away?


Is it the sword to blame when she takes it up and makes of herself a great killer of men? The sword is the reason such can happen, certainly. She would be a skilled fighter without it, but with the sword in her hand she is so much more, a great warrior that can lay berserkers low with a single blow. She comes to dominate the land, and many, many people die at her hands. But is the sword at fault for what she does with it? Perhaps not.


She has two sons, and one is kind and one is cruel, and it is not the sword that makes her love the cruel more. It is not the sword that makes the cruel to kill his brother; that darkness was born in his own heart. When that boy takes the sword and goes out on his own to go to war, he would say it is a very good thing that the sword slays all his foes for him, and his new king would agree with him. His foes, naturally, would not, but is that opinion worth more than the other?


When the cruel boy grows to be a cruel man, it is not the sword that makes him ask for his king’s daughter in marriage, nor is it the sword that makes the king agree. When he then turns on the king, and kills him, it is the sword that strikes the final blow. The king’s daughter then takes her own life, for how could she go on to live with the man who slew her father? Again, there is a tragic story to be seen, but who bears the burden of guilt? Is it the sword, that drew the blood? Is it the cruel man, who swung the sword? Is it the king, who clutched a viper to his breast? Or perhaps the right answer is that all of these must share the fault.


When the cruel king is visited by a wise man, and by and by this man reveals that he is none other than the All-Father himself, and the cruel king draws the sword against him all the same, is that to be blamed upon the sword? No, though the sword was used in the act. Lay fault at the feet of the wise, or of the foolish, for both played a part in bringing it to that point, but the blade itself was merely the tool.


When, for his foolish hubris, his own slaves take the blade and slay the king, the sword is just a sword. When the king’s son takes the blade and slays the slaves, the sword is just a sword. When he goes to war with his own brother for the birthright, and cuts him down amid a great battle that fed the crows for miles around, the sword is just a sword.


Men say that the sword Tyrfing is bad luck to everyone. This is a foolish thing to say for many reasons. The first is that they are hypocrites. No man or woman ever held Tyrfing except that they were a killer; they kill, but they expect the sword not to. Worse, for they expect the sword to kill their enemies, and leave them untouched. But why should the sword care for such a distinction? It is just a sword.


The second reason it is a foolish thing to say is that good luck and bad luck cannot be so easily distinguished. The world looks different depending on where you’re standing.


The third reason it is a foolish thing to say is that the sword does not judge nor decide the circumstance of its use. One man wields the sword to defend the innocent, another to crush them. Either way, the choice belongs to the wielder. The sword is just a sword.


The fourth reason it is a foolish thing to say is that the blade has a reason to be. Sometimes the cure may be a harsh one, but that does not make it less necessary. The sword was forged for war and built for blood, made to serve a terrible purpose; to expect it not to do terrible things in the pursuit of that purpose is a naive hope.


The fifth reason it is a foolish thing to say is that those who fall foul of the sword are seldom pure of heart. It attracts a certain sort of person to be its wielder, and that sort of person seldom find themselves in conflict with the innocent. There are exceptions, but for the most part those who taste the blade’s edge have done something to earn their fate.


The sixth reason it is a foolish thing to say is that the sword was designed to limit the damage it inflicted, not to exacerbate it. In order to achieve their goal, its makers had to tap into great and destructive forces, the power of raw, untamed possibility. What mortal men call a terribly destructive blade is the gentlest application of this power that they could manage, and should be judged as such.


The seventh reason it is a foolish thing to say is that death and entropy are natural processes. In accelerating that the sword is not doing anything that is not in line with the natural course of events.


The eighth reason it is a foolish thing to say is that the sword does not do force its wielder to do anything. When it drove the soul that held the hilt to wrath and violence, it was not so much forcing them to the fight as unlocking something already held within their heart. Men are eager to blame their demons for their own faults, but the devil almost never makes anyone do anything. That’s the whole point.


The ninth reason it is a foolish thing to say is a secret never to be told. The best is what none but one’s self does know.

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Building Bridges 12.15

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“Don’t you want to talk this one over,” I said, backing away a little. “I know the other guy said no, but he’s not here. You could stop for a chat, I could explain things….”


“Not interested,” the woman with the fire said. She flexed her fingers, and the fire flared up brighter and hotter.


“Not even a little bit,” the guy added, as another shadowy dog-thing began to weave itself into shape beside him. This time I felt him pulling matter in from the Otherside, infusing the shadows with enough reality to let them take on a physical form that could have some semblance of an independent existence.


“Okay,” I said. “Suit yourself.”


Then I lunged forward and slammed my knife home to the hilt in the nearest construct’s chest. I’d rather have gone for one of the mages, but they were out of easy reach, and likely to be protected against such a simple attack anyway.


But I stabbed the one construct, and then slashed through another’s neck, and in just a couple seconds both of them were collapsing into darkness, dust, and a trace of slime. At the same time I was gathering the cold around myself, and I slipped a thin piece of slate out of my pocket with my off hand. I was already twisting out of the way as the next blast of fire came in, the cold insulating me from any heat that might have managed to hurt me even if it hadn’t hit. I threw the knife as I dodged, in time with the movement, and while it wasn’t half so impressive as it looked in the movies, I at least managed to cut one of the constructs.


All of that happened in just a couple of seconds. I was rather pleased, all things considered. I might be outclassed, but I was still good at this game.


I drew a quick design on the slate, arming it, then threw it at the woman’s feet. It exploded in a burst of sound and noise not unlike a flashbang. She cried out and staggered away, and I was already turning back to the constructs, drawing another knife. One of them bit my left arm, leaving bruises even though its teeth couldn’t penetrate the layers of armor. I stabbed it in the eye and tried to shake it off, but its jaws were still clamped down tightly even as its body started collapsing in on itself. The weight slowed me down, threw me off, and another of the creatures managed to pull my left out from under me.


I hit the ground, fairly hard, and more of them started piling on. I tried to slash with the knife, but they were pinning me down, and one of them managed to knock the knife out of my hand. They still weren’t getting through the armor, but those things hit hard. They were leaving bruises as they bit and slapped at me, possibly even breaking bones, and the woman wasn’t going to be incapacitated much longer.


Then Crimson finally got her bearings and kicked into gear. She pulled a fused loop of rubber out of her pocket and threw it on the ground, stepping into the circle it formed as she gathered her magic. It was a surprisingly quick, fluid series of actions, considering how little time she’d had to practice it.


She threw her power against the world, and tore a hole in it a moment later. From my angle I didn’t get much of a glimpse at what came through, beyond that it was small and red. One of the constructs leapt up and bit it out of the air, and it squawked like a chicken made out of scrap metal as the dog-thing tore it to pieces.


I recognized the next thing she brought through, a barely-present wisp that was visible only as a slight distortion in the air, and smelled like rushing wind and freedom. It was an air spirit, a creature from the Otherside that had only a marginal physical presence. They were weak, but hard to detect and harder to stop; there were few barriers that an air spirit couldn’t get through with enough trying.


The constructs didn’t even have to get involved this time. The man who made them flicked his fingers, and a cord of shadow and force formed in the air to follow the motion, lashing through the air spirit. It dispersed, and by the time it was reforming it was already slipping sideways from the world. It wanted nothing to do with him, and Crimson wasn’t remotely powerful enough to keep an air spirit somewhere it didn’t want to be.


A moment later, the other mage stepped into view. She wasn’t fully recovered yet—she was leaning on one of the constructs to stay standing, and even so she was staggering quite a bit. But she was there, and the fire was burning all around her, sliding across her skin much like it had been the first time I’d seen her.


I grimaced, and got ready to call Tyrfing and just start swinging. I knew I wasn’t supposed to use the sword in this persona, but this situation was getting too real. If it came down to a choice between losing my position with the Guards or dying, it was a pretty easy choice for me to make.


Then Crimson said, “All right, you assholes, you asked for this.”


We all turned to look at her. I wasn’t entirely sure why; there was just something in her voice, a note of confidence that made me take notice.


And then I saw what happened when she opened a door that wasn’t so small.


It started the same way. The air in front of her seemed to warp, and twist, and then there was something else there.


This was just…a rather more impressive something than the last few.


It looked human, in its general shape. Two arms, two legs, and a head, even of more or less the right shape and size. It was about my height, and even thinner than me, which took some doing anymore.


That was about it, though. Once you got past the surface level, the most obvious features, it looked nothing like a human being. Its skin was grey and rough, something like an intermediate stage between skin and granite. One eye was sort of normal, though also rather greyed; the other was a pale, featureless sphere that looked something like bone or ivory. Its limbs were long, and they moved strangely, in a way which suggested something very odd beneath the surface. When it bent its legs, they creaked, in a way that sounded something like stone under strain, and something like the shocks of a car.


And yet for all of that, it was clearly not totally alien. It was dressed, wearing a heavy coat that had been worn to rags, and skins that looked like no animal I could name.


I’d seen some crazy things in my life. I was pretty much more comfortable in the presence of monsters than people. And if I’d seen this thing on the street, I’d have given some serious thought to turning and walking the other way.


The reaction of the mages was instant and violent. The woman blasted it with fire, easily as intense as the first hit she’d thrown at me, and the man directed three of his creations to leap at it.


None of it did a thing to the creature. The fire left some of the clothing smoldering, but that was about it. What good was setting fire to something that might very well be made of stone? Similarly, the constructs had no luck. They were strong, but they hadn’t been able to get through my armor, and I was getting the impression this creature was nothing but armor.


It looked slow and lumbering, with the stony skin and the odd limbs. That impression was dangerously mistaken. When it moved, it was faster than me, and it hit like a freaking truck. Its fist caved in the skull of the first construct in an instant, then it threw the next one against the wall of the alley so hard it splattered, then picked the third one up and shook it, like a dog shakes a rat. I could hear things break inside it, and when it dropped the construct, it was already dissolving into nothing.


As I struggled to get out from under the constructs on top of me, I found myself almost idly trying to figure out whether I could take the thing Crimson had called up. I thought so—I had the advantage of reach, and I was guessing that my armor and natural toughness could take a hit from it more easily than it could take a hit from Tyrfing. But it wasn’t a foregone conclusion, by any means; if I slipped up, that was a fight that could turn against me very, very quickly.


The woman threw more fire at it, stronger this time, but it didn’t do a whole lot more. The creature’s skin cracked and scorched a little, but it didn’t seem to feel any pain. It wasn’t slowing down, anyway.


The man muttered to himself, drawing more power together into something that felt a good bit more substantial than the dog-things. Before he could finish, though, the creature pulled something out from under its tattered clothing and threw it at his face.


It looked like a lizard, in about the same way as the other thing looked like a human. It was about as big as my head, with scales the brilliant, vivid colors of precious stones. It was clawing at his face, and it was drawing blood. More blood than claws that size should have been able to draw.


He screamed and pulled it off, and it pulled chunks of skin with it, leaving small bleeding holes in his face. He threw it at the wall, but it twisted in midair, hit the wall feet-first, and stuck. It raised a ruff of skin, something like that of a frilled lizard, and hissed. Its teeth were disproportionately long.


More of the constructs jumped at the humanoid creature, some even leaving me behind to go after it instead. They died, insomuch as death was a valid concept for something that had never lived.


The mages started to run. They were understandably reluctant to go past Crimson and her minion, but I was still down, and they managed to get by me. I tried to reach out and grab one of their ankles, but ended up just getting one of the constructs.


I pulled it down and broke it as the others ran away, mostly just to reassure myself that I could. I was feeling a little insecure after watching that performance.


The lizard leapt over to the humanoid creature, who stroked its neck delicately before tucking it back under its clothing. They started after the fleeing mages, with Crimson looking like she was thinking about following.


“No,” I said, standing. “Let them go. You don’t want to chase them.”


I could tell that Crimson wasn’t so sure, but she didn’t fight me. “All right,” she said. “Time for you guys to go back home.”


“No,” the humanoid creature said, startling me a little. It sounded so…normal. There was a hint of howling winds in it, but by and large it just sounded like a person. The voice was feminine, a bit high-pitched, but very human, overall. It sounded more normal than I did, a lot of the time. “I don’t want to go back there.” The lizard hissed what sounded a hell of a lot like agreement, poking its head out from under the cloth.


“You have to,” Crimson said. I could feel her starting to work her magic again, doing something that felt even stranger than when she brought things through. Before it hadn’t taken her more than a moment to dismiss the creatures she brought, but apparently the process was more involved with “larger” creatures.


“Hang on a second,” I said, walking closer. “Who are you? Or maybe I should ask, who were you?”


“I don’t know,” it—she?—said. Her voice had an odd catch, not quite a stutter, though that was the closest word I could think of. It was more like listening to a skipping audio playback; her voice would catch on a sound and repeat it a few times rapidly before moving on. “I forget.”


“But you are a person?” I pressed.


“Give it up,” Crimson said, sounding almost pitying. “It’s a monster.”


“So am I,” I reminded her. “Besides, I don’t think she’s quite as monstrous as you’re giving her credit for.” I sniffed, and got about what I’d expected. Her magic smelled like dust and stone, howling winds and bone, but under that there was just the tiniest trace of human disinfectant. “You were human once, weren’t you?”


She nodded, an odd gesture that didn’t seem quite human. Or at all, really. “I was. A long time ago.”


Crimson reeled like she’d been slapped. The creature—whatever the hell she was; I didn’t have a name for her, but human was definitely a past-tense sort of thing for her—took advantage of the momentary lapse in concentration to bolt. She scrambled up the side of the building at a pace that a human would have to work to match on level ground and bolted for the other side.


“Oh, shit,” Crimson said, staring after her. “It’s a person?”


“Was,” I corrected, though that wasn’t entirely correct. I was guessing she was still a person, at least under a loose enough definition of the word. “Come on, we’d better catch her.”


“Why?” she asked, not moving.


“I’m something of an expert on monsters that used to be people,” I said dryly. “I’m not saying that you have to send her back to wherever the hell she came from, but we probably ought to get more information than this before you decide not to.”


“Right,” she said, nodding. “You think we can catch her? She was moving pretty fast….”


“Yeah, I think we can manage something,” I said. “You can drive, right?”




“Good.” I pulled a set of keys out of my pocket and tossed them to her. She caught them out of the air. “Let’s get moving. Oh, and Crim?”




“Thanks for the save,” I said.


Even behind the mask, I could see her grinning at that. Regardless of what name she was using at the moment, Tawny was obviously desperate for praise.


I almost felt bad about exploiting that need for validation. But I was guessing it would distract her enough that she didn’t ask too many of the wrong questions, which made it worth it.

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Building Bridges 12.14

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I felt awkward standing around with the Guards. I imagined it was something like a veteran cop might feel at a Neighborhood Watch meeting. I really was that these people were only playing at being.


The ridiculous costumes were probably not helping things. David was wearing his wingsuit, and I had on the weird feathered thing that Gosnell had designed. The armor was almost as effective as my usual set for most purposes, at least. I’d tested it first thing, and while it wasn’t quite as good as my real suit, it was still decent.


Unsurprisingly, though, those were actually the least absurd of the set. Tawny was in a dull maroon bodysuit with a ballistic vest and a luchador-style mask that left only her eyes exposed, with a featherlike pattern in black. Elyssa was in a similar getup, but lighter, without the vest, and in colors of green and violet. Tony was wearing heavier armor and a police-style helmet in shades of orange—less mobility, but more protection.


Unsurprisingly, Derek’s armor was the best except for possibly mine and David’s. It looked something like mine, with overlapping layers of scales in the general shape of feathers. The feathers were made of steel, with here and there one of silver, and they had lines etched on them. Individually the patterns on each feather were fairly simple, but as the individual feathers slid over each other the lines formed elaborate, shifting geometric designs.


I could feel that the lines were more than just decoration. They were a physical representation of the magic he’d integrated into the metal, a sort of mnemonic guideline he’d used for the magic. It was a clever design, in a lot of ways; each feather was built with its own protections, which were designed to overlap and mesh with each other. The result was marginally weaker than the reinforcements I had on my set, but they were also a little broader, and a lot harder to get around with clever tactics.


All told, it felt more like I was at a costume party than getting ready to go out and search the streets for evildoers. The costuming had a certain style to it, I supposed, and in its own way it looked fairly intimidating. But it just felt like it was trying way, way too hard. I was used to people who could scare the piss out of someone with an expression of mild disapproval. By comparison, this kind of display seemed tawdry.


“All right,” David said. “Shrike, you’re with Crimson going southwest. Spark and Razor, southeast. I’ll take Chainmail and head north. You’ve all got radios; if you run into trouble, use them and we’ll get there as quickly as we can. Any questions?”


“Nope,” I said casually. Everyone else followed suit a moment later, and we started splitting up. David grabbed Derek and started walking north, and a moment later Tony and Elyssa walked off as well, leaving just me and Tawny.


“Guess it’s just you and me now, Shrike,” she said. “You nervous at all?”


I shrugged and started heading southwest, setting a slow enough pace that a human could keep up without too much trouble. “Not really,” I said. “You?”


“A bit,” she admitted. “We didn’t see anything last time out, so I’m still pretty nervous about what’ll happen the first time we have to actually interrupt something.”


“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry to miss the last one.”


“You didn’t miss much,” she said, walking along beside me. “The boss kept us so far away from trouble we couldn’t have found it if we wanted to.”


I snorted. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. Hey, Crim, maybe you can answer a question for me. What the hell is up with the codename bullshit? It sounds ridiculous.”


“We have to use something,” she said reasonably. “I mean, I know Crimson isn’t great, but it beats nothing.”


“Why not just use real names?” I asked. “Jonathan is fine with me. Dressing up like a bird is bad enough, but image is important, whatever, I get it. Calling myself Shrike? That’s just bizarre. It makes me feel like I’m in a comic book or something.”


“I can’t afford to use my real name for this,” she said. “It’s tied to things that couldn’t handle it. Don’t you have a family?”


I shrugged. “Not one worth mentioning. No parents, no siblings, couldn’t care much less what happens to my aunt. I guess I’m married now, but anybody dumb enough to try and get at me through her deserves what happens to them.”


Tawny—Crimson—stopped dead and stared at me. “You’re married?”


“Yeah,” I said dryly. “I didn’t see it coming either, believe me. Anyway, no, I don’t have a family, as such.”


“Well, I do,” she said. “And I can’t afford for them to get mixed up in all this. They’re just people, you know? They aren’t like us, they aren’t transhuman.”


“Hold up,” I said. “Transhuman?”


“People like you and me,” she said. “Werewolves, or people with spooky powers. You know, human, plus a little bit extra.”


I grimaced. “That’s not what that word means. Not quite.”


“Yeah, well, it’s the word I’ve heard used to lump us all in together,” she said. “And my family, they aren’t. My mom, my brother, if something from our side of things goes after them, they don’t stand a chance. And I can’t let that happen.”


“You’re not concerned about your father?”


“He’s dead,” she said stiffly.


“Ah,” I said. “I’m sorry.”


“No problem,” she said, although there was very obviously a problem. “It was a month or two ago. I’m starting to get over it, I guess.” Which she very obviously wasn’t, but I wasn’t going to call her on it. We all have our own ways of coping.


I wasn’t in the mood for an awkward silence, so I decided to keep digging on the off chance that it would get me out of the whole rather than make it deeper.


In a way, it was nice to be working with people who didn’t matter all that much. It meant that I didn’t need to be too paranoid about what I said. If I offended Tawny, it wasn’t the end of the world. The nature of her magic was a little unsettling, in terms of what fighting her would entail, but it wasn’t like I was talking to Loki, or even to Lucius. Worst case, I could always just walk away.


So rather than try to backpedal, or shut up and hope she forgot about this, I said, “My parents are dead. I don’t remember them.”


“How’d that happen?” she asked.


I shrugged. “My father was a stranger,” I said. “Never met him, don’t think he knew about me. By the time I even learned who he was he’d been dead for years. My mom killed herself a couple of months after I was born.”


“Bitch. You want to die, that’s on you, but to do that to a kid? Total bitch.”


My lips twitched. “You have no idea. Anyway, I guess I get what you’re saying. I’ve just been a part of all this for so long that it’s hard for me to remember that some people have a life outside of this.”


She looked at me oddly. I couldn’t read her expression behind the mask, but between the eyes and the posture, it was easy to see that she was looking at me oddly. “You don’t look that old,” she said.


I snorted. “You should have learned by now not to pay too much attention to that,” I said. “Looks don’t mean much here.”


“Yeah,” she said. “So how old are you?”


I smiled a little. “Old enough,” I said.


We kept walking for a little while in silence. There was no one else on the street, beyond the occasional passing car. It was almost midnight, and people were reluctant to be outside after dark anymore.


“Okay, I don’t get it,” she said after a minute or two. “What the hell is up with you? You’re working with us, but you really don’t seem much like the rest of us. Like, most of the time you do, but then you start talking about how you’ve been mixed up in transhuman things for ages.”


“Hm,” I said. “Have you ever seen the film The Dirty Dozen? It’s an old war movie about a bunch of convicts who were recruited by the military to go on a suicide mission back in World War II.”


“Yeah,” she said. “I had to watch it for a class, I think.”


“I’m kind of like that,” I said. “I’m something of a bad guy, and under normal circumstances the Guards would probably want nothing to do with me. But I’m also useful, so they gave me the option to work against even worse people on parole.”


“I thought it might be something like that,” she said. “When you say you were a bad guy, how bad are we talking?”


“Bad enough,” I said, chuckling a little. I didn’t point out that I hadn’t been speaking in the past tense. “I mean, I’m not a serial killer or anything. But…yeah. Bad enough.”


“I see,” she said. “So…Jonny Keyes is…?”


“Not the name I was born with,” I said. “Or anything much like it, really. I’m not supposed to tell you who I really am. They’re concerned about me corrupting the youth or some such nonsense, I think.”


Wow,” she said. “So I get that you can’t talk about the details. But when you say bad, you mean really bad, don’t you?”


“Let me put it this way,” I said. “If the authorities find out who I am, they’d almost certainly give me a death sentence. If they could prove that you knew who I was, I’d lay decent odds on you spending the rest of your life in a cage for having not turned me in. It’s that kind of bad.”


“You know how I said I was a little scared of you a while ago?” she told me. “I think I should have been taking that feeling a hell of a lot more seriously. Is it too late for me to run?”


I snorted. “Oh, come off it,” I said. “You aren’t exactly a paragon of sweetness and light yourself, now, are you?”


She froze. “How do you know about that?” she said, sounding stricken.


I shrugged and kept walking. I’d noticed something a block or so west of us through a stray dog’s ears, and started angling in that direction. I was thinking we were probably going to get some action after all.


“I didn’t know,” I said, answering her question as she started walking again. “It was more of an educated guess. In my experience, this lifestyle doesn’t attract normal, well-adjusted people. You have to be at least a little bit fucked up to voluntarily get into this business, you know? For that matter, just about every transhuman I’ve ever talked to has some kind of trauma in their background. It’s the nature of the world we live in. I usually work under the assumption that everyone’s got skeletons in their closets, bad things that have happened to them, bad things they’ve done to others. Some of us just hide it a little better than others.”


“That seems like a pretty fucking dismal way to look at things,” Tawny said.


I shrugged. “I see it more as a reasonable extension of my experience. Are you going to argue with me? I mean, think about it. From the way you just reacted you’re not an exception, and whatever’s weighing you down, I’d lay good money that I’ve got something worse. I’ve talked to David, and I’m not going to spill his secrets, but I can definitely vouch for him as much of a mess as you and me.”


“And the others?” she said. “You think they fit into this theory?”


“Frankly? Yes, I do. I’m still collecting dossiers on them, but think about it. Spark has a temper, he doesn’t have the best control, and he doesn’t have the best self-control. I’d wager he’s burned someone in the past, probably badly. Razor’s a sociopath, plain and simple. She’s used her magic on herself to the point that it’s warped her mind. Someone like that, with the power to be basically invisible? Not a chance that she hasn’t used it for something ugly somewhere along the line. Honestly, the only person I’m not sure about is Chainmail, and that’s only because I haven’t spent as much time with him.”


“You make it really hard to like you, Shrike,” she said. “Good job remembering the names, though.”


“Thanks,” I said dryly. “And I didn’t make the world this way. I just live here. Besides, as I see it the important thing isn’t what you’ve done and what crimes you’re guilty of. It’s where you go from here. It’s trying to be something better tomorrow than you were today. As long as you remember that, as long as you keep trying, I don’t think you can really turn into a monster. You might lose track every now and then, you might slip up, but you’ll never be so bad you can’t get better.”


“For a bad guy, that’s actually a pretty optimistic philosophy,” Tawny said. “Thanks. I…I guess I needed to hear that.”


“No problem. Now, listen up. There’s a mugging going down about a fifty feet in front of us, in that alley.” I pointed. “I’m not expecting us to have any trouble taking care of things. It seems like it’s just a guy with a knife. You might want to be ready just in case, though. It’s possible he’s a transhuman.”


God, I hated using that word for this. The word, the whole implication, it scared me. Talking about mages and werewolves and vampires as being human plus some reminded me uncomfortably of the things Shadow said, about how mages deserved to have power over normal humans. And that was one hell of a slippery slope, paved with good intentions and everything.


But it was apparently the word to use, and even if I could change it, it wasn’t going to happen tonight. So for tonight, I could play along.


Tawny—no, I reminded myself, she was Crimson right now. Crimson’s eyes widened slightly before she nodded. “Okay,” she said. “What do you want me to do?”


“Stay behind me,” I said. “Follow my lead. And if things get too serious, be ready to summon…something. I don’t know, whatever you think’s best. It’s your magic; I can’t really tell you how to use it effectively.”


“Okay,” she said again, picking up her pace. She sounded almost excited now. There was still an edge of fear there, but it wasn’t overwhelming.


I sped up as well, staying ahead of her as we got closer to the alley. As expected, there were two people inside. She looked scared, and had one hand in her purse; she was wearing a moderately expensive dress and high heels, one of which was broken. On her way to or from a party, I was guessing.


He, on the other hand, had a black ski mask and a knife as his main fashion statements. The message painted by the scene was rather clear.


“Stop,” I said, walking into the alley. Crim stood near the entrance, one hand in her pocket.


The guy in the mask froze and then looked back at me. “Walk away,” he said. “This isn’t your problem.”


“See, it kind of is,” I said. “Now, I’m going to lay things out for you in simple terms. I’m not allowed to kill you right now. I’m supposed to be turning over a new leaf, and not killing people is a major part of that. My bosses were very clear on that.” I grinned behind the mask. “On the other hand, my bosses aren’t here right now, are they, Crimson?”


“Nope,” she said back. She was grinning as well, I could hear it in her voice. Getting into the game. I’d thought that she was the type who would.


“So I can make you disappear, and they’ll never have to know,” I continued. I pulled a knife out of its sheath and started toying with it. “What do you say, buddy? You wanna go? Or do you wanna walk away now, and we can all just pretend that this never happened?”


He glanced at the woman, then started walking away. He stepped around me, staying well out of reach.


I almost thought he looked familiar when he was walking. I couldn’t see his face—even his eyes were hidden behind sunglasses, which was pretty ridiculous at midnight—but something about his gait was familiar. I couldn’t place it, though, and it might have been my imagination. So I turned back to the victim as he got past me and started for the alley entrance, where Crim was standing and watching.


“Sorry for the trouble,” I said to the woman, waiting for the guy to get further away. I wasn’t going to let him go—our instructions had clearly stated that we were supposed to apprehend criminals—but I wanted to make sure he wasn’t in a position to take her hostage.


“Me too,” she said, smiling at me. It was an odd smile, self-satisfied and not nearly as frightened as it should have been.


Then she flicked her fingers, and a blast of fire and force hit me right in the face.


I was caught completely flat-footed, without a chance to doge or chill the air around myself to get ready. There were things I could do to mitigate the effects of fire, but I had to actually do them, and that meant I had to be at least a little bit prepared for the fire to happen.


This time, I wasn’t. I just ate the fire, and it sucked.


It didn’t kill me. It wasn’t hot enough or prolonged enough for that, particularly not when the armor was providing some insulation.


But I hit the ground, and I was dazed for a moment afterward. Burns hurt, and while numerous previous exposures had left me somewhat blasé about the pain, I couldn’t completely ignore it.


By the time I was starting to stand, she’d already kicked off the heels, and she was pulling her hand out of the purse. It had a heavy, ugly handgun in it, the sort of weapon you used when you wanted to put someone down and you didn’t particularly want them getting up again afterward.


I glanced over my shoulder, and saw that the “mugger” had his sunglasses and ski mask off as well. I probably still wouldn’t have recognized him, but I could smell his magic on the air and I saw the shadows beginning to twist into the shape of hounds by his sides.


Of course. I knew I recognized him from somewhere. I hadn’t keyed on the woman as much when they attacked my house, or I’d probably have recognized her as well. All we needed now was the guy in the suit to show up and complete the set.


Die,” the woman said, more flames kindling around her hand as the first of the constructs lunged at me.

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Interlude 10.x: Jacques

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I fill the order.


That’s all there is to say, really. It’s what I do. I fill the order


There’s all kinds of hunger pangs. People have needs. They have wants. Desires. Urges.


Where there’s a hunger, someone will find a way to sate it. It’s basic economics. Where there’s a demand, someone is going to come up with a supply. Economic pressures will outweigh moral ones, given time.


That’s where I come in. I am not, precisely, a supplier. Rather, I consider myself a facilitator. I’m the middleman, the one who can connect the demand to a supply it didn’t know existed. It’s a thankless job, and not one that makes many friends. That’s fine. Friends have never been my priority.


I don’t ask questions. It’s none of my business what people want with the things they ask for. Not my business, not my problem. I don’t consider myself responsible for what they do with them afterward. I don’t understand their needs, and frankly I don’t care.


People don’t care for me much, as a rule. They find aspects of my work distasteful. They try to impose their own limits on my business.


I’ve found, over the years, that everyone has limits. Even my customers have limits. The man who buys a death is disturbed that I sell a person’s darkest secrets; the blackmailer finds it disgusting that I would procure a corpse of very exacting specifications; the necrophiliac draws the line at actually making corpses, and as easy as that it comes full circle back to the assassin. Each of them has limits, and each is convinced that the other’s limits are just unnecessary restrictions imposed by society, while their own are valid moral boundaries.


So I say fuck them all, and fuck morality too. It’s not like I’ve ever had much in the way of morals anyway. That’s not what I was made for; my brain’s not wired that way.


What I’ve got instead is professional standards. I’ve got good business practices. And while those standards can be phrased in a lot of ways, in the end it all comes down to one thing.


I fill the order. I always fill the order.


The man contacted me for a shipment of house slaves. His request had looser parameters than such often did. He wanted them human, warm, reasonably healthy, within a certain loose age parameter. That was all. No mention of sex, aesthetic qualities, or race.


It made my job easier. Some people got bizarrely specific. It wasn’t my business why they wanted the qualities they did, but on some level I had to wonder. I understood that there could be a tendency to go overboard, once they were finally dealing with someone who could fit their precise specifications rather than taking what they could get, but still.


And granted, I could charge them more for it, but the excess work wasn’t worth it. On the whole, I was just as glad to see that my job was going to be easy this time. It shouldn’t be much work at all to arrange.


I picked up a phone and a bottle, and started dialing some people I knew.


Of course my business does harm. Of course it hurts people. I know that. I’m not a moron.


But the thing is that you have to think about how to apportion the blame. If you get stabbed, do you blame the knife, or the guy holding the knife?


My business is like that, really. It isn’t like I actually do anything to people. I am, for all practical intents and purposes, a knife. I don’t make the choice to hurt people. Other people make that choice. Left to my own devices, I know I’m not a great guy, but I’m not terrible. I mostly keep myself to myself and don’t fuck with anyone else. Except for when I do, of course, but that’s a business transaction as well. Everyone involved knows what to expect from the beginning. It’s tidier that way.


It’s only when someone else makes the choice that I do things that ruin people’s lives. And it isn’t like that’s the only kind of work I’ll do, or anything like that. End of the day, I’ll do what people want me to do. All the choices, the agency, it’s on them.


So no, I don’t feel guilty. I don’t regret what I do. Why the fuck should I? As far as I’m concerned the burden there is on the bastard that paid me. We all bear the burden of our own choices. I’ve got enough of my own to answer for that I don’t need to claim anyone else’s.


He met me in person for the pickup, which was actually the first time I’d seen this guy. He was reclusive, paranoid. Didn’t leave his house for the most part, from what I’d heard. I’d been working with him for a couple of months now, but it was all information dealing, and that didn’t require anything face-to-face. We’d set this one up by correspondence as well, but with this much in the way of a physical product he had to come out and pick it up himself.


I was grateful he hadn’t tried to work out some fucking shenanigans with shipment or something. I’d been working on this for way too long now. If this setup hadn’t worked, I might have lost it. What little it I had left anyway. It wasn’t much anymore.


I met him in Detroit, in the warehouse district. The flight sucked five kinds of ass, of course. I had the cash to spring for first-class, but it still didn’t have the room to be anything that wasn’t terrible, and the attendant cut me off after the second bottle.


I was already in a bad mood, and that sure as hell didn’t make it any better. I was really looking forward to getting this job over and done with. When I first agreed to this request, I thought it would be a nice break in routine, just enough of a challenge to pique my interest. If I’d known how much of an ordeal it would turn into, I’d have told the buyer to shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.


I stopped and bought a fifth of vodka, drinking it on the way. Nobody gave me a second glance. People pretty much didn’t, when I didn’t want them to. It was an old trick, one of the oldest in the book, but it got the job done.


The warehouse was locked, which was a nice touch. Unnecessary, but I reminded myself to pay the local factor extra. Attention to detail was sadly rare anymore. Always had been, really, but there were more details to pay attention to than there used to be.


I looked at the people inside, and liked what I saw. They fit the request—aged nineteen to thirty, physically intact, no permanent diseases, no glaring mental deficiencies. I’d have known. They looked scared, nervous, unsure of themselves. Each was kneeling on the ground, hands tied behind their backs, heavy black tape across their mouths.


Each of them but one.


“All right,” I said, settling in to wait. “Not much longer.”


And of course sometimes I feel bad about the way things go. I can talk a good game about how I don’t have morals, but those pesky standards do get in the way sometimes. Everybody’s got limits. I’m not an exception to that. Normally I don’t take jobs that cross my hard limits, but sometimes things don’t go the way I planned. Sometimes I underestimate how far things are going to go.


When they do, I finish the job anyway. It’s what I do. I don’t have a lot of self-respect, don’t have a lot of reason for self-respect. But I’ve got that. If I commit to a job, I do it. Doesn’t matter whether I enjoy it or not. I keep my deals. When I say that I’ll do shit, shit gets done.


I feel guilty about some of the things I’ve done for the sake of keeping those deals. But not half as bad as I’d feel if I hadn’t kept them. You’ve got to hold on to something, after all. Come what may, you have to hold on to something.


The guy walked in about five minutes after I got there. I wasn’t a great believer in showing up early, didn’t care for it. But I’d come early this time.


“Good evening, Jacques,” he said. “I look forward to concluding our bargain.”


I snorted and took another drink of vodka. I was most of a gallon into it, much more than should have fit into the bottle I’d bought, and it was only halfway gone. That much remained to me. “You have no fucking idea,” I told him. He winced at my breath. People often did.


People closed the doors and locked them. They were my employees, not working for my local factor. You want good hired help, you take care of that shit yourself. Other people aren’t reliable.


In the crowd, the one person who this was all about stood up. She was the only one not bound and gagged, the whole reason we were here. The rest? Just camouflage. I didn’t want him to hit the door and realize that something was wrong. Actors weren’t cheap, but compared to the hassle of starting this job over again? They were a fucking steal.


She pulled a knife out of her pocket and started forward, clutching an iron amulet in her other hand. It was a cheapo defense, the kind of thing you used when you only needed magic not to touch you for a few seconds. I’d bought it from a dealer in Tibet and sold it to her at a markup, back in the initial planning stages for this job.


The guy turned towards me. “You sold me out,” he said, sounding more shocked than scared. “I thought you kept your deals.”


I punched him in the gut.


I don’t look like all that. I’m not all that, not compared to what I was back in the day. Back then, I’d have broken him in half if I hit him while I was that angry. Just one hit and snap, like a fucking twig. I was a beast back then.


What was left was enough to pick him up off the floor and throw him backwards. He hit the floor hard, retching and gasping for breath.


“Fuck you with your pants on,” I said, walking over to where he’d landed. “I always fill the order. In this case, that order was you. And with how you just insulted me, I’m inclined to hand you over to her on a silver fucking platter.” I grabbed him by the lapel and picked him up, holding him off the ground for a moment before slamming him face down on the floor.


“But why?” he asked, struggling to breathe.


“The hell should I care?” I asked, holding my hand out. One of my people slapped a fresh roll of tape in it, and I pulled the guy’s arms behind him and started taping.


“It has to do with my sister,” the buyer said, bouncing the knife in her hand. “Emily? You remember her? You remember what you did to her?”


“Well, there we go,” I said, finishing up and checking that the bonds were tight. They were, enough to cut off circulation, and probably start doing some nerve damage. I’d really cranked those suckers down. Not that it was likely to matter. The buyer didn’t give the impression of planning for him to be around long enough to really object.


Magic stirred, hot and heady, and the buyer was enveloped in vivid green flames. Not real fire, but a good enough imitation for government work.


The amulet did its work, and she didn’t burn. “You want me to gag him?” I asked, as elsewhere my people started letting the actors out and giving them their bonuses. I paid in advance, but a bonus was good business.


“No, we’re good,” the buyer said, getting an iron chain out of her pocket. That was another of the purchases I’d arranged for her, something like the amulet in reverse. It would take a hell of a lot better of a mage than this guy to get any magic through with that thing on him.


“All right,” I said, getting up and grabbing my bottle again. “You’ve got my last payment?”


“It’s in the mail,” the buyer said, approaching with her knife out and a wicked gleam in her eye. “Thanks. You did a good thing here.”


I shrugged. “Whatever,” I said, walking away.


I wasn’t in the mood to be bothered on the way back, and airport security sounded like a bother. So I flicked my fingers, and their minds were clouded, their senses fogged at the critical moment. I waltzed right past, finally tipped the last of the vodka down my throat, and tossed the bottle aside. It landed in the trash, for someone to explain later. If they even noticed.


Little magics, but fuck it. They were better than nothing. I could get by on what I had left. Obviously.


I was a little fish. I knew that. I’d always been a little fish. It was a lot easier to be a little fish when you had a big fish with you, though. Back then I’d always had the option of saying, “Yeah, you can eat me, but do you really want to fuck with him?” And the answer was always no, because nobody wanted to fuck with him. Who would? Even if you could win, my boss was going to be more trouble than he was worth. That was his whole thing.


It had taken a while to get used to it, when I lost that. A hundred years, maybe two. Maybe I’d get it back someday. It’d be nice. Until then, I had to get used to working with what I had.


Back in Milan, I walked through the streets to the store by my building. They gave me my usual order, a crate full of clinking bottles, and I carried them up to my room.


I’d chosen this place very carefully. Close enough to my old home that I could fit in, far enough that the enemies I’d made there wouldn’t find me. Of course, the distance had been larger back then, before the world got small. Most of those enemies were dead now, of course.


Beyond that, though, Milan was a good city for my kind of business. It wasn’t huge enough to attract the really big players, but it was close to big places. I wasn’t that far from Rome, or Paris. Back when I chose the place I’d been thinking of Florence and Venice as well, but those cities weren’t all they had been.


Anyway, Milan was a good city for me. I’d been here for a long time now. I’d changed neighborhoods and buildings, making sure my home was always the right sort of place, but I’d stuck with the same city. There was something to be said for staying consistent. It was good for business.


Back in my room, I closed all the curtains and sat on my couch. The usual depression, the feeling of pointlessness that followed a successful job, was setting in. Was this all I could do? Was this all I could achieve? All I aimed for?


Fuck. Probably.


I opened the bottle of Everclear first. It was the good stuff, 190-proof. It was the kind of shit you sold with a liability waiver on the receipt. You weren’t supposed to drink it straight. You weren’t really supposed to drink it at all, but especially not straight. Two sips of that shit could lay a guy out.


I poured half of it down my throat in one go, and barely felt a buzz at all. It didn’t have much of a kick to it, not from where I was coming from. None of the stuff I could get down here did. Once you’ve had the real shit, you can’t go back to thinking the imitation is good enough.


“Fuck you, Dionysus,” I said to no one as I prepared to drink myself into a stupor again, chasing something I couldn’t get back. “I fuck up one time, and you do this to me. I was great once. I was great. And now look at me.”


I thought I heard laughter. It probably wasn’t my imagination. My god was never known for being kind, or gentle, or good. I mean, hell. He made me.

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Building Bridges 12.13

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The stone was rough, affording plenty of handholds. It was easier than I’d been expecting to get up it. Despite the rather impressive height of the wall, we reached the top in just a couple of minutes.


We didn’t use any rope in case of a fall, of course. I could catch myself, and the notion of Aiko using a safety rope was enough to bring a smile to my lips.


Inside, the open space of the amphitheater was illuminated only by the moonlight. It was bright enough to see—for us, at least; a human might have had some issues—but the relative dimness softened the edges, lending a touch of mystique to cover the harsh realities of time’s passage. Standing there, looking down from high above the ground, I was forcefully struck by the sheer magnitude of the building. Never mind the games that had gone on here, the structure itself was incredible.


Even in ruins, the Colosseum seemed to tower above the rest of the world in some way. It was a constant reminder to the architects and engineers who raised their towers of steel and glass around it that it had stood long before they came to be and would stand long after they died.


What had it been like in its glory days, I wondered? Back when Rome really was the capital of the world, when a passing whim of the emperor could change the course of nations? What an awe-inspiring statement of power, to raise something like this just for entertainment. Just to show that you could.


No wonder people hadn’t wanted to attack this city. Even the faded echoes of that legacy were enough to give you pause.


And they were faded echoes, there was no arguing that. Much of the floor below was gone, exposing the tunnels underneath. Back in the day those had been the equivalent of backstage, a place meant for the workers rather than the public eye. The practical reality that sat behind the glamorous facade. Now it was torn open, exposed to the outside world. It was like looking at a corpse on the dissection table, skin peeled back to show things that were supposed to stay hidden.


The people we were here to meet were standing in a small group on the intact section of the floor. It wasn’t hard to pick them out in the otherwise empty space, but even if it had been thronging with crowds, I would have known who I was looking for. They had a gravity to them, a presence that drew the eye. It was reminiscent of Conn, or Scáthach, or even Loki when he got going.


Powerful people, and a definite sign that they weren’t anyone to cross lightly. Not that I hadn’t known that already, of course, but if I’d had any doubt this was a nice confirmation.


Even more than the Pack, though, vampires and their ilk were predators. More to the point, they were predators that were optimized for the hunting of humans. I wasn’t human—hell, at this point humans probably had more in common with chimps than with me, in some ways. But we had enough of a resemblance to humans to trigger those instincts, which made this a delicate situation for us. If we behaved like humans—like prey—there would be a large part of these people that didn’t care about the fact that we were here to make deals. It would just want to eat us.


Which is why were on top of the wall, instead of walking through the freaking door like normal people.


I gauged the distance between us and them, making sure that the initial plan would work, then offered Aiko my arm. She rested her fingertips on it, purely for style points, and we started walking.


I wasn’t David. I couldn’t actually fly, however much I might want to—because really, who wouldn’t?


But one of the tricks I had figured out was how to support my own weight with air and magic. It was difficult and exhausting, even with the focus I’d built exactly for that purpose, but I could walk on air for short periods when I really wanted to. It didn’t come up nearly as often as I’d expected it to, really, but when it was useful it was really useful. So I’d kept in practice, making sure that I could still do it when I needed to.


I’d created a similar focus for Aiko. It was more challenging for me to support her weight than my own, for several reasons. It was further away, for one thing, and distance was power when it came to magic. With a ruinous rate of exchange, too, to the point that working at a distance of even a couple feet could be noticeably more difficult. I wasn’t nearly as aware of her movement as my own, either. With my own body I knew exactly when and how I was walking, letting me adjust the magic to suit on an instinctive level. With Aiko, even though I knew the ways her body moved, even though we were in physical contact and I could feel that movement, there was the tiniest delay. It wasn’t much, but it added up.


And then there was the weight, plain and simple. Aiko was pretty short, and she was slender. But between her and the armor, it was over another hundred and fifty pounds that I had to lift. That wasn’t easy.


The bottom line was that I could do it, but only barely. It would be a steep descent, somewhere between going down stairs and a controlled fall, and even that was taxing. Under the circumstances, though, that was pretty much exactly what was called for. If we got it right, it should look intentional.


It was a little tight, but I’d gotten the angle right, and we ended up dropping onto the floor about fifteen feet away from them. I landed smoothly; Aiko stumbled the tiniest bit, not having as clear of an awareness of our positioning, but she was quick enough to make it look like she’d just deliberately taken a fancy step upon landing.


We took a few steps closer to the group, just enough to get within comfortable range for a conversation, and I said, “Hi.”


Now that we were closer and I didn’t have to concentrate on not falling to an embarrassing and splattery death, I could get a better look at who I was dealing with.


There were three of them, of whom I recognized one. He was a vampire, his dark coloration offset by a flaming pink suit. He called himself Lucius, and while I didn’t know much about him, what I did know was the sort of thing to inspire terror. He’d made references to being an emperor, and ruling an entire continent, the one time I’d seen him before. It sounded like grandiose nonsense, but from Katrin’s reaction I wasn’t entirely sure that he hadn’t been telling the literal truth.


Of the three, though, he was the one I feared least. I had some idea of what he was capable of, what I had to worry about. The other two were total unknowns. They were both female, or at least they looked female, but beyond that there wasn’t a lot in common between them. The one to the left had tan skin and dark hair, and she was painfully beautiful. She didn’t have the physical beauty of, say, Scáthach, and she didn’t have the intensely sexual manner of Selene. But there were elements of both there, along with a barely-veiled hunger that elevated it to a weapon.


The other one was more ethereal, almost ghostly. She was very pale, maybe even albino, and wearing a simple robe as white as her skin. Even her lips were pale, almost blue, leaving pure black hair and eyes the only color about her.


Lucius was the one to answer me. “Good evening,” he said, smiling. “The surroundings are rather more hospitable than the last time we spoke. Less impressive than when it was young, of course, but I think it’s aged quite well, on the whole.”


“Are you telling me that you were around when the Colosseum was new?” I asked.


“Would it be so unbelievable?” he asked.


“Not really, no,” I said. “I’ve talked to people that are older. It just puts it into perspective, I suppose.”


“Oh? How so?”


“From my perspective,” I said, “it’s hard to really conceptualize watching several thousand years pass. It’s hard to see it as anything but an abstract number.” I gestured at the ruins around us. “This gives it context. If I think about it as being long enough to watch this crumble, that gives me some grounding as far as what it actually means.”


He considered me for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to look at it,” he said. “And an insightful one. I’ll have to think about it more. In the meantime, however, I haven’t introduced my associates. How terribly rude of me. This is Lily,” he gestured at the tanned woman, “and Yumi.”


“Charmed,” I said. “You know why we’re here.”


“You want status,” he said. “Recognitions. Or perhaps insurance would be the better word for what you’re asking.”


“It’s got elements of all three,” I agreed. “It raises the question, though. Is this even something you’re equipped to offer?”


“I do think so,” he said. “I am the most influential of my kind in Africa by a rather wide margin. Between that and my connections to others of similar influence, I could easily sway my people to agree with me on such a relatively minor matter. Lily holds a similar role among the succubi, and Yumi has some sway among…other types.”


“It’s a yuki-onna,” Aiko said, watching the pale woman closely. She seemed…not afraid, precisely, but wary. Coming from her, that was practically as good as outright terror from most people.


“Someone knows her stories,” Yumi said. Her voice was flat and androgynous, not seeming particularly human.


Aiko snorted. “With my mother?” she said. “Please. I couldn’t have gotten away with not knowing. I’m surprised you’d be hanging around with these guys, though.”


“We all have mouths to feed,” the yuki-onna said.


“In any case,” Lucius interjected, smoothly taking control of the conversation again. “We’ve established that the bargain can be made. But I have to question whether what you’re asking for even makes sense. I confess I don’t see how you could keep our respective affiliates out of your territory when it has so many people within it, regardless of whether it’s officially allowed or not.”


“The point isn’t to keep them out,” I said. “It’s to establish that it is my territory. They can come, but I want it to be very clear that they’re there on my sufferance, and I expect them to obey certain rules.”


“Again, pointless,” he said. “There will always be rule breakers.”


“Ah,” I said, smiling. “But if there’s a rule that they’ve broken, they can be punished. Rules can be enforced. If there’s no such rule I can’t exactly say that they’ve done anything wrong, can I?”


“And you think that you can enforce these rules? Really?”


“I already have, haven’t I?”


He smiled, thin and sharp. “Ah, yes. Dear Katrin, struck down in her own home. She always was lacking something. A certain ruthlessness, perhaps.”


And that really said all I needed to know about Lucius. If he thought that Katrin wasn’t ruthless enough, if he was seriously going to criticize her for not being willing to go far enough in pursuit of her goals, that was a pretty damn meaningful statement. That was the equivalent of someone telling me that I was too trusting for my own good.


“So what rules would you impose upon us, then?” he continued. “Please, regale us with your legal brilliance.”


“First off, your people would have to contact me when they come into the city of Colorado Springs,” I said. “I’d give them a grace period, say three days, but after that if I find them in my city and they haven’t talked to me, I’ll assume they’re working against me and treat them appropriately.”


“That’s basic courtesy,” Lucius said. “Get to the meat.”


Aiko started to make a smart remark, but I nudged her in the ribs, hard enough that she’d feel it through the armor. I didn’t know what she was about to say, but considering who we were talking to, I was about ninety percent sure it would have been a bad idea. She turned it into a cough, and while I was confident she was glaring at me, she didn’t say anything.


“The primary issues have to do with degrees of activity within the city,” I said. “Nothing so overt that it attracts attention. I expect that living people won’t make a fuss, and dead people won’t be unusual enough that they draw notice. They don’t interfere with my employees or personal associates. If they have a problem with one of my people, they bring it to me. If there’s a major threat or problem within the city, they’re expected to help out or get out.”


“I’m surprised,” Lucius said. “Not going to try and ban us from hunting in your city?”


“He is a hunter himself,” Yumi said softly. “He knows the nature of the hunt. Enough, I think, to know better than to do as you suggest.”


“Pretty much,” I said. “It’s basic ecology, really. Where there’s a niche, something’s going to fill it, right? There are a lot of people in the city, and there are a lot of things that want to eat people. I don’t really think I can keep the one away from the other. But if I acknowledge that it’s going to happen, I can keep it under control and make sure that it stays within certain limits.”


“Interesting,” he said. “You know, Wolf, coming here I really wasn’t expecting to take this seriously. But what you’re outlining is actually fairly reasonable. I think we could make this happen.” He smiled thinly. “But why would we? So far I’m hearing a great deal of benefit to you, and nothing much for us.”


“What do you want?” I asked. “That’s a serious question, by the way, not me being snide. I don’t really know what you guys would want, so it’s hard for me to offer you much.”


“I will speak to my associates without personal reward,” Yumi said. “The jarl and I have certain things in common.”


“How charming,” Lily said sarcastically. “I’m afraid I’m going to require a little more in exchange for my assistance, though. You’ll owe me one.”


“Details,” I said instantly.


“You’ll owe me a favor, to be redeemed at a time of my choosing,” she said. “One service, which you can perform without extraordinary risk or expense.”


“Fair, but I want the option to veto your requests if I think that they’re excessive or they’d require me to do something I’m not willing to do.”


“And what’s to stop you from rejecting everything I ask, so that you never have to pay at all?” the succubus asked skeptically.


“That’s how you get a reputation for not keeping your deals,” I said. “And that isn’t a good kind of reputation to have.”


“And you expect me to rely on your desire for a good reputation to that extent?”


“Pretty much,” I said. “I’m guessing you’ll take that as collateral.”


“Good guess,” she said after a moment. “All right, then. That’s good enough for me.”


Which just left Lucius to convince. I turned to him, tense and a little worried. I was guessing that he was going to ask for something that I really didn’t want to offer, and I was fully prepared to agonize over whether this was worth the price.


What I got instead was a casual smile. “I want you two to come to a party I’m hosting,” he said. “Day after tomorrow, Alexandria, dusk.”


I hesitated. “Is this an effort to lure me into a trap or something?”


“No,” he said. “It’s a good-faith invitation. I’ll even offer you my personal guarantee of safety while you’re there. If anyone starts a fight with you, I’ll ensure that they regret it.”




“I’d like to have a personal conversation with the pair of you,” he said, shrugging. “And while I do appreciate these environs, this is neither the time nor the place for that conversation.”


I glanced at Aiko, who nodded slightly. “All right,” I said. “It’s a deal.”


He was smiling thinly as we shook hands. I was sure he could crush my fingers into jelly if he wanted to, but his grip was only moderately firm.


As we left, I tried not to think about how much easier of a time I’d had working with the monsters than with the Guards.

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Building Bridges 12.12

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The outfit was a hell of a lot more badass than I’d been expecting. The base was a dull crimson bodysuit, something that was meant to fit close to the skin, made of some slick, smooth fabric. Layered over that were layers of fabric and metal, cut in ways that suggested feathers without outright being feathers, in every shade of red. The gloves were made of the same material as the bodysuit, and tapered at the fingers, hinting at claws without actually being sharpened. The helmet was similarly suggestive, something about its shape reminding me of a bird. I couldn’t have said quite what it was; it wasn’t like it had a beak or anything. There was just something about it that said bird.


Wearing that, my identity would be at least as well concealed as with my usual helmet. Everything was covered but my mouth, and even that was masked by several strips of metal. The eyes were concealed behind yellow lenses.


“This is a bit more aggressive than I was expecting,” I said. “Don’t get me wrong, I like it, but I thought you guys were going for the ‘friendly’ look.”


“We’re marketing you as edgy,” Gosnell said. “Not that we have much choice as far as that goes. You’re not exactly kiddie-friendly. But we should be able to sell you to the teenage crowd, play up the rebel angle and give you an aesthetic as the outsider. We’ll want you to play to type, by the way. Argue with David in public, that kind of thing. We’re expecting you to push some limits regardless of what we tell you, so you shouldn’t have much of a problem with that.”


“This feels so weird,” I said. “The way you’re talking about setting up this persona. It’s bizarre.”


“It’s no different than what you’ve done in the past.”


“Well, yeah,” I said. “But that was working to my own ends. Now I’m supposed to be taking instruction from someone else. It’s a hell of a lot harder to match my image to someone else’s idea of what it should be.”


“Speaking of which,” Gosnell said, unsympathetically. “You’ve been having a hard time following instructions, apparently.”




“I clearly told you not to win during your sparring sessions with the team,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, you haven’t done much else.”


“David wanted me to win,” I said.


Gosnell raised an eyebrow. “Oh? And he told you this, did he? Walked up and said, ‘You know what, Jonathan, I want you to ignore all the things Mr. Gosnell told you to do?'”


I gritted my teeth. “No, but I’m not an idiot. I know what’s going on.”


“You don’t know best,” he said. “That is what I am trying to communicate to you, Jonathan. You are not dealing with the world you’re accustomed to. You are not playing by the rules you know. The sooner you figure out that you need to change your ways of thinking, the better off we’ll all be.”


“Okay,” I said, in a tone of badly forced cheer. “Well, as much as I would love to stay and talk about what rules you think I’m supposed to be playing by, I really only stopped to pick up the model of this suit. I’ll drop it off with my guy and probably have a finished version in a couple of days. Right now, though, I’ve kind of got a meeting to be going to.”


“I don’t know of any meetings on your schedule,” he said.


“Yeah,” I drawled. “This meeting isn’t so much for me as it is for me. I’ve got a lot of things that aren’t on your schedule.”


“I see,” he said. “Well, in the future, you should at least notify us. Otherwise there will be issues with scheduling conflicts. Tonight, for example, you’re supposed to be starting your patrols.”


“I’ll see what I can do,” I told him. “No guarantees, though. I’ve got a lot of obligations, and I don’t always get a lot of notice when something’s coming up.”


“All right,” Gosnell said. “But you have to meet us halfway here, Jonathan. We really are trying to accommodate your needs, but if we’re going to make this work you’re going to have to make an effort as well. I hope you have a pleasant meeting.”


“I sincerely doubt it,” I said, folding the prototype up and stuffing it into my bag. “This meeting is sort of the opposite of pleasant. But thanks anyway.”


The stairs were closed down at the moment, due to the renovations. I didn’t know what they were doing, but it was supposed to take several days, during which we were stuck with the elevator.


I seriously considered jumping out the window, but in the end I decided I wasn’t quite that irresponsible. I was pretty sure we were still supposed to be keeping a low profile, and jumping out of the window on the third floor was kind of the opposite of that. Even if it would have been much quicker, and considerably less painful.


I regretted that decision when I got into the elevator and saw Tawny already there. She had her hair up in the violently red mohawk I’d seen her with the first time, and she was dressed to match, with a black tank top, black jeans with a few carefully placed rips, and heavy black combat boots.


“Hey, Jonny,” she said as I got in. “Where are you going?”


“Meeting some friends,” I said, which was technically true. I hadn’t said what we were doing afterwards. “What about you?”


“Just going out to look around a bit before we go patrolling tonight,” she said. “I haven’t been in town all that long, so I figured I’d probably better know my way around.”


I nodded. “Where were you before, if you don’t mind my asking?”


“No, that’s fine,” she said. “We lived in St. Louis up until about a month ago.”


“St. Louis,” I said, thinking. “They aren’t doing well right now, from what I’ve heard.”


She looked away. “No,” she said. “No, they aren’t doing well at all. That was part of my signing bonus. They relocated me and my family out here.”


“Ah,” I said. “Well, if you need a hand settling in, just ask. I’ve been around a while.”


“Are you from here, then?”


I shrugged. “I’ve been all over the place,” I said. “Oregon, Wyoming, North Dakota…I actually even lived in Europe for a while. But I’ve been here for a few years now.”


She looked at me oddly. “You don’t look that old.”


I smiled. “Appearances,” I said, “can be deceptive. What the hell is with this elevator, anyway? It’s ridiculously slow.”


“Stalled, actually,” she said brightly. “Apparently it stops for a minute or so between the second and first floor. Something about them doing work in the elevator shaft, and they have to clear things out before we can go through.”


I closed my eyes for a moment. “I should have taken the window,” I muttered.


She chuckled. “Yeah, maybe.” After a momentary pause, she said, “About that offer. Do you mind if I come with you? I feel like I should try and meet some people around here. I like you guys and all, but I want to have some kind of life outside of this stuff.”


I sighed. “I really can’t,” I said.


“I get it,” she said, nodding. “You don’t want me along while you meet with your friends. That’s fine.”


“It’s not that,” I protested. “It’s…well, that. But it’s not because I don’t like you. It’s more that these people aren’t so much friends as acquaintances, and not very nice ones. Trust me, you don’t want to have anything to do with them.”


“So why are you meeting with them?”


“Because sometimes we have to do things that we don’t want to do,” I said, sighing. “Look, I’ll show you around later. I know some people that I think you’d like. But for tonight, I really can’t.”


About that time, the elevator doors finally slid open with a soft ding. I stepped out and found Aiko waiting for me, already in her full regalia of armor and weaponry. She was leaning against the wall, and tapping her foot impatiently.


“Cupcake,” I said, eyeing her. “I thought I told you to wait for me outside.”


“What, and you thought I’d listen? What are you, new?”


“Is this on of your friends?” Tawny asked.


“Nah, Cupcake actually is a friend. Something tells me you two will get along pretty well. But for now, we’re running late, so I really need to get going.”


“That’s cool,” she said, looking from me to Aiko curiously. “I’m going to hold you to that promise, though, Jonny.” She tossed a mocking salute in my direction and sauntered out the door.


“Cupcake?” Aiko asked, watching her go.


“You stuck me with Shrike,” I said. “It seemed like the least I could do to pay you back.”


She snorted. “Let’s get going,” she said. “Oh, and here’s your stuff.” She picked a black duffel bag off the floor next to her and threw it at me. It clanked when I caught it.


Outside, we walked around the corner while Aiko looked for a good doorway to craft her portal in. Once she was satisfied, she started working while I pulled my armor and cloak out of the duffel bag and got dressed. I stuffed the outfit I’d picked up from Gosnell into the empty bag.


We left it there as we stepped into another world. One of my housecarls would be along to pick it up and deliver it to my supplier.


Rome was an interesting city. It had been around forever, pretty much, and every era to pass had left its mark on the city. Driving south from Milan, it felt like we were traveling through time as much as space. Most of the city was firmly in the modern era, but every now and then I glimpsed a building that looked like it had been standing since before the fall of the Roman Empire.


Rome was probably in the top ten cities in the world, as far as simply not being affected by the chaos. Not surprising, really. It had thousands of years of history behind it. In addition to giving the residents lots of time to build up defenses, it also gave the city a sort of presence, a sense of tradition. Even for the fae, Rome was an old city. Having been around so long gave it a sort of momentum, an expectation that it would continue to be around into the future. Nobody was going to lightly go against that weight of history, and if anyone tried it would probably go very, very poorly for them.


And that wasn’t even mentioning the church. The Catholic Church didn’t have the power it once had—it wasn’t the single most powerful organization in Europe, the way it was for a lot of the medieval and Renaissance period. But they still had quite a bit of clout. Probably more now than before, now that I thought about it. With how bad things were right now, I was guessing a lot of people would have turned to religion to try and make sense of a world that seemed to have gone mad.


For a moment, I wondered what would happen if we were to walk up to the Vatican and start doing obviously magical things. Would they take us more or less seriously there than elsewhere? Hell, maybe they’d try to exorcise us. There was something bizarrely amusing about the thought of a priest doing a full vade retro satana on Aiko.


It probably wouldn’t work, of course. They had armed guards there. They probably had some competent mages, too; magic and religion had always gone hand-in-hand, in one way or another. But it was an amusing mental image.


Not that it mattered, because we weren’t going to the Vatican right now. That was entirely the wrong sort of venue for a meeting like this.


No, we were going to the Colosseum. The history and the atmosphere there were much more to a vampire’s liking than one of the strongest religious centers in the world, I was guessing. I wasn’t entirely certain whether vampires were actually repelled by religious faith, but it seemed likely enough. I’d seen the effect it could have on demonic spirits, and my understanding was that vampires were similarly vulnerable to ideas which were inimical to their nature.


The Colosseum was closed, of course. It was almost midnight, and visiting hours had ended with dusk. There was basically a citywide curfew when the sun went down, the same as in most cities, and for good reason. Less affected by the chaos wasn’t the same thing as unaffected, after all, and scary things came out to play under cover of night. Things like vampires, and demons, and us.


Visiting hours had never been much of a deterrent to Aiko or me, though. She parked the rented car in the middle of the huge, empty lot, and we walked over to the ancient building. We probably could have gotten in through the public entrance—I’d never met the lock that could keep Aiko out indefinitely, and if all else failed I could just cut my way in—but that might have attracted the wrong kind of attention. And in any case, it wouldn’t have been nearly as dramatic as what we were intending.


We’d had a week get ready for this meeting. The entrance we had planned was appropriately grandiose.


We walked over to the exterior wall, still standing tall despite the almost two millennia weighing down on it, and started climbing.

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