Monthly Archives: December 2015

Building Bridges Epilogue 12

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Walking was hard. I hadn’t fully learned how to control this body yet. Fenris had told me that it would feel natural in time, but until then I was more or less stuck with it.


Fenris had told me a lot of things. I hadn’t understood most of them. I lacked the context to make sense of them, and explaining things was hardly his strong suit.


I saw the group gathered up ahead. I didn’t approach. Not yet. There were too many unknowns. It had, apparently, been a while. A week for me to regain consciousness, according to Fenris. Another week to begin to grasp what I was, and how to function now that I was…different. He had done what he could to mitigate the time lost, but there were limits.


A lot could happen in two weeks.


I watched, though. It was fun, in a macabre way. And there were plenty of eyes for me to look through.


Not so long ago at all, I would have had a hard time doing so without them being aware of my presence. I tried to use a light touch, but actually going unnoticed? That would have been difficult, probably impossible with some of them.


I’d learned some new tricks since then. This one was simple, although not easy to describe. It was a matter of potential. All I had to do was be something that could be present, rather than something that actually was. It was very hard to detect something that only existed in theory. Doing it that way also made the sensory information I got back fuzzier, but with so many sources to draw on, the resulting gestalt image was still clear.


I doubted I could have learned that particular trick, before I was forcibly separated from my body. It wasn’t a concept that human minds were suited to grasping. Having now given up any vestiges of humanity that might have remained to me, I found it a surprisingly easy thing to learn.


I’d learned a lot, in the past week. It had, on the whole, not been worth it.


I stood there for an hour or so while the funeral wrapped up. No one bothered me. Probably no one even noticed me. There wasn’t a whole lot to notice, really. I wasn’t moving, not even a little bit. I had to keep reminding myself to breathe.


Fenris had assured me that it would get to be natural at some point. Eventually I would no longer need to make an active attempt to breathe. Like a lot of the other things I’d always taken for granted, it would eventually become second nature again. Until then, there wasn’t much I could do but keep dealing with the annoyance.


As the group started splitting up, I walked away. It was slow, but I’d given myself time. I was out of sight around the corner before they were anywhere close to me.


I wasn’t sure which direction Aiko and Snowflake were going to go. So I gave them a nudge. It was nothing big. Just a very gentle, very delicate tugging on Snowflake’s mind, a slight preference to walk in one direction rather than another. At the same time, I swept the snow into a slightly different position, one that pointed in my direction.


I was kind of amazed at how easy that was. I remembered when physically manipulating snow and ice had been difficult, even exhausting. Now it was…simple. It was barely harder to do it than to think about it. The hard part was just getting it exactly right, since I had only a vague sense of what I was doing. I had a vague impression of where the snow was, but I couldn’t actually see it. While it had gotten easy to do, I still couldn’t multitask well enough to do it and also process input from animals for my vision.


They started walking in my direction, though, splitting off from the rest. I wasn’t entirely sure how much of that was luck and how much was my intervention. It didn’t really matter.


It took a few minutes for them to reach me. They were moving fairly slowly. I wasn’t surprised by that. It would have been odd for them to move quickly, in that context.


I’d spent a fair amount of time, over the past week, thinking about how to handle this conversation. I hadn’t come up with much. There were some things you couldn’t say well. I could have tried some kind of clever way of getting at it, but that had never really worked out for me. So in the end, I’d settled on the direct approach.


Aiko didn’t look surprised when I stepped out in front of her. Snowflake didn’t either, although she did at least look upset.


“Hi,” I said.


“You have three seconds to explain before I kill you,” Aiko said. Her voice was calm and cheerful, and she had a quiet half-smile playing about her lips. She didn’t sound like she was joking.


“I’m only mostly dead,” I said hastily.


“That’s funny,” she said. She had that same half-smile, the same joking tone, but there was something underneath that wasn’t funny at all. I had seldom, if ever, gotten that much of a feeling of intensity from Aiko. “Because they shipped your body back to us in pieces. I just finished putting it in the ground, in fact.”


“I know,” I said. “I was watching.”


“Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?” she said. “So maybe, if you’re so magnificently well-informed, you can explain to me how it is that you’re still up and walking when your body is really most sincerely dead.”


Rather than answer, I held up my hand, and stopped concentrating on it.


The illusion of flesh faded, revealing what was underneath. The basic structure was ice, with here and there a bit of bone. The “meat” was packed snow, and it was all held together with shadows.


She stared for a second, then said, “Oh.” That mocking little grin was gone.


“Fenris saved me, at the very end,” I said quietly. “But his options for doing so were…limited. He couldn’t get me out as what I was. So he took my…essence, or soul, or whatever word you want to use for it.”


“Your heart,” she said. “It was missing.”


I nodded. “The heart isn’t important, really. But it’s a symbol.” I resumed concentrating, and my hand took on the appearance of a hand. Skin, with flesh and blood and bone underneath. It was an imperfect mask, at best. Apparently that was another thing I’d get better at, as time went on. “He held me together long enough for me to learn how to do it myself. Apparently I can’t go back to my original body, so I put this together instead.”


“And why did you not contact me about any of this?”


I snorted. “Maybe because I was ripped apart down to my soul, and it turns out that coming back from that is actually pretty hard? It wasn’t until yesterday I even figured out how to walk.”


“It’s really you,” she said quietly.


“Yeah. It really is.”


Aiko was silent for about half a second after that. Then she tackled me to the ground, squeezing as tightly as she could. Snowflake pounced a second later, licking my face and wagging her tail and generally seeming much more doglike than usual in her excitement. She hadn’t said a word so far, but now that she was opening her mind to me I could feel her relief, so raw and intense it was almost painful.


It was a bit of a challenge to hold myself together. Snow wasn’t naturally good at holding up under pressure, and it was hard to force things against their nature. It wasn’t a huge problem; this body was a convenience, more than a necessity, and if it were broken I could easily make another. But I figured that hugging me until I crumbled would probably not a great first experience after hearing that I wasn’t quite dead after all.


They didn’t let me up for a solid minute. When they finally did, I sat up, surreptitiously fluffing the snow back out and freezing the cracked ice together again. Once I tugged the casual clothes I’d stolen back into place, I looked as good as new.


“I was expecting it to be harder to convince you,” I commented. “I mean, I was ready to spend an hour exchanging passwords and doing proof of identity stuff.”


Aiko shook her head. “I’d have known if you were lying.”


I paused. “How?”


“Um,” she said uncomfortably. “That’s a long story.”


“I’ve got some time,” I said dryly.


“Well, here’s the thing,” she said. “When I thought those fuckers had killed you, I wasn’t about to let them get away with it. But if they’d taken you down that easily, I needed a hell of a lot more power to beat them.”


“Makes sense,” I said. I’d have been getting a sinking feeling in my guts, if I had any. I’d always known that Aiko might do something reckless if something bad happened to me. I just hadn’t expected to be around to deal with the consequences afterward.


“I didn’t have all that many options for how to get it,” she said. “But…you remember what Scáthach said? About how I had the potential to take her role?”


“I thought we arranged for her to die in a way that that couldn’t happen.”


“Turns out she wasn’t actually dead,” Aiko said. “She just really wished she was. Anyway, I figured that would be enough power to make a decent try at it. So I looked into it, and…well…the position was still open.”


“So let me get this straight,” I said slowly. “I’m a partially disembodied entity that might be transforming into some sort of deity of cold and predation. And you’re the Maiden of the Midnight Court, the youngest Queen of the Unseelie Sidhe.”


“That sounds about right,” she said.


I sighed. “We are so utterly fucked,” I said.


She shrugged. “We’re alive,” she said. “So I figure we’re doing all right.”


“True enough,” I said. “Well, are you about done here? It sounds like I’ve got a lot of catching up to do.”


You have no idea, Snowflake said, butting her head against my thigh. Let’s go home.

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Building Bridges 12.30

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The next time I woke up, I was actually awake. I knew I was awake, because I felt too shitty for it to be a dream. My leg was throbbing; I’d almost forgotten that I’d been shot.


My subconscious had a point about that, if nothing else. I’d gotten complacent. I’d assumed that just because I’d beaten some big people, I no longer had to worry about the small ones. You’d think that I, of all people, would know better than to discount the threat things like guns could pose.


Beyond that, I couldn’t really say much about my surroundings. It was dark, and I was tied down to something hard and flat. I could hear what sounded like a heating or ventilation system in the background, and my leg was tied with some sort of tourniquet.


That meant two things. First, it meant that they didn’t want me dead yet. Second, it meant that they didn’t care too much about how long I stayed that way. Tourniquets weren’t something you used on people you cared about, not unless the alternative was imminent death. It probably wasn’t a huge danger for me, but for a human it could be a literal death sentence if they didn’t get lucky.


There was no one in the room, and I couldn’t smell anything beyond a faint scent of must and disuse.


I debated waiting to see what happened next for about a second and a half. Then I remembered the dream I’d just had. Or vision, or whatever the hell I was supposed to call that. I wasn’t even sure.


Waiting wasn’t a good idea. If I waited, it might be too late before I even knew what was happening. A good card was no better than a bad one if I never played it.


“Loki,” I said. Luckily they hadn’t bothered gagging me. I could have gotten his attention without talking, of course, but this was simpler. “Loki, Loki. Come on, I know you’re listening.”


For once, I had some warning that he was about to show up. It turned out that Loki’s eyes didn’t just look like wildfires, they actually cast light. It wasn’t enough to stand out most of the time, but in a completely dark room, it was pretty noticeable.


“Obviously I’m listening,” he said, somewhere behind me. “You didn’t think I wouldn’t notice this, did you?”


“Nope,” I said. “So what’s the deal? What do I have to pay to get out of this?”


He considered me in silence for a few seconds, then said, “No.”


I paused. “No?”


“No,” he said again. “I’m not really interested in helping you this time. See, I think you’ve been getting too reliant on my help. So this time, you don’t get it.”


“You still owe me some answers,” I said.


“I do,” he agreed. “But do you really want to use them on this after I’ve made my opinion on the matter clear? I recommend you think carefully before you answer that question.”


I gritted my teeth. “All right, then,” I said, trying and failing to keep my voice calm. “Disregarding deals entirely, is there anything you just want to tell me?”


The room was silent for a moment. “You can’t go back,” Loki said at last. “Your choice, then, is whether you take the next step forward or this marks the end of your path. Either way, rest assured that I’ll be watching.”


And then the fires went away, and the room was dark again.


After Loki left, I spent a while testing my bonds myself, in various ways.


I didn’t make much progress. I was tied down quite thoroughly; I couldn’t move anything other than my head, and even then my range of motion was sharply limited. I wasn’t entirely sure what I was secured with, but judging by feel it was a combination of rope and manacles. I could conceivably have just torn myself free by main force, but in my current position it wasn’t going to happen. I was pretty strong, but I still needed leverage and positioning.


I considered trying to do something with Tyrfing, but I didn’t have the mobility to pull it off. I could get the sword, I was fairly confident of that, but for all its power, Tyrfing did still require someone to move it. I couldn’t even twitch my wrist enough for that.


Magic wasn’t going to get me much further. There was no silver disrupting my power, which was a nice change. Considering Jason’s specialty, though, it wasn’t a huge surprise that I couldn’t manage much anyway. Trying to gather power was like trying to empty a bathtub with a funnel, and the harder I tried, the harder it got. Getting enough together to do something dramatic, like unlock the manacles or tear the ropes, was out of the question.


I could, however, manage enough for a more natural application. After a minute or two of trying, I slipped out of my body and went looking for another host.


It was harder than it should have been, and not just because of whatever Jason had done. The nearest animal was, as far as I could tell, several hundred feet away at the least. That was unusual, in my experience. Most of the time there was something closer than that, even if it wasn’t something I could really use. A few rodents, a stray cat, some pigeons, something.


When I did make contact, I got another shock. The animals around here were not the sort that you typically found in the city. Far from it. There were a couple of foxes and coyotes, which wasn’t that unusual. But there were also a few wolves and a freaking grizzly bear, which were unusual and then some.


Sifting through their senses, I got a sort of gestalt impression of the area. It was a wilderness, which wasn’t that much of a surprise after the selection of animals I’d felt. The hills were forested and rocky, and there was a cold stream not too far away.


After a few seconds, I realized that I was underground. That explained why there were no animals closer to me, at least. It made sense, too. Jason was obviously pretty well prepared for all this, and keeping me away from animals was one of the first steps someone would logically take to keep me imprisoned somewhere.


It did present a bit of a problem for me, though. I didn’t have enough time to figure out a solution—if there was a solution—before I heard the door open.


A second later a fluorescent light turned on, and I saw Jason and Reese step into the room. Or, rather, closet. It was barely bigger than the table I was tied down on.


More surprisingly, I also saw that there was a steel circle set into the floor around me. An enormously intricate design was laid down outside of that, a mix of geometric designs and runes in a wide variety of metals.


It was, I realized, a ritual circle, the basic structure of a major piece of magic. Probably part of the purpose was just to support whatever Jason had done to shut me down, but it would also serve as the setup for whatever the hell else he had planned.


I got a sinking feeling when I realized that. Somehow, I’d been planning on having an opportunity while they moved me to wherever they had it all set up. In hindsight, that had been a silly expectation. That would introduce another possible point of failure for no apparent reason. It wouldn’t have been a very smart plan, and so far Jason seemed to be pretty damned good about avoiding stupid mistakes.


He was holding a silver knife engraved with more designs, one that stank of magic to a ridiculous degree. The second I saw how he was carrying it, I knew there wasn’t going to be a final monologue and a last-minute rescue. Here in about thirty seconds he was going to walk over and kill me, as quickly and efficiently as possible. That was his style.


I panicked, trying to think of any way out of this. Nothing came to mind. I couldn’t win this fight, not in any world I could imagine. Even if I’d been able to move, I wouldn’t have put money on myself here. I still hadn’t seen what Reese was capable of, beyond throwing up a portal with impressive speed. I hadn’t, however, overlooked the fact that Jason had chosen him to bring with, while the fire mage was left to be torn to shreds covering their escape. Based on that alone, I was guessing that Reese was nobody to take lightly.


Fighting was out. Running was out; again, even if I could have moved, it wouldn’t have been likely. Not with them between me and the only way out. I’d established extremely thoroughly that talking wasn’t going to get me anywhere with these lunatics. The only help that could plausibly get here in time was Loki, and I didn’t see him going back on his decision.


I had nothing.


Then, very suddenly, the world froze. Things stood still. Jason was standing with one foot in the air, utterly still, not even breathing. Outside, I could feel that each and every one of the animals I was in contact with was frozen as well, even their minds paused in the moment between thoughts.


An instant later, someone was standing next to me. Or, rather, something. He looked generally human in shape, a tall and terribly thin man. But his human mask wasn’t very firmly in place. Things shifted under his skin, and his eyes were terrifying, pits of golden flame so deep it felt like I could fall forever in them. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something else entirely, a massive beast of darkness and hunger and impotent rage.


“I can help you,” Fenris said. His voice was shaking; the strain of holding us outside the normal flow of time was obviously telling on him, after just a couple of seconds. “I can…I can save you. But you have to trust me. Do you trust me, Winter?”


That was a big question. There weren’t many bigger. In spite of the circumstances, I took a second to decide.


In the end, though, there was really only one way I could answer. Most people would have said that it was a sign of utter madness, and they might have a point, but I genuinely did trust the Fenris Wolf. He might be a monster, a being of hunger and destruction, but to the best of my knowledge he’d never done me wrong.


And besides. I knew the game was crooked, but it was the only game in town.


“Yeah,” I said. “I trust you.”


Fenris nodded, and stepped up beside me. Time started up again as he lashed out, claws of darkness gathering around his fingers. I heard Jason screaming in cheated fury.


Those claws had to be unimaginably sharp. That was all I could think, oddly enough. They had to incredibly sharp. I never even felt the pain as they broke my skin. Just…cold.


A second later, Fenris ripped my beating heart right out of my chest, right in front of my eyes.

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Building Bridges 12.29

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I had seldom, if ever, seen a group of people that powerful taken that completely, utterly by surprise.


I mean, normally you didn’t. People didn’t get to be in that position by being caught off guard. That phrase had a pretty clear meaning, after all, and in the circles I ran in it could have a very literal one. Nobody wanted to go down as the guy that got shanked by some twit he never saw coming. That’s a crappy way to die. More so than most, even.


But for whatever reason, none of us had any warning that these lunatics were about to show up. Maybe that was sheer dumb luck on their part, or maybe it was because we’d all been extremely preoccupied with what was going on in this room. Or, hell, maybe they were just really sneaky. That would fit with the general theme, so far, of these guys being actually pretty competent, generally speaking.


Jason walked in, with that broad, smug grin firmly entrenched on his face, and took a seat at the table. More specifically, a seat not far from David, putting him uncomfortably close to me.


And he knew who I was, too. There was no question about that. Jason looked smug, but otherwise he could have fooled most people into thinking he was in the dark. His lackeys, though, were less capable actors. Reese was glaring at me, and the woman’s expression was even nastier. It was the sort of expression that reminded uncomfortably of the fact that this was a woman who, when she chose, was capable of leveling buildings by looking at them the wrong way.


I noted, absently, that the reaction of the people already in the room was fairly revealing. Most of the Guards just looked confused, like they weren’t sure what this meant. Razor was the rather predictable exception, looking distinctly wary from the moment they walked in the door. Considering that alertness was pretty much her thing, I’d have been more surprised if she didn’t look a bit nervous about them.


The mayor immediately looked at me, his expression practically asking Did you arrange this? Confirmation, if I needed it, that he knew who “Shrike” really was. Beyond that, nothing useful there; he was a bit player, here. Pellegrini showed no reaction whatsoever, as usual. Those pale blue eyes betrayed very little of the mind behind them. Andrews looked bored, and probably was bored. The little girl that smelled like fae, on the other hand, was openly delighted, giggling and clapping her hands.


The third faction, though, was most interesting to me, because if one of my people had told these nutjobs where to be, we were going to have some issues.


Unfortunately—or fortunately, depending on how you looked at it—none of them reacted in a particularly guilty way. Selene didn’t openly react, but then, she wouldn’t. With Selene, a good general rule was that she wasn’t going to openly react to much of anything. Jibril looked confused, and Kikuchi looked mildly annoyed at the interruption. Kyi reached for a weapon before visibly forcing herself to stop. On the whole, all reactions that were perfectly normal for the individual in question. If any of them was responsible for this, they were too good of actors for me to catch them out.


“What’s the matter?” Jason asked, once he’d at down and his two thugs were standing behind him. “Cat got your tongues?”


“You were not invited here,” the mayor said, when it became apparent that no one else was in a particular hurry to respond. Part of the difficulty with having this happen in this situation was that we’d just spent a ridiculous amount of time negotiating and jockeying for position, and nobody wanted to ruin that by effectively announcing that they could speak for the rest of the people present. It was easier for the mayor, since everyone knew that he didn’t really matter at all. He was important as a representative of human government, not because of anything inherent to him personally. The role was important; the person in it was effectively disposable.


“Oh, but do you have the right to tell me where I may and may not go?” Jason asked. “I think not. Justice neither has nor needs an invitation.”


“Justice also seldom exhibits such superb timing,” Pellegrini said. “Kindly spare us the hyperbole. This is a professional meeting, and not one which you have any business in.”


“Ah, that’s where you’re wrong,” Jason said. “You see, one of the people in this room isn’t half as pure of heart as you might think he is. Settling that score with him is very much our business.” He looked in my direction and smiled even wider. “Hello there, Shrike. Did you miss us?”


“You haven’t left me alone long enough to know,” I said sourly. “I’d like to find out, though. Why don’t you leave and come back in about fifteen years to ask me that question?”


“You’ve got a great sense of humor,” Jason said. “I’ve always appreciated that. It doesn’t change the fact that you’re utter scum, of course, but you do have some redeeming qualities.”


“He really does,” Aiko agreed. “I don’t know if humor is the first thing I’d have gone for, but it is a positive aspect.”


“Why are you wasting our time?” David asked, sounding tired and frustrated. I couldn’t blame him. We’d been stuck in this room a disgustingly long time already, and then this jackass walked in and started talking.


“Mostly just because it amuses me,” Jason said frankly. “I didn’t even start the banter until I’d already won. At this point it’s just running out the clock.”


There was a very short pause. Then David, sounding deadly serious, said, “Get him.”


What happened after that was terrifying, on multiple levels.


The first, and most obvious, was that multiple mages were trying to kill somebody in a confined space. The new Guards weren’t the most experienced or refined, but in a way that just made it scarier. Power tended to be a great deal easier than control, and being in the same room as a group of half-trained mages in a fight was not a comfortable thought.


So on that level, the response was immediate, predictable, and frightening. David whipped the air around him into a gale, Spark started reaching for fire, Crimson pulled out another loop of rubber and started opening what felt like a pretty sizable door. Between the three of them, a smart person would be feeling pretty nervous being in the same general area. I knew that, because I was feeling nervous, and at this point my fear response was calibrated to a pretty spectacularly dysfunctional scale.


But what happened next was even more frightening, at least from my perspective. Jason…did something, and all of that magic just disappeared.


I wasn’t sure how to phrase it more clearly than that. I had no idea how he did it. This kind of magic was so far outside my scope that I didn’t even have words for it. He just shut all three of them down cold, in less than a second.


After that, things started happening very, very quickly.


First off, people started going for weapons. It seemed like everyone in the room was reaching for some instrument of mayhem, even most of the mayor’s people. Apparently things had been crazy enough recently that even political flunkies had started keeping a knife or gun close.


Second, Reese grabbed me around the shoulders in a bear hug. I doubted he could hold me long—he smelled pure human, and at this point no human was really capable of taking me in a contest of pure strength. But for the moment he’d managed to catch me off-balance, and that was enough to let him grab me.


At the exact same time, Jason stood, moving fast enough to knock the chair over. He grabbed David, who was still reeling from having his magic canceled out, and shoved him into Aiko hard enough to send both of them sprawling to the ground.


All of that happened before anyone else had so much as stood up or finished drawing a weapon. I had to appreciate the speed and precision of their actions, even if they were screwing me over, personally. That kind of skill and coordination were rare.


In the next instant, the woman with them started blasting the room indiscriminately with fire. She wasn’t aiming to kill, I didn’t think; there wasn’t enough intensity or focus behind the fire for that. This was just a threat, forcing people to take cover and discouraging them from approaching her directly. It was the magical equivalent of spraying an area with covering fire from a machine gun; actually hitting people wasn’t the point.


At the same time, Reese opened a portal to the Otherside. It should have been impossible for him to tear the world open that quickly; only the very best mages were capable of that kind of thing, and nothing I’d seen suggested that Reese was anywhere near that level. But the impossible became possible when you had someone like Jason backing you up.


He started trying to drag me through the open portal, but he didn’t make much progress. I was braced, now, and he was neither strong enough nor skilled enough to make me move anyway.


Then Jason shot me in the knee.


I was wearing armor, but it was the set I’d gotten for my Guard identity. It was decent, but not nearly as good as the suit I’d gotten from Loki.


Jason must have been using a custom pistol, something heavier than most people would need or want, because the bullet punched right through my armor. A spray of blood came out the other side, and I staggered as my weight suddenly fell on a joint that wasn’t remotely capable of supporting it.


Before I could fall, Jason hit both of us with a diving tackle. It was timed brilliantly, hitting me right as I was losing my balance and carrying my weight out over the damaged knee. Something crunched and tore inside the joint, and I pitched over. The three of us fell through the portal in a tangled pile.


Normally portals didn’t do much to me anymore. Apparently this one was special, though, because the second I went through it I was out cold.


The next thing I was aware of, I was lying on my back in the snow. I was staring up at the sky, which was dark and full of stars. I could smell snow, and pine, and a cold, dry wind.


I tried to sit up, and floundered instead, ending up in a contorted heap in the snow. My body wasn’t suited to that movement, not at all. I was in fur, and I hadn’t realized it until that moment. Which, put together with some other things, meant that I could only really be in one place.


I rolled over and pushed myself up to sit on my haunches. I wasn’t in any particular hurry about it. I’d figured out what was going on by this point, and time wasn’t really an issue.


As expected, once I was upright, I saw myself. He was sitting in front of me, in a seat carved out of the snow. He was casually dressed, but he didn’t look cold. No surprise there. Even more than usual, cold didn’t affect us here.


Because this was, of course, not the really real world. This was a piece of the spirit world, a conceptual representation of me.


“Hi,” he said, once I was sitting up. “Been a while since I saw you here.”


I ignored him, looking at what kind of twisted mind games my subconscious had decided to present me with today.


We were sitting on a narrow ridge, barely wider than I was. In the physical world I might have been concerned about slipping, but here that wasn’t a thing that could happen. Thought and intent mattered far more, here, than physics. Accidents weren’t even really possible.


There was nothing else in sight. The ridge extended forward and back as far as I could see; to either side was nothing but darkness, with the stars blazing cold and white above. It was an unusually simplistic scene, all things considered.


“You’re starting to crack, you know,” the other me said to me. “I mean, seriously. You just got taken out like a total chump. They should never have been able to pull that kind of stunt. But you let them, because you keep trying to be things you aren’t.”


I glared at him. I didn’t say anything. I could have—here and now, the usual barriers to speech as a wolf didn’t really apply. But I didn’t feel like talking to myself, and he knew what I was thinking anyway. I mean, we weren’t really different people.


“Hey, don’t shoot the messenger,” he said, holding his hands up in front of him. “I mean, this isn’t my choice. It’s just the way things are. You knew better than to let Jason and his crew get close to you, and you did it anyway. That was a mistake. And you know why you did it?”


I kept glaring silently at him.


“Of course you do,” he said. “It’s because you didn’t want to take the initiative. You didn’t want to give away what you really are to those kids. So I guess the question is whether it was worth it. Something to consider, if we survive the rest of the day.”


I looked away. I couldn’t argue. Of course not. If I didn’t agree with what he was saying, he wouldn’t be saying it.


“In the meantime,” he continued brightly, “there are a few things you should probably keep in mind if that’s going to happen. See, you haven’t spent a whole lot of time actually thinking about Jason. So now I have to tell you the things you already know but haven’t bothered to work through explicitly. First off, he’s not the same as the people he’s working with. There’s a qualitative difference there. He’s just using them, and they haven’t realized it. Right?”


I nodded, settling back into the snow a little more comfortably. I couldn’t really get tired, here, but a physical body was engrained into my way of looking at the world enough that it was difficult to disregard the habits when I didn’t have one.


“So the question is what he wants, and why he doesn’t want them to know about it.” The other me grinned. It wasn’t a very happy expression. “Now, I’m just going to list off some facts, and how you put them together is up to you. One, you’re still alive. Two, way back when Jason was first explaining things, he mentioned you killing his mentors, plural. Three, while you’ve got a considerable body count, there aren’t all that many serious mages on it. Four, you’ve only run into one person who does anything like this sort of thing, and that would be Jon.”


“Who?” I said, startled into speaking.


“Jon,” he said impatiently. “You remember, back when you met the Inquisition? The guy that tried to eat you? Look, I know it’s been a few years, but I’d like to think you could at least remember that. It was the first time you were kidnapped and tortured, remember? That should probably have left some impression.”


“I remember,” I said irritably. “I just forgot the name. Did I ever even hear his name?”


“You heard a name,” he said with a shrug. “Doesn’t really matter whether it’s the right one. Point is that was the only kind of purely energetic manipulation you’ve run into, at least as far as I remember. You get where I’m going with this?”


“Obviously,” I said. “I mean, when you draw the chain of logic out like that, it’s not hard. You think Jason knows that trick?”


“It would explain some things, wouldn’t it? I mean, it isn’t anything certain, but it seems fairly likely. Now shut your mouth and pay attention. There’s a reason that you’re having this chat instead of a wet dream, and it’s because this is important.”


I debated a smart remark for about a second. Then I shut my mouth and paid attention.


“You’re in trouble,” he said. “You really, really are. You’ve been treating these guys like a minor issue. They’re not. They’ve got the advantage on you right now, and the only reason they haven’t actually killed you is because it doesn’t suit their purposes. You need to start taking them seriously, right now.”


“Okay,” I said. “Take the people who are about to kill me seriously. Got it. Is that all?”


“No,” he said. “The important bit is this. You made your choices. They brought you to this point. Every step on the road, it was your choice. You’ve tried to stay on the fence, as witnessed by the fact that you were too busy being a Guard to deal with the consequences of your actions as a jarl. Eventually, you’re going to have to pick a side and go with it.”


Grinning, he reached out and gave me a shove. He didn’t have much leverage, at that angle, but again, this was the spirit world. Leverage didn’t really matter.


I slipped off the ridge into the dark, and fell, and just kept falling.

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Interlude 12.z: Holiday

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Alexis Hamilton


I never used to really appreciate Christmas.


Oh, I thought I did. When I was a kid, I certainly appreciated the materialistic aspects of it. When I’d grown up a little, enough to see it in a more spiritual light, I even thought I appreciated the religious and philosophical aspects. But I didn’t.


I used to think that the Christmas Truce of 1914 was a miracle. Literally a miracle. I couldn’t see how else people could have just…stopped fighting each other like that.


I understood the situation a little better, now. I’d been around to see some shit. I was still a raw novice compared to a lot of the Guards, but I’d been through some shit. And I understood why that truce would have happened, now.


War is hell. I’m nowhere near the first person to say it, of course, but it hasn’t gotten any less true over the years. On any scale, war is hell.


I’ve never fought in a war, exactly. But with Winter, I did some things that were sort of similar, and then since I joined the Guards I’ve done more. I’ve fought my share of battles. I’ve killed. Hell, even before I started working with Winter, I did some ugly things. With the gang, and then with the skinwalker. I’d seen more than my share of darkness.


It’s easy to let that wear you down. It’s easy to let it in. It’s very, very easy to let it become who you are.


You have to take a moment, every now and then, to remind yourself that it’s not. You have to remind yourself that there’s more to you than just darkness and violence. That there’s more to the world than that.


Even monsters can’t be monsters all the time.


That, to me, was what Christmas had become. It was a chance to feel human again. It was a chance to remember that there was light in the world.


I’d noticed that I wasn’t alone, either. It was a general feeling, among the Guards. It wasn’t even a religious thing, not really. Most Guards weren’t Christian; I was something of an oddity in that, in fact.


But the message, that was something we could all appreciate. There was a very powerful message to it, one that had a great deal of appeal to us. The notion that things were going to be okay. That sacrifice had meaning. That no matter how much people fought, no matter how appalling the things we did were, we were still people.


That was what Christmas meant.


I’d heard that as a kid, too, of course. All the songs and sermons about peace and brotherhood and love for all the world. But, in one of those odd little twists of fate, you couldn’t really hear it until you needed it.


I needed it tonight. Even if it was just for one day out of the year, I needed to feel like there was something more. Like maybe, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, things might turn out all right in the end.


I sat in the chapel and waited as the sun set and people slowly started to filter in. Each of them was holding a light—a candle, a lighter, a glimmer of magical light. I had my own, a spark of blue electric fire held in the air between my fingers.


There was no real signal for the song to start. One person just started singing, and then another joined in, until the whole room was singing. None of us were very good, and the song was predictably clumsy. But what it lacked in technical precision, it made up for in wholehearted feeling.


I added my voice to the chorus, with as much passion as anyone else. “Silent night,” I sang, in that dim, flickering light. I had tears in my eyes, and I wasn’t alone. “Holy night….”


Alexander Hoffman


The holidays meant different things to different people.


For some, they were a time of peace and light. They were a time when people came together under a shared banner, though they might loathe each other every other day of the year. They were a time of unity and overcoming the barriers between them.


For others, they were a time of stress and strife. They were a time when they were bombarded with advertisements and annoying music. They were a time when money was tight and the nights were long and cold and the cheer and merriment all around grated like salt in an open wound.


For some—children, in particular, tended to feel this way—they were a simple time. They were a time of joy, and didn’t need to be anything more complex than that. The context, the history, none of that mattered. They didn’t need to think about any of that. For them, it was just a time to be happy.


In my case, things were a bit more complex. I could appreciate the context and the history. I had, after all, born witness to a considerable proportion of that history. Christmas had been a part of my life for a very long time now, and my opinions on the topic had gone through a predictable amount of change over that time.


At this point, for me, it was a season for remembrance. A time to reflect on days gone by. It was a time to pause and think back on what had gone before.


It was one of the very few times I allowed myself to think about the past. After a hundred years or so, it got to be an easy thing to do. There was so much past that it could easily weigh one down. The human mind had not been designed to bear up under the weight of so much time, and it invariably produced interesting psychological results when it was required to.


This evening, I finished my work in the laboratory and set it aside. I went upstairs, turning off the lights behind me, and then went up to the second floor. It was slightly dusty. I hadn’t been up there in…oh, it must have been close to six months. Time passed so fast.


I started heating milk on the stovetop, then built a fire while it warmed. I finished making cocoa, then carried the cup into the other room.


I threw the windows open, with a low groan as long-stuck hinges opened again. I stood there for a moment, looking out into the snowy night, then went back to the armchair by the fireplace. I sat and wrapped myself in an old, faded blanket. I took another sip of cocoa, then grabbed an old, faded book from the table. I opened it, taking care not to damage the fragile binding, and began to read.


After a while, I realized that I was humming “Auld Lang Syne” to myself as I read the journal. Normally, I would have stopped.


Tonight I kept humming, and reading, while the fire burned and the snow fell and the cocoa got cold beside me.


Hours later, as the grey light of almost-dawn began to touch the horizon, I finally turned the last page and closed the book again. The fire was reduced to coals, and the half-empty cup on the table was cold to the touch.


I pushed the blanket aside and stood, moving just a bit stiffly. I walked to the window and once again looked out over the city. I very rarely felt any appreciable emotional response, anymore. But I felt a dull melancholy and the longing ache of a hole that had never quite filled in again, now.


“I still miss you,” I said quietly into the night, and then closed the window, and went back downstairs.


Kyra Walker


I walked in the door and my mother said, “I’m dying.”


I stopped and stared. “What?”


“You were about to ask me why I asked you to come,” she said, picking up a cup of coffee and stirring it. The bones of her wrist stood out sharply, and I could see her veins from across the room. At some point since I saw her last, she’d gotten old. “That’s why. I’m dying.”


“What’s wrong?” I asked. I sounded calm and uncaring. I wasn’t entirely sure whether it was an act.


“Cancer,” she said simply. “Anaplastic thyroid cancer, specifically. My understanding is that I’ll most likely be dead in a year. Probably less.”


“Ah,” I said. “And…you couldn’t tell me that on the phone?”


She sighed. “I know that we haven’t always been on the best of terms,” she said.


I snorted. “Or any terms.”


“Hush,” she said sharply. “I’m the one who’s dying. You can at least take the time to hear me out. We haven’t always been on the best of terms. That’s largely my fault. I’ve not done a very good job of accepting you for who you are.”


“You don’t say.”


“Hush,” she said again. “Kyra. I was wrong. I made a mistake. I’m sorry.”


I was quiet for a few seconds. “You know,” I said at last, “I wanted to hear that for years. I wanted to hear you apologize.”


“I wanted to apologize,” she admitted. “For a long time now. But there was always a reason not to. I could always tell myself that I’d do it later.” She was silent for a moment. “I’ll say that for the cancer, at least,” she said. “It’s made it much easier to convince myself not to procrastinate.”


“And…what? You think that just saying you’re sorry is going to make things better?”


She shook her head, smiling sadly. “I know better than that,” she said. “I can’t make things right at this point. I know that. I just…wanted to say that I was sorry. And ask whether you could forgive me.”


I opened my mouth, but she raised her hand, cutting me off. Her hand shook slightly. “Hear me out,” she said. “Now that I’m at the end of my life, I find myself thinking about the past. I don’t have many regrets, on the whole. But I should have done better by you. I know that I don’t deserve your forgiveness. But I had to ask.”


I didn’t say anything for a little while. She was content to sip her coffee and wait.


“You made some mistakes,” I said at last, slowly. “But so have I. We all make mistakes. I can’t say that you’re wrong. But…sometimes people have to get better than they deserve. Because otherwise, what’s the point of it all?”


After a second, she reached out and rested one shaking hand on my shoulder. After a second, I reached up and rested my hand on hers.


We sat and watched the snow fall together.


Nicolas Pellegrini


I had always been partial to the sound of bells. It wasn’t something I could entirely explain. It wasn’t particularly logical. There was no rational reason for me to feel that way. And yet.


Normally I rode in the back of a car that someone else drove. It was expected of someone in my position. There were good reasons for it. It was safer, for one thing. It was good for my image. I very seldom disregarded those reasons.


But today was the exception. Today was the day I reminded myself why I’d started this whole enterprise in the first place.


I still took precautions, of course. One did not achieve success in my field by disregarding matters of safety entirely, ever. I was heavily armed, with Michaelson on my left and Andrews on my right. Carrie was holding my hand, her fingers cold on mine. I was still quite glad to have reached a reasonable agreement with her. The fae creature was a great deal more valuable of an employee than her childlike appearance might suggest.


Our unlikely group walked through the streets, the snow crunching beneath our feet. All around, people were resting safely in their beds. Lights burned in many windows, but many others were dark. People tended, by and large, to go to sleep early on this night.


It didn’t take long for us to find what we were looking for. The man, wearing the typical uniform, was standing outside a grocery store, and just concluding his work for the evening. As we stood and watched, from just far enough away that he would most likely not notice, he rang his bell a few last times and then set it aside.


He collected his things, and then after a few minutes he left, carrying the money he’d collected. A considerable amount of money, enough to be a tempting target.


He started walking. He didn’t have a car. That was part of why I had selected this store. We followed him, keeping enough of a distance that he was unlikely to realize he was being followed. He was a charitable man by nature, and suspicion didn’t come naturally to him.


We followed him in silence for the next fifteen minutes, and I started to wonder whether I had guessed incorrectly.


Then another, much younger man stepped out of an alley, brandishing a knife.


Before he could do much more than that, we were on him. Andrews stepped up, with smooth precision, and plucked the knife out of his hand. Seconds later, Michaelson grabbed him and pinned his arms behind his back. Carrie and I were slower, but reached them within a few moments more.


“You were about to mug this man for money that strangers donated for charity,” I said. “On Christmas Eve, no less. You should be ashamed. If I hear that you’ve done anything of this sort again, I will find you and you will regret it. The only reason I am being this lenient is out of respect for the principles of mercy and forgiveness which your attempted victim preaches. Do you understand?”


The man didn’t react for a few seconds. Then Michaelson put a bit of pressure on the hold, jolting his captive back to reality, and he nodded frantically.


“Good,” I said, gesturing very slightly. Michaelson let him go. “Get out of my sight.”


He wasted no time in complying, slipping on the ice in his haste to get away. I turned to the other man in this little drama. “I apologize for the trouble,” I said. I pulled a folded hundred-dollar bill out of my pocket and handed it to him. “I thought I’d better wait to give that to you until we were out of sight. It seems I was right.”


He looked at the bill without comprehension for a moment, then quickly put it into the bucket he was carrying. “Thank you,” he said. “God bless you.”


Carrie let out a little delighted laugh, and Michaelson grinned. Even Andrews smiled slightly. I very nearly smiled myself.


“It’s a bit late for that, I think,” I said.


He shook his head. “It’s never too late,” he said firmly.


I didn’t bother disagreeing. Some people were beyond the capacity of logic to convince. “Let us walk with you the rest of the way,” I said instead. “In case anyone else gets foolish ideas.”


He looked a bit dubious, but didn’t argue. We walked with him in silence, escorting him until he was safely behind locked doors, and then turned away.


“It’s interesting,” Andrews said to me, as the others went to fetch the car. “Why did you this?”


“He was mugging people without my approval,” I said. “You know that I don’t allow criminals to operate in this city without my permission. It’s bad for business.”


Andrews shook his head. “No. This wasn’t just business. Otherwise you’d just have sent someone to take care of it, rather than coming yourself.”


I smiled, very slightly. “I’ve always been partial to the sound of bells,” I said.


Andrews also smiled, but didn’t say a word.


We stood in silence until I saw Michaelson and Carrie returning with the car. They stopped a short distance away, the headlights reflecting brightly off the snow-covered streets.


“I have to think that he’s right,” I said quietly. “That it’s never too late. I have to remind myself that not everything is business.”


“It isn’t?”


I shook my head slowly. “No,” I said. “Not quite.”


He nodded, looking at me thoughtfully. Then we got in the car, and we drove away.




There are few holidays, where I come from. With reason, of course. They aren’t exactly in keeping with the theme. Even the most macabre of human holiday traditions have an element of lighthearted joy that’s out of place in a Hellish environment.


Once per year, though, there’s a grand celebration, timed to coincide with their New Year celebrations. That one was, I believe, selected because it was the one holiday all mortal societies had in common, in one form or another. We’re a strictly equal-opportunity organization, after all.


On the surface, it was a twisted mockery of a holiday, just to twist the knife a little bit more.


It was the first time in a year that I’d been back, but it was surprisingly easy to adapt to being home again. There were some things you didn’t forget. It was like riding a bicycle.


This section of the domain called Hell was a bright, barren wasteland. The sun blazed brightly overhead, baking the dusty ground. The air was hot as an oven, and there were no growing things in sight. Not even a twisted shrub or cactus could grow here. There was no scrap of shade to give relief from the punishing sunlight. The air was utterly still, not even a trace of a breeze to bring respite from the heat.


Here and there, people and things were staked out on the ground. They were tied down with strands of lights and tinsel, to add that festive touch to suit the season. The lights sparked and burned, and the tinsel was maddeningly itchy and cruelly sharp. They were only marginally less horrid than the usual restraints.


I walked through it all and it didn’t touch me. The light slid away from the shadows on my skin, and my feet didn’t quite touch the ground. The embers falling from the sky and the sparks flying from the lights alike bent in the air to get out of my way, as though they were afraid to get too close.


There were perks to being a native.


My destination was a few hundred yards from where the portal had dropped me. The fortress loomed over the burning plain, all sharp angles and narrow spires of black stone and iron. The angles didn’t all come together in ways that made sense; anyone trying to map the building would have to have a very open mind and a decent understanding of non-Euclidean geometry.


The exterior looked smooth and featureless, but I was invited, and I could feel the entrance calling to me. I followed that slow, regular pulse to a patch of stone that looked identical to any other section of the wall. I stepped straight into the wall without a moment’s hesitation, and passed through it without any resistance. Had I not been invited in, the wall would have been a very solid barrier. When you had administrative access to fundamental physical laws, a thing like selective permeability was child’s play.


Inside, I was in a great, gloomy hall. High, narrow stained glass windows lined the walls, evoking the aesthetic of a Gothic church. The windows depicted very different scenes than most people would associate with a church, though. The vast majority were sexual or violent in nature; most were both. Not every part of Hell was associated with those themes, but this place was a sort of headquarters for those demons that dealt in flesh. It had been built to suit that demographic.


They’d changed the layout since the last time I came. But, again, I was invited. Navigation wasn’t an issue. I could feel my destination, and it was effectively impossible to get lost when every path lead where I was going. Again, having access to the ground level of reality made it disgustingly easy to pull tricks with space that would be nearly impossible otherwise.


I walked through the hall, up a set of stairs, and around a corner, and then I was there.


The room was large—not absurdly so, the way a lot of Otherside builders chose to make their buildings when they could warp space, but it wasn’t cramped. The enormous windows looked out over the vast plains from close to a thousand feet up, though I hadn’t climbed anywhere near that far. Black tinsel and violet lights gave the place a distinctly cheery atmosphere, although it might not have been seen that way elsewhere. There was an element of the macabre to this festival, after all. That was inevitable, all things considered.


The party had already started. It was a good bit tamer than one might have expected from such an event. The key was that everyone here had seen enough wild parties that it no longer had all that much appeal. They were something done for business, rather than pleasure.


So there was no pounding bass here, no mad orgies or drug-fueled craze. The music was gentle, an orchestra playing softly in the background. People sipped drinks, chatted quietly, or played cards. Even by human standards, it would have been seen as quite a tame party.


I accepted a glass of brandy and sipped at it, savoring the delicate, smoky taste. I couldn’t actually get drunk, of course. None of us could. Alcohol had no physiological effect on us. We’d been built to tempt others into doing foolish things, after all, not to be tempted ourselves. The drinks here were strictly for the taste.


I took my drink and sat on one of the leather couches. I sank into it slowly. A moment later an imp popped a black tasseled hat on my head, then flitted away, cackling. I swatted at him as he left, but I wasn’t really upset.


As I sat and let the conversation wash over me, I almost let out a sigh of relief.


And that was the reason these festivities were more than just a cruel joke.


Most of us enjoyed our work. Of course we did. The work itself was not unpleasant, at least not in my opinion—and that opinion was not an uncommon one, here. It was fun, interesting, challenging work, with plenty of variety. Not to mention that it was, typically, quite pleasant physically.


On another level, there was a pleasure to be had in a difficult task done well. There was a satisfaction in being good at things, and we were very, very good. The thrill of finishing a job that almost no one else could have was an incredibly rewarding feeling.


And then there was the context underlying it. We all knew how important our work was, how vital it was to the world. There was a satisfaction there, as well. The feeling of being important, of contributing something to the world, of belonging to something larger than yourself, was rewarding enough to border on being addictive. I should know; it was a lure I’d used on other people fairly often.


Taken as a whole, it wasn’t hard to see why we would enjoy our work. I didn’t have any difficulty seeing why people very, very seldom chose to quit, though they could at any time.


But all the same, there were limits. Everyone needed to relax, every now and again. Even the most dedicated of workers needed a break every now and again. Otherwise the quality of the work would inevitably suffer.


For us, this was that break. The jokes and decorations and parties aside, this was the time we set aside to stop and take a breather. It was the time we took to remind ourselves of who we were, and what we were, and most importantly of why we were.


Later, there would be other things to do. There were friends and associates I hadn’t spoken with recently, people I owed a visit. Coyote, of course, would be beyond displeased if I didn’t stop by his party as well. I had plans.


But for now, for this one moment, I just sat and let my breath out, as all of Hell did the same around me.


Edward Frodsham


I seldom used the banquet table. It usually just plain wasn’t needed. There weren’t many occasions I wanted to have that many people over, and when I did we didn’t often need a table. At a barbecue, people could stand around or sit on the ground. At a meeting, well, the same thing applied.


The only consistent exception to this rule of thumb was Christmas dinner. That dinner was more than a meal; it was an institution. I’d hosted Christmas dinner for the pack every year since the late nineteenth century, without fail. Come rain or snow or bloody conflict, there would be Christmas dinner. That kind of consistent ritual was important, I felt.


It drew a crowd. The whole pack was there, usually. It wasn’t required, but people didn’t want to miss it. That was close to fifty, right there, and fifty werewolves at that, which meant they ate for a couple hundred. Then there were mates, and kids, and a handful of friends who could be trusted not to make fools of themselves.


It was a lot of people. A godawful lot of people. I’d had to have that table built special, and the basement too, just to fit the damn thing. It wasn’t an easy thing to feed them all, either. It seemed half of town spent the days leading up to Christmas cooking for it, and there still weren’t usually leftovers.


I was the first person there, of course. Anything else would have been strange. I sat at the head of the table, and waited as people filed in and sat. They were talking, laughing, jostling each other. A lot of them had food of one kind or another.


It started to get crowded as more and more people showed up. People started pushing the chairs closer together to fit stools or overturned crates between them. A couple of people were even sitting on each other’s laps.


But no matter how crowded it got, one chair was left strictly alone. Nobody touched it, let alone sat in it. The chair at the foot of the table was empty. It had a place setting in front of it, and a glass of wine. I’d never cared for wine myself, but it seemed more appropriate than beer or whiskey.


I wasn’t entirely sure where the tradition had come from. I did it because my father had done it, and he did it because his father had done it, and before that, who knew?


But I always did it. It was what you did. You set a place and poured a drink for absent friends, so they’d know they had a place to come back to.


It was a silly little superstition. I knew that. But it was a silly little superstition that meant something to me. It was a way to remember those who wouldn’t be coming back. And it was a way to remember that there was a place for those who might.


After everyone was seated, I took a knife and cut the ham. On that cue, people started piling food onto their plates. Another silly tradition, although not one that mattered to me half so much. Most of the people here weren’t susceptible to poison anyway.


Hours later, when everyone was finished and gone back to their homes and it was just me, I stood and stretched stiffly. I walked over to the empty chair, and stood there looking at it for a moment.


“If you ever make it back,” I said, picking up the glass, “there’s a place for you. It’s never too late to come home.”


I poured the wine out onto the floor, and then went upstairs.

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Building Bridges 12.28

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The meeting room was small, and grey, and it stank of burned coffee and tobacco. I was reasonably confident you weren’t allowed to smoke there, and entirely confident that a great many people had ignored that rule.


On the whole, it seemed a disappointingly mundane location for huge decisions with sweeping consequences to be made. I was guessing it had never played host to a fraction of the personal and political power that was currently present.


In the role of Shrike, I was one of the last people to show up. David had decided that the Guards weren’t going to bother arriving early. I was…less than thrilled with this decision, but it wasn’t worth fighting him on it. I had a sneaking suspicion that a large part of the reason he’d made it was that he knew it would annoy me, and I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing how right he was.


There were three distinct factions at the conference table, although none of them was entirely monolithic. The first, and most straightforward, of the three was the Guards. David was the one representing them—or us, or whatever. But he’d brought all of us along, as a sort of show of force. Coming alone could have sent a lot of messages, ranging from confidence to weakness. As I’d expected, he didn’t want to take the risk of it being interpreted in an unfavorable way.


The second faction was mine. Selene was heading that one up, and she’d brought her own backup. Kyi was there, as was Jibril. Kikuchi was standing just far enough away from them to make it clear that they weren’t entirely together, and just close enough to make it clear that he was still more on that side than anyone else’s. More worryingly, she’d also brought Shadow. The mage was technically my ally, and she was the closest thing the local independent community had to a leader. But that didn’t mean we saw eye-to-eye on much.


The last group was, essentially, the neutral party. The mayor of the city was the focal point of that faction. He’d brought a handful of functionaries that I didn’t recognize. A little more disappointing—if not particularly surprising—was the presence of Nicolas Pellegrini. The crime lord had brought his own retinue in the form of a rather boring-looking man in a suit.


I recognized that man, and I wasn’t for a moment fooled by the appearance. His name was Andrews, and he might have been the most personally dangerous person in the room. I didn’t have a clear enough handle on how he operated to know whether he was a match for Kikuchi, or David, or me. But he was at the very least in the same general vicinity.


I was much more surprised by the other person with Pellegrini. She looked like a human child, maybe ten years old. But she smelled vaguely fae, and I could tell that she wasn’t a young girl. She was too calm, and her eyes were too old.


“Ladies and gentlemen,” Selene said, as Tony stepped in the door and closed it. Spark, rather, since were all using the ridiculous masks and fake names. “Thank you for coming. I am here representing the man you call Winter Wolf.”


“Why isn’t he here himself?” David demanded. Playing the role; he was technically my opponent here, and it would have been suspicious if he didn’t act like it.


Although really, this whole act was an enormous waste of effort. My people knew what was going on, and so did David. I was guessing Pellegrini knew who I was, as well; he was only human, but the man was sharp. Not much got past him. I was guessing the mayor also knew, since it seemed like David would probably have cleared my dual identity with him. Which, essentially, meant that the entire farce was being played for the sake of keeping the rest of the Guards in the dark.


It seemed a bit pointless, all things considered.


“He is otherwise engaged,” Selene said smoothly. “My employer is a man with a great many responsibilities. An urgent matter came up unexpectedly.”


All of which were, technically, true statements. It was probably unnecessary to keep it that way, since we were dealing with humans here. But it was good to be careful, and I thought Selene enjoyed the challenge.


“Are you implying that this meeting is not important?” David asked, his chin thrust out confrontationally. Body language had to be more dramatic to get the point across when your face was covered. I’d been acting that way for years, but I’d never quite realized it on a conscious level.


“I imply nothing,” Selene said in a quiet tone which still managed to convey quite clearly that you did not want to push her any further. “I merely state facts. And the fact is that I am here to speak on his behalf. That is sufficient for him, and it should be sufficient for you.”


“Oh, yes,” Pellegrini said, staring right at me. “I’m sure your employer’s interests are quite well represented here.”


I gritted my teeth. He knew, all right. More importantly, he wanted me to know that he knew, and he didn’t care too much whether he told someone else in the process. That had been a pretty subtle giveaway, as such things went. Probably none of the people who I wanted to keep in the dark would notice. But it was still risky, and the fact that he’d taken that risk said a lot.


“All right, then,” David said reluctantly. I didn’t think he was faking it. “Let’s get this over with.”


I stood quietly for the next hour or so as details were hashed out between the various factions. I had a whole set of signals worked out with Selene, but they turned out to be largely unnecessary. She did an excellent job of sticking to the instructions I’d given her beforehand.


The terms that were eventually reached were an excellent compromise, which naturally meant that nobody was really happy. I ceded—well, by proxy, but Selene had the right to speak on my behalf, so it ended up being a moot point—a great deal of authority over the human citizens of the city. The Guards took on most of the protective role that I’d been playing, and the mayor reclaimed his official authority. In return, they agreed to run any action involving the nonhumans of the city by me first. Effectively, we were splitting the governance of the city into two completely separate jobs, with only a cursory connection between them. Technically, while the representatives of one side would obviously be able to get an audience with the other, they had no more formal authority outside of their sphere of influence than any private citizen.


In practice, of course, the distinction was little more than a hypocritical act. I was the head of one side and a highly ranked member of the other. Pellegrini and I were still working together where our interests were in agreement. On the whole, there just wasn’t half the distinction between the two factions as these terms made it seem. But it sounded good if you didn’t know the real story.


There were a handful of more meaningful agreements. Jibril and his ghouls were officially recognized as an independent group, although one that was subservient to mine. It had taken a while, but I’d actually gotten him a seat at the table to settle out the rules of the new order, just like I’d promised. I got them to agree to a couple of smaller concessions, as well. Things like giving the relationship between a werewolf and the Alpha of a recognized pack the same privileged status attorneys had, and recognizing my people as having inalienable human rights despite not being anywhere near human.


And, naturally, I had to give some things up as well. It was a compromise, after all. So I was forced to agree to make my minions follow the law within the city, and my protection racket was getting a lot more oversight. I was still going to be collecting about the same amount of money, but now it was being treated as a part of the taxation system, with all the associated bureaucracy. So it wasn’t great, but it wasn’t untenable, either.


Of course, all of these terms had already been agreed on in advance. By the time any of us sat down here, the agreement had already been ready. I kept an ear on it to ensure nothing was changed at the last moment, but by and large it didn’t take a lot of my attention.


That left me free to split my focus between two other things, instead. First off was Snowflake, who was pacing regular patrols around the building. She didn’t notice anything particularly suspicious, and she was too bored by the negotiation process to even make fun of it, so mostly those contacts were just quick check-ins to make sure that things weren’t absolutely disastrous outside.


The second, and more interesting, was watching the people in the room with me. Pellegrini had his mask of professional detachment on, and his was very, very good. But Andrews looked just slightly too bored to conceal it. The fae thing with him as almost the opposite, unable to fully conceal the excitement it obviously felt.


Jibril was almost beside himself with joy at actually getting what I’d promised him way back when. He kept shooting grateful glances in my direction, and it would probably have been a dead giveaway if anybody had been looking closely at the ghoul. Selene looked just about the same as pellegrini, although she went for professional interest rather than professional detachment.


Most interesting, I thought, were the Guards. David gave the impression of being as fed up with this nonsense as I was feeling. He was obviously bored, and just didn’t want to be wasting his time on this farce. Razor was watching everything at once—that was, after all, her particular trick. She seemed interested, almost fascinated, although it wasn’t particularly focused on the direction of the conversation. If anything she seemed more interested in some of the people who had come, including a lot that she probably shouldn’t have known enough about to be interested in at all.


I didn’t try too hard to discourage her. That was an ability that might be very useful. The fact that it was annoying to be on the wrong end of it was just more evidence of that.


Meanwhile, Chainmail was obviously out of his depth and knew it. He looked like a scared kid listening to the grown-ups talking about something he wasn’t remotely prepared to grasp, probably because he was. Spark was more cocky, arrogant. He wasn’t even paying as much attention to what was going on here as I was.


And then there was Crimson, who watched in studious, silent fascination. It wasn’t just interest, or ambition. It was like there was something in there that needed this instruction, any instruction, and when she got it the rest of the world turned off.


I watched them, and listened to the discussion, and occasionally shared a grin with Aiko or Snowflake, and the hour passed more rapidly than I was expecting.


Then, at last, we were done. The deal was still bare-bones, but everybody wanted the chance to think about it a bit before continuing. “Is there anything else?” Selene asked, tapping her stack of notes on the table to straighten it up.


And, naturally, the door slammed open. Jason walked in, in the same suit as usual, with a broad, self-satisfied grin. “Yes,” he said, staring right at me, as the woman who covered herself in fire and Reese stepped in to flank him. “Yes, I think there is.”

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Building Bridges 12.27

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“Who’s that?” Derek asked, staring. He was sitting on a couch in the common room, holding a car magazine. It looked like he’d been reading it until we walked in.


“This is Jane,” I said. “Peaches when she has her game face on. She’s going to be working with us.”


“She is?” he asked, staring. I could tell that he wanted to ask about the name—Aiko did not look much like a Jane, after all—but he didn’t.


“Yeah,” I said, like it was the most natural thing in the world. “We cleared it with David. Did he not tell you about this?”


“No,” Derek said. “He didn’t tell us anything about it.”


“Huh,” I said, with a broad, shit-eating grin. “I guess he didn’t want to get your hopes up in case things fell through at the last minute. You know where he is? We’d probably go let him know that she got here.”


“I think he’s in his room working on some paperwork,” Derek said automatically. He looked like he was still too busy staring to think clearly.


“Thanks,” Aiko said, in her best sultry voice. “It was nice to meet you….” She trailed off suggestively.


“Derek,” he supplied promptly, stammering a little bit. “It was nice to meet you too, um, Jane.”


“See you later,” she said, still with that sly, suggestive smile.


That lasted all the way until the stairs, when she broke down laughing. “Did you see his face?” she asked me breathlessly. “That was priceless. How new is that kid, anyway?”


“Pretty new, obviously,” I said. I wasn’t laughing. “It’s not funny.”


“Of course not,” she said. “It was hilarious. It’s been ages since I got somebody that good.”


“And if you can get to him that easily, what do you think will happen when he runs into one of the Sidhe?”


The laughter stopped. “Oh,” she said. “Good point.” She frowned. “We’re probably supposed to keep him from ending up as some faerie’s pet, right? Or vampire’s, or whatever.”


“Probably,” I said, starting up the stairs. “That seems like something you’re probably supposed to do for a teammate. Generally speaking.”


“Huh,” she said. “Do you figure we ought to get him laid, then? That seems like it’d probably help a little. He didn’t seem like the sort to pay for it, but maybe if he didn’t know we’d hired her we could make something work.”


I closed my eyes for a second, standing next to the door. “Let’s leave that for later, okay?” I said. “I mean, it’s probably not a terrible idea, but…bloody hell. This is why I don’t work with children.”


“Says the guy who just hired a bunch.”


I groaned. “Don’t remind me,” I said. “I’m already regretting that decision. Being the good guy is such a pain in the ass.”


“It’s adorable, though,” she said. “Now are you opening that door, or just fondling it?”


“All right,” I said, opening the door. “Let’s do this. It should be a fun conversation.”


The seventh and top floor of the building was set aside for our personal quarters. Theoretically I had a set of rooms up here, though I hadn’t really spent any time in them. I hadn’t had much time to spare since I started this work, and when I did have a few minutes to myself, I wasn’t going to spend them here.


The stairs opened into a sort of hub area with a dozen doors spaced out around it. Those rooms that were occupied had signs on the door with the name of each room’s inhabitant. The signs were paper, cut in the shape of flowers. It was the sort of arrangement they’d used in college. I hadn’t spent much time in the dorms, but I remembered them doing something very similar there.


That comparison made me smile for about half a second. Then it just reminded me of how young most of the people living here were. They’d have fit right in at a college dormitory, and instead we were sending them out to fight monsters. Granted, I’d been doing things just as stupidly dangerous when I was their age, but still.


I shook myself out of it and walked over to the door that said David. I knocked twice, paused for a couple seconds, then opened it.


I was a little surprised by how…normal his rooms were. It was sparsely furnished, not much more than a bed, a chair, and a desk. The desk had a laptop sitting on it, with what looked like an email client open. A half-open door on the other side showed a bathroom, which looked to be organized with military precision.


It wasn’t completely without personality. There were a couple of watercolor paintings on the walls, and some pictures on the desk. Photos of David and his family, it looked like. There was a picture of him and an elderly couple, presumably his parents. Another with him and a smiling young woman sitting on a park bench. She was wearing a floppy hat and a “I LOVE NEW YORK” shirt, and couldn’t have looked more like a tourist if she wanted to. The last photo looked like a school photo of a little boy. Next to the photograph of his parents, it was impossible to miss the resemblance.


I’d never really thought of David as having a family, somehow. It wasn’t a context I was accustomed to thinking of people in.


“Hello, Jonathan,” David said, minimizing a couple of windows on his computer and turning to face me. The desktop image was a sunset. It was a pretty typical photo to use as a desktop background, but I didn’t think it was just a stock photo. “Who’s your friend?”


“This is Jane,” I said. “She’s going to be working with us.”


He looked distinctly unimpressed. “She is,” he said.




He sighed. “Close the door, please.”


I did, stepping into the room. As the door closed, I felt a set of wards flare to life, so subtle that I hadn’t even noticed them from outside the room. They weren’t designed to prevent entrance, I didn’t think. Probably just soundproofing, making sure that this space stayed nice and private.


“Are you out of your mind?” David asked bluntly.


“Probably,” I admitted. “But no more so than usual. I know she hasn’t been offered a spot, but between your authority and the connections I’ve got I’m sure we can smooth over any issues with the Guards.”


“That assumes I want to,” he said. “Bringing her into this seems like a pretty terrible idea.”


“You know who she is?” I asked.


He sighed. “Think about this,” he said. “You really think I was going to start this job without reading a full dossier on you and everyone of importance that works for you? Of course I know who your wife is. Give me a little bit of credit, here.”


“Fair point,” I said. “But what’s your problem with it?”


“What are you even going to do?” he asked her. “Have you thought about that? Granted you have talents, but they aren’t much like the magic we do. The kids might not know much, but it’ll only take so long for them to catch on to that.”


“Easy,” Aiko said. “I’m him.”


There was a pause. “Excuse me?” David said at last.


“We already worked this out,” she said. “See, Jonny here has to be careful about what he does, since you don’t want any of these kids finding out who he actually is. Like you said, they aren’t dumb. If he shows off too much of what he can actually do, eventually they’ll put two and two together. But if they think I’m the one doing all the stuff he does, you get his talents and he gets to stay the dumb thug werewolf.”


“There is no way you can pull that off.”


“You might be surprised,” she said, grinning. “He’s good at doing his thing without anyone realizing he’s doing anything. And I’m really good at lying. I think you’ll find we can sell it better than you think.”


“Let’s assume for the moment that, against my better judgment, I go along with this,” David said. “How are you going to explain the fact that you’re always together? I’m assuming you are, anyway, because you sure as hell aren’t selling this story if you aren’t.”


“Way ahead of you,” I said. “See, Jane here is my wife. She’s been thinking about joining, but she wasn’t sure whether it was a trap. So I came first to check things out and see whether you were on the level. Since you’ve impressed me so much, I told her to go ahead. But I’m wildly overprotective, so I don’t want to let her out of my sight while we’re here.”


“You might be able to make that work,” he said after a moment. “Maybe. I’m still not seeing how we really get all that much out of it, though.”


“Well, here’s the thing,” I said. “Let’s assume, hypothetically speaking, that this is the only way I’m going to be staying here. I’m not doing any more work with you guys unless I have someone I trust to watch my back.”


“And you think the loss of your talents is such a dire fate that you can use it as a threat.” David smirked. “Well, don’t you think highly of yourself.”


“Oh, cut the crap,” I said, rolling my eyes. “You can’t really replace me, under the circumstances. You’re good, but everything I’ve seen you do is…mobility, support, and ranged fire, for the most part. If you have to stand your ground, your skills suddenly become a lot less valuable. And who else are you going to get to do that job? Derek could conceivably play the tank, but we both know he’s too raw to last five minutes there against a real threat. Tawny could summon something to do it, but nobody wants her bringing in things that scary on a regular basis.” I grinned. “Or are you going to argue that point?”


He said nothing, and he said it pretty loudly.


“Thought so,” I said. “That means that if you wanted to replace me, you’d have to bring in someone from out of town. Now, the Guards are stretched thin as it is, and mages in general aren’t typically good on the front line, so your chances of getting a replacement sent out are slim. So yeah, actually, under the circumstances I think if I leave you are in a bit of a bind.”


He glared at me for a few more seconds, then sighed. “You’ve got a point,” he said reluctantly. “As much as it pains me to admit it. All right, then. We’ll do it your way. For the moment. But if you can’t follow the rules, I’m dumping you both, and muddling through without your assistance.”


“Oh, don’t worry,” Aiko said with a wicked grin. “I’m real good at playing by the rules.”


“Well, that’s settled,” I said. “Good. Now, I’m guessing you’ll want to introduce our newest member to the rest of the team. Her name is Peaches when we’re in the field, by the way. Then you’ve got a meeting at three.”


“I do?”


“Yep,” I said cheerfully. I was grinning almost as broadly as Aiko. “With me, in fact. Though I’m going to send a proxy instead at the last minute. I’m sure it’ll be terribly insulting. Try to act surprised.”


“You aren’t remotely as funny as you think you are,” David said sourly.


“Oh, I know,” I assured him. “But the funny thing is, it’s more or less a self-perpetuating cycle. All those years I spent just having this shit inflicted on me, I’d have said that I’d never be such a jackass myself. But now that I’ve got the chance to be on the other side of it, it’s actually surprisingly fun. Anyway, do you want to go ahead and get those introductions taken care of? You’ll want to have plenty of time to get ready for your meeting, after all. Plus Peaches here has to have a chat with the PR department. I’m looking forward to that one, myself.”


David took a deep breath and let it out, looking like he very much wanted to strangle me and was having to remind himself of all the ways that was a bad idea. “Yes,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Let’s.”

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Building Bridges 12.26

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“Guess what,” I said as I walked into the building. “I just got us a fairly solid agreement with Lucius, and a bunch of new recruits. I think at least a hundred. We’ll have an exact number pretty soon.”


Selene stared at me. “How did you manage that?”


“Well,” I said, “there were a bunch of people that were volunteering to be fed upon by vampires just to get out of their shitty lives. Teenagers that didn’t want to follow in their parents’ footsteps, for the most part. So now they’ll come and work for me instead.”


She closed her eyes with a pained expression. “You recruited a hundred teenagers that have no idea what they’re doing,” she said.


I grinned. “Yep. I’m sure you can guys can train them. They’ll start showing up…probably tomorrow or the next day. Oh, and I’m guessing a lot of them don’t speak English. There’ll be interpreters for you.”


She winced. “You enjoy this, don’t you?”


“Yep,” I said again, still grinning. “It’s strangely satisfying to inflict this kind of suffering on someone else. Kind of gives me a different perspective on all the times I’ve been on the short end of the stick.” I walked past her and lounged in my throne. “Anyway, news from here?”


“We’ve got a message from the Guards,” she said. “They’re doing their full public announcement next week. We’ve also got final version from the Denver pack about that statement they want to make. It looks fine as far as I can tell, but I’ve set it out for you to look over before we confirm it. Alexander confirmed receipt of his payment, so we’re square with him. On that note, Tindr also wants to go over finances with you. Especially if we’re hiring that many new people. Do they want paid?”


“Probably, yeah,” I said. “Tell Tindr to start budgeting for it. I’m also going to angle for regular payments from Lucius, which should do something to cover it. Oh, and also send a message to the Guards. I want to have a meeting with them to settle the details of who’s responsible for what in the city. Make sure the mayor’s invited, too.”


“Aren’t you a part of the Guards now?” she asked.


“Yeah. Sort of.”


“So they’ll be expecting you to be there as part of their delegation.”


“Yep,” I said. “Probably. Should be lots of fun. Anyway, go ahead and write that up. You know how to make it sound nice and respectful.”


She looked at me for a moment, then shrugged in a way that said your funeral. “Will do. Anything else?”


“Make sure Kyi knows that the new people will be coming in,” I said. “You two and Tindr need to figure out how we’ll be integrating them into the organization. Things like housing, civilian life, training, all of it. Assume they have zero support structure here. Some of them will probably have useful skills, but we won’t know what they are until they get here. Also, add Jibril and Kikuchi to the list of people that are invited to that meeting with the Guards.”


“At this rate I’ll have to start taking notes,” she said, in a tone of mixed annoyance and amusement.


“You’ll cope,” I said cheerfully. “What’s next, what’s next…oh, yeah. I have a video I want you to deliver to the Conclave, just in case these nutjobs want to accuse me of attacking them. It’s always good to get your side of the story in first. And…I think that about wraps it up. I think it should be enough to keep you busy.”


“And then some,” Selene said. “And what will you be doing while we’re putting all this together?”


“Talking to the Guards,” I said. “Have to keep my other persona up, and it’s been a while since they saw much of me. I suppose I should also check in on the person Aiko hired. The one that Crimson brought through. Is she settling in all right?”


Selene shrugged. “Hell if I know,” she said.


“She didn’t run off, did she?”


“No. But even by the standards of the people you’ve got working for you, she’s…odd. I spent a while chatting with her while you were gone, and I didn’t really get much. What I do know is that she was a human originally. At some point, someone took her and dumped her in some Otherside domain. It remade her as what she is now.”


“Huh,” I said. “Any idea when all this happened?”


She shook her head. “None. Her understanding of time is pretty shaky. I’d try comparing her story to records, see if we can find out who she was as a human, but she doesn’t seem to remember much of it. Not enough to identify her, for sure.”


“Okay. Thanks for trying. I’m going to go and talk to her at least a little before I leave. She’s too powerful to leave as a total unknown if I can help it.”


“Good luck with that,” Selene said. “I’ll go and get started on this.”


The creature Crimson had summoned up was on the roof. Apparently she’d taken to spending most of her time up there, just sitting and watching. In an odd way, it was actually one of the most convenient places she could have chosen. She didn’t move much, and a casual observer could easily mistake her for a statue. It was like we’d added a particularly odd gargoyle to the decor.


February in Colorado is seldom warm, and at the moment it was particularly nasty, with gusting winds and a light snow falling. She didn’t give the impression of being particularly susceptible to the weather, though, and I wasn’t surprised that she hadn’t come in.


Aiko, Snowflake and I all went out to for this introduction. Aiko was there because it had been her choice to hire this creature, and I wasn’t about to let her off the hook on it. Snowflake was there because if this went wrong, it had a chance to go wrong in a rather amusing way, and we definitely wanted her help in dealing with it.


She was squatting on the edge of the roof, looking out over the driveway. She obviously hadn’t been moving much; there were probably two or three inches of snow on her shoulders and head. The bright little lizard I’d seen her with earlier was perched on her hand, seeming about as unfazed by the weather as she was.


I walked up and sat next to her, dangling my feet over the edge. It was a calculated move on my part. It made me seem more like her, which would hopefully help me establish some kind of rapport with her. It also meant that if things got violent it would be easy for her to shove me off the roof, which would be to my benefit. I could handle that fall easily, and it would put me out of her reach long enough to draw Tyrfing.


“Hello,” I said, as Snowflake padded over and lay down next to me. As a husky, she was about as comfortable in this weather as the rest of us. Aiko wasn’t, of course, but she was wearing a couple of heavy coats. She’d still complain about it later, I was confident, but she wasn’t in any danger of freezing.


“Hello,” the creature said, barely glancing at me. I didn’t recoil, but it took a bit of an effort. I’d forgotten about her mismatched eyes. “Thank you.”


“You’re welcome,” I said. I didn’t pretend not to know what she meant. “Do you have a name?”


She shook her head, the motion very slow. “Not anymore. I did. But I lost it. I’m not sure when.”


“Okay,” I said. “Well, is there something people call you?”


“No,” she said. “I never needed something. I don’t usually have someone to talk to. Except my pet, and it doesn’t talk back.”


“You mean the lizard?” Aiko asked.


“It’s not really a lizard. It just looks a little like one.”


The lizard hissed, as though agreeing with her. For all I knew it was. If it had come from the Otherside, that “lizard” might be smarter than anyone else here. Not that that was all that high of a bar.


“Well, think about it,” I said. “Maybe you’ll think of something you’d like to be called. If not, we can come up with something for you.”


“Okay,” she said. “I’ll think.”


This is surreal, Snowflake said. This whole scene, I mean.


Said the talking dog, I pointed out. Then, out loud, I said, “Is there anything I can do to help you settle in here?”


“No,” she said. “You’re very friendly. And we have lots of food. It’s quiet here too. I like the quiet. Is there something I can do to pay you back? I don’t like owing people.”


“For the moment what you’re doing is fine,” I said. “Just sit up here and watch, and let us know if someone who looks like they aren’t friendly is coming.”


“Okay,” she said. “I can do that. Tell me if you want me to do something else instead.”


“Actually, maybe there is something you can do,” Aiko said suddenly. “Can you tell us anything about the place you came from?”


“You mean the Badlands?” The creature frowned. “It’s cold. Colder than this. It’s dark. And it’s always windy. You can’t hear yourself think over the wind. But mostly it’s the bad place. I heard there are parts that aren’t cold and dark, but they’re all bad.”


“What do you mean by that?” Aiko asked.


The response was slow in coming. “It’s like…things don’t work,” the creature said at last. “You do something and it seems like it should work but it doesn’t. It’s because it wants to make you work for everything you do.”


“Why does it want that?”


“So you get better at things.” This time the response was faster, and more confident. “It wants to make people into things that are better at things than people. It made me into this. It makes other people into other things. But people would rather be people than be good, so it makes it so that you don’t get to choose.”


“Okay,” Aiko said, in an unusually gentle tone. “Thank you. That was all we needed. We’ll talk to you again later.”


“Okay,” the creature repeated. “We’ll stay here and watch.”


“What was that about?” I asked quietly, once we were inside the building and out of earshot. She might be able to hear us, of course—I had no idea how good her hearing was. But Tawny had said that she didn’t have a concept of self-consciousness, and Tawny would know.


“Checking whether I knew the domain she was in,” Aiko replied.


“Do you?”


She frowned. “Maybe. There are always…rumors. People talk about a domain that exists to create monsters. If you annoy the wrong person, or just get unlucky enough, you can get trapped there and turned into something horrible. Most of the time people don’t talk about it much, in case talking about it gets them sent there.”


“Huh,” I said. “Do you know anyone who’s actually seen this place?”


“No,” she said. “But then, I wouldn’t, would I? Not if the people there are trapped.”


“Fair enough,” I said. “Okay. Next thing on the list is going back to the Guards. I’ll see you guys in a while.”


“I’m coming with you,” Aiko said.


I paused. “You are?”


“Yep,” she said firmly. “You need some help integrating with what they’re doing, making them see you the right way. So I’m going to come and help you.”


“And…do they know this?”


“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “But I figure that if I show up with you, and you talk about how I’m a new recruit and David knew I was coming, he won’t want to argue with you.”


“That…might work,” I said. “You realize I’m going to make them call you Cupcake, though. Since you stuck me with Shrike and all.”


“No you won’t,” she said. “You’re going to make them call me Peaches.”


“Why would I do that?”


“Because then we’ll have Peaches and Crim,” she said. “It’ll be hilarious.”


Snowflake started laughing. After a few seconds, so did I. “Yeah,” I admitted. “That actually is pretty funny. A little funnier than hearing them call you Cupcake in the middle of a fight, even.”


“So you’ll do it?”


“Yeah, sure,” I said. “I’ll do it.”


Aiko grinned. “All right, then. Let’s go.”

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Building Bridges 12.25

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“I solved your problem,” I said.


Lucius smiled. “Is that so?” he said. “Do tell.”


“I found the people who were disrupting your operations,” I said. “And I convinced them to cut it out. You shouldn’t have any more problems with them.”


“Interesting,” Lucius said. “You know, I was really expecting you to kill them.”


“You said you wanted them dealt with,” I said. “They are. If they cause any more trouble, I’ll come back and kill them then. And they know it, too.”


“You really are an interesting man, Wolf,” Lucius said. “So violent, and yet at the same time, so reluctant to fight. And you found a way to expand your ranks considerably, all under the guise of doing me a favor.”


I shrugged. “That’s more a public service than self-interest,” I said. “I mean, look at who I’m gaining here.” I gestured at the wall of windows behind him, and the room beyond that. The party was over by now, the predators and their willing captives gone home. But there were still some unattached food items passed out in various places, sleeping off the drugs and blood loss and who knew what else that they’d subjected their bodies to.


I didn’t bother asking how he knew that I’d been recruiting. He owned this city. It was a reasonable assumption that nothing happened here without Lucius knowing about it.


He smiled. “That’s a fair point,” he said. “Well. As I trust that you’ll carry out that threat if they aren’t smart enough to take the mercy you’ve offered them, I believe that our arrangement is complete. More quickly than I expected, even. Well, then, it seems I owe you one.”


“Actually,” I said, “I’ve got a more concrete way you could pay me for this.”


“Oh? And what’s that?”


“You could tell me why the hell you wanted me to do it.”


“It needed done,” he said simply. “They were becoming an annoyance. It was getting in the way of my business.”


I snorted. “What, and you didn’t want to deal with it yourself?”


“They were expecting attack by a vampire,” he said. “They were ready for it. They were not ready for you.”


“You really expect me to think that you couldn’t have taken them on? You’re freaking ancient.”


“And I haven’t lived so long by attacking enemies who were prepared for me,” he said sharply. “Tactics, boy. Learn some.”


I shook my head. “I don’t buy it,” I said. “I mean, I saw these guys. I’ve got a pretty good idea of what they’re capable of. A weak vampire, somebody who was new to the game, I could accept that they were a threat to. But I’ve seen the way people treat you, and you don’t get that kind of respect without being able to take on that crowd without any concern. Not to mention that you could have just hired mercenaries to deal with them if you were really feeling nervous. Money obviously doesn’t matter that much to you—it’s certainly worth less than owing someone a favor. No, you wanted me to do it, specifically.”


He smiled thinly. “Well, well. Aren’t you clever.”


“Not particularly,” I said. “But I’ll figure things out given enough time. Now come on, spill. Why did you want me, specifically, to deal with this?”


“Curiosity, largely,” he said. “You’re…something new, I suppose, is how I would phrase it.”


“What’s that supposed to mean?” I asked.


“Our world is largely static,” he said. “You know that. It’s such a constant that it even governs how we use the language. Not five minutes ago, for example, you wanted to say that I was powerful enough to win against people who had trained and prepared specifically to fight me. But the word you used was ancient.”


“Well, yeah,” I said. “Because it’s accurate. The older you are, the more time you’ve had to practice, accumulate power, make contacts…do basically everything, really.”


“Yes,” he said. “Broadly speaking it is an accurate assumption to conflate age and power. But think about what that implies. If the only way to grow in power is with age, then logically the only way to become more powerful than your predecessors is to wait and grow older. But as you grow older, so do they, maintaining the existing power gap. Do you understand?”


“I’m not clear on when this turned into a political science lecture,” I said dryly. “Or how this is relevant. But other than that, yes.”


“It’s relevant because it produces a highly static, stratified social system,” he said. “One in which very little changes. It’s been…almost a thousand years ago, now, that I took over as the most politically influential vampire in the world. And there are still people that see me as an upstart, because social change is that rare in our circles.”


So boring, Snowflake said in the back of my head.


Privately, I was inclined to agree with her. Out loud, I said, “What does any of this have to do with you and me?”


“Well,” he said, “every now and then something comes along to shake up that static structure. Something such as yourself. Think about it, Wolf. You’re…what, half a century old? Less? And yet you’ve already grown into an appreciable force. More to the point, you’re not quite like anything that’s come before you.”


“What do you mean?”


“Think about it,” he said again. “You aren’t a werewolf, not precisely. You aren’t a human, or even built on a human chassis; you resemble one only very superficially. You aren’t a jotun. At this point you clearly don’t fit into any of the categories we typically sort people into, and so the question becomes…what are you? And more importantly, what could you be?”


“When you say ‘what could I be,'” I said slowly, “what do you mean by that?”


He smiled. It was the sort of smile that I could only describe as ominous. “Everyone starts somewhere,” he said. “Even deities.”


Aiko, silent in the conversation to this point, suddenly broke out laughing. “Are you saying you think Winter’s a god?” she asked. “‘Cause that would be crazy.”


Lucius shrugged. “God is a poorly defined term,” he said. “We had a much better appreciation of the concept when I was young…but I digress. The truth is that I don’t really know what you are or what you’re becoming. But any time you mix so many different influences, the results are…unpredictable. In this case, clearly, the result is something greater than any of the individual components. But how much greater is a question I’m not equipped to answer.”


“Okay,” I said, after thinking that over for a couple of seconds. “In that case…why aren’t you trying to kill me? If I have the potential to change your static system that much, then shouldn’t you want me gone?”


“Two reasons,” he said. “First off, I’ve always been something of a gambling man. Life would be terribly boring if we always knew what was going to happen next. Second, the truth is that I was fully expecting someone to do just what you’re describing years ago, which is why I never bothered with you before. But you keep surviving, despite all evidence suggesting that you shouldn’t. And those who try to end you frequently don’t. So why would I ever set myself up to be the next entry in that pattern?”


“Let’s say I believe you,” I said. “That would mean that everyone who keeps messing with me is…what? Curious?”


He shrugged. “I can really only speak for myself,” he said. “And since you did such an excellent job, I’ll even tell you exactly what my plan is. Would you like that?”


“Oh, I can’t wait,” I said dryly.


He smiled a little. “I’m going to be friendly,” he said. “I’m going to be pleasant and helpful, and not ask a whole lot in return. I will help you with your problems. And if you do become something greater, a power unto yourself, then I’ll have made a powerful ally at very little expense.”


“And if I die next week?”


“Then I’m only out a few hours,” he said calmly. “Which, in comparison to how long I’ve lived and how long I might live, isn’t much at all. But I don’t think that will happen. There are…oh, it must be half a dozen gods interested and invested in you, that I know of. And they’re far too interested in what happens to you to let it end now. No, Wolf, I don’t think my investment is going to be wasted. Not at all.” He smiled a little bit wider. It looked like a very pleasant, friendly sort of smile.


I shivered.


“Now,” he said. “I think that answers your question. Don’t you?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Maybe a bit more than I wanted.”


“That’s the nature of knowledge,” he said. “Well, it’s time for me to be closing up. I’ll keep you appraised of how your proposal is faring. Between you and me, I’d wager that they’ll acknowledge your territory and agree to your rules within…oh, about three days. Have a pleasant morning.”


I was not feeling very happy as I left. Given that Aiko was moving like she couldn’t get out of that building fast enough, and Snowflake was dead silent in the back of my head, I didn’t think I was alone.

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Interlude 12.d: Taylor Jones

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Eyes open.


I don’t see anything. Nothing but the same blank room as always. It’s a cube, five meters by five meters by five meters. Everything is white. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. White mattress on a white cot. White toilet. White camera.


It would appear a stark but otherwise innocuous room. But then the details start to impress themselves upon you. The padding on the walls and the floor. The fact that there’s no bedding. No toilet paper. No clothing. The bathing facility, next to the toilet, doesn’t have a faucet. Water pours down from a slot in the ceiling. Never very quickly, and the large grill of a drain is impossible to block with anything in this room. The water is always tepid. The air is always warm. There’s a window in the door, and it doesn’t open from the inside.


I stand and stretch, slowly. I make happy little sounds as I do, contrasting with the popping of my back. I’m putting on a bit of a show, but it isn’t something that really occurs to me. It hadn’t taken that long to learn not to worry about what the person on the other end of the camera might see.


If there is one. I don’t know how often I’m being watched. Maybe all the time, maybe only now and then. They change the schedule on a frequent and irregular basis, and they don’t tell me anything about it. It’s rather important that I not know.


I take a few minutes stretching. I start at my neck and work down, working each muscle nice and slow. Shoulders, then arms. Wrists, then fingers. Sides and chest and stomach. Hips, then legs. Knees, then ankles.


This is important too. I enjoy this part, but it’s important. They made sure I knew it. Always stretch after I wake up. Always always always stretch after I wake up. It’s important.


I know how important it is that I do everything right.


Once I’m done stretching, I feel warm and tired. I’m a little sweaty, a little sore. I think I might be getting sick. I’ve been coughing, sneezing, my nose has been running a little. I make a note to tell the doctor.


It’s probably nothing. Just a cold. But probably isn’t good enough. I can’t get sick. It’s important.


Eyes closed.


Eyes open.


My hands hurt. My neck hurts. I must have had another attack.


I stand and stretch. It hurts a little. It hurts to breathe.


I walk and crouch in front of the door. When I get to just the right angle I can see my own reflection in the window. There are ugly bruises on my throat, black and violet. They’re in the shape of fingers.


Looking down, I see that my hands are a little swollen. Inflamed, especially around one of the knuckles. I think that finger might be broken.


So. That’s what happened.


It’s been a while since that happened. I need to start my breathing exercises again if it’s going to be happening again. And I should make sure they cut my fingernails again. One of them looks like it’s getting out past the quick. That’s not good.


I can’t do it myself, of course. That would be stupid. It probably wouldn’t be a problem—nail clippers couldn’t cut very deep, after all, and even if they hit a vein it would only bleed so much. But probably isn’t good enough.


I stretch, paying extra attention to my neck. I always pay lots of attention to my neck, of course. That’s particularly important. But after the last attack, I know that it’s even more important now. There’s no room for mistakes.


Once I’m done with that, I feel tired. I’m hurt enough that my normal stretching routine is a struggle. By the time it’s done I’m flushed and sweaty, my heart going pitter-patter, and I want to go back to sleep. It’s not good to ignore that kind of feeling, so I curl up on the floor. It sounds better than the mattress right now.


I’m giving the camera another kind of show, now. I know that I look creepy when I’m upcurled. I love that upcurl is a word. I didn’t believe Doctor Mike when he told me that it was, but he showed me in the dictionary, and ever since I’ve made sure to use it. It makes him smile.


But anyway, I know it makes me look creepy. It makes me look inhuman. Between the constant stretching and the other things that had been done to my body, I can upcurl tighter than just about anyone. Add in the hairless skin, the scars and bruises, and I look like some sort of freakish monster.


Which, in its own special way, isn’t an entirely inaccurate description of my situation.


Eyes closed.


Eyes open.


I know right away why I’m awake. The door is open. That means something special, so I don’t start stretching yet. That can wait until later. As long as I do it, it doesn’t matter too much exactly when.


After a couple of seconds, Doctor Mike comes in. He’s wearing his special suit. Some people would say that it looks like an astronaut’s space suit. But I’d say that it looks like a positive pressure personnel suit appropriate for use with biosafety level 4 hazardous material, since that’s what it is.


“Good morning, Taylor,” he says, handing me a white keyboard. His voice comes through an externally-mounted speaker. There’s no direct connection between that and the microphone on the inside. There was really no connection between the inside of the suit and the outside at all. And with the materials it was made of, it would take quite a bit of work to make one.


I was very familiar with the specifications of those suits. I’d had a decent amount of input on their design, after all. The base was a standard hazmat suit, pressurized to be suitable for biosafety 4. But there were some other considerations as well, things that the generic design didn’t have to consider. We did.


I take the keyboard and typed a quick good morning. It showed up on the screen which was lowered from a slot in the ceiling. White text on a black background, like old DOS machines. I never used one, but I’d seen pictures. They’d had that keyboard specially made, as I understood it. Flexible plastic, minimal electricity provided by a very securely contained battery. It can go through the same biosafety precautions as the suits—the vacuum, the radiation, all of it. It can because it does, and it does because it has to.


“How are you feeling?” he asks.


sick, I type back. i think i have a cold.


He doesn’t bother pointing out how unlikely that is. I know very well that there’s no microbial contamination in here. We’re all very careful about making sure that it stays that way. But there’s always the potential for something to have slipped up.


Probably it’s nothing. But probably is never, ever good enough.


“I’ll make sure you get some antivirals,” he says.


thank you. and i need a nail trimmed. it’s getting too long. I hold the offending digit up in front of him. The nail is barely visible. Cut it any further back and it will sting and bleed and be generally no fun at all.


“I’ll have one of the guards take care of it later today,” he says. There’s no trace of humor in his voice.


I nod and type some more. make sure you don’t forget. oh. i had another attack the other day. choking. i’m going to start the breathing exercises again. vital capacity and residual volume.


“Thank you,” he says. “I was going to remind you. But of course you remembered.”


it’s important, I type. *important*


“Of course,” Doctor Mike says. He sounds very tired. “And…if it isn’t too much trouble, we’d like to do some testing tomorrow. Another experiment to see how your…condition responds to a heterodyned signal.”


I nod. it’s no problem. should be fine since i had an attack…was it yesterday or today?


“Yesterday,” he says. Not that it matters too much. After an attack I’m usually fine for at least two or three days.


okay then. you know where to find me if you need me. :p


He musters up a smile, but it looks forced behind his faceplate. I reach out, very slowly, and pat him on the shoulder. Gently. Making sure that they know I’m not having an attack, and this is just an expression of comfort.


And how hilarious is that, that I’m offering them comfort? But they often need it more than me.


“You’re an inspiration to all of us, Taylor,” he says, as though echoing what I was thinking. “The way you’ve held up is…well, it’s humbling.”


I smile, sort of. It’s not much of a smile, I know. I look worse when I smile than when I upcurl. No teeth. No tongue. how long has it been now? I type.


“Going on fourteen years now,” Doctor Mike says. “You’ve made it almost three times as long as anyone else.


of course i have, I type matter-of-factly. someone needs to keep an eye on you guys. you’d be lost without me.


“You laugh,” he says dryly, “but I think you might be more right than you know.”


i still remember the day i came here, I type suddenly. do you remember the first time we talked?


“Of course,” he said. “You were such a brave little girl. Right from the beginning.” He’s quiet for a moment. “No one so young should have to suffer so much,” he says at last. “Not that anyone should. But it especially shouldn’t happen to children.”


i know. it’s why i’ll never leave you. nobody else should have to do this. ever.


“Thank you,” he says, quietly and seriously. “Now. Is there anything I can get you? Anything that you’re missing?”


I snort a little. Anything that I’m missing? How about everything?


But that line of thought isn’t productive, and I put it aside. a priest? I type hopefully. it’s been a long time since Anthony left.


“I’ll try,” he says. “It’s…not easy to find one who can look past your unique circumstances, but we’ll see what we can do.”


preferably not one that tries to strangle me with his rosary this time.


“Like I said,” Doctor Mike says. “It’s not easy. Is there anything else?”


I hesitate, then hesitantly type a game?


He sighs. “Taylor,” he says. “You know what happened last time.”


I know. It was…such a simple accident. They were a little too slow to shut down the voice chat. They hadn’t realized that I was having an attack until after a few words already got through. That was back when I still had a tongue. Only a few words, but it had been enough.


please? I type. i saw an ad for a pretty awesome shooter the last time i got to use the computer. we can shut down all chat in and out. you can analyze everything i do in case there’s an encoded message. i just want to play a game.


He smiles a little. “You know,” he teases, “a lot of people would say violent games are the last thing we should let you have. Given your…condition.”


I sniff. those people don’t know what they’re talking about. i’ve seen their arguments. they were nonsense when i came here, and they haven’t gotten much better since then.


He laughs, and I smile. I’m happy to have made him laugh. Doctor Mike doesn’t laugh enough. Never has. “I’ll see what I can do,” he promises. “Is there anything else?”


I shake my head and hand him the keyboard. Then I snatch it back from him and type something else. thank you. i know how hard you try to make me happy, and i’m sorry it’s hard sometimes.


“No,” he says. “Thank you. Like I said, you’re an inspiration. If what I do makes it a little easier for you, that’s more than worth all the work I do.”


I smile. okay, that’s all. goodbye. <3 <3


“I love you too, Taylor,” he says, taking the keyboard. He gives me a hug before he leaves, my skin against the surface of the suit. To anyone else it would probably feel very uncomfortable. To me it seems quite natural. It’s been more than ten years since I felt someone else’s skin touch mine. There were some incidents not too long after I came here that convinced all of us that it shouldn’t happen again.


He leaves, and the door closes behind him. The screen retracts back up into the ceiling. It would probably be fine if it stayed out, but there was that word again. Probably.


I watch Doctor Mike leave, and then start stretching. A while later it’s time to lie down again. I want to be rested for the testing tomorrow. Not that I expect this test to amount to more than any of the others, but I have to try. I have to keep trying. It’s important. It’s maybe the most important thing of all.


Eyes closed.


Eyes open.


It takes me a moment to catch my breath. It was a dream. I know it was a dream. I knew it was a dream while it was happening. But sometimes if a dream is bad enough it doesn’t matter.


You’d think that the worst dreams would be of tests, or attacks, or the aftermath thereof. Scary things, painful things. Nightmares.


No. The worst dreams are the nice ones. Pleasant dreams. Fond memories. Things I took for granted, back then. Back when I could say I was Taylor and stop talking after that and it wasn’t lying.


I don’t remember much from before. I was only…seven? Seven when everything changed. Over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a mercy. Bad enough to be the way I am. Having something to compare it to would just make it cut deeper.


But I have a little. Things like…warm voices singing Christmas carols. Long blond hair that smells of lavender. Chicken soup when I got sick. Bloodying up my nose while playing with my big brother and everyone hurrying to comfort me. A hand to hold my hair out of my face when I was sick.


I know what I did, of course. I wasn’t aware of it at the time. The first thing I remember from that time is waking up alone in a jail cell and asking what was happening. That’s exactly the way I phrased it, too.


“What’s happening?”


“Where am I?”


“Why is there blood on my shirt?”


And endless such questions. No one was particularly inclined to answer them, of course. No one was particularly inclined to have anything to do with me. There’s something about a little girl soaked in blood and mewling piteous questions about what’s going on that unsettles even quite hardened people.


Eventually, I was brought out of the cell and escorted to another room. A few people talked to me there, while everyone else was forced to wait outside. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the people who stayed weren’t cops. They were doctors.


One of them—Doctor Jacobs, I think his name was—started talking about demons, and how this wasn’t this kind of demon but the other kind of demon, and something about influence and possession. Doctor Mike was the one to interrupt and point out that I didn’t understand a thing the older man was talking about. Except it was Intern Mike then.


We’ve both come a long way since that first meeting. In very different ways.


Doctor Mike was the one to explain, in simple words and gentle tones, that I had a demon in me. It would take me over and make me do things.


Had taken me over. Had made me do things. That was my mother’s blood. My brother’s. And no, they weren’t going to be okay.


I cried then. He held me, rather awkwardly, and then the actual doctor explained something else.


They didn’t know how to kill the demon, or make it go away. They’d tried, and all they’d managed to do was chase it from one body to another. But there was a trick to it. It could only move on after the body it was in died.


So they’d changed their approach. Instead of destruction, they’d started focusing on containment. Which, thanks to the nature of the infection, meant keeping the host alive. No matter what.


And now I was the host.


Fourteen years later, they still couldn’t get it out of me. They’re still trying, though. We all know that it’s only a matter of time before the demon manages to make me kill myself, or else I just die. People don’t last forever. When I’m gone, it could do a lot of harm before they next manage to isolate and contain its host.


The guards in their protective suits help me to lie down on the table. Doctor Mike slides the needle into my vein, then holds my hand as the drugs start to work.


I believe in God, I think, as the anesthetic agents start to do their work. But God does not believe in me. With the ketamine and propofol carrying me away, something about the thought seems strangely hilarious, and I giggle a little.


Eyes closed.

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Building Bridges 12.24

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Snowflake was, unsurprisingly, the fastest to react. Almost before I’d finished talking, she was lunging forward, clamping her teeth around Sarah’s leg and pulling. I could clearly hear the bones breaking, and the force mage hit the ground screaming. She tried to scramble away, and failed miserably. Snowflake was a lot better at this game than she was.


She could have blasted the husky away, of course. A solid hit from her would be enough to pancake any of us. But she was having a bit of a hard time concentrating while having her shin split open like a soup bone. Some people could have focused through the pain. Hell, some people wouldn’t even really notice the pain. It’s all a matter of scale, really.


But for her? It was more than enough to disrupt her focus.


I was, however, a bit surprised when Jason was the next fastest off the line. He stood, fast enough to knock his chair over, and slipped around the table to grab Rafi by the shoulder. “Don’t move,” he said, producing a narrow dagger and laying it against the old man’s throat. “Or I will cut.”


I shrugged and stood as well, a little more slowly. “You do realize I came here planning to kill him myself, right?” I said. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I’d rather he not die. I’ve got nothing against him. But it’s not the end of the world if it happens. If you seriously think that’s going to scare me off, you’re deluding yourself.”


He grimaced. “You’re a real piece of work, aren’t you?” he said. He had to almost shout to be heard over Sarah screaming.


“Hey,” I said, calling Tyrfing and stepping away from the table to give myself room to move. “I’m not the one with my knife at his throat. That’s all on you, buddy.”


“Stop it,” Reese said suddenly. He stepped up next to Jason and pulled the knife away. “We aren’t fucking killing him. Jesus.”


One of the shadowy hounds bounded down the stairs a few seconds later, oozing black slime from numerous injuries. Aiko shot it a couple more times and it collapsed. Meanwhile, our first guide tried to pull Sarah away from Snowflake, but stopped when her screaming hit a new pitch. When you’re in that kind of situation, being pulled away from the person biting your leg off is going to feel a hell of a lot worse before it feels better.


It was funny, in a way. For being such dedicated killers, willing to go up against terrifying monsters, none of these people seemed very good at it.


More constructs started down the stairs. These looked more humanoid, bipedal shapes cobbled together out of darkness and magic. They weren’t in much better shape, though. There were bullet holes in them, and gashes, a couple of them missing limbs. They kept coming, though, almost falling over each other in their eagerness to get at us. It was a little grotesque, actually.


“You know, I’m curious,” I said. “Did you ever actually care about fighting the vampires, or was it all an elaborate setup to put me in a vulnerable position?”


Jason broke off glaring at Reese to glare at me instead. “You have a high opinion of your own importance,” he said, letting Rafi go. The old man stumbled away from them.


I shrugged. “Hey, you’re the ones that keep going to ridiculous efforts to start fights with me. I don’t think it’s an unreasonable conclusion to reach.”


“You are not the only person who thinks he’s above justice,” Reese said quietly.


“Not much of an answer,” I said. “But I guess it’s close enough. Pretty funny, though, that we’d run into each other again. Almost seems like somebody went out of their way to arrange it.”


Jason smiled a little bit, and nodded slightly, the gesture of a fencer acknowledging a touch. No surprises there, but it was nice to have the confirmation.


I wondered whether these people realized how hard he was playing them. It seemed fairly obvious to me. Magic reflects personality, after all, and Jason’s magic was all about manipulating other people, using them as tools, making them stronger and weaker to suit his purpose. That said a lot about who he was.


I kept stepping around the table until I was standing next to Snowflake. I nudged her and she moved out of the way. I could feel a little reluctance from her, but it was minor in comparison to her eagerness. The game was just beginning for her.


Sarah struggled to sit up, gathering her magic. I was guessing she was planning on the kind of attack that could level a building.


She didn’t manage to finish before Tyrfing caught her under the sternum. The sword punched up into her vitals, and she slumped back to the ground. It seemed pretty staggeringly unlikely that she’d survive the wound.


I shoved it in further and twisted it before pulling it back out, regardless. I hadn’t lived this long by leaving things at unlikely.


“You bastard,” Reese said, staring.


“Hey, you started this,” I said. “You guys straight-up admitted that you’d only stop if I killed you. What, are you surprised that I did?”


He didn’t answer, just stared at me some more. I could smell him doing something, a dry, grey sort of magic, with a bit of extra zing from Jason’s involvement. The world started to lose color and go fuzzy, and my vision narrowed down to a tunnel.


Then the room was violently shaken, throwing all of us to the ground. I didn’t hear the boom, but when I came back to myself my ears were ringing.


“Oh, yeah,” I said, shaking my head to clear it and pushing myself back to my feet. “I may have told my people to just blow up the building if they found your construct guy. Benjamin, you said his name was?”


“You’re a madman,” Reese said.


I rolled my eyes and offered Aiko a hand up. She took it, and by some miracle there wasn’t even a joy buzzer involved. “You say that like it’s news,” I said. “It kinda makes me wonder about you. Like, what did you think I was?”


“Reese,” Jason said. “Portal. Now.”


“We can’t just leave,” Reese protested.


“We’re outmaneuvered,” Jason said. “And we’re losing.”


“But Benjamin—”


“Is almost certainly dead already,” Jason said bluntly. “And we’ll join him unless we get out. Now, Reese.”


The other man didn’t look pleased at all, but he threw up a portal. With Jason’s support, it only took him a few seconds, and then the two of them vanished.


I didn’t bother trying to chase or interrupt them. I was fast, but getting across the room in time to stop them from leaving wasn’t a thing that could plausibly happen. We’d taken out a couple of them, at least. That explosion had probably been plenty strong enough to kill Benjamin. I’d had the housecarls use demolitions explosives. If the blast wave hadn’t killed the man, the collapsing building had probably finished the job.


“So he can’t make portals himself,” I commented. “Interesting.” I sheathed Tyrfing and walked over to help Rafi up, as well. The old man had to lean on me fairly heavily to keep his balance.


“Well, that was fun,” Aiko said. “Over faster than I expected, though. I was guessing they’d be a little more reluctant to run away.”


I nodded. “Yeah. The boss has a pretty different attitude to the whole thing than the rest, though. I’d bet he was already after me, and he found them while he was looking for tools.”


“They seemed like tools, all right,” Aiko agreed, nudging Sarah’s corpse with her foot. It didn’t even have the good grace to lurch upright and moan dramatically. “Sorry about the mess, by the way.”


“It isn’t your fault,” Rafi said, settling back into his chair with a wince.


“Isn’t it?” the other man demanded. “They would have killed you, Rafi!”


“It was not Winter with a knife against my throat,” he said dryly. “That position was reserved for our former friends. And it would be unreasonable to expect him to risk his life to save mine.”


“Were they actually helping you?” I asked, also sitting down. Aiko took the third chair, now that it seemed unlikely that anyone else would be joining us. Snowflake seemed a little disappointed as she went back to dozing on the floor, but not terribly. Even a little bit of action was enough to make her happy.


Rafi shrugged. “Some,” he said. “Not directly, but in small ways, yes. Information, or assistance with travel. Simple things.”


“Interesting,” I said. “Um. Where were we when they showed up?”


“Trying to figure out how our friends here managed to kill multiple vampires,” Aiko said helpfully.


“Oh, right,” I said.


“Wait,” the nameless vampire hunter interrupted. “You cannot mean to go back to that. Not after….” He gestured vaguely, apparently unable to convey what he meant.


“Yes,” I said patiently. “I can. I doubt they’re coming back, not after they got their asses handed to them that badly. And if I stopped having a conversation every time some moron tried to kill me, I’d never get anything done. So what do you say, Rafi, are you ready to start talking terms?”


“Terms,” he said. “What do you mean?”


“Well, here’s the thing,” I said. “You can’t actually fight Lucius. I mean, you’re…so far out of your depth you’re not even in the same freaking ocean, there. You aren’t even equipped to fight me. You sure as hell don’t have a prayer against him. Especially now that your benefactors are pretty definitely gone.”


He nodded. He didn’t look happy about it, but he nodded.


“So,” I said. “Terms. I’d rather not massacre you if I can help it. If at all possible, a compromise is a much better way to resolve this. So the question becomes what elements that compromise needs to have for you to consider it.”


“I want people to stop dying,” he said.


“Everyone dies sometime,” Aiko replied quietly.


Rafi sighed. “I know,” he said. “But there must be something that can be done. I have seen so many young people die.”


“Okay,” I said. “Let’s stop and work through that in more detail. From everything I’ve heard, you aren’t that concerned about Lucius lurking in dark alleys and pouncing on unsuspecting passerby. The problem here is that so many people are going to these psycho parties of his. Is that about right?”


Rafi nodded tightly. “Sometimes people are attacked. Foreigners, mostly. But that is…minimal in comparison.”


“Right. Well, let’s break it down further. The problem isn’t that people go, it’s that they don’t come back. Now, I can’t make these events not kill people. It looked like Lucius was already putting some kind of limit on things, but there’s always going to be an element of danger to it.”


“Of course there is,” Aiko said. “That’s the whole point. Nobody goes to a party like that to feel safe.”


I nodded. “Yeah. And I can’t stop people from wanting that, either. Some people are always going to want to engage in risky or self-destructive behavior. That’s a fact of life. I could maybe ask Lucius to tone that risk down a little, but I can already guess what his response would be, and it isn’t likely to be a positive one.”


“You make this all sound very simple,” Rafi commented. “Like it’s just a part of normal life.”


“Well, it kind of is,” Aiko pointed out. “That’s the whole point. These people happen to be using vampires instead of needles, but doing things that hurt your body because they make you feel good isn’t new.”


“Keeping things on topic,” I said, “that’s one group. Like I said, I’ll talk to Lucius about making things less dangerous for them, but there isn’t a whole lot I can do beyond that. But there’s another group, which are people that aren’t necessarily inclined to self-destructive behavior. But Lucius is offering them a way out and, let’s be honest, it isn’t like they’re spoiled for choice here.”


“They could stay,” Rafi said quietly. “Things aren’t so bad here.”


“For you,” I agreed. “But what satisfies you guys isn’t satisfying them. They want more, or maybe just something different. Whatever, the point is that they want out, and Lucius is one of the ways available to them. But they don’t necessarily want to live that lifestyle, and if they felt they had a choice they might not. Is that accurate?”


He sighed. “Likely.”


“Cool,” I said. “Well, we can’t make them stay. I mean, technically we could, but we can’t make them want to, and without that the other is just cruel. But what I can offer you is another alternative. I can give those people transportation to somewhere else, and a place to live and a job when they get there. I’ll be honest, it’s not completely safe. I’ve got my enemies, and some of them would target noncombatants. But it’s probably better than what he’s offering.”


“Hold on a second,” Aiko said. “Winter. Are you seriously offering jobs to…who the hell even knows how many discontented teenagers? Seriously? Without asking me first?”


“You offered a place to that thing Crimson summoned without asking me,” I pointed out. “A few hundred whiny teenagers is roughly equal.”


“That’s a fair point,” she admitted. “Okay, carry on.”


“Thank you.” I turned back to Rafi. “So. What do you say?”


“I have the uncomfortable feeling that we’re being used,” he said.


“You are,” I admitted cheerfully. “But I’m relatively benign about it. And the nice part about me having them join my organization, instead of just giving them transportation, is that I’m also in a position to help them out. I don’t have the kind of power and influence that Lucius does, but I’ve got some. And this is not a good time to be on your own in a strange environment. It’s really not.”


“It’s not a perfect answer,” he said thoughtfully. “But then, what is? This is…better than nothing. And nothing is what we have otherwise.”


“So is it enough?” I asked.


“It depends,” he said. “We’ve talked a great deal about what I want. And very little about what you want.”


“Hey,” I said. “I’m just the messenger, here. But what Lucius wants is for you to stop fighting him. He goes back to being the unquestioned ruler of Alexandria. You stop interfering with his projects, and you most definitely stop killing his people.”


Rafi’s shoulders slumped. “You want us to give up,” he said.


I met his eye. “No,” I said quietly. “I’m telling you that you’ve lost. And I’m trying to make that loss as painless as possible, for everyone involved.”


He nodded slowly. “I understand,” he said. “We surrender, then. Your…terms are acceptable.”


“Good,” I said. “And…look, I don’t mean any offense by this. But I’m staking my reputation on you following through on your end of this. That’s a risk on my part. So…if you don’t follow through, I’ll be back. And I won’t be so nice the second time around.” I smiled and stood. “Thank you for your hospitality, Rafi. Have a pleasant day.” I nodded politely to each of them and then walked out.


“So,” Aiko said, once we were outside again. “That went well.”


“Yep,” I agreed. “Halfway done.”


“What’s the other half?”


“Getting Lucius to agree to what we just arranged. Come on, time’s wasting. It’ll be dawn before too long.”


None of us paid much attention to the bombed-out building as we left.

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