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.