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.