Monthly Archives: January 2016

Broken Mirror 13.11

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I’d never been in a battle before. A lot of fights, but not a real, full-scale battle. The closest had been that mess with the necromancer in Russia, and that wasn’t the same thing at all. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect what to expect from this battle, what might happen. The fact that it was being fought by beings I didn’t really understand, divided into factions along lines that I couldn’t really comprehend, was just icing on the cake as far as that went.


It started out more…simply than I would have expected. After an hour or so, Aiko woke up and got out of the snow. It hadn’t melted appreciably; of the three of us, only Snowflake had any appreciable body heat anymore.


Aiko went to get ready while I woke Snowflake. I didn’t really need to do anything myself; the only piece of equipment I needed at this point was Tyrfing, and it was always with me. Given that I couldn’t bring physical items with me when I transitioned between bodies, anything else would be more trouble than it was worth.


That was surprisingly upsetting. My ritual before a big fight had always been to check and recheck all of my gear, the weapons and toys and surprises that I might need. I’d spent hours on it, sometimes, and it had become a calming, soothing ritual. Now that I didn’t have that, I felt lost.


Aiko still used gear, though. When she came back she was wearing armor, elaborate armor that looked almost exactly like the set Loki had arranged for her, but which didn’t have any iron in it. I wasn’t sure how I knew that it had no iron, but there was no doubt in my mind at all. I just…knew. The blades were similar duplicates, although she wasn’t carrying a gun. It probably wouldn’t have worked anyway; relying on chemical reactions and physical rules to work exactly the same on the Otherside as in the real world was a fool’s bet.


“You ready?” I asked, standing up. It was easier than it should have been, the snow providing resistance to push off of without me even having to think about it.


“Yep,” she said. “You?”


I shrugged. “As I’m likely to be,” I said. “Where to?”


“Just follow me,” Aiko said. “If anyone tries to make an issue out of it, bite them.”


I paused. “Are you talking about me or Snowflake here?”


She grinned and started walking to the door. “Both.”


It was still hard for me to grasp just how dramatically things had changed recently. I’d been expecting there to be more to it, some kind of hassle. I’d been expecting, at the very least, annoyance and bureaucracy.


Instead, that really was all there was to it. We walked out of the throne room’s dark and red confines, and directly into the courtyard. There were a few dozen things there waiting for us, clearly ready for war–Sidhe, trolls, a towering ogre, and stranger, nameless things. Not a one of them challenged us as we walked through the crowd. I thought a couple of them looked offended at the notion that they weren’t the ones standing next to Aiko, but if so it was quickly buried.


She opened a portal in the gate–the entire gate, an area far larger than I would even consider for a portal–with no evidence of any particular effort, and we marched on through.


The other side of the portal was…well, it was interesting. It was busy, even crowded, although there was a clear space where we came out. Beyond that, though, it was an active, busy camp, packed with every sort of fae creature I could name and a great many I couldn’t.


And it was enormous. I couldn’t really put a confident estimate on it, but I was guessing there were close to ten thousand of them there. Ten thousand things that were, individually, probably the match of five or six humans at least. Hell, there was a whole unit of ogres, easily a hundred of them, each a half-ton of muscle towering at least ten or fifteen feet tall.


And this was just one unit, one tiny part of the forces of one Queen of Faerie.


I suddenly felt very small, and like I’d fundamentally misunderstood my place in the universe.


Aiko didn’t even pause as we stepped out onto a hill overlooking the Midnight camp, and so neither did I. I absolutely did not at all want to be separated from her here and now. Oh, theoretically it should probably be fine–in principle, after all, I was at least equal in rank to every member of the Court short of the Queens themselves. In practice, though, I was somehow very confident that I would be better off not being on my own for my first encounter with the Court military.


The portal was very smooth, smooth enough that even Snowflake and the fae didn’t so much as miss a step during the transition. The lot of us walked forward, the bustle of the camp making sure not to do anything remotely resembling getting in the way, until I got my first look at the battlefield.


It was a broad, open plain, knee-high grasses waving in a gentle, inconsistent breeze. There was no sun, but the golden light had a strong quality of evening to it all the same, long shadows dancing across the plain. On the other side of the plain, maybe a mile and small change away, the ground rose into more hills.


In those hills, the Daylight regiment was waiting, their camp looking a very great deal like this one. The standards had brighter colors over there, as a rule, and the Daylight fae were somewhat different in appearance, but the size and layout of the two camps was almost identical.


There was no snow out there, I noted. No ice. There were shadows, at present, but they were limited, and around the Daylight Sidhe I was guessing they’d be effectively nonexistent. Even if the light and dark division was largely the produce of my mind, there was no denying that things tended to be bright around the Daylight fae.


I didn’t want to have to change bodies in this fight, then. Not unless I absolutely had to. And since I was guessing that light and fire would feature strongly in what the enemy was going to be throwing around, as far as magic went, that meant that I really didn’t want to take a hit. Dodging and hitting the enemy from odd angles was going to be the best option for me, I thought.


“Oh hey,” Aiko said. “We’re just in time.”


It took me a second to realize what she meant. Then I saw that, across the plain, the enemy troops were moving. It was hard to see at this distance, subtle, but they were getting into formation and starting out.


“Where do you want me?” I asked. It had to be obvious that I was obeying her, and not the other way around. This was, after all, primarily a political event, a way for Aiko to cement her position as an authority figure. For her to seem like she was taking instruction from her minion would be…counterproductive.


“You can hit them from the side after the fighting starts,” she said. “Wait for them to commit first, then hit them hard. Oh, and they’ll probably have some ridiculously powerful thing. After that shows up, you can deal with it.”


“Got it,” I said, as the Midnight troops around me started to form up and head down to the battlefield as well. They looked, generally speaking, to be impressively disciplined and coordinated. Then they started getting closer to the field, and I saw that that description didn’t apply to the front ranks. There, the discipline and coordination broke down into a jumbled, chaotic mass, less an army than a horde of armed lunatics who happened to be traveling in the same direction. Looking across the way, it seemed like the same pattern was true for the other side. The bulk of the force was tight, organized formations, but the front ranks were sloppy as hell.


They were cannon fodder, I realized. Inexperienced fighters, being marched out in front to absorb the shock of the impact when the two armies crashed together. They would get slaughtered, leaving the more experienced troops to actually fight.


I could understand it on a tactical level. Hell, on some level I’d made similar choices myself. When you were assigning people jobs, you had to base it on what they were capable of. There had been times when I sent people to a fight knowing that they might die as a result. That was the nature of violence.


But doing it so deliberately, on such a large scale, was something that I was…not entirely comfortable with. I’d faked it on occasion, but at heart, I really wasn’t a general. That kind of ruthless calculation wasn’t something that I was suited to.


But I wasn’t sure what, if anything, I should do about it. And before I could decide, it was too late. It only took a few moments for the cannon fodder to be cut down. I couldn’t have reached the front even if I’d wanted to.


Aiko and I just stood and stared as the two forces crashed together. It was loud, shockingly loud, with the clamor of metal hitting metal, metal hitting flesh, people and things that didn’t remotely resemble people screaming. It was like any other fight that way, but on a vastly increased scale.


I stared for a long moment, before Aiko glanced at me and reminded me that I had a job to do. I startled, then leapt into motion.


I couldn’t step through shadows here. It could be done–Carraig had pulled that trick in Faerie when I fought him, so I knew it could be done. But there wasn’t enough noticeable darkness to make it a viable tactic. I was better off just running, I thought.


I could run fast. Really, really fast. Even without magical shenanigans, I was faster than I had any right to be. I blew past the fae troops in a blur, sprinting past them in long, leaping bounds.


I didn’t go straight for the fighting, though. That would have been directly at odds with both my tactical awareness of the situation and my instructions from Aiko. Instead, I ran out in a wide arc, sweeping out to the side of the main engagement.


It was a larger fight than anything I was accustomed to. Huge, really. But in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t that big. The battlefield was only around a mile across, I was guessing.


If you had to run it at a human pace, that was still a considerable distance. Several minutes’ travel, even if you were good at running.


For me it was a casual jaunt. Not even really something worth considering. It took maybe two minutes, or a little less. I wasn’t out of breath or tired afterward. It was just…a thing I did. Easy.


I stood there for a second, watching the battle. It showed no signs of slowing down, which wasn’t surprising. Two minutes was forever in a fight, but with so many participants fighting an old-school battle like this, the situation changed. There were people who were just now reaching the actual fighting, and plenty more behind them.


I watched for a second, then waded in.


There were fae beings that could put up a solid fight against me, still. There were some that could crush me like an empty can. I knew that; I’d met some of them.


These were not those beings.


Oddly, it didn’t feel much like a fight. Not really. There was no challenge to it, no element of uncertainty. It felt…well, more or less the same as running had. It was a mechanical exercise. The repetitive nature of what I was doing, combined with the lack of any meaningful risk or challenge, made it feel more like chopping wood than really fighting.


Some of them had magic, either classic fae-style trickery or more direct magic. Neither of them mattered, really. Trickery was only really useful when you were fighting someone who could be mislead or duped, and I was playing the role of the unstoppable force here. Clever tricks didn’t help much when the person attacking you was just cutting a broad swath into your ranks and ignoring everything else. Brute force defenses were useless for…well, pretty much the same reason. Nothing they could do could really stop me with Tyrfing.


Some of their attacks were closer to solving the problem. Fire and light were both as common as I’d expected, and either could plausibly have brought me down. Some of them had silver weapons, as well, which I found out the hard way. I wasn’t sure why, or even how, but apparently silver still really hurt.


Most of them I could dodge, though, and the rest weren’t enough. I was wrapped in enough darkness and cold to shrug off the magic, and when they did manage to get through with weapons they couldn’t do more than take chunks out of me. That didn’t really do much; it took massive trauma to stop me anymore, since anything short of cutting off a limb was just a mild annoyance.


I cut a broad path through their rear ranks, Aiko did…something, I was too busy to really pay attention to what…and on the whole the Daylight forces were definitely losing. We were progressing across the plain, and there were far more of their people on the ground than ours.


And then progress slowed, before grinding to a halt. The Daylight troops rallied and began to push back.


At first, I wasn’t sure why. It was hard to tell, in the thick of things, hard to get a broader perspective of what was happening. But I kept pushing, and they kept pushing, and eventually we met in the middle, as a pocket of space opened up to accommodate us. Nobody wanted to be near this, and I didn’t blame them in the least.


At first glance, he didn’t look like much. He was shorter than me, and plain at best, with ugly features and a scraggly beard. But he was wearing heavy mail, and carrying a heavy axe, and literally dripping blood.


And he was very obviously and very undeniably human.


Well, well. Seemed it was time for me to meet my opposite number.

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Broken Mirror 13.10

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Getting to Faerie was always a fairly easy task. It was the closest part of the Otherside to the real world, on a metaphysical level, as a general rule. There were exceptions, and there were individuals who were tied to another domain on a level that left them more easily able to connect to that domain. Jötnar were a good example of that; they could find their way back to Jotunheim, generally, but anything beyond that was unlikely.


More often than not, though, some part of Faerie is the option of choice for staging areas when traveling through the Otherside. I couldn’t even guess at how many times I’d been through there over the years.


This was a bit different. It was easier, for one thing. I’d never been much good with portals; I’d gotten better over the years, with a great deal of practice, but it had been a slow process, and even then the results were limited. It wasn’t a magic that came naturally to me, and that showed. I’d been slow and clumsy at it, even with the focus I’d made for the purpose, and I didn’t have that focus now.


But at this point, going to the Midnight side of Faerie was easy. It felt simple, natural. It was just a matter of wanting to be back there, and letting the power flow out to make that want a reality. A pool of shadow deepened, became more real, and after a minute or so ceased to be a pool of shadow entirely, and became a hole in the world, the portal appearing so smoothly that I wasn’t entirely sure when it happened.


How much of the focus on darkness in the power I’d gotten was inherent to its nature, I wondered, and how much existed only in my mind? It seemed like it was probably the latter. The Unseelie Court wasn’t inherently dark, wasn’t really the Midnight Court except in the sense of having that title assigned to it by outsiders. Night had some thematic elements in common with it, some similar energies, but they weren’t at all the same. It was just such a pervasive element of how I saw the Court that it colored every element of how it manifested through me.


The second difference was something I noticed when I stepped through, and found myself standing just outside of Aiko’s new castle. I felt more coherent, more real, like the body I’d woven for myself had more substance to it.


It made sense, in a way. I’d noted in the past that magic, and especially more creative magics like building constructs, were considerably easier on the Otherside than in the world I was native to. Now that I was, effectively, dependent upon that kind of magic just to maintain my existence, I got a considerable benefit for being there. It was easier to put together a body, easier to maintain it, with the fabric of reality so much more amenable to being warped.


Snowflake still passed out, though. That was, in a strange way, almost comforting. I was so accustomed to being bad at portals it would have been more disturbing if it was a smooth transition.


I wasn’t in the mood to wait for her to wake up, though, and it didn’t seem prudent to wait outside anyway. I might be a VIP around here, these days, but that wasn’t at all a guarantee of safety with the Midnight Court. It just meant that killing me would be more of an event to celebrate, rather than just another day.


So I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder. The weight was negligible to me at this point anyway. She barely twitched as I did, and the only sign of her displeasure as she started to regain consciousness was a faint mental grumble, though I knew that once being moved so soon after a portal would have left her violently and messily ill.


We’d both come a long way. For better or worse.


In the castle courtyard, I paused and looked around, unsure which door I should choose. Then I shrugged and picked one at random. I was guessing whatever I chose would turn out to have been the right choice all along anyway, since this was sort of my place now.


The first room in was one which I hadn’t seen before, a sort of long gallery. Windows along one side provided an expansive view over the moonlit water, though there had been more castle there from the outside, and I was reasonably confident that side of the room shouldn’t have had a clear view out from the island anyway.


There were more people than I’d seen on my previous visits here. The room wasn’t crowded, by any means, but various fae things stood in small groups here and there, talking quietly in a language I didn’t recognize, or doing things I couldn’t grasp at all.


I walked past them without hesitation, and none of them questioned my presence. On the contrary, every one that I passed close to nodded politely in my direction.


The next room in was darker, though I could still see. The walls, floor, and ceiling all glittered with faint sparkles of light, giving the illusion that I was walking through an endless field of stars, and providing just enough light that a human could have barely functioned. I could just make out another door across from me, and walked in that direction. Snowflake prodded me when I was halfway across, and I set her down again with a gentle clink of armor on stone.


Past the next door, illogically and unsurprisingly, was the throne room. It looked much the same as the last time I saw it, dim and red and cold. Aiko was lounging on her ruby throne, and some Sidhe lady was standing in front of her. It looked like she’d paused right in the middle of some wild gesticulation when we walked in, giving her a rather comical look.


“Winter!” Aiko called out, sitting up a little straighter. “You have really good timing. Have I ever told you that?”


“Probably at some point,” I said dubiously. “What is my timing good for, specifically?”


“Well, I was just explaining to Sylfaenwe here that continuing to be an obnoxious pest was liable to have some detrimental effects in her immediate future,” Aiko said cheerfully. “But actually demonstrating my point myself might require me to stand up, which I’m not feeling terribly inclined to do at the moment.”


“Cool,” I said. “You want her dead, or just maimed?”


“Let’s go with maimed for the moment. It should be fairly easy to step that up to dead later if necessary.”


The Sidhe woman glowered, her eye twitching slightly. “I am hardly the only person who will object to this,” she said. “Do you intend to kill all of us?”


“I could,” Aiko said. “I mean, think about it. Who’s going to stop me? I’ve got the capability, and I’ll still be filling my role within the Court, which is all the other Queens really care about. You’re powerful, sure, and yes, you’re useful against the Daylight Court. But ultimately, you’re still disposable and we both know it. If I kill you, there are comparably powerful people who will be more than willing to take your place.”


Sylfaenwe ground her teeth, but didn’t actually disagree.


“Now, right now, you’re pretty annoyed,” Aiko continued brightly. “In part because, while we both know that this is the reality of your situation, outright stating it is gauche. And I’m telling you this because I want you to know that I’m aware of the implications, and I’m choosing to do it anyway. But believe it or not, I would actually rather not kill you, if only because doing so would make my life slightly more complicated. So what’s it going to be?”


Sylfaenwe glanced at me. I bared my teeth in what could charitably be described as a smile, and looked at the snowbank she was standing next to.


She looked back to Aiko. Her eye twitched again, so slightly that I doubted she was even aware of it, and she said, “What would you have of me, my Queen?”


“I would have you accept the reality of your situation, and stop struggling pointlessly against it. I would have you tell your friends, and those who owe you fealty, to do similarly.”


Sylfaenwe ground her teeth some more, but she bowed her head. “It shall be done,” she said, and beat a hasty retreat out of the room. I caught a glimpse of her face on the way past, and…well, if looks could kill, Aiko and I would both be getting sized for coffins. Ten years earlier, I might have actually been intimidated by it.


“About time,” Aiko said once she was gone, promptly standing up. “Took almost an hour for me to get her to agree to that.”


“What are you doing that they’re so opposed to, anyway?” I asked.


She shrugged. “It’s hard to put it into words,” she said. “Trying to…adjust how my piece of the Midnight Court expresses itself, I guess. Put more of an emphasis on the mischief and pranks, and less on the political scheming.” She collapsed loosely into one of the heaps of snow. “Come on, sit down. That chair is as uncomfortable as it looks, trust me.”


We joined her, me sitting in the snow next to her and Snowflake lying across our feet. “I don’t know that I would have associated mischief and pranks with the Midnight Court,” I commented.


Aiko shrugged again. “It’s a valid way to interpret the concept,” she said. “There are lots of stories about faeries playing tricks on people, causing mischief. I mean, it’s not like we’re talking harmless mischief here, this is still the Unseelie Court. A lot of those pranks have an element of real malice and danger to them. But they’re still pranks, and I’m a lot more comfortable with that than with politics.”


“But your minions don’t agree.”


“Some do,” she said. “Some of them are very pleased with the new focus. But the people that like political maneuvering are less than thrilled.”


No change makes everyone happy, Snowflake said. Not even a good change.


“I know,” Aiko said. “After a while, everyone should adjust to the new regime, and it’ll be business as usual again. The transition is just going to be a bit rough in some ways, since as far as I can tell Scáthach’s preferences were pretty nearly the polar opposite of mine.”


“I’m not sure if there’s anything I can do to help with that,” I said. “But if there is, just ask.”


“Actually, your timing really was good,” she said. “I was going to ask whether you could come after I finished with that round anyway. You just showed up a little early.”


I paused. “Early for what?”


“Well, here’s the thing,” she said. “One of the things I’m supposed to do, as the Maiden of the Midnight Court, is do the whole fighting with the Daylight Court thing. It’s kind of an important part of the role. So here in a bit, I’m going out to lay a beatdown on them and prove that I can. And I’d kind of appreciate having you there, since this is, um…a bit outside of my comfort zone, I guess.”


“Wouldn’t miss it,” I said.


Not for the world, Snowflake added. Really glad that I decided to tag along on this trip now. I was considering taking a nap instead, but this is much more fun.


Aiko snorted and curled a bit further into the snow, resting her head on my chest. “What about you?” she asked. “You find anything interesting?”


“Sort of,” I said. “Tracked that group back to their base and cleared it out. Seems like they’re being supported by the Guards.”


“What kind of support are we talking about here?”


I shrugged. “Hard to say on the grand scale until my people finish sifting through the data we got out of there. Locally, seems like it was quite a bit. They were based out of an underground complex that attached to the building the Guards took over. I think they were providing those nutjobs with logistical support and information too, but I’m not sure yet.”


“Using them as a weapon,” Aiko said. “Disposable, deniable assets. The Guards are human, so there wasn’t much chance of the human supremacists turning on them, and it would be easy to sic them on anyone that was getting inconvenient.”


“That’s my current assumption,” I said. “Yeah.”


“This is the same group that attacked that Pack meeting, right? I can’t imagine Conn will be happy about that.”


“No,” I said. “I don’t imagine he would be.”


I had a brief image of Conn declaring war on the Guards. Now that the unofficial ban on letting people find out about the world hiding behind the scenes was lifted, there was nothing stopping them from going at it openly.


It was not a pleasant image. It really didn’t matter who won that fight, it wasn’t going to be a good thing.


At the same time, there was a certain…satisfaction in the thought. They’d caused me so many problems, always with some excuse, always hiding behind that veil of secrecy, and I’d never had the power to do anything about it. Now that I finally had something solid that I could pin on them, the idea of taking the Pack and the Midnight Court and everyone else that I could convince to help out and just obliterating them was surprisingly tempting.


“It might be better not to tell him,” I said after a moment.


“You think it’s worth more as blackmail material?”


“That,” I said, “and also…the Guards have done some shady things. But they are still helping to hold things together. And at this point, we can’t afford to lose anyone who’s helping with that.”


Aiko was silent for a moment. “It’s interesting that you still say ‘we,'” she said at last.


“I know I’m not really one of them,” I agreed quietly. “I guess I never really was, but even less now. But I still like that world.”


“So do I,” she agreed. “And we’ve got friends there who don’t want the world to fall apart. I get that.” She paused. “Although we will have to find out how much they had to do with bringing that thing in from the void. If they were a part of that, you might have to revise that stance on whether they’re doing more to help or hurt.”


“If they were a part of that I’m prepared to kill every last one of them,” I said. “If they were dumb enough to get involved in that? Yeah, they’re done. That’s too dangerous to take any chances with.”


“Just so long as we’re on the same page there,” Aiko said. “Okay, so you’ve got nothing to do until that fight with the Daylight Court, right?”


“Nope,” I said. “Just waiting on people to go through all those files, and it sounds like it’s going to take a while. Some kind of encryption or something.”


“All right, then,” she said. “That’s not for another hour or so. I’m not in the mood to deal with more Court things in between, so unless you have a better idea I’m thinking I’ll just stay right here.”


This is a good plan, Snowflake said. It means I get my nap after all.


I snorted. “I’ve got nothing better to do,” I said.


True to her word, Snowflake was dozing in just a few minutes, and fully asleep in a few more. Aiko took longer, but it wasn’t that much longer before she was out cold as well, eyes closed and mouth slightly open with her head on my chest. Had anyone from Court seen her in such an undignified position it might have been detrimental to her reputation, but given that we were alone, it was harmless.


I did not–of course–sleep. But I didn’t get stiff, or tired, or even bored, as such. There was no reason to move, or even to breathe, so I didn’t. I just lay there on the snow, alone with my thoughts. They weren’t as happy as they should have been, considering the circumstances.

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Broken Mirror 13.9

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Following the hallway the masked lunatics had come out of, at first we didn’t see anything special. There was a dormitory, full of empty beds, each neatly made, impersonal as a doctor’s examination room. There was a large kitchen, complete with a long table to act as a dining table, the sort of place that served enormous quantities of food that would sustain vital functions and not a whole lot more. There was a large office area, half a dozen computers set up on another large table without any partitions between them.


I’d want those computers, in case they’d stored any useful information on them. But for the moment it was more efficient to keep moving and leave the heavy lifting for the minions.


The hallway continued for a long ways after that, with just a couple of doors. Snowflake opened a couple of them, finagling the handles with her jaws or just shattering the latches by main force, always with the same result. The large–huge, really, far larger than they needed to be, even if the ceilings were rather low–rooms were empty.


Not just in the sense of having no people, either. They were literally, absolutely empty, not even any furniture. They were just empty space, waiting to be given a purpose.


Who went to the effort of carving this massive complex out of the bedrock just to leave most of it sitting empty?


I felt like there was something I was missing, some obvious detail that I just wasn’t seeing. But this was not a good time to be distracted, so I tried to push that feeling aside and focus on my immediate surroundings. Sharing Snowflake’s mind did a lot help with that; she’d always had a certain immediacy about her, like most animals. It was one of the few really animal things about her, actually.


Not that it turned out to matter that much. We didn’t see one other person on the way. Not a single one.


It was hard to believe that the group we’d dealt with earlier had been all the people here. A lot of this place was empty, admittedly, but we’d only killed around ten of them so far. There had to be more than that.


The only conclusion I could come to was that this compound had been abandoned, and that group we’d run into had been a rear guard of sorts.


It was getting old having people be one step ahead of me. I was getting really sick of being a day late and a dollar short.


Finally, the hall ended at a simple, plain lobby of sorts. The only feature was a large, stainless steel door with a white button next to it. It took a second for me to recognize it as a large elevator. It only took a moment longer for me to recognize it more specifically than that.


Damn it. I’d known it was too good to be true, but somehow I’d still wanted to think that they could be what I’d wanted them to be.


Hope springs eternal in the deluded breast, I suppose.


Snowflake went to hit the button, but I stopped her with a gentle reminder. If I was right about what was above us–and I was pretty freaking certain about it, it all just fit too well to be a coincidence–then we did not want to go up there alone. There’s confident, and then there’s stupid. Picking a fight with all of them at once, by ourselves, was solidly in the second category.


We turned around and went back to check on the minions instead.


I’d been half-expecting to find them all dead. It would fit with how well the rest of this whole project had gone. Apparently my luck wasn’t quite that bad, though, because they were still working on searching the place, seemingly unharmed.


They were efficient. I had to give them that. They already had most of the complex ripped open, papers and computers dragged out into the hallway and stacked neatly in a pair of heavy-duty black duffel bags.


The corpses had been stripped and searched, very thoroughly. Some of the ghouls were chewing. I didn’t look closely enough to see any more details than that. I didn’t think that I wanted to know.


Snowflake sat and watched as they finished ransacking the complex. The duffel bags were zipped shut, and two of the jötnar heaved them up off the ground. The things must have weighed a couple hundred pounds each–computers are heavy, and I hadn’t wanted to take the time to pull out the hard drives and such. It didn’t matter. The giants looked human, but they were far stronger than anyone short of a serious bodybuilder. The bags wouldn’t slow them down appreciably.


They started towards the entrance we’d come through, but Kyi knew enough to look at Snowflake, and Snowflake looked down the hall towards the elevator. As simply as that, the direction of travel shifted, and I was guessing that most of them didn’t even realize how it happened.


The elevator was more than large enough to handle all of us at once. Unsurprisingly, really; it was a heavy-duty model, almost a freight elevator.


I was fully expecting a fight when the elevator doors opened again–or, if not a fight, certainly a confrontation of some sort.


I was not disappointed.


The doors slid open with a gentle chime, and we crowded out into the lobby. As expected, it was a familiar lobby, complete with a gift shop and a cafe. It looked like they’d just about finished remodeling. The entrance was across from us, and as expected, there were some people between us and it. As expected, I recognized all of them.


I wondered, idly, how many of them had known what was going on beneath their feet. David had known, must have, he was too much in control of what happened here for it to have gone on without his notice. Elyssa, similarly, must have been aware. Awareness was her whole thing, what she did; it was pretty much impossible to keep a secret from someone who had magically sharpened focus and perceptions when she was living in the building where you wanted to keep that secret.


The rest? I wasn’t so sure. I hadn’t spent enough time with most of them to really get an idea of who they were. On some levels, sure, but I didn’t know them well enough to really guess on this. There were too many unknowns. And all of that was assuming that the Guards hadn’t been lying to me, which they rather obviously had.


Regardless, though, this was a conversation I wanted to have for myself. So I slid out of Snowflake and wove myself a body of darkness from the shadows of the jötnar and ghouls. They moved away slightly to give me room as I manifested, seemingly out of instinct.


It was probably a pretty freaking dramatic entrance. I’d have to remember this for later use.


“Hi,” I said, in that same eerie, hollow voice. “Been a while.”


David regarded me cautiously for a moment, then inclined his head slightly. “Jarl,” he said. “Reports of your death were somewhat exaggerated, it seems.”


“Only somewhat?” I said lightly, taking more pleasure than I should have in the way Tony flinched a little at the sound. “You wound me, David. Do you not like the new look?”


“I told you not to call me that,” he said, sounding impressively casual.


“I forget what your name is in-costume,” I said. “Which is, by the way, still a ridiculous thing to do. I do remember the rest of them, though.”


“I do feel special,” he said dryly.


“Happy to help. Here’s the interesting thing, though. I had no idea this building had a basement level. Did you guys realize that?”


Tawny and Derek–or Crimson and Chainmail, or whatever the hell I was supposed to call them–exchanged dubious glances for a moment before looking back at me. It wasn’t much of a tell, but it was enough. They didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.


“This building has been renovated several times now,” David said smoothly. “I’m not surprised that there would be features we weren’t informed of, especially since we acquired it while local affairs were particularly unsettled.”


“Right,” I said sarcastically. “And I’m guessing you had no idea that there were a bunch of people living down there. People who, at the moment, I really don’t like.”


“Do you have an actual grievance with us?” David asked.


“Yes,” I said. “I have a great many grievances with you. But at the moment, you’re a secondary priority. So you’re going to provide me with any information you have on the people that have been basing their operations out of the complex under this building, and then you’re going to get out of my way. And later, if I have time, maybe I’ll lodge a complaint with your bosses or something.”


“We could stop you,” David said, in a rather conversational tone.


“Maybe,” I said. “But we had a deal, sort of. And I thought that meant something for you.” I paused. “Also, think about this. Yes, you could maybe stop me from leaving, and definitely you could stop me from getting the information I want. But if you start a fight here and now, it’s going to be a bloody mess. You and I will get out fine, sure, but a lot of other people will die. And while you’re certainly involved with some unpleasant dealings, I don’t think you’re really a bad enough person yourself to be willing to do that.”


I smiled, though I doubted it was visible on a face made of darkness. “So what’s it going to be, David?”


He stared at me. I stared at him. The tension in the room could have been cut with a rolling pin, let alone a knife.


Finally, he nodded.


I managed to keep from letting out a relieved sigh as I melted back into the shadows.


It took a surprisingly short amount of time to gather all the relevant information and get back to the mansion. I had a strong suspicion that David wasn’t half so opposed to the whole thing as he’d wanted to seem. He didn’t put up nearly as much resistance as I would have expected, and I saw him smiling when he thought no one was looking.


In a way, it made sense. David had struck me as a fairly upright sort of guy, on the whole, and I doubted he was terribly happy about being forced to cooperate with those lunatics and house them in his basement. I could see the Guards as a whole seeing them as a useful tool, a deniable weapon to be used on inconvenient parties. But David, personally, didn’t have to be happy about that.


It was basically the same relationship we’d always had. He was using me to do something he really wanted to, but for political reasons couldn’t.


We spent so much energy on lying, when everyone knew the truth. It wasn’t the first time I’d had the thought, but this was one of the more annoying occasions. It was just such a huge and pointless waste.


But eventually we figured it out, and lugged the bags back down to the mansion. I sculpted myself a new body on the way, one a bit more stable than pure shadows, out of a cooler of packed snow in the back of the car. The extremely excessive force around the apartment building cleared out, leaving behind nothing but a mess and a woman covered in duct tape in an alley. I expected that situation to arouse some questions, and also for it to be rapidly hushed up. No one wanted too much investigation into that, and some of the people that didn’t had more than enough pull to make it happen.


Hell, these days I was one of them. It would only take a few phone calls to make that problem disappear.


I opened the front door of the mansion and walked in with my minions arrayed behind me. There were more minions waiting for me inside, along with some people whose names I actually knew.


“Get some people to sort through this,” I said, as the jötnar set the duffel bags down behind me. “Some people who know what they’re doing, please. Call me when you’ve got answers.”


Unsurprisingly, it was Selene who nodded and stepped forward to start getting things under control. “Where will you be, jarl?” she asked.


“I’m going to rest for a while, I think,” I said. “Then go see how Aiko is doing with the faeries. She might want me to beat some heads in by now.”

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Broken Mirror 13.8

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Like most apartment buildings, this one hadn’t been intended to withstand military assault. The door, a pretty standard sliding door, shattered when I kicked it. I stepped inside, and absently noticed a couple shards of glass getting stuck in my feet. It didn’t really matter; I didn’t feel any pain, and it wasn’t like I was going to bleed out. Hell, if anything it was more material to work with, and it would probably hurt more if I wound up kicking someone for some reason.


There was a desk just inside the door, and an attendant sitting at it. She was staring at me, and reaching for the telephone.


I looked at her as my minions streamed in behind me. “Leave it,” I said. That was all.


She got the point. Her hand fell back to her lap, and her lip trembled. “I’m going to die, aren’t I?” she asked.


“Probably not today,” I said. “Just don’t do anything stupid.”


She nodded weakly, obviously scared and pretty sure I was lying. I almost felt bad about it. She was probably still in high school, working this job to scrounge up a bit of petty cash. She didn’t deserve the bad day she was about to have.


Then again, what people deserved had never had much in common with what they got.


“We’re looking for some people that are staying here,” I said. “You’ve probably seen them go by. They’ll have been armed, probably moving as a group.”


“That’s most of the people that live here,” she said. “Nobody wants to be on the street alone and unarmed.” She didn’t quite say moron, but she didn’t quite need to.


I felt a spark of amusement, although my lips didn’t twitch. That immediate response didn’t exist anymore; smiles were a deliberate action, not an instinctive one.


“Fair point, these days,” I said. “Different approach, then. Is there somewhere in this building where not many people go? A place that the residents, maybe even most of the staff, aren’t allowed?”


She considered that for a moment, then shrugged. “There’s the basement, I guess,” she said. “It’s just storage down there, I think. Only the manager goes there most of the time.”


“The basement,” I said. “Good. Where’s the entrance?”


“In back,” she said, gesturing behind herself.


“Thanks,” I said. “You’ve been very helpful. Tape her up and leave her somewhere she’ll be found by morning.”


She started to protest, as three of my minions jumped to comply. I held up my hand, and she went silent, instantly.


Huh. I’d always wanted to do that, but I just hadn’t had the presence for it. Apparently the authority vested in me as a champion of the Midnight Court carried some weight. That, or the presence of a lot of heavily-armed lunatics made up for any deficiency of innate charisma.


“I’m sorry to do this,” I said to her. “But it would be dangerous for you to stay here, and the stakes are too high for me to just let you leave. This is the best compromise I have available. It’ll suck for tonight, but tomorrow this will just be a bad memory. Okay?”


She still looked scared out of her mind, but she nodded. Kyi and another jotun quickly, efficiently hogtied and gagged her with industrial-strength duct tape. The other jotun–one I didn’t recognize; Aiko’s recruitment drive had been quite thorough–picked her up effortlessly and carried her to the door.


“Make sure the snipers keep an eye on her,” I called out as they left. “I’ll hold you personally responsible if anything happens.”


He nodded and left. The rest of us went behind the desk.


It wasn’t hard to find the basement. There were only so many doors back there, and most of them were obviously not what we were looking for. Mostly it seemed very mundane–an office, a sort of breakroom, a back exit. The process of elimination didn’t take long.


I led the way down the staircase, which was surprisingly spacious, with my army of monsters and killers behind me. A couple of ghouls and a jotun stayed up top in case anyone wandered by and saw the broken door, and started asking inconvenient questions. It wasn’t a perfect solution–they’d have a hell of a time explaining things to the police, for example, and they only had enough tape to hogtie a few people. But at some point you’ve to call it good enough and take the risk, or you never get anything done.


At first, I was a little disappointed by what we found down in the basement. It seemed to be about what it claimed to be, just storage. Not even storage for particularly exciting things. There were lots of cleaning supplies, maintenance materials, that sort of thing.


Down here, out of sight and out of mind, we didn’t have to be gentle and delicate about searching the place. The thugs ransacked the place while Kyi and Snowflake and I stood and watched.


It took a while. They’d buried it behind a bunch of crates of bleach and cleaning solvents, somewhere that not even the employees would have seen. I had to respect their dedication, on some level. It must have been an immense pain in the ass to move that whole stack every time they wanted to use this door. I could admire the dedication and discipline that had kept them doing it anyway.


The rest of me was just annoyed at the delay. This plan was, of necessity, a time-limited one. Every moment wasted was a moment we couldn’t afford.


But finally we dug it out, and reached the door. It was a simple metal hatch, one that looked like it had been jury-rigged into place long after this basement had been constructed. It was heavily locked, a problem I solved with Tyrfing rather than a set of picks. Subtlety was not high on my priority list.


The raw, aftermarket feel continued as I started down the other side. The tunnel was roughly cut into the stone, seemingly by hand. Sections of the walls and ceiling were reinforced with unfinished concrete, but by and large it was crude at best. It was unlit, a problem I was not terribly concerned about. None of us needed much in the way of light, and my minions had brought what they needed. The shadowy, unsteady illumination the flashlights cast was perfect for me. It gave me lots of shadows to work with, darkness to bend to my will.


I was more concerned by the temperature. It was hot in that tunnel. Not just casually warm, but sauna-hot, more than hot enough to be uncomfortable for a human, which made it far too hot for my happiness. The presence of the jötnar was enough to keep it at manageable levels, but I was still having to work to maintain my frozen body. Finding enough ice to scrape another one together out of in this heat was out of the question.


So. If I took enough of a hit to wreck the body I was manifesting through, my options were limited. I wasn’t entirely sure how I could adjust to that.


It was almost like old times.


How do all these people manage huge underground lairs? Snowflake asked as we hurried down the tunnel. We were setting a pace considerably faster than most humans could sustain, which was part of why I hadn’t brought any humans down in here. Speed was important here, and with a crowd in enclosed quarters, guns weren’t a great choice anyway.


That’s actually a good question, I replied. Most of the ones we’ve seen, the people that built them have serious connections. But these guys are new on the scene. Call it more evidence that they’ve got some kind of sponsor, I guess.


You know what the problem with you is? she said after a moment. I want to laugh and call you paranoid, but then you keep being right.


Trust me, I’d rather be wrong. Speaking of, looks like there’s another door up ahead. Think we’re about to meet the welcoming committee, and I somehow doubt they’ll be glad to see us.


My only response was a delighted laugh and an increase in her pace. If she were wearing a leash, she’d have been pulling me along rather than the other way around. I could feel her eagerness, the thrill she felt at the prospect of violence.


Snowflake wasn’t a very good person. It was time I stop beating around the bush on that one. I’d lived with her inside my head for a long time now, and somehow I’d kept making excuses for her, and dressing it up in pretty words. The reality was that she quite simply was not a good person.


Not everybody could be. Not everybody even got the choice.


I arranged my thugs at a distance from the door, in case something bad happened when I opened it. I chopped through the locks with Tyrfing, and then shoved it open.


I promptly took a shotgun blast to the chest.


I stumbled back a step, glancing down. “Huh,” I said. “Guess they had a trap for someone who opened it without a key.”


“Are you all right, jarl?” Kyi asked promptly.


“Should be fine,” I said, pulling the holes in my torso closed again. I didn’t bother pushing the pellets out first. There wasn’t any real need. I didn’t have any actual control over the metal, but I could carry it along without any particular trouble, I was pretty sure.


Moments later, I continued, continuing to go first in case there were any more traps. I pulled the shotgun down, and then we kept going.


As underground lairs went–and Snowflake was right, I had seen a bizarrely large number of them–this one was…odd. It felt too new, too modern. It almost felt like a hospital, with the bright fluorescent lights, the white walls and gleaming tile floor, everything kept fanatically clean. Maybe I’d just spent too much time around extremely old-fashioned people, but this was not what I’d been expecting. Even if it hadn’t been built with a medieval design aesthetic, I would have expected it to feel more tired, more rundown.


As it was, I was starting to get a distinctly ominous feeling about this place. I felt like there was something I was missing, some obvious piece of the puzzle that I hadn’t quite slotted into place.


“Okay,” I said, looking around. It seemed like a fairly normal hallway, fairly generic. There were doors opening off it at regular intervals, none of which had a convenient label on it. “Spread out, small groups, start looking. I want anything you can find that might have information we can use. That means files, computers, anything that might seem remotely useful. Assume that everything is trapped, and if you find anyone, shout.”


A wave of nods swept over the group, and they started fanning out and opening doors. They were professional about it, which I was glad to see. Every movement was coordinated, and nobody was taking chances. That boded well for our chances here.


I stayed where I was with Kyi and Snowflake, and waited. I was confident our entry had not gone unnoticed, and I was fully expecting them to respond to it rapidly. Nothing I’d seen from this group suggested that they were less than efficient.


And what did they call themselves, anyway? I hadn’t heard a name for them. It was a minor issue, admittedly, but it was starting to bug me.


In any case, I didn’t have to wait long. Not two minutes after I triggered the shotgun trap, I heard footsteps and a group of people came around the corner. They were wearing modern camouflage gear, and heavy, face-concealing helmets, and they were carrying guns.


Once again, I was the first off the line. No one else–not even Snowflake–had so much as started to move before I was sprinting in their direction at full speed.


Unfortunately, I was fast enough now to run into the same problem I’d often exploited in the past. Reacting quickly is not the same thing as reacting well.


Because I’d put such an emphasis on reacting fast, it wasn’t until I’d almost reached them that I noticed a few important details.


One, the guns they were holding were oddly light, lacking the bulk of military-grade rifles.


Two, they were all carrying large metal tanks on their backs. It looked like they were connected to the guns with hoses.


And three, I could smell petroleum.


The resulting chain of logic was enough to instantly and completely reverse my focus. I’d had some bad experiences with fire in the past, enough to have a healthy respect for its destructive potential. Now that I was made of ice, I somehow didn’t think that I would enjoy it any more.


The moment I realized what I was dealing with, I stopped and threw power out into the hall. Again, it was a sloppy, inefficient bit of magic, but it did what it was supposed to do. It flooded the space with frigid, semisolid darkness a moment before they pulled the triggers on their flamethrowers.


Flamethrowers are scary weapons. Not the most effective, necessarily–they have a lot of limitations. But they’re terrifying. I mean, there are reasons so many of the most horrific events in the history of war involved fire, from sacking cities when “salt the ashes” was a literal phrase all the way to the Dresden bombing. Nearly every living thing has a healthy fear of fire, and millennia of civilization aren’t enough to remove that animal terror.


I didn’t feel fear in the same way I had, not quite. It lacked the same immediacy, lacked the physiological element.


When I saw the napalm chewing through my barrier, I still panicked.


I tried to smother it with another wave of magic. That proved to be an exceptionally bad idea. Trying to split my concentration when I was already maintaining a complex bit of magic just meant that both of them collapsed for a critical moment.


It was only a second. Just the space of a heartbeat in which I didn’t have defenses in place.


That was too long.


Napalm washed over me, and eradicated me. I wasn’t any better protected from this than anyone else. Hell, I might have been more vulnerable than a normal human. I was made of cold and darkness, and I’d just been immolated in flame and light.


I was knocked out of my embodied state, and the body I left behind was turned into nothing but steam. I was left implicit in the shadows and the cold and the hunger in that space, but I was pretty far out of it. I thought there was definitely something to my idea that having to put more bodies together took something out of me. I wasn’t sure how many more I had in me.


Come to think of it, I didn’t really know if I was going to recover. I’d sort of been assuming that I would, because the idea that I would heal with time was one that had been drilled into me throughout my life. But I wasn’t alive anymore, and I didn’t know all the rules of what I was. It was entirely possible that I’d already burned through most of the chances I’d ever get, without realizing what it meant.


With that comforting thought in mind, I turned my attention back to what was going on around me. It took a moment, and when I did my view was fuzzy, even more so than usual while I was in this state. It felt like my connection to physical reality was more tenuous, more fragile than it had been.


From what I did see, it seemed like the fight was most certainly not over. The flamethrowers hadn’t had enough fuel to keep going for very long after incinerating me, or else it was too hot for safety, because they’d stopped firing. They were grabbing for pistols instead, but they were too slow, because Snowflake was already in the middle of them.


She’d run straight through the lingering fires, barely skirting around patches of freaking napalm, to get to them. Unbelievable.


She pulled one of them down and started biting at their throat, but apparently the uniform was made out of some toughened fabric or the mask was getting in the way or something, because blood didn’t immediately start flowing.


One of the others pulled a grenade off their belt and threw it at the jötnar and ghouls who were streaming out of the doors into the hallway.


I felt a moment’s impotent rage. This fight was suddenly and rapidly turning more dangerous than I’d expected, and there wasn’t a damn thing I could do about it.


Kyi threw a knife and hit the grenade out of the air, sending it spinning back to the ground. Snowflake bolted away, jumping through the fire again in her haste to get away before it blew.


It went off a second later with a flash bright enough and a noise loud enough to be annoying, even through the veil between me and the physical world. It was clearly enough to stun the people with guns, and even most of a hundred feet away, my minions were obviously not happy about it.


A flashbang. That made sense; in these enclosed spaces, a fragmentation grenade was just a fancy way to commit suicide. Then again, they’d been willing to use flamethrowers down here, so obviously that wasn’t something they were too worried about.


That burst of impotent wrath proved to be the motivator I needed. I transitioned into the shadow of one of the masked humans, and then manifested myself through that patch of darkness, filling it with Midnight power and making it more real in the process.


I grabbed them by the head and wrenched it back towards me with awful force, more than enough to destroy the spine. In the process, I got a good look at myself in the dark lenses of the mask.


I was an animate shadow, a vaguely humanoid piece of darkness that blurred seamlessly into the darkness I stood in. The only thing that stood out clearly were the eyes, which burned with a dull amber glow. Lines of brighter light and total darkness crossed them in subtly moving patterns, evoking the pictures frost makes growing on windows.


That was all that I had the chance to see before one of the others fumbled a high-power flashlight off their belt and caught me in the beam of light, tearing apart the shadow I was forming myself from and scattering it. It tore me apart in the process, leaving me disembodied once again.


Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that I’d be vulnerable to something quite that…mundane as a result of what I was using as a door into the world. It made sense, though. Hell, that was probably why they’d brought flashbangs.


These people knew more about my weaknesses these days than I did. There was no question about it, somebody was way too well informed here.


Unfortunately for them, they’d focused too much on me, and left everyone else free to act. Some of the jötnar got close enough to the napalm to put out the fires with the cold that was their nature, and then the ghouls pounced.


The resulting bloodbath was mercifully short. That was about all that I could say for it.


I thought about trying to form a permanent body out of shadows, but it didn’t seem like a great idea. I hadn’t done anything more than disposable shells out of darkness alone, and I wasn’t sure that I could. It was clearly a secondary element, not something I could work with as well as easily or well as ice. And besides, they were prepared for darkness here. Getting more bodies destroyed by flashbangs and flashlights and who knew what other light sources just seemed like a waste of effort.


Instead, I picked the deepest patch of shadow available and pieced together another crude temp body, just enough to speak through.


“Keep going,” I said, surprising myself a little with the eerie, hollow sound of my voice. “Remember to search them, and keep an eye out.”


Apparently the sound startled them too, because my minions seemed more inclined to run than obey. It probably didn’t help that they’d just seen me burned alive, and they didn’t know the details of my current arrangement. From their perspective, this whole thing was probably starting to seem more than slightly freaky.


But Kyi acted like obeying creepy voices from the shadows was totally normal, and in the face of that unflappable calm, the unease faded quickly. By the time my body dissipated into wisps of shadow, they were already back at work searching the rooms.


I slipped into Snowflake–very gently, very delicately, not imposing myself, just a presence. You mind if I ride along? I asked.


The immediate response was shock, swiftly followed by sardonic amusement. Why not? she said. It’ll be just like old times. So what now?


Now we go check out where these nuts came from, I thought. I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that there are more where they came from.


Let’s hope so, she said, standing and shaking herself. All right, let’s do this.

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Broken Mirror 13.7

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It took a while to piece myself back together. Unsurprisingly, I supposed. Hell, the surprise was probably that I could do so at all. I’d taken multiple hits from an abomination out of the void between worlds. The one and only other time I’d had that happen, it had taken a ridiculously long time for it to heal to any degree of functionality. And that had been a glancing blow, barely even getting into muscle. The impression I’d gotten in general was that when the void destroyed something, it couldn’t really be fixed.


Which, all things considered, was a fairly ominous thought.


I started out trying to make a really well-designed body, but in the end I just didn’t have the energy to care. It was slow going, too, and I was more than a bit concerned that I’d miss something important.


My body was nothing more than a roughly humanoid shape, the sort of sculpture a not-particularly-gifted child might make, when I pushed my way out of the snowbank I’d been gestating in.


Nothing much had changed. I was actually a bit surprised by the extent to which nothing had changed. The housecarls were still staring like they couldn’t quite grasp what they’d seen. Even Snowflake was staring, and when I brushed against her mind, all I got was a sort of numbness, the mental equivalent of a cartoon character with his jaw on the floor.


It took me a second to realize why. They hadn’t seen either me or Aiko using our new powers. Not seriously. Even Snowflake had only seen the most basic applications of what we were capable of. She might know conceptually, but there was a huge gap between knowing something and seeing it.


No one else was there. Not one person pushed through the curtain of darkness Aiko was still maintaining around the scene.


It was quiet. Very quiet.


“Nice work,” I said to Aiko as I stood up, more just for something to say than anything.


“You weren’t too bad yourself,” she said, smirking.


“How did you get rid of it?”


She shrugged loosely. “I figured we know where they come from, and we know they can’t get in on their own. All I had to do was send it back. And it did most of the work itself, breaking down the barriers. I just…finished the job.”


I nodded. “You were always good at that kind of magic,” I commented. I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was praising her, or trying to convince myself.


“She really was,” Loki said, appearing where the abomination had been when Aiko sent it bad. He flicked his fingers a few times, looking a bit like an artist correcting an errant bit of paint, and the streaks and trails of nothingness that still carved paths in the world’s skin disappeared. “Well done. A bit clumsy, but a fairly decent tactic, and you pulled it off.”


“You,” I said, pointing at him. “What the hell? Why did you make us deal with that thing?”


“Because it amused me,” he said, as though explaining to a child that knives cut. I noticed, absently, that no one else was reacting to this conversation. We weren’t perceiving time on different levels–they didn’t seem frozen–but I was betting they weren’t capable of perceiving it.


I shook my head. “No,” I said. “I’m not buying your ‘I just do it for fun’ line. Not anymore. I mean, look at where we’ve wound up. This is not something that happens by coincidence. You’ve been planning this all along.”


“You act like those are mutually exclusive statements,” he said with a twisted grin. “What, does planning things preclude me from seeking my own amusement?”


“Well, it sure as hell suggests that you’ve got a bit more in the way of intent behind what you’re doing than that,” I said. “And it occurs to me that saying you’re just doing things to entertain yourself would make a great cover for your plans. With your reputation, you could do anything and write it off as just a bit of fun.”


“It’s true,” Aiko added. “I know. I’ve used that trick.”


“Ah,” Loki said. “Let’s assume that you’re right. If, and I feel I should stress the if, I’m going to those lengths to conceal some sinister plot…what on earth makes you think that I’d tell you what that plot might be?”


I ground my teeth, hard enough that the ice started to splinter. “Nothing,” I said. “I just felt a need to comment on it.”


“Comment noted,” he said. The wildfires in his eyes seemed to accelerate slightly, although I wasn’t sure what that might mean, or whether I’d really seen it all. “Would you like to say anything that isn’t pointless speculation, or should I just go?”


“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve got something to say. That guy. He was clueless. He didn’t even bother reading the book he was copying his circle out of.”


“They just don’t make them like they used to,” Loki sighed. “He is dead, by the way. I don’t think you had time to notice, but the beasty that he summoned annihilated him. Don’t call up that which you cannot put down, and all that.”


“That’s just it,” I said. “Those things are freakishly powerful, terrifying monsters. As I understand it, having one of them get loose is an apocalyptic threat. How did that dweeb know how to summon one?”


Loki smiled. “Now that,” he said, “is an extremely good question. I strongly suggest that you find out.”


And then he vanished. Completely, and instantly. Even with my newly expanded senses, I couldn’t even begin to figure out how he did it. It was like watching a movie, and having someone turn off the projector. Which, now that I thought about it, might not be a wholly inaccurate analogy.


“Beautiful,” I said. Well, growled, really. “Just beautiful.”


“Look on the bright side,” Aiko said. “At least you’re not bored.”


I glowered. “Yeah,” I said. “Boredom is not a thing I complain about. Pretty much ever.”


“I know,” she said happily. “So you’re following up on that, I’m guessing?”


“I don’t think I have a choice,” I said. “That might have just been a suggestion, but I don’t think I get to ignore it. Loki’s good at that.”


“I remember,” she said. “Okay. I need to be back in Faerie now. I was right in the middle of beating some sense into some skulls when you called, and I don’t think I should put off finishing any longer than necessary.”


“You need a hand?” I asked, instantly.


She hesitated, then shook her head. “Not at present, I think,” she said. “Currently, I’m still in the stage where I’m better off doing it myself. I’ll let you know if that changes.”


“Okay,” I said. “I’m going to follow up on this one. Seems like it should be a priority at this point.”


“Call if you need some backup,” she said. “Seriously. I’ll appreciate the break, trust me.” She grinned, then stepped closer and kissed me.


I lingered over that touch. In that moment, I needed the contact. I needed very much to remember that there was more to me than the monster, something more than just bad choices and necessary evils. Judging by the intensity with which she held to me, Aiko did too.


And then she let go, and turned, and walked off into a shadow, and was gone.


I stood there for a moment, then turned to face the onlookers. There were more of them, now. The privacy curtain of Midnight power had vanished when Aiko did, leaving a couple dozen human bystanders staring at me.


I thought about trying to explain, and then thought better of it. People were dead. The property damage would probably be in the tens of millions. Nothing I could say would make this all right, ever again.


“Come on,” I said to the housecarls, who jumped to comply. I sheathed Tyrfing, and grabbed the unconscious man on the way by. He’d been far enough from the fight not to get annihilated, and he was still unconscious. He started moving as I picked him up, struggling, but I ignored him. I was so much stronger than him that I really didn’t have to worry about him getting loose.


Snowflake walked beside me as we left the scene, her shoulder a comforting presence against my hip. Behind us, the emergency services were just now arriving, starting to try and get a handle on what was happening.


A part of me wondered whether the witnesses would describe things accurately, or I would end up being the bad guy. Another part didn’t care.


Nobody tried to follow us.


Back at the mansion, Kjaran parked the car and Vigdis hauled the leader of the human supremacist delegation out. He was fully conscious now, and seemed to have no negative effects from being choked unconscious. Not that I could really say with confidence, on that topic. He hadn’t said one word on the way here, and I hadn’t tried to make him.


I found it notable that while the site had been crawling with cops by the time we left, not a one of them had followed us. Not a single car had tailed us down to the mansion, though several of them had seen us dragging a struggling man away, and probably at least one had watched him being forced into the back of the car.


I was glad that my unofficial truce with the police was still holding. At least enough that they were willing to turn a blind eye to me doing some extralegal work in a good cause.


Kjaran opened the door and I strode into the mansion. I’d taken the time to fix my face on the way, and now looked almost like a human being. As close as I had in a long time, at least. The captive tried to get loose and run between the car and the door, but Vigdis subdued him easily, almost pulling his shoulder from the socket in the process, and then literally dragged him in with a satisfied expression.


I pointed at him as faces turned towards me. “Somebody get answers out of him,” I said. “Who he is, where he’s from, where his people are. Don’t much care how you do it.”


Some of my people–the humans, mostly–looked a bit uncomfortable and hurried on about their tasks. Some others looked a little too enthused for comfort. Most, though, just looked professional. This was a job, like any other.


“I won’t talk,” he said, the first words he’d said since the fight started back at the cafe.


“I’m not expecting you to, honestly,” I said. “But with the stakes this high, I’ve got to try, and I dislike you enough right now not to be particularly upset by that. On that note, though, I want people trying other avenues. I want to know where these people are hiding out, soonest. Get some werewolves out there to try and track them back, talk to Pellegrini, talk to Frishberg. Make it happen.”


“On it,” Selene said, nodding sharply. She walked away, rattling off instructions to some of her minions.


I didn’t recognize all her minions. In my absence, Aiko had been preparing my organization for an all-out war, which had entailed some aggressive recruitment. Luckily we were now getting support from the massive, mind-boggling economic powerhouse of the Midnight Court, taking any lingering concerns of finances from minor to utterly insignificant. We weren’t completely subsidized, by any means, but just knowing that we had that support to fall back on had taken a lot of the stress off of Tindr.


The end result? I had a lot of minions. Enough that I wasn’t even trying to keep track of them individually, except for the relatively small proportion that had been with me since I was the start.


While they were working, I ate half a dozen sandwiches, then went upstairs to take a nap.


Sleep didn’t come. It seemed that I’d finally finished the conversion. First, sleep had been an unfortunate necessity, something that took my time but which I couldn’t really avoid. Then it had been a luxury, something that I did when I could, but which I could go without when I needed to.


Now, when I wanted to sleep, I found I couldn’t. I lacked the capacity.


It seemed a bittersweet trade.


A few hours later, I walked up to the door of an apartment building.


They’d tried to hide their tracks. They’d done a fairly decent job of it, actually. They just hadn’t quite anticipated the degree of tracking they had to evade.


They’d switched vehicles a few times, taking a twisty, crazy route to the meeting. They’d worn heavy perfume which they’d covered over a few times, and dropped pepper and silver at intervals along their way. They’d gone to considerable lengths to conceal where they’d come from.


Half a dozen werewolves, with assistance from the police, and from Pellegrini’s mafia organization, and Jackal’s gang of changelings and half-breeds, and all the information Luna could scrounge from her extensive network of contacts, had been a bit more than they’d been prepared to deal with.


I could not in all fairness blame them for not anticipating that. Even a few years earlier, there was no way in hell I could have managed a manhunt quite this extensive. Back then, the lengths they’d gone to would have been a serious, maybe even insurmountable, obstacle.


As with a lot of other things that had once been problems for me, it had ceased to be relevant somewhere along the way. I’d traded those problems up for another set.


Probably I could have safely handled this assault myself. Probably.


I hadn’t lived this long by betting on that, though. And what was the point of having a small army if you didn’t use it?


So I walked up to the door, but I wasn’t alone. Snowflake was at my side, of course, and Kyi was walking on my other side, flipping a knife around casually in her hand. They were wearing matching black eyepatches, which I found bizarrely amusing. Kyra was busy at school, but Anna was there, as were two more werewolves that I didn’t know. They were visiting, and they’d wanted to pitch in.


Behind us, half a dozen ghouls and twice as many jötnar were following. Another two dozen humans and near-humans were scattered around the neighborhood with radios and rifles, in case someone tried to run.


I’d considered, very seriously, the possibility of just blowing the building up. It was a strategy that had worked for me in the past, after all. But we were here to find information, rather than just for destruction, which required a slightly more subtle approach.


Not a whole lot, of course. I did still have a small army. But slightly.


I flexed my fingers with a quiet crackle of breaking ice, and then kicked the door down.

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Interlude 12.y: Annabel

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There are ideas in this world that can infect a person, can change them. They make themselves at home in the dark and quiet places of your mind, they creep into your heart and wind their fingers in your soul.


And maybe you aren’t always aware of them. Maybe you can forget them for days at a time. But when you look in a mirror, there’s a part of you that knows they’re looking back at you. And while you may try to pretend that the idea isn’t in you, every now and then you think


What if?


That’s all. Just a simple question. That’s all.


Just an idea.


There are never very many of us. Perhaps a few dozen at a time, as many as a hundred when things are very good. It’s a surprisingly easy thing to become, but mostly we have a short life expectancy. A year or two, for most of us, at the most. It takes a certain sort of person to become a wendigo, a very specific sort of person, and we tend to lead fast lives, with no thought for the day after tomorrow.


I’m something of an anomaly, in that regard. A combination of natural inclination, skill, and a healthy dose of luck.


I’ve always been lucky.


Perhaps more than anything else, though, what sets me apart is a difference of taste, of preference. My inclinations are much the same as any other wendigo, but with a slight twist in application. I like to think that I have a slightly more refined palate than most.


When you see a person standing on a ledge, there are conflicting urges. There’s a part of you that feels concerned for their safety, and then there’s a part that thinks I could push them.


Normally, of course, the first of these dominates, and thus society is fairly stable. You tell yourself that the other is just a momentary lapse of reason, that you’d never actually act on such a destructive impulse.


But then there’s that moment, in the dark and the quiet, when you’re all alone and the light feels a million miles away, and you think


What if?


And generally, there are two ways you can go after you think that. You can try to forget it, and generally you can be fairly successful. You can live your regular job, run the rat race, go home to your spouse and your two children and your dog. You can pay your mortgage and save up for a car and have an affair with the secretary from work, and desperately want a divorce but always put it off one more year for financial reasons. And you can even think you’re happy, most of the time. Except for that quiet moment in the darkest hour of the night, when you feel a longing that you can’t define, a hole in your soul that you don’t know how to fill.


Or you can choose another path.


I prefer to work subtly. Not every wendigo does. Most don’t, in fact, which contributes a great deal to the remarkably high death rate. But subtlety, a fondness for working behind the scenes, has always been a talent of mine.


I am, undeniably, the second most important person at the club, and likely the most responsible for its day-to-day functioning. Yet none of the clients know my name, and even most of the staff would be hard pressed to remember it. I don’t make a great show of my work or my presence, don’t demand servility the way many people might in my position.


But I am the one who keeps things happening as they ought to, in a thousand tiny ways. When someone doubts, I am there with a gentle touch and a word of encouragement. When someone hesitates, I am there to give them that tiniest of pushes over the edge. When someone reaches out a hand without quite knowing what they want, I am there to fill it with a drink, or a pill, or a knife. And always, always I am there to urge them onward, to tell them to take that one step further, by my very existence to provide a reminder that there is further to go.


That’s what I am. At my core, that is what makes me what I am.


The legends say that a wendigo is a spirit of hunger and madness, that it crawls inside cannibals and makes itself at home.


They aren’t entirely wrong. They are missing the point.


Everyone who goes to the club has needs. Hungers that they live to sate–or, as the case may be, don’t. That’s the point, the telos of the institution. No one goes there except because they need something that they can’t find anywhere else.


For me, it’s something more abstract, more meta, as they say in this age. I’m not there because I need to feast upon the flesh of men. I do feast, of course, and I quite enjoy doing so, but that’s not why I’m there. It’s a side dish, an ancillary benefit.


The main course is something so simple, most people don’t even fully recognize its presence.


It’s a quiet night, tonight. Barely thirty people and not-people in the main room, another ten in private rooms for one reason or another. That’s very slow, for us. Even on a weeknight.


I make my usual rounds, checking in with the various members of the staff. None of them have anything of interest to report, and so my rounds don’t take very long. Just a few minutes, and then I make the next set of rounds, taking a moment to observe each of the things being done in the room.


There aren’t many, of course. There weren’t enough people for there to be very many. But the ones that were there were fairly creative. To most people, they would even have been shocking. From my perspective, they were rather bland.


And then I noticed one in particular, and focused on it. A young woman lying on the ground, half a dozen chemicals pulsing through her veins, writhing in agony or ecstasy at the visions only she could see. She came alone and everyone else was busy, even the ever-present guards having more important things to occupy them.


She writhed on the ground, bleeding from where she’d clawed at her own face, her beautiful features marred by irregular wounds. And no one looked.


No one cared.


I felt a sort of satisfaction at the sight, a sort of fulfillment.


This was what I fed on, what I was. This was what had led a girl and a spirit to join with one another and become something that transcended both, a whole greater than the sum of its parts. It was that element of excess, of transgression. It was the things done in the dark, the things no one looks at because no one wants to know. It was the small voice in the back of the head, when you knew that something was wrong and you couldn’t do it, asking


Why not?


I go to the woman and sit beside her. I take her hand and she clutches at mine, fierce, reflexive, her nails biting into my skin and drawing cold, slow blood.


I sit and hold her hand as her breathing slows, and her grip grows weak, and at the end her heart goes still.

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Broken Mirror 13.6

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When you summoned something, there was always a certain amount of uncertainty regarding how it was going to appear. With formalized rituals, you could usually make some reasonably confident predictions. When you were just inviting something and hoping it came, it was harder to predict quite what would happen. Sometimes it was huge and dramatic. Sometimes it was closer to Loki’s favorite approach, and they just showed up without any flashy effects at all.


Aiko appeared in a wave of darkness. For an instant everything went dark, like a curtain had been drawn over every spark of light in a three-block radius. I could still sense things, still function, but vision–normal vision, the sort that was based on the perception of light–was utterly impossible.


The darkness lasted for a solid three heartbeats, and then faded, leaving Aiko standing right next to me, close enough that I could feel her breath and she could feel the lack of mine.


She looked like herself, still. But maybe that was me, because the housecarls were staring like they’d seen a ghost. Or, I supposed, a Faerie Queen. Probably I’d had a similar expression the first time I saw Scáthach.


“What’s up?” she said, grinning.


I pointed at the monster and said, “Kill it.” Not my most articulate moment, but it got the point across.


She looked at it, and for an instant, I saw a flicker of fear cross her face. She knew what this thing was. She hadn’t seen the other one the way I had, but she’d seen enough to know just what kind of danger it posed.


Then she went back the cavalier grin she’d shown up with. “You’re really good at getting in trouble,” she said. “You know that, right? All right, let’s do this.”


Then I saw Aiko use her newfound power for the first time.


I loved her. In spite of everything that had happened to both of us, I still loved her.


But even I thought it was freaking terrifying.


The one and only time I’d seen Scáthach fight, she’d gone for a very straightforward, physical assault. That might have been because she’d been fighting Skrýmir at the time, but I thought it probably had more to do with who she was. From what Aiko had said, and what I’d felt myself, taking on a role within a Faerie Court entailed a sort of mutual adjustment. The role bent you into shape to fit into it, but it also bent itself to fit around you.


For Scáthach, being the Maiden of the Midnight Court had meant being swift and aggressive, embodying the predatory hunger and aggression of the Unseelie fae. But Aiko had always been more inclined to misdirection and trickery, and it was in that that the power of the role found its expression in her.


She flicked a finger, I smelled a burst of magic scented with fox and spice and darkness, and things started getting crazy.


It started with ropes and patches of darkness materializing all around the thing from the void, tangling it up. It devoured them in instants, but as many as it eradicated, there was always another waiting. There were sparks of scarlet light scattered through the darkness, casting an eerie crimson light through the area that was just bright enough to see. Not that I really needed the light, since this darkness, born of Midnight power and sculpted by the person that had given me mine, stood out even more sharply to my senses than natural darkness did.


At almost the same instant another burst of power went the other direction, flooding into the people who were standing and watching in shock. As one, in total unison, they stood and started walking away. There was something stiff and mechanical about it, something artificial. It looked like they were puppets, somehow. All things considered, that might have literally been the case. Only Snowflake and the housecarls were unaffected. They were still standing and staring at the unfolding scene.


One of those tendrils of manifest nothingness stretched out towards Aiko, shredding the barriers of darkness and power between them. Without thinking, before I had time to think, I was bolting towards it, moving to intercept it before it could reach her.


Probably a dumb move, given that she was more than fast enough to get out of the way before it could get near her. But I’d always been sort of dumb in some ways.


As I got close, I did another dumb thing without thinking, on reflex. I called Tyrfing to my grasp and brought it over in a sweeping cut at the tendril. I wasn’t really sure why, beyond the fact that a quick cut with Tyrfing had gotten to be my default response to attackers. I knew that this wasn’t really something that could be cut, after all. It was a hole in the world, the concept of void given shape and form. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that a sword wasn’t going to do much against something like that.


Which, in turn, made it even stranger when the thing recoiled from the blade, the tendril snapping back in to its core. It looked slightly ragged, too, the clean edges of the absolute nothingness wavering slightly.


Tyrfing looked as smooth and bright as ever after passing through the abomination. It gleamed bright and hungry in the crimson light, looking like it was drenched in blood though blood had never left a mark on that sword.


I stood there staring in shock, trying to process what had just happened. As such, I was just standing there as two more tendrils snapped out from the abomination and hit me in the chest.


I hadn’t thought that I was really capable of feeling pain anymore.


I was probably right. This wasn’t pain, as such. It was just an overwhelming feeling of wrongness, something vile, spectacularly wrong. It was an alien feeling, something I couldn’t quite grasp or process.


My body collapsed in an instant, ripped to pieces. I was left in an incorporeal state, lacking the means to directly influence what was happening.


“Keep it still,” Aiko said, her voice echoing strangely. I almost heard it more mentally than physically, the meaning of the words reverberating through the bond between us.


Keep it still. Great. Because that was totally a thing I could do. Really.


It seemed like she had a plan, though, and that was a lot more than I could say. So I figured I had to at least try.


There was snow around, but I didn’t have time to form a decent body. Hell, I probably didn’t want to. This thing was terrifyingly fast to retaliate, and I did not want to let it hit me again. I was mostly invulnerable, but considering just what I was dealing with, I didn’t think it was a good time to put that mostly to the test. That meant that staying in one body for more than a few instants was a bad idea. I couldn’t trade hits with something from the void; that left hit-and-run as the only viable option available to me.


So rather than the snow and ice, I reached for darkness, slipping into the cords and sheets of Midnight power Aiko was throwing around.


I found them to be a surprisingly good host. Or not surprisingly, maybe. I still didn’t have the best grasp on how this champion gig worked, but it seemed clear that the Midnight Court’s name wasn’t just an affectation. It sort of made sense that tying myself so closely to the Court would leave me with a connection to the dark magic it used as well.


Only a few seconds after I collapsed, a vaguely humanoid form stretched out of the darkness behind the abomination, nothing fully real about it except for the shining blade in its hand. I swept Tyrfing through another of its tendrils, then ceased concentrating and let my body dissipate into a few wisps of shadow. The sword fell to the snow an instant before it ripped that patch of darkness apart, a few seconds too late to catch me.


The next minute or so was a tense, fast-moving stalemate. I jumped from one shadow to the next, occasionally even sculpting a loose body out of snow, always slashing at its tendrils with Tyrfing. Every time I hit one it recoiled in what seemed to be pain, reabsorbing that tendril into its core, although since it was constantly absorbing and extruding tendrils anyway the effect was rather minimal. I could do a bit to slow it down, but I wasn’t really affecting it in a meaningful way. Cutting the core might have done more, but even if I’d been willing to get that close to it, there was nothing there to manifest out of.


Meanwhile, Aiko was throwing out a constant stream of darkness, replacing the shadows as fast as the abomination could remove them. She took a moment to throw up a wall of darkness just past the housecarls, as well, keeping any well-intentioned morons from rushing in and getting themselves killed. Occasionally she tried something else, flinging blasts of magic at it. I understood about half of them–force, lightning, dark fires–while the other half were more abstract, fae magics. Or, hell, maybe kitsune magics; it wasn’t like I’d understood what Kuzunoha did all that much better. Regardless, nothing she did seemed to be having an effect on it, beyond the minimal slowing effect that the solid darkness had. Again, she could inconvenience the thing, maybe, but that was all.


For its part, the abomination seemed to be focused on me. For a while it tried to hit me before I could cease manifesting, but after a few tries it seemed to figure out that it couldn’t react quickly enough to reach me before I abandoned a body and moved on. Instead, it started lashing out wildly in all directions, cutting through large swaths of the darkness and hoping to catch me by chance.


It worked a few times. I took some more hits, shattering bodies before I could do anything with them. More than that, though, they seemed to be having a cumulative effect. It was getting harder to manifest a body for myself, and slower. I was getting clumsy. The last two times I’d missed when I went to cut at it.


I wasn’t sure how much of that was the damage from the abomination adding up, and how much was just me getting tired. I hadn’t felt fatigue in the physical sense for a long time, now–hell, even before I’d lost my real body, I hadn’t had much of a fatigue response. But I could still get tired, mentally, and there were still limits to how hard I could push myself.


I hadn’t done this before, hadn’t tried to weave together anywhere near this many bodies in such a short time. As it turned out, there were limits to that as well. I didn’t think I could manage very many more without a long rest.


This wasn’t working.


I tried to think of something, anything else that I could do in this situation, and took a tendril to the face for my distraction. I shattered again, and this time that feeling of wrongness lingered for several seconds. It was something like an intense nausea and a splitting headache, except that it was a purely mental thing, like someone dragging their nails over the chalkboard inside my head. I transitioned to another patch of shadow, and even that took a couple seconds of concerted effort.


I couldn’t keep this up much longer.


I gritted my teeth–well, metaphorically, but teeth were engrained enough in my self-image that I still had them even when I existed only as a concept waiting to find expression–and prepared myself for another attempt.


Then I suddenly heard something. “Winter!” Aiko shouted, her voice coming to me in a strangely warbling, almost unreal way. If I hadn’t had the mental and emotional echo from my connection to the Midnight Court I might not have understood at all. “Get out of there!”


It took me a second to grasp what she meant, and then a couple more to actually do it, shifting my focus to a patch of snow in the shadow of a building. Or half a building, at least. It seemed like the upper half had largely been obliterated by a stroke from the abomination.


As I was lying there, trying to work up enough energy to build a physical shell to inhabit, I finally saw what Aiko had been planning.


All that time while the abomination was swinging at me, it had been leaving those trails of nothing behind itself. They didn’t seem to be permanent, but they lingered.


What neither of us had realized was that Aiko hadn’t been throwing that darkness around at random. On the contrary, they’d been very precisely placed. And as it kept trying to hit me, it had been unwittingly following the path of that darkness.


It had, in essence, been duped into drawing an enormous and elaborate geometric diagram around itself, one which still hung in the air as a three-dimensional image in the form of those trails of nothingness.


Now, Aiko threw her hands out, and once again I smelled a burst of incredibly powerful magic. Ropes of darkness spiraled along those trails, outlining and somehow feeding off of them in a way that I couldn’t quite grasp.


She twisted that magic, leveraging it, and the entire space inside the diagram–including the entirety of the abomination–shifted, turning into utter blackness filled with sparks and streamers of light in every color I could imagine, and some I couldn’t.


It took me a second to realize what I was looking at, and when I did I wanted to laugh.


It was the void. Or rather, the void as Coyote had shown it to me, with enough buffers that mortal eyes could look upon it without the mind behind them being rendered into confetti. We weren’t meant to look at something that fundamental.


Things stayed that way for the space of a long breath. Then Aiko clapped her hands together, and with another surge of power, the hole she’d opened in reality sealed itself shut again. The void, and the eternal chaos that danced within it, were gone.


So was the abomination, leaving nothing behind but the slowly fading streaks of nothingness that it had carved into the world.


We’d done it. Unbelievably, we’d actually managed to drive the thing off.


I almost wanted to laugh as I slowly, painfully began assembling another body from ice and snow and darkness.

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Broken Mirror 13.5

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The instant that thing appeared, the nature of the fight changed. Dramatically.


Before that point, it was pretty much a joke, and one that was played most of the way out. The advantage had been tipped so far in my favor that there really wasn’t any kind of contest.


After it showed up, that had pretty much completely reversed itself. It was still a fight between two wildly different weight classes. But I wasn’t on the winning side.


I’d seen one of these things before, once. It was bad enough that Loki—Loki—had felt the need to bring help to deal with it. I’d gotten a lot stronger, but I was still several orders of magnitude short of Loki’s scale. If he needed backup, I was not remotely capable of winning this fight. Or even surviving it.


I kept running, but changed direction, cutting across at an angle towards the others rather than running straight forward.


I’d already noted that I could run pretty freaking fast in this body. I was a lot stronger and a lot lighter than a normal human, and between the two I could set a pace much faster than anything I’d been able to manage as a human. Add in an edge of raw terror, and I could really book it.


None of them had even started to stand before I reached them. It was that fast.


I grabbed Snowflake and tossed her away from the thing, then kept moving, bowling the housecarls over with sheer momentum. I fell down, and it took me a second to extricate myself from the pile.


When I did, I was glad that I’d prioritized things how I had. The tendrils extending from it had already reached the cafe, writhing slowly in ways that almost—but not quite—formed regular patterns. They left streaks of that same not-darkness in the air behind them, places where things started to seem less than fully real.


It was moving faster than I remembered. The last one had moved slowly enough that I could outrun it, and that had been when I was a lot slower than this. Compared to this one, that thing had been moving in slow motion. If I hadn’t reacted as quickly as I had, somebody would already have taken one of those tendrils to the face.


I could still remember what being touched by one of those things felt like. The scars had gone away with the rest of my body. But my left hand still twitched a little at the thought. That had been a really, really bad day.


If I got very lucky, I wasn’t about to have a worse one.


“Loki,” I said as I pushed myself up. “Loki, Loki…come on, of all the times to not be listening, you picked this?”


“No,” Loki said, appearing out of nowhere right next to me. He didn’t offer me a hand up, unsurprisingly. “I’m watching.”


I noticed that things had stopped. Everything had stopped, with the sole exception of the void-beast, which was still moving, albeit slowly.


How did that even make sense? It had been moving quickly before, but not that quickly. Why was it still moving when Loki had warped time around us?


“You want to deal with that thing, then?” I asked.


“No,” he said, watching it with a cheerful, lopsided smile. “Not particularly.”


I paused. “I thought keeping these things out of the world was kind of important to you guys?”


“Oh, it is,” Loki assured me. “I won’t actually let it get out. For the moment, though, I’m more interested to see what you do about it. This one is considerably weaker than the last you saw. Even in the worst case it’ll only destroy a part of the continent. It’s an acceptable risk.”


I blinked. “Wait, what?”


“You heard me,” he said cheerfully. “Do try to keep up.”


“What the hell am I supposed to do to that thing?” I demanded.


“Oh, I’m sure you’ll figure something out,” he said cheerfully. “It’s not like you have to fight it. Just make it go away.”


“Make it go away,” I repeated. “And…how am I supposed to do that?”


“You’ll figure something out,” he said again. “Just remember, the worst case scenario is all of your friends dying horribly, your city being annihilated, and everything you’ve spent your life building being laid to waste.” He grinned. “Oh, and you might want to get ready. You’ve got about…ten seconds before time goes back to normal for you.”


I wanted to scream at him, or plead, or do any number of other things.


But I believed him when he said that I only had about ten seconds before things got crazy again. And I could afford to waste any of that time on feeling sorry for myself.


I wasn’t entirely sure what I should, or even really could, do in this situation. But the first step, at least, was fairly obvious to me, and I figured I could sort out the rest after that.


So while I was waiting for those ten seconds to expire, I took a couple steps further away from the void-thing and drew a quick circle in the snow. It was harder than it should have been, probably because they weren’t in the same reference frame I was for the passage of time. From their perspective, I was trying to move them at an incredible speed.


But after a second, I managed to make it work, and stood in the middle of a circle in the snow. I bit one of my fingertips, drawing something that was…well, not blood. Ice-cold water and liquid darkness and something a little more indefinable just under the surface. It was as close as I was likely to come to having blood again.


I touched that thick, heavy fluid to the circle, throwing power into it as I did. It was sloppy, manifesting physically as a burst of cold, a faint wash of darkness in the air. But it got the job done, and I was in too much of a rush to care about efficiency.


I stood up again as the world wavered and then started to move again. People were just starting to scream and run. It felt like it had been a painfully long time since the thing showed up, but objectively it had only been a few seconds.


It started to move faster as time skipped a beat and then resumed its normal flow. One tendril swept through a car, not even slowing, and then carved a hole in the ground before retracting.


“Aiko,” I muttered, tapping that well of Midnight power in me and pulling. “Aiko, Aiko. Come on, I could really use a hand here.”


I pulled a little harder, and felt something rip. Darkness flooded into me, like a hemorrhage in reverse, and I gasped.


The world went black.

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Broken Mirror 13.4

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I didn’t fully appreciate the extent to which my sensory perceptions ha changed until I walked through the city streets.


Until that point, I’d been able to more or less fool myself into thinking that things hadn’t changed that much. Operating in limited, familiar environments, it almost seemed like old times.


Out in the city, that wasn’t so much the case. There was too much to see, and I could see too much of it.


I knew, without even having to think, where every animal within a mile of me was. I could feel their minds pressing against me, a constant, quiet hum of activity. It only took a passing thought for me to let that murmur rise to a resounding chorus, flooding into my mind. Most of that input didn’t make it to my conscious thoughts, just stayed in the background.


Those minds were part of what was currently sustaining my existence. Based on what Fenris had said, anyway, but it made sense. I’d always had a strong connection to animals, and especially predators. I’d been able to exist as a purely mental entity by, essentially, timesharing space in their minds that they weren’t using. In doing so I’d been transitioning from a purely mortal being to something else, though I hadn’t recognized it at the time. I’d been taking the first steps on the road that led me, eventually, here. Now that I’d taken another step on that path, the relationship had grown more complex, but that connection was still one of the things maintaining me in my current state.


All of that, though, was more or less an extension of something that I’d had most of my life to get used to. That was relatively easy to deal with.


The rest was less so. The way I could feel a chill in the air, a scrap of snow or ice, a sense so basic I couldn’t fit it into words. I wasn’t translating it into vision, or scent, or anything else, at this point. It was a sense all its own. I could feel it, and it only took a little more thought and effort to act on it, manipulating it.


Darkness was similar—the same, in fact, since shadows tended to bring a certain cooling effect. Beyond that, though, there was a looseness to it. Standing in the darkness felt, in an odd metaphysical sort of way, like standing on the surface of gelatin. There was a surface that I was pressing against, but it was only a minimal resistance. With a slight push, I could break through it. Through it, I could feel a connection to every other shadow anywhere close to me, like a vibration in a spider’s web.


With all of that to draw on, my experience of the city was nothing like what I’d been accustomed to before. Strangely, though—or not so strangely, considering—it didn’t feel odd. It felt normal, natural. I had to keep reminding myself that it wasn’t, that the people with me didn’t have that appreciation of their surroundings.


Snowflake, at least, understood. She could feel an echo of what I did. It was a distant echo, but it was enough for her to grasp the most basic level of what I was getting. She had some of the information I did, and she knew why I was so distractible. The rest—the housecarls with me, and the people I was here to meet—didn’t even have that.


I had to remind myself that this was temporary. Eventually it would all be natural for me again. Eventually I wouldn’t have to focus on this, any more than I’d had to concentrate to use my eyes when I’d had eyes.


For now, I just had to muddle through as best as I could.


I’d brought thugs, although I didn’t really need them. At this point, they were little more than a statement. Anything that they could present a meaningful threat to was so far below me that it wasn’t even a challenge.


If power were graded on a scale of one to ten, I thought I’d gone up a solid two or three points recently, between Fenris and Aiko. I hadn’t had the chance to really test my new powers yet, but between what I did understand of them and what I’d seen of Carraig, I was pretty sure I’d suddenly transitioned to an entirely different world of power.


I was guessing that I was about to have the opportunity to find out.


Snowflake was at my heel as I walked up to the cafe. I had Kjaran and Vigdis there, as well as Herjolfr. I hadn’t interacted with the skald much. I still didn’t particularly like having him in my employ at all. But on this occasion, I thought I could make an exception.


Pellegrini had brought his own thugs. Naturally. The man called Andrews was with him, quietly dangerous as usual. I could smell him, his magic, vivid and sharp. He felt like a coiled spring with a sharpened edge. The girl, who smelled more fae than ever, was a bit more of a mystery. She smelled cold and hungry, but there was a depth to her, a subtlety. She nodded in my direction, very slightly, as I approached.


The third party was largely an unknown party to me. They’d shown up in the short time while I’d been “dead.” Or not so short. Two weeks was a tiny scrap of time on the cosmic scale, but two weeks at the right time was an eternity.


My people had been able to dig up some information about them. They were human, as far as could be determined. But they were surprisingly well-equipped, and well-informed, which between them suggested well-connected. They had resources. And they had a very serious hate on for everything that wasn’t human.


I was pretty sure that they were the same group that had been attacking werewolves around the country. I was also pretty sure that their presence in my city, and the suspiciously good timing with which they’d appeared, were not coincidences.


Taken as a whole, I was reasonably confident that they had a tie back to Jason. It made sense. He’d been the one arming the last group of these lunatics I’d seen, the one that had attacked Conn’s little meeting. He’d been in a position to know exactly when I was removed from play, since he was the one that did it. Between those, it figured that he was responsible for sending these people here to make trouble.


I intended to find out. I owed Jason, and I didn’t have any intention of forgiving that debt. He had, after all, killed me. The fact that it ended up not being quite as permanent as he’d intended didn’t change that.


There were five of them. Four were clearly members of the group; I could smell magic around them, but not on them, in them. They were using someone else’s toys, but of themselves they were no more magical than anyone on the street. They looked like hardened killers, and I was guessing it was because they were.


The last one, the odd one out, was different. He smelled like he had magic. Not a lot, but some. Still human, although I’d come to think of that as a less binary descriptor than I once had. It was hard to really characterize a mage as fully human, even if they’d started out that way.


I thought about making a dramatic entrance, since there were so, so many ways I could have done so. At this point, I had options when it came to dramatic entrances. But they would all have given things away, so in the end, I just opened the gate of the patio and walked in.


Snowflake came with me. The housecarls waited outside the fence, both as a statement of power and for their own safety.


This meeting wasn’t going to go peacefully. I was guessing we all knew that, although it was anybody’s guess who’d throw the first punch.


I walked up to the table and sat in the one open chair. That put my back to the street, which would have been a source of discomfort. Now, it didn’t really matter. With so many ways to monitor what was happening, which way I was facing was more or less immaterial.


“Hi,” I said, breathing for the first time in almost an hour. I hadn’t bothered, earlier. It still required attention for me to breathe, and the people I was with weren’t going to be upset if I didn’t.


“Hello,” Pellegrini said. “I trust you’re feeling better?”


I smiled casually. “I’ve felt worse,” I said, not really answering his question. I was still capable of lying, but more than ever, I felt like it was probably a bad idea. It might reflect poorly on Aiko if her thug was breaking her rules, after all.


Pellegrini caught the distinction. I could see it in his eyes, hear it in his breathing. The girl caught it. Andrews might have caught it, or might not; he wasn’t interested, wasn’t invested enough in this conversation for it to be clear.


None of the human supremacists caught it. I was confident of that.


“Good to hear,” Pellegrini said, another phrase that was quite a bit more meaningful than the words suggested. A veiled threat, a congratulation on my promotion, a statement of solidarity…it incorporated elements of all of those.


The other faction at this table might as well not have known the language, there was such a large proportion of the conversation flying over their head. I’d have felt sorry for them if I didn’t feel so contemptuous of them.


“You’re Winter Wolf?” one of them said. The apparent leader, he was the only one of their group sitting down. Effectively, the rest were there as decoration, as objects more than people. It was a fairly common sort of approach among the supernatural. I wasn’t sure whether it was similarly common among gangsters, or Pellegrini was just a quick study. Oddly enough, for all that I’d spoken and worked with him repeatedly, this was the first time I could remember having attended a meeting he was hosting.


The man was expecting an answer, though, and my inability to keep my train of thought on the rails was already showing. So I smiled, and nodded. “I’ve been called that,” I said. Again, not really an answer.


I wasn’t really sure what the answer was to that question, anymore.


The man nodded. “Do it,” he said.


The odd man out, the mage among their group, gestured slightly. Brilliant red light flared around me, complex geometric designs drawn in a circle around my chair. It wasn’t just me, either; there was real light there.


I felt a minor, distant surge of annoyance at that. It was sloppy work. Energy spent on lightshows was energy wasted, when it came to magic.


“Fascinating,” I said, not standing up. Pellegrini and his people didn’t stand, either, didn’t react at all. “You realize that we’re meeting under truce to discuss the fact that you’ve broken numerous rules within this city? With a neutral arbiter here to adjudicate the resolution of this dispute?”


“It was going to come to a fight anyway,” he said, pushing his chair back to make very sure that he was out of my reach. “We just cut to the chase.”


I nodded. “I appreciate that,” I said. “It’s less frustrating for me, that way.” I glanced at the designs around me, sniffed the air. “This is solid work, by the way.”


There was no response from the mage. Andrews, however, smiled slightly. He knew where I was going with this.


“Surprisingly powerful warding circle you’ve got here,” I said casually, still not standing. “Looks familiar, though. Did you copy it right out of the Lesser Key of Solomon?”


“It’s a viable design,” their mage said defensively.


I nodded. “Sure, sure,” I said. “The geometric structure is solid. Overbuilt, if anything. Lots of redundancy built into it. Of course, that also means it takes a lot more power to energize it. How did you manage that, anyway? You’re not strong enough to power it yourself. You aren’t good enough to be tapping a major source of power without killing yourself. It’s too coherent to be a group effort; those tend to come out more as patchworks. It doesn’t smell like fae, or a god, so you aren’t getting subsidized by one of them. So that only really leaves blood magic.” I smiled. “Did you kill someone to power this thing?”


“Wolves,” the mage said. His voice was surprisingly deep and resonant. “Sympathetic magic, like to bind like.”


“Fascinating,” I said. “See, that was your third mistake.”


Their leader tensed, started to rise, then visibly forced himself to relax again. “Third?” he asked.


I nodded, still smiling. It was a hungry sort of smile. “Third,” I repeated. “First was trusting the guy that set you up to do this. That was a mistake.”


They reacted. It was small, it was subtle, but I was watching. They reacted to my mention of a backer. I was, it seemed, not entirely wrong, although there was still a possibility that I’d put the pieces of the puzzle together wrong.


“Second,” I continued, “was hiring an amateur to do your trap. You get what you pay for, guys.”


The mage bristled. “Who are you calling an amateur?” he asked, flexing his fingers like claws. They glowed with a gentle violet light as he did so. Again, a sloppy, incompetent waste of power. My respect for these guys fell even further when I saw that.


“You,” I said simply. “But I’m getting to that. See, mistake number three? You killed animals for power. Before that, this was just business. Now, I’ve got something against you, personally. That’s really not a position you want to be in.”


Their leader gestured slightly. Almost imperceptibly, but he had to move his hand through a shadow, and I could feel the movement.


Two blocks away, the sniper saw that gesture. He moved, a similarly slight amount. But there was a raven on the roof with him, and it saw him, and so did I.


I could have dodged.


Instead, I sat dead still as he put a bullet through my chest.


It was a very solid shot, straight through where my heart would have been if I were as human as I currently looked. I was guessing they fully expected a fountain of blood and for me to collapse out of my chair and die with a confused, silly expression.


Instead, they got a fountain of snow and a disappointed expression.


I let out a long, slow sigh. The nice thing about not having to breathe, when it came to sighing, was that you could drag it out. It sounded more like the wind through bare branches than any human noise.


“The circle you could, perhaps, have made a case for,” Andrew said, not even flinching. “But that was a clear violation of the truce.”


“Yes,” I agreed. “I would appreciate if you allowed me to take care of it, rather than doing so yourself. As I said, this is personal.”


Pellegrini smiled. “Well,” he said briskly. “As a host, it seems the least I can do. Any chance of peaceful negotiations seems to have been rather thoroughly terminated, so my role here is done.” He stood up and started walking away without another word. Andrews followed silently after him. The girl, on the other hand, shot me a darkness-tinged wink before she left.


“I paid a phenomenal amount to get him out here, you know,” I said. “But it was worth it. The illusion of neutrality can be such a useful thing, at times.”


“You should be dead,” their leader said.


“Oh, probably,” I agreed. “But I was going to finish what I was saying. You shouldn’t have hired an amateur. See, the circle from the Lesser Key has two flaws in this situation. One is that the power usage is extreme. The other? This circle, it’s not designed to keep things in. It’s designed to keep things out.”


I threw my hands out in front of me as I said that, calling up power as I did. Unlike almost every other time I’d done so, I wasn’t drawing power from my surroundings, or from myself. I was tapping into something considerably darker and more powerful than either of those things.


I wanted to make an object lesson out of this.


The power of the Midnight Court leapt to my call like an eager pet, thrilled to be called. I took it and channeled it out.


I wasn’t drawing much power from that well. I wasn’t even drawing, so much as letting off the pressure that had built up. All things considered, it seemed safer to start small. For much the same reason, I wasn’t trying to exercise much in the way of control over it. I was content to largely let it do its own thing.


The power manifested as a column of darkness as thick as my chest, flowing out from my hands. It looked thicker and darker than it had any right to, not yielding to the light the way darkness was supposed to.


I could smell the magic, the power in it, rich and ancient. I imagined the mage could feel it, as well. I imagined he was rather unhappy as a result. When somebody you thought you had caged starts throwing around that kind of power, it’s never a good thing.


Left to its own devices, the power of the Midnight Court was a destructive thing. It was a force of death, of endings. If the Daylight Court was growth and birth and vibrant life, I was currently tapping the other side of that force, something that was by its very nature associated with darkness and death and devouring hunger.


When that power hit the circle, there was no question of stopping it. It annihilated the warding circle in an instant. The defensive structures, not having been designed to hold up against a powerful assault from this side, shattered. The darkness continued, coiling in the air like a serpent. It crashed into the table and didn’t even pause, splintering it and throwing it aside. The flood of darkness just kept coming, slamming into their leader and driving him back into the rest.


I sat and watched, feeling the power flowing through me. It wasn’t hard. I didn’t even have to think. It felt less like doing something, and more like relaxing my grip on something. The power wanted out, wanted to be used. All I had to do was…let it out.


After a few seconds, I closed my hands, and closed that connection in my mind with them. I felt a hollowness in its absence, a sense of lacking.


I should have been scared by that. I wasn’t. It wasn’t a surprise. I’d known what I was letting myself in for when I made the deal.


I stood up slowly, as they tried to do the same. They were having a harder time of it than I was. It was snowy, and an almost thoughtless effort on my part had been enough to turn it into ice. As though that weren’t making things hard enough for them, the couple that had been directly hit by the darkness seemed to be struggling. It had sapped something from them, left them weak and fumbling.


Again, that made sense. The hunger in me wanted to take from them to satisfy itself; it fit that that would have an influence on how I manifested the power of the Court. It might not be my power, but it was being channeled through me, and from what I knew of how such things worked, it was inevitable that the channel would have an influence on what form the power took.


There would be rules to the whole champion of darkness gig. It was unfortunate that I didn’t know what those rules were. Hopefully Aiko would be able to tell me, once she’d figured out her own role a little better. Either that, or I’d have to figure it out by trial and error.


I stepped forward, a massive hole still gaping in my chest, and called Tyrfing as I walked.


Two of them were down and dying before they could even stand up. A third got to her feet, but Snowflake pulled her back down and started chewing on her face before she could do any more than that.


I almost felt bad. Not…guilty, exactly. But it felt too easy. For a long time, a fight like this would have been a very serious one for me. Now that I was capable of winning it easily, it felt like cheating.


I didn’t let that stop me, of course. But still.


The last two didn’t even try to fight. I couldn’t blame them. They’d just played their trump card, and it got them nowhere at all. Then I killed more than half of them in a couple of seconds. And I still had three housecarls just standing around looking bored. Their sniper wasn’t sniping, which I knew to be because he’d been forcibly rendered unconscious by Kris shortly after he took his first shot, but they had no way of knowing that.


In their position, I’d have run too.


By a mixture of chance and intent, the two left alive were the most important ones. Their leader, and their mage. The leader jumped to the top of the priority list by virtue of being the first to get to his feet and bolt.


I let him get around fifty feet away while I walked casually after him. Then I stepped into a shadow, and pushed against that surface I’d felt earlier.


It gave way at my touch, and I slipped into another world. It was dark, the total darkness of a moonless night with no stars, but I could see. More than sight, I could feel my surroundings, including feeling another weak point ahead that I could return through.


A step and a thought were enough to move me to the one I wanted. Naturally; this was my domain, my private little world, granted to me in my capacity as a champion of the Midnight Court. My desires were a literal, physical force here.


I stepped out of another patch of shadow less than a second after stepping into the first one, and the runner almost ran headlong into me before realizing I was there. Before he could turn around, I stepped forward and grabbed him by the throat.


Choking someone unconscious is a risky business. It’s easy to go too far. Even if they survive, it can be very easy to do permanent damage.


Luckily for me, I just didn’t care about that kind of thing right now.


The mage looked at me, fifty feet away and choking his boss unconscious. He looked at Snowflake, who was just finishing the woman she’d brought down and looked like she’d be happy to go for another. He looked at the housecarls.


Then he looked down at the dying man by his feet.


I got an ugly feeling. Something bad was about to happen, I could feel it. It wasn’t a premonition so much as…recognizing what was in front of me.


The mage dropped to the ground. He was holding a knife, although I hadn’t seen him draw it. I was running, trying to get closer. I’d have ducked into a shadow if I thought about it, but I was already too far away.


He drew the knife across the dying man’s throat. Blood spilled out, the bright red an oddly intense contrast against the snow.


I could smell the magic. This mage wasn’t all that powerful, but life was a hell of an equalizer when it came to that, and he’d just taken a lot. It was a fairly intense scent.


I couldn’t tell what he did with that magic. Not really. It was too strange, too alien for me to fully grasp.


But I could see the result.


A hole opened in the world. It was something like an Otherside portal, but more. It was unnatural, unreal, or quite possibly too real for me to process. Looking at it made my head hurt, and I didn’t even really have a head anymore.


Something came through.


I couldn’t really define it any better than that. It looked dark, although I could tell that it wasn’t, not really. I’d have felt darkness, have understood it and had a degree of control over it. This was more just…an absence, a piece of the world that had been removed. I couldn’t see anything, not because it was dark, but because there was nothing to see.


Tendrils extended from the main body, as the hole it came through slowly sealed itself with a sound like tearing metal. Where those tendrils passed, they left trails of the same utter, total blackness behind them.


Had I still had blood, it would have run cold. Had I been breathing, I’d have stopped.


He’d called something up from the empty spaces between worlds. Somehow, some way, he’d managed that. And he didn’t have the slightest bit of control over it.


Suddenly, I wanted to be somewhere very far away.

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Interlude 7.x: Vigdis the Howling

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Why not smile while the bodies hit the floor?


Grinning, laughing, walking through the battle. Because I know what none of them know, and that is that life and death alike are at their finest when there’s a razor’s edge between them.


One, two, three, another step sideways. Someone looks scared and I focus on him, grinning. He doesn’t belong here. He’s out of his element, and everyone knows it. He should be gone. With a swipe of the axe, he is.


The people around me recoil. It doesn’t matter which side they’re on. They recoil. They fear me. They don’t understand. They look at the violence and don’t see the beauty. They listen to the battle and don’t hear the song.


I tense my muscles and leap, every part of my body working in tandem, everything functioning as a part of a coherent whole. I surge up into the air, grinning as the air flows over my skin, cooling me.


I hang in the air for a moment, at the peak of my leap, like a drop of water glittering in the sunlight in the instant before it starts to fall. The fight spreads out below me and around me, glorious in its chaos.


I pass from one skin into another in that moment, as easily a breathing. Some people characterize what I do as magic, as casting a spell. I don’t see it that way. For me, body is a state of mind. Stepping from one into another is more a change of perspective than anything.


I slide from one into another, with a slick layer of blood to ease the passage, and a heartbeat after I left the ground I’m soaring over it. From the eyes of an eagle, that old lover of war, I look down on the world I’ve just left behind.


I see my axe lying abandoned on the ground below me. Some things don’t carry over with a change in perspective. Some things don’t fit into a new worldview.


That’s fine. I don’t need it, anyway. Weapons are tools. A wise person never lets herself grow fully dependent on a tool. They are useful. They are not necessary.


I drift up on the breeze, soaring, floating weightless. I look down on the world from a hundred feet high.


From up here, it all looks so small.


Again I hang motionless as time seems to stop for that one endless moment of transition, that liminal moment that I live in, that I live for.


And then I twist and fold my wings, and I plummet. At first I drop as fast as a falling stone, then faster, and faster, the world passing in a blur around me.


Instants before I hit the ground I snap my wings out, catching and cupping the air, letting it buoy me up once again. I skim by just above the surface of the ground, friend and foe passing me by at a dizzying speed.


One of them is in front of me. Another male, more experienced than the last. He doesn’t flinch as I fly towards him with the speed of my long dive behind me, just raises his blade to bat me out of the air.


But there’s no fire in him, no spark. There’s a fine, crucial distinction between a good fighter and a great fighter, and he’s on the wrong side of it. This is just a job, for him. It isn’t an art. It isn’t a lifestyle.


As I approach him, I fold my wings down again and drop until I’m just above the ground. Another quick shift in perspective, in focus, and I’m on the ground, my legs a blur as I sprint forward with the speed of a diving eagle at my back.


He tries to react, sidestepping and cutting at my spine. But he isn’t good enough, not quite. Not fast enough, to move or to react. Before he can do more than twitch, I pounce, and rather than the bird he had anticipated, a wolf hits him in the chest.


I overbear him and pull him down, with speed more than muscle, and we tumble, hitting the ground together a moment later. I writhe against him, my breath hot in his face as I twist and contort and close my jaws around his throat.


This is the perspective of the wolf. Teeth to bite and rip and tear. Legs to run the long, slow race of hours. Nose that one cannot hide from. This is what it means to be wolf.


He smells of fear and grimaces in panic as he realizes what I already know: that I am at home here, and he is merely visiting, and that makes all the difference.


My jaws snap closed and jerk away, tearing at his flesh. Instants later I taste the hot, salty rush of crimson across my tongue. I see a thousand emotions in his eyes as he, too, experiences that frozen liminal moment. In his case, the very last.


I stand and walk stiff-legged away as the body begins to cool. Lying in the snow, it won’t take long.


There is a pause in the flow of the battle, a half-beat break in the rhythm, and I know that something is changed, that a new variable has entered the fight.


I see it, a moment later, through a break in the bodies. It’s another man, clearly on the other side. It’s not hard to see why the fight paused as he took the field. He towers over the rest of the combatants, even the giants. He’s enormous, larger than a man has any right to be. Ogre blood in him, I’m guessing.


More than the size and obvious strength, though, I’m struck by his bearing, his attitude, his presence. The heavy spiked armor he wears doesn’t cover his face, and I see his expression. It’s a joyous grin, one that revels in the chaos, one that glories in life and death all around. It’s the same grin I still wear, though my crimson-stained teeth are sharper and wider than his.


I’ve never seen this man before, never spoken a word to him. And yet I feel that I know him better than anyone else I’ve seen today.


I run toward him and no one bars my path. Perhaps it’s luck, or perhaps I have a similar aura of battle-frenzy around myself that similarly frightens those who lack such passion, or perhaps they simply have the wit not to stand between us. In any case, the result is much the same. Deed follows thought, and it’s only seconds before I stand in front of him, only ten feet separating us. The battle continues to rage, but leaves a gap around us, an eye in the storm. It lends a sense of privacy to the proceedings, as strange as that might seem.


I blink and step back into my natural form, the icy giant, tall and gaunt and terrible. Even so, I’m small in comparison. I am naked, have been naked since this battle started—clothing and armor are, for me, just more accoutrements of another world, a perspective that has no place here and now. I am unarmed, having left my axe behind. He is neither of these things, and much larger than I, as well.


And yet still, his grin sharpens as he sees me. He can recognize a kindred spirit when he sees one.


The duel opens slowly, the beginning moves of the dance. We circle one another, in the open space everyone else has so thoughtfully left us. Each of us is considering the other, taking stock. How do they move, how do they stand, how do they carry themselves? There are a thousand variables to be weighed and measured, most of which can’t be named or quantified.


Taken as a whole, it creates an impression, more than anything. Again, it isn’t something that can be quantified, or even really qualified. It isn’t something that can be put into words or numbers. It’s more a base-level awareness of the person I’m facing off against. It’s more instinct than rational thought.


It’s instinct that tells me when he’s going to move.


It’s instinct that tells me, without my so much as having to think, just when and how to dodge to let his axe crash to the ground behind me, carving a hole in it rather than in me.


It’s instinct that tells me when and how to leap to catch him in the back, off balance, and drag him to the ground.


But it’s experience that lets me wrap my arm around his neck in exactly the right way to cut off his breathing and limit his movement.


He struggles, but there’s very little he can do. He tries to pull me off, but I’m behind him, and between the armor and the sheer muscle mass of his shoulders, his freedom of movement is limited, his leverage nonexistent in this position. He tries to stand, but my knee presses into the side of his, forcing him to collapse again or let me destroy the joint. He tries to roll over and crush me under his weight, but I go with the motion and throw my own strength behind it as well, ending up back on top of him.


I squeeze tighter, leaning down beside him where he can’t move my weight as easily. Again, it’s a matter of experience, of understanding how to arrange matters such that leverage and balance favor me more than strength favors him.


Not that strength is favoring him much, at this point. He hasn’t been able to breathe for over a minute. Here, his bulk is a detriment rather than an advantage. It takes a great deal of air to sustain that much mass, particularly when struggling violently. Denied that air, he’s already beginning to grow weak.


He tries to push himself to his hands and knees again, scrabbling at the ground with his hands. I slam my weight down on him, forcing him back to the ground, shoving his face down into the snow with my free hand. I grind my hips against his armor, pinning him down.


There’s a moment, after he passes out, when I could let him go. I could let him live.


I choose not to.


I hold on. If anything, I squeeze tighter, clenching down almost convulsively. I hear things break in his neck. He’s too massive, his neck too heavily muscled, for me to have broken it and saved myself the effort of this slow strangulation. But as he loses consciousness, he can’t resist. I still don’t break the spine, but the trachea, some blood vessels, they rupture as I bear down on them.


He dies.


I throw my head back and howl sheer exultation to the sky as the battle continues to rage around me.

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