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.