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.