Monthly Archives: January 2016

Broken Mirror 13.3

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The throne room had undergone some major renovations since the last time I saw it. Not surprising, I supposed. This room was the center of Aiko’s power, at this point. It made sense that it was the first place to reflect the new ownership.


The basic structure was the same. It was a vast, open room. Cavernous, really. But cosmetically, it was very different. Rather than total darkness, it was defined by the interplay of light and shadow. Mostly it was kept dark, but there were patches that were brightly lit. The light shifted and danced slowly, unpredictably. As was often the case, it didn’t so much illuminate the darkness as emphasize by contrast just how deep it ran.


The floor had also changed. Instead of flat, featureless black stone, it was black with swirls of crimson running through it. The color was arranged in ways that almost, but never quite, formed repeating patterns. There were patches of ice on the ground, as well, and snowdrifts scattered irregularly around the room. The lights reflected off the snow, adding another layer to the slow, constant dance of light and shadow.


The throne had shifted as well. Scáthach had sat on a chair carved from a single piece of gem-quality amethyst. This was similar, but it was a blood-red stone rather than violet. Ruby, or something like it. And while it still had an assortment of runes and hieroglyphs carved into the stone, pride of place was clearly held by a stylized image of a diving falcon on the back of the chair. After a moment I recognized it as the coat of arms Loki had assigned her, way back when. At the time, I hadn’t understood why she would need a coat of arms.


How long had this been planned, I wondered? Since the day I met her? Since before that? Just how much of what had happened to us had been planned from the start?


The room was crowded with every sort of fae that I could imagine, from Sidhe nobles to hags and trolls. Every last one of them got well out of our way as we walked in, leaving a ten-foot aisle to the throne absolutely empty. We walked up to it in total silence.


Aiko sat—or, more accurately, lounged—in the throne. I stood next to it, with Snowflake by my feet, and tried to look threatening and ominous. It was probably undercut a bit by the fact that I was dressed in casual clothing rather than armor.


Although I wasn’t planning on that staying the case for long. There were reasons I didn’t feel the need to wear armor.


“Okay,” Aiko said. Her voice carried through the room like she was using a high-quality PA system. “I’m taking charge here. Now, I’m sure there’s going to be some urge for a lot of you to cause trouble for me while I’m getting used to the role. I’m telling you right now that that is a bad idea. You annoy me and I’m perfectly fine with killing you. This is the only warning I plan to give you, so I suggest you take it seriously.”


“Do you really intend to kill everyone that goes against your whim?” one of the Sidhe nobles said. All of the Sidhe were beautiful, of course, but his beauty was less attractive than most, and more condescending, a silent statement that he was better than everyone and everything around him. He sounded oily, and he smelled like a snake.


“I figure I’ll have the thug do it,” she said, nudging me in the ribs with her foot. I suddenly noticed that she was barefoot. Of course she was. Cold wasn’t a problem for her anymore. We had that in common. Which was a good thing, really. Otherwise she’d be liable to get frostbite just being near me.


The Sidhe responded in what was, really, a very predictable way. He threw a blast of dark fire at me, something that didn’t so much cast light as eat it, and left an acidic scent in the air behind it.


I didn’t even try to dodge, and the blast hit me in the face. My head exploded into a cloud of steam, and the rest of my body collapsed to the ground.


There was no pain. That was the most interesting thing about it. There was no pain response associated with what happened.


There was just a sudden, wrenching shift in perspective. My view of the world twisted, instantly and dramatically.


The most immediately noticeable thing was a sort of loss of location. I wasn’t associated with a specific point in space. Or, rather, I was, but the relationship was suddenly a great deal looser. A single step could carry me across the room, since I wasn’t really moving in any physical way. Movement was just how I conceptualized a transition, a shift in focus and attention.


The second thing that changed was the pattern of light and darkness. It went from a constantly shifting maze to a pattern that was static, locked in place. It also had nothing to do with illumination. Again, it was just how my mind was interpreting something completely unrelated to visual input.


Instead, it indicated the presence of something in line with my nature. Here, the “light” indicated the presence of ice and snow, of cold. The snowbanks and ice slicks in the room burned with a cold light to my sight, casting a dimmer glow over their immediate surroundings. The stretches of stone between them, meanwhile, were dark and empty.


I took a moment to orient myself and decide what to do next. It didn’t take long. Like a fool, the Sidhe noble who’d blasted me was standing right next to a snowbank, with his back turned towards it.


I took a step towards that snowbank, blurring across the empty stone floor between me and it. I couldn’t have stood there if I wanted to; there was nothing to host me, nothing for my mind to inhabit.


Once there, I stepped into the snow, and then through it. The world twisted again, snapping back into a view more in line with what I had grown accustomed to in life, as a loose body formed itself out of snow. I called Tyrfing as I reached out with one arm, forming a rough pseudopod out of snow.


The cursed sword still came when I called. If I’d had any doubt that I was really me, that would have settled it. I might have changed in ways that I could never have seen coming or comprehended before they happened, but it still recognized me. It was still bonded to me. ‘Til death did we part, if death was even a concept that could be applied to me anymore.


My “body” wasn’t much—just a torso and a pair of arms extending out of the snow, with no clear features. It took time to form a decent replica of the body I’d had.


But for all its crudity, it did have one undeniable perk. It was strong. Something of the unnatural strength I’d had, as a werewolf and a jotun and who knew what else, carried over. There was something else there, too, a trace of darkness that was a new element in my composition, a shadow just a bit deeper than the mere absence of light.


I shaped myself out of the snow, and before anyone could so much as shout a warning, I hit the Sidhe nobleman with Tyrfing and the kind of force that could punch holes in concrete. He hit the ground in two pieces, both flickering with pale fire from the touch of the iron.


A second or two later, my body collapsed back into snow, casting me back into that disembodied state. It had been too hastily constructed, too unfinished to hold me for more than a moment or two. Tyrfing clattered to the floor beside the dying Sidhe, the blade gleaming against the floor. No one moved towards it.


I could see the sudden wave of shock go through the fae as they realized what had just happened. More than a few people cast sidelong glances at the snow and ice and edged away from it, suddenly realizing that it was more than just a choice of decor.


“I can’t change what you are,” Aiko said into the echoing silence. “I can’t alter your natures. I’m not even going to try. But I can impose some limits. I am your Queen, and you will acknowledge that.” The words sounded odd, vague and warped, like I was hearing them underwater. Probably because I wasn’t really hearing them. There was enough here for me to work with that I could understand them to some extent, but it wasn’t the same thing at all.


I found it interesting, in a way, the extent to which her role had already influenced her. Aiko had never been that much of a commanding presence, really. But now there was a regality to her bearing, an almost palpable authority. She’d just told this entire room full of Sidhe to sit down and shut up, and not a single voice was raised against her.


And granted probably part of that was because of the clear possibility that I’d cut them in half if they tried. But then again, this was the Midnight Court. Violence was a part of their nature. That wasn’t really good or evil, as such. It was just…what they were.


“I will meet with many of you in the coming weeks,” Aiko continued. “I expect I will be making some changes around here. In the meantime, you may go and consider what has been said here.”


Every single one of them knelt for a moment, then stood and began filing out. There must have been more fae magic at work, because despite the size of the crowd and the fact that there was only one exit, it only took a few moments for the room to be empty.


No one went near the corpse, or the sword, or even looked at them too closely.


I stepped into another snowbank, then just waited as they left. I couldn’t see anything much in that state. I was too coherent, too closely tied to a specific body, to use the weird sensory model that I’d picked up when I ceased to be a fully living being. But the senses I was more used to, and which I instinctively mimicked while in a body, were largely blocked by the snow.


It wasn’t exactly a moment of vulnerability. I was still, for all practical intents and purposes, invulnerable. Even if someone destroyed everything that could host me—every bit of snow and ice, every predator, everything that I could manifest through to act on the world—even then, I wouldn’t really be hurt. Not in a meaningful way. Inconvenienced, perhaps. But not hurt, not killed. From what Fenris had said, there were very few things that could kill me at this point.


But that in-between state was definitely a moment of weakness. It was a moment when my ability to perceive and influence the world was sharply limited.


I dimly heard footsteps coming closer, then stopping. “Well,” Aiko said, outside my snowbank. I wasn’t sure how she’d known which one I was in, beyond the obvious. “That was fun.”


I waited a moment longer for my body to finish forming, then clawed my way out of the snow. It moved aside at a touch, or a thought. It was mine to command.


This body wasn’t as good as the one that had been destroyed. It was still a little crude, lacking the fine details. Even if I put on an illusory mask of flesh and blood over it, I was guessing it would be noticeably imperfect. It wouldn’t look real. But it was functional, and it was formed enough that I could sustain it more or less indefinitely.


“I would have thought you’d hate it,” I commented, sitting down and leaning back into the snow. The image amused me—snow leaning into snow. Even if I was as much formed of ice and darkness as actual snow. “Too political.”


“The Midnight Court has a fun sort of politics,” she said. “And they mostly have to deal with my whims, instead of the other way around. That makes it easier.”


“You can’t lie, can you?” I asked.


“Not as such,” she said. “No. That was part of the deal I made.”


I nodded. It made sense. Even if she hadn’t been born fae, she’d effectively chosen to become such when she took the job. It fit that she would have taken on some of their weaknesses as well.


“That’s going to be hard,” I commented. “Especially for you.”


She grinned broadly. “Just means I have to get twistier,” she said.


I nodded with a creak of breaking ice. “Yeah,” I said. “What now?”


“I’m going to have to have those meetings,” she said. “There’s a lot to do right now. I’m not doing this job the same way Scáthach did.”


“Do you think you’ll have the choice?” I asked.


“I think so,” she said. “The role is…it isn’t a cookie cutter. It isn’t about forcing people into exactly the right mold. It’s more a matter of…expressing the right concepts. How I go about expressing those concepts is up to me.”


“Two plus two is four,” I said. “But so is three plus one.”


“Or two times two,” she said. “Yeah. That’s a good analogy. I actually have more flexibility than I would have expected.”


“That’s good,” I said. “Do you want me here to put the fear of me into them?”


She hesitated, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “Thanks, but no. I have to show them that I can stand up for myself.”


“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got my own things to take care of. Meeting with my minions and reestablishing control in Colorado Springs. I’ll meet you back here?”


“Yeah,” she said. “Do that. You can get back on your own?”


“I haven’t forgotten how to open portals,” I said dryly. “I can get back around on my own.” I stood with another creak of breaking ice and shifting snow. “Come on, Snowflake,” I said. “Let’s let her do Court things. I think you’re going to enjoy this trip.”


Will we get to kill things? she asked, standing up from where she’d been lazing next to the throne. She hadn’t even gotten up at any point, or involved herself in the proceedings in any way. Smart dog.


“If past experience of what happens when I leave that city to its own devices is any guide?” I said. “Yeah. Probably we will.”


Cool, she said. I can’t wait.


We’d debated, at first, telling my minions what had happened. Or something of it. Most of them weren’t remotely equipped to understand the full reality of it, but the gist could have been explained.


In the end, though, we’d decided it was a bad idea. I had enough henchpersons that I couldn’t remotely guarantee that all of them were loyal. Even of the ones that were loyal, there was no guarantee that they were smart. Hell, given that they were working for me, there was practically the opposite. So any information shared with them was potentially information leaked to an enemy.


In the end, we’d decided to just carry on like nothing had happened. Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated, and such. Some of them, of course, would know better. And my inner circle would have to be informed, at least partially. But for most of them, this was need-to-know information, and they didn’t need to know.


Most of them didn’t even know I wasn’t dead and gone. I’d sent messages to Kyi and Selene, including statements that they shouldn’t inform anyone else. I thought the reactions to my reappearance would be telling.


I’d told some other people, as well. Friends, mostly. I’d made sure that Kyra, Anna, and Edward all knew. I’d sent a message to Alexis. There were a couple of other werewolves I’d known when I was younger who were still around, and some people from Pryce’s.


I’d seriously thought about letting them continue thinking I was dead. It would probably have been kinder to them, all things considered. But in the end, I just couldn’t bring myself to do so. I’d already lost…so much of my old life. Things I’d given up, and things that had been taken from me. I couldn’t bring myself to cut those ties as well.


By the time I got back to the city, it was dusk. The sunset was beautiful, and I stopped to watch it before going in. It seemed like it had been ages since I’d just stood and watched the sunset.


It was interesting how much comfort the little things could provide, when the big things were ugly.


Once it was dark, I walked up to the door and opened it without knocking. The wards let me through without complaint. I’d been keyed into them when they were built, and I was still me enough for them to recognize. Snowflake came in, as well, walking just to my right.


I’d taken the time to finish sculpting my body into a passable imitation of the original, and I was maintaining the mask over it. Clothing hadn’t been an issue; my suite at the Isle of Shadows had a full closet, including duplicates of everything from the castle in Romania. Those duplicates were absolutely perfect, right down to the magic I’d woven into the fabric.


I walked into the throne room, and by prior arrangement, everyone of real importance in my organization was there waiting for me. I wasn’t sure how Selene had managed to get everyone there at once, at just the right time, without any of them noticing anything odd about it. She was really very good at what she did.


The response when I walked in was instant and pronounced.


Jibril looked momentarily, intensely annoyed. Then the ghoul smiled wryly and nodded to me. The gesture reminded me of a fencer’s acknowledgment of a touch, not so much a greeting as recognition of a point scored.


Vigdis whooped and threw her arms up, grinning like a madwoman. It was nice that someone was glad to see me again, at least. Even if it was just because she was a psychopath and I let her kill people on a fairly regular basis.


Between those two extremes, the responses were mostly defined by their surprise, or lack thereof. Most of them seemed shocked. A few—Kjaran and Luna, in particular—very much didn’t.


But by and large, they seemed glad to see me. They seemed glad to have me back.


I wasn’t sure why that was as much of a surprise as it was.


“Hi,” I said, walking up to my throne of black iron. I thought, with a sort of wry amusement, that our days of complaining about the thing were probably gone. I didn’t have the physical responses to make it really uncomfortable, and if Aiko was really fae now, odds were good she couldn’t stand the iron. “Did you miss me?”


There was a momentary pause, then the room filled with laughter. It was a relieved sort of laughter, the sound you make when it turns out that everything’s going to be okay after all. I found myself grinning as I settled down into the throne. As much as I hated the thing, as much as I’d never wanted this job, there was something…comforting about coming back to it. There was a feeling of continuity about it, a feeling that as much as everything had changed, some things were still the same.


Selene was standing next to me with a sandwich and a cup of tea—cold tea, of course; I could imagine the effect of drinking hot tea, and it wasn’t likely to be a fun one. Kyi was going over scouting reports and talking with the housecarls about patrol schedules and countermeasures. Tindr was walking up with a notebook full of numbers.


It felt like coming home. I’d never have expected it, but somewhere along the way, this had turned into home.


My city. In spite of everything, this was still my city.

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Broken Mirror 13.2

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“Right,” Aiko said, as I stepped in behind her and closed the door, setting Snowflake down on the floor. “Family.” She sounded understandably uncomfortable at the thought.


“There are things to be established,” Mab said in a flat, empty voice. “Now that you are assuming the responsibilities of your office.”


“Cool,” Aiko said in a casual voice which fooled nobody. “What do I have to do?”


“The question is not what you do,” Mab said. “The question is what you are.”


“Okay,” Aiko said. “Um, quick question. Since we’re all technically on the same side here, is there any chance you could stop the cryptic bullshit?”


I almost thought I saw Grandmother Midnight’s cowl twitch, as though she were smiling underneath. Beyond that, they might as well have been statues for all the response she got out of them.


“Of course,” Aiko muttered. “Who was I kidding? All right, then. What am I supposed to be?”


“You are the Maiden of Night,” Mab said. “Reflect that fact.”


“Okay. So that means…violent, psychopathic, and scheming, but not quite mature enough about it to be a grown-up?”


This time there was no question that the cowl twitched. I heard the barest whisper of laughter, bone-dry and cold, but recognizably laughter all the same.


“That is one interpretation of the role,” Mab said. “It is not wholly wrong.”


“You realize I do those things anyway, right?”


“That is why the offer was extended,” Mab said. “The less the office is required to mold you, the simpler the process is.”


I was reasonably confident I should have shivered at that. I probably would have, if I still had a physical fear response. It was sure as hell an ominous thing to hear.


“So just be myself,” Aiko said. “Are there things I have to do in particular? I don’t really know how hands-on this gig is. Am I supposed to be here every Tuesday to boss people around or something?”


“You will know when there are specific obligations to be met.”


“Be myself unless otherwise noted, and I’ll know when otherwise noted applies. Got it. So…if it’s this individualistic, why did we even need to have this meeting?”


“There are formalities to be observed,” Mab said in that same voice, empty of all emotion. “Such as the appointment of a champion to act on your behalf when appropriate.”


“Where’s yours?” Aiko asked flippantly.


“I do not bring pets to important meetings,” Mab said. I wasn’t sure whether that was a dig at Aiko or not; it could have been, but it could also just be a statement of fact. Mab was really, really hard to get a read on.


“Fair enough,” Aiko said. “Well, I think I’m going with this guy.” She elbowed me in the ribs, a little harder than necessary. She was more nervous than she was letting on. Or possibly she’d just forgotten that I wasn’t wearing armor. There wasn’t a lot of point in armor for me, these days.


That got a response, the first really notable response I’d seen from the elder Queens in this meeting. There was a pause, one that dragged on for a few seconds. I couldn’t see Grandmother Midnight’s face, and Mab’s was still a blank, beautiful mask. But I got the impression of surprise, all the same.


“You realize that a champion is meant to be a living mortal,” Mab said.


“Are you saying I’m dead?” I asked. More to see how she’d respond than anything, really. I knew better than to expect a straight answer from Mab.


“I say that there comes a point at which life and death cease to be meaningful concepts. You passed that point some time ago. And there are other issues which make this choice problematic, as well.”




It was amazing how much of a response that one word got. It was just one word, spoken in a barely audible rasp. But everyone, even Mab, shut their mouths and turned to look at Grandmother Midnight. All at once.


“Let them do it,” the crone rasped.


“Pardon me, ma’am,” I said. “But if this is a problem, it might be better not to.”


“Such caution,” she replied. “Not at all like last time. Arrangements have been made for this, however.”


I paused, and while I couldn’t really shiver, I did have a definite feeling of unease. That statement had…a lot of implications, none of which I liked. I couldn’t help but be reminded that the last time I was here, Grandmother Midnight had offered me the chance to be her champion.


“This won’t end well, will it?” I asked quietly.


I’d heard it a few times now, but the sound of Grandmother Midnight laughing was still creepy as hell. It rasped and twisted and caught in her throat, working its way out only with difficulty. It sounded like it stained the world darker just by its presence. I could feel, now, that this impression wasn’t entirely wrong.


I understood that a little better, now. I understood what Mab meant when she said the important thing was for Aiko to be. One of the things I’d come to realize was that power was a little like mass. At high enough concentrations, it started to bend the world around it just by existing.


By the time the laughter stopped, Snowflake was shivering a little, and had our surroundings been a little bit less dangerous I was guessing she’d have been growling. For that matter, I might have been growling too.


“It won’t end well,” Grandmother Midnight said at last. “Nothing ever does.”


I tried to smile. The result was probably more creepy than anything. I’d always been better at psycho-killer than comforting, when it came to smiles. I doubted that had changed.


“True enough,” I said. “Well, I’m willing to try it. I doubt it can be much worse of an idea than everything else we’ve done.”


Aiko snorted. “Setting the bar low, there. Was there anything else that needs dealt with first?”


“Not presently,” Mab said. “Go. There will be more to be done when that is complete.”


With no more formality than that, the meeting was over. I knew the meeting was over, because both Mab and Grandmother Midnight were gone. I didn’t see either of them move, didn’t feel a bit of magic.


Then I realized that Aiko had moved, too. She was standing instead of sitting, and on the other side of the room.


“Um,” I said. “What just happened?”


“A conversation,” Aiko said sourly. “Which Mab decided you didn’t need to be a participant in. So she removed you from it.”


I paused. “Removed? What does that mean?”


“She put the two of you into stasis,” she said. “For…an hour or so, I think. They left a few minutes ago.”


I frowned. “Oh,” I said. “That’s…unsettling. What was the conversation about?”


Aiko shrugged. “Can’t really explain. Some of it I don’t really have the words for, and some of it I’m not allowed to talk about.”


That was a bit odd. Aiko wasn’t normally the sort of person to care too much about what she was and was not allowed to do.


I didn’t say anything about it, though. I was guessing she was already chafing under the restrictions of the role she’d chosen to adopt, and for me to remind her of that fact wouldn’t make it any better.


“You want to get this over with?” I asked.


“Yeah,” she said. “I know what we need to do.”


“I’m not going to enjoy this, am I?” I asked.


She shrugged. “It could be worse. It’s us, at least. And it won’t be any more fun if we wait, so let’s do this.” She opened the door and started for the stairs. I picked Snowflake up and followed her.


The top of the stairs wasn’t the same as it had been when we went down. The vast, empty hall was replaced with an expansive suite. It was also at the top of one of the castle’s towers, as I found out when I glanced out the window at a five-hundred-foot drop.


It felt familiar, and that wasn’t a coincidence. It took me a couple seconds to realize it, but it was very clearly an expanded replica of our bedroom from the castle in Transylvania.


Aiko didn’t seem surprised by the change, which made sense. Hell, she was probably the reason for it. This was her domain, after all. It stood to reason that she would be able to mold it to her will the way I’d seen really powerful people manipulate the Otherside in the past.


It was going to take a bit of getting used to thinking of Aiko as someone who could use that kind of power, instead of someone who had it used on her.


“Okay,” she said, scratching Snowflake’s ears. “You can’t stay for the next part.”


Can’t? Snowflake asked. Or don’t want to?


“Both,” Aiko said firmly. “You want to take a nap, or get some food, or something?”


Nap, she said. Wake me when you’re done with the freaky faerie rituals. She then walked back out the door and lay down at the top of the stairs.


Afterward, I never really remembered what happened after that. Not in any clear or coherent way.


The process involved sex, and blood, and darkness. The blood was Aiko’s, presumably, since it wasn’t like I had any left. But I took some damage, as well. I remember having to scrape my body together a few times, though, and I was still missing some chunks by the end.


Somewhere along the way, I got a glimpse of just what I was joining myself to, what I was letting inside. I got a tiny glimpse of what the Midnight Court was for.


I couldn’t fathom that purpose. Not really. My mind was not meant for that kind of thing, wasn’t made to process that. It was too alien to anything that I understood the world to be.


I didn’t scream at that revelation. I hadn’t been breathing for a while, at that point, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to start just for that. I couldn’t spare the attention to even if I wanted to. I got very little physical feedback from this body, and I was guessing it was just as well, because what did get through was enough to leave me half-stunned.


The next several hours stretched out into a small eternity, floating in utter darkness and bitter cold, filled with power and primeval hunger.


Later—much later, at least from my perspective—I was lying on my back on the stone floor. Mostly on my back, at least; my torso was sort of twisted on its side, and my neck was bent at an angle considerably sharper than it should have been able to get to. I wasn’t really dependent on things like nerves and muscles to control my body, and keeping it to vaguely human limits was more a matter of habit than anything.


Not that it would have looked anything like human, anyway. I’d stopped maintaining a mask of flesh over it somewhere along the way, and I hadn’t yet bothered to put it back on. As a result, my body still looked more like a vaguely humanoid ice sculpture than any kind of person.


The influence of the power I’d just taken into myself was obvious, if you know how to look. The strands of darkness tying the ice and snow together were a little bit darker, a little more real. The shadow I cast, too, was just a little larger and darker than it should have been. There was a depth there, as though when I looked into that shadow I was seeing something more than just a patch of darkened stone.


I could feel a similar depth inside me. I couldn’t really put words to it—I wasn’t entirely sure words existed for this sort of feeling. The closest I could come to really grasping it was to picture a sort of well in my soul, except instead of water, it led down into darkness. The power wasn’t in me, not really, not beyond a minimal amount to establish that connection. But I could tap a hell of a lot of it, through that connection.


That wasn’t something I could do without consequences. I didn’t fully grasp the nature of that well, and I couldn’t begin to fully comprehend the nature of the power it was tapping into. But it didn’t take a genius to guess that it wasn’t something to do casually. Power never came without a consequence, and when the source of that power was the Midnight Court, it wasn’t hard to guess that the consequence wouldn’t be a pretty one.


But if we went down, Aiko and I would go down together. If the whole thing weren’t so spectacularly messed up, it would have almost been romantic and sweet.


“So what now?” I asked, twisting my head further to the side to look at Aiko on the floor next to me. There was a quiet crack of breaking ice as I pushed the “bones” in my neck past the breaking point. It only took a moment’s thought to fuse it back together in the current position. That was definitely a bright side of being associated with ice rather than, say, stone.


“Lie here and contemplate our many and vast mistakes,” Aiko said sleepily. “Wake the dog. Then I have to go introduce myself to my new minions. You should probably be there for that. You’ll have to start making an impression on them at some point.”


“What kind of impression are you thinking?” I asked.


“They aren’t the sort of people to be impressed by nice guys,” she said. “So I figure you can just be yourself.”


I snorted. “Should be fun,” I said. “When is that?”


She shrugged, a fluid, almost boneless gesture. “Whenever I want,” she said. “Basically. Time is pretty flexible here anyway. Like, as far as anyone else is concerned, we’ve only been in here for about fifteen minutes.”


I blinked. A thin film of snow acted to lubricate the eyelid of darkness as it slid over an eyeball carved as a rough sphere of ice. It was funny how much my instinctive understanding of how a body worked carried over to this. If I’d had to actually build a functioning replica of a human body out of frozen water and darkness, I’d have had no chance at all. But if I just gave a sort of general instruction and let my subconscious take care of the details, I got a sort of functional result.


“You can do that?” I asked.


She shrugged again. “Here? Yeah, sorta. It’s not a precise sort of thing, but I can make it faster or slower.”


“That part’s nice,” I said.


Aiko grinned and nodded. “It really is,” she said. “I mean, I get that Faustian bargains are bad and everything, but damn, the perks are nice.”


“Otherwise nobody would take the deal,” I said. “All right. Putting this off any longer isn’t going to make it hurt any less. Let’s just get this over with.”


She sighed and pushed herself to her feet. “Let’s,” she said. “I’m really not looking forward to this. Who’d have guessed we’d end up here, huh? Me actually being in charge of people?”


“I don’t think anybody saw this coming,” I lied.

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Broken Mirror 13.1

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I’d been to the Isle of Shadows before. But this was still a very novel experience.


For one thing, I wasn’t the same person I’d been back then. I’d changed, on a lot of levels. I didn’t see the world the same way anymore, literally or figuratively. And not just because the only other time I’d come here I’d been in a psychotic rage and unable to think clearly. Or at all, really.


For another, the context was completely different. The last time I’d been here, I’d come to unseat the Queen with violence and destruction. This time was…well, pretty much the exact opposite of that.


I still hadn’t fully wrapped my head around that. Or any of this, really. It was a lot to get used to, and I hadn’t even finished adapting to how my own mental functions had changed. That was a pretty vital first step when it came to adjusting to other massive upsets.


This visit started about the same way as the last one. Aiko did the portals, of course. She’d always been better with that sort of magic than I was, and the role she’d adopted had done a lot to widen that gap. Messing around with the structure of the Otherside was a major part of what a Faerie Queen did. That was what the title meant.


Aiko was good. She was one of the best I’d ever seen. She could open a portal in a couple of seconds while carrying on a conversation, and she made it look easy. They were so smooth that even Snowflake barely even stumbled.


That, in itself, did a lot to drive things home. I’d taken portals that smooth in the past, but only very rarely, and they were always the result of a major power taking an interest. Someone like Ryujin, or a Twilight Prince. That was the league Aiko was playing in, now. In one step she’d gone from being a fairly minor member of a fairly minor faction to a notable factor on the world stage.


The three of us stepped out of the last portal into Faerie. We were standing on the path leading up to the castle, back in the island. Like the last time I’d been there, it was thronging with creatures from the Midnight Court. Unlike the last time, though, they weren’t trying to kill me.


Instead, the instant Aiko appeared, they knelt and bowed their heads in her direction.


All of them. At once.


“Is this normal?” I asked in a whisper. Not that it would probably matter, given who we were dealing with. It seemed like a safe bet that a lot of the fae could hear my heartbeat, let alone a whisper. Except that I didn’t have a heartbeat anymore. You need a heart for that.


“No idea,” she replied, even more quietly. “This is the first time I’ve been here since I…you know…did it.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered. “Well, don’t let them see you flinch.” I offered her my arm, and she rested her fingers lightly on my elbow as we started up the path.


Not one of the fae said a word. There wasn’t a sound as we walked up the hill. They weren’t even breathing. I’d have known if they were. They stayed there, kneeling on the ground, until we were out of sight.


There were a lot of them, too. Enough that I gave up counting after a few hundred, and we weren’t all that far up the path. And they didn’t stop until we’d made it all the way up to the castle bridge.


I was a little hesitant to step out onto that bridge. The last time I’d done so, it bucked under my feet and threw me back to the shore, which would be rather embarrassing.


Aiko showed no such hesitation, and the stone didn’t so much as twitch. It did twitch when I stepped on it, and kept quivering under my feet the whole way across, but it didn’t go any further than that.


Across the moat, we were in the courtyard. It looked much the same, but my awareness of it had changed dramatically. I was still cognizant that it was a barren, utterly lifeless field of stone. But that was a side note, much less important than the less obvious things I could feel about the space. I could sense the currents of power running through it, torrents of energy rushing by just beneath my feet and on every side. They smelled dark, and subtle, but beyond that I couldn’t say much about them. There was too much there for me to process, even now.


Even more than that, though, I was acutely aware of the meaning of the space. I had an impression of what the courtyard, and the castle which encompassed it, were intended for, the context in which they existed. I could feel the creeping fear that was inherent in it, the deception and power. It smelled dark and quiet, like secrets and sadness, regret without remorse. It tingled on my skin, to the extent that I had skin.


And as a final note, there was a constant awareness of…well, me. I had a sort of perpetual connection to the ideas that were most important to my makeup. I could feel cold, not in the sense of being cold, but in the sense of instinctively knowing where to find cold in my vicinity. I could feel the presence of predatory minds outside the walls, the hunger there.


Between processing all that and the constant effort involved in things like walking, I didn’t have all that much attention left for actually looking at things.


The castle around the courtyard all looked about the same to me—which was, itself, probably the result of some kind of fae shenanigans, since the side we’d just come from seemed like it should have been less heavily built. Aiko, though, seemed to know exactly where she was going as she walked up to one of the tall, narrow spires and opened the door.


Then again, she would. Being on what was, now, her home ground, I was guessing she was getting an incredible amount of information as a sort of constant feed. I could almost feel the connection between her and the island, subtle but very much present once I knew to look for it.


Inside, the building was far larger than it should have been, a vast, echoing hall rather than a narrow spire. Par for the course, with the Sidhe. It was, of course, empty, the black stone lacking any sort of decoration or indicator of purpose.


Aiko ignored all of that and went straight to a staircase in the corner. It was an impossible staircase, thin slabs of black marble stacked in a tight spiral with no other form of support. In a rational world, it couldn’t have supported its own weight, and the staircase would have collapsed into a pile of broken stone. As it was, it was a perfectly serviceable spiral staircase.


It led both up and down from where we were. Naturally, we did not start climbing.


It was a long way down. A very, very long way, descending through a shaft no wider than the staircase itself. It was tight enough to trigger my claustrophobia, although it didn’t manifest the way it once had. There wasn’t fear, or even unease—no emotional reaction at all, in fact. There was just an abstract, cerebral sort of awareness of it. I knew that I was uncomfortable, that my current surroundings were upsetting me. I knew that I should be a little nervous, or even actively afraid. But the actual fear reaction just…wasn’t there.


I didn’t get tired, either. That had been one of the strangest things for me to get used to. Not having flesh meant that simple things like walking and breathing, which had once been so rote as to be entirely thoughtless, were instead difficult and demanding. But it also meant that I wasn’t susceptible to the weaknesses of the flesh. I could still get tired mentally, but I simply didn’t have a physical fatigue response.


Aiko, similarly, didn’t get tired as we descended the stairs. Her movements were casually, effortlessly perfect. She didn’t stumble, didn’t slow down, didn’t have to pause.


Snowflake, though, was still mortal, still flesh and blood. And she was not pleased about this. You don’t know how good you have it, she grouched to me when we were about two hundred steps in.


I could carry you, I offered. I had to pause for a second to do so; stairs were enough of a challenge, when it felt like I was operating a marionette rather than actually walking myself. In a sense, I supposed that perception wasn’t inaccurate. Not that it mattered too much, since the stairs were narrow enough that we had to go in single file, and I was at the back of the line.


That’s a good point, she said. Why aren’t you carrying me?


Rather than answer her, I sped up slightly and pulled her up off the ground, cradling her in my arms. It wasn’t hard. I wasn’t quite as strong using this puppet-body of ice and darkness as I had been back when I was housed in my own flesh and bone, but it also didn’t weigh nearly as much. I could make it move very, very fast when I wanted to.


The next twenty minutes passed in a steady, uneventful routine. The only real concern was boredom, which was alleviated considerably when Snowflake started telling impressively filthy jokes to break up the monotony. Aiko got in on it too; being largely unable to hear Snowflake was no longer a problem she had. One of the perks of the job, presumably.


I tried to remember to laugh—or, as was more appropriate for a lot of the jokes, groan. Neither one was an automatic response for me, anymore. They were things I had to think about, and even when I remembered, they didn’t sound right. It was like telling jokes to the Terminator. There was always that momentary pause, while I tried to remember what I was supposed to sound like, and even when I did respond, it sounded artificial.


I didn’t even try for a reaction more elaborate than that, and definitely not for actually contributing jokes myself. I was having a hard enough time managing things as it was. I figured being a bit less fun than I might have been was preferable to taking a tumble down the endless staircase.


We’d gone down a similar staircase last time. But that one had ended at a similarly vast hallway, and this time it was just a door.


It didn’t look like much. The stone of the door was glossier than that we’d seen elsewhere in this castle, something like an enormous slab of obsidian. But beyond that, there was nothing particularly remarkable about this door.


I had an intense feeling of foreboding looking at it, though. This one wasn’t the result of weird magical senses, though. It was just because I knew what was on the other side, and I’d have needed to be utterly, irrevocably mad to not be frightened at the prospect.


“Are you ready?” I asked quietly.


“Oh, hell no,” Aiko replied. “Not even a little bit.”


“Me neither,” I said. “You going to do it anyway? Because I did not get the impression that this was optional.”


“If it were optional, we wouldn’t be here,” she said. She took a deep breath, then shook her head briskly. “Okay. Let’s get it over with.”


I nodded and stepped forward to open the door for her. She stepped through first, trying her best to look authoritative and arrogant. She didn’t do a very good job of it. It wasn’t a look that came naturally to her. Aiko was good at cocky, but the formality and gravitas she was going for here just weren’t her.


The room inside the door was small. That was the first thing I noticed about it. It was small, and simple, almost cozy. There was a wooden table, not big enough to seat more than a dozen friendly people, and three chairs. A couple of empty bookshelves. That was it.


Two of the chairs were already occupied. I recognized one of the occupants, though there wasn’t a whole lot there to recognize. Her black cloak didn’t show anything of what might be underneath, not even a tiny bit of skin. I didn’t know her name, and I wouldn’t dare to use the names I could guess she’d used in the past. I called her Grandmother Midnight, because that was what she was—the eldest queen of the Midnight Court, the matriarch of the wicked fairies.


I had not, to the best of my knowledge, encountered the other being in that room before. She was beautiful, of course, in the overwhelming, inhuman, almost painful way that the high Sidhe usually were. She looked a whole lot like Scáthach had, in fact, at least at first glance. She had the same alabaster-white skin, the same raven-black hair. Only the eyes were different, a few shades darker—the green of a forest in summer, rather than spring.


Aside from her physical appearance, though, the difference was obvious. Her bearing had none of the playful mockery that Scáthach had exhibited, none of her thinly veiled sadism. The only thing that showed through her mask was a sort of detached, businesslike interest.


In other ways, the difference was even more dramatic. She smelled powerful, in a way that Scáthach never had. She’d been a powerhouse, of course, but this was something entirely different, in the sense that a military-grade assault rifle was different than a popgun. There was really no comparison.


This, presumably, was Mab, the middle queen of the Midnight Court and the one who most often acted as the Court’s political head. She was a force of nature, the sort of being that most people thought of only as a bogeyman, although she still wasn’t a match for Grandmother Midnight.


Between the two of them, though, this was very possibly the single most dangerous meeting I’d ever attended. That was a high bar, too.


They ignored me and Snowflake entirely as we walked in. No, ignoring wasn’t the word. It was more like they were aware of our presence, and dismissed it utterly as unworthy of their attention.


No, they only had eyes for Aiko as she walked in and took the third seat, with me and Snowflake standing behind her.


“Welcome to the family,” Grandmother Midnight said, with a chuckle that sent shivers down my spine.

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Interlude 8.c: Matsuda Kimiko

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Block high, step in and half-turn, cut low, dodge, block low, dodge, step in and find a sword against my neck.


Feint high, sidestep and cut left, cut left, dodge, cut right, sidestep, half-turn and cut high, and the sword taps against my side.


Cut high and the sword is already poking at my belly, as Kikuchi takes an unusually aggressive opening.


He beat me. He always beat me.


“Good work,” he says, once we’re done.


“Yeah,” I say, forcing a fake smile onto my face. “It was great.”


As I walk away, I cut viciously at a tree. A branch hits the ground a few seconds later as I walk away with a calm smile.


The next day, Kikuchi tells me there’s something I have to do, someone I have to fight. Not just me; a large group of us are going to take care of this. Kikuchi, me, and at least a dozen tengu, leaving in a few minutes.


He doesn’t tell me why we’re fighting, and I don’t ask.


It doesn’t take long to get ready. Not for me. Grab weapons, grab armor, and I’m ready to go. I always keep them close, anyway. A knife, a sword, a gun. The armor is just a set of reinforced motorcyclist’s leathers. It’s comfortable enough to sleep in, and I sometimes do.


I meet them a quarter of an hour in a clearing in the woods. There are a dozen tengu, none of whom I recognize. They aren’t important members of the court here. On a chessboard, they would be pawns.


And then there’s Kikuchi himself.


We make our way off the mountain, a phrase which has a much more complex meaning to a tengu than the literal meaning of the words would suggest. Mountains tend to act as confluences, gathering points for the currents of power that run through the mortal world. Tengu could use that power to support a coterminous domain on the Otherside, and to step from one to the other without even trying. From their perspective, there was no distinction between the mountain and the domain Kikuchi ruled.


Leaving the mountain, then, entailed both exiting the domain and getting far enough from the summit to be outside of the area of convergence. This fight is in the mortal world, then, in the city.


Probably we should ask the jarl for permission before starting a fight, there. It’s his territory, and not ours. Probably Kikuchi did ask, since his devotion to proper form is even greater than his ego. Probably.


I don’t ask whether he did or not.


Most likely he did, though, because there are cars waiting at the base of the mountain. The jarl is the sort of person who could easily arrange that sort of mortal convenience; Kikuchi is not.


After a short drive across the city, we reach the battlefield. It’s smaller than most, not much more than a shack. I know as soon as we get close what the enemy is, today. The stench of ghoul is distinctive.


We stop a short distance away and get out. The tengu begin stretching and warming up. Kikuchi gives me a look, and I know what he wants without a word said.


I step out of the car and into my other skin. As a fox, I’m even smaller than most kitsune, and that’s a high bar. Foxes as a whole aren’t known for their great size, but fennecs are the smallest variety by a fair margin.


It’s unusual for a kitsune to turn into a fennec rather than a red fox. Not as rare as a swift fox or Cape fox, but still quite unusual. In my youth, it had been a sensitive topic, to the point that even mentioning it could easily provoke me to violence. Since then, I had come to recognize that being small could easily be a weapon as well as a weakness.


The extreme difference in size make it easy for me to simply walk out of my clothing. I don’t expect any difficulty in sneaking up on the target. It’s dark, and I’m small, and I know what I’m doing.


I don’t move into the building. But even keeping a reasonable distance, I can gather a great deal of information. I can see signs of the ghouls, I can smell them, I can hear them. My hearing is very, very good.


At a guess, there are at least thirty of the ghouls in there, packed in like rats. Probably more. Odds re good they outnumber us by three to one. It isn’t remotely a fair fight.


I almost feel sorry for them.


I can’t find any hint that there was anything else in there. There’s no sign of defenses, no suggestion of a hidden exit. None of the things that Kikuchi had sent me to look for. I head back. I’m starting to get excited, now. I’m looking forward to this. Ghouls are a fairly basic opponent, fairly straightforward. But they’re strong, and tough, and not something to disregard completely.


I change back and start pulling my equipment back on. “Nothing special,” I say. “There are about thirty of them in there, I think. Doesn’t seem like they’ve done much to get ready for an attack.”


“Good,” Kikuchi says. “Let us proceed.”


Kikuchi leads as we close in. He couldn’t do otherwise; tengu culture does not allow one to lead from the rear.


However, I am the one directly behind him. I earned that position.


He opens the door neatly, rather than kick it in. It figures that he would do so. It also figures that they didn’t lock the door. Some ghouls are quite smart, but this particular group obviously didn’t put much thought into security.


Once inside, there are a few ways that things might go. The ghouls choose the worst of them when they rush Kikuchi as a mob.


He cuts down the first several in instants and continues walking straight forward at the same pace. I strike off to the left.


Step in, cut low, dodge, dodge, thrust high and a ghoul falls, its spine severed. Sidestep, cut low, cut high, dodge, half-turn and cut high, and another falls, missing several limbs. Feint high, feint low, cut high, and a third is decapitated.


They’re respectable opponents. They’re lethal.


But I’m stronger, faster, smarter, better than they are.


The fifth ghoul manages to duck under the sword, and connects with a swipe of its claw. It does no harm, but I’m still snarling as I step in and gut it.


Too slow, I think. Too slow, too weak, too clumsy.


I’m better. Just never quite good enough.

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