Monthly Archives: February 2016

Broken Mirror 13.22

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It was not much of a surprise that Reese could open a portal to Jason’s hideout. It was a bit of a surprise how smooth it was, though. It didn’t matter too much to me, but even Snowflake barely even stumbled on the way through.


That was impressive. It took real skill and a fair amount of power to get a portal that smooth. Obviously it was easier for him than it would be for, say, me, but still. It said a lot about just how good he was.


It also did a lot to explain why his people hadn’t been incapacitated when they showed up on that island. I’d been assuming that they were inured to the void, the same way Aiko and I were. The notion that he was just that good at it hadn’t quite occurred to me, and it removed a lot of my justification for thinking they were part of some terrifying conspiracy.


Not that the two were mutually exclusive, of course. It was entirely possible that both explanations were true. But that line of thought would almost certainly lead to paranoia. More paranoia, even.


Jason’s house was smaller than I would have expected. It wasn’t small, as such, but compared to the massive, sprawling complexes some mages used as their homes, it was less than impressive. A moderately large house in Scotland, it was just far enough off the beaten path to make the commute an irksome one. Ordinarily, I was guessing it was still close enough to civilization that things like police would be a consideration. At the moment, though, things were still fairly unstable, and the authorities had more than enough on their plates. I doubted they’d bother responding to a call this far from anywhere that mattered.


I doubted that would be significant, one way or the other. Realistically, Jason’s defenses were probably such that the police didn’t even register by comparison. But it did make things at least a little simpler.


“What’s the plan?” I asked, standing on a hill and looking down over the house. Aiko and Snowflake were a few feet away; Snowflake was dozing, and Aiko wasn’t a whole lot more engaged. I didn’t for a moment think that meant that either of them wasn’t paying attention.


It felt a little odd with just the three of us. Good, but…odd. I’d gotten almost accustomed to having a horde of minions with me.


“We go over there,” Reese said. “And I get some answers.”


“And…you think he’s just going to tell you what you want to know?”


“Yes,” he said firmly. “I do.” He took off towards the house, moving at a fairly impressive pace for a human.


I stared after him for a moment. Then I shook my head, muttered something about how it was amazing he’d lived this long if he was that naive, and followed him. Aiko just snickered.


Reese walked right up to the front door and pushed the doorbell. Literally pushed the doorbell.


I sighed. Aiko snickered some more.


Beyond a quiet chime from inside the building, though, there was no immediate response. Nothing stirred inside. Nothing blew up outside.


Reese, somehow, was enough of a moron to push it again. The response was the same.


“There’s no one home here,” Aiko said.


“They might just be taking a while,” he said.


I shook my head. “No,” I said. “There’s nobody here. No movement inside, no animals. The building is empty.”


Reese frowned. “That’s not normal.”


I rolled my eyes. “Gosh,” I said. “It’s almost like he has a reason to think that someone might cause trouble for him.”


“I’ve seen him deal with threats before,” Reese said. “It’s never driven him to abandon his house. This is something different.”


“Well, let’s find out what,” I said brightly. Then I reached past him and casually shoved the door open.


It was locked. That really didn’t matter much. The door splintered and swung in when I pushed on it, leaving the lock just hanging there.


I was sort of expecting for something to happen at that point, be it an alarm or an explosion. Nothing materialized, leaving me more nervous than if it had. This was going suspiciously well.


“Let’s take a look around,” I said, stepping into some sort of foyer. “Reese, you’ve been here before, correct?”


“Only in the main rooms,” he said. “The public areas. Nothing upstairs.”


“Okay,” I said. “That leaves us the upstairs and anything you haven’t seen on this level to check out. Oh, and the basement.”


“I don’t think Jason has a basement.”


I sighed. “I know how these people operate,” I said. “He has a basement.”


The next several hours were an exercise in frustration, pointlessness, and intermittent danger.


The house, outside of the “public” areas, turned out to be trapped. Rather heavily so, in fact, with numerous magical traps and wards. Had I been almost anyone else, that might have been an actual threat. As it was, it just didn’t have much capacity to actually harm me. Tyrfing could cut right through most wards, and the rest weren’t really relevant, for the most part. Explosions and lightning bolts were impressive, but the most they could really do to me was make me go outside and assemble another body.


The only ward that got anywhere near to actually stopping me was some sort of really odd mental or spiritual attack that tried to crush me with lethargy and depression until I couldn’t move. That one might have worked, but Aiko snapped it like a twig.


Aside from that, no one else even had to get involved. It was slow, tedious, and repetitive, but didn’t represent any kind of threat.


Unfortunately, it also didn’t provide a whole lot of reward. Jason had all the things you’d expect–bedroom, bathroom, library, office. But the place was pretty well cleaned out. It wasn’t complete; there were personal belongings still there, books, clothing, that sort of thing. I was guessing that it had been cleaned in a hurry. But anything that was actually important? Gone.


Jason did turn out to have a basement, though, the stairs hidden in a closet off the bathroom. That part of the house had the things you’d expect, too. There was another library, much more thoroughly emptied. There was a vault, which was completely empty. And there was a laboratory.


The lab was where we ended up stopping. It wasn’t much like the lab I used. Oh, on the surface it looked similar. It had the same fluorescent lights, the same tile flooring, the same epoxy resin tabletops. It even had some of the same reagents, in neatly labeled glass vials.


The work being done there, though, was obviously and dramatically different. There were a couple of projects that wouldn’t have been out of place in my lab, various half-assembled bits of jewelry and such. Pride of place, though, was clearly held by a more biological sort of research. There were around a dozen animals on the tables around the room, each sitting in a tray next to various pieces of equipment. They were mostly rodents, but there were a few frogs, a cat, all laid out in various stages of dissection.


Or, more accurately, vivisection. I realized that when I walked to close to one of the mice, and it squeaked.


I stared. It was alive. Skin flayed and pinned back, organs exposed, eyelids cut off, but somehow, horribly, alive.


I freaked out a bit when I saw that, smashing one hand onto it hard enough to drive half a dozen pins into my hand. There wasn’t much left of the mouse but pulp. When Aiko realized what I’d just done–and, more to the point, why–a wave of fox-scented darkness went through the room. After it was gone, every one of the animals had a visibly broken neck.


We weren’t saints. But there were limits.


“Okay,” I said, trying to extract my hand from that tangle. After a few seconds I gave up on it; it was hopelessly entangled with the pins, and stained with things that I had no desire to contemplate further. Easer to remove it and redistribute ice from the rest of my body to make another. “That was unpleasant.”


“Not my favorite thing to find,” Aiko agreed. Snowflake didn’t say anything, but I could feel that she was rather unsettled as well, which was rare.


Reese was standing next to one of the bodies, staring at it. “He’s not here,” the mage said suddenly. “And he’s not coming back. He’ll have gone to his fallback safe house.”


“Any chance you know where that might be?” I asked.


“I ought to,” Reese said. “I built it for him.”


I paused. “You built it,” I repeated. “Um…what exactly is this safe house?”


Now it was his turn to pause. “How much do you know about the basic structure of the Otherside?”


“Plenty,” Aiko said immediately. An instant later I said, “Not a whole lot,” followed by Jack shit from Snowflake.


“I’ll start with the basics, then,” Reese said. “In this world, a given object can be defined with a set of three-dimensional coordinates plus time, correct? With that information, you can say exactly where it is.”


“Sure,” I said.


“Good. Now, picture the Otherside network as being the same thing. It’s actually got quite a few more dimensions than that, but this is a simplistic model, so three is enough. Now, every Otherside domain has a location that can be defined by providing coordinates in each dimension.”


“Um,” I said. “What are the other dimensions?”


“They’re things,” he said, rather testily. “Complicated things that don’t have names in this language. In any case, the system is fluid, but within limits. Any given domain will have the same fixed relationship with at least a handful of reference domains–Earth, Limbo, and Faerie are the most common ones. So no matter how the system as a whole adjusts, or how individual domains move, you can always find a domain on the basis of that set of n-dimensional vectors. You follow?”


“But I’ve opened portals to domains before,” I said. “And I don’t know anything about these vectors.”


“You don’t realize you know it,” he corrected me. “But you know what the place feels like? What associations it has, which other domains are close to it and which are far away, at least in a general sense? That’s an approximation of the vector values, and it’s close enough to work most of the time.”


“Okay,” I said. “I can buy that. But as interesting as all this is, what relevance does it have to my original question?”


“I built Jason a domain where those vectors are variable on a second-to-second basis.”


I blinked. “So let me get this straight,” I said. “Having constant vectors is how you locate a domain. So…without that, nobody can find this place?”


“Basically,” Aiko said. “He’s using a lot of math words to describe it, but the idea is right. You remember when Fenris’s mansion was destroyed, I split us off on a separate domain? Same idea.”


I slumped. “So we can’t find him.”


“Ah,” Reese said, holding up one finger with a smug expression. “But in this case the vector values aren’t random. They’re derived from a pseudorandom number generator. And the algorithm is designed to leave it in a stable location for a short time every now and again. I should be able to open a portal there in one of those windows of opportunity.”


“When is the next one?” I asked.


Reese glanced at his watch–a wristwatch, with actual clockwork. “Hundred and twenty-one hours,” he said. “Best get ready. This place was designed for security; I’m guessing it won’t be as easy to get into as this house was.”


“Of course it won’t,” I said sourly.


Snowflake just laughed.

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Broken Mirror 13.21

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The interrogation was not going well. Not at all.

At this point, we’d captured close to a hundred of the Lighters alive. That was more than enough for my minions to be trying a broad range of interrogation techniques, everything from the soft sell to the very hard one.


I hadn’t asked for details on what they were doing. I didn’t want to know. I’d never had any taste for torture, and some of what was being done was torture. I knew that, and I didn’t want to know any more.


It wasn’t an attempt to salve my conscience, or pretend that what was going on wasn’t wrong. It very much was, and I damn well knew it. It was my responsibility, regardless of whether I did it myself or even knew it was being done. I’d given the order, knowing what it meant. I’d made the call to do this. I was well aware that what was happening was on my head. I was even conscious of the hypocrisy inherent in not wanting to know what was being done on my orders.


But still. I didn’t like this. I didn’t want to do it, to be a part of it. And knowing all the grisly details wouldn’t help anything at all.


In the end, it really didn’t matter. None of the approaches had worked, at least not on a meaningful level. A surprisingly large number of the Lighters weren’t yielding to inquiry, either Selene’s soft touch or the more brutal methods employed by the genuine psychopaths in my employ. Of those who did talk, most were either making things up to try and make it stop, or else simply didn’t know much.


In the end, after several days, there wasn’t a single usable scrap of information to be had. Nothing.


Which meant that unless I wanted to start from scratch entirely, it was pretty much down to getting answers out of the mages we’d taken in. Which was not a place that I was happy about being in. Particularly given that at least one of them had played an active role in basically killing me. That was not, as a general rule, an indication that someone wanted to help you out.


But it was the only lead I had, and that meant I couldn’t just ignore it.


It had been almost a day since I fought them. I kind of had to wait. As much as I hated to think of it this way, these people were important. They had connections, they knew people who mattered politically. With how skilled they were, I’d be very surprised if they didn’t have some degree of connection to the Conclave. In short, they were people who could potentially cause a lot of long-term problems for me if they wanted to. And that meant that I couldn’t do things like let the proper treatment of prisoners of war slip.


That was a horrible line of thought, that led to me torturing naive kids that didn’t even realize who they were working for and treating the masterminds of the plan like honored guests. I hated that, hated the way it perpetuated the same broken systems I’d been resenting my whole life, hated the way it enforced a set of attitudes that was fundamentally wrong.


But at the same time, I hadn’t forgotten the stakes involved here. Somehow, these people were related to the amateur mage who’d summoned something out of the void. From what Loki had said, that meant the potential area of destruction was, at a minimum, the size of a continent. That kind of scale made it…hard to justify not doing whatever was necessary to prevent it.


It’s easy to argue against morality by the numbers, against the greatest good for the greatest number, when the numbers in question are small. It’s easy to say that killing one person to save two, or five, or ten, is wrong, that the ends never justify the means.


But if this went really, really wrong, the potential death toll was in the billions. That was…impossible for me to conceptualize. It was just too huge, too far outside the realm of anything I could hope to experience.


And next to that, it was hard to argue against anything that might help. However abhorrent I might find it, however unlikely it was to work, it didn’t matter.


No matter how dirty it left me feeling.


Around a day later, I walked up to the door of the cell and nodded to the guard. He nodded back, crisp and professional. When it comes to mercenaries, there are very definitely times when you get what you pay for.


Aside from my personal feelings on the whole situation, capturing someone like Reese had a lot of very immediate, practical difficulty associated with it. Keeping someone imprisoned when they had fundamental control over space was hard. It might even be impossible.


In the end, I’d settled on the same general approach as I’d used to capture him in the first place. I’d exploited his mental vulnerabilities rather than physical ones.


There were three cameras in his (very comfortable) cell, which were being watched at all times. If he left, or the cameras stopped working, the person watching the feeds would notify three other groups of my minions, which were scattered across the city. They would promptly start filling his associates with bullets. And he knew it.


I was trying not to make an enemy of him, though, at least to the extent which that was possible. So I’d made sure that he also knew that his associates were, in the meantime, being treated pretty well. They had the best medical care money could buy–even the girl who’d lost two limbs was going to live, since Aiko had stuck around long enough to get her to the surgeons before heading back to Faerie to deal with another issue. They had good food, pleasant accommodations, entertainment.


It was still living in a cage. It was still a pretty appalling thing to do. But it was better than it could have been, certainly better treatment than was strictly required.


Once all of that was set up, once I’d had a chance to rest and deal with the routine management issues that had been slipping over the past few days, it was time to go and have a chat with my captive.


The cell, once I was inside, looked fairly benign. It looked like a moderately expensive hotel room, anonymous and fairly nice. In a sense, that was exactly what it was; I’d started out with the assumption that I couldn’t keep him here if he really wanted to leave, and I hadn’t bothered to try. The only hint of security, the only suggestion that not all was as pleasant as it seemed, was the blinking lights of the cameras.


Reese was sitting on the edge of the bed when I walked in, reading a car magazine. I found that more than slightly amusing, given that he could literally bend the fabric of space to his will. The notion that he needed to look at cars was hilarious; he could travel far more quickly and efficiently by just wanting to. Though I supposed that magic and personality had a very strong connection between them, and it was entirely possible that his ability with space was because he had a fascination with speed and travel.


“You made it,” he said as I walked in, tossing the magazine carelessly aside. It landed half-open on the bed, pages instantly crumpling. “I was starting to wonder whether you were just going to leave me here.”


“I wouldn’t do that,” I said. “When I want someone dead, I don’t get all passive-aggressive. I just kill them.”


“Getting right to the point,” he said. “So why didn’t you kill us? We both know you could have, there at the end.”


“I don’t particularly want you dead,” I said, leaning against the wall. “I don’t have anything against you. Hell, I think I might like you, given the chance. No, I just want you to tell me where I can find Jason.”


“And you couldn’t find a better way to ask than this?”


I sighed. “Reese. Come on. He basically killed me. He slit my throat and watched me bleed on his shoes. I think he probably knows that I’m not looking to deliver him some cookies and a fruit basket, you know?”


“So you admit you want to kill him,” he said, in a vaguely accusatory tone.


I shrugged. “It’s not off the table,” I admitted. “It’s certainly something I’ve considered. But honestly, that’s fairly secondary. I mostly just want some answers.”


“To what questions?”


“Mostly? Why he’s teaching total chumps how to call up an abomination from the void”


Reese reaction was interesting. He froze, and his face turned some interesting colors. “You’re mad,” he said at last, in a rather strangled tone. “That’s…you…how? How could you think he would do that?”


“Well,” I drawled, “let me put it this way. The group you were meeting with, these Light of Reason people? They’re well-equipped, and extremely well-informed. Too much so to just be a bunch of lunatics with a common cause. That kind of organization doesn’t just happen. Someone has to be supporting them, and the best guess I have for who is your boss. Now, the first time I ran into these guys, they had a mage with them. This guy was a dweeb, had no idea what he was doing. But somehow, he knew how to summon something from the void.”


“That’s impossible,” he said.


I shrugged. “That’s what I thought, too,” I said. “But it happened. And when I try to come up with someone that could have shown him that trick, the only person coming to mind is the same one backing the organization he was working for.”


“If this had happened,” Reese said, “you would be dead.” There was not a hint of uncertainty in his voice.


I snorted. “Who says I’m not?” I asked dryly. “You were kinda there when I died. Remember?”


“I wish I could forget.” His voice was markedly sour.


“Yeah, well. More seriously, I had a lot of help, and I still took some hits putting that thing down. More importantly, though, I have an idea of what happens if one of those abominations gets loose. I have an idea of what the response would be.”


Reese shuddered. His expression said more about how he felt at the thought than words ever could.


“Yeah,” I agreed. “That’s about my reaction. You see why I want to talk to Jason now? I don’t know for sure whether he’s where the problem started, but he’s the best guess I have. And this kind of thing…there’s no room to take chances with it. Not with the stakes this high.”


“It’s odd,” the mage said after a moment. “I get the idea that you’re telling the truth. And I find myself very much hoping that I’ve just been suckered. The alternative is much worse for the world.”


“Believe me, I’d love to be lying right now,” I said. “For one of these situations to just be a bluff on my part would be wonderful. But this time it isn’t.”


There was a long moment of silence after that.


“All right,” he said at last. “I still don’t believe you…but you’re right. This isn’t something you can take chances with. Ever.”


“You’ll tell me where to go, then?”


“Two conditions,” he said. “One, I’m there for this meeting. I want to hear Jason explain this himself. Two, we’re alone.”


“I bring Snowflake and Aiko,” I said instantly.


“You want to bring the Lady of the Midnight Court,” he said incredulously.


“She’s my wife,” I said. “And I guess my boss, these days. And we’ve been working together for a long time. If you’ve got a problem with her coming, I’m a little dubious about your motives in luring me out for a meeting alone with, oh yeah, the guy who killed me.”


“I…suppose that isn’t entirely unreasonable,” he said after a moment, with obvious and extreme reluctance.


“Cool!” I said brightly. “So when do you want to go?”


“Immediately,” he said. “This isn’t something I’m willing to wait for.”


“All right, then. Follow me. I’ve got some things to pick up before we go.”


The guard nodded to me again on the way out.

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Broken Mirror 13.20

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Our first few seconds on that island were one of the most brutal, decisive openings to a fight that I’d ever seen. They hadn’t seen us at all, didn’t have a clue that the shit was about to hit the fan.


The mercenaries were on a boat, in the middle of landing, at moving targets. It wasn’t a situation that lent itself well to precise marksmanship.


But there were quite a few of them, and they were good at their job. The shots were mostly on target. The Lighters’ body armor stopped a lot of it–that stuff really was high-quality–but enough hit vulnerable spots or just got lucky that it had a visible effect. People started falling.


As they started to react, the gunfire stopped. That wasn’t a particularly good thing for the Lighters. The werewolves–loners, who for one reason or another wouldn’t or couldn’t be in a regular pack, but were willing to work for me–were the first to reach them. As was the usual approach for werewolves in a mixed group, they didn’t really concern themselves with injuring the enemy, as such. They focused on chaos and disruption, knocking people down and tossing them around, moving too quickly for the counterattack to land. The jötnar and the ghouls, following close behind them, could capitalize on that. The mages I’d brought would, hopefully, be able to counter any tricks the Lighters pulled out, and the mercenaries could shoot anyone who ran.


That left me, Snowflake, and Aiko to take care of the enemy mages. That was about what we’d planned. They were the real threat here, the same as Aiko and I were the meaningful power on our side. The mages I’d brought were good, but I wasn’t expecting them to be the match of the people we were fighting. Everyone else was…largely irrelevant, basically.


They weren’t unconscious from the portal. That was the first thing I noticed, as I approached them, running forward and then sidestepping into and through a patch of shadow. None of the four were unconscious. They didn’t even seem discomfited. I could only think of a very few explanations for that, and none of them were good.


I got to them fast–faster than Snowflake, even, and that was saying something. They were already reacting by that point, though. One of them, a pale blond man with a nice suit and a smile that probably cost more than a lot of cars, looked in my direction, and then golden flame blossomed in the air between us.


I could have blocked it. I was reasonably confident of that. It should be straightforward; cold and darkness to counter the flame, making it a straightforward contest of power. I was probably considerably stronger than he was, considering the well of Midnight power I could draw on. If any of it did get through, I could cut it out of the air with Tyrfing.


It should be straightforward, simple, and relatively safe. But I was used to thinking of myself as weaker, in terms of pure magical power, than a competent mage. And then again, there was a chance that my estimate was wildly wrong. I kept thinking about how they weren’t affected by the portal, and then there was the fact that the whole reason I’d gotten into this was that someone had summoned something from the void. The implication was…disturbing.


So rather than try to block it, I dodged. A quick sidestep, a jaunt through the dark place that I could find behind any given shadow now, and I was on the other side of them, with the Atlantic at my back.


It was already getting to be second nature. I didn’t really even have to think about the process, didn’t have to make a conscious effort to do anything. It was just a matter of intending to be somewhere else, and then letting action follow intent.


I was stepping out of the other shadow while the fire was still fading where I’d been a moment earlier. I saw them start to relax, thinking that they’d gotten me, that the very first thing they tried had been enough to kill me. And I saw the sudden fear in their eyes as they realized what had actually just happened.


Snowflake didn’t have freaky teleportation, but she was still fast. Faster than anyone had a right to be, really, and it had a definite tendency to catch people by surprise. These guys were used to things that were supernaturally fast, though, and they were ready for it. Even though she was reaching them just as the fire died, they were still able to react in time. One of them, an Asian girl with a serious face whose magic smelled like smog, threw out her hands, and Snowflake flew backwards in midair.


It was not, I thought, just a blast of force. It looked more like it had reversed her momentum, reversing her direction of travel. She was good, to do that on the fly; that kind of spell was fairly standard in permanent wards, but it was too complex for most people to do without a lot of setup. I had to admit, I was impressed.


I did not, of course, let that stop me from stepping forward and shattering it with Tyrfing.


She fell back, while the blond guy threw another fireball at me. Once again, I dove aside, into and through a shadow, and then I was approaching them from another direction.


The inconsistent illumination here was good, at least for me. It meant that there was lots of darkness, places that the shadows were thick enough to act as doors. It also meant that their vision was impaired, made it harder for them to spot me again. Needless to say, the darkness wasn’t a problem for my eyes. Not anymore. This power might come with a hefty price tag attached, but damn, it was useful.


And that was when Aiko got there.


She wasn’t running, wasn’t even walking particularly quickly. She slouched lazily, her weapons still sheathed, hands hanging loose at her sides. One of the Lighters managed to focus on her long enough to get a shot off before being dragged back into the fray; she didn’t even react as it ricocheted off her armor.


And yet for all of that, she still looked…scary. Once you looked close enough, she looked scary. Her shadow was too tall, and crooked, managing to look strange and inhuman while still somehow lining up with her proportions in every particular. She didn’t look like she was moving fast, but it only took her a few seconds to walk across the island.


The fire mage tried to set her on fire. The flames just sat on her armor for a second without doing much of anything, and then blinked out.


“You guys are kind of annoying,” Aiko commented mildly.


“What are you doing?” Reese asked. Unlike the rest of the mages, he wasn’t moving, didn’t seem to have reacted to the fight at all.


“I’m giving you a chance to back down,” Aiko said. “See, normally I’d just murderize you. But at the moment my frustration with having to be responsible and do a job outweighs my annoyance at not just annihilating you, and I’m pretty sure that the ‘murderize’ option is more in line with being the Lady of the Midnight Court. So you get a chance to not die. Guess it’s your lucky day, huh?”


“I meant, what are you doing helping them?” Reese asked. “This is an unprovoked assault on a neutral party. I expect that kind of thing from a lot of people, but not from the Courts. This isn’t your fight.”


“You made it my fight,” she said. Her tone was still light and cheery, but there was something about it that wasn’t pleasant at all. A couple of the mages actually shivered when they heard it, and I couldn’t blame them. If I were on the receiving end of that voice, from her, I’d probably be pretty terrified too.


“Hang on a second,” I said, walking up next to her. “Do you actually not recognize me?”


Reese frowned. “Should I?”


“Well, seeing as you killed me, maybe just a little,” I said dryly.


He stared for a second. Then he said, “Oh. It’s you.”

And then things started getting crazy again.


Generally mages had abilities that were based around some specific, tangible thing. You could learn to do other things with magic, but it was harder, and there would always be some connection to the trick that came most naturally to you. So you got fire mages, and force mages, people that specialized in wind or electricity. Sometimes people favored more abstract concepts, like shamans or a lot of witches. Sometimes that focus was something that wasn’t so easy to define.


I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen someone who specialized in space before.


What Reese did then wasn’t teleportation, as such. I’d always been told that genuine teleportation took power on the level of a deity, and as far as I knew that was accurate. This was more a matter of folding space so that two points were closer together than they ought to be, and then simply stepping from one to the other without interacting with the space in between.


The practical result, though, was much the same. In less than a second, he was on the other side of the island. And all the rest of the mages had scattered, too, leaving behind nothing but some lingering fires and the scent of magic.


Again, I had to admit I was impressed. I’d never really looked into that sort of trick, but it couldn’t be easy; the only people I’d seen who could do something similar were the champions of the Faerie Courts, and even then it was rather limited. Doing it for four different people at once was…well, it was a hell of a trick.


I started to head for the closest of them, a Middle Eastern woman who hadn’t really done much yet. Before I’d taken more than a couple of steps, Reese pulled out a shotgun and pulled the trigger.


I should have had plenty of time to dodge, at that distance. I thought I did. That hadn’t been accounting for the fact that he did the same thing in reverse, convincing the universe that A and C didn’t really need a B in between long enough for the shotgun to effectively go off six inches from my head.


I collapsed back into a pile of snow, before I’d even realized what happened. Luckily, this island was pretty thoroughly covered in snow as well, and the spiritual representation I saw had almost no dark spots. I shifted myself to another patch of snow, just behind one of the female mages, and started to manifest another body.


Before I’d managed more than an arm and a half, a burst of fire came down and turned that entire drift to steam, shunting me right back into the spiritual side of things.


Well. That could be a problem.


“Okay,” Aiko said, her voice echoing strangely to me from across that divide. “You want to do things the hard way? Fair enough. Should be fun.”


She grinned, and every light on the island died, all at once. The fires went out, the electric lights exploded into sparks, and in seconds it was pitch black. That didn’t last for more than a few moments before it was lit with sharp crimson light, constantly shifting and dancing. The lights didn’t stay in the same second for more than a second at a time, leaving the island in a constant state of flux. It was more disorienting than pure darkness; you could get used to darkness. This? Not so much.


After that, the fight got crazy. Crazier, even. Reese was bouncing all of his people around like crazy, to an extent that I wouldn’t have thought possible. None of the mages stood in one place for longer than it took to get a shot off, and while the space mage was visibly tiring after just a few repetitions of that, he kept going. Meanwhile, I was stepping through shadows or reassembling myself from snow and darkness every few seconds, between trying to catch them in one of those moments of stillness and getting hit hard enough to necessitate a new body.


In spite of that, though, I was grinning wildly. This was a real fight, a real challenge; I hadn’t quite realized how much I missed that. Since I came back as…this, the only fights I’d been in had been against the Lighters or the thing from the void. The first were no challenge, and the second was nothing that I could really oppose. This was…somewhere in between.


They were still losing, though. They could annoy me, and slow me down, but nothing they were doing could really stop me; short of melting all the snow on this island and lighting it up so bright there was no shadow for me to occupy, I could just keep coming back. Snowflake was too fast to hit, and Aiko was…well. Out of their league was putting it mildly.


And that was just on this side. The other fight, which was taking place in exactly the same space, was going even more poorly for the other guys. The Lighters were outnumbered, surrounded, and utterly out of their depth in this kind of fight. Most of them were down in the first few moments, and the rest weren’t doing a whole lot better.


Snowflake, oddly, was the first person to land a decisive blow. She got lucky, or Reese was distracted at a critical moment, and the fire mage landed a little too close to her. He tried to run, and he tried to set her aflame, but he was too slow and Aiko caught the fire and snuffed it out before it ever got close.


Then Snowflake jumped on him. Metal claws and teeth flashed in the crimson light, blood flowed, and the mage was on the ground with one arm in Snowflake’s jaws. She kept mauling him for a second before the force mage did something really clever involving redirecting the energy of a shotgun blast from halfway across the island into the husky and tore her loose. Snowflake went flying and landed ten feet away, but the fire mage was still lying on the ground and bleeding heavily.


The first person to react to the development was the last mage, the one who hadn’t really done much. I thought she was a witch of some sort, the sort of person that did mental or emotional magic. She smelled like it, and I thought I might have felt her trying to trip me up a few times in the fight. But I’d never been easy to affect with that kind of attack, and somehow I didn’t think it had gotten any easier since I took another step away from humanity.


She shouted something in a language I didn’t recognize, and I braced myself for whatever she was doing.


But nothing happened, and I didn’t smell any particular magic, and after a second I realized that she wasn’t pulling out some terrifying piece of work that I hadn’t expected. She was just shouting.


The response was still very noticeable. Reese did his thing again, and they were all standing over the maimed guy. It was the first time they’d bunched up since this whole thing started.


Reese looked exhausted. He’d managed a hell of a lot, but it had clearly taken something out of him. He looked like he could barely stand, and the rest of them weren’t a whole lot better off.


Huh. It hadn’t occurred to me that this fight had really gone on that long. I wasn’t tired, wasn’t breathing hard–hell, I wasn’t even breathing. But I could feel that Snowflake was feeling it, too.


Reese gestured, and a portal opened next to them. I’d noticed that he was ridiculously fast about opening them in the past. It made a lot more sense now that I knew what he actually did.


None of them seemed happy about running, but they didn’t argue. The Asian girl, the one who had such a knack for redirecting kinetic energy, was the first to go for it, stepping into the portal.


Then Aiko snapped her fingers, and the portal…wasn’t. That patch of absolute blackness, the hole Reese had pulled open in the world’s fabric, wasn’t there.


I’d heard a lot about how dangerous those portals were. I’d never actually seen what happened when one failed, though.


The girl had only had one arm and one leg through when Aiko closed the door. Those limbs weren’t there anymore. They didn’t look like they’d been cut off, as such. It was more like looking at a diagram in an anatomy textbook that decided to use a really odd angle for the picture. Just below the knee and elbow, respectively, the limbs just…stopped. It was perfectly smooth and straight, slicing through flesh and bone impossibly cleanly.


She fell straight forward, her leg simply not there to bear her weight anymore. And then the bleeding started.


It stopped an instant later, after a single dramatic arterial spurt. Caps of solid darkness wrapped themselves around the ends of the limbs, sealing them off before she could bleed out.


“Better stop now,” Aiko called to them. “Even if you manage to run, it’ll only take a couple seconds for her to bleed to death without those. Surrender and you might all make it off this island alive.”


Reese didn’t look happy about it at all. But at the end of the day, he was a decent guy. He didn’t want to condemn a friend to death.


The fact that half his team was now incapacitated, the Lighters were done for, and Aiko demonstrably had the ability to close off his escape routes probably played a role, too. But I really thought that the other would have been enough on its own. Even when he’d been trying to kill me, I’d always gotten the impression that he was basically an all right guy.


“We’ll surrender,” he said.

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Broken Mirror 13.19

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I’d shown up to fights in a lot of circumstances, to the point of being something of a connoisseur.


Driving a rented sedan across Boston at an impressively unsafe pace while blasting Vocaloid music at a volume that had people wincing as we drove by was one of the stranger ones. Not the strangest; it wasn’t like this was my first time with Aiko. But it was up there.


She skidded to a stop just short of the docks, grinning. Snowflake was grinning too, draped so far out the window that I had one hand on her back in case she slipped and I had to catch her before she fell out.


It was horribly dangerous to drive like that with the roads so bad–Boston, as it turned out, hadn’t made as much progress as Colorado Springs on clearing up the streets, and a recent blizzard hadn’t helped matters. I wasn’t terribly concerned, though. I’d gotten used to Aiko’s driving skills a long time ago. And besides, what did it really matter? A high-speed car crash wasn’t much more than an inconvenience to me. It wasn’t like there was any shortage of snow. Boston in early March had that much to recommend it, at least.


We got out and started getting ready while the rest of the crew caught up. Being somewhat less confident and more sane of drivers than Aiko, the housecarls were still a ways behind us. That was fine. It gave us time to get ready before we got started.


The first thing I did was help Snowflake into her armor. I wasn’t entirely sure how to feel about that; it was pretty essential when there were liable to be a lot of people with guns out on this island, but it also made swimming also impossible, which was…less than ideal given that we had to get to the island first. But she’d been in favor of it, and it was ultimately her decision, so armor it was.


Aiko had her armor as well–the set she’d gotten as a part of her ascension within the Court, rather than the one Loki had arranged. She had her wakizashi and her knives, which she’d gotten from the same source. She also had a gun, a carbine that looked very much like the one she’d had for as long as I’d known her. I was guessing that it was the product of a similar manufacturing process to the one used for the armor, though. It didn’t smell like iron.


That was funny, in a way. For most of my life, iron had been essential, sometimes the only weapon that could balance the scales with the fae. Now, it was something we went out of our way to avoid, for the same reason.


For my part, I didn’t have a lot to bring. There just wasn’t a whole lot that I needed. I was wearing casual clothing, and a replacement for my cloak of shadows–the one I’d actually used had been lost with my original body, but I’d had a backup just in case that had most of the same properties. I had a number of toys in my pockets, stored spells and grenades and such. Beyond that, I was unarmed and unarmored.


Once we were ready, we stood and looked out over the ocean while we waited. It was almost midnight, and the moon was hidden behind clouds, leaving the water dark and cold. There was no light out there, not that I could see. It was dark, a storm was brewing, and the water was full of monsters. Nobody smart was sailing tonight.


Finally, after several minutes, half a dozen white vans pulled up next to us and started disgorging people. There were a dozen jötnar there, including most of my original housecarls. Another dozen ghouls and four werewolves rounded out my frontline troops, and then I had a mix of human mercenaries and mages for other roles.


I’d brought out the big guns, this time around. Jibril was leading the ghouls personally, and Kyi was there to fill that role for the jötnar. I had some of the stronger mages in my employ, too. Brick still wasn’t on the best of terms with the rest, but they could work with him, and then there were Jack, Shadow, and a handful of more recent hires. Selene had even managed to come up with a Bostonian water mage who swore that he could ensure we got out there safely in addition to actually fighting, at only moderately obscene rates.


In principle, I could bring that much force to bear on any given target. In practice, though, it usually wasn’t worth leaving my forces in the city that short-staffed. Not to mention that a lot of those people were only very slightly under my command. They might work for me, but the relationship wasn’t as straightforward as it was with the housecarls. If I asked too much, I might end up losing them entirely.


For this, though? It was worth it.


They piled out of the vans and started getting ready for the fight. As the jötnar were getting into their armor, and the ghouls were eating, the mercenaries unpacked some inflatable boats and a compressor from the last van and started getting the boats ready.


These weren’t your average inflatable raft. They were motorized boats of the same type used by the military, designed to cover short distances quickly and without being noticed. And they weren’t just similar to the military version; they were the exact same boat. Being on fairly good terms with a mobster kingpin was helpful when you wanted to get your hands on some military gear that you really weren’t allowed to have.


It took some time to get all four of the boats inflated and in the water. Snowflake passed the time telling dirty jokes; I was mostly occupied with not laughing. Aiko didn’t bother, which really didn’t matter much. If the Maiden of the Midnight Court broke down laughing for no apparent reason, it was unlikely to do much but cement her reputation as a frightening and unpredictable person.


Finally, everything was ready, and I stepped gingerly out onto the rubber boat. I knew that it was safe–worst case, it wasn’t like I could drown when I didn’t breathe–but still. Boats were…a bit outside my scope. The fact that it shifted and flexed under my weight didn’t help.


It didn’t collapse, though, and after a moment the rest of the crew started to follow me out. I noticed, not entirely gladly, that almost all of them seemed more comfortable with the situation than I was. Even Snowflake, who I was fairly confident had never been on a boat in her life, seemed just fine with it. Aiko carried her onto the boat, since the claws and spikes on her armor weren’t likely to get along particularly well with a boat that was made of rubber. For much the same reason the dog ended up stretched out across Aiko’s lap and mine, dangling her front paws in the water.


The rest of the passengers of that boat were mostly the more important members of the group. Kyi was there, along with Jibril, Brick, and the local mage who was acting as our guide. His name was apparently Josiah, though he quite reasonably preferred to be called Joe.


I wasn’t entirely happy trusting a total stranger to guide us out to this island and keep the ocean from swallowing us. It would be pretty damn easy for this guy to sabotage us. I was counting on a mixture of being very well-paid and having a very acute awareness of the likely consequences of failure to keep him from doing that.


The last person on the boat was one of the human mercenaries to act as the pilot. Luckily I had enough of them in my employ that all of the boats had someone who knew their way around this kind of boat to pilot it; as I understood it, you really didn’t want a novice in that role.


The engines whirred quietly to life, and we headed out onto the water.


Hangman Island, aside from the rather melodramatic name, was a good place to have a clandestine meeting. It was closer to the mainland than most of the islands in the bay, but it wasn’t much more than a speck, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to go out there.


More to the point, it wasn’t somewhere that many people would be able to get if they wanted to. It wasn’t one of the islands that had public accessibility, so the only way you were getting out there was with your own boat. Even then, most people wouldn’t want to risk it. The island was tiny, but it was surrounded by an extensive network of shoals and rocks that could shred a boat if you weren’t careful about how you approached it. As I understood it, unless you knew your way around the island your chances of getting there safely by boat were slim at best.


That had been the main reason to hire Joe. I had my own people to run the boats, and while the threat of storm was a serious one, if it got really nasty not even a water mage would be able to save us on these inflatable boats. But he’d been hanging out in this bay for almost thirty years now, according to him. He knew his way around the rocks. There was no doubt about that.


We showed up just over an hour early, stopped at a distance from the island, and killed the lights and engines. Aiko promptly started weaving an illusion around us, a web of image and shadow that should take the chances of us being seen from slim to none.


The timing on this was going to be tricky. We wanted to catch them by surprise, which meant that we couldn’t really be on the island before they were. It was just too small for that–not even an acre in size, and there was no real cover to hide behind. Aiko could spin a hell of an illusion these days, but even with the power of a Faerie Queen no illusion could be quite perfect, and everything on that island was going to be the subject of intense scrutiny. So we really had to be at a distance from the island to have a chance of making the ambush work.


At the same time, though, we couldn’t be far. There was no way of guessing how long this meeting would take; it might be hours, or just a couple minutes. If it was the latter, our window of opportunity here was going to be very small.


We sat there, just bobbing on the waves, for around half an hour, before the quiet of the night was broken by the sound of motors. A few seconds later, I spotted the Lighters approaching. There were close to thirty of them, packed into a pair of the same boats I was using. Not just a similar design of boat; as far as I could determine, it was the exact same model. Which made sense–they had the same needs as I did right now, and it wasn’t like I was the only one who had contacts that could get their hands on military supplies.


But still. It was amusing.


They made their way through the rocks to the island, passing within around fifteen feet of us without noticing a thing. They landed, got out of the boats, and searched the island thoroughly. Very thoroughly; I was pretty sure they physically touched every square inch of the island between them.


I was feeling pretty smug about having decided to wait out here. It was more work, but these people were serious and efficient. They might just be humans, but that didn’t mean that we could afford to get sloppy here.


Once they’d satisfied themselves, they settled in to wait, the same as we were. They had some portable lights, enough to make the island clearly visible. The fact that it also blinded them to what was outside their light was just a nice perk for us.


It felt a little odd, being the monsters lurking in the darkness and waiting to ambush our enemies for once instead of the other way around. We could kill them all if we wanted, almost certainly. Hell, just a quick round of gunfire could probably drop half of them before they realized what was going on.


Around forty-five minutes after they showed up, Aiko suddenly stirred. She’d been still and silent since we got here, just focusing on keeping up the illusion around us. She was starting to look strained, too; that was a hell of a long time to maintain an illusion, even for her. Especially on the ocean. Water was a good solvent, and as was often the case, its magical properties reflected the chemical properties. You could do magic in the water, but it tended be harder to maintain a spell when it was being eroded by water.


So when she said, “Start heading in,” I didn’t argue. I just gestured to the pilot, who started up the engine again. On that signal, the rest of the boats started up again, and they followed our lead into the rocks.


Joe knew his business. Well, that or he just got all kinds of lucky, but I didn’t really care. His directions got us through the shoals safely, and that was really all that mattered.


And the whole time, Aiko kept that illusion up. I’d been impressed when she was just hiding the boats, but this really drove home just how good at illusions she was. Managing to conceal four moving boats, the water they displaced in their wake, and the noise their engines made, after you’d already been working for close to an hour and a half? That was pretty freaking impressive.


We’d just about reached the island when I suddenly smelled magic, and saw a patch of air at the center of the island go blurry. It took me a second to recognize it as the ending terminus of an Otherside portal; they were a lot more dramatic from the other end.


After a moment, four people stepped out of the portal onto the little spit of rock called Hangman Island. I recognized one of them, an older man called Reese who was apparently Jason’s second-in-command.


Well, then. Confirmation that the Lighters were tied to Jason. Or close enough to confirmation for me, at least.


It’s showtime, I thought, as the boats ground up against the island and Aiko finally let the illusion fall.

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Interlude 12.x: David Brunner

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To say that Tokyo is a large city is the equivalent of saying that the Pacific is a large body of water. It’s not wrong, exactly. But it utterly fails to convey the degree, the scale. There are lots of large cities, but there’s only one Tokyo.


It would be wrong to say that the city was unaffected by the changes in the world. Everywhere had been affected. But Tokyo, and the numerous cities that it had swallowed up into the greater Tokyo area, was so massive that it could shrug off the impact more easily than a lot of places. The fact that Tokyo had its own supernatural ecosystem, unlike anything else even in Japan, didn’t hurt. Not many people wanted to get involved in that kind of well-developed system, and the things that were already there mostly had too much invested in the city to do anything too drastic.


The end result was that while there were neighborhoods that looked like hell on earth, there were also large sections of the city where life went on almost without interruption. And, for whatever reason, it was in one of those areas that I met with Guard to discuss my new position. “Whatever reason,” in this case, had a lot to do with that stable, almost-normal state of affairs. It was easier to run an organization out of a stable environment, and as a result most of the administrative centers of the Guards were currently in large, old cities that had weathered the destruction fairly well so far. That meant London, Paris, Chicago…and Tokyo.


“We aren’t going completely public,” Guard said, popping some sort of fish-stuffed dumpling into his mouth. I had a dish of them as well, though I wasn’t eating mine; seafood wasn’t really my favorite thing. I wasn’t sure it was his, either, but at this point I was guessing he hadn’t eaten in long enough that he wouldn’t really care.


“I’m not sure what the point is,” I said, watching people in suits hurrying back to work as their lunch breaks ended.


“The point is that someone needs to do it,” Guard said. “The behind the scenes, cloak and dagger stuff? It isn’t working. Hasn’t for years, really. There are just too many people for this to work for much longer. And if we’re going to work openly, we need to have a system to integrate with government.”


“And that’s us?” I asked. “Really?”


“We’re the best available,” he said. He didn’t sound any happier about it than I felt. “And that’s why we’re only going partially public. There’s still a lot of work we have to do that we don’t want the general public knowing about.”


“This thing is going to turn into an organizational nightmare,” I said. “Trying to keep both sides of things running without getting into each other’s way…it’s a mess.”


Guard smiled a little. “I’m not looking forward to it,” he said. “But it’s what we’ve got.”


I sighed and nodded. “Okay. So when do I start?”


I ignored the armed guards as I knocked on the door. They were largely irrelevant, almost like furniture. Basically every figure of any importance in the world had some kind of protection right now. For those who couldn’t manage this protection themselves, guards were a must.


I heard a vaguely affirmative noise from inside, so I opened the door and went into the study. One of the guards–Army, or something like it, the bearing was unmistakable and subtly different from police–was annoyed that I’d done it myself rather than letting them. I wasn’t too concerned.


Inside, the mayor was sitting behind his desk, looking at something on a sleek, expensive-looking laptop. His name was…John Something-or-other, I thought. I’d read his last name at some point, while going over the briefing materials, but I hadn’t bothered to remember. He was only marginally less irrelevant than the men standing outside his door. With things the way they were, the mayor of the city was a pawn, barely more than a figurehead.


He’d always been a pawn, of course. But now he knew it.


“Hello, sir,” I said, nodding. “I’m with the Guards.”


It felt so strange saying that to a civilian. I’d spent a long time–years, now–treating it as almost classified material. Even saying the word was something you did with people that you could trust, or at the very least people that were on the inside. Acknowledging the existence of the organization to the uninformed was beyond taboo.


Not that I’d broken that taboo, really. This guy had no idea what the Guards really were.


“You finally made it,” he said, with obvious relief. “It’s about time one of you got here.”


“Colorado Springs was relatively low-priority, sir,” I said patiently. “Since there are already local powers maintaining stability here.”


“What, you mean the dictator that took over the city the second things started falling apart?” he asked. “I guess that’s one way to phrase it, sure. Speaking of that, you’ll probably want to coordinate with the police when you go to take him out. Let me get you the contact information you’ll need.”


I’ve always been pretty good about thinking before I talk. It’s a big part of why I got the position I did. From what I’d heard of how we were setting up the publicly-acknowledged Guards organization, being in charge of a local branch mostly required being able to deal with the normal world. More specifically, it required being able to deal with normal officials and governments. And that required a lot of…careful phrasing.


So I ignored the first response that popped into my head, and then the second and the third. Once I’d gotten those comments out of the way in my mind, what actually came out of my mouth was, “Do you realize what you’re saying?” Which still wasn’t the most politically savvy response I could have come up with, probably, but compared to those initial ideas it was a thing of genius and beauty.


“What do you mean?” the mayor asked blankly.


He really had no idea. I had to fight back a grimace, and keep my face in a blank, vaguely pleasant smile. “I’ve read the organizational dossier on this guy,” I said. “So let me work through it, and you can correct me if I’m wrong, sir. First off, he’s got a sizable force. We’re talking at least thirty combat-capable people, most likely.”


“Yes,” the mayor said impatiently. “That’s why you’ll want to coordinate with the police.”


“The police are already stretched thin,” I said. “And they’d take some losses going up against that crowd, which they can’t afford. Then there’s Winter himself. And by all accounts, he’s pretty terrifying in a fight.”


“That’s what the Guards are for,” the mayor said blithely. “You’re supposed to be good at killing monsters, right?”


Once again, I stared at him for several seconds, considering and discarding several responses, including rapping on his skull to check whether there was anything inside. “I wouldn’t be so quick to describe people as monsters, sir,” I said at last, a little tightly. “And I’ve only got four Guards with me to start. He’s got more experience than any two of them put together. The best case scenario if we go up against him, I would still expect at least one of those Guards to die. And that’s not taking into consideration the transhumans he has working for him.”


“If you can’t take care of the problem, then what are you guys good for?” he asked. He was starting to sound irritable now.


I took a deep breath and let it out. I’d forgotten how annoying it was to deal with people who were absolutely clueless about this sort of thing. “You’re asking rookies to go up against a veteran,” I said. “Once they’ve got a bit of experience, sure, I’d give them a chance. But right now, I don’t think any of them has been in a serious fight in their life, and he’s been in a lot. That’s not a winnable fight, sir.”


The mayor considered that for a moment, then sighed. “All right, then,” he said. “So what are you good for?”


My smile got a little stiffer, but I didn’t lose it. That’s why they pay me the big bucks. “It’ll take some time for us to get established,” I said. “In the meantime, we’ll be working on training, and keeping some of the less…spectacular threats under control. With luck we can reach a peaceful solution with the, ah, dictator.”


The mayor didn’t look convinced. Luckily for me, he was more aware than he used to be of his role in things. So I didn’t have to sugarcoat things, or pretend that we were working to his agenda and just not getting results.


It was, on the whole, a pretty nice feeling.


He ended up shrugging with that same dubious, dissatisfied expression on his face. “I suppose it’s possible,” he said. “Well, don’t let me keep you. I’m sure you have lots of work to do.”


He was annoyed. That could be a problem; theoretically, I was going to be working with this guy for a while. But I could worry about that later. Preferably after I had some evidence of progress on that peaceful solution. It would happen, but at present it was all behind the scenes, on a level that the mayor just didn’t have any way of knowing about. It would be easier to convince him it was possible after it had started to show up on his level.


I nodded to the soldiers on the way out. Theoretically, I might be working with them for a while too. They didn’t respond.


I was not impressed by the quality of my new recruits. Or, rather, I was. They made quite an impression. It just wasn’t a good one.


The first was a fairly standard pyromancer. He was a hothead, figuratively as well as literally. Lots of power, little control, and not much of a margin of error between hitting someone and maiming or killing them. Normally that would be fine, but I’d been informed in no uncertain terms that lethal force was something to be avoided unless absolutely necessary. I was guessing that he’d end up transferred to some kind of special forces unit that only came out when killing people was acceptable, but in the meantime he was mine to deal with.


The other boy had almost the exact opposite problem. He was the kind of wizard that mostly focused on making things, lots of prep work invested in advance. It was easy to see that he was a nerd, the kid that got pushed around a lot at school. That lack of self-confidence carried over, and while a certain degree of caution was helpful, you needed to be confident in this line of work. Hesitation often ended with you not making any choice, and in a fight that was usually worse than making a mistake.


The older girl–not really a girl, she had to be in her mid-twenties, but she carried herself in a rather immature way–was more skilled. She was also more worrisome. She was a sociopath, plain and simple, and while that wasn’t uncommon in the Guards, it was something to take care with. The fact that her abilities were so unusual, so abstract, that I wasn’t sure I could defend myself against them didn’t help. The fact that she obviously had some issues with authority? Just took it from mildly concerning to seriously problematic.


And then there was the last girl. She stood out from the rest, in the way that a nuke stands out from conventional explosives. And, like the nuke, she was just about as dangerous to her own side as the people she was fighting. If my briefing was accurate, she’d damn near leveled St. Louis when she got out of hand with what she let in. Like the pyromancer, she didn’t have a lot of room between “useless” and “demolition crew.”


This was the group that I was supposed to build into a functioning team. This. While also coordinating with clueless government officials and presenting a positive first impression to the world at large.


After the first day of introductions, I caught myself hoping that this Winter guy really would sign on. He might be an incredibly dangerous, possibly insane mass murderer, but at least he knew what the hell he was doing.


Everything that Tokyo was, Saint Petersburg wasn’t. If Tokyo was an example of a generally successful transition to the new way of doing things, Saint Petersburg was a cautionary tale of what might happen if you got it wrong. There were heaps of garbage lying in the streets, and here and there a body. People shuffled around like zombies, so exhausted they could barely stand up, and a lot of them were injured. Almost one building in three showed dramatic structural damage, or was entirely demolished. A handful were worse than demolished, tainted or twisted in ways that were far beyond repairable.


And yet somehow, some way, this was still the good outcome. Compared to what could easily have happened there at the end, this was sunshine and roses.


I knew that damned well. I’d been there for the fight against the necromancer. If I’d ever wondered whether Watcher and her goon squad were too harsh in enforcing their bans, that had convinced me otherwise. Things like that shouldn’t exist. If that meant sometimes doing things that we’d rather not, it was worth it. As far as I was concerned, anyone who said otherwise either didn’t understand just what they were being protected from or had a vastly skewed set of priorities.


Even having won, though, the fight had consequences. You couldn’t have that much violence, that much desperation and that concentration of magical energy, without it having consequences. It attracted some nasty things, in much the same way blood in the water might draw sharks. And once they’d arrived, they gravitated to Saint Petersburg as the nearest concentration of…well, pretty much anything.


This city hadn’t been doing well before that. It hadn’t been doing terribly, but it hadn’t been doing well.


Now? It was quite a bit worse than unwell. Bad enough that there might not be much of a city left afterward, regardless of what we did to mitigate the damage.


Which was how I ended up here. There was nothing much to be done back in Colorado, not for the moment, and there was enough work here for every free hand and then some. Yesterday, I’d helped take down a gang of ghouls that was terrorizing the eastern part of the city. Today, I was going into one of those tainted buildings. An old schoolhouse that had been taken over by one of the more malevolent sorts of faerie, it had come to the local Guard’s attention when she heard reports that a group of looters had broken into it with unfortunate results.


One of the looters made it back out. I wasn’t entirely sure whether he was the lucky one or not. As I heard it, he’d torn his own eyes out trying to get away from the visions. For rather obvious reasons it was standard procedure not to go into places like that alone, she’d put out a general call for anyone willing to come and lend a hand. Nobody smart went into a place under the control of malevolent faeries without backup.


It was a long, ugly day. Some of the things I saw were…well, they’d be providing fresh material for my nightmares, for sure. Not just the violence, though there was some fairly grotesque violence in there. No, for me the worst part was the way the basic structure of the building was just…wrong. Hallways that twisted and broke, doors that opened onto walls, places you could walk in circles without ever passing the same spot twice.


That was the real reason you weren’t supposed to attack a faerie on its home ground alone. It wasn’t because they were too powerful to fight; some of them were, but there were plenty of others that a single trained mage could handle easily.


No, it was because you really didn’t want to be alone when your world started coming apart at the seams around you. I thought it was mostly in my head. I really hoped it was, because the alternative was too frightening to contemplate. But even if it was just a mind game, you really didn’t want to be alone for it. It was the equivalent of picking a fight while you were tripping balls and nothing was real. There was no way it could end well.


I wasn’t sure that thing was a faerie at all. It was a fae sort of magic, but it didn’t resemble anything that I’d seen from the Courts. Not that I’d seen more than a tiny fraction of the crazy things they had to offer.


In the end it didn’t matter much. We killed the thing, whatever it was. We killed it with extreme prejudice and the thoroughness that a lifetime fighting the freakish and inhuman will teach you. Then we demolished the building. And set the wreckage on fire, just in case.


The normals walking by didn’t ask why. Times being what they were, they probably already knew.

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Broken Mirror 13.18

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Taking a day off wasn’t like it had been. We couldn’t just be faces in the crowd, anymore. We weren’t unimportant people. When we stepped out onto the street in El Dorado, the crowd didn’t just flow around us. They stopped, and stared, and then didn’t stare so pointedly that it was somehow more pointed than the staring had been. In the domain of the sketchy alleyway, not only did no one try to mug us, but even the barkers at the dive bars and twenty-four-hour nightclubs ducked out of sight, the prospect of luring us in outweighed by the fear of what might happen once we were there. Even in the Grand Market of the Otherside, where I’d thought that literally anything could happen without anyone batting an eye, people stopped and stared and whispered.


I didn’t think they actually recognized us. Not as such. But the kind of power we were carrying around was…it had a presence to it. I remembered that very clearly, from the first time I’d met Scáthach. I hadn’t had any notion of what she was at the time, beyond “very scary.” But her significance had still been obvious; she’d seemed like she was just more than the world around her.


You don’t last long on the Otherside without learning to recognize that kind of presence, and treat it with the utmost respect. Word might not have spread that there was a new Midnight Lady, and most people wouldn’t recognize Aiko as such even if it did, but they had some idea of what they were looking at. I was sure that my presence had some degree of impact, as well–if nothing else, there weren’t a whole lot of partially-physical things walking around. And Snowflake, as usual, just looked scary.


Between the three, we were basically celebrities on the Otherside. And we were treated like it.


In its own way, that wasn’t bad. It was almost fun, in a “this is different” sort of way. But at the same time, it wasn’t really what we’d wanted, and it got old fast. So after not long at all, we ended up drifting back into the mortal world, and more specifically into Leipzig.


It was…surprisingly intact, all things considered. There was a construction crew clearing out a demolished building across the street from the alley we stepped out into, but the roads were open and functional, and the people on the streets were only slightly tense. The church near Aiko’s destination point was, seemingly, untouched by the chaos.


I wasn’t entirely sure why that was the case. It could have something to do with it being, well, a church; there were plenty of things that didn’t like holy ground. It could have something to do with protections built into the structure, since that church had been built almost a thousand years ago now–more than old enough to predate the retreat of the supernatural from daily life in Europe. Or, hell, it might just have been that nobody wanted to damage it. Nikolaikirche was a very significant location, a landmark with a lot of meaning and history behind it. It wouldn’t surprise me if, even among nonhumans, there was reluctance to damage such a cultural heritage site. Or, at least, there was reluctance among enough of them that the remainder decided to pick easier, less controversial targets.


That was one of the few bright sides of the entire world going utterly insane at once, I supposed. You didn’t have to have great defenses. Just better defenses than your neighbors.


We ended up sitting in a park not too far away, just sitting on a bench and watching the world pass around us. It was late morning, locally, but it was a weekend and it was just starting to get warm, and there were plenty of people out in the park. Snowflake, having already hunted her fill of rabbits and gotten into a really nasty fight with a pair of faerie hounds from the Daylight Court when she wandered off on her own in El Dorado, was content to doze in the sun. We could almost have been a normal family, until you looked a little closer.


In a way, we fit right in. Everything in this park looked normal and peaceful, until you looked a little closer. The numerous injuries–it seemed like half the people in sight were injured, or at the very least had freshly-healed injuries. The blank, traumatized stares. The way a lot of people were tense, jumping or going for weapons at any loud noise or sudden movement.


“Do you think things are going to go back to normal?” Aiko asked suddenly, echoing my thoughts.


I thought for a long moment, scratching Snowflake’s ears. She arched her back and pushed her head into my head with a feeling of sleepy happiness.


“Sort of,” I said at last. “Things won’t go back to the way they were. But I think they’ll settle out into a new normal state.”


“As much as things ever settle down, at least.”


“Yeah.” We just sat in the sun for a few moments in silence. Then, on impulse, I asked, “Why do the Courts keep fighting? Aodh said I should ask you.”




“Titania’s champion.”


“Ah,” she said. “We haven’t been introduced, I don’t think.”


“Well, he does work for the other side,” I said dryly. “It would be a little weird if you had been.”


Aiko snorted. “Said the guy who’s worked for how many sides now?”


“Point,” I admitted.


“Honestly, I don’t quite know yet,” she said after a moment. “I’m starting to get an idea, I think, but there’s still so much of this that’s…it’s out of my scope, you know? The obvious answer would be that having a ready-made enemy is politically convenient for the people in charge. It makes it easier to control people. But I don’t think that’s all there is to it. I think the people in charge want constant conflict, for its own sake.”


“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.


Aiko shrugged. “It makes sense to someone. Just not from our perspective.”


“But it hurts both sides. I mean, how many people died in that fight? Hundreds, at least. And that’s going on all the time.”


“How many people have died in this?” she asked quietly, gesturing vaguely at our surroundings.


“You mean since Loki’s broadcast?” I asked.




“The last count I heard was a little under four hundred million,” I said.


“That’s higher than the one I heard.”


“That was a while ago,” I said quietly. “It’s been slowing down, but…well, it’s not over.”


Aiko nodded. “That’s a lot of people,” she said. “Doesn’t seem to have bothered the major players to have kicked this off, does it?”


I stared. “That was Loki,” I said. “And the other gods, I guess. Not the Courts.”


“I’m starting to wonder whether there’s as much distinction there as I thought there was,” she said. “Not that the Courts are run by Loki and his guys; as far as I can tell, that’s not the case. But I’m starting to think that a lot of the people in charge of things are…sort of all involved with the same schemes, maybe, is how to phrase it.”


“That’s sounding uncomfortably like a conspiracy theory.”


She snorted. “Winter. Are you really in a position to say that there couldn’t be a conspiracy of insanely powerful things controlling what access the rest of the world has to information?”


“When you put it that way, maybe not,” I admitted. “It just…wow. If they’re orchestrating something like the war between the Courts behind the scenes, that’s…huge. I’m not sure I can really wrap my head around that.”


Aiko nodded. “It’s hard to conceptualize,” she said. “And something tells me it’s not the kind of thing you want to talk about much. As far as anyone else is concerned, the Courts just fight because they hate each other.”


What, we shouldn’t go talking about the massively secret conspiracy that controls every aspect of the world and goes to ridiculous lengths to keep people from knowing about it? Snowflake said. Gosh, what gave you idea?


“Don’t be a wiseass,” Aiko said. “That’s my thing. And believe me, it’s harder when you can’t tell a lie.”


“I’m amazed you can even do that, honestly.”


“It’s not as hard as you might think. Mostly you can phrase things in a way that doesn’t really have enough meaning to be a lie.” She grimaced. “It does make being a wiseass harder, though.”


Glad to know you have your priorities straight, Snowflake said. You’ve got crazy power, a role of literally cosmic importance, and a universal-scale conspiracy to deal with, and that’s fine. But not being a wiseass? Problem.


Aiko sniffed and pushed the dog with her foot. “Don’t knock my priorities,” she said. “The little things are important, too.”


I know, Snowflake said lightly. But I’ve got to start being the wiseass, since you can’t do the job anymore. Oh, and since neither of you is likely to notice at this point, it’s been a while since food. We should do something about that.


I laughed, but I didn’t argue.


A long while later, we were back in Transylvania. It was dark out, suggesting that we’d just about literally taken a full day off. It hadn’t felt nearly that long, though I didn’t think it had anything to do with time shenanigans. It was just a case of time flying.


Aiko was lying next to me, solidly asleep. She was in her human form–well, mostly human, at least–though she’d been a fox earlier. I’d been a little amused to see that she still only had two tails. Apparently whatever mechanism caused a kitsune to sprout more tails as they grew in power didn’t count the role of a Faerie Queen. It seemed quite likely that she’d keep growing as a kitsune in addition to the power she’d taken on with that title.


That thought was amusing for a few seconds, until I remembered what Kuzunoha had been capable of, and added the power of the Courts to that in my head. The result was…rather scary, really. It was entirely possible that the Midnight Court had gained a significant advantage by taking on a queen that could grow in power in her own right on top of what was granted by the role.


That was the state of things when I heard my phone chime as a message arrived. I reached out to grab it, stretching a bit to avoid moving. It felt like reaching out from under the covers into a cold room, except in reverse. I was a source of cold rather than heat, and the insulation of the blankets trapped that and held it in, leaving the rest of the room warm by comparison.


I glanced at the message, then grinned. “They found something.”


“Something useful?” Aiko asked instantly. Apparently she hadn’t quite been as sound asleep as she’d seemed. That, or she’d gotten a lot faster about waking up.


“Apparently the person providing the Lighters with those magic toys always meets them at the same island outside of Boston, and the next meeting is in about twelve hours.”


“Cool,” she said. “I’m coming.”


“You don’t need to be there.”


“I know I don’t need to,” she said. “But I’m bored, and the idea of stomping on them sounds fun. Besides, the last time these guys were around, they just about killed you. I’d rather not give them another shot at it.”


“You’ve got a point,” I admitted. “Should probably get moving, then. I’ve got a couple of things to take care of in Colorado first, and it’ll probably take a while to get out there.”


About time, Snowflake said, standing and shaking herself. Her teeth gleamed in the faint moonlight coming in the window. I’ve been waiting to sink my teeth into these bastards for a long while now. Let’s get started.


And on that slightly ominous tone, our vacation was officially over.

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Broken Mirror 13.17

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Transylvania hadn’t changed.


It was funny, the extent to which that dominated my thoughts. As Snowflake and I climbed the winding path to the castle, avoiding the booby traps with the ease of habit so ingrained that it had ceased to even be a thought, I found myself thinking that very strongly. Transylvania hadn’t changed.


Compared to the rest of the world, that was already enough to make it a very exceptional place. It had been five months, now, since Loki issued the broadcast heard round the world. In that time, the fundamental nature of the world had changed on almost every level. Nothing was the same. Nothing would ever be the same again.


But in the remote mountains of Transylvania? Here, the changes were…immaterial. There were no people here, no governments, no cities. It was just mountains, hills, and forests. They were still changeable, of course; nothing really lasts forever. But they were on a scale that didn’t even recognize the petty squabbling of humanity. They were here before people; they would be here afterward.


It was a thought I’d taken comfort in before, when the chaos first broke out. The notion that some things were stable, that there were things that wouldn’t fall apart, had been a comforting one.


Now, I still found it a comforting notion. But it was for an entirely different reason. Then, I’d been concerned about the changes in the world. Now, I was concerned about the changes in myself.


I started to unlock the massive front doors, then paused. I didn’t have keys. I’d had a set when I left, but somewhere along the way they’d gotten lost. Probably when my body was incinerated by napalm, in the first Lighter base; that seemed like the sort of thing that could do that.


It didn’t matter. The main defense here was the warding spells, and those didn’t respond to a physical object. I took them down, then popped the locks open with a quick twist of air and magic. Once inside, I activated the wards again, and locked the many locks, and then continued into the castle. I didn’t turn on the lights. I didn’t need them.


Snowflake was with me, walking at my side. I could feel her quiet happiness, the same vague comfort that I’d been feeling moments earlier. The idea that maybe, just maybe, things would be all right after all, that there was going to be something left after this chaos burned itself out. I could feel, too, her awareness of my mood, and that she was not thrilled by it, and didn’t know what to do about it.


Neither of us put words to the thoughts. There weren’t words for this.


In the lab, I did turn on the lights. I had an acute sense of darkness, along with the other sense I’d picked up, and I didn’t need light to navigate, but I wasn’t sure I was ready to trust to that for writing.


And besides. The lab was supposed to be brightly lit, the cold glare of fluorescent lights gleaming off the counters and the floor. That was…part of what made the laboratory what it was. Working there in the dark would just be weird.


“Legion,” I said, sitting down and pulling out a notebook and a pencil from one of the drawers. “Wake up.”


Nothing happened for a long moment, long enough that I was seriously wondering whether I was going to get a response. Finally, just when I was about to try something else, lights flickered on in the skeleton’s eye sockets, and thick black fog spun itself around the bones.


“Boss,” Legion said, before he’d even finished manifesting. “This is…wow. I am impressed. You’ve been all kinds of busy. Kudos.”


Great. The demonic embodiment of culling weakness was complimenting me. In case I needed another reason to feel a little bit freaked out about the turns my life had taken.

“Thanks a bunch,” I said dryly. “Now can you explain…this?” I gestured vaguely at myself.


“You’ll have to specify that one a bit, Boss,” he said. “You’ve got a lot of ‘this’ going on right now.”


“We’ll just have to go through it in order, then,” I said. “Start with the whole…not having a body thing. Fenris tried to explain what he did, but he’s not exactly great at explaining things.”


“It’s not his forte,” Legion said, though he didn’t seem happy about it. In the past, I hadn’t even been able to get the demon to say Fenris’s name, he didn’t want to talk about it so much. “What do you know?”


“He said something about having stripped me down to the essence and separated that from my body, then holding it together on its own until I didn’t need the body anymore. He said some other things, too, but that was the part I understood.”


“That’s not wrong,” Legion said after a moment. “But it is incomplete. You still have a body. It just isn’t physical.”


I frowned. “What does that even mean?”


“Essentially? You’re transitioning to a more spiritual state.”


I paused. “You mean like you,” I said. “Something that’s…more an idea than a thing.”


“Not like me, no,” he said. “But that’s as close as you’re likely to get at present. You still have enough connection to the material world that you can influence it, and you still have the same relationship to space and time. But yes, your existence is largely independent from any physical embodiment.”


“That’s why I can make these things,” I said, holding up one hand and letting the mask of flesh fade from it. Not that Legion would care; I doubted that he’d even noticed that mask. “Because I still have that connection to the physical.”


“Yep,” he agreed. “It’s a pretty sweet deal, really. You’ve got a lot of the strengths of being a physical person and a spirit.”


“Yeah,” I said sourly. “It’s just great. Okay. What happens if I’m somewhere that doesn’t have anything that I can control?”


Legion didn’t say or do anything, but I got a strong impression of frustration from the demon all the same. “This is one of those things that’s hard to convey to you,” he said. “You don’t have the right conceptual models to make sense of it.”




He sighed. “Okay, I’m going to dumb this down a lot so that you can grasp what I’m saying. No offense, but you need the help. Your question doesn’t make any sense. You can’t be somewhere that doesn’t have anything within your sphere of influence. You only exist in places that have something you can use as a connection to the physical world.”


“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said irritably. “I’ve been in places like that already. I can walk right in.”


“It’s not you doing the walking,” he said. “It’s a moving construct that happens to provide you with that conduit. Basically, that puppet is your connection.”


“Okay, that makes sense. So if it’s destroyed, and there’s nothing else for me to manifest through, I die?”


“Not as such,” Legion said. “You just don’t have a physical presence. You’ll be in a spiritual state again until you find something else that you can act through.”


I nodded. “I think that’s already happened,” I said. “It’s annoying, but not a huge problem. So what can kill me?”


“Not a whole lot,” he said cheerfully. “Like I said, it’s a pretty cushy deal. In principle, you’re susceptible to the same things as a genuine spirit. So a strong enough expression of concepts opposed to your nature could, conceivably, destroy you. Shamanic magic could also kill you. Well, alter your nature enough that you cease to be you, but from your perspective it’s basically the same. It’s possible to make a weapon that can get at you directly through that physical connection, in principle, but the energy requirements would be…fairly extreme.”


“So it’s all specialized stuff, for the most part.”


“Exactly. Not to worry, though, Boss. If anyone can manage it, it’s you.”


“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” I said dryly. “Okay. I think I’ve got a decent handle on that. About as much as I’m going to for the moment, at least. Topic two, the Courts.”


“Ah,” he said. “That.”


“Yeah. That. What does it mean to be a champion for one of them?”


Legion hesitated. “Keep in mind that this is the first time I’ve gotten to examine one in any detail, and this is a pretty complex bit of work. Way more than I can sort out in this much time. So basically everything I’ve got here is speculation.”


I nodded. “Got it. Speculate away.”


“Right then,” the demon said. “Looking at you, I don’t think you’ve actually got that much Midnight power in you. You’ve just got a connection to it.”


“What, like a pipeline?”


“Nooo,” he said slowly. “Not…as such. More like a contractual agreement. You’re entitled to draw a certain amount of power from that source. But until you do, it’s not really doing anything. It’s just sitting there as potential.”


I nodded. That fit with what I’d felt. “So if I wanted to be stronger, I’d tap that connection and channel the power into strength.”


“Seems reasonable,” he agreed. “Though it did also integrate itself into you on some level. I can see a definite Midnight signature running through you, and I’m guessing it’ll give you some kind of a boost as a constant thing. It’s just minor in comparison to what you’ve got the potential to access.”


I frowned. “So why wouldn’t I just draw on that all the time?”


“I can think of a few reasons,” Legion said. “First off, like I said, it resembles a contractual agreement. I’m not sure what the terms of that contract were, but I’d guess they don’t allow you unlimited access. Second, you aren’t king of the hill, here. You do have to answer to the Queen for what you do with her power. Not as much of an issue for you, considering, but most champions don’t happen to work for their wife. Third, the more of that power you’re channeling, the more it’ll influence you.”


“I’ve drawn on it a fair amount,” I told him. “I didn’t notice any particular influence.”


Would you? Snowflake asked. Think about it. The Midnight Court is all about violence and hunger and death. That’s…kind of a thing you already do. If it was pushing you further in that direction, would you know the difference?


I frowned and stared at her. “That is a seriously disturbing idea.”


“I think the mutt’s got the right idea,” Legion said. “I mean, the whole reason you got the job is that you’re already fairly Midnighty. It’s easy to notice that kind of influence when it tries to change you. When it makes you more of the same, it’s a lot trickier to recognize what’s happening.”


“I think I’ve got a good idea of why I got the job,” I said quietly. And I was pretty sure Legion had something to do with it, knowingly or otherwise. It fit together too well to be a coincidence.


There was no point in mentioning that, though. If he didn’t know what was going on there, he couldn’t really tell me about it. And if he did know, he wouldn’t tell me about it.


So instead, I just said, “Okay, I think those were the big two for the moment. Later I’ll want to talk about making some new foci, but that’s something I want to approach with a clear head.”


“Sure thing,” he said. “Oh, and Boss? Nice work in Philly. Knew you had it in you.”


“Thanks,” I said, standing and walking towards the door. I flipped the notebook closed on the way. I’d been taking notes, although they didn’t have a whole lot to do with what Legion had been saying. For once my conversation with the demon had been simple enough that I could keep it all straight in my head.


No, those notes were all about…significance. Drawing connections between my current situation and other information. Things I’d heard Loki say, for the most part, although there were plenty of other sources to take into consideration.


In a funny way, it felt like growing up. For most of my life, I’d been preoccupied with the immediate, with questions of who and what and how. Now, I was finally starting to look past that. I was finally starting to think about why.


All of which could wait. For the moment I could feel a…presence upstairs. The feeling was nothing I could pin down or name, but it was very much there. It wasn’t magic, exactly. It was just an awareness that I was being called.


As I’d expected, when I got up to the main hall of the castle, I found Aiko waiting for me. I noted, vaguely, that she didn’t look quite like herself. The narrow bone structure of her face was more exaggerated, the dark color of her eyes more intense, her features in general more intense and beautiful. She was still wearing casual clothing–loose green silk shirt and black silk pants, expensive as hell, but clothing that she’d worn back when she was just a kitsune. Her hair was cropped unevenly just above her ears and dyed with highlights of deep, rich red.


It was almost like looking at a fusion of Aiko and Scáthach–the general look and style of Aiko, but refined, elevated, and made inhuman. Which made sense, I supposed. In a way, that was what she was. She was still Aiko, but only a fool would try to argue that taking on the role of a Faerie Queen hadn’t changed her.


“Hey,” she said, scratching Snowflake’s ears. “How’s it going?”


“Fairly well,” I said. “Think I’ve got the information I need to track down the people who’ve been using the Lighters.”


“Lighters?” she asked curiously.


“Oh, right,” I said. “Apparently that nutty human supremacist group calls itself the Light of Reason. Thus, Lighters.”


“Nice,” she said. “Okay, you’ve just about got them?”


“Hoping so. I’ve got minions going through their servers now. I’m hoping they’ll be able to track down Jason with what they find there. I owe him one.”


“You and me both,” Aiko said darkly. “When you do find him, call me. I want to take him down in person.”


“I was planning on it,” I said. “Speaking of, how’s it going for you?”


She shrugged loosely. “Not bad. Ran into some trouble with people thinking the rules I set didn’t apply to them. I’m getting bored of this, so I decided to make a bit of a demonstration of showing them they were wrong. I think the people who’ve been causing problems got the picture this time.”


“You think this is the last time you’ll have to deal with this?”


“Nah,” she said, with total confidence. “There’ll always be people causing trouble. We’re talking about the fae; it’s like herding cats, but worse. But I think after this it’ll be about the same degree of trouble that anyone in the Courts has to expect.”


“That’s something, anyway.”


“Yep,” she agreed. “Anyway, I thought the best thing to do was give them some time to think things through, and I knew you were here. So I thought I’d see if you want to take a day off.”


I shrugged. “Sure. There are things I should do back in Colorado, but nothing that can’t wait for a day.”


Lovely, Snowflake said. I’ll be out hunting rabbits. Try to leave the castle standing.

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Broken Mirror 13.16

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I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever had a plan go this smoothly before, ever. It was kind of worrying, really. I was not a lucky man. If things went well now, that just meant that I was freaking out about what would happen when they inevitably went back to their usual state of barely-controlled disaster.


For the moment, though, I could ride out the high while it lasted. The warehouses had been captured in less than two minutes, without even alerting the complex security. The occupants of a third warehouse, which hadn’t had any dogs and had thus escaped my detection, tried to run. With people watching from every angle, they hadn’t had a chance of getting away clean. The snipers had kept eyes on them the whole time, and after they made it out of sight of the complex the werewolves on the ground had taken them. No one made it through the net.


Since we had the luxury of time, for once, I brought the experts to the information rather than the other way around. It seemed like the more logical answer; I wasn’t as out of touch with technology as a lot of the older supernatural things out there, but I’d never had any need to work with a server farm. I had no idea how to move it without causing damage, and I did not want to lose any of the data on those computers.


I couldn’t reliably open a portal to Philadelphia, and it would take me a few hours to get that well-acquainted with a spot in the city even if I felt like going to the effort. So I took the mundane route instead, and had Selene charter a plane.


Or, rather, that’s what I’d planned. It turned out not to be necessary. Apparently, one of the things that I’d acquired from my association with the Midnight Court was a private jet, complete with crew on retainer. So I didn’t have to charter a plane. I already owned one.


That was…well, it was another of those moments when I felt like my understanding of the world was changed on a fundamental level. I’d known that the Faerie Courts had an immense amount of money, enough that the actual number was immaterial. But this really put that into perspective. It also made me wonder just how much of the wealth in the “normal” world was really controlled by supernatural interests. I mean, I’d known that Zhang’s smuggling ring had been worth billions, and there were plenty of other individuals that had finances on the scale of major corporations.


It also gave me a much better idea of why someone might be inclined to take a job as the champion of a Faerie Queen. Buying a plane like that was…it must cost tens of millions, at least. And for me it was a casual perk of the job, not even worth mentioning. For most of my life, that had been more money than I’d ever had, all put together.


I’d never thought of myself as a particularly materialistic person. And I could still see how that kind of thing could make one hell of a tempting offer. Sure, it was guaranteed to end badly, but when you’re on your third week of living on ramen and peanut butter, that starts to seem like a fair trade.


It took a few hours for them to get there, though, during which time the last few loose ends of the operation were tidied up. Under cover of a darkness that I made just a bit deeper than nighttime in a quiet part of the city, we dragged all the prisoners into one building and made sure that their bonds really were secure. Kyi personally searched all of them, which took a while–between the two buildings and those the werewolves brought down outside, we had almost fifty of them.


They probably should have been able to attract notice, since even with their mouths taped shut, fifty people can make a fair amount of noise. But the warehouse was fairly well insulated, and given what kinds of activities the Light of Reason got up to, I was guessing that muffled sounds of fear emanating from these buildings was not a terribly unusual event. Not to mention that they were surrounded by the bodies of their former associates, which tends to lend a certain credibility to threats of death for making too much noise. Between the three, I was not expecting them to bring security down on us.


Antonio was already gone by that time, of course. Once all the prisoners were present and restrained, Elijah shook my hand, congratulated me on a job well done, and left as well, taking his wolves with him. They took the dogs, as well, saying that they knew an animal shelter that would know what to do with them. Something about having someone there who was really good with animals that had been involved in violence. I was just glad not to have to kill them.


I thought that Antonio didn’t entirely approve of the crowd of restrained prisoners on the floor. I couldn’t really blame him. Werewolves tend to be violent–it goes hand-in-hand with their predatory nature. But at the same time, the hunt is quick, and clean. A werewolf’s victims don’t, generally, linger long. I could see how Elijah could disapprove of this without really being a hypocrite.


I wasn’t entirely sure I approved myself. But the stakes were too high to be squeamish about this.


After they were gone, things got a little more relaxed. I had people watching the empty warehouses to make sure that nothing went wrong, but that didn’t take all that many people, and the rest had nothing in particular to do at the moment.


The jötnar passed the time in ways that were fairly similar to what humans might have done. Some of them had brought flasks, and some others had brought dice. They appropriated one of the tables, and sat around drinking, gambling, and conversing quietly.


The ghouls, on the other hand, were…well, ghouls. Aside from their ability to create a humanlike mask over their true features, they weren’t really much like humans. For one thing, they were always hungry. And there was plenty of meat lying around. The results were entirely predictable, and somewhat messy.


I noticed that that upset the Lighters, in some cases seemingly more than the actual deaths. I didn’t have that response, myself. I was enough of a werewolf that the idea of eating my kill wasn’t really a taboo. If anything, it meant that there was less flesh to dispose of later. It was convenient.


For my part, I just stood and waited. I spent a while considering plans for magical items that might be more useful to me in my current state, and almost got out a piece of paper to start writing out formulae and schematics. But ultimately, that just didn’t fit the image well enough. The jarl as a cold, distant figure that didn’t require diversion was better than the jarl as a distractible nerd. Particularly given that I would almost certainly make a lot of errors in the first draft, and there was an outside chance that someone would notice. That was something I wanted to avoid.


So I stood apart, and just…waited. It wasn’t as hard as I would have guessed. I didn’t get tired anymore. I still felt a need to fidget, to pace, but it was entirely mental, and relatively easy to suppress. I got bored, but I didn’t show it outwardly.


Finally, a little less than four hours after I’d made the phone call, the specialists arrived. It seemed awkward to try and smuggle all of them and their equipment in, so we’d gone for a more direct approach. As far as security was concerned, they were from a local tech support company, here to do some work for the Lighters.


I’d been concerned that I might have to buy a company, to sell the story. I’d already spent a lot of money on this, and while I had the funds, I didn’t for an instant think that I could spend them like that without it having consequences. That wasn’t how the world worked. Fortunately, one of the companies Antonio’s pack operated was in that business, and he was willing to let me borrow some of their accoutrements.


As expected, the security guard wasn’t about to accept their story at face value. She called for confirmation; one of the jötnar I didn’t know very well answered the phone, and did a remarkably good job of sounding bored. Hell, he probably was bored; waiting on specialists for hours was, as it turned out, not a bad thing when it came to pretending to be a bored receptionist at the end of your shift.


I tugged the borrowed–well, stolen, but it wasn’t like they were going to miss it–clothes on, and checked my face in the mirror one more time before leaving. It hadn’t quite occurred to me, until about an hour into the wait, that being able to shape my features out of ice and magic could probably make a much more effective disguise than I was used to having.


It hadn’t been easy. I’d lived in my old body for a long time, after all; even when I was building myself a new one, I automatically, instinctively made it resemble the one I was used to. But I had plenty of time to work. The result was…well, not that great, honestly. But serviceable.


The vans, with the company logo prominently displayed on the side, were stopped at the security gate. The guard and the driver of the lead van were both standing around, looking bored. Boredom, really, seemed to be the order of the day.


The guard looked at me as I walked up with, if not quite recognition, at least a certain degree of familiarity. “These the guys you’re looking for?” she asked.


“Yeah, that’s them,” I said, then coughed. The cough came out sounding a bit wrong, almost tinny, but not so much so that it would be obviously unnatural. And if, by some incredibly unlikely sequence of coincidences, she happened to be familiar with the guy I was imitating and my voice sounded noticeably wrong for him, a sore throat could explain a lot.


I’d had way too much time to think about this plan.


“Huh,” she said. “What do you need them for?”


“If I knew that, I wouldn’t need them,” I said, letting a bit of my exasperation leak into my voice. “It’s all buttons and lights to me.”


She should probably have asked to see pressed for details, or at the very least asked to see my identification.


But it was almost midnight, and she’d been on the clock for nine hours. So while she knew that there was something suspicious about this, and that she was really supposed to follow some fairly strict security protocols, in that moment she was bored and she was tired and she didn’t want the hassle. So she hit the button, and the gate slid open, and the van drove through.


I was almost disgusted. The whole thing was so…easy. It shouldn’t be that easy.


I got into the vans, ostensibly because I didn’t feel like walking. In reality, it had more to do with the driver having no idea where he was supposed to go, and it being easier to give him directions without anyone knowing when I was in the van with him.


I didn’t help them carry the boxes and bags of equipment in. Menial did not fit the image I was trying to cultivate, here.


There were some gasps when they saw the inside of the warehouse. One woman even screamed, though I was quick enough to cover her mouth before she got out more than a quick yelp–easily explained as the result of having dropped a box on her toe.


“What’s the problem?” I asked, a little annoyed.


Greg cleared his throat. “Um,” he said. “There are, um. A lot of dead people here?” His voice was a little shaky.


“Oh,” I said, as understanding dawned. “Right. Sorry, forgot you guys are civilians. There should be clear space to work.”


“That doesn’t explain why there are a lot of dead people in here,” one of the other technicians said. He sounded a little hysterical, and I thought the only reason he hadn’t also been screaming was that I’d acted before he could process the scene. “And holy shit, what’s with the people on the floor?”


“Don’t worry about that,” I said. “They won’t get in your way.”


I saw that this wasn’t helping, and sighed. “Look,” I said. “You knew when you took this job that you might see some things of…dubious legality. And some things that you don’t like. We were very clear about that.”


“Well, yeah, but I was expecting corporate espionage or something,” the hysterical guy said. “Not a fucking massacre!”


“Nobody’s asking you to kill people, Jim,” Greg said with what was obviously forced calm. “And I’m guessing nobody’s going to find the bodies, either?”


“No,” I confirmed. “I’ll bring out some people to clean things up after you’re done here. They’re very good at their jobs.”


“See?” Greg said. “We’ll be fine. Just do your job and we can all go home as wealthy men.”


The woman who’d screamed earlier cleared her throat pointedly. After that initial yelp, she’d adjusted rapidly; she seemed less freaked out than the majority of them.


“And wealthy women, of course,” Greg said. “But the point still stands.”


“I don’t know,” Jim said, hesitating. “I’m…not sure I can do this.”


“If you don’t feel you can continue to work for me, you can leave now, no questions asked,” I said. “You’ll be compensated for your time, and I’ll arrange for transportation back to Colorado. I do, however, require that you keep the nondisclosure agreement that you signed as a part of your contracts. Otherwise, there will be consequences.”


I didn’t make a threat out of it. I figured that a couple dozen bodies would do that job better than I could anyway.


“I don’t know,” Jim said. He sounded uncertain.


“Just think of the paycheck,” Greg said enticingly. “We’re talking about a lot of money here, Jim. You could finally pay off that mortgage. And besides, you’ve read the files on these people. You saw some of the pictures. Are you really going to miss them?”


You know, Snowflake commented from her spot curled up on the floor, I’m not entirely sure I like how good he is at this. He’s playing that guy like a fiddle.


Yeah, I said. I’m not thrilled by that myself. Though he is at least using it in my favor.


Sure enough, Jim was visibly on the fence already. He knew he should leave. He knew it was the better idea, that getting involved in this would end badly. But the reward was so tempting, and then the prospect of annoying me was scary.


I was reminded of my earlier thoughts about what might convince someone to take on the role of champion. In a way, on a much smaller scale, this was the same. Money and protection as the carrot, the fear of me as the stick, and something that was unthinkable starts to seem like a pretty reasonable option.


Finally, after maybe ten seconds of agonized silence, he caved. “All right,” he said. “I’ll do it. Just…this had better work.”


A couple of other people had looked like they were also on the fence. But when Jim said that, they wilted. I looked at each of the techs in turn, and none of them said a word.


“All right then,” I said. “The computers are back there. There are two other warehouses to go through; I don’t know how you want to go about it, but I’ll trust that you know what you’re doing here. I’ll leave some of the troops in case things go wrong. They’ll do what you tell them so you can do your job, within reason. Kindly return the favor if a fight starts. Other than that, you know what to do, and you know how to contact me if you find something or if a problem comes up. Questions?”


“Don’t think so,” Greg said. Nobody spoke up to contradict him.


“Great,” I said. “Kyi, help me get these guys ready for transport. Want to get them back to Colorado so you guys can start getting information out of them.”


The housecarl started to stand, then paused. “How are we supposed to do that?”


“You’ve got Vigdis, Selene, Aubrey, and a whole bunch of ghouls,” I said, somewhat irritably. “Between them, one of those approaches ought to work. You’ve got enough people to practice on, you can figure it out.”


The people in question looked more than a little nervous when they heard that. Kyi’s lips twitched slightly. “Yes, jarl,” she said, nodding. “Where will you be?”


“I’m going home for a while,” I said. “It feels like it’s been forever since I was home.”

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Filed under Uncategorized

Interlude 13.a: Guard Classification System

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Rating Scale

Threat level: Meaning:
1 The talent in question poses relatively little threat. In an encounter in which this talent played a role, a normal civilian could reasonably expect to survive. A single trained operative should be able to handle the situation without specialized tactics. Abilities are not assumed to be a threat requiring special handling.


2 Use of this ability poses a threat to civilians. A trained, equipped, or lucky civilian may be able to deal with the threat, but not without risk or injury. Standard countermeasures may be employed but are not considered critical. A group of trained operatives can handle the situation with relatively low risk.


3 Civilians cannot reasonably expect to deal with the threat. Standard countermeasures should be employed in order to maintain reasonable safety. Civilians may be evacuated, but this is not considered a priority. A team of operatives should be able to handle the threat, but complications may arise and there is a non-negligible risk to operatives.


4 Civilians should be evacuated from the area, but this is not considered critical. Standard countermeasures must be employed and specific intelligence may be warranted. While a single team of operatives may be able to handle the threat, details of the ability in question and the context may present complications. There is a considerable risk of injury or death if standard procedures are not followed or unexpected complications arise.


5 Advanced countermeasures should be employed. Civilians must be evacuated from the immediate area, and larger scale evacuation may be considered. In order to maintain reasonable safety, the involvement of allied transhuman talent should be considered. Trained operatives can engage without assistance, but should treat situation with caution and attempt to engage defensively.


6 Advanced countermeasures must be employed. Operatives should postpone engagement until specific intelligence is acquired or assistance is available. The involvement of at least one transhuman is likely to be necessary. The use of heavy weaponry may be considered. Acquisition of specific intelligence is strongly recommended but not considered critical. All operatives should assume that complications may arise which prevent traditional or standard tactics from operating.


7 Evacuation of the threatened area is a priority. Operatives should engage defensively and focus on evacuation. Multiple transhuman talents are likely to be required to engage the threat. Acquisition of specific intelligence is considered a priority; all assets should delay engagement until intelligence is acquired if at all possible. Assume that complications will arise which prevent traditional or standard tactics from operating.


8 Extreme countermeasures should be employed. Evacuation of the threatened area is a top priority. Operatives should avoid engaging if at all possible. Transhumans should engage only under controlled circumstances, in groups of at least three and with support from at least two teams of operatives. Use of heavy weapons is encouraged, and use of weapons and tactics involving collateral damage should be considered.


9 Extreme countermeasures must be employed. Evacuation of the threatened area is a top priority. Engagement should be avoided if possible. Transhumans and operatives should focus on evacuation and containment. Collateral damage is likely to inevitable. Use of weapons and tactics involving moderate to severe collateral damage is authorized.


10+ The focus at this level is on minimizing the damage inflicted, not preventing it. All operatives should avoid engagement. Civilians in affected area should be evacuated if possible but may be considered collateral damage if necessary. In the event of a serious conflict all operatives should attempt to contain the threat until numerous or highly ranked support arrives.


Classifications and Countermeasures


Priority 1: Seer, Master, Sector, Maker (active)

Priority 2: Shadow, Wall, Veto, Mover

Priority 3: Cannon, Shifter, Blade, Maker (inactive), Tank




Blade-class powers exert an effect at close proximity. This may require the blade to touch a target, or it may resemble a cannon-class power with a very short range. These effects are not always directly harmful, but are in some way deleterious.

Tactics: Blade-class threats can inflict serious harm, but require close proximity to their targets. As a consequence, all efforts should be made to remain at a distance from the threat. Limiting the threat’s mobility is a high priority. Containment measures are a priority. Efforts should be made to move the fight to an open area. Observation of the threat to ensure that distance is maintained should be considered.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of blade classification. Efforts should be made to engage from range and maintain a minimum safe distance. Containment measures should be attempted.

Advanced countermeasures: Maintaining safe distance is a priority. Containment is a high priority. Observation of the threat is a priority. Direct confrontation is considered undesirable, and distraction tactics are preferred. Operatives are advised to alternate fire, preventing the threat from focusing on any one team. Transhumans are advised that sustained exposure to the threat may be debilitating or lethal, and are advised to maintain a safe distance.

Extreme countermeasures: All operatives should evacuate the immediate vicinity of the threat. Containment is a maximum priority. Distraction tactics and guerilla attacks are highly advised. Transhumans are advised that instantaneous exposure to the threat may be debilitating or lethal.


Cannon-class powers are focused on long-range offense. Transhumans with these abilities tend to excel at inflicting damage at long range. This may be through either direct attacks or the use of grenades or similar projectiles. Effects of attacks are not necessarily lethal or directly harmful, but cause some deleterious effect.

Tactics: Cannons should be treated as artillery units. Efforts should be made to close with the target, and controlling mobility is a priority. Against low-ranking cannons cover is considered a priority; at higher levels, it is assumed that cover will not provide adequate protection against attacks, and evasion is considered more important.

Standard countermeasures: Operatives are notified of cannon status and advised to seek cover when possible. Suppression is desirable but not necessary. Frequent updates regarding likely direction and range of fire are encouraged.

Advanced countermeasures: Resources are to be deployed to distract and suppress the cannon. Direct confrontation is considered undesirable, and distraction tactics are preferred. Operatives are advised to alternate fire, preventing the cannon from targeting any individual team. Transhumans are advised that sustained fire from the cannon is likely to cause harm, and evasion is prioritized. Evacuation of the target’s threatened area is prioritized.

Extreme countermeasures: Evacuation of threatened area is highly prioritized. Operatives are advised that cover will not provide protection. Transhumans are advised that even momentary fire from the cannon is likely to cause harm or death, and evasion is a maximum priority. Distraction and containment are prioritized. The use of large scale weapons may be authorized.


Maker-class powers focus on the production, alteration, or enhancement of physical objects. This may involve the creation of new materials, or it may involve radical adjustment or augmentation of existing items. Where possible, the specialty of the maker and any additional classifications which it enables should be appended to the classification number (e.g., Maker 4 (explosives): Cannon 3, Sector 3).

Tactics: Removing the threat’s equipment is a high priority. Isolation from teammates is a high priority. Maker-class threats are capable of producing new weapons and protections, often in relatively little time. Thus, the rapid removal of the threat may be prioritized.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the maker classification. Distraction and containment of the threat is a priority. If the threat is disarmed, it is assumed to be a relatively low priority.

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the maker classification and specialties. Isolation and disarmament is a priority. Distraction is a high priority. Containment is advised but may not be possible. Efforts should be made to keep the maker under observation. If observation suggests that the maker may be producing or modifying a device, prevention becomes a high priority.

Extreme countermeasures: All operatives should assume that the maker possesses abilities and devices which are unknown and present an extreme threat. Isolation and distraction is a maximum priority. Makers should be contacted and all efforts should be made to gain intelligence regarding the threat. Large-scale weapons may be authorized.


Master-class powers focus on controlling other entities. This may take the form of seizing control of existing entities, or it may involve animating or creating entirely artificial beings. In either case, control may be exerted at various levels, ranging from mild influence to complete domination.

Tactics: Isolation from controlled entities should be considered a maximum priority. Master threats typically become increasingly dangerous as additional controlled entities are created or suborned; thus, rapid removal from the fight is a high priority. Transhumans which may be susceptible to control should not be deployed if at all possible. If the threat is capable of controlling humans, password protocols should be implemented and all operatives should be in constant communication.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of master classification. Isolation and rapid removal of the threat is prioritized. Password and observation protocols should be implemented if the threat can control humans (see Shadow heading for details).

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised of master classification and details. Long-range tactics are advised. If controlled entities are nonhuman, lethal munitions are authorized and advised. Isolation and rapid removal is a high priority. Any operative who ceases communication, even temporarily, or who fails a password check should be detained and removed from the area. Failure to comply with this directive should be met with any necessary measure, up to and including lethal force.

Extreme countermeasures: All operatives which may be susceptible to control must be evacuated. All parties which have come into contact with the threat, including civilians, should be detained for observation. Use of large-scale weapons may be authorized.


Mover-class powers are focused on mobility. Those with this classification have the ability to move themselves or others at high speeds or through atypical means. This may include the use of flight, teleportation, enhanced speed, exceptionally capable vehicles, or other means of transportation. Where possible, the nature of the movement should be appended to the classification and rank, e.g., Mover 3 (flight).

Tactics: Limiting mobility is a high priority. Depending upon secondary powers and additional classifications, the objective may be to maintain a safe distance or to maintain close-range pressure upon the threat. If the mover has the ability to affect others, isolation from teammates is a priority.

Standard countermeasures: Operatives are advised of the mover’s classification and general capabilities. Efforts should be made to isolate and limit mobility of the mover. Depending upon the means of movement, containment measures may be advised (e.g., nets, enclosures).

Advanced countermeasures: Attacks should be targeted at less mobile objectives (e.g., specific areas, less mobile teammates) in order to limit the utility of the mover’s powers. Isolation may be prioritized. Any effective containment measures are advised.

Extreme countermeasures: Assume that containment is impossible. Large-scale evacuation may be considered. Nearby targets are warned that the threat may be incoming. Targeting stationary objectives may be the only way to reliably limit the threat’s movement.


Sector-class powers focus on area denial and battlefield control. Powers in this category subject large areas to ongoing effects. Effects may not be directly harmful but in some way impair or threaten those in the area of effect.

Tactics: Most sector threats increase in effect over time. Thus, eliminating the threat quickly to limit the degree of control the sector exerts over the battlefield is a high priority. Operatives should attempt to engage at range and avoid entering the threat’s area of influence. Operatives should avoid clustering. Isolation from teammates is a priority. Multiple sector-class powers interacting in a single area is a serious threat and all efforts should be made to prevent this from occurring.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the sector classification and the specific effects which are produced. Mobility is a priority and efforts should be made to move the battlefield regularly to delay and limit the sector’s control over the arena.

Advanced countermeasures: Evacuation of the threatened area is a priority. Mobility is a high priority. Cover, environmental conditions, and situational advantages should not be assumed to be reliable. All operatives must be deployed singly or in small groups. Heavy weapons are authorized.

Extreme countermeasures: Evacuation of the area is a top priority. Long-range attacks are essential and large-scale weapons may be authorized. Collateral damage should be assumed to be inevitable.


Seer-class powers focus on gaining, analyzing, and using information. This may take the form of enhanced senses, clairvoyance, telepathy, or functional precognition. Abilities often include the ability to process and act on information at a preternatural level or speed.

Tactics: Seer-class threats are dangerous primarily as a result of the information which they can provide to more offensively-capable teammates. As such, rapid isolation of the seer is a maximum priority. All operatives should assume that ambushes, deceptions, and surprise attacks will not be effective against the threat.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives notified of seer classification. Isolation is a high priority. Efforts should be made to limit the information available to the threat. This may include sensory disruption or encrypted communications.

Advanced countermeasures: Isolation is a top priority. Efforts to limit the seer’s access to information are a high priority. In the case of seers who function via enhanced senses, this may take the form of flashbang grenades, removal of light sources, or other means of sensory deprivation and/or overload. In the case of seers who function via telepathy, it may be necessary to limit communications to and between operatives. It should be assumed that password protocols are not functional.

Extreme countermeasures: Isolation and containment are maximum priorities. All efforts should be made to limit the ability of the threat to communicate. All operatives should avoid any communication with the seer. All parties which have come into contact with the threat must be detained for observation. Any action which may limit the ability of the seer to gain information should be considered, although it should be assumed that the seer can work around such efforts. It should be assumed that password protocols and encrypted communications are compromised, and that facilities are not secure.


Shadow-class powers are suited primarily to infiltration, stealth, or subterfuge. Common abilities in this classification include an ability to avoid detection, limit senses or perceptions, or bypass common security measures.

Tactics: Password and observation protocols should be implemented.

Password protocol: Any communication between operatives, or between operatives and command, should be preceded with a password. Passwords must not be reused. If possible, no single operative should know any more about another operative’s passwords than is strictly necessary. This may require all communications between operatives to be mediated by command. Any failure to provide a valid password should be considered an indication that the operative in question is compromised. In the event that an operative is considered compromised, that operative should immediately be removed from the field and placed under observation.

Observation protocol: The threat must be under constant observation by at least two sources if at all possible. Additionally, each operative must be under observation by at least one source at all times. Any operative who goes dark is considered compromised and must verify identity with password system. All operatives must be in constant communication with each other unless team has been placed under a no-communication order. Regardless, all operatives must be in constant communication with command. Any lapse in communication is cause to consider an operative compromised.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of shadow classification. Password and observation protocols are implemented. The threat should be kept under observation. Containment is prioritized. Areas should be secured to prevent infiltration.

Advanced countermeasures: High-level password and observation protocols are implemented. Operatives do not communicate directly; all communications are routed through command, using password protocols. Containment is assumed to be impossible. Nonlethal traps should be placed in low-traffic areas. All evacuated civilians must be detained and placed under observation. Indiscriminate fire may be authorized.

Extreme countermeasures: Nonlethal traps should be placed in all areas. Lethal traps may be placed in low-traffic areas. Operatives should not be informed of trap locations. Operatives should fire nonlethal weapons indiscriminately. Indiscriminate fire with lethal weapons may be authorized. Large-scale weapons may be authorized. Any operative who is considered compromised, even momentarily, should be immediately detained and placed under observation. Failure to comply should be treated with any measures necessary, up to and including lethal force. Password system should be assumed to be compromised. No facility should be presumed to be secure.


Shifter-class powers focus on altering the body of the transhuman in question. This may involve fully changing their physical conformation (e.g., lycanthropes), or may involve partial or nonvisible alterations. These powers may sometimes extend to altering other individuals, but such abilities are typically listed as master-class. The specific alterations performed may qualify the individual for other classifications; if so, these numbers should be appended (e.g., Shifter 5: Tank 3, Blade 2).

Tactics: Intelligence regarding the limits and details of the threat is a priority, as different shifters have radically different abilities. Identifying the range of alternate forms the threat can assume is of critical importance. If the threat can assume alternate human forms, implementation of password and observation protocols should be implemented (see Shadow heading for details). If possible, the threat should be engaged from surprise, and neutralized before the shifter can assume a combat-capable form.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of shifter classification. Password and observation protocols may be implemented. All operatives are advised to maintain distance if possible. Containment and limiting mobility are prioritized. Threat should be assumed to be armed and dangerous under all circumstances. In a mixed group, the threat is considered a low priority.

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised that the threat may present unanticipated abilities without warning. Attacks targeting the physiology of the target (e.g., drugs, gas agents, electricity) should be assumed to be of minimal or nonexistent utility. Focused fire is advised. If possible numerous forms of attack should be used, in order to prevent the target from adapting.

Extreme countermeasures: All operatives are advised that the threat will present unanticipated abilities without warning. Containment is highly prioritized, but standard measures are assumed to be nonfunctional. The implementation of standard countermeasures should be considered for all classifications. Heavy weapons are authorized and recommended. Large-scale weapons may be considered.


Tank-class powers enable the threat to withstand more damage than would be expected. This may be through the use of protections which enable the threat to avoid injury (e.g., armor, kinetic barriers) or through accelerated healing or regeneration (e.g., lycanthropes).

Tactics: Tanks are relatively low-threat and are not highly prioritized. Containment is considered more valuable than direct attacks, and should be prioritized where possible. Where secondary abilities and other classifications make the tank a greater threat, focused fire and containment should be considered a priority.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the tank classification. Containment measures are advised. Where containment is impossible, evacuation of the area should be considered. All operatives are advised that the tank may recover from incapacitating damage very quickly; immediate confinement is advised where possible.

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised that sporadic fire is not likely to be effective. Coordinated, focused fire is advised. Lethal munitions and heavy weapons are authorized. Evacuation of the area is a priority. Efforts should be made to restrict violence to open areas where possible in order to limit collateral damage. Containment measures should be considered but are assumed to be of limited effectiveness.

Extreme countermeasures: Evacuation of the area is considered a top priority. Concentrated fire from multiple sources, including multiple transhuman abilities, is advised. Mobility is a priority. The use of large-scale weapons is authorized.


Veto-class powers interact with other powers. This may involve limiting the functionality of other transhumans, preventing others from accessing or effectively using their abilities, or increasing the effectiveness of other transhuman powers. Veto-class powers do not interact measurably with ordinary humans.

Tactics: Veto-class threats vary widely in their role on a battlefield. Depending upon the specific power in question, they may increase the effectiveness of teammates or decrease that of enemies. In either case, they are considered a power multiplier, and isolation from teammates is considered a priority. Where possible, transhuman operatives should not engage.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of veto classification. Transhuman operatives are discouraged from engaging. Isolation from teammates is advised. Containment and limiting mobility are prioritized.

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised of veto classification and details. Transhumans are strongly discouraged from engaging. Isolation is prioritized. All operatives are advised that the threat may present unanticipated abilities without warning.

Extreme countermeasures: All transhumans must be evacuated from the area. Isolation from teammates is a high priority. All operatives are advised that the threat will present unanticipated abilities without warning. Preventing interaction with other transhumans is considered a maximum priority.


Wall-class powers focus on preventing damage to themselves or others. This may involve protection from physical harm, as with a kinetic barrier, or preventing other powers from having a harmful effect, such as by limiting the effectiveness of mental influences. Wall-class powers have a considerable overlap with other classifications; where the only application of a power falls under the wall classification, other classifications should not be used.

Tactics: Sporadic fire is unlikely to be effective. While wall-class powers can vary widely, it should be assumed that the threat can limit the effectiveness of a wide variety of tactics. The wall may be able to provide protection to allies; if so, isolation and rapid removal of the threat is a priority. Containment is generally more effective than direct attacks.

Standard countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the wall classification. Isolation and containment are prioritized. The threat is not considered a high priority.

Advanced countermeasures: All operatives are advised of the wall classification and details. Isolation and containment are highly prioritized. Lethal munitions may be authorized. Heavy weaponry may be authorized. All operatives are advised that sporadic fire is unlikely to be effective; coordinated, concentrated fire is advised. Efforts should be made to move violence to open areas in order to limit collateral damage.

Extreme countermeasures: Isolation and containment are highly prioritized. Lethal munitions and heavy weaponry are authorized and recommended. Large-scale weapons may be authorized. All operatives are advised that sporadic fire will not be effective and that concentrated fire will likely be of limited utility against any and all threats. Coordinated fire with heavy weaponry is recommended. Collateral damage is assumed to be inevitable.


Interactions and Synergy

Powers may interact to produce a result which is considerably more dangerous than either individual power, or which otherwise requires special consideration. While the variety of transhumans known to exist is such that cataloguing every possible interaction is impossible, some broad classifications are observed in conjunction often enough to merit countermeasures of their own.


Blade- and cannon-class powers are both primarily offensive, but differ in focus. Blade-class powers are functional at limited ranges, while cannon-class powers are not limited in this way. As such, standard countermeasures are contradictory and cannot be used without modification.

Tactics: Threat is treated primarily as a cannon-class threat unless the blade classification is considerably higher. Efforts should be made to engage in range, using distraction tactics and dispersed forces as usual against a cannon-class threat. Evacuation should be prioritized, and large-scale weapons should be considered.

Threat is considered Priority 2.


Blade-class powers can cause considerable damage at close proximity, while mover-class powers focus on heightening mobility. As such, this combination of abilities can enable a threat to cause a large amount of destruction very quickly. The primary concerns with blade-class threats are containment and limiting mobility, both of which are typically impossible for threats exhibiting mover-class powers. Thus, threats exhibiting this combination of powers are not amenable to standard countermeasures.

Tactics: All efforts should be made to engage at range, and if possible the threat should be neutralized before it can react. Distraction is considered a high priority, and all efforts should be made to prevent the threat from focusing on a single target. Evacuation should be considered, but collateral damage is likely inevitable. Any countermeasure which may negate mobility should be considered.

Threat is considered Priority 1.


Master-class powers act to create or control other entities, and are dangerous primarily due to the actions of these secondary entities. Wall-class powers often enable to these created or controlled entities to ignore attacks in one way or another, making them considerably more dangerous. This also makes the standard approach of eliminating secondary entities as rapidly as possible less viable.

Tactics: Rapid elimination of the threat should be considered a priority. Secondary entities should not be targeted unless absolutely necessary. Identification and exploitation of any vulnerability in the wall-power coverage should be considered a priority.

Threat is considered Priority 1.

Shadow/Blade or Cannon

Shadow-class powers generally make a threat difficult or impossible to track or localize precisely. This, in turn, makes the usual countermeasures for a blade- or cannon-class threat difficult or impossible to implement, as it is effectively impossible to precisely control distance from a threat when its location is unknown.

Tactics: Efforts to maintain constant awareness of the threat’s location and likely targets should be considered a maximum priority. Large-scale evacuation should be considered even at relatively low threat classifications. Large-scale weapons and indiscriminate fire should be considered if localizing the threat is impossible.

Threat is considered Priority 1.

Tank/Priority 1 Classification

Priority 1 classifications (Master, Sector, Seer, active Makers, and some combined or unusual classifications) are considered to be of the highest priority when implementing countermeasures, as they can increase the danger posed by other threats or otherwise rapidly alter the nature of the combat if given the opportunity. A tank-class threat, however, is by some means resistant to damage, and generally assumed to be impossible to neutralize rapidly. This makes the standard rapid removal tactics deployed against most Priority 1 targets ineffective.

Tactics: Threat should be assumed to be effectively impossible to neutralize rapidly, and efforts should focus primarily on containment and evacuation. Weak points other than the tank-class threat should be targeted if possible (e.g., lines of communication for a Seer, materials for a Maker, etc.) Identification and exploitation of any weaknesses in the tank power should be considered a priority.

Threat is considered Priority 2.

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Broken Mirror 13.15

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I’d seen a lot of warehouse complexes while doing this sort of work. They had a lot of qualities that made them appealing to the aspiring evil overlord; they were cheap and easy to rent, had a lot of open space, and it was much less likely that your unsavory activities would attract attention than in, say, your average residential neighborhood.


It was no wonder that I’d seen so many, really. And by now, I’d seen enough to be something of a connoisseur.


I had not, however, seen one quite like what the Lighters had taken over. It was a gated complex, with the actual warehouses behind a concrete wall. I hadn’t seen a similar layout in the past, though I wasn’t sure whether that was just because I was used to a more low-brow sort of warehouse or this was genuinely unusual.


By the time I showed up, the werewolves had already installed themselves around the district. They were loitering in nearby streets pretending to be dogs, eating in cafes, in one case even standing next to a stalled car at the side of the road. A handful of them with firearms experience were waiting with large, heavy rifles in places with good views, positioned to have someone looking over the scene from every angle. That had required a bit of finagling–I’d had to buy a freaking ship to get one of them out on the river, and even for someone who could afford to throw a million dollars at a problem without really thinking about it, buying a container ship on short notice was not cheap.


But, again, money just wasn’t an issue anymore. Besides, I was confident Tindr would figure a way to turn a profit on the whole thing. Probably just by selling it at a profit, although I supposed it was possible I’d end up being a shipping magnate on top of everything else.


I debated walking right in the front gate, since it wasn’t like their security system could even slow me down. But while that idea had a certain dramatic appeal, it seemed…imprudent. This was more of a fact-finding mission than anything, and while I highly doubted the Lighters had anything capable of stopping this crew, they might be able to delete some vital scrap of information if we gave them warning.


I walked around a ways to a quiet spot out of sight of the gate instead, and then just jumped the wall. It was ten feet tall, the kind of wall you put in when you really took your privacy seriously. I vaulted it cleanly, not even touching it on the way past.


Elijah was only slightly more hindered by it, putting one hand down to give himself that last bit of height to get over the wall. Snowflake cleared it easily, and then the ghouls and jötnar started clambering over it. I never saw Antonio actually jump the wall, but when I glanced around I saw him standing on the same side with the rest of us. He was sucking on what smelled like a cherry lollipop, and smirked at me when he noticed me looking.


Show-off, I thought, then glanced around to make sure that everyone had made it. It seemed like we were all present and accounted for. The wall had taken us, at most, thirty seconds to get past.


A ten-foot concrete wall was a decent defensive measure. But it was…rather insufficient here.


I knew that the Lighters had their headquarters here somewhere, but the information hadn’t extended to actually saying which of the warehouses they were based out of. Greg hadn’t been able to narrow it down at all–not without taking more time, at least, and I wasn’t willing to wait any longer than absolutely necessary. I’d been planning on figuring it out here, if necessary sneaking into the buildings myself to take a look before bringing the horde in.


This turned out to be unnecessary. I’d forgotten that I was dealing with…well, people, as opposed to the things that I’d gotten used to. They were normal humans in most respects, with everything that implied. And as such, they’d made a choice that would normally be a perfectly decent one, but which in this particular case was very much not.


They had guard dogs.


I could feel the presence of the animals from across the lot. There were nineteen of them spread between a pair of large warehouses on the other side of the complex. It seemed implausible that there would be quite that many dogs in a warehouse for any good reasons, but I took a moment to check just in case.


It only took a second for me to slide into one of the dogs and look around through her eyes. At a glance, it looked like the right place. There were some people standing around with guns, and they smelled like magic to me, but it was very much on them rather than in them. It seemed like the usual Lighter base. Good enough for me.


I was in for a nasty surprise when I returned to my own body again. Namely, I didn’t exactly have one. The body I’d built for myself out of ice and darkness was already collapsing by the time I got back, both in the sense of falling down and in the sense of falling apart.


Oh. Of course. In the past, when I’d occupied an animal’s mind, I’d been able to rely on autonomous bodily functions to more or less continue in my absence. Now, I didn’t exactly have those anymore. I was, on some level, nothing but mind, and when I wasn’t occupying my body, it ceased to be a body.


I caught myself before I actually fell, and took a moment to piece my body back together. Some of the people with me looked concerned, but none of them were actually freaking out, and none of them asked questions.


“This way,” I said, before they could change their minds on the questions, and then started across the lot. I wasn’t too terribly concerned about being spotted–I was even less scared of the security guards here than of the Lighters–but I stuck to more shadowy areas on the way regardless. It wasn’t too hard, anyway; it was almost sunset.


The two warehouses were detached, maybe ten feet of open asphalt separating them. I was suspicious that there was a more direct connection underground, but I wasn’t certain; none of the dogs I’d felt had actually been below ground.


In any case, that left two entrances to cover, and we couldn’t really afford to do them sequentially. I was reasonably confident that we still had the advantage of surprise, but I was expecting that to end the moment we opened the door. That being the case, giving one of the warehouses time to get ready would kind of negate the whole point of being sneaky about this.


“You take the team and clear that one,” I said to Kyi, pointing at the warehouse on the right. “Antonio and I will take the other.”


“We will?” Antonio asked. He sounded vaguely amused.


“You wanted to see me in action, didn’t you?” I asked. “Well, here’s your chance.”


And, more importantly, I wasn’t at all confident that I wanted him around my people. I was guessing that probably everyone knew that was the real reason behind how I’d divvied the teams up, but they wouldn’t call me on it. It was a courtesy thing.


Kyi wanted to argue. I could tell. But she wouldn’t show any disobedience in front of outsiders. She nodded sharply instead, and turned towards her assigned target, her one eye hard and cold.


I started toward the other, with Antonio slouching along beside me. He was still sucking on that lollipop, or possibly another one; I hadn’t been paying that much attention. Snowflake came with me as well, which was some comfort.


I thought about being subtle and picking the lock. I really did.


I justified kicking in the door by telling myself that it was marginally quicker, and they’d know they were under attack when we walked in anyway. And if it really had more to do with me feeling a lot of generalized, pent-up frustration and wanting to express it physically, that didn’t make the justification any less correct.


It was a tough door, heavy and bolted shut. Most people would probably have had to batter at it for a while with a ram to have any chance of getting through.


I managed it on the first kick, and walked in while the echoes of the crash were still ringing in the air.


Inside, things were…well, a lot like I’d expected from the raid in Colorado Springs. The room was very clean, very bright–it looked more like a lab or a supermarket than an evil lair. That impression was reinforced by the contents, which looked a lot like an office. There were several long Formica tables, each of which was a white so blinding that it had to be scrubbed daily, if not hourly, and a few large metal cabinets stood at the back of the room. Maybe twenty people were sitting at the tables, each of them sitting at a computer and wearing a headset. A similar number of armed guards were spaced out around the walls, along with another nine that were specifically there as dog handlers.


The dogs, really, were a brilliant touch. There were a lot of supernatural critters out there that could have walked right through this crowd and never been noticed. But dogs were harder for most people to hide from, between having better senses and being different enough mentally that most mental magic would have a hard time affecting them. Add in some cameras to cover those more susceptible to less biological mechanisms–and they had cameras, I could see them–and you had about as good of a security system as a normal human could manage.


I had to appreciate the thought they’d put into it. They’d done a really decent job of setting this up.


I could not, in all honesty, blame them for not realizing the weakness they’d built into their system by doing so. There really weren’t all that many people in the world who could exploit it. It was just their bad luck that one of them had happened to show up here.


I didn’t want to take any time over it, and I really didn’t want to have to take the time to piece myself together again. So rather than do anything fancy, I just sent a quick wave of magic out, and every dog in the room collapsed, instantly and very deeply asleep. Snowflake wasn’t affected, whether because of her resistance to mental magic or because she wasn’t exactly a dog or because I didn’t want her to be. It probably had something to do with all of the above.


If they hadn’t realized that shit was hitting fans before, that definitely gave it away. A couple of the dog handlers tried to get their charges to wake up for a few seconds before realizing that it was a lost cause. Otherwise, the guards mostly went for weapons, while the rest of the people opted for more of a “duck and cover” response.


Again, I had to respect the speed and precision of their response. The Lighters had a ridiculous name, but their training was solid. It was probably only two seconds after I’d kicked the door down when they had guns trained on the doorway. That was a pretty fast response time, as such things went.


Considering what they were up against, it was two seconds too slow. In that time, Snowflake already had two of the guards down and bleeding, and she was jumping on the third.


I followed her in at a slightly slower pace, going the other direction. It was still faster than they’d anticipated, and mostly their shots went well wide of me. A couple did hit, but they were using small-caliber weapons–the sort that was designed for use in places where you didn’t want bullets flying for miles, or going through walls. Birdshot and hollow-point nine millimeter, for the most part, I thought. It was still dangerous–hell, a .22 caliber could be lethal under the right circumstances. But that kind of ammunition just wasn’t suited for the kind of massive damage that it took to put me down. Long before they’d done enough raw physical damage to do the job, I was on them.


They had body armor–magically reinforced body armor, probably, based on the equipment these nutters had used previously. But I had Tyrfing. Even discounting my raw physical strength, that wasn’t a fair contest. The first few went down hard and fast, and didn’t get back up.


Apparently they realized just how badly out of their depth they were at that point, because the ones on my side of the room fell back, dropping or holstering their guns.


Then one of them grabbed a grenade off her belt, and I realized that what I’d taken for a retreat was really just a change of tactics.


I was quick enough to catch the grenade in a web of air and darkness before it could reach me. An instant later, though, it burst into intense, highly localized flame. I managed to keep it at a distance from me, but it was hot, and even as far as I was from it, the front of my body still started to melt.


I started to move, thinking that I could close the distance to them enough that they couldn’t really afford to use that sort of weapon, but there was already another incendiary headed my way, and I couldn’t afford to just take that hit. I caught the other one as well, but holding both of those magical constructions steady took all of my focus; I couldn’t really move at the same time. It was looking very much like I’d have to come up with another body–irritating, particularly in such a bright, sterile environment. There wasn’t a whole lot here to work with.


Then Antonio, very clearly, said, “That’s enough.”


An instant later, something seized control of the darkness I was holding in midair. I was pretty sure I could have stopped it from taking control pretty easily, but there wasn’t any particular reason to, so I let him have it.


He used it to flick both of the incendiaries back towards the Lighters, angled in a way that knocked the third one back with them before it could even get near me.


There was some screaming then, and the next grenade didn’t come.


I ran in a wide arc to avoid the fire, jumping from one of the tables to the next, and circled around behind the Lighters. Once again, they weren’t prepared for me to move that fast, and I hit them before they could adjust to the change. I’d learned my lesson, and now I didn’t stop to give them a target for the weapons that could actually hurt me. I just kept moving, taking one out and then continuing without pause.


I was fast, and with Tyrfing I was pretty much guaranteed to kill these guys in one swing. I could make very effective use of hit-and-run tactics, here, and they just didn’t have enough people to take long enough to figure out a response.


Less than a minute after I walked into the room, I cut the last of the guards on that side of the room almost in half, and turned to see how the rest of the fight was going.


Snowflake had done a comparable job on the other side. Her armor could shrug off small caliber fire just fine, and she was just too fast for things like those incendiaries to be viable. Every one of the guards over there was lying on the ground, most of them visibly mangled. None of them was going to be getting up again.


None of the other people in the room–the ones who’d been looking at computers when I came in–was doing a thing. It took me a moment to figure out why.


They were all staring at Antonio, a flat, fixed stare. And they were breathing in sync.


I could smell his magic, now. And it did not smell human. Oh, there was a bit of human to it–enough that I was sure human was a part of what he was. But the dominating tone was something else entirely, something sour and greasy, sulfur and foul, sickly-sweet rot. I’d never smelled anything quite like it, but it was familiar enough that I could make a decent case what it came from.


“How stable is that?” I asked, nodding at the crowd of mesmerized humans.


“Not very,” Antonio said absently. “I have to concentrate to keep them like this. It’s delicate.”


“Okay. Let me tie them up first, then.” I’d brought a pack, since I was rich enough that replacing it if I had to abandon this body wasn’t a big deal. I didn’t have a whole lot, but I did have some heavy duct tape, and now I took it out and started gathering up the Lighters.


“Not killing them?” Antonio asked. He sounded vaguely curious.


I shook my head as I started taping them up. It wasn’t a great job–I wasn’t really any good at this–but I was standing right there watching. It really just had to slow them down enough that I’d have a chance to react before they could do something stupid. “They might know something important,” I said. “Can’t afford to kill them until I find out.”


“Makes sense,” he said. “Though I think you already got lucky. Those cabinets at the back are server farms. I’m guessing there’s a lot of data there.”


“I’d rather not take chances,” I said, and then nothing else until I was finished taping them up.


Antonio blinked then, and that foul magic that had been throbbing in the air faded. The humans started to shake it off, and their breathing went back to normal. It took a moment before they realized that they were bound and gagged, seemingly. The dogs were still asleep, and even if they woke up I wasn’t too concerned. Dogs were not a threat to me.


“Fascinating,” Antonio said, looking at me. “You look somewhat…melted.”


“Oh, right,” I said. “I can fix that.”


He nodded. “When you said that they killed you, and it just didn’t take. This is what you meant?”


“Yeah,” I said. “It’s not something that I want to advertise too broadly.”


“I’ll not tell anyone, then,” Antonio said. “You don’t have to worry about me spilling your secrets. I respect you too much for that.”


“Why?” I asked.


He pursed his lips. “I suppose you’re something of a role model. You’re one of the few people that’s managed to really make it work.”


“I guess I can see that,” I said. “Oh, while we’re on uncomfortable topics. You’re a cambion.”


“A what?”


“A cambion,” I repeated. “The child of a demon and a human.”


“Ah,” he said, with a slightly twisted smile. “That. How could you tell?”


“You smell like Hell,” I said simply. “I’ve had some dealings with them. Enough to recognize the smell. But you’re not a full demon.”


“Interesting,” he said. “I’ve never really had much interaction with them myself. Though I’m told that I take after my father more strongly than most…cambions? That’s a good word.”


“How did you get this kind of power without even knowing what you’re called?” I asked.


Um, Snowflake said. Maybe not antagonize the half-demon warlord quite so much?


Don’t worry, I sent back. He’s…not harmless, exactly, but I don’t think he’s that much of a threat to us.


“I figured some things out,” Antonio said, shrugging. “And honestly, a lot of that power is just bluffing. I picked those first few fights to favor me, heavily. What I’ve got makes me decent at defending my home turf, so once I established myself, it wasn’t too hard to keep. Got lucky a few times, and I’ve mostly been coasting on that reputation since.”


I laughed. There wasn’t anything inherently funny about it, but something about it was…I had to laugh. It was contrast as much as anything, I thought. I’d gotten so used to people being a hell of a lot scarier than I initially gave them credit for that having the opposite happen was strangely amusing.


“Okay,” I said. “This is dealt with. You know how long we have before the cops show up?”


“Doubt they’re coming,” he said. “One of the things I can do is mess with sounds. I muffled everything in here, and the other building went down quiet. Shouldn’t be anything to tip off the police, and if somebody does file a noise complaint, they’re too busy to follow up on it.”


“All right, then,” I said. “Guess this is it, then. I think you’re entitled to a question.”


Antonio nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I want to know…is it worth it?”


I paused. “That…is a very open question.”


“Here’s the thing,” he said. “I’ve never really…done the cambion thing, to speak of. Got my position, but I’ve been sitting on it ever since.”


“I saw the people you had with you earlier,” I said dryly. “Seems like they’d disagree if they could.”


He laughed. “I hire them by the hour. I pay well, and I’m told the experience is actually quite pleasant. A mild high, something like laughing gas, from how they describe it. It’s easier for me to hold someone the more time I’ve already had them for, so it works out fairly well.” He shrugged. “Anyway, I’ve never really done the cambion thing much. I’ve got a lot of potential, everyone I’ve asked says so, but I haven’t followed up on it. And I figured I’d ask your opinion, since you have followed through on your potential, you know?”


I nodded slowly. “I’d have to say it’s not worth it,” I said. “Every step I’ve taken on that path, I’ve regretted it. But…ultimately, we can’t change our nature. We can only be what we are. And in hindsight, it would have been less painful for everyone involved if I hadn’t tried to fight that. Take that for what it’s worth.”


“I see,” Antonio said thoughtfully. “Well, thanks. That answer was…more honest than I was expecting, actually. Good luck with the Lighters.”


The cambion stuck another lollipop in his mouth and sauntered out into the night, leaving us alone with a lot of prisoners, a lot of computers, and a whole lot of bodies.

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