Monthly Archives: March 2016

Empty Places 14.4

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The funny thing, in the aftermath of that distinctly ominous conversation, was how much things hadn’t changed. There was still work to do. There were financial matters to settle out with Tindr, diplomatic messages that I needed to respond to, treaty negotiations with some rakshasa lord in Manhattan who wanted an ally. I wasn’t sure about that last one, but apparently he was politically opposed to the faction of rakshasas I’d fought in the past, and the offer was probably legitimate. The treaty was still a complex issue, though, and the negotiations were not a trivial task.


In short, there were things to do. Even with my best friend dead, my life in pieces and the world falling apart around me, the day-to-day tasks of my normal life still had to be taken care of.


I supposed that was both the greatest kindness and most ironic cruelty life had to offer. It went on.


The next two days, then, passed with relative normalcy. I even had to pass judgment on a few people, since I’d been putting it off for a while now. There were fewer people requesting me to settle their problems as a legal authority than there had been–with the supernatural out in the open it was much easier to take that kind of thing to a regular court. But there were still things that were too hard to explain, and there were people that didn’t want to settle their issues in the courts, and so I still had to keep up on it to some extent.


It wasn’t particularly difficult or dramatic work, though. In a way I wished it was. More challenging work would have demanded my attention, forced me to focus on what I was doing. It would have kept me from dwelling on how badly I’d screwed up, or how very far in over my head I was. It was hard to drive those thoughts out when I had nothing much to replace them with.


It was, as a result, almost a relief when Selene knocked on the office door and walked in with Kimiko beside her. “Someone to see you, jarl,” she said, rather unnecessarily, and then turned and left.


“Kimiko,” I said, setting aside a report Luna had compiled on the budget shortcomings of Keeper facilities in Europe. “What’s up?”


The kitsune looked at me and smiled. “It’s been a while,” she said. “I like the new look, by the way. Very…cool.”


I eyed her for a moment. She was smirking, and cracking bad puns, but it felt somehow…hollow. More like she was trying to keep up her normal facade of the happy-go-lucky kitsune with a cheesy sense of humor than like she was genuinely amused. She had a pretty good mask, but I’d spent a lot of time around Aiko. I was intimately familiar with that particular act.


I supposed that even someone like Kimiko might have gotten worn down recently. Life had a way of doing that to a person, and the past few months had been worse than most for that.


But everyone had their own way of dealing with it. So rather than point it out, I just said, “That was a bad one, even for you. You here for yourself, or for Kikuchi?”


“Kikuchi, I’m afraid,” she said. “And it’s not good news.”


I sighed. “Of course it isn’t,” I said. “Go ahead.”


“It’s a bit of a long story,” she said. “But with what the story is, I think you’ll appreciate brevity, so here’s the short version. The Daylight Court knows you’re in charge of this city, and they’ve decided to make that an issue. They’re coming to take you out, in force.”


The room was silent for around three or four seconds. I was once again reflecting on just how badly I’d screwed up. I wasn’t sure what was occupying her thoughts.


“How do you know about this?” I asked at last.


“They approached us asking for us to pitch in, and we’d get the city after you were out.” After a brief but extremely tense pause, she added, “We said no.”


I started to let out my breath, and then realized that I wasn’t really holding it. “Okay,” I said. “That’s some relief. Though…I’m guessing I already know the answer to this, but I have to ask. Is there any chance you’d help me out on this?”


“We’d like to,” she said frankly. “And that’s straight from the bossman. We like you, we like our arrangement. We’ve worked together to mutual benefit. But this is different from helping you take out a threat, or remove a destabilizing influence. This is a conflict in the war between the Sidhe Courts, and that’s not a fight that we can afford to take sides in.”


I nodded. “Okay,” I said. “That’s about what I was expecting.”


“For what it’s worth, we do hope that you’ll win,” Kimiko said. “We hope that we can continue our current arrangement. But we will not and cannot take a stance in official Court affairs.”


“No, I completely understand,” I said. “Thanks for telling me.”


“Not a problem at all,” she said. “I won’t take any more of your time.” She started to leave, then paused. “Um,” she said, sounding horribly uncomfortable. “While I’m here, though…how’s my cousin?”


I was silent for a long moment before answering that. “Aiko’s alive,” I said at last, choosing my words carefully. “She’s…uninjured, to my knowledge. She’s feeling a bit stressed about the new job, but it’s in line with her talents, and it seems she’ll be successful enough.”


“Ah,” Kimiko said. “So it’s like that, is it?”


I sighed. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, it is.”


“Thanks,” she said, and then walked out the door.


I wasn’t sure what to do about that revelation, how to react or plan. I couldn’t take another minute of sitting in that office struggling with the problem, though, so I ended up taking to the streets, going for a walk and trying to force my thoughts into a coherent order.


It was hard, harder than it should have been. It felt like I was thinking through fog, with everything tumbling down around me. I couldn’t focus, couldn’t stop thinking about my own failures and shortcomings. Snowflake, I thought, could have snapped me out of that…but that wasn’t a possibility, and that was a part of why I was such a mess in the first place.


So I went for a walk, because activity was always what I had used to soothe my thoughts and cope with the frustration of not knowing what to do.


The streets were dark, and cold, and empty. It wasn’t midnight, but around three in the morning, the time that feels more like midnight than midnight does. The night owls and barflies and office workers staying late had drifted to their beds, the early-morning commuters hadn’t yet risen from theirs. It left the streets empty of all  but maintenance workers and delivery trucks and outcasts rejected from every other hour of the day. The wind howled a low, lonely drone as it through scrawny trees and between the buildings. A scrawny homeless man shivered and shifted in his sleep, trying to find a warmer place beneath a threadbare wool blanket from the surplus store.


The hour of the wolf, I’d heard it called. The long, lonely hour of the night, when doubt preys on the mind and it seems the dawn will never come.


It seemed appropriate.


I walked away from the mansion and towards the city center, slowly, my only accompaniment a wavering, uncertain shadow and the tap-tap-tap of my footsteps on the asphalt. A delivery truck passed me, carrying goods to the supermarkets for the city to consume.


I wasn’t worried about an attack. Not yet. The Daylight Court had that name for a reason, even if they hadn’t when they first split off from the Midnight Court. They would not attack in the night, not without a very good reason. It gave me a few hours to work out a plan.


Not many. Not enough.


I needed to do something, that much seemed obvious, undeniable. But I had no notion of what to do.


I couldn’t simply stand and fight. Even with all the power I’d gained, that wasn’t a viable option. They knew what I was capable of; they would come with enough force to overwhelm me. In all probability there would be a champion of the Courts with them, either Aodh or my newly appointed counterpart, whoever that might be.


I couldn’t ask Aiko for help. Or, rather, I could, but it would achieve nothing. The Courts existed in balance; an action by one was met with reaction from the other, by necessity. If Aiko sent troops to support me, the Daylight Court would send a comparable force. If she came herself, it seemed very likely that Aoife would come to balance her power. The net effect would be no help to me, and potentially far more collateral damage.


I could gather together my allies. I could call in every debt I was owed, every favor I could beg, borrow, or steal. I could bring in every shady character that owed me a solid, every thug whose weapons could be rented for the day, every friend that would come to help bail me out. Between them, they could tip the balance. But some of them would die. And Hunter was out there, coming my way, an implacable and threatening force that made the Daylight Court’s attack seem like a pleasant diversion by comparison. I couldn’t afford to throw away any resource that I might need against him.


Or I could run.


My feet, without my conscious guidance, had carried me along a familiar route. I didn’t notice at first, but then I became aware of a nagging sense of familiarity, and then I realized where I was.


There wasn’t much to show it. The scars the fire had left on the earth were mostly gone now, and what was left was buried under a thin coat of snow. If you didn’t know better, you might not guess that a structure had ever stood on this spot.


But I knew. I remembered that tired old cabin, built long before I had been born. I remembered long evenings spent reading in front of the fireplace. I remembered cooking for Aiko, and then laughing at her expression and ordering takeout instead. I remembered playing board games with Kyra. I remembered Snowflake, just a puppy then, catching her first mouse. She dropped it on the floor at my feet and flopped down next to it, looking up at me with bright blue eyes and a silly grin.


I wasn’t sure how long I stood there, lost in a reverie. I was jolted out of it when I felt a brush against my mind, familiar without being quite recognizable–not unlike seeing the face of an old friend who used to be close, but whom you haven’t seen for years.


I saw him a moment later, tan coat fading to grey at the muzzle, ears perked up eagerly. The coyote remembered me too, it would seem. I’d shared his mind, a lifetime ago in a different world. I’d given him food and scratched his ears. We’d been friends, in our way.


Now he was grey around the muzzle, and he walked with a limp, a momentary hitch in his stride that suggested arthritis or something like it. One ear was halfway gone, torn off raggedly in a fight with some competitor.


He remembered me, though, and walked over to me with every suggestion of being glad to see me. He sat down a short distance away and looked at me, head cocked inquisitively to one side.


“Sorry, buddy,” I mumbled, knowing that he couldn’t understand the words. “No food tonight.”


He whined softly, as though to say that was okay, and then leaned a little closer. I scratched gently at his ears, the fur coarse under my frozen fingers.


A few moments passed, and then he stood and trotted off, going to find his dinner elsewhere. He shot me one last glance over his shoulder, and then kept going.


I sent one last mental feeling, an impression of best wishes and valediction. It felt very final, somehow.


Then I turned and walked away.


I knew where I was going now, though my feet were still moving on autopilot. I felt more like I was observing my actions than controlling them, like I was a stranger in my own body. I could feel a thought, a feeling, brewing somewhere in my mind. I couldn’t quite put a word to it yet, though, couldn’t get a grasp on it; it was still too unformed for that.


Time passed without thinking, one footstep following the next without an active decision.


The shop I’d worked at with Val, and then briefly without him. I’d done so much here. I’d made things, learned things. The shop had gotten me through a very dark place in my life, after I’d killed Catherine. Now it was closed down, the windows boarded up; a notice in the window said the building was condemned. There were weeds growing in the parking lot, graffiti on the walls. It seemed like no one had been there for a long time now.


The abandoned garage where I was given Tyrfing, and accepted without knowing what it meant. It was gone, nothing left but the scars of the fire.


I wasn’t sure when Val had left town. We hadn’t spoken for years, I thought. I supposed that I never really forgave him for giving me Tyrfing, for not telling me what I was doing when I took the cursed sword.


A small house in a bad neighborhood, which had once been woven through with magic to keep prying eyes away. It had been my lab for a time, and then it had been the anchor for a mansion housed in another world. It was gone, had been gone for a long time now, since the first time I ever saw a creature summoned forth from the void. The debris had been cleared since then, but no new building had been put in to replace it, and the vacant lot stood out like a gap where a tooth used to be.


It was funny how much I missed Katie, when I looked at that. I knew that she needed to die, by the end. She and Mike had gone too far to save. And yet…she meant well. She had good intentions. I knew that she was trying to do the right thing. But she said “help me” and I said “I’m sorry” and in the end, that was what mattered, wasn’t it?


Mohammed’s house, in a nicer neighborhood near the college. The windows were broken, the door sagging drunkenly from one hinge. It smelled like booze and piss and soot. Looters, it would seem.


Kyra’s house, further west, towards the edge of the city. It had been damaged in the wildfire, in the chaos after Loki’s broadcast. It had never been a nice house, but now it was far worse, parts chewed away by flames before the tengu got it put out. The wind swirled through the building, carrying with it the light rain that had begun to fall. I could smell rot from inside the husk of the house, water damage and mildew and decay.


It seemed we weren’t as close as we’d once been. I wasn’t sure when I’d spoken to Kyra last, either. I hadn’t even told her about Snowflake yet. It wasn’t like things between me and Mohammed–there was no final argument, no unforgivable offense. We’d just…drifted apart, over the years.


Pryce’s, seeming unchanged. The unmarked building still had plenty of cars parked outside, plenty of business.


He’d never really rescinded my ban. I’d been there since then, a time or two, for meetings. But only for business, for important meetings and discussions. I wasn’t a welcome visitor there, and I knew it. I didn’t go in.


Hours had gone by, now. The sky was starting to grow pale in the east, the first suggestions of the coming dawn. If I were still human, still alive, I’d have been getting hungry, sleepy, tired. I wasn’t, and I kept walking, visiting smaller places now, less significant.


Here, the hotel room where I’d told Olivia I’d set her free, and then I’d stabbed her and watched her bleed her life out onto the floor. I walked past the receptionist like I belonged there and went straight to the room–I still remembered which one it had been. They’d cleaned, or probably remodeled. There wasn’t so much as a stain on the carpet.


Here, the restaurant Aiko and I had gone to on our first real date, a Mexican place. We’d both played pranks on each other, me with habaneros and her with hallucinogens. Now the building was dark and empty, a sign announcing that it was available for lease.


Here, the park where I’d talked with Erin before we’d agreed that Catherine needed to die, way back when. I made the call and she did the deed with a sedative and a knife. We killed her to keep a secret which, now, everyone knew anyway.


The funny thing was that I never really meant to be here. In Colorado Springs. I’d only come to this city because Conn suggested it as a place I could go to school, and I had no idea what I should do with my life. I’d stayed afterwards because I had the shop, and some friends, and I still didn’t know what to do. Living here had just become a matter of habit.


Life was funny that way. Sometimes the most important choices were things that you didn’t realize were choices at all. Sometimes things just…happened.


And then, inevitably, I wound up where I’d known I would.


The wreckage had mostly been cleared long before the world as we knew it fell apart. But the crater wasn’t so easy to deal with, and in the end they’d left it more or less alone, with a plaque at the edge commemorating the people who’d been killed in the blast.


It was a large plaque. Something like twenty thousand names, even written in a small font, took up a lot of space. There was a blank space at the end, too, for anyone else who might be identified. There had been thousands more who couldn’t be identified, or who nobody had known.


Past that plaque was nothing but the crater. A gash in the world, a hundred yards across and just as deep, carved out of the earth and burned to black glass. The result of a god’s power being unleashed, for just a moment, on a world which hadn’t been built to withstand such an assault.


My fault. This had happened because of my mistakes. Close to thirty thousand deaths on my hands.


I stood and looked out over the crater for a long while.


I never really meant to be the jarl of the city. It wasn’t a deliberate choice. It had been something I agreed to out of necessity, and then kept doing because there was never a good time to quit. If someone had asked, the day I took the job, whether I wanted to leave it, I wouldn’t have hesitated on my way out the door.


Since then, things had gotten complicated.


What would happen if I did just cut and run, I wondered? What would the fallout of that choice be?


The Daylight Court would almost certainly lose interest in the place. It was important to them only because my presence made it a playing piece in the eternal war between the Courts; lacking that, it was just another mortal city.


My organization, though, would fall apart. I’d cobbled them together from jötnar and ghouls, demons and werewolves and mages and plain old human beings. They got along, but I knew damned well that they were all my minions, personally. Without me to hold them together, the arrangement would fall apart. Some of them would follow me to wherever I went next, most likely; others would continue about their lives, go their own way. There wasn’t anyone else who could hold them together and keep them here to protect the city’s fragile peace.


None of the other groups in the city could handle it, either. The Guards were spread too thin as it was. Kikuchi’s interests were elsewhere, in the mountain and the Otherside; he couldn’t maintain a strong presence in the city proper as well. None of the factions of independents was strong enough, and the werewolves lacked any kind of organization beyond mine. With Katrin’s death I’d ripped the heart out of the vampires, and the ones that were left had neither the power nor the organization to rule the city.


If I left, this city would be as badly off as any other right now. Worse, maybe. With a large population, a relatively intact infrastructure, and no major groups claiming it, it would be too tempting of a target to pass on. The last time that had happened, before I took power, it had almost torn the city to pieces, and that was when things were much better to start with.


And then there was another consideration, too.


This city had some ugly memories. There was no denying that. Bad things had happened here. I’d made mistakes, I’d lost friends. And even the good things, in a lot of cases, were gone now.


But it was still home. I’d lived here for the entirety of my adult life. Even when I’d been staying in other countries, or other dimensions, Colorado Springs had been the center of my activity. I had too many memories, too much history, here to walk away now.


This was my city.


I took a deep breath and let it out, slow and quiet. And then, as the sun was just beginning to crest the horizon, I turned and started walking back to the mansion.


I had work to do.

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Empty Places 14.3

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“I don’t understand,” I said, hurrying after Blaise. “What do you even want from me? Why did you do this?”


He was silent for a moment, long enough that I wasn’t sure he was going to answer. “In chess,” he said at last, “a skilled player doesn’t set out to achieve a single goal. He doesn’t move a piece with the expectation of a specific accomplishment. The game is too complex for that, you see? Focusing too strongly on a single possibility is a trap. The better choice is to develop the piece in a way such that no matter what course the game takes, you have the advantage. The same principle applies here.”


“You aren’t going to give me  a straight answer, are you?”


I could barely see Blaise’s face in profile, but I thought I could see him smile. “Answering that question clearly would require me to explain a number of things,” he said. “Most of which it isn’t my place to explain.”


I sighed. “Of course not,” I said. “Okay, then. What did you want to say?”


“As I understand it, you’re looking for the man called Hunter,” he said. “In which case it behooves all of us for you to understand something of his history. Who he is, what he’s done.”


“All right,” I said. “Go ahead.”


“The man now called Hunter was born in what is now northern China,” he said. “I do not know what name he was born under; it is very possible that no one does. Certainly he has been called Hunter, in one language or another, for far longer than he used that name. Assigning an age to someone who has traveled so extensively in areas where the flow of time is…inconsistent is pointless, but what can be said with confidence is that he was born slightly less than two thousand years ago, during the collapse of the Han dynasty in the area.”


Chinese history wasn’t my strongest suit. But even I knew about that. “That was a bad time,” I said.


“Yes,” Blaise agreed. He’d stopped walking, and we were now standing still in a small grove of trees. I smelled magic, and realized that were standing in the center of a ring of mushrooms, one which was acting as the anchor of a warding spell. I didn’t think that was a coincidence. “It was a very bad time. With the collapse of imperial authority, the region was the site of a prolonged civil war between warlords seeking to claim power. For those, like him, who lived in the contested area, it was a period of extreme violence.”


“He grew up in a warzone,” I said.


Blaise nodded. “It’s during that time that he started using the name Hunter,” he said. “Though he was already an adult by that point, and seems to have already been actively practicing magic for several years. He began killing bandits, deserters, and other threats to the area in which he lived. His power is considerable, and even without formal training, he was difficult to overcome without access to comparable magic. As such, it became easier for people to simply seek easier targets, and leave that village alone.”


“Wait,” I said. “He just set himself up as some kind of vigilante? And nobody stopped him?”


“No one was in a position to do so,” he said. “The political structure, as I said, was in disarray at the time. A number of mage clans were already well established, but they didn’t yet have the degree of influence they do now–in fact, at the time a number of the largest were at war with each other. The gods hadn’t yet issued their decree against overt demonstration of the supernatural in the mortal world. In short, there was no one with both the motivation and the ability to stop him.”


I frowned. It was…hard to conceptualize things being like that. Though I supposed that made sense. This all happened so long ago it might as well have been in another world. “Okay,” I said. “Go on.”


“It was around that time that he first accessed the Otherside. I have suspicions as to who showed him how to do this…but in the end, that’s all they are. But that does mark the major turning point in his life, and also, regrettably, is why I am explaining this to you. He stumbled into Faerie, having no notion of what the location was, what the rules of the domain were, or how to survive there. He might have been simply another of the many, many such people to die in that way. However, before that happened, I found him.”


“Wait,” I said. “Just wait one second. You–you personally–are the reason that bastard’s still around?”


“Yes,” he said simply.


“Okay then,” I said. “Well, that’s one that’ll haunt you, huh?”


Blaise didn’t respond to that, but then, I didn’t really expect him to. “Hunter is a very passionate man,” he said instead. “Every now and then a human comes along with a passion, and the charisma to draw other people into that dream, without them even knowing why they follow. The sort of person who can walk up to an army specifically sent to stop him, and tell them to kill him if they liked, and end up still alive with an army following him. Hunter is that sort of man.”


I groaned. “Just what I needed,” I muttered. “The rest of it wasn’t enough. Oh no. He had to be a bloody Napoleon too.”


Blaise smiled thinly. “In any case,” he said. “The man was unusual, and had a talent for the manipulation of space. I was curious and had no pressing obligations at the time, so I took him as a protégé of sorts, and showed him things. He was an apt student. But there were aspects of his personality which I found troubling, and within a year I had ceased to have any interaction with him.”


“And then the Conclave happened,” I guessed.


He nodded. “They were not a political entity at the time,” he said. “Unlike most of the clans at the time, they weren’t united by a shared geographic origin, political ambition, or religious dogma. The original Conclave was, instead, united by a shared desire to study how the world functions. They were researchers, essentially, and they were among the most brilliant minds in human history.”


“Do you mean in terms of studying magic?” I asked. “Or were they just geniuses in general? The prehistoric equivalent of Leonardo and Einstein?”


“Some of both,” Blaise said. “And a few people who weren’t as gifted, but kept the rest working together. At first, it had seemed as though it was working. They made great strides in numerous areas of magical theory. Walker streamlined the design of direct Otherside portals and popularized their use; Maker introduced principles of design that are still in use.”


“But it couldn’t last,” I said. I wasn’t guessing this time. I had an idea of how this story ended, after all.


Blaise was quiet again, for a long time. “No,” he said at last. “It couldn’t. The collapse started with Healer. She had been experimenting with life and death, attempting to transcend the boundary between the two states. Some of the Conclave were of the opinion that this was an area which they shouldn’t be investigating, that it was going too far. When her research ended in disaster–her experiment escaped, Healer herself apparently dead–they took it as a sign that their initial objection had been correct. The others saw this reluctance as a violation of the initial goals of the group. It seemed that this split would drive them apart entirely.”


“And then along came Hunter,” I said. “The charismatic visionary who could breathe new life into the organization and bring them back together.”


“Precisely,” Blaise said. “He was a natural addition to the group. A genuinely brilliant man, and interested in many of the same things. His research into the structure of Otherside domains and the nature of spatial dimensions was not unrelated to the work that Walker and Namer were doing. Some of them were concerned that what he was doing was, in its own way, as much an exploration of topics better left alone as Healer’s, but at least for the moment, it seemed that he was a worthy addition.”


“But then he went too far,” I said. “Which can’t have been an accident. You don’t reach the outer limits of the Otherside by accident. He was looking for something, wasn’t he?”


“In truth I don’t know what drove him to that,” Blaise said. “I expect there were numerous factors at play. What’s certain is that he found the plain at the edge of the void, which is something that very few people have ever managed on their own. He found the void, and he managed some degree of understanding of it.”


“Okay,” I said. “All of that makes sense. But what did he do to piss off the fae? From what I’ve heard he has some connection to you, and I think I heard something about him causing the Sidhe Courts to split up.”


“He summoned something from the void into Faerie.” Blaise’s void was very flat and harsh. “It was put down quickly, but it was still a transgression. The factions among the Sidhe had already existed at that time–they were divided on a great many things. You might think of it as having been something like political parties; there wasn’t a single thing that defined either side, but the two had been in competition for so long that they had accumulated an enormous number of differences. Hunter’s actions were merely the final straw.”


“What were the stances?” I asked, more out of idle curiosity than anything. I didn’t think that it would really be important, but exactly what the distinction was between the Daylight and Midnight Courts was something that I’d wondered for ages.


“The faction which became the Unseelie Court was in favor of eradicating humanity,” he said, without any particular emotion. “As punishment for that offense, and to prevent similar actions from being taken in the future. The Seelie Court was not.”


I blinked. That was…rather chilling, really. If the vote had gone slightly differently, the whole world could have been killed by faeries for the crime of one man, when none of them even knew who he was. They could do it, too. Hell, if the Courts agreed and put their full forces behind the war effort, they could probably wipe out humanity now. Two thousand years ago, with the population so much smaller, and weapons so much less advanced? It wouldn’t even have been a fight.


“Following that event, the Courts gave the Conclave an ultimatum, backed by divine authority,” Blaise said. “They would do no further research in that field, would prevent anyone else from doing similar research. Or their entire species would be wiped out of existence, without mercy or exception. That ultimatum was what caused them to become a regulatory group, eventually leading to the current political structure among the clans.”


“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Okay, that’s…that’s pretty huge. It’s going to take me a while to process all of that.”


Blaise smiled and said nothing.


“It does leave the big question open, though,” I said. “Where is he now?”


“I don’t know,” Blaise said calmly. “And if I did, the information wouldn’t help you. Hunter has a facility for travel which few people can match, and a list of enemies which includes some of the most personally powerful beings in existence. He doesn’t stay in one place for long.”


“How am I supposed to find him, then?”


“I wouldn’t worry about that,” he said, with an enigmatic smile. “He’ll find you.”


Blaise vanished before I could start cursing.

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Empty Places 14.2

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“Well,” Aiko said, once I’d finished telling her what happened. “That’s not terribly helpful.”


“Not surprising,” I said. “I mean, the Conclave really can’t afford to have anything to do with Hunter at this point. I can see why they wouldn’t want to have any appearance of being involved with that.”


“How so?”


“Assume I’m right,” I said. “Hunter went too far to the edge of reality, and he realized that there was something outside of this world. He realized that the void exists, and he figured out how to pull things from there into here.”


“That all sounds reasonable.”


“It’s the best explanation I’ve got,” I agreed. “So how do you think the gods would react to that? They apparently take that kind of thing really, really seriously. They do not like people opening those doors, at all. And they aren’t shy about showing it, either.” I shook my head. “The Conclave might have chosen to wipe records of the other three,” I said. “I’m not sure. But I’d wager they weren’t the ones that made the call to erase Hunter, and they don’t want to seem like they’re trying to go back on that.”


“Huh,” she said. “That’s…probably not inaccurate. I hadn’t thought of it in quite those terms before.”


“Me either, but it makes sense.” I glowered at nothing in particular and took a drink of tea. It was really, incredibly good tea, sharp and strong and bracing. It was, in fact, very probably the best tea I’d ever had. It hadn’t quite occurred to me that the fae would be as improbably good at tea as they were at things like wine, though it probably should have.


There were a lot of things to complain about with this gig, but I had to admit, the creature comforts were pretty nice. Lounging with Aiko on a black silk couch that felt lighter than a cloud, sipping that tea and nibbling on delicate chocolate pastries more perfectly prepared than anything a mortal chef ever made…it was a position I’d have killed to be in, for a lot of my life.


In hindsight, I hadn’t known how good I had it back then. But then, wasn’t that always the case? You didn’t know what you had until it was gone.


“Do you know what he meant when he said I should ask the fae?” I asked, trying to break that bleak pattern of thought.


“Nope,” Aiko said cheerfully, stuffing another pastry into her mouth. “This is the first I’ve heard of a connection between Hunter and the fae.”


“You know, for how powerful you are in their hierarchy, they don’t seem to be telling you much,” I said. I wasn’t sure quite what tone to take with that statement, and ended up going with noncommittal by default.


“It’s not really a power thing,” she said, shrugging. “It’s more of a role thing. Maiden, mother, crone, remember? Old history, Court secrets…that’s not really my job. It’s not what I’m supposed to be dealing with, so I don’t need to know.”


“What is your job, then?” I asked. “I haven’t gotten entirely clear on that.”


Aiko frowned. “It has a lot to do with beginnings,” she said slowly. “It’s…planting seeds, encouraging things to grow. I have more involvement with the mortal world than the other two, I think. It’s hard to put into words, but I think the idea is that I’m supposed to spread the ideas that make the Midnight Court function. It’s not really doing anything with the influence, or capitalizing on it. That’s the others’ job.”


“Just as well,” I said. “Inspiring others to mischief and maliciousness you can do. Planning? Maybe not so much.”


“It works out nicely,” she agreed. “That’s not what you mean, though, is it?”


“I think,” I said slowly, “that it fits a little too well.”


“You think someone planned it,” she corrected me. “That someone arranged it.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, come on. Things this huge, this significant, they don’t just happen. And it fits together so well. You winding up with this power, me as your champion, the whole thing working out this way. That’s not coincidence.” I shook my head. “The question isn’t so much whether this was arranged. It’s who arranged it, and why. And for how long, actually.”


“What do you mean?”


“When did you first seriously think we might end up together?” I asked, knowing what the answer was.


“When we were escaping from Ryujin’s palace,” she said instantly, just like I’d expected. “You played along with the plan, and it worked. It was fun.”


“Yeah,” I said. “And hey, guess who was the reason that happened? That’s right, it was Loki. What a coincidence.”


“Oh,” she said. “Good point. But…does it really matter? I love you. That feeling is real, whether it was a part of some plan or not. If the feeling is genuine, is it important whether somebody else wanted it to happen?”


“No,” I said. “I guess not. I’m just curious how much of this was intended from the start.”


The conversation lapsed for a bit after that. I was thinking of how I felt like I was a pawn in some vast game I was just now beginning to see, and nobody could be bothered to tell me the rules or the stakes. Aiko seemed to mostly be busy making a fool of herself with some sort of cream puff.


“So what now?” she asked, after  minute or so, with a bit of cream still around her mouth. “You think you’ll keep looking for Hunter?”


“Yeah,” I said. “It’s…what else can I do?”


“You could just let it go.”


I shook my head slowly. “No,” I said. “I couldn’t. I won’t have a moment’s peace until this is done, one way or the other. And besides, I just…I can’t not follow up on it.”


“Yeah,” she said. “I guess I can understand that. So what next? Are you going to ask the other Queens?”


“No,” I said. “If your side wanted me to know, they’d have told you. And I somehow doubt the Daylight side of things would be too thrilled with me asking them for answers, all things considered. No, I think I’m going to have to look elsewhere. There are other fae that might know.”


She was quiet for a long moment. “Those are dangerous people to ask,” she said at last.


“Gosh, me taking risks,” I said dryly. “What a surprise.”


She laughed, and grabbed at me, and for a time such matters were forgotten. And if even that left me feeling cold and hollow, it was still better than dwelling on things further.


Meeting with Prophet had been a dangerous proposition. He was, in all probability, the most powerful human being in the world. The only people I could think of offhand who might compete weren’t really human in any meaningful sense; Conn, Lucius, these were people that had left humanity behind a long time ago.


In any case, Prophet was on an entirely different level than I was, in several senses. He was personally powerful enough that any fight between us would probably end with me as a stain on the floor. Odds were good that he had a way to get around my ability to make new bodies for myself, too. On top of that, he was the most influential member of a magical conspiracy that had an enormous amount of control over the world, and if he really wanted to, he could assemble an army that could turn a city to glass.


In short, he was the kind of guy you did not lightly cross. I didn’t think he had anything in particular against me, but even so, being in the same room with him was an unsettling prospect. It was like being in a room with someone who had a loaded gun. Sure, they probably weren’t going to shoot you, but it was hard not to be acutely aware that they could.


That said, the next meeting I managed to set up was worse. Much, much worse.


I met him on the Otherside, in a backwater domain loosely associated with Faerie. It was a place I’d used as a staging area for portals in the past, but not much beyond that.


He showed up exactly on time, half an hour after I did. He looked about the same as I’d always seen him, a male Sidhe with blunt, almost ugly features. He was wearing the same clothing, too, plain breeches held up with a rope belt, and the skin of a wolf for a cloak.


I noticed that the wolf’s skin wasn’t as fresh as I remembered. It didn’t move of its own accord, didn’t leave streaks of blood on his skin where it passed. I wasn’t sure what that meant.


“Blaise,” I said, nodding to him respectfully and just a bit warily. I didn’t know much about him, but what I did know was enough to make me take him very seriously. He was a Twilight Prince, influential enough that he had input on decisions that affected all of the fae. He was Sidhe, but he disdained Court politics, which very few people could get away with. He was scary powerful, and ancient. They called him the Son of Wolves, and I didn’t know why.


And he’d taken an interest in me, way back when, at the same party where Loki had first openly messed with my life. Somehow I didn’t think the timing there was a coincidence.


“Winter,” he said, in a pleasant, even voice.


“I’m glad you could take the time to meet with me on such short notice,” I said.


“I’ve been expecting this call for some time,” he said. His voice was dry.


“Of course you have,” I muttered. “Okay then, I won’t waste time. I’m guessing you know why I asked to talk to you.”


“You want answers,” he said. “To some very important and very fundamental questions, some of which you don’t yet know you have.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a fair way to summarize it, I guess. So do you have information I need? And if so, what will it cost me?”


“Do you remember the first time we spoke?” he asked. “I asked you three questions, then. Do you remember what they were?”


“I do,” I said. “You asked why I was there. Whether I was happy. And whether I wanted power.”


“Correct,” Blaise said. “I said, at the time, that I looked forward to seeing how your answers changed in the future. I think that time has come. So tell me, Winter. Why are you here?”


“Because it’s where I was meant to be,” I said dully. “Because there’s a plan for me, isn’t there? There was always a plan for me. And this is the next thing that needs to happen for that plan.”


“Are you happy?”


“No,” I said. “I’m not. The game is rigged, isn’t it? I try and I try, but I can’t get anywhere. I do my best, but it’s never good enough. I know I did something wrong, but when I look back at it, I don’t know what I should have done differently.” I swallowed hard, more out of habit than anything. I didn’t need to breathe, and I couldn’t cry if I wanted to. “I never meant it to be like this,” I said. “I…I didn’t mean for any of this to happen, but somehow I’m so far down this road that I can’t go back.”


He nodded. “And tell me, do you desire power?”


“Yes,” I whispered. “Damn me, I do.”


“Things have changed, it would seem,” Blaise said. His voice was calm and dispassionate, an observer with no particular care for what he saw.


“Everything has changed,” I said.


“Yes,” he said. “Come. I have answers for you. You will not like them, I think, but I have them.” He started walking off through the sparse trees, not looking back.


I followed. I wasn’t sure what else to do.

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Empty Places 14.1

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I was pacing. I’d been pacing for a while now.


I was alone. None of my minions wanted to interrupt me, not now. Not that most of them ever wanted to interrupt me, but doing so at the moment was even less likely. Aiko was on the Otherside, doing fae things again; we’d lost around a week in Jason’s private hideout, and she wasn’t entrenched enough yet to go missing for a week casually.


Both of those were…not normal, precisely, but comprehensible. I understood them. The other absence in the room was far more profound, harder to understand, and thus harder to come to terms with.


Losing Snowflake was harder than I would have thought possible. Not just because I’d lost my best friend, though I had, and that was hard enough on its own. But for years now, I’d been connected to her, a mental tie that my magic had been reinforcing for so long that it wasn’t even a conscious thing for either of us. We’d been apart from time to time, of course, and unable to communicate, but even then that sense of connection was there. It was the equivalent of picking up the phone and getting a dial tone.


This, to continue the metaphor, was like if the phone had been unplugged from the network entirely. That sense of possibility, of being connected to something larger, was gone.


I’d never had that experience before; Snowflake was the only person I’d ever built that degree of a connection with, so it wasn’t like I’d been in this position before. It felt a bit like I imagined losing a limb would. I kept reaching for that connection, for a bit of mental balance or another perspective on things, and getting…nothing.


It hurt. Every time, it was a reminder of just what I’d lost, and how impossible it was to get it back. And knowing that I would get over it, that eventually I’d get used to being alone in my head again, just made it worse.


Thus the fact that my minions were leaving me well alone. I was in a foul mood, to say the least, and since Jason was already dead, I couldn’t even take it out on him. It left me inclined to lash out at anyone, whether they’d done anything to deserve it or not, just to let out that frustration.


Part of it, of course, was that they were busy. They were very busy. I had a plan, a goal, and for once I was being active rather than reacting after someone else had already started the mess.


I was going to kill Hunter. He was, I thought, responsible for a great deal of the misery I’d had to deal with in recent years. Probably more than anyone other than Loki. And he was…he had…I was going to kill him. What else could I do?


But that presented some problems. He was a mage so powerful that the Conclave was afraid of him, with thousands of years of experience. With the possible exception of Scáthach he was almost certainly the single most powerful, dangerous person I’d set myself against. To call taking him down an ambitious undertaking was…well, it was well beyond just an understatement.


I could worry about that later, though. For now I had to find him, and I didn’t expect that to be any easier. You didn’t live that long, with that many enemies, by being easy to find.


I had a lot of sources of information. I’d made myself the center of a web of information brokers, and I had a lot of contacts. But this wasn’t the sort of question you could take to those people and expect to get an answer.


I had other sources. I was still owed answers from Loki, and I knew people in other places, some of whom had access to a scary amount of information. Some of them could probably tell me where to find him. Some of them could probably give me the power to beat him when I did.


There would be a price, if I did that. There was always a price. In the past, I’d always shied way from it. I hadn’t been willing to pay the cost they would exact for that kind of power.


Now? With Snowflake dead, Aiko gone and trapped in a prison of her own making, my life in shambles and the world I knew a broken wreck? Things were different. A lot of things that used to be unthinkable were…well, I was thinking of them.


After we’d gotten back from killing Jason, and I’d recovered from the worst of the shock, I’d written out a list of people I could ask, sources I could consult. Then I’d gone over it, crossing off entries that were too unlikely to know, too difficult to contact, or just too dangerous to contact yet.


It took a few hours, and left me with less than a dozen entries. Those entries were still dangerous and expensive, on the whole, but that was the nature of the game. So once I was satisfied with the list, I gave it to Selene and told her to start arranging meetings.


I hadn’t told her what I wanted to know, or why. It was safer for everyone involved that she not know. And besides, I wasn’t in the mood to explain things. I hadn’t even told her that Snowflake was dead, though I was sure that quite a few of my minions had noticed her absence. It was rather conspicuous, given that she’d very rarely been away from me for more than a couple of hours since before I was a jarl.


And now that part was done. I’d made the call, committed to this course of action. There was nothing I could do but wait for them to reply, and pace. I felt scared, and angry, and small.


It was funny, in a way. I couldn’t even remember how many times, down the years, I’d wanted to know what was going on. How many times I’d wanted to understand. Now that I had an idea of what the answers to my questions had been, I would gladly have gone back to the way things were.


But then, that was how it went. There was a reason they said ignorance was bliss. Knowing how things worked gave you no control over how things worked. I could explain in great detail how my life was a wreck, when each step down that road had occurred, and roughly why it was a wreck. But I couldn’t tell it to fix itself, and knowing just meant that I didn’t have a grey area to provide hope.


It was almost a relief when I got the call to say that the first meeting had been arranged, just to provide a break from thinking.


London had gotten worse. The last time I was there it was relatively peaceful, relatively stable. Now it was not, and strangely, the very thing which had kept it relatively safe through the worst part of the chaos was what was now tearing it down. The city of London was truly ancient, with thousands of years of history and tradition, a complex supernatural community, and numerous powerful residents.


When the world was in turmoil, that had been a good thing. It meant that the city was largely safe from external threats. Now, though, it was becoming a problem in itself. As things started (and it was only starting, there was no question of that) to settle down throughout the world, the city of London was turning on itself. The different factions, which had been united in the face of a greater threat from outside, were turning on each other, fighting for supremacy. That fight dragged other sides into it, gangs and cops and normal people all taking sides even if they didn’t know why or what the fight was about. Violence and chaos bred violence and chaos, and within a week it had gotten to the point of riots.


I found that darkly amusing, a sort of tragicomic reflection of the world at large. It was a nasty little catch twenty-two; you couldn’t avoid disaster without numerous powerful people, but numerous powerful people caused disaster.


There was no winning this game.


It was where the Conclave wanted to meet with me, though, and I wasn’t really in a position to argue. So London it was. It was, I supposed, not really that bad. Worse than it was, sure, but not necessarily worse than any other major city right now.


It was a bit of a surprise, though, and between being jumped by a small mob of pixies and the generalized disorder, getting around was harder than it seemed like it should have been. As a result, rather than half an hour early, I was barely on time arriving at the meeting, which had been arranged in the private room at a very, very expensive bar. They probably didn’t call themselves a bar–the term “gentlemen’s club” came to mind–but while I was wealthy these days, I didn’t have the mentality of someone born into a high social class. To me, it was a bar.


The building was large, in a neighborhood where large buildings were not the norm. It was nice, in an old, indulgent sort of way; it looked like it had been there for a few hundred years, watching the city grow and change around it. There was nothing to suggest what kind of building it was, but then, this was the sort of place where if you had to ask, you didn’t belong there.


I almost asked Snowflake what she thought of the place, before remembering that I wouldn’t get an answer.


Snarling quietly, I walked up to the front door and went inside, finding myself in a small foyer. It was an interesting mix of past and present. The doorman was wearing a full tuxedo that probably cost more than some cars, and the decor had the same old, stately appearance as the building itself. But it had obviously been remodeled recently, complete with an electronic lock on the interior door and a sheet of bullet-resistant glass between the doorman and the foyer.


“May I help you, sir?” he said, his voice coming through a speaker mounted next to the window.


“I’m here for an appointment,” I said. “Jonathan Keyes.” I held up the false identification for that name, which the Guards had arranged for me back before things had fallen apart. I didn’t think it was a coincidence that they’d told me to use that identity.


“Right away, sir,” he said, pressing a button. A buzzer sounded, and the lock disengaged. I pulled the door open and went inside.


A man who looked very nearly identical to the doorman met me before I’d taken two steps, leading me silently into the building. The main room was very nicely furnished, with paintings on the walls; somehow, I was pretty sure they were expensive. It was almost deserted, though, just a couple of people sitting around reading. No one was talking, and while they tried to act casual, the tension in that room was palpable. They were scared.


I wasn’t sure whether that was because they were normal people and scared because the world was falling apart around them, or because they were clan mages here with the Conclave and they were scared of me. Either was plausible.


My guide led me down to the basement, down a narrow hallway, and to an unmarked door, then walked away. I went in alone.


A man in a plain white robe was sitting in an armchair next to a fireplace, sipping a glass of brandy. There was no one else there, and only one other armchair, currently empty.


“Prophet,” I said cautiously, closing the door behind myself. “Where are the others?”


“They won’t be coming,” he said, not looking away from the fire.


I frowned. “That’s not what I wanted.”


“You asked to meet with the Conclave,” he said. “I’m the representative of the Conclave who was available to meet with you.”


“It’s like that, then,” I said.


He nodded. “It is,” he said. “Take a seat.”


I wasn’t thrilled to be sitting down under the circumstances, but it wasn’t worth arguing, so I took the other chair.


I wasn’t sure I’d ever been this close to Prophet before. Up close, he looked…tired. Worn and drawn, like he’d been stretched too thin for too long.


“What’s the crisis this time?” I asked.


“Crises,” he said absently. “Keeper and Watcher are recovering a dangerous artifact that was stolen from the archives. Guard, Guide, and Caller are coordinating a military action against rakshasas in India, and Arbiter is busy with a dispute between two clans and the Daylight Court.”


I winced. “Things are getting worse, aren’t they?” I asked.


He shrugged and took another sip of brandy. “Things were always bad,” he said. “The difference is that now you know about these things.”


I sighed. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I guess I do.”


“Enough of that,” Prophet said. “Why did you ask for this meeting? Your employee was evasive.”


“It’s not something to talk about on the phone,” I said. “Or with underlings. I’m looking for Hunter.”


“For who?” he asked. He sounded genuinely curious. It was a wonderful act; if I hadn’t known better I would really have thought he didn’t know who I was talking about.


“Hunter,” I said again. “The Conclave member. From the original Conclave. You know, the one you tried to erase?”


Prophet was silent for a moment. “You were wise not to speak too broadly on this,” he said. “I would suggest you continue that course. Now, I’m only even acknowledging this because we owe you after Russia. That man doesn’t exist. Don’t ask again.” He stood up and started walking towards the door.


I debated letting him go for almost a second. Then I said, “I know what he found.”


Prophet paused. “What?”


“You wiped Hunter from the records because he went too far,” I said. “He liked to travel the Otherside, but he went too far. He went to the edge of the Otherside, and he found something, something so bad that you kill anyone who tries to do the same thing just in case they might find it too. Right?”


“Go on,” Prophet said, turning to face me again.


“I know what he found there,” I said quietly. “He found the void, didn’t he? He found the chaos that lies outside our world. And he learned how to bring things out of it.”


“You’re remarkably well-informed,” he said.


“Not well enough,” I said. “This is mostly conjecture, based on a few scraps of information that I pieced together. There’s a lot that I don’t know still. But I’m starting to put the pieces together.”


“Why do you want to find him?” Prophet asked idly. “You must be aware of the danger involved in any interaction with those four.”


“Yeah,” I said. “But I owe him. He’s the one who’s behind a lot of what’s happened to me, I think. He’s the reason my dog is dead. I’m not inclined to let him get away with that.” I paused, grasping after the words for what I wanted to say next. “And…I’m just starting to put the pieces together,” I said. “There’s a lot I still don’t understand. And I want to understand. I can’t actually fix my life, you know? It’s gone too far, had some things happen that I can’t put right again. And if it’s going to be like this, I at least want to know why.”


He nodded slowly. “We can’t help you with this,” he said. “We can’t be seen to be involved in this, much less to be taking sides. It would be a disaster. And besides, we don’t know where he is. We haven’t had any contact with any of the original Conclave members in hundreds of years.”


I sighed. “Okay,” I said. “I knew it was a long shot. Thanks for taking the time to meet with me.”


“Good luck,” Prophet said. “I advise you to ask the fae. When Hunter found the edges of the Otherside, they were the ones who were most immediately affected. Some of the elder fae remember that, and there’s a chance that some of them still track him.”


“Thanks,” I said. “I may do that.”


“Good luck,” he said again, and left.

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Interlude 13.x: Oðin

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I see things. It’s what I do.


In another age, when the world was young, I gave up my eye for a greater sight. I hung from the tree for nine days and nine nights, a sacrifice of myself to myself, and fell into the screaming void, and from this I took the eighteen charms that belong to me.


These things are metaphor and allegory. They are a simple way of expressing a complex truth.


I did not give up my eye. The notion does not apply; how would a god, a being that only flirts with materiality, lose an eye?


But I am the god of sacrifice. I am the god of wisdom won at the price of pain and madness. I am the god of the hanged.


I am the god who knows that for all things, there is a price.


I see things. It’s what I am.


He stopped when I told him to. I felt a touch of relief at that. My brother’s tool was…unpredictable. Even to me, he was unpredictable. Push a man to the edge, and push him further, and who knows what might happen? Even a rat bites when cornered.


It’s the nature of all life to struggle against the inevitable.


But he admitted defeat, in the end. He let the spirits go. A mercy. Otherwise, they would suffer further. More to the point, it would introduce difficulty. For our interests to be quite so immediately contradictory would drive another wedge between us. It would bring a challenge to the contracts we all agreed to, long ago.


I caught the hound’s spirit as it fled. The wolf’s slipped past, on its path to heaven or hell or oblivion, whatever it might find after death. I had come as close to that boundary as anyone could return from, had danced on the line of the ending, but that was the edge of my knowledge. Even to me, what lay beyond that dark curtain was a mystery.


I felt no curiosity at the thought. I was due for my own meeting with that mystery. My knowledge extended that far.


In any case, the spirit of that long-dead wolf finally went to find the answers. It had no debts, no burdens to hold it back.


The same could not be said of the hound.


I quieted the spirit, rendered it quiescent, and waited to watch the world unfold.


My brother’s weapon and the new Queen of the fae did not notice my presence. There was nothing to notice. Oh, if they stayed in that place long enough, they might feel something odd. They might begin to sense the shape of it in the shadows and the destruction, might catch a glimpse of something at the edge between what was broken and where everything was whole. But even if they saw, would they understand? Unlikely. They had the potential to, certainly, but they were young still.


I seldom manifested myself openly, as my peers usually preferred to. I preferred to remain implicit, a potential rather than a reality. It was a piece of the concept which I had chosen to identify myself with.


They picked at the fabric of that world, unweaving it, and then left.


I felt a mild annoyance at that. Such children. They had no notion of what they meddled with. What they opened the door to.




Measures were in place, and would undoubtedly catch such a simple breach. Were it so easy to rupture our creation, it would not have lasted nearly this long. Still, it was a point of weakness in a system which afforded none. It could not be tolerated.


I reached out, still not manifesting, and bound that world in wards as it was consumed by the void. I removed myself to the next level of abstraction, and saw it as a self-contained unity. It was wrapped in runic structures, orderly and precise to contain the entropic nature of the void within.


The knowledge of that containment procedure had been a bitter one, dearly bought. But it worked.


Having done the immediate work of containing the breach, I found the location identifiers for the domain and altered the listed values. As I did so, I altered my own position, shifting my manifestation to a locus adjacent to the one I had just moved the domain to.


Here, in the void, the domain I had been occupying didn’t stand out as much. It was a drop of chaos adrift in a sea of it, distinguishable only by the web of definition and structure my power wove around it.


That structure, those runes, began decaying rapidly once they were fully immersed in the chaos. It took more than that to hold back the full force of the void. It took much more than that. It had taken all of us together to build those bulwarks, the layers of protections and magics which kept the chaos out of our creation. It had taken all of us to build the Otherside network.


I had changed since then, had grown in wisdom and power. But for a casual working to withstand that force was still far beyond me.


When the ward failed, it did so suddenly. A single piece of the definition snapped, eroded by the raw potentiality of the environment. The rest collapsed in an instant, lacking the ability to stand without it. The chaos within became one with the chaos without.


In reality, it always had been. That was why any trace of the void within the Otherside was unacceptable.


Satisfied that the problem had been dealt with, I shifted my location slightly, and focused in again. The higher level of abstraction was useful at times, but it was limited. Even for me, perception on that level was of necessity a matter of translation. We had imposed limits on our experience of reality in the process of our initial manifestation, and in order to operate on that level it was necessary to transcend those limits.


It is the nature of wisdom to know its limits, and to struggle against them. Having defined myself in part with that concept, I had made it a part of my limits as well.


Having returned to the level of the material, I manifested myself more completely. I wore the shape I most often did, the grey man with the walking stick and the broad hat, face left in shadow. One eye was hard and cold, the other empty.


I was standing, now, at the edge of the world, quite literally. The farthest reach of the Otherside, the last defined domain before the void. It had no name, or infinite names, or both. This place, by its very nature, is one where the distinction and the precision which our worlds function by begin to break down. Call it Vígríðr. It’s as good a name as any.


Behind me, the plain stretched out forever, dry dirt and grey skies and the openings of countless Ways and permanent portals. In front of me that continued for a long space, perhaps a hundred kilometers; the precise boundary point was inconstant and immeasurable. Further out, things began to break. The consistent rules, the fixed logic, began to fail. The environment became inhospitable to us, and all of our creations. Continue far enough, and one could conceivably find oneself in the void.


In between there was war. Constant, endless, and eternal war.


I brought forth the spirit of the hound again. She created a body for herself to replace the one she had lost, or the world created one for her. It was difficult to tell here, to the extent that either notion mattered. More accurate to say that her existence implied a body, and the world obliged. Vígríðr was as much idea as place, and ideas found material reality here.


That was rather the point.


She was confused. I could have explained, but my time was limited. There was work to do. There was always work to do.


“You made a deal,” I said instead. “You owe me a favor. That debt is due.”


“What?” she said. “Where? I…what happened?”


“You are dead,” I said. “You cannot return. You lack the structure to sustain yourself outside of this place. You will finish your existence here, paying your debts.”


“I don’t understand,” she said.


“You will,” I replied. “You see the enemy. You have seen them before. You’ll learn to fight them with time. They are forced into a partially material form here. They can be beaten. The rest you can learn from those who are here.”


I turned, and walked away, ceasing to manifest myself after a few steps. She would fight, or not. I thought the former; violence was in her nature. Ultimately it mattered little.


I’d lied to her. The same simple, basic lie we told them all. They needed to fight, and it’s hard to fight a hopeless war.


We can’t beat them. Oh, today or tomorrow, yes. But not indefinitely. They can’t die; they don’t subscribe to a notion of time which allows for endings. They can’t be dissuaded; we chose to limit the void as they did not, and they will never, can never, forgive that.


We can force them to attack on our terms. We can force them to assume a material form which is locked and defined in space and time. We can force them into a form which can be beaten.


But they will return. Again and again and again, forever.


The war is hopeless. The war was always hopeless. We fight out of spite, and because it is the nature of all life to struggle against the inevitable, and because even a rabbit will bite.


I see that. It’s what I do. It’s what I am.

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Broken Mirror Epilogue 13

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I insisted upon digging out Jason’s body. Aiko clearly thought this was pointless, but she didn’t argue. I wasn’t in a state to be argued with.


It wasn’t easy. There was an enormous amount of stone there, the whole tower having crumbled to the ground. I was guessing he was around the top of the heap–he had, after all, been at the very peak before it all fell apart. But that still left a considerable pile of rubble to dig through.


I dug. Slowly, silently, and alone, I dug. Most of the stones were easy enough to move, at least for me. A few thousand pounds was nothing; I could pick those pieces up and toss them aside almost without even trying. The largest ones, the parts that represented significant pieces of the tower’s structure, were little more trouble. I cut them into manageable chunks with Tyrfing and threw those chunks aside.


It was easy work. Repetitive, mindless. I felt like I was in a daze, looking out at the world through a fog. I wasn’t sure how much of that to attribute to Snowflake’s death, and how much was because I’d finally started putting the pieces together, and I didn’t like what I was seeing.


I didn’t care. It was enough that I was still comfortably numb. Later I could go to pieces, and I probably would. For now I had to keep working, keep moving.


I was vaguely aware of Aiko’s presence, far enough from the wreckage to be safe from the pieces I threw aside. She didn’t step in to help. I was just as glad for that.


There were other things in the stone, here and there. Things that I’d seen on that long climb up, bits of furniture and weapons, which had by some quirk of chance and physics wound up higher in the pile than they had been before it fell. Then, at last, I caught a glimpse of a familiar sculpture and I knew that I was getting close.


I found Jason a layer down, surrounded by the pieces of the sculptures he’d made. If they’d had any meaning, it was lost now. There was nothing there but broken pieces, and once the picture’s broken it can’t be perfect again.


I should know. Seeing him there was like looking through a mirror.


He was dead. He was really most sincerely dead. Aiko had cut off his head–it was a minor miracle that head and body had landed as close together as they had, really. He hadn’t fared well in the fall, either. Between the fall and the jostling from the rocks on the way down, the corpse was in…poor condition.


I hauled him out anyway, and dragged him a ways away from the fallen tower. By some chance or fate or whatever you could call it, I stumbled upon Reese’s body as well, and stopped there. I stood there and stared at them for a while.


Aiko approached more closely at that point. She was carrying Snowflake’s body. She still didn’t say anything.


A lot of bodies, for something that had supposed to be an easy job.


I drew Tyrfing and decapitated Reese, then dismembered both his corpse and Jason’s with slow, mechanical strokes. It was better to be very careful with this sort of thing.


When that was done, I stood there for a minute staring down at them, then sheathed Tyrfing. I was still moving with that slow, dull numbness, feeling almost like I was watching myself from the outside more than controlling my body. Maybe I was.


“Can you get us out of here?” I asked, the first thing I’d said since going to dig through the pile. My voice sounded distant, cold, empty.


“Yeah,” Aiko said. Her voice was hushed. The kind of voice you use in graveyards and churches, with raving lunatics and people standing on ledges.


I nodded. I’d expected as much. Jason wouldn’t have made this hideout without a way to leave. “Can you destroy this place?” I asked.


That question took her more by surprise. “What?” she asked.


“This world,” I said. “Can you destroy it? Break it and send it back to the void?”


She considered that for a long moment. I just stood there as she did, unmoving, not even breathing. I didn’t look at her, just stared unblinkingly down at the corpses.


“Yeah,” she said at last. “I think I can. Most places I couldn’t, but this one…yeah.”


“Okay,” I said, turning towards her. I extended one hand, and without asking, she handed me Snowflake’s body.


Aiko didn’t follow as I walked back up the pile of wreckage from the broken tower, to the very top. I was vaguely glad she didn’t.


I stopped up there, setting Snowflake down. Then I stood there, looking out over the plain that extended to the horizon.


I wanted to say something, but I couldn’t find the words. What the hell was I supposed to say? Should I apologize? Say that I would miss her? None of it would matter. Words never fixed anything, and she wasn’t here to hear them anyway. This wasn’t Snowflake. This was just an empty shell.


It felt strangely, sickly amusing. Alive, she had been vibrant, unique, extraordinary.


Dead, she was meat.


In the end, I stood there silently for a long time. Maybe minutes, maybe hours. I wasn’t sure how to tell, wasn’t sure it mattered.


Finally, I knelt and unclipped her collar. My fingers brushed against her fur as I did. It was stiff and spiky, the blood dried. The body was already cold.


I felt a quiet tingle of energy as I stood again, holding that braided leather collar in my hand. It was tempting to think that it was some echo of Snowflake, some remnant of her. I knew better. It was the magic I’d woven into that collar, into the spikes and stones and bits of tooth and bone.


I wanted to cry then, found I no longer had the eyes for it.


I turned and walked away, leaving her there. The bloodstained collar dangled from my fingers.


I got to the bottom, where Aiko was waiting for me. “I’m sorry,” she said, her voice a hushed whisper. She’d been crying. “I’m so sorry.”


I nodded. “Do it,” I said.


She seemed about to say something else, turned away instead. I smelled magic, dark and abstract, something like and unlike the power of a portal.


At first the effects were subtle. A quiet waver here, a ripple of an unnamable color there. Then it grew gradually more extreme. Streaks of absolute blackness wrote themselves through the air before reality asserted itself again.


Then, out at the horizon, the plains started to vanish, replaced by the endless darkness and mad colors of the void.


“There,” Aiko said, turning to face me. She sounded tired. I wasn’t sure how long it had been since she started working the spell. “Now for the portal.”


I nodded, staring out into the chaos. She finished a few moments later, the hole in the world unfolding next to us, but I didn’t move, just stood there as the void rolled slowly closer.


I considered just standing there and letting it consume me. Everything had gone so wrong, so very, very wrong. I’d done the best I could, tried my hardest. And yet still, in spite of everything I’d done, it had come to this.


In comparison to the pain of that, of knowing just how badly I’d fucked up, oblivion sounded…pleasant. Restful.


But I knew that Snowflake wouldn’t want me to do that. And there were other people who cared about me, other responsibilities that I couldn’t ignore.


I turned away from that broken tower, and stepped through the portal.


So died Snowflake. She was an unrepentant murderer, a killer, a monster. But she was my friend, a better friend than I deserved. She came into being because of my choice, a choice I made without understanding the consequences. She suffered for my sins. She died so that I could live, and all the power at my command could not keep her by my side.


I left here there, the ending of that dead, empty world as her funeral pyre.


Last one out, please turn out the lights.

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Broken Mirror 13.27

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“I think it was something about you being a megalomaniac and randomly murdering people who thought you were their friend,” I said, watching the knife carefully. The armor should be able to stop it, and even if it got through it shouldn’t be able to really hurt me, but…well, under the circumstances I thought that relying on that was probably not the best idea.


Jason sighed and sat down, returning the knife to its sheath. Now that I was watching more closely, I could see that he hadn’t produced it from nowhere. Just a wrist sheath and a bit of sleight of hand.


“Don’t be so dramatic,” he said, picking up his glass of water and sipping at it. “It’s not like I hunted him down for sport or something. But that was possibly the only chance I had to deal with him. I couldn’t afford to let it slip by me.”


I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Okay,” I said. “If you want to be like that about it, how about a trade? I have questions, and you have answers. Somehow, I’m guessing there are things you’d like to know too. I think one to one is a fair exchange, don’t you?”


“And why would I take the risk of explaining myself to you?” he asked, one eyebrow raised.


“Think of it like this,” I said. “We want to kill you, you want to kill us. And there’s not a lot that any of us can do, here, to get away. One way or another, one of us isn’t leaving this roof alone. So really, adding in the explanation isn’t changing anything. It’s just going double or nothing.”


Jason nodded. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, “you really aren’t much like I expected. You aren’t what the rumormongers would paint you as. Much more reasonable, less psychotic. You made that offer quite cogently.” He smiled, a thin, empty sort of smile. “You ask first. You are, after all, the guest here.”


“All right,” I said. “Why does the Light of Reason terrorist group have access to top-tier magical equipment and information?”


“They’re being used,” he said, quite shamelessly. “By quite a number of people, really. There are plenty of people who see potential there. It isn’t my doing, if that’s what you were wondering. But one person feeds them a secret, and another tosses a bribe their way, and before you know it the pawn has more power than anyone intended.”


I nodded. He sounded sincere. Which meant nothing at all, but I thought he might actually be telling the truth this time. It fit. It fit together so neatly. I thought I was finally starting to get an idea of what was going on, of what the real shape of things was, and what Jason said fit with that shape.


“My turn,” he said. “Why did you hunt me down here?”


“Because you killed me,” I said. “Or as good as, anyway.”


“That’s it?”


I shrugged. “Oh, there are other reasons. I could go into why you did that, and whose plans are being served, but in the proximate sense? Yeah, the immediate reason is just that you killed me.”


“I see,” he said, with the mildly troubled frown of someone who doesn’t see and never will.


“You don’t really get people, do you?” I commented. “Not as anything other than tools to be used.”


“That’s all we are,” Jason said calmly. “Everyone uses, and is used. I’m simply not in denial about it.”


“I thought it was something like that,” I said. “That would be why you don’t understand, I think. You’re not equipped to process that kind of reaction.”


He nodded. “Very possibly. I believe that it’s you next.”


I took a deep breath and let it out. “Why does Loki care about me?”


“Even gods are finite,” he said matter-of-factly. “Incredibly powerful, certainly. Their capabilities are…vast. But finite. They have limits, boundaries. They are neither omnipotent nor omniscient. As such, they require agents. They require tools. And they require weapons.”


“And I’m a weapon.” It wasn’t a question.


Jason answered it anyway. “Yes,” he said. “You are. Why did the Fenris Wolf come to save you?”


“Because he likes me,” I said, shrugging. “I mean, again, there’s a lot more at work behind the scenes. There are other factors, other plans to take into account. But as far as I can tell, the direct reason behind him choosing to do that is just that he likes me, he wanted to help me, and that was the only way he had available to do so. Who taught Katie Schmidt how to summon and bind something from the void?”


Jason paused before answering, and frowned. “I am not entirely sure,” he said. “There are multiple possibilities. But if I had to guess? Hunter.”


“Hunter,” I repeated. “You mean…the Hunter? The member of the original Conclave? The one whose existence they’ve tried to erase? That Hunter?”




“Of course,” I sighed. Hunter. The man with a gift for space magic, and a tie to the notion of place. The one who’d explored the outer reaches of the Otherside, and found something there so bad that the Conclave had struck all mention of his existence from the records.


It occurred to me that the only mage I’d met who had a gift for manipulating space, in particular, was Reese. It occurred to me that Jason had just killed him. Somehow I didn’t think that was a coincidence, or half as casual as Jason had presented it as being.


More pieces were fitting into place. The picture was almost finished, now. I’d misunderstood things so badly, but now the answers were so clear.


I’d have been happier if the answers weren’t so unpleasant. But that was how it went.


“I don’t think I have any other questions,” Jason said after a moment, echoing my thoughts. “Not for you.”


I sighed, the long, slow sigh of wind through bare branches. “No,” I said. “I don’t suppose I have any questions for you either.”


“I suppose this is it, then,” he said. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry that things had to be like this. That your life had to be like this. But this is where we are.”


“Yeah,” I said. “It is.”


He didn’t so much as twitch, but I felt a weight press on me, impossibly heavy. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even think, couldn’t marshal my power to fight the pressure. I managed to call Tyrfing, reached to undo the strap holding the old cursed sword in its scabbard, but it was hard. Traveling across the plain and up the tower hadn’t been half as hard as moving my fingers those few inches. I started to draw the sword, and the weight redoubled itself, crushing me. My hands fell to my side again.


I couldn’t even get upset about it. Oh, I was angry, but it felt…distant. The weight was dragging even that down, an oppressive fog that clouded everything.


It looked like Aiko was feeling similarly. She twitched a little, scents of fox and spice and shadow, cords of darkness winding through her fingers. But she didn’t, couldn’t really do anything. I could feel her fury, a quietly berserk anger that was scary even to me. But her posture was as blank and listless as mine.


Jason stood, silently. He set his glass of water on the table, and drew that knife again. And then he started walking in our direction.


And then I heard a voice. It felt…familiar, but odd. It was a voice that I’d only heard clearly a few times, though it was familiar in a way that almost nothing else could be, bone-deep. The wolf in Snowflake’s mind usually preferred to stay silent, in the background, something that you would only see if you knew how to look.


It’s been good, that voice said now. I’m sorry.


And then she was running forward, a blur in black and white and blue, moving almost too fast to follow. If the crushing weight holding me and Aiko down affected Snowflake at all, it didn’t show. She tensed, leaped at Jason, a perfect pounce that landed squarely in the middle of the man’s torso. He staggered, and metal teeth closed on his shoulder instead of his neck, but they still bit deep, and for a moment I thought it might work after all.


Then Jason brought that knife around. It swept through the armor like it wasn’t even there, and laid her throat open to the bone.


It felt like time stood still for a moment. I still couldn’t move, couldn’t shake off the burden weighing me down. But it felt like my senses had gone into overdrive to compensate. I could smell sweat and blood and metal. I saw the light glinting off the blade. Saw the first spurts of arterial blood, a moment’s delay and then a spray, staining her white fur a brilliant red. Saw her eyes, one cold and blue and knowing, the other gone, burnt out long ago to pay for my mistakes.


I heard the clamor of metal on stone as she fell.


And then everything was gone, replaced by a vision, painfully clear, too intense to be real. My vision went black, the utter darkness of a cave without a flame, a night without stars, the sort of darkness that laughed at the notion of light. Drawn on it in silver light, shapes as large as worlds, was an abstract, geometric design. It was harsh, almost brutal, all odd angles and broken lines, nothing lining up right.


I heard Grandmother Midnight’s voice, then. It was…not loud, precisely. But it was so huge, so pervasive, that it dominated my experience. To call it sound seemed woefully inadequate.


The Tower, she said, in that too-large voice. All things fall in time.


Then the vision faded. I was back on the spire with Jason, seemingly in the same instant I’d left. Snowflake hadn’t even finished falling yet.


But everything was different.


Beneath our feet, the tower groaned like a thing in pain, a noise so deep that I didn’t so much hear it as feel it in my chest. It shook, though the vast plains all around were perfectly still, with no hint of an earthquake. It started to crumble and fall, the motion made slow by the sheer, almost inconceivable scale of it.


And as it did, the weight that had been dragging me down vanished as though it had never been.


Aiko’s reaction was instant, and violent. Ropes of darkness caught at Jason and dragged him down. He tried to fend them off with the knife, and where it met the shadows it cut them, but he was only human; too slow, too clumsy to defend himself that way. Aiko approached him at a pace she could never have managed when she was just a kitsune, drawing her sword as she went.


The blade fell once. Just once.


My own response was just as fast, but had a different focus. I ran to Snowflake, fell to my knees by her side.


Any notion I might have had that the wound was less serious than it looked died in a moment. It was deep, and wide, passing cleanly through both carotid arteries and the windpipe. It was the sort of wound that killed rapidly and surely.


There were things that could survive something like that. I could, now. Aiko probably could as well, being a Faerie Queen.


At the end of the day, for all that she was strong and fast and clever, Snowflake was just a dog. Get past all of the other things, and she was as fragile as any other.


I could do a lot of things. I had the power to lay waste to an army, to crush my enemies and drive them before me, to kill very nearly anything.


But I couldn’t heal. My best friend was bleeding out right next to me, and I was as helpless to stop it as anyone else.


I took a different tack, reaching for her mind and catching it. I tried to bring her–them–into my mind and hold them there, the way I had with the wolf once before.


I couldn’t. They couldn’t make the transition, the jump from that body and mind to mine. It was too alien, too dissimilar to their natures.


I pulled harder, refusing to let them go. They weren’t fading, weren’t vanishing, but still weren’t making that transition.


It hurt. It hurt as badly as anything I’d ever done. My vision was going grey. I could hear shouting, but it sounded like I was underwater, the sound distant and distorted. I could feel their pain as well, their agony at being torn in this way.


Stop, a voice said. It wasn’t Snowflake’s voice, wasn’t familiar to me at all.


No, I replied, though I wasn’t sure who it was intended for, the voice or Snowflake or myself. I won’t lose you. I tightened my grip, pulled harder.


Stop, the voice said again. This is how monsters are made.


I don’t care.


All things end, the voice said. All things must make that final step. You cannot save them, not as they were. And if they must end, death is a kinder end than what you are doing.


I wanted to argue. Wanted to scream and cry. Wanted to protest.


Didn’t, because I could feel that it was true.


I let go. Snowflake slipped away.


She let out a final sigh, her head resting in my lap. I felt her mind brush against mine a final time, wordless in the end as she’d been in the beginning, just a sense of love and acceptance and forgiveness and quiet, melancholy regret.


Then she was gone.


I stood, holding her body in one hand. With the other I fumbled blindly, found Aiko’s hand in mine.


I stepped silently off the edge of the roof and lowered us to the ground with a web of air and darkness, as the tower fell behind us.

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Broken Mirror 13.26

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The next several hours passed in a blur. I thought it was several hours, at least. It was hard to be sure. My grasp on time was looser than it often was, or maybe tighter is the word. More focused on the present, on my immediate surroundings. I had to be. Walking though a world that was built to be a deathtrap, there wasn’t room to think about anything beyond that.


Then again, it was hard to say how relevant it would have been anyway. Time could be odd on the Otherside, could flow in ways that didn’t quite line up with the world I came from; that was one of the first things anyone learned about the place. It was what was behind a lot of famous stories, Thomas the Rhymer and Oisin and any number of others.


Usually that wasn’t a problem. As long as you stuck to the safer sections of the Otherside, you could generally rely on time being more or less the same. You might lose a few hours here and there, you might have one hell of a case of jet lag, but in the end things would be more or less what they should be.


Here? I wasn’t so sure. This was Jason’s little private world, and I had no idea how far his control over it might extend. I was hoping he couldn’t bend it too far, particularly with Aiko there; she was a Faerie Queen, and there were reasons that so many of those stories involved people with that role. I was guessing he wouldn’t want to bend it too far, since losing a hundred years in a day of hiding had the potential to hurt him as much as us. But in the end, I couldn’t be completely sure. It was another thing to add to the list of ways this little trip might go really, really wrong.


That was all right. I could deal with it. I could live with this being risky.


But however much real time it might be taken, and whether or not that was even a concept that could be applied to this, it felt like it took hours to make our way to that dark tower. The field was larger than it looked, much larger. I was guessing it was a trick of folded space and distorted perception, and that Reese could explain it in great detail. It didn’t really matter, though. For my purposes, it was enough to know that the field was larger than it should have been.


On top of that, it was slow going. This place was very possibly the single most heavily-trapped area I’d ever tried to assault. It felt like every step, every square foot of space, had some kind of threat waiting. Reese knew where a lot of the dangers were, but not all of them. We had to go slowly, take it carefully, or risk a catastrophic failure.


Of course, none of us was really that good at removing traps. Aiko was good at circumventing security measures–she’d have to be, with how much she’d done it–but not enough for any of us to count on. We could trigger a lot of them with magic, the pressure triggers and tripwires, but Jason had planned for that. Some of them were rigged in ways that we couldn’t reliably trigger from a distance. It made things hard.


The only way we could have gotten through that literal and metaphorical minefield in complete safety was by taking a really, really long time. Enough patience, enough care, and we could probably manage it. But that would also entail giving Jason more time to realize we were here, more time to prepare or escape. That was a risk that we couldn’t readily afford.


So we tried to strike a balance between speed and safety. The result was that it took hours to get across the field, and we had more than a handful of close calls, with everything from sharpened sticks and poisoned darts to land mines and pits of acid.


It was slow, and it was tiring. I was still functioning as smoothly as ever, physically; I didn’t feel fatigue the way I used to. But I felt slow, like the edge on my reactions was dulled. It wasn’t much, but considering where we were and what we were doing here, it was still too much. This was not a good time to be functioning at less than my best. And I could tell that the others, lacking that unnatural stamina, were fatigued. It was not a comforting thought.


Finally, after taking far longer than I would have guessed possible, we reached the destination.


It looked bigger up close. Not that it had looked small from a distance, but…well, tall buildings always had that effect on me. From a distance it was easy to write it off as a landmark, to call it a part of the skyline and leave it at that. Then I stood at the base, and looked up…and up…and up…and got an odd, dizzy sort of feeling, almost like vertigo.


And this was a tall building, easily the equal of most skyscrapers. It towered over the endless field, well over a thousand feet tall. For a steel-frame building built with modern principles of engineering, it would have been an impressive height. Done in stone, it seemed unreal, almost inconceivable. That impression certainly wasn’t hurt by the realization that it cast no shadow; apparently, the definition of this domain hadn’t been complete enough to really cover the laws of optics very well.


Up close, we could see another problem with it. Namely, it was absolutely featureless. The exterior of the building was utterly blank and smooth, lacking any obvious means of entrance.


“The door is somewhere around here,” Reese said, coming to a halt just in front of the tower. “It’s masked when the defenses are up, to help keep people out. We’ll have to look for the entrance.”


“Better idea,” I said, stepping forward and calling Tyrfing. A quick flick of my wrist sent the sheath flying off, and a couple of swings carved out a rough rectangle into the wall. It felt oddly satisfying, letting out some aggression. I had a lot of pent-up frustration from the trip here, and that simple, straightforward solution was an easy way to let it out.


Having cut the outline into the wall, I sheathed the sword and kicked the chunk of stone. It didn’t budge.


I paused, and scowled at it. I kicked it again, harder.


No response. It didn’t even shake.


I snarled, and went to kick it a third time. As I did, I felt a sudden surge of energy running through me, darkness and cold and the sound of howling winds, the sense of everything working in perfect unison in that moment.


I hit the chunk of stone, and it flew most of a hundred feet across the tower. It hit the opposite wall and broke before falling to the floor.


I smiled grimly as I stepped through, ducking a little. Reese paused for a moment first, staring at the stone, and I could almost see him calculating how much force it would take to throw that chunk of the wall across the room that hard.


I knew the answer, and it was a lot. A piece of stone the size of a door, the better part of two feet thick? That was the kind of thing you needed a team of people or a forklift to get off the ground. Kicking it wasn’t supposed to break anything but your toes. A werewolf would have been hard-pressed to lift it.


I tried not to think too hard about what it meant that I’d just done that. It wasn’t hard. There were more immediate things to focus on.


Stepping in, I found myself in a large room, apparently some kind of foyer. From the inside, I could see the door, less than two feet away from the hole I’d cut in the wall. The floor was a mosaic, a geometric pattern in black and white, and the vaulted ceiling was rather impressive. Beyond that and a shallow staircase running around the perimeter of the room, there was nothing of note in the room, no one else present.


“Upstairs, I’m guessing?” I said. My voice sounded harsh and cold to my ears, with the sound of wolves and blizzards just beneath the surface. Judging by their reactions, it wasn’t just me hearing it this time. A landmark moment, truly.


Reese recovered from the apparent shock after a moment. “Yeah,” he said. “All the way at the top, I’m guessing.”


I nodded. “Of course,” I said. Then I started climbing the steps.


Climbing the spire was worse than getting to it. Unsurprisingly, I supposed. This was the location that actually mattered, the one that Jason wanted to keep people out of. All of the stuff outside the building was, ultimately, just the preliminary defense, weeding out the people who weren’t really a concern. This was where it got serious.


And it got very serious. I’d assaulted enemy compounds before, more than a couple of times. This one used a lot of the same defenses as they had, and it used them well. There were magical wards, spells of force and fire and more abstract, less comprehensible things. There were mechanical traps, everything from blades in the walls to a freaking massive boulder that rolled down the stairs at us. There were constructs, whole hordes of constructs in dozens of shapes, each more creatively murderous than the last. At one point we found a chained demon–Selene’s kind of demon, not Legion’s, a vaguely canine thing that smoldered with a sickly green flame.


There were no people, or even anything that closely resembled people. That made sense from a tactical perspective, I supposed. This was clearly an extreme fallback, the kind of contingency plan you make with the hope that you’ll never, ever have to use it. People weren’t great for that; you couldn’t really just set them up and then not think about them again. I was just glad that there weren’t any here. This was hard enough as it was; adding in all the difficulties that brought with it would have just made things worse.


Oddly, though, it was easy. Despite being maybe the single most heavily-fortified location I’d ever attacked, it was easy. The defenses that would have stopped most invaders in their tracks just…didn’t do much to us. Aiko could shatter the wards with dismissive ease, her power simply so much greater than theirs that there was no contest. Reese knew the mechanical traps better here than he had outside, and the ones he didn’t remember didn’t slow us down much.


And I…well. I dealt with my share of the defenses as well. The constructs weren’t any kind of a threat. It didn’t matter how numerous they were. I cut a swath through them, left dozens of them on the ground in pieces, and nothing they did even slowed me down. When we found the demon, I shattered its chain with Tyrfing, and then just stared at it when it seemed like it might want a fight anyway. In the end it slunk off with its tail between its legs, too scared of me to start any trouble.


In a way, it was pleasant. It was satisfying. It felt good to be this powerful, to be so much more than human.


And then I remembered the price we’d paid for this, and any joy in the moment faded.


So we made our way up through the tower, one step at a time. The things we passed didn’t necessarily make much sense. There were laboratories, personal apartments, what looked like a barracks. There were levels that were empty of anything except some abstract statuary. I wondered whether Jason had just run out of ideas for rooms, but had to keep going because he wanted the tower to be so comically tall. It would explain a lot.


Every level had one constant, though. At the edge of the room, hugging the outer wall, there was a staircase. That long, shallow staircase just kept wrapping around, up and up and up.


So we climbed. And climbed. It took another long, interminable span of time. I was starting to worry about whether food would be an issue, for the others. I was starting to wonder whether I was dead and this was an unexpectedly bland, tedious sort of hell.


But finally, we went around the corner and the stairs stopped. No further to climb.


We were on the roof, a sheet of black stone, so high it felt like we were floating. Normally, I would have expected dangerous winds at this height, but there was no wind here, in this artificial world.


My first impression of the area was that it was…plain. It was a very simple space, for someone who had almost unlimited power to sculpt it to his will. The roof of the spire was stone, unmarked and featureless. There was some simple furniture–a few chairs, some small tables. There were a few more abstract sculptures, in the same style as the ones we’d passed earlier. Now that I looked at them more closely, I could see that they were simple, with visible mistakes. Amateur work.


And that was it. No garish displays of wealth, no abuses of the laws of physics for entertainment. I’d seen college apartments that weren’t this plain.


If there were any doubt that this was the right place, though, it was settled when I saw the roof’s occupant. Jason was sitting in one of the chairs, sipping at a glass of water and reading a book. He was wearing his usual cheap suit, black with white pinstripes, and a grey tie. He didn’t look like anything special. An office worker, or a corporate manager. He didn’t look like a terrifying mage who would stop at nothing in his quest for power.


“Hello,” he said as we emerged onto the roof. He closed his book, setting it and the glass of water on the table next to him. “I wondered when you’d find me here. I was expecting it to take longer than this.”


“Jason,” Reese said, in a tone of barely-restrained anger. “You have a great deal to explain.” He stomped forward, hands flexing at his sides.


“And I will explain,” Jason said mildly. “I don’t know what you’re upset about, but I’m sure I can explain.” He stood, walked over to Reese, rested one hand on the space mage’s shoulder. “I’m sure this is all just a misunderstanding,” he said.


I realized what was happening, started to shout a warning, too slow, too late. No one else had even realized what was happening.


I’d realized that Reese was a decent guy. I’d exploited that. I should have realized that I wasn’t the only one who could capitalize on that particular weakness.


I wasn’t sure what magic was on the knife, to let it get past all of Reese’s defenses. But the blade went in smooth and clean, so fast you might not even see what was happening until it was too late.


Reese stared down at the knife in his guts. I could smell magic, feel him trying to bend space and get away.


Nothing happened. That was what Jason did, after all. He altered magic on a basic level, one that didn’t have much in common with the obvious physical manifestations most mages used. He could make magic stronger, make it easy. Or he could shut it down entirely.


“I’m sorry, old friend,” Jason said. “But I couldn’t take the risk.”


He twisted the knife, and pulled it out. Reese sagged as blood followed the blade out of him. Jason slammed the knife home again, then shoved the other man away.


Now the magic worked, but twisted, not quite as intended. Reese moved through space, out past the edge of the roof.


He fell. I didn’t think he was going to be getting back up. Being stabbed twice with a magic knife and then falling off a skyscraper tended to do that to a person. There were things that could survive it, of course…but at the end of the day, for all his power, Reese was only human.


“I’m sorry,” Jason said, as the rest of us were still trying to adjust to what had just happened. “Where was I?”

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Interlude 13.b: Mab

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I remember the trees. It doesn’t make much sense, even to me. There are so many other things that should logically come first. But I remember the trees.


They were large trees, or at least I thought so at the time. They were a sort of oak that never grew anywhere else, living on magic more than air and sunlight. They had silver bark, and black leaves. They had been there for ages, all growing in a row next to the sea. I remember that the leaves would rustle in the wind. They cast shadows on the ground, a slowly shifting pattern in black and gold as the sun passed through the branches. All it takes is a thought and I can hear the breeze, the leaves, the laughter. I can smell the salt air, the bitter tannins of the oaks. I can taste the bread we used to eat, the smoked fish.


Those oaks are there no more, of course. Time and chance, fire and iron, brought the last of them to an end long ago.


All things must one day reach an end.


Time is an odd thing. Some things blur with the passing years, grow distant and strange until it seems they must be someone else’s memories entirely. Others grow sharp and precise, always fresh and immediate no matter how many ages separate you. Time may be consistent, ticking along in its eternal course, but the perception of time is very different. Time as she is played is a fickle thing, and she does not conform to anyone’s notion of consistency.


The trees, then, are a moment that stands outside of time as she is. That memory stays sharp, despite all the ages which now stand between us. The trees may be long dead, but in my mind they still stand tall and strong.


That thought is, perhaps, more poignant for me than it might be for another.


The fae are often described as constant, and not without reason. It is said, rather commonly, that the fae do not and can not go against their natures. This is not wrong, but neither is it particularly informative. What is meant by “nature,” in this context? The meaning is unclear. To call it the entity’s telos is more specific, but introduces even more ambiguous language and potential for error in translation.


The best term, then, might be definition. In principle, everything can be defined as a set of descriptors, which between them are necessary and sufficient to identify that thing. Something can be said to belong under a label if and only if it meets all of those conditions which are essential to the label’s definition.


This makes it easier to explain how the fae are constant, restricted, inevitable. They cannot go against their respective definitions. The fae are defined as truthful, and thus an individual member of the group cannot tell a lie; to do so would be to go against that aspect of their definition.


Within the broader category of fae, individual subsets have additional, stricter definitions. Ogres are brutish and violent, because that is what it means to be an ogre. Kobolds are secretive, not because they necessarily desire to be, but because it is what they are. The high fae, the Sidhe, are beings of bargain and debt, a fact which colors their perspective on every level.


This the appropriate lens through which to view the fae. And this concept can be extended further, to the highest reaches of the Courts.


Thus, when I issue a command, in my capacity as the Queen of the Unseelie Court? When I order a death, send an army to sure defeat, tempt a good man to sell his soul? I am not being cruel, or vicious, or evil. I’m simply acting in accordance with the definition of the role. I am fulfilling my telos.


I sit on a throne of old, worn black wood, and look out over my Court. I am remote and unapproachable as the northern star, a distant enigma even to my own people. Information comes in and orders go out, always based on cold, ruthless logic. This is what it means to be the ascendant Queen of the Unseelie Court. This is what I am. And outside of that definition, I am as I have always been.


But the problem becomes, then, the paradox of the heap. How many grains of sand can one remove before the heap is a heap no longer? How much can you change before you are no longer you? I think that I exist, that my life stretches back unbroken through the ages, but does it? Or is that person gone, subsumed, leaving nothing behind but Mab, the Mother of Midnight, the Queen-Who-Is of the Unseelie Court of the Sidhe?


I do not, can not, know.


It is the definition, the telos, and the nature of my role to remember, to contemplate. And so I think on this, from time to time, and I am troubled.


And then I remember the trees.


They say that a man is not wholly dead whose name is still spoken, who is remembered by those whose lives he has touched.


If that is true, then the echo of that moment lives on yet. The Mab who was once a woman, who stood at the western edge of the world and looked out over the sea, who walked arm-in-arm with her sister through the trees and spoke of the way things were and the way things should be, who had a vision of a perfect world and followed that vision down a dark and winding road….


So long as there is an Unseelie Court, that vision’s touch will be felt.


In that limited sense, I am immortal.

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Broken Mirror 13.25

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I showed up five hours early. Somewhat to my surprise, I was the first one there. It was pretty early, even by my standards, but I’d sort of been expecting someone to be there waiting for me. It was…bizarrely comforting when there wasn’t.


I had, briefly, considered bringing an army, and just burying the place in bodies. Numbers were, in the end, a hell of an advantage. But there were too many reasons not to. I wasn’t sure how Reese would react if I showed up with that kind of force, or whether this window of opportunity was even long enough to get an army through the portal. Even if they could get in, it sounded like this hideout was the kind of hostile environment that would rip a group of less experienced people to shreds, which meant that bringing them was pretty much just throwing lives away for nothing.


And then there was…another consideration. Jason, apparently, knew how to rip someone’s magic out and use it for himself. That was a trick that I didn’t have much of a way to deal with, and it meant that cannon fodder was not a great idea on this trip. It was, potentially, an extremely bad idea.


So I was leaving the thugs at home, this time around. It was going to be just me, Aiko, and Snowflake–plus, of course, Reese, since I didn’t really see a way to leave him behind. It would almost have felt like old times, were there not quite so many things that could never be the way they had back then.


I knew that this was liable to be a long wait, so for once I’d actually brought something to do rather than just sit there. In this case, that something was dice. Snowflake still cheated, and I still didn’t know how.


We’d been sitting at the assigned departure point for close to four hours, and Snowflake was several hundred imaginary dollars ahead, when a portal opened in the air next to us. Reese stepped through a moment later.


I was more than slightly jealous of that. The departure point, in this case, was a seemingly random patch of scrubland in the middle of Mexico. Getting there had entailed a portal, a bus ride, and a lengthy hike. Being able to just step through and be there as simply as that sounded incredibly pleasant by comparison.


“You ready?” I asked, looking him over. He did not look like he was ready for a massive, life-or-death invasion of an extremely fortified private world. He looked more like he was getting ready for a day hike. All he needed to complete the image was socks with sandals, rather than heavy boots.


He was carrying a pistol, though. And I’d learned a long time ago not to underestimate people on the basis of their appearance.


“I’m ready,” he said. “You?”


I shrugged. “As I’m going to be,” I said. “I don’t really know what to expect.”


He paused, then shrugged. “It’ll be about what you’d expect,” he said. “But worse.”


“Delightful,” I said dryly. “Nothing to do but get it over with, I guess.”


Reese nodded, and then sat down with us to play dice. I was a little surprised by that, but I didn’t want to actually turn him away.


As I learned over the next thirty minutes, he cheated, too. Not as well as Snowflake, who still had a sizable lead, but he did better than me. I was several thousand imaginary dollars in the hole by the time the next portal opened. This one smelled like fae magic, sharp and sweet and touched with darkness; presumably, Aiko had gotten one of her minions to open it. As far as I knew, she didn’t know any portal destinations anywhere near here.


It was her, though. She stepped through the portal and hit me with a flying tackle that promptly turned into a forceful hug. Once she was satisfied with that, she turned to Snowflake and spent a while scratching the husky’s ears. Finally, a solid five minutes after she showed up, she turned her attention to Reese and said, “Hi.”


The space mage glanced at his wristwatch in a rather exaggerated way, then looked at Aiko. “Cutting it a bit close,” he said, in a tone that conveyed disapproval more clearly than any words he could have said.


She shrugged carelessly. “I’m here on time, aren’t I?” she asked. Then she looked at me. “You’re wearing the armor,” she commented.


I shrugged. “I wasn’t sure whether there would be anything to make a body from where we’re going,” I said. “It seemed like a good idea to put a bit more thought into keeping this one intact.” I was wearing my cloak of shadows, too, and carrying a fairly substantial set of physical kit. The weight of the armor, the feeling of the cloak moving with me, was…oddly comforting.


“Makes sense,” she said. “But mostly I meant that you’re wearing the armor here. In the desert. I just showed up and I’m already too hot.”


“Funny thing about that,” I said, grinning. “You know how I can make an area colder? Well, this armor’s almost airtight.”


Hang on, Snowflake said. You have air conditioning in there?


Pretty much, I confirmed.


The husky stared at me for a moment. I hate you so much right now, she said.


I smirked.


“If you’re done, we are on a tight schedule here,” Reese said dryly.


My smile faded, and I nodded.


I was already kitted out. But Snowflake wasn’t wearing her armor yet–it really was hot out here, and Siberian huskies were not exactly built for the desert at the best of times. I spent the next several minutes helping her into the armor, while Aiko put on her own set. She was carrying a lot of weapons, including quite a few that I didn’t recognize at all, odd-looking things that smelled like Midnight.


Reese, meanwhile, drew an elaborate diagram in the sand, frequently referencing that wristwatch, as well as a small leather-bound book. It started out simple, a couple of equilateral triangles and a circle, but he kept adding lines, and the figure rapidly grew intricate and complex, the precise nature of the geometry seeming to shift depending on what angle I looked at it from. There were a lot of formulae written out with it, describing what looked like a hellaciously complex system of equations. I could just about follow along with it to start with, but the diagram quickly moved beyond my comprehension.


And the best part? That was just the reference for the actual spell. The geometric figures were a skeleton for the magic to fill in, the formulae just a reference and definition for him to use as he established the portal. The actual spell would be far more difficult.


I no longer had any doubts about whether this hideout was secure. If the guy that made the thing, a certifiable expert on this kind of magic, using a backdoor that he built in to the system so he could access it if necessary, had to work this hard to get there? Yeah, my chances of pulling it off would have been nonexistent.


The rest of us were finished well before Reese, and just stood there watching him finish. Finally, less than ten minutes before the point in time we were aiming for, he stopped, standing at the dead center of the enormous figure drawn on the ground.


“Hurry up,” he said at that point, not looking at us. “And don’t disturb my circles.”


I looked at the diagram. It was, at this point, one of the most elaborate I’d ever seen, sprawling across an enormous chunk of desert. There were so many things going on there that I wasn’t sure how to get to where Reese was standing without messing something up. At best, the thing was a maze. At worst, even stepping between the lines could push a grain of sand out of position elsewhere, and I wasn’t sure how much disturbance the diagram could take without something going wrong.


I looked at the sky, where the sun was just starting to drop towards the horizon. Then I looked at Aiko. “Can you get me a patch of darkness in the middle there?” I asked.


She shrugged and gestured slightly. I caught the scent of fox and spice and darkness, and a small patch of the desert in the middle of the diagram was suddenly, inexplicably dark.


“Thanks,” I said. I took her hand in mine, grabbed Snowflake with my other hand, and stepped into the shadow of a nearby mesquite tree. It wasn’t all that much of a shadow, but then, I didn’t need a whole lot.


It was possible for a champion of the Sidhe Courts to bring people along on that not-quite-teleportation trick. I knew it was possible, because I’d been the one to ride along when Carraig did it once. I didn’t quite know how it was done, but I was guessing it wouldn’t be too hard. Most aspects of the champion gig so far seemed to be more a matter of instinct than formal training.


As it turned out, it was mostly just more difficult. If most of the time standing in a shadow felt like I was pushing against the surface of gelatin, trying to bring Aiko and Snowflake with me made it more like…wet sand, or half-set concrete. It didn’t want to let me in, and I had to push to make it.


After a few moments, though, I managed it, and we stood in that empty, dark world again. A step and an effort of will carried us to the next shadow, and we stepped out through Aiko’s darkness next to Reese.


That’s really an awesome trick, Snowflake said. We should do that more often.


I just nodded, most of my attention on the magic around us. We were standing in the middle of a large, open circle at the center of the diagram, surrounded by it. I could smell the magic moving around, an impressive amount of it. He had to be tapping something, some external source of power, to empower that large of a magical construct for this long. Probably something localized, a ley line or something like one; that would explain why he’d been so insistent that we do this here.


I didn’t ask. He was obviously deep in concentration, and we were all counting on him getting this right. You don’t pester the bomb disposal technician with questions while they’re elbow-deep in the explosive.


Minutes rolled past. Reese stood there, eyes closed, expression blank, breathing slow and regular. I thought the structure of the spell was finished now, ready to go. He just had it in a holding pattern until the timing lined up.


Finally, the assigned moment rolled around. Reese let out a breath, lips moving in a word I couldn’t make out. I felt a surge of magic, as the diagram came to life around me, power running through it like blood through a living thing.


And then the entire circle we were standing in–the entire thing–went to something beyond black, and we were elsewhere.


The last time, I’d been impressed with how smooth Reese’s portals were. I’d thought he was one of the best I’d ever seen at making them, so talented that the transition was almost seamless even for those who hadn’t been inoculated.


This portal was not like that.


It felt, to me, something like riding in an elevator which had the cable snap suddenly. There was the same instantaneous sense of plummeting, going from stationary to freefall in an instant. There was no vision, but I still had the impression of seeing vivid colors without names blurring past me. There was no sound, but I got the sense of hearing wind roaring past me.


We landed what felt like a small eternity later, and we landed hard. I hit the ground with a painful crash, not quite hard enough to injure, but plenty hard enough to be unpleasant. If I had to breathe, it would have knocked the wind out of me. Aiko let out a sharp oof next to me as it did knock the wind out of her. Around ten feet away, Snowflake was dazed, semiconscious, and vomiting. Reese looked a little better off, but only a little.


I was the first to recover, at least enough to push myself to my feet and look around. A perk of not having much of a physical presence; physical harm just didn’t really faze me.


At first glance, we were standing in a slice of paradise. It was a grassy plain, stretching out to the horizon in all directions. The sun was just warm enough to be pleasant for a human, and it smelled like summer and growing things.


On closer examination, though, it felt very…artificial. The grass was perfect, yes, but it was too perfect, too regular. It took me a few seconds to realize that it was the same patch of grass repeated endlessly, right down to duplicating individual blades of grass. Artificial turf had more personality. The ground was perfectly level, without any of the slight irregularities and bumps that natural ground should have. The air was perfectly, impossibly still. While the plain stretched out to the horizon, that horizon was too close, things just fading to a blur when they should have still been clearly visible.


On the whole, it was still beautiful. But it was a very fake, deceptive sort of beauty, the kind of thing that existed to be looked at rather than to be experienced. Spend any real time here, and the mask slipped.


Turning in place, I saw the only notable feature here. A tower–a bloody tower, how cliché could this guy get?–rose from the plain. It looked like featureless black stone, and it was impossibly tall, enough that I was guessing Jason had fiddled with the laws of physics in this domain to make it happen.


I felt an odd sense of foreboding as I looked at that tower, a feeling of menace. It was hard to explain; it felt almost like déjà vu, the same inexplicable conviction that I should know this situation, without any real idea of what it meant.


“Well,” I said, once I was satisfied that there were no immediate threats. “We made it.”


“Nice place,” Aiko said, standing and walking over next to me. She still sounded short of breath, but it didn’t seem it was anything serious.


“He’ll be in the tower,” Reese said, ignoring the small talk. “It’s his stronghold.”


I nodded. “No sense waiting,” I said, taking a step in that direction. I didn’t plan to go far–we still had to wait for Snowflake to recover, after all. But I wanted to be moving, if only to shake that feeling of menace.


“Wait,” Reese said as I started to move. “Watch your–”


My foot hit the grass. At the same instant, a large blade, something like an oversized scythe, swung up out of the ground and hit me in the chest. It punched straight through the armor, through my body, and then through the armor again.


“Step,” Reese finished, rather lamely. “Everything outside of the entrance area is trapped.”


“Huh,” I said, poking at the scythe. “That actually hurts a little.”


“You were expecting it not to?” he asked, sounding genuinely curious.


“I’m mostly a spiritual entity at this point, apparently,” I said. “Most of the time I don’t even notice physical damage.”


“Ah,” Reese said. “Jason probably arranged for this domain to force more overlap between the spiritual and physical, to make you susceptible to things.”


I blinked. “You can do that?”


He shrugged. “It’s true everywhere on the Otherside, to some extent. But if he knew it would make you vulnerable, he might have done something to enhance the effect here. He has an enormous amount of control over this domain.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered, pulling the blade back out through my chest and dropping it on the ground. It only took me a moment to patch up the wound, fitting ice and darkness back into the hole. Repairing the armor would be more difficult. “So we just have to navigate the massive field of traps to the tower, get in, deal with all the traps there, fight anything Jason has to keep us out, and then deal with him. Piece of cake.”


“Sounds like fun,” Aiko said. I could practically hear her grinning.


“That’s one word for it,” I sighed. “Well, nothing to gain by waiting. Let’s do it.”

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