The next few days passed in a blur.
To start with, it was a haze of frenetic activity. After I finished making arrangements with Jeremy, I had to make the preparations to actually make it happen. I ended up having to go to Alexander to buy the things I needed–or, rather, I could have probably found something similar elsewhere, but all things considered I figured it was worth going for the best.
It was expensive. Extremely so, in fact, and most of it wasn’t the sort of payment that you could make in cash. It would be several full days of work to pay it all off, and it wasn’t the kind of work that I could delegate to minions, either. He assured me that the items would do what they were supposed to do, though, and if so it would be worth it and then some.
After that, though, things got…boring, for lack of a better word. I had everything ready, and now I just had to wait for the target to take the bait. That meant spending days on end shadowing Jeremy, watching for Hunter to appear.
That wasn’t an exaggeration, either. I had no way of guessing when he would come, and when he did, my window of opportunity was likely to be very small. That meant that I had to be present and ready, all the time.
Aiko was there for as much of it as she could. But in the end, she was…maybe not quite mortal, but still subject to many of the conditions of mortality. She had to take breaks. She needed to eat, to sleep. She got bored and needed a distraction–she’d never been a terribly patient soul, and that hadn’t changed with her new role.
None of those things were true of me, and so I didn’t take any kind of break. The hours rolled by, and then the days rolled by, and I was still shadowing Jeremy.
It gave me a lot of time to think. To ponder. That was, in this case, not a good thing. It felt like every topic I thought about was an ugly one, and every time I couldn’t handle it and I switched to something else, it was just as bad.
I thought I understood the situation. I’d been so blind, but now I saw clearly. The puzzle was almost complete now, the pieces falling steadily into place. But the picture they revealed was an ugly one. On so many levels. Everything that had gone wrong, every small cut and deep gash, each twist of the knife…it had all been a part of a plan. I’d never had a chance at succeeding. I felt so stupid, now, for even having tried.
There were only a few things still missing from my comprehension, though they were important ones. I didn’t know why Loki and Coyote and Hunter had done these things. I didn’t know why I was significant enough to them for them to have bothered with me. I didn’t know how this game had started, and I didn’t know how things would end.
Somehow I didn’t think I’d like the answers to those questions, when I did learn them. It seemed a safe enough bet.
Then there were the individual details, most of which weren’t good. Things back in Colorado Springs were going poorly. There wasn’t a crisis, or a major attack, but the usual frictions and troubles went on, and there were the new additions to the ranks to integrate. I couldn’t afford to leave, so the situation was left to slowly fester, small problems growing and growing.
Aiko, even when she was there, was distant. She was distracted, unfocused; sometimes it seemed she was only barely paying attention to the conversation, most of her focus occupied by something I couldn’t perceive. She still had her mischievous, playful attitude, but there was an edge of ruthless malice to it now. It might have been my imagination, but it seemed like the Midnight Court was leaking into her more with each passing day.
Kyra hadn’t made any attempt to get in contact with me again. I didn’t think she was going to. I wasn’t sure I could blame her.
All around, it felt like things were falling apart.
So I sat, and I watched, and I brooded. Days passed in a blur, enlivened only by the constant tension of not knowing whether the plan would work at all.
And then, finally, after a hundred and thirty hours of that hellish stakeout, the quarry appeared.
At first I didn’t think it was anything particularly special. Jeremy had been meeting with all sorts of people over the past few days, in all sorts of places. Someone stepping out of the shadows of a small rented room where he’d just finished meeting with one person and was now eating lunch before heading to the next appointment was an unusual way for such a meeting to start, but not as much so as I would have guessed.
The first indication I had that things were different this time was when I realized that I could smell the new arrival. Aiko and I were close to a hundred feet away and two stories down, watching through a concealed camera, and I could still smell his magic. The base was human disinfectant, but there was another tone to it, something strange and unpleasant and wholly unfamiliar. I couldn’t even put a description to it, beyond to say that it smelled wrong.
“Hello,” he said, with a smooth, practiced smile. “I think we have some business to discuss.”
“It’s possible,” Jeremy said. The mage sounded tired, even through the camera. It had been a long few days for him, too. “You are?”
“Call me Hunter,” the new arrival said.
I stared for a second, mostly just because…I was actually looking at the man who’d caused me so much grief.
He looked…normal. That was the first thing I saw, and the most surprising one. Blaise had said he was born in China, but appearance meant little to people on that level, and he’d chosen a different look for this job. He was pale, with dark hair and eyes and features best described as forgettable. The suit made more of an impression than the person wearing it; it looked like it probably cost more than most cars, and I thought that was probably accurate.
It only took a moment to notice something else, though, that wasn’t normal at all. He carried himself with a sort of confidence, a presence. He walked like he expected the world to get out of his way. It was hard to define, but I’d seen that kind of presence a few times before. Conn had it, and Lucius, and a very few other people who were similarly terrifying.
Combined with the scent of his magic, that was enough to settle any doubts I’d had. This was the guy.
In the same instant as reaching that conclusion, I reached for the weapon I’d bought from Alexander.
It, too, didn’t look like much. In a fit of whimsy, he’d made it a black box with a big red button, which was helpfully covered by a heavy plastic cover to prevent unfortunate accidents. It looked like a comedic prop more than a serious weapon. But Alexander had assured me that the stored spells it was linked to were enough to kill damn near anything.
In theory, the other linked device that Jeremy was carrying in addition to the magical explosives would protect him from the blast. Alexander had been very confident of that as well, and I’d never known the old man to be wrong about that sort of thing. But we were working with some very powerful and very unpredictable interactions, here, and it was impossible to be totally sure what would happen there.
If it wasn’t enough to protect him, I thought with dark amusement, at least I wouldn’t have to pay the other half of Jeremy’s fee.
I flipped the cover up and reached for the button, feeling like I was moving in slow motion. Aiko was staring at the screen, absolutely focused on the scene unfolding there. Her mouth was open slightly, and she was holding her breath. The tension as I reached for that button was palpable.
Something caught my finger around a quarter of an inch from it. I strained against it, but I might as well have been trying to push over a building.
“Stop,” Fenris said, fading into sight with his hand already closed around my finger. His grip was utterly implacable–not actually damaging me, but the notion of trying to move that hand wasn’t even worth considering.
I stared at him. “What?” I said. “Why?”
“Because you do not understand,” he said. His voice was…sad, and bleak, and hungry.
Aiko darted for the button, moving so fast I could barely see her. Fenris put one hand out and stopped her cold. It looked like a casual push, almost gentle, but he sent her flying across the room and into the wall. It didn’t look like a serious impact, and she got up immediately, but it was still impressive.
I glared at him and pulled my hand away. I was confident he could have stopped me–this was Fenris, after all–but he let me take my hand back without a fight.
He was still between me and that button, though, and I didn’t for a moment think that I could get past him. I could try to do something clever and press the button in another way, but I doubted I had anything that he couldn’t stop.
“If I don’t understand,” I said in a low growl, “then explain.”
A brief expression of pain crossed his face. “I can’t,” he said, almost stammering. “I can’t let you do that, Winter, you understand? It’s…I…you can’t.”
“I thought you guys wanted him dead,” Aiko said. “Isn’t that the whole reason this is a thing?”
“I can’t explain,” Fenris said. “Not yet, you wouldn’t understand. You aren’t ready yet, you need to see more. Please trust me. I’ll explain, just…not now.”
I stared at him. I felt like I should be screaming or growling or breaking things, but I wasn’t. I was still, and when I spoke my voice was very quiet, and very calm, and very, very cold. “What the hell, Fenris?” I said. “I thought I could trust you, of all people. I thought we were friends.”
Once again, the Fenris Wolf looked like he was in pain. Not just pain, but agony. “We are, Winter,” he said. “I’m your friend. And I’m saying this to you as a friend. Please, just let this one go. I know this is hard, but just…stop looking for Hunter. Let it go. I promise I’ll explain someday.”
For a moment I thought he’d say something else. Then he was gone, and he took that big red button with him. I’d seen other deities pull that vanishing trick before, though never Fenris that I could recall. I still didn’t know how it worked, not quite.
When I looked at the screen again, the room was empty. Jeremy was gone. So was Hunter. I could at least guess how they’d left, given that Hunter was the most gifted mage alive when it came to manipulations of space and position.
We stood there and stared for probably close to a minute. I was still trying to calm myself down; the past few seconds had raised a storm of conflicting emotions in me like few I’d ever experienced. At a glance, Aiko was doing more or less the same.
“Well,” she said at last, in a distinctly subdued tone. “Fuck.”
I just nodded.