I hadn’t been expecting the fire, hadn’t been ready for it. It couldn’t really hurt me–it was just propane, and I’d come back from far worse fires than that already. But for a guy made out of ice and darkness, even a mundane fire was something to be taken seriously.
Aiko had, probably deliberately, given just enough notice for me to react before starting the fire. The thought of using that moment to cuss her out was a tempting one, but it wasn’t terribly practical. So instead I reached out to the air around me and pushed it outward, pulling more air in from above to replace it.
Propane is heavier than air, and normally you expect it to displace air rather than the other way around. A sufficiently strong breeze, though, can move it. We weren’t directly over a vent, so keeping that breeze up was enough to keep us from actually being immolated.
Once that was dealt with all we had to worry about was the heat coming off the parts of the room that were burning. It didn’t take long at all for the room to be way too hot for comfort, and it was only getting worse; even if we avoided the burning gas, it wouldn’t take long for the superheated air to set us on fire anyway.
I solved that problem by the simple expedient of, well, making the air colder. It was relatively easy to wrap myself in the bitter cold that was my birthright, and while that wasn’t enough to make things comfortable, it was enough to keep us safe. It even made the air cycle I was maintaining easier; the temperature difference meant that the air in our little pocket wanted to sink, bringing in a constant supply of fresh air from above that wasn’t tainted with propane.
As I was doing that, Aiko flicked her fingers and wrapped a sort of curtain of darkness around us. I wasn’t sure quite what it was beyond the obvious, but it kept down the glare from the flame, and helped to insulate us against the heat.
Ensconced in that bubble of cold and darkness, we were safe, almost comfortable in the midst of the flame.
The same could not be said of Hunter. He wasn’t in any way prepared for this situation. Which, now that I thought about it, was probably why Aiko had done things the way she had. Who would expect me to use fire if I wanted somebody dead? On the list of scenarios Hunter had probably been prepared for when he came here, being trapped in a room that was then set on fire was probably a ways down the list. And that showed.
The expensive suit was the first thing to catch, and it went up like a candle. Hunter screamed, loudly. He was composed through the conversation, and I was guessing he would normally have been just as composed as during a fight. But this situation–being trapped and in a fire with no way out–was something that humans had evolved to be afraid of. It was the kind of thing that ignored logic and went straight to your hindbrain, and Hunter was still human enough to have that fear reaction.
Also, being set on fire really hurt. But I was guessing this was more to do with the fear.
By the time his hair started burning, he was at the door. He fumbled with the door, but it was very securely locked. Like Aiko had said, this place was a fortress. Even the interior doors were sturdy enough that a ram would take a while to make any progress on them.
He struggled with that for maybe half a second before he managed to realize what was going on through the panic. He pulled something out of his belt and slapped it hard against the door.
The burst of magic as the stored spell triggered was strong enough to overpower even the scent of Aiko’s magic keeping us from going up like a torch. The burst of raw physical force was strong enough to tear the heavy door off its hinges, shear through the locks, and send the whole thing flying down the hallway. The slab of wood shattered when it hit the wall.
Hunter ran out the door, still burning. I was right behind him, physically carrying Aiko to make sure she wasn’t left behind; she was fast, but not as fast as I was these days. I didn’t even try to maintain the air circulation pattern as I ran, counting on the cold and darkness to mitigate the heat.
It worked, for the most part. The burning gas was terribly hot, even within our bubble of relative safety. It melted my legs pretty badly, leaving me barely able to stumble out the door. It was painful, to the extent that I could really perceive pain from physical injuries anymore, which wasn’t a whole lot. But we made it out more or less intact, and Hunter didn’t have much of a lead on us at all.
Most people, I was guessing, would have stopped, dropped, and rolled after they got out of that deathtrap. That, or done something stupid like try to pat the fire out. The instinctive need to get the fire out was something that most people would find overwhelming.
Here, though, Hunter’s long experience showed through. He knew better than to slow down for even a moment as he ran, lest we catch him from behind. He was burning–I could smell it, roasting meat cut with a noxious edge of burnt hair–and it had to be painful in the extreme, but he didn’t even pause.
I should have been able to catch him easily, all the same. I was far, far faster than any human had a right to be, after all. And, in a pure footrace, I was guessing that I could have caught him.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t really a footrace, and Hunter was only marginally human. More to the point, he was an extraordinarily gifted mage with a focus in manipulating space.
As I ran, still carrying Aiko, I smelled magic, and things started to…warp, I supposed, was the best way to put it. From my perspective, it felt a bit like being on a treadmill. I was running forward at full speed, but my actual movement didn’t correspond to that. I felt like I’d run a couple hundred feet, but the distance we’d progressed was better measured in inches.
I didn’t really know what he was doing in a technical sense; as he’d said, my grounding in relativistic physics and the precise nature of space was crude at best. But I could process it in layman’s terms. He was stretching things out, making it so that there was more space between us than there should be. I might be running two or three times as fast as he was, but that didn’t matter when I had to cover at least ten times as much distance.
I snarled. Hunter was pulling away from us now, rapidly. He wasn’t going for the front door, running straight for the exterior wall instead, and it wouldn’t be long before he reached it. The castle was big, but it wasn’t that big, and the hallway only went on so long.
Seeing that just running after him wasn’t going to get us anywhere, I ducked into a patch of shadow instead, thinking that I’d use that nifty champion trick to jump to another one ahead of him.
This was, in hindsight, probably not a good idea.
Aiko was almost certainly at least as strong as he was now, and what she’d said earlier was true. This was her house, he’d accepted her hospitality; those were things that could easily give the fae power over you. She was on a good enough footing that she actually could lock down his ability to teleport out of here.
But he still had a couple thousand years of experience on her. She might have more raw power available than he did right now, but he was far more adept at using it, and this was very much his kind of magic. She couldn’t lock him down entirely.
I didn’t know what Hunter did then. Hell, I didn’t even know what I was doing, on a mechanistic level; all that was handled by the power of the Midnight Court, by the role I’d taken on. It was hard to tell what he was doing to interrupt it when I didn’t really know what he was interrupting in any kind of detail.
All I knew was that I appeared back in my world less than halfway to where I’d been going, and I felt awful. I was dizzy and nauseous. and I had the kind of pain that I’d have described as a horrid migraine if I was physical enough for that concept to make sense. When I tried to stand, my focus slipped and my leg turned into slush that couldn’t support my weight. At a glance Aiko was feeling similarly, though she expressed it more with groans and retching than with her body falling to pieces.
Hunter could quite possibly have turned around and finished us off then, but he apparently didn’t think it was worth the risk. He kept running, and reached the outer wall in a few seconds. A quick gesture and a burst of power ripped a hole in that wall, reducing a large section to little more than gravel; if I had to guess, I’d say that he’d just twisted space so that it would have to warp beyond the breaking point to maintain its shape. Without breaking stride, he jumped out the hole it left.
That should have left him plummeting to the bottom of the cliff. Instead, he soared out in a shallow, surprisingly fast glide.
I managed to stand and watched him soar out away from the castle. Within a few seconds he was far enough away that he was outside of whatever Aiko had done to keep him here; the flaming figure disappeared in an instant.
Aiko and I took a couple minutes to recover, and then went to stand by the hole, looking out after Hunter. The fire wasn’t a concern; the dining room would be scoured clean, but there was nowhere for it to spread from there. It was all stone for farther than a spark could travel.
“You think he’s dead?” Aiko asked idly.
“Nah,” I said, with perfect confidence. “If it were that easy someone would have done it centuries ago. Think we scared him pretty well, though.”
“The look on his face when the fire started was priceless,” she said, grinning.
“I imagine the look on mine wasn’t much different,” I said dryly. “You couldn’t have given me a little warning?”
Aiko eyed me. “Winter,” she said, in the overly patient tones you might use with a slow child. “You’re good at the secret plans and paranoia. But you are terrible at lying. If you’d known what was happening, so would he.”
I opened my mouth, then paused. “Okay,” I said after a few seconds. “You’ve got a point. And it was a good plan, in a rather…well, you sort of way.”
“Thank you,” she said modestly. “I don’t think he’ll be in a hurry to tangle with you again, at least. It’s probably been a while since he got run off that easily.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a good thing, at least. Though I’m concerned about what he said.”
“What?” she said, her tone practically dripping with sarcasm. “You mean the bit about how he’s at war with the strongest things in the universe using some of the nastiest weapons known to anyone without being able to control the fallout?”
“Well, that too. But mostly the bit about Fenris.”
There was a rather long pause at that. “Ah,” she said at last. “That part.”
“Yeah,” I said, staring out into the night. “I’m…not sure what to do about that. I feel like I have to do something, but I don’t know what the answer is.”
“Sometimes there isn’t an answer,” she said. “Some problems don’t have solutions.”
“Ain’t that the truth,” I sighed. “But sometimes you have to do what you can anyway. Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
“You know what will happen,” Aiko said. It wasn’t a question. “If you do this, I mean. You know what it means, if Fenris wants to die. If he’s working against the other gods.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I’ve got a pretty good idea. That was the last piece of the puzzle I needed, I think. I knew that Loki had a plan, that he’d arranged for so much of this. Now I know why.”
“It’s not too late to run away,” she suggested hopefully. “The Bahamas are wonderful this time of year, I’ve heard.”
“I can’t do that,” I said, though not without regret. “Fenris is my friend. I can’t just walk away. I think maybe I never could.”
“Yeah,” Aiko sighed. “That’s how it goes, isn’t it?” We stood there in silence for another long moment. “You want company?” she asked at last.
“Want? Maybe,” I said. “But I think we both know this is one that I’ll be having to do alone. Even if you were to come with me, we’d just be separated at some point anyway. Because that’s how this has to be.”
“That sucks,” she said. But she didn’t disagree.
“I love you,” I said.
“Love you too,” she said. “Guess I’ll wait for you back on my island, then. Need to check in on things there anyway.”
“I’ll meet you there, then,” I said. “Or, as the case may be, I won’t.”
She suddenly grabbed me and kissed me forcefully, almost violently. After a few seconds she pulled away and stared into my eyes from a few inches away. “You’d fucking better,” she whispered.
Then she turned and walked away.
I watched her go, in silence. There was nothing else to say.
The mansion was quiet. I’d lost a bit of time in travel, and it was late afternoon here, almost sunset. Things were going relatively well here, it sounded like. My absence, which could so easily have been disastrous, had turned out to be a good thing instead. My minions had had to deal with some things without me, and the task had helped to turn them from a collection of misfits who all happened to have the same boss into a team.
No. Not my minions. My people. It was time, and past time, that I stopped using the dismissive term.
I sat in the throne, and my closest supporters among the team stood near me. Tindr and Brick, who’d been with me since the start; not many of those who had were left. Selene.
I’d called them here, and cleared out the room otherwise, almost five minutes earlier. Since then I’d just been sitting there silently, trying to figure out what to say. For the most part they’d been patient with it.
“You’ve all been great,” I said at last, breaking the silence. “I mean that. I’ve not been the best jarl at times. I know that. But you’ve always been great. You’ve been the best housecarls, and friends, that a jarl could ask for. Your help has meant a lot to me, and I…well, I guess I wanted you to know that.”
There was an awkward pause after that. “Thanks?” Tindr said after a few seconds, uncertainly.
I nodded, not so much responding to the comment as just acknowledging it. “I’m going to be going away for a time,” I said. “There’s something I need to do. It may take a while longer than this last trip. I’ll be counting on you to hold things together here while I’m gone. I’m sure you’ll do great, though. I’m proud of you guys. Thanks for everything.” I paused again, then said, “That’s all, I guess.”
They nodded, almost in unison. Tindr and Selene both left a few moments later, looking pretty affected by what I’d said, though I wasn’t sure what emotion they were feeling; it was possible that they didn’t either.
Brick stayed. “I’ve heard that kind of talk before,” he said quietly. “Mostly from people going on missions they don’t expect to come back from.”
I smiled a little. “There’s always a chance of that, isn’t there?” I asked.
“There are dangerous missions,” he said. “And then there are suicide missions. And you sound like you’re looking at the latter.”
I paused, then nodded. “In some ways,” I said. “I’m not planning a kamikaze run, but…yeah. Suicide mission sums it up fairly well.”
“It’d be a shame if you died,” Brick said. “The Watchers would probably give me some shitty job after this one.”
“Everyone dies eventually,” I said.
“Doesn’t mean you should give up.”
“I’m not giving up just yet,” I said. “But there comes a point, I think, where everyone has to ask whether they have something worth dying for. And sometimes the answer to that question is yes.”
He nodded. “It’s been an honor, then,” he said. “Good luck.”
“Thanks,” I said. “But I think I’m a bit past the point of luck.”
After that, I ended up walking through the streets of my city again, for what seemed likely to be the last time. I could only see a few ways for this to end, and none of them involved me coming back here.
I was surprised at how easy it was to accept that. I supposed I was at peace with the thought. I should have been dead a while ago, really. I had died a while ago. My heart was torn out, my throat was cut; they put me in the ground in pieces. Everything since then had been…a gift, of sorts. A bonus.
I’d been living on borrowed time. Now, that time was running out. And that was…well, it was.
Things were the way they were. Sometimes that was all there was to say.
It wasn’t time quite yet. I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but I did. Asking how felt like a waste of what little time I had left before it all came crumbling down.
But there was nothing left to do. I’d said my goodbyes already. I’d made my arrangements. Anything that I hadn’t done yet…well, it wasn’t going to happen.
That was more upsetting than anything else. Knowing that anything that wasn’t done yet, wasn’t finished, wasn’t going to be. But there wasn’t much I could do about it now. It was too late. In my experience, most people died with things unfinished, promises unfulfilled. It wasn’t often that someone got to end with everything neatly wrapped up. I’d had more warning than many.
And so now, in the window of time I had left, I went for a walk.
The streets were busy. Bustling, even, people going about their daily business. The birds were singing. It smelled like spring, like new beginnings. I found that ironic at first, and then amusing, and then strangely comforting.
These streets, my streets.
The wind was blowing, playing around my fingers and through something that wasn’t a terribly good imitation of hair. It carried the scents of cooking dinner and budding leaves and freshly-cut grass. The sounds of laughter and traffic and chiming bells.
This wind, my wind.
I kept walking, without any particular destination in mind. It felt like the world was blurring around me. I was disconnected from it, an observer more than a participant, barely even aware of it. I was cut off from the world, by my nature and my choices and the things I’d seen. I wasn’t dead yet, but the world was already moving on without me.
I thought about a lot of things while I walked. I thought about things I’d done and things I should have done. I thought about absent friends and absent enemies and how hard it had gotten to tell the difference, anymore.
I thought about the good times I’d had, over the years. There had been a few. It felt like there had been more bad times than good, but then, the difference had gotten blurry along the way for those too.
Somewhere along the way, it all got so complicated. So confusing. I could see more than ever before, but somehow instead of clarity, it left everything fuzzier than it was. Everything was painted in shades of grey.
When the time came, it found me standing in a spot that was nowhere special, an intersection of two back streets that I’d never stood on before and would never stand on again.
“It’s a nice evening,” I said, not looking away from the sunset. It was a good one, painting the sky in gold and violet and bloody crimson.
“It is,” Fenris agreed, stepping up beside me.
“We should probably go somewhere else to talk,” I said. “Somewhere more private.”
“I think I know the place,” he said, with a slight smile. He sounded sad, or maybe the better word was melancholy. He didn’t so much as twitch, but a portal opened, and he stepped through without looking back.
I didn’t look back, either. I wanted to–I really, really wanted to–but I didn’t. There was no going back now.
It was a beautiful sunset.