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After some unfortunate delays, I’m pleased to say that the next series is finally ready to begin. It’s called The Broken Land, and you can find it at That site isn’t quite as polished as I’d like it to be and you can expect some more updates to it in the near future, but for the moment it’s functional and you can read the first chapter right now if you’d like. The story itself is…well, I have an about page on that site, so I won’t go into too much detail here. I will say that it’s an epic fantasy, meaning that it doesn’t have the conceit of being set in the real world that Winter’s Tale did. It still has a lot of the same themes, though, and I think that if you liked this story you can probably find something to like in that one as well. Like I said a while ago, it won’t have any interludes at first, but otherwise I’ll be aiming for the same Monday-Wednesday-Friday update schedule as before, starting with chapter two on Monday.


So that’s, obviously, the biggest news. There are some other things which I want to address as well, though. First off, the retrospective commentary on Winter’s Tale is obviously not finished, or even particularly close to finished. I’ll be working on that still, but it isn’t as much of a priority as The Broken Land, particularly as it doesn’t seem anyone is terribly interested in it. As a result, it may take some time for that to be completed.


Second, the side project I’ve hinted at for a while now. Well, unfortunately, this one isn’t good news. I put off mentioning it until I was sure it would make it to publication, but unfortunately it seems I was too hasty with that assumption. I was working on it with a publishing company of sorts, and at the last minute they decided that it was copyright infringement and not publishable. I don’t agree that anything in it was so derivative as to be an infringement of copyright, but obviously my opinion isn’t the one that matters here. Due to some peculiarities of the project in question I can’t really take it to another company or publish it myself on this site, either. So, and I do regret this, it doesn’t seem that it will ever see the light of day. I might repurpose the material which is wholly mine, maybe as a sort of extended interlude in Winter’s Tale. But I don’t think that you’ll ever see it as it was really intended to be seen.


And, finally, there are some general maintenance things which I have to do in terms of keeping this site and the Patreon page up to date. It shouldn’t be anything major, but if you notice any changes that’s what’s going on.


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With the post of epilogue 14 today, Winter’s Tale has reached its conclusion.


There are a lot of ways I could describe how huge this story has become. Fourteen books, which between them (and including interlude chapters) are just over 1.3 million words in length. The better part of four years since I started writing it. More hours spent writing than I could even make a decent estimate of.


Looking back on it this story has a lot of flaws. There are things I wish that I’d done differently, things that would have made the story better. There are things that never quite made it into the story, things that didn’t fit together the way I wanted them to, things that I simply didn’t have the skill to write properly. But on the whole I’m satisfied with this story. I think that it came out okay. I hope you do too.


It’s possible that I will return to this world at some point. I still have ideas for stories to tell here, and there are still characters that I think could make for good stories. But that won’t happen soon, I think. I need to get some space and give this setting some time off. And no, I won’t be writing more stories about Winter. He’s done.


I won’t be posting regular chapters over the next two weeks. This does not, however, mean that I won’t be writing. I have some maintenance work to do now that the story is done; I have to update the information on this site, as well as post the last few interludes and the last book for download. I also have some behind-the-scenes work to do  on the side project I’ve been working on, which should be ready to unveil pretty soon now. This isn’t the most glamorous work, but it still needs doing.


The second thing I’m going to be doing is going over the old books and doing a bit of a retrospective look at them. I’ll be posting my thoughts in the comments on each chapter, going through a book each day for the next two weeks. These comments might include everything from criticism of my writing to things that were changed in edits or talking about how the chapter ties into the larger story. I don’t know whether anyone is really interested in reading this, but I think it will do me a lot of good to write it, and there’s a chance that someone will find it interesting.


The last, and I’m guessing the most exciting, thing that I’ll be doing is getting ready for the next series. I do have plans for the next story, and I’m expecting to start posting it in two weeks. There will be no interludes until after the first book is finished, because that just makes more sense to me; as such I’ll be cutting back to a Monday, Wednesday, Friday update schedule rather than trying for four chapters per week, since I’ve been having some trouble keeping that schedule lately anyway. I’ll say a bit more about the new story as it gets closer to time for it to start, but for now I’ll just say that it’s one I’ve been thinking about for a long time and I’m really excited to finally start actually writing it.


So look for that, and in the meantime, the retrospective will start tomorrow with Almost Winter.



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Empty Places Epilogue 14

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I live in Transylvania, now.


The castle is large and hollow, with just me in it. There are whole wings and towers which have been closed off for years now, collecting dust. Sometimes I go for weeks without leaving my study. Sometimes a restless mood strikes me and I rise to wander the empty halls, looking for I know not what.


At times I feel the need to leave, and I go to the forest instead. I take on the form of something that pretends to be a wolf, rather than masking myself as a man, and I hunt under the trees. Sometimes I stay there only hours. Sometimes I go on four feet for months at a time.


Aiko is still the Maiden of the Midnight Court, the youngest Queen of the Unseelie Sidhe. I am still her champion. Those choices were made for good, and there can be no turning back on them. She spends much of her time on the Otherside, going about the work that her role demands. I don’t try to understand it anymore. The Courts are beyond my understanding. I’ve made my peace with that.


Every now and then she visits me in my castle. We make love, and eat, and talk about the way things are and the way things should be. I know she seeks her entertainment in other places much of the time these days. I don’t blame her. I can’t be what she needs anymore, and it would kill her to live the life I’ve chosen. We still love each other, as best we’re able, and that’s enough.


And then she goes back to her work, and leaves me to my empty castle, awaiting a visit that will come I know not when.


At times I do the work my role demands, as well. Not as often now as in those first years. My reputation precedes me. Sane people tend to fear the mad god who refused his title and cut himself off from the world. Those who thought they could manipulate me to use as a weapon learned otherwise in those first few years. Now Aiko seldom needs me to act against her opponents. The threat, the fear of me is enough.


I seldom have other visitors. Most of those I knew in my life before are gone now. Dead, or alive but disconnected. They moved on, and I cannot. The world has changed, in the years since I left it. I don’t have a place there anymore.


The locals, too, avoid me. My castle, and the forests around it, have gained a reputation as a place of darkness and death. Though it’s only relatively recently that I took up full-time residence here, a sort of folklore has already sprung up around the lonely castle on the hill, and the monster that calls it home. Aiko tells me the stories sometimes. Mostly they get it wrong.


That isn’t the only bit of legend that’s sprung up around me. In the ritual books of the new mages, those that entered into it after the world changed, there is an entry for me, the actions that will draw my attention and the sacrifices that might placate me when I arrive. I’m listed as an entity to summon only when absolutely necessary, and even then only with a great deal of care. I’m dangerous and volatile, according to the text, liable to lash out violently at any provocation and difficult to stop if I do.


I don’t know who created that ritual, but it does work, and every now and then someone does invoke it. I’ve thought about having Aiko look into the matter, but it doesn’t seem necessary. They aren’t wrong. And it does me good to get out on occasion. Sometimes, when I notice the ritual tugging at my attention, I follow. Sometimes I don’t.


Perhaps once a year Loki visits me. At first there was an edge of confrontation to it, an edge of tension. Now we’ve long since settled into a sort of comfortable disagreement, and his visits are more social than anything. He tells me of the world, the things that have happened since his last visit. I tell him about the small goings-on within my little piece of it. I think he appreciates the difference in scale.


He never asks me to take up the task I once declined, to accept the mantle of the wolf and become an unholy terror to his enemies. The offer is never spoken, but always there. Hunter is still out there; the things that live in the void are still out there. The work still needs done.


I never tell him I won’t do it. But every time he leaves alone.


I don’t sleep, haven’t slept in years and years. I don’t dream. But at times I remember, memories preserved as perfectly as a flower trapped in the ice, that cut deeper than a knife. I remember the man I was. I remember blood and fire. I remember death, so much death. I remember Snowflake. I remember Tyrfing. I remember holding the fate of worlds in my hands.


I remember me.


At times like that I sometimes think of going back. I think of taking up the sword again, and being that man again.


And then the moment passes, and the memory fades, and I go out to the forest to wash the memory away in blood and snow and moonlight. I know that I can’t go back. I can’t be the person I was. There are wounds too deep for healing, and there are things that can’t be undone.


I made my choice. I’m at peace with that.


In name I’m still the jarl of Colorado Springs. It’s been years since I set foot in the city. The work is done by Aiko, now. By Nóttolfr, who took over after Kyi left to seek her fortune elsewhere, on her own rather than as a follower. Selene, they tell me, is still there, and in truth she might as well be the jarl herself, these days.


I fill my time in other ways, now. I hunt when the mood takes me. I read a lot. I think a lot. I spend a great deal of time making things. These days I make things to please myself, rather than out of necessity; they’re works of art rather than weapons. Sometimes I spend days getting the color or the pattern of something just right. I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years trying to come to terms with what I’ve done, the blood on my hands. I’ve had some success.


It’s not a bad life, as such things go. It’s not how I would have seen myself ending up, but in some ways that’s not a bad thing.


In the evening I make myself a cup of tea, and I begin the long, slow climb up the tower. There’s no rush. There’s never any rush anymore, for me. No need to hurry when your days are empty anyway.


At the top, I sit on the parapet. I sip my tea, and I watch the sunset, and I pet the squirrels who come to eat the food I leave here. As the sun slips behind the mountains and the world fades to grey, I look down at the ground far below and I watch it be swallowed up by the shadows.


I think of jumping off, of the wind whistling past me as I plummet into darkness. I think of broken things. I remember that plain at the end of the world, and the infinite void that lay beyond it.


I remember Fenris’s blood on my hands.


And then I finish my tea, and night settles in to stay for a time, and I go back inside. I take the empty cup back to the kitchen and I wash it, and dry it, and put it back into the cupboard. I go to my study. There’s a book in German lying open on the desk, with a page of neatly written vocabulary notes next to it. There’s a half-finished poem not far away.


I ignore all that and walk to the bookshelf instead, tracing my fingers over the spines of the books. I linger over a photo album, but I don’t look inside. I don’t need to look to see the images in my mind’s eye, clear as day. The memories are all there, sharp and fresh. An echo of times gone by.


I remember what I did. The lives I took. The evil I did, in the name of a greater good. The sacrifices I made.


With the perspective offered by time and distance, I see that I was a monster back then. I’m a monster now, albeit a mostly retired one. I’ve made my peace with that, as well.


In the end, we can all be only what we are.

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Interlude 14.a: Samuel Black

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The shuffle, quick and efficient. The deal, the same. The motions require little to no thought. It’s almost a surprise to see the style of the deal, the details of the game my automatic actions have selected. A simple enough Klondike variant, this time, a game that a great many people would be familiar with.


For me it’s easy to see, as the cards are dealt, what the implications are. There is always a degree of uncertainty, of course, else the game has no reason to exist. But the known information can, to an experienced eye, give a great deal of information. Not enough to know the game with certainty, but enough to make some educated guesses.


In this case, the tableau is favorable. I build the first few cards and it continues to develop in a way that suggests the game will go well.


The game began as a curiosity. Patience was such an interesting game among mortals; it was perplexing. A contest against oneself, with no stakes, with no challenge, the outcome largely decided by chance before the game ever begins? It was baffling, to me. I couldn’t comprehend why they would do such a thing, why they would spend what little time they had on it.


Later, when I was beginning to establish myself, it became an affectation. It was a visual quirk; it was memorable, distinctive. When I was trying to establish a reputation, to stand out from the crowd, it helped to be memorable. A distinctive affectation was a very real help.


Then, once that was no longer a concern, it was expected of me. And it was a way to fill time in which, for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to do anything productive.


Of course all of that was a long time ago. A great deal of water has passed under the bridge since those days. Now it’s…simply a thing that I do.


Halfway through the stock, I realize that the initially promising appearance of the game was a false one. The tableau is such that a few key cards could unlock a rapid cascade which would most likely lead to victory, but too many of those cards are buried. At first glance it might have looked good, but in reality this was a lost game from the start.


I don’t stop playing when I realize that. The nature of the game is such that losses are frequent, no matter how skillfully one plays. I know that, possibly more intimately so than any other person. It’s not something to get worked up over. When playing a doomed game, I find the better response is to play it through to the end.


As I continue to move the cards around on the table, I see Winter approaching. He doesn’t detect me. His senses are more comprehensive than they were, but in some ways he’s grown even easier to hide from. His nature, now, is such that he can’t help but focus on things with a single-mindedness that in some ways limits his perspective. For the old fae trick of invisibility through insignificance, of letting the eye pass over you without registering anything important enough to see, that sort of mind was an easy target.


I watch as he and his people go into the building which I recently left. The residents of that building didn’t detect me, either. For a well-equipped militant group dedicated to fighting against my kind, they weren’t very good at it. Very little iron in there, very little salt, none of the warding talismans that we’re bound to respect. It was easy for me to slip in and do my work undetected.


My employer didn’t explain what I was doing, nor would I likely understand if he had. This job was bound up in politics that I lacked the grounding to understand, a tangled web of contracts and alliances and feuds and grudges that had been built up over the course of millennia. The machinations of gods are convoluted even by the standards of the Courts, and Court politics are already more than I care to involve myself with.


But I could understand what I’d done, even if I couldn’t fully grasp the reason or implication.


In an immediate sense what I’d done was to use a tool which my employer had provided me with. Mortal technology being unfamiliar territory for me, I wasn’t certain how it worked. I knew that the result was modification to the files of the group which used this building as a communication hub. The changes were slight, not something that would be detected by a casual inspection. I don’t know what the changes were in detail, either, but I could infer that they were making the organization here out to be darker than it was. Emphasizing the wrongs they did, and quietly hiding away any evidence of their more benign aspects.


That is the immediate sense. The proximate result is obviously to adjust Winter’s information, his perspective on them. In time he would realize that his perspective was incomplete, but I know that time is something that he does not have a surplus of just now.


My employer’s ultimate aim is another thing that I don’t know and wouldn’t likely understand if I were told. But it’s easy enough to guess that it’s not a pleasant one. He is not a god of pleasant things.


I feel a quiet satisfaction as I watch Winter and his followers enter the building. There is always a satisfaction in a difficult job done well.


There is an element of regret in that satisfaction, of course. I don’t know what the ultimate goal of this job is, but I can guess that it isn’t a wholly benign one, and I harbor no particular malice towards Winter. If anything I feel a certain respect for the man. He’s skilled, reasonably intelligent, and professional.


But that didn’t stop me from doing this to him, any more than it stopped me from doing any of the things which led to this point. I carry out the terms of my contract. That is what I do, what I am. This contract has been longer than many, involving numerous steps over years, and requiring me to work for other employers in order to carry out my instructions. But ultimately it has been a contract like any other, and pretending otherwise is foolish and pointless.


Still. I will be glad to have it done. It should, I think, not be much longer before that happens.


With Winter having arrived, my work here is done, and lingering longer than necessary would be foolish. I continue the game, until finally I make the last legal play, and the tableau sits completed on the table. It’s a loss, as I knew it would be.


I don’t feel any particular frustration as I sweep the cards together, and return the table to a pocket of folded space I was once given in reward for a job well done. The game was doomed. There’s no sense in getting worked up about it.


In cards as in life, all one can do is play the hand one is dealt.

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Empty Places 14.17

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I stood there on that silent plain at the end of the world for a long time. I wasn’t sure how long. Time didn’t seem terribly meaningful, in that place. In a way I supposed that made sense. This was the place where the conventions of my world started to break down. Time was probably no exception.


I felt comfortably numb, now. Before I’d been in turmoil, in mental agony, even. Now that it was over and done, there was no real emotion. Just…numbness.


I didn’t think of anything in particular as the blood soaked into me and poured out across the plain. Fenris had been large, very large; as the blood kept slowly draining out of the wound in his throat it made a sizable pool on the ground.


I felt like I should probably have been seeing my life flash before my eyes, or otherwise having some sort of vision quest experience. I wasn’t. I’d already done that; I’d made my peace with this before I ever came here. The cards were already on the table. There was nothing left to do now but play it out.


After some length of time, I felt…something. I wasn’t sure what it was, or even how I was perceiving it. It was another question that didn’t seem worth asking.


Following that impulse, I turned, raising Tyrfing to point at empty air as I moved.


Less than a second later, Loki appeared a few inches in front of the sword. The god of madness considered the scene for a few moments, then raised one eyebrow ever so slightly. “Impressive work,” he said. His lips had a twisted smile on them, but there was no humor in his voice at all.


“I’m not in the mood for games,” I said, gesturing very slightly with the sword.


“Do you really think you’re in a position to be making demands?” he asked, sounding vaguely amused now.


“I think,” I said, in a very slow, measured tone, “that this sword was made for killing gods. I think that it just killed Fenris and that action is too significant for it not to have left a mark on the weapon that did the deed. I think that I have very little left to lose. And I think that we both know it’s time to drop the masks and the games and just have an honest conversation.”


He smiled again, a fainter but more honest expression. “Touché,” he said. “Where do you want to start, then? Do you expect me to monologue about how my evil plans have finally come to fruition like a bad comic book villain?”


I stared at him for a few moments, then said, “Was it hard?”


“Was what hard?”


I gestured vaguely with the sword, since I didn’t have a free hand to use right now. “This,” I said. “All of it. The scheming, the manipulation, setting your son up to die. Was it hard?”


Loki was silent for a few moments. “Not practically,” he said at last. “No. It was a very easy plan, as such things go. Very straightforward, plenty of time to plan things out.”


I didn’t say that he hadn’t answered my question, because really, he had.


“Don’t try to act the white knight,” he said a few seconds later, likely guessing where my thoughts were going. “You and I are much alike, Winter. You have your share of blood on your hands.”


“Don’t think I’ve ever denied that,” I said. “But I’ve never done…this.”


“Done what?” he asked archly. “Killed someone who didn’t deserve it? Betrayed a friend? Set someone up to fail and die for something that wasn’t their fault?” He shook his head, not seeming concerned about how close the motion took his throat to the sword. “You said it yourself, Winter,” he said, almost gently. “It’s time to drop the masks. It’s time for the truth to come out. And the truth is that while you may have told yourself to do the right thing, this is hardly the first time that circumstances have required you to do what is actually the needful thing.”


I didn’t respond.


“I’m sorry that it happened this way,” Loki said. “You might not believe me, but I do genuinely regret the necessity of this. I made some mistakes, a long time ago, and Fenris is the one that paid for them. But in the end, it was necessary. And yes, it was…hard, to do this. To make this choice. But if I had the choice I’d do it all again.”


I thought about arguing with him. There didn’t seem to be much point. Nothing I could say would ever, ever change Loki’s mind.


“You know,” I commented, “I somehow thought that this would change things. That finally talking about it, confronting you, would…I don’t know. Put it in perspective, I guess. But now it just feels…pointless.”


“I regret that, as well,” he said. “What I’ve done to you, I mean. I am genuinely fond of you, Winter. I would like for things to be different.”


“Isn’t that just how it goes,” I sighed. “If only things could be different, huh?”


“If there are crueler words, I don’t know them,” Loki said. “But things aren’t different. This is the world we have.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I know.” I paused again. “You know, it’s funny,” I said. “You’d think I’d be nervous right now. Having cold feet, trying to delay as much as I can. Instead I find I just want to get things over with.”


“What do you mean?”


I sighed. “Come on, Loki,” I said. “I’m not a moron. This whole thing wasn’t just about killing Fenris. If that was all you wanted you could have done it yourself ages ago. I think we both know what’s coming next.”


“You’ve gotten more astute,” Loki said.


“Or maybe just less naive,” I said.


He nodded. “Possible. Well, since you’re in such a hurry, I’ll get right to the point, then. Fenris was working to undermine our world in recent years, but his existence was still necessary. His role was a necessary one for our survival. Now that he is no more, someone else will have to fill it.”


“And you want that someone to be me.” It wasn’t a question.


“You demonstrably have the necessary skills,” he said, with a trace of dry humor in his voice.


I shook my head. “Unbelievable,” I said. “You set all this up, from before I was even born, so that I could kill your son and take his place. Un-freaking-believable.” I shook my head again. “How do you live with yourself?” I asked. “That’s a serious question, by the way. How do you live with yourself with what you’ve done?”


“Every day,” he said, “every single day I look at the world I helped to build. I look at people who spend their days on self-serving nonsense, who lie and cheat and steal and kill. I look at people who hate us and would destroy us if they could, and they don’t even know what we do for them. I look at people who live their whole short lives, from birth to death, with never any understanding of how large the world is.” His voice was very quiet, and deadly serious.


I stared, fascinated. I wasn’t sure I’d ever heard Loki sound this passionate before, or this sincere.


“And I look at them, too,” he said, gesturing out at the wall I could just barely see. “They’re out there, Winter. All the time, they’re out there, looking in at us. They would destroy us if they could, not out of any malice, but simply because that is what they are. And I know that what I do is what stands between all of those people and an utterly remorseless threat which they have no capacity to fight.”


“So you’re using the greater good defense,” I said. “That’s…not what I was expecting, honestly.”


He shrugged. “I don’t always like what I do,” he said. “But what I do is necessary to protect the world.”


“If this is what it takes to preserve the world,” I said quietly, “then maybe this world deserves to end.”


“Maybe it does,” he agreed. “But do you have the right to make that choice for all the billions of people that would end with it?”


“No,” I said. “But I have the right to make that choice for me. And I’m done. I’m done with your games and your plans, with you and Hunter and your pointless little war. As far as I’m concerned you’re both equally bad, and you can both go screw yourselves.” I lowered the sword to hang by my side, staring defiantly into Loki’s eyes.


“I could make you do it,” he said.


“Controlling me to that extent would make me pretty much just an automaton,” I said. “Just following your orders, not acting on my own initiative. And if all you wanted was an automaton, you could just make a construct for that.”


“Did I mention that you’ve gotten more astute?” he asked, sounding a bit annoyed now. “Because you have. So why shouldn’t I just kill you, then, if you won’t do what I need?”


“Because that would mean that Fenris died for nothing,” I said, with a slightly manic grin. “That would mean admitting you failed. And you can’t do that, can you? So you’ll tell yourself that you can talk me around in time, that your plan can still work.” I shook my head. “You won’t kill me, Loki,” I said. “You were never going to kill me. The only difference is that this time I’m calling your bluff.”


I threw Tyrfing down at his feet, and gave him the finger. Then, without waiting for a response, I turned and walked away.


I’d walked away from Tyrfing more times than I could remember. Somehow, though, this time I knew it wouldn’t follow me, that it was well and truly done.


I would have expected to be glad about it.

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Empty Places 14.16

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I’d only seen the full extent of Fenris’s power once before, back when I was first beginning to find about the void and the things in it and all the ways I’d fundamentally failed to grasp how big the world was. That momentary glimpse had been enough to overwhelm my faculties and leave me unconscious, and for weeks afterward even thinking of it had been enough to render me incapable of thinking clearly for several minutes.


And if what he was saying was true, that hadn’t even been the full extent of his power. Not even close. He’d been bound, then, restricted in his actions. Even then, I hadn’t fully grasped what he was capable of.


The notion of opposing that force had still been…laughable, really. The notion of actually fighting it was something so far outside the realm of possibility that it wasn’t even worth considering.


But then, I wasn’t the man I used to be.


He stood and walked away from me, leaving around forty feet between us. I had to appreciate, on an abstract level, how perfect his choice of battlefield had been. There were no obstacles, no unexpected surprises or exploitable features. It was an entirely level ground, metaphorically as well as literally.


He bowed to me. I bowed back, which felt a bit silly, really, but what the hell.


And then, with no sense of transition, Fenris was different. The gaunt human form he’d usually used when interacting with me was gone, replaced by something much more indicative of his true nature.


The wolf was as big as a bus, more or less. Long and lean, he looked like he was on the brink of starvation. A silver ribbon was barely visible around his neck, and a sword was thrust up through his jaw, looking like one more tooth among a mouthful that were about as large. Yellow eyes as large as both my fists together looked at me, and I could see the desperation and hunger there.


Considering the context of the fight, and everything that had just happened, I might reasonably have expected Fenris to go easy on me. I might have expected him to agonize and hesitate, unwilling to really go all out when his heart clearly wasn’t in it.


That expectation would have been wrong. Fenris was fundamentally a creature of violence, and more importantly, of action. He was a weapon, and a weapon doesn’t hesitate. Even when he couldn’t win, and he didn’t want to win, and the concept of winning wasn’t one that could even be said to apply, he wasn’t capable of just giving up on a fight.


Luckily, I understood all of that just fine. It wasn’t hard. All of those facts could describe me as easily as him.


And as such, when he instantly charged me at a speed nothing so large should have been able to equal, I wasn’t surprised or caught off guard. I waited until the last moment and then ducked to the side, slipping around his side. Tyrfing licked out at his face as I did, but I only cut off a bit of fur; getting out of the way was a higher priority, and with the sheer size of Fenris’s current body it took quite a bit of dodging to manage.


Not much in the way of shadow for me to step through here, I noted. The light was very even, and didn’t have a definite source; we weren’t even casting shadows ourselves. Not really much in the way of ice, either. If my current body was destroyed, I wasn’t sure that I would be able to make another one.


I’d have to do this the old-fashioned way, then.


As I dodged aside from the teeth and circled around him, I was already analyzing, planning. I felt like I should have been going through some tumultuous feelings, anger and guilt and fear and sorrow. The feelings themselves, though, weren’t there. I felt very cold and very calm, perfectly able to think things through in a reasoned and dispassionate manner, and make plans.


Fenris was stronger than I was, physically. That went without saying. His first charge told me that he was faster, too. But he was, at least in this form, less agile. He was graceful, but he was just too big not to be a bit clumsy, despite his skill. He had less maneuverability, and he was slower to accelerate.


So as I dodged around him, I kept going, running right next to his side. He tried to swat at me with one paw, but wolves just weren’t built for that kind of lateral motion in their limbs. A cat, or a bear, could swat that way, but canines generally used their claws for traction more than violence. I ducked under the paw easily, and he wasn’t able to do a whole lot about it.


I didn’t cut at him as I moved, not yet. This was just to get a feel for things, an idea of how this was going to go.


Fenris turned to follow me, teeth snapping at my back. I imagined it looked something like the world’s largest dog chasing his tail. He had the raw speed to keep up with me, but I had the position and angle to stay just a bit out of reach.


The logical next step would have been to duck under him to his other side, forcing him to reverse the direction of his spin to keep chasing me. I wasn’t quite ready to do that, though. He couldn’t really bite or claw at me when I was underneath of him, but he could just let himself fall on top of me, and somehow I didn’t think that having what had to be a couple tons of wolf land on me was a good idea.


I spun and started running the other way where I was, instead. That put me running straight for his mouth, which might have been a problem if he’d been ready to capitalize on the opportunity.


He wasn’t, though. I couldn’t really blame him. What wolf ever suspects the rabbit to run at him?


Fenris still snapped at me, but it was a few fractions of a second too late, too slow; I evaded to the side again easily. I lashed out with Tyrfing again, this time slashing at his eye. The intention was mostly just to distract him, force him to recoil and prevent him from biting at me again. It worked, too. Even if you’re an ancient wolf-god with an almost inconceivable amount of experience, when someone threatens your eyes, you tend to flinch.


This time, though, the sword connected with his cheek, just under that huge eye. It drew blood, or something that was close enough to make the distinction irrelevant. It looked like blood, smelled like blood, soaked into Tyrfing’s blade without leaving a stain like blood did.


At that point, there was only one way this could end. And I suspected we both knew it, too.


Fenris was bigger, and stronger, and more skilled, and vastly more experienced. He could, and did, go up against monsters from the void and similarly horrific foes and take them down easily.


And none of that mattered a bit.


I was more agile, readily able to avoid his attacks. I was very experienced at fighting things bigger and stronger than I was. I didn’t get tired, or slow, or clumsy. And with Tyrfing, I had a weapon that was capable of actually hurting him.


My existence, my armaments, my training and experiences, it all came down to this. It had always been about this. This was, quite literally, the fight I was born for.


Fenris never had a chance. And he knew it.


I kept running, kept dodging, always just barely out of reach. I was too fast and too unpredictable to catch, too precise to ignore. Occasionally I wrapped darkness over his eyes, or tripped him up with air and ice, but mostly that wasn’t worth the concentration it required. It was easier to keep running, keep moving. Occasionally I cut at him again, and occasionally those cuts connected. They were never serious, never dangerous, but they were irritating and they bled.


Fenris was getting tired. He was losing blood, was getting weak. And he still hadn’t hit me at all.


Now, at least, I could tell that Fenris wasn’t really fighting, that his heart wasn’t in it. Even as it became clear that he was losing, he didn’t do anything different. He had to be capable of it, there was really no doubt of that. He had thousands of years of experience; there was no way that he hadn’t had to deal with something like this before. He had magic, had powers I couldn’t even guess at, not to mention an obviously impressive control over his own body’s shape and size. He had to have some tricks up his metaphorical sleeves.


He didn’t use any of that. He didn’t try anything clever at all, in fact. He just kept going for me in the same ways, as I evaded the teeth and claws by less and less, and I cut at him more and more often.


And then he stumbled.


It was a small thing, a paw placed ever so slightly wrong, a momentary loss of footing. It wasn’t a big thing, wasn’t by any means a disaster. But it was a sign. The fight had been decided before that, but that was the moment where we both knew there was no going back.


As he recovered himself, I darted away, putting a bit of space between us for the first time since the fight started. I stood there, for a moment, and met his eye.


I’d often thought that looking at Fenris was something like looking into a mirror filled with power. In hindsight, that should probably have been a bit of a hint as to what was really going on, there.


It hadn’t gotten to be any less true, though. I looked into his eyes, and I saw a hunger and an overwhelming weariness that were all too familiar.


He’d been right about one thing, at least. Things were ending, now. And not just him, either, though I wasn’t sure whether he’d quite thought things through that far. There wasn’t a lot of reason for him to have done so.


I ran straight at him, and he hesitated, likely thinking that I had some trick I was about to spring.


He was right, if so. I was still a ways away when I jumped for him, pushing off with the unnatural strength that was mine to call on now. The intention was to land on his back and stab him more deeply before he could drop and roll to brush me off.


I realized the flaw in that plan about the same time he stood up on his hind legs and bit at me. It looked a bit like a dog biting at a Frisbee on a hilariously large scale.


I didn’t feel like laughing, though. I twisted in midair, reaching out to the air and pulling on it. A sharp breeze and an increase in air resistance was enough to push me off course at the last moment. It was a bit panicky, but it worked.


The end result was that instead of literally biting me in half, his jaws trapped my right arm just under the shoulder. The angle was just awkward enough that he couldn’t actually bite the arm off, but he came pretty close.


I didn’t–couldn’t–feel any pain. I just snarled, using that trapped arm as a support as I swung myself forward, throwing wind and darkness behind the motion to put more oomph into it. My left hand reached out to catch his ear, holding onto it tightly.


Using that grip for leverage, I shoved my arm deeper into his mouth, calling Tyrfing again as I did. The blade cut deep inside his throat. I could feel the blood spurting up over my hand, over my arm.


I felt the muscles tense under me, and his jaws snapped shut. My arm came off cleanly at the shoulder, and then when he shook his head I lost my grip and fell hard to the ground twenty feet away.


But it was too late, the damage already done. Fenris started to pounce at me where I was lying on the ground, and then he stumbled, and then he fell. Blood trickled out between his lips.


I stood, a bit off balance from the missing arm, and from something else, as well. A sort of weakness, a sapping fatigue.


I stumbled over to him, where he was collapsed and unable to stand. I stopped by his head, and rested my remaining hand on his forehead.


He snapped at me, spraying blood and slaver and broken ice on my face. But it was a feeble gesture. He was already growing weak.


“Shh,” I said gently, stroking his face softly. His fur was coarse under my fingers. “It’s okay. I’m sorry, Fenris. I’m sorry this had to happen to you, sorry about everything that happened. But it’s okay. You can rest now.”


He let out another breath, one that might almost have had a word in it, but one that I couldn’t understand through the blood and the teeth.


Another, gentle, soft breath, just a whisper of air against my skin.


Then nothing.


So died the Fenris Wolf.


I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. Tears were for the living.

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Empty Places 14.15

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The domain on the other side of the portal was possibly the most monotonous I’d ever seen.


In three directions, there was just about literally nothing. A flat grey plain stretched out under a flat grey sky for as far as the eye could see. And that was very literal, too. The plain was absolutely flat, not so much as a bump in the ground to distinguish any spot from any other. It was a uniform grey, too, some material like linoleum.


That was three directions.


In the fourth, it was about the same. But just at the edge of my visual range, what had to be miles and miles away, I could make out something else. It looked like a wall. For me to see it at this distance, it had to be incredibly tall, a hundred feet at least. It stretched off across the plain, out of sight in both directions.


I couldn’t see movement on it, from so far away. I couldn’t tell whether there were people gathered on and around the wall.


But if I had to guess, I’d say it was pretty likely.


“What is this place?” I asked, sounding about as dumbfounded as I felt.


“This is the end,” Fenris said simply. He gestured to my left, away from the wall. “That’s your world,” he said. “Everything you know. Earth, the Otherside, all of it.” He gestured the other way. “That’s the void.”


“Wait,” I said. “You mean…the actual void? You can just walk out there and find it? I thought it was less…physical than that.”


“It’s hard to put this in terms that you would understand,” Fenris said. “Or even terms that I would understand. This place is an enormously complex working.” He paused. “An analogy, then,” he said. “Picture reality as an ice cube solidified from the less ordered state of the water. The ice cube has to be in contact with the water, there has to be a place where the two meet.” He gestured at the wall again. “This is that boundary,” he said. “This is where the chaos of the void meets the ordered rules of the universe.”


“The wall,” I said, understanding. “It’s there to keep out the void.”


“And the things that dwell out there. Yes.”


“Why’d you bring me here?”


Fenris was slow to answer that one. “This is a good place for endings,” he said at last. “And I think that however this goes, things are ending today. It’s a safe place, as well, with nothing to be damaged or destroyed. And it’s a familiar place for me.”


“You come here a lot, then?” I asked.


He smiled sadly. “This is where I spend most of my time,” he said. “My behavior here is…less constrained than it is elsewhere. This place is why I exist.”


“Is Loki really your father?” I asked. “That story’s always seemed a bit…off to me.”


“That’s a hard question,” Fenris said.


“If it’s a sensitive subject, fell free to tell me to screw off.”


“It is,” he said. “But that’s not why it’s difficult. It’s just a question that doesn’t have a simple answer. ‘Father’ is a biological concept, you see. I’m an imitation of a biological creature, enough of one that fatherhood is something that can apply to me. Loki is not such an imitation.” He paused. “He made me,” he said. “Personally. He created me and instructed me. So yes, I suppose he is my father, to the extent that the term can apply to him.”


“It feels so strange to finally be getting answers,” I said, more or less just thinking out loud.


Fenris smiled slightly. “I’m sorry that I couldn’t answer all your questions before,” he said. “My behavior was constrained.”


“And now it isn’t?”


“It doesn’t matter anymore,” he said. He twisted space, and suddenly he was holding a small silver flask. “Here,” he said, holding it out to me.


I took it. “It’s empty,” I said.


He shook his head. “There’s a taste left,” he said. “No more, but it’s not empty quite yet.”


“Why don’t you just refill it?”


His lips twitched. “There is no more,” he said. “The mead of poetry is not something that can be replaced.”


I almost dropped the flask. “The mead of poetry,” I said. “You mean the actual mead of poetry? The stuff that Odin drank?”


“One and the same,” Fenris confirmed.


“I thought that was a metaphor.”


He shrugged. “You’ll find that the line between reality and metaphor isn’t so clear as it seems,” he said. “Even if the mead is just a symbol of the abstract concept of wisdom, it’s a symbol with power.”


“This is priceless, then,” I said, rolling the flask around in my fingers. “Literally priceless, I mean, And irreplaceable.”


“I’ve carried that bit around for longer than you’d believe,” he sighed. “I’m done with it. And there’s nobody I’d rather give it to than you.”


I nodded. I opened the flask, very carefully, and drank. He hadn’t been exaggerating when he said that there was just a taste left; it was barely enough to wet my tongue.


To say that the taste was beyond words would be obvious. It was almost by definition true.


It took me a few seconds to get my bearings again, and then I handed the flask back to Fenris. He took it, silently, and made it disappear.


“Makes me think of another time,” I said. “When Carraig tacked me to that cross, and you came to keep me company.”


He nodded. “It’s been a while,” he said.


I laughed, though it sounded like a sharp, bitter laugh even to me. “It has,” I said. “So much has changed.”


“Things are always changing,” Fenris agreed. “But I’ve seldom seen things change as fast as the past few years.”


“Why did you do it?” I asked. “Why do you want things to end?”


Fenris was silent for so long that I almost didn’t think he’d answer at all.


“I was made to be a weapon,” he said at last. “That was my purpose, my reason for being. I was created for this place, to fight the things that dwell in the void. There’s always a war, on the wall. Always….” He shook his head. “I was given the power to destroy,” he said. “Made to be a force of death and destruction, so that I could do what had to be done. And I was bound.”


“Because they were afraid of you?” I guessed.


“Because some of the ancient gods were concerned about the possibility that I might upset their plans,” he said. “And Loki didn’t care enough to fight for my freedom.” He was silent again for a few moments. “The funny thing is that mostly I don’t mind the rules,” he said. “Most of the time it’s the thing I’d have done anyway, the right thing to do. But I’d have liked to have the choice.”


“Just because you were made to be a force of destruction doesn’t mean that you have to end everything,” I said.


He shook his head. “That’s not it,” he said. “That’s not it at all.” He looked at me, and I looked away before I’d even thought. “I’ve lived my life at the end of a leash, Winter,” he said, very quietly. “I’ve spent my life fighting in their wars. And I’m done with it. I can’t win this game, but I can refuse to play.”


“And the people that get hurt?” I said. “The people that die? I mean, you’re planning on killing everyone, as far as I can tell.”


“They deserve it,” Fenris said, and now I heard his true voice, the wolves snarling under the surface of the tones. “We all deserve it. Best to just wipe the slate clean on this universe.”


“I’m sorry you feel that way,” I said.


“Not going to try and talk me out of it?” he asked, sounding vaguely curious.


I shrugged. “Not seeing much point,” I said. “You sound like you’ve made up your mind already. You’ve had a few thousand years to reconsider, I’m guessing; if it were going to happen, it would have already happened. And it’s not like I’ve ever been much good at talking people down.” My lips twitched in something that had only the most passing of resemblances to a smile. “Besides,” I said. “If you were going to turn back, would I exist?”


“No,” he said. “I don’t suppose you would.”


“How the hell did things end up this way?” I asked, sitting down and then laying on my back. The not-ground had just a bit of give to it, almost like rubber. “I didn’t…I never meant for this to happen. For things to go like this. I look back on the road I took to get here and I don’t know what I did wrong.”


“This was never up to me or you,” Fenris said sadly, sitting down next to me. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter what anyone wants. Things just are the way they are.”


“That,” I said, closing my eyes, “is one hell of an unsatisfying answer.”


“Heh. What else is new?”


I nodded. “So what happens now?” I asked.


“I expect that in a few minutes we’ll start trying to kill each other,” he said. “Because I am what I am, and you are what you are, and in the end nothing either of us can do will change that.”


I sighed, a long, low sigh that dragged out for far longer than human lungs could have supported. “I’m sorry,” I said, opening my eyes. “For a lot of things, I guess.” I stood up, calling Tyrfing. The cursed sword was heavy in my grasp. “If this is how it has to be,” I said, “I guess there’s no use putting it off any longer.”


“No,” Fenris said , also standing. “Are you ready, then? If not, I understand. I’m…not ready either, really.”


I shook my head. “I’m ready,” I said. “As I’ll get, anyway. Let’s just get this over with.”

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Empty Places 14.14

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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.


I gulped.


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.

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Empty Places 14.13

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That evening found us back in Transylvania, eating dinner. We’d brought it in from a restaurant in Singapore that both of us were fond of. It went without saying that neither of us felt like eating our own cooking, and the last of the frozen meals Alexis had left had been gone for months.


There was another person I’d drifted apart from. Though in that case I wasn’t sure whether I could really blame myself. My cousin and I had never really had a chance. I couldn’t be what she needed me to be, and once she realized that it had been inevitable that a distance would grow between us.


It had been a while since I spent any appreciable amount of time here, in the castle. Oh, I’d visited now and again, but for some time now I hadn’t had the time to really just take a break and go home for a while. I still didn’t, really, but it was hard to get worked up about all the crises demanding my attention just now.


It felt a bit odd. The castle was still familiar; I still knew it intimately. But the sense of comforting familiarity, the feeling that this was home, was gone. It felt almost hollow, devoid of significance. When I looked at places and objects that used to be meaningful all I had was a bitter awareness of what I’d lost and couldn’t get back.


I went downstairs to check on the lab, and found bones strewn across the floor. After a moment I realized they were the disassembled pieces of the hound skeleton Legion had occupied since becoming my familiar; another moment was enough to see that they were arranged to spell GOODBYE. The skull was serving as the period, empty sockets turned towards the door. When I touched the bones they felt inert, lacking the power and the presence they’d held before.


Which, I supposed, made sense. I’d never expected Legion to stick around forever; when we first made the arrangement, I’d have been shocked to hear that it would even last this long. And besides, his work was done here. Its, really. Legion had only ever had a gender because I imposed one on it, and if the spirit wasn’t my familiar anymore I certainly didn’t have that right anymore.


I spent a minute or so looking at the bones, and at the rest of the lab. Then I went back upstairs to eat.


Aiko and I hadn’t really talked about what happened earlier. I didn’t know what to say. Not even a little bit. I’d been thinking that I understood things, but this development with Fenris was something that my new vision of the world hadn’t encompassed. I could only think of a few ways to make it make sense in the context of what I now knew, and none of them were good.


In a way, I felt disgusted at myself. I’d thought Fenris was a friend, and in a way I supposed that was still true. But I’d allowed it to blind me to the fact that he was still Fenris. In the end he was still a god, still a part of the vast, complex game that I was just beginning to conceive of. Expecting him to behave in a straightforward, understandable way had been foolish.


It was a pleasant meal. It felt a bit strange, just the two of us eating in a hall that could seat twenty without any crowding, but it wasn’t that far off from what we’d gotten used to while living here. We both knew it was the calm before the storm, but we silently agreed not to talk about that.


Instead, after we’d finished our respective meals, we sat and talked about small things. Fond memories, old jokes, trivial matters. It was a rather empty conversation, lacking any real substance or information, but then that wasn’t really the point. This wasn’t talking to convey information. It was just talking to talk, to fill the silence.


As I’d more than half expected, the conversation was interrupting by the sound of a knock at the door. It was a heavy knock, loud enough to hear even well inside the castle, four knocks spaced out with one second between each of them.


I glanced at Aiko, who gestured slightly. The front door flew open with a crash loud enough that I suspected the impact had been enough to damage the door, or possibly the wall.


“Overdoing it a bit?” I asked.


She sniffed. “I meant to do that,” she said.


I snorted. “Sure you did.”


Any humor, though, died quickly, leaving us sitting there staring at the door.


Hunter walked through less than a minute later.


He looked exactly the same as he had earlier on the camera, a pale man of indeterminate age in a very expensive suit. “Good evening,” he said, nodding to each of us. He had no discernable accent, his voice as nondescript as his appearance. “Is it all right if I sit down?”


“Go ahead,” I said. “There’s plenty of food if you want some.”


“That’s a generous offer,” he said. “I believe I’ll take you up on it, actually. It’s been some time since I ate.”


A few minutes passed in near-total silence as he collected a bowl of noodles and a cup of tea and sat down with them a ways down the table from us. He took a cautious spoonful of the noodles and sipped the tea, then nodded. “This is quite good,’ he said. “Thank you.”


“It’s nothing,” I said. Then, after a few moments, “This really isn’t how I would have expected this to go. I was expecting something much less…civilized.”


Hunter smiled wryly. “What, just because you tried to kill me?”


“In fairness,” I said, just as wryly, “I hardly think that was the opening move in this whole mess.”


He nodded, conceding the point. “All of that’s just business, though,” he said. “On a personal level I see no reason we shouldn’t be…maybe not friends, that might be asking too much, but at least not enemies.”


I nodded. “That’s fair,” I said. “One question before I get my hopes up too much, though. Are you actually planning to explain anything, or are you just going to spout more cryptic bullshit?”


“I can’t promise I’ll explain everything,” he said. “As much as I hate to admit it, there are still plenty of aspects and details of the situation which I don’t understand myself. I’ll explain what I can, though, and I think we’re a ways past being cryptic about it.” He smiled suddenly. “Honestly, I’ve been meaning to have a frank conversation with you about all this for some time now. It just kept slipping my mind.”


“It slipped your mind,” Aiko said, somewhat dubiously. “That seems like a pretty damn significant thing to just forget. And this is me saying that.”


Hunter shrugged. “I’ve found that time seems different once you’ve seen enough of it go by. When you’re young a year, or a decade, seems an impossibly long time. From my perspective, though, they’re much less considerable. It’s easy for me to put something off for a year without even quite realizing it.”


“Okay,” I said. “Um, not to interrupt or anything, but I think there are more useful topics we could be talking about. Starting with…what do you actually want?”


Hunter laughed at that. “Oh,” he said. “Oh, man. You don’t go for the easy questions, do you? Well, there are a few ways I could answer that one, depending on what scale we’re considering. On the grandest level, I’d say that what I’d like to see is a world where we can set the rules to be what we want, and where we can be in control of our own destinies.”


“When you say we, do you mean humanity?”


“That’s where I started, yes,” he said. “And I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t still the primary focus for me. But I realized that, really, we’re all in the same boat here. Humans and werewolves, yokai, even the fae, we’re all in the same position. Dancing to the whim of the beings that have set themselves up as the gods of our universe.”


I stared at him. “Wow,” I said. “I mean, I guess I knew it was something like that, but I assumed that I had to be misinterpreting something. You’re seriously trying to overthrow the gods?”


“It sounds so dramatic when you put it like that,” he said, grinning. He didn’t actually disagree, though.


I shook my head. “Why?”


“I’d think that you, of all people, would know that,” Hunter said. His voice was very cold all of a sudden. “Look at your own life, Winter. Look at how you’ve been used and abused, how they’ve used you as a plaything with no care for your wishes or your welfare. These things do that all the time. They ruin our lives on a whim, for no better reason than because it amuses them. They see us as toys, for them to play with and break at will, without even telling us what they’re doing or why.”


“Are they wrong?” I asked quietly. “I mean, I know I don’t really grasp what they are, on a basic level. But from what I can tell they really are that much more than we are.”


“They may have created us,” Hunter said. “On the basic level of establishing the world in which we developed, even if they weren’t directly responsible for our existence. But that doesn’t give them the right to treat us in this way. You have your responsibilities when you create something sentient, and they aren’t remotely close to fulfilling those responsibilities. No, these ‘gods’ aren’t in the right. And call me naive, but I’ve never been one to bow down to people in the wrong just because they’re powerful.”


“You can spin an idealistic story,” Aiko said to him. “But I’ve seen something of what you actually do, and I’m not at all convinced that matches what you’re saying.”


“You have to understand, we’re overpowered,” he said. “I don’t like some of the things you’re referring to, I’m not proud of having done them. But sometimes you have to do things you don’t like when you’re up against a superior force.”


“That’s a slippery slope,” I commented. “With that kind of attitude it’s easy to cross lines without even realizing it.”


Hunter grimaced. “Trust me,” he said. “I’m well aware of that. But there’s not a lot I can do to change that, and it’s still true.”


I grunted. “I’m not so sure,” I said. “That sounds an awful lot like you’re trying to convince yourself as much as me.”


He spread his hands. “Go ahead and ask, then,” he said. “Whatever’s been bothering you, ask. It’s cards on the table time, Winter.”


“Why the void?” I asked. “Why were you obsessed with finding it?”


“I had a theory,” Hunter said. “One which I’ve since become convinced is, more or less, correct. The void outside this world was both my best way to prove that theory and a way to use it. You know what my specialty is in, correct?”


“Space, I’m told.”


He nodded. “Spatial dimensions, yes. And time, which is really the same thing, but that’s a whole other conversation that you frankly don’t have the grounding in physics or dimensional network theory to understand. In any case, space is a simple and reasonably accurate way to sum up my focus, and I think that focus is largely why I’ve been so much more successful than anyone else to attempt this fight.”


“Because that kind of magic is powerful?”


“No. Because it’s fundamental. If you think about it, most magic is effectively working within the rules of the system they created. A sorcerer might produce fire, but they decide what ‘fire’ is and whether it affects them. But space and time are so fundamental, such basic facts of the reality they’ve created, that they don’t have that degree of control over them. Manipulating space can change the rules, you see?”


“And the void is even more fundamental than space,” I said. It wasn’t a question. I’d heard as much before, even if it hadn’t been phrased quite that way.


“Much more,” Hunter said, nodding. “It’s something which exists on a deeper level than this entire reality. It’s possibly the only thing that’s more fundamental than they are, and as such it can exert power over them. I’d theorized that something of the sort, that sort of raw potential, must be what ultimately powers what we call magic, and that if applied without the filters we see it through in this framework it could affect deities. Namer’s work strongly supports that conclusion, and since then I’ve done some work with filtering systems and refined the theory somewhat.”


“Okay,” I said. “And this is why you encourage people to summon things from the void? You’re hoping one of them will kill a god?”


He laughed. “Oh, not really, no. That would certainly be nice, but it’s the equivalent of winning the lottery, not something you really plan around. No, that’s to provide a distraction. I have a great many plans, a great many balls in the air, but all of them are fragile, you see? Seeding that information is a way to keep the deities busy, keep them from concentrating on my actual work.”


Aiko whistled. “That’s ballsy,” she said. “You seriously take a chance on blowing up a continent just for a distraction?”


Hunter smiled, not without satisfaction. “Go big or go home,” he said. “You can’t hesitate to raise the stakes in this game.” The smile faded. “It…does occasionally backfire, of course. Like what happened with you, all those people dying, that was an unintended consequence.”


“Tens of thousands of people died as an ‘unintended consequence’ of your little distraction,” I said quietly. “Tens of thousands. You think that’s worth it?”


“I do,” he said calmly, meeting my eyes. Most people flinch a little when they look into my eyes. Hunter didn’t even blink. “Because this is worth it, Winter. Those people died, and yes, that’s tragic. But they died as heroes in a war against the greatest foe we’ve ever had. These gods have killed billions down the ages for their own sick amusement, sparked wars and plagues, set cities on fire for the pleasure of watching them burn. We will never be safe so long as they still exist, as long as they have this control over our world.”


“And what gives you the right to make that choice?”


“Someone has to,” he said. “This is a war, Winter. And in war someone has to make the hard calls. Sometimes you have to send your people out to die. You have to sacrifice a thousand here to save a million there. I never asked to be that person, but fate decided that I would be anyway.” He paused for a second. “We may lose this war,” he said. “Probably will, in fact. The odds aren’t in our favor. But I, for one, would rather die fighting than live in slavery. And if I do ugly things in the service of this war, it’s only because I don’t want to lie there dying, and see these monsters still in power, and know that there was something else I could have done.”


I watched him closely as he spoke, looking for any hint of deception. I looked for any suggestion that this was just a cover for him seeking power. There was none. Hunter meant what he said.


No, that wasn’t enough. Hunter believed what he said. He believed it with a passion, the kind of bedrock faith that I’d seldom seen.


Blaise had said that Hunter was charismatic, that he had a knack for getting people to go along with him. I thought he hadn’t quite gotten it right. It probably wasn’t his fault. He was looking at it from the perspective of an ancient lord of the fae, and this was a profoundly mortal thing.


Hunter was a man with passion, with a fire burning inside him. He was a man with a dream, and the will to make that dream come true. And in a way you had to respect that. In the end Hunter was just a man, fighting against things that were as far beyond him as he was beyond ants, and he knew it. But he managed to stay defiant, stay proud, and keep fighting even though he knew damned well that he was going to lose.


I had to respect him for that, and I didn’t have any trouble understanding how he could get people to follow his cause. That kind of passion and courage in the face of an unwinnable battle was something that we’d always found appealing, as a species. If you looked past the blood he’d spilled in the name of that dream it was almost heroic.


“Okay,” I said. “I think I get it, then. And I guess that only leaves two questions. Why me, and why Fenris?”


Hunter looked at me sharply. “Fenris?” he said. “What about him?”


“When I was about to kill you, he stopped me,” I said. “I want to know why.”


He smiled slightly. “That wouldn’t have killed me,” he said. “I took a look at the devices you were planning to use. They’re good, but they’re based on one of Solomon’s designs. I know that design very well, and I certainly know how to deal with an imitator.”


“Wait,” Aiko said. “You mean…the Solomon? You knew him?”


“He was the first Maker,” Hunter said. “We were friends once. But he wasn’t willing to follow me down the road I’ve chosen. We haven’t spoken in…a very, very long time.” He was silent for a moment, looking pensive. “I miss him,” he said. “His advice. He was a good man.”


I blinked. “Okay then,” I said. “Um. Anyway, those are the questions I still have.”


“I’ll start with you,” he said. “That’s an easier explanation. I’m interested in you–we all are, really–because you have potential. And you have potential because you were always a bit of an unknown factor.”


“And what’s so damn special about me?” I said irritably. “I fail to see why you all couldn’t have picked some other sucker for this.”


“Most people fit into neatly labeled boxes,” Hunter said. “The vast majority. You can look at them and say…this person is human, that one is a werewolf, the other is one of the Sidhe. Those people are very reliable, as a rule, very predictable. That’s a good thing when you want reliability, but when you need something outside the norm you can’t look in the labeled boxes. The real power in this world isn’t in white and black, if you’ll forgive me for getting a bit poetical. It’s in the grey areas, the places in between, the liminal boundaries where things fade into one another.”


I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. “Less poetical, please,” I said, trying to keep my voice even.


He smiled faintly. “As you wish,” he said. “The vast majority of people have a single, clearly-defined and typical magical signature. Those categories are very static, very typecast. When you mix them, though, things become less certain. Usually hybrids of that sort die–the different energies react poorly to each other and the conflict is physically or mentally destructive. Occasionally one simply overwhelms the other and the subject might as well be in one of those boxes. But sometimes, very rarely, they synergize, and you get something stronger than either heritage could have been alone.”


“Like making a werewolf out of a mage,” I said.


Hunter’s smile became a grin. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, precisely, that’s one of the most common interactions. And as you know, it doesn’t often end well for the prospective werewolf, the process is too traumatic and one way or another they end up dead. But the thing is, and keep in mind that this is largely speculation on my part, the more factors in play the more the uncertainty increases. So when you want to find someone with a real shot at becoming something powerful, you look for someone with as many different sources of power mixing as possible, and hope that they get along.”


“So this is all because I was born a freak,” I said, a bit numbly. “Some sort of crazy one-in-a-million chance that should never have survived.”


He shrugged. “I’d put it more positively than that,” he said. “But what you’re saying isn’t wrong, exactly. It’s not the most glamorous answer, but that’s how it goes.”


“Okay,” I said. “And the other?”


“Ah,” Hunter said. “That. That’s…really very unfortunate timing on his part, I suppose, but I did say I’d answer your questions. The Fenris Wolf has been on my side for ages now. I’d go so far as to say that his assistance is the main reason I’m still alive. He was the one who first told me about you, in fact.”


Aiko inhaled sharply and looked at me like she wasn’t sure whether she’d have to hold me back to keep me from attacking Hunter right then and there. It was, I supposed, not an entirely unreasonable concern to have. But my reaction was actually fairly understated. I’d been expecting something like this. “Why would he be helping you when what you’re doing is pretty obviously opposed to his interests?” I asked.


“Fenris wants an end,” Hunter said.


I did blink at that. “He’s suicidal?” I asked.


“No,” he said. “Well, yes. But that’s not what I mean. Fenris wants to end, yes, and I think that as what drove him to find me–he knew I was opposing the gods, and hoped that I might kill him. But his ambition goes further than that. He wants an end to the world, and everything in it.”


The room was utterly silent for a couple seconds after Hunter said that. “Wow,” Aiko said at last. “That’s…pretty hardcore.”


“Why would he think helping you would do that?” I asked.


“Well, it is a part of my plan,” Hunter said. “It’s not the whole of it by any means, no, although Fenris thinks it is, or maybe he only hopes. In any case, I do expect that I’ll have to break the world to achieve my goals. I don’t have nearly enough power or skill to maintain the full Otherside network after the gods are gone; I expect the void will reclaim it quite rapidly without them. What Fenris doesn’t know is that I’ll be building a new world, a perfect world. One made in our image, and not theirs.”


“Megalomaniac much?” Aiko asked dryly.


He laughed, not seeming offended. “I’ve always had a bit of a leaning that way, I suppose,” he said. “But this isn’t about me. It’s really not. It’s about making a world that we can truly call our own.”


“So basically,” I said, “you took a guy that was already suicidal, and now you’re deceiving him and leading him on in hopes of something you were always planning on denying him, all so you can have a really powerful ally in a war he doesn’t really believe in.”


“I do what I need to do,” Hunter said. He didn’t sound happy, but he also didn’t really sound upset. Regretful, at most.


I nodded. “That makes sense,” I said. “So I’m guessing that if I were to try and kill you right now, you’d just teleport away?”


“You’ll note I’m well out of reach,” he said, grinning. “You should have poisoned the food if you were going to try that sort of thing.”


“It wouldn’t have worked,” I said.


“Well, no. I’m immune to most poisons. But it would have been a good idea.”


I nodded. “Probably, yes. Frankly I wasn’t expecting you to eat at all, though.”


“So I take it this line of inquiry is your way of saying you won’t be helping me, then?” Hunter asked.


I sighed. “I don’t know,” I said. “I can sort of understand where you’re coming from. Loki and his ilk have ruined my life, that’s true, and I can see how you’d say that they need to be stopped. But from what I can tell, you’re no better than they are. They might have screwed me over, but you know what? The single worst thing I’ve seen was a monster from the void let loose in this world. You’re the one who was responsible for causing that, and they were the ones who stopped it.”


“I already said that wasn’t intentional.”


“I’m not sure that isn’t worse,” I said. “You play with forces you don’t understand, and when something goes wrong and people die, all you can think to say is that you didn’t mean for that to happen. You don’t even sound like you’re sorry. You’re as arrogant as they are, Hunter, and a hypocrite too. You say that you want to put people in control over their own fate, and yet you take their agency away as much as the gods ever did.” I shook my head. “No, I won’t be helping you. And the only reason I’m not shoving Tyrfing through your face right now is that I don’t think I could get there fast enough.”


“That’s unfortunate,” Hunter said. “You understand that I can’t let an asset as valuable as you have the potential to be to fall into enemy hands, I hope?”


“You know what?” Aiko said suddenly, with a broad, devil-may-care grin. “Screw it. I’ve been waiting long enough to spring this one.”


I eyed her. “Spring what?” I asked, a little nervously. I recognized that smile, and it seldom meant good things were about to happen.


“I actually have a secret plan for once,” she said. “See, Hunter, I think maybe you were so focused on Winter you forgot some things. Like the fact that Faerie Queens were made to control the fabric of the Otherside. And you’re a guest in my home, eating at my table. I can shut down any portal you try to open, here.”


Hunter gestured, very slightly. Nothing happened. His eyes got a little wide.


“Suck on that, you pompous asshole,” she said, grinning even wider. She snapped her fingers, and the door to the room slammed closed, tendrils of supernatural darkness winding over it like chains. “Another thing you might have forgotten,” she said. “This place is a fortress. It’s built to keep things out, but I think you’ll find that it’s pretty good at locking things in, too.”


Hunter stood up, fast enough that he knocked the chair over.


“And one more thing, since three is a good number for faeries and I’m being thematic right now,” she said, also standing. She didn’t seem to be moving terribly quickly, but she was standing right next to me by the time I’d gotten out of my chair. “We trapped this place like crazy when we moved in. I’m pretty sure the one in this room involved propane vents, and while you might be immune to poisons, you’re still flammable.”


She flicked her fingers, and I smelled a quick flicker of magic, fox and cinnamon and a hint of dark lilac.


Hunter hadn’t even made it to the door when the room filled with gas and light and fire.

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Empty Places 14.12

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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.

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