Empty Places 14.11

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Like most of Aiko’s plans, this one started with an observation that was quite straightforward and logical, and then took it in a direction and to a degree that most people would never think to.


In this case, the first thing to note was that I couldn’t hunt down Hunter. That was just a given. Even aside from having been told as much by some very reliable sources, it just made sense. He’d stuck around as one of the most wanted people in the world for a couple thousand years. You didn’t manage that without being one hell of a hard target.


If I couldn’t hunt him down, then, the logical next step to take was the other major tactic a hunter might use. If I couldn’t find him, I had to lure him to me.


On its own, that wasn’t exactly a brilliant and innovative thought. But in this case, that tactic wasn’t an easy one to use. I didn’t know what Hunter wanted, not really. I didn’t know what might draw him out. There was the option of using myself as bait, something I’d done on other occasions, but in this case that seemed like a distinctly bad plan.


And that brought things to the point where sanity left off, and Aiko took over. What she’d proposed was, I thought, likely to work. If nothing else, it was likely to catch Hunter by surprise. The plan was so convoluted, so risky, and just so nuts that I thought it was legitimately possible that nobody had tried it in the past thousand years.


She hadn’t been wrong about one thing, though. It wasn’t something that I could do without a bit more preparation. And this wasn’t the kind of preparation I could do by just going home and getting weapons, either. This was the kind of plan that required some very specific things, and it required assistance of the sort that I couldn’t find among my minions.


So, naturally, the next step found me going where people always went when they wanted to make a crazy, dangerous, and highly dubious plan work. I went to the Clearinghouse.

The domain seemed about the same as the last and only time I’d been there. The trading floor of the Clearinghouse was a cavernous space, literally and metaphorically, an enclosed area the size of a stadium. The interior was filled with numerous levels of catwalks, bridges, and arches of all kinds, along with columns, partial walls, and ladders. Between them all, there weren’t many places where you could see more than around fifty feet in any direction, despite the large size of the area.


It was, in short, not unlike a maze in three dimensions. And, of course, if you happened to slip off the edge of the walkways, you could expect no help at all on your way down.


I didn’t know my way around the Clearinghouse, not really. Aiko did, but she wasn’t with me this time. Bringing someone with her kind of power and political importance on this trip would, in a number of ways, have defeated the purpose. Not to mention that she still had plenty of enemies who liked to hang out here, and while we could likely handle them now, it was still something to keep in mind.


So I was alone, in the Clearinghouse, having very little familiarity with the locale or the rules of the place. It was almost funny, the extent to which that didn’t scare me.


Not knowing what I was doing did, however, mean that I had to ask around. Normally I would hate that, see it as a potentially catastrophic expression of weakness. Now it was…well, still a potentially catastrophic expression of weakness, but one which could potentially also be useful. In a way, it was less bug than feature for what I wanted to accomplish here.


And, for the next several hours, that’s what I did. I talked to various vendors, and to people who were just walking by. The variety was really quite impressive. The Clearinghouse was quite possibly the most cosmopolitan domain of the Otherside, and it showed in the crowd that the black market attracted. I recognized some of them as coming from a wide variety of sources, everything from various kinds of fae to yokai, demons, and djinn. There were plenty more that I didn’t recognize at all, including some that I wasn’t entirely sure were people at all. In a place like this, telling the difference tended to be a difficult task.


I kept my inquiries vague, at first. I was looking to hire a magician, preferably a human mage or something close enough to one to make the distinction a largely insignificant one. I needed one who could keep his, her, or its mouth shut. One who was fairly experienced.


Those inquiries were…not innocent, precisely, but by the standards of the Clearinghouse, close enough. This was, after all, not a place you went to buy legitimate things. Wanting to hire someone who wouldn’t talk about the nature of their employment was hardly unusual, and while most of the people I spoke with weren’t interested in helping a stranger, enough were that I got directions fairly easily.


Once I was in the right section, two levels down and a few hundred feet away from where I’d started, I began asking more specific questions. I was looking for someone who wasn’t a part of the established clans. Someone who wasn’t afraid of the Conclave, or of the Watchers specifically. Someone who was good with Otherside portals.


These inquiries were, as such things went, still relatively innocuous. But things were now reaching the point where a canny observer, with access to a few of the things I’d said, might be able to start putting together an idea of what I was looking for.


And that, in short, was why most people would never have considered this plan. Even at the Clearinghouse, there were things you didn’t advertise lightly. This place had few, if any, rules, and they wouldn’t actually stop me. That didn’t, however, mean that there weren’t consequences for asking. Word would get out–word always got out, that was practically a law of nature–and even casual inquiries on this topic were liable to get you in the kind of trouble where death was a best-case scenario.


I was being circumspect, and my position right now was such that I was relatively safe anyway. But I didn’t kid myself that this wasn’t a risk. It was almost guaranteed that various important people would find out about this.


That was, in fact, the whole point.


Finally, after a few hours of asking around, I got a name, someone that was generally agreed to be a good person to approach for what I wanted. Jeremy wasn’t the kind of name that you generally associated with a dangerously powerful mage that skirted the boundaries of the Conclave’s rules, but people seemed fairly confident in the recommendation, so I figured I’d follow up on it. Another lengthy hike, complete with getting turned around twice and finally just jumping thirty feet from one narrow bridge to another, was enough to find him.


At a glance, Jeremy didn’t look much more impressive than his name sounded. If I were to see him on the street, I’d probably be more inclined to think of a middle-aged professor than a dangerous criminal. He was skinny in a way that looked more like someone who just forgot to ate than someone who really cared about appearances, wearing a bland grey suit.


When I walked up, he had his feet up on the table and he was reading a book. It wasn’t even a particularly ominous book. It was a perfectly normal paperback, a spy novel, I thought. He didn’t put it down when I walked up.


“Jeremy?” I said, stopping a few feet away.


“Yup,” he said, putting a bookmark in his novel and setting it aside. He didn’t take his feet off the table. “What can I do you for?”


“I hear you do good work,” I said. “The kind of work that I might be looking for.”


“You might have heard right,” he said. “And you are?”


“Call me Winter,” I said.


He snorted. “That’s a bit on the nose, isn’t it? Considering your situation.” He gestured vaguely at me.


“I’m well aware,” I said dryly. “Though I’m a bit surprised you noticed.”


“Please,” he said, rather contemptuously. “It’s a nice enough mask, but come on. Would I be worth hiring if I couldn’t see through that?” He snorted again and took his feet off the table, sitting up. “Anyway, what are you looking for?”


“I need someone for a short-term position,” I said. “Someone who’s both able and willing to do some things that the Watchers would likely take offense to.”


“I’ve been known to do some things that they don’t particularly like,” he acknowledged in a remarkably casual tone. “I’d have to know more specifics, though.”


“That’s fair,” I said, reaching into my cloak. “Give me a few seconds first. I’d rather this conversation not become public knowledge.”


Jeremy put his feet up again and watched as I pulled out a pouch of salt and began pouring it out in a circle around the table. It hummed with a quiet energy, almost undetectable unless you knew what to look for. Once I had the circle completed, I touched it and sent a quick jolt of power into the salt, triggering the stored spell. Instantly, the quiet hum of activity from the Clearinghouse shut off.


“You know that just makes you look more suspicious, right?” Jeremy said.


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s kind of the point, actually. I need to make sure that the people watching get exactly the right impression.”


“Expensive toy you just used on making an impression,” he noted. “That must have run you…what, eight grand?”


“Five,” I said. “I know a guy.”


He whistled. “Nice. Still expensive, though.”


“It’s worth it.”


Jeremy shrugged. “It’s your money,” he said. “So what’s so important you need to use that heavy of magic to keep out eavesdroppers?”


“It’s all about making the right impression,” I said. “That goes for what I’d be hiring you for, as well. I’m not actually interested in breaking the Watchers’ rules. I just want you to make inquiries and preparations to make it look like you are.”


“You mind if I ask why?”


“I think it will attract the attention of someone important,” I said. “Someone I can’t necessarily find by normal means.”


“Interesting,” he said. “Which rule?”


“I want you to convince him that you’re planning to summon something from the void.”


I hadn’t been entirely sure whether Jeremy would know what that meant. His reaction suggested, rather strongly, that he did. He went dead still for a moment, staring at me, then visibly forced himself to relax. He adjusted his glasses, a gesture that looked so reflexive I wasn’t sure he was even aware he’d done it, and then grinned.


“Well,” he said. “You don’t think small, do you?”


“This situation is a bit past the point where cautious action will get me anywhere, I think.”


He nodded. “Fair enough. Of course, it would entail some serious risks for me. It’s one thing to do some marginal things under the laws. It’s another to break them entirely, and especially to flaunt doing it the way you want me to. And that rule in particular tends to get worse things than the Watchers hunting you.”


“Would you believe me if I said that I was in a position to make those problems go away? With the Conclave, and the…other things.”


“Probably not,” he admitted easily. “Are you?”


I shrugged. “I think so,” I said. “But it can be hard to tell, and they do take this very seriously. Are you open to considering it anyway, or should I look elsewhere?”


“I’m thinking about it,” Jeremy said. “But it’ll take some serious payment to make the risk worth it.”


“You mentioned cash,” I said. “I can pay a quarter of a million American, up front, in cash. I’ll also give you access to my network to spend it if you’d like. I’ll talk to my contacts and see what I can do about making sure that you don’t come under fire for this, and if necessary I’ll foot the bill for a new identity for you.”


Jeremy pursed his lips. “That’s almost enough to be tempting,” he said. “I’ll also need you to cover any expenses, of course.”


“Shouldn’t be a problem, within reason. Call it another quarter of a million to pay for that. I’ve also got access to some extremely valuable information you can use for bribes, for the things that don’t take human currency.”


“You make one hell of a convincing argument, Winter,” he said. “It’s not every day someone offers me half a million to not do things.” He grinned again. “What the hell, why not.”


“Excellent,” I said, also smiling. “Let me go over the details with you.”

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Interlude 13.z: Selections From Keeper Anomaly Log

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Containment: Object to be stored in a standard low-security locker in Luxemburg facility. Object to be examined at least once per week when not engaged in testing.


Description: A rectangular music box measuring 25x40x20 cm, made from mahogany, silver, and velvet. Silver fittings and handle exhibit tarnish consistent with prolonged wear. When the handle is turned, the box produces a rendition of Beethoven’s Für Elise consistent with music commonly produced by similar music boxes.


All individuals listening to this music report intense feelings of melancholy and longing, with no clearly defined target for this feeling. The intensity of the feeling intensifies with prolonged exposure, with 15 minutes being sufficient to inspire suicidal ideation in 65% of subjects. Testing on animals, lycanthropes, etc. suggests this response is not restricted to human subjects. Recordings of the music exhibit no anomalous effects. Mode of action is currently unknown.


Acquisition: Found in a Munich house during investigation following the suicide of seven consecutive property owners.



Containment: Object to be stored in a standard medium-security locker in Beijing facility. Access restricted to senior site personnel only. Testing prohibited.


Description: A pane of glass measuring 11x14x7 cm, inscribed with geometric structures. Inscription pattern is three-dimensional, with etchings throughout the glass; extrapolation from the pattern suggests that it is actually a representation of at least four dimensions, and possibly as many as seven. Additional inscriptions on the surface of the glass in Aramaic detail the item’s origin and use.

According to these notes, the glass is a stored spell triggered by the breaking of the glass plate. Upon this trigger, it will cause all glass within approximately one kilometer to shatter. The exact radius of this effect is unknown, as is the degree of similarity to the crystal structure of glass which is required for an object to be affected.


Acquisition: Created by original Maker and removed to Keeper storage following his death.

AP-0103 (AKA “Jeremy Potts”)


Containment: Subject to be stored in a standard low-security humanoid containment cell in Seattle facility. All facility personnel to be briefed on anomalous effects and password protocol. Due to difficulty in containment, reasonable efforts are to be made to keep the subject placated.


Description: Humans looking at AP-0103 perceive him as being a person with whom they are vaguely familiar, usually an acquaintance or family member. The precise person seen is unpredictable; individual subjects have reported a resemblance to as many as 93 distinct individuals. The only known constant is that the person observed is never one which the subject has seen within the past twenty-four hours.


This effect is observed in all recorded media. AP-0103’s actual appearance is, as a result, unknown. Evidence suggests he is the approximate size and shape of a human, but significantly more dense than human average; skin is most likely covered with grey or brown scales. AP-0103 claims to have been born with this condition; testing to determine his heritage and the source of this anomaly is ongoing.


Animal testing suggests this effect is not universal, as animal subjects do not exhibit any apparent familiarity with AP-0103. Testing to determine the extent of human qualities necessary to be affected by the perceptual anomaly is ongoing.


Acquisition: Found by Watcher team during investigation following unusual reports from a Seattle hospital.

AO-0122 (AKA “Sessho-seki,” “The Killing Stone”)


Containment: Following recent developments, object is no longer in containment and is believed to be neutralized. Deletion from logs is in process.



Containment: AO-0147 is to be kept in a high-security vault in a dedicated site in Mongolia. When a spawning event is expected, vault entrance is to be under constant guard by no less than 3 armed personnel and 1 Guard. At other times, vault entrance is to be under surveillance. Access to vault is allowed only by written permission of a Conclave member.


Instances of AP-0147-A are to be housed in a standard low-security containment cell in the Seattle facility. Instances of AP-0147-B are to be housed in a standard medium security containment cell in a secondary site in France, China, or North America. Access to instances of AP-0147-B is to be restricted, and any breach of parole on the part of AP-0147-B is to be met with lethal force. Instances of AP-0147-C through -E are to be killed on sight.


This item is currently set to be terminated. Testing to determine how the item can be destroyed is ongoing.


Description: AO-0147 is a pine coffin measuring 2x1x0.5 m. The coffin can be damaged normally, but repairs itself within 2 hours. Removed sections rot in this time, while the coffin regenerates to fill the gap which is left. It is currently unknown how this repair process functions.


AP-0147 is a human of varying age, sex, and ethnicity. Testing has confirmed that all instances of AP-0147 are the same individual, and all instances retain memories formed by other instances. However, different instances exhibit markedly different personality traits, currently categorized into 5 broad types termed AP-0147-A through -E. Notably, all instances have been observed to have magical talent typical of a human mage; specific skills vary with instance type.


Following the death of any instance, another instance will appear in AO-0147 within 48 hours. The process by which this occurs is currently unknown; Doctor Anderson’s theory of spiritual manifestation is currently the best available explanation (but see also Doctor Corwin’s proposed theory of random generation). At no time has more than one instance of AP-0147 been observed to exist at once.


In all instance types, AP-0147 presents a consistent narrative regarding his origins. He claims to have been a minor wizard practicing in Greece in the late Byzantine period. During this time he attempted to prevent a major Sidhe noble (specific identity unknown) from hunting a young girl, at which point the noble cursed AP-0147 with “a fractured mind which does not end.”


To date, the following instance types have been observed:


-AP-0147-A: Comprises 65% of observed instances. These instances appear to be human males aged approximately 35, with features consistent with a Mediterranean origin. Personality is pleasant and agreeable; this instance type is generally cooperative. Exhibits skill primarily with defensive magic and wards. AP-0147 has confirmed that this personality and magic is consistent with his appearance in life.


-AP-0147-B: Comprises 20% of observed instances. These instances appear to be human females aged approximately 25, with features consistent with a northern European origin. Personality is pleasant, but manipulative; this instance type has been diagnosed with narcissistic and histrionic personality disorders. Exhibits skill primarily with mental magic, including a highly refined capacity to detect and manipulate emotions.


-AP-0147-C: Comprises 10% of observed instances. These instances appear to be human males aged approximately 50, with features consistent with a Middle Eastern origin. Personality is hostile and aggressive, with strong violent tendencies and no evidence of remorse. Exhibits skill primarily with kinetic force.


-AP-0147-D: Comprises 5% of observed instances. These instances appear to be human males aged approximately 20, with features consistent with an Asian origin. Personality is extremely hostile, apparently sadistic, and remorseless. Exhibits skill primarily with alteration of the bodies of other humans; in particular, has repeatedly used a highly refined magical technique to render victims paralyzed before killing them. Survivors report that this paralysis is extremely painful; treatment has been largely ineffective at mitigating either the paralysis or pain.


-AP-0147-E: This instance type has only been observed once. AP-0147-E appeared to be a lycanthrope or other semi-human entity, with physical traits resembling a partially animalistic humanoid. This instance appears to specialize in physical augmentation and fire magic. This instance type is extremely aggressive and violent; in its one known appearance, it destroyed most of the facility which AO-0147 was at that time stored in, requiring an update to containment measures.


Acquisition: AP-0147-A turned himself and AO-0147 in to the Watchers.

AP-0276 (AKA “Taylor Jones”)


Containment: Subject to be kept in a standard low-security humanoid containment cell in the Arizona facility. Cell is to be modified with full suicide prevention equipment and standard Biosafety Level 4 containment protocols. Access to the subject is to be limited to individuals trained in BSL 4 protocol. Cell is to be under surveillance at all times; at least one trained guard is to be posted when an incident is expected. During an incident, subject should be subdued immediately by nonlethal means. Under no circumstance is lethal force to be exercised. Under no circumstance is the subject to be exposed to personnel not equipped with BSL 4 personal protective equipment.


Reasonable requests by the subject are to be granted, at the discretion of site director Dr. Michael Staver. Current requests include a video game console and monthly allowance for games (granted, with restriction), installation of speakers in cell and access to radio (granted), access to religious services (granted, with restriction), and alteration in diet (denied).


Description: AP-0276 is a Caucasian female human aged twenty-two years which exists in a symbiotic relationship with a malevolent spiritual entity. Entity is resistant to all known exorcism techniques and exhibits periodic control over AP-0276. Previous evidence suggests that the entity cannot terminate this relationship except by death of host, at which point it is able to enter the same relationship with another host. Entity has exhibited control over host’s body and multiple other abilities, including the capacity to produce pathogenic bacteria and access to information which is not available to AP-0276; testing to determine the origin and extent of these abilities is ongoing.


Acquisition: Recovered by Keeper agents following suicide of previous host.



Containment: Object to be kept in a standard medium-security locker in Beijing facility, with following modifications. Object to be suspended in copper wire within locker, and locker interior is not to exceed 2% relative humidity. Wire to be checked weekly for corrosion.


Description: Object is a gold medallion, roughly circular in shape and 17 cm in diameter. The rim of the medallion is incised with runes in the Younger Futhark alphabet; expert analysis suggests these runes do not express a coherent meaning and were likely chosen by someone with little knowledge of the alphabet used.


Upon coming into contact with water, AP-0359 produces a solution of nitric acid. Current theory suggests this is done via a specialized Otherside connection; testing to determine the details of this connection is ongoing. Contact with silver inhibits this process. Contact with most other materials produces similarly corrosive substances.


Copper has been found to be approximately 70% as effective at inhibiting acid production as silver, and considerably cheaper. As such, containment procedures have been updated to use copper rather than silver wire. Testing to determine whether inhibition is related to electrical conductivity is ongoing.


Acquisition: Seized during a Watcher raid on a wizard suspected of violating the name-alteration ban.



Containment: Kept in personal collection of Keeper Anastasia Blake.


Description: Object is a knife, 63 cm in length, with a bone handle. Analysis suggests that the blade is composed of a high-carbon steel alloy and the bone is human in origin, most likely the femur of an adolescent or young adult human. Upon cutting living tissue, AO-0550 causes rapid putrefaction of surrounding tissues. This effect does not occur when cutting nonliving objects, including corpses. Testing to determine how this effect functions and how it distinguishes between living and nonliving tissue is ongoing.


Acquisition: Found by Keeper Anastasia Blake during a raid on a vampire collective in southern Italy.

AP-0593 (AKA “Julian King”)


Containment: Released from containment due to budgetary limitations. Agents are to observe for further developments, and if possible prevent further incidents.


Description: AP-0593 is an Indian male aged 31 years. During the 24 hours of the full moon he exhibits a markedly different personality, including information which he has no known way of having acquired. This change is accompanied by the manifestation of abilities which do not closely map to known human magic, including accelerated growth of nearby plants, increased healing rate of nearby animals, and alterations in the perception of humans, who typically report favorable impressions of AP-0593 regardless of typical attitudes towards him. AP-0593 claims no understanding of or control over these effects.


Magical signatures associated with these effects most nearly match rakshasa signals of known signatures. Inquiries to rakshasas regarding AP-0593 have to date not received any response.


Subject has exhibited similar changes, with slight variations in personality and effects, during other celestial events, including solar and lunar eclipses, and at least one planetary alignment.


Acquisition: Found during an independent investigation led by the Blake clan following numerous reports of unusual occurrences.

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Empty Places 14.10

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Aiko met me at the castle in Transylvania this time. She’d had more than her fill of Faerie lately, and things weren’t so urgent there that she had to be present all the time. Her job was really fairly hands-off most of the time, as I understood it; it was just in the transitional period as she settled in that she had to ride herd on her new minions so much.


She was there before me this time. I knew that, because when I walked in the front door I was greeted by a bucket full of some pale pink slime slick enough to make an icy floor look like dry asphalt by comparison. I wasn’t sure quite what it was, though some kind of faerie gunk seemed like a solid guess.


I hit the ground, but it was more of a comfort than anything, really. Aiko pulling harmless pranks was a way of saying that things were okay, that everything was normal and life would go on in spite of how badly wrong things had gone recently. Knowing that she’d probably done it specifically to create that impression didn’t do much to change that. I was smiling as I fell.


The smile faded quickly as I stood and carefully stepped out of the puddle of slime. Things were still too grim for it to last long. But still, I appreciated the break, however brief it was.


I found her in the kitchen, with an enormous spread of food. It wasn’t hard to guess that she hadn’t made it; Aiko was arguably a better cook than me, but that wasn’t saying much, and she was still pretty bad. Besides, this was a fae banquet; I’d seen enough of them at this point to recognize one when I saw it.


“The job might suck,” Aiko said as I walked into the kitchen, throwing a pastry at my head. “But the perks are nice.”


I caught the pastry and popped it in my mouth. It was, unsurprisingly, excellent; chocolate and something that tasted vaguely like raspberries, but probably wasn’t. “It’s good to be the queen,” I said, wondering vaguely what happened to the food I ate at this point. It wasn’t like I had a functioning digestive system, after all.


“Damn straight. How’d the fight go?”


“We won,” I said. “People died. Jibril, Vigdis, Haki, maybe Kyi. Ryan. I think those are the only ones you know.”


She winced. “Oof. That’s…damn. Sorry I couldn’t be there.”


“People die in fights,” I said, sitting down and picking up a piece of meat. It was cut into paper-thin slices, and it smelled vaguely peppery. I toyed with one of the slices as I spoke. “It’s amazing they lasted as long as they did, really.”


“Still,” she said. “That’s rough.”


I shrugged. “It is what it is. How did your side of things go?”


“I kept them busy, at least until Aoife showed up. She made me look pretty bad by comparison.”


“She’s had probably a few thousand years to get the hang of the job,” I said dryly. “It’s probably not a huge surprise that she’s better at it than you are.”


“True,” Aiko said. She shrugged. “I at least kept her busy, though. Might have made your fight a bit easier, I don’t know.”


A few minutes passed in silence after that as we ate. Well, as she ate and I picked at the food. It was excellent food, of course, but I just…wasn’t interested. I was ravenous, as always, but I knew it wouldn’t do anything to help that. Eating for the sake of eating, when it would leave me as hungry as before, felt somehow empty. It was pointless.


“So what will you do next?” Aiko said, as she finished another pastry and leaned back in her chair with a satisfied expression. “About Colorado Springs, I mean. Sounds like you lost a lot of people. You think you’ll be able to hold things together?”


“I’ve been doing some recruitment,” I said. “Including some cousins of yours, actually. Maybe you know them? Three kitsune that work as a group, introduced themselves as Kyoni, Kiyanna, and Suiko.”


Aiko paused for a moment. “Ah,” she said, in a slightly displeased tone. “Those three.”


“Should I be concerned?”


She paused again before speaking, and I got the impression that she was trying to come up with the right words to use. “Let me put it this way,” she said. “They’re the kind of kitsune that give the rest of us a bad name.”


I considered some of the things I’d seen Aiko do.


I winced. “Oh,” I said. “They’re that bad?”


“You know how there are stories of kitsune possessing people and making them do crazy things?” she said. “Kyoni does that. A lot. Not to mention all the normal crazy things they do. Even when I was in my rebellious phase, I thought that crew went too far.”


“Wow,” I said. “That’s pretty impressive.” I paused. “They’re talented, though,” I said. “I mean, I saw them working in the fight. They know what they’re doing. And possession is serious magic, so if Kyoni can do that, she’s probably got some skills.”


“Yeah,” Aiko said.


“Okay,” I said. “You know these people, and you know about what my situation is. Do you think I should keep them as employees?”


She frowned, and spent several moments thinking about it. “I’d have to say yes,” she said at last. “They’re not pleasant people, at least not by my standards. But they like being in a position of power, and they know that they’ve got a better chance of getting away with things if they have somebody important backing them up. So I don’t think they’d turn on you, and they really are good at what they do.”


I sighed. “Good enough, then. Can’t say I’m thrilled by it, but beggars can’t be choosers and all that.” I snorted. “Besides, they should fit in fine with that crowd.”


“Who else did you hire?”


“Some more ghouls and giants,” I said. “Some odd people from the local scene. A few demons Selene knows. Oh, and a bunch of your minions that are working for me now.”


Aiko whistled. “Damn. That’s a pretty solid gang. At least in the sense of nobody smart wanting to mess with it.”


“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’m feeling pretty confident about their chances if there’s another attack. Which probably just means the next one will be much worse than I’m planning for, but that’s how it goes.” I shrugged. “Anyway, do you need to be getting back?”


“Nah, I don’t have any Court business that I need to take care of right now. Think I looked badass enough earlier that my minions won’t make trouble for a while, anyway. Besides, I’m in the mood for a bit of celebration.”


I started to ask what Aiko meant by that. Before I could, she grabbed me by the hand and tugged me away from the table, smiling slyly.


I didn’t argue. I’d already been thinking that I needed a break, from my own head as much as my circumstances. This was…as good a way as any to get away from that cycle of negativity.


Later, lying in bed, Aiko said, “I think I know what you need to do.”


It took me a few seconds to respond. I’d assumed that she was asleep. I was…not sleeping, exactly, sleep wasn’t a thing that I was even really capable of now, but close to it. “What do you mean?” I managed eventually, turning to face her.


“I think I know what you need to do,” she said again.


I eyed her suspiciously. “This is going to be one of your plans, isn’t it?”


“When have my plans ever gotten you into trouble?”


“Do you want an itemized list?” I asked. “Or should I just say ‘all of them’ and leave it at that?”


She sniffed. “Okay, fine. But they do usually work, and it’s not like you’ve been having great luck coming up with a plan for dealing with Hunter.”


“Good point,” I admitted. “What’s the plan, then?”


She told me the plan. Afterwards, I spent several seconds just staring at her. It was pitch black in the bedroom, but that really didn’t matter; we could both see just fine in the dark.


“Wow,” I said at last. “That’s…impressive. You know, I’m not sure the new title is good for you. Your plans have always tended towards the insane, but this is an entirely different level of risky. There are so many ways this could go wrong, I can’t even count them all.”


“But you’re going to do it anyway,” she said. “Aren’t you?”


I sighed. “I guess I’ll try,” I said. “It’s not like I have any better ideas. And your plans are…well. They might be insane, and risky, and insane, and prone to backfire, and insane, but they do have a tendency to work. Even if I’d rather they not.”


Aiko grinned like a lunatic. “Awesome!” she said. “Guess I’d better get going, then. Need to make sure things can do without me back there for a while.”




“Because it’ll take you a while to get things set up for this,” she said. “And I don’t want to miss it when you’re ready to spring the trap.” She got out of bed and sauntered off, whistling. After a few moments, I felt a portal open, and she was gone.

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Empty Places 14.9

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After the battle, I had to come up with more people to fill out the ranks of my organization. Well, I didn’t have to, I supposed. I could just quit the whole thing. But all my reasons for not doing that before still applied. I was not going to give up on this city, but I quite simply needed more people to hold it than I had right now.


Some I could get from the same places as usual. Most of the ghouls were leaving after Jibril’s death, but some liked their arrangement with me enough to stay on, and most of them had friends to invite now that there were openings. Similarly, there were plenty of jötnar who were happy to sign up. More than before, even, since at this point I was more than just a jarl where they had a real chance of getting ahead without the competition they’d see in more stablished courts. I was all of that, with a reputation for winning on top.


That wasn’t enough, though. Not really. It would take time for them to get here, and even then they wouldn’t be enough. Ghouls and giants were great thugs, there was no denying that, but they didn’t have the versatility that I needed. Hell, I was pretty sure the only reason I’d done as well as I had to this point was that I had a broad variety of people working for me. Between them, one of them could usually come up with a skill that was relevant to the problem at hand. I’d be a fool to give that up.


So in addition to the usual answers, I was also looking for new minions in less…obvious places.


I started with Pryce’s. Well, not exactly–I wasn’t comfortable going there myself, not when I’d never quite been given permission to come back–but I started by sending some people there. I had more than a couple of minions who went there regularly enough to be familiar faces, and they had some idea of what kind of people to look for. They didn’t pressure people to join up, but they made it clear that I was hiring, and I had a good enough impression that a few of them were interested.


That got me a couple of the more violent or desperate mages, and a few people who were less easily classified. The independent community was, after all, defined largely by not fitting into the neat categories. And so I had one guy that could see perfectly in the dark ever since an incident with a sentient shadow, a girl that was born with a preternatural resistance to heat…that sort of thing. They were niche talents, but useful in the event that we needed them.


Still, that left me needing more bodies, if I was going to have any chance of holding off another attack comparable to the last one. I started out by asking some of the people who’d come to help with the Daylight attack whether they were interested in staying on more permanently. It made sense, given that I knew they were willing to fight on my behalf, and they were already in the area.


The process went both better and worse than I would have guessed.


The kitsune were the first group I talked to, largely because they actually approached me rather than the other way around.


All three of the ones who’d come to the battle showed up to the meeting, as a group. There were two females and one male, and now that I got a closer look and I wasn’t quite so distracted, they were all fairly distinctive in their appearance. One of the females had more tattoos than Kyi, which was a pretty impressive statement, but one I felt fairly confident in making. She had a tattoo on one cheek, both arms from wrist to shoulder, legs from ankle to knee at least, and from her chest up onto her throat. The images were intense, with vibrant colors; mostly they depicted animals, mostly with gory or sexual themes.


The other female, whom I recognized as the one that had smiled up at me while eating someone, was more subtle, but in her own way just as memorable. She was very slender, had very large, dark eyes, and she had a tendency to smile a lot, in a way that drew emphasis to her teeth and tongue. With black hair in a complex bun, blood-red lips and nails, and a loose white gown that faded to black at the hem and sleeves, she presented an image that was simultaneously innocent and just stained enough to be worrisome. Somehow I didn’t think that was an accident.


The male would have had a hard time standing out next to that, and honestly, he kind of didn’t. That combination of colors, though, would stand out pretty much anywhere. Between hot pink hair and scarves in what looked like every bright color he’d been able to find, I wasn’t sure when I’d last seen someone quite so eye-searing.


“You were quite helpful in the fight,” I commented as they came in. I was sitting on my throne, more for image than anything, and for the same reason I had a few thugs with me.


The female without tattoos dipped in a quick curtsey that was smooth enough that I was sure she’d practiced it, probably a great deal. The other two did not. “We were happy to help,” she said, still smiling. “And it was…entertaining. My name is Kyoni, this is Suiko, and the fellow with the scarves is Kiyanna.”


“Winter, though I’m sure you knew that. I didn’t get to see much of you during the attack, but what I did see was fairly impressive. Were you the ones maintaining the illusion of that wall?”


“Ah,” Kyoni said. “Yes, that was us.”


“That’s a pretty large illusion,” I said. “I don’t think I’ve seen a kitsune maintain one on that scale before.”


“We’ve worked together quite a bit,” she said. “It tends to be easier when you’ve practiced.”


“And I did most of the work,” Suiko cut in. Her voice was a bit deeper and huskier than Kyoni’s. “That kind of thing is more my style than theirs.”


“Suiko did most of the heavy lifting,” Kyoni admitted. “Kiyanna and I added details to improve verisimilitude. Like I said, practice makes it easier to coordinate.”


“However you accomplished it, it was impressive,” I said. “That’s a useful talent. The sort of talent that I could appreciate having access to on a regular basis.”


“Well, you’re direct,” Kyoni said, chuckling a little.


“I’m in a bit of a rush,” I said.


“Understood,” she said. “Well, I’d say that we’re tentatively interested, depending on the details.”


“Let’s start with your conditions,” I said. “What do you want out of this deal?”


“Sex, drugs, and rock and roll, baby,” Kiyanna said. “What else?”


Kyoni rolled her eyes, but didn’t disagree. “Our interests are primarily hedonistic,” she said. “We’d need room and board, freedom to pursue our own interests, a moderate stipend.”


“Okay,” I said. “That seems reasonable, but I do have a few requirements. First off, if you’re doing something illegal, don’t get caught, and definitely don’t get us mixed up in it. No killing people in my territory unless you have my permission or you have good reason to think that I’d agree and you can’t ask for some reason. I don’t have a whole lot of rules for what you can do on your own time, but there are a handful of things I won’t tolerate, and if you cross any of those lines we’ll have problems.”


“Shouldn’t be a problem,” Kyoni said with a smile. “From what I’ve heard of you, I don’t think you’ll have a problem with anything we’re doing.”


“Why do you want to sign up for me, anyway?” I asked. “If you’re primarily hedonistic in your goals, I’m not sure why you’d need to. I don’t buy that you really need the stipend, not with your skills. It seems like you’re pretty much giving up a certain amount of freedom and committing to help out with some dangerous situations, and not getting much in return.”


“That fight was awesome, though,” Kiyanna said. “I mean, damn. Easily the best brawl I’ve had in weeks.”


“And you do seem to find some very interesting people,” Suiko said, winking. She looked at one of the giants playing thug and smiled in a way that was…seductive was an understatement. He swallowed visibly, and she smiled wider.


Kyoni sighed, sounding just a touch exasperated. “What my friends are trying to say,” she said, “is that we think the opportunities we’d have by working with you are more than enough to compensate for any opportunity cost we’d be paying.”


“One day,” I groaned, “one day I will learn not to ask questions that I don’t want to know the answer to. All right, fine. You’re in.”


“Sounds good,” Kiyanna said. “Oh, you want a scarf?” Without waiting for me to answer, he tossed me a length of grey silk, with my coat of arms embroidered on it. “Made that one special for you,” he said, then sauntered out the door.


After the kitsune, I had another group that had come to the battle as a unit. I was a bit more nervous about this one, though, even though they’d been specifically invited rather than just showing up. I understood kitsune pretty well, on the whole. I had an idea of their culture, and a decent understanding of their abilities. With how much time I’d spent around Aiko, I figured I had a fairly solid handle on kitsune, at least as much as anyone could.


The same could not be said of the next group.


The were less uniform in appearance than the kitsune had been, on numerous levels. The first one in the door looked like a human man, very pale and pretty enough to make a model envious. After that came something that looked vaguely like a cross between a wolf and a lizard, built on a generally canine frame but with a lizard’s muscular tail and covered in emerald scales. The third was smaller, closer to a child’s size and shape, with long claws and black wings stretching out from its back. The last one in was back to looking more or less human, but very different from the first; it was built more like a bodybuilder than a model, with blunt features and teeth that made me think of a shark.


What I found more meaningful, though, was the difference in their scents. With the kitsune, their magic had all smelled more or less the same, the fox and spice sent that I associated with kitsune; there were small variations, but they were all fairly similar. The same could not be said of this group. The first humanoid one smelled like incense and lavender, the wolf-thing more like musk and cold blood. The winged creature had a more traditional scent, something vaguely sulfurous, and then the last one smelled like smoke, cut with something earthy.


On the surface, the four of them seemed to have nothing much in common. But I knew that they shared at least one feature, and it was an important one. They all came from the same place.


“Glad you guys could make it,” Selene said. “This is Winter, he’s the guy I told you about. Winter, this is Rafael. He works in the same department I did, pretty much.”


“But of course I do it far better,” the one that looked like a model said.


Selene rolled her eyes. “Samuel is more of a hunter,” she said. “He’s the sort that runs people down.”


“Charmed, I’m sure,” the lizard-wolf thing said. His voice was a bit rough, the words mangled by oversized teeth that resembled a snake’s fangs more than anything, but understandable.


“Abigail tends to more of the sneaking,” Selene continued. “She likes to dive on people from above, or drop things on them.”


“Well, it’s rather easy,” the one with wings said matter-of-factly. “Not as entertaining as Samuel’s approach, maybe, but it makes up for it in efficiency.”


“And then there’s Lusin,” she finished. “He works as a guard, keeps people out of restricted areas.”


“Usually not hard,” the other humanoid entity said. “Somehow people don’t want to bother me.” He smiled at his own joke, though none of the others did.


“Delightful,” I said, eyeing the four demons cautiously. Theoretically these were all weaker demons, beings that weren’t a huge threat to me. Even with that and Selene’s assurance that these guys weren’t bad to deal with, though, I figured I’d err on the side of caution. Demons were, from what I’d seen, not something to take lightly. “I notice you used the present tense there.”


“It’d be a bit dumb of us to quit when we don’t know whether you’ll give us a job, wouldn’t it?” Samuel said.


I chuckled. “Fair point. I’m assuming Selene has told you what I’d be expecting, generally?”


“Kill the things you tell us to, don’t kill the other things,” Rafael said lightly. “Seems easy enough.”


Abigail swatted him on the head with one wing. “Don’t play dumb, you cad,” she said sharply. “Yeah, Selene went over how things work here pretty thoroughly. Think we’d be fine with the same basic deal you’re working with her, with a couple of specific allowances.”


“What allowances, exactly?”


“Well, I need special furniture, for example,” Abigail said.


Rafael snorted. “Yeah, I’ll bet you do,” he said, somehow making the phrase obscene.


She swatted him again. “I mean because of the wings, you ass,” she said. “These things make normal chairs suck so much. And I know Samuel needs a specific diet.”


“Very specific,” he added. “Live prey is best, but red meat with certain supplements can do.”


“Okay,” I said. “That kind of thing I can do. If you’re willing to work with my rules, I think I can use you.”


“Sounds good,” Lusin said. “Think we can probably all make arrangements to move here within a couple days, yeah?”


“Shouldn’t be a problem for me,” Abigail confirmed.


“Of course not,” Rafael said with a snicker. “You’re always ready to go.”


“Would you stop that?” she asked, shoving him lightly as they walked out. She was smiling, though, and I don’t think anyone present thought she was really upset.


“I’m not entirely sure whether I just hired a gang of psychopathic monsters or a comedy group,” I said after they were gone.


“Both,” Selene said. “And yes, they’re like that all the time.”


I sighed. “Naturally.”


After that things got a bit more hectic, since I was dealing with people that weren’t in coordinated groups. More specifically, I was dealing with the fae.


It was also different in that they weren’t working for me as the jarl of the city. No, these were members of Aiko’s Court who were joining my entourage in my role as her champion. Apparently all the people in that role got a gang, I just hadn’t had the chance to build mine up yet.


This being the Midnight Court, I didn’t get the nice faeries. Oh, no. I got some redcaps and some trolls, a few rusalki and a kobold, even a banshee. The most innocuous were a handful of faerie hounds, and even they looked like the kind of hound that would take great pleasure in ripping your face off.


It was, I supposed, just as well. It wasn’t like I was in the market for sweetness and light.


It did take time, though. I had to vet each of them individually, and then they had to swear their oaths of service. Those were awfully complicated oaths, too, with lots of elaborate wording and escape clauses for both parties; the written contract the hounds used rather than a spoken oath were close to twenty pages long.


All told, by the time it was all done, it had been several hours. I wanted very much to rest; I might not need sleep, might not get fatigued physically, but that didn’t mean that I didn’t need to rest. I was exhausted on numerous levels, by the time I finally left the mansion.


But I had a genuine army now, instead of just a handful of thugs. I might not like them all, might not be entirely happy with the nature of the people I’d just hired, but I could say that much about them. With this crew on my side, I figured I had a solid chance at fighting off pretty much anyone that tried to attack this city.


Still. It would be good to have a chance to rest.

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Empty Places 14.8

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Dealing with the aftermath of the Daylight attack was hard, on numerous levels.


The first, and most obvious, was just the damage that had been done. It wasn’t as bad as it might easily have been, in some ways. The collateral damage hadn’t been nearly as extensive as I’d feared, the property damage nearly nonexistent. Most of my allies had suffered relatively few casualties. In fact, in an unusual turn of events for me, it was my own organization that had taken the worst hits.


But those hits had been…serious, to say the least. In the hours after that final fight the casualty reports rolled in, as we tallied up just how bad it had been. Over the course of those hours my reaction went from shock, to dread, to a sort of cold numbness.


Jibril, of course, was one of them. I’d seen him die myself, and any remote hope I’d had that he might survive after all was dashed when his death was confirmed afterwards. That, on its own, was potentially disastrous. He’d been the leader of the ghoul faction I was allied with, and the one most inclined to helping me. With him dead, it seemed likely that they would split up and go their own way, and even if they stayed together I wasn’t particularly confident that they would stay with me. On the whole, it seemed there was a good chance I’d just lost the ghouls who made up a significant proportion of my minions.


Vigdis was dead. Apparently, after telling her team to run, she’d gone charging in to keep the enemies busy. She’d managed to bring down another of those huge ogres, and held off the Sidhe long enough for the rest of them to get away. On the whole, Vigdis the Howling had died like a hero, and I thought she’d probably be well satisfied with how she went out. But still, she was dead and gone, and in the end how she got there didn’t change much.


Haki, too, was gone. He’d been part of a group with some newbies, mostly small fish and new housecarls. While I’d been fighting with Ryan, they’d run into a more mischievous group of fae, and the new guys hadn’t had the experience or discipline to deal with trickster fae. They’d fled or died, and left him standing alone between the Daylight forces and a large group of the wounded. Haki Who-Fights-Alone had lived up to his name, but even someone of his skill couldn’t take that whole group alone, and he’d died.


Kyi was alive, but…in bad shape, to put it lightly. She’d been badly injured, and then the bit of blood magic she’d used to conjure up that ice took a lot out of her. She was still in a coma, with no way to guess when or if she might wake up. Even if she did, she would most likely be crippled, the damage to her legs so severe that she might never walk properly again.


Jack died covering for the other mages as they escaped. I couldn’t really feel too strongly about that one; he’d been an employee, not a friend. I’d hired him because he was skilled at violence, and in the end he wasn’t quite skilled enough; there wasn’t a lot more to say about it. Still, he’d been an exceedingly useful employee, and his loss was a serious one.


Those were the most personal losses for me, and probably the most important individual losses on an organizational level. But there were more, many more. Quite a few of the housecarls that I didn’t really know had died, as had ghouls, mercenaries, one of the werewolves, some of the independents, some of Jackal’s crew…the list went on. About the only major group that hadn’t taken losses was the Guards, and they were more tense allies than really my people.


That many casualties was…well, it was serious. Very serious. It was the kind of thing that made me consider the future. The Daylight Court would, I thought, not try to attack the city again, at least not soon. As many of people as had died, they’d still given worse than they got, and not even the Courts could afford to casually throw that many lives away. Not to mention that Aoife would need to find a new patsy to use as her champion if she wanted to set me against a near-equal.


Even if they didn’t attack, though, this might turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory. I wasn’t sure that I could hold the city with how many of my people had died. At a minimum, I would need to make some adjustments, which I was really not looking forward to doing.


First, though, there was a conversation that I wanted to have even less, but which I couldn’t put off any longer.


Walking into Wolf felt…odd. It was small, for one thing. Somewhere along the way I’d gotten accustomed to the grandiose structures I dealt with now, the castles and the mansions and the insane structures that could only exist on the Otherside. The city was less impressive, but even there I had the mansion, and of course skyscrapers were impressive in their own right. By comparison, the small houses and unassuming stores of a small town were…less than impressive.


The next thing I noticed was how quiet, how peaceful it was. I could hear birdsong. The sun was warm, with the stretched feeling of afternoon edging slowly into evening. The infrastructure of the town seemed wholly intact. People walked along the streets and they weren’t in a rush, they didn’t carry themselves with an edge of fear.


No surprise. This town was too small to attract the same degree of trouble as the larger cities. Not only that, it was Edward Frodsham’s personal territory, and he wasn’t the sort of werewolf you pissed off lightly. On the whole this was probably one of the safest, most stable communities in the country right now.


It used to be that Wolf made me feel comfortable, at home. Even before the world fell apart it had been a refuge, a peaceful place that largely stood outside the march of time. I remembered being comforted by the way that it was insulated from the outside world.


Now, I mostly just felt out of place. I was an intrusion of that world into a place it wasn’t welcome. I didn’t belong here, anymore. I was too broken. I felt unwelcome, like I was a disruption in that peaceful atmosphere and the sooner I left the sooner it could go back to being the way it was.


It was, I reflected, hard to get away from the ugliness of the world when you carried it inside you.


Kyra was, last I heard, back in school, finishing her engineering degree. She wouldn’t be at school right now, though. Most schools were out right now, things too unstable to really continue the usual curriculum and schedule, and as a werewolf she would both want and need to be with her pack in troubled times. Not only that, but I’d called ahead, and this was where she’d told me to meet her.


She’d asked why I needed to talk to her, over the phone. I hadn’t answered, which was really all the answer she needed. Oh, she couldn’t guess the details from that, but she would know it was bad news.


I found her not far from the forest, leaning against a building. Of course; she knew where my connection point was, where I’d be coming from.


She looked good. Physically, of course, she’d always been in good shape, but there had always been an ugliness to her, a hint of darkness hidden under the surface. Her scars were not so well concealed as some. Now…she looked relaxed, comfortable. Waiting, she was looking at something on her phone. Through the eyes of a dog walking past, I heard her laugh, and it sounded genuine and wholehearted, without an edge of anger or bleak despair.


She looked good. She looked happy. I wasn’t sure what it said about me that I wasn’t entirely glad for that. Oh, I was glad that she was happy, of course I was, but…it was hard not to feel a bit inadequate when everything I’d tried to do to help her hadn’t been as good for her as just being without me.


I pulled myself back together, pulled on the jeans and t-shirt I’d brought, and walked out of the forest to greet her. I tried to rehearse what I was going to say on the way. It felt like I didn’t have nearly as much time as I should have before I was walking up to her.


“Hey,” I said. I started to swallow, remembered that it was just a useless habit; it wasn’t like a dry throat was a thing that could happen to me anymore.


Kyra looked up from the phone and grinned. The expression was a touch forced; she was glad to see me, I thought, but she was worried after I’d been so vague on the phone earlier. “Hey,” she said. “Where’s Snowflake? Did she not come with you?”


I paused, and she could probably guess what I was about to say from that pause alone, but it needed said. “She’s dead,” I said, the words coming out a bit harsher than I’d intended.


Kyra froze, then put the phone in her pocket, the fake smile fading. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, Winter, I…I’m sorry.”


“It was just a few days ago,” I said, feeling numb again. I knew that I should be sad as I said this, that I was sad, but I just felt…empty. Hollow. “I meant to tell you sooner, but things have been…busy. And I’m still trying to adjust.”


“Yeah,” she said. “That’s…yeah. What happened?”


“I picked a fight out of my weight class,” I said. “Or, well, I guess it picked me. The guy that killed me.”


“Aiko said you weren’t dead, that it was a fake.”


I forced a smile, one that probably looked even faker than hers. “Not quite,” I said. “I’m…alive, but I’m not what I was. This, this body? It’s not really real.” I held up my hand and let the mask of flesh fade from it, revealing ice and darkness underneath.


“Jesus,” she said. “How are you taking it?”


“It’s taking some adjustment,” I said. “And then Snowflake dying…hit me pretty hard. Like I said, I think it still hasn’t really sunk in.”


“I’m almost scared to ask now,” Kyra said. “But…Aiko?”


“She has her own things going on,” I said. “She…made her choices. She made a deal. Signed on with the fae, for good. In a roundabout way that’s what I’m here to talk to you about.”


Kyra looked almost stunned. “What do you mean?”


I took a deep breath, out of habit rather than any sort of necessity, and then spoke. “It’s about Ryan,” I said. “He made his choices, too. He signed up with the fae, on the opposite side as Aiko. I’m officially her minion, so he was on the opposite side from me, too. They sent him to take me out, and I…I killed him.”


Kyra was silent for a long, long moment. “Okay,” she said at last, in a tone that strongly suggested she was struggling to keep her emotions from showing in her voice. “This is a lot to take in, you know?”


I snorted. “Yeah,” I said. “Trust me, I’m well aware of that.”


She managed a smile, though it was a badly faked one this time. “Good point,” she said. “Look, I’m going to be honest with you. You’ve been a good friend. You stuck with me through some pretty dark times, and I’ve tried to do the same for you. But this…all of this at once…I don’t know how to deal with this. I don’t want to do something I’ll regret. So I think I should go and let this sink in for a while, okay?”


“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I understand. And I’m sorry. About Ryan, and…well, everything, I guess.”


“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” she said. “I’m sure you didn’t want to do it. Sometimes that’s how it goes, I know that. It’s just…I think I need to be alone right now. And I should tell Edward about this.”


“I understand,” I said again.


“Good,” she said. “I’ll go do that, then. I’ll be in touch if you need someone to talk to.”


“Thanks. That means a lot.”


“No problem,” she said. “Until later, then.”


“Goodbye,” I said, and then I watched Kyra walk away.

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Empty Places 14.7

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I might have expected Ryan to take it slow to start with, when the fight started for real. Neither of us really wanted this fight, after all. This was a thing we did because things had developed in a way that made it necessary, not because either of us wanted it to happen. Between that and the fact that he knew damned well how capable I was in a fight, I might reasonably have expected him to hesitate.


If so, I would have been wrong. He attacked before I’d moved more than a few inches, and he wasn’t shy about it. He dumped the full magazine from the submachine gun at me in a couple seconds, then threw the gun itself at my head. He was right behind it, bringing that knife up in a short, tight jab at my guts.


I was slow to dodge. It didn’t particularly matter. Most of the bullets ricocheted harmlessly off my armor; the few that slipped through the cracks didn’t really do anything meaningful. Nine millimeter rounds just weren’t enough to do much to me. The gun was barely even a distraction, and I reacted quickly enough to block the knife.


Tyrfing didn’t cut through it. Not terribly surprising. The champions of the Courts seemed, as a rule, to have high-quality weapons; I hadn’t been able to cut through Carraig’s either. I’d probably have gotten one myself, but I had Tyrfing, and that was enough sword for anyone.


Ryan didn’t seem too bothered by his failure to kill me in the first few seconds of the fight, though. He just stepped in and slammed his shoulder into my chest instead.


I was probably as strong as he was, but I wasn’t braced against it, and my body wasn’t terribly heavy. I flew backwards, hit the ground, and rolled along the pavement for a ways.


It was nothing like watching Pier and Carraig fight. I was very aware of that. Ryan and I had, in principle, the same powers available to us. Possibly more, given that Ryan was a werewolf, and I was…me.


But we didn’t have the experience, the instinctive grasp on what we could do. Compared to them we were like children playing with tools that we didn’t understand. We weren’t using the power of our respective roles to anything remotely resembling their full potential.


What we were  using was enough for me to push myself to my feet and, in one fluid motion, into a leap that carried me well over him and back to where I’d been, more or less. I landed on my feet and turned to face him, on even footing once again.


“I’m sorry it had to go like this,” I said to no one in particular. “I’d like to think that if I’d done something differently, been better, this wouldn’t have happened. But I guess not. You were probably always doomed to take that bargain, or something just as bad.”


He didn’t say anything, just charged at me, knife first. I circled around, forcing him to turn and sacrifice most of his momentum. It left me in position to slash at him.


I had to shuffle my feet a bit to avoid stepping on Kyi’s face, though, and I hadn’t planned on that. It was a tiny delay in my footwork, barely even enough to throw me off my stride. In most fights it wouldn’t have mattered at all.


Against Ryan, it was nearly disastrous. It slowed my slash just enough that he could block it with his spare hand, and his knife ducked around to hit me in the back, just under the ribs. On a human, it would have been solidly in the kidney, a fairly decisive stroke. He probably thought he’d won, just like that.


Given that I didn’t even have kidneys anymore, that thought was incorrect. I didn’t even hesitate as I grabbed his knife hand and turned to face him, the force of the movement turning it into a clumsy throw. He came off his feet entirely, and slammed down hard onto the ground. He just barely pulled away before I took his head off, and I did cut fairly deeply into his left shoulder.


As we both backed away from each other, I thought that we’d come away fairly even from the first round. We’d both wounded each other–I could smell him bleeding, and while I wasn’t crippled, he’d done some structural damage in my back that I couldn’t take the time to fix right now. He still had his knife, and obviously I couldn’t really be disarmed in any meaningful way.


I thought about taking advantage of that brief lull to say something else, but I didn’t. What else was there to say? We both knew where we stood. Talking wouldn’t change a thing.


I saw something else, though, in that moment. I saw Kyi looking at me, not half as dead as she looked. Her one good eye was bright against the bloody mask of her face, and I met that eye for just a moment before she closed it again, pretending to be dead.


It would take incredible discipline to keep up that act, with the obvious and serious injuries she’d taken. It was hard not to show a reaction to that kind of pain. But then, that was Kyi.


In that moment, I knew how this fight would end. I could see the whole thing in my head, and I was guessing she could too. It was a cruel, vicious, underhanded trick, and it would work. Of course it would.


I didn’t want to drag it out any longer. So I circled into position. And when Ryan thrust at me next, I left my sword slightly out of position on the parry. It wasn’t a huge flaw, just a few degrees too far to the side, my hand turned slightly wrong. Against a knife fighter of his skill, though, it was too much.


That trench knife caught me in the side of the head, and slammed straight through the armor. My body collapsed to the ground in a heap of snow and armor.


Ryan stared down at it for a moment, knife in hand.


He never turned around. He never saw Kyi draw a single straight line in her own blood, lips moving in a single syllable as she drew the rune. He never saw the ice that formed in the wake of her hand as she did.


He never saw me extend a crude shell of a body from that ice slick and lunge forward. Tyrfing stabbed in under his helmet, at the base of the spine. The blade went in and up, into his brain.


It was as close to a painless, instant death as anything could really be. I owed Ryan that much, at least.


He collapsed to the ground, blood already pooling around him. Tyrfing drank it up, leaving the blade as bright as it was before the battle. Tyrfing was clean. Tyrfing was always clean.


I was the one that was stained.


I dropped the sword to the ground and walked away.

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Empty Places 14.6

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Vigdis had been fairly close to the mansion, clearing out some stragglers from the hunting group. That was both a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, it meant that we could get to the site of whatever was going on pretty quickly. On the other hand, it also meant that whatever it was, it was uncomfortably close to the center of my power.


In some ways that didn’t matter. This was the modern era of decentralized communication and distributed networks, after all. The mansion was heavily enough warded to act as a fortress, and it was where people were used to thinking of me being, but losing it wouldn’t really cripple us in any practical way. The place was pretty much just a symbol.


But one of the things I’d been realizing lately was that symbols mattered. A symbol had meaning, had significance. Taking that mansion would be seen as a major victory for the Daylight Court, and so it would be a major victory for the Daylight Court. The perception of the event was all that really mattered.


We weren’t sure what was happening, exactly–Vigdis had been ominously silent since that last communication.


But with how ominous it sounded, I wasn’t taking any chances with it. The armored truck we took over to Vigdis’s last known location was loaded with some of my best thugs, the people I’d been keeping back specifically in case a crisis arose that needed my best. I had Kyi, Haki, Jibril, Lackland, Jack, and a couple of independent mages who I knew were pretty skilled. Selene was staying back at the mansion to coordinate the ongoing battle, but other than that most of my top minions were here.


I would have preferred to scout things out a bit, try to get a better idea of what we were dealing with. But that ended up being logistically impossible. Vigdis and Kris were both occupied elsewhere, and I didn’t want to wait for Kyi to sneak in and report back. I could have looked it over through a bird or something, but I was still getting the hang of doing that without my body collapsing into slush, and that would be inconvenient with how much equipment I was bringing this time.


So we were charging in blind. It was an uncomfortable feeling, and not one that I was accustomed to. I was usually obsessive about gathering information before charging in; as a rule, I at least knew more or less how far over my head I was. Knowing pretty much literally nothing about what was going on was a novel and unpleasant feeling.


The atmosphere in the back of the truck was tense, people making their last-minute preparations on the way other. Since we were already pretty well prepared, this mostly just consisted of checking and rechecking things that we knew perfectly well didn’t need checked again. I was right there with them; I’d always been fidgety before a big fight.


It was funny how some things didn’t change.


I’d been concerned that we’d have a hard time finding the issue, since we hadn’t exactly had a precise location for where Vigdis was when things went bad.


That turned out not to be a problem, which was something of a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it meant that we didn’t have to wander around the streets for an hour chasing shadows, which was nice. The reason it wasn’t a problem, though, was a bit less pleasant.


I stared when we saw them. Kyi said something under her breath in Norse; I was guessing it wasn’t a particularly polite thing to say. Even Lackland seemed impressed, to the extent that I could reliably identify an expression on a Sidhe face.


The ogres were by far the most noticeable of the bunch, and the main reason we could notice them so readily from down the street. There were two of them, and they were easily the largest ogres I’d ever laid eyes on, close to fifteen feet tall and so layered with muscle that they looked almost squat. Either of them could easily bench press a truck, I was guessing.


Despite their impressive size, though, they were the ones I was least scared of in this group. There were half a dozen humanoid figures, looking almost like children next to the ogres, whose equipment strongly suggested that they were high-ranking Sidhe. It was hard to be sure, especially at a distance, but the way they moved was too graceful to be human, and even if they weren’t nobility, the Sidhe were nothing to take lightly.


And then, finally, there was a single figure in heavier armor, carrying a knife in one hand and a submachine gun in the other.


That one didn’t look like much. It was a bit short even compared to the Sidhe, let alone the ogres. It looked more human, too, the way it stood and moved less graceful than the Sidhe, the equipment more in line with what the mortal world used.


But the light reflected too brightly off that armor, the air around the figure seeming to catch it and throw it back purer than it was. As if that wasn’t enough, I felt an inexplicable tension looking at it, sudden anger boiling up inside me and making me draw my lips back in a snarl.


So. It looked like I’d get to meet Aoife’s champion after all. I had to admit, I was a bit curious who she’d been waiting on all this time.


“Stop here,” I said, about a block away from them. The driver, a man I’d hired specifically because he had professional experience driving armored cars, obeyed silently, coasting to a halt.


“That’s a pretty impressive group,” Kyi said, looking at the Daylight forces. Her one eye was calm and cold.


“Yeah,” I said. “Kyi, rooftops. Get a view overlooking them. If you get a clear shot take it, but don’t leave yourself exposed. The rest of you, spread out here and get ready to hit them hard and fast when they run past. Jack, you’ll be keeping them contained; Jibril and Lackland, keep them off the mages. The rest of you are artillery. I’ll go in and alone and try to lead them back here for the ambush. Questions?”


“No, jarl,” Kyi said, inclining her head in something that wasn’t quite a bow. The rest just shook their heads.


“Good,” I said, opening the door. “I’ll give it thirty seconds for you to get in positions and Chris to get the car out of here, then I’m going in. Move.”


It felt like a very long thirty seconds, waiting to start that fight.


It didn’t seem like they’d noticed us yet. They were standing in the street, ambling around aimlessly. Occasionally one of the ogres grabbed something, which might mean anything from picking up a bicycle to ripping a streetlight out of the ground, and toss it at a building. The rest didn’t bother.


I stood silently and watched them, thinking. It felt strangely quiet, with everyone else gone. Peaceful, in a way. It was the calm before the storm, but it was still calm.


I called Tyrfing with an absent thought, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t just draw the sword and go to work. I just held it for a moment, looking at it. The scabbard, with its delicate designs of cold and death, was beautiful, in a way.


I stared at it for a moment, then undid the catch and pulled the blade out. The steel was mirror-bright, and I spent a few seconds looking at it, looking at my reflection. The snarling wolf’s visage of the helmet I wore was easy to see, the image marred only by the runes written on the blade.


I still remembered when I first got the sword. It was hard to believe that had been only five years earlier. It felt like a lifetime had passed since that day.


That first time, a single Sidhe noble had been an overwhelming enemy. I’d fought him, and I’d lost, badly.


It was funny, looking back. At the time, you didn’t notice things. Things didn’t happen all at once; it was gradual, one step at a time. It was like looking at a gradation of color. One side might be white, and the other side might be black, but it darkened so slowly that you could never quite put your finger on where it changed. But then you looked back, and you realized that you’d changed to the point that you didn’t even recognize the person you used to be anymore.


Thirty seconds were up. It was time.


I walked forward, slowly, the steel of my boots clinking against the asphalt. “Hey,” I said, once I was close enough to be heard. My voice sounded like wind and wolves and breaking ice, and nothing like a human being. “You’re in my territory.”


One of the Sidhe–I wasn’t sure which one–said, “This is your territory no longer.” I could practically hear the sneer in his voice.


“I figured you’d say something like that,” I said, continuing forward. I was pretty close to them now, less than a hundred feet between us. “But I had to say it. Give you your warning, your one chance to leave in peace.”


“This could only ever end one way,” the man I’d pegged as Aoife’s champion said. And it was a man; the voice was very clearly male, and it sounded familiar. I couldn’t put a name to it, but I was sure I knew the speaker.


No surprise there. I’d have been more surprised if I hadn’t known the person she chose. That was how the game worked, wasn’t it? Nothing just happened, it was all connected somehow.


“Yeah,” I said, sighing. “That’s how it goes, isn’t it?”


Then I threw Tyrfing at one of the ogres.


Throwing your sword isn’t a great move, in any fight. Swords aren’t made to be thrown, aren’t weighted for it. Even if you hit the target, chances are it won’t hit in a way that can cut effectively, and most people can’t throw a sword fast enough to do much even if it hits properly.


That’s most people, and most swords.


Somebody as strong as I was, throwing Tyrfing? That was a whole different story.


The cursed sword hit the ogre around the shoulder, and it hit hard, the incredibly sharp edge of the blade slicing through the ogre’s tough skin like it was nothing. It kept going for a ways, lodging itself in the thing’s shoulder joint.


The ogre reeled back, expression turning to one of shock and pain. Blood started to spray from the wound, sparking with an eerie pale green flame as it came into contact with the steel.


I felt like things were moving in slow motion as I reached into my cloak. I could see the expression on the ogre’s face changing, the people just beginning to react. They’d known that the fight was starting, that it was inevitable, but they hadn’t expected it to go quite like this.


I pulled a grenade out of my cloak with each hand, flicked the pins out with a bit of air magic, and threw them both forward, then turned and ran.


The explosion came sooner than I had expected, and threw me to the ground. It did some structural damage as well, shattering the body I’d built for myself. It took a few seconds for me to get the compressed snow and ice to fuse back together, though at least the armor kept me together to that point.


The fae were…not so lucky. Two high quality grenades loaded with iron shrapnel were pretty significant weapons, as such things went.


It used to be that being that close to major explosions would have left my ears ringing. Now I didn’t really have ears; my ability to detect sounds was completely unrelated to my physical body. And as such, I could clearly hear the screaming in the wake of the grenades.


I pushed myself to my feet and turned around to look at the scene.


One of the ogres was down, having apparently had the bad luck to be standing directly over one of the grenades. It was…the term “mincemeat” seemed to apply. Between the force of the explosion, the shrapnel, and the iron, there wasn’t much left of it. It wasn’t moving.


The other ogre was still up, still alive, but it was badly wounded, one leg mostly destroyed. Most of the Sidhe were still standing, but they were also mostly injured, blood and fire leaking from various wounds. At least one of them was struggling to stay standing. Aoife’s champion was seemingly unfazed.


Well, not as much as I’d hoped for from my opening salvo, but not terrible.


I turned and started running back the way I’d come, at top speed. Top speed was, for me, a pretty impressive speed.


At that point, the Daylight forces had two real options. They could let me go, in which case it would look like they’d lost the first round, and they’d have to worry about me just wearing them down with hit and run tactics. Or they could chase me.


As I’d expected, they chose the second, and started running after me.


I was vaguely aware of magic behind me, and then a few seconds later a streak of light shot by just over my shoulder and carved a chunk out of a house. A bullet bounced off my armor a few seconds later, and then the ogre threw a chunk of concrete and clipped me. It knocked me to the ground, but didn’t do any real damage, and I bounced right up and kept running.


It delayed me a bit, though, and then I had to start moving more evasively, keeping them from drawing a bead on me. It slowed me down, just a bit, and they started closing the gap.


They were just about on top of me when we reached the ambush I’d arranged.


The opening assault there was even more brutal than the grenades. A blast of fire came from the alley on one side of the street; an odd magic that just dissolved what it touched speared out from the other. The Sidhe retaliated with magic of their own, turning the street into a chaotic mess, and then the ogre caught me with a solid blow and sent me tumbling down the road.


When I pushed myself back to my feet, stumbling a bit as I had to get my leg back into functional condition once again, I was greeted by a madhouse.


Three of the Daylight Sidhe were down in flames, another simply missing a head where the erasure magic had wiped it away. One more had Kyi’s arrow sticking out of her throat, and two more arrows had taken out the ogre’s eyes with incredible precision. Lackland and Jibril were each dueling with another of the Sidhe, both fights looking more or less evenly matched.


I started towards the fight, stumbled again, and had to take a moment to repair my body further; that ogre had done more damage than I’d initially realized. In that moment, Aoife’s champion put a burst from his submachine gun into Jibril’s torso, then brought the knife down with the incredible strength of a Sidhe champion, splitting the ghoul’s skull in half.


Ghouls were tough. They were preternaturally tough, in fact; they could take one hell of a beating and, eventually, recover from it. There wasn’t a lot that could really kill one.


Cutting Jibril’s head in half was enough to do the job.


I wasn’t entirely sure what happened next. One moment, I was twenty feet away from the fight. The next, I was standing right in the middle of it, Tyrfing thrust clean through one of the Sidhe, my teeth bared in a furious snarl.


I ripped the sword back out and the Sidhe fell, blood pouring from the wound. I didn’t care, barely even noticed. I was already stepping forward, moving on to the next. This one raised her sword to block, but it didn’t matter; my swing was strong enough to knock the blade out of the way and just keep going, cutting her literally in half from her shoulder to the opposite hip. One of the Daylight Sidhe hit me from behind, and managed to stab me through the armor, but he was only cutting snow, and it wasn’t enough structural damage to even slow me down. I spun, and smashed my free hand into the side of his head, and his skull caved in easily under the blow.


That was enough to clear a bit of a space around me, enough to see. The mages were in full retreat now, running down the street; Jack was trying to cover them, keep the Sidhe from following, but he was obviously struggling. He had a gift for kinetic barriers, and that was enough to keep them at bay and keep the mages alive, but they were still following, and the Sidhe were too fast to lose them easily.


Lackland was down, unconscious or dead. Kyi was lying in the street not far way, having apparently fallen from the rooftops; one leg was visibly and badly broken, and her face was covered in blood. She wasn’t moving.


That was all I saw before the ogre reached for me. It was blind, and clumsy, but apparently able to operate reasonably well by hearing or scent or something, because it had more or less the right target.


I dodged its hand and then jumped onto its arm, running up it. I wouldn’t have guessed I could actually do that. It was less than a foot wide, and slick, and moving, and my all rights I should have slipped right off. But I was still operating more on fury than logic, and I was in no mood to listen to reason.


It worked. I sprinted up its arm and jumped straight for its head, Tyrfing leading. I cut completely through its neck, and we hit the ground at more or less the same time.


I landed in a crouch and then stood, sword still in hand. I wasn’t even breathing hard. Then again, I wasn’t breathing at all.


It was quiet now, again. The last of the Sidhe were chasing after the mages, but here, now, it was quiet.


“Just you and me,” Aoife’s champion said, echoing my thoughts.


“Was the only way this could end,” I agreed. “So you going to tell me who you are now?”


“What?” he said. Then, a second later, “Oh, right. The helmet. Forgot.” He reached up and took it off, and I got a look at his face.


I was right. I knew him.


“You?” I said, a bit incredulously.


“Yeah,” Ryan said, a bit self-consciously. “Me.”


I just stared. “Wow,” I said. “Of all the…you know, I was genuinely not expecting this. Of all the people that could have taken the deal, I don’t think I’d ever have thought of you.” I shook my head, and when I spoke again my voice was bitter. “Why?” I said. “After everything I went through to save you from a deal with the fae…why the hell did you do this?”


“Unna,” he said simply.


“Right,” I said. “Your wife. The selkie. I thought you said she was unaffiliated.”


“She is. But Aoife had something on her. Leverage. It was either this, or she used it.”


I sighed. “You know that she probably doesn’t care about you, right?” I said, feeling very tired. “This whole thing was a setup to get you to agree to this. It was never real.”


“I’ve considered that,” Ryan said quietly. “It’s possible. I don’t think what she feels is an act. At first, maybe, but not now. But yes, it’s possible.” He shrugged. “Does it matter? What I feel is real, either way.”


“Yeah,” I said. “That’s true.” I paused. “It can’t end well,” I said. “You and her. I mean, it never had great odds. But this choice, doing this…it can’t end well.”


“With all due respect, sir, I don’t know that you’re in a place to throw stones on that topic.”


I had to chuckle at that. “Good point.”


We stood in silence for a moment, then he said, “I didn’t know I’d be going up against you, sir. I don’t know that it would have changed anything. It’s not like I had a lot of options anyway. But I…well, I didn’t know.”


“That’s how it goes,” I said. “Back down?”


He shook his head. “Can’t,” he said. “Forfeit this one?”


I grunted. “Can’t,” I said.


“That’s how it goes,” he said. “Sorry.”


“Don’t be,” I sighed. “This one isn’t your fault. You ready? If I’ve got to kill Kyra’s friend, I don’t want it to be by surprise.”


He grinned, though it was brief. “Ditto,” he said, putting his helmet back on.


“Let’s do this, then,” I said, calling Tyrfing once again. I raised the sword in a quick salute, and then I charged.

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Interlude 13.y: Bleiddwn

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The nature of debt is a challenging one. A single debt, a single relationship, is easy. It can be simply seen where one party stands in relation to the other. Add more debts and that relationship grows more complex; each party can easily owe an obligation to the other. Add more parties and the context becomes more ambiguous; a debt owed to one can preclude payment to another. Consider that each party can fill multiple roles, that obligation can be owed to a group as well as an individual, and that not all parties may be aware of the debts involved, and the system grows even more complex.


Small wonder, then, that it requires an immortal lifetime to learn to navigate the game.


Some would question whether I am a player. They point to my appearance, to my behavior. “Look,” they say, “he rejects the politics of the Courts, he rejects the finery of the Sidhe. This must indicate that he is not subject to their rules.”


These people have failed to grasp the nature of the game. Refusing to play is a perfectly legal move.


I slouched along the dusty valley, the sun warm on my back. It was a pleasant day today, though I wasn’t paying it a great deal of attention. My thoughts were on distinctly unpleasant matters.


I smelled them before I saw them, scents of sweat and steel and leather and just a hint of rust and blood. It was an odor I was well-acquainted with.


I heard them next, sounds of tired laughter and jingling harness and slow, plodding hooves. It was a sound I’d heard more times than I could remember.


Vision came third, and was slow and unimportant by comparison. Some habits do not change.


The Son of Wolves, they call me. Most, who haven’t heard or don’t remember the legend, think this is a meaningless title, one chosen for the sound and connotation of it. Others, who do know the story, think that I must surely be a successor to the title.


Those people, at least, have some reason to think as they do. There are not so many left from that time that the existence of another is something to take lightly. Only the third generation of the fae, born at the will of the first when the world was young; that is a thing, in this age, which few would claim. It seems an impossible claim, one so utterly implausible that it could be dismissed out of hand.


It makes it easy to hide the truth, when no one would think to look for it.


These men know nothing of that, though. Of all the stories of the fae, they know only the haziest outlines, old tales told by campfire for so long that they were little more than a vague echo of what they once were. They do not know my title, let alone my history.


They know only what they see, and I know what they see. My appearance is a matter of choice, as it is for all the elder fae, the Sidhe and the Tylwyth Teg and all the álfar. The masks we show the world are more a matter of preference than any sort of necessity.


Most prefer beauty, delicacy, artistry. I choose a more…direct approach, with blunt features and crude clothing that makes no pretense of beauty. In its own way, this is as much a statement of power as any artistry I could display. Taken in conjunction with my position, it’s a way of saying that I can afford not to care what the Courts think of me.


There aren’t many who would say that. But then, who exists to punish me for my impudence any longer? The first generation is dead or gone now. The second, those of them who still exist, are mostly withdrawn into worlds of their own making. The third…even if they wished to oppose me, they could not. I’m older than most of them, and I was trained by Math when the world was young. Next to that, there are few powers on this earth that can matter.


To these men, I was none of that. I was merely a creature of the fae, since while my features were blunt and ugly, they were still those which the various Courts had chosen for themselves. And I was in their way.


Their leader made an effort to be polite. “Get out of the road,” he said to me, his voice husky. They’d been a day on the road now, with little water.


I regarded him calmly, with a slight smile. “They’re close behind you,” I said.


“All the more reason for us to not stop,” he said.


“It won’t be enough,” I said, with perfect confidence. “Their horses are fresh, and yours are not. It seems the hunt is nearly at its end.”


He saw that I wasn’t moving, and pulled his horse up short. The animal stopped, grateful for any excuse to rest. The man riding her glared at me, and in those dark eyes I saw a glimmer of the fire that had brought him to my attention. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and deadly serious. “If you think that I’m going to lay down and die, you’re sadly mistaken.”


“What if you didn’t have to?” I asked. “What if that wasn’t the only choice available to you here?”


“What do you mean?” he asked.


“I could make you more than you are,” I said. “You would be like wild beasts, far stronger and faster than you are now. The three of you would be enough to defeat all of those chasing you.”


The others perked up visibly at those words, nudging each other and muttering. Their leader, though, did not look away from me. “At what cost?” he said. “I know your kind. You don’t do anything for free.”


“Nothing in this world is truly free, child,” I said. “But the cost for this is…relatively mild. All I would ask is that you answer a single question for me.”


Those men were not the first, the eldest, the source. This was before the change became tied to the moon’s cycle, before it became an infection. But they were one of the seeds from which it grew, and in that sense, it would be fair to describe them as the start of something.


I have heard it said that diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way. There are worse ways to summarize it.


To say that the creature in front of me was in poor condition, that it was diseased, would be an understatement. Warped and twisted, each part of his body following its own plan without consideration for the rest, he looked very much broken. Parts of his body had turned themselves inside out, bones broken and fused back together in ways that didn’t have much concern for coherence, skin in some places and a furred hide in others…at a glance, he might well look like some nightmarish fraud more than a living being.


But his eyes, one brown and one yellow, were open. They were aware. And the look they gave me was an intelligent one.


“Oh, you are a mess, aren’t you,” I said, sitting down next to him and resting one hand gently on his head. He flinched away at my touch, but relaxed again a moment later.


It was an interesting experience, looking at him and knowing that I was in part responsible for his suffering. I hadn’t set out to cause it, hadn’t particularly wanted to inflict pain on him, but…I was responsible. I had made choices, knowing that this would be a consequence of those choices.


In the end, I thought, it would be for the best, for him and a great many others. In the end.


Transitions could be difficult.

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Empty Places 14.5

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I had to admit, I was fairly impressed looking over the group of people that I’d assembled for this fight. As I’d often noted, it’s one thing to know that a group is scary and badass, but it’s another thing entirely to see it. This was just the first time I’d been on the good side of that feeling.


I’d known that I was assembling a pretty serious organization, and that I had an even more impressive network of contacts and favors that were owed to me. I never really saw them all at once, though, never called in most of those favors. Between that and the fact that my mind had taken a bit to catch up to reality, I still thought of myself as the underdog, the upstart.


Now, with an army that could put most of the ones I’d fought to shame, it was hard not to adjust that view.


The core of it was my own minions, of course. The housecarls were acting as a combination of shock troops and front line–tough, heavily armed thugs that could take a beating, and a handful of elite troops to step in when necessary. The ghouls, led by Jibril, made up most of the rest of the front line, since they were just so damn resilient that not much would kill them.


That was the core. But there were a lot of other groups with some representation there.


The first, and most numerous, were the fae. Aiko had sent a small but significant contingent of them, and while they were small by the standards of Court battles, they were pretty damn numerous compared to the scale I was used to working on. There were trolls and ogres to provide bulk, rusalki and pixies for less overt tasks, even a few sylphs to provide aerial support. The leader of that group was an armored Sidhe officer in gleaming violet armor who introduced himself as Lackland and smiled in a slightly odd manner, petting the hilt of a crystalline rapier.


Then there were the independents. I’d been in this town for a long time, and before I’d been a jarl I’d been one of the crowd of unaffiliated small fish that made up the supernatural underclass. I’d stayed on good terms after that, and then when things fell apart, I’d made a concerted effort to get on their good side. Some of them had outright signed on with me, but there were plenty more that that wanted their independence more than stability and a steady paycheck, some of whom were willing to help in a pinch. They were the auxiliaries, not as trained or experienced as some, but with some bizarre abilities that were hard to prepare for. In a lot of ways, they were my wild card.


The Inquisition was…well, it wasn’t there. Not really. Most of them were dead now. But the ones who were left were there. Brick was gone–the Watchers were spread too thinly for him to still be in the city as my liaison–but the rest were all with me now, even Mac. What they lacked in numbers they made up for in power, experience, and sheer insanity.


Similarly, David and his Guards weren’t terribly numerous. But they were frighteningly powerful, well equipped, and had a decent idea of what they were doing.


I’d been a bit surprised how easy it was to get them to pitch in on my side, really. I’d been concerned that they would be unwilling to take sides on this. But apparently I’d built up more goodwill with them than I’d realized, and David was spinning this attack as a threat to the stability of the city in general rather than to me specifically.


Did they know who they were helping? Who they’d fought with, briefly? Probably, I was guessing. David knew, and given that Razor specialized in improving her own attention to detail it was a sucker’s bet that she’d caught on. Crimson had been there when I recruited the creature she summoned up from Limbo, and that creature was with me now, which was a bit of a giveaway. With that many informed, I was guessing the rest had been told or guessed.


But they were here now, and that was what mattered. Crimson had two minions with her already, one a little shapeless blob of light that I couldn’t put a name to, the other a small brownie from Faerie. The rest of them were holding guns, or magic, or both.


The next group was almost even more unexpected. Jackal and her crew of outcasts, the half-breeds and changelings and things that didn’t quite fit into neat categories, had come when I called. I recognized a few of them. There was Jackal, holding a crude knife as ugly as she was, who nodded and rasped, “Good luck.” Blackcap, with her delicate beauty and quiet voice, smiled at me and showed needle-sharp teeth. And, as far from the rest as she could get while still being a part of the same group, Ash Sanguinaria was holding her patchwork stuffed cat and waiting.


I stopped when I saw her. “What are you doing here?” I asked


She smiled slightly and stroked the head of the stuffed animal, which twitched slightly. The raiju wasn’t being shy, it seemed. “I am doing what I can,” she said.


“You know I can’t protect you here,” I said. “And neither can he. Not with things on this scale.”


“I know,” she sighed. “We all take risks, Winter. I know what I’m risking here, and I choose to do it anyway.”


“How did you even know to come here?”


“I hear things,” she said simply. “I heard that you were in a position where you required assistance, and I recalled that you were acquainted with Jackal, so she seemed to be a reasonable way avenue by which to reach you.”


“Ah,” I said. “That makes sense.” I paused, then said, “Thank you.”


“Aw, just get going,” the raiju said, in a voice that had just a bit of crackling static under the surface. “You don’t have time to waste.”


That seemed like a reasonable assumption, and I had nothing left to say anyway. So I went.


The next group I had to check in on were the humans. I had quite a few of them with me, minions of mine or Pellegrini’s thugs or independent mercenaries I knew. All of them were armed, heavily, with a mixture of automatic weapons and sniper rifles, some armored vehicles with mounted machine guns, some grenades and demolitions charges. They were the best people I had for taking enemies down at range.


And finally, there were the people that didn’t fit neatly into any other category. The thing Crimson had brought from Limbo, lurking on a nearby rooftop feeding her pet lizard-thing. The humanoid wolf I’d seen in the Wild Hunt, a few times now. A couple of werewolves that were part of my usual gang of thugs (though not Kyra or Anna; this was too brutal, too nasty, to bring them into). Selene, and around half a dozen other demons from Hell that were there to back me up for one reason or another. There was even a kappa there, and a trio of kitsune who I didn’t know–Kikuchi might not be there officially, but apparently he was willing to pull some strings.


All told, I had close to three hundred people there, ready to fight for me and what I represented. It was a staggering number. To say that this was a larger engagement than I’d ever really been in charge of before was a bit of an understatement. Then again, knowing that so many people were counting on me–that they really believed we could do this–was a sobering realization. It was a lot of pressure, and I wasn’t at all confident that I could live up to the expectation.


I had to try, though. And that meant that I had to do everything I could to win this thing.


In some ways, the hardest part was organizing the whole mess. With so many different groups that I was trying to weld into a coherent whole, at least for a little while, coordination and organization was challenging to say the least.


I wasn’t sure how Tindr and Selene had managed to split that army out and coordinate all the individual groups. I wasn’t sure how they’d managed to get every squad a couple of radios to keep them in communication with the command group. I could only assume that it had taken a minor miracle to get iron weapons and armor to everyone that could use it.


But somehow they’d managed it, and now everyone was parceled out around the city. We had no idea where the Daylight forces would start their assault, which meant that we had to be ready to respond anywhere in the city. So there were individual groups spaced out through the whole city, all connected by radio communications and ready to act in unison. Frishberg was using her influence to keep the police out of things, and while we couldn’t manage a legal state of emergency, word of mouth was enough to get most of the people off the streets for a while.


In short, we had things ready. There was nothing left to do but wait.


The Daylight Court, unsurprisingly, attacked at noon. They used permanent Ways rather than direct portals; the first indication of the attack was when people started appearing out of nowhere. It was well-coordinated, with eight different groups showing up within ten seconds of each other all around the city.


Within seconds, we started getting reports from around the city, as various teams reported on the enemy’s number, location, armament, and behavior. I mostly ignored that; I could see them myself. I was about as diffused as I’d ever been, spread through dozens of animals, snowdrifts, and patches of shadow. One or another of them had an angle on every one of the enemy units. A large, freestanding mirror in the throne room of the mansion displayed the images I was seeing, something like a streaming video from a bunch of security cameras.


Once I was satisfied that I’d seen as much as I was going to, I brought myself back together and assembled a crude body out of ice in the throne room. “Hold fire,” I said, as soon as I had a working set of pseudo-lungs.


Kyi nodded sharply and spoke into the radio. I wasn’t giving the orders myself, not directly; too hard to keep track of a radio when I was hopping between bodies, and I didn’t know the details of the troop arrangements as precisely as Kyi did. “Hold fire,” she said. “Repeat, hold fire.”


I waited for around ten seconds, then said, “Snipers ready.”


“Sniper teams three, six, seven, eleven, thirteen, fifteen, eighteen, and nineteen,” she said instantly. “Ready to fire on my signal. Repeat, ready to fire.”


I waited a few more beats, and then said, “Fire.”


The fae are powerful. There’s no argument about that. Nobody in their right mind would cross them lightly. They’re numerous, individually powerful, in many cases incredibly experienced. Individually, the fae are dangerous. As a group, they’re far worse. You need a hell of an impressive attack to even faze them.


Fourteen trained marksmen using high-powered rifles firing steel-jacketed armor piercing rounds was enough to make an impression.


“They’re dropping,” a cool, calm voice said over the radio, speaking loudly to be heard over the gunshots. “And they see us, right. Sniper team eleven withdrawing. Wait, what’s that? Oh shi–”


The voice cut off, interrupted by the sounds of fire. That was in turn followed by static, and then silence.


And as quickly as that, the battle was joined.


I wanted to fight. I wanted very much to go out and fight myself. And I could have, too. My side had some very skilled fighters on it, but there was no real question that I was the most personally dangerous one we had. I could have tipped the scales of any of the individual conflicts.


But that wasn’t my job here. I was the guy in charge, command and control. I was more valuable calling the shots and coordinating our efforts than just going out and cutting people down. Not to mention that there was a very good chance this was just the opening salvo, the Daylight Court feeling us out. They would have worse to come, and we couldn’t afford to waste resources on this.


So I sent people out to fight and die for me, and all I could do was watch it happen. I couldn’t do much, but I could at least bear witness to what was happening.


The snipers had provided a very strong opening, as high explosive armor-piercing rounds ripped into the enemy ranks. But as the fate of team eleven had proven, they could only get off a couple of shots each before they had to move or risk a devastating counterattack. There were plenty of Daylight forces still standing.


The first group to engage them directly was on the western side of the city, just north of the territory claimed by Kikuchi. Dozens of Daylight trolls and faerie hounds were there, led by a Sidhe knight on a silver horse. They started setting fire to buildings within a few seconds of showing up.


That was a bad sign. I hadn’t been sure how they would treat the residents of the city, whether they’d consider them to be civilians or the fact that I claimed to be their jarl was enough to make them fair game in the war between the Courts. If they opened with casual arson, that was a bit suggestive that this wasn’t going to be a clean fight without collateral damage.


They didn’t make it far before one of my squads was on them. That one was composed mostly of jötnar, bellowing giants with steel weapons and armor, backed by a smaller number of humans with guns.


The first sign of their presence was when the flames went out, smothered by the cold brought by a dozen jötnar. The second was a hail of automatic gunfire that killed the horse and half a dozen of the hounds.


The Sidhe leapt easily off the dying horse and landed on his feet, nimble as a cat. “Good,” he said, smiling and drawing a silver sword from his belt. “I was wondering whether you would put up a fight at all.”


Kjaran’s response was, predictably, swift, brutal, and silent. He bound his sword with the Sidhe’s, and brought the steel-wrapped edge of his shield around into the faerie’s head. The Sidhe staggered to the side, his expression one of pain and shock, and didn’t recover before Kjaran ran him through.


From there the fight devolved into chaos, but it was obvious who had the edge. The fae were disorganized and surprised, and they were fighting a disciplined group of fighters as strong as they were and armed with steel.


The fight was short, and bloody. Not one of the giants fell.


In the north, the snipers had a more dramatic effect. That group of Daylight soldiers had had the poor luck to step out of a way in an open park that was directly between two sniper teams, and between them they’d made mincemeat out of the fae. Even an ogre fell when half a dozen armor piercing rounds hit it in less than ten seconds.


They didn’t just stand there and take it, of course. But it took them a few seconds to figure out that they were under attack. They weren’t accustomed to guns, or explosives; those weapons didn’t generally work in Faerie. Once they did catch on, they picked one of the teams and ran at them, moving faster than gnomes had any right to. Those legs were short, but they were bloody fast.


Unfortunately for them, reacting quickly isn’t the same thing as reacting well. I was guessing they were panicky, caught by surprise and with their ogre already dead. It was, perhaps, forgivable.


That didn’t change the fact that they ran straight into a group of Pellegrini’s troubleshooters. A pair of fragmentation grenades, loaded with iron shrapnel, was enough to finish that group off.


In the east, out at the very edge of the city, the coverage got a bit thinner. It was far from the mansion, which was the center of my organization in more than just a metaphorical sense. Not only that, but there just wasn’t much out there. It was the part of town that was all open plains from there to Kansas, with no real geographic features or major buildings.


There were no snipers to take on that Daylight assault team. Between the generally thin coverage in that area and the lack of good hiding places, it had seemed like a poor location to assign snipers to.


As such, they got more time to rampage than most of them. There were trolls in that group as well, dryads that looked like humanoid trees, even a few salamanders. They were capable of some pretty impressive damage.


They said that the Daylight Court was…not good, precisely, but more benevolent than the Midnight Court.


That might be true, but somehow I didn’t think it was much consolation to the civilians that group caught.


Within a few minutes, though, Jackal’s crew had caught up to them.


Unlike most of the people I’d recruited for this, they didn’t fight as a unit. They weren’t coordinated at all. There were nine of them, and once they showed up there were nine individual fights going on. It was hectic and chaotic, and even as a passive observer, I could barely keep up with what was happening.


There was Jackal herself, so fast she was just a blur as she tackled them with her knife. Blackcap’s demeanor was completely changed. The only time we’d spoken, I remembered her being shy and withdrawn, speaking with a stutter if at all. Now she was singing a sweet, haunting melody as she cracked skulls and tore trolls limb from limb with her bare hands.


And there was Ash, with a knife I’d given her a long time ago in one hand and some subtle magic wrapped around the other. She mostly just stood still, expression sad, as the raiju shredded and electrocuted things all around her.


The fight lasted for around a minute, and when it passed the ground was covered in blood and sap and ashes. Not all of the dead were from the Daylight Court. There were three of Jackal’s crew that I didn’t recognize who weren’t moving.


But they won.


Not far southeast of the mansion, a more mixed group had turned things into a running battle through the streets with a group of mounted fae that looked suspiciously familiar. It took a moment for me to realize that while they weren’t the Wild Hunt, they looked too similar to that group for it to be a coincidence. It wouldn’t surprise me if I’d seen some of them there before.


Without the power of the Hunt, though, they were struggling to catch their prey. Fae horses and hounds were far more than their mortal counterparts, but they were chasing cars through twisty streets that they didn’t know very well.


And this quarry was one hell of an awkward one to chase. Half a dozen cars, weaving through the streets like only someone who’d lived in this city for years could, trading places and changing directions…even watching from the outside, following what was happening was not an easy thing to do. Then they were throwing iron caltrops out behind them, taking potshots whenever they went in a straight line for more than a few moments.


Some of the cars were carrying more…unusual payloads, too. The independent crowd in the city had needed to get creative to survive this long without the backing of a major power, and it showed. The odd magics were just the beginning. There were nets, clouds of iron filings and high-power fans, some sort of grease slick…it seemed like every twist and turn brought a new and dangerous obstacle.


Of course, it wasn’t entirely one-sided. These were experienced hunters, after all. A precisely placed arrow took out a tire on a sharp corner, sending one of the cars sliding into another. Both of them crashed hard, and anyone that might have survived the impact didn’t survive the following hunters.


Then the whole group went down a narrow alley that I didn’t recognize through the eyes of a raven overhead. The cars had only a very slight lead by then, less than fifty feet.


It was enough to collapse the walls in between them, though. It wouldn’t stop the hunters–a pile of rubble wasn’t nearly enough of an obstacle to really stop them. But it would slow them down.


Then the illusion masking the walls of the alley faded, and a small army pounced on them from the sides. The bulk of this group was composed of ghouls, but there were a few werewolves, and of course the three kitsune who had been maintaining the illusion.


Caught by surprise, surrounded, and with their momentum killed, the fae never had a chance. They were dragged down in a matter of seconds.


One of the kitsune looked straight up at the raven I was riding and smiled. I could see a mouthful of bloody meat through her teeth before she swallowed.


The Guards, unsurprisingly, had settled in downtown. It made sense. It was the area of town they were most acquainted with, and also the one where collateral damage could be the most devastating. I wasn’t surprised that they weren’t taking risks with it.


Of course, they also had some very different standards for what the appropriate response to this sort of thing was. The Guards were still very much concerned with public perception, and they still had that pesky rule about not killing people unless they really, absolutely had to.


That limited the people I could send to help them rather dramatically, since most of my gang was…not great at restraint. So they had some people on the rooftops with binoculars to keep them informed, and I’d provided them with cars for mobility, but they were largely on their own.


In fact, that was a good way to think of it in general. Obviously a lot of the people I had working with me today weren’t really my people, but the Guards were more obviously doing their own thing than the rest of us. They were listening in on our main radio frequency, but they had their own communication as well. David was listening to instructions from me and my lieutenants, but there was no doubt that he was the one calling the shots.


Luckily, he was good at what he did. It had been a while since I saw them, and the last time I hadn’t been all that impressed, but apparently in between he’d managed to make the new Guards into an actual, coordinated team.


And it showed. They knew their roles, and they carried them out smoothly enough that it was obvious they’d practiced it a mind-numbing amount. David was the mobile fighter, flying around and knocking people down, tripping them up. Crimson was hanging back and throwing minions in to keep them busy–not strong creatures, nothing as scary as she was capable of calling up from the Otherside, but lots of little things, demons and faeries and nameless things. Individually, they couldn’t take any of the fae, but there were freaking swarms of them, more than enough to keep the enemy busy.


That left Razor and Chainmail as skirmishers, closing in and disabling the Daylight forces with nets, lengths of chain, and Tasers. Even when the fae could find them to attack, they couldn’t do much. Razor was too aware of her surroundings to be caught by surroundings, and it was hard to hit something when you were mentally incapable of really recognizing its presence. That left Spark as artillery to scorch anyone who seemed to be making too much progress, which he was more than happy to do.


It was, I had to admit, impressive. I still thought their nonlethal approach was…naive, I supposed, was the word for it. I had a hard time thinking that it could really work. But I couldn’t deny that they were good at it, and they were making it work for them.


I didn’t spend too much time watching that fight. They were good at what they did, and I knew it. There were other things that needed my attention more. And besides, with the chaos and the sheer scale of that engagement, it was hard for me to find a vantage point to watch from.


Watching all that, I was starting to feel a lot more hopeful than I had been.


Oh, they weren’t all wins. The Daylight Court got some solid victories of its own. Here, an entire contingent of ghouls was wiped out by a group of ogres, and we had to scramble to assemble a unit of auxiliaries and unaffiliated people to go bring them down. There, a Sidhe noble cut a bloody swathe through my Midnight troops until a concerted hail of magic and automatic weapons finally brought her down.


On the whole, though, we were holding our own. It wasn’t a one-sided fight, but that applied to them, too. And all things considered, a more-or-less even fight seemed like a win to me. It was a hell of a lot better than I’d really been expecting.


Which made it unsurprising–almost satisfying, even–when we heard something else over the radio.


“What the hell is that?” Vigdis said, the first thing she’d said since the fighting started other than wordless happy noises when she didn’t realize there was a radio picking up the sound. Then, “Oh, wow. Oh shit. Run!”


I paused when I heard that.


I had never known Vigdis to voluntarily run from a fight.


“Well,” Kyi said dryly. “It would appear that’s your cue, jarl.”

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Empty Places 14.4

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


It seemed appropriate.


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


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


Not many. Not enough.


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


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


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


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


Or I could run.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Then I turned and walked away.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Since then, things had gotten complicated.


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


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


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


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


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


And then there was another consideration, too.


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


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


This was my city.


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


I had work to do.

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