I have to admit I have a dilemma. I’ll get to it after the introduction.
These two chapters have really different feels to them.
The first one is a short “Katrina, you’re really not quite all that, yet’ chapter. She’s trying, hard, to be everything Mike needs in one body, and she’s getting there.
She’s not there yet though.
The second chapter is explicitly mystical. There have been hints all through this book – and in the first five books, too – of an ‘otherworldly’ hand guiding Mike’s fate. We decided to give those hints reality.
Now. My dilemma. This is going up over Independence Day weekend, and I know enough to realize not many people are going to read them. Barbeques and family and fireworks, oh my!
But do I repeat them later in the week?
Or do I plow ahead with the big chapter?
I guess you’ll just have to find out.
“Kat, maybe you ought to get Kurosawa?”
“No! He said I am ready to use the needles, soon it will be my duty, and I should practice on you to learn your particular needs.”
“Did he really?“
Mike flipped over, careful to keep the towel in place around his middle.
“Kat, how, exactly, did you do your training?” He looked her directly in the eyes.
Katrina stopped in mid-motion, acupuncture needle in hand and about to strike at a newly exposed area, and thought.
“At first, it was simply a dummy, to learn the general points. And an anatomy chart with Hiro.”
“Then, the next level, Kurosawa got volunteers from among the Keldara. It was for the Kildar, so there were many choices. At first.”
“Did any of them last more than one session?”
“Well, not at first, but then I started getting it right!” She waved the needles around in a way that made him flinch inside.
“Jeseph, he did eight or nine practices with me!” She placed those needles in the sanitizer, picking up another from the warming salts. She ran it through a flame to get it even warmer.
“Jeseph? Jeseph Mahona?”
“Ye-es,” she answered cautiously.
“He was a good patient! I was really starting to make progress in my learning! For a while,” she added.
“He’s got a higher pain tolerance than me!”
“Oh.” She looked at her hand, then the other implements.
“Oh,” again. She started to pout, not forced at all.
“Yeah, oh.” A moment’s pause, then, “Tell you what. Get Kurosawa, and Stasia.”
“Stasia. Most definitely.” His tone brooked no disobedience.
In just a few minutes, the Kildar’s Japanese batman and his harem manager both arrived. Kurowasa was wearing one of the eye-searing Hawaiian print kimonos he favored during his off-duty hours; Stasia was wearing much less, apparently interrupted in giving the Harem another lesson. They looked at each other before Hiro, face carefully neutral, bowed Stasia in before him.
“Hiro, I don’t think that Katrina is quite up to your level.”
“No.” He never lied, but he would also never volunteer more information than the question demanded.
“So, if you don’t mind, I would like you to continue doing my treatments.”
Mike explained, quickly, what Katrina had started and what needed to be finished, all the time feeling the full redhead glare that said life wasn’t being fair to her and someone was going to pay. Until.
“Did you have fun with Jack earlier?“ She didn’t answer, but color rose in her cheeks and her nipples hardened immediately as pleasure and shame warred in her. “I thought so. Strip.”
Without a word but blushing slightly, she removed every stitch of clothing. There wasn’t much to take off, yet she seemed to linger over ever tie and peeled herself like a banana. She was shaming herself, intentionally, and loving it.
“Get on the other table.”
He used the voice he usually reserved for their private ‘special’ sessions.
She did so, still bare, flushing a deeper red. He looked at Katrina, whose anger was slowly fading.
“Katrina. Practice on Stasia. You know her tastes, don’t you?”
“Of course, everyone in the caravanserai knows! Until you finally built her room below, you could hear her through the entire house!”
Stasia wiggled a little. She knew of Katrina’s practice sessions and had heard the tales the Keldara told of her. While she preferred men, pain was pain. Which is why what Mike said next so surprised her.
“Fine. She enjoys pain. Your goal is to give her the least pain possible.”
“Master!” Stasia objected, eyes wide.
“If she orgasms, you know that you’ve really screwed up. And it will cost you the week‘s truffles that I ordered for you. And you, Stasia, won‘t get any for the same week.”
“I understand,” answered Katrina, a wicked smile on her face. “If she doesn’t come, do I get her chocolates?”
Stasia glared at Kat, who smiled back like that cat who’d just gotten into the cream. Then they both, wait, was that a giggle?
Had they winked at each other? That came under the category of Very Not Good Things. Time to check the credit card bills more closely again. Maybe vet all the packages before they were opened.
“Good. Now. Hiro.” Mike closed his eyes and relaxed as Kurosawa applied his double dozen years of acupuncture expertise to his joints, trying to ignore the occasional moans and gasps from the other table.
“That’s one week. Ahhh. Right there. That knee’s been giving me hell since I got back.”
He knew something was wrong immediately.
It was the same feeling he got when his Team was about to get screwed on an op. Come to think of it, it was the same feeling as listening to Katrina speak in that weird voice on the road trip. Cold fingers of dread gripped his heart.
His eyes focused on the figure before him. The mocking smile flooded his being with anger, dispelling the unnatural cold, and his demons erupted.
“Who the fuck are you and how did you get into Stasia’s dungeon?”
The man laughed. He was taller than Mike, solidly muscled, with blonde, dirty hair, perhaps dirty with ash, and he smelled like an abattoir. He looked to be wearing one of Mike’s bondage outfits, leather straps, chains, dark and forbidding, but it wasn’t, quite. It seemed to have been soaked, saturated, repeatedly with blood, for the coppery scent suffused the air. Mike’s eyes picked out the knife. He never carried around a knife like that, with a wicked-looking curved blade and roughly serrated on both sides. It reminded him of a shark’s grin, and just as hungry looking. For another, he was pretty sure that his knives, and the leather, too, he noticed, weren’t that blood-stained. At least not for long. It offended him, professionally and primally.
“Stasia’s dungeon! Oh, mortal, that’s rich!”
The mouth barely moved enough to reveal the blackened teeth. The fetid breath knocked him back a step before the words sunk in.
His body wanted to fall to its knees and beg under the compulsion from the voice, but his mind resisted. Mike was never one to back away from a fight, no matter the odds, whether expected or not. This was certainly unexpected, but he found the hot flame of his anger and focused it.
Time to be afraid later.
Now was the time to take charge. His legs responded to his commands and he rose to his full height.
“The first question stands. Who the fuck are you?”
“You stand? Well done, mortal. I like your spirit! I am Holer. God of Death and Pain. I would say at your service, but you have been at mine for so long, it wouldn’t feel right.”
Now the voice didn’t compel as much as caressed. Mike knew this tactic. He’d used it before, extracting information. Scare the prisoner, then calm them, get their emotions whipsawing so badly they turned to him as a single island of sanity and they’d reveal anything he asked. He could deal with this.
“God of Death? Bullshit.”
Holer laughed again, enjoying the situation.
“Ah, such spirit! I shall enjoy this, mortal!” He leaned against a whipping posted that groaned in protest, spikes on the gear sinking deep into the wood that was beginning to resemble flayed flesh.
“Enjoy what?” He stopped short of cursing. This, what? God? Fraud? Whatever he was, he seemed to preen when Mike was verbally abusive. Fine. He could play that game too.
“Your fate, of course.” He smiled, gnashing his teeth and seeming to chew on a fine, tasty meal. “You belong to me, and it’s going to be so much fun!”
“I don’t suppose it matters that I don’t believe in you? You‘re a figment of my imagination, and all I have to do is wake up? That you have no power over me?”
Dammit, Mike, wake up!
“Not in the least, little man! And you can stop trying to wake up. This is real, you see. As real as the death you’ve dealt to your fellow humans.“
He chuckled lowly, a menacing sound.
“You humans! Thinking belief matters to a god!” He snickered. “At least, not to me. Death? Pain? I am always among you, and I must say, Michael Edward Harmon, you have done more than most to strengthen me!” Distaste colored his tone. “Even sex and love you turn into pain. What a glorious joke! Freya and Gerd’s gifts to humanity, turned into power for me!”
He laughed again, harshly, growing larger.
“So I’m dead? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?”
“Oh, no, little mortal, not yet! You’re coming with me, and I’m going to have such fun, doing to you all the lovely tricks you’ve done to others! Such an imagination! You humans have such imagination, such creativity, when it comes to giving pain. It is, I will admit, a lack among the gods, the creative spark you mortals possess.”
He shivered in ecstasy. His eyes locked with Mike’s, and Mike loathed what he saw there. Was it his soul reflected? Or Holer’s?
Suddenly using Mike’s voice, he said, “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori. You motherfucker.”
In Holer’s own voice he continued. “Brilliant! Such genius! Oh, I swear, you humans are better at creating new and inventive ways of torture and death than I could ever be!”
He skipped lightly around the post, drawing rope-like intestines out and wrapping them around like he was decorating a Maypole.
Focus! Duty. Honor. Country. Make the other fucker die for his!
“I remember,” said Mike. “OBL. He deserved to die. He had killed thousands of Americans and was torturing college girls to death right in the next room!”
“Yes, and he was doing a good job of it, even if he delegated too much,” said Holer. “You interrupted him. Motivation doesn’t matter. Reasons don’t matter, in the end.”
He waved blood-soaked fingers at the wall, spattering them with an obscene pattern. “You killed, you caused him to die painfully.”
He shook his head as Mike began to protest.
“I’m not arguing he didn’t deserve it! Everyone dies, eventually, and I am not judging! But you did: judge, jury, and executioner. Why, you‘re a regular fashionista of death!” The laugh was absolutely revolting, and Mike felt his gorge rise.
“Then why me? Why the show and the stage? You couldn‘t just tell me? Surely, if you know me so well, then you know how I despise all the bullshit.”
“Because I’m a god, and I can!”
With a wave of his hand the dungeon disappeared, replaced by a stark, concrete-walled room containing only a sheet-covered gurney. The sheet was concealing something which may once have been human. In the darkness beyond the voice echoed off to a whisper. “I can do anything… anything… anything…”
“Do you remember me?” said a female voice from under the sheet. It was raw, husky, as if it had been screaming for a long time. Odd hisses and burbles followed, below where the chin would be.
Mike moved closer, though not of his own volition. Or did the gurney come to him? He couldn’t tell.
“You were too late to save me,” continued the voice. Not a woman’s voice, not quite. A teenager’s voice, rough from overuse. He could see, now, bloodstains on the sheet, and blood seeping from the gurney’s drain.
“You were sleeping, and I died. I died in pain and agony, I died raped and humiliated. You don’t know the pain I endured when they peeled my skin off. When they burned off my nipples with a blowtorch. When they took clubs and smashed my bones.”
The figure under the sheet sat up.
“I still lived, screaming for help, screaming for God, screaming for mercy, screaming for anyone, until they took a knife and slit my throat.” The sheet fell away, revealing what must once have been a pretty girl with light brown hair. The eyes, untouched, accused him.
“Your name was Clarissa McCutcheon,” Mike choked out. He remembered exactly what he’d seen tossed to one side of the room, once he’d been able to crash their party. After he’d gotten the bastards who’d ordered it, who sat in their comfortable office watching.
“You remember? Then tell me. Why didn’t you save me? Sleep? Was it that important? Or did you really need to get some head? Or someone’s head?” Her head cocked sideways, the slit in her throat gaped open. “Was killing him really more important than saving me?”
“Yeah, sleep! I had been on a very intense op for two days and -”
“And I died!”
“I couldn’t save everyone!”
“You saved everyone else,” the corpse said bitterly.
The injustice welled, carrying the rage. “Yeah, well, fuck you! Now you know why we say ‘It sucks to be a hostage’! People always die, no matter what we do to save them! I did my best and got shot to hell doing it! I fucking died three times on the way home, you died once, and I saved the rest of the girls so FUCK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”
The scene suddenly changed. Now it was the rear compartment of a helicopter.
“You couldn’t save me,” said a voice behind Mike.
He didn’t want to look. He knew the walls were painted with the blood and gore of the last woman who had taken his heart. Oh, not all was hers. Some was her brother’s, killed in a war not his own, a war Mike had sent him to, a war which killed him.
He knew that his soul was being flayed for someone’s amusement. He didn’t know why. He didn’t want to give them satisfaction, but something compelled him to speak. To ask forgiveness? To explain?
To say good-bye?
Without turning, he said, “I didn’t know. They didn’t tell me you were crewing one of the Hinds. They didn’t tell me you were running a machine gun.”
“I died alone.”
His face in his hands, he answered, “I wasn’t there, I couldn’t stop you.”
“I loved you, but you refused me. I became a warrior, blessed by the Elders, to make you love me, yet I died never seeing you again.” The bitterness in her voice was painful.
“How could I know?” He stared out the door of the not-Hind. There was no answer from the beyond either, just a blood-red mist concealing all.
“Even now, you won’t look at me.”
“I want to remember you as we were. Remember the chocolate mousse? That’s what I hold in my mind, not what a bullet left behind! I can’t – I don’t want -”
“To see me? Am I so shameful? Is it so awful that I loved you?” The voice, contradictingly filled with love and bile, got through his guard.
Tasting ash, copper, death, dirt, he turned around. Somehow, Gretchen stood behind him at her side gun, in her borrowed utilities. Blood-stained, especially through the middle. He knew, without a doubt, that they were the only thing holding her body together.
“I never got to say good-bye. I loved you, Gretchen. I still do. When you died, a part of me died and almost didn‘t come back.” He reached to touch her face and he felt fiery tears in his eyes, the first he’d allowed himself since his epic drunk after her death. “You’ll always have a place in my heart. I lo…”
The scene shifted again. Now it was another room, an office, perhaps. Bodies were scattered all around. The smell of burnt flesh wafted through the air.
“You killed me,” from an all-too-familiar, though muffled voice.
“NO! You’re not dead!”
“You killed me,” repeated the voice.
“YOU’RE NOT DEAD!” screamed Mike. “No! Never again! I won’t allow it! Do you hear me, Holer, you coward? COME BACK HERE AND FACE ME!”
“She will be,” said Holer, happily, appearing as suddenly as a soap bubble. “This is her fate, surely as the sun will arise tomorrow. Her love for you will bring her to this. I‘m a god; we know these things, we can make them happen! Fates? Pagh! Idle gossips, compared to a god!”
“Does it matter? Be grateful, mortal, that I am permitting you so much of a glimpse of the future. She will die attempting to rescue you from your enemies. It‘s going to be so much – BLAST!”
“Do not be so sure, Holer,” came an old voice from a dark corner.
“You! Meddler!” He spat blood that burned the ether around them.
“All three of us,” agreed the voice, moving forward. Three women, wearing long dark cloaks and hoods, revealed themselves.
“And who are you?” asked Mike.
“We are -”
“Interfering bitches! Begone, Norns! You have no place here! This is a matter for gods, not busybodies!”
“Ah, ah, ah! Remember, Holer, we spin the threads of gods, as well as mortals,” said the voice. “And you invoked us. Tsk, tsk! Gossips, are we?”
“You don’t frighten me, Urd!” But Mike could hear the worry in his voice. Without intent, the pun came to him: finally, a thread of hope to grasp.
“The mortal knows the truth of my sister’s statement,” said a different, younger voice. The middle figure cast back her hood, revealing the face of a mature woman.
“Shall we reveal your future? Or perhaps we should simply cut it off?” She produced a strand from beneath her cloak, glistening strangely in the light, like a string of almost-congealed blood.
“No,” muttered Holer. “I have no wish for that.” The being took three steps back from Mike’s side.
“Then piss off! En‘fore I kick you in your bollocks!” said the third figure in a decidedly girlish voice. The accent shifted, becoming more modern, almost Californian.
“Like, take a hike! Now!”
Were those pink, glitter-covered Converse All-Stars Mike saw?
“Mortal, do not think yourself saved,” Holer growled with some of his previous belligerence. “You are too much a servant of mine to escape your destiny.”
“Destiny? What do you know of destiny?” said the mature one. “Off! Unless you will pay the All-Father’s price? We can show you your destiny, Holer!”
“I’m leaving,” said Holer, sourly. Without another word he vanished.
Mike didn‘t say anything, but as if she‘d read his mind, the youngest hummed the closing bars from a famous cartoon series.
“What a total drag!” she said. “I want to go shopping!”
“He believes too much in his own power,” agreed the oldest, after slapping the youngest upside her head.
“What was the All-Father’s. Wait. Odin. His eye. He traded an eye to see the future.“ Mike nodded to himself, gathering his wits.
“He called you Norns,” said Mike. “Fates?”
“If you wish,” agreed the middle. “Weavers of the threads of life. I am Verdandi,” she continued, “Spinner of the present.”
Mike bowed. Why not? Return respect when respect was given.
“I am Urd,” said the oldest. “I watch over the tapestry we have spun, looking always to the past.”
Mike kissed her old, wrinkled hand. She cackled and pulled it back. “Can’t let the others make any mistakes.”
“I’m Skuld,” giggled the youngest. “I’ve got to plan the future, and it’s a bitch!”
Mike settled for giving her a respectful nod. She was potentially the most dangerous of the lot, and a teenager to boot.
“You’re not quite what I expected,” admitted Mike. “And what did Holer mean? I’m too much his servant?”
Urd answered. “You have been serving him, Michael. Your entire life, you have been spreading death and pain through Manheimr.”
“That’s Earth,” clarified Skuld, bouncing. She reminded him far too much of… dangerous, anyway.
“As I was saying,” snapped Urd, rolling her eyes. “Even those you love, you bring pain to; physical, emotional. Sometimes both. So Holer is the ruler of your soul. He‘s marked you and watches you. But playing with you? That‘s going too far, even for him. Some bridges even the gods must not cross.”
The middle one spoke. “If I was to analyze you, I would say that you have deep-seated emotional issues which have manifested themselves in a need to dominate your surroundings, physically and sexually, hence your devotion to -”
Mike interrupted Verdandi. “If I wanted analysis, I’d go see a shrink. No thanks. And, Urd? You can take Holer and shove him up Odin‘s -”
“Stay on point, dude!” said Skuld. Her look gave him a chance to stop his thoughts in place and allow his real needs to surface. One second of clarity was all he needed. His anger faded. It had probably been that bastard of a god trying to get at the Norns through him anyway.
Fuck him! Watch me play nice and be calm! Suffer, you miserable little shit!
“Which is what?”
“Holer was trying to take you away, man! He wanted you for his own little toy! You’d be cute, though. Matching outfits maybe.”
“I don’t swing that way,” joked Mike, feebly.
“Holer takes people and tortures them to death,” interpreted Verdandi. “This is one of his roles, and he does it very well.”
“So do you!” added Skuld. “That’s why he came for you! He wanted pointers. No imagination in that one. Always the same, over and over and over!”
“Even as he tortured you,” agreed Urd. “He would extract every last idea from you and try them on your body before, eventually, killing you.”
“He could try, but that begs the real question: Why?”
“He’s a sick fuck; it’s how he gets his rocks off,” shrugged Skuld. “Told you he was a freak.”
“And this is a god? You Aesir’ve got some serious issues,” said Mike.
“The issue, Michael, is it is not yet your time to pass from your world. Holer was presumptuous and wanted to speed things up, claim you now.”
“Yeah! Who knows, if you bite it fighting, if you’re really lucky I might come for you! I moonlight with the Valkyries, you know,” said Skuld. “Not those twelve chicas you’ve got working for you now, but flattery’ll get you anywhere.”
“Katrina! Does that mean Holer lied? What he showed me isn’t her fate?” Mike asked, the hope warming his soul.
“It is a possible fate,” admitted Verdandi. “Her path is not yet set, not woven.”
“She’s such a cutie! I just don’t know what I want to do with her!”
“She deserves a good, long life,” suggested Mike.
“Maybe. Or maybe she ought to go out gloriously! She sure has the spirit of a Valkyrie!”
“Ah, for the days of glory!” reminisced Urd. “Warriors, burning passions, devotion to the gods. Sword, spear, shield…”
“Yeah, yeah, and magic helmets too. I want her to live,” pressed Mike, feeling that these women would understand his reaction better than any others and not take offense.
“I know,” said Verdandi. “But there are problems.”
“She can’t tell you, silly! Only I can!” giggled Skuld.
“And I’m not telling!” she added in a sing-song voice. Now she was wearing a shockingly pink Japanime wig to go with the shoes, striped socks, and body-hugging dress.
“Sister, that isn’t fair,” scolded Verdandi. “You have to give him enough information to make a good choice.”
She shrugged and looked at Mike. “Holer interfered with your life. We must give you a chance to change your path. It’s part of the rules.”
“Rules suck!” shouted Skuld. “They never, ever let me go shopping! I have to go borrow ideas for new outfits from mortals!” She looked at Mike.
“Could I borrow your credit card? Oh, and the body of one of your harem for a bit of fun? I promise to make it worth your while!”
“Oh, all right. Michael,” she continued, much more formally. “You have great deeds to accomplish. Much evil still exists in your world. For you to have any of the future you desire, you must surrender some part of that future.”
“Surrender my future? How?”
“You will arrive at a cusp, two paths to take, two choices to make.” She lifted her hands. In one was an empty cup waiting to be filled; in the other, a pair of scissors.
“Choose one, and you shall have all that you desire, but not at the time you desire it. Choose the other, and all you have gained shall be snatched away from you. Snip!”
“What cusp? What choice?”
“More we cannot tell you. You must decide.”
The three figures began to fade.
“Wait! Stop! I need to know more! I‘ll even pay Odin‘s Price!”
“Choose wisely, Michael.”
A grey mist descended, the ground below him rose, and he slammed into it, knocking his breath out.
Mike woke up.
His bed was going to need new sheets. All his old wounds were flared red, and it looked like he had been sweating blood.
Marks of Holer? Maybe.
Marks of his past? Definitely.
Marks of his future?
On the table to the left he saw a cup.
To the right were scissors.
Explaining this wouldn’t be fun.