I wasn’t worried about individual fights anymore. I had bigger problems on my hands.
I heard the sounds of at least three battles as I walked through the woods, but I couldn’t interfere. If the fae involved were anything like the last one, I stood next to no chance of surviving an actual fight with any of them. There was nothing I could do.
So I walked by, knowing that I was leaving my allies to die, and hating myself for it. But I couldn’t let their sacrifice be for nothing, and if I made use of the time they’d bought me, I might still be able to do something about it.
It’s moments like this that I hate what I am. But I didn’t have time for self-pity either.
I climbed a small hill, and then scurried up into the branches of a tree for a better view. I made it high enough to have a good view of the valley. I couldn’t see much—inhuman eyes or not, full moon or not, it was the middle of the night in a forest. I did see a few sparks of light. One, right near my position, flickered like a campfire. Another one, closer to the parking lot, flashed once with an odd green light like nothing I’d ever seen, and then went dark.
Two fights at least. Maybe as many as four, if I counted the other two I’d heard—I was assuming one of the ones I’d heard had been the fire fae I’d seen just now.
That wasn’t what I’d come to see. But it was good to know.
I pulled my knife out again, holding on to the tree carefully with the other. I slipped my glove off and pricked the tip of one finger, drawing just a bead of blood. I didn’t need phenomenal power for this; I needed precision.
A lot of cultures have stories about blood being used in magic. If you see, say, a pentagram surrounded by a whole bunch of runes, all drawn in blood, most people don’t have to think to know what’s going on. It’s either a very kinky party or some kind of black magic ritual.
And it’s total bullshit. Blood, although useful in some spells, is hardly intrinsically powerful.
Life, on the other hand, is pretty much the embodiment of power. It’s where magic comes from, where my power originated. Blood is just a convenient means to get to that power. Your blood is tied to your life, metaphysically, so tightly that you can use one to get at the other.
It’s not pretty. But it’s strong. And fast. And when you’re short on options, cutting yourself starts looking like a pretty nice choice—although I draw the line at using somebody else’s. That road leads nowhere good.
Under any normal circumstances what I was doing would have been impossible. But the moon, and my power, were near their zenith, and I was augmenting that by drawing just a bit on my own life. Besides that, predators were my specialty, and I’d had enough exposure to this one that I thought I might be able to work it out.
I closed my eyes to concentrate better, and gathered up power. Some of it came from myself, some from my life; I augmented it with magic drawn from my surroundings, which was my favorite source when I had a chance to use it. I shaped into my oldest, most natural spell.
I looked for the minds of the things closest to me. I looked for predators.
Immediately I felt them, a thousand minds all just waiting for me to come and say hello. My magic wanted to do what felt natural, go skipping among them to feel what they could. I resisted it, instead refining my spell, focusing on just the ones that interested me. I incorporated that sense of wolf-werewolf-unnatural into the structure of my working. Then, most difficult of all, I twisted the whole thing so that it was tied to my sense of sight rather than directly to my mind.
I opened my eyes, and smiled. It had worked. The spell had been designed to present them to me as sparks of blue light. I could see five total, just as John had said. One was to my left, the same place I’d seen the green light a moment ago. Another was across the valley and a little bit north of the first. The third was in the center, right off the path, a little north of me. Then one more on the opposite slope, directly across from me, and the last one further in than any of the others on the same side as I was.
They’d distributed themselves quite neatly. My immediate impulse was to say that Garrett would be the last one, the furthest from the parking lot, but I had no way to know for sure; I didn’t have enough of a connection to demons to look for it specifically. Besides, they all had to die.
The first one I assumed was fighting the fae that had produced the green light. I couldn’t be sure that the fae would kill it, but if it was anything like the one I’d seen it would make mincemeat of most any werewolf. The second was in an area that should be thick with werewolves from Christopher’s pack. They would have to be enough to kill it.
That left three for me. I picked the one directly across from me, and went a-hunting.
It took me close to fifteen minutes to make it to the creature’s position. I didn’t bother casting the spell again—I wasn’t possessed of infinite magic, and I was guessing that they’d be eager to kill me by now. Even if they weren’t looking for revenge after what I’d done to John, I was pretty sure that I represented an inconvenience to them by now, maybe even a threat.
So instead, I just made it to the right area and began wandering about, making no effort at concealment. I wasn’t concerned that I might be walking into an ambush.
In fact, I was counting on it.
I felt it coming long before it actually reached me. These altered werewolves weren’t as painfully blatant as the demon-possessed one, but they were obvious enough to my senses that they didn’t have a prayer of surprising me. I smiled coldly and opened one of the pouches on my belt.
The werewolf charged me from behind. I waited until it was within ten feet before spinning to face it, drawing my silver-inlaid knife as I did. It had obviously received some amount of briefing on what to expect from me; it had been pulling up even before I turned. It was careful to avoid making eye contact, too, removing the weapon I’d been using on them until now.
Here’s another lesson in tactics for all you aspiring supervillains: never, ever assume that your enemy is stupider than you are. You might be right, sure—heroes tend to be a little bit stupid, so you’ve got pretty decent odds—but the cost if you’re not is likely to be severe.
For example, I was smart enough to recognize that Garrett would likely have coached his pets about what not to do. Sure, I would have loved to have been able to simply catch this werewolf’s eye and force the change, but I hadn’t been expecting that I would get to.
Ten feet is not far enough away to keep a prepared individual from hurting you. It would have done better to just keep charging and hope to bowl me over before I could cast a spell.
I slipped one hand down into the pouch I’d just opened and dug out a handful of powder. Through the glove, the silver content wasn’t high enough to do more than make me itch.
The werewolf did not have the same reaction when I took a pair of long steps forward and threw the powder in its face.
It screamed, a horrid inhuman sound, and clawed at its own face in agony. I’d just gotten charged silver in its eyes and nose, and there isn’t much you can do to a werewolf that hurts it worse than that. It inflicted horrific damage its own face trying desperately to get the silver off, and failing miserably. It couldn’t concentrate through the pain long enough to either attack me or initiate the change so that it would have fingers to work with
I had wanted to kill at least one of them without attracting attention. That plan was shot to hell now, so I didn’t bother trying to keep it quiet. I snapped the pouch closed and lifted the shotgun to my shoulder.
“I’m sorry it came to this,” I said quietly, sadly. “It isn’t your fault that you’re broken. But I only know one way to fix you.”
The brown werewolf froze and then looked up at me. I saw, now, that it was a female, which changed exactly nothing. She looked me in the eye, as she had remembered not to do before. It was too late for her to win this anyway, and I could see resignation in her eyes as she realized this. She paused a moment, and then nodded, once.
It was quick. That much, at least, I could do. A werewolf can survive a lot of things, but a ten-gauge shotgun loaded with charged silver from five feet away isn’t one of them.
I bowed my head. “Rest in peace. Wherever you are now, I hope it’s a better place than this one.” I felt like I should say something more, but I had no idea what it should be. I didn’t know what religious ceremony she would have preferred. Hell, I didn’t even know her name.
So instead I stood there for a long moment with my head bowed, and then turned away to go kill another of them.
Another quick repetition of my seeking-spell showed little change. The werewolf that had been fighting the fae didn’t show up at all. Presumably it had lost the fight, and the faerie had finally gotten tired of playing games and killed it outright. The others were in much the same positions they had been before.
Next up was the one in the center of the valley. The simplest way to get there would be to go back down to the path and follow it up. On the other hand, they would almost certainly see me coming.
Another hollow boom of thunder sounded behind me, making up my mind for me. Screw stealth. I was in a hurry, and they could watch me coming the whole damn way if it would get me there faster.
I had to go fairly slowly down the hill, but once on the path I made it up by running. I was out of breath pretty soon, but I pricked my finger again and drew power from the blood to feed the wolf, keeping my body strong and healthy.
That’s why blood magic is dangerous, see. Not the blood loss—although, technically, I suppose if you used it often enough you might get anemic. Not the temptation to horrible deeds, either, although I do live with the knowledge that I could be vastly more powerful by stealing life from others.
No, the real danger is that it takes away your limits. That’s the whole point, really; it lets you go beyond the limitations on what you can normally do. Sounds good, but sometimes limits exist for a reason, and using blood magic to circumvent them is always a risky proposition. It’s easy to lose track of just how much power you’re using, especially for someone like me who can use it to keep themselves from feeling the effects of exhaustion, and the supply isn’t infinite. Use too much, and…
Well. You’re drawing on your own life force for power. You can do the math.
Right now I didn’t give a damn for the price. I just knew I needed to end this.
I didn’t have to wonder where the werewolf was this time. He was lying across the path directly in front of me, apparently just waiting for someone to come along. In fact, he had obviously heard me coming; he was looking straight at me as I approached hesitantly.
Unlike the last one, he also seemed to have no problem looking me in the eye, even once I was within what they knew to be the range of my abilities. I hesitated briefly, wondering if this was some kind of trick or something, then shrugged and worked the same magic I had on John. I didn’t have time to try and play dime-store psychologist to a loopy werewolf.
It worked like a charm. He started changing immediately, showing even less resistance than John had. I stepped forward, drawing my knife as I moved. I was planning on killing him before he made it to human, but even in the midst of the change he managed to hold up one almost-hand and glare at me with eyes slowly shifting from yellow to blue.
Even in his helpless condition, the strength in those eyes was impressive. I considered going ahead and killing him anyway, then shrugged again and settled down to wait. This encounter was weird enough that I thought it might be worthwhile to see what he had to say.
Besides. He would be in human form, and I still had a shotgun. I could kill him after the change as easily as during it.
He was fast. Very fast. It didn’t take him five minutes to go from wolf to completely human. I approached cautiously as he lay, panting with effort, on the ground. “Hey,” I said as casually as I could manage. “Shouldn’t you be trying to kill me?”
He laughed, a strained and painful sound. “Oh, but I am. It’s just that right now I can’t.” His voice was weak, and he was still panting; changing that fast had clearly cost him something.
I smiled, realization dawning. “Garrett ordered you not to change, didn’t he? That’s why you were waiting for me.”
He smiled back at me. “Garrett ordered me to watch the path, and I did. He ordered me not to change, and I didn’t.” His smile faded. “He ordered me to kill you, and if you take too long here I will have to do that too.”
I crouched down, making sure I had my gun ready. I wasn’t going to disregard that claim. “You don’t agree with Garrett, do you? That’s what this is about. You can’t actually break his orders, but so long as you follow the letter you can circumvent them.”
He nodded jerkily. “Yes, that’s exactly right.” His eyes, though dull with pain, gleamed. “But he didn’t order me not to talk. He thought he didn’t have to, since I would be trapped as a wolf.”
I frowned. I had to make this count. “Is he further down this path?”
The werewolf nodded. “Yes. He is waiting for someone to come and kill him.”
“Wait a second, he wants to die? Why?”
He laughed. “Because if he dies, there is no proof. He dies, everyone who knew what has happened dies here as well. No one can prove that it was a rogue group of werewolves who did this. If any of my compatriots survive this fight, they will kill themselves.”
“Thus sparking war between Conn and the fae,” I said slowly. “Because they’ll think he sanctioned the murders for some reason. Especially because both Christopher and Dolph are here tonight. The fae won’t know they came to stop you.”
He nodded again. “Exactly.”
It was an incredibly grandiose plan. I couldn’t even imagine how hard he must have worked to ensure that everyone had exactly the right amount of information about what was happening. Granted it was insane and murderous, but still. You had to respect that kind of ambition.
I couldn’t think of anything else I needed to know, though. So instead I simply looked at the werewolf lying in the path and said, “Why were you helping him, then? It’s clear you don’t agree with what he’s doing here.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t know, at first, what he was doing. You have to realize, when he started there wasn’t this…hate in him. The hate, the murders, they all came later.” He sighed. “At first it was just the wolves. The others, they’re young. They came to him because he promised that he could give them control. Me, I’m an old wolf. I came for the same reason I became a werewolf in the first place. I’d rather be a wolf than a man. It wasn’t until later I realized what a perversion I’d become, and by then there was nothing I could do about it. Garrett, he…you can’t not do what he tells you to, you know? I don’t understand it. I’m a dominant wolf. Not even the Khan could make me do something I didn’t want to. But Garrett can.”
“I understand,” I said quietly, thinking of demons and magic and all the ways you can pervert a good thing.
He fixed that disturbingly intense gaze on me again. “I’ve gone too far for saving,” he said, without a trace of anger or regret. “And I can’t let you past. Garrett left no room for me on that. If you don’t have any more questions, best you kill me now and keep going.”
“Just one,” I said. “What’s your name?”
He smiled. “It’s been a long time since somebody called me by my real name. But why not? I might as well die with it. A long time ago, they called me Erik.”
“It’s been an honor, Erik,” I said quietly, stepping closer and readying my knife. I crouched beside him, resting one hand on his brow. “You ready?”
He hesitated. “Please don’t…don’t tell anybody? My Alpha, my family, they all think I died a long time ago. It’s…better, that they think so. You won’t tell them I did this? That I was a part of this?”
“No. I give you my word.”
He smiled, still looking straight into my eyes. His were completely blue, now. “I’m ready, then. Luck.”
I reached down and gently sliced his throat open.
It didn’t take him long to die. He never closed his eyes, or looked away from my face. Likewise I didn’t look away, or pull my hand off of his forehead until I was sure that he was dead.
Nobody should die alone. It was the least I could do for an old werewolf who, whatever he might have become near the end, had died a good man.
Then I stood up and cleaned my knife, my motions mechanical. I was tired, so tired. I’d used too much magic, and I’d been drawing too hard on blood to make up the difference. I wanted to rest. God, I wanted to rest so much.
I forced myself forward anyway, moving on down the path. I wasn’t running now; I couldn’t seem to muster the energy required.
So instead I walked away, leaving Erik’s body lying in the dirt. I hadn’t felt so empty since Catherine died. I’d seen too much death.
But there was one left, one werewolf who had gone so far that maybe he wasn’t a person at all anymore. Maybe, after I killed him, I could finally rest.
Or, you know. I’d be dead. There wasn’t a lot of in-between there. Actually, as exhausted as I felt, dead was looking more likely than not.
On the bright side, I’d be resting either way.