It wasn’t as late as the last call, but it was still plenty late—or early, I suppose—enough for me to be asleep. I was still a little groggy, but by the time Dolph came by to pick me up I’d managed to get dressed and was waiting for him outside. He drove up in what was obviously a fairly nice rental car about ten minutes after he called. When I got in I saw that Kyra was already in the back seat, wearing fur again.
“So what do we know about this one?” I asked Dolph as we started moving.
“Pretty much nothing,” he said. “Except that the killer broke their pattern.”
I blinked. “What?”
“I had Christopher’s pack check into things, and it turns out your policeman was pretty much right. I didn’t bother telling you because it wasn’t anything you didn’t already know.” I glared at him, and he laughed briefly before continuing. “Anyway, they had five deaths in the days surrounding the full moon, then another two the next time the moon was full.”
“So this one makes eight overall.” That’s me, master of the obvious.
“That we know of,” Dolph corrected me absently. “I’d guess no more than ten more that we don’t.”
I waited for a moment, then asked, “So what did the demon break about its pattern?”
Dolph gave me an incredulous look. “It’s nearly another week until the full moon, Winter.”
“Oh. Right. I knew that.”
We arrived soon after that, which was good because after that exchange even Kyra was laughing at me. If you don’t get why that was impressive, try and remember that she was a wolf at the moment. I know it can be hard to get used to werewolves that way, but it really is important.
As though the killer were intentionally providing as little of a pattern as he could, this time the death had occurred in almost the same neighborhood I lived in. It was only a few blocks away from Pryce’s bar in a badly run-down part of town, almost a slum.
We had obviously gotten here before the police. There were exactly no cars in sight, and it wasn’t hard to see why. Even for the short time we were planning to be here, I was concerned that Dolph’s car would be jacked. Fortunately—or possibly unfortunately—the only person in sight was a slender girl in her late teens leaning against the wall across the street. She was occupied with something on her phone, and showed about as much interest in us as a cat would have in a bag of potato chips—which, in case your cat has weird appetites, means none.
We were parked in front of one of the few houses in the area, a one-story building badly in need of maintenance. When we went in—the door was unlocked—I couldn’t keep from noticing the contrast between this building and the last murder site. This one was about as ramshackle inside as out, poorly cleaned and with battered furnishings. It stank, too, an unpleasant mixture of mildew and rotting garbage that almost drowned out the blood. Whoever had lived here hadn’t been particularly fastidious. Or hygienic.
Dolph and Kyra both gave me funny looks when I gagged as soon as I hit the door—and believe me, there are few things stranger than getting funny looks from a werewolf in fur. It’s a very strange expression to see on a canid’s face. I waved off their concern and we kept going. The corpse was in the bedroom, which was slightly tidier than the living room we’d entered through.
There’s not a lot to say about it. Just another savaged corpse. The injuries were about the same as before, with a few variations. No defensive wounds. The throat left intact, but the jawbone ripped off the face entirely, and the eyes removed as well. It hadn’t been done neatly.
I knew as soon as I walked in the door that this was the product of the same being as before. The scent of demon hung in the air around the corpse, heavy and reeking. It seemed stronger here, somehow, thicker. It was sharper, biting, so that every breath I took seemed to burn on the way down. It even spread beyond the olfactory, as I seemed to see oddly shaped shadows in the periphery of my vision, and objects took on a strange, unnatural significance when viewed out of the corner of my eye.
I realize that sounds more like a bad drug trip than an investigation. Magic is funny like that. Most of the time any attempt to describe it makes you sound like a surrealist artist after too many shots and some funny mushrooms. Please bear with me, and remember that usually experiencing it isn’t any more fun than hearing about it. Less fun, most of the time. Especially around demons.
I didn’t stick around. I managed to tell Dolph I would meet him outside, then all but ran for the door. I didn’t feel sick—the past days had eliminated whatever weak aversion to blood I had built up—but that whole house stank terribly.
While I waited, I noticed the woman across the street. She’d been there when we went in, but I hadn’t paid much attention then. Now that I did, I realized that there was something very subtly…off about her.
At first glance she fit right in. She looked about as old as I did—meaning late teens; I’m not a werewolf, but I don’t age any more than they do—and aside from her obvious Asian ancestry looked about as normal as they come. She was a little on the small side, wearing jeans, a hoodie, and a black baseball cap emblazoned with a large, stylized fox in red. At the moment she was apparently entranced with something on her cell phone.
It didn’t seem too strange, except for the setting. This was a bad part of town, and this late at night I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out alone. I wouldn’t have expected to see a woman standing around here unless she were a gangster or a hooker, and her attitude was wrong for either of these things. A gangster should have been aggressive, wondering what we were doing on her turf; a hooker should have been looking to turn a trick. Instead she was ignoring us totally, still staring fixedly at her cell phone.
I didn’t have anything much else to do, giving me plenty of time to keep turning the puzzle around. I put a few other things I’d noticed together, enough to give me an idea of what might be going on. A moment later I concentrated and managed, just barely, to catch a breath of her magic. It wasn’t terribly strong, at least not at this distance, but it was pungent and very distinctive, and it confirmed my suspicion.
Say what you will about being obsessed with supernatural monsters. It has a lot of downsides, but it does wonders for your identification abilities. By the time the others came out, I’d been planning my next step for a couple of minutes. I was pretty sure she noticed me noticing her, which made things a little more awkward than they otherwise might have been.
“Anything?” I asked idly, very carefully not watching the thing across the street. I didn’t want to give anything away. Maybe she’d already caught me, but I didn’t want Dolph to realize what was going on yet.
“Of course not.” Dolph’s voice was sour. “I take it you still got demon off it?”
I nodded, absently scratching Kyra’s ears. “Stronger than before.”
“Damn,” he muttered. “This poses some serious problems. I don’t suppose you can track it?”
“I wish. But the trail fades as soon as I leave the building.”
He grunted. “Scent tracking wasn’t any better. We’ll have to hunt this thing down some other way.” He started toward the car, then paused when he realized I wasn’t following him.
“I’ll make my own way back, thanks,” I said in answer to his question. Technically he hadn’t asked, but that hardly mattered.
He turned to face me. “Why?” he asked, his voice only somewhat casual.
I didn’t answer him. Ultimately, he would either trust me or not, and either way I preferred to know now. Maybe that’s paranoid of me, or cruel, or whatever word you prefer. Maybe so. In any case, it was more rude then I’d ever been to Dolph when I was still living in Conn’s pack.
I’d changed since then. If he wasn’t prepared for that, it wasn’t my fault.
Eventually he nodded tightly and continued on to the car, Kyra following him like a well-trained dog. His stiff posture conveyed his hurt feelings quite clearly. Kyra, in contrast, looked rather concerned, glancing back at me over her shoulder several times. I didn’t move from where I was standing until they had driven off.
I would owe them both an apology later. But for now, well, it was important that I be alone for this next part. It was likely to be very touchy, and I couldn’t afford any complications. Plus this way there were fewer people likely to get hurt or killed if something did go wrong, but that was really just a sort of collateral benefit.
I waited a minute, just to make sure that they had really left, and nobody else was coming. Then, taking a deep breath, I walked across the now-empty street to confront the entity on the other side.
You’ll forgive me if I make that sound excessively melodramatic. It’s…strange, I suppose that I would have so little practical experience with supernatural beings, given that I am one myself. But I was in large part raised by humans—and the only admixture was werewolves, who are considered by most to be only slightly different than human themselves. They’re also strongly protective, which most definitely extends to keeping those they protect away from potentially dangerous inhuman beings.
So, long story short, Val was the only real nonhuman I’d ever spent time with except for the wolves. I’d certainly never challenged a representative of a lesser-known species in a dark alley at midnight. Alone. When I knew full well that there was a rampaging, demonic murderer in the area. One that I almost certainly couldn’t defend myself against effectively.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t excessively melodramatic.
I didn’t know the proper formula for the situation, so I just walked up in front of her, bowed slightly, and without preamble said, “Kitsune.”
She glanced from her phone up at me. “Beg your pardon?” she asked me, sounding bored and slightly hostile. It was a reasonable reaction under the circumstances, and an excellent mask. It probably would have fooled almost anybody else.
“Kitsune,” I said again, making certain that my voice was polite and not challenging at all. “You needn’t bother denying it—I am not so easily fooled as that.”
She looked at me a moment longer, then slipped her phone into a pocket and stood up straight. “Interesting,” she murmured. “What gave it away?” Neither her voice nor her face held any trace of boredom or anger now. She sounded amused and a little curious, and her face was unreadable. The change was so sudden, and so complete, as to seem unreal.
“It’s not as though you’re making a great effort to conceal it,” I pointed out. “A young Japanese woman, alone in a dangerous place at night, and yet you don’t seem at all concerned for your safety? Not to mention your rather…distinctive appearance,” I say, gesturing slightly toward her face. Her features were sharp, with high cheekbones and small eyes. In case you don’t have an obsession with obscure mythical creatures, that’s a traditional distinguishing mark of a kitsune in Japan.
“I hardly need to,” she countered dryly. “Do you know, you’re the first person who’s ever noticed me? That’s pretty sad, really.”
“And yet, perhaps, understandable. You are, after all, a long way from home.”
She laughed brightly. “Am I? I don’t think so. I was born in Chicago. I live here in town.”
That’s the problem with the modern age of easy transportation. It doesn’t matter where a thing originated; you can find them anywhere. Take the werewolves, for example. They’re native to Western Europe, but they have a very strong presence in North America these days. And, if that wasn’t enough of a jump for you, the Sydney and Tokyo packs are doing well too.
Politeness was very important with kitsune—they’re a Japanese myth, that has certain implications. So, rather than make a biting comment or something, I smiled and bowed slightly. “I stand corrected then. And yet, I—”
“Look,” she interrupted me. “I’m not particularly old-school, okay? So let’s make a deal. You stop beating around the bush, and I’ll tell you the truth instead of following family tradition and leading you on a goose chase before I abandon you in the middle of a landfill. Sound good?”
“Ah…sure,” I said uncertainly.
“Awesome!” she said happily. “So what the hell do you want?”
I was having a hard time keeping up with the conversation. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but it sure hadn’t been…this. Apparently my information was a little out of date. She seemed to be willing to get right to business, though, so eventually I just hazarded the unvarnished truth.
“What are you doing here?” Okay. Maybe a little bit too unvarnished.
She didn’t seem to mind, though. She just grinned and looked up at the sky. “Why, it’s such a lovely night I thought I’d go for a stroll, and then I wound up here.”
I rolled my eyes—I might not be the most experienced guy in the world at things like this, but seriously. “I expect it’s total coincidence that you’re right across the street from the scene of the crime, then? Just like—if I’m not mistaken—you were talking with the police officer a few weeks ago near the last murder site. And across the street from the one before. All by accident, I’m sure.”
She dropped her gaze back to my face, and I noticed that her smile was gone. “I thought you might have noticed that,” she said softly. “Yeah, that was me. Excellent job, by the way.”
I hadn’t actually been sure until that very moment, but it seemed likely. I, not being a detective, hadn’t been clever enough to really be paying attention, and I hadn’t been sure that it was the same person each time. But seeing one young woman that close to the scene, three times in a row, is a bit much to be coincidence. “So,” I said in as nearly conversational a tone as I could pull off, “You mind telling me why you’re so interested in these murders?”
Apparently I hadn’t done that well—no surprise—because she smirked knowingly. “I didn’t kill them, if that’s what you mean. But I thought it might be worthwhile to see who came to visit. And, what do you know, I’ve seen you and that charming young werewolf quite a bit recently.” No point asking how she knew that Kyra-as-human and Kyra-as-canine were the same, or how she knew Kyra was young. Might as well ask Conn how he got into my trailer and expect an answer—it was never going to happen.
“You didn’t answer my question,” I reminded her. “Why so interested in the first place?”
The kitsune looked me in the eye and showed a whole bunch of teeth in what I suppose was, in the technical sense, a smile. Her teeth seemed a little bit too sharp, a little bit too numerous, to be human, and they were actually gleaming in the dark, which was really creepy. It reminded me forcefully of all the stories in which the person who annoys a kitsune dies horribly. “The first man this thing killed was a friend of mine,” she said softly, not sounding at all friendly now. “So let’s just say I have an interest in seeing it ripped to tiny fucking pieces, and leave it at that, shall we?” I nodded, a little freaked out, and she grinned—a real grin this time. “Great! So what’s your stake?” Her voice had reverted to its previous cheerful state.
I blinked—I was pretty sure I was getting literal mental whiplash from the emotional rollercoaster that seemed to be this kitsune’s normal state. “Just helping a friend,” I said. “But it sounds like we have a common aim here.”
Just what I was thinking,” she said happily. “So what say we go grab some food and chat for a bit? I’m starving.”
“If you’re buying, I’d love to.” She laughed at that, but she didn’t object, so I figured I’d done all right.
As it turned out, kitsune have cars. I suppose there isn’t any reason they shouldn’t, but it hadn’t ever occurred to me that a Japanese fox spirit would drive a black Toyota sedan with—I laughed when I saw it—a fox sticker in the back window. She really didn’t try to hide.
As we got in, she abruptly asked, “So what’s your name, anyway?”
I debated offering a false name, then mentally shrugged. At this point, if she wasn’t telling the truth about her motivations, I was pretty well screwed anyway. “Winter. Yours?”
We ended up at Pryce’s once again.
No, it wasn’t my idea. I did say that his place is very popular in the local inhuman, nonhuman, and semihuman crowd. I’d probably seen Aiko at least half a dozen times there, although what she had looked like at the time was anyone’s guess. Kitsune, at least in the folktales I’d read, are extremely good with illusions, and in some cases outright shapeshifting. I wasn’t sure how much of that was exaggeration, but it seemed safest to err on the side of caution.
In any case, she didn’t bother asking where we should go, and she didn’t have any difficulty getting there. Once we’d arrived, she waited for me to take the lead—another test, I realized. If I had any business involving myself in this sort of thing I’d know where to go, and if not the spell would ensure that I didn’t stumble on it by accident. I didn’t mention it, and neither did she—paranoia isn’t a mental illness in my world, isn’t even unusual enough to note except by its absence.
One in the morning was a much busier time for Pryce than the last time I’d been there. The room wasn’t thronging, but there weren’t many tables open. I still managed to find one tucked into the corner, where nobody was likely to bother us. Aiko smiled a little when I offered her the chair with its back to the wall, but she didn’t refuse.
We hadn’t been there thirty seconds when a waitress came to get our order. No, it wasn’t Kyra—although now that I thought about it, she must have left from work to go to the murder scene.
She seemed a little surprised when I asked for iced tea and the kitsune chose orange soda. She had reason to, I suppose; there aren’t very many people who go to a bar at one in the morning and don’t drink alcohol. I never drink, though, and I was glad to see that Aiko was remaining sober as well. It’s a bad sign when your potential ally voluntarily impairs her judgment before a decision.
All important conversation was put off until after we had our food. It took a little longer than before, what with all the other people in the bar, but not as long as you might think—Pryce runs a fast kitchen. In a relatively short time the waitress came back and deposited a Philly in front of me and a chicken-fried steak sandwich for Aiko.
We elected, unanimously and with no discussion, to forego conversation for the moment in favor of food. Aiko made remarkably short work of her sandwich, which was good; I can’t stand people who pick at their food. It’s one of a rather long list of things I can’t stand. You may not have noticed, but I’m sort of opinionated. Personally, I’ve never managed to believe that that’s a bad thing.
Once the food was mostly gone, I asked the kitsune, “So what do you know about what’s happening?”
She shrugged, mouth still full of steak. “There’s a werewolf killing people. He’s up to what, nine now?”
I paused. What she’d said was reasonable, but…something felt off about it. “How do you know he’s a werewolf?” I asked, expecting her to go through the same circumstantial evidence I already knew.
“‘Cause I saw him.”
That I wouldn’t have guessed. “How’d you see him?”
She shrugged. “After my friend was killed, I got a few air spirits to watch for a werewolf. The next night, one of them saw him and he was still there when I got there.”
“Really?” I was impressed; I’d never worked with spirits, and I didn’t know too much about them, but that sounded like a really useful trick. “How did you get the spirits to work for you?”
“Shameless bribery, of course.” I was not entirely sure whether Aiko was joking or not. It wasn’t probably worth pursuing.
“So what’d he look like?”
She looked at my face like she was trying to figure out whether I was serious, then laughed and rolled her eyes when she saw that I was. “He looked like a wolf. Obviously. Mostly greys, if that helps any.”
“Oh. Stupid question. Sorry.” I forget, sometimes, that other people have a hard time noticing the details that set one werewolf apart from another. I’ve spent so much time around them that Val sometimes says that I’m more likely to recognize a customer by their dog than their face, and he isn’t entirely joking.
“So what is it you know that I don’t?” Aiko asked. She rolled her eyes again when she saw my startled expression. “I’m not an idiot. It’s pretty clear that you know something. Give.”
“He left a residue of demonic magic at the last two sites.”
She frowned. “Really? How do you know?”
“I felt it. It’s not something I’d mistake.”
I could tell she wanted to ask how I would know, and how I could feel it in the first place, but she didn’t. The supernatural community doesn’t obey normal societal rules, for the most part, but we still have our own conventions. Privacy is one of them, and Aiko wasn’t likely to pry. Instead, she asked, “Possessed, then?”
“Looks that way,” I agreed.
She pursed her lips, obviously thinking through the implications of that statement. “Shit,” she said eventually. “That might be a problem.”
“Yeah,” I agree. “That’s why I’ve got the local pack for backup.” Actually, if anything the opposite was true—but I didn’t need to tell her that.
“It would be rather strange if you didn’t,” she said dryly. “You werewolves tend to look out for your own.”
I winced a little when I heard that. People mistake me for a werewolf all the time, always have. It didn’t even bother me, once; when I was young I liked hearing it, like it was some sort of confirmation that someday I’d finally get to be a part of the pack for real. Even after I learned that this wasn’t the case, I didn’t really mind it.
That changed the year I turned twenty-one. I was in college—that was why I came to Colorado Springs in the first place, incidentally—and doing pretty well with it. I’d found a niche, of sorts, in the normal world. I still didn’t fit in, still wasn’t human, but it was infinitely better than spending every day surrounded by the pack, knowing that I would never be one of them. I made friends. Fell in love.
Her name was Catherine. We met when we were both in freshman year. She was…clean. Innocent, kind, honest. In other words, she was everything that I myself am not.
If you think that sounds overly dramatic, wait for the end of the story. You’ll understand. Trust me.
We got to be good friends. I recognized in her the things that, in some sense, had been missing from my life. She wasn’t normal—she was much better than that, like if you took all the best things about the normal world and then subtracted the monotony, the boredom and casual despair that define so much of most lives. I’m not entirely sure what she recognized in me. I don’t think I want to know.
Anyway. We got to be good friends. Spent a lot of time together. You can do the math.
That was the phrase she used when she realized what I was—or thought she did, anyway. “You’re a werewolf, aren’t you?” It’s a no-win question, because in the modern world you don’t ask somebody a question like that unless you pretty much already know the answer. It shouldn’t have happened, but…well. Once I left the pack, I tried to leave it behind. I hadn’t, deep down, really believed in the Khan’s policy of absolute secrecy anyway. Hiding what you are from the media, sure, but from your friends? From the people you love? Keeping yourself separate from the real world? No.
So things slipped. Little hints, here and there, odd coincidences and subtle indicators that I wasn’t quite what I seemed. Eventually Catherine picked up on too many of them, and started to really believe.
The worst thing about it was that, in some sick way, I’d dreamed of it. My dream had been tainted by too many romantic movies, though. I imagined that she would find out, despite my efforts, what I was. I would admit, reluctantly, that she was right, and then proclaim that I had to leave now for her safety. She would object, refuse to acknowledge it. I would be won over, she would forgive my lies. We’d ride off into the sunset and live happily ever after. Roll the credits to an inspirational classic rock song and pretend playing outtake clips is still clever and original.
The reality was significantly different. I admitted it—it seemed easier than trying to explain that no, I was a mongrel blend of supernatural beasties that didn’t have a name, which was almost exactly like a werewolf except for the most important bit. After that, though, it diverged significantly from the script. Catherine froze like a deer in the headlights, turned very pale, then pepper sprayed me and ran. She refused to talk to me, wouldn’t answer my calls. I couldn’t find her anywhere.
Even that could have been worked in. But, less than a day after that conversation, I learned from a mutual friend what she was doing.
You see, Catherine was a meticulous person. She hadn’t conceived of my being a lycanthrope and then come running to ask. She built up evidence, collected piles of records. Somehow, and most damningly, she’d managed to get a video of one of the actual werewolves at school transforming. (Yes, there were other werewolves there. More college students—and faculty—than you would think are nonhuman. They love college campuses, because everybody just sort of expects weird and inexplicable behavior. It’s like a free pass to do whatever the hell you want.)
She wasn’t going to the police. She was smarter than that.
She was going to go to the media. With names, and dates, and a video that any tabloid reporter in the country would sell their soul for.
Obviously that was the one thing the werewolves couldn’t tolerate.
I didn’t kill Catherine. But I knew that they would, and I stood by and let it happen. They made it painless, of course, out of respect for me and because she really hadn’t done anything wrong. It didn’t matter. If I hadn’t got involved with her she might have lived a long, happy, productive life. She could have had love, happiness, a family.
I might as well have slit her throat myself.
The worst part is that, in retrospect, I was wrong. She wasn’t nearly the threat I’d thought she was. She had videos, sure, but she wouldn’t have made it ten seconds in before people started screaming that it was obviously fake and complaining about the poor special effects. Her data was meticulous, but no reputable newspaper would have even looked at it, and tabloids print a dozen stories about werewolves a day anyway. She could have shouted it from the rooftops, and blended in perfectly with a billion and one other lunatics. I could have just vanished, and she would have been left alone without any real problems. A few years later she would have dismissed the whole thing as an exaggeration of her memories, or forgotten about it entirely.
Had I thought about it I would have recognized that at the time. But I didn’t think about it. It was my first real experience of autonomy, and I’d screwed it up badly. I panicked and overreacted, and she died for it.
I don’t watch movies anymore.
It had been a long time since then—almost seven years, to be more precise. I…hadn’t gotten over it, exactly. You don’t get over something like that, not without turning into a complete monster. But it didn’t hurt anymore.
I still thought of her when Aiko said that. But I didn’t feel like explaining any of it, so instead I shook my head. “No, actually. Real common mistake.”
The kitsune looked at me doubtfully. She didn’t believe a word of it, clearly, and who could blame her?
She didn’t make an issue out of it, though. “You’ll call me if you find anything?”
I wasn’t entirely sure what to think on the walk home.
Oddly enough, and probably suggesting depressing things about my psyche, the corpse had been largely overshadowed by my meeting with Aiko. Not so much because of what I’d learned from her—essentially nothing, although I might have to try that trick with the air spirits. No, it was more because….
How to explain this? Ever since Catherine died, I’d embraced the Khan’s policy more than even the werewolves. Kyra was my best friend, and she was not only no more a part of the real world than I was, we weren’t even that close. I saw her, for the most part, a couple of times a month. Other than that, well. Anna and Enrico, obviously, but I see them less than Kyra—and I’m lying to them, all the time. I can’t do anything else, after what happened to Catherine, but it still makes me feel guilty. I’m pretty sure that Enrico, at least, knows that I’m lying, too. That doesn’t make things any easier.
And that’s it. All of my friends. None of them were very close. None of them knew all that much about me. Since Catherine had died I’d had essentially no contact with humanity. I worked at Val’s shop, where a sizable portion of the customers were inhuman. Of those who weren’t, I had established friendships with exactly none. It’s not like we have many regular customers. Val himself was…an excellent boss, and I liked him well enough, but I wouldn’t call him a friend. Other than that I pretty much stayed in my house, unless I was hiking or something. No activities with other people.
So it’s something of an understatement to say that my encounter with Aiko was a rare event in my life. Not only in the obvious sense of my first encounter with a kitsune—I hadn’t even been certain they existed before tonight—but also in the sense of making a connection with another (relatively) human being. Granted it was a connection founded in death and, frankly, really kind of creepy, but still. I contemplated how I felt about that and what it suggested to me about myself as I walked, and I didn’t much like what I found.
So, with such weighty matters on my mind, it’s no surprise I didn’t see the attack coming—even though, really, I should have been expecting it before now.
The first warning I had was, oddly enough, from my sense of the magic around me. It was more acute than usual, maybe more acute than ever, and I felt the demon from a block away.
That gave me just enough time to draw the knife I was carrying under my shirt. It was a heavy Bowie knife, steel with silver patterns on the blade which formed a really pretty wolf’s-head pattern and—more importantly—made it seriously inimical to the health of werewolves everywhere.
I should have had more time than that, but the monster was moving fast—really fast. By the time the knife had cleared the sheath, it had gone from around three hundred feet away to less than fifty.
Whenever I get into a fight—which has happened more often than I’d like, but probably not as often as you’re thinking—I feel like time sort of…stretches out. Not like time slows down, more like my mind speeds up—which I’ve read is actually a fairly accurate description of what happens to a human brain in a crisis. One of the downsides of being me is that I never know how different I am from human in any particular regard, but it felt similar.
Long story short, I had time as it was approaching to think about what was going to happen. Before my knife had even cleared its sheath, for example, I had time to think Shit, that thing is fast. I can’t fight that.
And I couldn’t. With or without a silvered knife, a regular werewolf would tear me to pieces in a purely physical confrontation. This one, well, I don’t think I need to go into that. If I tried to fight this thing, I would wind up dead. Already I was having a hard time shaking the image of Kyra standing over my shredded remains, looking just like the ones I’d already seen, blood staining the sidewalk for a dozen feet in every direction….
I had to focus. Physical conflict was out. What had Val said about a demon’s weakness? Objects of faith weren’t an option. I just didn’t have anything available that had a chance in hell of working.
And that left magic.
It was a long shot to say the least. I wasn’t a shaman; I’d never done anything involving spirits, or demons, or anything even vaguely like that. But, let’s face it, when you’re staring down a demon-possessed werewolf from a hundred feet away and it wants you dead, a long shot’s a lot more than you have otherwise.
So, rather than worry about how impossible it was, I brought the magic up inside me as strong as I could manage. It came readily to my call, surging up in an instant inside my mind.
As the werewolf closed to within a few feet I swept the knife at its head. The black wolf, larger than even a werewolf had any right to be, jerked back a few inches from the passage of the silver, and I could swear it was smirking at me.
I never had a chance of hitting it. I just wanted to slow it down.
I managed to make eye contact, and as I did I threw my mind down that sudden connection and slammed into it.
This was not a gentle sharing, the way I’d shared the cat’s mind in my dreams. This was an assault, an expression of mental contact as a weapon, fast and brutal rather than slow and gentle. I’d done this to other werewolves a couple of times, using the slim connection I have with the predator side of them, and it made an impression.
But as I learned the instant I made contact, this wasn’t the same. There was no resistance preventing me from entering the mind of the monster, not even as much as I would expect from a normal human. I slammed into his mind with all the subtlety of a small bomb.
And, once I got inside, I felt like someone might after they accidentally set one off inside a fireworks factory. It wasn’t hard to see why he hadn’t resisted; his mind was unimaginably chaotic, like a battlefield inside his own skull.
When I leave my body, my mind changes. For one thing, apparently time really seems to slow down when you don’t have all those pesky synapses getting in the way of speedy communication. Second, I don’t have any senses as you understand the term, so my mind is kind of interpreting everything directly. As a result the following section may seem somewhat surreal.
The strongest, and most obvious, presence in the monster’s mind felt more or less like every other werewolf I’d felt—which is to say, almost human. True, it was focused on rage and violence, and at the moment it was all about killing me, but still. It was something I could comprehend, something whose motivations I could understand.
The second presence was different. I didn’t have to wonder what it was; it absolutely reeked of demon (except that, remember, I didn’t have a nose right now. So, instead of olfactory signals, I got to experience the magical signature of a demon at close range with my mind directly. It was actually even less pleasant than it sounds.)
That presence felt…wrong. Alien. Malicious, yes, and of course violent, but at the same time not quite right. It felt as though I didn’t understand what I was sensing, like even with the intimacy of that connection I still didn’t grasp what it was. Even the most horrific human murderers have something recognizable as a motivation which, while it might be horrid and nonsensical, is at least something we can understand conceptually. The demon felt more like even if I knew exactly why it did what it did, the knowledge wouldn’t mean anything to me.
That much made sense. I mean, I’d sort of been expecting that a truly possessed person wouldn’t have the unity of mind that a normal person does. It made sense that the demon would feel like a different person.
The third person was what threw me for a loop.
Imagine neverending hunger. Imagine unearthly rage, unfocused and vague. Imagine incredible anguish, incredible need. Now imagine a being made entirely out of those things and imagine setting it loose inside your mind, and you might have an idea of what this bastard felt like. It didn’t seem to have any real thought, just struggled mindlessly against the others.
That was the other remarkable thing, you see. Even though they were all trapped inside the same psyche, the three personalities were apparently in the midst of a blood feud, all three of them fighting all the rest.
All of these observations took place in about a second and a half. Then, to try and keep myself from being a victim of said blood feud, I slammed my mind into the preponderant mind, figuring that that was the one with the best chance of success. If I could take out the dominant personality, the others would be unbalanced, and I might be able to get away before the thing managed to recover.
It didn’t work. I succeeded in putting the human-seeming part of the monster off balance, but I had no real chance to defeat it. Not here, where it held a very important home field advantage. As if that weren’t enough, the weird multiple-personality nature of the mind I was facing made it almost impossible to get a solid metaphysical grip on the thing.
Magic tends to have odd effects on your mind. I felt strangely detached, cold. I didn’t want to die—I really didn’t want to die—but the terror felt like a triviality, without any real immediacy. I could work through the logical consequences of my situation quite easily and dispassionately, and they all suggested the same thing, which was that my life would last exactly as long as it took the demon to get bored of playing with me.
I’d known that this was a gamble. I’d bet and I’d lost, plain and simple, and this had been the only hole card I had. Now my mind was so far detached from my body that I couldn’t even fight back, although this did have the pleasant side effect that I wouldn’t feel the pain.
And about that point was when the fourth part of my attacker’s mind entered the fray.
At first I was certain that this meant simply that I was even more screwed than before, but I almost immediately noticed that this mind felt different than the others. It was…cleaner, somehow, lacking the demonic taint of the others.
And it was fighting them. Not a mindless struggle, but a concerted, intelligent attack. It caught the humanoid portion of the psyche by surprise, assaulting it with remarkable viciousness. The closest physical analogue I can think of is a cat placed in a bag, shaken briskly, and thrown across the room. It had the same frenzied quality, and the exact same disregard for its own wellbeing.
The third entity, which I had thought mindless, suddenly seemed less so. The all-consuming rage and hunger were still present, but it seemed more focused now, and the target of that rage was clearly the humanoid aspect of this thing. It wasn’t helping the newcomer, exactly—but it wasn’t fighting it, either. The demon, likewise, stood aside, and I got the impression that it was amused. That left just the original, humanoid persona fighting against the most recent addition.
I could tell that the human-like bit was going to win. It just had too much power, and…it’s really hard to explain, but it felt like it had the superior position as well. Not in any physical sense, obviously, but it means the same thing: it was applying its power more effectively, more efficiently.
Which is why, acting on the theory that I was already completely screwed and as a result nothing I did could really make things worse for me, I threw my support behind the newest presence. Not directly, because I couldn’t seem to affect this monster and it obviously could, but I channeled power to it. It wasn’t magic, exactly, more like the concentrated force of my intention, my desire to see it succeed. In this battleground of the mind, those things had very real power behind them.
It accepted with…gratitude? Or simple glee? I couldn’t sort out quite what I was feeling against the background maelstrom of emotion and insanity inside the possessed werewolf’s mind—although I no longer had much confidence that what I was fighting was even that simple to describe.
In any case, it took it and used it. My support gave it an edge that the other presence obviously hadn’t been expecting, and the clean aspect overwhelmed it in a sudden rush.
As it did it seemed to carry me with it into the body of my enemy. It was a strange experience, not at all like the total sharing I was more accustomed to. I was very clearly an intruder here, and an unwelcome one. I was sharing all of this body’s senses, but I still felt as though I were watching the action from the outside, somehow.
He—or maybe it; this thing didn’t feel natural enough to be a him—could see, well, me. I was standing right in front of it, and had just begun to fall on my face. I expected that, because without my presence my body wouldn’t react to counterbalance my swing. I was a little surprised that I hadn’t hit the ground yet, but then mental magic has odd effects on the perception of time. That entire struggle, which had felt like hours, had taken place in a second or two.
The werewolf, I could dimly tell, had to struggle immensely to turn away from me. It did, though, converting the slash it had already begun into a spin, and I belatedly realized that the fourth presence must have seized control of the body from the primary mind. I could no longer feel any of them directly, although I had the distinct impression of a malicious entity looking over my shoulder.
Once it had turned away from me it seemed to find the going easier. It ran back the way it had come, moving fast. I don’t mean a little bit fast—it was faster than any werewolf I’d ever seen in my life, faster than any living thing had a right to be. It was hard to tell, but I was guessing it was moving better than eighty miles an hour within a few seconds, sprinting down the middle of the street. There were no cars in sight, fortunately, or other pedestrians.
It took me a few seconds to pry myself loose of the twisted morass that was this thing’s mind, but once I did it happened very quickly, the werewolf almost catapulting me away. Back in my body, my first sensation was pain. I had a throbbing headache so bad it was hard to see, and felt about as strong as a week-old kitten. That, generally speaking, is what you can expect when you start throwing magic around recklessly when you haven’t practiced in years. I was lucky I was still conscious.
As I discovered when I started to move, I’d also fallen badly. Again, this is generally the only way to fall when you don’t have any conscious or reflexive control over your muscles. I found my knife a couple feet away—I was very lucky not to have stabbed myself on the way down—and managed to sheathe it before I stood up.
I’d bashed my face against the ground, as well as one elbow and my ribcage. In a while I’d have some lovely bruising patterns, but for now it just registered as pain whenever I moved or—thanks to the ribs—breathed. When I started walking I learned that I must have injured my hip somehow as well, because I was limping on every step I took with my right leg.
If that werewolf came around for a rematch I was absolutely dead in the water. I didn’t think it would, though. I’d scared it tonight—not so much because of what I had done to it, which I knew wouldn’t even inconvenience it for long. No, the key thing here was that it hadn’t been expecting a fight at all. Werewolves are predators at heart, and there isn’t a predator on earth that doesn’t react when the prey turns out to be much more dangerous than it anticipated. Most of the time even a werewolf can be unnerved by nothing more than unexpected defiance. Add in my magic and…no, I didn’t think that the demon-infested monster was going to be coming back for seconds. Not tonight.
I still kept moving, though, because I might be wrong and because—let’s be realistic, here—falling down in the street in a bad part of town at night was just as likely to kill me as any werewolf. Maybe more, because I could at least fight a werewolf.
I can’t remember anything of that walk, for which I’m just as glad. I have no idea how I managed to make it home. What I do know is that when I finally did get to my house, I was pretty much running on empty. I managed to lock the door again behind myself, then staggered into the bedroom, collapsed on the bed and fell asleep without even undressing first.