Almost Winter 1.7

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When I woke up it was almost sunset. The clock said it was already six, which meant I’d slept for roughly fifteen hours solid. I still felt somewhat weak and bone-deep tired. I was clearly badly out of shape when it came to magic. Come to think of it, I wasn’t just lucky I hadn’t passed out from how much power I’d spent driving off the werewolf—I was lucky it hadn’t killed me.


My body still ached, too. I hadn’t exactly done a thorough self-examination, but I was fairly sure that at least one rib was cracked, and I might have broken the nose as well. The rest of my injuries were fairly minor, but my mirror confirmed my prediction that the bruises were spectacular. I was lucky I wasn’t female, or random people on the street would ask who was abusing me. As it was I could probably pass it off as a car wreck or something. You know, if I had a car.


If I were a human being I would probably have been very concerned by my injuries. However, as a distinctly inhuman being, I wasn’t. The reason for this is very simple. You remember I mentioned having tried to become a werewolf when I was younger?


Well, it didn’t work. But, and this is important, it didn’t fail either. Normally that’s impossible—you either become a werewolf, or you don’t. Generally if you don’t you die, from your injuries or from the pack.


I’m not normal. I turned into a werewolf, and spent a couple months being, as psychologists say, mad as a hatter. Then I wasn’t a werewolf anymore, thanks to the unusual nature of my magic and possibly the intervention of a mysterious magical entity to which I accidentally sold my soul via a slip of the tongue and minor confusion due to being completely loony. Either that or it was a hallucination. You know, one or the other.


Anyways, the experience left me with a few mementos. One of them is increased healing—not werewolf level healing, but not human level either. A cracked rib would heal in a couple days. I could feed the part of me that retained a tiny bit of werewolf more magic, and it would heal faster.


But at the moment I was tired, and my head ached, and I’d used too much magic already. So I told my ribs, and assorted other aches, that they could bloody well get better on their own, and got to work.


I had two messages on my phone. The first was from Val around nine, asking where I was and whether I was all right. Apparently he’d gotten worried when I hadn’t responded and, remembering what I’d told him about, called Christopher. He had in turn contacted Dolph, who had called to check if I was okay and ask me to call him when I woke up. It wasn’t worth wondering how he had known I was asleep rather than dead or just not answering my phone. Conn’s whole family—which, by the way, consists of just Conn and his three children, Bryan, Dolph, and Erin—had a tendency to know things they had no business knowing, and a matching tendency to refuse to explain how they found out.


They’re all creepy in their own ways, though. Don’t think you can just match werewolfery, inexplicable knowledge, and a slightly unnerving air and you’ve described all four of them. Dolph, for example, is the gentle face of the Khan’s enforcement. He does mostly diplomatic work. A deadly warrior, sure, but he was usually just a reminder of the forces that Conn can bring to bear.


Erin, on the other hand, is the real thing. She’s the youngest sibling, only slightly older than Edward. If Dolph was a diplomat, Erin was an assassin. (Fun fact—did you know that that word only technically applies to ideologically motivated killers, thus invalidating three-quarters of popular usage?) When Conn has a problem and the best way to make it go away is the judicious application of violence, more often than not it’s Erin that gets sent in.


We were good friends while I was with the pack, maybe better friends than I was with Dolph. Eventually I went on a job with her, though, and I honestly think that the experience will always stick in my memory as one of the most terrifying in my life. Not because I was in danger—on the contrary, with her present I was possibly safer than I’d ever been. But seeing the friendly, slightly mischievous werewolf I’d known turn into a stone-cold killer like flipping a switch had been seriously unnerving. Especially because, right after killing her target with a charged-silver sniper round before he ever knew she was there, she went right back to her usual self. Violence just didn’t mean anything to her.


That was part of what Conn had been referring to when he offered to send her instead of Dolph. Granted that part of it was simple courtesy, but it also represented two different solutions. Sending a diplomat meant that he thought there could still be a solution to this that left relatively few bodies on the ground at the end. Sending Erin meant that there would still be few bodies on the ground, but only because there wouldn’t be enough left of the rest to find. Regardless of what I thought of either of them personally, I preferred the first alternative.


Once I’d showered and dressed, the first thing I did was call Dolph to explain to him what had happened. He didn’t answer, so I left him a message very briefly explaining what had happened and asking him to come talk to me when he got a chance. I didn’t feel comfortable going into detail on the phone. Then I kept going, calling Val to tell him that I wasn’t injured, but I wasn’t feeling well either and I wasn’t sure whether I’d make it to work tomorrow. His typically laconic response was, “Stay away from the demon this time.”


Val, too, always knows more than most people give him credit for.


After that I called both Kyra and Aiko to reassure them that, although I had encountered the demon and come out on the losing side, I was still alive and not seriously hurt. Kyra had her tough-werewolf face on, but I knew her well enough to hear the concern underneath. Aiko…seemed like a bipolar kitsune who’d forgotten her medication and was on at least one illegal drug, the same as before.


By the time I got off the phone with the kitsune, Dolph was sitting in my living room. Actually, I suppose he was more lounging than sitting, sprawled across my couch like an oversized housecat. I walked to the office chair across from it, which I had made years ago from scraps of random hardwood, giving it a sort of Frankenstein-style look. I sat down on it backward, crossing my arms across the back.


“You figure he tried to whack you?” Dolph asked without preamble.


I shrugged. “Can’t see why else he’d jump me like that. No way it was a coincidence.”


“No,” he agreed. “Not a chance. So you drove him off with your freakish magic powers?”


“Yeah,” I said, and then outlined my experience. I tried, I really did, but it still wound up sounding like a drug trip.


“So I’ve been thinking about it,” I said once I’d finished. “And I think I might know what I was feeling.”


“Really?” Dolph said, sounding…skeptical? Or maybe just interested. It was hard to tell, and even harder to tell whether it was genuine. Dolph’s been playing politics for a long time, and his acting abilities make Enrico look like an amateur.


“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “The dominant personality was definitely the original owner of the body. The demon’s self-explanatory. But the third one felt like a werewolf.”


He frowned. “I thought you said the first one was the werewolf.”


“I did. But hear me out here. That felt like a werewolf. But the third one…it was a little like a moon-crazy wolf. All hunger and aggression, without any real thought behind it. So is it possible for a werewolf to sort of, I don’t know, gather up the wolf and force it into a separate entity?”


“I don’t know,” Dolph said thoughtfully. “Not that I’ve ever heard of, but…I don’t know what a demon can do.” He stood up abruptly. “I’ll call my father. How about you get some sleep? You still look like shit.”


“Thanks,” I said sourly, standing up and walking him to the door. “Tell me what you find out.”


I meant to do exactly as Dolph had suggested, but once I went back to bed I found that I couldn’t sleep, in spite of how tired I still felt.


Instead I kept thinking about what I’d told Dolph.


Werewolves talk about their wolves like separate entities sometimes, because it’s simple and relatively accurate. Heck, most of the time I do it too. But the truth is a lot more complicated than that. The wolf is sort of an outgrowth of the instincts and attitudes that come with the change, combined with a person’s own personality traits and desires.


What it isn’t is some sort of external force. Kyra’s wolf wasn’t somebody else, something apart from her; it was an essential piece of who she was, given shape and definition and made much more influential by the change and the magic. Splitting it off should be impossible, like trying to rip your own soul in half. And yet, despite the apparent impossibility of it, I still felt like it was the most reasonable explanation for what I’d felt.


That was strange enough. But the fourth mind was what was giving me the most trouble. It, unlike the others, hadn’t felt like a part of a greater whole—it had seemed, in some ways, as though it was as much of an interloper as I was. It had felt strange, too, clean and wholesome and oddly simple. Nothing like a werewolf, and certainly not demonic in nature.


The worst part was that it had also felt so very familiar, as though I had experienced it so many times before that I couldn’t place what it actually was.


Eventually, though, my own fatigue was enough to drag me to sleep. I’d spent a great deal of power, but, contrary to logic, that left my magic riled up and hyperactive. Thus, I wasn’t entirely surprised when I slipped straight into a remarkably vivid not-dream in which I shared the mind and body of a local coyote. I wasn’t even quite asleep, which made the experience quite a bit more coherent than it usually was.


In the dream, we are hunting in the scrub grasses near my trailer and doing a good job of it. I feel somewhere between a voyeur and a participant as we slip up behind a rabbit with easy stealth and pounce. It tries to run but we are far too fast for it, catching it between our paws and slapping it to the ground.


It struggles, briefly, before we break its neck in our jaws. It kicks once, twice, then it twitches for the last time and we start to eat. The meat is delicious, the blood staining our muzzle a delicate shade of pink.


It’s not a terribly large meal, but after we eat we don’t particularly feel like doing…anything. We jog over to our den on a nearby hill and curl up in the fading sunlight. The lingering taste of blood mingles with the aromas of the desert and the nearby city to lend a subtle, richly complex flavor to the air.


We slip into sleep together, with the simple contentment that humans so seldom find. This time I don’t dream.


The next time I woke up it was morning again and, with the echoes of the coyote still in my mind, I knew exactly what the strange presence in the mind of the possessed werewolf reminded me of.


I’ve mostly shared the minds of urban critters in my life, dogs and foxes and stray cats, with here and there the occasional coyote or raptor. That’s what comes of living in a city. But I spent a lot of time in Wyoming growing up, and with my talent it was inevitable that I would occasionally have the opportunity to communicate with less domesticated beasts.


Then, when I was fifteen, I spent a month living in Yellowstone. Trust me when I say that there are plenty of animals there that aren’t urban at all.


So I knew what I was talking about when I concluded that the strange, pure presence felt like a wolf. A literal wolf, I mean, not a werewolf. Every animal has a sort of unique signature, a pattern to its mind and its magic that nothing else matches, including other animals of the same species. (So do people, incidentally, although I can’t sense those directly. Ultimately the differences between humans and other animals are pretty irrelevant, and I’m the guy who should know.)


I have a terrible memory for names, and faces, and often for voices as well. That is more than counterbalanced by my excellent memory for scent and magic. I hadn’t felt a wolf’s mind in over ten years, but I remembered the experience perfectly.


And it had felt almost exactly the same as what I’d touched in the werewolf’s mind.


Stranger and stranger.


Well, at least now I had something else to ask Dolph about. Yippee.


I didn’t go in to work, because I’d already told Val I probably wouldn’t and I had a lot to consider and—


Okay. Yeah. I totally went back to sleep right after I ate breakfast.


That wasn’t actually as lazy as it sounds. I could heal faster than any human, sure, but it doesn’t come for free. It takes a lot of energy, and after my little magic expenditure I had little enough to spare. I thought I’d probably be wanting a lot more soon, and sleep and food are the fastest way to build it back up, so….


Although, to be fair, I would have done it just for laziness, so I can’t exactly say I’m a paragon of efficiency here.


Anyway, the next time I woke up it was because Dolph was knocking on my bedroom door. He heard it as soon as I started moving, of course, and by the time I’d brushed my teeth and made it to the kitchen he’d dished out some sort of stew redolent with garlic and fresh black pepper. (I love that word. Redolent. It even sounds delicious). Once I actually grabbed my bowl I could smell that the meat was venison. The spices were strong, but I ate a lot of wild game with both Edward’s pack and Conn’s, and it’s fairly easy to distinguish. He must have brought the supplies with him, because I don’t eat well enough that he could have found venison and shallots at my house.


“I’d have let you sleep longer,” he said apologetically, which was ridiculous considering that it was nearly noon. “But my father says this consultant doesn’t usually work in the evenings, and I thought you’d want to be there.”


I smirked a little. “You mean there’s somebody in town who knows more about werewolves than you do?”


“Werewolves, no,” Dolph said dryly. “Demons, yes.”


“Then why have we waited this long to talk to him?”


“I was hoping to avoid it. He’s kind of hard to work with.” He hesitated, then continued, “That’s what my father said, anyway. I’ve never met him personally.”


“Wonderful,” I muttered under my breath. Dolph laughed—he had a werewolf’s ears, so of course he’d heard me.


I meant him to. I’m not a total idiot. At least not about werewolves. At least not in the context of mistaking their capabilities. I’m just too dumb to act on my knowledge most of the time, witness my getting involved in this shitstorm.


I was feeling more than just a little paranoid (for obvious reasons), so instead of just grabbing a knife I really suited up before we left. In my case this means a pair of silver-inlaid knives and an easily-concealed semiautomatic nine millimeter loaded with more silver, which meant that I was essentially carrying an entire week’s wages in shiny ammo, plus a small leather pouch on a cord that I slipped over my neck. I was a little concerned that this last would have aged beyond usefulness, but when I touched the powder inside it still tingled, and burned my skin a little, so it was probably fine.


Okay, time for another magic lesson. It’s pretty much entered pop culture that silver is dangerous and painful for werewolves, which is really pretty impressive considering that they kept that little fact very well concealed up until about the eighteenth century. Anyway, one thing that almost nobody seems to consider is why silver would have an effect on what is, essentially, a magic-enhanced immortal killing machine which can, you will remember, heal itself preternaturally well.


That should be enough to explain why it can’t be a physical poison or allergy; there’s just no way that could affect something like a werewolf to such a degree.


Every substance has its own magic, though, the same way people and animals do. That’s what hurts a werewolf; silver emits magic of a variety that disrupts the wolf magic—which also disables most of a werewolf’s healing powers, making them much easier to kill. Dolph once told me that silver isn’t actually the opposite of werewolf magic, contrary to what might seem logical; it’s actually very, very close to the same, the same way that some of the most discordant sounds are those that are almost harmonic.


Anyway, if I were an exceptionally clever person, it might have occurred to me that if silver’s magic hurt werewolves, silver with stronger magic might hurt them even more. Fortunately for me, a long time ago such an idea occurred to some other exceptionally clever person, and by the time I was born it was pretty much standard practice to energize silver for use against werewolves.


That leather pouch contained a mixture of silver dust, iron filings, rock salt, and several varieties of sawdust. I’d infused the whole mix with magic and then had it blessed by a friend significantly more holy than I’m ever likely to be. The result is an easily carried, inconspicuous, user-friendly weapon that can hurt or at least annoy about ninety percent of the dangerous magical critters on the planet, including both werewolves and demons. The downside is that it burns my skin if I touch it too long thanks to all the silver (part werewolf, remember?), and it has a limited shelf life.


That’s the thing about enhancing substances with magic. There aren’t very many ways to do it, and most of them aren’t very nice. Even a regular person can make a silver weapon into a suped-up werewolf-killer, but you’d have to be really desperate or really deranged to do it. For example, one of the best ways for a normal person would be to take a silver knife and murder somebody with it in a creepy ritual of some sort. The power of the dead guy goes into the knife, and boom! You’ve got yourself an awesome weapon that can do damage to a werewolf just by touching the skin. And a corpse, of course.


I’m not a saint, not even close, but I wasn’t amoral enough to do something like that, or any of the even worse options available to me. So instead I do a complicated bit of magic under the full moon, when my power’s at its peak, and just sort of focus ambient energy into the dust until it has several times the amount of power that’s natural. It’s not as strong as some of the traditional methods would produce, and the magic slowly bleeds off to the surroundings. Generally speaking my dust is only good for three to four months, although it retains a minimal charge for years. Fortunately I had remained paranoid enough, even after such a long boring stretch, that I always kept a bucket full of the stuff on hand.


After that, all that was left to do was to slip on a pair of rings and a necklace. Jewelry might seem ridiculous as a weapon, but there’s a reason there are so many stories of enchanted baubles. They’re easy to work with, and they can take a wide variety of enchantments (every gem and metal has its own energy pattern). More importantly they don’t make you stand out the way carrying a staff or a sword would. A guy with a sword is arrested on sight, but you don’t even notice a few rings.


This particular set had all been made by Edward years ago, before I left his pack. He’s actually a professional jeweler in his off time, and all of his work is incredible, which is what comes of having a couple hundred years to practice. I enchanted all of them years ago, too, but I used a significantly better method than I use for the dust, and the magic still hung around them as thick as ever.


I stared at the pendant for a long moment before I put it on. At first glance it looked fairly unremarkable, just a small, three-dimensional wolf’s head on a steel chain. It looked like the sort of thing you could get in any cheap, tourist-trap store in town. It also contributed even more to the ridiculously stereotypical combination of my appearance and name, which is why I tend not to wear it much anymore.


Take a closer look, though, and you can see the artistry that went into it. Each and every single hair was individually crafted and placed. The fur is actually shaded and colored, which was accomplished by using metals ranging from brass and iron to bronze, pewter, steel, and copper. The eyes are made from topaz, obsidian, and quartz, showing an incredible precision in arranging them so that they actually look like eyes. The whole thing’s also so heavily enchanted that, in addition to more useful effects, it’s immune to corrosion and pretty much literally impossible to break.


It’s also, apparently, a portrait of my mother. Edward did it from memory when I was thirteen years old, but people who knew her say that it’s incredibly accurate, easily recognizable as her even made of metal and gemstones. I wouldn’t know; the pendant’s the closest I’ve ever come to seeing her in her wolf form. I have photographs of her as a human, but somehow nobody I’ve ever asked had one of what she looked like in fur.


Dolph knew what it was, and likely also knew most of what it meant when he saw me wearing it. Fortunately he also knew better than to mention it, so we went out to his car to go meet with his father’s recommended demon expert without my having to hear about it.


“So who is this guy?” I asked as we got out of the car. We were in a fairly good neighborhood, so this consultant must be doing all right for himself.


“A wizard,” Dolph said calmly. “I don’t know his name, but he goes by Alexander Hoffman.”


“Wait a second. A wizard? You mean there’s an actual wizard in Colorado Springs?”


He looked at me sidelong. “It’s a big city, Winter. Of course there’s a wizard here.”


You might have a hard time understanding why that was a big deal to me. After all, I have magic, right?


Well…yes and no. You see, the magical world has very specific terminology. Turning into a wolf, for example, isn’t enough to make you a werewolf. Depending on how you go about it you might also be a shapeshifter, a skinwalker, an exceedingly skilled druid or witch, a changeling, or at least a dozen other things, many of them indistinguishable except to the trained eye.


The same is true for magic. Having magic doesn’t make you anything specific; there’s about a million categorizations for what kind of magic you have, how strong it is, how well you use it, and so on. Not being human I don’t quite fit into any of them—there are other terms for that—but if I were, my magic would place me as a mage of low to moderate ranking in the witch and druid spectra. In other words, reasonably skilled at affecting the mind and body, and nature-based magic.


A wizard is a mage specializing in manipulating pure external forces, particularly raw magical energy. It’s a demanding discipline, because a lot of the time you’re working with enough power to turn you into a smear on the ground if you slip. It’s not generally as quick as what I do—most wizards, faced with a demon-possessed werewolf up close like I was, would have died before they could muster up the forces of the universe and whatnot to turn him into a particularly gruesome training video. On the other hand, give them an hour to prepare and they’d wipe the floor with me every time.


The thing is that being a human with a gift for wizard-spectrum magic isn’t enough to merit calling you a wizard, without any qualifiers or anything attached. You have to be good to get that. Real good.


And, because most of the time wizardry rewards scholarship as much or more than power, you have to know things, too. A lot of things. Sort of like having a Ph.D. in weirdology.


So odds were good that Dolph’s consultant would be very useful indeed, although what his price might be I couldn’t even guess. Hopefully Conn had paid in advance.


“You’ve gotta be kidding me.”


Dolph pursed his lips. “It does look a little ridiculous, but this is the right address.”


“Ridiculous” was actually a pretty good word for a two-story house painted lilac with maroon trim. Surrounded by more conservative—and sane—looking houses in a moderately well-off part of town, it was somewhat reminiscent of a man in a clown suit desperately trying to blend in with investment bankers and lawyers at “Bring Your Parent to School Day.”


“Well,” he said dubiously, “might as well find out.” We walked up the steps—pine, if you were wondering—to the front door.


As it turned out the solid black door had an antique brass knocker rather than a bell. It was in the shape of either a maliciously pleased devil, an exceedingly ugly cherub, or a gnome with severe constipation. Whatever it was, it made a hell of a racket when Dolph pounded on the door with it. A moment later a male voice from within called, “I’ll be there in a minute!”


Whatever he said, though, it was almost five minutes before the door opened—long enough that I was starting to get concerned, but not long enough that we left. When it did, it opened maybe two inches before the chain stopped it. Not your standard door chain, either; this thing was solid steel laced with silver, with links better than a quarter inch thick and humming with magic.     The man on the other side was paler than me, which takes some doing since my grandmother was born in Iceland. Go ahead, laugh; I know you want to.


Actually, though, the wizard looked quite a bit like me. Like me he was thin, shorter than average, and pale. His hair was also grey, although in his case it appeared to be due to age. He was wearing a black flannel coat over pajamas.


He looked ridiculous, a perfect match for the house, but I wasn’t fooled by his appearance. You don’t get to be a wizard by being harmlessly eccentric, and this man was most definitely the wizard. He absolutely reeked of magic, the scent of human magic overwhelmed with hot metal and ozone.


He glowered at us and snapped, “What do you want?”


“Are you Alexander Hoffman?” Dolph asked cautiously. He can’t smell magic the way I can, so obviously he didn’t realize that this aged lunatic was the wizard


“No. Go away.” Alexander started to close the door, muttering something incoherent under his breath.


I stuck my foot in the way, which would have been an extremely stupid thing to do if I hadn’t known that, unlike the chain and possibly the knocker, there was no magic at all on the door itself. “This is Dolph Ferguson,” I said calmly. “Are you sure you don’t want to talk to us?”


He paused, looked at me suspiciously, then slowly unhooked the chain and pushed the door open. “You’re Conn’s boy, then?”


“That’s me,” Dolph confirmed. “He said you might be able to give us a hand.”


“Hmph. Twenty years it’s been since I saw him, and now the old bastard can’t even be bothered to come himself?” He sighed. “I suppose you might as well come inside, then.”


I stepped gingerly across the threshold, feeling a tingling buzz across my whole body as I did. He must have some fairly powerful warding spells laid around the house; thanks to his invitation Dolph and I were safe, but I wouldn’t want to be the man trying to break into his house.


“We can talk down in the laboratory. I don’t mean to be rude, but I’m right in the middle of something rather delicate.” He led us through his front room, which appeared to consist entirely of furniture in an eye-searing variety of tacky colors and styles, complete with a remarkable array of knickknacks and cheesy souvenirs. The trapdoor in the corner was covered in a rug which, although covered with stains, still had a recognizable image of Godzilla emblazoned on it.


By that point I could tell Dolph was feeling increasingly dubious about this whole venture, and I honestly wasn’t too confident myself. Underneath the trapdoor was a steel ladder leading down which was, thankfully, as plain and practical as anything I could ask for.


“Close it behind you, if you would,” Alexander said as he started down the ladder into the darkened room beneath. There didn’t seem to be a point in leaving—if we even could; there was no guarantee that the wards would let us out—so I followed him down and let Dolph bring up the rear.


By the time I made it to the bottom the wizard had turned on the lights, revealing something much more…appropriate than the house above. “Now this,” I said in a whisper carefully pitched to be audible only to a werewolf at close range, “is more like it.”


Alexander’s laboratory was housed in a simple concrete box which, although barely high enough for a tall man to stand in, had to extend under the whole of the house above. Despite that, there was barely enough room to walk, the rest of the floor being taken up with shelves and Formica counters and workbenches.


Arrayed throughout the room was a staggering assortment of…things. Plastic tubs shared space with a couple of wooden crates that looked like they belonged in the eighteenth century, stacked under the counters. Jugs and vases of fine porcelain, some lidded and some not, ranged in size from one the size of a salt cellar to a blue-and-white vase in the corner six inches taller than me. Other than that, there seemed to be anything and everything imaginable crammed into the room somewhere, from an assortment of skulls taking up the top shelf along one entire wall of the room to a stack of old comic books more than two feet tall in the corner behind the ladder.


The shelves held, among other things, a staggering variety of books, everything from the latest scientific journals and cheap fiction to dusty scrolls and ominous, ancient-looking books six inches thick bound in black leather. In between them, arranged according to no order I could understand, were pieces of jewelry, ornately decorated knives, a lava lamp shifting slowly through vivid, strange colors, and bits of glass or metal whose function I couldn’t even guess at.


At the other end of the room an antique wooden desk stood next to a silver circle set into the floor. On the desk was sitting what looked, to my inexperienced eye, to be an extremely expensive computer with all manner of gadgets and things attached to it. The overall effect, like the rest of the laboratory, was a bizarre juxtaposition of a medieval alchemist’s workshop and a modern science lab.


As I followed Alexander through the room—straying from the path seemed a rather dangerous proposition—I was buffeted by magic. Every moment seemed to bring a different magical aroma, sort of like a bazaar or a spice shop. From the expression on Dolph’s face, the magic in that room was so strong that even he could sense it.


Eventually Alexander arrived at the large, relatively clear table in the middle of the room. Sitting on it, and apparently what he had been working on, was a glass beaker suspended over a Bunsen burner. Whatever was in the beaker—it was like nothing I’d ever seen—was a semitransparent grey liquid which, although boiling, nevertheless seemed to have a consistency like mud. As I watched Alexander began pouring magic into it, which explained the odor. I’d have been worried if he really had so much power that he reeked like that all the time, but if he’d actually been doing magic just before he answered the door I could understand it.


“So what’d you say you were here for?” he asked, casually carrying on a conversation while simultaneously manipulating the delicate strands of energy he was weaving into the fluid. To give you some idea of how hard that is, imagine playing both sides of a game of speed chess in your head and typing an email to your boss at the same time. What the wizard was doing…wasn’t actually as hard as that, but still pretty hard.


“Information,” Dolph said just as evenly. “And I’m willing to pay.” Thus cutting me, very smoothly, out of both the conversation and any associated deals—something I was, believe me, more than happy about.


“Right then. Don’t suppose you’re carrying a chocolate bar?”


Dolph blinked. “What?”


“A chocolate bar, man, a chocolate bar! Do you have one or don’t you?”


“I have a chocolate granola bar,” I said quickly, pulling it out of my pocket. “Will that work?”


Alexander frowned. “Let me see it,” he muttered, snatching it out of my hand and ripping the wrapper open. He glared at the thick coating of dark chocolate on the bottom, sniffed it once, then nodded brusquely. He picked up a knife, made of some dull grey metal I didn’t recognize, and began scraping the chocolate into the beaker.


“Thanks,” he said a moment later, wiping the knife clean on a rag. The grey liquid didn’t look any different with chocolate in it, but I thought the magic overlaying it felt like it had shifted slightly. “All I have is bakers’ chocolate right now, and I never get quite the same result from it.”


“I’m glad I could help,” I said carefully—acknowledging his thanks without dismissing the debt incurred. Wording can be both very important and very delicate in my world. “We need to know about demons.”


He snorted. “Better be more specific than that, boy, unless you’ve a long time and more to spend than a granola bar.”


“More specifically,” Dolph interjected, “what abilities the demon-possessed have.”


Alexander paused, and I got the sense that he was interested in the conversation for the first time since he’d answered the door. “I see. Would this have anything to do with the demon wandering town, then?”


Dolph blinked—he’s surprisingly bad at poker for such an old werewolf. Or possibly he’s playing a subtler game and is so good he can pretend to be that bad, but that gets into Princess Bride territory. “You know about that?”


He snorted again. “Obviously.” Point to the wizard on that exchange.


“And you haven’t done anything about it?” Dolph’s voice had gotten remarkably cold.


“Demon hasn’t tried to kill me,” Alexander pointed out reasonably. He chuckled briefly, the sound somewhere on the far side of merely weird but not quite evil. “Like to see the demon that’d try. I’d blow the stupid thing to pieces.”


I believed him. There was so much power in that lab alone that if even a quarter of it could be used for violence, just wandering around the room was the next best thing to actually attempting suicide. Attacking it would be about as stupid as, say, screaming “I want to kill the Pope,” on national television. While surrounded by Secret Service agents. Maybe even with your hands tied behind your back while wearing a turban.


“Do you have the information I asked for, then?” Dolph asked, sounding calm again.


Alexander smirked. “Yes. And, because you’re the son of an old friend, I’ll even give you a discount. If I already know the answer to your questions, the knowledge is yours for the chocolate….”


Wow. That was some valuable chocolate, then—although it was hard to believe a wizard would have forgotten a reagent that crucial.


“…and a quart of your blood.”


Okay, that was more what I’d anticipated.


“Wizard,” Dolph growled, “If you think I’m giving you a drop of my blood, you’re insane. I know what you could do with it.”


So did I. Most of the things you can do to somebody using their blood and a bit of magic aren’t pretty. Like, you know, vomiting-out-your-own-intestines kind of not pretty. There’re sort of reasons that magic didn’t have a good reputation in most of the ancient world.


Alexander didn’t seem concerned by Dolph’s reaction. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to legally obtain werewolf blood?” he asked rhetorically. “I ran out years ago, and there are a number of interesting properties that I haven’t finished studying yet. I give you my word I won’t use it as a focus against you.”


Dolph glowered at him a moment longer, then nodded tersely. “Fine. Your answers in exchange for the chocolate, which you’ve already taken, and one quart of my blood, to be drawn once the demon is dead. If I’m unavailable another werewolf will provide it. Deal?”


“Change the dead to banished for the demon and I’m good with it.”




“All right then. Deal. That potion will need more work within an hour, but until then you can ask as many questions as you want.”


Well, that was easy. And it wasn’t my blood, so even better.


Dolph glanced at me, clearly ceding the lead now that the negotiations were finished. I considered for a moment, then said, “How about you start with generalities and we can ask about the specifics later?”


The wizard nodded. “Demons,” he said, his posture and voice falling into a sort of college-professor mode, “are capable of conferring a number of abilities on any individual willing to enter into a symbiotic relationship with them. Generally speaking, however, they will do so only as an effort to make the individual more reliant upon them and therefore more likely to do as the demon desires.”


“What do demons desire?” I interrupted.


The wizard glared at me for a moment, then shrugged. “It’s difficult to make sweeping generalizations, because demons have relatively little in common, being a poorly defined category. Most spirits which we refer to as demons are associated with concepts of death, destruction, and chaos, and desire to spread those things. The powers they provide tend to be directly related to such concepts as well.”


“What specifically are those powers?” Dolph asked impatiently.


“It varies. Functional immunity from pain is universal, although more a psychological effect than a magical one—it’s essentially no different from a particularly strong endorphin rush in that regard. Enhanced physical strength is also common, and is likewise primarily the result of psychological and physiological influences. Beyond that it’s dependent upon how much control the afflicted individual has over the demon.”


I frowned. “You’ll have to explain that one.”


The way Alexander sighed, you’d have thought he was Stephen Hawking teaching a kindergarten class on a dare. “In every demonic possession, you have essentially two entities in the same mental space. Depending on a number of factors, one will control the other. Demons have no concept of sharing or fairness, and so will attempt to exert an influence on the host; an equal balance is not possible. For the host to make use of the demon’s power, he must exert control over it. The more the host dominates the demon, the more control he has over its power and the more he can use it. However, the use of that power allows the demon to regain a measure of control in the relationship, resulting in a dynamic equilibrium.”


Well, that fit with what I’d felt—excepting the bit about there being only two entities per mind, but I’d get to that later. “So what can that power be used to do?”


“As I said, demons are essentially beings of destruction. The further you try to change that course, the less effective their power becomes. Beyond that, essentially anything.”


I frowned, trying to remember what Val had said. “Mind control?”


Alexander looked at me sharply. “That’s one of the most commonly cited abilities, yes. I believe it works as a sort of extension of the possession process; although demons cannot outright possess humans without some form of consent, it’s possible that a human host can circumvent that restriction.”


Telekinesis was a cinch, from what the wizard had already said. “Invisibility?”


Alexander smiled thinly. “You seem to have a fairly good idea for someone who came with questions,” he murmured, something in his voice making me suddenly more nervous about the fact that I was currently in the center of his power. Then he shook his head and the moment passed. “To answer your question, not as such. I do not think that a working as delicate and complicated as true invisibility is possible for someone without extensive experience, which most possessed individuals don’t have. Even if they did, demonic power is inherently chaotic in nature. Attempting to use it to build a complex, ordered magical structure would be difficult in the extreme; holding it steady would be impossible.” He paused. “However, many reports do suggest that they have an exceptional ability to go unnoticed. I assume that they are in effect applying the mental control I already mentioned to force observers not to see them. It is, I admit, a fine point, and a fairly unimportant difference.”


I met Dolph’s eye, and saw that he had already had the same thought I had: it wasn’t unimportant at all.


Because, if it was mind control, it wouldn’t be limited to sight. Could a demon also twist somebody’s mind into thinking that, say, they couldn’t smell a werewolf even though they knew it had to have been there?


It seemed likely. It would sure as hell explain a lot.


Except…”Could it have that effect if it wasn’t present?”


Alexander gave me a puzzled look. “Convince someone that they didn’t see it? Why would it bother?”


I sighed. “No, not that. Convince a werewolf that they don’t smell its trail.”


The wizard looked intrigued. “Hmm. I don’t know…I’ve never heard of it…” he trailed off for a long moment. Then, looking at me again, he said, “The only way I can think of to do something like that would be with a stable, self-supporting magical construct. You run into the same problems as with invisibility, except to a significantly greater degree since the spell wouldn’t have anyone on hand to maintenance it. However, I suppose it is theoretically possible that a demon could also use its natural talent for decay to break down the organic molecules which provide a scent signal.”


“Without removing any other scents?”


He frowned. “That would take remarkable precision. I doubt that a tenth of the wizards I know could pull it off. So, at a guess, no.” He shrugged. “I don’t know that anybody’s ever examined that specifically; demonic possession isn’t a socially acceptable topic for research. I could ask around, but it would take a while, it would be expensive, and I honestly doubt that you’d get anything but speculation.”


I shook my head. “No, that’s fine.”


“Good. You have half an hour left.”


I glanced at Dolph, but he seemed willing to let me continue asking the questions. No surprise, because at the moment I was the closest thing to an expert on magical theory that he had—excepting, for the next half-hour, Alexander. With that in mind, I got back to questions.


“This one’s probably also just speculation,” I said slowly.


Alexander just smiled.


“Could someone possessed by a demon, who let’s say has extensive control over it, use its power to sort of, I don’t know, exert mental control over himself in order to fragment his own personality?”


“I have no idea. Theoretically….” He frowned, looking absently over my shoulder and tracing patterns in the air with one hand as though writing. “Theoretically,” he continued after a long moment, “they would already be fragmented in some ways due to the demon’s own presence. That division might make them more vulnerable to further mental influence, including that of their own magic. If sufficiently clear lines could be drawn between that part and the rest of the person, then I think it might be possible, yes.”


“Would that work on a werewolf to separate the human aspects of the mind from the wolf?”


“I’ve never had a chance to do much research on werewolves,” he said dryly, pointedly looking at Dolph. “Due to a shortage of reagents which I hope will soon be remedied. However, standard doctrine says that although resistant to manipulation, they also have a weakness to certain types of mental intrusion due to that very split. Most attackers don’t have the knowledge or connection to exploit that weakness, but another werewolf would presumably not be limited in that way. I think it’s probable that it could be done, yes.” He paused a beat. “Werewolves are also fast healers, however, mentally as well as physically. You would have to do something to counteract that or the split wouldn’t last long.”


I let out my breath. For the first time, I was starting to think I understood what was going on. The how, at least, if not the who, why, or even what. “What about removing another mind from its body and grafting it onto your own?”


He cocked one eyebrow. “These questions are getting quite specific,” he commented. “Perhaps you should just tell me what you think is going on and I can give you my opinion. Tell you what, I’m curious enough now that I’ll even waive your time limit.”


I hesitated, but what the hell. It wasn’t like I wasn’t screwed already. So I just went ahead and gave him the highlights of what I’d felt from the demon-infested werewolf, not explaining just how it was that I’d been able to sense it or affect its mind.


Alexander didn’t ask. He did turn his attention back to the potion while I talked, but he was clearly skilled enough that it didn’t represent a significant distraction for him. Once I’d finished, he let the magic die from his fingers and turned back to face me. “Tell me what you think,” he said, and it wasn’t a request.


“I think this werewolf used a demon’s magic to rip his mind in half to separate himself from the wolf. I think he killed a real wolf and used the resemblance between wolves and werewolves to splice its soul into his psyche between himself and the werewolf part of him to keep that gap from healing. I think he knew that a demon could let him do that, and that’s why he got himself possessed in the first place. I think he wasn’t counting on how much the wolf—both wolves—would hate it, and now they’re fighting him all the time. I think that as a result his control’s gone to shit and the demon has started taking over and killing people.” I smiled at the wizard. “What do you think?”


“It’s a compelling story,” he admitted. “And it’s wrong.”


I blinked. “What? Why?”


“Not the generality,” he said calmly. “The specifics. A demon’s power wouldn’t be able to do that to an animal. Mild control is one thing, but to exert that level of influence…” he shook his head. “No. No demon could do that. A sufficiently powerful demon could possibly manage to influence an animal. Maybe. But not the kind of extreme, total control that you’re talking about. Animals and demons just don’t have enough in common. It would be difficult enough with a human.”


I slumped, because I had been so sure that I was right. It had explained everything I’d felt. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always mean you’re right.


“Now,” Alexander continued, “I think you’re correct, generally speaking. Assuming that you were honest in telling me what you felt—and I’m going to assume you were—I can’t think of anything else that explains it as well. Now, at this point, I don’t think I have any more information for you.” He smiled as brightly and falsely as the nurse who wishes you a good day right after telling you that the cancer is spreading and, unfortunately, there’s really nothing they can do about it.


“So that’s all we get? You telling us shit we already knew and saying Winter knows better than you do what’s going on?” Dolph sounded pissed now.


“Considering what you paid, I’d call it a bargain,” Alexander quipped. “But no. I have a few pieces of advice, free of charge. Number one, it’s not impossible to do to an animal what you suggested. It’s merely impossible for demons. I suspect that a strong witch or an extremely twisted shaman could pull it off. It may be worth considering that angle. Two, it sounds to me as though this werewolf still has control over the demon and both wolves right now. Whether that is just because the demon was relaxed after the murder, I have no idea. However, it can’t hurt to think of this thing as a werewolf as well as a demon. Three, do not expect that stunt to work again. I suspect that the only reason you’re still alive is that your attacker was caught very much by surprise. You also can’t expect this thing to respond as a normal werewolf. The demon will be giving it additional mental fortitude, making your dominance games and such essentially worthless.”


He smiled again, more honestly this time. “Other than that, burn the body or eat it. Doesn’t matter which, but I wouldn’t trust it to be dead without one of them. Now, I really need to get back to this, so if you don’t have any other urgent and specific questions, good day. And don’t forget about the blood.”

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5 Responses to Almost Winter 1.7

  1. Thorbjorn

    I am doing a re read and must say I am a bit disapointed the Winter did not say “Curiouser and curiouser” instead of “stranger and stranger” goddamit Winter you had the chance and you missed it.

    I am not really sure if Winter is the type of guy who would say that, but it was right there.

  2. Terra

    “Curiouser and curiouser”. Please excuse me, but that phrase really makes me twinge. It seems to me to be such bad grammar and so often heard. How about strange and more strange? Just making light of it here. Thorbjorn, I always enjoy your comments. I really do not have a great grasp of the language. Even worse for me is when I hear “these ones.” But times have changed.

    • Thorbjorn

      Yeah it is and have always been bad grammar but that is the point of it, it’s a reference to Alice in wonderland she uses it at a few occations during the book. 😀

  3. Emrys

    This is an author’s commentary written after the completion of the series. Spoilers are in a rot13 cipher; if you aren’t familiar with that there are a number of very easy deciphering websites to use. These spoilers may cover the full series, not just this book, and they may make reference to major plot points and character development. You have been warned.

    Alexander is another interesting character to write. His behavior is a bit erratic, but unlike Aiko, it’s not really random, as such. He actually behaves in a consistent way; it’s just not always easy to see the underlying commonalities. I do enjoy writing him, though, and his lab is one of my favorite settings in the series.

    Winter’s explanation of how magic works is another bit of exposition that should really have been worked into the story more smoothly, made worse by the fact that it’s not even entirely accurate exposition. His understanding of the topic is incomplete right now.

    Not a whole lot else to say here. It’s a very straightforward chapter.

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