Monthly Archives: November 2014

Wolf’s Moon 3.19

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It took Olivia almost an hour to wake up. I wasn’t too surprised by this. I’d still been riding the wave of anger at her intrusion when I punched her, and as a result I’d hit her maybe a wee bit harder than necessary. Like, harder than most any human other than an exceptionally strong martial artist would be capable of. Between that and the armored gauntlet, I’d been a bit concerned as to whether she would wake up at all.


An hour is a lot of time. I’d used it to, first off, recover my composure and settle back into my normal, mostly sane frame of mind. Then I’d tied the unconscious mage into a chair with my rope of shadows. Then, because she still hadn’t woken up and I am a great believer in redundancy, I duct taped her into place as well. The end result was that she was tied and taped in place at waist, ankles, knees, elbows, wrists, shoulders, and forehead. Her wrists were handcuffed to the chair arms, too. There was no way she was moving more than her eyelids, and the door was both locked and barricaded.


Like I said. Redundancy is good, and there is no such thing as overkill.


I was sitting in the other chair, watching her and drinking a can of root beer I’d bought from the vending machine. I don’t normally drink soda, but I’d felt a great desire for something and it wasn’t like they had any decent tea.


Olivia woke up slowly. She stirred abortively, blinked a couple times, then suddenly seemed to remember where she was and what had happened. She struggled, for a minute or so, trying to get loose. I smiled and drank root beer until she gave up.


“Good morning,” I said once she’d stopped moving. “How are you feeling?”


The mage tried, instinctively, to turn her head to face me. She failed; I’d taped her head into place too thoroughly to allow that much motion. She was restricted to looking at me in the periphery.


I was still wearing the armor, and the weapons. The only thing that had changed was that my pistol was sitting on the bed next to me, pointed directly at her. She noticed, visibly, and flinched as much as was possible. Good.


“I think we both know the drill,” I said, not waiting for her to answer my question. “You tell me what I want to know. Otherwise I kill you. Got it?”


She laughed dryly—more because her throat was dry than any deliberate inflection. “No, you won’t. You don’t have the balls.”


The hubris of some people always astounds me. It didn’t even seem to occur to her that I’d already shown myself willing to fight her, magically and physically, or that the method of rendering her helpless I’d chosen had carried fairly serious risks itself.


The question was how to convince her that I meant business. Torture sprang immediately to mind—few things communicate a willingness to do violence better—but I wanted to avoid that if at all possible. I don’t like pain, not my own and not other people’s.


Oh, don’t get me wrong. I like a good fight as much as the next guy, and probably more. More than I should, really. But that’s more a matter of adrenaline, coupled with the thrill of testing myself against someone else and the joy of doing something I’m good at. And, I will admit, there is also a certain ugly pleasure in seeing my enemies fall before me. But simply inflicting pain just makes me feel sick to my stomach.


It’s kind of comforting, actually. If I ever stop feeling like that, I will know that I am well and truly screwed up.


I thought for a moment. Then I set the can of soda down on the table with a click. I reached behind myself and grabbed Tyrfing. Still not speaking, I drew Tyrfing. The cursed sword whispered against the scabbard, a sound that promised blood and death in the near future.


It reeked. The magic imbued in the sword was incredible, powerful and complex practically beyond my imagination. Oh, don’t get me wrong; I’m getting pretty good at making and examining magical items. But Tyrfing was in a whole other realm. It might have been one of the top hundred or so magic items in the whole freaking world. There were so many different layers and levels of magic embedded in the structure of the metal that I couldn’t hope to pick a single one, even an obvious surface layer, out of the crowd without some serious work.


Dozens and dozens of enchantments blended into a single aroma like fresh blood and broken stone. Somehow­­­­­­­—again, I have no idea how the dwarves who created the sword managed it—you can only detect the blade’s magic when it’s drawn from the sheath. Most of the time it seems, even to me, just like another sword.


Now that it was drawn, though…well, it didn’t seem normal anymore, if you know what I mean. It changed the whole feeling of the room. Olivia shuddered slightly, though her movement was too restricted to really shiver.


I could feel the sword’s magic, too, probably as a result of long-term, low-level exposure. It beat against my senses, and I could feel it trying to do me harm. It hated me, I knew. Oh, not specifically; it didn’t despise its wielder, or anything like that. It just hated everyone. It wanted me dead, but no more than everyone else it came into contact with.


Such as, say, Olivia.


“You can feel it, can’t you?” I said, turning the blade to catch the light. For such a horrid thing, Tyrfing is really quite lovely, the black runes running down the mirrored blade perfectly shaped and clean. “You can feel it trying to get you.”


“What is that thing?” she said, sounding truly frightened for the first time.


“It’s my sword,” I said. “Its name is Tyrfing. Have you heard of it?” She shook her head, which wasn’t surprising. Most people haven’t heard of Tyrfing. I’m not sure why. Excalibur is plenty famous, and the two swords are hanging around on the same general level. Maybe it’s just that more of the people who encounter Excalibur survive long enough to tell stories about it.


“It’s quite powerful, as I’m sure you’ve noticed,” I continued. “Not terribly friendly, though. It’s trying to kill you right now. That’s what you’re feeling. Spend too much time around this sword and bad things happen. It starts small, but after a few minutes it can build to some quite ridiculous stretches of coincidence.”


If anything, I was understating the danger involved. Tyrfing came closer to killing both me and Snowflake than most fights I’ve been in when I was just trying to make a grilled cheese. I’ve sometimes wondered whether, in a fight, the best way to use it might be just to throw it at the enemy and let their own bad luck rip them apart.


I rested the sword on my lap and took a drink of soda. Tyrfing doesn’t like me to let go of it unless I’ve killed at least one thing since I drew it, but it doesn’t actively fight me unless I’m putting it back in the scabbard. Olivia looked scared, and small, and like she was about to cry. It wasn’t pleasant to see. I’ve felt like that, and my memories of those times aren’t something I like to dwell on.


But as far as she knew, my veins were filled with ice water and my heart was made of stone.


“I really don’t know how many people this sword has killed,” I said casually. “It’s had a few thousand years to work on it, and this isn’t the kind of sword that sits idle, if you take my meaning. I mean, I’ve only had the thing for six months, and I’ve already racked up, oh, it must be close to twenty.”


Olivia shivered.


“And that’s just with the sword,” I continued. I was feeling a little sick, but I kept my tone light. “Before that, oh, it goes back a ways. I killed a family back when I was just a kid. Mother, father, daughter, son, I killed them all. Ripped them to pieces and ate them. I set my first girlfriend up to die for the sake of a lie I didn’t even tell. Last year I shot one werewolf in the face and slit another’s throat just because they had the bad luck to fall in with a nasty crowd, and I was in a hurry.”


Olivia was staring at me with a horrified fascination. I guess she wasn’t used to people talking about this sort of thing so openly.


I took another sip of soda. “So,” I said. My voice had lost all of its bantering tone, now. “If you’re seriously banking on me not having the guts to stick this sword through your chest, I would strongly recommend that you reconsider your position. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve killed a lot of people that I liked better than you, mostly for a lot less reason than you’ve given me. And I’m a little pressed for time right now, so you should probably not take your time thinking it over.”


“If I tell you,” she said weakly, capitulating. “Will you let me go?” I nodded. “Promise me.”


I looked at her seriously. “If you tell me what I want to know,” I said, “I will set you free. I swear this by the moon and stars. May the Wild Hunt take me if I fulfill not my word.” Which was, admittedly, a pretty antiquated sort of oath, but what the hell. If you’re playing for melodrama, you might as well go for broke with it.


She relaxed a little, with reason. Oaths are serious business in the supernatural world, and they’re pretty much the major currency. If anybody finds out that you’ve broken your word—and someone will find out, that’s inevitable, it’s practically a law of nature that somebody always finds out—then your reputation’s shot. Nobody over here wants to deal with an oathbreaker. Besides which, I’ve heard rumors that broken promises can have more…direct effects on people, sometimes. Nothing solid, but enough to give a person pause. That goes double for promises which, like mine, invoke a specific entity as reprisal. You break that kind of oath and there’s a very good chance that they’ll actually do it, just so nobody starts to question their rep.


Of course, a promise is only as good as the person that makes it. And, as always, caveat emptor is the order of the day.


She really should have known better.


“Fine,” she said, almost spitting the word at me. “Put that thing away.”


I didn’t pretend not to understand her. “That’s not how this works,” I said. “The sword stays where it is until we’re done here.” I smiled sharply. “Think of it as motivation. The faster you talk, the sooner you get away from it, and the less likely it is to hurt you.”


“Hurry up then,” she said.


“You’re Jon’s apprentice,” I said. “Or whatever his name is, I don’t care. How long?”


“Four years.”


“Before you met the vampire, then,” I noted.




“He told you to offer yourself up to her?”


“Yes. I’ve been giving him information about her movements and activities.”


Interesting. I wondered how long he’d been planning this. It had all the signs of a careful, long-term stalk, rather than an attack of opportunity.


“Where is he now?”


“I don’t know.”


I raised an eyebrow. “Really,” I said, packing as much skepticism into the word as possible.


“I don’t! I’ve never met him in the same place twice. He doesn’t tell me where until the day before.”


Interesting. If she was telling the truth—which I thought she probably was—he was paranoid enough to make me look like an amateur. That, in turn, meant that there was likely at least one person chasing him. Either that or he expected someone to start soon.


“What’s he planning?”


“I don’t know!” she cried desperately. “Oh God, I swear I don’t know! He wanted me to tell him everything Katrin did. That’s all I know.”


I looked at her. Saw—and smelled—how afraid she was, how she was finally realizing her own mortality. “You really don’t,” I muttered, disgusted. “You’re no different from Luke’s people, are you? Just a tool.”


“Please,” she said, some pride returning to her voice. “I’m nothing like them. He’s taught me things. Powerful things.”


“And yet,” I said dryly, “you remain as short-sighted and idiotic as before.” I shook my head. “You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I think that’s what makes me angry about all this, more than anything else. Kinda weird, considering all the horrible things you’ve done.” I considered it for a moment. “I guess that’s what it really is, though. I could almost forgive the rest of it.. Murder, strange rituals, even sending constructs to kill me… that’s more or less your job description, isn’t it? Mad scientists and evil sorcerers both. In a weird sort of way that’s what you’re for.”


“I don’t understand.”


I ignored her. “But what he’s done to them, well, that’s something else. I mean, you’re one thing. You went into it looking for power, I’m guessing for a fairly petty reason. You would’ve wound up here yourself at some point. But Luke? He and his were trying to do some good. Trying to make a difference in a cruel world. What happened to them was so far beyond unfair I don’t even know what to call it. I don’t know that I can forgive that.”


“I’ve told you everything I know,” she said, something of her haughty attitude present once more. “You promised.”


“I did, didn’t I?” I said. I wasn’t consciously trying to sound creepy or anything, but she flinched anyway. “Well, let’s get this over with.”


I walked behind her. Olivia went tense, then relaxed again. She was confident that I was cutting her loose, and she would be going free shortly afterward.


She was completely unprepared for me to stab her.


Tyrfing was, of course, more than sharp enough for the task. Driven by preternatural strength, it went straight through the back of the chair, punched through her chest, and stood out a good two feet on the other side, steel stained brilliant crimson with blood, though even as I watched the color faded, seemingly absorbed into the sword.


She gasped, a small, shocked sound in the sudden silence. She didn’t die instantly, though of course I got her heart. It isn’t hard to hit when you’re standing behind an immobile, unsuspecting person.       You can actually survive almost anything for at least an instant or two. Even decapitation can take a couple seconds to be lethal.


“Two pieces of advice,” I said to her. “On the off chance that reincarnation is for real. Number one, nobody fucks with my head and gets away with it. Not nobody, not no how. Which is pretty specific as advice goes, but it might do you some good. Two, when somebody’s already threatened to kill you twice in a given conversation, be a lot more specific in what you make them promise.”


I twisted the knife—sword, really, but that doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic—and ripped it back out, bringing with it another gout of blood. Olivia slumped against her bonds. “Thus,” I said quietly, “do I free you from the bonds of your flesh. Rest in peace.”


So died a young woman who may or may not have been named Olivia, who had betrayed everyone she ever served but was still, in the greater scheme of things, nothing but a victim. I didn’t want to kill her, but I saw no other way.


I sheathed Tyrfing and waited a few minutes for the effect of the sword’s curse to fade a bit. It’s dangerous, of course, to me most of all, but the magic dissipates quickly. If you’re careful for that time and you don’t spend an excessive amount of time near the unsheathed sword, there isn’t too much that it can do to you.




While I waited I made sure that no trace of my presence remained in the room. I emptied the can of soda, then crushed it and dropped it into my pocket. Tyrfing never retained blood, not even a little, and I’d been careful and adroit enough to avoid getting any on myself. I took the rope back, and the handcuffs, and dropped them back into the right pockets. The duct tape I left. It would explain why she hadn’t struggled, and it was utterly anonymous. I had, of course, not taken off my gloves at any point. There would be no fingerprints, nor any hair that could be used to identify me.


I’d been quite sure of that, but I still double checked everything. A murder is a tricky thing, after all. You can’t be too careful.


Okay, done here. Time to bug out. That, in itself, represented a few problems.


I hadn’t been seen by anyone except Olivia and the clerk at the front desk. I wanted to keep it that way. In fact, if everything went right, I would just disappear without a trace.


I threw all the windows open wide first thing. The view from the seventh floor was…very impressive. I spent a moment appreciating it, then I dove out. Above me the curtains snapped in the breeze as I plummeted.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.18

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I eventually decided to wear the armor. This was more for the intimidation factor than anything. I didn’t really think it would protect me from an enemy mage of any skill, but it did look freaking terrifying, and I wanted every advantage I could get in the psychological arena. It wasn’t as impressive without the helmet, but it was better than nothing. For the same reason I buckled on Tyrfing, which looked a lot better against the backdrop of the armor than it did over my usual worn clothing. Maybe I could star in some kind of mixed-period medieval reenactment on the way.


It was surprisingly comfortable. Aiko hadn’t been exaggerating when she said she knew my size, either; it felt as though it had been tailored. Fit like a glove, really. Especially the gauntlets. Ha, ha.


Just in case it did go to physical conflict, though, I also had my various foci, stored spells, and such with me. Because the armor made it hard to get to my normal pockets, mostly they were secreted in the trench coat I put on over it. I also, embracing the best parts of the modern world, had my 9mm pistol with me, along with a fair amount of ammo. I would have taken the shotgun, except that it was a wee bit more obvious than was suitable for this occasion.


“Not today,” I told Snowflake. She was sitting about two inches from the door and staring at it. “Tell you what, when we go for the main event you can come along. Promise.”


Ice-blue eyes looked back at me, and I could feel her disappointment and worry. Then she sighed, physically and mentally both, and walked over to sleep near the dying fire. Fine. Don’t die or I’ll make sure you regret it.


“You realize,” I said, “that that threat is absolutely meaningless. I mean, you’re good, but I don’t think there’s much even you can do to a dead man.” She pointedly looked away from me and said nothing.


I laughed and walked out the door.


I took a cab to the north part of town. That wasn’t something I would normally do, but it was farther than I wanted to walk. And, while there were a number of people who would have been willing to give me a ride, they would have wanted to help when we got there, and I thought this particular encounter would go better if I went alone.


The trench coat covered my gear, but it wasn’t exactly inconspicuous itself. And, unless you’re very skilled with it, wearing armor and a sword affects how you move. I knew I didn’t look like a normal person. The cabbie, of course, didn’t comment. It’s hard to really faze a cabbie. Even if you’re not in New York, they’ve still seen it all before. He dropped me off about three blocks from the hotel—I didn’t want to go there directly, because my appearance was distinctive enough that he might remember me. If there was a ruckus there later, I didn’t want him to think of me. I’d had him pick me up several blocks from anywhere I normally go, too, just in case. And I was wearing sunglasses, despite the late hour, to conceal my unusual eye coloration.


Paranoia and thinking ahead. These are the strengths which, more than any magic, keep a person alive in dangerous circumstances.


Luke had given me the exact room number, of course, and told me what time to show up. I walked into the hotel fifteen minutes early. It was, in a piece of probably deliberate irony that made me chuckle morbidly, the same chain as the vampire had been dumped in.


I kinda felt sorry for them, actually. After tonight I expected that their reputation would be even worse than before.


I could see the clerk consider stopping me. I looked very suspicious, after all. I smiled, nodded to her politely, and kept going confidently. In that moment, you could practically read her mind writ large across her face. I saw her weigh my appearance against my demeanor, saw her own despite of her job, and saw it tip the scales in favor of staying put.


If you act confident, move with purpose, and look like you know what’s going on, people will very rarely question you. It’s amazing the places that’ll get you. Dolph had been the one to teach me that trick, along with a whole bunch of others. It’s a bit of a sad reflection on humanity, really. It shouldn’t be that easy.


I took the stairs rather than the elevator as a matter of course. I’m not comfortable in elevators My instincts tell me that there’s nowhere to run and I’m a sitting duck, which makes me twitchy. I moved up the stairwell quickly, but not quite quickly enough to draw attention, and stepped out on the seventh floor.


I walked quickly down the hallway, which had the anonymous, slightly hostile feel I always associate with hotels. The carpet was clean, of course, but it looked slightly tired. There was no one else up and moving. I located the right door and walked right past it, not even glancing at it, scanning the area with my magical senses as I did.


Overkill, probably. I mean, there wasn’t all that much risk of being detected. But I’ve never had any particular aversion to overkill. And I’m pretty sure that, when you’re dealing with mages (or other supernatural beings, but mages were the daily special), definitions of overkill are a lot more fluid. Artillery strikes, for example, don’t really qualify.


I’m not especially good at detecting humans, but I’m adequate when I put my mind to it. It helped that there was a whole lot of nothing to find. I didn’t know whether that was coincidence, the hit this company’s reputation had just taken, or my target had taken active steps to empty the place. In any case, as far as I could tell I was the only person on the floor. I did not, of course, examine the mage’s room; there was too high a possibility of detection.


Now that I knew there was nobody else around, and was feeling somewhat more comfortable as a result, I went back and found the door I was looking for. I examined the lock briefly, and discovered pretty much nothing I didn’t know already. I could have bypassed it easily enough—another of the strange, random skills I’d learned growing up—but why take the hard way? I knocked instead, not saying anything.


“It’s unlocked,” a woman’s voice called from within. She sounded unsurprised, which was good.


I opened the door, which was indeed unlocked, and walked in. No booby traps went off, which I took to be a good sign. The room was pretty much hotel standard. A double bed, TV, a couple of uncomfortable-looking chairs, a small desk. To my left another door opened on the bathroom.


The woman was lying on the bed reading, but she looked up as I walked in. I was pretty sure it was staged. She was arranged just a bit too tidily to be real. I think she was trying to look sultry, but a lot of the effect was lost on me. When you’ve seen the Sidhe dance, it’s hard for mere mortals to make an impression. “Mr. Wolf,” she said, a little too airily. Damn, she was bad at this. “I’ve been expecting you.”


A great many things became clear when she spoke. I hadn’t been able to pin it down before that, but the mage’s apprentice was none other than Olivia the vampire’s servant.


I have no doubt that she was expecting my shocked reaction. Counting on it, even. Because the moment after she spoke, she attacked.


It didn’t look impressive. There are things you can do with magic in a fight that look dramatic as hell—fireballs, for example. But there are also subtler things, quieter, although not necessarily any less dangerous. There have been very serious magical duels fought which looked, from the outside, like two people standing still and staring at each other for twenty minutes while nothing happens and nobody moves. Then one of them pitches over dead for no apparent reason.


Olivia hit me with one of those.


I recognized the touch of another mind on mine immediately. It was a familiar sensation, although this differed in several important respects from my norm. First off, it was human, whereas I almost exclusively communicate with animals and near-animals. It was also a contact initiated by another, which (aside from Snowflake’s communications) I had never before experienced. And, most importantly, it was done with violence in mind.


Mental combat isn’t terribly complicated, something people seem to have a hard time understanding. They get it into their heads that it consists of both sides imagining elaborate forms of violence and counters. Which, technically, can happen, but most of the time it takes more choreography than a wrestling match.


The thing to remember is that imagination doesn’t hurt anyone. Even with magic you have to invest a thought with energy to really do anything, and that means that most of the time simple thoughts are better than complicated ones. It’s like the problem with assassination I mentioned earlier. Sure, you can arrange a Rube Goldberg machine to fire a cannon at their door, but that doesn’t make it an efficient way to solve the problem.


The same principle applies. Yeah, I could imagine soldiers swarming the metaphorical fortress of your mind, and you could imagine a tank mowing them down as defense, but that doesn’t mean that these are practical ways to go about it. Generally speaking the most effective way to attack another person’s mind is to simply focus all your thoughts and your will on your desire to crush them like a bug, and project it into their head. Likewise, on defense you’re focusing on how confident you are that they will fail, how perfectly impenetrable your mind is. You might imagine a wall, or even a simple fortress, as a sort of mental aid. But once you get more complicated than that, unless you’re a true expert, you might as well give up. You can’t think about that in a coherent, concentrated way.


So Olivia hit me hard, in the first instant of the fight. I felt her will, her aggression, slamming into me like a tangible force. She was trying to get in before I could raise defenses, and to a certain extent she succeeded. By the time I got it together to protect myself, she’d already penetrated the surface portions of my mind.


Imagine your mind as being like an onion. No individual layer is all that important, but taken together it’s substantial. The outermost layer—the skin of the onion—consists of your immediate emotional reactions. The anger you feel when you stub your toe, for example. She’d punctured that before I even realized what had happened. It wasn’t a big problem. None of that was critical, and she could rip it all away without hurting me.


Below that you have surface thoughts, the sort of thing you think consciously. There were a bunch of layers like that, ranging from the ridiculously trivial to deep reflections on the nature of reality. Olivia had access to the outermost portion of that as well, which would be of little use to her.


Beneath even that are the important things, which I’d managed to stop her from reaching immediately. Abiding emotions are down there, things like love or friendship or hate or grief. Memories, philosophies, acquired knowledge…all of those things live in that part of the mind.


Then, at the very center, you have the core of what and who you are. It was the part of me that loved to watch the sunset and look at ice on trees. I could lose everything else and, eventually, somewhat, recover from it. But if that was destroyed, I was done. I might go on living, but it wouldn’t be me anymore. Just an empty shell of a body.


I wasn’t in danger of that yet. There was still plenty of me left, and I’d managed to stop Olivia in her tracks. Still, it didn’t look good. She had her hooks in, and she was pressing the advantage ruthlessly. She used the parts of my mind that she’d already taken against me, creating waves of baseless emotion and flooding me with mental chatter. I’d kept my concentration so far, but there was only so long I could withstand it.


In spite of that, I was grinning. It was, I knew, a feral and unfriendly expression.


Some people have weird ideas about tactics. I blame comic books and bad video games, myself. In the real world, attacking the enemy at their strongest point isn’t really a very good idea. Imagine challenging Andre the Giant to a weightlifting contest and you might see what I mean. Unless you’re a world-class strongman yourself, you don’t have a chance. Trying to take somebody in their strongest suit is seldom wise.


Now, I don’t do coercion, and I don’t attack minds. Part of that’s politeness, and part’s pure common sense. There’s no need to go alienating your allies, after all.


But the fact remains that I’m good at mental magic. It’s my most natural talent and I do it well. I knew the theory of this kind of battle, even if I hadn’t ever done the real thing before.


Of course, Olivia probably had more than just an abstract understanding of how this sort of fight went. If all she took into account were our respective skills with magic, I could see why she would think I was vulnerable. She might even be right.


Unfortunately for her, there were some things she hadn’t thought through fully.


I concentrated on my image of a wall, a high granite edifice with crenellations and watchtowers. I blocked out everything else but the wall and my fierce, savage desire to throw her back. Nothing else existed—not the room, not the fight, not the phantoms she threw at me, not even me or her. Nothing but the wall and my will that it hold.


I couldn’t say how long that lasted. Mental magic, even more than most, interferes with my sense of time. I the moment my focus was so absolute that neither past nor future registered. I felt her commit fully to the attack, once my defenses were in place and it was clear she couldn’t simply sweep them away. And, as this went on, I felt a slowly building pressure on my side of the metaphorical wall.


It was emotion—not the superficial, meaningless things she had taken over. The deep ones, the important ones. Anger, absolute wrath at what she had done, at her involvement with my enemy and—worse by far—her invasion of my mind. My mind. Under that was sheer stubbornness, and my own carefully controlled hunger for bloodshed. And then there was something else, something the werewolves refer to as dominance. It was more a personality trait than anything, composed of stubborn refusal to give in, possessiveness, and unwillingness to let anyone control me.


I’m a bit of an oddity among werewolves. I feel no great need to exert dominance over other people, but I don’t take kindly to people doing it to me either. That kind of personality is hard to fit into the pack. They call the rare werewolves like me loners, and tend to regard them with a certain amount of distrust. We have a tendency to go feral, so I guess they have reason to.



The point here is that I was not a normal human being. There was a wolf inside my skin, and it did not take kindly to someone trying to control it. Not at all. So when Olivia started trying to rip my psyche to shreds, the wolf reacted the same way it did whenever someone tried to tame it. And I held on to that wrath, that instant and furious rejection.


And then, when she was well and truly committed to the attempt, I let it all out at once.


The wolf was inhuman in the truest sense of the word, in that moment, cold and cruel as an arctic storm, with just as much pity in it. Its assault was savage and relentless in a way that human emotions, civilized and tamed by millennia of relative peace, just can’t match.


To someone who was human, and thought like a human, and was accustomed to doing her magic on humans, and expected me to fight like a human, I imagine that it came as a nasty shock. If nothing else, the shift from passive resistance to that sort of overwhelming aggression was sudden enough to throw anyone a serious curveball.


Thus, it was neither surprising nor insulting that Olivia’s spell shattered in a heartbeat under the force of that emotional surge, and she was thrown out of my head in the same moment. A moment later I crashed back into reality, opening my eyes and staggering.


She had stood up and was now reeling, her eyes crossed. The recoil when I’d broken her spell had backlashed into her own mind and dazed her.


I wasn’t much better off myself. The sudden shifts in perspective were playing hell with my head, and I was just now starting to feel the impacts of the emotional maelstrom she’d put me through. I’d brought the wolf further to the forefront of my mind than I had in a long time, too, and once called up that wasn’t the kind of force that could be easily put back down. So yeah, I was staggering a bit, and I couldn’t focus all that well.


But, for all of that, I did have one serious advantage. Namely, I’d known what to expect. Thus, I had a few, critical seconds in which to act before Olivia could realize what had just happened and pulverize me.


Any faint reluctance I’d once felt toward hitting women had been trained out of me from a young age. I didn’t even hesitate to deck this one.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.17

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“Hey,” I said. “I think I might be needing those thugs you mentioned soon.”


Kyra grinned, though she didn’t look up from the letter she was reading. “Just say the word and they’re yours. You found him?”


“Not yet,” I said. “But I think I’m making progress. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with a mage who figured out a way to steal magic from people. I’ve been informed that killing him would be a good idea.”


“Nasty,” she said, scribbling a quick reply to the letter. And yes, I do mean scribbling. “Think you can take him?”


“Almost certainly not,” I said cheerily. “I’m only half-trained, at best. My odds in a one-on-one with a full mage are pretty slim. Given that I have no idea how many people he’s eaten, I’d say that in a fight he’d take me down pretty fast.”


She looked up at me for the first time since I walked in. “You think my goons will be enough backup?” she asked seriously.


“I honestly have no idea,” I said. “I don’t even know if I’ll be bringing them. I mean, if we fail….”


“Then you’re just the delivery service,” she said, nodding. “For some nutritious and delicious werewolf magic.”


“Exactly,” I said glumly. “If this doesn’t work…I think you’d better skip straight to the big guns.”




“Yeah. And tell him to bring the family, at least.” Dolph, I knew, was a skilled warrior and experienced strategist. Erin was an assassin who, while not exactly peerless, also didn’t have any superiors that I knew of. And Bryan…well, I’d never seen Bryan really go at it, but I felt it safe to assume that he wasn’t any less of a force to be reckoned with than the others. If nothing else, some of the bizarre abilities I’d seen him display were, properly applied, likely to be terrifyingly effective in a fight. And you don’t survive God only knows how long without picking up some dirty tricks and useful skills. Between the four of them they could project at least as much power as the average entire pack of werewolves, in a much smaller package.


Of course, what would happen if the mage managed to consume their power too was not worth considering. I was pretty sure that was the kind of situation that merited a strategic nuclear strike.


I was turning to leave when the assassin attacked.


The door to the study flew open. It didn’t open; something simply plowed into it with enough force to shatter the latch and rip it halfway off its hinges. I, being appropriately paranoid and having very, very fast reflexes by now, was already diving into the corner nearest the door. I got a brief image as I moved, of a tall, humanoid figure in a voluminous dark cloak. It was obviously not human, though; its over-long arms ended not in hands but in three long, sharp claws. They were just a little too shiny to be steel. A silvered edge, most likely; it was common knowledge that silver was harmful to werewolves, although very few people knew why.


I hit the ground at about the same time it turned to face me. I probably could have gotten a good look at it at that time but, being at least vaguely sane, I had more important things on my mind. Tyrfing, for example, which was leaning against the corner formed by the bookcase and the wall and which my fingers had found almost before I stopped moving. I reached for my magic as well, pushing power through the focus of my leather bracelet and conjuring a brief but powerful breeze at ankle level to trip it up.


It didn’t work. I scrambled up, undoing the clasp holding Tyrfing into its sheath as I did. I might—might—be able to get the sword out before it closed with me. Even if I did, though, I didn’t much like my chances.


Fortunately, both of us had forgotten that Kyra was in the room.


All of this had taken place in less than a second. In the next instant the werewolf was over the desk, moving swiftly and with a terrible grace. The creature was so focused on me that it never turned. Consequentially, before it was ever in reach of me, she had one of its arms in a nasty shoulder lock and the other one pinned to its body, silver claws held well away from herself. It must have had anatomy somewhat like a human’s, because it stopped moving immediately.


“Not bad,” I said, shoving myself to my feet and sliding Tyrfing back home. I had to work to let go of it, but it was a familiar effort and didn’t slow me down. I didn’t strap it back into the scabbard, though. Just in case.


“You got any idea what it is?” she grunted, twisting its arm a little higher and bringing it up onto its toes.


“Not yet,” I said, coming close enough to see it.


Underneath the hood it didn’t look like a person at all. Its face was flat and devoid of any emotion or humanity. There were two yellow eyes, with slit pupils like a snake’s, and a large circular mouth. It was lined with teeth like a leech’s, as I discovered when it tried to bite me. Other than that its face was featureless, and entirely hairless. Its skin was white, not pale, but white like a sheet of paper.


There was a low aura of magic around it, too, strong enough to be easily noticeable. Human magic, I was sure, which was strange when you considered how utterly inhuman it was otherwise.


“I think it’s a construct,” I said after a moment’s examination. “Something built by a mage. The one I just told you about, probably.”


She blinked. “You can do that?”


“I can’t. But the matter of the Otherside is responsive to energy. If you’re skilled, powerful, and willing to cross over, you can use it to make things.” I frowned. “Alexander mentioned people making whole armies of constructs, back in the day. He didn’t seem to think it was a worthwhile investment of time.”


“I can see why,” she grunted. “Thing’s not that strong.”


I hate irony. I particularly hate irony when it’s trying to kill me. That is why I considered it particularly offensive when the thing chose exactly that moment to dislocate its own shoulder, snap its elbow back into Kyra’s face hard enough to break her grip, and come after me again.


I parried the first swing with Tyrfing, still in its sheath. I managed to duck aside from the second as well, though those claws nicked the back of my neck as I did. They burned painfully, confirming my suspicion that they were made of silver. Enhanced silver, too, and more highly charged with magic than any I’d made. Not a threat in a cut that small, but if it landed a solid blow I was a dead man. It was just too hard to heal a wound made with silver. I’d be restricted to human-level healing, at least for a while, and that usually wasn’t good enough.


I dove away from it. It started to follow. Kyra ripped off its head from behind.


And no, I’m not speaking figuratively. There was no blood, but it was still going to be featuring in my nightmares for a while.


Apparently that was more damage than it could take. The headless body collapsed immediately, and didn’t move again. The cloak settled, slowly, down onto the floor as the body….rot wasn’t the right word. It was more like it dissolved, over the course of maybe five or six seconds.


That was the nature of the Otherside, you see. It worked differently than the world I was accustomed to. Here, there was a division between the physical and the spiritual. They could influence each other, even overlap sometimes, as was the case with Legion, but they were different.


In the Otherside they weren’t. Matter and energy were basically the same thing, over there. Or, if you prefer, the flesh and the spirit weren’t easily divisible. You can’t have one without the other, on the Otherside. When you were actually in that world it wasn’t usually a problem. The environment was so saturated with magic that literally everything held a certain amount of power. Once you’re in the real world, though, you have to provide such things with an alternative power source. Otherwise they lose their structural integrity, collapse into a thin gel, and then either evaporate or return to the Otherside. Nobody’s quite sure which.


A well-made construct, generally, can provide its own power. All you have to do is build in a low-level tap and it can access enough magic to keep itself intact. Once Kyra had killed it, though—if you can be said to have killed something which was never alive—that ceased to function. Without a source of magic it vanished within a few minutes. All that was left were the cloak and the claws. They must have been made by normal means and then tacked on later.


“Well,” I said, staring down at them. “Shit. Sorry to bring that here.”


“No biggie,” she said easily. “I’m always happy to save your ass.”


“Appreciate it,” I told her seriously. I bent down and bundled the silver up into the dark cloak. It would be deeply rude to leave such things lying around, especially in a house full of werewolves.


“Don’t forget to call,” she said, her eyes bright. “If you need any help.”


And that was that.



There was someone waiting for me when I got home. I hate how often that happens.


He was standing facing the front door, making tapping motions with one hand. I got the impression that he was examining my wards—not looking to take them down, I thought, just seeing how they worked. He turned to face me when I got closer.


It took me a moment to recognize “Inferno.” It probably didn’t help that most of my attention had, last night, been focused on the threat he represented to me. Without the fire running down his arms, he wasn’t nearly as distinctive. He was about my height, making him a little shorter than average, with reddish blond hair and dark blue eyes.


I crossed my arms over my chest and regarded him evenly. “What do you want?” I said, not even trying to sound polite. One-on-one, I was confident I could take him. I might get burned a little, but that was the cost of doing business.


“I wanted to apologize,” he said, shocking me a little. “And maybe to talk with you.”


“Wow,” I said. “People never apologize to me. What’s the con?”


“You don’t trust me.”


I snorted. “Well, duh. I mean, let’s face it, so far you haven’t exactly given me much reason to, have you? And I gotta admit there’s a few things here that bother me. Like, how the hell do you know where I live?”


“Our master told us,” he said. “The same as we were told where to find you last night. He wants us to kill you. Although that’s not why I’m here,” he added hastily.


I thought for a moment, then shrugged and started the process of dropping my wards. “Fine,” I said. “Might as well talk inside. Be more comfortable.”


And also be on terrain I was familiar with, surrounded by my weapons, with Snowflake near at hand. But that was a total coincidence, of course.


I built a fire in my woodstove, more for psychological comfort and to give myself time to think than out of any desire for heat. As I did I filled Snowflake in on what was going on, which the kid didn’t seem to notice. She remained right where she was, seemingly asleep on the other side of the room. I knew, though, that if he started something she would be on him in an instant, from behind and without warning. I didn’t like his odds if that happened.


I sat on my couch, while he squatted near the fire. It was, I noticed idly, almost the same position Fenris had adopted. I saw that the flames were moving in a way that was not quite natural, twisting toward him as though pulled by a magnet. I didn’t think it was a purposeful thing; it felt more like the kind of instinctive sharing I experience when I pet a cat. Every mage has a trick that comes naturally, and it wasn’t hard to guess that his had to do with fire.


He turned to face me, with an expression so uncomfortable I felt a bit sorry for him. “First off,” he said. “I want to apologize. Last night wasn’t….” He shook his head. “I’m handling this badly. We were stupid, and we’re lucky you were as polite about it as you were. I’m sorry.”


“Not a problem,” I told him. “Although you ought to have a chat with that lady about politeness.”


He smiled, somewhat sheepishly. “She knows. Erica’s really sorry about that, by the way. She was a little on edge. She doesn’t really like violence.”


“Erica, huh. So—and meaning no offense—but how does somebody who doesn’t like violence fall in with a crowd of self-proclaimed vigilantes?”


He shrugged. “She’s got her reasons. And, if you don’t mind, we aren’t vigilantes. We fight monsters.”


“Monster hunters, is it? Funny thing about that. You ever read any Nietzsche?”


“A bit.”


“Well, he had a few interesting things to say. My favorite was something about how, when you fight monsters, there’s always a risk that you’re going to become a monster yourself.”


“You think we’re going to become corrupt.”


“That’s part of it,” I agreed. “But not the most important part. It’s more a matter of….Look, let’s use vampires as an example. They’re some of the worst monsters out there, right? They feed on people, kill them by inches. You might think that killing a vampire is making the world a better place.”


“Of course it is,” he interrupted. “They’re evil. The world is a better place without their ilk.”


“Yeah, and people say the same thing about me. Look…what’s your name, anyway?”


He hesitated, then shrugged. “Luke Laufson. Call me Luke.”


“Okay, Luke. This isn’t going to work if you keep interrupting me. Let me finish what I’m saying, and then you can tell me how wrong I am. Okay?”




“Great. Where was I? Oh yeah. Vampires. You might think that killing a vampire is a service to the world. Honestly, in principle I’m inclined to agree with you. If I could kill every vampire in the world right now, it would be pretty tempting. But vampires don’t tend to agree with that point of view.”


Luke opened his mouth, then remembered our agreement and closed it again. I smiled and continued. “So first you face the problem of killing one vampire. That’s not undoable—you and your gang could probably handle a low-level vamp right now. Let’s say you manage it. Now you have to deal with the other vampires who decide to take you out as a result. With me?”


“Just because something isn’t easy,” he said, “doesn’t mean that it isn’t right.”


“True,” I agreed. “Let’s say you come by enough power to kill all of them, too. We’ll even ignore the price that kind of power would require—and believe me, it wouldn’t come cheap. Once you’ve done that, you’re a threat. You have the strength to challenge even a very powerful vampire, and you’ve shown the inclination to do so. Now, vampires don’t take well to governance or hierarchy, but they need some kind of organization just to survive these days. Thus, the Council.”


He frowned. “What are you talking about?”


I stared at him. “You really don’t know?” I shook my head. “Wow. Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but if you’re trying to fight monsters and you haven’t even heard of the Council…somebody is doing their job horribly wrong. Okay. The Council. I guess technically it’s called the Vampires’ Council, which is irritating because vampires aren’t actually the only ones on it, or even the strongest anymore. These days I believe the most powerful groups are the succubi, the rakshasas, and the vampires.”


“What I’m getting at,” I continued, “is that the vampires aren’t without allies. So now that you’re a threat, they’re going to start taking you seriously. They go to the Council. Now, instead of just one vampire, you have a bunch of them. And, because you’re on an anti-monster campaign and you have the power to make it serious, they aren’t alone. There are plenty of other monsters around that would be happy to take a preemptive shot at you. The vampires have good relations with the Midnight Court, for example, and that’s one of the strongest forces there is on the Otherside. So, if you want to win—or even survive—what do you think you’ll have to do?”


He thought for a moment. “Find some allies of our own?” he guessed.


I nodded. “Exactly. So you talk to certain powerful mages. You talk to the Pack—because, believe me, whatever you might think about werewolves, they’re a lot nicer than most supernatural nasties, and they hate the vampires more than you do.” I paused. “Of course, that brings us to the next problem. Namely, they’re monsters too, at least from some perspectives. So there’s inevitably going to be a split between those who want to join you in taking a shot at the vamps, and those who want to kill you before you decide to include them in your crusade, a conflict of interests that’s likely to be shared by a lot of different groups.”


“Thus starting a civil war,” Luke said, surprising me with his perceptiveness.


“Yeah. And there’s no war uglier than a civil war. Not to mention that war is what you’re looking at now, not a safari. Your enemies are numerous, powerful, dangerous, and organized. Plus, with as many hooks both sides have set into mundane authorities, humans are going to be brought into it. The resulting conflict might make the World Wars seem mild. Which would be bad.”


“I don’t know about that. That’s a pretty tenuous chain of coincidences, don’t you think?”


“Yeah, but what I’m getting at here is that you need to consider the consequences of your actions. Otherwise you’re more likely to make things worse than better.”


He thought about that for a minute, watching the fire again. “Okay,” he said eventually. “I get what you’re saying.”


“Just think about it,” I said. “That’s all I’m asking.” There was a short pause. “So how’d you get into this business?”


“I don’t know if you could call it a business,” he said. “We were just getting started.”


“But you must have decided to do it for a reason,” I pressed.


“I guess so,” he said. “We were all…we just started finding out about this shit, you know? All these things out there, killing people just because they can and…and nobody does anything about it. They just stand and watch it happen. So we decided that if no one else was willing to act, we would.”


I wasn’t sure whether that was worthy of respect, or I should be laughing at how stupid they’d been about it. “How’d you find out about it in the first place?”


He shifted uncomfortably. “We were all born with magic. I don’t know all the details about how everybody got into it—we all found our own ways until recently, you see. We met each other a couple of years ago, and we all started learning things. Brick helped a lot; he’s been doing this longer than the others. Mike shared some too, especially about monsters. He’s a shaman; I don’t know if you noticed him last night. He’s a police officer, too, so he has access to some information that the rest of us don’t.”


I nodded. “So what about this master you mentioned?”


“He found us about a year ago. We were practicing before that, but we weren’t making much progress. Nobody’s real eager to talk about this sort of thing.”


“Not surprising,” I said. “Most people in the community have an entirely rational fear of strangers. If you didn’t have references, I don’t blame them for not wanting anything to do with you.”


“Yeah, well. Maybe so. In any case, Jon found us and he was willing to talk. He started teaching us. He knows things.”


“He taught you magic?”


“Yeah, some. Some of it we’d figured out for ourselves. It wasn’t too hard.”


I grunted. “Yeah, I did that too. Didn’t work out so well. How often do you see him?”


“About once a week. Sometimes more.”


“Could you describe him for me? Physically, I mean.”


He shrugged. “Sure. He looks about thirty. Dark hair, brown eyes, a little on the pale side. Thinnish. Tends to dress in black.”


Well, well, well. It might be a coincidence—I thought not, but I had to admit that it wasn’t impossible—but Jon sounded like a perfect match for the mage I’d seen in the fox’s memories. I started piecing things together, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was happening.


“You know him,” Luke said, his tone making it more of a statement than a question.


“Maybe,” I said. “Here’s a hypothetical situation for you. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a powerful mage with a grudge. You decide to do something about it, but—like I just said—you know you’re going to make enemies doing so. It seems to me that you’d be smart to find some thugs. Maybe some kids with a reasonable amount of magic who don’t really know anything much about how it works. Turn them into your own little gang of enforcers. Then, when you’re finished, you can always blame them for what you’ve done. Perfect scapegoat, and they don’t know enough to stop you.”


His lips tightened. “You think he’s using us.”


“I think that a person that skilled really ought to know about the Council and the Pack and all the other big players in the modern world. But he wouldn’t want to tell his enforcers, when it’s so much easier to oversimplify things. Then all you have to do is tell them, ‘Look, a monster,’ and they’ll be on it like fleas on a werewolf. Even if they maybe aren’t all that monstrous.”


“Like you,” he said. “You think he’s using us to assassinate you.”


I shrugged. “If he is who I think he is, I’ve sure given him plenty of reason. What convinced you not to, anyway?”


“Your attitude,” he said simply. “It wasn’t right for a bloodthirsty killer. I was a little suspicious before that, and after the way you reacted…something wasn’t right there. So I asked around, and couldn’t find anybody willing to say you deserved to die. People said you were scary, sure, but not evil. Plus a few guys knew the names you mentioned, and they told me not to mess with them. Gives you a certain amount of credibility.”


Clever of him to take that avenue. I started to get an idea of why Luke was the boss of that little coterie. “Listen,” I said. “I think I know who Jon is. If so, he’s a monster worse than me. He’s using you as a tool, and he needs to get taken out.”


“Not that much credibility,” he said dryly.


I had to laugh at that. “Okay. What if I can prove it?”


He pursed his lips. “Then we’d be upset. Probably enough to do something about it.”


I took a deep breath, the beginning of a plan running through my head. It would require me to betray Luke and his people, but that honestly didn’t slow me down much. “When do you see him next?”


“Jon? I don’t know. But he has an apprentice—a real apprentice, not like us. I’m supposed to meet with her tonight to work on principles of heat movement.”


“Tonight?” I grinned, my plan taking a sudden turn. This had the potential to be even better than finding the mage directly. “Where?”


He told me, naming a hotel on the north side. “What are you going to do?” he asked.


I grinned wider. “Well, let’s just say I’m looking for proof. Oh,” I said as an afterthought. “You might not want to go to this particular meeting after all.”

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Wolf’s Moon 3.16

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It was a Saturday, so I didn’t bother going to work. I had other things to think about, things which would likely be of far greater importance to me than my shop. I woke up a little late, about nine, which irritated me. I hate being thrown off my schedule.


I’d finished about half my bowl of cereal when a UPS truck delivered a large box to my door. It was ordinary, anonymous cardboard, and had no return address. I debated whether it might be a bomb, but eventually decided that anyone trying to kill me had more effective ways available to them than this. I mean, if they really wanted to deliver a letter bomb, they could certainly come up with a less suspicious delivery. It was just too obvious to be serious.


Unless, of course, they were counting on my saying that. Maybe they were so devious that they’d expected and relied upon my dismissive attitude and it really was an attack.


That’s what I hate most about the paranoia routine, sometimes. It’s easy to fall into Princess Bride territory. I mean, it was possible that they knew that I knew that they knew that this was too obvious to succeed, in which case I obviously couldn’t trust the box in front of me. But then I had to consider whether they knew that I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew, in which case—actually, that’s where it falls apart, because there was no box in front of them. But if that was the case they would be counting on me to treat this box as a threat, in which case I shouldn’t.


In the end I went with my usual answer. I went back and finished eating, because life is too short to waste food. Especially because, these days, I had enough money that I didn’t even have to buy generic.


Luxury is an interesting thing, because there is quite literally nothing so mundane that somebody isn’t grateful to have it.


Less than ten minutes later, Aiko walked in my door. “Sweet,” she said. “Package got here.”


“Oh,” I said, “that’s yours? Why’d you send it here then?”


“Where else would it go?” she said reasonably. Then she hefted it easily, though I knew it weighed better than sixty pounds, and walked over to hand it to me. “Happy birthday,” she said happily.


I eyed it. “Aiko. It’s July.”


“I was aware of that, thank you.”


“My birthday’s in September.”


She waited and, when it became clear that I had nothing else to say, rolled her eyes. “And?”


“Maybe you didn’t realize this, but it’s customary to present people with birthday gifts on their birthday. Rather than, you know, some random day two months in advance.”


“Granted,” she admitted. “But I think you’re a special case. I mean, if I wait until your birthday, you’ll probably be dead. And imagine how terrible I’d feel if you died before I gave you your present. Plus there’d be all that work wasted. So I figured I’d better give it to you now.”


I think the worst thing about spending so much time around a sanity-challenged kitsune is that sometimes, when she really gets going, it takes me a while to realize that not only has she lapsed into her own idiosyncratic logic process, I’m still nodding along because it actually makes sense. I mean, if that isn’t a sign you ought to get your head checked I don’t know what is.


“If nothing else,” Aiko added, “think of it as a preventative measure. I figure you’re a little less likely to die with it than without, so….”


Well, that clinched it. I wasn’t too proud to take every advantage that came my way. I grabbed a knife and, carefully, sliced open the box to reveal…another box, just inside. This one was wrapped, as I discovered when I pulled it out. Somehow I was pretty sure that whoever had wrapped it was not quite normal either. Normal people don’t generally wrap gifts in black paper covered in skeletons playing ice hockey, and using their skulls as pucks.


It was wrapped badly, too. Badly enough to make me think of someone who hadn’t ever wrapped a gift before, and had only heard it described by a secondhand source. There were at least five pieces of paper, large sections of which hung slack, and gaps where I could clearly see the cardboard underneath. The sheet of paper stapled to the top read, simply, “From: Me. To: You.”


I looked curiously at Aiko, who just smiled cryptically. (Incidentally, have you ever actually tried to smile cryptically? It’s hard. Most of the time when I try I just look like I ate a live snake and it’s currently contesting the victory.)


It did not take me long to finish opening the thing. It was full of Styrofoam peanuts, which inevitably spilled all across the floor. I just knew I was going to be finding the things for months. In a very short time more, the contents of the box were resting on the floor and gleaming. I didn’t have to guess what they were, either.


Armor. Serious armor, not the improv stuff I used. It was the same kind of armor I’d seen Aiko wear, actually, scale and plate in the style of feudal Japan. There was a breastplate with sleeves, armored gloves, greaves and tassets and pauldrons and everything.


It looked very different from hers, though. Her armor was all in shades of crimson and gold, trimmed with black. In comparison mine was plain, even stark. Ebony and white, flat and sharply delineated. The trim and details were in cold shades, azure and violet and viridian, all so deep as to look black at first glance. Pretty, sure, but not friendly looking. Especially not with the studded gloves and ridged pauldrons. Spiked armor looks impressive, but not in a good-guy kind of way.


And, last but most definitely not least, where the face of her helmet was sculpted into a fairly generic-looking demonic visage, mine was very obviously that of a snarling wolf.


I stared for a while. “You shouldn’t have,” I said eventually. “This must have cost a fortune.”


“Actually,” she said, “my cousin made it. And since he’s filthy rich and he likes me, it was free.” Her lips twitched. “Fortunately, I know your size.”


“Ah,” I said, flushing slightly. “Yes. Well. Um. What’s it made of? It feels lighter than I’d expect.”


She shrugged. “Beats me. It’s some alloy he developed. Has enough of a steel content to piss off any faeries that try and eat you.” She reached out and flipped over one of the greaves to reveal an interior lined with thick, soft-looking black fabric. “Kevlar liner,” she explained smugly. “Stop anything short of military-grade rounds, even without the armor over it. And you get free repairs for life.”


I grinned appreciatively. “Nice.” Armor was great and all, but the truth is that even in my crowd, guns are a wee bit more efficient than swords, Tyrfing excepted. “Thank you, Aiko.”


She shrugged carelessly. “Don’t mention it.”


“I won’t,” I promised. “Also, did the helmet have to be a wolf?”


“You have a theme,” she explained. “I wouldn’t want to mess with your style.”


I sighed. Of course. Why is it that I can never seem to get people to believe that the only reason I have a wolf motif is a series of unfortunate coincidences?


“Any new developments in the psycho-killer scene?” she asked after a moment.


“Maybe,” I said, and then proceeded to explain everything that had happened the previous day. She laughed her head off at the guy who called himself Inferno.


“So how’d they find you?” she asked when I’d finished.


“What do you mean?”


“Well, they were looking for you specifically. And they sure as hell didn’t pick a random street and wait for you to show up.”


“Oh, that. I’m pretty sure I saw at least a couple of them in Pryce’s bar. They saw me come in.”


“How’d they know you were coming?”


I shrugged. “Who knows? For that matter, coulda been coincidence. They were already there for other reasons, I walked in, they recognized me. Once they did all they would have needed to do is figure out where I’m going—not hard to do—and set up an ambush.”


“Huh. Not bad for amateur work.” She grinned. “Beat you at your own game, didn’t they?”


“Yeah, guess so.” I frowned, though. Something about that phrase….


That’s when it finally all fell into place. Beat me at my own game. Yeah, they had…but what if I wasn’t the only one?


“What is it, Winter?”


“Beat at my own game,” I almost-snarled. “Damn. Why didn’t I see that sooner?”


“See what?” Aiko was starting to get irritated.


I forced myself to calm down a little. “Look,” I said. “Vampires are dead, but they maintain a semblance of life using other people’s life energy. Right? So, basically, they steal power from other people.”


“Yeah. So?”


“So,” I said, “what if they aren’t the only ones? What if, say, a mage could learn to duplicate the same trick. Learn to eat other people’s magic. What if he could, for example, take all the power a vampire had accumulated and make it his own?”


“Thus killing the vampire,” she said, comprehension dawning on her face. “And making himself stronger at the same time.”


“Exactly,” I said absently, my mind racing down new paths of thought. “And it would account for the slight touch of vampire in his magic that I smelled. If he’d just eaten that vamp. That kind of thing might leave a residue—or, hell, maybe he just wasn’t finished digesting yet. Either way.”


“Is that possible?”


“I have no idea,” I told her. “But I’m starting to think I should maybe find out.


I should probably have gone to Legion with that question. I mean, that was the whole reason I’d gotten a familiar, right?


And I knew, knew instinctively and with perfect confidence, that he would know. I mean, it was right up his alley, right? He was all about things dying and being reborn, changing from one thing into another, one person dying to become the food for another. This kind of magic was just the sort of thing he would excel at. He would, I knew, tell me everything I wanted to know about this, without question.


That was exactly what I was afraid of. I mean….


Look. You can’t make it in the supernatural world by lying to yourself. There is no room for self-deception when you’re a mage, or a werewolf for that matter. I was aware of what I was. And I wasn’t a saint. I wasn’t even close.


I’d once told the Son of Wolves, one of the most powerful faeries out there, that I had no desire for more power than I already held. And I’d been telling the truth. But I’d also heard plenty of stories growing up, stories that weren’t fictional in the slightest. Many of the Dark Lords and dreaded monsters in them had been mages. People, in other words, who weren’t all that unlike myself. And, over time, I’d figured out some commonalities there.


Nobody’s born evil. Even the worst monsters don’t start out that way. They start out as people. Just people. People who live and love and hate and fear just like other people. None of them starts out as a power-hungry monster, out to enslave the world. For the most part, they have good reasons to want power to begin with. They come up with excuses for needing more, excuses which are in some cases totally valid. And then they need to do something they’d rather not, but they’re already in too deep, and while they wouldn’t normally condone that sort of behavior there’s a really good reason to allow it just this once.


And, before they know it, the power that they took up for entirely rational, even laudable reasons isn’t being turned to good ends anymore.


Like I said. I’m no saint. But, being aware of that, I try not to be a monster. Part of that was in recognizing how much power I could handle responsibly.


I don’t want any more power. I don’t even want the opportunity for more power. I might not remember to say no in time.


So, long story short, I didn’t want to know the details of how to rip somebody’s magic right out of them and steal it for your own. So I didn’t ask Legion. Instead I called Alexander, because I knew he was no happier about the idea of me with that kind of knowledge than I was.


“You want to know what?” Alexander sounded very, very calm, and enunciated each syllable with precision. I’d heard him sound like that before, when he was considering incinerating me.


“I’m not looking to do it,” I said hurriedly. “I just need to know if it’s possible. I think somebody might have tried it on a vampire recently.”


There was a shocked pause. Then, “That would be very bad.” Alexander sounded a little shaken, which was saying something. I had seldom heard


“So it can be done.”


“Yes, but…it is a very bad idea, Winter. It is a very dangerous, very foolish thing to do. Not to mention forbidden. There are rules, and that breaks several of them.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “Forbidden? Rules? What’s this? You never told me about there being rules about what you do with magic.”


“That,” he said, ” is because you’re not enough of an idiot that you needed to hear it. Suffice to say that so long as you maintain a reasonable degree of sanity in your researches, you need never deal with those groups. Now, how sure are you of this?”


“As sure as I can be,” I told him. “Given that I didn’t actually see anything.” I told him, in terse, blunt sentences, about what had happened and what conclusions I’d drawn.


Alexander muttered something under his breath in a language I didn’t recognize. It didn’t take a genius to recognize swearwords, though. “Bad. This is very bad. If you get a chance, I recommend you kill this person.”


“It’s that bad?”


“Worse,” he said grimly. “There are…people who get upset about things like this. Very, very upset. You don’t want them involved here. Failing that, if they do find out, you want to have definitive proof that you weren’t working with him. Not to mention that someone who would do such a thing….” There was a brief, meaningful pause. “He needs to die. Some rules exist for a reason.”


“Hang on,” I said. “Who are these people you’re so concerned about?”


“The clans don’t take kindly to research on topics like this,” he said. “When they find out about it, they will send people to investigate. Watchers, certainly. Guards might get involved as well, if he’s harvesting from vampires.”


That hadn’t clarified much, but I didn’t get the impression that Alexander was going to tell me any more, and I’d learned that pressing him for information wasn’t that likely to get me anywhere. Besides, this was hardly the time for it.


“One question. The power he got from the vampire…will it go away? Or does he get to keep it, somehow?”


“Ah,” he said, and I could practically hear him smile. “That’s a good question. Some of both. The actual energy will dissipate as he uses it, the same as any other power. But I believe that it will, to some extent, expand his capacity.”


“Huh,” I said. “So…in terms of trying to fight him…that’s bad?”


“Your grasp of the situation is, as always, astounding.”


“And he’ll just get stronger as time goes by,” I said, ignoring his sarcasm as usual. “If he keeps doing it…is there, like, an upper boundary for this kind of thing?”


“If so,” he said, sounding grim once again, “it hasn’t been reached in recorded history.”


Okay then. So if I took Alexander at his word, taking this mage down had just jumped to Priority One. The longer it took to kill him, the more opportunity he would have to get stronger. Plus, assuming that he’d eaten more than just the one vampire, it would also be very, very difficult. I mean, I wasn’t a match for a normal mage. If he’d made himself much stronger than that, I wouldn’t have a chance.


If you ever find yourself in such a situation and realize that it makes you feel comfortable, I strongly recommend you find professional help. I know I would have, except that the best I could hope for would be that they would think I was a total loony. Worst case, they might even believe me.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.15

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When I left the bar I didn’t have many plans for the rest of the night. In fact, it pretty much boiled down to “go home and get some sleep.” I might even fit in a shower if I could work up the ambition.


Unfortunately for me someone disagreed with that plan. It might have been God, in which case he has a bit of a malicious streak and seems to enjoy watching me squirm. It might have been one of the powerful, nigh-godly entities out there running around and making trouble. I’d attracted the attention of at least a couple of them, and I knew from experience how much of an irritant they could be. Or it might have been simple bad luck.


It might have been any of those. But, at least in the immediate sense, it probably had more to do with the gang that stopped me about three blocks from Pryce’s. I turned a corner coming out of an alley and practically ran into them.


“Gang” might be overstating things a little. There were maybe a dozen people there, standing in a V formation with the point nearest me. They were all about college age; the youngest was a girl who looked about eighteen, while the oldest might have been as old as twenty-five. The one nearest me, the apparent leader of the bunch, was somewhere in the middle. Their expressions ranged from moderately fearful to belligerent, but none of them looked happy. And all of them were looking at me.


And they were mages. All of them. The smell of their magic made it quite clear that they were human mages, but every one of them was doing some kind of magic just in case I might have missed seeing what they are otherwise. I didn’t really get a look at most of them, but the man in front was really showing off, lambent flames dripping slowly down his forearms and running off his fingers in droplets that vanished before they hit the ground.


I sniffed again, focusing more on the magical spectrum this time, but it only confirmed what I already knew. He wasn’t moving anything like enough power that the fire was a leakage effect. Which meant that he was doing it deliberately. That, in turn, meant that either he was a total idiot, or he thought I was. I wasn’t entirely sure which would be more insulting.


“Look, kid,” I said, only to be interrupted by the woman next to him. She, too, was showing off, her hands lit from within with a gentle white radiance.


Her voice did not match that gentle light very well. She all but snarled as she said, “You will show respect when speaking to Inferno.”


I turned to her, irritably. “And you,” I said, “will kindly remain silent unless and until you have something intelligent to say.” I looked back at the leader—even in my head I couldn’t refer to him as Inferno. It was ridiculous. “Two pieces of advice for you. One, you might as well stop that.” I nodded at the fire. “Anyone worth impressing can tell the difference between the overspill from serious magic and a cheap special-effects parlor trick. Only one of those things is scary.”


All of them looked a little uncertain now. A couple, in the back, were exchanging glances surreptitiously. The spokesman, who still hadn’t spoken, had his mouth open but was clearly unsure what to say. They’d had a certain set of expectations coming in, and I obviously wasn’t conforming to them at all.


“Two,” I continued, before any of them could get their bearings. “Inferno? Come on, man. That’s ridiculous. Nobody uses freaking X-Men names. Most of the serious players go by things like…oh, I don’t know, normal names. Bryan Ferguson, Samuel Black, and Alexander Hoffman come to mind. And, believe me, any of those people could wipe the floor with your whole gang in about ten seconds flat. The only reason you might go by Inferno would be if that was, by unfortunate coincidence, your actual name. In which case you should explain it and people will be happy to let you use a pseudonym.”


“Inferno” finally found his voice. “I take it,” he said, his voice dry and surprisingly deep, “that you’re Wolf.”


I grinned. “That’s right. You got something to say to me?”


“Yes. You are a monster. That is what we say to you.”


My thoughts raced at that. Low-power, inexperienced mages. Ridiculous melodrama. Speeches about monsters. I might not like math—in fact I definitely don’t like math—but I can add two and two as well as anybody.


I was willing to bet that a few days ago, before that attack at the Full Moon, this little group had been two people bigger.


“Yep,” I agreed. “I’m a monster. But let me ask you something,” I said, grinning like a lunatic. “You sure you’re any better?”


The same woman as before spoke up again. “Yes,” she said scornfully. “Because you’re a monster, and we fight monsters.”


I pointed at her. “I thought I told you to keep your mouth shut. Last warning. Speak up again and I’ll shut you up myself. Capisce? Good.”


“Now,” I said to “Inferno.” “There’s a few ways this can go. I would prefer if we all just went our separate ways. Everybody walks.”


“Oh, please,” she started.


There aren’t very many things that can really tick me off. Interruptions and impoliteness will do it, though. And I was up past my bedtime, which always makes me cranky. I’d even warned her. Twice.


All of which meant that I maybe overreacted a little when she started up for round number three. I reached into one pocket, pulled out my rope of shadows, and threw it in her direction.


It did not look terribly impressive. It was dark out, meaning that you could barely even see the thing. Plus it was thin, more like heavy twine than climbing rope, and it weighed less than a happy thought.


But the whole reason I made it was that I’m pretty good at manipulating shadows and darkness. And I’d crafted that rope specifically to be more reactive to my power than ordinary shadow, in addition to making it stable and coherent.


So, while it looked like a fairly weak throw, the end of the rope crossed the distance between us as though launched from a crossbow. Directed by my will more than any physical force, the end wrapped twice around her throat and then—my favorite part about the rope—the tip dove into the coil around her throat, melding into it seamlessly. She reached up to remove it, and her face went white as her fingers slipped through it without meeting any resistance, even though she could feel the slight pressure against her throat.


Shadows are insubstantial unless properly prepared. I’d designed this one to only react physically to my touch and my magic. I could coalesce it into something physical enough to climb on, but unless I did there was no way she was going to pry it off without magic.


“I warned you,” I said calmly. “Next time you open your mouth it will cut off your air. I’m not interested in listening to you posture. So, what’ll it be? You willing to let me be for tonight?”


The leader of this little gang looked uncomfortable, but—give him some credit, at least—he never once looked away from my face. “What if we don’t?”


I grinned again, a little wider, a little madder. I reached behind myself and focused my thoughts, concentrating. A moment later, I felt the reassuring presence of Tyrfing’s hilt in my hand. I brought the sheathed sword around in front of myself, where all the kids could see it, and see that I had just drawn it from thin air.


Posturing is everything when it comes to avoiding a fight. I’m not fond of it, but I damn well know how to do it.


“If not,” I said, light and cheery, “then I shove this sword so far down your throat that it comes out your asshole. I’m not looking for a fight, mate, but if you want one I’m ready to go.” I smiled as I said it, and I was sure to make eye contact with “Inferno” the whole time. I’m pretty good at reading people, especially in terms of dominance relationships—the relic of a quasi-werewolf upbringing. It was clear that what he said would go, at least for tonight.


He opened his mouth. Hesitated, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head. He glanced at the rope around the impolite woman’s neck, at the sword in my hand. Tyrfing’s magic is practically undetectable so long as it’s sheathed, but it still has an aura about it. People seem to instinctively find it fascinating, the same way the venomous snakes seem to hold the eye more than the harmless ones. And, like any good snake, it wordlessly communicates danger and a powerful hunger to do violence. It communicates them quite well.


The mageling hesitated. When he eventually did speak, his voice held an impressive quantity of venom. “Fine,” he spat. “Go.”


I nodded slightly, acknowledging what had just occurred. Then I carelessly tossed Tyrfing aside. It pained me—I was raised to treat weapons with respect, even if they were invulnerable—but it was extremely important that I set the right tone. I snapped my fingers, purely for effect, and brought the rope flying to my fingers, where I coiled it back into a shapeless mass and stuffed it into one pocket. I walked straight through the crowd, and they pulled back, ever so slightly, as I passed. I wasn’t good at mental magic involving humans, but it didn’t take a mage to feel them consider taking a shot at my back—and reject the notion, at least for right now. I made it through them and around the corner without incident.


Mission accomplished.


There were no further interruptions between me and bed. I slept with a knife, a gun, and most of the gear from my pockets nearby. Fortunately I was pretty comfortable like that. I’ve been sleeping that way most of my life.


I knew that I hadn’t really made peace with the gang of monster-hating mages. All I’d done was buy an armistice, a little bit of time. The good news was that that was exactly what I’d needed. A great deal of my bravado had been just that. A bluff, essentially, even if I wouldn’t ever admit that to anyone.


Here’s the thing. I could have taken any one of them, individually. I was confident of that. They’d all projected the same unsure air of people who, in spite of their front, haven’t ever really done violence. Magic isn’t a match for experience and skill, and it wasn’t as though I lacked magic myself. One-on-one I’d have eaten them alive. Against the lot of them, though, I wouldn’t have stood all that great of a chance.


The thing is that, in combat terms, you can pretty much divide people into solo fighters and those who work better in a group. Think of it as being like the Celts versus the Roman Legions. A traditional Celtic warrior was the kind of fighter who worked alone. They were more dangerous in a group, sure, but not by much. The Legions were the exact opposite. Individually, they might not be all that—but get a bunch of them together and you have a pretty potent force. Twenty of them might be thirty or forty times as dangerous as just one.


The same thing goes for players on the supernatural scene. I belong mostly to the first group. I can work in a team and do it reasonably well, but it’s not exactly mandatory. My skills and personality are pretty well suited for working solo. I’m good at sneaking around, and I fight dirty. My preferred strategy, on the rare occasions I get the chance to employ it, is to take the enemy down before they ever know I’m there. Unless the other members of the group are people I’ve worked with frequently, I’d almost be better off alone. There are plenty of other things like that, too. Vampires are the most common example. To quote one of Dolph’s favorite sayings, “Two vampires are half as scary as one.”


Mages belong firmly in the other category. Individually, most mages are pretty powerful, but in a group they’re flat terrifying. It comes down to specialization.


I’m a good example. I’m passable with air magic, I excel at mental stuff with animals, and I can manipulate shadows pretty well. In a fight, that means that most of the time I’m restricted to air, and sometimes doing something fun with shadows. That’s not bad, but it means there are a few gaps in my coverage. Defense, in particular, is hard. I can deflect an arrow or a thrown knife with a gust of wind, but not a bullet. It’s about all I can do to prevent a single strong man from walking right through the best shields I can put up. That means that most of the time, I’m limited to offense and distractions. Not a bad skill set to have, but definitely limiting. Any fight I have a chance of winning will probably be over very, very quickly.


Now imagine how much more deadly it would be if there were another mage there. Let’s say somebody who can whip up a strong kinetic barrier. That’s a game-changer. Now they can cover the shielding aspects, while I focus on taking out the enemy. If there’s a third person who, say, plays well with fire, it’s even better. Now we have one mage focused on defense, one going aggro and throwing fire all over the place, and I can focus just on distracting, confusing, and debilitating people. That trio could reasonably hope to take on a force significantly larger than itself.


I’m sure you can imagine more roles to fill, too. Maybe add in a healer, for example. Throw in another person on defense, or someone mentally attacking the enemy, and so forth.


A dozen mages—even a dozen half-trained, inexperienced, relatively weak mages—is a sizable force. With that many people, even if you don’t try to pick a well-rounded team, you probably have at least a couple people each playing offense and defense, and few more in various support roles. Next to that I’m not all that powerful. Oh, I’m good enough on the attack that I could probably have taken out one or two. Maybe even three if I got lucky, and their reactions were even slower than I expected. But that still left plenty to pancake me.


Fortunately for me, they hadn’t realized that. That was the really nice part of inexperienced enemies. People with more savvy would have seen through my act, but they had been unsure enough already that I’d been able to bluff them.


It’s a pretty basic predator instinct, really. Now, humans don’t have that kind of ingrained psychology, the way werewolves do. But under the right circumstances—such as when hunting someone—they will generally behave the same way. A predator is almost always relying on the prey to react in a certain way. Fear, generally. Running away. Wolves will chase prey that runs, but if you stand your ground they don’t quite know how to react.


Last night I’d taken advantage of, essentially, the same reaction. They’d come at me with overwhelming force, and they knew it. They outnumbered me twelve to one, and they expected me to react with the appropriate terror. Instead, I’d been casual. Insouciant, even. (I love that word. Maybe, when I get around to making up a motto, that’ll be in it. I mean, insouciant. It even sounds awesome). I’d mocked them and acted totally unconcerned, even though they had me dead to rights.


Which, in turn, was guaranteed to make them wonder whether maybe, just maybe, I knew something they didn’t. I mean, who makes light of staring down the barrel of a gun—unless they already arranged for it to be unloaded?


There are times when understanding predator psychology as well as I do is a great benefit.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.14

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I had enough time to stop at home before the meeting, so I did. I wasn’t sure quite what the circumstances of this meeting were going to be, but I was pretty much certain I needed to change my outfit.


A first meeting between supernatural beings is always a touchy matter. Think of it as being like two gunslingers who don’t know each other running into one another in the local saloon. Now, they might not be enemies and they might not be about to fight each other in the street, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for it to happen. So, inevitably, they’re going to be sizing each other up. Checking how well maintained the other guy’s gun is and so forth.


Ideally I wanted to present myself as confident, casual, and ready for trouble. The problem is that there is a thin line between presenting yourself as ready for trouble, and broadcasting the attitude that you’re looking for trouble. Imagine walking into that Wild West saloon with an AK-47, a rocket launcher, two belts of ammo, and a dozen grenades instead of just a pistol. On the other end, though, you have the people who aren’t carrying a weapon at all. Nobody respects those people in a place like that. And, as Machiavelli and even normal businessmen know, it’s never good to bargain with someone who holds you in contempt. It’s even worse with a supernatural predator like a vampire. Present yourself as a weakling and they don’t see you as something to make deals with. They see you as food.


So it was a little tricky deciding how heavily armed I wanted to be. The first thing I did, of course, was change clothing. A T-shirt and cargo pants is fine for working in the lab, but not exactly a good first impression. Fortunately I still had the black pseudo-silk shirt and grey slacks I’d bought for that ill-fated party at Ryujin’s palace. I’d added a number of pockets to the slacks, of course, and there were even a couple small ones carefully hidden in the shirt.


I put all three of my stored spells into pockets—a piece of rock crystal in my left-hand hip pocket, an iron sphere the size of my pinkie nail in an inside pocket, and the most recent glass marble tucked into one sleeve. My rope of shadows went into my right-side pocket, and I slipped a pair of small folding knives into their respective positions as well. I slipped my pendant on over my head as well, and put on a pair of rings.


I debated taking either a gun or Tyrfing, but decided that it would be that little bit too much. Plus they weren’t nearly as easy to conceal as my other gear, most of which could be mistaken for a simple fashion accessory.


I also, over her protests, left Snowflake at home. I wasn’t really expecting this to turn into a fight, and I did not want to bring her onto anybody’s radar.


Pryce’s looked exactly the same as usual, an island of stability in the madness that my world had become. It was kind of comforting, in a weird way; it was like, so long as it was there, my life could still go back to normal. But that was an illusion, and I knew it. I couldn’t go back.


Like it or not, this was the new normal for me.


I walked down the short flight of steps to the floor, inhaling the rich aroma of the bar. It was a lot like any other such place; dozens of kinds of wood blending together into a single tone that formed the base for a complicated scent made up of food and old beer and dozens of other things that had been there so many years it had sunk into the walls. Familiar. Comforting.


It was late, already eleven thirty, but there were still plenty of people there. A few werewolves, a few geezers playing chess in the corner, a handful of folks at the bar drinking. A young woman I was acquainted with was at her usual station at the pool table, playing a vaguely biker-looking fellow. He was winning and she was wearing an uncomfortable expression I was very familiar with, and which made me grin. Rachel was a pool shark of the first order, all the more effective because her slight build and innocent face made her look about as home there as a penguin in a palm tree. If she was losing it was because the money hadn’t come out yet. There were a few other people I knew, and a handful I didn’t, like the table of three college-age kids with the slightly nervous air of people who really don’t belong where they’ve found themselves.


All of that was normal. Several of them turned to look at the door as I opened it, which was normal enough as well; people at Pryce’s tend to be very aware of what’s going on around them. Pryce himself was, as always, behind the bar directing the ebb and flow of the place like a master orchestra conductor. He was a big man, six foot five and muscled like a weightlifter. With Conn’s words in mind I studied him a bit more closely than usual, but I still couldn’t even guess what he might be. He looked the same as he had since I started going there, showing not even the slightest change despite the years that had passed since then. His bright red hair and beard showed the same proportion of grey as always.


When he saw me he beckoned shortly and went back to serving drinks. He didn’t say anything, or watch to be sure I was coming. He didn’t need to. In Pryce’s bar you do what he says, because otherwise bad things happen. It is his own tiny kingdom, and his power there is absolute.


“What’s up?” I said as I approached the walnut bar. As always I was impressed by the skill, the pure artistry that had gone into it. I’ve made some pretty things, but nothing like that.


“Meeting,” he said brusquely. “In back.” Pryce is not much given to conversation, and he particularly detests pleasantries and trivialities.


“In back?”


He nodded. “Private room.” Pryce didn’t make any obvious signal, but suddenly one of the waitresses appeared next to him. She led me through several back hallways to a small, unmarked oak door I hadn’t seen before. On the other side was, apparently, Pryce’s private dining room. I guess I must have known he had one, but it hadn’t ever really occurred to me before.


It was nice. Lots of oak and mahogany in the furniture, all of which was handmade and looked very, very expensive. A long conference-room style table, with a dozen or so fancy chairs along it. Oak paneling. Thick carpet, in jet black that I knew must be absolute hell to keep so clean and perfect-looking. A stone fireplace that could roast a whole ox, and which was currently burning merrily despite the warmth of the night. The high vaulted ceiling was more oak. There were maybe a dozen long pennants hanging down from the rafters, the colors vivid and bright beneath the dust. They gave the place a strangely medieval feel, like the great hall of some ancient castle, although nowhere near as large.


They weren’t the flags of human nations. I didn’t recognize most of them, but there was one I knew quite well. It was soft silver-grey, tapering to a single point, with a single black design on it. I thought it looked like a wolf’s face, but it was so stylized and ornate it could easily have been a lion, or a coyote. It could be anything, really. I couldn’t see it from here, but I knew that up close I would see elaborate patterns of filigree and knots in the border around the design.


It was the seal of the Pack, seldom used except on official documents and the like. Which, in turn, indicated that the others were probably emblems of other supernatural nations.


I was early, but—of course—the vampire was there before me. She was leaning against the wall near the fireplace. I’d never encountered a living vamp before, and I was somewhat surprised at how easy it was to tell her apart from a human. Physically it was hard to tell, except for a slightly odd odor, but magically she didn’t resemble a human even a little bit. Her power was strong, strong enough to overwhelm any other scents in the room, and stank of blood and spice. It was a little different than the other vampiric magic I’d smelled, more cumin and less cayenne. That was to be expected; there’s always a little variation, even between identical human twins.


I will admit that I been a bit stereotypical in my expectations. I had, subconsciously, anticipated someone tall and hungry-looking. She would have black hair and skin that hadn’t seen the sun for decades, and be correspondingly pasty. I expected her to be holding a glass of fresh blood, which Pryce quite likely kept on hand for events such as this one, or at least of wine meant to look like blood. Maybe even an opera cloak, for maximum melodrama.


Well, I was right about the tall, and about exactly nothing else. Her hair was ash-blond over blue eyes. She was wearing jeans and a long-sleeved black T-shirt. Oh, and she was drinking Coke out of a glass bottle.


“I hope you don’t mind that I reserved a room,” she said as I looked around. “But I’d rather not have this overheard.”


“Not a problem with me,” I said easily. “I hope you don’t mind if we get right down to business, though. I’d like to get some sleep tonight.”


“Not at all,” she said, sitting down at the table. Unlike the rest of Pryce’s bar, here the furniture all matched. “How much do you know about me?”


“Virtually nothing,” I said. “Other than that you’re a vampire and you wanted to chat.”


Her lips twitched into a frown momentarily. “I see. I suppose you convinced Olivia to tell you what I am.”


It would have been simpler to let her assume that, but I didn’t want to get the girl in trouble. “Nah,” I said lazily. “Didn’t need to. She smelled like you. Just a little bit.” I shrugged. “Wasn’t all that hard to put the pieces together. Speaking of, what’s with the Coke? I thought you lot preferred something a little…warmer.”


She shrugged, the motion fluid and unconcerned. “We require blood. That does not make us incapable of consuming other things. It doesn’t have nutritive value for us, but that’s not what food’s for most of the time, is it?”


“I suppose not.” After all, you could get by on water, bread, and maybe some beans every now and then. Doesn’t mean anybody wants to.


She waited a moment, then raised an eyebrow. “Are you planning to sit down?” she asked me.


“Well, you see, there’s a few things I’m not quite sure about here. For example, you’re a vampire, and that’s not something I’m real comfortable with. I mean, no offense, but you don’t have a stainless reputation, do you?”


“Do werewolves?”


“No,” I allowed. “And granted, a lot of the stories I’ve heard are biased, I’m sure. But still.”


“Justifiable,” she admitted. “There are many of my kind with whom that kind of caution would be very wise, even laudable.” She paused briefly. “You have my word, if that means anything. I intend no harm to you or yours.”


I considered a moment longer, then shrugged. I’d already come, after all, and I’d rather be hanged for a sheep. “Good enough,” I said, dropping into a chair across the table from her. “So what did you want?”


“You’re involved in my business,” she said simply. “I would like to know why.”


I thought for a moment, then it clicked. “The vampire,” I said. “The one found in the hotel room. He was one of yours?”


Her expression was remote. “Indeed. He was my child. And he was left there as a challenge to me.”


“Well,” I said, “that puts me into an interesting position. See, I’m not so sure I want to get in this guy’s way. I mean, who knows? Maybe I even want to give him a hand.”


“Are you threatening me?” The vampiress sounded more curious than anything.


“Not exactly,” I said. “But honestly?” I shrugged. “If I could kill you right now, without breaking my word or putting people in danger, I probably would. If he wants to, I don’t know that I have anything against him doing it.”


“You have some grievance against me, then?” she asked. “I wasn’t aware that I had done anything to harm you. If I have, please tell me and I would be glad to make reparations.”


“Not to me. See, this isn’t really about something you’ve done. It’s more that I have a problem with what you are.”


“And what is that?”


“A parasite,” I said evenly and without rancor. “You eat people. You kill them and eat them. Now, I won’t say my hands are clean, and I know as well as anyone that werewolves aren’t always the nicest folks around. But they don’t have to kill to survive, and you do. So, and I mean no offense by this, if by killing you I could prevent you from doing that to a bunch more people, that seems like a pretty good deal to me.”


“I see,” she said coldly. “Very dramatic of you. I particularly liked the delivery. Very cool, very casual.” She laughed, the sound low and nasty. “You think that’s what I am? You think I wait in the shadows for some poor fool to walk by and pounce, is that it?”


I shrugged. “Maybe. That or you take him home and keep him there. Kill him by inches instead of all at once. Not sure which one’s worse.”


She looked at me, and I saw something change in her expression. A softening, of sorts. “That’s really what you believe, isn’t it?” She shook her head slowly. “Many do such things, I suppose. But I am not one of them. I do not imprison anyone, nor do I stalk my food and kill it. They stay with me because they choose to do so.”


“Is that because they’re too addicted to you to do anything else?”


“No,” she said simply. “It’s because I help them. Two of my stable were heroin addicts. I rescued them from the gutters and nurtured them to health. Another had severe schizophrenia. She is healthy, now. For the rest I do other things. We’re…a family, of sorts.” She smiled, showing very human-looking teeth. “A dysfunctional family, to be sure. But still family.”


“Okay,” I said after a moment. “Let’s say I believe you. What do you want?”


“I know you were there,” she said calmly. “Afterward. From your words I know that you have some idea who my adversary is.”


Oops. In retrospect, I guess I kinda did give it away.


“And you want me to help you deal with him?”


She shrugged. “If you’d like. Honestly, though, what I’m really here to do is deliver a warning. If you don’t get out of this, it’ll probably be bad for you. From your reputation I’m pretty sure you won’t listen, but I figured it was the least I could do to warn you.”


“You’re right,” I said after a moment. “I won’t listen.”


She smiled, the expression a little warmer than the others she’d given me. “In that case, I’d reward you for any information you can get me.” She dropped a card on the table. It was, like a number of others I had, a simple white business card unmarked by anything except a single telephone number.


I looked at it and didn’t make a move. “We’ll see,” I said. “I still haven’t decided whose side to throw in on here.”


“That’s fine. I’m confident you’ll pick the right side.” She stood up to leave. “Would you like some dinner? On me, of course.”


“I never say no to free food.”


“A wise policy,” she said. “I’ll send someone in. Good evening, Wolf.” She walked out, tossing the empty bottle over her shoulder as she left. She didn’t look back to watch it land neatly in the bin fifteen feet away.


I stayed and ate, slowly and thoughtfully. Then I got up and left. I took the card with me.


Never say no to free food, and never burn a bridge if there’s still a chance you might use it.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.13

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After that, working on the depressingly plausible assumption that I would need it, I made a stored spell. I had two others, but neither of them had really been intended for violence. I had, rather optimistically, thought that it wouldn’t be worth that much work to produce something which could only be used as a weapon and would only work once. Past experience suggested, however, that once I got into a mess like this one violence was almost inevitable, and a few hours of work is an excellent trade for continued survival. So my third stored spell was the kind of thing which was very specifically meant for violence. I didn’t really expect it to do much against players on this scale, but it beat nothing.


Legion was a surprising amount of help with the process of creating it. I had assumed that most of his talk about knowing magic and working well with mages was just padding his résumé. As it turned out, though, if anything he’d understated his understanding of the technical aspects of magic. With his advice on power flows and storage mechanisms, it was much easier than I would have expected.


Granted, his techniques weren’t my normal fare. It was fluid, rather than the more typical static format, energy constantly moving and shifting and sliding from one form to another. That was to be expected; Legion was an entity of change, not stability. For some purposes, like a long-term enchantment, it would have been ineffective. Given that a stored spell was designed to release power very quickly, though, it was in some ways more suited to Legion’s approach than what I had learned from Alexander.


It was still hard work, though, especially because I was trying something that wasn’t natural for me. Every mage has things they do easily and well, and others that are, well, not so much. You can still do them, especially in the unrushed conditions I was working under. But it’s a lot more difficult, and it takes longer. Given that I was also learning a whole new way to create a stored spell, it was even trickier. By the time I’d finished that and gotten the lab back into order it was nearly dark.


I did finish it, though, in one sitting, and I felt a certain justifiable pride as I slipped it into a pocket, checking that I could grab it quickly and easily. The small, transparent glass marble felt hot against my skin, even through my pants. Not painful, exactly, but very noticeable. That was Legion’s influence, I expect; the energy wasn’t just sitting there, it was active even without being released. Over a long period I thought that either the power invested in it would bleed off or the structure of the spell would decay to uselessness, but since I was betting I’d need it within the next few days I wasn’t too concerned. I’d be thrilled if things went so well that I had to worry about that.


I grabbed a few other things, including my other stored spells, and then went to leave. Snowflake, still lying near the door, looked uneasy, but since she didn’t convey anything specific to me I decided to ignore it for the moment. I locked up behind me and walked out.


I made it about three steps before a woman on the street, leaning against the wall and smoking, asked, “Are you Winter Wolf?”


I looked at her and frowned. Up close she didn’t look like the sort of person you find in places like that. She looked to be about sixteen, and she was lean and somewhat hungry looking, but she didn’t have the confident swagger of a prostitute or the drawn look of a junkie. Her clothing was about ten cuts too high, too, nicer than mine—which, granted, doesn’t take much, but still. You don’t expect to see name-brand shirts or jackets in a neighborhood like that unless you’re at the fence’s place.


Oh yeah, and she knew my name. Which I hadn’t shared with anyone in that area—in fact, I tried not to talk to them at all.


“Depends,” I said cautiously. “Who’s asking?”


“My mistress,” she said as though she’d expected the question.


About that time I finally realized what had been bothering me about the woman’s scent. It was hard to get a clear grip over the cigarette, but I could get a fair amount. For example, I could smell that she was human. And I could also smell a bit of something other about her magic.


If I hadn’t just encountered it I wouldn’t have recognized the touch of vampire in otherwise human power. It was inexpressibly different from the aura I’d detected at the hotel; the vampire smelled like a part of her magic, rather than something external to it.


I stared for a moment, and then it clicked. “Let me guess,” I said. “Your mistress is a vampire.”


The girl went tense and her eyes flickered to the nearby windows. I chuckled. “Relax,” I drawled easily. “Even if somebody heard us, which they didn’t, and they took it seriously, which they wouldn’t, ain’t nobody gonna believe ’em if they decide to talk.”


The vampire’s minion relaxed a moment later. “Fine,” she said, not sounding nearly as venomous as I would have expected. “Yes, she is. Now are you or are you not Mr. Wolf?”


“I’ve been called that,” I said. “Although I prefer Winter from friends, enemies, and most people in between. Was there anything else?”


“She would like a meeting with you,” she said, ignoring my rather pitiful attempt at levity. “Midnight tonight, at Pryce’s bar.”


“Right,” I said, dragging it out. “And I should believe her…why, exactly? I mean, don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but her kind doesn’t have the best reputation for fair dealing, do they? I’m not real excited about the prospect of an ambush, here.”


“She offers you her word of safe conduct,” the girl said. “And, as a sign of good faith, she offers you my life as collateral. Should you find her behavior less than courteous, it is yours to do with as you wish.” Her chin lifted slightly, and the defiant look in her eyes almost covered up the fear.


I sighed. “Of course she does,” I muttered. I would attend the meeting—I didn’t see much way around that, and I might learn something—but I couldn’t just let the girl go. I doubted that the vampiress had much fondness for her, but she was still the only bargaining chip I had. Besides which, her boss might view it as an insult if I let her offer go without at least pretending.


On the other hand, I didn’t exactly have facilities here to put her in. Even if I were willing to tolerate her in my lab, which I wasn’t, I couldn’t have kept her from walking out. The wards were designed to keep things out, not in.


I thought for a few minutes, and then nodded. “Do you have a car?”




I nodded again. “Right.” Then I pulled out my phone and made a call.


Kyra pulled up about twenty minutes later. Not the fastest service, but beggars can’t be choosers and her wheels were cheaper than calling a cab. I was just surprised she’d come to pick us up herself; now that she was the boss, I had sorta expected her to detail the grunt work to one of her grunts.


I’d made small talk with the girl in the meantime. It was awkward, because I’m not very good at small talk, but I’d managed to get a little information out of her as we talked. Her name was Olivia, she was actually nineteen, and she’d been with the vampire less than a year. I couldn’t get anything on the vampire herself, though. Olivia became unresponsive when the topic came up, and I figured pressing would be a little ruder than was wise.


Olivia got in the back without prompting, Snowflake slipping in beside her, and I took the passenger seat next to Kyra. I wasn’t concerned about being stabbed in the back, not with the dog there. The werewolf looked curiously at the girl, but all she said was, “Where to?”


“Your place,” I said, rubbing my forehead. That never really does anything for a headache in my experience, but somehow I try it every time. “I’m supposed to keep track of her for a while, and I was hoping your people could keep an eye on her for me. Maybe put her in a quiet room downstairs.”


Kyra paused slightly. She knew as well as I did that I’d been referring to the pack’s safe room, and she was clearly curious what I was doing bringing a prisoner in. “How long we talking?” she asked, pulling her old and increasingly beat-up car out into the nonexistent traffic. I’m not quite sure why Kyra keeps driving the same vehicle, when she could have appropriated one of the newer, better-maintained pack vehicles for herself. It wasn’t like she’d had any trouble moving into the last Alpha’s giant house in the south end.


“I don’t know,” I said. “One o’clock tonight, maybe?” I shrugged.


It was late enough that there were very few cars on the roads. We made it to Kyra’s house, which mostly belonged to the pack, in about fifteen minutes. Long enough that the absence of conversation became a palpable presence in the air, but not long enough to drive any of us to fill it.


When we got there, Kyra invited me in in a tone that made it clear that this wasn’t the kind of invitation you decline. I sighed, but Snowflake and I followed her in; I couldn’t exactly say that she was being unreasonable in wanting more info than I’d given her so far.


Olivia sat uncomfortably on the edge of one of the couches downstairs. I wasn’t concerned about her doing a runner. Not with two other werewolves, one in fur and one out, in the same room. The man in human form was engrossed in his book and the wolf looked to be asleep, but I knew for a fact that if she started to leave they would turn out to be paying much more attention than was apparent.


And no, Kyra hadn’t told them not to let her leave. She didn’t have to. All she had to do was carry herself in a certain way, look at Olivia with the right combination of hostility and resignation, for them to know more or less what her role was here. They wouldn’t let her go.


Here’s a piece of advice for you, in case you’re ever in that situation: Don’t run from werewolves. Especially not on their home turf. I don’t care if you’re an Olympic sprinter; you’re not getting away. If they don’t have you within a minute, it’s only because they’re enjoying the chase too much to want it to end so soon.


Snowflake, lucky dog, got to lie down and wait near the door while Kyra and I went upstairs. Technically the whole house belongs to her, but in practice most of it’s more like communal property. Almost the whole first floor, for example, is taken up by the huge lounge area where we’d left the vampire’s envoy. There are also guest rooms, a kitchen, and such that are open to the pack any time of day or night.


The top floor isn’t. That’s where she makes her real home, in a handful of well-furnished rooms. That house was the heart of the pack, and her study was the heart of the house. It still looked pretty similar to what it had been when Christopher ruled the pack from it, but you could see the little touches Kyra had added. I thought it was particularly telling that she’d stuck a bumper sticker onto the huge, antique mahogany desk. It read, in white letters against a black background, “DOG IS MY COPILOT.”


“Okay,” she said, dropping into the comfy-looking office chair. She leveled one finger at me accusingly. “What are you getting me into now?”


“Nothing,” I said with my best air of wounded innocence. “Probably. Most likely. Well, not very much at any rate. And I think you might have actually gotten me into it, so I’m not totally sure that counts.”


She sighed. “What’s that supposed to mean?”


“Well,” I said, “apparently a vampire wants to chat tonight and she sent the girl with an invitation. And as collateral. I’m just guessing, but I think it might have something to do with that, ah, situation at the hotel you brought me in on.”


“Wonderful,” she muttered darkly. “Just great. You want us to watch the girl in case she tries to pull something?”


“Can’t be too careful,” I replied. “And I couldn’t think of anyone else I know with a cell in their basement.”


Her lips twitched. “I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Anybody who can get away from this place isn’t going to be slowed down by being in the safe room.”


“True,” I said. “And thank you. I’ll call you after I finish talking to the vampire and tell you to let her go, if that’s all right.”


“Bit optimistic there, aren’t you? You don’t think this is a setup?”


I grimaced. “Could be. I kinda doubt it, though. If nothing else, you’d be insane to arrange something like that at Pryce’s. Break the truce there and they’d take you apart.”


“Yeah,” Kyra said, something a little bit uncomfortable in her voice. Given that she’d worked there for years, only quitting when she got the job of Alpha, she’d probably seen it happen a few times. If so I definitely wasn’t asking what it had looked like. Most of the people who frequent his bar are, like me, the strays and fringes of magical society, not spectacularly powerful—but there are lots of us, and some of his customers have a nasty sense of humor. I know I wouldn’t want to break the unspoken rules that govern his place.


“Oh,” I said, “speaking of. I think I’m making some progress on that issue. We’ll see if I can get any more information tonight, but I’ve got some idea what’s going on.”


She sighed. “Thank God something’s gone right, then. If you don’t mind I’ll just leave that one to you. Call if you need some thugs—my lunatics could use something to occupy their time anyway.”


“How are you holding up?” I asked. I hadn’t seen Kyra much since January, and I was a little concerned for her. She sounded so…overwhelmed when she talked about her new position.


“Not too bad,” she said. “Although, in retrospect, Christopher was a lot more of an asshole than I thought at the time.”


“Something else he didn’t tell you about?” I said sympathetically. We’d discovered, after his death, that he’d been concealing a lot of info from her. That was, technically, within the rights of an Alpha—but considering her position as his second it was deeply sketchy.


“Of course,” she said. “I think my favorite was when Jack—that’s my chief minion, you don’t know him—had to come up and explain that the crime boss the pack does business with was on the phone.” She snorted. “I didn’t even know he had a deal set up with gangsters. Figures.”


“What kind of deal?” I asked, curious. Plenty of werewolves engage in activities of questionable legality, but I wouldn’t have figured Christopher for one of them. He’d always projected the upright, law-abiding air so hard you’d almost forget he wasn’t human.


“More or less the same as we have with the police,” she said. “He puts some influence in our favor as far as public opinion goes, and if he has a problem with my people he comes to me instead of dealing with it directly. We fix problems for him on the supernatural side of things.” She shrugged. “Works out pretty well.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “A problem with your people? You mean he’s here?” Logically I know Colorado Springs is a pretty big city these days, over half a million people, but…wow. It somehow never occurred to me that there would be an organized crime presence here.


“Denver, mostly,” she said. “Not my turf, but he’s been moving in here too. I understand he saw which way the wind was blowing and moved west about fifteen years ago. Got in before there was much competition and these days he’s big-time.” Her lips quirked. “I could arrange an introduction if you’d like.”


“No thanks,” I said. “I don’t think I need another bad influence right now. I should probably be going. I’ll let you know if I learn anything.”


“Please do. Oh, and don’t forget to call after your meeting so we know the vampire kept her word. Otherwise, well.” Her teeth showed in a smile thin and brittle and sharp as broken glass. “Who knows what might happen.”


“Will do,” I told her, and then I left.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.12

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Aiko and I weren’t exactly holding hands on the walk back, because that wasn’t something we did, as a rule. But there was enough of a sense of closeness that Snowflake smirked when she saw us—and believe me, there are few things which are simultaneously more amusing and more disturbing than a husky smirking.


She also, of course, shared her thoughts on the subject with me more directly. And explicitly. It was sorta impressive, actually, in terms of ingenuity and sheer creativity. I made special note of several of the filthier jokes, which I would have to remember to tell Aiko. The kitsune had always claimed a total inability to hear Snowflake’s mental communications—although her inability to keep her lips from twitching occasionally on the walk back suggested that this statement was, if not a lie, also not entirely true.


Legion was completely silent and, I have to admit, really freaking creepy. Logically I knew that he was my familiar and most certainly wouldn’t be trying to kill me. That did very little to alleviate the feeling you get when you glance around and see a huge, doglike skeleton up and walking around next to you. It didn’t help that there was still a trace of black mist around the bones which shifted and slid across the surface, or that I could see tiny sparks of aquamarine light in his eye sockets.


By the time we made it back to the car it was almost dawn. There was a certain amount of tension when both Snowflake and Legion had to cram into the back seat, but not as much as I’d expected.


Back in town we dropped by the lab long enough for me to put the various things I’d used back into their proper places. I also stuck Legion in the main room, with strict and specific orders not to leave the confines of the lab under any circumstances, for any reason, until instructed otherwise. By that point I was pretty much wiped out, and when we got to my house I went straight in and passed out for a few hours.


I really wanted to get right to business, but I require sleep as much as the average human. One of the things I’ve learned, and which was hard to accept at first, is that trying to work beyond my limits just isn’t that great an idea. Oh, staying up all night working sounds all right when you’re dealing with a matter of life and death. But tired people are inefficient people. If I were to try and quiz Legion in that frame of mind, it was entirely likely that I would miss some crucial detail or something. Besides which, it would only make the eventual crash worse. Better to take a few hours to rest now, approach the next step in a reasonably sound state of mind, and hope to not do anything stupid as a result.


Granted, considering my normal ratio of intelligent to stupid actions, that was a sorta anemic hope. But the theory is still sound.


I woke up around noon feeling reasonably good considering that either Snowflake or Aiko had drooled on me in her sleep. Aiko was gone, but she’d left a note apologizing for using all the milk, if you can call a note that smug an apology. I got up, got dressed, and ate dry cereal for a late breakfast. Then I proceeded to completely ditch work in favor of doing creepy things with magic.


That’s the nice part of running your own small-scale business. You don’t have to call in. If you don’t go in to work, not only can nobody tell you off for it, there isn’t even anyone there to answer the phone. You don’t have to account for it or provide an excuse, either, except to the customers.


Of course, the downside is that there isn’t anybody to pass the buck to either. If I didn’t go to work, the store didn’t open. If the store didn’t open, I risked offending customers. If customers got offended, I had no business. Without business I receive no money. The resulting cause-and-effect chain had the potential to be a real pain in the stomach if I kept it up for long.


On the other hand, there were hyperviolent mages running around town killing things and challenging the werewolves. To make matters worse I had now had two run-ins with them, which meant that they were quite likely to take a shot at me next. I’m annoying enough that I’ve motivated a few such attacks in the past, when there were bad guys doing their thing near me. So I decided that was more important and went in to the lab.


It was a bit of a long walk, but I’m more or less used to that. Besides which, even if I had a car or rode my bike in the city, I wouldn’t want to leave it parked in that neighborhood for long. Snowflake came along. On the way a thug tried to hold us up with the kind of cheaply-made knife you find advertisements for in certain magazines.


That didn’t work out so great for him. I held his attention long enough for her to sneak around behind him. Then she lunged and bit his leg with what I suspected was not the normal amount of strength for a dog to exert. I mean, maybe a mastiff or a violent St. Bernard could snap both bones in a man’s lower leg in one bite, but that’s not the kind of thing you expect from a husky.


He collapsed and dropped the knife. I picked it up and examined it for a moment. It turned out to be just as much a piece of crap as I had suspected. It was not particularly difficult to smash it against the wall. I smiled at the downed man, showing lots and lots of teeth, and then dropped the pieces before we went on her way.


Things were real uneventful after that. You don’t have to be from the supernatural side of things to size every stranger up as predator or prey, and we had just removed any doubt that we weren’t on the prey side of the equation. After our little demonstration, the local predators had decided we were too tough to be worth tangling with, and the prey were too scared of us to let us see them, let alone start trouble.


I walked into the lab and turned on the fluorescent lights in the former kitchen. Snowflake, in what might have been vigilance, boredom, or a subtle statement of her opinions, settled down to wait in the entryway.


“Wake up, Legion,” I said cheerfully as I sat down. “First day on the new job.”


The skeleton, positioned in the exact center of the room, was unresponsive for a moment. Then thick black fog seemed to boil out of it until all the bones were coated with it, and there was even a suggestion of muscle and skin between them. It was full of the same flickering sparks I’d seen before, a variety of gem tones that was even stranger and more beautiful to watch here than as a spirit. Then, finally, bright blue pinpoints of light flamed to life in the skull.


“I live only to therve, Mathter,” he lisped. In a perfect mimic of Igor’s voice from the movie. Great. In case there weren’t enough jokers around me already.


“Cool,” I said. “I have some questions I want answered. First off, why do you look like that?”


Piercingly blue eyelights stared at me. “You do recall giving me this body, I hope?”


“Well, sure,” I said. “But your manifestation. The fog, the lights. Why do you look the same as what I saw in the spirit world? Given that that was my subconscious interpreting unfamiliar signals in an intelligible way, there isn’t any reason you should look the way I thought you did.”


“I’m your familiar,” he said as though that made perfect sense. “You’re the one that brought me here, the one that anchors me here. What else would I look like?”


So my subconscious influenced the demon? That was interesting. Made sense, too. Spiritual beings like demons can’t live in the material world without a vessel of some kind, and some kind of magic to form a path for them. It made a weird sort of sense that an entity made out of ideas would take its form based on the ideas of the person that had provided that bridge.


“Okay,” I said once I’d thought that through. “How much do you know about vampires?”


“Enough,” he said, his tone somehow suggesting a shrug.


“Know how to kill a vampire without being injured or leaving any kind of mark on the body? Nothing at all detectable by advanced human instruments?”


“Technically,” he said, “vampires are already dead. No mortal instrument detects that, either.”


“The fact that they get up and walk around suggests that ‘dead’ isn’t the end of the story,” I said dryly.


“Well,” he hedged, “not exactly. You do blood magic, right? I saw you use it the last time.”


I shifted uncomfortably. “Well, yes. But I haven’t touched it since then.” I’d come close enough to killing myself through overuse to scare me off it for a long while. Plus, once I’d started learning serious magic from Alexander, I came to realize that it wasn’t nearly as awesome as I’d thought. Most of the time your ability to maintain absolute focus and concentration was more of a limiting factor than raw magical power anyway. Given that blood magic didn’t improve that concentration any, it didn’t really let you use more power than normal magic. It just let you use it faster, which (although still sometimes very valuable) wasn’t usually good enough to justify the costs.


“Whatever,” he said. “You know how it works, right?”


I shrugged. “Sure. You take a piece of your life energy and sort of burn it as fuel for magic.”


“Crude,” Legion said disapprovingly. “But I suppose accurate enough in an elementary sense. You could use someone else’s life for that purpose, though, correct?”


“Yeah, but only if you’re a freaky insane black sorcerer or something. It isn’t kosher.”


“Well, neither are vampires,” he said dryly. “They do essentially the same thing, except that they don’t use the energy as fuel, as you so cleverly phrased it. They just keep it.”


I nodded slowly. “That’s why they seem alive even though technically they’re dead. They still have life—it just doesn’t belong to them.”


“Imprecisely phrased, but essentially correct.”


I frowned. “So the blood is just a conduit?”


“Of course it is,” Legion said, managing to make the skull smirk somehow. “You didn’t think they literally consumed it, did you? Blood is a reasonably nutritious food, but not enough to survive on. All they truly need is the energy it carries.”


“Um. I was under the impression that using blood magic is dangerous. Like, really dangerous. Losing your life energy has some fairly bad consequences, last I heard. Like, lethally bad.”


“Yep,” he said cheerfully. “Neat, isn’t it? But actually you can lose quite a bit of energy without dying. You make more. That’s what separates you from vampires.”


I swallowed. Legion was technically correct; you can lose a lot of life without actually stopping the whole “living” thing. But that doesn’t make it good for you. Losing even a little of that power could leave you with a migraine for days on end, or put you into a coma if you take too much. It’s bad for you, especially if you’re just a normal human.


“What happens to the people they feed on?”


“Depends on a lot of factors,” he said brightly. I was suddenly, bizarrely reminded of a med student I knew in college. He would talk about diseases in detail that made even me want to vomit with the same cheerful, fascinated tone. “But mostly it depends on the vampire. They generally break down into two groups.”


I got out a pencil and paper. “What’s the difference?”


“Well, one does things predator-style. They move around a lot—weekly, if not more often. When they get hungry they pick somebody easy and get ’em alone. Suck out all their energy at once and walk away. There’s never anything to connect them to the vic, so it blends in to the background crimes.”


I shivered. “And they just keep doing it like that? Kill somebody every week?”


“Sure. Works real good.”


“Okay, that is officially freaky. What’s the other group do?”


“They approach it in more of a sedentary way. Settle down in one location for the long haul—centuries, sometimes. They pick the best looking prospects and feed on ’em consistently. Sorta like domesticating cattle for milk.”


“What happens to the…what do you call the people getting eaten?”


“A stable. And it depends on how much the vampire takes. Vamps burn life a little more than three times as fast as a human produces it, for the most part. So unless there are at least four people in the stable they wear down pretty quick. Otherwise they can last for years. Decades, sometimes.”


I frowned. “It can’t be good for them, though.”


“Well, no. It tends to have side effects. They go from feeling awesome to feeling terrible all the time. Tend to be rather vulnerable to disease. It wears out the body. Mostly they either die young or vamp out unless it’s an exceptionally large stable.”


“You know,” I said thoughtfully, “I always knew I didn’t like vampires. I just didn’t know why until now.”


Legion laughed, a hollow thing that sounded like it came from the bottom of a mine shaft, and which would probably make dogs howl and children cry.


“So,” I said, “they rely on stolen life force. Can they do anything with it?”


“Of course they can,” Legion said dismissively. “Essentially the same as blood magic. They can take that reserve and use it.”


“What all can they use it for?” I said, irritated. I know the whole literal-answer thing is sort of a demon’s shtick, but it gets old fast.


“Essentially anything you can do with magic,” he told me. “Especially the mental stuff. It drains them, though. Most vampires won’t use it unless they absolutely have to. Especially not the young ones. They don’t have enough skill to hold much of a reserve, so any expenditure is more dangerous for them.”


“How much can the old ones hold?”


“No idea,” he said cheerily. “It depends on what you mean by ‘old,’ in any case. One about ten years old could hold maybe enough to sustain itself three weeks. I don’t know how old the really old ones are, but there isn’t much point to saying what their upper limit might be, because they would have to work very, very hard to reach it. But it’s safe to say at least enough to sustain their life for a couple years.”


Two years of life for a vampire equaled a little more than six years of production by a human being equaled a holy shitload of power. Like, enough to absolutely dwarf everything I could do. What was worse was that, based on my understanding of blood magic, they could use it all at once.


It might be hard to understand how big of a deal that is, until you compare it to normal human magic. If I want to win (or even survive) any given fight, I have to prepare ahead of time. Creating wards, building magical foci and stored spells, and laying useful enchantments on gear were all ways to concentrate a lot of effort in a little time. Blood magic works in the opposite way. You build up the energy slowly, taking weeks or months to recover from serious exertion, then spend it all at once.


If you can game the system and remove the long recovery period, it would be…very scary. I mean, that’s the whole reason why stealing other people’s life is so frowned on.


“What happens when the vampire starts to run low?”


“They can’t do as many vampirey things. At some point they’re pretty much driven to hunt.”


“And if they can’t? Like if they’re imprisoned or something?”


“They go nuts. Then they break their body into itty-bitty pieces trying to get to the nearest source of life. Then they die.”


Maybe that explained things. If that vampire had run out of juice, it would presumably have dropped in its tracks, without necessarily showing any reason for it. But that didn’t explain everything. For example, why wouldn’t there be some physical damage from either a fight serious enough that it required the use of all of the vampire’s power, or from self-inflicted injuries as it slowly starved to death?


And why had I smelled vampiric power at the hotel?


For an instant I almost had it, on pure intuition. Then the moment passed and I was confused again.


“Okay,” I said. “Next topic. What do you know about the Fenris Wolf?”


Legion shifted uncomfortably. “Now that,” he said, “is not my department.”


“Oh, come on. You have to know something.”


“Maybe so,” he said very seriously. “But I am not discussing that one. Light these bones on fire if you wish, and throw the ashes in the river. You will not move me on this.” There was something in Legion’s tone which was almost…frightened?


Okay, that wasn’t creepy at all. I mean, I knew that Fenris scared people, a lot—but Legion was a demon. A being made out of ideas. Granted he had a sense of self, but he was still nigh indestructible. There wasn’t a lot that could affect him, and even if you did it would only be destroying his form in this world, which wasn’t exactly critical to him. Couple that with the power I had seen him display when we’d been on opposite sides and the cavalier way he talked about vampires with the power to wipe a small city off the map, and I got the impression of a being not easily impressed with danger.


What’s it mean when somebody like that is too afraid to talk about someone—too afraid to even say their name?


I was pretty sure that it meant somebody like me was in over my head. So far under I not only couldn’t see the surface, I didn’t even know where it was. Oh, I’d known that before, but there’s a difference between knowing something in your head and feeling it in your stomach. One’s a whole lot more uncomfortable than the other.


“Okay,” I said. “Let me think a minute.”


“Sure, sure. Which word will you do, boss? I guess you might fit two into a minute if they’re short…”


“Oh shut up,” I said, exasperated. Why is it that everyone I deal with thinks they’re just terribly funny?


Legion was obediently silent as I considered the situation. It seemed to me that it was time I actually thought about what was going on instead of just reacting and asking other people.


The first thing I realized was that I’d been too focused on how this stuff had happened at the expense of why someone would do it, an error I am unfortunately prone to. I mean, both what Legion had said and what I’d already known said that killing a vampire was the kind of thing even mages don’t do casually. They’re dangerous, powerful, and tough as hell. You have to have a good reason to pick a fight with something like that. That’s not even taking into consideration the reaction other vampires would have to such a thing. They aren’t as organized as werewolves, but there is a higher organization there and it isn’t something that anyone wants to tangle with.


Why he had killed the vampire was a question I couldn’t answer. There were just too many possible reasons for it. It could have been revenge, for example, or the mage might just have a major hate on for vampires, or any of a dozen other motives—and that was just the ones I could think of off the top of my head.


But as I thought, I saw that there were really two questions. There was the question of why the mage had killed the vampire, which I couldn’t answer with anything resembling surety. Then there was the entirely different question of why, having killed a vampire, a mage would go to the effort of placing it in a hotel room. There was no logical reason he couldn’t have just incinerated the corpse or dumped it down an abandoned mine shaft or something, which meant he must have had a reason to do what he did instead.


And I was pretty sure I knew what it was. It felt like a challenge. The whole thing practically screamed Look at what I can do. I killed him and there was nothing he could do about it. I’m so good you can’t catch me even though I went out of my way to be obvious. I’m so powerful I can go to the effort of playing with somebody’s mind just to make this statement. Fear me. It was effective, too; just the thought of tangling with the guy willing to drop a challenge like that was enough to make me uneasy.


It left me with two lingering questions, though. First, who had he been sending that message to? Other vampires seemed like the most probable bet, but I couldn’t be sure.


And, second, did I even want to stop this guy? I mean, I hadn’t met any vampires, but every single thing I learned about them made me like them less. If he was willing to take the fight to them, deliver unto their undead asses all the terror and pain and death they had been visiting on people for millennia, I wasn’t sure I wanted to do anything other than stand on the sidelines, shout encouragements, and maybe sell hot drinks to other spectators.


Granted there had been that attack at the restaurant, but I wasn’t confident that had been related. It was hard to envision a person or group powerful and insanely confident enough to deal with vampires like that doing something as ridiculous and pathetic as those two mages had tried to pull. My instincts still said there was a connection there, but I didn’t know what it was.


Man, I was regretting agreeing to give Kyra a hand with this situation.

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Wolf’s Moon 3.11

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Back in the real world I blinked a few times, trying to get used to having an actual body again. It felt strange, limiting and comforting at the same time. I couldn’t tell, just by looking, whether a given tree was doing well or poorly, couldn’t smell the emotions a person felt from a mile away. I’d lost a ton of sensory input—and felt marvelous for it.


I stretched gently. Judging by how stiff I was, I must have sat there for at least three hours—long enough that the moon was low in the sky, and the frost produced by my magic had melted in the warm night air.


“I’m okay,” I said—or, more accurately, rasped. I hadn’t actually, physically been chanting, but my throat was still dry. I swallowed and, in a more normal voice, called out “I’m okay. It worked.”


Nobody shot me, so I must have sounded reasonably convincing. I reached out and found the power in the circles, taking it back into myself. I broke the circle around myself physically as well, picking up the bit of wood and the amulet, then walked over to examine the skeleton.


It looked the same as before, unless you knew exactly what to look for. Given that I did, I could see the thin layer of dark fog around some of the bones, almost too subtle to see. Without the energy of the circle blocking it I could smell, too, the distinct aroma of decaying leaves. Legion had successfully possessed the dead bones. I picked up the key and unlocked the padlock, holding all my power ready. If, against my expectations, the demon attacked me, this would be the time.


It didn’t, and I picked up the other anchors. I carried them back to where Aiko, still a fox, and Snowflake waited for me near the packs. Behind me Legion heaved his new body upright and followed, making no sound at all.


“Hey,” I said. “How’d it go?”


Aiko, who was watching me closely, made a noncommittal sound. Snowflake, who was looking over my shoulder, said and did nothing.


Until, a moment later, she came to her feet with a snarl. I could feel her anger, her sudden and violent hate, and shivered. A moment later I realized that what I was feeling came from the wolf inside her, and Snowflake herself was almost as confused as I was.


Oh, shit. I looked back and saw that yes, it was Legion he/she was staring at. The demon made no noise and hadn’t shifted his position at all, but somehow it was obvious that while he felt no particular animosity to the dog, he wasn’t backing down either.


I thought, idly, that if this was his normal means of expression we might have some issues in the near future. It was fine when I was a spirit, but now that I was back in my normal frame of mind I preferred more…explicit communication.


“Stop it,” I told Snowflake. “Stop. He means no harm.”


She didn’t look away, but I heard the wolf speak within my mind. No harm? How can you say that after what he did to me?


Then I jumped as I heard Legion the same way. Technically speaking I did nothing to you. Was I not bound, much as you were? And, after the werewolf died, did I not specifically leave you unharmed? Did I not maintain that host long enough for you to remove yourself?


Huh. I’d always thought that I had done that.


The wolf felt unconvinced. “Look,” I said. “You don’t have to like each other, but you do have to tolerate each other long enough to get out of here. Once we’re home I promise you don’t have to see him again.”


The wolf continued to stare at the demon for another moment. Then, abruptly, it retreated, almost palpably, from the forefront of Snowflake’s mind. The dog, in control once again, rubbed against my knees and whined softly, looking for comfort. She was upset, and I understood why; while she’d always known that the wolf was there, in her, and they had fit together well, this was the first time it had really made itself known, taken control away from her.


Aiko looked amused by the whole thing. When I looked at her, though, I could see the concern and almost-fear beneath the surface, and wow. The leftovers of my sojourn in the spirit world were clearly going to be more of an issue than I’d thought.


I got to work cleaning up. I put the fire out, then piled the dirt back in over the pit until it looked almost the same as it had before I’d been there. The water I dumped out, and the pile of gravel distributed. The vase, stone, and chimes all went back in the bags. Then I scattered the markers for the second circle, and swept the salt mixtures up and placed them in a trash bag. I could have just left them, but it wouldn’t have been good for the grass—somehow, most plants don’t seem to like salt very much.


Once that was done, I put my various tools and toys back into their pockets and slipped my jacket back on. The pistol, unloaded, was returned to its holster. Tyrfing I left where it was, because I was absolutely not concerned about what would happen to it. Tyrfing was the kind of sword that happens to other people.


“I need to think for a few minutes,” I said once everything was picked up. I directed my attention to Legion. “You will remain in this location until I return. You will take no action nor attempt to communicate with anyone.”


He conveyed agreement, with faint undertones of amusement. I sighed and walked away.


I stopped on a short rise about fifteen minutes’ walk away. There was a little hill with some boulders on top of it, and when I’d climbed to the top of the rocks I was about level with the tops of the trees on the ground below. I lay back, the cool granite a comforting presence against my back, and watched the moon for a few minutes.


Mostly what I was doing was just getting my head back together again. The bizarre senses I’d had in the other world were, mercifully, not coming back, but that didn’t mean I was quite right, mentally. My magical senses were working overtime, whether I wanted them to or not, and it took me almost ten minutes to get them back to normal.


About the same time I did I heard quiet footsteps behind me. It wasn’t the kind of quiet you get when somebody’s being furtive; it was more like the near-silence people seem to adopt in holy places, regardless of whether they share the faith in question.


I smelled fox, even though Aiko was in human shape, and lilacs. Under that was a tone of spice, nutmeg predominating, which I knew originated in magic rather than any physical trait. Her power isn’t spectacularly strong, but it is distinctive, and she uses it well.


“Hey,” I said quietly as she sat next to me. I didn’t look away from the moon.


“Hey. How’d it go?”


I shrugged wearily. “Not bad. I don’t know. It worked, I guess.”


“You don’t sound very happy about it.”


“No,” I said wryly, “I guess not.” I glanced at her, half-seen in the moonlight, then looked away again. “I…understand why most mages don’t go to the spirit world very often, now.”


She nodded, looking unsurprised. “Was it bad?”


“Not as bad as it could have been, I suppose. I…saw some things, that maybe I would rather not have seen.”


She winced. “Ah. You want to talk about it?”


I thought for a moment, and found to my surprise that I did. Most of the time I’m not exactly the sort that likes to talk about a problem, but this time I actually thought it might help. It might make me feel better, if nothing else. “Maybe,” I said. “But…some of the things I saw were about you.” I looked away again, feeling oddly ashamed.


She went totally, utterly still in a way that humans generally don’t. “What kind of things?”


“The scars behind the mask,” I said quietly. “A smile worn to hide the blood. Crying in an empty room, with the scent of cherry blossoms underneath.”


She relaxed and stared at her hands for a moment. “Oh,” she said. “That kind of things.”


“I’m sorry. For intruding. I wouldn’t have looked, if I’d had a chance.”


She looked at me squarely and I realized that she was as uncomfortable as I was. “Winter. I…care about you. That’s not something I’m in a position to say often. It’s not intruding for you to want to know who I am.”


I watched the moon for a moment. “Maybe not, but it was still….” I frowned, struggling to explain what I’d felt. “I saw too much. We aren’t supposed to see that much.” I thought about what Alexander had said, about how important certain mental blocks could be, and suddenly understood what he’d meant a lot better. I might not have gone on a vision quest, but I still felt like my vision had been too clear in those moments for comfort.


She was silent for the space of a deep breath. “I’m glad you did, though,” she said quietly. “It’s the sort of thing you should know about. Should have known a while ago, probably, but I have…a hard time talking about myself, you know?”


“Yeah. I do too.” I grinned weakly. “Maybe we should take turns. Clear the air a little. Ask some questions that have been bugging us for a while. You go first.” I felt like I was standing on the edge of a precipice. I knew, with a chilly certainty, that whatever she asked, in that moment I would tell her. It was a very scary feeling.


“You never talk about your family,” the kitsune said eventually. “Why not?”


“I guess I never really did the family thing. You already know about my parents.”


“Sure,” she said, “but that’s not all there is to the story. I know you mentioned being raised by an aunt, for example.”


“Yeah, but…we were never really comfortable, you know? When I was born, she was trying to put herself through college. She hadn’t even thought of children, and then suddenly she gets saddled with me. Not her kid, not even human. Then her sister, who practically raised her, up and kills herself. I think she blamed me for that, on some level. She was never abusive, but there was always this undercurrent there.”


I sighed. “Then I came into my power, and it got worse. She knew practically nothing about our world. My mother never told her. And then I started spending all my time daydreaming, sort of. I’d spend my time in something else’s mind, and it had some…very serious effects on me.”


“What kind of effects?” she asked me.


I shrugged. “Nothing too bad, at first. I was tired all the time, because I didn’t sleep well—every time I slept the magic was there, just waiting for me. Then I learned to control it, learned to make it happen when I wanted. That was worse. It was….”


I frowned and met Aiko’s eyes. “I was so weak,” I said quietly. “Not even a werewolf then. Just a normal human, physically, except that I didn’t freeze quite so easy. But I didn’t feel human. By the time I was twelve I’d felt a lot of things that humans aren’t supposed to. I knew what it was like for the cat when it catches the mouse and eats it raw in the ditch, heart still pounding with the excitement of the chase. I knew how the coyote feels when it’s running, under the moon, so happy. I knew how it feels to fly, Aiko.”


“And with all of that,” she said softly, “who wants to go back to being human?”


I smiled bitterly. “Sounds like you’ve heard this story before.”


She looked away again. “It happens that way sometimes, to kitsune. Every generation there are a few who…they turn into the fox and never come back. Never communicate, not even to the ones they loved. They’re just…gone.” Her own smile twisted a little. “They thought I might be one of them, when I was young. And that’s with just one other body to get lost in.”


I grunted vaguely. “Well. That was what happened to me, I guess. There wasn’t anyone to teach me, anyone to explain to me how to control the power or why I would want to. And there’s only so long you can spend in another mind before it starts to change you. Did you know that? I spent too long. I started getting territorial urges. Some kid stole my lunchbox and I just went at him, tried to gouge his eyes out.”


I sighed. “After that I had to drop out of school. I was too dangerous to be around other kids. By that time I’d been diagnosed with severe depression and schizophrenia, and some kind of personality disorder, I don’t remember the name. They prescribed a bunch of drugs, which didn’t work. They made things worse, actually, because I spent more and more time outside my body to get away from the side effects. I lost weight, stopped eating, because I’d already eaten, just not in my own body. And everything tasted worse if I actually ate it, like cardboard and ashes.”


“I’m glad you made it back,” she said seriously.


I smiled wryly. “Mostly. Anyway, the next time I saw her it was almost worse. I’d been gone for years, and I think we didn’t quite know what to make of each other. She was married to someone I’d never met, and the two of them had a daughter. And I wasn’t even trying to be human at that point. I think I scared them all a little. The kid with the weird eyes who never talked about where he’d been or what he’d done since the last time she saw me. The conversation was always…awkward. They’d ask me how I was paying for college, for example. And what was I supposed to tell them? That I was being bankrolled by the Khan?” I shrugged. “So yeah, I never really got back in touch with them. I’ve got a few cousins now, but I’ve hardly talked to any of them.”


“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “I think that’s what I like about you. Whenever I think that my life is a single enormous montage of bad decisions and worse results, all I have to do is look at you, and think about what that must be like, and what do you know, I feel better.”


“Glad to be of service,” I said dryly. “What about you? You’ve mentioned your mother a few times, but practically nothing else. What was it like growing up as a kitsune?”


“Lonely,” she said after a moment’s thought. “There was a lot to it, of course, but mostly I would say it was lonely. I never got on with my mother too well. She’s very, very traditional, and I mostly only think of traditions in terms of how I can break them most entertainingly. She hardly even leaves the Otherside anymore, and if she does she’s in Japan.”


I frowned. “I thought you said you were born in Chicago.”


“My father,” she explained. “He’s a lot more like me. He took her on a trip, then arranged for them to be stranded long enough that I was born on foreign soil. Just as a prank.” She sighed. “I loved him, still do, but he wasn’t much better than she was. He was always…unreliable. I remember he would vanish, for hours or days or weeks at a time. I never knew where he had gone, or when he would come back.”


“Leaving you to be raised by your mother.”


“Exactly. She kept trying to mold me into someone like her, and the harder she tried the harder I fought. Eventually, when I was about fifteen, she just gave up on me. She’s barely spoken to me since.” She smiled weakly. “That’s what you saw. She has her own domain on the Otherside, where I spent most of my life growing up. I remember it always smelled like flowers, all the time. My room was empty because, when I was younger, she would take away anything that didn’t fit with her image of who I should be. By the time she stopped it was a sort of rebellion—she took away anything that didn’t fit, so I got back at her by having nothing at all. For a while I didn’t even have a bed, and I slept on the floor.”


I envisioned that, and shivered. My life might not always have been kind, but there’d always been someone there for me. My aunt, Edward, Conn and his family. I imagined what it might be like to spend your days sitting in an empty room, knowing that the only person who cared about you at all was too unreliable to ever count on.


I thought maybe I could understand why Aiko was the way she was. Not that there had ever been much doubt that she was messed up. I’d always been well aware that the reason we got along so well was that we were both broken in our own ways. I might not be happy about my psychological issues, but that doesn’t make be blind to them.


I didn’t particularly want to spend more time thinking about them, though, and I could tell that Aiko was starting to feel depressed by the conversation. I was feeling recovered, anyway, so I figured it was about time to move on.


“What a pair we make,” I said, laughing. “Maybe we should go on Jerry Springer or something.”


“I don’t know about that,” Aiko said doubtfully. “I’ve never seen the appeal of that show.”


“Me neither, but I think you can make the bucks doing it.”


“Ah,” she said, “now that I can see the appeal of.”


“Likewise,” I said, glancing at the sky. I wasn’t very good at telling time by the moon or stars, but I was pretty sure it was edging into tomorrow. “I think that’s about all the soul-sharing I can handle in one sitting.”


“Thank the vaguely godlike beings,” she said with a dramatic shudder. “I was afraid I’d have to resort to knock-knock jokes to get you to say that.”


I chuckled. “Reckon it’s about time to be heading back?”


“No, actually. That would have been about four hours ago. But this is a reasonable second choice.”

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Wolf’s Moon 3.10

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Words and magic have an interesting relationship. It’s been described in a lot of ways over the years, most of them total bogus. The medieval Europeans, for example, apparently thought you had to ask the Devil for help any time you wanted to do magic. If so, he’s apparently decided to help me for free, because I’d never met him and I’d been doing magic most of my life.


You don’t need to invoke demons or strange deities to do magic. You don’t need to chant in ancient languages. I know a lot of people who are sorta disappointed to learn that there actually isn’t a mysterious language of magic, the words of which are somehow tied to reality itself and will make whatever you say happen, because magic says so. The truth is that there are no magic words.


Magic is all about ideas. The important thing is to have those ideas absolutely firm in your mind. Words are also about ideas, and can therefore provide a valuable concentration aid. Imagine how much easier that exercise with the ravens would have been if you’d had a stupid little rhyme about them to recite to yourself so that your mind didn’t wander.


On the spirit side of things, ideas have an even more immediate and potent strength. I mean, ideas are what the spirit world is made of. What I was doing was basically focusing on a single idea so strongly that it became, for that brief moment, the essence of what I was in a spiritual sense. That would, in turn, provide a sort of beacon by which the things I was looking for could find me.


So what I was chanting might come as a bit of a disappointment to you. It was in normal English, and it sounded depressingly mundane. I mean, you’ve probably read classified ads more amusing than my chant. What I was saying was:


“Human mage interested in procuring the services of a familiar. Must have knowledge of the physical world and be accustomed to working with mages. Spirit of thought or memory preferred. Will provide a body, shelter, and fill other reasonable requests. Require willingness to assist in research. Offer valid for a limited time only.”


I mean, really. Throw in a contact number and, these days, an email address, and that could be a classified ad. Admittedly only really weird newspapers would run it, but that’s not the point.


While I chanted, I focused on the ideas I was conveying. I concentrated, sending the concepts out as broadly as I could. Another length of time, interminable and indefinable, passed.


Eventually I became aware of another presence nearby. Like me it existed only on the spiritual level. It didn’t travel; the spirit world is only loosely related to concepts like space or geography. It simply was directly in front of me, with no transition between that and the moment before, during which it had been absent.


It appeared to me as a cloud of…something. It didn’t have a physical analogue that I knew of. It looked a little bit like smoke, except that instead of dissipating it hung around, cohering to itself. There were wisps around it, like I would expect from fog, but the core was solid and consistent even if it did move and change and expose gaps. It was also jet black in color. There were, within the cloud, lights. They looked a little bit like fireflies and a little bit like the sparks off a campfire. Tiny sparks of light in amethyst, emerald, and aquamarine, they flickered in an almost hypnotic way.


When I saw it, I was assaulted by the feeling of it. It smelled of death and decay, and felt like a forest fire. It was dark and dangerous and not something I was comfortable with. It was also, unfortunately, familiar.


“What are you doing here?” I asked the demon, displeasure putting an edge on my voice. I could, in what might be the creepiest thing yet, see the intention of my own words, leaving my mouth in a sharp-edged ray of black and green light.


The demon swirled, shifted in a way that made no sense in either world and hurt my eyes, and then solidified again. Now it had eyes, two big angular lights of pale, intense blue. “I told you,” the demon which had once possessed Garrett White said. “If you needed a favor, all you had to do was call.” Its voice was a lot like I remembered it, strangely toned and reminiscent of a big snake slithering on a stone floor.


“I wasn’t asking a favor,” I said coldly. “I was looking for a familiar, and you’re interrupting.”


Watching it, I felt the equivalent of an eye-roll. “I know what you were looking for,” it said. “Why did you think I was here?”


“Are you even capable of being a familiar? I have certain requirements…”


“Yes, I know, and yes, I am. Did you think the werewolf was my first time in your world? It was not. I have worked with human mages before, in an arrangement not unlike that which you describe.”


I rolled my own eyes. “Yeah, and I’m sure that worked out just great for them.”


“It did,” the demon said seriously—and, I could feel, sincerely. “Only one of them was not the better for my assistance. And, if a mage chooses to ignore the familiar’s advice, who is to blame?”


I frowned and, for the first time, considered its offer. I knew, with a certainty that belied explanation but which I did not doubt, that it wasn’t lying. I would have known it if it had been—communication in the spiritual realm, as it turned out, was not conducive to deception. It had served other mages, and it genuinely thought they had benefited from it. Now, that didn’t mean that taking the deal would be a good idea, and it didn’t mean that I would agree with it about how its previous employers had been affected—but it did mean that I couldn’t dismiss it out of hand.


I mean…this thing wouldn’t have been my first choice, but it was the only spiritual being I knew. And, for whatever reason, it really did seem to think it owed me for giving it a chance to kill Garrett. It wasn’t a good entity, by any means, but…I’d known when I was first considering this venture that I wasn’t exactly a pure soul myself.


I realized then, for the first time, how much of my perception of it before had been because of Garrett himself. Before I had thought that it smelled evil, downright evil to an extent unlike anything else I’d encountered. Now it was…different. It still smelled like decay, but there was less of rotten meat, and more of old leaves. That made sense, I supposed; much of the evil, much of the darkness, had been in the werewolf. It was him, not the demon, that had tortured and killed half a dozen wolves, that had gone on a remarkably enthusiastic killing spree, that had tried to spark a major supernatural war.


And in that moment I really grasped, as I hadn’t before, what demons embodied—or this demon, at any rate. It wasn’t destruction, and it wasn’t violence, and it wasn’t entropy, and it definitely wasn’t evil. It was nothing that simple, nothing I could encapsulate in a single word. But, in that moment, I understood it. Maybe it was because we were in the spirit world, and every time I saw or heard or thought of it I felt the concepts that made it what it was. Maybe it was just that, in a weird sort of way, we weren’t that different.


Think of a forest—a really big, really wild forest. There’s all kinds of life going on in a big forest. You’ve got more going on than anybody, even someone like me who understood it on a lot more levels than most people, can really hope to know entirely. There’s birth and growth and riotous, joyous life, a thousand kinds of life going on all at once.


But, in order for that life to exist, you need darker things too. The soil that a seed sprouts from is made up primarily of dead plant matter, decaying leaves and manure. It grows because other plants died to provide it something to grow in. It has a place to exist because another tree, that had once lived there, doesn’t live any longer.


It has been shown time and again that the natural world doesn’t work very well if everything is sweetness and light. Take Yellowstone, for example. When they reintroduced wolves to the park, things became better. Before there had been too many elk, destroying the trees. The absence of wolves had let the prey animals proliferate too much, and the forest as a whole had suffered for it.


That was what the demon was. It was the predator that thinned the herd, ensuring that those who live are the best and strongest. It was the wildfire that, in killing so many trees, made room for smaller plants and was, in fact, necessary for certain kinds of seeds to sprout. It was the breakdown of old things to be recycled into new things.


It was, to put it simply, the other half of the cycle. Not the nice half, maybe—but if you want life and beauty, it was necessary. And, if you know how to look, there is beauty to be found there as well.


I broke out of my reverie and looked at the demon again. “First thing,” I said. “What’s your name?”


I got the impression of a smile. “You cannot seriously think I am going to tell you that.”


I grunted. “Take your name seriously, do you?”


“Most intelligent things do.”


“Okay, I can live with that. But if you’re going to work for me I need something to call you besides ‘demon’ and ‘hey, you.’ Suggestions?”


Indifference. “Choose a label if you need one so badly as that.”


I came up blank for a moment, then grinned. “In that case,” I said, “I dub thee Legion.”


There was a brief pause. Then, in an amused voice, it said, “I presume you mean that in the sense of ‘My name is Legion, for we are many?’ Gospel of Mark, I believe?” There was another, shorter pause. “There is a certain amount of irony to that, you know. And I suppose it is appropriate enough, in a sense.”


“I know,” I said.


“Although if you think I am going to start referring to myself in the plural, you might be disappointed.”


“Quite frankly I would be disturbed if you did. Besides, English doesn’t have a distinct form for referring to someone in the second-person plural. Do you have a preference of gender?”


Legion looked at me in a way which suggested that I was rather disappointing. “You are aware, I hope, that the notion of gender is entirely inapplicable to me?”


“Yep,” I agreed. “But, again, this is more for my convenience than yours. It gets tiring thinking of a person as an it.”


I got the sense that it didn’t especially care, either about gender or my difficulty with an entity who truly did not have it. “Again, it makes no difference to me.”


“Cool. Male it is.”


“Why male?”


I shrugged. “I’m male. You’re my familiar. Makes sense to me.”


“I see,” Legion said in the tone of someone who doesn’t see and doesn’t object to blindness. “Before you get too comfortable with this thought, I think we need to get specific on the details. Exactly what are you offering?”


“Well,” I said, “for starters, a body in the physical world.” I gestured vaguely at the skeleton in the circle.


There was a long pause, and I suddenly had the realization that to Legion, the physical world must be as foreign as this place was to me. Eventually, he said, “A…skeleton? You offer me a skeleton? Of a dog?”


“Hey,” I said. “That’s not a dog, it’s a barghest. Or, more accurately, the pieces of around a dozen barghests. I understand there was a bit of difficulty with finding intact bones after we got finished with them….”


“Even worse,” the demon said in a disgusted tone. “You offer me the dead body of something from the Otherside. Your bargaining ability lacks a certain something, do you know? Why not the actual dog over there?”


“Absolutely not,” I said firmly. “She has too many things in her head already.” I paused. “However….”




“Nobody said that you had to exist in the same vessel all the time, did they?” It didn’t move or speak at all, but nevertheless expressed negation perfectly. “In that case I might be able to arrange something. Consensual short-term possession, with a few rules. They would have to specifically give you permission—including their being aware of what you are, and what they’re agreeing to. You would be along for a sensory ride only—no influencing the host—and you’d have to leave as soon as they ask you to. Are those terms agreeable?”


“I don’t know,” he said. “That’s a pretty weak offer, especially given that you only might be able to arrange something.”


“Let’s say a six-month trial period, then. If you don’t like the arrangement, you can renegotiate then or just leave.” I would be fine with either option; six months isn’t long, especially to immortal beings like Legion, but I could get a lot of benefit out of it.


“That’s acceptable, I suppose. What else?”


“I’m willing to provide for other reasonable needs. You don’t require food, correct?”


“Not unless I possess a mortal host. In a skeleton, no.”


“Right, then. I can provide reasonable entertainment and a location to live in. Is there anything else?”


“That depends. What are you really looking for, here?”


“Research assistance and information,” I said. “That’s about it, really. If you want to get in on some violence I can practically guarantee the opportunity will arise, but I’m not trying to hire a thug.”


“I suppose your terms are acceptable, then, Winter Wolf,” he said quietly. “Bargain struck.”


And that was that. From what I’d learned from Alexander, spirits—even the demonic variety—are bound by their contracts and oaths. The same way as the fae work, really; they might screw you over in a million inventive ways, but they can’t or won’t outright break their word.


Which, given that I’d gotten screwed every single time I’d made a bargain with a supernatural being, wasn’t exactly a comforting thought.


There wasn’t any backing out now, though. I reached out and found the power which, in the real world, I still had available to me. It hadn’t carried over but, in some sense, it was still attached to me. That was what separated me from the true spirits, even when I was in their world. I was connected to the physical realm.


I dragged that magic over into this world, pulling it into myself. It was hard, but not undoable. Once I had it I sent it back, using it to sort of drill a channel—not to myself, but into the skeleton. The moment it was complete, Legion flowed down it, not so much moving as simply transitioning from one state to another.


My work done, I went back and settled onto my body, and closed my eyes. And, with a relaxation that felt like letting go of something you’ve been holding onto for so long you forgot it was even there, I returned to my natural environment, leaving the spiritual world behind.


And, frankly, good riddance.

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