“You think he’ll do it?” Kyra asked once we were outside again.
I didn’t know the man well enough to tell, so I looked at Enrico. He shrugged. “Beats me.”
“Not our problem anyway,” I said firmly. “Right now it’s between him and Christopher.”
Kyra nodded. “You want to go give him the report, then?” she asked me.
“Probably better.” I glanced at Enrico. “I’d appreciate it if you’d come with us. There’s something I’ve been meaning to show you.”
He looked at me curiously, then shrugged. “Why not.”
I rode with Kyra. We didn’t talk much; neither of us is especially chatty by nature. That’s probably a big part of why we get along. Most of the people I’ve known are always talking whether they have something to say or not, and at some point that starts to irritate me.
Besides which, while Kyra’s car is a battered piece of junk and it’s frankly amazing that it still runs, she had an excellent stereo in it. On the way to Christopher’s house we listened to several songs which I was pretty sure she’d gotten from Aiko. They were odd, to say the least, but not actually bad. My favorite was the one that sounded like a cross between ragtime and speed metal.
There was no one else at the house this time. I was, to a certain extent, glad for this. What Christopher said about my feelings towards the pack as a whole might well be true—I hadn’t thought about it enough to be sure yet. Regardless, though, most of them were near-total strangers to me, individually. And, however this ended up going, I value my privacy quite highly.
Enrico waited downstairs while Kyra and I went upstairs. I wasn’t entirely sure why; he might have been sending a subtle message to me or the Alpha, or just trying to stay out of business that wasn’t his.
There’s not a lot to say about our actual meeting with Christopher. Basically, we told him our various impressions of the Chief, along with what he’d said, and that was it. Whatever he’d said, the Alpha almost always does any real negotiations. We’d just been sent to sort of feel out the territory.
I was betting Christopher would be getting a phone call pretty soon.
I didn’t mention my growing suspicion to him. After all, so far I had very little to base it on, aside from a gut feeling and what Kyra had told me. I didn’t want to confront him unless and until I had proof positive. Even then I would probably not act directly. It isn’t really my style unless I have no other choice.
So, long story short, it took about ten interminable minutes from start to finish. Christopher spent most of it doing paperwork, which tells you something about how little was actually being said. Once that was finished, we went back down for a conversation which was—at least to me—enormously more important.
Enrico was standing at one of the tall paned windows in the main room downstairs. We were close enough to the edge of the city that it looked out onto largely undisturbed forest. It looked remarkably primeval, considering that I knew for a fact there was a house not a hundred and fifty yards away in that direction.
“Hey,” he greeted us without turning around. “How’d it go?”
I shrugged. “It went. Now come on, there’s something you need to see here.”
He smiled thinly. “Great. What is it?”
Rather than answer his question directly, I asked Kyra, “Is the safe room attached to the building?”
She gave me a look that suggested she knew what I was doing, and she did not approve. All she said, though, was, “Yeah. Back this way.”
She led the way out of the room and down a short hallway I didn’t think I’d ever seen before, stopping at a simple wooden door. You didn’t need magic or semi-werewolf supersenses to feel either her displeasure or Enrico’s curiosity.
I stood facing the door for a long moment, working up my nerve. As far as appearances go, you would think this was ridiculous. It was a cheap door set in an out-of-the-way part of the house. It was on the ground floor, for obvious reasons. If you didn’t know better, you would think that it probably led to a closet or something.
I knew better. I knew, at least in the general sense, what was on the other side. And I did not have pleasant memories associated with werewolf safe rooms.
Eventually, I opened it and flicked on the light switch on the other side. It was like opening a door into another world.
I should make something clear here, just so you understand what the contrast was like. Christopher isn’t ostentatious or self-important, and he values the pack more than himself. That said, his house is nice. Comfy couches. A stone fireplace that probably cost more than most cars. Nice furniture, for the most part, most of it handmade. His desk is an antique, handcrafted from fine mahogany, which is literally worth more than every piece of furniture in my house combined. The overall impression is one of understated wealth.
On the other side of this door, though, was something completely different. It was a descending staircase, narrow enough to feel claustrophobic in the extreme. The walls, ceiling, and floor were all bare concrete, lit by a handful of naked light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. There was no banister.
I led the way down. Enrico followed me after a moment’s hesitation, and Kyra was close behind him. When she shut the door, it echoed with a sort of quiet finality more intimidating than a loud boom could ever be.
At the bottom of fifteen steps was another door. This one was more than impressive enough to make up for the first one’s simplicity. The door and jamb alike were solid steel, sunk into the concrete of the wall. It looked like it would take a battering ram to bring it down, and I knew from experience that this wasn’t entirely inaccurate.
There are bank vaults with less impressive protection than a pack’s safe room.
Enrico spoke for the first time as I opened the latches. “What is this place?” he asked. His voice had a hushed quality to it that you more commonly find in churches and sacred groves.
I grunted and swung the door open. It opened inward, and needless to say there wasn’t even a handle on the inside surface. The door wasn’t locked, of course. That door never locks.
Not from the outside, at least.
Kyra was the one who actually answered him, her voice equally hushed. “It’s the safe room. Kind of a prison, holding area, and bomb shelter all at once.”
I checked that the door was solidly propped open—we could probably get out without too much difficulty if it swung closed, but still. I guarantee that after you’ve spent any length of time in a safe room, the idea of being locked in for even a short time is enough to raise your hackles. Then I stepped inside and flicked the lights on.
I’d never been inside this particular safe room. They’re all modeled on more or less the same design, though, and about as simple as a room can be. Just a concrete box, which in this case was about ten feet square. A little smaller than some, but not a lot.
There were no decorations. There were no windows, unlike the last one I’d been in, which had barred clerestory windows near the ceiling. Light was provided by a couple of unadorned fluorescent fixtures on the ceiling.
It’s a bit of a challenge to make a prison to hold a determined werewolf. They have supernatural strength, supernatural healing powers, intelligence at least on a par with humans, and often centuries of experience. That’s a pretty tall order in a cell.
Safe rooms meet it. All of the walls—and floor, and ceiling—are reinforced concrete with a web of magically supercharged silver woven throughout. With the exception of the ceiling, they’re backed by at least twenty feet of packed dirt, just in case the inmate manages to get through the concrete. The door, in addition to weighing about two hundred pounds, is only steel on the outside. The inside is stainless steel with another layer of silver over top, and it has a silver core, too. The locks are equivalent to those on a vault door, and that’s on top of the total absence of a handle on the inside. What’s more, the way it’s designed is such that you can’t just force the locks from the inside by main force. You would have to rip the entire door, including frame, out of the concrete it’s set into. Even when they have windows, they’re six inches wide, a foot deep, and have more steel-and-silver bars across them.
There are not many ways to escape a safe room once the door locks. They were designed to hold even the most desperate wolves captive indefinitely, and they’re very good at it.
As soon as I walked in, the presence of so much silver started to irritate me. It wasn’t physically painful, between the fact that I wasn’t touching it and that most of it was insulated by metal or concrete. But still. It started to get to you after a while.
Even more than that, there was a sort of…atmosphere in the room. One of the basic rules of magic is that energies leave a residue of sorts. If you’ve ever read about, or experienced, a haunted location that inexplicably disturbs and frightens everyone who goes there, that’s probably what’s up. Humans, whether mages or not, all have a certain amount of magic, and a certain sensitivity to magical energy as well. Once the metaphysical atmosphere gets bad enough, it starts to mess with anybody.
This was a bad place, where bad things happened on a regular basis.
When I spoke, I was every bit as quiet and reverent as the others had been. It seemed to demand it, somehow. “This is the pack safe room,” I told Enrico. “Every pack has something pretty much like it. They’re designed, first and foremost, to be a cell for werewolves.”
He looked around briefly, and I could practically see the gears turning in his head. “Doesn’t look like there’s much capacity,” he commented.
I chuckled grimly. “No. It’s not meant for long-term solutions. Sometimes a werewolf loses control temporarily, though, and the pack needs somewhere to put them for a while. Usually it’s due to injury or serious stress, although some newer wolves need it during the full moon.”
“So it’s not for punishment?” Enrico sounded relieved, somehow.
I shook my head. “Not really. Most of the time, if a werewolf commits an infraction that doesn’t merit death, they just get a stern lecture and maybe some added duties or something. Occasionally corporal punishment comes into play, but that’s about it.”
He thought about that for a moment. “So why did you want me to see this?”
“Because this is your last chance,” I said easily.
He froze. “Last chance for what?” he asked cautiously, as though hoping I might be joking.
I wasn’t. “Last chance to get out,” I told him. “So far you haven’t gone too deep. You can back out of all of this and go back to your life without any serious consequences. But from here on out, that isn’t an option anymore.”
He opened his mouth to respond, but I didn’t give him a chance to. “I don’t want your answer yet. There’s something I want to tell you first.” I looked past him to where Kyra was waiting outside. I could understand that. I have no doubt that she has a significant number of unpleasant memories associated with that room. “You might as well come in,” I called. “I know you’ve been wanting to hear this story too.”
She frowned at me, and I could tell that at this point I was departing from the script she had worked out of what was going on here. She did come in, though, after first checking again that the door wouldn’t close on us. Even so she kept glancing back to it every second or two, just to make sure.
I looked at the two of them soberly. “What I am about to tell you,” I said quietly, “is not a story I tell often. With that in mind, I would appreciate it if you don’t interrupt. I’m trying to tell you something, here, not looking for pity.”
The two of them looked at me expectantly. Neither of them said anything.
I was for a moment forcibly reminded of the stories I’d heard growing up, first from Edward and later from Dolph or Erin. All of them were big on storytelling, and I heard a lot of them when I was young.
In spite of everything, the comparison made me smile a little. Then, still smiling, I began.
“When I was a kid,” I said, “I was around werewolves a lot. When I was twelve I moved away from home to live with a pack in Wyoming. Most of my friends were werewolves at that time.
“So, as you can probably imagine, I was pretty eager to make the change myself. When I was around sixteen years old I did.” Kyra looked a little surprised at that. She knew that I was no werewolf, and also that there are only have two options when you get changed. One of them is to come out a werewolf, and the other is to come out in a box.
“Now,” I continued, “for various reasons that aren’t important right now, I was considered a high-risk candidate. I was aware of that, although not all the reasons why, and I knew that I probably shouldn’t be trying it.” I paused, and smiled ruefully. “Unfortunately, sixteen-year-olds aren’t known for good decision making.” Enrico chuckled at my joke, at least.
“Like most people that age, I thought I was special and the rules didn’t apply to me. Also like most people, I turned out to be wrong.” I hesitated, trying to decide how much technical information Enrico needed to understand what I was saying. “You remember what I said about how werewolves, and especially young werewolves, have a bunch of urges and instincts that can be pretty hard to control?” He nodded.
“Well, at least at first, how strong those instincts are is determined largely by how strong the werewolf magic is in you. If there’s a little bit of magic in you, you change a little bit. If there’s a lot, you change a whole bunch.” There were complicating factors, and it was almost never that straightforward, but that was good enough for now. “With me so far?”
Both of them nodded. Kyra, at least, looked like she was starting to understand where I was going with this.
“Well, due to a peculiarity of my heritage, I got an exceptionally strong dose of magic. There wasn’t any real question of my controlling it, at first. It just wasn’t going to happen.”
I paused and focused my attention on Enrico. “The first time you change, it’s a serious physical drain that your body isn’t accustomed to. On top of that, there was enough magic in me that my body was already trying to heal at an accelerated rate, which drains more resources.”
“The predictable result of this was that I was hungry, to an extent which I doubt you can fathom. That, coupled with the instinctive drive to hunt, was enough to force me to find food.” I hesitated, unsure how to phrase the next part with any tact at all. “Unfortunately,” I said eventually, “there was not a great deal of food to be had nearby.”
Enrico looked confused. Kyra did not. Her face went pale, and she winced a little. “Oh God,” she said, her voice sounding drawn. “How many?” Enrico, who still hadn’t realized what we were talking about, looked at her with confusion.
I didn’t pretend not to understand her. “Four. Fortunately that part of Wyoming is sparsely populated. I expect it would have been much worse if I were in a city at the time.”
Enrico’s expression changed from confusion to dawning realization, then horror. He opened his mouth to say something.
I cut him off with a sharp gesture. “Like I said, I’m not looking for pity. This was a long time ago.” I took a deep breath; long time ago or not, these were not pleasant memories. Not at all. “That night,” I said in a measured tone, “I assaulted, killed, and partially ate four people. A family, living in an isolated home. A man, his wife, and their two children. One of them was a nine year old girl.”
Kyra looked like she was about to be sick. Enrico’s expression of horror hadn’t changed. “Is that normal?” he asked.
I shook my head. “No. Most werewolves are unconscious for at least a day or two after the first change while their body adjusts. Even if they aren’t the pack can force control on them to make sure things like that don’t happen.
“So I mentioned that some werewolves get put in the safe room while they struggle for control? Well, situations like that are what I’m talking about. I wound up being put in the safe room until I got myself under control. It was pretty much like this one. Now, can you guess how long I spent in there?” I asked.
Enrico shrugged helplessly. Kyra, who was more experienced, frowned and hazarded, “A week?”
It wasn’t a bad guess—or rather, it wasn’t a bad guess when you were dealing with a normal werewolf. For me, it was less than accurate. “Three months,” I corrected. “During that time I had essentially no contact with another living being.” I paused. “Unless you count the occasional live meal. Rabbits, for the most part. They thought it might help calm the wolf.” They hadn’t been entirely wrong about that, either—although the guilt I’d felt about it probably hadn’t done much for me, overall.
“During that time I went pretty much insane. Now, I don’t mean that the way I normally do when I say that I’m insane. Most of the time I’m just a bit odd. At that time, though, I was…I was pretty far gone.”
I paused meditatively for a moment. “Actually, the first month wasn’t so bad. I mean, even without the wolf I’m not suited for captivity, but I was doing all right. It wasn’t until I’d been in there two full months that I was really in bad shape.”
Enrico frowned. “How bad are we talking? I mean, two months in solitary isn’t fun, but there are people who’ve made it through worse.”
I looked at him levelly. Then, very quietly, I said, “I started hallucinating at around six weeks. I lost track of time so completely that the only way I could tell one day from another was by the size of the moon. They say I talked to myself almost constantly. Not screaming or anything, just a constant monotone mumble.”
“I wanted out,” I continued quietly, “more badly than you can imagine. I tried to dig my way out through solid concrete. I clawed at the walls until my claws were broken and my paws were bleeding. As a human I wore the last digit of my fingers literally to the bone. I broke most of the bones in my hands trying to batter the door down. They had to rescue me once when I hanged myself trying to fit my head out the window.” Most of my clear memories of that time are actually of me lying in the middle of the floor, twisting in agony from the things I’d done to myself. A werewolf’s healing is extremely efficient—and, thanks to my extra-high dose of magic, I was healing even faster than almost any werewolf. But that doesn’t do anything for the pain.
I paused to let that sink in a moment. “You can maybe understand,” I said, “how terrifying that was. To be incapable of controlling myself. I knew that these were stupid things to do. I knew that, at that point in time, I didn’t even want to be free. I would have been a danger to myself and others. And, despite all that, I was literally and physically unable to stop myself from doing them.”
Enrico looked at me with a sort of horrified fascination. “What happened?” he asked me.
I shrugged. “After about three months of that, I processed the magic. The experience left me with a few souvenirs, but that’s about it. I’m not a werewolf anymore, if that’s what you’re wondering.” Which was only half-true, but I didn’t intend to tell either of them the rest of the story.
Kyra frowned at me. “Winter. That doesn’t happen. Once you’re a werewolf, you don’t go back. It’s impossible.”
I grinned at her. “It’s mostly impossible,” I corrected her. “There’s always an exception. In this case the exception was me.” I looked at Enrico again. “In any case, I’m telling you this for a reason. See, what happened to me? It was bad.”
I shrugged. “But realistically speaking, I was lucky. I survived. I’m still me. That’s more than a lot of people can say. The point is that almost every single person you encounter in the supernatural world has had something bad happen to them. Mine have been worse than some. But there’s also a lot of people who were a lot less lucky than me.”
“If you insist on getting involved,” I told him quietly, “there is an excellent chance that something equally bad will happen to you. You think that I can protect you from the bad things out there. I can’t.” I shook my head and laughed a little. “I can’t even protect myself. Every single person I have ever introduced to this stuff has ended up worse off for it.”
He thought that over for a bit while we left the safe room. I think by that point none of us wanted to stay there any longer than we absolutely had to. Once we were back in the main part of the house, he finally spoke up.
“If you had the chance to choose over, would you have gotten involved?”
I smiled a little at that, because he was making a terribly inaccurate assumption. I never chose to get involved in the first place. I was born with magic in my blood, and it had done almost as good a job at driving me nuts as lycanthropy ever did.
That said, it wasn’t a question I’d ever really asked myself before. I’m not much given to considering problems I can’t solve. Now that I did, I was actually a little surprised at my answer.
“There are terrible things,” I said slowly. “Things that I would rather not have experienced. Things that I would rather not know about. But there are good things out there too. Beautiful things.” I shrugged. “And this is who I am. What I am. So no. If I had the choice, I wouldn’t change that.”
None of us said anything until we were outside the house. Then, sounding somewhat nervous but resolute, he said “I’m in, then.”
That was good. Smart enough to be afraid, but not letting that stop him. That was the attitude you need to survive in my world.
“Although not right now,” he added as an afterthought. “I still have a job.”
I laughed. “That’s fine. I have other things to do right now, too. How about I call you in the next few days to line things up?”
He agreed, and shortly thereafter it was just Kyra and me standing there. I checked the time, and—somewhat to my surprise—saw that it was already two-thirty. That left me only half an hour before my next meeting.
“Hey,” I said to Kyra. “You mind giving me a ride to Alexander’s place?”
She shrugged. “Sure.” She’d been there once or twice, although she hadn’t ever met him. As far as I knew she didn’t especially want to, either. Kyra was not at all interested in supernatural politics or concerns beyond the pack. I couldn’t really blame her for that. In a lot of ways she had even less choice about becoming a part of it than I did.
You have to have some idea how lycanthropy works for this to make sense. It’s not a curse you can break, or anything like that. It isn’t something that happens to you at all. It’s more like something you become. So going from a werewolf back to a human isn’t really possible. It wouldn’t be enough to undo the magic that changed you; you’d have to reverse the process and convert all of your magic from werewolf back to human. It makes certain changes to your body, too, which would need to be undone.
In other words, it’s not possible. There are ways to stop a person from becoming a werewolf, but once it’s already happened it’s pretty much set in stone.
That’s the case for me, at any rate. The thing is that not all of the players in the supernatural world play by the same rules as me, or the werewolves for that matter. Some of them operate on an entirely different level.
There are entities out there that are so far beyond me that there is literally no comparison. Beings whose power is such that what is impossible to me is light work for them. We’re talking about the kinds of things that were worshipped as gods, back in the day, and had the power to back it up.
This is what really happened. One night, in the midst of my interminable imprisonment, a man entered the safe room. Except that the door never opened, and in fact he didn’t come in by any means that I could understand. He was just there.
At first I thought it was another fever dream. I had a certain amount of reason for this, admittedly. He looked a bit like a warped reflection of myself. He was tall, better than six foot, whereas I’m barely average for an adult male human. Other than that, though, he looked like someone had taken all my distinctive features and ramped them up to eleven.
Where I’m lean, he was gaunt to an extent that even the fae mercenary’s disguise hadn’t approached. You could reasonably say that he looked like skin and bones without exaggerating. Where my hair is a dull, even shade of charcoal grey, his was mottled grey and silver and looked like a pelt. Where my eyes are a shade of amber barely within human possibility, his were literally golden and reflected the light of the half-full moon like a cat’s.
The funny thing is that I remember all that, with a perfect and unnatural clarity, but other things are strangely fuzzy. I don’t know what he was wearing, where he was within the safe room, nothing like that. I don’t even remember what I thought of his appearance, or whether I reacted when I realized that he was there.
What I do remember is his voice. He sounded wrong, absolutely inhuman in a way that words cannot express. His voice sounded like it was made up of thousands of other sounds assembled into a semblance of human speech. The growls and snarls of wolves, the wind howling through leafless trees, the brittle sound of breaking ice, all pulled together into a rough imitation of words.
For all of that, what he said was perfectly clear. He said, “Do you want to be free?”
I was partially insane. I was sure that I was hallucinating. I was still relatively uneducated about the supernatural. All of that can perhaps explain how I responded, but most certainly does not justify it.
I said, “More than anything.”
That’s the last thing I remember before I woke up the next morning. If that had been the end of it I would have dismissed it as the hallucination it initially seemed to be, but there was one very important difference.
When I woke up, the parts of myself that I thought of as coming most directly from the influence of the werewolf in me—the need to hunt, for example, or the driving urge to escape my cell—were gone. No slow waning, no nothing. Just gone. I tried to change almost immediately, and for the first time in months I couldn’t. I was, for better or worse, stuck as a human.
All of this might strike you as a good thing. The only problem is that the basic law of the universe is that you can’t get something for nothing. It doesn’t matter how much magic you have, you can’t change the essential nature of the world. For every action there will be an equal and opposite reaction.
Or, to phrase it more simply: ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.
What the entity had said hadn’t been a simple inquiry; it was also an offer. One which I, in my ignorance, had accepted thoughtlessly. And, from any reasonable perspective, he had followed through on his end. He had not only arranged for me to escape the confines of my cell, he had provided me with freedom from the influences and powers which had landed me there in the first place. He had fulfilled his part of the deal.
Except that deal hadn’t covered what I would do to repay him. Not even a little.
The supernatural world runs on concepts of debt and obligation. After what he’d done, I was heavily indebted to him—and I’d never had a chance to repay that debt.
Which meant that, any time he cared to collect, he owned me. Pretty much literally. Every law and treaty governing my portion of the world would be solidly on his side. And, for an entity with enough power to do what he did to me, collecting that debt would be a simple prospect. Even if I fought, I didn’t have enough power to threaten the likes of him even under ideal circumstances.
Needless to say I had no intention of explaining this to Enrico or Kyra, ever. That isn’t the sort of thing you tell anybody. I mean, it’s one thing to sell your soul. But I didn’t even know who the buyer was, and that’s a dangerous position to be in.