Alexander Hoffman was a wizard. Not a fake or a pretender, which most of the people who claim that title are. He was the real deal. Wielder of power beyond mortal ken, subtle and quick to anger, the whole thing.
Quite simply, he was the single most powerful and skilled mage I had ever met. Since I first met him a couple months ago I’d been taking lessons from him on a semi-regular basis, and I’ve only become more impressed over time.
I should make something clear here. I have magic. More of it than most of the independent operators in the supernatural world. Within a certain few, specific domains I even have skill. I’m pretty good.
That said, I don’t hold a candle to Alexander. He has an order of magnitude more power than I do, combined with skill and experience gained over God alone knows how long. Mages, unlike werewolves, are not immune to time—but if you know how, there are plenty of ways to change that. Most of them aren’t very nice, but then most of magic isn’t.
Long story short, if Alexander ever really got mad at me, he could crush me like a bug. Odds are good I wouldn’t ever even know about it. I’d just be walking along some day when my head exploded or he lit me on fire from the inside out from a mile away. I haven’t exactly seen a lot of high-level practitioners at work, but I have a suspicion that Alexander is one of the best there is.
And yet he lives in a small two-story house painted lilac and trimmed in maroon. I hadn’t seen much of the interior, but what I have more or less matches the outside. Lots of bizarre and tacky trinkets, for the most part.
I pounded on the door with the antique brass knocker he used instead of a doorbell. No matter how many times I saw it, I could never quite decide what it was supposed to be. Sometimes I thought it was a particularly hideous Victorian-style cherub. Other times, like today, it looked more like a constipated garden gnome.
About fifteen seconds later, he opened the door. As always it was seriously locked, and even when he opened it, it only moved about two inches before being caught by the chain. Said chain was clearly a custom model, with quarter-inch-thick links made from solid steel. The surface of the metal was covered in a tracery of other metals, silver prominent among them, forming a complicated runic pattern across the surface. I could smell the magic of Alexander’s warding spells like the tang of heated metal, particularly strong around the chain itself.
Alexander himself was glowering at me from the other side of the door. Every time I’d seen him he’d been wearing some form of pajamas, and today was no exception.
When he saw me standing on the other side, his expression warmed—but only slightly. Alexander doesn’t, as far as I know, really do friendly. He nodded to me marginally, made a grunting sound that might have been “Winter” if he’d put more effort into it, and unlatched the chain to let me in.
I’m bad at small talk. Like, really bad. So is he, and as a result nothing was said until we were down in the laboratory. It’s accessed via a trapdoor in one corner of the front room, which he keeps covered with a Godzilla rug when not in use.
Alexander’s lab is an amazing place. You could literally spend days on end down there trying to catalogue things and still have only a small idea of what all he had. It doesn’t help that things are constantly changing. He makes most of his money selling the things he can make with magic, so things vanish from the lab as he finds buyers. He also adds things all the time, that he either makes or trades for. This time he’d ditched the glass globe in the corner, which had been about three feet in diameter and filled with a thick, billowing black mist. In its place was something that looked a bit like those skeleton models they use in anatomy classes, except that the bones looked like they’d been selected from at least a dozen animals and wired into the rough shape of a human. It was disturbing, and yet also strangely difficult to look away from.
“So,” Alexander said as we made our way to the main workbench, in the center of the big room. It was the only part of the lab that was clean; there were a ton of other countertops and such, but most of them were covered in half-finished projects. “What do you want to work on today?” He asks every time; oddly enough, though, whatever I say we end up doing what he thinks I need to work on.
“Actually, there was something I’ve been hoping to ask you.”
“Really? What is it?” Alexander said, sounding interested.
“How much do you know about the fae?”
He gave me an irritated look. “You should know better than that. I know enough. Now what’s your actual question?” He sat on one of the tall, battered stools around the table.
I briefly explained what had happened with the fae mercenary. Then I outlined what Christopher had said about it.
“Interesting,” he said. “So did you always get into this much trouble, or is that only since I met you?”
I ignored him, instead phrasing my question. “So was what Christopher was saying accurate, do you think? Is this some sort of fae political game?”
He shrugged. “Maybe. I honestly don’t know about the mercenary. I’ve never had much need for that sort of thing, so I don’t know much about how they operate.”
“That’s not actually what I was talking about. I’m a lot more concerned with the motive.”
He smiled thinly. “Finally you show some intelligence. I don’t know about that one either. It sounds reasonable enough.”
I nodded. “So do you know which of the fae are the most likely to arrange something like this?”
He looked at me like an exceptionally dim pupil. “Winter. Do you know why I live like this?”
“Because I hate politics. I refuse to play political games. I work on a strictly personal basis, one thing traded for another. I have no political agenda to advance. So why would you think I’m a good person to ask that question?”
I flushed a little. “Right. So who would be a good person to ask?”
“I take it talking to your contacts among the wolves is out of the question?”
“Absolutely. I’d rather deal with an independent operator.” Until I had more information, I didn’t want word of this to get to the Khan, which it inevitably would if I told any of the werewolves. And I sure as hell wasn’t asking Christopher.
He shrugged. “You’re more or less out of luck, then. The fae are big on secrets. You’d pretty much have to ask one of them to learn anything useful about their politics.”
I nodded glumly. I’d been afraid of that; I mean, they do have a reputation as maybe the most secretive groups in a secretive world. “How much is that kind of information likely to cost me?”
“Depends on a couple of things.” He counted them off on his fingers. “One, what information do you really need? Two, which of the fae do you ask? Three, what kind of relationship do you have with them?”
Made sense. “So I should consider asking that Twilight Prince that owes me a favor?” I wasn’t entirely sure who she (Twilight Princes are all Princes, gender notwithstanding) was, but I was sure I could figure it out if I wanted to badly enough.
He shuddered. “Not unless you’re truly desperate. Making deals with the Twilight is a bad idea. You’re better off with the lesser fae. They might cost a lot, but at least you know what they’ll cost you before you’re paying.”
Wow. I hadn’t ever heard that much emotion out of the old wizard in that few words. Which, in turn, made me wonder what bargain he’d once struck with one of the Twilight.
And what currency he’d paid in.
“Actually,” he continued thoughtfully, “you might want to consider a familiar. If you had that sort of relationship you’d have someone you could ask your questions without incurring debt.”
“I thought familiar spirits were more of a shaman thing,” I said hesitantly.
He gave me a look of deep disgust. “That brings us to something I’ve been meaning to talk to you about, actually. If you don’t mind changing the subject.”
I assented. “When you were starting out,” he said, standing and taking on the attitude of a lecturing professor, “did you learn about different kinds of mages?”
I nodded. “I was taught that there are five basic kinds of mage.”
“Really?” he said. “What are they?”
“Wizards and sorcerers,” I recited dutifully. “Druids and shamans. Witches.” Or, to use another way of phrasing I’d learned, external energies and internal, the physical world and the spiritual, and the beings that move through them.
He nodded. “Not a bad system. When I was growing up they still used a nine-part system.”
I frowned. “What were the other four?”
He shrugged. “They divided witches into physical and mental. Other than that there were alchemists, conjurers, and enchanters. It doesn’t really matter. The important part is that most of what you know about mages is wrong.”
I blinked. “I don’t understand. Why would I have learned it if it was wrong?” Admittedly I’d learned most of what I knew about magic from assorted old werewolves, but they generally knew what they were talking about.
“Because it’s a necessary teaching aid,” he said. “But it’s time for you to be moving past that.” He saw that I didn’t understand and sighed. “Look. What’s the difference between, say, a witch and a wizard?”
“Wizards manipulate external forces, while witches make connections with other—”
He cut me off. “Not that. That’s a difference in what they do. I want to know what the difference is in what they are.”
I thought about it a minute. “I don’t know,” I admitted eventually.
He nodded. “You’re smart enough to realize it, at least. The difference is perspective.”
“Perspective. That’s the secret. There is no difference in what they are. The only difference is in how they perceive what they are.”
“I don’t understand,” I said, puzzled. “Witches and wizards do completely different things. How can there not be a difference between them.”
He sighed and seemed to try a different tack. “Magic is basically the manipulation of forces, correct? You can add in all the philosophy and such that you like, but that’s the essence. You’re manipulating forces and energies.”
“Right,” I said, nodding. That much agreed with what I knew.
“So how do you do it?” Alexander asked. He didn’t give me a chance to answer, continuing without a pause. “With your mind. Some people have a natural ability to detect magic. Having detected it, you can learn to affect it. For reasons largely unknown to us—and totally unimportant to you, at this point—magical energies are sensitive to will. To our thoughts and desires, appropriately expressed. With me so far?”
I nodded silently.
“So,” he asked conversationally. “Are all mages alike? Or are we all different? All unique?”
I opened my mouth to say that of course we were all the same, that was what he’d just said. Then, suddenly, I understood what he was getting at and grinned. “We’re people, right? And no two people are alike.”
He nodded. “Exactly. Your mind is influenced by a great many factors. Those influences are numerous and complex enough that you are, for all practical purposes, unique. There is no other person alive who is exactly the same as you are. And, naturally, your mind influences your magic. It can’t be otherwise, because that’s simply how magic works.”
“People can be grouped in some ways, though,” he continued. “And those are the groupings you learned. One wizard perceives and interprets the world in much the same way as another, because that is what it means to be a wizard.”
“How is that?” I asked curiously.
“Essentially, we see the world as being composed of energies. Forces. Everything is under the influence of forces. Understand the forces and you understand the world. What you understand, you can control. I won’t pretend to understand what all of these forces are. But I understand some of them. The simpler ones. Things like heat. Light. Movement. Those are forces any physicist knows.”
His face had taken on a dreamy look. “But there are other forces. Time is a force. So is love. Even magic, when you get right down to it, is just another collection of forces.”
I had to fight to repress a shiver. What he was saying made sense, in some ways, but…it creeped me out. That world seemed like a barren, desolate place to me, with little room in it for the things that mattered more to me. Things like friendship, or morality, or even life itself.
Alexander noticed my expression and nodded knowingly. “I’m guessing that’s not how you look at things, though. Right?” I opened my mouth to make some sort of explanation, but he just laughed. “Don’t worry about it, Winter. There isn’t a right or wrong answer to questions like this. It’s more like right or left. What do I care if you take a different path? They’re all going to the same place.”
Huh. That sounded almost philosophical, which was odd for Alexander. It made sense, too, which was even stranger.
“What you believe is your own business,” he told me. “The important thing to recognize is that at this point, it doesn’t matter. Magic is magic, regardless of what you believe it to be or how you think of it.”
“But wizards and witches do different things,” I pointed out. “Isn’t that difference important?”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But let me ask you something.” He pointed toward a thick, ugly beeswax candle on an adjacent table. “If I told you to light that with magic, could you do it?”
I shrugged. “Sure.”
He nodded. “So could any mage. Why?”
“Because it’s a simple use of magic?” I guessed.
“And more precisely?” he pressed.
I shrugged helplessly.
“Because they all have an idea of what magic is. And they all have an idea of what fire is. All you have to do is line those ideas up.” He held up one finger. “But wizards have an advantage. Why?”
I thought about it for a minute. “Because wizards think of things in terms of energy,” I said eventually. “And because heat is basically an energy, that’s a good way to think of it.”
He nodded approvingly. “Exactly. Fire is, at heart, a concept we use to refer to an exothermic chemical reaction. I naturally think of the forces involved which can produce such a reaction. Heat, most simply, light or friction if I have to. That lets me approach the problem directly.” He paused. “What does that approach not work as well for?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. “People,” I said confidently.
He nodded. “Exactly. People are difficult to break down into basic forces. A witch’s approach, or a druid’s, works better for that. But the point is that any approach can, theoretically, work. A witch, who thinks of the world primarily in terms of the beings in it, might conceive of the idea of flame rather than the real thing, and use that to light the candle. A druid convinces the world that the candle belongs on fire, or finds the potential for flame already in the candle and makes it a reality. Totally different approaches from mine.” He shrugged. “The candle gets lit no matter what.”
I considered that. “That makes sense. Are there any things that only a wizard could do?”
“Of course. Why?”
“Because they involve more complicated forces?” I hazarded.
He shook his head. “Not more complicated. More pure. Fire isn’t simply a force, you see. It has ideas associated with it. Energies. It’s an exothermic reaction, but it also has an existence beyond that fact. That’s why there are so many avenues that can reach it more or less equally well. There are other things—pure heat, for example, or gravity—which are almost pure forces. They’re harder to understand in other ways.”
“Huh. So all the categorization basically just says what kinds of magic you work with more easily?”
He shrugged. “Ignoring what it says about you on a deeper level? Pretty much.” He brushed his hands together as though dusting something unpleasant off of them. “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, can we get back to your actual lesson? Lovely,” he said, not waiting to hear my answer. “To continue our earlier theme, I’d like to spend some time talking about the Otherside and spiritual entities. There are a number of ways you can access the Otherside, most of which require a significant investiture of energy to accomplish…”
Alexander produced a piece of slate from one of the many drawers of his worktable and began writing formulae across it. Wizard or not, a lot of the more advanced magic I’d been learning involved math (unfortunately), and I leaned forward to watch.
I arrived home about three hours later, tired but satisfied. After he finished lecturing I’d spent some time working on my current project under his watchful eye. It was in line with my talents, but nothing like I’d ever done before, and the amount of magic required was significant.
What Alexander had said about magic being an external energy was true. I am not personally capable of powering my own magic for any significant length of time; the energy requirements are simply too high, and you pretty much have to draw on environmental sources to get anything done. But controlling the magic takes its own toll on you, mentally and physically. It’s draining, and although I’d been getting much more practice in recent months than ever before, I was still pretty tired from the evening’s work.
So, when I got home, I was looking forward to a long shower, dinner, and maybe a few minutes spent reading before bed. I did not anticipate finding anyone else there, and in fact I wasn’t aware of them until I walked into my pseudo-living room and found them on the couch.
I should perhaps say something about how remarkable this was. They hadn’t left any physical scent around the trailer, not even at the front door. There was no magical aura, even within the room, which is unusual to say the least around supernatural beings. There were no tracks, and no means of transportation nearby to show how they got there. Even the delicate web of energy which, at Alexander’s suggestion, I had begun leaving around all the doors hadn’t been interrupted, which it should have been if anyone other than me had entered or left.
My first indication that something was wrong was when I saw Snowflake asleep next to the woodstove. There was a merry fire going, even though I hadn’t lit one this morning. She didn’t react at all to my presence, not even to twitch her ears. Normally she would wake out of a sound sleep when I came home, and still move fast enough to meet me at the door.
When I walked in I was sure that they were there to kill me. That is, generally speaking, an appropriate reaction to finding two men sitting on your couch when you’ve already been involved in one serious violent encounter that week. When one of them is holding a huge freaking rifle, it’s just that much easier.
It took me only half a second, though, to notice something else. The man with the gun had a strangely vacant expression on his face. I don’t mean that he looked like his attention had wandered off for a moment. Nothing like that. It was more like there was no him left. He didn’t react at all to my coming in, not even a reflexive twitch to look at the door. He kept staring straight forward at the wall, not blinking at all.
The same could not be said of the other man. He leapt to his feet and, grinning from ear to ear, bowed to me. The expression, twisted as it was by the numerous scars around his mouth, was in no way comforting.
“Winter,” he said, his voice perfectly suited to his appearance—which is to say it was enthused, pleased, and a bit unnerving for no reason I could tell. “How are you doing?”
I stared at him. Then, making no effort to sound friendly, I said, “Who are you and what the hell are you doing in my house?”
I don’t like strangers. I especially don’t like strangers in my home. I have territoriality issues, and while I don’t claim much territory, what I do claim is mine.
He seemed to muse on the question for a moment. “Well,” he said slowly, “I’ve come a long way to get here, so why don’t you call me Traveler?” He seemed terribly amused by that, laughing so hard he doubled over and then had to sit down again, wiping his eyes. They were intensely blue, the deep blue of the sky at midnight on a moonless night.
I wasn’t laughing. “And why are you here?”
He grinned at me again, and I had to work to keep from shivering. There was something intrinsically, inexplicably wrong with that smile. “I,” he said slowly, “am here for a pleasant chat. But this fellow,” he gestured vaguely at his companion, “came here intending to kill you if I’m not mistaken.” He paused. “Unless you know why else someone would be waiting with a fifty-caliber rifle pointed at your front door. If he’s a friend of yours, well, I’m terribly sorry, of course.” His voice was mocking now.
I frowned and walked closer. The other man didn’t react at all. He still wasn’t blinking, was barely even breathing. I grabbed the gun and found that it was, indeed, a high-caliber sniper rifle, although there were no marks to say where it had come from or who the maker was. It was loaded with silver, too, which was overkill on a grand scale. Werewolves have incredible healing abilities, sure, and I could go even further than the average werewolf if I really had to—but there are limits. A fifty-caliber round to the head is pretty much beyond them.
I mean, shit. You don’t even have a head after that. Pretty hard to fix something like that.
I gave Traveler a hard look. “So why didn’t he?” I demanded.
He shrugged and snapped his fingers next to the man’s ear. There was no reaction, and Traveler sighed. “Humans are such fragile things, don’t you know? You can hardly even start to play with them before they break. Not like werewolves, are they?”
I stared for a moment. “Are you saying you did this to him?” I whispered, horrified.
He shrugged again. “With him, to him, doesn’t make much difference in the end, does it?” He grinned at me.
I looked at the man, and realized that my first impression had been right. That wasn’t a man anymore. There wasn’t a person on the other end of those dry, unblinking eyes. Just a pile of meat only barely holding to life. And I saw, deep in those eyes, that there was just enough left of what he had once been to realize what had happened, and to suffer because of it.
Death would be kinder.
I shuddered and looked away. Traveler leaned over and patted me comfortingly on the back. “You are new to this, aren’t you?” he said gently. “It’s okay. You weren’t exactly the first bad thing he was going to do. I didn’t see much, but I saw that.”
I pushed his hand away roughly. Then I closed my eyes, took a couple deep breaths through my nose, and opened them again. When I spoke again, my voice sounded more or less normal again.
I’m always all right. More or less.
I desperately wanted to ask if he’d done something to Snowflake as well—she was still sleeping by the fire, still hadn’t shown any sign of knowing that any of us was there. On the off chance that he hadn’t, though, I didn’t want to draw his attention to her. So, instead, I asked, “Why?
He shrugged. “Seemed like the least I could do. Common courtesy and all that.” He grinned again, twisted and mocking. “Besides. Hard to have a chat with someone after they’re dead.” Which was reasonable enough, assuming that was indeed why he was here—which I didn’t.
I sat on the chair. It wasn’t pretty, having been pieced together from the assorted scraps of a dozen larger projects in Val’s shop, but it was surprisingly comfortable.
I would be more vulnerable sitting down, but that quite simply didn’t matter. Whatever Traveler had said, destroying someone’s mind like that isn’t easy. Not at all. People are fairly resilient, and if you attack them they get home-field advantage.
Someone who could do that just to have a chat with a stranger, who spoke of crushing a person’s mind as casually as a sports game, was utterly beyond me.
“So what do you want to talk about?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “You, more or less. You’ve been attracting attention lately, you know.” He smiled at me, a thin shark-like smile that showed a lot of teeth and very little mirth. It bore no resemblance to his previous grins whatsoever. They had been mocking, laughing grins, but at the same time they’d felt hollow. This one, though cold and dangerous, was more honest. It seemed more suited to his face, somehow.
“How so?” I asked. “I haven’t done anything that remarkable.”
“Really? I heard that not half a year ago you countered a ploy by quite an intelligent adversary. One with far more experience than you have.” He looked at me seriously and finished in a near whisper. “Few can say they have done something more remarkable, Winter.”
I frowned. “I don’t get it. Garrett was bad news, but he wasn’t that tough.”
He raised an eyebrow incredulously. “You think that was your enemy?” He snorted. “That pathetic wreck was a tool. Nothing more. Nothing less.” He leaned forward and focused on me intently. “The hand holding the tool was your true foe.”
I thought that through. Even at the time, I’d speculated that Garrett might not really be the mastermind behind the attacks that fall. The plan had been intricate, cunning, and grandiose beyond anything I’d ever seen. For a newbie like him to have come up with it would be incredible.
Besides which, someone had to have taught him a certain amount of magic. How to summon and bind a demon. How to use the power it granted to do unnatural things to yourself and the world around you. It was not at all unreasonable to say that the person who taught him had been the one actually in control the whole time.
But that changed things, too. Garrett I could believe had been trying to spark a war between the fae and the werewolves out of hatred—not to mention killing a number of members of the local supernatural community along the way. But serious players don’t generally act from motivations that simplistic. If they did, they wouldn’t have gotten to be serious players in the first place. Which left only political ambition as a reasonable motivation.
Traveler smiled. “Exactly,” he said. “Politics are worse than any monster, aren’t they?”
Holy crap. He’d heard me thinking. There hadn’t been any intrusion into my mind—I would have felt something like that. The fact remained that he had known what was going through my head, further supporting my guess that he was seriously powerful.
It didn’t seem like it would make a difference, so I thought out loud for the rest of it. “If someone that heavy was behind it,” I said slowly, “then what I was seeing wasn’t a fraction of what was really going on. People like that don’t mess around with small stuff.” I paused as something I’d been trying not to think about occurred to me again. “There was a Twilight Prince at that fight out in the forest, too. So at least two heavies involved.”
Traveler smiled at me and said nothing. He said it very loudly, too.
“So. For one Twilight Prince to act directly against the minion of another suggests that they’re enemies.” I frowned. “Opponents, at least. On opposite sides in the argument over the treaty with the werewolves, probably.”
“Actually,” he interjected, “that’s pretty small business to them too. One point of contest among many.”
That was when it really sunk in what I had involved myself in. A political struggle that spanned centuries, if not freaking millennia. Beings so powerful they could treat the relations between two of the stronger political entities in the modern supernatural world like small change.
Then another, even worse thought occurred to me. “And I helped one of them,” I said, “and killed the other one’s toy.” I shook my head grimly. “People like that hold a grudge. Shit.”
He nodded, smiling cheerfully. “Yep. You’ve made yourself into another piece in the games they play. One of them tries to get revenge on you. The other blocks, to keep the opponent from having the satisfaction.” He shrugged. “They’re fairly well matched on the whole. The vast majority of their efforts balance out.”
His words sent a chill down my spine. If you’ve ever played chess, even very casually, you can perhaps understand why. A skilled player will naturally try to prevent the opponent from taking even a pawn, because it’s never good to let your enemy get what they want and because sometimes even a pawn can be important.
But if you have a chance to exchange that pawn for something you value more? You take it, no questions asked. And sure, sometimes that sacrifice is vitally important in bringing about your eventual victory—but that doesn’t help the pawn.
It doesn’t matter who wins. Most of the pieces usually get taken on both sides. I’d never played the real-world equivalent, but I was willing to bet it wasn’t much kinder to the pawns.
“I have two questions left,” I said eventually. “One, who the hell are these people?”
He looked at me soberly. “I can’t tell you that. I know a handful of the players in the game, but not which sides they’ve taken on this particular issue. I certainly don’t know which of them are fighting over you.”
Lovely. Now I only wished it was chess they were playing. At least a two-player game I can keep track of.
“Two,” I said, “whose side are you on?”
He smiled, and even though the expression was a little sad it seemed to me that it held something of the manic laughter from earlier. “Mine, of course.”
I rolled my eyes. “Aren’t you a wiseguy. Why are you telling me this?”
He shrugged. “You amuse me. You threw a wrench into the wheels of their precious machine, and damn me if that wasn’t a fine jest.”
I waited a moment, but that seemed to be all the strange man had to say. “That’s it?” I said incredulously. “You came here just because you think I’m funny?” I shook my head. “Damn. You, Traveler, have way too much time on your hands.”
He laughed. “See? That’s what I’m talking about. You sit there, knowing full well that if I wanted to I could kill you right now and you would be powerless to stop me.” His voice wasn’t bragging, or anything like that. He stated it with the same calm certainty you would use to explain that the sky is blue, or that two plus two is four. He said it like a fact that wasn’t even worth considering, it was so obvious.
Which was fair enough, I supposed. That was pretty much the case.
“And yet,” he continued, “you still crack jokes at my expense.” He shook his head, grinning. “I admire that kind of attitude. Most people take themselves much too seriously for my taste.”
“I still don’t get it. Why would you invest this much effort just because I amused you briefly?” I didn’t for a second believe that my actions had been important to him, not even enough to laugh at for more than a moment.
He regarded me seriously. “In the extremely unlikely event that you live to be as old as I am,” he said soberly, “you will find that there are things that continue to threaten you, regardless of how much power you come to hold. Because power is as nothing to them. Boredom is a greater threat to me than all of my enemies combined. For you to lift that threat, even for an instant, is a service I appreciate. For such a deed as that, being told things you already know is surely only a small recompense.”
I considered that for a moment. Assuming he was immortal—which seemed entirely likely to me—that was actually fairly reasonable. I mean, after a few thousand years, life probably gets boring, right?
“Maybe,” I said quietly, “you’d be willing to make up the rest by telling me things I don’t know.”
He laughed. “Winter, I could tell you things you don’t know for ten years on end, without stopping, and still have things to say. But the things you need to know? Those I can’t tell you.”
I frowned. In my experience, when someone dances around an offer without ever actually refusing, it means that they aren’t unwilling to help you. They’re just waiting for you to ask for the right thing.
“Can you put me in contact with someone who can?” I asked.
His smile widened. “No. But I can put you in a situation where you can contact them yourself.”
“At what price?”
“Fool me twice, eh?” he murmured. “Nothing so bad as that, trust me. You’ll owe me one service, of your choosing. If I don’t call it in within ten years and a day, or if another comes to own your services, then you’re free.” He smirked knowingly.
Well, crap. Either he was messing with my head, or he knew about the bargain I’d unwittingly made to get out of lycanthropy. Or, if I had any idea whatsoever about what he was and what motivated him, both.
That said, it was about as sweet a deal as I could hope for. Granted I would still need to bargain for the information itself, but if I could choose the service and any service would do, it couldn’t be that onerous to repay. After all, if I really had to, I could always defer for the full ten years (assuming I lived that long) and get out of paying entirely.
“You can do this within a reasonable time frame?” I asked, more to give myself a chance to think than anything.
He gave me a mildly insulted look. “Of course,” he said, sounding a bit offended that I would doubt it. “Within three days.”
I sighed and put my hand out. “Deal.”
He shook it, smiling again. “Bargain struck, Winter Wolf,” he whispered. He let go of my hand and took a step back.
And then, without even a whisper of magic that I could detect, Traveler was gone. The man he’d destroyed vanished too—although I noticed that he left the rifle, as a gift perhaps.
I was left alone with a sleeping dog, the start of a headache, and the uncomfortable feeling that I’d just screwed myself. Again.