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.