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.
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.