It was a Saturday, so I didn’t bother going to work. I had other things to think about, things which would likely be of far greater importance to me than my shop. I woke up a little late, about nine, which irritated me. I hate being thrown off my schedule.
I’d finished about half my bowl of cereal when a UPS truck delivered a large box to my door. It was ordinary, anonymous cardboard, and had no return address. I debated whether it might be a bomb, but eventually decided that anyone trying to kill me had more effective ways available to them than this. I mean, if they really wanted to deliver a letter bomb, they could certainly come up with a less suspicious delivery. It was just too obvious to be serious.
Unless, of course, they were counting on my saying that. Maybe they were so devious that they’d expected and relied upon my dismissive attitude and it really was an attack.
That’s what I hate most about the paranoia routine, sometimes. It’s easy to fall into Princess Bride territory. I mean, it was possible that they knew that I knew that they knew that this was too obvious to succeed, in which case I obviously couldn’t trust the box in front of me. But then I had to consider whether they knew that I knew that they knew that I knew that they knew, in which case—actually, that’s where it falls apart, because there was no box in front of them. But if that was the case they would be counting on me to treat this box as a threat, in which case I shouldn’t.
In the end I went with my usual answer. I went back and finished eating, because life is too short to waste food. Especially because, these days, I had enough money that I didn’t even have to buy generic.
Luxury is an interesting thing, because there is quite literally nothing so mundane that somebody isn’t grateful to have it.
Less than ten minutes later, Aiko walked in my door. “Sweet,” she said. “Package got here.”
“Oh,” I said, “that’s yours? Why’d you send it here then?”
“Where else would it go?” she said reasonably. Then she hefted it easily, though I knew it weighed better than sixty pounds, and walked over to hand it to me. “Happy birthday,” she said happily.
I eyed it. “Aiko. It’s July.”
“I was aware of that, thank you.”
“My birthday’s in September.”
She waited and, when it became clear that I had nothing else to say, rolled her eyes. “And?”
“Maybe you didn’t realize this, but it’s customary to present people with birthday gifts on their birthday. Rather than, you know, some random day two months in advance.”
“Granted,” she admitted. “But I think you’re a special case. I mean, if I wait until your birthday, you’ll probably be dead. And imagine how terrible I’d feel if you died before I gave you your present. Plus there’d be all that work wasted. So I figured I’d better give it to you now.”
I think the worst thing about spending so much time around a sanity-challenged kitsune is that sometimes, when she really gets going, it takes me a while to realize that not only has she lapsed into her own idiosyncratic logic process, I’m still nodding along because it actually makes sense. I mean, if that isn’t a sign you ought to get your head checked I don’t know what is.
“If nothing else,” Aiko added, “think of it as a preventative measure. I figure you’re a little less likely to die with it than without, so….”
Well, that clinched it. I wasn’t too proud to take every advantage that came my way. I grabbed a knife and, carefully, sliced open the box to reveal…another box, just inside. This one was wrapped, as I discovered when I pulled it out. Somehow I was pretty sure that whoever had wrapped it was not quite normal either. Normal people don’t generally wrap gifts in black paper covered in skeletons playing ice hockey, and using their skulls as pucks.
It was wrapped badly, too. Badly enough to make me think of someone who hadn’t ever wrapped a gift before, and had only heard it described by a secondhand source. There were at least five pieces of paper, large sections of which hung slack, and gaps where I could clearly see the cardboard underneath. The sheet of paper stapled to the top read, simply, “From: Me. To: You.”
I looked curiously at Aiko, who just smiled cryptically. (Incidentally, have you ever actually tried to smile cryptically? It’s hard. Most of the time when I try I just look like I ate a live snake and it’s currently contesting the victory.)
It did not take me long to finish opening the thing. It was full of Styrofoam peanuts, which inevitably spilled all across the floor. I just knew I was going to be finding the things for months. In a very short time more, the contents of the box were resting on the floor and gleaming. I didn’t have to guess what they were, either.
Armor. Serious armor, not the improv stuff I used. It was the same kind of armor I’d seen Aiko wear, actually, scale and plate in the style of feudal Japan. There was a breastplate with sleeves, armored gloves, greaves and tassets and pauldrons and everything.
It looked very different from hers, though. Her armor was all in shades of crimson and gold, trimmed with black. In comparison mine was plain, even stark. Ebony and white, flat and sharply delineated. The trim and details were in cold shades, azure and violet and viridian, all so deep as to look black at first glance. Pretty, sure, but not friendly looking. Especially not with the studded gloves and ridged pauldrons. Spiked armor looks impressive, but not in a good-guy kind of way.
And, last but most definitely not least, where the face of her helmet was sculpted into a fairly generic-looking demonic visage, mine was very obviously that of a snarling wolf.
I stared for a while. “You shouldn’t have,” I said eventually. “This must have cost a fortune.”
“Actually,” she said, “my cousin made it. And since he’s filthy rich and he likes me, it was free.” Her lips twitched. “Fortunately, I know your size.”
“Ah,” I said, flushing slightly. “Yes. Well. Um. What’s it made of? It feels lighter than I’d expect.”
She shrugged. “Beats me. It’s some alloy he developed. Has enough of a steel content to piss off any faeries that try and eat you.” She reached out and flipped over one of the greaves to reveal an interior lined with thick, soft-looking black fabric. “Kevlar liner,” she explained smugly. “Stop anything short of military-grade rounds, even without the armor over it. And you get free repairs for life.”
I grinned appreciatively. “Nice.” Armor was great and all, but the truth is that even in my crowd, guns are a wee bit more efficient than swords, Tyrfing excepted. “Thank you, Aiko.”
She shrugged carelessly. “Don’t mention it.”
“I won’t,” I promised. “Also, did the helmet have to be a wolf?”
“You have a theme,” she explained. “I wouldn’t want to mess with your style.”
I sighed. Of course. Why is it that I can never seem to get people to believe that the only reason I have a wolf motif is a series of unfortunate coincidences?
“Any new developments in the psycho-killer scene?” she asked after a moment.
“Maybe,” I said, and then proceeded to explain everything that had happened the previous day. She laughed her head off at the guy who called himself Inferno.
“So how’d they find you?” she asked when I’d finished.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, they were looking for you specifically. And they sure as hell didn’t pick a random street and wait for you to show up.”
“Oh, that. I’m pretty sure I saw at least a couple of them in Pryce’s bar. They saw me come in.”
“How’d they know you were coming?”
I shrugged. “Who knows? For that matter, coulda been coincidence. They were already there for other reasons, I walked in, they recognized me. Once they did all they would have needed to do is figure out where I’m going—not hard to do—and set up an ambush.”
“Huh. Not bad for amateur work.” She grinned. “Beat you at your own game, didn’t they?”
“Yeah, guess so.” I frowned, though. Something about that phrase….
That’s when it finally all fell into place. Beat me at my own game. Yeah, they had…but what if I wasn’t the only one?
“What is it, Winter?”
“Beat at my own game,” I almost-snarled. “Damn. Why didn’t I see that sooner?”
“See what?” Aiko was starting to get irritated.
I forced myself to calm down a little. “Look,” I said. “Vampires are dead, but they maintain a semblance of life using other people’s life energy. Right? So, basically, they steal power from other people.”
“So,” I said, “what if they aren’t the only ones? What if, say, a mage could learn to duplicate the same trick. Learn to eat other people’s magic. What if he could, for example, take all the power a vampire had accumulated and make it his own?”
“Thus killing the vampire,” she said, comprehension dawning on her face. “And making himself stronger at the same time.”
“Exactly,” I said absently, my mind racing down new paths of thought. “And it would account for the slight touch of vampire in his magic that I smelled. If he’d just eaten that vamp. That kind of thing might leave a residue—or, hell, maybe he just wasn’t finished digesting yet. Either way.”
“Is that possible?”
“I have no idea,” I told her. “But I’m starting to think I should maybe find out.
I should probably have gone to Legion with that question. I mean, that was the whole reason I’d gotten a familiar, right?
And I knew, knew instinctively and with perfect confidence, that he would know. I mean, it was right up his alley, right? He was all about things dying and being reborn, changing from one thing into another, one person dying to become the food for another. This kind of magic was just the sort of thing he would excel at. He would, I knew, tell me everything I wanted to know about this, without question.
That was exactly what I was afraid of. I mean….
Look. You can’t make it in the supernatural world by lying to yourself. There is no room for self-deception when you’re a mage, or a werewolf for that matter. I was aware of what I was. And I wasn’t a saint. I wasn’t even close.
I’d once told the Son of Wolves, one of the most powerful faeries out there, that I had no desire for more power than I already held. And I’d been telling the truth. But I’d also heard plenty of stories growing up, stories that weren’t fictional in the slightest. Many of the Dark Lords and dreaded monsters in them had been mages. People, in other words, who weren’t all that unlike myself. And, over time, I’d figured out some commonalities there.
Nobody’s born evil. Even the worst monsters don’t start out that way. They start out as people. Just people. People who live and love and hate and fear just like other people. None of them starts out as a power-hungry monster, out to enslave the world. For the most part, they have good reasons to want power to begin with. They come up with excuses for needing more, excuses which are in some cases totally valid. And then they need to do something they’d rather not, but they’re already in too deep, and while they wouldn’t normally condone that sort of behavior there’s a really good reason to allow it just this once.
And, before they know it, the power that they took up for entirely rational, even laudable reasons isn’t being turned to good ends anymore.
Like I said. I’m no saint. But, being aware of that, I try not to be a monster. Part of that was in recognizing how much power I could handle responsibly.
I don’t want any more power. I don’t even want the opportunity for more power. I might not remember to say no in time.
So, long story short, I didn’t want to know the details of how to rip somebody’s magic right out of them and steal it for your own. So I didn’t ask Legion. Instead I called Alexander, because I knew he was no happier about the idea of me with that kind of knowledge than I was.
“You want to know what?” Alexander sounded very, very calm, and enunciated each syllable with precision. I’d heard him sound like that before, when he was considering incinerating me.
“I’m not looking to do it,” I said hurriedly. “I just need to know if it’s possible. I think somebody might have tried it on a vampire recently.”
There was a shocked pause. Then, “That would be very bad.” Alexander sounded a little shaken, which was saying something. I had seldom heard
“So it can be done.”
“Yes, but…it is a very bad idea, Winter. It is a very dangerous, very foolish thing to do. Not to mention forbidden. There are rules, and that breaks several of them.”
“Wait a second,” I said. “Forbidden? Rules? What’s this? You never told me about there being rules about what you do with magic.”
“That,” he said, ” is because you’re not enough of an idiot that you needed to hear it. Suffice to say that so long as you maintain a reasonable degree of sanity in your researches, you need never deal with those groups. Now, how sure are you of this?”
“As sure as I can be,” I told him. “Given that I didn’t actually see anything.” I told him, in terse, blunt sentences, about what had happened and what conclusions I’d drawn.
Alexander muttered something under his breath in a language I didn’t recognize. It didn’t take a genius to recognize swearwords, though. “Bad. This is very bad. If you get a chance, I recommend you kill this person.”
“It’s that bad?”
“Worse,” he said grimly. “There are…people who get upset about things like this. Very, very upset. You don’t want them involved here. Failing that, if they do find out, you want to have definitive proof that you weren’t working with him. Not to mention that someone who would do such a thing….” There was a brief, meaningful pause. “He needs to die. Some rules exist for a reason.”
“Hang on,” I said. “Who are these people you’re so concerned about?”
“The clans don’t take kindly to research on topics like this,” he said. “When they find out about it, they will send people to investigate. Watchers, certainly. Guards might get involved as well, if he’s harvesting from vampires.”
That hadn’t clarified much, but I didn’t get the impression that Alexander was going to tell me any more, and I’d learned that pressing him for information wasn’t that likely to get me anywhere. Besides, this was hardly the time for it.
“One question. The power he got from the vampire…will it go away? Or does he get to keep it, somehow?”
“Ah,” he said, and I could practically hear him smile. “That’s a good question. Some of both. The actual energy will dissipate as he uses it, the same as any other power. But I believe that it will, to some extent, expand his capacity.”
“Huh,” I said. “So…in terms of trying to fight him…that’s bad?”
“Your grasp of the situation is, as always, astounding.”
“And he’ll just get stronger as time goes by,” I said, ignoring his sarcasm as usual. “If he keeps doing it…is there, like, an upper boundary for this kind of thing?”
“If so,” he said, sounding grim once again, “it hasn’t been reached in recorded history.”
Okay then. So if I took Alexander at his word, taking this mage down had just jumped to Priority One. The longer it took to kill him, the more opportunity he would have to get stronger. Plus, assuming that he’d eaten more than just the one vampire, it would also be very, very difficult. I mean, I wasn’t a match for a normal mage. If he’d made himself much stronger than that, I wouldn’t have a chance.
If you ever find yourself in such a situation and realize that it makes you feel comfortable, I strongly recommend you find professional help. I know I would have, except that the best I could hope for would be that they would think I was a total loony. Worst case, they might even believe me.