“Hey,” I said. “I think I might be needing those thugs you mentioned soon.”
Kyra grinned, though she didn’t look up from the letter she was reading. “Just say the word and they’re yours. You found him?”
“Not yet,” I said. “But I think I’m making progress. I’m pretty sure we’re dealing with a mage who figured out a way to steal magic from people. I’ve been informed that killing him would be a good idea.”
“Nasty,” she said, scribbling a quick reply to the letter. And yes, I do mean scribbling. “Think you can take him?”
“Almost certainly not,” I said cheerily. “I’m only half-trained, at best. My odds in a one-on-one with a full mage are pretty slim. Given that I have no idea how many people he’s eaten, I’d say that in a fight he’d take me down pretty fast.”
She looked up at me for the first time since I walked in. “You think my goons will be enough backup?” she asked seriously.
“I honestly have no idea,” I said. “I don’t even know if I’ll be bringing them. I mean, if we fail….”
“Then you’re just the delivery service,” she said, nodding. “For some nutritious and delicious werewolf magic.”
“Exactly,” I said glumly. “If this doesn’t work…I think you’d better skip straight to the big guns.”
“Yeah. And tell him to bring the family, at least.” Dolph, I knew, was a skilled warrior and experienced strategist. Erin was an assassin who, while not exactly peerless, also didn’t have any superiors that I knew of. And Bryan…well, I’d never seen Bryan really go at it, but I felt it safe to assume that he wasn’t any less of a force to be reckoned with than the others. If nothing else, some of the bizarre abilities I’d seen him display were, properly applied, likely to be terrifyingly effective in a fight. And you don’t survive God only knows how long without picking up some dirty tricks and useful skills. Between the four of them they could project at least as much power as the average entire pack of werewolves, in a much smaller package.
Of course, what would happen if the mage managed to consume their power too was not worth considering. I was pretty sure that was the kind of situation that merited a strategic nuclear strike.
I was turning to leave when the assassin attacked.
The door to the study flew open. It didn’t open; something simply plowed into it with enough force to shatter the latch and rip it halfway off its hinges. I, being appropriately paranoid and having very, very fast reflexes by now, was already diving into the corner nearest the door. I got a brief image as I moved, of a tall, humanoid figure in a voluminous dark cloak. It was obviously not human, though; its over-long arms ended not in hands but in three long, sharp claws. They were just a little too shiny to be steel. A silvered edge, most likely; it was common knowledge that silver was harmful to werewolves, although very few people knew why.
I hit the ground at about the same time it turned to face me. I probably could have gotten a good look at it at that time but, being at least vaguely sane, I had more important things on my mind. Tyrfing, for example, which was leaning against the corner formed by the bookcase and the wall and which my fingers had found almost before I stopped moving. I reached for my magic as well, pushing power through the focus of my leather bracelet and conjuring a brief but powerful breeze at ankle level to trip it up.
It didn’t work. I scrambled up, undoing the clasp holding Tyrfing into its sheath as I did. I might—might—be able to get the sword out before it closed with me. Even if I did, though, I didn’t much like my chances.
Fortunately, both of us had forgotten that Kyra was in the room.
All of this had taken place in less than a second. In the next instant the werewolf was over the desk, moving swiftly and with a terrible grace. The creature was so focused on me that it never turned. Consequentially, before it was ever in reach of me, she had one of its arms in a nasty shoulder lock and the other one pinned to its body, silver claws held well away from herself. It must have had anatomy somewhat like a human’s, because it stopped moving immediately.
“Not bad,” I said, shoving myself to my feet and sliding Tyrfing back home. I had to work to let go of it, but it was a familiar effort and didn’t slow me down. I didn’t strap it back into the scabbard, though. Just in case.
“You got any idea what it is?” she grunted, twisting its arm a little higher and bringing it up onto its toes.
“Not yet,” I said, coming close enough to see it.
Underneath the hood it didn’t look like a person at all. Its face was flat and devoid of any emotion or humanity. There were two yellow eyes, with slit pupils like a snake’s, and a large circular mouth. It was lined with teeth like a leech’s, as I discovered when it tried to bite me. Other than that its face was featureless, and entirely hairless. Its skin was white, not pale, but white like a sheet of paper.
There was a low aura of magic around it, too, strong enough to be easily noticeable. Human magic, I was sure, which was strange when you considered how utterly inhuman it was otherwise.
“I think it’s a construct,” I said after a moment’s examination. “Something built by a mage. The one I just told you about, probably.”
She blinked. “You can do that?”
“I can’t. But the matter of the Otherside is responsive to energy. If you’re skilled, powerful, and willing to cross over, you can use it to make things.” I frowned. “Alexander mentioned people making whole armies of constructs, back in the day. He didn’t seem to think it was a worthwhile investment of time.”
“I can see why,” she grunted. “Thing’s not that strong.”
I hate irony. I particularly hate irony when it’s trying to kill me. That is why I considered it particularly offensive when the thing chose exactly that moment to dislocate its own shoulder, snap its elbow back into Kyra’s face hard enough to break her grip, and come after me again.
I parried the first swing with Tyrfing, still in its sheath. I managed to duck aside from the second as well, though those claws nicked the back of my neck as I did. They burned painfully, confirming my suspicion that they were made of silver. Enhanced silver, too, and more highly charged with magic than any I’d made. Not a threat in a cut that small, but if it landed a solid blow I was a dead man. It was just too hard to heal a wound made with silver. I’d be restricted to human-level healing, at least for a while, and that usually wasn’t good enough.
I dove away from it. It started to follow. Kyra ripped off its head from behind.
And no, I’m not speaking figuratively. There was no blood, but it was still going to be featuring in my nightmares for a while.
Apparently that was more damage than it could take. The headless body collapsed immediately, and didn’t move again. The cloak settled, slowly, down onto the floor as the body….rot wasn’t the right word. It was more like it dissolved, over the course of maybe five or six seconds.
That was the nature of the Otherside, you see. It worked differently than the world I was accustomed to. Here, there was a division between the physical and the spiritual. They could influence each other, even overlap sometimes, as was the case with Legion, but they were different.
In the Otherside they weren’t. Matter and energy were basically the same thing, over there. Or, if you prefer, the flesh and the spirit weren’t easily divisible. You can’t have one without the other, on the Otherside. When you were actually in that world it wasn’t usually a problem. The environment was so saturated with magic that literally everything held a certain amount of power. Once you’re in the real world, though, you have to provide such things with an alternative power source. Otherwise they lose their structural integrity, collapse into a thin gel, and then either evaporate or return to the Otherside. Nobody’s quite sure which.
A well-made construct, generally, can provide its own power. All you have to do is build in a low-level tap and it can access enough magic to keep itself intact. Once Kyra had killed it, though—if you can be said to have killed something which was never alive—that ceased to function. Without a source of magic it vanished within a few minutes. All that was left were the cloak and the claws. They must have been made by normal means and then tacked on later.
“Well,” I said, staring down at them. “Shit. Sorry to bring that here.”
“No biggie,” she said easily. “I’m always happy to save your ass.”
“Appreciate it,” I told her seriously. I bent down and bundled the silver up into the dark cloak. It would be deeply rude to leave such things lying around, especially in a house full of werewolves.
“Don’t forget to call,” she said, her eyes bright. “If you need any help.”
And that was that.
There was someone waiting for me when I got home. I hate how often that happens.
He was standing facing the front door, making tapping motions with one hand. I got the impression that he was examining my wards—not looking to take them down, I thought, just seeing how they worked. He turned to face me when I got closer.
It took me a moment to recognize “Inferno.” It probably didn’t help that most of my attention had, last night, been focused on the threat he represented to me. Without the fire running down his arms, he wasn’t nearly as distinctive. He was about my height, making him a little shorter than average, with reddish blond hair and dark blue eyes.
I crossed my arms over my chest and regarded him evenly. “What do you want?” I said, not even trying to sound polite. One-on-one, I was confident I could take him. I might get burned a little, but that was the cost of doing business.
“I wanted to apologize,” he said, shocking me a little. “And maybe to talk with you.”
“Wow,” I said. “People never apologize to me. What’s the con?”
“You don’t trust me.”
I snorted. “Well, duh. I mean, let’s face it, so far you haven’t exactly given me much reason to, have you? And I gotta admit there’s a few things here that bother me. Like, how the hell do you know where I live?”
“Our master told us,” he said. “The same as we were told where to find you last night. He wants us to kill you. Although that’s not why I’m here,” he added hastily.
I thought for a moment, then shrugged and started the process of dropping my wards. “Fine,” I said. “Might as well talk inside. Be more comfortable.”
And also be on terrain I was familiar with, surrounded by my weapons, with Snowflake near at hand. But that was a total coincidence, of course.
I built a fire in my woodstove, more for psychological comfort and to give myself time to think than out of any desire for heat. As I did I filled Snowflake in on what was going on, which the kid didn’t seem to notice. She remained right where she was, seemingly asleep on the other side of the room. I knew, though, that if he started something she would be on him in an instant, from behind and without warning. I didn’t like his odds if that happened.
I sat on my couch, while he squatted near the fire. It was, I noticed idly, almost the same position Fenris had adopted. I saw that the flames were moving in a way that was not quite natural, twisting toward him as though pulled by a magnet. I didn’t think it was a purposeful thing; it felt more like the kind of instinctive sharing I experience when I pet a cat. Every mage has a trick that comes naturally, and it wasn’t hard to guess that his had to do with fire.
He turned to face me, with an expression so uncomfortable I felt a bit sorry for him. “First off,” he said. “I want to apologize. Last night wasn’t….” He shook his head. “I’m handling this badly. We were stupid, and we’re lucky you were as polite about it as you were. I’m sorry.”
“Not a problem,” I told him. “Although you ought to have a chat with that lady about politeness.”
He smiled, somewhat sheepishly. “She knows. Erica’s really sorry about that, by the way. She was a little on edge. She doesn’t really like violence.”
“Erica, huh. So—and meaning no offense—but how does somebody who doesn’t like violence fall in with a crowd of self-proclaimed vigilantes?”
He shrugged. “She’s got her reasons. And, if you don’t mind, we aren’t vigilantes. We fight monsters.”
“Monster hunters, is it? Funny thing about that. You ever read any Nietzsche?”
“Well, he had a few interesting things to say. My favorite was something about how, when you fight monsters, there’s always a risk that you’re going to become a monster yourself.”
“You think we’re going to become corrupt.”
“That’s part of it,” I agreed. “But not the most important part. It’s more a matter of….Look, let’s use vampires as an example. They’re some of the worst monsters out there, right? They feed on people, kill them by inches. You might think that killing a vampire is making the world a better place.”
“Of course it is,” he interrupted. “They’re evil. The world is a better place without their ilk.”
“Yeah, and people say the same thing about me. Look…what’s your name, anyway?”
He hesitated, then shrugged. “Luke Laufson. Call me Luke.”
“Okay, Luke. This isn’t going to work if you keep interrupting me. Let me finish what I’m saying, and then you can tell me how wrong I am. Okay?”
“Great. Where was I? Oh yeah. Vampires. You might think that killing a vampire is a service to the world. Honestly, in principle I’m inclined to agree with you. If I could kill every vampire in the world right now, it would be pretty tempting. But vampires don’t tend to agree with that point of view.”
Luke opened his mouth, then remembered our agreement and closed it again. I smiled and continued. “So first you face the problem of killing one vampire. That’s not undoable—you and your gang could probably handle a low-level vamp right now. Let’s say you manage it. Now you have to deal with the other vampires who decide to take you out as a result. With me?”
“Just because something isn’t easy,” he said, “doesn’t mean that it isn’t right.”
“True,” I agreed. “Let’s say you come by enough power to kill all of them, too. We’ll even ignore the price that kind of power would require—and believe me, it wouldn’t come cheap. Once you’ve done that, you’re a threat. You have the strength to challenge even a very powerful vampire, and you’ve shown the inclination to do so. Now, vampires don’t take well to governance or hierarchy, but they need some kind of organization just to survive these days. Thus, the Council.”
He frowned. “What are you talking about?”
I stared at him. “You really don’t know?” I shook my head. “Wow. Don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but if you’re trying to fight monsters and you haven’t even heard of the Council…somebody is doing their job horribly wrong. Okay. The Council. I guess technically it’s called the Vampires’ Council, which is irritating because vampires aren’t actually the only ones on it, or even the strongest anymore. These days I believe the most powerful groups are the succubi, the rakshasas, and the vampires.”
“What I’m getting at,” I continued, “is that the vampires aren’t without allies. So now that you’re a threat, they’re going to start taking you seriously. They go to the Council. Now, instead of just one vampire, you have a bunch of them. And, because you’re on an anti-monster campaign and you have the power to make it serious, they aren’t alone. There are plenty of other monsters around that would be happy to take a preemptive shot at you. The vampires have good relations with the Midnight Court, for example, and that’s one of the strongest forces there is on the Otherside. So, if you want to win—or even survive—what do you think you’ll have to do?”
He thought for a moment. “Find some allies of our own?” he guessed.
I nodded. “Exactly. So you talk to certain powerful mages. You talk to the Pack—because, believe me, whatever you might think about werewolves, they’re a lot nicer than most supernatural nasties, and they hate the vampires more than you do.” I paused. “Of course, that brings us to the next problem. Namely, they’re monsters too, at least from some perspectives. So there’s inevitably going to be a split between those who want to join you in taking a shot at the vamps, and those who want to kill you before you decide to include them in your crusade, a conflict of interests that’s likely to be shared by a lot of different groups.”
“Thus starting a civil war,” Luke said, surprising me with his perceptiveness.
“Yeah. And there’s no war uglier than a civil war. Not to mention that war is what you’re looking at now, not a safari. Your enemies are numerous, powerful, dangerous, and organized. Plus, with as many hooks both sides have set into mundane authorities, humans are going to be brought into it. The resulting conflict might make the World Wars seem mild. Which would be bad.”
“I don’t know about that. That’s a pretty tenuous chain of coincidences, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but what I’m getting at here is that you need to consider the consequences of your actions. Otherwise you’re more likely to make things worse than better.”
He thought about that for a minute, watching the fire again. “Okay,” he said eventually. “I get what you’re saying.”
“Just think about it,” I said. “That’s all I’m asking.” There was a short pause. “So how’d you get into this business?”
“I don’t know if you could call it a business,” he said. “We were just getting started.”
“But you must have decided to do it for a reason,” I pressed.
“I guess so,” he said. “We were all…we just started finding out about this shit, you know? All these things out there, killing people just because they can and…and nobody does anything about it. They just stand and watch it happen. So we decided that if no one else was willing to act, we would.”
I wasn’t sure whether that was worthy of respect, or I should be laughing at how stupid they’d been about it. “How’d you find out about it in the first place?”
He shifted uncomfortably. “We were all born with magic. I don’t know all the details about how everybody got into it—we all found our own ways until recently, you see. We met each other a couple of years ago, and we all started learning things. Brick helped a lot; he’s been doing this longer than the others. Mike shared some too, especially about monsters. He’s a shaman; I don’t know if you noticed him last night. He’s a police officer, too, so he has access to some information that the rest of us don’t.”
I nodded. “So what about this master you mentioned?”
“He found us about a year ago. We were practicing before that, but we weren’t making much progress. Nobody’s real eager to talk about this sort of thing.”
“Not surprising,” I said. “Most people in the community have an entirely rational fear of strangers. If you didn’t have references, I don’t blame them for not wanting anything to do with you.”
“Yeah, well. Maybe so. In any case, Jon found us and he was willing to talk. He started teaching us. He knows things.”
“He taught you magic?”
“Yeah, some. Some of it we’d figured out for ourselves. It wasn’t too hard.”
I grunted. “Yeah, I did that too. Didn’t work out so well. How often do you see him?”
“About once a week. Sometimes more.”
“Could you describe him for me? Physically, I mean.”
He shrugged. “Sure. He looks about thirty. Dark hair, brown eyes, a little on the pale side. Thinnish. Tends to dress in black.”
Well, well, well. It might be a coincidence—I thought not, but I had to admit that it wasn’t impossible—but Jon sounded like a perfect match for the mage I’d seen in the fox’s memories. I started piecing things together, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was happening.
“You know him,” Luke said, his tone making it more of a statement than a question.
“Maybe,” I said. “Here’s a hypothetical situation for you. Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’re a powerful mage with a grudge. You decide to do something about it, but—like I just said—you know you’re going to make enemies doing so. It seems to me that you’d be smart to find some thugs. Maybe some kids with a reasonable amount of magic who don’t really know anything much about how it works. Turn them into your own little gang of enforcers. Then, when you’re finished, you can always blame them for what you’ve done. Perfect scapegoat, and they don’t know enough to stop you.”
His lips tightened. “You think he’s using us.”
“I think that a person that skilled really ought to know about the Council and the Pack and all the other big players in the modern world. But he wouldn’t want to tell his enforcers, when it’s so much easier to oversimplify things. Then all you have to do is tell them, ‘Look, a monster,’ and they’ll be on it like fleas on a werewolf. Even if they maybe aren’t all that monstrous.”
“Like you,” he said. “You think he’s using us to assassinate you.”
I shrugged. “If he is who I think he is, I’ve sure given him plenty of reason. What convinced you not to, anyway?”
“Your attitude,” he said simply. “It wasn’t right for a bloodthirsty killer. I was a little suspicious before that, and after the way you reacted…something wasn’t right there. So I asked around, and couldn’t find anybody willing to say you deserved to die. People said you were scary, sure, but not evil. Plus a few guys knew the names you mentioned, and they told me not to mess with them. Gives you a certain amount of credibility.”
Clever of him to take that avenue. I started to get an idea of why Luke was the boss of that little coterie. “Listen,” I said. “I think I know who Jon is. If so, he’s a monster worse than me. He’s using you as a tool, and he needs to get taken out.”
“Not that much credibility,” he said dryly.
I had to laugh at that. “Okay. What if I can prove it?”
He pursed his lips. “Then we’d be upset. Probably enough to do something about it.”
I took a deep breath, the beginning of a plan running through my head. It would require me to betray Luke and his people, but that honestly didn’t slow me down much. “When do you see him next?”
“Jon? I don’t know. But he has an apprentice—a real apprentice, not like us. I’m supposed to meet with her tonight to work on principles of heat movement.”
“Tonight?” I grinned, my plan taking a sudden turn. This had the potential to be even better than finding the mage directly. “Where?”
He told me, naming a hotel on the north side. “What are you going to do?” he asked.
I grinned wider. “Well, let’s just say I’m looking for proof. Oh,” I said as an afterthought. “You might not want to go to this particular meeting after all.”