I eventually decided to wear the armor. This was more for the intimidation factor than anything. I didn’t really think it would protect me from an enemy mage of any skill, but it did look freaking terrifying, and I wanted every advantage I could get in the psychological arena. It wasn’t as impressive without the helmet, but it was better than nothing. For the same reason I buckled on Tyrfing, which looked a lot better against the backdrop of the armor than it did over my usual worn clothing. Maybe I could star in some kind of mixed-period medieval reenactment on the way.
It was surprisingly comfortable. Aiko hadn’t been exaggerating when she said she knew my size, either; it felt as though it had been tailored. Fit like a glove, really. Especially the gauntlets. Ha, ha.
Just in case it did go to physical conflict, though, I also had my various foci, stored spells, and such with me. Because the armor made it hard to get to my normal pockets, mostly they were secreted in the trench coat I put on over it. I also, embracing the best parts of the modern world, had my 9mm pistol with me, along with a fair amount of ammo. I would have taken the shotgun, except that it was a wee bit more obvious than was suitable for this occasion.
“Not today,” I told Snowflake. She was sitting about two inches from the door and staring at it. “Tell you what, when we go for the main event you can come along. Promise.”
Ice-blue eyes looked back at me, and I could feel her disappointment and worry. Then she sighed, physically and mentally both, and walked over to sleep near the dying fire. Fine. Don’t die or I’ll make sure you regret it.
“You realize,” I said, “that that threat is absolutely meaningless. I mean, you’re good, but I don’t think there’s much even you can do to a dead man.” She pointedly looked away from me and said nothing.
I laughed and walked out the door.
I took a cab to the north part of town. That wasn’t something I would normally do, but it was farther than I wanted to walk. And, while there were a number of people who would have been willing to give me a ride, they would have wanted to help when we got there, and I thought this particular encounter would go better if I went alone.
The trench coat covered my gear, but it wasn’t exactly inconspicuous itself. And, unless you’re very skilled with it, wearing armor and a sword affects how you move. I knew I didn’t look like a normal person. The cabbie, of course, didn’t comment. It’s hard to really faze a cabbie. Even if you’re not in New York, they’ve still seen it all before. He dropped me off about three blocks from the hotel—I didn’t want to go there directly, because my appearance was distinctive enough that he might remember me. If there was a ruckus there later, I didn’t want him to think of me. I’d had him pick me up several blocks from anywhere I normally go, too, just in case. And I was wearing sunglasses, despite the late hour, to conceal my unusual eye coloration.
Paranoia and thinking ahead. These are the strengths which, more than any magic, keep a person alive in dangerous circumstances.
Luke had given me the exact room number, of course, and told me what time to show up. I walked into the hotel fifteen minutes early. It was, in a piece of probably deliberate irony that made me chuckle morbidly, the same chain as the vampire had been dumped in.
I kinda felt sorry for them, actually. After tonight I expected that their reputation would be even worse than before.
I could see the clerk consider stopping me. I looked very suspicious, after all. I smiled, nodded to her politely, and kept going confidently. In that moment, you could practically read her mind writ large across her face. I saw her weigh my appearance against my demeanor, saw her own despite of her job, and saw it tip the scales in favor of staying put.
If you act confident, move with purpose, and look like you know what’s going on, people will very rarely question you. It’s amazing the places that’ll get you. Dolph had been the one to teach me that trick, along with a whole bunch of others. It’s a bit of a sad reflection on humanity, really. It shouldn’t be that easy.
I took the stairs rather than the elevator as a matter of course. I’m not comfortable in elevators My instincts tell me that there’s nowhere to run and I’m a sitting duck, which makes me twitchy. I moved up the stairwell quickly, but not quite quickly enough to draw attention, and stepped out on the seventh floor.
I walked quickly down the hallway, which had the anonymous, slightly hostile feel I always associate with hotels. The carpet was clean, of course, but it looked slightly tired. There was no one else up and moving. I located the right door and walked right past it, not even glancing at it, scanning the area with my magical senses as I did.
Overkill, probably. I mean, there wasn’t all that much risk of being detected. But I’ve never had any particular aversion to overkill. And I’m pretty sure that, when you’re dealing with mages (or other supernatural beings, but mages were the daily special), definitions of overkill are a lot more fluid. Artillery strikes, for example, don’t really qualify.
I’m not especially good at detecting humans, but I’m adequate when I put my mind to it. It helped that there was a whole lot of nothing to find. I didn’t know whether that was coincidence, the hit this company’s reputation had just taken, or my target had taken active steps to empty the place. In any case, as far as I could tell I was the only person on the floor. I did not, of course, examine the mage’s room; there was too high a possibility of detection.
Now that I knew there was nobody else around, and was feeling somewhat more comfortable as a result, I went back and found the door I was looking for. I examined the lock briefly, and discovered pretty much nothing I didn’t know already. I could have bypassed it easily enough—another of the strange, random skills I’d learned growing up—but why take the hard way? I knocked instead, not saying anything.
“It’s unlocked,” a woman’s voice called from within. She sounded unsurprised, which was good.
I opened the door, which was indeed unlocked, and walked in. No booby traps went off, which I took to be a good sign. The room was pretty much hotel standard. A double bed, TV, a couple of uncomfortable-looking chairs, a small desk. To my left another door opened on the bathroom.
The woman was lying on the bed reading, but she looked up as I walked in. I was pretty sure it was staged. She was arranged just a bit too tidily to be real. I think she was trying to look sultry, but a lot of the effect was lost on me. When you’ve seen the Sidhe dance, it’s hard for mere mortals to make an impression. “Mr. Wolf,” she said, a little too airily. Damn, she was bad at this. “I’ve been expecting you.”
A great many things became clear when she spoke. I hadn’t been able to pin it down before that, but the mage’s apprentice was none other than Olivia the vampire’s servant.
I have no doubt that she was expecting my shocked reaction. Counting on it, even. Because the moment after she spoke, she attacked.
It didn’t look impressive. There are things you can do with magic in a fight that look dramatic as hell—fireballs, for example. But there are also subtler things, quieter, although not necessarily any less dangerous. There have been very serious magical duels fought which looked, from the outside, like two people standing still and staring at each other for twenty minutes while nothing happens and nobody moves. Then one of them pitches over dead for no apparent reason.
Olivia hit me with one of those.
I recognized the touch of another mind on mine immediately. It was a familiar sensation, although this differed in several important respects from my norm. First off, it was human, whereas I almost exclusively communicate with animals and near-animals. It was also a contact initiated by another, which (aside from Snowflake’s communications) I had never before experienced. And, most importantly, it was done with violence in mind.
Mental combat isn’t terribly complicated, something people seem to have a hard time understanding. They get it into their heads that it consists of both sides imagining elaborate forms of violence and counters. Which, technically, can happen, but most of the time it takes more choreography than a wrestling match.
The thing to remember is that imagination doesn’t hurt anyone. Even with magic you have to invest a thought with energy to really do anything, and that means that most of the time simple thoughts are better than complicated ones. It’s like the problem with assassination I mentioned earlier. Sure, you can arrange a Rube Goldberg machine to fire a cannon at their door, but that doesn’t make it an efficient way to solve the problem.
The same principle applies. Yeah, I could imagine soldiers swarming the metaphorical fortress of your mind, and you could imagine a tank mowing them down as defense, but that doesn’t mean that these are practical ways to go about it. Generally speaking the most effective way to attack another person’s mind is to simply focus all your thoughts and your will on your desire to crush them like a bug, and project it into their head. Likewise, on defense you’re focusing on how confident you are that they will fail, how perfectly impenetrable your mind is. You might imagine a wall, or even a simple fortress, as a sort of mental aid. But once you get more complicated than that, unless you’re a true expert, you might as well give up. You can’t think about that in a coherent, concentrated way.
So Olivia hit me hard, in the first instant of the fight. I felt her will, her aggression, slamming into me like a tangible force. She was trying to get in before I could raise defenses, and to a certain extent she succeeded. By the time I got it together to protect myself, she’d already penetrated the surface portions of my mind.
Imagine your mind as being like an onion. No individual layer is all that important, but taken together it’s substantial. The outermost layer—the skin of the onion—consists of your immediate emotional reactions. The anger you feel when you stub your toe, for example. She’d punctured that before I even realized what had happened. It wasn’t a big problem. None of that was critical, and she could rip it all away without hurting me.
Below that you have surface thoughts, the sort of thing you think consciously. There were a bunch of layers like that, ranging from the ridiculously trivial to deep reflections on the nature of reality. Olivia had access to the outermost portion of that as well, which would be of little use to her.
Beneath even that are the important things, which I’d managed to stop her from reaching immediately. Abiding emotions are down there, things like love or friendship or hate or grief. Memories, philosophies, acquired knowledge…all of those things live in that part of the mind.
Then, at the very center, you have the core of what and who you are. It was the part of me that loved to watch the sunset and look at ice on trees. I could lose everything else and, eventually, somewhat, recover from it. But if that was destroyed, I was done. I might go on living, but it wouldn’t be me anymore. Just an empty shell of a body.
I wasn’t in danger of that yet. There was still plenty of me left, and I’d managed to stop Olivia in her tracks. Still, it didn’t look good. She had her hooks in, and she was pressing the advantage ruthlessly. She used the parts of my mind that she’d already taken against me, creating waves of baseless emotion and flooding me with mental chatter. I’d kept my concentration so far, but there was only so long I could withstand it.
In spite of that, I was grinning. It was, I knew, a feral and unfriendly expression.
Some people have weird ideas about tactics. I blame comic books and bad video games, myself. In the real world, attacking the enemy at their strongest point isn’t really a very good idea. Imagine challenging Andre the Giant to a weightlifting contest and you might see what I mean. Unless you’re a world-class strongman yourself, you don’t have a chance. Trying to take somebody in their strongest suit is seldom wise.
Now, I don’t do coercion, and I don’t attack minds. Part of that’s politeness, and part’s pure common sense. There’s no need to go alienating your allies, after all.
But the fact remains that I’m good at mental magic. It’s my most natural talent and I do it well. I knew the theory of this kind of battle, even if I hadn’t ever done the real thing before.
Of course, Olivia probably had more than just an abstract understanding of how this sort of fight went. If all she took into account were our respective skills with magic, I could see why she would think I was vulnerable. She might even be right.
Unfortunately for her, there were some things she hadn’t thought through fully.
I concentrated on my image of a wall, a high granite edifice with crenellations and watchtowers. I blocked out everything else but the wall and my fierce, savage desire to throw her back. Nothing else existed—not the room, not the fight, not the phantoms she threw at me, not even me or her. Nothing but the wall and my will that it hold.
I couldn’t say how long that lasted. Mental magic, even more than most, interferes with my sense of time. I the moment my focus was so absolute that neither past nor future registered. I felt her commit fully to the attack, once my defenses were in place and it was clear she couldn’t simply sweep them away. And, as this went on, I felt a slowly building pressure on my side of the metaphorical wall.
It was emotion—not the superficial, meaningless things she had taken over. The deep ones, the important ones. Anger, absolute wrath at what she had done, at her involvement with my enemy and—worse by far—her invasion of my mind. My mind. Under that was sheer stubbornness, and my own carefully controlled hunger for bloodshed. And then there was something else, something the werewolves refer to as dominance. It was more a personality trait than anything, composed of stubborn refusal to give in, possessiveness, and unwillingness to let anyone control me.
I’m a bit of an oddity among werewolves. I feel no great need to exert dominance over other people, but I don’t take kindly to people doing it to me either. That kind of personality is hard to fit into the pack. They call the rare werewolves like me loners, and tend to regard them with a certain amount of distrust. We have a tendency to go feral, so I guess they have reason to.
The point here is that I was not a normal human being. There was a wolf inside my skin, and it did not take kindly to someone trying to control it. Not at all. So when Olivia started trying to rip my psyche to shreds, the wolf reacted the same way it did whenever someone tried to tame it. And I held on to that wrath, that instant and furious rejection.
And then, when she was well and truly committed to the attempt, I let it all out at once.
The wolf was inhuman in the truest sense of the word, in that moment, cold and cruel as an arctic storm, with just as much pity in it. Its assault was savage and relentless in a way that human emotions, civilized and tamed by millennia of relative peace, just can’t match.
To someone who was human, and thought like a human, and was accustomed to doing her magic on humans, and expected me to fight like a human, I imagine that it came as a nasty shock. If nothing else, the shift from passive resistance to that sort of overwhelming aggression was sudden enough to throw anyone a serious curveball.
Thus, it was neither surprising nor insulting that Olivia’s spell shattered in a heartbeat under the force of that emotional surge, and she was thrown out of my head in the same moment. A moment later I crashed back into reality, opening my eyes and staggering.
She had stood up and was now reeling, her eyes crossed. The recoil when I’d broken her spell had backlashed into her own mind and dazed her.
I wasn’t much better off myself. The sudden shifts in perspective were playing hell with my head, and I was just now starting to feel the impacts of the emotional maelstrom she’d put me through. I’d brought the wolf further to the forefront of my mind than I had in a long time, too, and once called up that wasn’t the kind of force that could be easily put back down. So yeah, I was staggering a bit, and I couldn’t focus all that well.
But, for all of that, I did have one serious advantage. Namely, I’d known what to expect. Thus, I had a few, critical seconds in which to act before Olivia could realize what had just happened and pulverize me.
Any faint reluctance I’d once felt toward hitting women had been trained out of me from a young age. I didn’t even hesitate to deck this one.