I have a pretty fast reaction time, and thanks to my ever-increasing paranoia I was especially quick off the draw. By the time most of the people downstairs had even seen the newcomers I was already standing, with both hands shoved into my pockets. I usually carried a pretty impressive assortment of tools and weapons in my pockets, and thanks to Fenris’s visit I had extra today.
Conn, though, made me look slow. By the time I had stood halfway up he was standing next to the balcony, seemingly without crossing the five feet between it and our table. His hands were gripping a section of rail in a way that suggested that he was perfectly ready to rip it free and use it as a weapon.
The swaggering young man, whom I immediately nicknamed Blondie, took another few steps into the room. He seemed to enjoy the attention he was getting. “You monsters have been getting too comfortable lately,” he said with a sneer. “I think it’s time someone taught you a lesson.” Wow. That was a first. I mean, in my experience, bad guys don’t actually go in for the melodramatic speeches so much these days. Seriously, who talks like that?
The barman gave a long-suffering sigh. “The werewolves,” he said, emphasizing the term, “are legal citizens with the same rights as everyone else. Now how about you fellows get out of here before I call the cops?” From my angle I could see that he already had one hand on his cell phone, and the other on a shotgun tucked behind the bar. Smart man.
The nervous man leaned closer and muttered something, but Blondie wasn’t listening. He sneered even wider and, by way of answer, lifted his pistol and shot Robert where he was laying near the bar. There was a sudden, shocked silence broken by the werewolf whining in pain and surprise. Blondie grinned and lifted the gun to point at the bartender—particularly unfair in his case, since he was just an average guy trying to make a buck. Only two or three werewolves actually worked there; the rest were normal people or those tangentially involved with the supernatural.
A number of things happened very quickly in the instant after that shot. First, Conn ripped a three-foot section of railing out so easily you’d think it was rotten pine instead of oak. He dropped to the floor below with it, and I could hear his snarl from where I stood.
At the same time, I pulled my right hand out of my pocket. I was holding a stone, a smooth river rock that fit neatly into the palm of my hand. I’d been using it in some of my recent magical studies, and forgotten to take it back out of my pocket afterward.
You might think that, as a result, I would have done some complicated magical ritual with it. You could think so, but you would be wrong. I can do a little earth magic, sure, but it isn’t my forte. I wasn’t very quick at it either, and this was a situation that called for rapid and decisive action.
So I threw it instead. I used my power to give it a heavy tailwind too, which combined with my moderately superhuman strength to propel the rock pretty damn fast. Not like bullet fast or anything; I fully expected Blondie to dodge it. But for a second it would make a pretty nice distraction.
Except that as it turned out, I had been overestimating these folks. He never even saw it coming, and the stone hit him in the temple hard enough to snap his head to the side. He crumpled, the gun dropping from his hand. In the same instant I threw more wind, a concentrated blast of air that I was hoping would knock the other man from his feet.
That was when things got really interesting. There was an impediment to its progress about a foot away from the nervous man. I felt another will come into conflict with mine, someone using magic to keep anything from coming near him. It was a kinetic barrier, one of the simplest shielding spells possible; basically just energy bent to prevent things from crossing, and exert force sufficient to stop them. I wasn’t much good at making them. Raw kinetic energy isn’t something I work with well, which is why I tend to use blasts of wind instead. But Alexander was good at them, and he could throw up barriers that would stop a catapult or a machine gun with equal ease. I’d tested my skills against his shields before, and I couldn’t even ruffle his feathers.
This shield, though, was nothing like that. It wouldn’t have stopped bullets. It barely even stopped my gale, and what leaked through was enough to stagger him. He looked straight at me, his face gone pale, and I saw him lift his gun to point my way.
Then Conn threw his piece of railing like a javelin. It wasn’t sharp. It didn’t need to be. I was stronger than I looked, much stronger than the average human, but Conn outclassed me enormously. That piece of wood flew maybe twenty feet with no noticeable drop, smashed through the kinetic barrier with such contemptuous ease that it might as well not have existed, and hit the young man in the chest. It didn’t stop when it hit his sternum, either.
He, too, crumpled to the ground. He looked very surprised, very bloody, and very, very dead.
I dropped to the floor below, crouching to absorb some of the impact, and walked over to join Conn near the intruders. He bent to check the pulse of the man I’d hit with the rock, and then stood, shaking his head. He tossed the stone back to me as he did.
The air around them was quietly charged with magic. As I approached I could smell it, a tingling almost-burn in my nostrils. The scent had a familiar note to it that was almost like disinfectant, and which was common to human magic. It wasn’t strong, certainly nothing like as strong as Alexander’s, but it was there.
“I hate this job,” Conn muttered under his breath as I approached. No one without superhuman hearing would have heard him. “Doesn’t matter where I go, it’s waiting for me.” He looked at me directly. “You should get out of here. The cops will be along shortly.”
“Shouldn’t I stay, then?”
“Things will be easier if there’s only one person answering the questions,” he said dryly. “And I can afford it more easily than you. Now go.”
On the walk back to the shop, I drew a few conclusions. Number one, and most obviously, two human mages had just attacked the best-known werewolf hangout in town. That in itself raised a number of other questions. Like, why would people that raw be attacking anything? You have to be pretty inexperienced at violence to get taken down with a thrown rock. I wasn’t sure about the arrogant one, but the man whose barrier I’d felt had to be even worse at magic than me, and I’m an apprentice as such things go. Nobody that clumsy ought to be getting in a fight with anyone, let alone challenging a bunch of werewolves.
The second thing I realized was that, unless my life was about to get even more complicated than usual, this was what Fenris had been referring to, which raised a few questions as well. For example, what was so important about this event that an immortal, divine being better known for terrifying gods would be paying attention to it? And, equally important, how had Fenris known it would happen? As far as I knew nobody had ever really proved the existence of prophecy beyond a few minutes, or an hour or two at the most. Certainly I had never heard of the Fenris Wolf having that kind of ability. Generally his powers are more oriented around death, destruction, and endless hunger.
Such were my thoughts as I approached my shop and found Anna Rossi waiting for me. After I unlocked the front door, she and a woman I didn’t know followed me in. The stranger took a very short time to select one of my stock pieces, a small china cabinet made from rosewood that I wasn’t particularly proud of. She paid and left, without even being introduced to me.
Anna lingered. “Late lunch,” she said, seeming very casual unless you looked at the tension in her posture. Having spent most of my life near werewolves, I looked. She wasn’t here for chitchat.
I wasn’t about to rush her, though. Anna doesn’t typically approach topics directly, at least not with me. “Foster family’s in town,” I said with what I hoped was an appropriate grimace. It was partially true—I hadn’t been raised in Conn’s pack, but I spent a couple years there after I (maybe) turned into a werewolf with disastrous results.
She nodded sympathetically, and we spent the next ten minutes looking at various finished and half-finished pieces. We made small talk, which I have gotten slightly better at over time; she commiserated about the unwanted attention I’d been receiving, and I laughed at stories about her latest inept boss.
Eventually, though, I got fed up with dancing around the subject and turned to face her. “What really brought you here?” I asked bluntly.
She cleared her throat uncomfortably. “It’s about my brother,” she said. “I’m concerned about him. He’s been avoiding me lately.”
“That’s not uncommon for new werewolves,” I said awkwardly. Enrico had made the choices that led to his being injured severely enough that turning into a werewolf was his only chance to survive, but I still felt responsible. If it hadn’t been for me, he wouldn’t have been there. He wasn’t one of the publicly acknowledged wolves—no new werewolf would have been put into that position—but Anna knew about it.
“Should I be worried about him?” she said quietly.
I considered lying to her for about half a second before discarding the idea. I’d been lying to friends most of my life, but that hadn’t made me any fonder of it. “Some,” I said. “The first year is a dangerous time for a werewolf. Some people don’t take well to it.” I shrugged. “I haven’t seen any sign that he’s one of them, but sometimes you don’t.”
“What will happen if he is?”
I looked away and didn’t say anything, which was answer enough. Being Enrico’s sister and one of my best friends, Anna knew more about the wolves than most people. She knew that they weren’t the cuddly, ridiculous people they were presenting themselves as.
I like werewolves. I’ve spent most of my life around them, and I’m close to them magically and psychologically. I don’t let that blind me to what they are. The truth is that werewolves are monsters. They’re dangerous, violent, and kill people on a regular basis. That doesn’t make them evil, but it does make them hazardous to be around sometimes.
Anna nodded as though she wasn’t surprised, which I don’t suppose she was. “What are the odds?”
I shrugged. “It’s hard to say. He’s already survived the initial change, which is one of the biggest hurdles. At this point, I’d say there’s anywhere between a thirty and sixty percent chance he finishes the adjustment process and comes out okay.”
“I see,” Anna said. “Do all werewolves have odds that low?”
“No,” I said. “It depends on how well you mesh with the wolf. Some people have personalities that can roll with the changes. Your brother…doesn’t. That makes it a lot harder.”
Anna nodded. Her eyes were thoughtful. “I think I understand,” she said. “Take care of him, Winter. No matter what happens.”
I sighed. “I will,” I said, though I suspected I didn’t mean it the way she wanted. If he snapped and started killing random people—which has been known to happen when somebody really, really doesn’t do well as a werewolf—not only would the pack need to kill him, he would want them to.
If it came to that…well, I’d take care of him. I’d done such things before, for other friends that couldn’t handle the change. It wouldn’t be pleasant, but what in life is?
“Thank you,” Anna said, quietly but with great sincerity, and then she walked out the door.
I was understandably distracted on the walk home, and as a result the quasi-rabid flying squirrel actually drew a little blood before I smashed it into a building with another gust of wind. That wasn’t especially dangerous to me—I healed the injury within a few seconds, and even if the animal had been rabid (which I doubted) werewolves are generally immune to disease. But it was irritating, and a sobering reminder of why I take such pains not to become complacent.
Once I was home, I started throwing some stew together. I am not a good cook, not even a little, but I can make stew. I mean, all you have to do is throw stuff into a pot and cook it ’til the bleeding stops, right? Can’t be all that hard.
Conn showed up about the same time it finished cooking. I dished up two bowls and carried them into the living room. He tried one bite and grimaced. “I see,” he said, “that your cooking skills, at least, haven’t changed.”
I glowered and ate some stew. It was perfectly acceptable, I thought, so long as you dumped a bunch of pepper and garlic into it. If you can’t taste the food, everything tastes good, right?
Conn put his almost-untouched bowl back on the table. “I think that you were about to explain something when we were interrupted.”
I grunted an acknowledgment and finished my food before speaking. “You remember that after a few months, I stopped being a werewolf?”
“Well, that might not have been as permanent a condition as we thought.” From there I explained the whole of Fenris’s visit, maybe spending a little less time on the part about my parents than the rest. I valued Conn’s advice, but some things are private.
When I finished, he frowned and didn’t speak for a few minutes. “You think he was who he said?”
I shrugged. “Probably. I mean, who would pretend to be Fenris? Besides…” I struggled to phrase it for a moment, then shrugged. Conn would understand. “He felt right. He felt like I would expect the Fenris Wolf to feel.”
He nodded slowly. “Might be you should ask Bryan. He knows those stories better than I do. He was a skald for a while.”
I hadn’t known that. I tried to envision the grim, taciturn, almost emotionless man I’d known off and on for much of my life as a traveling Nordic poet and singer. “I have a hard time imagining that,” I admitted.
Conn looked away from me. “He wasn’t always the way he is now.” The old werewolf brooded for a moment, maybe thinking of what had changed his son. I didn’t even want to know about that.
“You must know something,” I urged, more to break the silence before it could really settle in and become oppressive than anything.
Conn nodded again. “Fenrisúlfr. You’d be wise to step carefully around that one. He doesn’t involve himself in mortal affairs often, and when he does it’s never good. Chaos and destruction follow in his wake.” Conn paused and looked at me in a way I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. It was too…considering, given that it came from the Khan of the werewolves.
“What is it?” I said irritably.
“Just wondering if that’s why he said you remind him of himself. You aren’t entirely different in that regard, after all.”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far. I mean, things happen around me, sure, but chaos and destruction in my wake? That’s a bit much.”
“How many people have died around you?” Conn asked. His voice was more conversational than accusatory. It didn’t have to be accusatory. He knew the answer as well as I did, and it was: a whole lot.
I shifted uncomfortably. “I’m not that different from any werewolf in that.”
“No,” he allowed. “Death isn’t a stranger to us. But do you know how many female Alphas there have been?”
I frowned. “No.”
“Three that I know of.” He ticked them off on his fingers. “One was overthrown and killed within a week. One is old and powerful. A French werewolf I would say is roughly on a par with me. And the third is Kyra Walker.” He was silent a moment to let that sink in. “She doesn’t have anything like the power Marie does. But the pack follows her without question. They obey her as surely as any Alpha.”
I shrugged. “Maybe people are just more open-minded these days. I mean, there’s no reason females shouldn’t be Alpha. Not like they can’t do the job just as well.”
“Granted, but the fact remains that it represents a major break from tradition. Not to mention that werewolves have been publically acknowledged. That’s a serious change, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know,” I said doubtfully. “I wasn’t exactly important to either of those things. You could just as easily say Kyra’s a harbinger of chaos. She played at least as much of a part.”
I could tell that he wasn’t convinced, but he let the subject drop. “I take it that’s why you were asking me where werewolves come from?”
I nodded. “He said I’m closer to the source. I think maybe that’s what he meant. If he’s where werewolves originate, and I’m related to him somehow, that might explain it.”
He made a thoughtful noise. “But he said his children were mostly just wolves, not werewolves or godlike sorcerers. After twenty generations you’d think it was even less than that, not strong enough to make a werewolf’s power look like small change.”
Before I had a chance to stew on that, Aiko came in. “Ah, good,” Conn said, not looking up from the dog. “I was hoping I’d have a chance to meet your girlfriend while I was in town.”
“Hey,” Aiko said, dropping a dripping wet umbrella next to the stove—even though it wasn’t actually raining outside. “I take it you’re the überwerewolf I’ve heard so much about.” She swept a complicated-looking bow in Conn’s direction which ended up with her sitting on the floor next to me eating his bowl of stew.
He raised one eyebrow. “‘Überwerewolf’ is a new one in my experience,” he commented.
Aiko shrugged carelessly. “You spend too much time with boring people then.”
“Quite likely,” Conn said gravely. “I take it you’re the psychotic kitsune I’ve heard so much about.”
“That’s me,” Aiko said cheerily. “You know, Winter, you were totally right about that prison break helping my rep. People recognize me now.”
“Ah yes,” Conn said. “The great escape from the dungeons of the Dragon King. Was that really wise?”
“Don’t look at me,” the kitsune protested. “It was his idea.”
I shifted uncomfortably. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. Besides, so far nothing catastrophically bad has happened which I can definitively say was his doing as a result of that event.”
“When you have to hedge that much,” Conn pointed out, “it’s usually a sign that your life is a wreck.” Which was hard to contest. “Did you need any more answers before I go?”
“Well,” I said, “I’d love some, but I think first I’d better figure out the right questions.”
“Finally,” he said dryly. “Just when I was starting to think you’d never learn. Well, as much as I enjoy your company, I’d probably better be going. You know how the pack gets when I’m not around to ride herd on them.”
“Actually,” I said as he stood up to leave, “I did have one question. How’d things turn out at the restaurant?”
“That? Not much to say. The cops got there about a minute after you left. Turns out both of those men had a criminal record already, and one of them was wanted in relation to another crime. The police were perfectly happy with the self-defense explanation.” Conn shrugged. “It helps that I’m pretty sure your friend Kyra had already crossed their palms with silver beforehand.” He walked out the door without another word.
“Nice guy,” Aiko commented after he’d left. “Remind me to never piss him off.”
I snorted. “No kidding. You should have seen the look on his face when I got a bunch of beavers to try and turn his house into their new pond.” I’d never openly admitted to that before, but I figured Aiko would find it amusing.
“Nice one,” she said admiringly. “What’s he doing in Colorado?”
That, of course, prompted a full explanation, including the details on my discussion with Fenris. When I’d finished, she sat there and absorbed it for a minute, scratching Snowflake’s neck as she did. “So let me get this straight,” she said eventually. “You’re the distant descendant of a deific wolf-monster that embodies hunger and destruction. Said wolf-monster thinks you’re funny and is almost certainly setting you up just for kicks. That about it?”
“Yep, pretty much.”
“Awesome!” she exclaimed. “I mean, that’s way cooler than just being a distant niece of the Dragon King. Think you’ll get invited to all the family parties now?”
“Maybe. His father already set us up with that one forged invitation, remember? So in a certain manner of speaking I’ve got ins with both of them.”
Her expression turned wistful. “I remember. That was the most fun I’ve had in ages.” She glanced at me slyly. “Speaking of fun, you can turn into a wolf now, right? ‘Cause there’s some things I’ve been wanting to try with that….”
And that was all that was said about gods, ancient monsters, and harbingers of chaos and destruction for quite some time. Anything else that might have happened that night is, quite frankly, none of your goddamn business.