Back at the hotel I sat on a conveniently nearby bench and did some magic.
There are all kinds of magical rituals. The variety is truly enormous—everything from ominous chanting and pentacles drawn in goat’s blood to incense and birdsong. The interesting thing is that, because magic is so intimately bound up with thought and emotion, theoretically any approach can work if it’s done by someone with the right abilities who genuinely believes that it will. So, in some ways, every single description of magic is in some ways accurate, simply because if you think it’s accurate and your will is strong enough, you can make the magic agree with you. It might not be the most technically correct view, it might not be the most efficient or practical, but you can make it work.
So there’s a place in magic for complicated rituals and incantations. I’ve been known to use ritual setups myself for particularly difficult, involved, or foreign spells. But at the same time, the elaborate stuff isn’t always necessary, especially not for something closely in line with your natural talents.
You would not have been able to tell by watching that there was any magic going on at all. I didn’t paint intricate symbols on the ground, chant verses in Latin, or produce unnatural lights. All that happened was that I sat down on the bench and closed my eyes to concentrate.
Predators are close to my heart. There are all kinds of reasons for that. My blood came from a werewolf and what might have been a genuine wolf that bore some measure of power inherited from the Fenris Wolf. My longtime association with werewolves, which had a serious influence on me growing up. And, of course, endless hours spent in mental communion with predatory animals didn’t hurt. When you do something like that, it’s not just telepathic speech, at least not the way I do it; I share their mind and body, experiencing everything they do in real time, first person Technicolor. It’s the sort of thing that leaves a mark on you.
So what I was doing was very much in line with my own nature. I sank into myself, carefully removing all distractions from my perceptions. In the resulting darkness, I felt the slight-but-noticeable pressure of other minds against mine. My magic was always active, always bringing in sensations from animals around me whether I instructed it to or not. I’d had enough experience with it that most of the time I blocked them out, filtered out everything that didn’t come from inside my own mind without even thinking.
Now that I stopped blocking them, they intruded on my otherwise vacant perceptions. I could feel curiosity from Kyra, who was as much a predator as I was, and smell the distinctive aroma of city-at-night through her nose. I could feel the gentle dreams of a dog napping in a nearby home, and the significantly more active mind of an alley cat in heat. All of the sensations seemed to come from very far away, almost as though I were on a heavy dose of painkillers or something. That was to be expected, without a solid connection. If it weren’t for the nearly-full moon I wouldn’t likely receive sensation at all, just an awareness that they were out there.
Eventually, I found what I was looking for, and whispered an offer. I opened my eyes a minute or so later and saw that a fox was sitting near my feet, looking at me with bright eyes, having been drawn by my power—not a compulsion, I don’t do compulsion, just a polite request. Once I’d seen him, he jumped up onto the bench next to me. I reached out and rested one hand lightly on his shoulder—not a good idea, by the way, if you’re a normal person. Wild animals don’t react well to being petted. People seem to think they should, for some reason, to the frustration of zookeepers everywhere.
Physical contact helps a lot to focus my magic. I felt the fox’s mind distinctly this time, without the previous sense of dislocation. I focused on that connection and, without anything resembling words, asked what he remembered of the past night.
He wasn’t a kitsune or a magical beast or anything, just an ordinary fox. As a result his mind wasn’t much like a human’s. His response was a disjointed thing, like flipping rapidly through a disorganized photo book. There were impressions of memorable scents, a particularly delectable bit of garbage, a whole series of memories of catching a rat. I closed my eyes again as I began sifting through the memories—I knew from experience that trying to manage two sets of senses at the same time is a difficult, headache-inducing trick.
He’d spent most of the night near the hotel, and at some point in that whirlwind I saw what I was looking for. It was just a glimpse, but I’ve had a lot of practice at this sort of thing. Another mental nudge brought that incident back to the forefront of his mind, and—in bits and pieces—I sorted out what had happened.
The fox had initially seen the two men about three blocks away. He had little concept of time as I understood it, but from the position of the moon I guessed that it had been about two in the morning, the heart of the night. One of the men had smelled like any other man, unpleasant. He had been the one walking. The other man, being carried over the human’s shoulder, had smelled different, sweetish and flowery, almost like a perfume. It had been an exotic smell to the fox, one that he hadn’t encountered before, and he had been intrigued. Being not especially hungry and, like most of his kind, curious, he had followed the pair, sticking to the shadows and alleys. They never noticed him.
That wasn’t as surprising as you might think. Most people, if trying to avoid detection in the city, will overlook an animal watching them. It’s a psychological thing. It’s easy to look at a big city, the ultimate triumph of human engineering over nature, and think that it’s a place where only people belong. The truth, of course, is that all kinds of things make their home there. Pigeons, rats, stray pets, raccoons, ravens and the occasional hawk, and, naturally, foxes all make their homes on the streets. On the edges of the city you get things like rabbits, which for my purposes are useful primarily because they attract things that hunt rabbits, and coyotes, which are a rare treat to work with.
The point is that this was another such case. The man looked for pursuit by other humans constantly, but a little fox watching from the shadowed mouth of the alley? Way below his notice.
The fox thought, and I agreed, that the other man was dead. He didn’t move, not even a reflexive twitch, and the human’s attitude reminded the fox of someone bringing their prey home to eat later. Eventually the pair came to the hotel, a place he was very familiar with—he had often dined on their refuse, and on the smaller scavengers it brought. He never tried to go in, though, knowing too well that it would end badly.
These two did. The human opened the door and entered. The fox saw the man inside start to stand, mouth open, then sit back down with a confused expression on his face. Then the door swung shut and hid them from his view.
While I pondered that, I thanked the fox for his assistance and tore open the package of meat. He seized the steak in his jaws and, looking comical with the relatively huge piece of beef hanging from his jaws, trotted off into the predawn darkness.
“Anything?” Kyra asked.
“Yeah. About three in the morning, two men. One had the other in a fireman’s carry. They came in from the east, at least for the last few blocks. Man being carried was probably dead, probably the corpse they found. The man carrying him smelled human but didn’t look to be having a hard time with the body. They went in through the front door like I thought. The clerk saw him then sat back down without saying anything, suggesting that the mage hit him with something mental. That explains why the fox saw so much, too; a spell that hits the mind directly has to be targeted specifically, and he didn’t bother with confusing animals.”
She blinked. “That much?”
I shrugged. “Foxes are curious and smart. If they see something that gets their attention, they can notice a lot of detail.”
“I take it you’ve done this before,” she said dryly.
“Somewhat regularly.” I coughed self-consciously. “Actually, most of the animals within about two miles of my house spy for me at least occasionally. All of the cats, dogs, foxes, and coyotes, and most of the birds too.” It’s not flashy, but in my experience it’s a seriously underestimated ability.
“Why didn’t you do it when we were chasing Garrett, then? Or back in January?”
I shook my head. “Totally different situation. Then we knew what we were looking for, and the problem was just in finding them and killing them. Actually tracking somebody like that’s a lot harder. This time I just wanted to get a glimpse of them so I knew what we were looking at.”
She nodded. “So the mage was human and carried the body in. What about the corpse? He human?”
I grimaced. “That’s where it gets tricky. At the door, I thought I smelled two signatures—one human, one vampire. The vamp was really, really faint, so I thought I was just imagining it. But the fox smelled something weird off the other guy, like it wasn’t quite human.”
“So we can assume the corpse was a vampire. Does that explain the magic?”
I shook my head. “Not really. Even people with magic don’t leave a trace that strong unless they’re actually doing something with magic, and if he was dead he couldn’t have been. Even if he wasn’t, why would he be helping at that point? Doesn’t make sense to me.”
“Me either,” she said thoughtfully. “So that leaves two questions. One, why was there vampiric magic involved? Two, how do you kill a vampire without leaving a mark of any kind?”
Huh. That hadn’t even occurred to me. “I don’t know much about vamps,” I told her. “Never much wanted to learn. Things give me the screaming creepies.”
“Bad experience?” she asked.
I shrugged. “Not really. Never even met one that I know of. They just freak me out. I mean, they’re the walking dead, they drink people’s blood, they’re supposed to be scary powerful and harder to kill than cockroaches. What’s there to like?”
“Heh. Most of what I know about vampires comes from Dracula, so I’m guessing you’re still one up on me. Think you can find out for me?”
“Maybe.” I paused as something occurred to me. “How’s Robert doing?”
“Not too bad. Bastard shot him with a silver bullet, but his aim was lousy. Deflected off the shoulder bone. Give him a week or so and he’ll be all right.”
“Glad to hear it.” I paused again. “I’m pretty sure the folks that did that were mages too. Weak ones, but still human mages.”
That gave her pause. “Think it’s related?”
I thought that there was something going on that I didn’t understand. I thought that it might involve a mage powerful enough to kill vampires without leaving a mark on the body and weave an illusion as solid as I’d ever seen without breaking stride, and there couldn’t be that many people like that around. I thought that the freaking Fenris Wolf was paying attention to this one, and that alone should tell me there was something bigger going down than two kids shooting a werewolf and one dead vampire.
Out loud, all I said was, “I think these days coincidences are harder to find than unicorns.”
She snorted. “Fair enough. Look into it for me, would you? I’ll make sure you’re compensated for it.”
“No problem.” I mean, at least this time I was getting paid to do something stupid and stick my nose into dangerous things bigger than me. Most of the time stupid is free.