Back home, I baked and ate a frozen pizza, giving some to Snowflake. Then I sat at my small table and made a list of what I would need to summon a familiar. She slept on my feet as I did, twitching occasionally as she dreamed of snatching birds out of flight. It was a simple, entertaining dream, and I was careful not to wake her from it as I stood.
If you have to ask how I knew what she was dreaming about, I quite frankly don’t think I can help you. I mean, really. Thanks to the amount of time I spent around her (and probably also her unusual intelligence), I didn’t even have to think to share Snowflake’s mind. I didn’t even have to be in the same room as her. Especially not when the moon was near-full and I’d already been using my magic that day. So I felt it when she woke up, even though I was busy putting things into a backpack. A moment later I heard car door shut outside.
“So what do you want to do tonight?” Aiko asked cheerfully as she walked in. She’d ditched the umbrella look in favor of her more normal—if that word even applies—T-shirt and battered jeans.
“Oh, I don’t know. I thought maybe I’d go out into the middle of the woods at midnight and perform magical rituals of dubious coloration. You game?”
“I don’t know about that,” Aiko said doubtfully. “Sounds kinda boring.”
“Hey,” I protested. “They might not have all been fun, but I don’t think I’ve ever taken you somewhere boring.”
“True,” she said thoughtfully. “I suppose I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt, then. Where in the woods were you thinking?”
“Actually,” I said, clipping Snowflake’s long leather leash to her collar, “I need to pick a few things up first.” I patted the empty backpack meaningfully where it hung next to the full one over my shoulder.
“What is this place?” Aiko asked as she parked. Her expression was dubious, and I couldn’t really blame her for it. Colorado Springs doesn’t have any real ghettoes, but the neighborhood we were in was about as close as it came. It was the kind of place that your average person wouldn’t willingly go near even in full daylight, and I have to admit I would be a bit nervous myself after dark. I could almost certainly take a couple of human thugs—but almost means not quite, and guns are vastly more dangerous than most mages give them credit for.
I was comfortable there, though. Repeat visits will do that for a person. I walked confidently to a small, particularly run-down looking house. The walls were absolutely covered in layer upon layer of graffiti, so thickly that you couldn’t see the bricks—or the elaborate symbols which had been painted over them originally, and used to anchor a really impressive set of wards. They predated my ownership of the building, and were quite a bit more subtle and complex than anything I could do.
I opened the outer door, which matched the neighborhood, and swept a low and intentionally ridiculous-looking bow in the kitsune’s direction. “Thees ees mein la-bor-a-tor-y,” I said in my best hokey accent. Snowflake stayed to watch the car—a Siberian husky might not look like a terribly powerful guard, but Snowflake was intelligent and much more dangerous than she looks. In a straight-up fight between the two of us, if I didn’t have Tyrfing to hand, I’d only give myself about fifty-fifty odds.
Aiko walked in like she was considering buying the place, and her offer was dropping with everything she saw. “You have a laboratory?” she asked incredulously.
I followed her in and quickly shut the door behind us—it wasn’t the kind of place where a smart person left the door open longer than was really necessary. “Yep,” I said, crossing the dark and narrow entryway in a couple of steps to open the door in the opposite wall. “Had it for a few months now. I thought about showing you the place, but ‘Come over and look at my magical laboratory’ sort of projects more of the creepy, evil wizard vibe than I was comfortable with.”
I flicked on the lights to show the main room of my lab, which used to be a kitchen. I’d turned the battered Formica countertop into my workbench, complete with various tools and Bunsen burners. The cabinets held reagents, and I’d replaced the kitchen table with another worktable which was mostly covered in half-finished projects. The wall over the workbench held a big sheet of butcher paper mostly covered in hash marks to record the various assassination attempts I’d withstood. I added a few more lines to it in Sharpie first thing, before I forgot.
Aiko was wandering around looking at things. “Nice stock,” she commented, looking in one of the cupboards. “What do we have here,” she said, mostly to herself. “These labels accurate?”
“Yep,” I said. Some mages, including Alexander, intentionally mislabel their reagents. I believe that the idea is that anyone stupid enough to rob a mage deserves what they get. Personally, I think it’s more likely to cause trouble for me than a thief.
“Huh. Silver nitrate…valerian, that’s always good…white hellebore? Wouldn’t have guessed that. Wolfsbane? Seriously, Winter, who calls it wolfsbane anymore? Ooh, jimsonweed…yew bark? Well, I guess you’d be the one who could get it, right? Poison sumac extract, always a fun one. Let’s see…baneberry, belladonna, foxglove, oleander, hemlock, celandine, lupine, bloodroot, lobelia, ground-cherry…you know, Winter, I’m noticing a distinct and somewhat worrying theme here….”
“Maybe that’s because you’re in the poisons cupboard?” I guessed, pouring a few powdered herbs into Ziploc bags.
“Ah,” she said, closing it pointedly. “That might be it. At least you separate them out, I suppose.” She eyed me. “You did wash your hands before you made that stew, I hope?”
“Relax,” I said. “If I were trying to kill you I think you’d have noticed it by now.” I paused. “Besides which, as many times as you’ve drugged my food it seems like you’re in a very glassy house.”
She ignored that with the ease of long practice, instead looking at what I was packing. “So what’s valerian doing mixed in with the poisons?”
I shrugged. “I guess I either put it back in the wrong place, or for some reason I thought it was toxic.” I frowned. “It isn’t toxic, is it?”
“Don’t think so. Silver nitrate?”
I stared at her. “You’re kidding, right? Silver nitrate? I don’t know that it would do anything, but it isn’t something I’m terribly eager to find out, either.” I shook my head and dropped the bags into the pack before grabbing the next thing I would need.
“Hey,” she exclaimed delightedly. “I forgot about that skeleton.” She frowned. “I wondered what you did with that thing. I never saw it around your house, so I figured you’d thrown it out.”
I finished dismantling the skeleton, which she had made out of the bones of a dozen or so faerie hounds and given to me as a present. “Of course not,” I said to her, packing the sections carefully into the bag. “It just fits the ambience here better.”
She looked pointedly at the cupboard full of poisons, some of which were quite potent. Between them I had enough material to kill at least a couple dozen people, although I am of course of such a fine moral character that no one would ever, ever think that I would do such a thing. Really. “Yeah, I see what you mean. What else you got here?” Without waiting for me to answer she opened another cupboard. I pulled out my list and checked it over again.
“Wormwood,” she said in the background. “Peppermint, what’s that doing here? I mean, really, doesn’t exactly blend in very well, do you think? Hawthorn powder, that’s more like it, and willow bark. Cat’s claw? That from the plant or the cat?”
“Both, actually,” I said absently, checking through the packs. “The actual claw’s in the next cabinet over. The one you’re looking at is all botanicals.”
“Can you call rosemary a botanical?” Aiko said doubtfully. “Rue I can see, I suppose, and goldenseal, but rosemary? Sage? And thyme? Come on, that’s just a bad joke waiting to happen. Wait a second, wolfberry? Really? Couldn’t you just call it goji berry like everyone else? I get it that you have a theme and all, but seriously.” She moved on to the next cabinet while I grabbed another bag of kosher salt—I probably had enough already, but I’d really hate to run short.
“How many kinds of alcohol do you really need?” Aiko exclaimed. “Come on, Winter, you don’t even drink. Why do you have five kinds of brandy in here? And a bottle of absinthe?”
“Alcohol forms the base of a lot of potions,” I said absently.
“I didn’t realize you made potions.”
“I can’t, actually. Maybe soon. All I said was that it was useful, not that I can actually use it.”
She snorted and moved on to the last cupboard. “Ah, this is more like it. Cat claws, yep. Rock dust, iron filings, modeling wax…is that cement mix? Huh. Powdered bird bones? Wow, Winter, wouldn’t have expected that from you. Not with you always rocking the animalistic stuff and all.”
“I hate pigeons.”
“Ah. They aren’t that bad, you know. Not much different from chicken once you pour some gravy on top, although I’ll grant that the texture’s a bit of an acquired taste….”
I sighed. “Think that’s about everything, if you can tear yourself away. I promise I’ll show you around more thoroughly another time.”
I wasn’t too concerned about someone breaking in, even in that neighborhood. The exterior wards were all about concealment and masking, but they were very, very good. Most people never even realize the building’s there, and I’ve never had someone try to come in without me explicitly showing them where to go. Then the actual cabinets were locked and, if you didn’t open them with my keys, you’d set off a few more wards. Granted they weren’t, like, lethal force or anything, but still.
I still locked the doors behind us. The things in there weren’t just expensive and difficult to obtain; they were also, as you might imagine from Aiko’s reaction to my cupboard of toxic reagents, not something I wanted in anybody else’s hands. It’s best to be cautious with such things.
Aiko drove quite a ways out along a forest service road, about as far as you were going to get without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. I pointed out that dirt roads and nice sedans aren’t a very good mix, but she didn’t seem to care particularly. Once we were parked, I got out and started getting my gear together. I put on a sturdy jacket—it was July and I’m really hard to freeze to death anyway, but I believe in being paranoid. Also in pockets, of which it had quite a number.
“Which pack you want?” I asked Aiko.
She looked at the almost-empty bag I’d brought from home and then the big, bulging pack I’d filled at the lab. “You’re the super-werewolf-freak,” she said. “You get the heavy one.”
I grinned and shrugged it into place. It looked heavy, but the bones took up a lot of space for relatively little weight, so it only actually weighed about fifty pounds. Not too heavy, for me. Once it was tightened down and I was sure it wouldn’t slip, I belted on Tyrfing.
I didn’t actually need the sword, but Tyrfing is…clingy, for lack of a better word. I’d been assured by Alexander that I wasn’t going to be ridding myself of the thing anytime soon, if ever, and although I hadn’t tested it I had no difficulty believing him. This was largely because it had already found its own way to me several times. The first occasion was when I got back from the hospital and found it sitting on my mantel, when everybody who could have put it there swore they hadn’t had anything to do with it.
Since then it had pulled the same trick a number of times. Let me tell you, the first time I was working in the shop and I turned around and tripped over the sheathed sword, it scared five years off my life. Which, given that I appeared to be aging about as much as the average werewolf—which is to say literally not at all—wasn’t that big of a deal.
Over time I’d figured out the rules by which the sword functioned. It would let me stay away for approximately eight hours before it came and found me. In a strange location, that tended to be a bit of a high estimate—six hours was closer. On the other hand, sometimes it would stay in my house for ten or even twelve hours at a time without my being present.
I probably would have complained more if it weren’t for one more feature of the sword’s uncanny transportation system. If I thought about it, concentrated on how I really and truly needed Tyrfing, it was there. Instantly. No matter if it were ten feet away or ten miles, whether I’d been gone most of the day or only minutes.
That’s a really nice feature in a weapon. Really, really nice. Nice enough that I didn’t mind it occasionally getting underfoot and causing me trouble. It also, as a convenient side effect, meant I could safely leave it pretty much anywhere, or watch a thief take it right in front of my eyes, and not worry a bit. It would be back before long.
It was irritating occasionally, but I pride myself on being adaptable. I’d learned to adjust to being the owner of a cursed sword. So, even though I had no need of Tyrfing for the spell I was about to pull, I brought it along, because I would probably be gone longer than it would tolerate and it was simpler to carry it from the start than have it show up halfway through. It had nothing to do with my ordinary paranoia; it was just forward planning and simple practicality.
The three knives, pistol, and miscellaneous toys I was carrying, on the other hand, had everything to do with my paranoia.
We started off on the road and continued down it for quite a while, moving at a brisk walk. I’d taken Snowflake’s leash off as soon as we left the city; she doesn’t particularly mind it, mostly because I’m the one holding the other end, but I do. She’s an intelligent being perfectly capable of making sound decisions. Most of the time she doesn’t make sound decisions, having been much too influenced by my bad example in that regard, but she’s capable of it. You don’t lead a sapient being around on a leash. It’s just not okay.
After a while on the road, we split off on a game path leading deeper into the forest. Considering how close they are to Colorado Springs, the woods surrounding Pikes Peak are surprisingly wild places. You don’t have to go too far to leave all trace of humanity behind, and by the time we’d been on the game path twenty minutes or so you would have been hard pressed to find any sign of a human presence. Good.
Somewhat to the annoyance of my traveling companions I insisted that we stop and watch the sunset. Well, to be fair, I didn’t insist that they stop; I just said that I was, and since I was pretty much the whole reason we were here they elected not to keep going without me.
I sat on a nice little granite outcropping and watched the sun sink below the mountains. It was a beautiful sunset, the sort of thing that doesn’t happen nearly as often as it ought to, staining the thin clouds amber and vermillion and carmine, as though some deity had been inspired to go at them with a paintbrush. I sat and watched until the oranges and reds had faded to soft violets and then, finally, to the deep blue tones of the sky at night. I stared up at it for a moment more, feeling almost lost in indigo so pure and perfect it almost hurt to see.
I’ve never been much for religion. But if there were anything that might convince me, a truly lovely sunset might be it. When I see something so fleeting that is, nevertheless, so perfectly, tragically beautiful, something that’s beautiful in part because it’s so fleeting, well…. I could almost—almost—believe.
But I didn’t have time to meditate on the nature of beauty tonight. There was work to be done.