It hadn’t really sunk in, until now, what had happened.
My house was gone. As in, burned-to-ashes-and-sown-with-salt, never-coming-back gone. I hadn’t had insurance of any kind and there was no way I could afford to replace it.
Which is how I wound up sitting alone in a darkened motel room not far from the college, staring out the window at the city and trying not to cry. Not the manliest of things to do, I know, but—
—but there’s no point trying to lie, is there? That’s the worst part about being brought up by werewolves, I think, and especially werewolves like the Khan’s family. I can’t lie to myself, not really, not the way other people do.
My house was gone. Just—gone. It hadn’t been much, but it had been mine. My home for most of my adult life. It was practically a part of me. The furniture was terrible, but most of it brought back memories of working with Val. I’d never see it again, not any of it. The memories were all that was left, and they were bittersweet at best.
My best friend, excepting possibly Kyra, was dead.. He’d killed himself, and why? Because of me.
I could tell myself that it wasn’t what I intended, that I’d done everything I could, and it would be true. But you know what? Every step he took on that path, there I was, smiling and holding out my hand, from the night I told Kyra to change in front of him against both of our better judgment, right up to the day someone cursed him to get back at me. My fault, every bit of it.
The same damn story as always. I make the mistakes, but it’s the people around me who die. I couldn’t even remember, anymore, how many innocents had died because of me. How many of the people who got close to me hadn’t I killed?
What do you do when you’ve already done everything, and all you accomplished was to make things worse? Aiko was missing, Enrico was dead, and for what? I was no closer now than I had been at the beginning, not even an inch closer to fixing the problem.
I stood up and put my shoes on. Somehow, I didn’t think I was going to be able to get any sleep anyway. And then I thought about Watchers, because self-pity was a luxury I didn’t have time for, and I didn’t deserve it anyway.
If I couldn’t sleep, and I wasn’t going to throw a pity party, that left little for me to do other than think about what had happened. When I did, I noticed a pretty glaring inconsistency, one which left me more than a little frightened.
Enrico killed himself because he couldn’t take the guilt. Because he knew he’d flipped out and almost killed Robert, one of the nicer werewolves I’d met. I could see him doing that; the ex-cop had always had a strong protective streak, and he was worse about guilt-tripping himself than I was. It was tragic and senseless, but utterly believable.
Except. Except if this curse, vicious and nasty thing that it was, included a memory block…
How had he even known what he’d done?
And for that matter, why would you include that sort of thing in the first place? When you want to hurt someone, and it seemed quite clear that was what this mage was after, the last thing you want to do is erase their memory of the pain. That defeats the whole purpose.
But Laurel had, for want of a better phrase, lifted that curse several times, and done it smoothly—much more so than my clumsy attempts. To do that you would have to be a witch with a fondness for mental effects.
In other words, exactly the right kind of mage to place a memory block—or, for that matter, to lay down the curse in the first place.
Laurel had been the one to pay for this motel room. Suddenly, I wasn’t at all convinced that had been a good idea. And, given that I wasn’t going to be getting any sleep anyway, I might as well get moving.
Besides, I had a decent idea where I had to go next.
Back to where it all began, of course. Isn’t that always how it goes?
I didn’t trust the phones, not anymore. I had no way of knowing how deep the poison ran, or what capability the enemy had. Against a single person I had a decent chance, I thought—but I didn’t really think that was the case. Not anymore. I had no idea who I could trust at this point, and it wasn’t far away, so I decided to walk rather than call for a ride.
After about a minute, I wasn’t sure that was the brightest idea. I’m paranoid at the best of times, and I knew that at the moment that would be heightened even further. But, even taking that into account, I felt a lot more uneasy than I should have. There was an itch between my shoulder blades, and I had to fight the urge to look back over my shoulder.
I’ve survived a lot of assassination attempts now, and in the process I’ve necessarily learned a bit about how to survive them. Lesson number one: if you think there’s something dangerous going on, if it feels like your instincts are trying to tell you that there’s somebody after you, they’re probably right. It isn’t a matter of being a werewolf, either; humans get that too. As a species, you evolved in a world where pretty much everything wanted to kill and eat you, not necessarily in that order, and you evolved to survive that. Just because you don’t listen to your instincts doesn’t mean that they don’t still talk.
Incidentally, that’s why the best hunters will all tell you that the trick is not being sneaky. If you try to creep up on someone, you give off all kinds of cues that they can pick up on. If you wear a bunch of black and skulk around behind them, they will realize that something’s wrong every time, even if they don’t know how or why. On the other hand, put on a janitor’s uniform and act casual and you can walk right up to them without them ever noticing a thing.
This guy obviously didn’t know that trick, because my scare-o-meter was pegging it. I glanced back over my shoulder, making it a part of my gait so that it wouldn’t stand out, and focused all the senses at my command behind me.
Was that section of the street just a little blurry, as though there were something there I was being prevented from seeing, my eyes skipping from one side to the other without ever quite registering the space in between?
Did I hear the slightest scuff, as though someone had stopped suddenly when they realized that I was looking?
Did I smell the faintest touch of anise on the air, and the nostril-burning sensation that marked magic?
And that is why magical invisibility is inherently unreliable unless mixed with a sizable helping of mundane stealth. Once they twig to you, the tiny imperfections in any spell of hiding are plenty to give you away.
I broke into a run. Behind me, I could just hear a muttered curse as whoever was tailing me realized his—or her, because this might well be Laurel—cover was blown. The sound of footsteps pounding behind me, way way way too close, urged me on.
Ten feet to the alley. I’d juke into it, and then use the poor lighting and my cloak of shadows to weave my own spell of concealment. I’d left the shotgun with Laurel—stupid, stupid, the part of me that had been screaming all along not to trust anyone that creepy shouted—but I had a big-ass pistol loaded with charged silver and iron, and Tyrfing was never far from hand, and between all of that and my werewolfiness I could do a number on pretty much anything in close quarters. I reckoned that if I made it into the tight confines of the alley, whoever was tailing me might well know that well enough that they would simply stop following me at that point.
Eight feet. Five. Three.
Something hit me in the back, a hammer of fire and agony like nothing I’d experienced before. My vision went to black and red, and I was only dimly aware that I’d fallen—been knocked, really—from my feet. That is, until I hit the ground on my left side, and another blast of burning lightning slammed through me.
I tried to push myself to my feet, and failed. I couldn’t even move, the pain was so bad; just trying to get my arms under me provoked another surge of agony that threatened to drive me from consciousness entirely. I couldn’t even breathe.
I looked desperately back up the street. A figure was approaching, having abandoned all pretense of stealth. It was dressed all in black, barely even visible, and it was carrying a pistol in one hand.
That’s when it clicked. I hadn’t been hit with some sort of horrific curse—I’d been shot. With, and now I could identify at least a piece of that horrible burning sensation, highly charged silver. I’d never actually been shot before, and I was stunned at how much it hurt.
I knew that my enemy, the mage who was responsible for all of this, was coming. I knew that if they wanted to hurt me right now, there was absolutely nothing I could do about it while lying in a heap against the wall. And it made no difference whatsoever. I still couldn’t get my arms underneath me.
The footsteps stopped, right next to me. This close, the stench of magic was practically overwhelming. I forced myself to shift enough to look at them, determined that if I was about to die I would at least see it coming, though even that motion sent fire all through me.
It was too short to be Laurel. And that was exactly all I could say, because the bastard was swaddled in black cloth. I mean, seriously, black cloak (that was supposed to be my look, you jackass), black gloves, black boots, black mask (mask? seriously), black sunglasses (come on dude, don’t you think you’re taking it a little far here?). There was literally not one speck of skin, hair, or eye visible. How was I supposed to identify my attacker like this, dammit?
“The bullet clipped your kidney,” he—and it definitely was a he—said after a moment. The voice seemed familiar, but it was hard to tell through all that muffling. “I expect it hurts, but if you stem the bleeding soon you should survive.”
And with that he turned and walked away. “Aren’t you going to kill me?” I asked weakly. I knew it was a stupid, stupid thing to say, but at this point I was too confused not too ask.
He didn’t look back, but he did stop. “Of course not,” he said, sounding genuinely surprised. “I want you to suffer, fool. Why would I let you die this easily?”
“What makes you think I won’t just let myself bleed out?” Not that I wanted to die, of course, that should go without saying by now, but this guy was seriously creepy and I wanted to mess with him.
I could hear a smile in his voice. A cruel smile, to be sure, but a smile nonetheless. “First,” he called back over his shoulder as he resumed walking away, “because you were always too stupid to stop when you should. And second, why, if you die…who will stop me from doing the same to everyone you’ve ever known?”
A moment later, without breaking stride, he pulled his veil back around himself. Given that I was, y’know, a wee bit distracted with the bullet wound, I lost track of the moving void that marked his location almost instantly.
The first thing I tried to do was stand up. That didn’t go so well. When the burning sensation had faded enough that I could see, I decided to focus on surviving the next few minutes first and worry about ambulation later.
It had been more than a few years since my last first aid class, but some things you don’t forget. Because of this, I knew that I was in deep shit.
There are two things you have to worry about with a kidney injury. The first, which I’d already encountered, is that it hurts like hell. There seriously aren’t words to describe it. I don’t care how badass you are; somebody stabs you in the kidney, you feel it. The silver made it infinitely worse. The bullet must have passed straight through me, because I couldn’t feel it burning me like acid from the inside out, but just traveling through my flesh was horrible.
Nothing hurts worse than charged silver. Nothing. I’d always known that—even if, for a while there when I wasn’t quite as werewolfy as I am now, I forgot. But now I knew it on a whole new level, and it made me understand how a werewolf could claw her own eyes out trying to get rid of the silver dust in them.
So that was the first thing. The second thing that you have to worry about with kidney wounds, the important thing, is blood loss. The kidneys serve as the filter for all that crap that winds up in your blood. Thus, they get about a third of your blood supply, all to themselves.
He’d said that the bullet only clipped my kidney. I knew he must be right because, werewolf or not, if he’d hit it dead on I would have bled out before that conversation finished. As it was, there was still a very good chance that I would do so in the next few minutes.
Alas, the clichéd villainous speech was dead on the money. I really was too stupid to quit—although a large part of that was, contrary to what he’d said, simple revenge. He’d hurt me, on all kinds of levels.
Nobody gets away with that. Not nobody, not no how.
It took me a few seconds, but I spun my cloak of shadow into a band around my midsection. The silver burn kept me from concentrating enough to congeal it into something thick enough to do much good at absorbing the blood, but there was enough of it to wrap around me a few times and I managed to convince it to apply a decent amount of pressure—which, believe me, helped the pain exactly not at all.
Makeshift bandage securely in place, I took a deep breath—ow—and called for Tyrfing. Thankfully the cursed sword appeared instantly, lying on its side in the modest puddle of blood which had formed around me. And if the symbols of death worked into the scabbard seemed more prominent, and the black stones in the pommel seemed to glint more than usual, and my eyes lingered on the way the scabbard was wicking up my blood instead of effortlessly shedding it the way it did other liquids…
Well, it was probably just me. Sure. I believed that.
Moving slowly so as not to black out from pain, I gripped the sword by the hilt. As always the touch of it, familiar and cool and grim as a starving wolf, seemed to banish the pain a little. Not that it went away; I still hurt, waves of fire threatening to swamp me with every movement. It just didn’t seem to matter as much.
I was forced to move with maddening care, slower than molasses in February, and I had to lean heavily on both Tyrfing and the wall behind me, but I managed to get myself on my feet. I kept most of my weight on the sword, using it as a makeshift cane as I turned and hobbled down the street. I had to bite back a scream every other step, and my peripheral vision seemed to be blurring, and there was a trail of blood in my wake, but I was moving.
The destination hadn’t changed. It was just that the urgency had spiked.
The next few minutes were a blur. I staggered desperately through the nighttime streets, seeing nothing but what was directly in front of my face. I saw no one, and if anybody saw me the weirdness of a wild-eyed man dripping blood and leaning on a gold-hilted sword staggering down the road in the dark of the morning was sufficient to overwhelm any altruistic impulses they might have had.
My confusion wasn’t helped by the fact that, somewhere between calling Tyrfing and actually standing up, I’d started slipping across the boundary between physical reality and the conceptual overlay that connected it to the true spirit world. Either that, or I was just seriously hallucinating, you never know.
In any case, everywhere was light. Tyrfing was a shaft of fire, vibrant scarlet and silver, swirling around a core blacker than Loki’s soul. The walls around me were a particolored patchwork of thousands of tiny sparks, echoes of everyone who’d lived within them, flash-frozen memories preserved long after those who made them had forgotten. My blood, crimson tainted with grey, boiled on contact with the air and gave rise to curls of mist after it hit the ground.
It was, to say the least, a little bit distracting.
At one point I became aware that I had stopped, and was leaning against a wall again, eyes focused dully on the street sign twenty feet away. I forced myself back into motion, growling incoherently under my breath. Another time, when I was less than a block away from my destination, I tried to get back up from where I’d fallen and realized that I couldn’t. Even with Tyrfing to lean on, the pain and weakness—and dizziness, which I knew was a very bad sign, even if I couldn’t seem to remember why—were just too bad.
So I crawled, abandoning the sword in the middle of the sidewalk. The clatter of steel on concrete seemed to echo toward me from a long ways away. Crawling was, if anything, more agonizing than walking had been, and it drove anything resembling thought from my mind. The next clear memory I had was of staring up at a familiar door. I was lying face down on the front step, hardly able to lift my head enough to see.
I couldn’t reach the doorbell. It was hilarious, at least in my current condition. I survived being shot with silver, made it an impossible distance, reached my destination…and now I was about to die because I couldn’t reach the doorbell. How pathetic is that?
I found a bit of clarity, somewhere down there. No. I hadn’t made it this far, survived all the shit I’d been through, to die like this. No way. Fuck that.
I summoned Tyrfing again, although even that effort was almost beyond me. I couldn’t feel my hands and I could barely see them, but I managed to wrap them around the sword. I lifted the sword, my arms shaking from the weight, and, with the very last of my strength, let it fall against the button.
I heard, very distantly, the chiming sound. Tyrfing fell, disregarded, from my hands, and I barely registered it when the cursed sword landed on my uninjured side. I didn’t hurt anymore, oddly enough. I just felt…tired. So tired. Maybe a little bit cold.
What’s with that? I thought muzzily. Even my thoughts sounded like they were coming from a long way off now. I’m not supposed to be…the one…who…gets…cold….
And then my eyes slipped closed.
What happened after that, I have no idea.
At some point I started drifting back toward consciousness. I fought back. I didn’t want to wake up. Waking up meant…pain. Debt. Living with the consequences of my myriad failures.
It didn’t hurt, where I was now. I was floating in a dark cold sea, and there was no pain, and when you’re all alone you can’t kill your friends. Why would I want to leave this place?
Why would I want to be alive?
Eventually I couldn’t keep it back anymore. The pain returned first, and that was the end of my rest.
It hurt to breathe. It hurt not breathing too, but when I took a breath the pain blossomed from an ache in my lower back to a bloom of fire from my thigh to my shoulder, sank its claws into my guts and spread across my chest.
I opened my eyes. It took me seven tries, but I managed it.
I hate silver poisoning.
I was lying, still in my extensively bloodied clothes, on top of a neatly made bed. The room was very dim, and I couldn’t work up the energy to turn my head, so about all I could say from sight was that the ceiling was at a normal height, and painted a light cream. I could smell generic air freshener and blood, and hear my own labored breathing.
About that time my stomach informed me that, so long as I was paying attention to things anyway, it would quite like to be fed. A lot. Maybe I could start with about twenty pounds of meat, and go from there.
No surprise. Healing was heavy work, even for a werewolf, and I hadn’t eaten in…actually, I had no idea how long. I mean, obviously I had no way of knowing how long it had been since I was shot, but even before that I wasn’t sure when the last time I had food was.
I tried sitting up. It wasn’t much fun. I sweated a bit, and cursed a lot, but eventually I managed it.
Once I was uncomfortably leaned up against the back wall, I was able to get a better look around. Tyrfing was lying in bed next to me, of course; it might be an ancient and terrible cursed weapon that was constantly trying to kill me and everyone else, but you couldn’t say it was less than faithful. Otherwise, the room seemed anonymous, almost featureless. One dresser, the top of which was scrupulously clean, stood over to my left. The nightstand next to the bed was likewise spotless, giving away no information about the person who owned it. The closet was shut off from the rest of the bedroom by a simple sliding door, which was closed, and there was no clothing visible except from the bloody stuff I was wearing.
I shivered a little. The last time I could remember being in such a perfectly anonymous, life-by-numbers room was in the house of a recently deceased vampire. This place wasn’t that creepy, certainly didn’t have the pervasive almost-blood reek of vamp sunk into the walls, but the comparison wasn’t exactly nice.
About that time Mohammed opened the door and came in, making no more noise than the average housecat. He was holding a tray, on which were arranged a mug of what smelled like herbal tea, a bowl of soup, and a piece of what I was betting was homemade bread, with all appropriate flatware. (Incidentally, have you ever actually heard someone use that word? I mean, I know silverware is inaccurate most of the time, for which I thank whatever deity might have been responsible, but flatware? Doesn’t seem very descriptive, does it?)
He looked exhausted. I mean, I’d thought he looked tired and careworn before, but that was nothing compared to now. His eyes were sunken, and he moved with the careful delicacy of someone who isn’t sure how much longer they’ll be able to stand.
“Hey,” I said, my voice sounding about as strong as he looked, and rasping in my throat unpleasantly. “Good thing you were home, huh?”
“Indeed,” he said, carefully setting the tray down on the nightstand. His hands shook a little—not enough to spill anything, but enough that I saw it. “Praise be to God.”
I reached out, my own hand none too steady, and snagged the tea. It smelled of chamomile, peppermint, and honey, and the cup was just full enough that I wound up with tea all over my lap when a tremor went through my hand at an inopportune moment. I try not to make a habit of being severely injured, but it’s happened often enough that I wasn’t surprised by how I felt.
I sipped at it cautiously. It was just the right temperature, almost hot enough to burn, and tasted heavenly. I wasn’t worried about being poisoned at the moment, given that Mohammed could have just let me bleed out on his doorstep if he wanted me to die. “Funny thing about that,” I said. My throat felt a lot better about it this time around, thankfully. “I should be dead.”
His lips quirked into a tired smile. “Miracles do happen, Winter.”
I glanced away. “Maybe,” I said, suddenly feeling more exhausted than he looked. “Maybe so. But they don’t happen to me, do they? Not the good kind of miracle, anyway.”
His smile stayed stubbornly in place. “What do you mean?”
I set the tea back down. “How’s Abdul doing, Mohammed?” I asked, meeting his eyes again.
Some emotion flickered across his black eyes, almost too fast to see. Then he sighed and slumped, the motion bringing out the signs of wear on his face. He grabbed a chair from just outside my field of vision, a simple and unadorned oak armchair, and sat in it. “He is doing as well as can be hoped, I think,” he said, and that same unidentifiable emotion lurked in the bottom of his voice. “He was not injured by your little tussle, the doctor says, and he seems to feel well.”
“Does he remember anything of what happened?”
“Nothing. He says that there is nothing between when he first complained of feeling poorly until he awoke after you left. It is a disappointment, I suppose, but I think also a blessing.”
I grunted an agreement. “So what are you?” I asked after a moment, grabbing the bread from the plate. At least if I dropped the bread it wouldn’t burn me.
“I don’t understand the question.”
I snorted, mouth full of bread. “I think you do. See, he wouldn’t just forget, you know? I’m pretty sure of that. Now, I know I didn’t do it, and there aren’t all that many other candidates. So what are you? What are you really, Mohammed?”
There was a long pause. “I suppose I knew you would figure it out eventually,” he said finally. His voice was odd, the same as that of the man I’d known for much of my life but simultaneously inhuman, with odd over- and undertones. “I am djinn.”
I grunted. Djinn. That explained a lot. I’d read a lot about the Arabic fire-spirits in my eternal quest for knowledge of the magical beasties of the world. It was hard to get a precise fix on their power, but removing a teenager’s memory while he slept seemed well within the realm of what a djinn could do. “Normally I’d have smelled that,” I commented.
He bowed his head slightly. “Many things are possible, if you have knowledge and are willing to pay the price.” Hard to argue with that.
“I thought most of your people weren’t fond of the faith,” I said, eating some more bread.
“Alas, many of us are not. I have tried to convert my fellows, from time to time, but I am not the speaker the Prophet was and few have listened.”
I nodded. “Why’d you call me, then?”
He grimaced and looked away. “My abilities were sufficient to preserve your life when you would otherwise have died,” he said. “And also, as you said, to remind Abdullah of what he is not. Not to help him remember what he is.” There was the faintest trace of bitterness in his voice.
“Really,” I said, my own voice hardening. ” You’re one of us freaks, Mohammed, you would have known what I can and can’t do. You have to have known that I was a terrible choice for that kind of work. So again I ask, why me? The truth this time, please.”
He didn’t look at me. “Because,” he said softly. “I was informed that I had to, that it had to be you. That if anyone else were to break the curse it would be only laid again, and more strongly.”
“Informed by whom?”
“By the one who cast it,” he whispered.
Wonderful. “Who was it?” I demanded.
“I do not know. I was given a message, but there was not a name on it.”
It made a whistling sound when I sighed. Apparently I’d lost a tooth somewhere in that painful, delusional run, and I just hadn’t noticed it until now. A shame, that; werewolves can heal almost anything given enough time, but amputations of any kind tend to be permanent. “Why didn’t you just tell me?” I asked, feeling more exhausted than ever. “I would have helped. Come on, Mohammed. You know me, man.”
He looked at me. His black eyes, which had a hint of flame in their depth now that he wasn’t hiding what he was from me, were nevertheless cold, and hard. “No, Winter,” he said, his own voice equally tired. “I knew you. But I hear things, and the things that I hear about you?” He shook his head slowly, pushing himself to his feet. “I don’t know whether you are the monster that he became, or merely a beast which has taken his face for its own. But you are not the man I once knew. He would have died rather than do such things.” He turned and left without another word, closing the door quietly behind himself.
I felt like I’d been stabbed. Or, maybe more accurately, like I’d been stabbed a long, long time ago, and Mohammed’s words had been the cheerful twist of the knife still sticking out of my back.
The monster that he became. Gosh thanks. I really needed to hear that.
I ate the rest of the food and drank the tea, and at some point became aware that I was crying.
And the worst part of the whole damn thing was that I knew that every word he’d spoken was true. Every one.
God, it’s fun to be me.
I didn’t see Mohammed again. No surprise there; he’d clearly said all he meant to. What more could he add, anyway? “I wish you were dead?” Obviously not, because whatever his opinion of my monsteritude, he still went out of his way to save my life. “Don’t come around again?” Already got that, thanks. “You should have been the one to die?” Take a number, queue forms to the right.
After I’d finished eating, although I still felt rather hungry, I took the time to examine myself. The wound was closed, which came as something of a shock. Wounds inflicted with silver, especially potently charged silver, tend to heal no faster than human, and occasionally even slower. I would have expected to still have a gaping hole straight through me.
Whatever Mohammed had done to me, though, I was far from mint condition. Fresh scars, angry red and violet, radiated out from the epicenter on my lower back, and my abdomen where the exit wound had been was even worse off. The wound felt like it was a month old, but it was definitely not completely healed. I could breathe, and walk without assistance, but that was about my limit. Running, fighting—you know, the things I was likely to need to do pronto—were out of the question.
Even more fun was the fact that I had no idea how durable I was. The wound felt old, but it wasn’t, and since I didn’t know how it had been healed I wasn’t sure how much stress it could take without reopening. Was I as unnaturally tough as I had come to rely upon being? Or would I rip my guts open just by twisting the wrong way?
The only way to find out was, obviously, no way to find out.
The bedroom turned out to be on the second floor. I tottered unsteadily down the stairs, wincing slightly every time my left foot hit the ground, and then walked down the hallway, keeping one hand against the wall in case I happened to slip. All the other doors were firmly closed, a subtle but not unnoticed reminder of my status here. The newly-revealed djinn might have helped me, but I was not welcome in his home. Not anymore.
He must not have lost all good feeling towards me, though, because I found a sub sandwich wrapped in plastic sitting on the kitchen table, next to a Styrofoam cup with more soup in it. Stacked neatly beside them, and covering most of the rest of the table, were the contents of my pockets from last night. I checked carefully, but everything appeared to be there, and I felt a palpable sense of relief as I twisted my cloak back into a long coat and sorted my gear back into place. Miraculously, I hadn’t even lost my pistol or knife when I played with the shape of the cloak, which was frankly more than I had expected.
I drank the soup, which was still hot, and took the sandwich, which was still cold, with me as I left. The door clicked shut behind me, and then it locked itself.