Three hours later, my phone rang, providing the tragic but necessary end to my break.
The pack had found something.
Kyra came to pick me up personally. I found that highly amusing, in an odd sort of way. Even with all the minions at her command, she took the time to play taxi driver herself. It was funny, okay?
“The van was ticketed on parking violations up on the north side of the city,” she said without preamble.
I stared. “And it took you this long to find that?”
She smiled a sharp, thin, predatory smile. “Of course not. I didn’t see a reason to bother you until I had something better than that.” She pulled out into the light middle-of-the-day traffic.
I waited for a moment, until it became clear that she wanted to be prompted. “What do you have?” I asked, rolling my eyes. Snowflake chuckled.
“My team scent-tracked someone from the car,” she continued. “It took a while—whoever it was, they were expecting werewolves.”
I snorted. “Gosh, you think? Maybe it’s because, gee, they’re after me.”
She shrugged. “True. Anyway, they backtracked like crazy, covered their tracks with pepper and silver, the whole deal.”
I winced. Salting your path with silver was a nasty trick to play. It meant that any werewolf trailing you could, at unpredictable intervals, expect to get a noseful of burning agony, which would at the least render them incapable of following a scent for several minutes, and might (depending on the dosage and the charge) even injure them. It was also, needless to say, quite expensive.
“But they followed it?”
She shrugged again. “Reasonably well. Mostly by not following it, if you get what I mean.”
I did. They would have looked for anywhere that didn’t have the scent, complete with strong smells and toxic dust. It was harder than following directly, and more manpower-intensive, but when you already had the target localized it could be a frighteningly effective tactic. It was especially good at finding someone trying to leave multiple trails by backtracking.
Don’t try and hide from werewolves. It won’t work. Granted it isn’t quite as stupid as running from werewolves—they have the same chase instinct as mortal canines—but not by much. When you go to ridiculous lengths like this guy had, it just makes the game more exciting for them.
“Did they find him?”
She glanced sidelong at me. “Sort of. You should probably take a look for yourself.”
About twenty minutes later, and with more than fifteen hours left on my countdown, we were walking down the street, to all appearances a couple idle people walking their dog. Not that there was much of anyone else on the street; I wasn’t sure whether it was just that this wasn’t a high traffic area, or if Kyra’s people were actively warding people away. Probably both. It helped that this part of town was mostly industrial.
Kyra was wearing a trench coat, which in my experience is never a good thing. It meant that either she was armed for bear underneath and didn’t want anyone to know it at a glance, or that she was wearing nothing underneath because she wanted to be able to change at a moment’s notice. I was guessing the latter; Kyra generally prefers fur for combat.
“This is where they lost him?” I murmured to her.
“Yeah,” she said, equally softly. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another pair of people leaning against the wall chatting whose eyes were a little too focused to really be as engrossed in their conversation as they wanted to seem. I recognized one of them as one of the female werewolves from the pack. Sentries, which meant that there were probably at least another two I didn’t see.
“The trail is pretty clear coming down this street,” she continued. We were, she said, about two miles from where the SUV had been found as the crow flies, although the actual path they’d had to follow was significantly longer. “Then, at the next intersection, massive dump of scent-blockers. Not just the pepper and silver, either; he dumped cinnamon, monkshood, the works. On the other side, nothing.”
I grunted. “No dust? Or did the wolves get his personal scent?”
“They did,” she confirmed. “And both of them stop right there.”
“If he could conceal it totally,” I mused, thinking aloud, “stands to reason he wouldn’t have bothered with the scent bomb this whole way.”
“Unless it’s a decoy,” she concluded. “Take up our time following a fake trail. None of us has a perp to compare it to, so I don’t even know that this is the right scent, just that it goes from near the car to here and somebody didn’t want it followed.”
“True,” I acknowledged. “But he could just as easily be assuming we’ll go with that and leave off now. That way he gets the satisfaction of seeing us turn around when we’re just a few blocks away. Seems like the kind of thing this guy would get off on.”
“But he’s gone out of his way not to leave traces before,” she countered. “Between that and your history of seeing through that kind of doublethink, stands to reason that he’s expecting you to think that. Best camouflage is not actually being there, right?”
I nodded sourly. “Do you have any other leads? Anything at all?”
She shook her head. “Still looking. We have an APB out for her description, and if there were any sightings in the right time frame we should be getting reports. I have wolves who know the scent searching the major thoroughfares. Airport security came back negative already.” She paused. “Do you think we should arrange roadblocks?”
“Not worth it,” I said absently, most of my attention on the problem facing me. “He could bypass any active measures like that.”
Like I said. Smart people don’t mess with the pack. They tend not to have much middle ground between “No response necessary” and “Retaliate with overwhelming force,” and when they decide to hit back it can be pretty devastating.
“I take it you think I should try my methods?” I asked, more or less rhetorically. She’d already made it clear that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have something to contribute. I would have been a bit peeved about that, actually, except that I’d really needed the rest. This gunshot crap was way overrated.
She smiled, still with a little of that hunger underneath but not quite so openly predatory as she had been earlier. She wanted his blood—all of the pack would, after he’d dared to kill one of their own and assaulted another—but she had it under control. Later…well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be that guy after five minutes in a room with the werewolves. I’ve seen what happens when somebody makes a pack that pissed off at them, and I was guessing that even a forensics team wouldn’t be able to identify the body.
Hell, they’d probably only give even odds that it was human.
Seemingly without a cue of any kind, another werewolf came walking around the corner, a grocery bag in his hand. I didn’t recognize this fellow, but the purpose in his movement was unmistakable, and once he got closer the scent confirmed it. Werewolf, through and through.
He handed the bag off to Kyra as he walked past us in the other direction, masking the exchange with a sudden coughing fit. Very casual, very low-key; he was good at this game. I wondered if he had some kind of background in theater or something, or if he’d picked the skill up on the job.
Kyra, in turn, slipped it into her coat and turned us neatly off the main street into an empty alley behind an outlet store of some kind. Flooring, I think. It wasn’t hard to see why nobody else was there. There was another man at one end, ostensibly on a smoke break, who paid just that little bit of deference to Kyra that marked him as one of hers even if I couldn’t smell him over the cigarette, and the stray dog at the other end was clearly more than just a dog. I wouldn’t want to be the delivery guy trying to get past those guys, either.
I wasn’t used to Kyra showing her power this openly. She must have called in the entire pack for this; I hadn’t seen this many werewolves all at once since we took down Garrett.
I squatted down near the middle of the alley, closed my eyes, and slipped into a light trance state, mentally questing for any animals nearby which might have information pertinent to the cause. It was harder in the middle of the day, when most of my kind of animal were asleep while waiting for better hunting times, but hopefully I could get something.
Kyra knew how the system worked, so while I was doing this she was opening the package of hamburger meat that the other werewolf had fetched from the grocery and dumping it out on the pavement. You don’t need a bribe to convince an animal to come, exactly, but we were far enough away from my usual neighborhoods that the predators here probably wouldn’t know me very well. And, in all honesty, even with familiar animals the bribe helps a lot. Most animals have very clear priorities in life, and food generally tops the list. (Except when it loses out to mating, but that’s a whole different story.)
I could feel, in that state, all the werewolves around. And it terrified me.
There were a lot of them. I felt more than a dozen different sparks of predatory light. And all of them, every one, was thinking bloody thoughts. I didn’t know how much of the story they knew, but Kyra had told them that the target had killed one of the pack, and they burned with the need to avenge him.
That’s the problem with antagonizing a pack of wolves. First you have the initial flash of rage. But then, as it starts to settle down into a solid flame, it gets into the pack bonds. They aren’t as strong a connection as some versions of the story would have you believe, certainly not strong enough to allow true telepathy, but when it comes to transmitting instincts and emotions they are par excellence.
Once an emotion gets into the pack bonds, usually it dissipates. That’s why the pack helps werewolves who would otherwise succumb to those impulses keep control; the exposure to the feelings and instincts of their packmates, who aren’t experiencing that urge, helps to ground them.
But right now, the whole pack was feeling the anger. It didn’t even matter how they had felt about Enrico, personally; someone had hurt the pack, and any werewolf would feel wrath at that. And so when that anger gets into the psychomagical connections, it doesn’t fade, it amplifies, feeding on the fury of all those werewolves and resonating with it. It grows and grows until, at some point, it takes on a life of its own, and the wolves start feeding on it instead. The positive feedback loop thus formed can easily explode out of all proportion, and when it does…well, there tends to be a lot of wreckage when it’s all over, and the biggest obstacle to identifying the bodies is figuring out how many there actually are.
It takes a lot to drive a pack berserk like that. This one wasn’t there yet, not even close. But I could feel the beginning stages, and that was plenty scary enough.
I say all this so that you can understand, at least to some degree, what I felt in Kyra. She was the first thing I felt, of course, when I started browsing; she was standing right next to me, after all, and even if I hadn’t spent that much time around her recently we still had a fairly solid bond. Her mind brushed up against me, a familiar feather-light touch that smelled of shadows and secrets. The hint of blood that I’d always found in her scent was weaker than before, superseded by something a little like salt, the real-life analogue of which I wasn’t clear on. Not seawater, I would have recognized that. In any case, I could only assume that it was a positive change.
But inside? Well, let’s just say that Kyra didn’t feel as much like I was used to down deep as she did on the surface. I could feel that anger in her, the bone-deep reaction of a werewolf to something that dared to threaten the pack, an enemy with the gall to strike at their own. Perhaps even more unnerving, I could feel her feeling it, recognizing and reacting to it.
She was Alpha, the linchpin, the keystone, the stable axis around which the pack moved. A lot of her function was to keep that kind of thing from happening. It was the Alpha whose job it was to spread a stabilizing influence through those bonds, to keep a controlled and justified killing from turning into a massacre. Kyra was up to it—she might not seem it, but she’s one of the more capable people I know, and she has very good control over her emotions. She has to; she’d have been dead before I met her, otherwise.
But it was a strain, and I could feel that strain in her. It was hard, when I was inundated with sensation from so many other sources, to feel much of anything myself, but even in my current state I felt a flicker of sympathy. Poor Kyra. I never wanted her to have to deal with that.
I managed to keep well away from the other werewolves. I didn’t particularly want to know what was running through their minds at the moment. There weren’t very many animals around, probably because that part of the city isn’t the best place to find scraps of food. I caught the edge of a stray dog, just a fragmentary impression of a smell (I didn’t have enough time to identify it, but he found it quite intriguing), and then skipped across the eyes of a flock of pigeons on the building overhead, each of which saw a slightly different section of the street. Useless. I mean, really, when you’re reduced to pigeons, well, that’s definitely a bad sign.
The task was not in the slightest helped by the fact that the steel ring I used as a focus for animal-oriented magics had been in my house, or that the moon was essentially new. Under ideal circumstances I could have extended my senses more than a mile from my position, and I’d shown that when desperate enough I could reach almost twenty times that, but currently I had to stretch just to touch upon the first werewolf we’d seen.
I’m not sure how long I spent like that. Time is, at least for me, really hard to judge without a body to measure it against, and I was too dissociated from mine to use it right now. Most of the time we judge time by heartbeats and breaths, by the soreness from sitting in one position, by our own boredom. But currently I couldn’t feel any of my own physical sensations, and my emotions were…off, to say the very least. But it felt like a while before anything that I could use surfaced to my touch.
It slipped away instantly, and I felt a sudden surge of frustration. I immediately soothed it away, of course; magic is all about focused intent, and when you want to do something delicate there’s nothing more disastrous than spikes of strong emotion. Once I was sure that I wasn’t about to lose the delicate bodiless trance state I was in, I stretched out toward that mind I’d touched again. It’s hard to express that process in English; it wasn’t a matter of physical location, which I couldn’t even detect. It was more a process of aligning my thoughts to those that I was trying to connect with, making our minds similar enough that I could exert my power to convince the world that they were actually the same.
Eventually, after a long and frustrating process, I managed it. The animal—this presence was definitely animal—was slippery, sliding in and out of my grasp, and it took me a while longer to figure out what it actually was.
A raccoon. Of course. That explained a lot of the difficulty I’d been having, actually; coons are more scavenger than predator, which makes them less than ideal for my purposes. I can maintain the contact well enough, but actually melding with scavengers (or, even worse, herbivores) is much harder for me.
I couldn’t get close enough for actual sensation. But this was the best option there was, depressing as that was, and I teased at it, trying to get the raccoon to come closer. Animals don’t have discrete thoughts to speak of, let alone language (Snowflake being the distinct and probably non-animalian exception). But the message I conveyed was simple enough; you could pretty much distill it into come/food/here, where “here” meant a primal sensory impression of where I was and how to get there.
It took another minute for that to sink in, but eventually I felt the slightest shift in the mind (curiosity?), and relaxed. I sank back into my body gratefully—it was a nice trick, but I’m always a little nervous in that state. It was nice to go back to actually having a body to call my own.
Less nice was the fact that, once I actually did settle back into it, it was eager to let me know that it wasn’t happy with me. My knees ached, as did my back where I’d been shot.
Kyra and Snowflake were still there, thankfully. “Anything?” she asked when I started moving, fingers flying over her phone. She didn’t bother glancing in my direction.
“Maybe,” I said, stretching. “Anything on your end?”
She grimaced. “Nothing useful. Somebody’s blocking me.”
“Blocking you? What do you mean, ‘blocking you?'”
She shrugged. “City police are still in, but I can’t get anything going on a wider scale. It isn’t just a general thing, either; somebody’s keeping this specific investigation grounded.”
I grunted. “Not surprising. I’d wager the Watchers have more contacts that any of us.”
“The Watchers?” she asked sharply. “Is that who we’re up against?”
“I don’t think so,” I said slowly, only then putting the guesses that had been accreting over the past however-many days into words. “The one I talked to struck me as more of a practical, no-nonsense type, which would normally mean she’d straight-up murder me if she wanted to, not pull this kind of complicated stunt. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s keeping things quiet, though. They don’t strike me as the kind of organization that likes a lot of attention.”
She grunted thoughtfully. “Could be, I suppose.”
Right about then the raccoon showed up. He was a surprisingly healthy specimen of the breed, a sleek-furred fellow of about twenty pounds. The pack must have had some kind of instruction about what to expect, because the werewolf in skin let him past without complain. He was utterly fearless, too, ignoring me, Kyra, and Snowflake and going straight for the meat on the ground.
“Hey, not yet,” I said, reaching out and resting my fingers lightly on his back. He, like I would expect from most wild animals, immediately spun and bit at my arm. Fortunately, between the calming influence I was exerting and the fact that his teeth failed to gain purchase, after the initial hostility he was content to hiss and glare at me balefully.
Not the best circumstances under which to make first real contact, but then not the worst either. Skin contact made it much, much easier to extend myself into his mind proper, slipping inside his skin. Amusingly, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of my hand on him; he’d had plenty of interactions with humans before, but never anything this calm and positive, and he wasn’t clear whether he should approve of the light caress or not.
Other than that, his senses provided no novel info. Especially given that he was primarily interested in the hamburger anyway. That, incidentally, was why I usually kept the package sealed and out of sight until after I had what I was looking for. I managed to get him thinking about the previous night, but I had to keep dragging his attention away from the meat.
Raccoons are mostly nocturnal, and I actually had no idea why this one was awake right now. Fortunately, he had also been awake last night. His memories, like those of all animals, were fragmentary and disjointed, one sensory impression after another with no real connection between them, and muzzy even after such a short time. I’ve done this a lot and I knew how to interpret them pretty well, but it was still tricky. Especially given that I wasn’t sure what time period I was looking for.
Making things yet worse was the fact that, as it turned out, this area wasn’t at all a part of this fella’s normal range. After just a few moments, I gave up entirely on finding a memory of what happened when they got to the end of the trail, and focused instead on finding any snapshot memory of the people I was looking for.
In what I would most likely call a miracle before I met Loki, I actually found one. It was truly fragmentary, just the tiniest glimpse from thirty feet away, but it was definitely there. They made a hard couple to miss, the lanky Watcher in her red cloak slung over the shoulder of a shorter figure shrouded in black cloth. I groaned inside when I saw that. Didn’t this guy ever lighten up?
Anyway, I figured that was all I would get from the raccoon, so I slipped back into my own body. “They were here,” I said shortly. “Or on this trail, anyway.”
Kyra nodded. “Where’d they go, then?”
I grinned and stood, leaving the coon to his meal. “Let’s go find out, eh?”
There was no sign of what might have happened when they reached that last intersection. None. There was a scent—I wasn’t walking along in fur snuffling the ground, but I still caught the occasional hint of pepper—and then there wasn’t. Nothing in between, no transition, nada. Not that I’d been expecting anything different—Kyra’s people were too good to miss something obvious—but it was still pretty darn disappointing.
“Found it yet?” Kyra asked me. Her tone was joking, but underneath I could hear the same frustration I was feeling. It isn’t often a werewolf’s prey gets away; they tend not to be used to disappointment, especially not Alphas.
“Not yet,” I said, chewing on my lip. “Don’t suppose there are any cameras on this intersection?”
“I would have told you already,” she said, the faintest hint of…disapproval, for lack of a better word, in her voice.
I nodded. Of course. I wasn’t the only person with a brain here. “I’m kind of inclined to say the crossed to the Otherside. It’d be the smart thing to do. Which is a shame, because I don’t know if it’s even possible to track that.” And we’d been doing so well, too.
She cocked her head to the side curiously, one of those canine mannerisms that make werewolves seem a little odd without quite setting off alarms in normal people. “Only kind of?”
“Yeah,” I said, frowning. “It’s just…this guy isn’t doing the smart thing, you know? The smart thing, the logical thing, would have been to kill me, not to play games with us. Heck, he already shot me once, and he straight-up told me he didn’t want me dead yet. That isn’t the sign of somebody making intelligent tactical decisions.” I shrugged. “What’s the point playing a game like this only to cheat at the last minute?”
Kyra didn’t have an answer for me, and for a moment we walked in silence. It wouldn’t do to be seen to show too much attention to the endpoint of the trail, after all.
It was Snowflake who eventually stumbled on the obvious answer we’d overlooked. Who owns those buildings? she asked me, mental overtones carrying the smooth assured feel of someone who is confident she already knows the answer to the question she just asked.
I blinked, then grinned. “Clever,” I said, and relayed the question to Kyra.
“Why didn’t I think of that?” she asked aloud. “Let me get back to you on that one.”
About half an hour later, I was sitting in another park (I was feeling more paranoid than usual, and it’s hard to sneak up on me when I’m surrounded by animals) when Kyra walked up. “When this is over,” she said, her voice trembling with excitement and that same edge of barely-suppressed wrath, “the dog gets a T-bone on me.”
Said dog, who was sleeping on my feet, deigned to flick an ear but otherwise didn’t respond in either spectrum. “I take it,” I said dryly, “that you’ve got something.”
She handed a piece of paper to me. It wasn’t hard to figure out what she meant, either. One of the shops right next to where the scent trail gave out—the same damn tile store I’d summoned the raccoon out back of, in fact—was owned by one Jon Arnson. It had been closed for more than a year, but Jon hadn’t made any moves toward selling it, and in fact nobody’d heard from him for quite a long time now. Apparently the feds wanted to have a long talk with him about a little thing called tax evasion, but they couldn’t seem to find him either. Oddly enough, they hadn’t actually taken any action on the matter.
“You know,” I said, “I think maybe this is a little suspicious.”
“Careful you don’t hurt yourself there, jumping to conclusions like that.”
At least Snowflake laughed.
There was a short silence as we all considered the information—I’d relayed it to Snowflake, of course, so that we would have her input as well. She’d already demonstrated that dismissing her just because she had four feet was not smart, after all.
“My wolves won’t be very effective in an enclosed space like that,” Kyra said eventually.
That had been my first thought as well, and was more than likely why he’d chosen it. Out in the open, a whole bunch of werewolves could easily surround you, and at that point even a mage would go down fast. Indoors, though…well, no matter how clever and magical you are, when there’s thirty of you you can only go through a doorway so fast, and that creates a bottleneck that a ranged attacker can exploit for massive damage. I had no doubt that whatsisface was prepared to use that advantage to the max.
“Can we get Aiko in to do some scouting first?” she asked, once it became clear I had nothing to add to her previous statement.
I grimaced. “She’s on a mandatory visit home. I can’t get word to her, and I doubt she could make it anyway.” A fact which was increasingly worrisome to me, especially since I still hadn’t heard from her at all.
Kyra grunted. That was one of the nice things about working with her; she wasn’t going to complain, or moan about how bad things were, or wish they were better. Life’s shit, get over it was more like her attitude. “Nobody else is sneaky enough to get in and out without setting off alarms,” she said, her tone more of a flat statement than anything else.
“True,” I agreed sourly. Which meant that we’d be charging blind into a location where the enemy was knowledgeable, and they’d had who knew how long to fortify it. That isn’t a good position to be in. Plus it would be exactly what he was expecting.
What we needed, I reflected, was a game changer.
“I have to go,” she said. Alphas lead from the front, or else they don’t stay Alpha long; no werewolf respects somebody who’s afraid to fight.
“I’m not backing out,” I said dryly, “if that’s what you meant.” Snowflake didn’t bother to say anything, just raised her head and growled softly, glaring straight into Kyra’s eyes for a moment before she laid her head back down and returned to dozing.
Kyra nodded, unsurprised. “I think that leaves us about five slots to fill. More than that, we’ll get in each other’s way more than it’s worth.”
“Sounds about right,” I agreed. “We should probably have at least one person other than me go in human, just in case we need another pair of hands.”
She cocked her head sideways. “You’re going human?”
I shrugged. “I’m more accustomed to it. Besides, Tyrfing trumps teeth most days.” So did a gun, of course, but most serious mages prepare for stopping bullets. I don’t think much of anybody is prepared for stopping a werewolf wielding a wickedly powerful sword forged by dwarves specifically for overcoming any form of defense. How could you, when most people don’t know it exists and I don’t think anybody knows exactly what it is and isn’t capable of?
“Okay,” she said after a moment. “I get you. Then I want at least one person on lookout, so he doesn’t run right out the door behind us.”
“Better make it two or three,” I advised. “One person on each door, and another on the roof with a gun.”
She nodded. “Right. Can you think of anything else?”
I grimaced. “Not really. This is a terrible plan, you know.”
She shrugged. “Yeah. But we can’t afford to back down now, can we?” I understood what she was saying. The thought was something like “someone hurt the pack; we can’t afford the loss of face, even if redressing it means losing even more pack members.”
And that right there is, in a nutshell, why werewolves haven’t taken over the world.
I clapped my hands once, decisively. “That’s it, then. We go in at dusk.” It was around noon now, so we’d have a few hours yet to finish preparing, get the team in place, and rest up for the epic battle. Plus my power was greatest at dawn and dusk, and while it wasn’t a huge difference I wanted every scrap of advantage I could get.
For me, preparation was an interesting experience.
I try to avoid fights, especially large-scale ones with other supernatural critters. But, in all honesty, evidence suggests that I’m really bad at doing so, and it’s happened enough times now that I had a certain amount of ritual built up. Mostly it consisted of spending a lot of time sharpening, polishing, and oiling pointy things, and checking the contents of my pockets a few dozen times as I tried to distract myself from the monumentally stupid things I was about to do.
That was where I ran into problems. I didn’t have an appropriately private location to engage in such activity anymore. Oh, sure, I could have gone to the lab, and in fact I considered the idea, but it didn’t much appeal. The thought of Legion mocking me incessantly during what might be my last hours was not an attractive one.
I supposed instead of distracting myself I’d have to be proactive about reducing the stupidity where possible. There was, after all, no one else to do it for me.
It was bittersweet to say the least.
There were a few things to do, at least, which kept me from going utterly insane with boredom. I convinced Kyra that, as Robert was itching for some payback but still wasn’t fully healed, he should play watchman on the front door, and then had a few words with him. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought that he would go along with what I was planning.
Other than that, there wasn’t much to do. I made a few calls. I sharpened my knives. I paced anxiously around my shop. I tried to whip out a quick stored spell, but I couldn’t focus enough to do work of that complexity.
So, in true lycanthropic tradition, I ate a couple pounds of raw meat and got some more sleep, my dog sprawled across my chest. Food and rest are what a werewolf needs to heal, and I wanted all the healing I could get right now. Not that I got much rest; I was uncomfortable to say the least, and spent most of the time staring at the ceiling and thinking of all the ways this plan could go horribly wrong. But it’s the thought that counts, right?