As it turns out, tea and Middle Eastern baking don’t actually make much of a dinner. Given that it was late afternoon—and, more to the point, that I’d just put in a solid hour of hard magical labor—I was hungry.
I am a terrible cook. Actually, that’s not quite a serious enough phrasing. I am the kind of cook they tell jokes about in culinary arts classes. I’m the kind of cook you want to have along on long trips, because after a couple of my meals nobody will complain about how hungry they are. That is the kind of cook I am. Even I don’t like my food.
This is why I’m not even kidding when I say that the best part of the turns my life had taken was that I didn’t have to subsist on my own cooking anymore. Business was booming to such an extent that I had not only hired workers, we still had to buy stuff premade to keep up. I could afford to eat out more than once a week. Between that and the meals provided by various friends, I hardly even make desserts anymore. It’s great.
I decided to go to Pryce’s, because it was close, it was good food, and I didn’t feel like being stared at. Werewolves had been publicly acknowledged long enough to have faded into the background in favor of whatever the celebrities were doing. Given that they still weren’t allowed to publically demonstrate anything that couldn’t be easily explained, a lot of people had taken to dismissing it as a hoax. However, if I went to the werewolf-themed restaurant run by my friend Kyra, I would very certainly be the object of much attention.
Nobody stares at Pryce’s. It’s considered rude, and that’s a very very bad idea there. Granted, most of the people who go there are the misfits of the supernatural world, scavengers and bottomfeeders without the power to really do much, but…well, it isn’t something you want to take chances with.
It’s never smart taking risks. I wouldn’t put it past, say, Loki to go there and invite rudeness, just so he could lay an epic smackdown on the responsible party. It would appeal to his twisted sense of humor. And, if he did, it would almost certainly be both disturbingly creative and disproportionate beyond belief.
Remember Prometheus? Yeah, he was actually real, the way I hear it. And, if you were to wander the Otherside long enough, you might find him. Still hanging upon his mountain, all these thousands or millions of years later, that eagle still flying overhead. That’s how he spends his days, in agony and secure in the knowledge that the agony is just going to continue, until the end of time itself as I understand it, never letting up or slowing down…yeah, that’s the kind of image that puts a person off brawling.
It was a slow time of day, between lunch and dinner. There were only a few people there, most of them regular customers. I recognized most of them. We weren’t friends, but longtime patrons of Pryce’s tend to develop an us-vs.-them attitude to some extent.
I sat at a table made from maple in my favorite dimly-lit corner and ate my hamburger and fries in peace. The iced tea was, as usual, quite strong, enough so that you could only dimly see through the glass. This is the sign of good iced tea. Also, never trust someone who adds sugar. If you wanted a sweet drink, you should have just ordered lemonade or something, that’s what I say.
I ate steadily, but slowly, taking my time and enjoying it. It was nice to be able to come here just because I wanted to. Not to meet with somebody, not on a tight schedule, nothing unusually bad happening at all. I didn’t even have to go back to work; Doug was more than capable of keeping things under control for the rest of the day. Even Kris, although not as experienced as he was, was a good worker. She didn’t enjoy it so much, and I doubted she’d keep working for me in the long-term, but for now the two of them were pretty decent employees.
When I’d just about finished eating, everybody stopped talking and turned to look at the door. Being sane, aware of the existence of monsters, and therefore quite sensibly paranoid, I did the same.
Two people had just walked in, framed by the setting sun. They were a study in contrasts. One was a man, maybe five two and portly. He had the “jolly businessman” look down to a tee, including an expensive-looking pinstriped suit, and a fringe of dark hair around a bald head so shiny I had to wonder whether he polished it. All he needed was a Cuban cigar to truly complete the look.
Behind him was a tall, harsh-looking woman. She had to be better than six feet tall, and muscular. Her face was angular, all harsh planes and sunken cheeks, and you just knew that if she was a guy she would have had a five-o’clock shadow at any time of day or night. Where he beamed at the scant crowd, she had an expression of disinterest so profound that it was scarier than any snarl of fury. An angry person might kill you, but he does so with intent, he cares about what he’s doing, he knows and cares who you are. She looked like the sort of person who might kill you and be bored doing it, yawning even.
I’ve seen that expression on a few other people. High-end professional killers, mostly. Such people tend to be rather dangerous.
It probably didn’t help that she was wearing a cloak, dull red-brown like dried blood. Or rust, I suppose, but that doesn’t sound nearly as dramatic. She had a sword belted on over it, and a pistol. It’s hard to really look friendly dressed like that. The belt draped across her chest, and was centered by a large medallion of what looked like Damascus steel. I didn’t get a close look, but I could see that it depicted a sword. Cheery.
The man looked around and then (of course) fixated on me. He stumped over to my corner, still beaming, while the woman in the red cloak drifted behind him like an exceptionally malevolent, shadow. “Mr. Wolf!” he said in a jovial tone which I immediately dismissed as an act. My instincts said he was just as dangerous as his companion, and I trusted that a lot more than him. “Just the man I’m looking for.”
I glowered at him, making no effort to be friendly. “What do you want?” I asked bluntly, shoving one hand into a pocket to touch a small, hollow glass marble.
He smiled broadly, showing off a prominently placed gold tooth. Of course. He probably had a pinkie ring and a pocket watch too, just to fit with the image. “We’d quite like to have a word with you,” he said with even more cheer than before. He glanced around, indicating the people watching. “Elsewhere.”
“Why?” I said, endeavoring to sound dismissive but probably not succeeding beyond hostile.
The woman spoke for the first time. “Come with us,” she said flatly, her voice as disinterested and grim as the rest of her. “Easier that way.”
I considered it for maybe as much as a quarter of a second. “Screw you,” I decided, going back to finishing the food.
The bald man was still smiling, but it didn’t look very friendly now. “Last chance, Wolf. Let’s not make this harder than it has to be.” His hands were, very slightly, crooked into claws, and I saw that the woman had one hand conveniently near the hilt of her sword.
I also became aware that they were more than they looked like. Unless maybe they weren’t; I mean, she at least looked pretty scary.
In any case, they were mages. The scent of magic around them was intimidatingly potent, especially given that they hadn’t actually done anything with it. Aside from Alexander they were probably the strongest human mages I’d ever met. Not that I’ve met many, but it was still pretty impressive.
I was trying to decide what to say—and, more importantly, what to do once I had, because it would almost certainly start a fight—when we all heard Pryce clear his throat. It was a fairly small sound, but somehow we could hear it even though we were on the other side of the room from him. None of the three of us looked away, but you could tell that all of us were aware of what was going on as Pryce walked out around the bar.
“This is neutral ground,” the big man said. His deep voice wasn’t any louder than usual, or more piercing, but it was somehow…bigger. Like it had somehow expanded to fill all the available air. It seemed to vibrate in my bones, although I could feel that it was a purely mental effect.
The man reacted immediately, turning to face Pryce. “No trespass is meant on thy ground, Barkeeper,” he said, making the word sound like a term of respect. Or a title.
Pryce stopped in the dead center of the room, feet planted like he intended to move the world. “You threaten one of mine,” he rumbled in the same voice. I was pretty sure there were glasses literally shaking behind the bar.
“With all due respect, Barkeeper, this one is not yours. He does not serve you, nor does he bear your mark.”
“I say otherwise. That’s all that matters.” Pryce smiled in an exceptionally unfriendly way, flexing his fingers by his sides. “This is my bar, Watchers. And I say you aren’t welcome here. Get out.”
The woman in the cloak smiled, an expression which was creepy just because of how very…inappropriate it was. I mean, snarls, grimaces, growls, predatory grins that expose lots and lots of very sharp teeth…I could have seen any of those. A blank, absent smile like a girl looking at wildflowers, not so much. Her fingers caressed the hilt of her sword in the same gentle, almost tender way. It was enormously disturbing.
The man, though, just plastered his jovial expression more firmly into place. “That’s quite all right, good sir. I’m sure we can have our little chat some other time.” He glanced at me with hard brown eyes. “Good day, Mr. Wolf. We’ll be…seeing you soon.” He bowed, stiff and shallow, to Pryce, followed after a moment by the woman.
Then the two of them left, as precipitously and with as little explanation as they’d come in with. I waited a moment to be sure they were gone, then nodded to Pryce. “Thanks,” I said.
Pryce grunted. “Business,” he said, in a tone returned to normal. He looked at me, then the door. Looked very significantly.
“Could I give them a minute to clear out?” I asked.
He considered that, then shrugged and grunted an affirmative, going back behind his bar. The ebb and flow of the bar returned to its normal, sedate patterns.
Okay. I had a few minutes, which meant I had to think. One of the things I’d learned from past experience in hairy situations is that a minute spent thinking is often more valuable than an hour of activity. Given that, once the fur started flying, I would have very little leisure for thinking, I figured the wise thing to do was get as much of it done as I could now.
The first priority was, for obvious reasons, the two mages. They’d been powerful, looking for me specifically, and not especially friendly. Now, all of that was bad. It was very bad. But there was something else, something maybe worse, which was that Pryce had referred to them as Watchers.
I didn’t know what that meant. I didn’t have even a clue. However, I had heard it once before. When there’d been a psycho-killer mage going around slaughtering people to boost his own power, Alexander had been…concerned. And one of the things he’d said was that, if the situation was allowed to continue, the mage clans would send people. They would send Watchers.
Now, it wasn’t impossible that there would be more than one major supernatural group referred to as Watchers. I mean, it wasn’t like an exotic word or one that wouldn’t apply to all kinds of people. However, my rule of thumb is “when in doubt, assume conspiracy,” and it’s usually served me well. This seemed just that little bit more likely than most such cases. There were powerful mages who operated in an organized manner called Watchers. There was a group called Watchers who dealt with dangerous mages. Seemed like a no-brainer that the two were connected.
Which meant that, theoretically, I had a lead on figuring out who the hell these people were and what they wanted with me.
The only problem was that I couldn’t take it.
See, the other rule of thumb (I have a bunch of them) is that you always assume your opposition is at least as motivated, resourceful, and cunning as you are. That’s basic common sense. And, while these Watchers might not be my enemies, they sure didn’t seem like my friends either.
So the first thing I had to do was think through things from their perspective. They knew my name and hangouts, which meant that they’d done at least a little research. I naturally assumed the worst, which was that they had functionally unlimited access to information about me.
There were only a few logical steps for them to take right now, if that was the case. Number one would be to do the same thing I was doing—figure out what the opposition was capable of, and if possible shutting it down.
I was therefore quite confident that my house would be under observation. So would my friends—Kyra, for example, was almost certainly being watched. If I tried to run to her for help I would probably be caught long before I made it. The same thing applied to Alexander, Jimmy and his little gang, and anywhere else I was known to use as a sanctuary. Aiko would probably be safe, just because she was such hard quarry. If I knew her at all, and I did, she would be taking malicious pleasure in leading them on a wild goose chase.
So, I said to myself. It’s well known that you chum around with her. Assume they’re aware of the difficulty involved in keeping tabs on her. What have they done about it?
Nothing, as far as I could tell. I mean, they were willing to just walk away from me here, rather than start something, which suggested that they weren’t too worried about me making contact with my allies. Although, come to think of it….
How had they found me here?
Don’t get me wrong. Pryce’s is a good place to find me. But I’m not there every day. Especially at this time of day, I would have said you would have more luck looking either at the shop or my home. Had they just been waiting? It seemed unlikely. The man had been too…assured of finding me here.
Then it all clicked into place, and I grinned. Of course, and that was why they hadn’t been too concerned about me calling Aiko—had, in fact, been herding me toward it, although it was entirely possible I was just reading too much into it.
They had a tracking spell of some kind running on me. That can be done, although it’s something I don’t have more than the most rudimentary knowledge of. It’s not something that falls within my talents.
Assuming that I was right about what was going on, that made my next moves pretty simple.
Pryce looked at me again, and nodded toward the door. I nodded respectfully, got up, and left, bringing Snowflake with me. We had now entered the “race against time” portion of the daily program, bound for the one place I could think of where I wouldn’t be vulnerable to observation which they might not have thought to put under surveillance.
Snowflake and I left through the front door—inevitable, really, considering that Pryce’s doesn’t have a back door. I didn’t think that we had enough time to wait for a friend to get there with a vehicle, so we just took off running.
Assuming that they had a tracking spell on me, I didn’t bother being sneaky or taking a circuitous route. It wouldn’t matter how strange or hard to follow my trail was, because they didn’t have to follow my trail; they could skip straight to my current position instead.
So speed was our friend, and the dog and I poured it on. We were both on that level of physical performance where you can’t quite say that it’s impossible, because really high-level athletes (or sled dogs, I guess, for her) could match it. On the other hand you also can’t quite say it’s natural, because it really shouldn’t be.
So, long story short, we ran fast. Faster than anybody but a serious runner could have kept pace with, and even they would have been given a real run for their money. And, because we didn’t have to stick to the roads or obey traffic laws, we quite possibly made it faster than you could have driven it.
Fortunately, our destination wasn’t all that far away—three or four miles, tops. I judged we were moving a little under the pace of a sprinter, almost twenty miles per hour. Within about fifteen minutes we had made it to the bad part of town, where we had to slow down a bit. Running through the ghetto is generally considered to be not the smartest thing a person can do. There are too many people who might be inclined to chase you.
My lab was smack in the middle of the closest thing Colorado Springs had to a truly awful neighborhood. It wasn’t as bad as, say, Detroit, or Mexico City. That goes without saying. But it still wasn’t the kind of place you loiter without a good reason.
At the lab I unlocked the outer door, which was so covered in graffiti that you couldn’t see the door itself, and we ducked inside. I shut and locked it behind us, then lowered the extensive warding patterns on the inner wall of the antechamber. Over the past several months, I’d beefed the wards up significantly.
Once they were down, I took out another key and unlocked the inner door, and we went the rest of the way into the lab proper. I locked the door and reactivated the wards behind us, and only then did I collapse onto a stool. That had been a wild few minutes.
See, the lab had a nice special feature which, so far as I knew about, nobody else knew about. The inner wards were my own work, and as a result were relatively crude. The outer layer, though, predated my acquisition of the building. They’d been put in place by…someone else, probably one of the Sidhe. And they were designed for a totally different purpose.
My wards had been built to keep things out. And…that was it, really. If you tried to force the door they would blast you, but that was basically the whole operating system. They wouldn’t do jack to keep you from trying in the first place. That just wasn’t something I was capable of.
The faerie wards, on the other hand, were totally oriented around that. Instead of brute force they were designed to be subtle, taking advantage of misdirection. Looking at the house you would find your eyes sliding right over it, burglars and such would walk by without ever even thinking about it, and it was so utterly forgettable you could forget it while still looking at it. And, on the same theme, trying to view it with magic would display an empty lot, and if you were to walk by afterward you’d never even notice the incongruousness of that fact. The same thing should, if I understood it right, apply to somebody trying to establish a connection with something inside for, say, a tracking spell.
That was the part I wanted right now. They had probably already tracked me to this part of town, but I was hoping they didn’t have anything more precise than that. If so, I had at least a short while here before I had to worry. If not, well, I expected that things would get very exciting very soon.
“That,” I said to Snowflake, “was entirely too close.”
Yeah. I take it you know them?
“Not even a little bit,” I said cheerfully. “Except that they were mages. Speaking of which….Legion! Wake up!” I tossed a peppermint into the corner of the room, bouncing it off the skull of the skeleton leaning against the wall.
Dull, somehow oily black fog oozed out of the vaguely canine bones. “Yeth, mathter?” Legion said in his strange, inhuman voice. He doesn’t really have a lisp, you understand. He just has a strange fondness for imitating Igor sometimes. He can even reshape the smokelike substance of his body into a hunch.
“We’ve got trouble.”
“That’s funny,” the demon said brightly. “I wouldn’t have thought you could tell the difference.”
I glowered at him. “I’m not in trouble all the time,” I said, possibly in a slightly petulant tone.
“Really? Because statistically speaking, in the time I’ve been around you, more than seventy-five percent of your days have included some form of violence or accident.”
“That’s because I started letting Aiko hang around the lab,” I pointed out. “Not my fault.”
“Yeah, keep telling yourself that, boss.”
Could we please get this on topic? Snowflake asked exasperatedly.
“Didn’t anybody ever teach you manners?” Legion jeered. “It isn’t polite to interrupt your vocalizing conversational partners.”
I sighed. Legion wasn’t as evil as I had expected from a demon embodying the dark side of natural selection and the portion of the life cycle between death and rebirth, but he was still an asshole. Aiko was possibly the only person I knew who he didn’t grate on, and that was just because she was crazier and more prone to random behavior than he was. I think he looks up to her.
“Legion,” I chided. “There’s work to do.”
“Hey,” he said unrepentantly. “You da boss, Herr Wolf. I’m just the flunky here. Not my fault you didn’t tell me what to do.”
I pulled a notebook out of one of the drawers and laid it on the table next to a pencil. “Two mages cornered us at Pryce’s today. Said they wanted a talk. Pryce called them Watchers.”
“Watchers?” Legion said excitedly. “And you killed them? Way to go, man. Always knew you had it in you.”
“Sorry, no. I declined and they decided to leave rather than start a fracas with Pryce.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. “Well, that’s almost as good, I guess. Being on the lam isn’t as much fun as a fracas, but it beats nothing.”
“I take it,” I said dryly, “you know who they were.”
“Well sure. I mean not specifically, I wasn’t there, but you just said they were Watchers.” The silence stretched for a remarkably long moment before he caught on. “Oh. Oh, man. You don’t know who the Watchers are?”
“Beyond a vague suspicion that they have something to do with the mage clans? Not a clue.”
He whistled. “Damn. Hoffman totally screwed you on that, then. I mean, damn.”
The peppermint was followed by a dog biscuit, which bounced off Legion’s head and rolled over to end up suspiciously near where Snowflake’s head was resting on the floor. “Less editorial, more explanation.”
“Okay, boss, you got it. Um. Well, they work for the Conclave—”
“What Conclave?” I interrupted.
“You don’t—damn. Okay. You know about the clans, at least, right? Tell me you know about the clans.”
“You mean the mage clans?” I asked. “Yeah, I know about them.”
“Right. Well, the Conclave is them. All of them.”
I frowned. “I thought the clans were autonomous.”
Legion sighed without breathing. “There’s the official story, and then there’s the reality. They ain’t always the same. Especially where the Conclave’s concerned. Officially, the clans all have self-governance privileges, and the Conclave is just a meeting every nine years to make sure relations remain smooth.”
I started to get the picture. “But unofficially, if all the clans are working together, they might as well be one clan.”
“Bingo. They spend a lot of time squabbling, though. The Conclave only acts as a governing body for a couple of issues they have a common stance on.”
I whistled. Individually, the clans were scary. Any one of them could crush me and everyone I knew without that much effort. They weren’t that much of a threat to most people, because they were too busy causing trouble for each other, but avoiding pissing a mage clan off was still an important part of surviving in the supernatural world.
Taken all together? That was a threat on an entirely different level. A global level.
“And the Watchers work for them?”
“Well,” Legion said in an exceptionally dry voice, “it depends on your definition. Officially, the Conclave has no formal existence and therefore doesn’t employ anyone. The Watchers are a volunteer group composed of representatives from all of the clans. You know, Neighborhood Watch kinda thing.”
“Right,” I drawled. “Let me guess. The Guards are too.”
“Good guess. How’d you know?”
“Educated guess based on something Alexander said. What do they actually do?”
“The Guards are the military branch,” he informed me. “About, oh, two hundred or so mages with a fair bit of skill in a fight. They deal with anyone who threatens the clans. Generally speaking they’re the people the Conclave sends to interact with anyone who isn’t a mage.”
I jotted down a few notes. “Okay. The Guards deal with external threats. That makes the Watchers…secret police?”
“Hey, you’re good at this,” he said happily. “Although technically, no. The Watchers tend to be quite open about what they do. But yeah, police is a good starting point. They also do a lot of information gathering, and they take out mages who threaten the status quo.”
“Yeah, I think I get the picture,” I said dryly. “Let me guess. The Watchers get to say what represents a threat.”
“Um. Sort of. It’s a very complicated situation. The Watchers have a lot of latitude, but they have to answer for what they do. The clans do still have a lot of independent influence, after all. And then there are a few people who get to tell them what to do—people respected by the Conclave as a whole. The Prophet, the Guide, the Arbiter…they tend to get really flowery titles.”
“Great,” I muttered. “What’s their usual M.O.?”
“Intimidation and investigation,” he replied promptly. “They aren’t combat specialists. Watchers tend to be…scouts, trackers, assassins, that kind of thing. They find the problem, determine the extent. If they decide that violence is the best solution, they either send their own hit squad or call in the Guards.”
“That fits,” I said slowly. “Tracking spells?”
“Obviously,” he said scornfully. “They’re mages hunting other mages. They don’t believe in a fair fight.”
“Of course not,” I muttered. “Oh no, that’d be too easy. Why are they after me, you reckon?”
Legion gave the impression of a shrug without actually moving at all. I’ve been trying to break him of the habit, with only a modicum of success. “They must think you’re guilty of something.” He paused. “Granted, they’re probably right on that count….”
“That’s less than helpful,” I pointed out. “What kinds of things would get them after me? We talking…murder, arson, jaywalking, what?”
“Oh,” he said. “That’s what you mean. They only have a handful of hard rules, and you couldn’t break most of them if you tried. The necromancy ban is the only one I can think of that you might have to worry about. They disapprove of high-profile magical activity, too, especially when the person involved isn’t a clan mage.”
Well, that was interesting. I was pretty sure they weren’t after me for necromancy, given that I’d never touched the stuff. I mean, I guess theoretically it was the kind of magic I could have been good at, but it was too squicky for my tastes. Besides which, the only things I could probably have raised were predatory animals, and I like them.
On the other hand, high-profile activity wasn’t something I could honestly claim to have avoided. I’d been involved in some…slightly infamous activities. And I definitely wasn’t a clan mage.
“Maybe you should tell me about it,” Legion suggested. “I might be able to give you a better idea of what’s going on.”
I shrugged and laid it out in terse, simple sentences. Snowflake contributed a number of details that I hadn’t noticed—the male had smelled like cologne, for example, or that the female had a military haircut and was carrying grenades.
When it was finished, Legion made a sort of…whistling sound. “Ouch. That’s bad, Winter. The hardass approach means they were pretty sure you were guilty of something. Now that you ditched them, they’ll be sure of it.”
“What?” I said indignantly. “Just because I didn’t want to be threatened into going somewhere alone with them? What kind of crazy bastards are these people?”
“The scary kind,” he said seriously. “Although on this occasion, they have a reasonable amount of justification. I mean, when somebody refuses to talk to the police, you naturally assume they have something to hide. Otherwise, why bother?”
“That’s different,” I protested. “The police tell you who they are and why they want to talk.”
“So did they. You’re just too much of a dumbass to know it.” I stared blankly, and Legion sighed. “The medallion, Winter. The medallion says they’re a Watcher on assignment. The sword in plain sight says they mean business and they suspect you of something.”
I sighed. This was the kind of thing I really would have liked to know, say, yesterday. That was the problem with Legion. He was undeniably an invaluable asset, but he was also a real pain to deal with. I could count on him to provide me (eventually, once he got through being a cruel and unusual wiseass) with whatever help I requested, assuming that he was capable of it.
On the other hand, he wouldn’t go an inch past that, either. So, for example, saying “Tell me about the mage clans,” probably wouldn’t have elicited any of this information, because he considered that a different subject than the Conclave or the Watchers. He sure wouldn’t volunteer his help unasked, not with this or anything else, not even if he knew that my actions would otherwise lead to my death.
Part of that’s the standard shtick for supernatural critters. Mostly, though, it’s his nature. Legion, as useful and mostly-not-evil as he seems, is still and always will be a force of destruction and entropy. He is the wolf that takes the hindmost, the hand that culls the herd, the suffering which makes stronger those it does not kill. Mercy is not a part of his nature, and from his perspective if I’m not clever enough to ask for assistance and not strong enough to get by without it, I don’t deserve to live. I could resent that fact, or I could just learn to accept it and make use of his services as he was. The latter seemed a lot more practical.
“Okay,” I said. “No point crying about it.” I thought about it for a minute. “There has to be a reason they’re after me now, when they weren’t before. I haven’t done anything special recently, either.”
“On the other hand,” I continued, “there are plenty of people who have a vested interest in screwing up my life.” I even knew who a couple of them were. “Is it possible that one of them, I don’t know, bribed them or something? Seems like setting a bunch of organized ninja-mages at someone makes a pretty decent revenge mechanism.”
“Yep,” he agreed. “Although I don’t know how practical that would be. I haven’t dealt with the Conclave for a long time.”
I nodded glumly. That was the usual story with Legion; he usually had some information about any given subject, but he almost never had all of it. “Think they’ll be coming for me again?”
“Most definitely,” he assured me. “And you were right about the surveillance, by the way. The Watchers tend to be quite thorough. There aren’t more than, oh, about a hundred-odd of them, but they’re very good at what they do.”
“Great. Just great. Any suggestions for how to deal with this one?”
“Run like hell?” he said brightly. “Rampage all over their faces? Seppuku? The kitsune can probably help with that last one.”
I sighed. “What about you?” I asked Snowflake. Better advice most of the time, and she doesn’t give me nearly as much crap about it. “Any bright ideas?”
The dog considered that for a moment. Why did they leave when Pryce asked them? she asked after a moment.
“Yeah, that was bothering me too. Legion?”
“How would I know?” he said irritably. “I’ve never even met the man.”
“But you know how the Watchers operate.”
“Well, sure. It might have just been politeness, but probably not on a mission that serious. That means that it’s either formally recognized neutral territory and they didn’t want to cause an incident, or else they were afraid of him.”
You remember that Conn was disturbed when you mentioned Pryce’s name? Snowflake asked suddenly. Perhaps this would be a good time to follow up on that.
“Oh, yeah. I’d forgotten that.” The really funny thing? She hadn’t even been there. I swear, that husky is smarter than I am. Has a better memory, at the very least. Very little escapes either Snowflake’s attention or her recollection.
Conn answered on the second ring. “Hello?”
“Pryce,” I said without preamble. “You know something about him, correct?”
“And how are you doing today, Winter?” he said chidingly.
“Khan,” I said, packing as much respect into my voice as I could, “I’m working on a deadline. I would be glad to exchange pleasantries another time, but right now I don’t have time.”
“Is this something I can help with?” he asked immediately.
I shuddered. The last thing I wanted was to introduce the Khan into a conflict with the mage clans. That was just begging for a diplomatic incident. “Just the info, please. I can’t think of anything else.”
“All right. Let me know if that changes. What information do you need?”
“Pryce,” I said again. “Some time ago, you mentioned how wrong it was what he’d done to himself. What did that mean?”
“Ah,” he said, his tone suggesting very faintly that he was uncomfortable with the topic. Given how seldom he showed genuine emotion, that was saying something. “That. He is…unnatural. More so than us.”
“Could you tell me anything specific?” I said impatiently.
“Have you ever seen him outside that bar?”
I thought about it for a minute. “Um…now that you mention it, I guess I haven’t.”
“I’m not surprised,” he said. “He is the bar, you see, as much as the walls and floor.”
“I don’t get it,” I said after a moment. “Are you saying that he doesn’t exist?”
“Oh, no,” Conn assured me. “He exists. It’s simply that…he is the bar, and the bar is him. He is its embodiment. It is his body.”
“Oh,” I said, comprehension starting to dawn. “Sort of like a genius loci.”
“Sort of,” Conn said dryly, “except that he’s the exact opposite. A genius loci develops naturally when the spiritual aspect of a location is provided with enough power to manifest as a distinct personality. Pryce went about it from the other direction. He started out as a person, then became the place as well.”
“Oh. Um. Wow. So…the reason he doesn’t leave is because he….”
“He can’t,” Conn confirmed. “Not for any significant length of time, at any rate.”
“Well. That’s…very, very creepy, actually. Why on earth would someone do that to themselves?”
“It’s not all downsides,” Conn said dryly. “He can’t stay away from that bar. On the other hand, within its walls, the man is like a tiny god. And, of course, there’s the part where it makes you impossible to kill.”
“Wait a second,” I interrupted. “Are you telling me that Pryce is immortal?”
“So long as those walls stand,” he confirmed. “He has…become an idea more than a person, you see, and so long as that idea exists so will he.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “I think I get it. So how do you know about this? I live here, and I’ve never heard about this.”
“Pryce is hardly the first to think that tradeoff is worthwhile.” Conn paused thoughtfully. “Although, actually, he’s done a better job than most. I met someone, oh, maybe seven hundred years ago who tried that trick with a prison. That didn’t work out very well.”
I thought about how Pryce had always struck me as being the perfect bartender, almost as if someone had thought about what characteristics the ideal barkeep should have and then just created one to fit. Given that it was starting to sound like that was literally what had happened, I figured Conn was probably understating the case. I do not want to meet the ideal prison guard. Ever.
I thanked Conn and said goodbye, and then sat staring gloomily around the lab.
I was, like, so totally screwed. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’ve been in bad situations before. But those had all had one very important thing in common, which was that the person after me had been…unofficial, you might say.
For the most part I’d been acting with the backing of at least the Pack, and occasionally other people too. Worst case I’d been tacitly acknowledged and unofficially approved of, and the person I’d been fighting had been a renegade nobody missed.
Now, though…well, the tables had turned. The Watchers were coming after me, it seemed, with the full approval of their superiors, and that changes everything. This time around I was the renegade, and I had a sudden and pointless insight into how those people must have felt knowing that everybody and his dog wanted them dead.
It sucked. It sucked ass.
I did briefly consider just turning myself in. Then I shook myself out of it. “Screw that,” I said aloud. They might well win this round, but I wouldn’t be giving it up.
So what if they had me outsmarted, outgunned, outmaneuvered, outnumbered, outplanned, and outpositioned. That was no excuse to stop being a stubborn bastard. I mean, I wouldn’t recognize myself if I weren’t a stubborn bastard.
Twenty minutes later there was a sort of scratching sound at the front door. It was also, incidentally, the only door; the building had a back door, but it had been bricked up from the inside before I ever acquired the building, as had all the windows.
I opened the door a crack, just wide enough to let in a smallish red-furred fox. She darted past me, and I immediately closed and locked the door again. The entire process had taken only a second or two.
Inside the lab, the fox morphed into a young-looking Japanese woman slightly shorter than average. It took less time than blinking, and she never even broke stride.
You’d have had to work pretty hard to identify her apparent nationality, though. Aiko was…actually, I’m not sure quite what word applies here. She wasn’t vain, exactly. She took pride in her appearance, I suppose, but mostly just in the sense of making it as odd and perturbing as physically possible.
What that meant today was that her black hair was streaked a deep scarlet and tipped with violet, and all her nails were painted a weird shade of metallic neon green. I’ve always been a little surprised that Aiko never got any tattoos, although I didn’t mention it for fear of giving her ideas. She doesn’t need my help in that regard.
“What’s up, Shrike?” she asked me, throwing on some clothes from the cabinet in the corner. Like most shapechangers, Aiko has little regard for nudity taboos, but she’s willing to humor me.
“Shrike?” I asked her.
She shrugged. “I decided I need a pet name for you.”
“Okay, I can go there, but seriously. Shrike? Don’t you think that’s a wee bit too creepy?”
“Why?” she asked reasonably. “What’s wrong with shrikes? Just because they’re carnivores, that’s no reason to get all up in their beaks. Not like you have much room for criticism there.”
“Well, sure. But I don’t impale things, in case you’ve forgotten.”
“First time for everything. If you’re interested, I know a guy who can hook you up with some stakes real cheap. Used, but still…. ”
“Now that,” I said, “is a disturbing image. Can we please move on now?”
“Whatever you say, Shrike. So what’s so fascinating you wouldn’t talk about it over the phone?”
“You ever heard of the Watchers?”
“Sure,” she said. “Which ones? Hockey, rugby, billiards, what?”
“Conclave Watchers,” I clarified.
“Oh. Those Watchers. Yeah, I’ve heard a thing or two.”
“I think they’re after me, and I have no idea why.”
She winced. “Oh. That’s not good. I take it that’s why you told me to park five blocks away and come the rest of the way in fur?”
I shrugged. “A fox attracts less attention around here than a person. I don’t think they have me localized to this building, but I can’t say for sure.”
“And you’re sure you didn’t do anything to earn it? Watchers aren’t known for being the most stable folks around, but they don’t have the resources to throw them away for no good reason.”
“Sounds like you know more about them than I do,” I said dryly. “Why don’t you take a guess?”
“Well,” she drawled, “I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that you’re a bit of a disruptive influence. I mean, what with the prison escapes. And the way you did Jon a while ago. The forest fire we started with that one probably didn’t help your case much either….”
I sighed. “I get it, I get it. Although, technically, I’m pretty sure Jon wasn’t their favorite kind of people, either.”
“And if they’d told you to whack him, that’d be great. Given that you did it as a vigilante job, though, it makes it look like you’re out killing mages just ’cause you can. They don’t like that.” She pursed her lips. “How about Fuzzball? It might suit you a little better. I mean, impalement aside, you are undoubtedly fuzzy.”
“I get the impression you aren’t taking this very seriously.”
She shrugged. “What’s the hurry? You just said they don’t know where you are for sure. Even if they did, this place is pretty heavily warded. If all else fails, we can probably wait this one out until they get bored.”
I stared at her for a moment. “You realize who we’re talking about, right? These people are the mages’ secret police. It is not safe to assume they don’t know where we are. And the wards won’t stop them if they get impatient.”
“You think?” she said doubtfully. “I’m pretty sure they’re trying to avoid attention.”
“Yes,” I said patiently. “Which is why they’ll probably just set the building on fire.”
“I thought you did something about that. You know, after the fireworks thing? Didn’t you fireproof the place?”
I shrugged. “Well, sure. But that was supposed to stop accidents. So, if you mean ‘Will it stop a Bunsen burner from scarring the walls?’, then the answer is yes. If you mean ‘Will it prevent someone from starting a fire using kindling, gasoline, and magic?’, the answer is scornful laughter.” I shrugged again. “If nothing else, even if they don’t know where we are exactly, they can always just torch the whole neighborhood. Once a fire gets that kind of momentum, nothing I could do would just stop it.”
“Oh,” she said, staring uncomfortably at the walls. “I suddenly feel much smaller and more vulnerable. Thanks a bunch.”
“You needed it,” I said smugly.
“So what’s the plan? We kill them or something?”
I shook my head. “Bad idea. Even if we could take out two Watchers, and that’s a big if, it wouldn’t solve the problem in the long term. Right now it’s just business, but if we kill their people the next hundred or so guys have a real good reason to want to watch us scream.”
I don’t know what she would have said to that, because my phone chose that time to ring. I pulled it out of my pocket. It was a number I didn’t recognize, and I frowned.
“You gonna answer that?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, theoretically, it could be a coincidence that somebody’s calling me right now, on top of all the rest of the crap going on. But it’s probably not, and given that I don’t trust anybody involved talking to them probably wouldn’t be worthwhile. On the other hand, I’d hate to let it ring and then it turns out to be some enigmatic figure with a cryptic warning which will, somehow, still turn out to be of critical importance. So yeah.”
“—IIIIT!” somebody screamed. I winced and jerked the phone away from my ear. Sensitive hearing is awesome and all, but ow. “Winter could you get your ass down here, we—shit!”
Great. The masculine voice was irritatingly familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. “What’s going on?”
In the background there was a sound of splintering wood, followed by another shouted expletive. “No time, man.”
There, that did it. It was Robert, a werewolf I knew only very vaguely. He struck me as a solid fellow, though, and I liked him well enough. “Where and why?”
“Pack house,” he said. “And hurry, we—” There was a crunching-crackling sort of sound, followed by silence.
I sighed. “Why me?” I said to no one in particular. “I mean, all I really want here is to go two months without a crisis of some sort. Just two months. I’d even be happy if they’d just come one at a time. Is that really so much to ask?”
“Actually,” Legion chirped, “most of the time they do come one at a time. It’s just that your crises come complete with a bunch of minor but irritating problems playing backup.”
“Yeah,” I said, glowering, “and you’re one of them. So let’s see. We’ve got an extremely suspicious phone call from someone I hardly know asking me to go somewhere across town posthaste without much of any logical support at all.”
“Gee,” Aiko said dryly. “A suspicious person might think that’s a setup of some kind. And, wow, you have a bunch of sneaky types on your tail, don’t you? Gosh.”
Nah, Snowflake said confidently. They’d do a better job. They could at least fake Kyra’s voice.
I grinned. “So what you’re saying is, it’s obviously a trap and can therefore be trusted? Nice logic there.”
“Ah,” Aiko said. “However, you have a well-justified reputation for paranoia. If they’re sufficiently cunning, they could be counting on you saying that, whereas if someone you actually trusted were to call it would be a realistic threat, and therefore you wouldn’t answer.”
“True,” I said sourly. “On the other hand, they also might be counting on us spending so long debating this that they get their opportunity while we stand around.” I shook my head. “I say we move on it. Robert wouldn’t call me without a good reason. And, if it was someone imitating him, I think I’d like to have a few words with him. Besides. It’s not like we can stay here, is it?”
“Wonderful. Of course, there remains the little problem of getting past the Watchers out there,” the kitsune pointed out. “Think you can stop them tracking you?”
“Not a chance. I don’t know anything about that kind of magic.”
She pursed her lips. “Okay, then. I guess we just have to get…creative about this.”
I looked at the little wax model dubiously. “You sure about this?”
“Not at all,” Aiko said brightly. “You gonna do it or not?”
I shrugged and nicked one palm with the knife. “Why not,” I muttered, rolling the voodoo doll around in the blood that welled up almost instantly. Given that I was a variety of werewolf—and, like any intelligent person, I’d intentionally made the cut as shallow as possible—it took only half a second or so’s worth of effort to seal it.
“Hair, too,” Aiko reminded me.
I grunted and pulled a few from my head, tying them neatly around the model’s waist. “Remind me, what good is this doing again?”
“Well,” she said, “tracking spells are targeted with blood or hair, right?”
“Not necessarily, no. That’s the simplest way of establishing the right kind of connection with somebody, but not the only one.”
“Whatever,” she said with admirable carelessness. “So, theoretically, it should point them right at this. Right?”
“Maybe,” I said dubiously. “Except that there’s, you know, a lot more blood in me than on that thing. And, um, I’d kinda like to keep it that way, if you don’t mind. Not to cramp your style or anything, but….”
“That’s why you’re going to go all wolfy before we leave.”
I blinked. “Gaining us…what?”
“Well,” she said, “I don’t know about the blood, but I can say from experience that your hair is significantly different when you’re four-footed.”
“Hey. I already get crap from Kyra, Snowflake, and Legion. I don’t need it from you.” I paused. “Will that really work?”
“Beats me,” she said cheerily. “Aren’t you supposed to be the magic guy?”
“True,” I admitted. “Legion!”
“No need ta shout, Boss,” he grouched. “I’m right here.”
“Will it work?”
He did that shrugging-without-moving thing again. “Maybe. If Loony’s right about how they’re targeting you, and if they don’t think to account for that trick, then it might work.” He paused. “Of course, the wards will still prevent a standard-issue tracking spell from finding it.”
“Oh. Crap.” Aiko scowled. “I hate it when that happens. I mean, I had this wonderful, needlessly complicated plot going, and you just had to rain on my parade. Thanks a bunch.”
“Actually,” I said, “I think this might work.” I skinned out of my shirt and tossed it into the corner. I don’t like leaving clutter around the lab, but I was willing to make an exception under the circumstances.
“Absolutely,” I confirmed. “Grab the duct tape, and that remote control car from the cabinet, and get ready to run.”
As she went to get the stuff, I dumped the rest of my clothes in the corner and started changing.
A werewolf doesn’t change in the same way as a kitsune. When Aiko goes from human to fox, or vice versa, it happens faster than the human eye can track. If you weren’t watching very, very closely, you could be forgiven for thinking that she simply vanished, and a representative of another species just happened to be standing where she had been.
Human shapeshifters do more work to accomplish the same kind of goal, but from the outside it looks the same to anyone but a mage. Kris, for example, takes almost a minute building up the magic to work the change, but it activates so fast she can start a dive as a hawk, and land on two feet.
Werewolves, on the other hand, get a version of the ability that has a few…drawbacks. It takes the average werewolf about fifteen minutes to change forms, for one thing. For another…well. You can probably guess, at least a little bit, how it feels to spend twenty minutes with bones breaking and shifting and reforming under your skin, muscles ripping loose and reattaching, and your whole body generally tearing itself apart before fitting back together in a new configuration.
If you ask me, the worst part is the joints. Not just because of the pain, although it is intense. No, the worst part is the sickly, gristly little noises the cartilage and stuff make. No matter how many times I hear it, it always makes me feel a little bit ill. Kind of strange, really, given that the rest of it doesn’t bother me much anymore. In fact, I’ve come to see it as a really macabre kind of beautiful.
The thing to remember, though, is that I’m not exactly a werewolf. As far as I know, I’m not exactly anything. I’m a lot like a werewolf, enough so that I can pass for one even to supernatural entities. But, according to the utterly unreliable source which is a god of hunger and destruction, I’ve never actually been a werewolf at all.
In any case, there’s a lot of admixture there. I have a good bit of human-style magic, for example, plus an unknown ancestry which might involve the Fenris Wolf and something related to cold and ice.
So, basically, what it comes down to is that I fall somewhere in between. Which is to say, it hurts me a lot more than Aiko to transform, but I can do it in less than five minutes when I want to badly enough. Accelerating the process takes a moderate amount of power, and makes the pain and intrusive feeling of wrongness more intense, but that’s a reasonable trade-off under the right circumstances.
I was feeling pretty motivated. By the time Aiko had found the RC car and the tape, I was heaving myself back to four shaky feet.
The shocky, stabbing pains in my knees and ankles when I put weight on them were unpleasant. But, honestly, once you’ve experienced enough pain, it doesn’t scare you so much anymore. It’s like that one guy said. I’d experienced bad things before, and lived through them. This, too, would pass.
Ready? I asked Snowflake. One of the nice things about telepathic communication is that you can talk at the table without being rude. Plus, it doesn’t matter what the configuration of your mouth is, which is also nice.
The dog yipped once and then turned to Aiko, who glowered at both of us. “For the record,” she said grimly, “just because I was bragging about how absurd my plan was doesn’t mean you were supposed to top it.” Still glowering, she draped a heavy sack on my back and improvised a crude backpack with a handful of straps. I couldn’t carry everything of value, but the pack would let me bring a handful of useful things, including a handful of knives and my armor.
Aiko checked that the pack was secure, glowered some more, and scooped the husky up into her arms. Snowflake’s smart, and she’s both tougher and stronger than she was any right to be. But, end of the day, she’s still a husky, and I’m not even sure she’s fully grown yet. She couldn’t have weighed more than forty or, at the very most, fifty pounds. Now, Aiko’s no werewolf, but she’s still a good bit stronger than a human of her build should probably be. Fifty pounds wouldn’t slow her down that much.
Let me tell you, though, they made a pretty funny picture. Especially when Aiko picked up the control-thingy to the remote car and shoved it into the crook of her arm next to Snowflake’s head.
Like I said. That dog is entirely smarter than any normal animal. Smart enough, for example, to use a remote control with her mouth and paws. It helped that some time ago I’d taped a cheap camera to the car and rigged it to display on my phone, giving her at least some kind of view of what the thing was doing.
We gave the RC car about a minute head start, sending it straight away from where Aiko’s car was parked. Then we bolted. Aiko spun a decently convincing illusion of invisibility around us as we went, which was pretty impressive that she was simultaneously sprinting flat-out and trying not to jostle the dog that she was carrying.
Snowflake, who didn’t have to worry about running, was free to focus on controlling the decoy. Given that she was an avid huntress herself, I had no doubt that it would be running the Watchers a fine chase. A bunch of tight turns and narrow cracks followed by a storm drain was my guess.
Fortunately, we took only about forty seconds or so to get to the car. Aiko dumped Snowflake unceremoniously into the back, still directing that ridiculous car, and I scrambled in beside her.
I’d like to say that Aiko drove dangerously quickly on the way to the pack house, but I honestly can’t. We took the Interstate, for obvious reasons, and you’d pretty much need one of those Formula One cars to stand out to any appreciable extent. So sure, she was doing eighty, but given that we were still getting passed I didn’t feel too concerned.
It helped that, less than a minute after we started driving, Snowflake growled softly. Looks like…shit, she said to me. Our decoy is now officially gone.
Wow. They’d caught it in…less than three minutes? Wow. That was pretty good.
About ten or twelve minutes later we had arrived in the classy, very expensive neighborhood near the Broadmoor. After another three or four minutes, and one wrong turn, we made our way down the narrow and ridiculously indirect road leading to the pack house.
I had, very obviously, missed the action. Three windows were broken that I could see, one on the second floor and two on the first. One of the lower level windows had a couch stuck halfway through it. The plain white curtains flapped in the breeze, and I found the sight strangely absurd.
Less amusing was the front door hanging open drunkenly from one hinge, and the easily visible bloodstains on it.
Aiko killed the engine, staring at the door. “Well,” she said. “That’s just flippin’ great. What do you say, Fuzzball? We going in?”
I made the vague hunching motion that was as close as a werewolf in fur could come to humanlike shrugging, and whined affirmatively. You’d think that a quasi-lupine body would be a serious obstacle to communication, but with a little practice and some creativity it’s a surprisingly easy barrier to overcome. Oh, it’s not good for highly detailed or technical conversation, but as far as basic concepts go you can do all right.
“How’d I know,” she muttered bitterly. “Can I borrow your sword, then? ‘Cause I forgot to grab mine and, you know, you don’t have any hands currently?” She opened the door—I could have got it, but claws and upholstery are a bad match—and we tumbled out onto the dirt.
I concentrated on my need for Tyrfing (and believe me, convincing yourself that you desperately require something you can’t even hold at the moment takes a bit of practice). A moment later, a soft thump behind me announced that I had been successful.
Aiko picked up the ancient, heavily-cursed, probably-evil sword and bounced it in her hand a couple times. Then she quickly undid the clasp holding it in place and flicked the scabbard aside, almost like she wanted to do it fast before her nerve failed. Like a Band-Aid, right?
The kitsune grimaced, and for a moment the sword wavered in her grip. I knew why; Tyrfing’s relentless thirst for blood and devastation catches you off guard, at first. Then her grasp firmed, and she took a couple practice swings. “Weight’s a little off,” she commented. “But I guess it’ll work.”
Being the most durable, I led the way inside, followed by Aiko and then Snowflake. Everything seemed quiet right now, but we were all on guard anyway.
I mean, come on. We’ve all seen horror movies.
The main room of the house, a big lounge-style operation, looked like a frigging war zone. There was furniture overturned, or broken in some cases, including that couch which was hanging half-in, half-out of the window.
Two werewolves were lying on the ground, apparently unconscious. One of them was Robert; he was bleeding from a shoulder wound which, while visually impressive, probably wouldn’t be lethal to a werewolf. (Few things are, really; it has to be the kind of catastrophic damage that kills almost instantly, or the super-healing kicks in. Realistically speaking, the only ways to manage it in a fight are severe trauma to the central nervous system and opening multiple arteries.) Granted, he’d be pissed when he woke up and he might be sore for a while, but I didn’t need to start planning the funeral yet. He had obviously been responsible for the blood on the door. It looked like a messy puncture wound of some kind.
The other was Enrico. He showed no obvious damage, but he wasn’t moving either.
Kyra was standing over his unconscious body. She was holding his pistol in both hands, and breathing heavily.
The gun was pointed directly at the former cop’s head.