“Okay,” Aiko said in the tone most often reserved for strange and unfriendly-looking dogs. “Wow. Is this a bad time?”
Kyra reacted instantly to the noise, throwing herself sideways. She didn’t look all that impressive, but she was an Alpha werewolf who’d been involved in a number of my violent messes. She covered seven feet in the air, and rolled instantly to her feet with the gun aimed in our direction.
A moment later, the tension ran out of her like the power draining from an interrupted spell, and she lowered the gun. “Man,” she said. “Am I glad to see you guys.”
“What the hell happened here?” Aiko asked, proceeding further into the room. She didn’t put the sword away, I noticed.
Kyra sighed and collapsed onto one of the intact couches, wincing slightly. “Beats the shit out of me,” she said. “Enrico just went postal. Started trying to kill everything in sight.”
“Enrico? You gotta be kidding me. He’s, like, the goodiest-two-shoes we even have. I don’t think he knows how to go crazy.”
“I know, right?” Kyra said. “Some of the wolves, sure, I could see that. But he’s never had any problems.”
“Was there anyone else here?” Aiko asked.
Kyra shook her head. “No, just the three of us. Enrico was staying in the guest room. Said he didn’t feel well. First thing I knew that there was anything wrong was when I heard Robert shouting something downstairs.”
I started to get a sick little feeling in the pit of my stomach. Ignoring the ongoing conversation, I padded over and sniffed around Enrico’s unconscious form.
The obvious scent was, no shit, werewolf. Physically a werewolf’s scent is hard to distinguish from human when they’re in human form, even for me. Magically, though, it’s pretty obvious. Enrico’s magic was stronger than the average human’s, and smelled of classical werewolf, all musk and lavender. It was pretty much the most easily distinguished magical signature going, as far as I was concerned.
Underneath that was what I had just known I would find.
Magic. Magic that stank like bleach and anise.
Fortunately for me, that whole shtick about how you need precise gestures and Words of Power to control magic is, to be charitable, an inaccurate view. Most of the time chanting and waving your arms around has about the same relationship to getting serious magic done as a cheerleading squad does on a football game. Granted they’re occasionally a helpful concentration aid, but even that’s more a matter of convenience and habit than anything else.
So no, I didn’t need to transform before I could do anything. In fact, the hardest part of the process was getting Aiko and Kyra to be quiet so I could concentrate.
It was, needless to say, the same thing I’d encountered earlier. There was no sleep spell involved this time, but the curse of torment was exactly the same structure as what had been laid out on Abdul. I did a little better dealing with it this time, partially because of recent and very applicable experience, and mostly because I’m just a lot better at working with werewolves than pure humans. It’s a matter of similarity, basically; to do witchcraft-style magic on somebody, you have to make a connection with them first.
Now, ideally, I’d be making that connection with a natural, predatory animal. That’s the easiest thing for me to connect with, and therefore the easiest thing for me to affect magically. But werewolves are pretty close, close enough that I’ve been faking it most of my life.
It took me about fifteen minutes, all told, to degrade the spell to the point that it snapped. Then another ten minutes or so to revert to my normal, mostly-human-ish shape. I hate being unable to participate in an important conversation.
“Okay,” Kyra said as I stood and grabbed some spare clothes from the dresser. No, they weren’t mine, but everyone who changes shape on a regular basis and doesn’t have the kind of magic it takes to bring inanimate objects along keeps extra clothing around. The cheap jeans and Wal-Mart quality T-shirt were both humorously large on me, and I really didn’t need them anyway, but that wasn’t the point. Aiko tossed me my cloak, which she’d folded into a single extremely dense shadow and stuffed into her pocket.
“So what was that all about?” Kyra asked. “You know what’s going on?”
“Maybe,” I said, sprawling on a beanbag. Snowflake promptly jumped up and stretched herself out across my lap. “Somebody put a curse on Enrico. Near as I can tell it served no purpose except causing pain.” I frowned. “Although now that I think about it, the way he responded is a little odd. Maybe there was a secondary mental effect involved to amplify violent emotional reactions….”
“Wait, what?” Aiko broke in. “They cursed him? Why? I mean, he’s a great guy and all, but he’s not that important. Who would go to that much effort just for that?”
“Heck if I know. Weirder is that I just ran into somebody else got slapped with the same thing. Some kid across town, nothing unusual about him at all that I could tell. Beats me what the connection is there.”
Kyra sighed. “Is nothing ever simple with you?” she asked, tone somewhere between fondness and exasperation.
“Of course not,” I said, pretending to be aggrieved. “I don’t do simple, it’s in my contract.”
The really funny thing is that I wasn’t, technically speaking, lying, or even kidding. Some weirdo actually did hire me to investigate a really strange case of littering (don’t ask. Trust me, you really don’t want to know the details) a few months back, and I actually did write into the contract that the situation would become more complicated than it seemed. Depressingly enough, I was right.
Outside, we all heard another car pull up. A moment later there were footsteps on the front stair, followed by someone knocking on the door.
“See?” I said as Aiko got up to let the Watchers in. “My mere presence makes things more complicated and irritating.”
It was the same pair as before. As before, the short bald man led, and the gaunt woman in the cloak trailed after him like a spectacularly deadly puppy.
“Hello, all,” he said in that same tone of meaningless joviality, and—I kid you not—actually used the hat stand next to the door, dropping his fedora on the top hook.
“What do you want?” I asked, not making any great effort at friendliness. I didn’t miss the fact that the woman was still wearing her sword belt, and she made no move to leave it at the door.
He smiled tightly, beady black eyes glittering. “Just what we said, Mr. Wolf. We’d like to…have a chat.”
“Yeah? We’re talking, aren’t we? So talk.”
“We would prefer to speak privately,” he said, still smiling.
“Really?” I said as sarcastically as possible. “Because I think this is a great setup.” I showed him my own distinctly unfriendly smile, one that involved a whole lot of teeth. “I would prefer to speak with you right here, where people I trust can keep an eye on you.”
The woman chuckled, an eerie little sound that once again reminded me more of a little girl than a psycho-killer. Now, don’t get me wrong or anything; I’ve got nothing against little girls. But some things just aren’t right. Her whole attitude was one of them.
The man’s smile just tightened, infinitesimally, around the eyes. “Very well,” he said, and the two of them advanced the rest of the way into the building. If they noticed the advanced disorder of the room, they didn’t show it.
Both of them sat on the edge of a couch with the not-quite-relaxed posture of people who are ready to fight or run at a moment’s notice. “We represent a certain organization,” the man began carefully.
“I know,” I interrupted. “The Conclave, right?”
To my surprise, it was the woman that responded. She laughed, the sound surprisingly deep, rich, and saner than anything I’d heard from her to that point. “Told you,” she said to the man. Her voice, too, was deep, and it still had an odd, flat quality to it that wasn’t much like anything I’d heard before. “He’s not stupid.”
The man glared at her. I looked from one to the other bemusedly, and realized that this whole thing had me confused as heck. “Fine,” he muttered. “You were right.” He pulled a leather wallet out of his vest pocket, removed a fiver, and handed it to her. She stuck it carelessly into an inner pocket of her cloak, smirking.
“Just to clarify,” I said. “You are Watchers, correct?”
“My compatriot is,” he said, genial mask in place again. “I do not, myself, belong to that particular order.”
I did some quick mental arithmetic. He was a mage who wasn’t a Watcher, but who was assigned to work with them. The actual Watcher was taciturn, openly armed, and neither of them was especially friendly.
I was guessing that made him a Guard. That, in turn, meant that I was in deep shit.
“So what do you want with me?” I asked bluntly. “I mean, don’t get me wrong or anything, but you must have a lot of things on your plates. What are you doing here?”
It was again the Watcher that answered me. “We’ve been…concerned about you for some time now,” she said carefully. “It recently became apparent that more direct action was necessary.”
“Okay, sure, but why?” I said. “I just don’t get what I’ve done that was that impressive.”
“I can’t believe you said that with a straight face,” the male said, with barely-contained anger in his voice. Good to know there actually was something under that mask of meaningless banality. “Sitting practically on top of your latest victim.”
I blinked. “Wait, what? What the hell are you people talking about? I haven’t victimized anyone. Not recently, anyway.”
“Really?” he said. “What do you call that, then?” He pointed past me to where Enrico was still lying on the floor in the corner.
“Some jackass hit him with a nasty curse,” I said, confused. “I just took it off him. Look, could you just explain whatever it is you think I’ve done?”
“We’ve found more than a dozen instances of that curse in the past week,” she said, still perfectly serene and still ready to go at me with sword or magic at a moment’s notice. “All in people directly connected to you. They have nothing else in common.” She looked at me levelly, grey eyes sharp and cold. “Would you care to explain this?”
“A dozen?” I said, aghast. I imagined the harm that could result from something like that, and pretty much couldn’t. “I had no idea…this is only the second one I’ve seen, both of them today. I don’t know what’s going on, but I swear to you that I’m not doing it.”
She considered me for a moment, and I became aware that at some point in the last minute or so the man who had seemed like the boss earlier had been totally dismissed. “Doesn’t matter. My assignment is to bring you back to my superior.”
“And if I don’t feel like coming with?”
She shrugged. “Bottom line, you’re coming. You can do it easy, or you can do it hard. Worst case, I kill you and bring back the body.”
“Really,” Kyra drawled, interjecting herself into the conversation for the first time. She smiled, showing loads of teeth and essentially no humor. “I don’t think so.”
“You aren’t capable of stopping us,” the Watcher stated with that same eerie calm.
Her smile widened. “Maybe. Maybe not. But let’s think about this one. Let’s say you could take the three of us all together. Fine. What do you think happens next?” Kyra was grinning now, and there was a gleam in her eye that probably wasn’t entirely healthy. “Because I think the Khan would have a few words for you.”
“The Khan wouldn’t act against the Conclave,” the Guard said, sounding almost bored. “And without a legitimate grievance, the Pack would never support him.”
“I have a grievance, all right,” Kyra said, her voice friendly and all the more disturbing for it. “Or have you forgotten that you’re on my territory.” She leaned forward a little, voice dropping almost to a whisper. “Go ahead. Try it. Pick a fight in my house. See what happens.”
The Watcher considered that for a moment, then nodded her head slightly. It reminded me, a little, of both a bow and a salute. I expected at least a sinister promise that they would see me again, but the two of them left without another word. I guess they didn’t feel a need to reiterate what everybody already knew.
“You really think that was smart?” Aiko said once they’d driven off. I noticed idly that, at some point, she’d sheathed Tyrfing again, which was pretty impressive considering how recalcitrant the sword could be when it hadn’t spilled any blood.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well, now you can guarantee they think you’re the bad guy. Given that you’re not supposed to kill them, don’t you think it would make more sense to just go along with it?”
“Maybe,” I admitted. “And at some point I’ll probably have to. On the other hand, I don’t really think I want to talk to their boss without a little more information about just what’s going on here.”
“Excuse me,” Kyra interrupted. “But would somebody mind telling me who that was and what the hell’s going on?”
“She was a Watcher,” Aiko explained offhandedly. “Wizardy Gestapo, basically.”
“Pretty sure the man was from the military branch,” I added. “I’m guessing they’re an assassination squad of some kind.”
Kyra sighed. “Only you, Winter. I should be disgusted, but somehow I’m not even surprised.”
Aiko snorted. “This is nothing. You should see what happens when he goes to a party.”
“Oh come on,” I said. “What are you complaining about? You didn’t even get bruised when they threw us in prison.”
Aiko opened her mouth to rejoinder, but Kyra cut her short. “Why is there an assassination squad after you?” she asked me, sounding perhaps somewhat plaintive. A perfectly reasonably reaction to any one of us, really, let alone all three.
“Honestly? Unless you count ‘there is a God, and he’s a sadist,’ your guess is as good as mine at this point.”
“Wonderful,” she sighed. “You do have a plan, I hope?”
“Not really. I mean, I can’t stay here indefinitely. Even if I could, I’d wager the Pack has an extradition deal of some kind set up with the Conclave, so….” I shrugged. “At this point, I think the first priority is information.” I frowned. “I’d really like to get some equipment, too. I mean, I didn’t exactly pack for a serious fight this morning. Going home is probably a really bad idea, though. You can bet that they have the whole area under surveillance.” I sighed. “Wish I’d gotten around to replacing that shotgun.”
Aiko grinned, this time the mischievous expression that usually means she just had a clever thought, and it’s one that will almost certainly cause me problems. Although, in all fairness, it’s usually also pretty entertaining, and I’m pretty far ahead on the “getting us in serious danger” measure. “Actually, that gives me an idea. We might be able to deal with a few problems at once.”
“What is it?”
The kitsune shook her head vehemently. “No, no, no. Come on, Winter. The only way to successfully implement a plan is not to reveal any of the details ahead of time. Everybody knows that.”
“Well, sure,” I said reasonably. “But we only keep intelligence from the enemy, remember? Your allies not knowing what the plan is doesn’t work quite as well.”
“No, not that. It’s…look, if everybody knows a plan, there’s no suspense, right? So seeing it go off without a hitch doesn’t provoke any excitement. Therefore, the only plans guaranteed to work are the ones that aren’t discussed beforehand.”
“Okay then,” I said in the tone people adopt around crazy people. I hear it a lot, so I’ve actually gotten pretty good at it. “Sure. But, ah, that only applies to fictional people. Which, you might have noticed, we, um, aren’t.”
She held up one figure. “Aha! There’s a flaw in your reasoning.”
I blinked. “You lost me.”
She sighed. “Look. You know that there are at least two gods using you as a source of entertainment, right? Which, in turn, means that there’s probably at least five more you don’t know about. So to them, you’re pretty much the star of your very own TV show.”
I thought about it. “Except that they get to make edits.”
“Exactly!” she said excitedly. “So, if they think it’s getting boring, they aren’t just going to change the channel. They’re going to shake things up a bit, make it exciting again.” She grinned. “So, logically, the thing for you to do is make sure they keep being entertained. That way they don’t have a reason to screw with you some more.”
“So,” I said slowly, “even though I’m real, I should act like a fictional character, because if I amuse them enough they won’t kill me?” I shook my head. “I’m not sure what I should be more worried about. That I’m dating a lunatic, or that you’re actually making sense.”
“Speak for yourself,” Kyra muttered. “You two make my brain hurt.”
“Doesn’t this conversation go against that concept, though?” I said after a moment. “I mean, we just openly discussed our plan to defraud and manipulate them.”
“No,” she said patiently. “That’s a long-term strategy rather than a specific tactic. Plus, this way they get their egos stroked. And by openly admitting it instead of actually scheming against the gods, we turn it all into a big joke and invoke their willing suspension of disbelief, rather than giving them a reason to nuke us.”
I thought about it for a minute. “Okay, I’m going with Kyra on this one. My brain hurts.”
Thirded, Snowflake muttered in the background. She was still sprawled, seemingly asleep, across my feet, but the dog seldom really stays out of a conversation. She’s too fond of making jokes and sarcastic comments. It helps that Legion and I are the only ones who hear her without making a serious effort.
“Just trust me, then. It’ll work.”
“I’m still seeing one flaw, though,” I said after another moment of thought. “I haven’t made the thorough study of the subject you obviously have, but I do read. When the heroes need to have a plan go right, don’t they usually just talk about it offscreen? So you tell me about it, and they can edit it out.”
“Riiiiight,” Aiko said skeptically. “You really trust Loki not to sneak a look backstage? Yeah, I thought so.”
I sighed. “Fine. This one’s your show.”
She grinned again and stood up. “Great. Kyra, thanks a bunch and whatnot, but we need to be going.”
Just when I was finally falling asleep, Snowflake said irritably, jumping to the floor.
“I get it that you don’t think we should talk about what we’re doing next,” I said about fifteen minutes later. “But would it really be that bad to talk about what we’re doing right now?”
“Driving,” she said, shifting lanes with only the most cursory of glances behind us. I ignored it. You get used to that sort of behavior, spending time with Aiko. Besides which, there comes a point at which a car wreck just doesn’t scare you very much anymore, and I’d spent most of the past year on the wrong side of it. At the moment, a nice stay at the hospital sounded like a relaxing vacation.
“I know that,” I said, rolling my eyes. “But where are we going? And, more importantly, why?”
“Essentially?” she said. “It’s impossible to track someone to the Otherside.”
“Huh,” I said thoughtfully. I hadn’t heard that one before, but it made a lot of sense, considering the way the Otherside worked. “Couldn’t we have just crossed over from Kyra’s house?”
“No,” she said testily. “We couldn’t. Look, I’ll explain later, but we’re almost there, okay?”
“There” was, in this case, the kind of place which can charitably be referred to as nowhere special. It was a ways east and a little south of Kyra’s place, in one of the moderately seedy neighborhoods near Fort Carson. To give you some sense of scale, the cars were all used and the signs involved a lot of Spanish, but most of the streetlights were intact and relatively few of the windows had bars.
The parking lot Aiko went with serviced a Mexican restaurant, a pawnshop, a laundry, and a handful of empty buildings. We didn’t go in any of them, instead walking around to the alley in back. Snowflake trotted along behind me, not even pretending to be on a leash. Like me, she seldom really cared about other people’s opinions except for when they affected her directly.
Aiko paused briefly once we were in the alley, seeming indecisive. Then she strode over to one of the back doors. The pawnshop’s, if I wasn’t mistaken. She closed her eyes for a moment, and I heard her mutter, “Perfect.”
“Perfect for what?” I asked, glancing irritably over my shoulder.
“Look,” she said, tracing her fingers over the surface of the door, her eyes still closed. “The Otherside is connected to this world, right? But it’s not an absolute kind of thing. Like, if you want to go to the Fortress of Shadow, it’s not just a matter of going to Skye and crossing from there.”
“Okay,” I said. “What’s that have to do with this?”
“It’s about ideas,” she said. I felt a slow, steady buildup of magic, lightly scented with fox and cinnamon. “On the Otherside, the idea and the reality have a much closer relationship. Cross from Kyra’s house, and you land somewhere similar on the Otherside. Given that we aren’t looking for that, we had to go somewhere else first.”
“Wait a second. What about that time we went to your uncle’s party? I’m not seeing the connection between a random abandoned building outside town and the Dragon King’s antechamber.” As usual, I avoided referring to Ryujin by name. I’m reasonably confident he’s not currently actively trying to kill me, but there’s no sense taking chances.
“Yes,” she said testily. “That was Ryujin. The more disparity there is between origin and destination, the more power it takes to bridge it. Bit of a qualitative difference between him and me, don’t you think? Now hush, I need to concentrate.”
The power she’d been building up stirred, intensifying and shifting. It felt strange, almost like shamanic magic on a surface level but very different in the specifics. Snowflake and I kept watch to either side, because what else were we supposed to do?
A minute went by without any obvious change, except that the scent of magic got progressively stronger. It was a pretty impressive reminder of what she really was, actually; that’s a lot of magic to lay out all at once. Aiko, being only a one-tailed kitsune, doesn’t have a phenomenal amount of power, and mostly what she does have she only uses for shapechanging and the occasional illusion. It’s easy to forget that, with the right motivation and maybe a bit of practice, she’s capable of quite a bit more.
After about three minutes of that, she said, “Hurry up, I can’t hold this forever.” The kitsune sounded strained, the way somebody might sound if they were trying to talk and also hold a barbell over their head.
When I looked at the door, I could see why. What had been a simple, metal delivery door, dented and somewhat dingy…wasn’t. In its place was, as far as I could tell, nothing. Not a simple absence, mind you, but the active presence of nothing.
And yes. That makes my head hurt too.
I shrugged and stepped into the void. I mean, if Aiko was going to kill me, I’m pretty sure she’d have done it by now. Besides which, this was a pretty boring way to die, and that just wasn’t her style.