We were, thankfully, back in the real world. I wasn’t sure how much more of the Otherside I could take.
We were standing in a thin layer of snow at the base of a rock formation. The rock was the bright red granite common around Colorado Springs, which as I understand it is rare and moderately famous. Some rather scraggly bushes ensured that the alcove we came out in, which was barely big enough for the three of us to fit, wouldn’t be easily visible to anyone else. I had to be impressed at Aiko’s destination points; they were impressively good at preventing anyone from noticing our arrival. Even without leaves to speak of, this was a pretty secluded spot.
Surprisingly, I appeared to have come through the portal the best. Oh, I didn’t feel good by any means, but they looked worse. Snowflake had collapsed in her namesake, and Aiko was swaying on her feet. As I watched, she sank down to sit, leaning on the rocks for support, eyes closed. She looked absolutely exhausted, eyes sunken and skin gone ashen.
“Are you okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” she rasped. “How many gates did we just do?
I frowned and thought about it. “I have no idea,” I admitted after a moment. Somewhere along the line I’d completely lost track.
“Me neither,” she said, coughing. “Surprised I managed that.” Snowflake whined gently, prompting the kitsune to reach out and ruffle her ears. “Don’t worry, dumme Sumpfhundin. Give me twenty minutes or so, I’ll be good as new.”
I sighed. “Yeah, but we’re on the clock again. Don’t know what the Watchers are gonna make of this, but it’s a sure bet they’ll be on me again like fleas on a werewolf now that I’m back in Colorado.” I pushed myself to my feet. “I’ll go see what they’re doing.”
Twenty minutes or so later, I clambered back down the rocks. “Looks like they’re content to wait in the parking lot for now,” I reported.
“Damn,” Aiko muttered. She was, as promised, looking much healthier. “They’re already here?”
“Yep,” I said smugly. “You owe me a chocolate cake.”
“Should have known better than to bet against you when you were offering to shave your head and wear an eyepatch for a month. Did you get a good look at them?”
“That is generally the bright side of being able to borrow a hawk’s eyes,” I said dryly. “Nobody seems to see it coming, strangely enough. It’s the same pair as before. Looks like they’re standing around in the parking lot waiting for us to come through. Cleared everybody else out, too.”
She grunted and, shoving Snowflake off her lap, stood up to pace. “How do you think they found us?”
I shrugged. “My guess? Given who we’re talking about, they would have done their research ahead of time, including researching known associates. Assuming they know your contact points in the city, it isn’t too much of a stretch that they’d put all three under surveillance as soon as they realized where we went.”
“Makes sense,” she said reluctantly. “That kind of magic’s right up their alley.”
“True. Or they coulda just, you know, used satellite photography.”
She nodded. “We go overland, then?”
“Nah,” I said. “I’m going to have to deal with them eventually. The plan should work.”
I jogged into the parking lot alone, glancing furtively over my shoulder.
They must not have been expecting such a blatant approach, because it took them several seconds to react. I made it almost to the other edge of the lot before the Watcher stepped in front of me. She was holding a pair of heavy manacles, and she wasn’t smiling.
I pulled up short. “Hi,” I said. “How’s your day going?”
“Put the manacles on,” the Guard said, stepping up beside her. “Don’t make this harder than it has to be.”
“I think it’s a little early in our relationship for that,” I said lightly. “Besides, those things smell like silver, and that’s kind of a turn-off for me, obviously.”
“You’re alone,” the woman said abruptly. “Where’s the kitsune?”
“Oddly enough, she didn’t want to pick a fight with you guys,” I lied. “Said I was on my own if I wanted to do something that dumb.”
The guy nodded, his expression so pleasant and understanding it was actively aggravating. “Smart move. You should listen to her.”
I sighed and stretched my hands out as though I was waiting to be cuffed. “Yeah,” I said. “I probably should.”
The woman nodded and stepped forward, manacles raised. I waited until they were almost on my wrists, and then lunged forward and punched her in the abdomen.
It wasn’t a terribly hard punch. It was an awkward movement, and even with preternatural strength there’s only so much you can do from an odd position.
But it was hard enough, and well enough placed, to make her grunt and stagger. I stepped forward, avoiding the manacles, and shoved her hard into the guy. Both of them stumbled sideways, unprepared for this series of events.
Then I turned and ran, taking off into the park.
I knew the park pretty well, and the paths were groomed enough that I could maintain a pretty decent pace without having to worry about tripping. Between that and my head start, by the time I ducked off the path and out of sight, the Watchers were barely within sight of me.
“Okay,” I said. “They bit on it. You ready to go?”
Duh, Snowflake said, standing and stretching. You want me to start?
“Better give it a few minutes,” I said. “They wouldn’t believe I could change that quickly. I have enough of a lead that we can afford the delay.”
I watched them approach through the eyes of a coyote, following their progress carefully. By the time they were within a hundred feet of our hiding place, three or four minutes had passed and they were slowing down a little. She looked like she could be running a good bit faster without trouble, but the Guard was a little overweight, and it was showing now.
“Now,” I said to Snowflake. She immediately stepped out onto the path, looking back at the Watchers. Through the coyote I could see that her expression was mocking, to such a degree that even a human would recognize it as such. She barked at them, almost laughing.
Then she bolted down the path.
Meanwhile, I worked myself further into the alcove, draping my cloak of shadows over myself, and watched them through the coyote’s eyes. This was the key moment; if they saw through this ruse, my plan was pretty much done.
“Is that him?” the Guard asked, staring after Snowflake.
“Hard to say,” the Watcher said, shrugging. “A werewolf’s mind feels a lot different as a wolf than a human. I don’t know that I would recognize him.”
“But it is a werewolf?” he asked impatiently.
“It feels like one,” she said. “Let’s move. He’s getting away.”
The Guard nodded and started running again, though it was clearly a struggle.
I grinned and pressed myself back against the cliff.
The two of them ran past less than a minute later. The Guard, who was panting heavily by that point, didn’t seem to see anything beyond the next stride; he never so much as glanced into the alcove where I was hiding.
The Watcher, on the other hand, did rather more than glance. She looked right at me, met my eyes, and grinned.
Then she kept going.
Once I was sure they were gone, I extricated myself from my hiding place and started jogging back down the path toward the parking lot. I was a little concerned about that smile from the Watcher, but there wasn’t a lot that I could do about it. The plan had worked, even if I did have my doubts about how much of that could really be attributed to it being a good plan.
Back at the parking lot, I started walking along the highway. It didn’t take long for a black SUV to pull up alongside me, with Aiko grinning at me out the window. Under normal circumstances I would have labeled it a government vehicle without a second thought. Under the present circumstances, I knew that label was correct, although the government in question was a little different than normal.
I sighed. Some things are too much even for me.
On the other hand, the interior was pretty nice. Cars half full and all that.
“So,” Aiko said as we got into the black SUV. Armored, of course, and the windows were both tinted and bulletproof. “Did you get away clean?”
“As far as I could tell,” I said. “Think the Watcher might have noticed me, but I’m not sure. Snowflake’s going to run them through the hills for a while and then meet us back at my house. I need to pick up some kit anyway. Did the car give you any trouble?”
“Nah,” she said dismissively. “These things are easy to hotwire. So what’s next after we pick up the mutt? Aubrey?”
I pulled the folded papers out of my pocket and spread them out on my lap. “Going after Aubrey directly is a bit of an overreaction at this point, I think,” I said absently. “I at least want to get some details on this curse first.”
I went over the list of names again. Strange, how hard putting it into an impersonal format and telling me it was a puzzle I needed to solve made it to feel for them. “Most of these people aren’t involved in the community,” I said, thinking it out as I went along. “I’d rather not deal with the Inquisition at the moment, and I’m not sure where to find Luna or Rachel.”
The Inquisition was one of her—numerous—insulting epithets for the gang of moderately-skilled mages running around town pretending to be vigilantes. They were assembled by Loki, for reasons that I’ve never gotten quite clear about, and then abandoned shortly after I crossed their path. I try and keep an eye on them, partially to keep them from getting killed, and mostly to make sure their psychoses are directed in the right directions.
It sounds kinda manipulative when I put it that way. But I’m honestly not sure what else to do about them. None of them is so dangerous or insane that I feel a need to kill them, but all of them are dangerous and insane enough that I don’t feel right leaving them without some kind of supervision. The best solution I’ve come up with so far is to try and get them to direct their vigilante activities toward things that deserve to die, and make sure I’m in place to pick up the pieces when they inevitably get themselves killed doing something stupid.
“So that leaves Enrico, then,” Aiko said.
I sighed. I was not looking forward to that conversation. But there was nothing for it but to bite the bullet and go talk to him. The fact that he was the best source of information I had available to me right now just made avoiding that conversation even harder.
I never had these problems back when I was still an antisocial loner living on the fringes of society, darn it.
As it turned out, I didn’t get my stuff from my house. I was glad we’d taken the time to drop by, though, because otherwise I might have missed the opportunity to see it burn, and that would have been terrible.
The blaze couldn’t have been going long, because the building was still standing. It had a peculiar intensity, though, which made me pretty sure it wasn’t the accidental kind of fire. Accidental fires don’t generally reek of magic so strongly it burned my sinuses a block away.
We sat in our stolen SUV and stared through the windshield. It was sorta pretty, mostly because the reality hadn’t quite sunk in yet.
There was no way I could stop this. Absolutely no way. Once you’ve got a big fire going, there’s so much raw energy involved only a specialist with a lot of skill could reasonably hope to contain it. Even if I were one of those, which I am very much not, it was clearly already too late. Fire has a strong spiritual and energetic presence, and it’s a potent destructive force. There are enchantments which can withstand a firestorm, but mine aren’t on that level. And, while I am inhumanly sturdy, there are definite limits, and running headlong into a magically-accelerated burning building crosses about, I don’t know, all of them. Trying to get anything out—if anything was even intact—was a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.
“Think you have the Watchers to thank for this one?” Aiko asked in the curiously dislocated manner of someone who, looking at a train wreck, isn’t quite sure what to say but feels that she has to say something. She was staring straight forward at the fire with a blank expression on her face.
“Maybe,” I said, and I could hear the same numbness in my own voice. “Hard to say, though. Too many people enjoy screwing with me too much.”
Snowflake came running out of the hills behind the house. We should get moving, she said, before she’d even reached the car. They weren’t more than a few minutes behind me. I didn’t want to risk them deciding to turn around and running into you.
I shook myself out of the daze. “Yeah, you’re right. Looks like I don’t need to pick anything up after all. Enrico should still be at the pack house.”
Aiko glanced at me sidelong. Such a fun word, sidelong; I wish you could use it to describe something other than glances. “Shouldn’t you be…I don’t know, crying or something?”
“Because we’re watching your house burn down,” she said reasonably. “It seems like the kind of thing that should provoke a reaction. Shock, at the very least.”
I shrugged. “Maybe, but let’s face it. That house? Was a piece of shit. Nobody was hurt, and I keep most of my really valuable stuff I at the lab these days anyway. I’ve been doing regular backups for a change, so I didn’t even lose any of my important files. I’m not seeing a lot of reason to cry.” I paused. “Although it is irritating that I just lost most of my foci for the second time in a year. I used to be so good at hanging onto them, too.”
She stared at me for a second, then shook her head and muttered something very rude in French before putting the car in gear.
When we pulled up outside the pack house, I could hear Kyra through the broken window. She was speaking too quietly for me to make out the words, but I could hear her tone. It wasn’t a good tone. It was more like the tone you use to talk down someone standing on a ledge.
Walking inside, I found that my initial impression hadn’t been far wrong. Kyra was sitting in one of the few intact chairs, her posture so submissive that even a human would have been struck by it.
Enrico was standing on the other side of the room holding a shotgun. It wasn’t anything like the model that I’d bought from Jacques, but it was plenty heavy enough to get the job done. Particularly if it was loaded with silver, and knowing Enrico, that was almost certainly the case.
“Great,” Kyra said to me when I opened the door, sounding rather exasperated. “Winter, you talk some sense into him.”
“What’s up?” I asked, walking in cautiously.
“I’m a menace,” Enrico said. In contrast to Kyra, he sounded eerily calm. “There isn’t any doubt on that point, not anymore. As long as I’m alive, I’m a danger to everyone around me.”
“No, you’re not,” I said. “The only reason you attacked Robert was because a mage had been screwing with your head. You can’t blame yourself for that.”
“That’s not what this is about,” he said, pacing. “Not really. You two turned me into a monster. Maybe it was the only way to save me, I don’t know, but that doesn’t change what you did.”
“You aren’t a monster,” Aiko said dismissively. She sounded almost as dispassionate as Enrico did. “Trust me. I know monsters, and you aren’t one.”
“She’s right,” I said. “You should know as well as anyone that werewolves aren’t monsters, not really.”
“You say that,” he said. “But then, you would, wouldn’t you? It’s been over a year, Winter. I still can’t live normally. I can’t be around injured people safely. I’ll never work with the police again. I couldn’t, not like this.”
“Maybe your expectations aren’t realistic,” I said, as gently as I could. “You need to adapt to who you are now, not waste your life trying to get back to who you used to be.”
“Maybe that’s the problem,” he said. “Maybe you’ve made too many compromises.” He shook his head and stopped pacing, looking directly at me. “I can’t do that. I had a purpose, Winter. I set out to help people. To protect them. That was who I was, who I made myself. And if that means protecting them from me, so be it.”
I opened my mouth, but he shook his head again, cutting me off. “Don’t bother,” he said. “I’ve made my choice. I’m sorry, Winter.”
And then he lifted the shotgun and pulled the trigger.