Kris was working the desk at the shop, and looking distinctly unhappy to be there. “Hey, Winter.” Then she took a second look, and winced. “Holy shit, Winter, what happened to you? And what’s with the thug?”
“It’s good to see you too, Kris,” I said. “Is Val here? I really need to talk to him.”
“Yeah, he’s in the shop ripping Doug a new one.” That was—well, not a blessing or godsend, or at least I really hoped not, all things considered—but at the very least extremely fortunate. He hadn’t been answering his phone, and I had no idea where else to find him.
“No problem.” Kris hesitated. “Look, do you need a hand or something?”
I was tempted to tell her I did. As a shapeshifter, she might not have the same terrifying power of a wizard, the dangerous insidiousness of witchcraft, or the sudden violence that was the hallmark of combat sorcery. But she was smart, tough, and vicious in a fight, and her assistance would be invaluable in any kind of violent situation.
But there were already too many people in position to die if I made a mistake. So I said, “Not yet,” and walked on into the shop proper, trailing a werewolf and a…whatever the hell you could call Snowflake.
“You,” Val said, not turning to look at me. “Explain, please, how this man got the idea that turning a bowl out of pine was a good idea.” Doug, standing next to Val and all but looming over the guy, winced.
“I’m sure he knows what he’s doing,” I said, which wasn’t technically a lie—I was entirely sure that Val had made certain Doug knew exactly how stupid he’d been. “But I really need to talk to you.”
“It can wait,” he said, still not turning his glower away from Doug, “until this is fixed.”
“The Gáe Bolg is in town,” I said flatly. As I’d anticipated, Val froze dead still where he stood, though I could tell that both Doug and Ryan either weren’t in on the hunt or were very, very good actors. “Now that I have your attention,” I said sweetly, “I really need to talk to you.”
Val finally turned to face me. His expression was not pleasant. “Not my problem,” he said coldly.
“You owe me,” I said, with just as much ice in my voice, “for lying about the sword.”
“I do not lie,” he said, his tone dangerously mild.
“You misled, withheld information, and abused a trust. Whether you spoke an untruth or not.” I regarded him evenly. “I think you owe me a few answers.”
He was silent for a long moment. “Fine,” he said eventually. “Ask. Three questions only.”
“Question one: what quality of Scáthach’s spear makes it desirable enough to interest gods?”
“It is not the spear, it is the power. She invested it with no small portion of her magic. Who holds the spear, holds the power. More importantly, it is a symbol of her power. Taking it from her would be a significant victory on a symbolic level.”
I nodded slowly. That tracked; a spear was nothing to something like Loki, but stealing power from another deity? Yeah, I could see him being interested in that. “Question two: what supernatural abilities does Scáthach’s champion possess?”
“Like the spear, he is invested with her power. It makes him strong, fast, quick to heal, immune to the ravages of time. Like the Sidhe themselves, he bears Faerie with him wherever he goes, and can walk the darkened ways even in this world, and so no cage can long hold him. Shadows bend to his will, and none see him when he does not wish to be seen, while his own eyes penetrate any mask. Those of Midnight answer when he speaks, save only the Queens themselves.”
Holy crap. Add in his superhuman skill with weapons, and he was starting to sound pretty much unbeatable. How do you fight somebody stronger and faster than a werewolf, who’s had who knows how long to practice fighting, who can teleport—I figured that’s what “walking the darkened ways” meant, and it would explain how he’d been able to send arrows from every direction at once back in Faerie—become invisible, escape any situation, and see through any illusion or disguise? Heck, that pretty much covers every base at once.
“Question three: what are his weaknesses?”
“Iron will harm him and disrupt his abilities, although it is not poison as it is to the faeries. Other things harmful to those of Midnight—oak and rowan, rock salt, that sort of thing—he will find painful but not truly dangerous. He is not quite as capable in the hours between dawn and dusk as in the night.” Val shrugged. “In truth, the champions have few weaknesses. That’s the whole point, really.”
Great. Just great. Why is that out of all the inhuman monsters that walk the earth, only werewolves—only werewolves—have a built-in weakness that’s easily exploited and crippling under normal circumstances? I mean, heck, all you have to do to survive most werewolf attacks is wear a whole bunch of dangly silver jewelry and they’ll go after easier prey instead.
Life is just so unfair.
He started to respond, paused, and turned away from me. “I am sorry,” he said finally. “That you feel that way about the sword. Such was not my intention.”
I wanted to be angry at him. But honestly, what was they point? It was in the past now. No amount of ranting and raving would ever change the fact that I was Tyrfing’s wielder now, or make him admit that duping me into agreeing to that was wrong.
He wasn’t human. Trying to judge him by human standards was not only futile in the long run, it was also incredibly unfair.
So all I said was, “It’s okay, Val. I understand.” And then I turned and left, my dog and my bodyguard following along silently.
“What was that about, sir?”
“The short version?” I said. “Some numbskull stole something they really shouldn’t have that belongs to this old Celtic goddess. Now everybody and his brother wants it. Apparently it surfaced in a pawnshop in town, and that’s why all this shit’s happening.”
He really doesn’t like you, does he?
I’m not entirely sure. Now that you mention it, though…. “Ryan,” I said out loud, “what’s your beef?”
“Excuse me, sir?”
I rolled my eyes. “Seriously, man. I am entirely able to recognize when somebody’s got something against me. So, what, did I kill your uncle or something? Come on, work with me here.”
He blinked, then grinned. “No, sir. Nothing against you.”
I nodded thoughtfully, adding a few things up in my head. “Right. So what’s your problem with Kyra, then?”
He stiffened, then forced himself to relax. Too late; he’d already shown me that I was on the money with that guess. He clearly hadn’t spent all that much time around other werewolves, if he was giving himself away that easily. “Do you think this is the best time for that conversation, sir?”
“Nope,” I said cheerfully. “But I’m not going into a fight with somebody I don’t know. So, you know, the longer you spend stalling, the longer we’re going to be standing here.”
“Right,” he said, resigned. “Yes, sir, I do have problems with Kyra.”
“You don’t like her policies or something?”
“No, sir. She’s too nice.”
“Okay,” I said after a moment. “You lost me there.”
“She’s too nice, sir. That works in the proximate, but for the long term she doesn’t inspire enough fear. And she’s female.”
I raised one eyebrow. “That bothers you? Listening to a woman?”
“Not me, sir. But a lot of the others don’t respect her, and her attitude reinforces that. In the long run the Alpha has to be an authority figure, and werewolves require a certain amount of harsh discipline for that to work. By ignoring that need for normative control, she’s destabilizing the social system, which will ultimately lead to the collapse of the pack system and, inevitably, violent change.”
He’s right, Snowflake said, sounding surprised. I hadn’t thought about it like that, but he’s right.
“That’s a remarkably detailed analysis,” I said mildly.
He grinned again. “I’ve had a lot of time to think about this, sir. And I did sociology in college.” He shook his head. “I’ve tried to tell her, but she doesn’t want to listen. And then she tells me to shut up, and, well.” He shrugged. I knew what he meant; lax disciplinarian or not, Kyra was his Alpha, and I could tell that Ryan wasn’t all that dominant of a werewolf. If she told him to shut up, he would, like it or not.
“How long have you been in this pack?” I asked.
He shrugged again. “Around a year. I was in Arizona, but I can’t stand the desert. Came up here when I heard there was an opening.”
“Well, let’s just say Kyra’s got reason, then.” I so didn’t want to go into the sordid details of what had gone on in the Pikes Peak Pack (whose idea was that name, anyway?) before he’d been around.
“Doesn’t matter. She needs to toughen up.” He glanced at me. “I don’t expect you to understand, sir.”
Which, it occurred to me, was quite possibly the most patronizing thing you can say to somebody. I mean, that’s practically straight-up telling somebody they’re so stupid they shouldn’t even bother trying to understand the situation. “Look, Ryan, how long has it been since you were Changed?”
“Seven years next month, sir.”
“Seven years,” I said, nodding. “Not bad. Plenty of werewolves don’t last that long.”
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “And I don’t normally do this many stupid things, sir.”
I snorted. “Yeah, you want to stay around here you’d best get used to it. Now, I’ve been around werewolves for, um, I guess around twenty-seven years now, maybe a little more. There’s an outside chance I know what you’re talking about.”
He stared. “Twenty-seven years? You don’t even look twenty-seven years old.”
“Yeah, neither do you, buddy. Werewolves aren’t the only things that can live forever, or nearly. Okay, let’s move on. I think that’s about as much as we’re going to get out of this discussion.”
“Thank you, sir. Where next?”
“Good question,” I said, thinking. “I don’t suppose you know who Humberto was working for when he hired those thugs?”
“Don’t know anything about hiring people. But Kyra said he was doing something for the Khan.”
“Huh. Wonder why he wants this thing.” I shook my head. It didn’t matter, at least not in the immediate term. Worry about surviving the next few days—which, at the moment, meant getting this spear and getting it as far away as possible—and then figure out what the political consequences would be.
Speaking of which. Where the heck was it? Somebody had taken it from Steve’s apartment after he got shot. Carraig had said it was gone before he got there, and I was inclined to believe him—my gut said that he wasn’t the kind of guy who’d lie about something like that, not even to the opposition. I doubted that it had been the Daylight rep, either; if that happened, the Midnight Court would have known. It could have been Bryan, I supposed, but I didn’t know enough about what he was even doing here to guess.
And that is when I realized what I’d overlooked. Who did you smell in that apartment? I asked Snowflake.
In the thug’s apartment. You said you smelled someone familiar. Who was it?
Oh. Oh shit, I can’t believe I spaced that. It was whatserface, the police person.
The one Kyra works with? Frishberg, her name was?
That’s the one.
There was a brief moment of shock. Then I felt myself start to grin again. “Hey, Ryan. You know where I could find Sergeant Frishberg at this time of day?”
He shrugged. “Sure.”
As it turned out, it wasn’t hard. Ryan might not approve of Kyra’s management approach, but he was apparently one of her more trusted subordinates, so Frishberg didn’t find it too surprising for the werewolf to call and ask her to meet him.
I figured it’d be better if it wasn’t me that called her. She already knew that I was investigating this mess; the instant she saw me the game would be up. Better, I reckoned, to catch her by surprise.
To help reinforce that impression, he set the meet up in a location that was the polar opposite of where I had. I mean, maybe this is just me, but I think of a shopping mall as representing the antithetical ethos of a park.
The funny thing is that, while they aren’t very similar on the surface, it was the exact same reasoning responsible. Both were crowded places where you could still have a private conversation with a reasonable expectation of it staying private.
They were also places where you could easily arrange to have dozens, if not hundreds, of people playing backup without it being obvious.
For some reason, this fact didn’t comfort me very much.
We met her at a small table in the food court, where the pathetic artificial waterfall would prevent any casual onlookers from overhearing our conversation. I made sure that it was in a brightly lit area with the nearest notable shadow a few dozen yards away, too. Just in case.
I was wearing my cloak as just that, rather than molding it into a coat like I usually did when I wanted to look like an only moderately creepy dude. More specifically, it was currently a black cloak with the hood pulled up and wrapped around my face. I thinned it out enough over my eyes that it was no more impediment than a pair of shades, while still keeping my features well concealed.
Magic is hard work—but sometimes, it’s just so darn cool.
Ryan was wearing a more traditional trench coat, and not making a huge effort to conceal the fact that he was armed. Between that and my Renaissance-style equivalent, we looked sufficiently spooky that nobody seemed inclined to come too close. Snowflake was concealed in the plants along the water—they weren’t very impressive, but I didn’t think Frishberg would notice her. How a white-and-black dog can hide in an artificial jungle I will never know, but she made it look easy.
The sergeant walked in around fifteen minutes late to the meeting, at which point we’d been there for almost half an hour. Ryan was eating fast food burgers—half a dozen of them, complete with sides and drink—with all evidence of enjoyment. It was good for camo, but I couldn’t bring myself to join him. I mean, I regularly eat my meat raw, and I still can’t call that shit food with a straight face.
Sergeant Frishberg evidently agreed with me, because when she sat in the chair across from us she looked at him in disgust. “I can’t believe you eat that stuff.”
Ryan shrugged, stuffed the last half-burger into his mouth in one bite, and swallowed it all but whole before he replied. “It beats MREs. Glad to see you taking things so seriously.”
“Bite me,” she said—not the best thing to say to a werewolf, really. They can usually tell if you’re being sarcastic, but even the ones that know what you mean might not turn down an invite like that. “I actually do have things to do other than meet you, what with the way I’m in charge of a unit dealing with things that are now officially debunked as a hoax. Interestingly, I’ve been informed that I’m not supposed to say otherwise, even though I’ve personally seen you guys doing your thing. I don’t suppose you know anything about that?”
He opened his mouth to say something witty, which would probably have given away info he wasn’t even technically supposed to have. Even playing the other team, I had to admire how smoothly she’d worked that into the banter—the police didn’t know what they had, if they’d put somebody that good in charge of the bottom-of-the-barrel freak squad.
That respect did not, of course, prevent me from cutting him off. “We are not here to make small talk,” I said flatly.
She looked at me directly for the first time, though I didn’t believe for a moment that she hadn’t been aware of me from the moment she walked in. “What are you here for then, mystery man?”
“Where is the spear?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I couldn’t give her a hard stare through the shadow—well, I suppose I could, but it tends to lose something in translation when they can’t actually see your face. “You were present in Potts’s apartment. As his death was a straightforward homicide, I see no reason for you to be involved in the investigation. Thus, again, where is the spear?”
She hesitated—only a fraction of a second, but that’s a fraction too long when dealing with werewolves. I don’t know that our senses are actually more acute for that sort of thing, but we sure as heck pay more attention to them. “I should warn you,” I said, before she could attempt to bullshit me again, “that I have had a very unpleasant few days. I am very nearly out of patience, and the idea of killing something sounds incredibly cathartic right now. So, in the interests of fairness, I should warn you that if you lie to me, I will eat your nose. Just letting you know.”
“I appreciate your candor,” she said sarcastically. “Look, I don’t know what you’re talking about. I was there, sure, but it was on the third day of the investigation, okay? I can see if there’s a record of what was taken, but otherwise your guess is as good as mine.”
“Do,” I said curtly.
“Fine,” she said, sounding equally happy. “Excuse me.” She stood up and walked away, pulling out her cell phone as she went. Tail her, I told Snowflake.
I rolled my eyes. Please kindly tail the corrupt police officer in an effort to keep both of us from being slowly tortured to death by wicked faeries.
All right. But only ’cause I like you.
Through Snowflake, I could keep a decent eye and ear on what Frishberg was doing. She walked out of sight of our table around the corner, staying pretty close to the planter where Snowflake could keep close to her. She called someone. Contrary to my expectations, their conversation was really boring. Snowflake’s hearing was good, but not quite good enough to hear the other party’s responses over the pseudowaterfall, so it basically consisted of listening to Frishberg requesting information. In fact, the only really remarkable part of the entire conversation was the very last thing said, which was: “Thanks, Mike.”
Interesting. Very, very interesting. I wasn’t exactly an expert on the inner workings of the Colorado Springs police force, but I couldn’t help but think that I did know one Mike on the freak squad. Namely, Mike Adams, a beginner shaman and vigilante. I got along with him pretty well—he disapproved of me on principle, but recognized that he didn’t exactly have a lot of room to throw stones. If it was Mike she was talking to, I might be able to confirm what Frishberg said with him.
Thanks, I said to Snowflake, and returned to my own body.
Ryan was gone. Simply gone, no sign of where he’d gone or why, and every sign he’d been there was gone as well—the trash, everything. If I hadn’t been sitting next to him a minute ago, I wouldn’t have known a thing. There was no sign of a struggle, and Ryan was the kind of guy who could struggle pretty hard. None of the people in the mall seemed to have noticed anything upsetting.
Get ready for trouble, I told Snowflake, sending her an image of what I’d seen. That was the downside of looking through her eyes, or anyone else’s for that matter; managing two sets of senses was nigh impossible, so I generally couldn’t pay attention to any of my own senses at the same time.
Sergeant Frishberg picked that moment to return from making her calls. “Where’s Ryan?” she asked me.
Wouldn’t I like to know. “Not your problem,” I said instead.
She shrugged. “Whatever. I think I found your spear. One of the attending officers thought it resembled a recent murder weapon, so he took it in as evidence.”
“Where is it now?”
“That’s the funny thing. Nobody seems to know. It vanished the next day.” She stood up. “If it’s all the same to you, I’ve got things to be doing. I’ll send your boss the bill.”
I felt a sudden stirring of power, the smell of shadows and nightshade hitting me like a sledgehammer, and snapped my head sideways to look for the source. I found it, a slightly-too-dark shadow in the corner of the roof, maybe forty yards away. “Oh, shit,” I said, standing up and kicking the chair away. It attracted attention, but the way this was going I reckoned I could count myself phenomenally lucky if I lived long enough for that to bother me.
What? Snowflake asked instantly. “What’s the problem?” Frishberg said almost simultaneously.
“You might want to run,” I said, stepping out from behind the table and pulling magic to myself. As before, I spun tendrils of air into a sort of sensory system extending forty-five feet in all directions. It was a lot harder here, where there was so much motion to track. People in every direction were turning to look at me, and I felt the awareness of my nonsensical actions rippling out, disrupting the patterns of movement through the food court.
A moment later, I felt what I’d been waiting for. The air currents spun aside from a single object, moving very fast on a direct track at me. Just as before, there was no time to think, or plan, or consider, only to react. I shoved power through the leather bracelet I was wearing under the cloak, thickening air and forcing it into a headwind to slow the arrow, and dodged sideways.
I never consciously decided to stick my hand out. I mean, it was an insanely stupid thing to do. I wasn’t fast enough to pull that kinda stunt. Particularly given that I knew this guy used a massive enough dose of poison to make even a werewolf dead in short order, the intelligent thing to do would be to get as far away as possible from this arrow, and then keep running.
But, nevertheless, I did reach out. And, impossibly, my hand closed around the shaft of the arrow just behind the head. I glanced at it and, in the better lighting of the mall, could see that while the shaft and fletching were jet black, the arrowhead itself was bronze, gleaming with silver at the cutting edges. It was liberally smeared with a dark oily substance, too, confirming my expectation that he would be using poison this time too. I wasn’t sure if it was scorpion venom again, but I thought I could be entirely happy never finding out.
Almost as creepy, my hand was frosted over, and I could feel a coating of ice on my palm. Interestingly, it had frozen to the arrowshaft, both ensuring that I wouldn’t drop it by accident and preventing me from getting splinters.
“The hell!” Frishberg exclaimed, looking at my catch.
“I thought I told you to run,” I replied, forcing air between my hand and the ice and popping it off. The arrow clattered to the ground, and I dug in my cloak for my pistol as I waited for the next arrow. I heard someone scream, as they finally realized what had just happened. As though it had been a signal, people all around started screaming and running in panic. Interestingly, Frishberg wasn’t one of them. She backtracked the arrow’s path—and immediately ducked behind the planter where it would serve as cover and took off at a perpendicular angle to it.
Something told me the sergeant had been in a few scrapes. Given that, most of the time, a police officer’s life is rather more boring than certain movies would have you believe, this was an interesting fact.
Behind me, Snowflake burst out of the bushes, growling deep in her throat. She didn’t speak, but I could feel bloodlust, hunger, the thirst for revenge.
The shadow I was watching faded, right then, into something more mundane. I started straight for the door, straining all available senses to figure out where the next shot would be coming from. Snowflake moved at my side, glaring from side to side and growling.
I looked at the crowd between us and the doors. “Shit.” Another arrow snapped at me from behind. I shoved magic to slow it and relied on the armor to stop what was left—I couldn’t dodge, not when it would keep going into that crowd. I got lucky and it didn’t penetrate the backpack, but I couldn’t count on that—especially not if he managed a headshot. I needed to get out of here.
Snowflake ducked sideways. This way, she said.
Apparently she knew the mall pretty well—a lot better than me, at any rate. No surprise, given how much I hate shopping malls; I knew Kyra had taken her shopping a few times, and that was more than I could say. She led me through a side corridor that was almost empty, meaning that we could move at a dead run. A few people did get in the way. When they did, I abused my superstrength and tossed them out of the way, and Snowflake abused her canine agility to get through the gaps. I couldn’t get through a crowd that way, but I could handle a couple people in an otherwise empty hall. We were by them before they could really work up much in the way of shouting.
I might have felt better about it if my feelers hadn’t detected another arrow coming at us from the other end of the hallway, once again aimed straight at my face. Rather than trying to pull another arrow-grabbing stunt, I juked sideways, Snowflake taking the hint from me and diving out of the way as well. The bronze arrowhead hit the tile hard enough to penetrate an inch or so, and stuck up at an acute angle, quivering slightly.
Snowflake bit my sleeve and pulled me to my feet, hauling me in the direction of a nearby clothing store.
I glanced over. “We have to get out of the building!” I shouted—entirely unnecessary given that there wasn’t, like, any gunfire or anything, I know, but the situation really did seem to demand shouting. Funny how that works.
I know, come on! she said urgently
I shrugged and went with it. Once inside, I could see what she had in mind; the store was too small to have the long sight lines Carraig seemed to favor, and there were enough obstacles that we could probably hide from any shot he did take. We still had to get out—I had no doubt that, if we stayed long, he wouldn’t hesitate to take us out in hand-to-hand.
But, indeed, he made no appearance as we raced through the claustrophobic aisles. It was possibly the first time I’d been in a clothing store in a shopping mall, and if the husky hadn’t been there I would likely have gotten totally turned around. As it was, we made a beeline toward the escalators.
She started down. I smelled magic, and saw a patch of shadow at the bottom of the escalator, and pulled her sideways to the ascending escalator. A moment later, another arrow flew up from below and stuck in the ceiling.
The next few minutes were very hectic. We raced up the escalator, ducked away from another arrow from below, and took off through the upper level of the store. Back out on the concourse, I immediately had to dive under another shot.
There’s not an exit on this level, Snowflake noted calmly as I rolled back to my feet.
I glanced around and saw a bank of windows overlooking the parking lot. “Yes there is,” I said, and took off for them.
Snowflake, seeing what I had in mind, laughed exuberantly. She was panting pretty hard—I was too, actually, which wasn’t too surprising, considering—but I couldn’t feel any fear from her. Snowflake just isn’t the sort to take danger seriously, an attribute I suspect she picked up from Aiko.
Thirty feet from the windows, I summoned Tyrfing. It appeared on the ground in front of me, and I scooped it up as I ran. Then, not taking the time to unsheathe it, I chucked it at the glass. It hit hard, and sent a network of cracks through the windowpane.
I kept running, gathering more power as I went. It took three gusts of wind, but I managed to shatter the window the rest of the way. The shards, and Tyrfing with them, were swept out by the wind. We were less than ten feet from the hole.
Snowflake laughed again, and launched herself through the air. I snagged her around the ribs with one arm and jumped out the window.
Three stories doesn’t seem like too far, until you’re falling from it. At that point, believe me, it ain’t too shabby. The wind whipped around us, ruffling Snowflake’s fur, pulling at my cloak.
I grabbed that wind and twisted it, again using my bracelet as a focus. There was a bit more weight involved than I was used to slowing with this method—I’d carried Snowflake before, on a pretty regular basis, because she enjoyed it, but not on such short notice. Between that and the relatively short fall, I wasn’t able to do as much to slow the fall as I would have liked to. We didn’t hit hard enough to break bones, but the impact was definitely enough that my knees would be complaining in a few minutes.
Assuming I lived that long, of course.
At the moment, that assumption wasn’t looking too likely. I dropped the dog and heaved myself back to my feet, swaying slightly—between the running and all the wind I’d been throwing around, I was very close to my limits now. Snowflake was on her feet in moments, still laughing exuberantly, her eye bright and sparkling blue.
That would have been okay, except for one thing. Snowflake was not the only one who was amused. I could clearly hear Carraig’s laugh as well, directionless and indefinite as it had been in Faerie.
I was staggering slightly as we took off through the parking lot. Snowflake started to say something about Ryan’s car being parked nearby, but I shook my head. I don’t have the keys, and there’s no time to hotwire it, I said grimly. Besides, it was probably already sabotaged. No, we had to get out of this on foot.
For a few moments, it really looked like we were going to pull it off. We’d made it out to the street, after all, eliminating the crowds that had been quite likely the most dangerous part of the shopping mall. We got out of the parking lot, jogged unsteadily down the street, and turned off down an alleyway without being shot at again. It seemed like we were home free, and I was already starting to exhale.
Right up until we turned out of the alley onto another street. We were just off the intersection with the main road, going between two shopping centers. To our left was a pair of chain restaurants, one a Mexican place and one Chinese takeout. To the right was a hardware store. In one of their ongoing efforts to simultaneously gentrify the neighborhood and demonstrate their total removal from any understanding of what that means, the city had planted a few trees in the median of the street we were on currently. They were thin, anemic things held up largely by the posts arranged around them, and it was in the shade of the largest of these that Carraig was waiting.
He’d dumped the bow and quiver on the ground at his feet, and was standing with one hand on his short bronze sword. “Not bad, Wolf,” he called when I got close enough that he didn’t have to shout to be heard. “Nice job with the window, I really didn’t expect that.” He took two long steps and jumped to where we stood on the sunny side of the street, easily clearing a few passing cars.
“Hello, Carraig,” I said, stepping clear of Snowflake so that I would have room to maneuver. “Changed your mind about my being worth a fight?”
“Not at all,” he demurred. “But this time it is about business. Do you have it?”
“Wouldn’t tell you if I did.”
“I know,” he said, grinning. “And I also know you’re getting close. I’ll see you in hell, Wolf.” So saying, he pulled the sword and brought it whistling at my face.
Excepting possibly Conn, I had never in my life seen a person move that fast. There was no time to summon Tyrfing to parry, no time to dodge. His sword was moving too fast for me to even blink before it reached me.
And, because I didn’t have time to blink, I saw another weapon appear and deflect the blade inches from my face, flicking it up and away with ease. “G’day, Carraig,” rumbled another, improbably deep voice, one I didn’t recognize.
Belatedly, I reacted, falling away from the Midnight champion and scrambling backward until I hit Snowflake’s flank. There, I finally got a good look at my savior.
He was about as far from Carraig as it was possible to get. He was huge, better than seven feet and built like a bear, with dark hair and an enormous beard. I didn’t doubt that he could lift me over his head one-handed if he wanted to, and that was just based on musculature, not whatever supernatural advantages he brought to the table. In his hand was an equally massive sword. It might have been just my vantage that made it look seven feet long, but I doubted it. It looked to be made of solid steel, and must have weighed nearly twenty pounds, but the newcomer flicked it around like a rolled-up newspaper. He used two hands, sure, but I thought that was more because of the sheer length of the weapon than any limitation of strength.
And he smelled, quite strongly, of magic, of fire and growing things and long hours in the afternoon sun. Hello, Daylight champion.
Carraig fell back from the newcomer, an expression of incredible frustration on his face. “Hello, Pier,” he said. “It’s been a while.” I noticed that he had drawn a long dagger from somewhere, a simple steel weapon he hadn’t bothered to use against me, which smelled of magics steeped in blood. Gulp.
Rather than reply, Pier launched a straightforward cut that would undoubtedly have chopped the smaller man longitudinally in half, had it connected. Carraig sidestepped diagonally backward, however, easily avoiding it, and thus started one of the more impressive fights I have ever been witness to.
When two humans fight, it’s a pretty straightforward event, just because of the limited options available. I don’t mean that to be disparaging; it’s just a statement of fact. There’s only so many ways a fight involving two unarmed humans can go. Any decent martial artist will tell you essentially the same thing: the vast majority of the time any such fight will be brief, simple, and ugly, and will involve essentially no beauty or grace whatsoever. If you’re skilled enough to win, or you just plain get lucky (a more common event than most martial artists want to admit, especially given that one or both of the participants is usually so drunk they can’t see straight), you’ll almost certainly never work out quite how.
But all that changes when you start adding in options. A fight between two werewolves tends to last longer than one between humans, because it takes more to put a werewolf down—they have more options, when it comes to staying alive, and needless to say there are more avenues of aggression available as well. Add in equipment and the options expand further.
To continue that line of thinking, you might already be seeing that I have way more options available to me than even the average werewolf, by virtue of being a sort of mage. In any given fight, I have around half a dozen tricks I can pull with magic to turn the tables in my favor, plus Tyrfing, a number of more exotic weapons, and the tactics that any lycanthrope can use. Trying to predict what someone will do when they have that many choices isn’t easy, which can give you a considerable advantage over a one-trick pony.
What I’m trying to say here is that the more options you add in, the harder and more complicated things get. Most of the reason that the prospect of fighting the Inquisition doesn’t scare me is that they don’t have the experience to handle that. As mages—even half-trained mages—they have a ton of options in any given fight, particularly when working as a group. But that doesn’t, can’t, miraculously give them the ability to figure out what options their allies are choosing at any given moment and decide which of their own choices might best support that, while simultaneously keeping abreast of enemy actions, presenting a moving target, keeping alert for tricks, traps, and dirty tactics, and generally navigating the chaos that is any fight larger in scale than thumb-wrestling.
It doesn’t matter what you could do if you can’t actually do it in real-time, while under stress. Even though they had, as a group, way more options available to them than I could hope to match, I stood a reasonably good chance of surviving, and even winning. I had a lot more experience at managing all that input and making snap decisions. Additionally, I tended to have fewer allies and to know them much more intimately, reducing the likelihood of friendly-fire or just plain getting in each other’s way.
Carraig and Pier fighting made me look about as competent as a kitten.
The champion of shadows ducked into one straight away and vanished. A moment later, he reappeared thirty feet away, already charging. I started to shout a warning, only to see the giant pull a similar trick, vanishing into a beam of sunlight. He appeared directly above and behind Carraig, and the force of his swing with the momentum of his fall behind it was nothing short of terrifying. Carraig ducked around with incredible speed to a position directly behind the larger man, easily dodging the aerial attack, and went for his back, only for the Daylight warrior to parry behind his back before vanishing, blinking back in to stand facing the other man.
After that, things got complicated.
Pier had only one blade to the other man’s two, and it was a huge and ungainly one at that, but it was a fairly even fight nonetheless. If I’d thought that Carraig was insanely strong, it was obvious that Pier was as much stronger than him as Carraig was stronger than me, and faster too. It was the middle of the day, after all, and he had a sizable advantage for that reason alone. The Midnight champion, though, was more agile, more inclined to sudden and unpredictable maneuvers and magical tricks, and possibly the better swordsman by a slight margin, and I honestly couldn’t tell who had the advantage.
I couldn’t follow the fight, and I didn’t even try. Instead, I found my attention drawn to something else. Where Carraig crossed a shadow—any shadow—it pulled away to follow him. Within the first ten seconds of the fight, he was casting a shadow the size of a building, one that didn’t seem to have much to do with the light. It wasn’t a natural shadow, either; it was full of roiling motion, shapes defined by a lighter shade of black appearing and disappearing within its depths. I saw hounds, birds, trees, horses, warriors, things that had no name and things that were nearly too strange to see at all. None of them lasted long enough to get a definite fix on them before being subsumed back into the mass.
Likewise, where Pier was, the air around him seemed indescribably changed. He moved in a bubble of light, casting no shadow at all, and the sun burned brighter where he stood. When he’d moved on from a spot, it seemed somehow dismal, as though something had faded from it that couldn’t ever be quite returned. Where the two auras met sparks flew in colors that didn’t make sense, and the air rippled, as though it were a fabric under almost too much strain to bear.
“How is that possible?” I wondered aloud. I looked at the spot where a tree’s shadow had been stolen, and yep, the asphalt was entirely too bright to be natural. Not as bright as the pavement right next to it in the sun, granted, but still too bright. “I can’t see through the tree,” I mused, “so obviously it’s still obstructing light. Why isn’t the shadow right?” It made no sense at all according to any law of optics I ever read.
Not to discourage your scholarship, Snowflake said bitingly, but do you think we could start running like hell now?
Oh right, I replied, tearing my attention away from the fight. Sorry. I got distracted.
Moron, she said—and, honestly, I couldn’t argue. I mean, that was a pretty ditzy move. Where do we run now?
I had no idea whatsoever. I mean, Carraig had just confirmed my suspicion that my ability to hide, run, or fight was essentially nil—it was frankly miraculous that I was still breathing—and I quite simply didn’t have a safe haven that might protect me against him. And, while I was grateful for the other champion’s intervention, there was no real guarantee he didn’t mean to kill me too. Or worse. People joke about fates worse than death, but in my world it was a very real danger.
Just ask Prometheus.
But obviously staying there was a distinctly low-percentage move. So I picked a direction at random and started running. I would have tried to avoid the fight, but they were moving around so much, and so randomly, that it was pretty much impossible to figure out what the best route for that was.
Where are we going? Snowflake asked, sticking close to my heels. It wasn’t hard, because at the moment my version of “running” was closer to what I should have considered “shambling with great vigor.” If we didn’t come up with somewhere to hide soon, I wouldn’t be able to get there. The magic and exertion, coming on top of my recent and severe injuries, had just about drained me dry.
Anywhere that isn’t here, I replied, wincing slightly as I heard the distinctive sound of metal impacting metal at high speeds and breaking glass, suggesting that the duel had caused a serious car wreck. A moment later it was followed by a large boom and the distinctive flickering light of a fire. It would have to be a major fire to be visible from that far away when I was looking the other way, too. I would probably have felt worse about that, if I hadn’t been so busy running for my life.
Works for me. Don’t slow down.
Wasn’t planning on it, I replied, ducking down an alley and—hopefully—out of sight of the giants duking it out behind us. We had to get out of the neighborhood, before things escalated from car bomb-level chaos to, I don’t know, earthquake or something.
I wonder who’s winning, Snowflake mused.
Beats me. Looked pretty even from where I was standing. Pier’s stronger, but Carraig’s slipperier.
Well, duh. Day and Night, remember?
Oh. Right. She was probably onto something there.
I’m not sure why that’s what gave me the idea—I mean, no rational connection whatsoever, right?—but somehow it did. Watch my back, I said to Snowflake, dropping down to hide behind a dumpster while I dug for my phone.
You really think this is the best time? she asked caustically, arranging herself so she could see back down the alley. We both winced slightly at a sound which might have been mistaken for thunder, except for the total absence of anything resembling a thunderstorm. A moment later I heard sirens, and winced again. This was so not good.
No, I replied, half-frantic by now. This is a terrible time. But I can only think of two places in this goddamn town that might be enough to keep us from getting horribly killed, and Alexander would skin me alive for bringing this into his house, possibly literally. I found the number for a cab service and dialed on the run. My fingers only shook a little bit.
We met the cab on the next street over. By that time three police cruisers, two ambulances, and a fire truck had passed us going the other way, the roads were all but blocked with stalled traffic closer to the epicenter of this mess, and I could see at least two buildings majorly on fire.
Somehow, I thought this one would be setting new records when it came to my collateral damage tally. Well, by property damage anyway; I doubted it would reach new heights in terms of casualties.
Somehow, someway, the taxi made it through that. Never mind the postal service, right then I decided that if anybody deserved a motto about how nothing would stop them as they went about their task it was cab drivers. I mean, how else do you explain somebody coping with that kind of disaster area for nothing more than a job, one that didn’t even pay squat?
I practically collapsed into the cab, Snowflake crawling over me. She was whining, softly enough that it took me a minute to realize that it wasn’t an audible sound, and I could feel that she was concerned for my health. Not that I blamed her, given that I wasn’t feeling too terribly confident myself.
“No pets,” the driver said in the flat, disinterested tone of somebody who’s seen it all before and wasn’t impressed the first time.
I dug around in my cloak and came up with my wallet. I was starting to run short of cash, but I managed to come up with a twenty to hand to the cabby.
He might have seen it all before—but there are some things you don’t mind seeing twice, right? He took the bill with the smooth motions of someone who’s done the bribery gig more than once, and said, “Right-o, sir, where can I take you?”
I told him, and he pulled out into traffic. “There’s forty bucks in it for you if you get me there in fifteen minutes or less,” I said. I had another forty-two dollars in my wallet, and maybe thirty more scattered through other pockets. After that, well, things would be getting pretty tight. I’d just about wiped out the Watchers’ blood money, and after that I’d be scraping the barrel for whatever was too hard to get to for me to have already used it.
What? Even in the normal world, it doesn’t take a genius to think “gee, maybe I should have money in more than one pocket.” That’s just plain common sense.
He shrugged eloquently and made a sorta mostly legal left turn which nevertheless garnered plenty of horns.
Once again. I hate to be a walking cliché, but the hell of it is, sometimes it works.