Step one was to go get my car, which was still parked near the open space where I’d left it. I hadn’t needed it since going to the Otherside, but I had a feeling I’d be wanting it soon, and this might be my last opportunity to fetch it.
On the way, I called Kyra and, purely for the sake of form, asked if she knew where Frishberg was. She didn’t; the sergeant wasn’t answering her calls either, it seemed, and had unexpectedly taken a few days’ vacation, starting shortly after I’d first spoken with her. Interestingly, nobody in the police department she could talk to seemed to know quite why, nor where she might have gone.
Fascinating. I was starting to think that maybe, rather than power-hungry, Frishberg might have just been smart enough to realize how dangerous the situation was getting and vamoose.
“Thanks anyway,” I said. A moment later, “Tonight’s the full moon.”
“Yep. You coming hunting?”
My lips twitched in what I suppose you could call a smile. “In a manner of speaking, I suppose I am. Do me a favor?”
“Sure, what is it?” It said a lot that she agreed before asking.
“Stay away from Gold Camp Road.” That was the region I was planning to run to, tonight.
She must have heard something in my voice—no surprise, with as well as she knew me. “Winter. You remember what I said about how friends are there to help, right?”
“Yes,” I said. “But some things nobody can help with. Please, Kyra, just stay away. I’ll explain everything later.” Or someone would, at least, but I didn’t say that part.
“All right. Good luck.”
“Thank you. Goodbye, Kyra.”
I wasn’t quite sure whether to smile or cry, and was somewhat surprised to find myself doing both as I dropped the phone back into my pocket. For once Snowflake didn’t say anything.
There was someone waiting for me at my car. He was leaning against the driver’s-side door, to all appearances just enjoying the sunshine while waiting to meet someone for a walk. His clothing looked a lot more expensive than anything I’d even dream of wearing hiking, but then plenty of people came to this park that I wouldn’t consider hikers anyway. Aside from that and an impressively strong smell of magic, he was pretty unremarkable. His features looked vaguely Hispanic, but could just as easily have been Native American, or just really tanned. Based on the scent of his magic I was pretty sure he was human.
“What do you want?” I said, scowling. I hate it when people are waiting for me when I get somewhere. I hate it even more when they’re mages. That situation hasn’t ended well for me in the past.
“I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said mildly. The Spanish accent confirmed my initial guess, although it didn’t sound Mexican. “Seemed like a good time to come meet you for myself.”
“Right,” I drawled. “And you would be?”
He grinned, showing very white and even teeth. “They call me Caller.”
I nodded. “What do you want, Caller?”
“I thought we just went over that.”
“Yeah, sure, but I don’t believe you, meaning no offense. I’m sure you have something more than saying hi on your mind.”
“I see what you mean, but actually, I don’t,” he said, not sounding particularly offended. “The thing is, you’re something of an enigma. What do you want?”
I blinked. “In what sense?”
“The literal,” he assured me. “You see, Wolf, I know things. That’s rather my job, no? But I don’t know you, and that bothers me. What do you want?” He smiled again. “That’s the question I am asking. Watcher speaks well of you, and so does Maker, though he would deny it if you asked. But I, personally, don’t know what motivates you. Considering that you are, I think, the most likely to succeed in this chase, that concerns me.”
I frowned. “I don’t think my motivations are that complicated. I’m just trying to survive.”
“And yet,” he said mildly, “you do not run for shelter, even though the Hunt is already mustering.” He chuckled at my expression of shock. “As I said, I know things. I am the Caller, after all.”
Not just Caller, I realized. The Caller. That meant something. I put it together with his appearance and smell, and thought I was starting to get a solid idea of who he was.
What he said was true, though. Now that I thought about it, there might be places I could go that even the Wild Hunt wouldn’t follow. Not many, and once I was there I might never get to leave, but if I ran now I might be able to survive. Maybe not happily, but still alive.
And yet, even now that I had thought of that, I didn’t feel tempted to do so, and I wasn’t sure why. Was it simply that I couldn’t stand the idea of cowardice? That didn’t feel quite right. I didn’t have a problem with running in the face of vastly superior firepower. Was it that I didn’t want to pay the price of that shelter? That couldn’t be it. I mean, most of them, sure, but Conn wouldn’t ask anything of me in exchange for his shelter, beyond what any Alpha would, and I couldn’t imagine anyone poaching his turf.
The only thing I could think of was that I wasn’t willing to let the Gáe Bolg stay here and keep poisoning my city, endangering my friends. It seemed crazy, but it was the only motivation I could think of.
Well, damn. And here I’d always promised myself I wouldn’t turn into a hero.
“You see?” Caller said knowingly. “Your motivations are not so simple as you think. And so the question remains. Why are you chasing the spear? What do you hope to gain from this action?”
“I’m not sure,” I admitted.
He nodded slowly. “Well, at least you’re honest about it. Now, in all fairness, I must admit that you weren’t entirely wrong to doubt me. I do have an interest in this affair, a very strong interest in ensuring that the balance between the Courts remains relatively stable. In the interests of advancing that agenda, would you object if I gave you a few pieces of advice?”
I shrugged. “You can tell me. I won’t guarantee that I’ll listen.”
“Right,” he said. “First, if you do find the spear, I would strongly recommend that you avoid using it. You’re years away from being able to do so without being fundamentally altered by the power of that weapon. Second, think very carefully about what you do with it. Keeping the weapon is likely to get you killed, but giving it to the wrong person could be at least as hazardous to your health. The choices you make in the next few hours have the potential to decide your path for the rest of your life. You probably shouldn’t make them lightly.”
“What makes you so sure that I’m going to find the thing?”
Caller grinned. It was an infectious, mischievous sort of grin. “Oh, let’s just say that I have a hunch. You know what the best way to place a smart bet is, Winter?”
“Sure,” I said. “Rig the game.”
“That’s right,” he said. “You remember that. Vaya con Dios.” Caller took three steps away, opened a portal to the Otherside with no more than a flick of his fingers and a whisper of vegetation-scented magic, and disappeared.
I thoughtfully unlocked the door, opened it, got in, and started the car. When it was clear that none of these actions was going to lead to my swift and explosive death, Snowflake jumped in beside me, rolled down the window with her teeth, and promptly stuck her head out. I think you’re doing the right thing, she told me.
Really? I asked.
Yeah, she said firmly. I’m proud of you, Winter.
Well, I said lightly, it’s no enchilada, but I suppose it’ll have to do.
Twenty minutes later, I was pulling into a small storage center. It was in a decent neighborhood not far from downtown, which struck me as almost stranger than a high-class pawnshop. Maybe it’s prejudiced of me, but somehow there are certain businesses which just don’t seem to belong in a nice neighborhood. It wouldn’t have taken me that long, except that I took three separate wrong turns.
I’m not that used to driving, okay?
Anyway, once I’d found the place it took me a few more minutes to find the right unit. All told, I probably spent more time being lost than it took me to break into it.
You’d think it would be hard to break into a storage unit in a decent neighborhood in broad daylight. You would be wrong. See, if you see a sketchy looking guy you don’t recognize in a storage unit in the middle of the night, it doesn’t take a genius to think “hey, maybe there’s something shady going on here” and call the cops.
But, because everybody knows it’s impossible to sneak in somewhere in the middle of the day in broad daylight, it’s actually quite easy. Nobody looks twice in broad daylight, not so long as there’s even the flimsiest excuse. That’s why, for example, you can quite successfully burgle a house using nothing more than a fake moving van as a disguise, with all the neighbors watching the whole time, and get away with it.
So I didn’t even bother being furtive, like I had when breaking into the pawnshop earlier. I walked straight up to the door of the storage unit, Snowflake trotting along beside me—what burglar brings a dog, after all? Then, just to sell the act, I pulled out a keyring and started fiddling with the lock, muttering imprecations under my breath. After all, everyone’s had that moment when they can’t remember which key they’re supposed to be using and the lock doesn’t want to work right anyway.
I did not, of course, actually have the key to this lock. That didn’t really matter.
In my experience, the vast majority of ordinary people have very little idea how a lock works. It’s sort of like a telephone; it works, and that’s all you really need it to do, so who cares? If it stops working, you can’t fix it anyway, so you don’t even have that motivation to learn about it.
However, to understand what I was doing to the lock, you have to understand a few things about how locks function.
The most common way to protect a door is with a tumbler lock. They aren’t terribly secure, but they’re cheap and easy to find—and, as you may have expected from how little respect the freak squad got, that was what they’d used here, rather than any sort of fancy kit. Inside such a lock, you have a number of pins, which have two portions. The idea is that, because these pins are sitting across the shear line, the lock can’t turn with them in their starting configuration. When you put the key in, it lifts each tumbler to the point where the shear line matches up with the gap between the two pins, and you can turn it.
To pick the lock you have to carefully nudge each of those tumblers to the right height, while applying constant mild rotation to the lock. It’s difficult, delicate, and—most importantly—time-consuming work. If I stood there and picked the lock my paper-thin disguise of someone who was allowed to open this door would definitely not hold up. As I had to assume somebody was watching me, this was unacceptable.
This is why I cheated. Magic is, after all, a wonderful thing. You see, a lock isn’t airtight—there would be no point to that, given that you have to leave a keyway anyway—which left me with something to work with. By stirring that air into gentle movement, and feeling how it moved, I could figure out where each tumbler’s shear line was. Then, moving with careful precision, I could slide a little bit of air into that line to split the two parts, and lift the upper pin well above the lock’s shear line, at which point there would be nothing preventing it from turning. At that point, while hiding the lock from view with my hands so that it looked like I was using a key, I could apply more pressure with said air and turn the cylinder.
So, you know, that’s what I did. It took me less than thirty seconds—plenty fast enough that people wouldn’t get too suspicious.
You may be asking yourself, at this point, why—if I could do the whole thing so quickly with magic—I’d actually picked the lock on the pawnshop door. If so, ten out of ten for memory, attention to detail, and argumentativeness, but I’m afraid you score a zero on critical thinking.
See, one of the hardest things to accept once you learn you have magic—what a lot of mages, such as Erica, never quite get through their heads—is that magic isn’t a miraculous solution to famine, disease, and that embarrassing tattoo from when you were eighteen and got hammered with people who turned out not to actually be your friends after all. It’s a tool, and nothing more. Most of the time, it isn’t even a very useful tool.
The trick I’d just pulled was hard. It involved simultaneously focusing on moving half a dozen pieces of metal exactly as far as I wanted to, while also managing enough force to turn the cylinder (harder than it sounds, trust me), and managing the physical movement of looking through my keys. It’s damn near impossible to concentrate, with the intensity required by magic, on that many distinct thoughts at once. You have to practically break your mind into pieces to keep the different magics straight. On top of that, it requires expending power, and that energy would be detectable to anyone with a reasonable skill at such things.
What I’m getting at is that, when possible, just picking a lock was vastly preferable. It just happened that it wasn’t possible this time. That’s the whole reason for practicing more than one skill, after all—nothing works every time.
I pulled the door open and ducked inside, leaving Snowflake outside to stand guard, and shut the door behind myself. Then I found a light switch—my night vision is better than human, but that doesn’t let me see color or detail in the dark—and looked around.
The freak squad’s evidence store wasn’t nearly as cluttered as I would have guessed, or nearly as freaky, for that matter. There were a lot of cardboard boxes, neatly labeled with permanent marker. There were a few other things—bags, jars, that sort of thing. I didn’t spend much time looking at them, because my attention was immediately grabbed by what was at the other side of the room.
The Gáe Bolg didn’t look nearly as exotic as I’d somehow expected. The shaft, which had to be better than six feet long, was made out of what looked like steel but, considering its fae origins, almost certainly wasn’t. The spearhead itself looked a little more unusual, apparently consisting of around fifteen very thin foot-long blades oriented in different planes, producing the distinctive starburst-pattern tip.
That was cool. But still. It looked so plain, even stark. Compared to Tyrfing, with its mirror-bright blade marked with runes in pure and perfect black, gold hilt complete with sculpted pommel, and death-motif scabbard, it seemed almost ridiculously simple. There was no decoration at all.
I walked over and, very carefully, dragged my fingers over the surface of the shaft. Here, at least, I wasn’t disappointed—touching it was an almost physical shock, magic nipping at my fingers like static electricity. I hadn’t smelled a thing before, but once I touched it the olfactory assault of magic and night and the hunger of the hunt was almost unbelievably powerful.
I pulled my hand away like I’d been burned and looked at the spear with newfound respect. How, but how, had Erica thought she could treat this thing lightly? I’d known she didn’t have my acuity of sense when it came to magic, and hadn’t blamed her for it—few people, few mages even, did—but this was something else. This spear was the supernatural equivalent of an armed nuclear weapon. You’d have to be blind, deaf, and mentally retarded not to feel that kind of magic. It was the kind of power that would make dogs howl and children cry at twenty paces.
What kind of moron tried to sell something like this? For that matter, how stupid did you have to be to steal it in the first place?
I shook my head wonderingly and, steeling myself, reached out and grabbed the Gáe Bolg. It wasn’t much fun. The closest comparison I can think of is holding a running jackhammer. My hands shook slightly as, holding the spear close to my body where it would be harder to see, I left. I didn’t bother locking the door behind myself. At this point, it really didn’t matter much.
Holy shit, Snowflake said, her one eye very wide. It was really there? I could tell from her tone that she could feel its presence, and it frightened her every bit as much as it did me.
Yeah. Hurry up, we have to get this thing out of sight pronto.
A few moments later, when it was in the back of the Jeep and covered with my cloak and a blanket, I finally breathed a little easier. I really wasn’t expecting to find it, I said to Snowflake. Maybe I should have thought more about what to do once I had it.
Yeah, Snowflake said, staring at the indistinct shape of the spear with the same expression she might have when looking at a viper. I don’t like it.
Me either, I said sympathetically. I really hadn’t planned for this—I’d been assuming that the Gáe Bolg would already be gone. I’d just hoped that I could get confirmation that it had, in fact, been there, and maybe if I got very lucky some kind of hint about where it had gone. Actually getting my hands on the thing was something else entirely.
A quick glance at the clock confirmed that it was around one o’clock in the afternoon. I estimated that I had between five and six hours before I had to get out of town.
It was sort of a strange feeling. Right here, right now, I was the one with the power. Oh, not directly—I sure as hell couldn’t use the Gáe Bolg, not when just looking at it gave me the heebie-jeebies, and trying to do so was a bad idea on an epic scale. Even without Caller’s warning I could have guessed that. But, however temporarily, I had the power to determine who would get it. It was exhilarating for all of a second and a half before it settled down to plain old terrifying.
What Caller had said seemed to echo in my head. What did I want? Did I want to help Loki, after he’d worked so hard towards screwing up my life? Not really, I found. I didn’t owe him anything except possibly a knife in the face, and I didn’t particularly care for the idea of handing him any more power.
Now that I thought about it, though, I realized something else. I didn’t know what everyone’s motivations were. Because, for all that I’d learned over the past days, I still didn’t have even the foggiest idea what Bryan wanted. It seemed pretty hard to decide whether he should have the spear, without knowing that.
I nodded thoughtfully. There was the next step, then. I think I knew that it was really just a way to burn time, but it wasn’t like there was anything else productive I could think to do.
It proved surprisingly easy to contact Bryan. I mean, I’d have thought just finding someone so bizarre and creepy would be an epic quest all by itself, but it actually took me less than fifteen minutes. I called Conn, and, after a bit of dancing around the topic of why I wanted to talk to Bryan when normally I wanted nothing to do with him, got a phone number.
Conn knew, of course, what was going on. I knew that. There isn’t much Conn doesn’t know. But he was willing to let me pretend. How nice of him.
Anyway, after that I called said phone number. Bryan answered, sounding even more spooky over the phone. When I said that I needed to talk to him, he agreed without difficulty and named a pizza place a few blocks away.
I wound up leaving the spear in my car, covered up and hidden as well as I could manage quickly. Snowflake stayed outside to play guard dog, hiding under one of the other cars. I didn’t really think it would matter—much as I loved her, I knew perfectly well that Snowflake wasn’t up to stopping these people—but she insisted, and it wasn’t like they’d let her into the restaurant anyway. So I shrugged and went inside to wait for Bryan.
He’d got there first.
I have no idea how. None. I mean, it was less than three blocks from where I already was, and I got lucky enough to find parking right out front of the used bookstore next door. And yet, somehow, when I walked in the door Bryan was waiting.
That wasn’t too unexpected. I mean, crazy and unbelievable, sure, but that wasn’t surprising coming from Bryan.
What was surprising was that he wasn’t alone.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I, being a paranoid bastard, had more than slightly suspected that Bryan would bring friends, or at the very least thugs. I was ready to see a few dozen werewolves waiting for me. I was ready for Bryan to have brought monsters from the stranger reaches of the Otherside that had no names. I was even ready to walk in and see him with Carraig on one side and Pier on the other, all three grinning like madmen and brandishing pointy things. While I obviously couldn’t cope with any of these scenarios, I was at least mentally prepared for them, and wouldn’t have been shocked to see them happen.
I was significantly less prepared to see a thirteen year old girl.
To be fair, she was somewhat spooky. She had pale skin—like, enough to make you think “albino”—but her hair was very dark, producing a rather ghostly appearance, one that was exacerbated by her slight frame and huge dark eyes. Furthermore, she smelled of magic—not as strongly as Bryan or myself, but more so than a normal human—in tones I couldn’t quite place. It resembled Bryan’s slightly as far as the forest went, but there was no predator’s musk, so she couldn’t be a werewolf. It was lighter, too, making me think of early morning birdsong rather than terrifying secrets in the dark shadows under the trees. Not human, werewolf, or vampire; fae, perhaps, or one of the lesser-known critters.
Possibly even stranger was what she was carrying. It looked like a stuffed cougar made by someone who’d never seen any felid larger than a housecat. The fabric looked to be a patchwork of a dozen different kinds of white cloth, each with a slightly different hue and texture. It had small black button eyes.
You might be thinking that isn’t a terribly unusual thing for a girl to carry. Odd, perhaps, especially for one in her teens, but not freaky or anything. I would agree with you regarding that statement. It’s just that something about this particular stuffed animal was very slightly off. I wasn’t quite sure what it was—there was just something not quite right about it. Its eyes seemed to track my movement, ever so subtly, and sometimes out of the corner of my eye it looked like something entirely different. Something that wasn’t nearly as benign as a stuffed animal. Oh, and it smelled of magic too, just the faintest crackling like the air after a thunderstorm.
Nobody spoke until we were seated at a small booth in the corner of the room. The lunch rush was starting to ebb, and there was the peculiar feeling in the air of a restaurant catching its breath. I drank tea, while Bryan and the girl both went for plain water.
“Okay,” I said once that was done. “Who is this and why is she here?” My patience for manners, never particularly great at the best of times, was worn to near nothing by now.
Neither of them seemed particularly perturbed. “Winter, meet Ash Sanguinaria. Ash, this is Winter Wolf.”
“A pleasure to meet you,” she said, her voice sounding relatively normal.
I considered her for a moment. “Your name isn’t short for Ashley, is it?” I asked. I was pretty sure I knew already, but it never hurts to ask.
She smiled, the expression somewhat stilted. “No, it isn’t.”
I nodded. “I’m pleased to meet you too, Ash.”
“Why did you ask to meet me?” Bryan asked me. As usual, he didn’t sound like he cared what the answer was, or even whether he heard one.
“Hold on a second,” I answered. “You still haven’t answered me. As nice as Ash is, I still have to wonder what gives you the idea that she should be here.”
“I felt that it would be a valuable educational experience,” he said. “Rest assured that you are in no danger from her.”
“And I appreciate it,” I said dryly, “but I was actually more concerned about her. This situation is a bit hazardous.” Ash looked at me oddly when I said that.
“Not for her,” Bryan said. His voice left no room for doubt, and less for discussion.
I wasn’t convinced—but, realistically, further argument wouldn’t be productive, and I didn’t have enough time to want to waste it. “Why are you here?”
“Because you asked me to be,” he said. He didn’t sound irritated at having to repeat himself—in stating the obvious, at that—but I could tell that he was.
“Not what I mean,” I said. “Why are you here, in this city? Why do you want the spear?”
“It is wise to have powerful forces in your debt,” he said simply.
I rubbed my eyes. “What do you mean?”
“Scáthach wants her spear back,” he clarified. “To return it is a sizable gift, and her nature is such that she is compelled to answer her debts. All her debts.”
I thought about that for a moment. It was true that the supernatural world ran, more or less, on a system of favors owed and repaid more than any currency. It was also true that I’d never, ever heard a story of the Sidhe failing to repay their debts, for better or for worse. That made it pretty plausible that, whether you could use it or not, just being able to return the spear would be a significant gain.
“What would you use it for?” I asked him idly.
“I do not feel that this inquiry is your affair.” His voice, although still bland and toneless, was nevertheless very cold, and I knew Bryan well enough to know that pressing further wouldn’t get me anywhere. He can be very stubborn, when he wants to. “What are you planning to do with it?”
I didn’t bother asking how he knew I’d recovered it. Even if I hadn’t dropped a dozen clues in our discussion so far—which I was sure I had, for someone canny enough to catch them—Bryan would have known. There’s no hiding things from Bryan Ferguson. He seldom even notices that you tried, and when he does he thinks it’s funny.
“Well,” I said slowly, “I could use a new walking stick. But I’m open to suggestions.”
Ash smiled a little, at least. That made me feel better.
Bryan didn’t shrug, didn’t need to. “It does not matter to me. My part’s finished.”
See, that’s why I don’t like conversing with Bryan. You never get any real answers, and the half-answers you do get inevitably lead to another dozen questions he won’t address at all. Why would he come this far to give up now? What exactly was his game? If he didn’t want the spear himself who was he working for? What gave him the idea that this was a suitable learning experience for a girl that smelled of magic and spoke even less than he did? All these and more were questions he would never answer.
Maddening. I like the Ferguson family, generally speaking, but I wish they hadn’t picked that habit up from Conn.
That left me in a quandary. I didn’t trust Bryan. I mean, I’d have to be crazy to, right? But, at the same time, I had to do something with the spear. Keeping it was nine kinds of stupid. Giving it to either of the champions of the Sidhe was tantamount to suicide. I knew Conn had some stake in the matter, assuming that hadn’t just been Bryan hiring Humberto, which I couldn’t really say. But, again, I wasn’t sure I wanted Conn having that kind of power. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted anyone having that kind of power. I sure didn’t feel any greater need to give it to Loki than I had before, that was for sure.
When in doubt, keep moving. Don’t stop to think, don’t stop to reconsider—don’t stop, period. Werewolf life lessons, there. It is occasionally nice coming from a biological and cultural background which deemphasizes the importance of any time period except the immediate present.
Besides which, Bryan had at least gotten me asking the right questions.
“Thanks,” I said to Bryan. “That helps a lot.”
Ash looked confused, assuming I read her expression right. Bryan didn’t. I didn’t know whether he just wasn’t capable of showing even that much reaction, or he truly understood what I meant. I suspected the latter, though, because it was Bryan Ferguson we were talking about, and he always did see to the heart of things.
After we ate, I went outside while Bryan was attending to such boring things as payment. It would have been more polite to wait, but I’m not really very good at polite.
Besides. It was a nice day. It’d be a shame not to enjoy the sun. And Bryan wouldn’t care about impoliteness, even if he noticed. Or the expense, for that matter.
To my surprise, Ash came with me rather than stay inside. “Do you do this sort of thing often?” I asked her. Curiosity can be an impressive force, at times, overwhelming such petty things as a survival instinct.
“This is the first of this specific type,” she said, seeming to see nothing strange about the question. “But yes, activities of the sort are a fairly common occurrence.”
She shrugged, the motion strangely…apathetic, perhaps? No, not quite; I didn’t get the sense that she didn’t care, or that she was bored by our conversation. It was just that she didn’t move her shoulders more than was strictly required to convey her meaning. “Mr. Ferguson feels that there are benefits to educational interactions occurring outside of the traditional classroom structure.”
That took me a second to process. Not so much the words, as that a girl of that age—and she didn’t give off the weird vibe that most beings older than they look do, so I was guessing she really was in her early teens—would actually say it. I mean, she had a vocabulary. She had grammar. “You do attend school, though, right?”
Her lips twitched in something that might, given more energy, have become an anemic smile. “You sound concerned.”
I thought for a moment. “Huh,” I mused. “I suppose I am. Odd.”
This time it was definitely a smile, albeit a very brief one. “To answer your question, yes. I attend a…private academy of sorts.” For a moment it seemed that she would say something more, but she fell silent, her eerie facade firmly back in place. Her face showed no more emotion than it had in the restaurant, but somehow she nevertheless seemed somewhat sad.
Okay. Definitely time to change the subject. “Do you carry that everywhere?” I asked, nodding at the stuffed cougar.
“No,” she said seriously. “But he prefers not to walk in public.”
The worst part was that I thought she might be telling the literal truth.
“I enjoyed meeting you,” she told me. “I hope I can see you again.”
I smiled. “I hope so too,” I said. “But I’m afraid you might not.”
She cocked her head sideways, inquisitively. “Why?”
I was raised to believe, like most people, that there are some times when you should lie, for the sake of the other person. Especially when said person is a child. They never quite managed to convince me, though, that a gentle lie is better than a harsh truth. I mean, if Edward had told me the truth rather than spare my feelings, there would be four fewer deaths on my conscience. That was the kind of thing that left an impression.
So, rather than come up with some story, I just said, “I might be going to die soon.”
She didn’t react with confusion, the way I think most adults think most children should, or with fascination, the way I think most children actually would. She just nodded sympathetically and said, “I am sorry to hear that. Are you sick?”
My lips twitched. “Maybe so. But no, that isn’t the problem.”
“Then what is?” Ash seemed to feel no particular shame or disgust about the prospect of me dying. Though still sympathetic, she sounded quite polite and matter-of-fact. I approved.
“I made a bad mistake,” I said, staring up at the sky. It was very blue today. “A long time ago. And now it’s time I started trying to fix it.”
She looked at me in silence for a long moment, and then nodded as though what I’d said made any kind of sense. “I hope you succeed.” She was smiling, just the littlest bit, though the expression mostly just looked sad.
I smiled, feeling a little bit sad myself. “Thanks. I do too.” I looked at her. “Good luck.”
“With what?” she asked, sounding more normal than I’d heard her sound before.
“Whatever you need it for,” I said seriously, and walked away. Snowflake appeared from her hiding place—which was literally right next to where we’d been, though I never noticed any sign of her presence until she wanted me to—before I’d taken two steps. We got in my car and left, and neither of us spoke for a long while.
Absolutely not, I told Snowflake a short time later.
Please, she said to me, please take me with you?
No, I repeated. Absolutely not. It’s way too dangerous.
You could die out there, she said. Her mental voice sounded much smaller and more insecure than normal. I don’t…I don’t know what I’d do. Without you.
I sighed gently and knelt down until her eye was level with mine. Look, Snowflake. I’ve made a lot of bad choices and I’ve done a lot of bad things. I’ve killed a lot of people, and some of them didn’t deserve it. My hands are bloody enough without you dying for me too. Okay? Excessively dramatic, of course, but somehow fitting for the situation.
I thought you always said that was my choice, she said, sounding more like her usual self—which is to say, mocking and disrespectful.
Sure, I agreed. But I’m asking you nicely. Please don’t try and come save me. I want there to be at least one good thing left to show I existed, if I die tonight. Please.
She growled. That’s fighting dirty.
Yep, I agreed brightly. Will you do it?
Fine, she agreed. You’d better not die, though, or I promise I’ll make you regret it.
I thought I told you before threats like that are a waste of breath, I chided her. Good hunting, Snowflake. I love you.
I love you too, you great big moron. Give ’em hell for me.
I smiled sadly and left her there, sitting in the sun out front of Kyra’s house. I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again, but either way, there were worse ways to say goodbye. I should know; I’d used more than one of them.
As it turned out, of course, I did see her again, even if we both might have wished that really was goodbye.