Debts Outstanding 5.14

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Colorado doesn’t have a long history—or, well, maybe it would be fairer to say that it doesn’t have a long history as Colorado. There’s plenty of history before that, in the form of various native tribes, but given that most of that’s been lost I feel okay discounting it.

 

Colorado doesn’t have a long history, but it has a lot of history, as though trying to make up for its relative youth by cramming stories into it like a kid who doesn’t quite get the “clean your room” concept and has a small closet. Some of that history is buried, now, bulldozed and paved over with a Wal-Mart sitting on top. But most of it’s just tucked away in a corner like an heirloom you don’t need but can’t quite bring yourself to get rid of.

 

Gold Camp Road is one of those. It’s terribly impractical for modern purposes, but it’s historic, so they haven’t just abandoned it quite yet. Mostly it’s unused these days except for four-wheeling enthusiasts, certain tourists who typically don’t quite understand what they’re getting into, and the rare occasion when the highway is closed. There are a few antisocial types with houses out thataway, and some people like me who use it for forest access, but mostly you don’t see many cars.

 

The story’s pretty simple. And, like a lot of the stories in Colorado, it starts with a gold rush. In this case, the gold rushers were rushing to Cripple Creek, just on the other side of the Peak from Colorado Springs. It’s fallen far since then, but back in the day it was big business, digging gold out of the mountains up there.

 

There’s always money to be made in gold, and lots of it. So naturally there was plenty of demand for shuttling ore from the mines in Cripple Creek to the mills in the Springs. Thus, Gold Camp. It’s a narrow, winding dirt road connecting the two cities, following the route of the old railroad.

 

The highway is less direct—astonishingly so; it’s around three times as long as the actual distance between the two cities—but it’s also much less twisty, and it’s paved, which makes it quite a bit faster. As a result, almost nobody uses Gold Camp for actually getting from A to B.

 

Fortunately, I learned to drive in Wyoming and North Dakota, often in places that make Colorado look positively tame. I didn’t have too much difficulty. I still had several hours yet to go before sunset, so I took it slow. A short while later, I turned off on an even narrower, windier, steeper road up into the hills. I followed that for around a mile or so, then stopped. My Jeep was better suited to this kind of driving than a highway, but there were limits. It would have taken a specialized rock-crawling vehicle to go much further.

 

Besides. I would enjoy the hike.

 

I’d taken off the armor back in town—I wasn’t particularly concerned about an attack coming before sunset—and now I was wearing a simple T-shirt and cargo shorts. To that I added a black backpack in which I had a number of things that might be helpful. It was hard to guess with certainty, knowing as little as I did about the Wild Hunt itself, but I made what guesses I could. It helped that it was a pretty large backpack. And it was heavy. Fortunately, lycanthropy does have its perks.

 

Then I put on a thick glove, set my teeth, and grabbed the Gáe Bolg. It stung, made my arm numb and set it to shaking, but it was necessary, and it wasn’t quite as bad with the glove, in any case.

 

I left the road shortly thereafter, not wanting anyone to see me. I mean, it wasn’t quite the picture of a normal hiker, right? I was a little slower through the woods, but not too much. This was probably my favorite hunting ground, and I’d spent a lot of time there. It was my turf, basically, more so than the city itself, even.

 

The spear slowed me down—both because of the numbness and because a six-foot-long metal pole is, intrinsically, not something you want to carry hiking. But, again, it was familiar ground and I was carrying a comparatively light pack, and moving quick. It didn’t take me more than about an hour to get to my destination, a ways north of the road.

 

The werewolf who showed me the place, long since dead now, had called the rock formations the Cathedrals, so I did the same. I don’t know if that’s the proper name, or even if they have a proper name, but it’s descriptive enough. The red granite certainly looks majestic enough, especially if you’re not used to it. There’s even one formation that looks like a building—sort of like a really tiny cave that’s open on both ends. Neither entrance is easily visible from a distance, especially in the dark.

 

That was where I went first. Inside it was pretty dark. The roof had a few holes, but aside from those patches of light the interior was lit only by the sunlight coming in the two open ends and a few cracks between different rocks in the walls. There were a few cracks in the floor, too, not wide or deep enough to justify calling them crevices. You couldn’t fall in them, most likely, but you might get your leg wedged if you worked hard enough.

 

I stopped next to one of those, where there was no light to speak of. I dropped the spear into the crack with a sigh of relief, and covered it with my cloak. The result was, in functional terms, invisible, and I figured it was pretty unlikely that anybody would notice it. Oh, sure, it was conceivably possible that they would orient on the magic—but I reckoned if it were that easy to find, the Gáe Bolg wouldn’t have gone as long as it did in hiding. And while my cloak didn’t have the same kind of protections, it was a relatively very small piece of magic.

 

I did not, of course, stop there. I’ve spent a lot of time and effort finding things, and people, that didn’t want to be found, and as a consequence gotten pretty good at finding them. This means, naturally, that I’m also quite good at hiding things—it’s just a matter of approaching the same line from the other side, after all. I couldn’t hide myself from the Hunt, given that they had my scent already, but that didn’t make me incompetent.

 

So I also brushed out all my tracks with a pine branch—one I cut a long ways off, with an ordinary pocketknife. That had the added advantage of covering my scent, an advantage I went one step further on by crushing pine needles and scattering them everywhere except in the cave. There they might have given away my presence.

 

It would have been more effective to use, say, black pepper as a scent bomb. But pine blended into the background smells of the forest, making it a lot less likely that it would be noticed.

 

Before that, though, I took out a bottle of water and a bottle of rubbing alcohol from the pack and sprinkled those liberally over my trail as well. Part of this was, again, to dilute and confuse my scent. But mostly it was because of the magics involved.

 

Every substance has an associated spectrum of magic, and acts as a sort of lens to focus ambient energy into that shape. Some of these are famous enough that anybody might know to use them—silver’s nature as a purifying agent, for example, which can be dangerous to inherently impure werewolves (I don’t mean that in any moral sense, more a matter of being a mixture of multiple things). Iron is good at grounding and stabilizing, which makes it hazardous for faeries.

 

What a lot of people don’t realize—I know I never did, until Alexander pointed it out to me—is that the magical properties of a substance often bear a close resemblance to the physical ones, especially the chemical properties. Silver can be used as an antibiotic. Iron grounds electricity (why copper or silver doesn’t work on the fae, though, is a mystery, at least to me).

 

As you may be aware, water and alcohol are both very effective solvents. They dissolve things, break them down, wash them away. I wasn’t sure that a dash of these liquids, both hastily charged with extra power right before use, would help to erase the energetic traces of my presence, but it seemed like a decent guess.

 

It couldn’t hurt, at any rate. Plus, the scent of water would attract no notice, and the alcohol would be long since evaporated by the time the Hunt was anywhere near the area.

 

So that was that. The spear was as well hidden as it was possible, under the circumstances, for me to hide it. It was time I got out of the area, making sure that nobody found it just because I was nearby.

 

I kept north. It was easy going, now that I was warmed up and I’d lost the spear, and I was going at a pretty good clip. I had about four hours before true dark, which I was guessing meant at least three and a half before I had to start worrying.

 

It took me about two of them to get to where I was going. My destination was a long, broad valley with a tiny stream at the bottom, along with a narrow half-marked path. It was mid-April, but I’d climbed in elevation rather a lot, and there was still a good amount of snow up here in the shade. There was a lot of shade to be had, too, given that it was basically a forest. Most of the trees were conifers, but there were a lot of aspens to be had. Gambel oak and similar bushes clustered around the water.

 

It’s probably ironic, that I had chosen the same valley to run to as, almost two years ago and an eternity away, Garret White had chosen for his last stand. It made sense, though; this was a good place for a werewolf, plenty of cover and plenty of game trails. Plus it was a location I knew quite well.

 

And, I must admit, the symmetry amused me.

 

I took a long, meandering path through the valley, dropping articles of clothing at irregular intervals, tossing it into the underbrush and covering it with forest detritus. I wouldn’t be needing it tonight anyway, and I hoped that scattering objects impregnated with my scent might slow the Wild Hunt down if they were relying on that to find me.

 

A rather anemic hope, if truth be told. But I’d take whatever I could get.

 

By the time that I made it to my destination, another rock outcropping, I was naked except for shoes, backpack, and my various magical foci. (I’d left the necklace of my mother with Snowflake, though. It had sentimental value.) I wasn’t too bothered by that. I’m not modest, really, especially when there aren’t any people around. Away from humans I revert to more animalistic patterns of thought and behavior, and the simple fact is that only humans really give a shit about that sort of thing.

 

Anyway. I ditched the sandals at the base of the rocks, tossing one toward the trees and the other over nearer the stream, and started climbing. It was easy going. The granite was rough and provided plenty of handholds, and the rocks here were shaped vaguely like a stack of pancakes. Within a handful of seconds I was dropping my pack, maybe fifteen feet up, at the base of another stack of rocks.

 

I kept climbing. It was a little harder, but I like rock climbing, and it isn’t difficult to be good at it when you’re a werewolf. The vastly increased strength:weight ratio makes things a lot easier. A few minutes later I was sitting comfortably on the highest rock around, maybe forty or fifty feet up. It was around ten feet square, making any worries about falling groundless, and in any case I could probably catch myself pretty well with air. Even if I couldn’t, that wasn’t a far enough fall to kill me. Oh, there were always outliers—you can die in the shower, after all—but the vast majority of the time I’d walk away with, at the most, a broken bone or two. Unpleasant, but not undoable.

 

I sat there and faced into the sun, which was beginning to wester noticeably, with my eyes closed. It was warm enough that the breeze felt quite nice against my skin. “Hello, Fenris,” I said a moment later, not opening my eyes.

 

“How’d you know I was here?” the wolf-god asked, moving up to sit beside me.

 

I shrugged. It didn’t seem terribly important—although, in all honesty, I also wasn’t quite sure myself. I just knew, and somehow at the moment it didn’t seem to matter how.

 

Fenris didn’t seem to think it was an inappropriate answer. I still hadn’t opened my eyes, but I could feel that he wasn’t upset. “It’s going to be a beautiful evening,” he said a long moment later.

 

I grunted. “Some consolation, anyway.”

 

“Maybe so. May I ask you a question?”

 

“I rather doubt I could stop you,” I pointed out.

 

“I suppose not. Why do you do it?”

 

“Do what?” I asked, opening my eyes. Fenris looked back to his “normal” self, casually dressed and without the ribbon and spike that he wore when he wanted people to recognize him. He was currently laying back on the rock a few feet to my side and staring into the sky.

 

He gestured, expansively if rather vaguely. “This. The fighting. Everything.”

 

I looked out over the valley. The sun was touching just the tips of the trees on the other side of the valley now, looking like a gentle waterfall of gold on green. I thought about it for a long moment. “Because of this,” I said eventually.

 

“What?”

 

I waved my hand, indicating the broad expanse of trees. “This,” I said. “It’s…look. This world is terrible. I don’t like it. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to kill. I hate this world for what it’s done to me. For what it’s made me do, and be.” I paused, struggling to frame my thoughts. “But then there are moments like this. Watching the sunset. Swimming in the river. Eating a good meal. Making something beautiful. The moments that make life worth living.”

 

“Is it worth it?” he asked quietly. His voice sounded more human than I’d ever heard it, sad and soft and lonely.

 

I closed my eyes again. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll never know. But it’s the best I’m likely to get.” All was silent for a long moment. “May I ask you a question?”

 

“Fair’s fair,” he said, sounding amused now.

 

“I once asked you whether you were my father,” I said. “And you said no.”

 

“I remember.” Of course he did. From his perspective, it was probably like yesterday.

 

“I believe you. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve started to wonder whether there might have been another question I should have asked.”

 

“Oh?”

 

I nodded. “Yeah. I think I should have asked, was my father you?”

 

There was a long moment of silence. Then Fenris started to laugh, a sound like wolves howling. “Oh, Winter. You never give up, do you?”

 

“Nope,” I agreed. “It’s gotten me into trouble a few times in the past.”

 

“I know,” he said, laughter still dancing beneath the surface of his voice. “You’re quite clever, you know. Remarkably so for your age.” He was silent for a moment. “The answer, I suppose, is yes and no.”

 

“That isn’t very helpful.”

 

He made a frustrated noise. “I know. I told you, words aren’t my gift.” After a pause, he continued, “Look, think of it like this. Is four two plus two? Yes. But it is also three plus one.”

 

“So…what? He was you, but he was also something else?”

 

He growled. “No. Not quite. Maybe….” He trailed off, then spoke again, sounding more confident this time. “I’ve got it. Think of your shadow. It isn’t you—it can’t be, right? But it looks like you, and it moves like you, and it couldn’t be if you were not.” I nodded along thoughtfully. “In the same way,” Fenris continued, “I was not your father. Your father was not me. He was his own wolf. But at the same time, he was like me, a reflection of me.”

 

“So what does that make me?” I asked.

 

He shrugged. “I don’t know. You, I suppose.”

 

All was silent for a long time. “How did he die?” I asked finally, maybe five minutes later. “My father, I mean.”

 

Fenris took his time answering. “Just how he would have wanted,” he said finally. “With extravagant violence. Killed three werewolves before they brought him down.”

 

“Wait a second, he was fighting werewolves?”

 

“They were in his territory,” Fenris said by way of explanation. “He was always…stubborn. Arrogant. Inflexible.” He laughed quietly. “He’d have liked you.” There was a brief, brooding silence. “I always wondered,” he said after a moment. “Once I knew about you, I wondered. Should I have kept him and Carmen apart? Would they have been happy together? Would you have been happier, if you grew up thinking you were a wolf? I thought it was the kindest thing, but now I just don’t know.”

 

“Don’t beat yourself up about it,” I said kindly, ignoring the wrench that went through me at his words. “You did the best you could.”

 

“It wasn’t good enough,” whispered a voice on the wind. “She died for my mistakes, and I didn’t even know for sixteen years. It wasn’t good enough.”

 

I looked sideways, feeling a strange sort of concern—absurd, really, given that it’s the Fenris Wolf we’re talking about here—but he was already gone.


 

I napped for around an hour after that. It wasn’t like there was much else I could do, after all. I’d already set my plans in motion, and there wasn’t a lot I could do to improve upon them at this point.

 

My sleep was, needless to say, fitful and restless. The prospect of imminent death can do that to a guy. Eventually I gave up even pretending that I was going to get any sleep and just watched the last of the sunset instead.

 

Finally, as the colors started to fade from the western sky, I moved into the last stages of preparation. I was going to do this in fur. That was pretty unusual, as I normally prefer fighting as a human, but I thought that it was probably the smarter choice tonight. My best chance was to turn this into a contest of speed and endurance rather than outright combat, and that meant that the wolf was distinctly superior.

 

Besides. It was the full moon, and I hadn’t shifted in more than a week. That didn’t leave me a lot of room for staying human, especially under stress. Might as well just go with it.

 

I was relying on using my magic to help even the odds, at least a little bit. That, in turn, meant I really needed my foci, since without them I wasn’t really capable of much. With the full moon I would be operating at peak power, but I needed absolutely everything I could get tonight, and that meant seizing what few advantages I had.

 

The bad news was that all of my magical foci were various pieces of jewelry—they stand out so much less than carrying a staff around—and they’d been designed with my humanish body in mind. The good news is, I think ahead.

 

I had three foci with me, the three that I could conceivably hope to use in a combat situation. The first, my focus for manipulating air and wind, was a simple bracelet, which I unknotted from around my left wrist. It was very simple, just a narrow leather braid wrapped several times around my wrist. It hung loosely around my neck, but I’d measured it quite carefully (a task that wasn’t nearly as simple as that makes it sound, trust me) and once I’d changed it would be a snug collar.

 

That left two rings, one attuned to predatory animals and the other designed to help me manipulate shadows. I put the bracelet through both of them as I wrapped it around my neck. It wouldn’t work quite as well as the collar solution—I’d designed them assuming there would be more skin contact than this, and believe it or not that can make a difference—but it would work.

 

Once that was done, I laid down, carefully keeping the collar in place, and brought the wolf over myself like a cloak.

 

It’s hard to describe the change. I’ve tried, before, and it never quite works. It’s just too far removed from human experience. It’s like…have you ever had a joint pop back into place—not from an actual dislocation, just popping your back or something? And you remember how it hurts, a little, but there’s also the feeling of something coming back to its proper alignment? Changing is like that, only different. The pain is a lot more severe, for one thing. And it lasts a long time. And it’s all over your body. And it involves actual damage to your body—quickly repaired damage, maybe, but still a lot of minor injuries.

 

Okay, maybe it isn’t all that similar after all.

 

But that feeling of rightness, of things coming back into alignment, is exactly the same. It hurts terribly, but somehow once I start I can never quite seem to remember why I don’t do it more often.

 

I felt it, when the moon rose. I was about halfway through the transition, at that unpleasant point where you’ve long since ceased to resemble a human but you’re not yet recognizably canine. My eyes were currently focused on the rock about six inches in front of my face and I couldn’t see clearly anyway, but still, I knew. I could feel the moon’s first light brush over my skin, whispering gently to me, helping to nudge my body into the proper configurations.

 

It was faster, with the moon to help. Perhaps five minutes after it rose I was standing on four legs, shaking my head to clear it.

 

There’s something very special about wearing fur under the full moon, something utterly indescribable. Most of the time I’m fairly humanlike, even when I don’t look it—not in terms of appearance, but as far as attitudes and opinions go? Yep, not all that exotic there.

 

The full moon changes that. It brings out the parts of my psyche that are less civilized, less constrained. At the time, I can’t help but revel in it. Afterwards, it’s usually rather more chilling. I know quite well what can happen if you let that part take control, after all.

 

Tonight, though, there shouldn’t be any innocents around to be endangered. So I let the moon in, and I let the wolf out.

 

And the world changed.

 

I stood, shakily, on unsteady legs. It hurt, as taking on my proper shape always hurt, but I welcomed the pain, gloried in it. I rolled my neck to either side, provoking more bright shocks of sensation, and looked out at the world.

 

It was oddly different than the way my normal, pathetic self saw things. Color was only fuzzily visible, easily dismissed, but differences in shading and texture became paramount. The dim light was soothing to my eyes, and the shadows welcomed my gaze.

 

Even more of a change, the importance of vision was itself dramatically lessened. I could smell my own recent pain—my lip curled up at the stink—and on the breeze I sorted out the smells of each and every conifer within a hundred yards without thinking. A moment later I caught the aroma of a deer to the northwest, and my legs tensed slightly. It was a good night, a hunting night, and deer would be an excellent start to the night’s events.

 

I heard as well as felt my breathing accelerate and deepen, my heart rate pick up in anticipation, and for a moment I almost launched myself out to chase the prey.

 

I think I should clarify something here. The wolf in me—because, make no mistake, this was a part of me, not an external force—wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t thoughtless, nor had I forgotten my purpose here tonight. It was just…immediate. The wolf was a creature of the here-and-now, and everything else was subsumed into the moment. Planning was forgotten in the moonlight, memory was washed away by a passing breeze, until all that left was the urges of the moment. Past and future lacked the visceral immediacy of what I could smell and hear and see right now.

 

A moment later, though, I heard hunting horns, long and low and hungry. Looking to the south, I could see a mounted figure lowering an enormous horn from its mouth. I couldn’t see any details—the figure was shrouded in a mask of shadow, with lightning crawling over it—but it wasn’t hard for me to put it together.

 

Impulsively, I threw my head back and howled an answering challenge to the sky. The man might be resigned to death, but the wolf never would, and it didn’t know how to back down from a challenge.

 

The Wild Hunt thought I was prey.

 

They were about to have a very fun surprise. This was my forest, my night, my hunt, and God have mercy on anyone who tried to take that from me, because I surely wouldn’t.

 

I had a plan, of course. That was in my nature; I always had a plan. This one was a little zanier than usual, but that was to be expected. This particular plan scared me rather a lot. On the bright side, it was quite possible that I would be killed before I could execute even the first step, so I wasn’t too terribly concerned about that.

 

Laughing, I leapt lightly down from the rock, not bothering to slow my fall. I hit the ground forty feet below hard, sending a wave of pain through my joints, but with the moonlight singing in my blood I hardly even felt it. I slipped into the underbrush with a smile on my face, thinking bloody thoughts.

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2 Comments

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2 Responses to Debts Outstanding 5.14

  1. Emrys

    This is an author’s commentary written after the completion of the series. Spoilers are in a rot13 cipher; if you aren’t familiar with that there are a number of very easy deciphering websites to use. These spoilers may cover the full series, not just this book, and they may make reference to major plot points and character development. You have been warned.

    The beginning of this chapter is weak, I think. Too heavy on exposition, on telling rather than showing what’s going on. The conversation with Fenris, also, could be a great deal better. It’s not bad, exactly, and it does what it’s supposed to do. But it feels rather forced, when it should be a very natural conversation. Not a horrible weakness, but noticeable.

    The last few paragraphs are better, I think. I did a better job of getting at the feeling I wanted there. There’s a very clear contrast between Winter being himself and Winter when he’s basically high, which was most of the point. (I can picture the PSA now: “This is your brain on lycanthropy.”)

  2. Anonymity

    very sad chapter

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