I was cautious approaching the lab, concerned that someone might have left me a nasty surprise, but I didn’t notice anything out of place. That wasn’t all that surprising, really; the wards around that building make it pretty damned hard to really notice the place. Not even the Jehovah’s Witnesses had managed it in my experience.
Inside, I cleared a space on the worktable and set the bundle I was carrying down. There was barely enough room for it; I’m not as bad as Alexander, but my lab is still perpetually cluttered, and that’s only gotten worse since I started living there.
“Wake up,” I said, pulling on a pair of heavy welding gloves.
“Whassup, Boss?” Legion asked brightly, walking over to stand right behind me.
“I’ve got something for you to look at,” I said, unwrapping the bundle delicately. There were half a dozen layers of canvas around the spikes, but it had still not been pleasant carrying them, and even with the gloves I wasn’t thrilled about the idea of touching the things. That was some heavily charged silver. “Can you tell me what kind of energetic signature they’re carrying?”
Legion didn’t move or do anything to communicate, but I still got the clear impression that his attention was sharply focused on the spikes. That lasted for maybe half a second before he said, “Looks like mostly werewolf. Are you feeling well, Boss? ‘Cause even you should have seen that.”
That’s the victim, Snowflake said acerbically. As you should have known.
“Not all of us have your twenty-twenty vision to work with, mutt.”
I ignored the—mostly—good natured tirade of insults which progressed from there. I was pretty good at it, because most of their interactions devolved into that sort of schoolyard interaction. Snowflake’s lupine alter ego has an ingrained hatred of demons in general and Legion in particular, and Legion was…well, Legion. Getting along with people wasn’t a part of his nature. Kind of the opposite, actually.
Instead, I focused on the spikes, trying to pick out the aura I’d noticed at the scene. Unfortunately, Legion was right. Between the passage of time and competition from the silver, it was hard to sort out any details. The residue of blood muddled things further, burying everything under a layer of werewolf-scented magic.
I sighed. Some days are just not worth getting out of bed. Not even if your bed is a cot under the table. “That,” I said, “is so typical. Legion?”
“Mangy, flea-ridden, louse-bitten, sorry excuse of a filthy cat-hacked hairball!” Legion concluded vehemently. “What?”
“Can you get any other signature off of this?”
He considered it for several seconds this time. “There’s definitely something,” he said at last. “I’d be inclined to guess fae of some sort, but I couldn’t tell you the details. It probably wasn’t all that strong to begin with.”
“Incidental exposure, then?” I asked. “Just from being around someone?”
“Definitely,” he confirmed. “It can’t have been a deliberate spell. That would have left a much stronger signature.”
I sighed and nodded. It had been a long shot, in any case. “Did you make any progress on those papers I gave you?”
“Nope,” he said cheerfully. “If any of those guys was someone funky, I don’t know them.”
I glowered at him. “I thought you were supposed to be helpful.”
“Yes,” he replied calmly. “And it’s also been two hundred years since I was in this world. That’s more than long enough for a new crop of players to come up.”
Huh. I wouldn’t have guessed that. I wasn’t sure exactly how old Legion was—every time I asked he just said that he was old enough, and then changed the subject (rudely, I might add). But he claimed to have served numerous mages as a familiar, and if none of them had been alive in the last two centuries, well, that made him pretty dang old.
“Okay,” I said. “I get it. You ready to go snoop around a bit, Snowflake?”
Her jaw lolled open in a canid grin which emphasized the eyepatch. Yarr, Cap’n.
I rolled my own eyes and then grabbed a few more tools I might need before we left.
It wasn’t as busy at the pawnshop as I’d feared. The building was very firmly closed, but there was no one there to keep us out. Not a surprise, I realized; they came, they saw, they surveyed, but after that the cops had no reason to stay. The incident had been neatly filed away under robbery, anomalous. It was attributed to a junkie with a knife of unusual size, never mind the parts that might not fit, and forgotten like last year’s snow.
It seemed so very sad, somehow.
However, it also undeniably made things easier. It was in a better part of town than I usually thought of pawnshops as occupying, a classy neighborhood down south, and breaking in with a bunch of cops right there would have been a rather difficult proposition.
Without said police presence, it wasn’t nearly as hard. Snowflake and I waited for a break in traffic, then I wove a quick web of shadow around us and we slipped around back. I don’t care how nice the neighborhood is, or how little involvement it has with shady dealings, pawnshops will still have back doors. I’m sure there’s one out there that doesn’t, but I hadn’t seen it yet and this wasn’t the one, either.
After that, getting in was not a difficult prospect. Snowflake kept watch, and I tackled the door. Wrapped up in my cloak of shadow and tucked up tight against the door, I was hard enough to see that I wasn’t worried that much about detection.
The door was, needless to say, locked. This was, needless to say, not a significant obstacle. My skillset is unusual to say the least, and lockpicking was one of the oldest parts of it. I’d learned it from Dolph when I was a teenager, but I kept in practice. Not so much because I was interested in stealing things—I don’t have a huge moral problem with it or anything, but there are definitely easier ways to make a living—as because, well, you never know.
It took a couple minutes. Locks do, generally speaking, and don’t believe any TV show that tells you otherwise. There are exceptions—some really cheap locks are quicker, and there are bypass methods that can get you through faster than some keys—but generally the only thing rushing gets you is broken tools.
I wasn’t in a rush. I took my time, pushing the tumblers carefully into place. When the lock did pop open, I proceeded with the same caution. I nudged the door open, standing well aside from the opening, and waited. When nothing happened, I stepped inside and immediately slipped sideways to hide behind a big cardboard box labeled JUNK, and waited. When nothing continued to happen, I carefully closed the door behind myself (Snowflake was already crouching practically on my feet) and locked it. Then we waited some more.
Generally speaking, waiting is a much bigger part of sneaking than most people give it credit for. Agility and magic are excellent tools, but the essentials are still the same, and they require more than anything else calm, patience, and a good ability to make decisions under pressure.
I am not typically a calm and patient person. But I know how to be when necessary.
Snowflake and I spent probably another minute crouching behind the box, sorting out where we were. Visually, the room was about as unexceptional as they come, a small grey space packed with boxes holding the crap too worthless to display even in a pawnshop. The room felt tired and, in a way I couldn’t quite seem to define, worn out, as though it had done everything it had to do and was now only still there out of habit.
There was no sound beyond two breathing patterns, one slightly higher and faster than the other, and a matching pair of heartbeats—the faster was Snowflake, and the other was mine. I could hear casual, late-morning traffic go by on the street outside. The building smelled old, in an indefinable way, and more obviously of cheap perfume and cleaning products. Nothing unexpected, nothing to worry about.
I glanced at Snowflake, who twitched one ear in the tiniest gesture of acknowledgment. She hadn’t picked up anything that shouldn’t be here either. I slipped out from my hiding place and, hugging the boxes, sidled slowly forward toward the door into the shop proper. I froze on one side of the opening, just barely peering around the corner. It looked like a total wreck, but no more so than I had anticipated. I saw nothing dangerous, heard nothing, felt nothing, smelled…wait. What was I smelling? It was familiar, unusually musky werewolf mixed with strong tones of forest.
At the same time I noticed this, a voice spoke behind and to one side of me, from behind another of the boxes. It was male, but otherwise…indeterminate. He sounded neither loud nor soft, warm or cold, pleasant or repugnant. I would describe it as robotic, but even computers can simulate expressiveness. What this individual said was, “Stop. Hands out.”
I froze. That was the bad part about waiting so much—if someone did know you were there, it gave them plenty of time to sneak up on you. “Hello, Bryan,” I said carefully. The smell was distinctive—most werewolves don’t have any notable admixture in their scents, and I’d never run into one that smelled that much like forest except Bryan Ferguson. The voice was even more so; that flat, dead, emotionless voice was extremely memorable.
There was a very brief pause. “Hello, Winter,” he said, his voice not changing. “Lower your hood.” There was another pause. “Stop trying to sneak up on me, hound.”
I very, very slowly did as he asked, telling Snowflake to comply as well. I knew Bryan. We might even be friends, or at least the nearest thing Bryan was capable of. It was hard to say for sure with him. But either way, he still scared me absolutely shitless, and I had no intention of going against what he said.
“Do you still carry a knife?” he asked me.
“Cut yourself,” he said. “Just enough to show blood.”
Moving with the same nonthreatening slowness, I dipped one hand—the left, just to reinforce the impression that I wasn’t planning violence—into my cloak and pulled out a simple folding knife. I flipped it open and nicked the back of my other hand, drawing just enough blood to trickle down the back of my wrist.
There wasn’t any feeling of relaxation. There would have had to be tension first, and Bryan’s voice didn’t convey enough emotion even to establish that. Most people, if they stand behind you and imply death threats if you don’t do what they say, are really scary and threatening and make your spine itch and your heart pound. Bryan didn’t, and I have no idea why. It wasn’t that I wasn’t afraid, if that’s what you’re thinking, because I definitely was.
“It is good to see you again,” he said. I couldn’t tell if it was just a formality he mouthed for politeness’s sake, or he actually meant it and his manner just couldn’t get it across.
I turned to face him, closing the cut on my hand as I did. “Good to see you too,” I replied. In my case, it was definitely just a formality, and I didn’t bother trying to pretend otherwise. Bryan wouldn’t be fooled. I had no doubt of that.
Bryan looked much the same as he usually did. I hadn’t seen him for years, but werewolves don’t age, and Bryan is more timeless than most. Everything about him contributes to that impression, really. His face could have been a mature twenty or a youthful forty, although even a human would probably say if pressed that he didn’t really look like either of them. His coal-black hair was longish and unevenly cut—not in that stylish “I care so much about how I look that I can make it look like I don’t care at all” way, more like he’d noticed it getting in the way and hacked it off himself with a knife. Which, in all fairness, was probably the case. I felt confident that his eyes, a shade of green closer to pine needles than the aspen leaves of his father and siblings, would still be deep and grim and haunted. I didn’t meet them to make sure. It wasn’t wise, with Bryan. He saw too deeply.
Likewise, his clothing was strangely difficult to place. It wasn’t modern—that was obvious—but just what time period or culture it might belong to was hard to say. Everything he wore was of a shade of grey midway between dove and charcoal, although no two pieces were quite the same color, which was somewhat disconcerting. The greys seemed to change when I wasn’t looking, but never enough that I could be sure it wasn’t in my head. In any case, all of the garments were so simple and plain as to make me think more of a monk’s habit than anything else.
He wasn’t carrying any weapons that I could tell. I didn’t make the mistake of thinking that mattered. Bryan was the kind of guy who didn’t carry a weapon, because he didn’t need one.
“Why are you here, Winter?” he asked. His voice remained toneless, lacking even the rise at the end of the sentence that would have made it a question.
“Just looking around,” I said nervously. He would know I was lying, but whether he would care was a harder question. He already knew the answer, after all. “What are you doing?”
“I am taking inventory. Are you also involved in the pursuit of the weapon?”
I paused. “You know what was stolen?”
I waited. When it became apparent that he wouldn’t elaborate—no surprise with Bryan—I said, “What was it?”
“A weapon,” he said redundantly. He stepped easily over the boxes. “Come.” He walked into the shop area.
I did as he asked, swallowing nervously. What’s going on? Snowflake asked me, but I shushed her. He would probably hear us. And, in any case, I was in no way ready to discuss the bogeyman that was Bryan Ferguson with her.
Bryan stepped over the counter, ignoring the opening less than two feet away. Snowflake followed him, while I went around. He walked slowly through the room, on a straight path without looking to either side. I did look around, and it was more impressive than I had initially thought.
I’d known the place had been ransacked, but that hadn’t even come close to expressing the full extent of what had happened here. Shelves had been overturned or outright broken. Bins and counters of merchandise had likewise been dumped and bashed open. They’d cleaned the place up a bit, clearly, but not too much, and ruined merchandise was scattered liberally underfoot. CD cases crunched as we walked over them, and after a few steps I picked Snowflake up and carried her so that she wouldn’t injure her feet.
Like most such establishments, there were a ton of windows, but most of them were papered over with various posters and fliers, and without the lights on it was a dim place. Combine that with the ransacked look of the place and the lingering smell of smoke, and it was more than slightly eerie.
Bryan, of course, led the way to the most dismal, poorly lit back corner available. The shelf here was still standing, although whatever had been on it had been knocked off to join the rest, and as a result it felt oddly insulated from the rest of the room. He stopped, abruptly enough that I almost walked into him, and turned to face the exterior wall. He pointed at a spot on the wall, not saying anything, and I leaned forward to look at it.
There was a puncture of some sort in the wall. It looked like somebody had stuck a knife into the drywall, maybe a half-inch deep, and then pulled it back out, except that the shape of the knife would have to be very, very odd. The hole resembled a sunburst, was deeper at the top than the bottom, and oddly dimpled inside. It hadn’t been mentioned in the file, for which I couldn’t blame anyone. Against the background of the devastation, something like this didn’t exactly stand out.
Except Bryan wouldn’t have brought me here for nothing. I leaned forward and examined the hole, making no progress. Then Snowflake, looking straight down, growled softly, and I followed her gaze.
At my feet—very nearly under my feet, in fact—were a pair of scorch marks, the cheap linoleum charred and blistered. It was, as the report had claimed, clearly in the shape of a person’s feet. From where I was standing a trail led directly to the front door.
I reconstructed the scene in my mind. The thief had been standing right here. He’d found whatever it was he was looking for. And then…what? He’d taken it and left? Then why the scorch marks where he’d stepped?
Then it clicked. “It wasn’t here,” I said, looking again at the hole in the wall. “Somebody took it first. And when he saw that, it pissed him off.” So much so, in fact, that he’d lost control of whatever magic it was that he wielded. So much so that his anger had boiled over into heat, and where he walked the ground burned.
“That is my presumption also,” Bryan said. Fear, like everything else, failed to make an impression in his voice. “As the search is still ongoing it would appear to be correct.”
“What is this search for?” I asked, exasperated.
He looked at me oddly, and this time I was too slow averting my eyes. I saw jade-green eyes and then I was trapped, fires buried deep within seeming to pull me in to join them, falling forward through the smells of the deep woods—
—and then Bryan blinked and allowed me to look away again. “How is it that you are among the hunters and yet do not know what is sought?”
“I’m not really hunting,” I said, shaken. “Loki told me to investigate the deaths and recover any stolen property for him, but beyond that I’m clueless.”
His eyes didn’t change and his voice didn’t sharpen, but it was nonetheless very clear what he thought of that—more than a little like Legion, now that I think about it. “That is not a wise thing to do.”
“I’m aware,” I sighed. How did everybody get this idea that I wanted to help Loki? “But he’s got me over a barrel and I don’t see another way out of it.”
“An understandable attitude,” he said as though we were discussing last week’s sports games. “But I was referring to assisting Loki in obtaining the item. It does not belong to him.”
“What is it?” I asked, forgetting for once to be afraid of Bryan in my frustration.
He paused as though debating whether he wanted to answer. “The Gáe Bolg,” he said eventually, turning to go back behind the counter.
“The spear?” I asked, following him.
“Are you sure? Because, you know, Cúchulainn was badass and all, but I’m pretty sure Loki could have crunched him like a biscuit. And given that, I don’t get why you’re so worried about him getting the guy’s spear.”
“I am concerned not by who wielded it, but rather by who made it.”
I gulped again as I followed him out of the shop and set Snowflake down again. Cúchulainn’s spear opened into thirty barbs that perforated the other guy’s innards to such an extent that they had to cut the poor bastard open to get it back out, was always lethal, and couldn’t be used by anyone except him. It was seriously so nasty that even Cúchulainn, who’s fondness of violence was matched only by his lack of discrimination, considered it too horrible to use except in the last resort—a resort he wound up using on, amongst many others, his best friend and his only son. With the exception of various deities’ personal weapons, I couldn’t think of any weapon nastier or more dangerous in Irish legend.
I didn’t think I ever wanted to find anything quite so powerful and vicious as that. I mean, heck, Tyrfing is bad enough to have around. I sure don’t need another ancient and terrible weapon.
“But,” I said, as something else occurred to me. “If something like that were found…there would be all kinds of people looking for it. I mean, Loki would be just the tip of an entire iceberg of nasty.”
The Khan’s son didn’t smile, nor was his voice amused. Once again, this didn’t do anything to stop him from getting the point across. “Correct,” he said, and stepped into a deeper patch of shadows, and was elsewhere.
One Response to Debts Outstanding 5.6
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.
Not the best chapter, not the worst. It’s rather clunky, the dialogue in particular is rather stilted. Then again, that’s kind of the point. Bryan is a stilted character, he doesn’t communicate well or smoothly. This interaction is meant to be rather artificial, then, rather forced. In that sense it’s successful.
The Gae Bolg is, if you’re curious, an actual mythological weapon. The narration is a rather condensed version (and a rather clunky exposition segment, again), but basically accurate. I used it because it’s a weapon with some interesting implications, and a rather dark story, which doesn’t get much. For what I needed here, it was a natural fit.