As I’d expected, the store records were pretty telling. Three days before the store was robbed, the owner had bought a semi-divine spear for the low, low price of fifty-five bucks and change. Unfortunately she hadn’t kept a record of whom she bought it from, ruining that approach, but there was a sale on record, at a slight profit. The buyer was—surprise, surprise—Steve Potts, the same guy as was killed next by some of Pellegrini’s mobsters.
I thought I was starting to get a decent idea of what was happening. Somebody had found the spear and, probably recognizing that it was in no way something that it was safe to possess—the gangster was right on that account, no doubt about it—had offloaded it ASAP. I wasn’t entirely sure why they’d sold it rather than just drop it in a dumpster or something. In any case, some kid bought it, probably just because it looked cool. And then things blew up.
News got out about it being found, or stolen, or whatever—that was inevitable, news always gets out. Somebody, having tracked it down to the pawnshop, had taken preemptive measures to ensure that no one else would get information out of the proprietor or the store itself. Humberto, whose information must have been more complete, knew who bought it and wanted it for unknown reasons—but, quite sensibly, he didn’t want to get any closer to it personally than was absolutely necessary. So he’d hired some criminals, who he’d probably met through the pack’s more nefarious dealings, to do it for him.
A good plan, except that something went wrong. They’d panicked, maybe, and shot the kid without interrogating him. Then they bugged out fast when it became apparent that shooting someone in the street is actually a really bad way to keep things off the radar. Somebody else, with a fondness for nailing people in the least pleasant sense of the word imaginable, had caught up to what had happened. He could have been the same as the person that initially attacked the pawnshop, but I thought it unlikely—they didn’t feel like the actions of the same person.
Anyway, at that point lunatic number two was on the trail of the criminals. He got the identity of their employer—three guesses how that happened and the first two don’t count—and went after Humberto next. After that, well….
The magic residue I’d detected at the scene of the werewolf’s death was very clear in my mind. I wasn’t sure what to make of the human aspects. But the rest, the smell of shadows and silences, darkness and poison, well, given that I knew the Sidhe were in this up to their eyebrows that really made me think Midnight Court. Shortly after I saw Humberto’s body, I’d been on the Otherside—on the Night side of Faerie, in fact, which I realized now had been an incredibly stupid thing to do. I was suspecting that the Midnight agent who’d been running around crucifying people had waited and watched to see who would come to check it out. When he saw me there, and then I started running around in the middle of his home turf, the prospect of eliminating one of the competing interests in this chase must have been too good to ignore.
That explains the other too, Snowflake said, trotting along at my heels. Fire damage like that probably means it was a Daylight faerie.
True. Where one Court was involved, it was a sure bet that the other wasn’t far behind. It would have been too much to ask for Daylight not to send a representative. What do you think we go to do now?
Check the thug’s apartment, she said immediately.
I frowned. You don’t think they’ll have hit it already?
They’ll assume the killers took it, she said. But they might not even have had time to go inside before the cops got there. Even if they did, they might have missed a clue.
Reasonable enough. It wasn’t like I had any better ideas, anyway.
Steve’s apartment was even easier to get into than the pawnshop had been—easy enough, in fact, to make me nervy. They’d long since removed any hint of a police presence, and for that matter any indication that any criminal activity whatsoever had taken place. It wasn’t hard to wait for one of the residents, who by his gait was probably coming home from an early trip to the bar, and follow him in. Given that he was moderately intoxicated already and we were wrapped in more shadows than just my cloak, I doubt he even noticed we were behind him.
We probably didn’t need to bother. We could have talked our way past him—as I’d often noted, the average person has a lamentable tendency to trust his fellow man. Most of the time, a person will hold a door that ought to be kept locked, or answer a question without thinking. In his current state I highly doubt he would have stopped us. But it was clear that anyone I interacted with at this point might be caught in the crossfire between the Courts. I didn’t want to bring that down on this guy’s head just because he had the bad luck of living in this building.
The guy I was a few years ago wouldn’t have bothered to think of that. I was so careless then that now it makes me somewhat ashamed.
We took the stairs, of course, because I don’t like elevators. Steve’s apartment was on the fourth floor. Neither of us detected any unusual odors on the way up there. I didn’t even bother looking for a magical scent; it had been over a week since the murder, and no magical signature would last that long.
A few tense moments in the hallway, hiding under my cloak and hoping nobody walked out at an inopportune moment and caught me at it, was enough to open the door. We closed it quietly behind ourselves and then turned to look at the room.
It was the embodiment of the bachelor apartment. I don’t mean that in a good way, either. There were pizza boxes, empty beer bottles, and dirty laundry lying in random places around the room. Steve had been a smoker, adding one more unpleasant note to the miasma, which was unpleasant enough already to make me seriously consider turning around and leaving right there.
You can say a lot of bad things about werewolves, but generally we have pretty good hygiene, just because we can’t stand the smell otherwise.
That made things harder than they might otherwise have been. Picking out a scent, even a remarkable scent, would be impossible in this apartment. It quite simply reeked too much for anything less than straight bleach to leave an impression. The clutter, too, would make finding anything noteworthy harder. I had no doubt that we could find it given enough time, but I also had no doubt that time was in short supply. If there was anywhere we couldn’t afford to spend more than a few minutes, it was here.
We split it up the only way that made sense—that is to say, Snowflake looked low and I looked high. I felt pretty sorry for her; I don’t know that I would have been willing to put my face that close to that floor, not for life or love or money.
While she was doing that, I looked around the rest of the room. Now that I knew what to look for, it wasn’t hard to see. The wall of the living room had the same sort of star-shaped hole in it as the pawnshop.
I went to look at it, hoping it would just be one more sign of Steve’s bad living habits. No such luck. It had the same distinctive appearance, right down to the dimpling inside of the mark. I knew what had left it, too, now; the Gáe Bolg had been left leaning against the wall here, and its preternatural sharpness was such that even that tiny pressure had been enough to punch through the sheetrock.
Of the spear itself there was no sign. Of course there wasn’t. That would have been too easy.
I smell someone, Snowflake said as I was realizing that. Someone familiar.
Presumably she would have said more, but she was interrupted right then. “Good eye,” said a male voice heavily flavored with Ireland or somewhere near it, where the open door would have prevented us from seeing him as we came in. “Took me a few minutes to see it.”
I turned immediately to look at him. The man I saw was…unremarkable. He was short, maybe five-three, and leanly muscled. His hair, tied back with a leather thong, was a shade of brown a few shades darker than his eyes, and his complexion was just swarthy enough not to look pale. He grinned sardonically and inclined his head slightly as he met my eye. He was carrying a short, simple sword on one hip, and had a longbow and quiver slung across his back.
“What do you want?” I asked coldly, checking that my feet were clear.
He grinned cheerily. He seemed a lot more human, outside the woods of Faerie—because he was, indeed, human, as far as I could tell. He looked human, at any rate. “Told you,” he said. “You’re better than most these days. Shame to kill you wit’ the bow.”
“Why bother?” I asked. “You already have the spear.”
He laughed. “No, I don’t. It was long gone before I got here.” His grin, although it didn’t fade, hardened into something less pleasant. “Besides. This isn’t about the spear. That’s business, but this is personal, eh?”
“Personal?” I said incredulously. “I haven’t done anything to you!”
“Not about you and me,” he said roughly. “Come on, we ain’t fighting in this sty.”
“Why were you waiting here, then?”
He laughed again. “Where better to ambush a werewolf? Now stop stalling and come outside.” He turned and left.
Should I hit him from behind? Snowflake asked immediately.
No, I said quietly. I bet he’s counting on it. He has to be more than he seems. No true human could have pulled that trick with the arrows in Faerie. I followed him, instead, down the stairs and out the door.
The sun was just setting. “Do you mind waiting a minute?” I asked. “I’d like to watch the sunset, if that’s all right with you.”
He shrugged. “‘Course not. Every man’s entitled to a wish afore dying, ain’t he?”
And that’s how I wound up sitting on the curb next to a magically endowed husky and the Midnight Court assassin who was about to try and kill me, watching the sunset and sharing a packet of jerky from my pocket. He didn’t seem to have any qualms about eating my food. It felt, in a strange way, more companionable than anything else.
Finally, when the streets were dark, he stirred again. “Come on now. It’s time we were getting this over with, innit?”
I glanced around. “What, in the street?”
He laughed again. “Nah, I can’t stand fighting with all this damned unnatural stone underfoot. There’s a bit o’ grass down the way, I reckon that’ll serve.”
“A park, you mean?”
“Aye, that’s what it’s called these days.”
I shook my head in bewilderment. Some days.
I didn’t, as you might be imagining, try and bolt or anything like it. This wasn’t from any sort of honor—I’ve never had much of that particular commodity—but, rather, simple practicality. This loony had made it quite clear that he could ambush me more or less at will, and I didn’t think I could expect to dodge arrows like that again. I harbored no illusions that I survived for any reason other than that I was still playing by the rules of the game. If I were to run, that would make me cowardly vermin, and that would make me fair game for extermination rather than this bizarre sort of honorable duel.
That was why I followed my would-be killer down the road to the park. It was, as he’d said, not far. Snowflake tried to talk me out of it, but she understood when I explained what I was thinking.
Don’t you dare die on me, she said, as I knelt by her side at the edge of the grass. I’m not going through the effort of training a new master.
Don’t worry, I said, resting my forehead on hers and closing my eyes. Aiko won’t let you starve, I expect. I hugged her close for a moment, then stood and summoned Tyrfing to hand. I undid the catch and then dropped the scabbard lightly to the ground next to her. If I lose…you’ll tell her I love her, right? And how I died?
Snowflake didn’t give me any of those platitudes about not talking like that, or tell me that I wasn’t going to die. I appreciated that. I’d hate for the last thing I heard to be clichéd bullshit. Of course, she said gently. I love you too, Winter.
I took a deep breath and then turned away from her.
Across the park—a meager bit of grass, really, hardly deserving of the name—the other man was doing something similar, although he didn’t have a dog with him. He dropped his bow and drew his sword. “You ready?” he called out.
“Yes,” I replied. In spite of everything, I still felt the anticipation of a good fight. It’s stupid and suicidal and incredibly unethical, but there’s a lot of truth to the sayings about violence being exciting.
I almost died in the first instants of the fight.
We closed in the middle of the field. I swept Tyrfing in a horizontal stroke at his neck, hoping to end this fight before he knew it was really even starting. He brought his own weapon, a short sword made of what looked like bronze in the light of the rising moon, to parry long before I got close. That was predictable. I set my teeth and put more force behind the sword. Tyrfing hit his sword and bounced off.
Tyrfing bounced off. Tyrfing. Bounced off.
For a second I was too shocked to respond properly. Tyrfing could cut through practically anything, including magic. Logically I knew that there were weapons out there that were equally as potent and it wouldn’t be able to treat them the same way. Logically I knew that not even Tyrfing could cut everything—but I’d gotten very accustomed to it pretty much doing exactly that. Thus, when it totally failed to do so this time, it was a very unpleasant shock, and one that almost became lethal.
He did not freeze in shock. Instead, he flicked my sword away as quickly and easily as batting a spider aside with a newspaper and riposted. His bronze sword flicked just as quickly toward my face.
I fell back a step and, barely, managed to get Tyrfing into position. He batted it away. Literally—the sword spun end over end into the night, a flicker of silver in the moonlight.
He wasn’t even trying. He gave me a moment to recall Tyrfing to my grasp and step back again, getting out of immediate range. Then, once I was prepped and ready to fight, he attacked. His blade was nearly a blur as it came at me, a vicious overhand slash that dropped from my upper left to lower right. It was the kind of attack that would cut a person from the collarbone to the hip and drop him to the ground in two pieces—theoretically, at any rate. Unless the person in question is a werewolf or the sword in question is the match of Tyrfing, it usually doesn’t pull that kind of feat off.
I think this guy might have, even if his sword had just been a sword. I caught the blow perfectly, raising Tyrfing to meet it at a slight angle, and it was the only thing that saved my life. I was braced against it, and had Tyrfing in a solid two-handed grip, and it still knocked me from my feet.
I turned the fall into a dive and scrambled back to my feet, thickening the air and tugging at his feet to slow him down long enough to get back into position. He’d only been using one hand, for crying out loud. As a werewolf, and an above-average one at that, I was stronger than any human but a hardcore bodybuilder. This guy, whatever he was?
He was stronger.
A lot stronger.
He was loitering just outside of range. “Good reaction,” he said, not even breathing hard. “But your footwork needs improvement.” He flicked another blow at my face. I blocked it and pulled away, stepping back again to keep far enough away that he couldn’t decapitate me at will. “There, you see? You let your weight get on your heels when you retreat. Try again.”
It was crazy. I was busy fighting for my life. He was utterly thrashing me without even trying. And he had the attention free to be giving me fencing lessons.
What followed was quite possibly the strangest fight of my life. I kept retreating in circles, parrying and frantically trying to think of a way to not die in the next few minutes, without much success. He kept following me around, not even pretending to work, and offering swordsmanship advice when I slipped up. Occasionally I riposted, and he easily defended himself. The whole time he never even sped up from his casual lope.
“Better,” he said as I continued to retreat from him. At a thought, my cloak dropped away and pooled on the ground like a puddle of shadow. I couldn’t afford any restriction on my movement now. “But you’ve seen too much fencing, you have. It’s affected your stance. Standing with your feet at right angles only barely works wit’ a rapier, and you are using a slashing weapon. You have to face the enemy to slash effectively, eh?”
“Now,” he continued, “if I do want to turn my feet—” he did so, using the opportunity to launch another of his irritating feints at my knees—”I ‘ave to change the way I attack. By turning sideways slightly, I become a smaller target. That is also excellent for lunging, and I can thrust in line with my body. But movement and defense are so limited that I generally say this stance is suitable only under the rules of fencing, and in actual combat there are no rules regarding right of way or target area.” He shifted back to his previous stance, and his next slash again sent me flying.
“Now,” he continued, “you use your sword with two hands. I think probably you see that, whatever you might have been shown, the traditional duelist’s stance is inappropriate for you. You’re using classic Japanese cuts, which is acceptable, and I think also a primitive form of the Liechtenauer style. I recommend you focus more on that; he had a very realistic view of combat. However,” he said, tripping me and then waiting for me to stand back up, “you have to make certain accommodations. In particular, your sword is closer to a broadsword or a light bastard sword than a true Zweihänder. You’re plenty strong enough, Wolf, you don’t need to put your full power behind a strike to kill. Given that you don’t need two hands on the hilt to manage the weapon or to get adequate striking power, I recommend that you use one except for situations where a second hand is helpful for leverage.” He demonstrated the point by locking blades and then, with the assistance of his free hand on my left forearm, rolling Tyrfing over until my wrists crossed and I lost the sword.
And so on. The worst part, I think, was that it was actually very good advice. Under any other circumstance, I expect I would even have appreciated the impromptu lesson. He was very, very good with a sword—infinitely superior to Aiko, who’d been the only person I had to practice with for quite a while. This isn’t an indication that she’s bad, not at all; I could beat her in a fight, but only by relying on raw power and speed, and even then I’d be thankful for my healing abilities by the end of it. When it came to skill, technique, and elegance, she had me beat any day she wanted.
No, the problem was that he was quite simply the best fighter I’d ever seen. He shifted stance and style every thirty seconds, it seemed, and made all of them look easy—even the ones that he decried as inefficient, impractical, or unsuitable for someone of my skills and armament. I couldn’t beat him. If Snowflake, Kyra, and Aiko had all been pitching in on my side he would still have put us down like butterflies attacking a housecat. I wasn’t sure if even Conn could have beaten him in a pure physical confrontation.
So I wasn’t appreciating the tips. I mean, it was looking really, really unlikely that I would survive long enough to use them.
Long story short, I was desperate. I knew that soon he would tire of the game, and I knew—not feared, not suspected, knew—that when he did I was a dead man. It would take him maybe ten seconds to kill me, tops. If he for some reason wanted to do it slowly.
Which is why I did what I usually do, in the face of drastically superior firepower. I cheated.
Throughout the course of the fight cum tutoring session, I’d been trying to think of a way to beat him. Eventually one occurred to me. I would only get one shot at it, and I would have to get very, very lucky for it to work, but it was the only thing I could think of. So, the next time I got the chance, I checked my position and then started retreating at a slight angle. He didn’t seem to notice the change.
I was breathing pretty hard by that time. Hand-to-hand combat is exhilarating, and make no mistake, but it’s also incredibly hard physical exertion. Werewolf or not, I’d been pushing myself to the absolute limit just trying to survive his idea of instruction. If I didn’t finish this very soon now, he’d kill me by accident.
It was interesting, trying to navigate to where I needed to go. I couldn’t take the time to look behind myself—in addition to a dead giveaway of what I was doing, it was likely to be a dead giveaway of a more literal sort—and as a result I had to rely totally on my magical senses. It was distracting, earning me a sharp reprimand and my first wound of the encounter, a stinging but shallow and minor cut on the cheek. First blood to him—a bad sign, as though I needed another.
Two more steps. One more. And then his foot came down squarely in the middle of my discarded cloak.
I designed the cloak to be responsive to my will and magic, regardless of whether I was actually touching it or not. The second he touched the shadow that was its substance, it flowed up him like a swarm of ants. In a bare instant it had gone from an inert pool of slightly darker darkness than the surrounding absence of light to a mantle of shadow wrapped about him, thickest around the arms.
It wouldn’t stop him. Shadows were insubstantial, and even my magic could only change that to a limited degree—enough, perhaps, to make my cloak as solid as duct tape or heavy twine. Not as strong as chains, and I had the feeling that was what it would take to restrain this guy. Rope wouldn’t do it.
It wouldn’t stop him—but it might, just barely, slow him down enough.
I didn’t waste a moment of my limited time talking. I didn’t go for the fancy maneuver, either; I lunged straight forward, thrusting at the center of his chest.
He did…something. I’m not quite sure what. One moment I was going for the kill and hoping desperately that he didn’t get loose in time. The next, he was standing sideways to me. He ducked his shoulder into my movement. I flipped up and over the resulting fulcrum and landed hard on my back.
“Excellent idea,” he said approvingly. “However, you might want to think twice the next time you try to use shadows against a Champion o’ Night, eh?” He chuckled. “You are a bit thick, ain’t ye?”
I’d recovered enough breath by then to start trying to stand up and not, you know, totally get murderized in the next few minutes. Unfortunately, around the same time I got my arms underneath myself, darkness flowed over my face, bringing with it the delicate aroma of magic and Midnight. It was dark and cool, and not intrinsically unpleasant except for the part where it was also impermeable. Embarrassingly, I could feel that it was also my own damn cloak. Even as I realized that, a hand with approximately the same degree of strength as a silverback gorilla picked me up by the neck, and Carraig started walking.
I struggled. Given that I was blinded and rapidly running short of oxygen, it should come as no surprise that I failed miserably. Within a few minutes the darkness outside my eyes was matched by darkness inside.
The last sound I heard was Snowflake’s mournful howl, seeming to echo from a long way off.