Monthly Archives: December 2014

Debts Outstanding 5.5

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As the maybe-goddess who stank of the desert had promised, I didn’t sleep well.


The nightmares were bad. I had plenty of fodder for bad dreams, and all of them seemed determined to gang up on me tonight. Recollections of my brief stint in Jon’s torture chamber, of the fire that had blinded Snowflake’s right eye, even stuff as far back as standing in the morning sunlight looking at corpses and hearing Edward explain that I’d killed them, all of it came rushing in.


It didn’t help that being awake was hardly better than the nightmares. I could hear Aiko’s rapid, pained breathing, interspersed with occasional screaming and what sounded like convulsions. The doctor murmured soothingly when it seemed particularly bad, which was some minor comfort, but it was still pretty horrible lying there in the dark and imagining what was going on. If I hadn’t needed the sleep so very badly, I doubt I would have been able to keep myself away. As it was, I got very little rest anyway, but that beat nothing.


Eventually, after what felt like years spent lying in that shadowy corner, I felt something prod my shoulder.


“You can stop pretending now,” the doctor said, nudging me with her foot again. Rolling over, I saw for the first time that said foot was bare, and so callused I doubt that fact bothered her. Apparently I hadn’t been at my most observant last night, no surprise.


“What happened?” I asked, pushing myself stiffly to my feet. There’s nothing quite like sleeping in armor to make a guy feel old.


“She’ll live,” the woman explained, looking at Snowflake with an odd expression. “The poison had already inflicted damage when you got here, however, and I expect that there will be some lasting symptoms.”


I swallowed dryly. “How bad?”


“Paresis and hypesthesia of the ipsilateral side,” she said calmly. “Possibly also some muscle damage and mild contusions from the convulsions, and naturally the initial injury will also require a certain amount of time to heal.”


“In English,” I clarified.


“That was English,” she said sharply. “Muscle weakness and impaired sensation on the left side,” she explained. “The risk of death should be passed, assuming that infection is prevented and there are no complications. With reasonable care and therapy, she should be able to walk within the year. To some extent the damage will most likely be permanent, however, and I would strongly advise that you not get your hopes up for anything beyond survival and basic physical competency.” The doctor said all that with about as much emotion as I use describing last week’s meals.


“I apologize for my attitude last night,” I said after a pause to process that. “I was…very stressed.”


“I assure you,” she said dryly, “that it was not the worst I have encountered.” This time she paused. “The kitsune should be awake within a few hours.” Her voice contained the first real emotion I had heard in it, an odd sort of sympathy.


“It would probably be best if I were gone before then,” I said in response to her unvoiced question. I wanted to stay, but it seemed entirely too likely that whatever faerie had attacked us would be coming back for seconds. I didn’t want to be here when he did. It would be dangerous for Aiko, and unforgivably rude to the doctor, whoever she was.


Besides. This wasn’t a good place to fight.


“I understand,” said doctor replied, sounding like she actually did. “She’s welcome to stay here until she no longer requires assistance.”


I thought about it for a moment. Then, deciding that pragmatism was overrated and I’d probably be dead before it could come back and bite me anyway, I said, “Thank you.”


The strange woman smiled back at me, showing teeth that were entirely too white, even, and sharp to be natural. “You are quite welcome, Wolf. Tell your grandfather hello for me.”


The scary doctor had, it turned out, a permanent gate in an attached foyer. That, right there, was impressive. Making a permanent gate between Earth and the Otherside is big, big magic. Big enough, in fact, that I’d only seen it once before, in a weird travel-nexus of sorts that the Watchers used.


So what I’m saying is that finding one in the closet definitely suggested that the doctor was a lot more powerful than she initially appeared. As a matter of fact, it lent a certain amount of credibility to that whole “goddess” comment.


More amusingly yet, said gate led to somewhere in whatever desert it was that made up most of Arizona. I know it has a name, but I can never quite seem to remember it.


A depressingly long time later, Snowflake and I were driving north from New Mexico. It took quite a while to get out of the desert, during which time I think both of us were lucky to avoid heatstroke—even right after dawn, a husky and an armored werewolf have no place in the desert. Finding someone willing to let us hitchhike was an adventure in itself, too, believe me.


Eventually we did manage it. He was an old, somewhat grizzled, and extremely nice man who nevertheless insisted that both of us ride in the back of the truck. I didn’t particularly blame him. I had the armor and all my weapons covered by my cloak, but a scary-looking kid in a trench coat and a husky with an eyepatch are not exactly photogenic at the best of times, let alone in an Arizona desert.


Once we’d made it to Phoenix, the going was a lot easier. We rented a car (a process which made me very glad that I’d taken to carrying a sizable amount of cash whenever I left the house), and then drove. And drove. And drove. And drove.


I never really got into driving, as a concept. Oh, I recognize the value. I just don’t like it. It involves sitting still for long periods, becoming increasingly bored and stiff, and you’re flirting with death the entire time. It’s like a fight, if you took out all the good parts and crossed it with watching TV.


Anyway, around perhaps twelve hours later, when we were just outside of Pueblo, something interesting finally happened. Namely, my phone rang.


“Hey, Winter,” Doug said. “There’s some old guy here who wants to see you. Says his name’s Dwal-something. You know him?”


“Dvalin Kovac?” I asked.


“That’s the one. He a friend of yours or something?”


“A friend?” I chuckled, perhaps a wee bit bitterly. “I used to think so. Tell him I’ll be an hour or so.”


As it turned out, due to heavy traffic and road construction, it was closer to two hours later when I walked into the shop that currently belonged to Doug. Before that, it was mine. Before that, for who knows how long, it was Val’s. It was getting dark, and I wanted nothing so much as a long hot shower, a hearty meal, and to sleep for about fifteen hours. Neither the shower nor the hearty meal was particularly likely, but I figured I could make do with a sponge bath and some raw steak.


I respected Val too much to do any of those things before I went to the shop, though. Besides, I knew the wait would already have strained his—extremely finite at the best of times—patience to the breaking point.


Val hadn’t changed much, in the year and change since I’d seen him. But, then, neither had I.


Not on the outside, anyway.


He looked me up and down, brows lowered disapprovingly. “You sold my shop.”


“Technically,” I said, dropping into one of the chairs, “you gave it to me. And I didn’t sell it for money, I gave it away.”


His frown deepened. “You gave my shop away.” His voice held a depth of disgust usually associated only with unsavory bodily functions. “My shop. You gave it away.”


I sighed. “I thought,” I said, in my best conciliatory tone, “that would be better than getting it blown up. Or burned down, which I suppose is more likely.”


He stared at me. He didn’t say anything. Val typically doesn’t, unless he feels like he needs to for some reason.


“Someone torched my house,” I explained. “And tried to assassinate me, um, six hundred and twenty-two times and counting.”


“Who?” he asked grimly.


I shrugged. “Dunno. Anyways, it seemed pretty clear the best thing I could do for the shop was get myself as far away as possible.”


He grunted. “Maybe. But still,” his voice rose again, “you gave away my shop! And,” his glower returned in force, “you hired a woman! A woman, working in my shop!”


“I heard that!” Kris exclaimed from the workshop proper.


“She needed the work, Val,” I said. “Just like I did, however many years ago. You remember that, right?”


He grunted. “Still. Not proper. Where are you living?”


“I’ve been sleeping in my lab,” I explained, keeping my face straight with an effort. Val talks a good game, but he cares.


“You don’t have a shower there?” he asked.


“No, but I do pretty well with the sink, and I shower at Kyra’s every few days,” I said. “It’s just been a long day.”


Neither of us said anything for a few moments. “I’d thought of taking the business back up,” he said abruptly. “If you’re willing.”


“That’s not my decision to make anymore, Val,” I said gently. “But I don’t think Doug would object too much.” I stood up. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to go get that bath.” I would, too; one of the downsides of being a werewolf, especially after several hours in the desert, was that you could smell yourself at a superhuman level, too.


“Fine,” Val said, waving one hand dismissively. “I have to see what kind of disaster these children have turned my shop into.”


Kyra called me at seven-oh-three in the morning. “There’s something you need to see,” she said grimly. “Somebody’s coming to pick you up.”


That, right there, was a telling indicator that things were serious. I could count on the fingers of one finger how many times she’d sent someone to collect me, and given that it had been Enrico that hardly counted.


I dressed hastily (there’s only so long you can spend in armor, even relatively light and comfy armor like mine, before you need a break, and I hadn’t been able to stand the thought of sleeping in it again) and swallowed a few bites of food before I heard a car pull up outside. I unlocked and opened the door, stepped out into a reasonably heavy rainstorm, and then stood and stared, because there are some things you just don’t see twice.


My lab is not in a high-dollar neighborhood. In fact, it’s in probably the closest thing Colorado Springs has to a genuine slum. Wealthy people don’t tend to go there. You don’t see nice cars there very often, either. On the rare occasions you do, they’re usually being driven by Mexican gangsters.


So seeing a spotless lipstick-red sports car stopped in the middle of the road, being driven by a black dude wearing an expensive suit who was built like a professional heavyweight boxer, was an unusual event to say the least.


He honked, just in case there was some question there. I shook my head and locked up behind myself. Warded or not, I never leave the lab without locking both doors. There are too many things in there I don’t want stolen. Then I walked over and got in the car, at which point the smell confirmed that the driver was indeed a werewolf. Snowflake had to sit on my lap, as there was no backseat, which made things rather cramped, but it was nothing we hadn’t done before.


It was at that point that I learned why Kyra had sent someone, rather than just having me drive to meet her. She was in a serious rush. The strange werewolf burned rubber out of there like the hounds of hell were on our tail, pushing that sports car to the limit. I would like to emphasize, at this point, that it was indeed still raining.


“Who’s dead?” I asked over the horns as he made an illegal left turn down a one-way alley.


“No one,” he said grimly. “Yet.”


He was not a chatty guy. He literally didn’t say another word on the drive south, cutting through rush-hour traffic like they were standing still. I considered trying to make conversation—or, at the very least, learn what the heck had Kyra so freaked—but his demeanor prohibited it.


He didn’t take a wrong turn in the maze of curving streets, dead ends, and inaccurate signs that led to the pack house, which was more than I could ever seem to accomplish. He didn’t slow down, either, which struck me as more than slightly reckless. He didn’t seem to move quickly on the way in, but somehow he was still holding the door open by the time I got there. Going in, I saw something I didn’t remember having ever seen before.


Kyra was sitting in the lounge area watching the television. More specifically, she was watching some sort of news program.


“Thanks, Jack,” she called, not looking away from the screen.


“No problem,” the big guy rumbled, and then turned and left.


I walked forward and joined Kyra on the couch. Snowflake, of course, lay down on my feet and closed her eyes—she could look through mine just fine, after all.


The host of whatever show this was had two guests onstage. I knew who both of them were, which was sorta surprising in itself. One of them was a popular actor of some sort, who I only vaguely recognized, and a publically known werewolf. The other, the one currently speaking as I walked in, was a prestigious researcher at a well-known medical school—I didn’t recognize his face, but they had the name at the bottom of the screen. I didn’t know exactly what awards and such he’d won—that, too, wasn’t something I paid all that attention to. In any case, there are only really three things you need to know about him.


He was a werewolf. He wasn’t public about it. And, as I discovered right then, he was hands-down the most magnificent liar I had ever seen, barring Loki and Conn, and the only reason I was ruling those two out was that I’d never actually caught them at it.


“So you don’t believe that werewolves exist?” the interviewer was asking as I came in.


“I don’t,” the scientist said, his voice trustworthy and charismatic and all those other words people use for what werewolves would simply call dominance.


“Well,” the other man said, “I think I’m going to have to take exception to that claim. I can say from personal experience that werewolves definitely exist.”


“You still claim to be one, then?” the scientist asked.


“I most certainly do.”


“So you’re allergic to silver, then?”


“That’s one way to phrase it,” the actor agreed.


“Right. Would you mind if I confirmed that real quick?”


“Not at all.”


The scientist smiled the slow, confident smile of a predator who knows he’s about to win the chase. He pulled a coin out of the pocket of his coat and handed it to the other man.


The actor was good at his job. His mouth tightened as he took the coin. Within a few seconds, there were tears rolling down his face, his jaw was clenched, his hands shook, veins stood out on his forehead. Less than ten seconds after he’d touched the silvery metal, his hands spasmed and the coin landed with a clatter on the floor.


The audience stared in dead silence. None of the werewolves’ promotional material had included anything like this.


The other man clapped slowly. “A masterful performance,” he said, bending down to pick up the coin. “Truly marvelous. In fact, I only have one objection to raise.


The actor raised one slightly unsteady eyebrow. “And what is that, Doctor?”


His smile grew broader, until even a human couldn’t help but recognize it as an expression of victory. “This coin,” he explained, rolling it around in his hand, “is ninety-nine point nine percent pure…platinum.”


There was a moment where it was hard to tell who was more shocked—the actor (and damn he was good at faking shock, too), the show host, or the audience. And then, of course, it went to commercial, because that’s how TV works.


“What the hell is this?” Kyra asked, turning to face me.


“They’re playing both sides,” I said thoughtfully. “It’s Conn’s work, it has to be. Nobody else could set something like this up.” I glanced at her. “I take it this is what you wanted me to see?”


She grimaced. “Yeah. It seemed like something you might want to know about, and I know you don’t have a television.”


Over the next hour, Doctor Whatsisname made an extremely convincing case for the recent werewolf phenomenon being an enormous hoax.


None of the werewolves—not one—had been willing to be examined in a clinical study, although several of them had been invited repeatedly and promised significant financial remuneration if they participated. Of the handful of people who had responded, all had proven to be quacks, unwilling or unable to demonstrate any superhuman abilities whatsoever. Most of them had fallen for the same platinum coin trick as the actor—who, I noticed, was not on the stage. He’d served his purpose in this game.


Regarding the lists of werewolves which Conn had arranged to have published, there were a number of questionable facts which had since come to light. For example, almost half of the names on that list belonged to people who either didn’t exist, or were deceased, or who knew nothing about it and had since stated that they were not werewolves, hadn’t signed any of the letters they were supposed to have, and in fact hadn’t even realized their names were on those lists until friends called to ask them about it.


Of the other half, most were entertainers—actors, comedians, that sort of thing. Several of them had openly admitted that the whole thing was a hoax they came up with as a prank, and which had exploded far beyond what they’d intended. The rest—and I was gratified to see my name come up, if only as a passing reference—had largely made significant sums of money on the resulting publicity, and had then absconded with the funds. Granted, at least in my case, it wasn’t nearly as dramatic as they made it sound.


Several of the so-called werewolves had business ties that were so far beyond shady as to make even the government blush. The companies which had sprung up selling silver bullets—at, of course, a significant profit—all had at least one “werewolf” on the company board. Most of them were munitions companies which had been started just before the big announcement, and were ready with the silver ammo suspiciously quickly afterward.


Of the videos of werewolf transformations which had been released to the press, seventeen out of twenty-one refused to be examined. Of the other four, three were found to have been obviously altered, and the last withdrew permission at the last moment. Even without study of the film, more than half of the other clips were found to have been clearly—and very badly—Photoshopped. The scientist on stage, who had long since eclipsed the actual show host, played several of these, and pointed out where they had clearly been tampered with. Several didn’t show the change at all, just a man and then, standing in the same place, what appeared to be a dog wearing a lot of makeup.


The live footage, by far the most convincing evidence, had equal or even worse flaws. Much of it, for example, was found to have the same alterations as the other videos. Most of the reporters and cameramen were found to either belong to the same corporations as the so-called werewolves, or suddenly had lots of money in offshore accounts, or both. Most of them had since quit working entirely, several moving to other countries. None responded to a request for comment.


It was incredible. It was astounding. I knew that werewolves were real, I knew that the man talking was also a werewolf, I was practically a werewolf myself. And yet, listening to him, I almost doubted. It was like convincing Newton that gravity was a hoax.


I had no doubt that it was true, either. The evidence would all check out, every “werewolf” would be found to have all kinds of suspicious connections. And, most damning of all, none of us—none of us—would, as we certainly could, prove our reality instantly by shifting on a busy street corner. None of us would, because everyone—even those, like Kyra and me, who hadn’t known ahead of time—had to realize that this was a setup.


It made sense, too, that was the worst thing. Conn hadn’t wanted werewolves to become public knowledge in the first place. He’d only even considered it because he felt that the fae were forcing his hand. Well, after this, it wouldn’t matter what the fae or anyone else did. Werewolves would be the biggest hoax of the twenty-first century, and only the most desperate and deluded would ever believe in us again.


It was a funny thing. You’d think that, once publicized, it would be hard to get people to not believe in werewolves again—but I was betting Conn was right, just based on basic psychology. At this point, anyone who had “fallen for it” would be incredibly embarrassed and want to avoid anything having to do with the subject—they wouldn’t even let you get through the first sentence before they were laughing in your face, overreacting so that no one would think they were falling for the same trick twice. Anyone who hadn’t would be too smug about that fact to pay attention. The timing was right, too—give the public just long enough for things to sink in, just long enough to start wondering why there’d been nothing since the initial reveal, and then spring it.


There’s no idea quite so certain to be ridiculed as a popular story everyone wanted to believe in, and which for a while most everyone did believe in, which is then shown to be a hoax. Just ask the cold fusion people.


It was genius. It was perfect. It was quite simply the most incredible lie I’d ever seen firsthand. Looking at that masterpiece of deception, I felt what I imagined a pianist might feel watching Mozart in person might. It was humbling.


Eventually, Kyra turned it off and turned to face me. “This is insane,” she said. “This will ruin my reputation. And a lot of others.” Her voice didn’t suggest that this fact particularly bothered her.


“It wouldn’t have worked if it didn’t,” I said distractedly. “Everyone would know you were in on the game.” I shook my head slowly. “Conn must have been planning on this the whole time. The evil genius.”


“Stupid,” she corrected. “There are way too many variables in something this scale. It would have been way too likely for someone to accidentally provide definite proof.” She frowned. “Especially if he didn’t tell people what he was planning.”


I grinned. “I’m sure he had another dozen plans for if that did happen. That’s how Conn works.” I’d played chess with the old werewolf a few times. I never, not one time, won a game, and the few times it looked like I might he proceeded to spring some fiendish trap and win instantly. I generally considered myself a passable player, although it had been a while since I played—but he could make Kasparov look a little out of shape. I don’t say that for no reason. He approached real life the same way—it didn’t matter what you did, he had a dozen plans ready to go for it.


The worst part was that you could never quite tell whether he really did predict what you did, or he just had a contingency plan for what he thought was an extreme long shot. I’d asked him a couple times, and he just smiled at me. It was the most frustrating thing ever.


“Life’s gonna be exciting here for a while,” Kyra said thoughtfully. She sounded, if anything, vaguely intrigued.


I chuckled. “Now you know how I feel.” My life might not be the safest, or the most fun, but I had to admit it was seldom boring these days.


“Speaking of which,” she said. “Progress?”


I grimaced. “Depends. One of the fae apparently decided to kill me because I’m investigating it. Does that count?”


“No,” she said dryly. Simultaneously, Snowflake protested, Hey, we all know he decided to kill us because I’m investigating. Everybody knows you can’t investigate your way out of a can of cat food.


“Speaking of which,” I said, ignoring the dog. “Think you could get me a record of transactions at that pawn shop for the week before the killing?”


She shrugged. “I can try. You think it was a theft after all?” Kyra had, of course, copied the police files before I got them. I wasn’t particularly surprised, nor did I mind. If I hadn’t wanted her reading them I wouldn’t have had them delivered to her address. And it saved time not to talk about them, anyway.


Besides. This way I could check on whether she would snoop on my mail, given the chance. She was my best friend, and I trusted her with my life—but paranoia isn’t just a sometimes thing. I’m not necessarily comfortable with this tendency to test everyone around me, but it’s kept me alive this far.


“I don’t know that it wasn’t a theft,” I said in answer to Kyra’s question. “And the Sidhe are pissed about something. I’ve never heard of murder bothering them all that much, so theft is looking more likely.” I shrugged. “Don’t have a better idea, mainly.”


She grunted. “Works for me. I’ll see what I can do.” She frowned. “You want me to see what I can dig up on the other kid while I’m at it?”


“Can’t hurt.”


She nodded firmly. “I’ll get right on it. What are you doing?”


I thought for a moment. “Well,” I said eventually, “I think first I’ll consult a demon formed from the destructive impulses found in the natural world. Then I’ll probably be randomly attacked by a monster from ancient stories so obscure that not even mythology geeks remember them, from which I might learn some cryptic facts about my heritage or some sort of big picture which won’t make sense for several years, if ever. Then maybe I’ll do a little breaking-and-entering after, so Snowflake doesn’t get bored.”


She rewarded me with an unamused stare.


I shrugged. “What? You have to be realistic about these things.”


“That is not being realistic. That is a comic book.”


“You’re just upset because you know I’m right,” I said smugly. “Oh, one more thing. Do you think you could get your hands on the spikes they used on Humberto?”


“I’ve already got ’em,” she said. “Didn’t want to leave the things lying around. Why?”


“There was a signature at the scene,” I said. “Some kind of magic I didn’t recognize. I might be able to analyze it, figure something out.”


“Fair enough. Give me a minute to grab them for you, and I’ll let you know when I have the information.”

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Debts Outstanding 5.4

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Walking through Faerie is a memorable experience. From what I understand, it’s one of the more hospitable-to-humans sections of the Otherside. But if so, I honestly don’t want to see the inhospitable places, because Faerie’s still really freaking weird.


Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The clearing Aiko used for her gate was about ten yards away from a path—a standard clearing, about twenty feet across with a little stream running through it, the water of which glowed deep blue. Said path was little more than a game trail winding through the trees, except that the ground shone with a soft silver light where the nearly-full moon touched it. It wasn’t a reflection, either; the gravel and dirt actually glowed when struck by moonlight, while the rest of the path was pitch-dark. So there was a constant, slow dance of light and darkness on the path as tree branches, moving gently in the perfectly still air, alternately revealed and obscured the ground.


That, right there, would be creepy enough. But there were all kinds of other things, too, in case a traveler might not be unnerved already. The scents of pine and night-blooming flowers were thick in the air, and shifted every other step, which was normal enough…except there wasn’t a breeze to change. There was the occasional sound, somewhere off in the woods, of a wolf howling, which didn’t bother me, and also of animals whose cries I didn’t recognize and which I suspected had no names, which did. You could walk for ten minutes down that path and, looking back, see that you’d covered less than twenty feet—and then the very next step might move you several hundred yards.


It was mad and disturbing and disorienting, is what I’m saying. Adding to that was the fact that whenever the light of that too-bright moon touched me I felt the wolf inside me stirring, urging me to change and run down the Faerie path in a skin infinitely better suited to this world. I wanted to run, to hunt, to chase and kill and lap up the blood, and God help anyone who got in our way because they would most certainly need it.


That wasn’t too disturbing. Werewolves, and I am functionally identical to a werewolf in this regard, get that feeling every full moon night. But it wasn’t the full moon, not quite yet, and in any case it shouldn’t have felt that strong. I definitely shouldn’t have only been feeling it when I was in the moonlight; that kind of thing doesn’t really matter to a werewolf. If the moon is full, it makes no difference if it goes behind a cloud.


So what I’m getting at here is that, while Faerie was undoubtedly a magical wonderland of mystery and fascination, it wasn’t a very friendly wonderland. I suppose you could think of it as the geographic equivalent of straight habanero; it might taste delicious, but it wasn’t anyone’s idea of comfort food.


It was also the kind of place that was perfectly designed to trigger paranoia and the feeling that you’re being watched in pretty much everyone. I’d been in the Midnight portion of Faerie three times now, because Faerie’s pretty much the closest part of the Otherside to my world and therefore gets a lot of use for travel. Every time’s been slightly different, but the same underneath. Repetition hadn’t made it any easier to cope with.


So when, after about half an hour of walking, I started to feel twitchy and unnerved, I would have chalked it up to general paranoia and an eerie environment. Would have—but Loki had already warned me that there would be people looking to take me out. So rather than dismissing the feeling, I paid very close attention.


There was nothing there. I couldn’t detect a single thing with any of my senses, not so much as a twig out of place. And yet, in spite of everything logic and my senses were telling me, the sensation of being watched grew stronger rather than fading.


Nothing happened. Nothing happened while we ambled down the moonlit path, none of the three of us saying much. Nothing continued to happen as we turned off the path into the deep woods, where the trees overhead blocked out most of the light and we were forced to navigate in large part with senses other than vision. As we walked through the forest, occasionally laughing at each other when we stumbled, there was still nothing happening.


It could drive a guy crazy, all that nothing. Especially when, this whole time, I only grew more convinced that there was nothing there, and my instincts only grew more adamant that someone, or something, was watching us.


The waterfall was, as Aiko had promised, worth seeing. The moonlight glittered off the surface of the slow-moving water and the crystalline rocks, turning the whole world into a dazzling patchwork of constantly shifting light. The waterfall itself was nearly fifty feet tall, and so wide that the enormous pines didn’t meet above it.


It helped, of course, that while the river involved must have heard that water was supposed to flow downhill it was apparently something of a rebel, and firmly believed that Isaac Newton had missed a few things.


We spent nearly an hour there, I think, though the moon never moved and of course no mortal timekeeping device would work in Faerie. It was…cathartic, perhaps, would be the best word. For that one hour, it didn’t matter that Loki was far from the only deity taking an unhealthy interest in my life. It didn’t matter that several of my friends had died, and most of the ones who were left were very nearly as frightened of me as for me. It didn’t matter that I had cost Snowflake her eye, and Aiko her home, and Enrico his life.


It was nice, to forget all that for a little while.

“So I guess you probably need to be leaving,” Aiko said. “Work to do and all that.”


“Yeah,” I agreed, perhaps somewhat reluctantly. We were currently walking on another path, one which was at roughly right angles with the last, having just exchanged forest for rolling hills covered in what I knew would be razor-sharp grass. It might have made more sense to leave by the same way we left, except that apparently it was a really bad idea to retrace your steps on the Otherside, and in Faerie in particular. When Aiko said that, I didn’t ask why. Granted, it’s entirely possible she’s just screwing with me, but I don’t see a need to test that hypothesis.


“‘Kay. There should be somewhere up here to stop and make a gate for you.”


Aiko kept talking after that, but I missed whatever it was she said, because Snowflake had stopped dead still in the path. She was a perfect picture of whatever the opposite of relaxation is in a canine—ears laid back, hackles up, teeth bared and growling softly. At the same time, I got a sudden surge of alarm from her mentally, a spike of emotion without words attached.


You don’t survive as many assassination attempts as I have by being complacent, slow to react, or indecisive. The instant I felt that first rush of alarm, I froze as well, throwing out one arm to stop Aiko, and gathered magic to myself.


In the very next instant, with only the gentlest whir of motion, an arrow slammed down into the path directly in front of us.


It was dramatic looking, a long black shaft tipped with a very sharp-looking broadhead. The fletching was more black, natural feathers if I was any judge. I couldn’t tell, in the dark, what metal the arrowhead was made of, but it sure as heck wasn’t steel.


It was sleek and deadly and it slammed into the ground at an oblique angle exactly where I would have been standing if we hadn’t stopped.


We all stared for just an instant at how close that had been. Then, after the briefest of hesitations, I burst into action. I called Tyrfing and unsheathed it in the same motion, thickened the air around us as much as I possibly could, and extended tendrils of my less mundane senses out into the air perhaps twenty feet in every direction.


Like I said. If you’re indecisive in the face of danger, you tend to come down with a nasty case of dead.


There was a brief pause. Then a male voice spoke. You notice I don’t say it was a man’s voice, because I wasn’t sure that it was. It was loud, but oddly sourceless, seeming to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and beyond a vague impression that the speaker was standing to our left—the same direction the arrow had come from—I couldn’t have said where he was.


“Lucky timing,” he said, his voice thick with an accent I couldn’t quite place. Irish, perhaps. “Wonder how much luck you have left?”


As he finished speaking, I felt something stir the air—in the opposite direction as the voice had come from. The arrow was, of course, perfectly aimed, and it had too much momentum to be slowed more than slightly by my pathetic shield of air.


Human reflexes couldn’t have pulled it off. Werewolf reflexes couldn’t either, and in any case a werewolf shouldn’t be fast enough.


But somehow, just as the arrowhead punched through, I reached out with Tyrfing, feeling as though I were moving through molasses, and swatted it away. It felt easy as breathing, almost casual. Moving as slowly as I felt, it flew to the side and embedded itself somewhere in the grass.


There was another pause. “Well, well,” the voice said, coming from somewhere behind us this time. Aiko tensed, just now registering what had happened. Snowflake was snarling quietly in her throat. “Maybe not all luck, at that. How many can you do, then?”


That was all the warning we had. It was enough. The first arrow, coming from directly behind us where the voice had been, was never a threat. Snowflake, demonstrating skills honed in combat and long hours of Frisbee, managed to jump and, incredibly, catch the shaft of the arrow in her mouth. The second, launched almost simultaneously from the opposite direction, I batted aside as I had the first. The third, which came once again from the right-hand side of the path, I just barely managed to slip aside from. It sliced through the shadowstuff of my cloak, but skipped off the armor underneath, and the shadows merged again almost instantaneously. The fourth I simply ducked away from, and it flew on past me.


“Promising!” the mysterious voice shouted, from somewhere above and behind us—in a tree, most likely. “You’re too good not to fight. I’ll be seeing you later, Wolf!”


I waited, but it appeared he was gone. Tyrfing dropped from my hand. I hadn’t felt it in the press of the moment, but the magic—not to mention the incredible, impossible speed—had taken a toll. I was suddenly, staggeringly tired. I don’t mean that figuratively; I literally staggered to the side and then dropped to the ground.


WINTER! Snowflake shouted, her mental voice panicky, horrorstruck. I turned, terrified to think of what I might see, and looked at her.


I was not disappointed.


Snowflake was unharmed—like me, she’d managed to somehow avoid every bolt. Aiko was not as lucky. A black-fledged arrow was sticking out of her abdomen. As I watched, the kitsune crumpled to the earth, her expression a horrific blend of shock and agony.


I crossed the distance between us very, very quickly. “Don’t move,” I said quickly, using a pocketknife to cut away her shirt so that I could examine the wound. Hopefully it wasn’t as bad as it looked.


The good news is, it wasn’t. The bad news is, that was because it was worse. The arrow, still in the wound, had acted as a plug. Otherwise the blood would already be starting to pool around her. The arrow had punched halfway through her abdomen, just to the left of her navel.


My heart sank when I saw that. It had punctured the small intestine—there wasn’t really any doubt of that. It was the kind of wound that, while it might take its painful time about it, was consistently lethal. A werewolf under the full moon, or with the support of a pack, could survive it. A normal person who got modern medical care—promptly—might have a chance. But I don’t know that I would bet on it.


Aiko was not a werewolf. As a kitsune, she was stronger and tougher than most women her size, and possessed of inhuman stamina and grace. But underneath she was as fragile as anyone else.


“We have to get you to a doctor,” I said immediately. “How—”


She cut me off, lifting one hand to rest on mine. When she spoke, her voice was so weak that a human wouldn’t have heard a thing.


But I am not a human. And, for better or worse, I heard her. “Don’t bother,” she said. “Poison,” she said. And then, heartrendingly, “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”


And then her eyes slipped closed. A spasm of pain went through her body, and her hand slipped off of mine.


I stared for a moment. No, I thought. Not you too. It took me a second to realize that I’d spoken aloud. “No,” I repeated, standing up. I glanced at my pocketknife, and something occurred to me. Something very, very bad.


Winter, Snowflake said, sounding sad and lonely and terrified. Winter, I don’t think this is—


I tuned her out. I stood, took a few steps away, and dragged the knife across my hand, where I wasn’t wearing any armor. I felt the pain, but it seemed to come from very far away, and my awareness of it was more rational than visceral. The blood covered the blade, ran down my hand, dripped from my fingers to the ground.


“Twilight,” I said, sliding life and magic into the words. My voice was shaking and unsteady, but for all that it was deep and full of power, and in it I could hear the screaming blizzard winds, the howling of wolves, the rumble of stone breaking in the deep cold.


In the mortal world, there likely wouldn’t have been any outward sign of what was happening. But this was the Otherside, where nothing was what it seemed and everything seemed what it was, and the power and the fury in my voice evoked power and fury in the world around me. The sky overhead boiled with newborn storm clouds, in which lightning crawled and thunder roared an answer to my voice. The trees shook with sudden wind, and even the earth seemed to tremble.


Was it real, or in my head? It was hard to say, on the Otherside, quite what the difference was.


“Lady of the air, hear me,” I continued, louder now. The boom of thunder followed on the end of the words. “Mistress of the whirlwind, listen to me.” Boom! “Sylph of the Twilight Court, come to me!” I finished in a shout. The magic poured out of me in a rush, leaving me almost too tired to stand, and half a dozen lightning bolts crashed down at once, blinding and deafening me. Snowflake whined, sounding somewhere between awe and horror.


I felt it, when she came. There was a sudden twist of power in the air around me, something that wasn’t quite magic like I used, smelling of moving air and ozone. A moment later, a buzzing androgynous voice spoke behind me. “It was not necessary to shout.”


I turned, bowing my head. “It seemed prudent.” Looking up, I saw that it was indeed the same sylph I’d met before. She was naked, clearly displaying the total absence of any distinguishing sexual characteristics, although I knew this sylph was female. She had metallic silver skin that shone brightly in the moonlight, huge emerald-green compound eyes, and translucent insect wings ten feet across. “You owe me,” I said.


She inclined her head very slightly. “That is correct,” she said, emotionless and inhuman.


I indicated Aiko, who appeared to still be conscious, and in a lot of pain. “This kitsune requires medical assistance,” I said carefully. I was playing with fire here—or, more accurately, lightning. “Save her, without significantly or permanently altering her mind or soul, and we are even.”


The sylph cocked her head sideways, further than a human spine could bend, and turned those huge gemlike eyes on Aiko. Snowflake, still too terrified for words, was trying to hide inside my cloak, and whimpering. “I have halted the progression of the taint in her blood,” the sylph said after a moment.


“Not good enough,” I said immediately. “The poison needs must be removed permanently, and she requires attention for the mechanical injury as well.”


There was a pause, during which the only sounds were Snowflake whimpering, a sort of buzzing noise from the sylph, and the hallucinatory sound of rushing winds that seemed to affect me whenever I was close to her. “I can provide transport to a location in which this assistance will be rendered,” she said after a moment. “And will also arrange payment for said assistance. Will this be sufficient?”


I bowed my head again. “I believe so.”


There was another pause. “This action is of greater than sufficient value to balance my debt.”


“I will owe you one favor of your choice,” I said, “of comparable value.”


Pause. “This is acceptable.” The sylph turned and, with a wave of one silver-skinned clawlike hand, opened another gate amid the reek of wind and ozone. She produced as well a glowing green jewel of some kind, inscribed with runes. “Give this to the female you encounter there. It will serve as payment in full for required healing. Inform her also that a large dose of deathstalker venom is present in the kitsune.”


I took it, wincing slightly at the electric shock that went through my body when it touched my skin. Then, carefully not saying “thank you” or anything like it—acknowledgment of debt is a very bad idea when dealing with the fae—I turned to leave. I picked Aiko up, very careful not to jostle the arrow still sticking out of her abdomen more than absolutely necessary. Then I carried her through the gate, Snowflake tight on my heels.


I can only imagine how horrible that transition must have been for Aiko, given that she was already seriously injured and poisoned. For me, and also for Snowflake, it was bad enough. Worse, by far, than that between Colorado and Faerie.


I managed not to drop Aiko or otherwise make her condition any worse, which I felt was a sizable accomplishment all on its own. I managed further to not puke all over myself, which seemed like dedication above and beyond the call of duty. Other than that, the less said about that gate the better.


Usually the first sensory data I receive after a gate is olfactory in nature. That’s how my brain works, plain and simple. This time, it was auditory.


“Gibberish gabble babble gobbledygook!” a woman said loudly, sounding very not happy. Or, at least, that’s what it sounded like to me. I expect that if I spoke whatever language it was she was using it would have been a perfectly coherent and eloquent complaint.


I opened my eyes to the painful glare of a dimly lit, windowless room. The woman berating me was…visually striking, you might say. She was maybe all of five feet tall, looked like she’d read the chapter on anorexia and thought that it sounded like a marvelous idea, except maybe a bit underachieving, and had skin several tones darker than you typically saw in Colorado, or probably most other places outside Africa, and redder than any skin I could remember seeing in my life.


“I’m sorry,” I said carefully. “I don’t understand you.”


She switched to English midtirade. Literally, I mean; it sounded like she didn’t bother to finish her sentence first. “—fucking floor! I mean God is it too much to ask that you have a little respect and I tell you that’s what’s wrong with the youth of today is they don’t have any damned respect and you can’t even be bothered to keep your fucking blood off my floor I say—”


Okay. Eloquent may have been an overstatement.


As it didn’t appear that she intended to pause, or for that matter breathe, for quite a while, I interrupted her. “I’m sorry,” I said, holding Aiko out in front of me. “But my friend here needs help.”


She broke off to glare at me, pulling herself up to her full, unintimidating height. “Do I look like a doctor?” she demanded, attempting to look down her longish nose at me.


I glanced over the scrubs, lab coat, and stethoscope. “Well, yes,” I said. Not the most typical doctor, perhaps—the scrubs had been cut off, with slightly disturbing precision, to make a pair of shorts, which didn’t even come as low as the hem of the lab coat—but still definitely doctoral.


She sniffed. “Well there’s that at least. I suppose you’re expecting me to work pro bono?”


“Actually,” I said, shifting Aiko around so that I could dig in my cloak for the gem, “no. I was told to offer this as payment.” And yeah, my arm was starting to get tired by then, but there was no way I was admitting that.


The black woman glared at me, then leaned forward to examine the stone. “Well that’s bloody good enough,” she said, standing up and snatching the emerald off my palm. She immediately made it disappear into the pocket of her lab coat, where it didn’t make any kind of bulge even though it really should have. “Well what are you standing there for you fucking idiot?” she demanded of me, turning around. “Follow me stupid and make it bloody snappy unless you want whatserface there to die you moron.”


I followed her, not bothering to respond to the torrent of abuse, through a small door into what looked like a crypt. I mean, it seriously looked like a crypt; the stone walls were carved with intricate designs that made me think of hieroglyphics, and arched neatly into the vaulted ceiling overhead. This impression was only reinforced by the marble slab in the middle of the room. The world around us still had the peculiar intensity of the Otherside, but this domain seemed to be lacking the arbitrary quality that made Faerie truly frightening.


“Watcha waiting for hurry up and put ‘er ‘ere,” the doctor demanded snappishly, stopping next to the slab and pulling on a pair of latex gloves. Where she got the gloves from, I was not prepared to speculate on. “Careful now watch what you’re doing you fucking moron haven’t you ever heard of proper fucking handling I mean really now!”


“Have you ever heard of using commas?” I wondered, gently setting Aiko on the slab. “I mean, I’m not an expert here, but most people seem to understand language better if you occasionally pause to distinguish separate clauses, right?”


She sniffed again, casually displacing me at Aiko’s side. “I don’t have the bloody time. Magic?”




“You heard me!” she shrilled, causing Snowflake to wince. “I said, what bloody kind of magic am I bloody looking at here I mean God come on already hurry it up why don’t we!”


“Oh. She’s a fullblooded kitsune. I’m mostly a werewolf, and we were transported here by a sylph.” I remembered something. “Oh, and she said to tell you that the arrow was poisoned with deathstalker venom.”


She paused. “Well now,” she said, sounding almost sane, “that’s interesting. Deathstalker, eh? Good bloody thing you came here. But what I meant was, what kind of magic is this arrow? Don’t bother answering, Wolf,” she said, examining the arrow.


I paused. “How do you know my name?”


“Well some kind of bloody goddess I’d be if I didn’t now wouldn’t I!” she exclaimed. “I mean, really who doesn’t know your bloody name. What’d you poor bastards do to piss off the faeries?”


“You mean that’s a fae arrow?” I asked, electing not to pursue the rest of what she’d said. I just knew that wouldn’t get me anywhere useful.


“Definitely,” she confirmed, producing unpleasant-looking metal tools from somewhere. “Midnight Court Sidhe, no doubt about it. Not that it matters mind you, I was just making a little bloody conversation, not that you’d know what that means eh?” She paused and turned to look at me. Her jet-black eyes were bright, burning with some emotion I didn’t recognize, and when I looked into them, I could smell her power. It smelled of sand, hot wind off the desert like the stinking breath of some great predator, the scents of blood and poison and life and death and everything in between. And it smelled strong.


“You can’t help from here,” she said, her voice sounding for the first time almost normal. “And you don’t want to see some of the things I’m going to have to do.”


I swallowed. “Do you mind if I sleep?” I asked diffidently, nodding to the corner of the room.


She snorted, and it was probably my imagination that said that her breath didn’t smell human. Right. I believed that. “No hairs off my back. Just don’t blame me if you have nightmares, eh?” She turned back to the slab, humming something under her breath.


“Doctor?” I said softly. She didn’t turn, but she did pause in her motion. “I understand that sometimes accidents happen. But if something should…happen to her, and I think that you didn’t do everything in your power to save her…I’ll be upset.”


She snorted loudly. “You think I bloody care?”


“I think,” I said slowly, “that if you’ve heard all that much about me, maybe you should.” I turned and, staggering very slightly from sheer fatigue, walked to the corner to sleep. Snowflake followed, keeping her good eye turned toward the room.

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Debts Outstanding 5.3

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About two hours later, after a solid meal that wiped out most of the rest of my cash in pocket, Kyra called to say that Frishberg had delivered, and been paid out of the pack’s bribery account. She phrased it exactly like that, too, which made me laugh. Trust werewolves to have an account set up specifically to make bribing officials more convenient.


We picked it up at her house, reimbursing her three grand while we were there (I figured, given that I was at least partially helping them out, the werewolves could cover the last thousand), and then took the whole stack back to the lab for study. It was, thankfully, a lot more complete than Loki’s dossiers.


I read them all, in detail, a few times. I compared them to each other. I made what guesses I could about the parts that wouldn’t make it into the official report. I took my time about it, being sure not to miss anything. I knew that if I did, it would, inevitably, turn out to be the crucial detail that the entire thing turned on. That’s just how my life goes. It took me about an hour.


Then I threw the whole stack down on the table in frustration. “This makes no sense,” I complained loudly, extending a tendril of energy as I did.


Something like black fog shifted on the surface of the bones in the corner of the room. “Whassat, Boss?” something said in a voice that resembled, more than anything else, a snake sliding across flagstones. It was perfectly intelligible—which, given that the speaker had no body beyond a canine skeleton, it really shouldn’t have been—but it sounded nothing like a human voice.


“This,” I said, gesturing disgustedly at the mess of papers. “This makes no sense whatsoever.”


True dat, Snowflake agreed sourly. She was lying on my feet, eye firmly closed. She’d given up on trying to extract anything valuable from the police documents almost fifteen minutes earlier. I think Loki’s screwing with you.


Legion, who had been about to speak—don’t ask me how I know that, because I have no idea; the demon just had a way of making it known—paused. “Loki’s mixed up in this?” he asked, a touch of something almost like fear in his voice.


It takes a lot to scare a demon.


“Yeah,” I said bitterly. “I’d almost agree with you,” this addressed to Snowflake, “except for one thing. He cashed in his favor for this. Loki’s random, sure, but almost all of the stories paint him as crazy self-interested. Would he throw away even a minor debt for a practical joke?”


Well, she admitted, maybe not. But seriously, this is nutty.


“Hey,” Legion interrupted. “I get that at least one of you was born in a barn, but could you maybe pretend you’ve at least heard of manners as a concept?”


“Three people murdered in the past two weeks,” I said, shuffling the papers back into a stack. “One of them was a werewolf, probably today. Somebody with freaky weird magic crucified him with silver spikes. Before that was some random criminal. Convicted twice on theft, and they think he’s done a lot more. Got shot outside his apartment last week. Then the first one, almost two weeks ago by now, owned a pawn shop. Stabbed twice in the chest. There’s all kinds of weirdness around that one that make me think magic, but by now the residue would be too degraded to be worth checking.”


Legion waited a moment, until it became clear I had nothing more to add. “What’s the connection?” he prompted, for once forgetting to be offensive. The demon enjoys a challenge, intellectual or physical.


Exactly, Snowflake muttered.


I sighed. “Yeah. Pretty much. The connection is, Loki said this morning that there had been three murders in the area, and he wanted me to get to the bottom of it. He implied that there was a theft motive. Beyond that? I got nothing.”


The demon stared at me. “You must be joking.”


I rolled my eyes. “About which part?”


“I’m not sure. I mean, I would have said that the idea of you taking work from Loki was ridiculous, but then you’re moronic enough you might just do it. Then there’s the implication that Loki gives a shit about theft, but that seems a bit too dull for even your sense of humor.”


I thought for a moment. “You know,” I said after a moment, “that’s true. Why the heck would Loki care about a few murders?”


Legion’s eyes, sparks of intensely bright blue light, never moved. The impression that he was rolling them at me was nevertheless very clear. “Why are you asking me?” A moment later, after it became clear that a chagrined response was not forthcoming, he said, “I take that to mean you are not joking.”


I sighed. “Alas, as much as we might all wish otherwise, I am not.” I pushed the stack of papers over toward the demon. “This is all I’ve got. If you notice something, tell me.”


Unfortunately, I hadn’t been exaggerating. There really was quite simply nothing to connect the three incidents. The first, the pawnshop owner, had been a middle-aged woman named Shannon Plumber. No criminal record, no known associations, no significant outstanding debts. It was almost disappointing. I mean, nothing against pawnshops, but you sort of expect them to be dens of iniquity and criminal behavior.


In this case, however, the relative mundanity of her life was more than compensated for by the exotic nature of her death. Shannon had been stabbed twice in the chest. Both wounds were apparently made with the same weapon, and it was a good bit larger than the usual knife. In fact, the coroner’s report indicated that the best guess they had was a sword—not something you encounter commonly these days, unless you live like me. The place had then been ransacked, but apparently nothing had been taken. The inventory was complete, and the cash was still in the register. They hadn’t even stolen the woman’s wallet.


That, right there, was enough to make me think it was a little bit weird. I mean, swords aren’t the weapon of choice of your typical street punk, and to leave without at least grabbing the money was even stranger. It didn’t stop there, though, because they’d also found evidence of fire damage. Not “fire damage” as in “attempted arson.” There were just places—on the walls, the floor, and the ceiling—that were badly scorched. The marks hadn’t been there before the murder.


So that definitely reinforced my impression of weirdness. Patchy fire damage like that made me think of, say, Jimmy Frazier, a burgeoning fire-specialist sorcerer who had a fondness for throwing gouts of flame in a fight. Such blasts were likely to char whatever they hit, but usually didn’t have the duration behind them to really set something alight.


The real kicker, though, was the damage to the ground, both inside the shop and on the sidewalk out front. That part wasn’t random and disconnected. Instead, it formed a distinct pattern where the fire had been.


Namely, footprints. Human footprints, to be exact.


So that definitely suggested a killer with some kind of magic. I mean, the police had some theory about a loony using a blowtorch or something, but I just wasn’t buying that. It made no sense to me at all.


So basically, what I’m saying is that I could have sorta connected that to Humberto. I mean, both killed with magic at scene, check, werewolf means involvement with supernatural, I could see there being a connection and I could see Loki taking notice. The one in between ruined that for me. He’d been a totally normal guy, as such things go. Steve Potts, age twenty-seven, was a dime-store hoodlum. Involved in nine kinds of petty crime, never managed to get up the ambition to go big. Killed in a drive-by shooting as he was walking out of his apartment complex, police figured gang-related.


There was nothing weird or remarkable about that. Nothing. No evidence that magic was involved, no connection to either Humberto or Shannon. Further, Steve wasn’t the kind of guy who would have something worth stealing, not by Loki’s standards. Loki wasn’t the sort to get involved for anything of less than earth-shaking, gut-freezing, hide-under-the-bed-and-pray magnitude.


I was pretty sure that there wasn’t a god out there who would trade away a favor to investigate some random gang shooting. I was also entirely sure that was the name that Loki had given me. The chances that two guys with that name would die violently in a couple weeks in Colorado Springs were pretty much nil.


So, long story short, I was left with a magical killing without a motive, a motivated killing without magic, and a werewolf who’d been brutally murdered for, as far as I could tell, no damn reason at all. The only hint I had was that something had apparently been stolen, something valuable enough that Loki would want it back, and no theft had been detected at any of the murder scenes.


Proceeding from there was, needless to say, a difficult prospect.


By the time all that was sorted out, it was almost sunset. That, in turn, meant that I had an appointment to keep.


I used to have a very, ahem, close relationship with a kitsune named Aiko. That changed a few weeks ago, when she helped me out of a bind against the wishes of her extended family/feudal overlords. I mean this not in the sense of any change in our emotional attachments, but rather in a purely physical sense.


Think of it as being a little like a long-distance relationship, except turned up to eleven. In a normal long-distance relationship, at least these days, you can call, text, write, and email as many times a day as your significant other (or others, I’m not judgmental) is willing to tolerate. Worst case you can probably reach them physically within a few days, because they’re only a few thousand miles away and modern transit is a wonderful thing.


Aiko was in a sort of reverse-house arrest in an entirely different dimension. They did not have cell phone service. That meant that communication was pretty minimal. We used air spirits as go-betweens, but they were incredibly annoying to work with. In addition to having a frustrating name—air spirits aren’t actually spirits, and they aren’t made of air—the things have an extremely limited mentality. They aren’t much good at time, for example, which is why we used sunset as a marker—it’s a lot easier to distinguish something like that than, say, a clock, especially for nonhumans.


Transportation was even harder. It required a lot of work on her part, because she had to make two different gates just to get somewhere she could open a path from the Otherside to Colorado. It also required me to hike a ways out into the sticks, and obviously the whole thing had to be perfectly timed.


All of this meant that I hadn’t seen her for about two weeks. Now, ordinarily I would have said that wasn’t a huge deal. We were both adults, in the most technical sense of the word; we could cope.


However, I also couldn’t call and cancel. I didn’t have the good relationship with the air spirits that she did, and that meant that my chances of calling up one I knew, convincing it to do what I asked, and getting it to understand any message more complicated than “Not coming” were pretty much nil. Without receiving some kind of word from me, she would immediately jump to the conclusion that something had gone catastrophically wrong and I was in need of immediate assistance, or possibly vengeance.


There were all kinds of ways that could go wrong. I mean, Aiko isn’t the most stable person around at the best of times, and she’d previously demonstrated a willingness to go to remarkable extremes for one of the handful of people she cared about.


So suffice to say that I felt like it would probably not be wise to ditch that rendezvous without a very good reason.


Besides, it wasn’t like I was making any kind of progress on this. Maybe she would see something we hadn’t. I don’t know that I would say that Aiko is smarter than Snowflake or me, and definitely not Legion. But she is better at thinking around corners, and more than once she’s seen a fact or opportunity I wouldn’t have just by approaching things from a radically different direction.


Which is how I wound up hiking through the same park I’d met Sergeant Frishberg at. Aiko’s gate location here was way, way off the beaten path, somewhere I’m not sure I was even allowed to go. Theoretically, of course, I approve of that, because it seriously decreases the chance that anyone would see something they shouldn’t. On the other hand, it also meant that getting there involved a decent hike, especially when you’re wearing most of a suit of metal armor and carrying several weapons, and there wasn’t anything like a groomed trail most of the way there.


But we made pretty good time, Snowflake and I. There was no way I was leaving the husky alone, not when freaking Loki had as much as warned me that scary things would be after me at any moment. I wasn’t sure whether I was more concerned that they would get her to use as leverage, or that something would eat my face while she wasn’t around to watch my back, but either way, if I had a choice she wouldn’t be leaving my sight for a while.


Conveniently, she had the exact same attitude toward me. She’s a bit clingy at the best of times, courtesy of being a dog, and several times now I’d been kidnapped and threatened with death while she wasn’t around. She had no intention of letting something like that happen again.


So, several minutes before sunset could really be said to be underway, we were waiting at a small alcove in a rock face, well away from anyone else and further protected from prying eyes by a screen of bushes. They were just now leafing out, but the branches alone would do a decent job of concealment.


I passed the time by riding the mind of an owl overhead, just beginning his nightly rounds. It was an excellent view, of course, and there was little chance that I would miss the surge of magic that marked the opening of a gate to the Otherside. Even if I somehow did, Snowflake wouldn’t, and she had ways of getting her point across.


The sunset was decent—not incredible, but decent. The mountains to the west helped, of course; it’s hard to have a really bad sunset against a backdrop like that. The owl managed to snatch a mouse or something similar, too, and the rush of adrenaline and the taste of blood were both quite satisfying, on a visceral level.


Definitely better than a waiting room, overall.


Finally, just when the last colors were fading from the sky, I felt the press of fox-and-spice scented magic. Snowflake gave me a mental prod, but I was already moving. I slipped out of the owl’s mind with a sort of nonverbal Good hunting, and back into my own body.


Portals aren’t nearly as dramatic at the “exit” terminal as from the caster’s side. Instead of an irregular oval of absolute nothingness cut into the air, all we saw was a faint haziness in the air directly in front of the rocks. The husky and I steeled ourselves and then stepped forward.


Portals are every bit as unpleasant from both ends. In fact, I think it might actually be a little worse this direction. There was an instant, an instant that seemed to last years, during which we were…not falling, exactly. That implies orientation, direction, gravity—all things that were notably lacking in the interval between leaving one world and entering another. But there was a sensation of movement, terribly fast movement without any frame of reference I could understand. I had no senses, during that moment, not in the classical sense at any rate. But if you tack together every unpleasant thing you’ve ever felt, the stench of rotting meat and the flash of a strobe light six inches from your eye, pain of bones grating on concrete and the mindless roar of heavy machinery in your ear, if you imagine experiencing all that at once without the insulation of your body between you and it, if you put all that together you have some idea what it’s like to step through a gate to the Otherside.


I lost a few minutes, on the other end. I always did. It was like the sheer awfulness of the trip hit some kind of reset button in my mind. It didn’t do a thing to keep me from experiencing every last bit of how horrible the crossing was, which always strikes me as a bit unfair. But once I made it out, there was just a blank spot.


As usual, the next sensation I received directly was of being doubled over against the nearest available surface (a tree, in this case, which was a distinct improvement over some), panting like I’d run a marathon, and feeling like I was about to learn firsthand what your digestive system looks like when it’s operating on the outside of your body.


Snowflake was, if anything, worse off. She was currently curled around my feet whimpering to herself, and all I could feel from her mentally was an overwhelming wave of nausea. I had no idea why it affected her so much more strongly than me; often the opposite was true, and I’d never worked out a pattern for it. I never asked questions about how that whole system worked, beyond those which were necessary for my own attempts to replicate the magic involved. Those attempts had yet to bear fruit, and it wasn’t something you wanted to rush, but I had hopes that after another year or so of serious practice I might actually be able to open portals for myself. Until then, though, I had no intention of asking any more questions than were absolutely necessary.


I was afraid that someone might actually answer. Call me a coward if you want, but I’ve found that when you aren’t sure whether you want to know about something, the wisest solution is to just not ask. If I’d known that my whole life, there are all kinds of horrible things I wouldn’t have to live with knowing. My mother, for example. I learned pretty early that asking someone how they’d known my mother was a really bad idea, because most of the time they were only too happy to tell me. In disturbingly graphic detail, usually.


“You’re not going to throw up again, are you?” Aiko asked, crouching just on the edge of my peripheral vision to rub Snowflake’s neck comfortingly. “Only, you know, I showered just last week, and I reckon it should last ’til Friday at least.”


Would it be weird to say that, in spite of my current state of nausea, I felt happy to hear her voice? I honestly have no idea. I never really learned how normal people communicate beyond the point of mimicry. I think that’s probably a large part of how Aiko and I ended up together. Who else could put up with someone that emotionally misshapen?


Case in point: not one of us acknowledged the fact that it had been weeks since we’d seen each other, nor in fact would a casual observer likely have recognized that there was any emotional involvement between us whatsoever. I sat against the tree and waited for my head to stop swimming. Snowflake lay at my feet, eye tightly closed and paws over her ears to block out sound. Aiko jumped, caught the low-hanging branch of a gargantuan maple, and effortlessly pulled herself up to sit on it like a wooden fence.


“So what’s the crisis?” she asked, leaning back on the branch as though sunning herself. There wasn’t any sunlight in this forest. There never was in Nightside Faerie. That wasn’t particularly important. Aiko has never much bothered herself with little things like reality.


“What makes you think there’s a crisis?” I asked, perhaps a little bit defensively.


She laughed. “That’s what I like about you, Winter. There’s always a crisis. It keeps things exciting. So, really, what’s up?”


“Well,” I admitted, “there’s sort of a crisis.”


How often do you find yourself saying that? Snowflake wondered, apparently coherent again. Aiko was, of course, laughing so hard I almost would have worried she’d fall off, except that I knew the fall wouldn’t faze her. Besides, her balance is literally superhuman.


“It isn’t funny,” I said crossly. “Loki’s sticking his nose in again.”


The laughter cut off abruptly. Aiko is at least as scared of Loki as I am, with reason. “Oh. Can I have the lab after you kick it?”


“Very funny. I don’t suppose you’d be interested in actually helping me?”


“‘Course,” she said cheerfully. “Granted, there isn’t all that much I can do from over here. Chocolate ice cream!”


I blinked. “What?”


“Ice cream,” she repeated. “You have any idea how hard it is to find ice cream on the Otherside? It’s ridiculous. Anyway, what did you want me to do?”


I shrugged and pulled the police documents out, tossing them up to her. Embarrassingly, I had to use a bit of air magic to actually get them there; like most paper, they weren’t exactly aerodynamic. “Loki wants me to investigate those,” I said. “And recover any stolen property.”


She grunted, flipping through them. “Pretty random.”


“Frustratingly so,” I agreed. “I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do at this point.”


“I’m guessing you can’t drop it?”


“No,” I said sourly. “As much as I’d love to, Loki apparently told all the parties involved that he was contracting me to deal with it. Meaning they’ll be trying to kill me whether I do anything or not.”


“Well,” she said, still reading, “I suppose you can always go with that. You know, just wait for somebody to make a go of it and then squeeze ’em for info.”


“That’s a great idea,” I said sarcastically. “Because I’m sure to win that fight. And everyone tells their hatchet men why the hit’s going down, right?”


“Good point. So what do you reckon was stolen?”


“What makes you think anything was?”


“Well, it’s obvious, right?” I stared blankly. Aiko sighed and then continued. “Look, it’s pretty clear that whoever was going through that shop was all kinds of upset. He wanted something, right? Why else would you trash the place like that?”


“But he wasn’t in it for the money. So whatever it is, it must have more than just cash value.” I shook my head. “I already got that. But how do you explain the rest?”


“Simple,” she said, black eyes alight. “He didn’t find it. Maybe someone else beat him to it, maybe it was just sold already. Either way, he doesn’t want the owner talking to anyone else, so he offs her.”


“And the kid?”


She shrugged. “Maybe he was the buyer. Maybe he was just unlucky, and whoever had it realized it was too hot to handle so they dumped it off on him.”


I nodded along. “Reasonable enough. What about Humberto? Doesn’t really fit the pattern, does he?”


She frowned. “Well,” she admitted, “no. Got a better explanation?”


“Well, no. So…what? You think I should be trying to figure out what it is they’re chasing?”


“Best way I can think of to figure out who’s involved,” she agreed. “Besides, it sounds like you have to get your hands on it anyway. Might as well be now.” She hopped lightly down to the ground. “Now come on, I found a really cool waterfall around here.”

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Debts Outstanding 5.2

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Twenty minutes later, Snowflake and I were driving across the city.


That, in itself, was a pretty crazy thing. I mean, I’d spent something like thirty years without a car. I’d gotten so used to not having a vehicle that having to either walk, call for a ride, or take public transport (good luck with that in Colorado Springs) anywhere I might want to go.


Except that I’d received a pretty decent sum of money recently, I think because the group responsible wanted me to like them. It didn’t work, because I don’t consider twenty-five grand an adequate substitute for a friend’s life. But my distaste didn’t stop me from spending it, and about a week ago I’d picked up a decent used car.


Which is how I wound up driving a forest green Jeep down the street, while Snowflake hung her head out the window and mentally urged me to speed up. She wasn’t in any particular hurry; she just likes the feel of the wind in her fur. Having experienced it, I didn’t especially blame her. There’s a reason dogs stick their heads out the window.


I knew when we’d made it to the right place, because I saw Kyra’s wreck of a car parked on the street. My ride wasn’t pretty, but hers made it look like a vintage Caddy. I had no idea how she kept that thing running by this point, given that I was wondering about that when I met her, quite a few years before.


I got out of the car, hands tucked into my cloak. I’d thrown some clothes on underneath it, and shaped the pseudofabric into the classic trench coat to cover the armor, giving me at least some semblance of respectability. Snowflake, too, was dressed up; she’d elected to go with the plain black silk eyepatch today, and I’d even clipped the leather leash to her collar, so as not to freak anybody out walking down the street.


Kyra was standing in the doorway of a fast food restaurant. She was wrapping up a conversation on the phone as we approached; I didn’t overhear anything informative, but from the authoritative tone I was guessing the person on the other hand was one of her werewolves. “Hey, Winter,” she said, dropping the phone into her pocket.


“Hey,” I said. “This the place?”


“Yeah,” she said flatly. That, right there, told me that this was pretty bad. Kyra’s seen, and done, and experienced, a lot of bad things, and she’s good at not showing any emotional reaction to them. For her to sound like that made me think that whatever had happened to Humberto, I could safely say that it would be fairly horrible, even by my standards.


Kyra must have cleared things with the policepersons there, because they let me and Snowflake by without protest. They didn’t look happy about it—the police and I don’t have the best relationship in the world, because of reasons—but they didn’t stop us. Kyra, like most Alphas, keeps on good terms with law enforcement, using bribery, probably blackmail, and a healthy dose of sheer force of personality.


Anyway, they let us by. Unlike most of the crime scenes I’d encountered in my life, they’d already been here and set themselves up, with the yellow tape and everything. There was nobody there but us, Kyra, and a handful of cops. The employees weren’t being allowed in, and I think it would probably have taken a lot to keep the customers there.


I’d sorta expected us to go in, but we didn’t. Kyra led us around back of the restaurant, to a small alley. It was there, right in front of the service entrance, that we encountered what was left of Humberto.


I stared. Then I gagged. Then I stared some more. Beside me, Snowflake was doing more or less the same thing, for once too shocked for words. That’s a bad way to go, she said finally, sounding subdued.


Yeah, I agreed, staring at the body. Very bad.


Humberto had been crucified. Literally crucified, nailed through each of his limbs to a two-by-four. The whole contraption had then been leaned against the wall next to the door.


It was neater than I’d expected. Not much blood, barely enough to smell it. I guess that’s not surprising, all things considered. It wasn’t like the wounds were particularly large.


That isn’t to say that they weren’t painful. I wasn’t exactly an expert, but I was pretty sure that crucifixion was supposed to be a terrible way to die, and I was also pretty sure that this specific case was nastier than most. For one thing, rather than simple iron nails, the killer had used what looked railroad spikes.


Spikes which had, of course, been either made from or coated with silver. Even if it hadn’t been utterly predictable, the smell of its magic was unmistakable. It was highly charged, too, enough to make me itch from three feet away.


You don’t bleed to death if you’re crucified. You suffocate. You have to lift your own weight to breathe, and eventually fatigue, pain, and thirst make that impossible, and then you die. It was, by all accounts, an intensely unpleasant death. That’s why the Romans used it as a means of execution in the first place.


Looking at Humberto, I could believe it. His features were twisted into a veritable rictus—a word I’ve never really had occasion to use before, and yet which seemed entirely appropriate to the occasion. I mean, I’ve never been quite clear what defines a rictus, but I was confident that this was an example.


He’d been dead too long to stink of fear and pain. But I still fancied that I caught a ghost of it on the wind, and I wasn’t entirely sure it was my imagination.


“How long ago was this?” I asked Kyra quietly. Speaking loudly seemed…disrespectful.


“The deliveryman found him about half an hour ago,” she said, not looking directly at the body. I could hear the burgeoning anger in her voice. “But we don’t know yet how long ago he actually died for sure, or even whether he died here.”


I sighed. Loki must have known that I would be getting involved with this regardless. Given that it was Kyra’s problem, it was pretty unlikely that anything else would happen. Which meant that that whole scene in the parking garage had been…what? Him screwing with me, the way it seemed he always was? Or was there something deeper going on?


“Who’s your contact in the police?” I asked, absentmindedly rubbing Snowflake’s ears.


“Sergeant Frishberg. She’s…how do I put this….”


“Chief officer of werewolf affairs?” I suggested brightly.


“Something like that, yeah. She’s the unofficial head of the freak squad.” Freak squad being the unofficial term for the unofficial group of cops who had been unofficially assigned to deal with all the weird, freaky, and/or supernatural stuff that, unofficially, nobody else wanted to touch with a pole. Most of them didn’t want to either, which is why the freak squad consisted mainly of those who pissed off higher-ups and couldn’t find a way out of it.


It didn’t help that the government still hadn’t done anything to acknowledge the werewolves, on any level. They hadn’t even bothered to deny that they exist. Strangely, Conn seemed quite happy with that outcome. For his part, he still hadn’t allowed anyone to do anything that might remove that last veneer of plausible deniability. Over a year after his big public reveal, nothing much had changed. It had sure as hell been a lot less of a shock to the system than I’d been expecting, and I was starting to suspect that the whole thing had been a con of some sort.


“How much do you trust her?” I asked.


Kyra shrugged. “Enough? You have to give me some basis for comparison, here. She’s helped me out with some sticky situations, and she’s reliable enough that when I need a hand disposing of evidence or forging documents she’s the one I ask. But she’s willing to let me bribe her in the first place, which doesn’t exactly scream trustworthiness in a cop, you know?”


I nodded thoughtfully. “True. On the other hand, it’s not like somebody like me can go all kosher and aboveboard in the first place, is it?”


“I guess not. You have something in mind here, or did you just want to ask random questions for no reason?”


I shrugged. “Loki’s decided to start screwing with me again, wants me to be his thug in some kind of spooky hoedown. He says this,” I indicated Humberto’s body, “might be related. I thought the police might be the next source of info to look at, so…” I trailed off.


She grunted. “You turn anything up, you bring me in on it.” It wasn’t a request.


I tried anyway. “Look, I know you’re tough, but this is something else, you know? I mean, we’re talking about Loki. He scares other gods, for crying out loud.”


She looked at me levelly. “If you find out who killed my wolf,” she said, enunciating in that extra-clear way usually received for the mentally impaired, “you will bring me in on it.” She paused, and in her eyes was something of the black humor that was her hallmark before…before. “Besides,” she said mischievously. “You really think you can keep me out of this?”


“Well,” I admitted, “no.”


“Thought not,” she said, laughter hiding in her voice. She passed me a business card for one Sgt. Kendra Frishberg, which I casually slid into my pocket. The werewolf paused to spend a moment ruffling Snowflake’s ears, and then walked out toward the street, already pulling her phone back out.


I stayed a few moments longer. I hadn’t told Kyra that I could smell magic. I wasn’t sure why. Some instinct just said that it would be smart to keep it to myself for now, and I didn’t argue. I might have, if it hadn’t been such a strange scent.


There were only so many scents I associated with magic. There was the disinfectant of a pure human, the musk-and-lavender of a werewolf, and the blood-and-spice tones of vampires. And, well, that was about it. Oh, there’s variations on the theme, of course. Mages can range from straight disinfectant to something much closer to bleach, and have all kinds of undertones depending on personality and what magic they’re actually doing. And then, if you smell deep enough, you can actually pick out individuals based on delicate variations in scent, and sometimes even something of their moods and thoughts.


Granted you have your oddballs. I’m one of them. I smell a little like werewolf, because I am a little like werewolf. But I also smell more strongly than most wolves of freshly spilled blood, and then there are tones of ice and freshly cut grass that aren’t quite like anything else I’ve run into. In my experience, my scent is totally unique.


But even so, there was a limited range of what magic could smell like. This didn’t fit any of the categories. There was a hint of human disinfectant, but it was far from the strongest note in the medley. That position was held by something dark and cold, the smell of shadows and silences. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before, arousing the telltale tingling sensation of magic less in my nostrils than in my throat. It made me want to sneeze.


If I didn’t have a well-stocked cupboard of poisons, I don’t think I would have caught the last scent. It was sweet, vaguely floral, slightly exotic, not especially noteworthy unless you happened to know it was nightshade.


What did that mean? I didn’t have any idea. I’d never encountered a magical signature in which human was a subtle undertone rather than the dominant scent. Likewise, the primary note, which stubbornly resisted all efforts to equate it to a physical smell, wasn’t anything I’d encountered before. As for the nightshade, well, aside from the obvious, I had no idea what it was indicating.


So yeah, I didn’t feel too guilty for not telling Kyra. What was I supposed to say? “There’s something here but, you know, I really have no idea what it might be or what it means?” I was pretty sure she could figure that out on her own.


Still, it was creepy. It bothered me, and I didn’t linger long. Snowflake stuck close to my heels as we left the alley, and I could feel her unease.


I was too scared to eat.


That, right there, should tell you quite a lot. I mean, can’t sleep, can’t joke, can’t close my eyes without seeing monsters, that’s one thing, but too scared to eat? That was new. I’d been inches from death more times than I could remember clearly, and the fear had faded, but this? This situation filled me with an unfamiliar, very rational kind of fear.


People say that they’re willing to die all the time. And it’s meaningless.


It’s meaningless for a lot of reasons. First off, of course, the vast majority of people who say that are wrong. They aren’t necessarily lying; a lot of people really believe that they’re willing to die for a cause, or a person, or an action figure for that matter, but when push comes to shove they can’t do it. So the first problem you have is sorting out the ones who really aren’t afraid of death.


Then you have to realize something else. This is that, realistically, death isn’t all that scary. I think most people, on some level, realize that death is inevitable. We get so worked up about it that teens pretend they think they’re immortal, but at the end of the day we all recognize that people die. So, when forced to confront that fact, we recognize that dying is essentially something that we don’t have a choice about. “Choosing” to die now rather than later is akin to choosing to eat your spinach before your dessert; ultimately you will have to eat it regardless.


Anyway, I think that’s why you get so many people willing to sacrifice themselves. You see it all the time: zealots willing to die for a cause, mothers for their children, soldiers for their countries, all kinds of people dying just for a paycheck.


That’s why it isn’t a big thing, really, to say that I wasn’t afraid to die. Why should I be? I mean, I’ve seen a lot of death. A whole lot, ever since I was a kid. They say that familiarity breeds contempt; I don’t know if that’s quite right, but I do know that it was hard to be afraid of something as familiar as death.


Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t want to die. Why should I, after all? My life is pretty nice these days. I’ve got friends, a steady romantic relationship, work I enjoy and which has decent pay. Life’s good, and I have no desire whatsoever at this point to leave it. I don’t want to fall in the sewer either; that doesn’t mean I’m scared of manholes.


Death didn’t scare me. Loki scared me. He scared me like crazy. There was nothing, but nothing, you could put past Loki.


That, really, is the scary thing. The unpredictability. Loki might give you a fortune, just to see what you did with it. Or he might sell you into slavery. Or keep you alive for a thousand years while you’re eaten alive by fire ants. Or all three, one after another or all at once. Worse yet, you would never see any of it coming.


That was scary. That was the kind of fear that crawled inside your skin and made itself at home. It slipped into my organs, climbed around in my bones. Some kinds of fear are fun—the adrenaline rush of an amusement park, say, or its darker cousin that you only ever find when people are fighting to the death. But then there are long-term fears, based less on hormones than on simple logic, which aren’t much fun at all. Things like hospital visits, or waiting for the torturer to finish his lunch break.


Loki scared me like that. And, most disturbing of all, there wasn’t anything I could do about it. If he decided to kill me, I’d never know it. I’d just die.


Which is why, rather than go find something to eat like I’d been planning, I called Kyra’s sergeant right away. Kyra’s name was enough to get me a meeting in an hour.


Snowflake and I were, of course, more than half an hour early. That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re paranoid. There was no way I was going to meet a cop, crooked or otherwise, without casing the joint first.


She showed up almost fifteen minutes early. Perversely, I was satisfied to have been justified in my caution. Snowflake had advised getting some takeout rather than going straight there—huskies are never too scared to eat—but I’d thought that every minute might be valuable.


Sergeant Frishberg wasn’t hard to notice. Oh, she wasn’t in uniform or anything like that. She just wasn’t Enrico. He could have walked straight up to me and clapped me on the shoulder and still caught me by surprise, and I knew him. Next to that, she wasn’t that great. There was something about her bearing, I think, that gave her away.


I’d had her meet me at the park—I mean, the open space, a fact which Snowflake had mockingly reminded me of—not far from where my house was before it burned down. Ostensibly, this wasn’t an unreasonable location. It was public—a fact which was driven home by the absurd number of cars in the lot, even so early in the season. On the other hand, you could be in sight of a lot of people without any of them being able to hear you, making it a reasonably safe place to have a private conversation.


It was also about as close to natural as you could get without getting a lot further from the city proper, which would make magic significantly easier for me. And, because it was pretty close to my old home, I knew most of the predators in the area by…well, not name, because most animals don’t have names in the human sense of the word, but the equivalent. If I needed help and had more than about a minute to get it, I could probably arrange something along those lines. A fox isn’t dangerous, generally speaking, to an adult human. Several dozen foxes, coyotes, feral dogs, and raptors can be. I’d hate to ask something like that of them, but in an emergency it was entirely possible.


I was reasonably confident that she didn’t know about those parts, unless I was getting played already. I probably wouldn’t have to take advantage of it—but let me tell you, it was pretty comforting to be able to set up a potential confrontation on my choice of ground for once. I don’t normally get that privilege.


Snowflake, who was out scouting around because she’s much, much sneakier than me, picked the sergeant out in the parking lot and trailed her up the main path to where I was waiting. I’m pretty sure the cop had no idea she was being followed. For a husky, Snowflake is pretty good at not being seen when she wants to be.


I got a decent glance at her through Snowflake’s eyes as she was walking up. She was casually dressed in a white T-shirt, cargo shorts, and hiking boots. I could pick out a dozen or so hikers in the immediate vicinity wearing practically the same clothes. The rest of her appearance was a fair bit more unusual. Her last name sounded vaguely German to me, but her features were far from classical Western European. The skin, a few shades darker than a tan, made me think she might be Hispanic or Native American, as did the straight black hair, cut short enough not to impair vision. Her eyes, though, reminded me of Aiko more than anything, and the kitsune looks about as Japanese as they come. Frishberg was taller than average for a woman, and fit, but neither one exceptionally so. On the whole, it was hard to draw any real conclusions from her appearance.


I met her, as we’d arranged over the phone, near the main building, not far from the lot. She was looking at one of the informational displays they had set out, and doing a reasonably good impression of a tourist. I walked up next to her, all casual-like. “Lovely weather we’ve been having lately,” I commented, not looking directly at her.


She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. “Isn’t it,” she agreed blandly. “Walker sent you?”


“In a manner of speaking,” I agreed.


She grunted noncommittally. “What do you need?”


I glanced around to make sure nobody was in earshot. “Information,” I said, passing over a blank business card on which I’d written the three names of interest. To anyone watching, it was an utterly innocuous sight. “Files, incident reports, anything you can scrounge up. Delivered to Kyra posthaste.”


She glanced at the card very briefly as she took it and put it in her pocket. “Five grand,” she said, her tone leaving no room for argument.


I kept myself from wincing. I could, just barely, afford it on what was left of the Watchers’ money, leaving me enough from other sources to get by. It wasn’t an enormous issue—but I’d spent too long too broke to take it lightly. “One now,” I said, pulling out a small envelope and passing it over as well. “The rest on delivery.”


She nodded sharply. “Fair enough.” She made the cash disappear as well, the motion as buttery smooth as a street magician. “Three hours.”


Better, I had to admit, than I’d expected. I nodded once, and we shook on it before she left.


Snowflake found me about five minutes later, just far enough from the beaten path that nobody would notice. That went well, she said. She had, of course, been watching through my own eyes the whole time.


Yeah, I agreed. Guess I didn’t need to worry this time.


She butted my thigh gently, a wordless reassurance that I was justified. Besides, it wasn’t like I’d spent any munitions on it. What now?


I ruffled her fur. Food. I still wasn’t hungry, but I knew that I needed to eat. I would rapidly become ineffective otherwise, after all, and it isn’t wise for a werewolf of any stripe to get too hungry. That’s how bad things happen.

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Debts Outstanding 5.1

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I was awakened by trumpets the day the gods came to town.


Waking someone up with music isn’t necessarily a bad thing, of course. Done right, it can actually be quite pleasant.


This was not done in that way.


It started with a fanfare, a literal fanfare like you would expect to hear when royalty visits or something. It quickly progressed from one trumpet to what sounded like a dozen, backed by maybe twice that many drums. Again, nothing intrinsically wrong—except that they were playing at about a million decibels and it was way, way too early in the day for that.


By this time, Snowflake had her head stuck between my knees and was covering her ears with her paws. Because at least one of us had to be paying attention, I poked my own head out to see what was going on.


Needless to say, there were no musicians in my laboratory. This did not appear to perturb whoever was responsible for the music.


Exactly as I stuck my head out, the music concluded, all the instruments coming to a massive crescendo that wrapped up with a cymbal clash that left my ears ringing.


Before I could really adjust to the lack of sound, it started up again. More specifically, Morgan Freeman started talking, in cinematic surround sound. He said:


“I present the Harbinger of Chaos, the Crafty in Lies, the Prince of Destruction, the Master of Disaster; by the grace of himself King of Jotunheim, of Midgard, and of Niflheim; Duke of Utgard and Hyperborea; Sultan of the frozen seas; first among giants; sovereign of the most honorable and most renowned Order of the Serpent, sovereign of the most noble Order of the Mistletoe, and sovereign head of the most illustrious Order of the Small But Extremely Numerous Pointy Objects; the Father of Beasts, the Son of Lightning, His Lowness Lord Loki.”


I sighed and put my head back down. Of course it was. Who else but Loki would, given the kind of power required to do something like this, actually use it to do something like this?


As the echoes of his introduction were fading, Loki himself appeared in the center of the room. Even knowing, insomuch as any mortal really can, what he was, it was still disturbing. There was no sound, no flicker of motion, no brush of magic against me, no gate to the Otherside, nothing. One moment there was no one there, and then the next there was, and in between? Nothing.


“Rise and shine, everybody!” he roared, somewhere between “psycho drill sergeant” and “grumpy camp counselor.” “Drop your cocks and grab your socks, folks, it’s time to go kill something!” Thus settling that particular dichotomy, I suppose.


There was a pause, during which no one seemed particularly inclined to do any rising or shining. “What are you doing under the table?” Loki asked a moment later, his voice returned to what I thought of as his normal. Which is to say that it was light and happy with, in this case, a touch of curiosity underneath. Loki always sounded amused to me, and also always had this edge of madness somewhere beneath that that made it impossible to be near him without being afraid.


But you never let them see you flinch. And, more to the point, at the moment my life depended on Loki’s continued amusement, which meant no groveling, and in fact no expressions of respect or fear at all. That would just bore him, and in many cases a bored god is worse than an angry one. At least all the angry gods do is kill you.


Thus, rather than anything you would expect of somebody dealing with a terrifying old god, I shoved my head deeper into the pillow. “At the moment,” I groaned, “I’m mostly regretting the sleeping I’m not doing, thanks very much for that.”


“And you’re sleeping under a table because…why, exactly?”


It being apparent that he wasn’t going to give up and go away (I didn’t expect him to, but a guy can dream, right?), I lifted my head enough to glower at him. He was wearing what I thought of as his default body, a tall Nordic man with rugged good looks, reddish blond hair, and eyes that resembled more than anything else a forest fire in progress. “If I leave the cot in the middle of the floor,” I grumbled, “I keep having to move it around. Here it doesn’t get in the way.”


Loki considered that a moment. “You’re sleeping,” he said slowly. “On a cot, under a table, in a laboratory. At noon. And your only blanket is actually a dog.” He stopped and thought some more. “You know,” he said eventually, “I would love to make that more pathetic for you, but I’m not entirely sure how. I don’t suppose either of you has a suggestion?”


I glowered some more. “It is way too early to deal with this,” I said to him, Snowflake conveying wordless agreement in my head, and put my head back on the pillow.


“Winter. It’s noon.”


“Yeah?” I muttered. “That means I’ve had less than five hours of sleep. Come back around four and maybe we can work you in.”


“Oh,” he said, clearly amused. “But, as I’ve already said, it’s time to rise and shine. You know what that means, right?”


“No, but I’m afraid I’m about to.”


“It means,” he continued as if I hadn’t spoken, “that if you aren’t standing and out from under that table in nine seconds—both of you—I will stand you.”


I didn’t want to find out how he planned to do that. Snowflake and I both made it to an ambulatory state in record time.


“What are you doing here?” I asked, snagging my cloak of shadow from the table and throwing it on over my tank top. I didn’t much care about formality—Snowflake had, obviously, seen it all before, and something like Loki would probably have a hard time even telling the difference—but I kept the cloak’s quasi-pockets loaded, in case I needed to run for it some morning. Given that Loki was present, I figured I couldn’t be too paranoid.


“You owe me,” he said brightly, opening my various cabinets and looking through them idly. They were locked, and warded, and in a couple cases also booby-trapped. He showed no more notice of my protections than I would of a spider web. Actually, that’s not accurate; I brush spider webs out of my way, and Loki didn’t even seem to realize that something had gotten in his way. Scary.


I considered pointing out that the favor I’d bought turned out to be rigged, and had in fact seriously endangered both my life and Aiko’s. Then I reminded myself that pissing off the Harbinger of Chaos, et cetera, was a very bad idea. “I need a little more information than that,” I said instead.


“Sure,” he agreed. “I’ll show you.”


I knew what was coming after that, and I tried not to blink, but I didn’t have the choice. It wasn’t even a matter of that whole eyes-drying-out stuff that makes you blink all the time. No, my eyes just closed without my brain getting involved at all.


When I opened them, as I’d expected, we weren’t standing in my lab. Where, exactly, we might be was a question I wasn’t prepared to ask. I hadn’t felt a thing, so we must have used the same means of transport that Loki relied upon for screwing with me. Strangely, it wasn’t any clearer what had happened when I experienced it than when I watched it from the outside.


So, essentially, saying where we were was impossible. I had no idea how far we might have traveled in that instant, and there weren’t any landmarks that I could see to orient on.


The immediate vicinity was a little easier to place. It looked like a parking garage, one which was eerily empty. Nobody likes parking garages, and I’m no exception. In fact, I like them less than usual, because I can sense the aura of fear and distrust that inevitably sinks into them clearer than most folks. Nobody really feels safe in a parking garage, and over time so much thought and emotion becomes a part of the walls and the air.


It also wasn’t hard to see why the place was abandoned, or why the aura was nastier even than most places of the type. I mean, parking garages aren’t expected to have the nicest ambience, but there are still certain things you expect. Generally speaking, for example, you expect that regardless of how scary all the dark corners and strange angles might be, nothing bad will actually happen while you walk to your car. To help reinforce this impression, you expect that you won’t stumble across the evidence of somebody else who wasn’t so lucky.


The blood would make that pretty hard here, I think. I could smell it like a physical presence, reminding me uncomfortably that I hadn’t eaten yet, and not even a human with a human nose could ignore the reek of blood. It was pooled and spattered on every surface in sight, including parts of the ceiling. Fresh, too; a few hours old at the very most, and I was guessing more like minutes or less.


The source of the blood, likewise, wasn’t hard to figure out. I mean, generally speaking when you have that much blood and that many corpses together, it isn’t hard to say that the one goes with the other. I counted nineteen bodies, arranged in various poses. Most of them looked rather ignominious.


Death, I reflected, often was.


“Why do I need to see this?” I asked, staring at Loki and trying to pretend I couldn’t smell the blood. About that time, I finally got my head clear enough to notice that only the two of us had been transported. Snowflake, presumably, was still at the lab.


He grinned, taking no more notice of the macabre scene than if they’d been ants. “Because I’m retaining your services,” he said brightly, as though it were so obvious he wasn’t sure why I was actually asking.




“No?” he asked, curious.


“No,” I repeated firmly. “Our deal was that I got to choose what form the favor would take. I’m not interested in this. Ask for something else.”


He nodded thoughtfully. “You are, of course, correct. If that’s what you decide, so be it.” He pulled a pack of chewing gum out of a pocket that hadn’t existed before he reached for it. It smelled like artificial flavor pretending to smell like fruit of some kind. Loki popped a stick into his mouth and glanced at me slyly.


I sighed. “What?”


“Well,” he said, chewing the gum. Loudly. “I have a bit of a philosophical question for you. I’ve been wondering, if somebody thinks you’re working against them, does it matter that you actually aren’t? See, they think they’ve gotta defend themselves against you. Except then you have to defend yourself against them, right, because otherwise they’ll paste you. So, essentially, you actually are working against them. You see what I mean?”


I did. I mean, it wasn’t hard, right? “You son of a bitch,” I sighed.


He grinned. “Well, naturally. So, as you might have guessed, I’m appointing you my representative in this matter. And, while you are of course free to decline this position, I think it’s only fair to tell you that you’re pretty much the last to know. Which means that everybody else already has their sights on you. And, I’ll give you some free advice here, these aren’t the nice kind of people, if you know what I mean.”


I glowered some more. I’m not much of a morning person at the best of times, and this was approaching a new record for the worst way to be woken up after too little sleep. “I don’t suppose you could tell them you changed your mind?”


He grinned. “Well, sure. But really, would you believe me if I said something like that? Yeah, didn’t think so.”


I sighed. It was, of course, entirely possible that he was lying. He was Loki, after all; lies were kind of his thing. But I didn’t think he was. This whole setup reeked, in addition to fresh blood, of exactly the kind of casual cruelty that Loki would find hilarious. Besides, I believed him when he said that he usually found lies less useful than truths. Once you see through a lie, it loses its power over you; the truth doesn’t have that weakness. “All right,” I said reluctantly. “What do you want?”


He grinned. “I thought you might say that,” he said, seeming to have no difficulty with the fact that he was blowing a bubble at the time. Maybe he’d forgotten that a normal guy needed to use his mouth to speak. “It isn’t complicated, really. There’ve been three murders now in Colorado Springs, I’ll give you the details later. I want you to find who’s responsible—in the proximate, I mean, not like who’s cosmically responsible or something. Do that, and return anything stolen from the victims to me, and we’re even.”


“Three?” I asked, looking around again. “What about these guys?”


He looked around as if puzzled, and then laughed. “Oh, right. Nah, this was a gang fight in Mexico. I just brought you here for, you know, atmosphere.”


I sighed. How very…him. “Do I get any more information?”


“Of course,” he said happily. He reached into his coat pocket Somehow, from a pocket barely big enough to fit your hand into, he pulled out one of those big manila mailing envelopes—without, I might add, any folds in it—and handed it to me. “There you go. That should be everything you need. Remember, all the stolen goods are returned to me directly. Mess it up and I’ll flay you with a butter knife.” He winked, tipped a cowboy hat that didn’t exist until he reached for it, and snapped his fingers once.


It sounded closer to a firecracker than a normal snap. I recoiled instinctively, blinking, and when I opened my eyes again the smell of blood was gone.


I hate him. Snowflake was rubbing her head against my thigh as though to reassure herself that I was actually there.


“Me too,” I sighed, slapping the envelope down on the table. “Looks like we’re seeing some more action.”


More? Don’t we get to wait a while? I mean, it’s only been three weeks. That’s a little much, don’t you think, even for you?


“Yep. Tell you what, how about you go find Loki and tell him so?”


She sniffed, but didn’t respond otherwise, which I was calling a victory. I opened the envelope and pulled out a bunch of papers, paper-clipped into three groups. The first two were both brief, unsatisfyingly vague dossiers, complete with photos.


I gave them a cursory glance-over, pretty much just reading the names and looking at the pictures. It was still a bit early in the day for me to be doing any serious analysis. I hadn’t even gotten dressed, for crying out loud.


As I finished each page, I set it down on the floor for Snowflake to read. She was still adjusting to the loss of her right eye (and the burn scars ensure that she gets more looks when she goes out undressed than I do), but she wouldn’t have much difficulty reading a few sheets of paper. She did pretty much the same thing I had, albeit with a little more difficulty turning the pages, making the occasional interested noise.


Then I got to the third stack, and stared. It was just like the others, a thin stack of documents detailing a man’s life in the vaguest terms possible. I didn’t read it, because I froze as soon as I saw the name at the top, Humberto Rafael Escobedo. It wasn’t the sort of name you forgot, and I knew it, even though I’d only met the man once or twice. It also wasn’t the kind of name you saw every day, and I didn’t think I needed to worry about it being a duplicate.


Humberto had been a werewolf.


Loki, whatever else he might be, has impeccable timing—absurdly so, even. Which is why I wasn’t surprised when, just as I started to swear at that realization, the phone rang.

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Blind Eye Epilogue 4

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Shockingly, the police never connected any of us to the hostage situation and explosion which was briefly national news, a gift horse which I did not examine, after all the crap we’d been through. I believe they eventually concluded that the criminals argued amongst themselves and all ended up buried in the rubble. Said rubble came from Brick collapsing the staircase behind us with his magic, and left little evidence to challenge that conclusion. We all made it out alive, and only Snowflake was permanently injured.


Snowflake and I have been staying at the lab. It is a distinctly nonideal living situation, sleeping on a cot underneath the worktable and cooking my meals on a Bunsen burner, when I cook at all. Mostly I don’t bother these days. If I’m not eating out and I’m not eating at a friend’s, I just warm some raw meat in the microwave to split with Snowflake. It tastes like crap, but so does my cooking, and I’ve nearly given up on pretending to be a normal human being. It’s not like I have to worry about E. coli.


Occasionally, I get an invite from Kyra to take over one of the guest bedrooms, or Anna offers to let me share her apartment, and I’m sorely tempted. Then I remember what happened to Enrico, and I say no.


When I first came back to the lab, I found several things I did not expect. The first was a lovely blue vase filled with forget-me-nots and a letter written on vellum (vellum? Come on, who uses vellum?)


Aiko’s handwriting, utterly inappropriate on vellum, came as a welcome surprise. I won’t bother you with the details of the message, because they are frankly none of your goddamn business. There are, in fact, only two things you need to know about what she wrote. The first was that she had, indeed, been punished for her indiscretion in openly interfering with a Watcher on assignment, never mind all the mitigating factors. She isn’t allowed to leave the Otherside for the next ten years, although she did imply that there was a possibility of parole. The second thing is that the valediction was I love you.


I love you. Neither of us had ever actually spoken those words to each other. I think we were afraid of them. I think we had good reason.


Just three words. You wouldn’t think they would bring tears to my eyes. You wouldn’t think Legion could resist a comment when he saw it.


Funny, how often I’m wrong about these things, eh?


The second thing I found was my amulet. I had given it up for lost in the fire, but there it was on my table, shiny as the day it was made, and I should know. Under it was a single sheet of parchment, because apparently it was “Use utterly anachronistic writing materials day,” on which was written in masterful calligraphy the following:




I saved this for you. It seemed a shame to let it burn. Congratulations on your recent victory. I have taken the liberty of informing certain individuals of recent events; as a result, I think you will find your reputation to have increased significantly.



The third, and by far the least important to me, was a fat envelope with no return address which was also left on the table, the implication being that there were way too many people who could walk through my wards at will. It contained a brief, unsigned message congratulating me on not dying and stating that I could consider my rep with the Watchers made, and that work would be made available if I desired it, on an irregular and entirely unofficial basis. Also included was a personal message from Laurel Stark saying that she was extremely sorry for the events of the past several weeks. Apparently the intention was never to cooperate with the bad guy, but the Watchers had been politically pressured into assisting him.


The last thing in the envelope, and what made up most of the bulk, was twenty-five thousand dollars in nonsequential used bills. I tucked it away for a rainy day, and burned everything else they’d sent. I then disposed of the ashes very carefully in a place that couldn’t conceivably be traced back to me and which I wasn’t fond of, because you can’t be too careful with these things.


I have a bit more acceptance in the pack now. They know that I will protect them, that I am an ally. I have a bit less acceptance as well, in another way. The werewolves fear me, and they fear for me. They saw me do too many things that were too scary not to. Kyra doesn’t look at me with fear in her eyes, but she is one of a small minority.


But that’s all right. I mean, I’m never going to belong to the pack. I had my chance at that, and I turned it down. At least now I know that they won’t be causing any trouble for me. They’re far too scared of what I might do to them. Machiavelli would probably be pretty happy with my situation.


Which, admittedly, is piss-poor compensation for the loss of my friend, my house, and any hope I might have had of fitting in with pretty much anyone. It’s thin consolation for knowing that one of the few genuinely good people I know thinks the things I’ve done are so horrible that I could plausibly be a doppelgänger using the original Winter’s identity to get away with heinous crimes. It’s not something I ever aspired to in the first place.


But hell. It beats nothing, I suppose.

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Blind Eye 4.15

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“For crying out loud,” I muttered. “Isn’t there one cliché this guy doesn’t love?” I was thinking furiously, even though I think we all knew what I’d choose. He would be well defended in his throne, I knew that.


And, at the end of the day? Laurel didn’t matter to me. Kyra did.


I drew Tyrfing slowly, the ringing of the blade challenging and sharp. I don’t know whether Tyrfing is really sentient, as I understand the concept anyway, but it can definitely convey a message. This time it sounded cruel and hungry, it sang blood and vengeance on the air. I tensed, readying myself for the attack.


And then I smelled something else. Magic, just the barest touch of it on the air, scented like disinfectant touched with decay and a hint of regret. At the same time I felt another mind brush against mine, and Aubrey’s voice seemed to whisper in my ear. His message was short and to the point, and very welcome.


I grinned ferally. Time for him to learn what it’s like when somebody thinks circles around you. “You know something, buddy?” I asked, advancing slowly on the slowly tightening ring of constructs. My senses were exceptional by pretty much any standards, but I had to keep him distracted or he would notice the same thing I had. “People like you, you always make the same mistake, you know that? You think people like me are suckers. You think we’re losing at your game, right?” I grinned wider, picking up the pace. Beside me, Snowflake was growling softly, and I felt her anticipation in the back of my mind. She knew what Aubrey had just said to me.


I was almost at the edge of the horde now. “I’m guessing it never occurred to you,” I continued, tightening my grip on the sword, “that I just didn’t feel like playing.”


And then things started happening.


I broke right, as fast as I could, transferring the sword to my left hand as I did. I stuck my arm out like I was clotheslining somebody as I raced past the line of constructs.


Tyrfing cuts stone the way lesser swords do silk. Bone didn’t slow it down a bit. And, in a dazzling lack of creativity, he had made all the constructs exactly alike. The same size.


The same height. Dipshit.


I was close enough to the ring that Tyrfing, fully outstretched, severed the first construct’s head completely, and cut deeply enough into the second’s neck to kill it. And they were packed together like sardines.


I wasn’t even trying. And I still left thirty constructs dead on the ground before I broke off and charged at the mage, Snowflake running along beside and slightly behind me.


I was close enough to see his eyes widen, when the chaos broke out behind me. Given that I wasn’t actually looking myself, I wasn’t sure what was happening. But I heard a sudden rockslide-roar, stone screaming as it was forced to do things that stone was never meant for, followed by the hollow woompf of fire magic.


As I’d expected, there were wards all around his throne, runes and sigils cut into the stone of the floor which flared to life at his gesture. They burned with light throughout the spectrum, cold and flowing as the Northern Lights, and they smelled of bleach and anise.


There were more layers than I’d expected, admittedly. I’d figured on his having perhaps three or four warding spells around his throne. But, when he activated them, I counted no fewer than nine circles of light. That was probably about eight more than I could handle.


I never did learn how not to do stupid things. So rather than back down, run away, and try again later, I kept charging.


I couldn’t smash my way through all of these wards the way I had the one at the top of the stairs. There wasn’t any point to even trying. That meant that conserving my power became crucial, and that meant recognizing what I could and couldn’t survive.


The outermost circle of runes had a subtle note of old dust to it which reminded me of the smell in Abdul’s room. So, hoping like heck that meant it was a similarly mental effect, I ran straight into it, Snowflake at my side.


I got lucky. It was, indeed, mental witchcraft bound into that ward. The second my foot touched the light of the runes, I was assaulted with a wave of depression too great to withstand. His spell unleashed lethargy, lassitude, and apathy in equal measure, and my knees buckled under the weight of it.


A human would have been knocked unconscious. A werewolf, even an enraged werewolf, would have been incapacitated by the impact.


But he’d forgotten two critical factors here. The first was that I had Tyrfing, freed of the scabbard which served to contain its magic, in my right hand. The sword was terrifying, in large part because of the effect it had on me. Any anger, any hatred, any smallest urge to violence, was magnified a thousandfold by the weapon. When I’d thought Aiko dead, the resulting storm of emotion had kept me from anything resembling rational thought, prevented me from seeing even the most obvious logic clearly. Now, well, the mage’s magic could blunt the force of that feeling, but it couldn’t overcome it.


The second thing he overlooked, or possibly just didn’t know, was that Snowflake wasn’t just a dog. There was something else inside her, a purely mental entity that lurked in the depths of her mind. He was a wolf, once, but prolonged exposure to a demon and shamanic magic could change anything. In his case, the result was a being with little to no resemblance to an animal. He was why Snowflake thought in words rather than instinctual feelings and images, and even before he completed the transition to what he was now his mental presence had been strong enough to challenge a demon-possessed mage.


These factors weren’t enough to protect us from all of the force of the emotional assault. We moved only slowly, shuffling our feet along at the pace of a tortoise on high-speed film. It felt like there was a weight attached to the end of my sword, dragging the tip down toward the ground, and every step was a fresh effort. But we moved.


As we did this, the witch’s mask collapsed. All joviality gone, his face was turning red from fury and strain, his lips drew back from his teeth in a snarl. He pointed his finger over my head, making motions as though trying stab the air. I smelled his magic, a sharp, vinegary odor, even if I hadn’t a clue what it was supposed to do. Whatever it was, it didn’t seem to be aimed at me, which made it something I had no attention to spare for.


This whole time, the sounds of a furious battle roared behind us. Earth cracked, fire burned, werewolves snarled, wind howled, guns barked. I desperately wanted to turn and see what was happening, but that was also something I couldn’t spare the time for. The world narrowed to the stone in front of my feet. And then, at last, we were across the ward, and the lethargy faded.


The next line was a firetrap. The same smell, the same magic as what we’d seen before, and I attacked it the same way. Tyrfing disrupted its structure enough that I was able to ground out most of what magic triggered successfully. I shielded my eyes from what remained, and accepted what burns I still got as a fair price to pay, while Snowflake hid behind me.


A few feet closer, another ward. Ice-white light loomed up in front of me, and I knew from the structure of the spell that this was a kinetic barrier. It was one of the simplest defenses in the books, and while I couldn’t make one strong enough to bother with, I knew how it worked. The idea was to weave magic into a structure that would prevent anything from crossing the line it demarcated. If anything attempted to do so, it would exert simple kinetic force in equal measure, essentially turning empty space into a wall. Enough force would overload it eventually, but I didn’t have a tank or an hour to work with, so I would have to do this the quick-and-dirty way.


I set Tyrfing’s point against it and leaned on it. The tip of the sword slowly sank into empty air a tiny fraction of an inch. Then the mage, glaring down at us with murder in his eyes, clenched his fist. The barrier surged with renewed power, and Tyrfing’s glacial forward progress stopped.


I grimaced. Then, tightening my grip on the hilt, I leaned against it harder, all my weight resting on the sword now. I didn’t have to cut myself to find the power in my blood, because the patch on my back had ruptured a while ago; blood was already oozing down my back beneath my cloak. I took the power, ripped it ruthlessly from my own life force, and, operating more on instinct than any logic or experience, sent it into Tyrfing.


The sword’s mirror finish gleamed a little brighter. Then, suddenly, the barrier fell, destroyed by Tyrfing’s edge and magic. I stumbled and then faceplanted, unable to stand without the resistance. Tyrfing clattered away, its loss only serving to slam home the exhaustion I felt further.


I tried to push myself back to a standing position, and couldn’t. I just couldn’t. I had, at long last, hit my limit. My body just wasn’t listening to what I told it.


A size ten work boot slammed down next to me, filling most of my field of view. Then a hand with the approximate strength of an elephant closed around my cloak at the nape of my neck and, with about as much effort as I used tying my shoes, hauled me to my feet.


Doug didn’t smile. He didn’t approve of violence, and he wasn’t the kind of guy who would be so overwhelmed with adrenaline as to smile anyway. But he nodded to me, and his eyes were not unfriendly.


On my other side, Katie had already advanced to the next warding line. She had a wand (looked like hazel to me, but I could be wrong), which I could tell was a crude but reasonably effective focus. Probably for shadow magic not unlike that I used, given that that was her specialty. “I could use a hand here,” she growled back at us, sounding strained.


Doug glanced at me, checking that I could stand without assistance, and then walked forward to help her. I brought Tyrfing to hand and, once again, used it as a cane, its point sinking into the stone when I put my weight on it. I managed to hobble forward, Snowflake tight by my side helping me to keep my balance, but there was no need for me to participate. I felt the next ward, another kinetic barrier, collapse just before I got there. The runes were covered in unnaturally thick shadows, choking out the light, and small roots were growing within them.


Four down, five to go. The sounds of battle behind me were slowing, and it didn’t sound like the constructs were winning. Twelve mages, even twelve mediocre self-trained half-educated mages, are a significant force when they have the advantage of surprise, and I didn’t doubt that the last of the enemy would be mopped up shortly. Laurel, having been freed by now from that ridiculous Bond villain-mechanism, would be throwing her weight behind us shortly. The enemy couldn’t flee without abandoning his wards—I could see a couple more corridors leading out of the cavernous room, but, in an embarrassing oversight, none of them were next to the throne—and he didn’t have good odds of getting away before one or another of us brought him down.


We were winning. He was living on borrowed time, and he must have known it.


Which is why it’s only natural that that’s when the fight changed.


He had spent so long on the defensive, I had all but forgotten it was possible for him to be proactive about defeating us. But in that moment, he reminded us very clearly of that.


The first assault was brutal, unexpected, and terribly efficient. It was intelligent, too, which was worse. Snowflake and I were both insulated from a great many effects, and we’d demonstrated an ability to shrug off a lot of his magic like raindrops.


Doug and Katie didn’t have the same protections.


Both of them dropped in an instant. They were convulsing violently, and it was clear that neither of them was going to be able to stand under their own power, let alone fight. That left only a dog and me to fight a true mage in the center of his power, and I could barely walk.


And then he dealt with that problem. I wasn’t sure quite what kind of magic this guy specialized in, but it was clear that he had a certain amount of skill with fire, and it was fire that he used against us now. He must have been more clever than I thought, too, because he didn’t even try to hit me. I was accustomed to functioning through pain, and I knew I could heal almost anything given enough time; I wouldn’t have been stopped by a little fire.


No, he attacked Snowflake. A gout of fire, the pale violet of a burning potassium and too bright to look at, covered the distance between him and my dog in the space of a blink. It was well-aimed, a perfect headshot on a moving target.


The fire did as fire does, and Snowflake burned as huskies burn. She screamed, out loud and in my head both, and pawed desperately at her head, reason overwhelmed by pain.


And then I was reminded of something. Snowflake wasn’t accustomed to pain. I’d gone out of my way to keep her from being injured. Oh, she’d suffered bruises, cuts, scrapes, sprains, and so on, and that might seem like a lot to you. But if so, it’s only because you live in the modern world. Humanity has become so civilized that pain is a stranger, an intruder in your life, and actual injury nearly unthinkable.


When you’ve been shot and stabbed, when you’ve clawed your fingers to stubs and been casually tortured during an interrogation, a bruise doesn’t even register anymore. The truth is that those are small pains, as such things go.


Having your face lit on fire isn’t a small pain.


Snowflake and I were tightly bound. We’d spent, at this point, more than a year together, and that was long enough for my magic to build a soul-deep link between the two of us. Unless we specifically make an effort otherwise, we can’t not feel what the other is experiencing. Normally, that isn’t a problem; we’ve gotten used to it to such a degree that we don’t even have to think about it anymore.


She didn’t have the presence of mind to block that now, and I didn’t have the energy. Her pain, and the animal terror it aroused, echoed into my mind.


I collapsed like a puppet with its strings cut. I don’t just use that because it sounds good, but because it’s accurate; I fell without thinking about it, without controlling the movement at all. My head bounced off the ground, a pain I hardly felt through the agony of having my face melted, and my limbs sprawled randomly. Tyrfing remained standing, and of course I dragged my hand across it in my fall, because bad luck is what Tyrfing does and I’d spent entirely too much time around the naked blade for safety recently.


I fell in such a way that I could see what was going on in the fight, which was some small consolation. Thought couldn’t penetrate to me right now, but I still saw, and even in some way understood.


The constructs were all but gone. Many of them were knee-deep in stone where, prodded by Brick, it had folded and crawled up their legs, and those were being executed one-by-one by my allies. Others had been incinerated by Jimmy’s violent fire magic, entangled in strands of shadow, battered by the feeble winds Erica could call so far underground, or—because the Inquisition understood that not every solution was magic—shot repeatedly. The rest had for the most part been shredded by the werewolves, or by the wolf and bear which were the Inquisition’s combat shapeshifters. Laurel, as I’d expected, was in no danger. Kris, naked and paying no attention to that fact and carrying a large knife, was currently fishing her out of the water, having already cut the ropes. The cinnamon wolf, too injured to fight effectively, was over by the stairs with Mac, while Ryan watched over the pair.


Overall, we still looked fairly good. Snowflake and I were done—definitely for the context of this fight, quite possibly permanently, but the constructs were too, and that gave us the advantage of numbers. That many mages could take out the remaining wards no problemo, and once they did I didn’t give the bad guy good odds. It would take all his concentration to incapacitate a single werewolf with his magic, and that would leave plenty of available force to kill a small army, let alone one man.


Which is why, once again, he changed the game.


I never felt anything, not the slightest whiff of magic, nothing. I never felt the magic, because there was no magic to feel.


He didn’t need magic. Just good planning and preparation, and a little less cohesiveness within the pack than there should have been.


The last werewolf—the brown one, the one I didn’t know, the one without any noteworthy characteristics, the one I never looked at twice—moved suddenly. He launched himself at Kyra’s back.


I didn’t think that he was stronger than her. But he didn’t need to be. He hit her from behind with no warning at all, and she never saw it coming. Moreover, he was wearing armor, and I could see that there was a tracery of silver on the surface of the steel.


He knocked her down. And then, in the instant before she realized what was happening, he threw himself on her. No playing around, this time; he went straight for the throat.


My best friend was about to die. Nobody was close enough to act before he ripped her throat out, and that was something not even a werewolf could expect to recover from. Kyra would die, and I was helpless to do anything but watch.


The sound of a gunshot came from over by the stairs. The werewolf staggered sideways, confusion clearly visible in his posture, and then stumbled.


Silver, it had to be. Nothing else would have had such a profound effect. Good to know that I wasn’t the only one who’d planned for betrayal. Ryan looked as shocked as I felt, but his reactions had been fast enough to get the job done.


Kyra, visibly furious beyond the limits of sanity, stalked over to the traitor. Meanwhile, the rest of them finished with the constructs—I don’t think most of them even noticed that little byplay—and Laurel and Kris came to where I was being one with the floor. Snowflake had managed to stop, drop, and roll the fire out by now, but she was in no shape to fight, and neither was I.


They caught up to me about the same time I got the reflected pain under control enough to think again. Laurel, soaking wet but with her sword belted on again, and holding my ginormous new shotgun in her hand, helped me up. Leaning on Tyrfing again, I limped forward, the others following closely.


They were behind me, so I didn’t quite see what happened next. But I felt a sudden surge of magic, and heard a thump from behind me.


Turning around, I saw that Kris had hit the floor, sound asleep. Between her and Laurel, the kinetic barrier had snapped back into place, cutting us off from the rest of the fight.


“Thank you, Laurel,” he said. “I think this charade has gone on long enough. Shall we end this?”


“Let’s,” she said, raising the shotgun to her shoulder. “You have no idea how glad I am to be done pretending to work with you.”


He paused, confused.


The gun wasn’t pointing at me.


“Don’t be a fool, Stark,” he said. “You can’t back out now. The Watchers committed to helping me avenge the death of my brother.”


She grinned, the expression every bit as disturbing as I’d come to expect from her. “Yeah, well, the Watchers changed their minds.”


“That’s absurd,” he snapped. “The political fallout from my clan would be disastrous. Your position is already precarious.”


“No one outside this circle can hear a word we say,” she said. “And the only witnesses aren’t likely to be sharing information with your clan.” She paused. “For the record, I normally wouldn’t engage in this kind of banter. But I dislike you too much to shoot you before you understand just how badly you screwed up.”


The other mage nodded. His expression was a little tight, but not exactly worried, as though he still hadn’t quite processed what was going on.


“First off, your brother was breaking the laws. We know that he was breaking them, and the only reason we didn’t kill him for it is that Wolf and his people beat us to the punch. To turn around and ask us for help avenging his death after that was incredibly stupid. I just want to get that out of the way.”


“It was intended to be a statement. I felt that Jon would appreciate the irony.”


It was still stupid,” Laurel said dismissively. “Then there was the way you went about it. The curse you had me laying out was very close to the edge of the laws, and ensuring that it did no real harm was a lot of work, which didn’t do much to endear you to me. Besides which, targeting innocent people with something like that? That is fucked up. So yeah, I’m going to enjoy this.”


And then, without any pause, she pulled the trigger.


A seven-gauge shotgun is a powerful weapon. Thanks to the way that shotgun bores are measured, it’s almost twice the size of the more common twelve-gauge. Loaded with buckshot, that kind of gun can do a hell of a lot of damage.


The results when such a shot is aimed at someone’s head from a distance of less than fifteen feet were predictably messy. To say that the mage was decapitated would be an understatement.


“Sorry about all that,” Laurel said, handing me the gun. “Like I said, I normally wouldn’t be this much of a drama queen, but that asshole really pissed me off.”


“That’s fine,” I said numbly. “So this whole thing was just so that you would have an excuse to kill him?”


“Pretty much,” she said. “I don’t really get involved with the political aspects of our work, but I know that things are delicate right now. The Li clan is one of our biggest contributors, and we couldn’t really afford to alienate them at the moment. Had to maintain plausible deniability and make sure the credit went to someone with a legitimate grievance.”


“Makes sense.”


“Good. Your backup did better than I was expecting. You told them where to show up?” I nodded. “Thought so. Our guy would have made sure they were here anyway, but it’s good that you dealt with it. Says a lot about you. I must say, Mr. Wolf, it’s been a pleasure working with you. That tunnel over there’s the escape route; it exits about twenty miles away. I’d appreciate it if you gave me a bit of a head start; it’d be awkward if you were to run into me on the way.”


And then, still seeming quite cheerful, she walked off. The barrier melted away before she reached it, and she sauntered off down the tunnel before I could ask another question.


Snowflake was alive. I cannot express the degree of relief I felt when I saw that.


One of her ice-blue eyes was milk-white instead, not unlike a fried egg and equally as blind. I cannot express the degree of pain I felt when I saw that.


Mac had done her best, but even magic has limits. Restoring the skin somewhat, encouraging healing, limiting inflammation and pain, all of these were things she could do. Repairing something with the complexity of an eyeball when it was practically melted out of the socket is not.


Realistically speaking, Snowflake was almost certainly never going to see out of that eye again. I knew that. She knew it, too, and while she covered the distress she felt at the prospect, I knew better.


The rest of us, though, came out of it fairly well. The three werewolves, between Mac’s magic and their own, looked to be in much better shape than when I’d left. They wouldn’t want to get in a fight right away, but they weren’t going to have difficulty walking out either. Of the fourth, the traitor, all that remained was a pile of meat and bone hardly recognizable as having been a canine. I saw a few tufts of brownish fur, and did not look further.


It was a long walk out of there. My back hurt, and I was absolutely exhausted.


But eventually I walked out into the cool night air, and looked at the moon, and let out a sigh of relief. I couldn’t say I’d handled it well, I couldn’t deny that damage had been done, but it was over, and I was still alive.

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Blind Eye 4.14

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It was very quiet as I walked up to Jon’s old tile shop.


The sun was just now slipping below the mountains, staining the skies bloody crimson and throwing our shadows out behind us like flags, but it was already past working hours. Not far away the flood of rush-hour traffic was still snaking down the freeway, but here the streets were almost eerily silent. There were no cars in sight, no people walking the streets. High overhead, a lonely hawk circled against the backdrop of the setting sun, its piercing cry echoing through the sky.


Behind me came monsters.


Werewolves are pretty creatures, if you look at them in the right way. But it takes a special mind to see it, and even to me a werewolf in fur is a scary creature as well. A hundred and fifty to three hundred pounds of wolf with appropriately sized fangs and claws is not a comfortable sight. They can pass for dogs most of the time, but only because they make an effort to seem tame, combined with a healthy dose of people’s own refusal to see what’s in front of them.


They were not making an effort now. Kyra and her three wolf-skinned compatriots didn’t look like dogs tonight. They looked like what they were, terribly dangerous people who straddled the line between man and monster, and who tonight didn’t have much care for which side they landed on. Even if you know werewolves, even if you like werewolves, even if you are a werewolf yourself, that isn’t something you can look at and feel nothing.


The two who looked—mostly, more or less—human weren’t much better. One of them had a pair of old-school revolvers belted on over his jeans and a classic .30-30 Winchester lever action slung across his back. It looked ridiculously antiquated, but I knew better than to make fun of him; old weapons kill people just fine, most of the time.


Besides, I know Edward Frodsham. He was in Wyoming and Colorado during the Gold Rush, which gives you some idea of how long he’s had to practice, and the results are…kinda scary, actually, even to me. I never saw the greats shoot a revolver, but I doubt they could have been much better than he is.


The other werewolf was taking a decidedly more military approach. That much was obvious, even if it was hard to tell exactly what military he might have in mind; the body armor and assault rifle were aggressively modern, but the submachine gun clipped to his waist looked like the classic Uzi from the fifties, and his trench knife could have seen service in the first World War.


The four werewolves in fur weren’t nearly as visually distinctive, which was to be expected. One was a brown male a little lighter than Kyra’s walnut, one a sleek and fast-looking female with cinnamon fur, and the last was a hulking grey-black brute with startlingly blue eyes who had to weigh at least two-fifty. He wore probably close to sixty pounds of the plate armor werewolves use occasionally without seeming to notice the weight, and I don’t doubt that I could have ridden on his back without straining him appreciably. Werewolf cavalry; now that is a scary thought.


We all met up around two blocks from the target. The werewolves, none of whom except Kyra I was familiar with, introduced themselves (the cowboy called himself Bill, and the soldieresque fellow was Ryan, if you were wondering).


Great, Snowflake said. Nobody said the Wild West Show was coming.


I was distracted by struggling to restrain my laughter at that—but not so distracted I didn’t see Bill’s lips twitch. Interesting. The only werewolf I’d known to hear Snowflake before was Conn, and he’s…well, Conn.


Kyra took the lead from there. She, like the cinnamon wolf and Snowflake, wasn’t wearing armor. In Snowflake’s case this was because it wouldn’t have fit a sanely-sized dog (I was going to have to get a custom set made, as often as she got into scrapes beside me), and I was guessing that the other werewolf found speed and agility to be a more effective defense than any amount of steel plate; I’d seen that type of lean, sleekly muscled wolf before, and they can be unbelievably quick.


Kyra’s case was a little more interesting; I knew that she liked having a layer of metal between her hide and the enemy, but she couldn’t use it anymore, not with her wolves along. Alphas can’t afford to show any kind of weakness in front of the pack, and wearing armor suggests that you’re afraid to fight without it. That was also, incidentally, why she was leading this party; the Alpha is the first wolf to encounter the threat, always.


Ryan came next, his metronomic jog and perfect posture further supporting the idea that he was ex-military, followed by the brown wolf. Then came Snowflake and I, loping along side-by-side, followed by Cowboy Bill. The huge dark wolf playing rear guard, where his massive bulk would present a serious obstacle to anybody attacking from behind, giving the rest of us time to react. The other female, as I had expected, ranged out around us as a scout rather than sticking in formation. As anticipated, she was startlingly fast even by werewolf standards, easily running circles around the rest of us.


Now, it might have occurred to you that this was a rather military, orderly procession, given that we were still quite a ways from the actual location we were looking for. If so, you are entirely correct. It may have also occurred to you that a mage with time to prepare and a general knowledge of what was coming his way could have prepared all manner of tricks, traps, and ambushes throughout the entire region. This statement is also entirely correct, and is why we were ready for a fight.


We didn’t encounter it, nor did we run into anybody else. You could only explain so much with the location and time of day, and I was betting that Kyra had more of her people keeping bystanders away. Anybody who did see us probably concluded, quite rationally, that we were a bit more trouble than they wanted to buy.


By the time we made it to the store, I was starting to get a little nervous. I mean, nobody had tried to kill us. That was suspicious as all hell.


By prior agreement, when we made it to the target we fanned out so that I was at the front door proper, with a semicircle of werewolves splayed out behind me. The door was the logical location for any ambush, while the choke point slowed us down and whoever was on the other side had plenty of time and knew exactly where we would be, and even Kyra had been forced to reluctantly admit that I was the best close-quarters fighter we had. Tyrfing was a pretty massive advantage in that regard.


“Do you want to do this quiet?” I asked, watching the door carefully in case something hit it from the other side hard enough to send it at my face in pieces. And yes, that’s happened to me.


Kyra snarled, deep in her chest, and laid her ears back flat against her head. A chorus of answering snarls went up from her pack, even those that were still firmly in the embrace of bipedalism, and I could practically feel the weight of all those eyes on my back.


I’m guessing that’s a “no”, Snowflake murmured, amusement mingling with anticipatory bloodlust in her mind. She didn’t have the same deep-seated fury driving her that the wolves did, but…well, let’s just say that the husky enjoys violence more than I think is entirely healthy. And I ain’t exactly a pacifist myself, if you get my drift.


You think? I sent back, slipping my sword free from its sheath. Another murmur went up from the werewolves, one of…appreciation, I guess, is the closest I can come to an accurate description. They might not be able to consciously sense magic the way I did, but Tyrfing was coming out to play, and that’s not something anyone ignores.


I swept the sword in a single vertical slice, cutting through latch, deadbolt and chain with little effort. At that point the door was held shut by nothing but laziness, but I went ahead and kicked it in anyway. ‘Cause, you know, some things you just have to do, right?


I launched myself through instantly, Tyrfing in my hand and power held ready for use at a moments’ notice, and it was the only thing that saved my life. The blow that would otherwise have shattered my spine and left me dying on the ground merely clipped my trailing leg and spun me sideways to impact the wall.


I got only a momentary glance at what had hit me, mostly just an impression of big, grey, and ugly. But I heard it roar as I was pushing myself to my feet, and that gave me a decent idea of what scale we were talking.


That roar, a primal pissed-off declaration of challenge, was so loud it vibrated in my chest and hurt my ears like a rock concert. It shook the ground beneath me. I heard several werewolves whine and snarl in pain just from the impact of the sound on their sensitive hearing.


Spinning to face the doorkeeper, I was greeted with a picture out of nightmare. It stood fully fifteen feet tall hunched over, and was so wide that it still managed to look stocky. It seemed to be made of stone, and judging by the cracks in the floor where it had just missed me it was about as hard.


It didn’t have a weapon. It didn’t need one. A single love tap from one of those massive fists would break me in half.


I knew what this was. It was a golem, a construction of stone and magic created to serve its master. They were commonly used as foot soldiers by the few mages who had enough skill or natural talent to make them, and it wasn’t hard to see why.


The golem was currently duking it out with half a dozen werewolves at once. And, unquestionably, hands-down, no contest, it was winning.


They were fighting well, I have to give them that. It was beautiful, in a savage way, beautiful like a wildfire. They were a marvel of fur and muscle, flashing teeth and constant motion. As I watched, Kyra ducked away just as its fist struck the ground with another earth-shaking crunch. Even as it swung at her, the scout hit it from behind, the big guy attacked its arm, and Ryan went at its other side with his trench knife. It might seem odd that such an obvious gun-nut would go for a knife instead, but I reckoned he was thinking the same thing I was, which was that a bullet relative to the golem’s size would be little more than an annoyance.


It reminded me, more than anything else, of watching a fight in the movies. Real-life violence doesn’t have that choreographed beauty—but this was a pack of werewolves, and they were connected so deeply that when they were running on instinct they operated like a single individual. Every motion of every wolf was perfectly timed, placed, and coordinated.


It just wasn’t good enough.


The golem disregarded all of them entirely. Ryan’s knife skipped off its skin, striking sparks but not penetrating a bit. The wolf behind it tried to bite its ankle where the Achilles tendon would be on a human, and made no more progress than he had. She dodged aside when it kicked back a moment later, but obviously it hadn’t suffered for the experience, so I was calling it a draw.


And the big wolf? He tackled its arm with fangs and all four limbs…and it just picked him up. Better than three hundred pounds, most of which was preternaturally powerful muscle actively fighting him, and it just lifted him into the air. It seemed to take about as much effort as I have lifting a can of soda.


I had a brief, unpleasant flashback to Aiko’s demise in a similar manner. Illusory or not, that scene was going to stick with me for a while.


Rather than attack him, though, the golem just tossed him aside. It just flicked him away like a bug, sending that massive werewolf a dozen feet through the air before he skidded a bit further across the floor.


The thing was such a marvel that I had to respect it, even if it was trying to kill us. Individually, its attacks weren’t all that dangerous; it was quick, but it was still huge and that meant every motion took longer to complete than a human’s would. The werewolves were having no difficulty dodging—but eventually they would get unlucky and trip, or zig rather than zag, and even one full-on impact would likely be lethal. Moreover, the wolves were burning tons of energy with all that quick and unpredictable movement. They were tougher than humans in pretty much every way, but even a werewolf’s stamina is limited. They were bound to get tired eventually, and then a mistake was inevitable. It was a war of attrition that the golem couldn’t lose. As a fighter, it wasn’t all that—but when it comes to keeping people out, it was pretty hard to beat.


All that happened in less than a second, while I was orienting myself. Then I launched myself back into the fray, letting out a wordless, snarling cry as I did.


It was fast. Not just faster than anything that size had a right to be, but faster than anything had the right to be. It heard me coming and turned, disdaining the weight of another werewolf dangling from its leg. I saw its face for the first time. It didn’t have one, just a blank slab of basalt. No eyes, no mouth, no features at all except for an inscription of some kind on its forehead. I wasn’t sure how it had roared.


I growled and stopped, maybe five feet from it, Tyrfing held in both hands before me, weight on the balls of my feet. That close, it couldn’t turn its attention away without my having the chance to strike, but I was just out of its range, meaning that it would have to move before it attacked me.


It was an obvious challenge, and it took the bait. Why not? It wasn’t like it had to worry much about the werewolves. There was still one clinging to its leg, after all, and he was having to scrabble just to keep from falling off. The chances of those teeth penetrating enough to hurt it were miniscule, and I was pretty sure that bullets would just ricochet.


It took another step forward, moving with a quickness entirely inappropriate in what appeared to be a creature composed entirely of stone, and swept one fist at me in a roundhouse that was guaranteed to pancake whatever it hit.


I am also quick. I ducked under the wild blow, though I had to drop almost prone to do so thanks to the sheer size of its fist, and came up swinging.


I was braced on both feet, and feeding my inner werewolf all the magic I could. I was wielding Tyrfing—Tyrfing, which cut stone and steel like cloth—with both hands, and swinging it like a baseball bat as hard as I possibly could.


It was the kind of strike that could one-shot a troll, is what I’m getting at here.


Tyrfing sunk into its flank. Like, all of three or four inches—maybe even enough to cover the whole blade. Compared to the raw, overwhelming bulk of the golem, I estimate that was roughly the same threat a papercut posed to an adult gorilla.


It drew back, and for all my superhuman strength I had only two options: come with, or let go. I chose the latter, because I figured that grappling this titan was a cruel and unusual way to commit suicide.


It drew back up to its full height. Things looked pretty bad. Tyrfing was embedded in its flank but my strongest attack hadn’t even inconvenienced it, and the werewolves that were still attacking it relentlessly were having about as much effect as a mosquito might on an enraged elephant. It had every reason to be confident.


It let out another earthshaking roar—I have no idea how, since it didn’t have a mouth—as I stumbled back, thinking frantically. Plan B, Snowflake shouted frantically, rendered almost incoherent by terror, where’s the Plan fucking B!?


Desperate times call for desperate measures. I kept moving backward, far enough that I wouldn’t be the primary threat anymore, and stuffed both hands into the fabric of my cloak. It responded to the panicked urging of my will, a tangible current of shadow bringing several objects to my grasp.


I pulled them out and fiddled with them a bit. Then, shouting “Clear!” at the top of my lungs, I chucked them forward.


The werewolves were intelligent, and also at least as desperate as I was. They scrambled away from the golem at top speed. I closed my eyes and covered my ears, warning Snowflake to do the same as best she could.


I don’t have a lot of experience with explosives, so I don’t really know how they work or what kind of effectiveness you can expect to get out of them. But I did know that Aiko’s grenades were a custom model, and I suspected that not all of their effectiveness was due to mundane chemical reactions. One of them produced a pretty good boom, and could take out a sizable chunk of wall.


Six of them going off at once was, believe you me, impressive by any standards. The sound hit me like a pressure wave. It didn’t match the sound of werewolves snarling, golem bellowing, concrete shattering, and guns shooting. It dwarfed them, took that whole mix and, laughingly, showed them what a real noise sounds like.


Explosives are terrifying in a way that swords and guns will never be. A sword can be blocked, and even bullets can be dodged if you get lucky enough. This wasn’t like that. You couldn’t dodge it, or fight it. All I could do was turn my back, shield my ears as best I could, and ride it out. It was more like a sandstorm than what I thought of as conventional weaponry. You didn’t fight it; you hunkered down, waited for it to end, and prayed to every god you could think of that you might survive the experience.


It was humbling, is what I’m saying, and the knowledge that I was the one to bring it about didn’t do much to abate that feeling.


I was tossed from my feet and flung through the air by the blast—a fun experience, by the way, when you have your eyes closed; falling blind is a real treat. I felt shrapnel hit me in a dozen places as I tumbled across the ground. It felt a bit like they describe being disorientated while underwater; I couldn’t, in all the chaos, tell up from down, let alone get it together enough to try and protect myself.


When, after mere moments that seemed to last a subjective eternity, it finally ended, it took me a moment to recognize it. My ears were ringing so loud that it seemed like I was still hearing the explosion, and when I stood I staggered drunkenly, dizzy. I was almost scared to look at the destruction I’d wrought.


The golem was gone. All that was left of the thing were chunks of stone scattered around, ranging in size from dust to blocks twice the size of my head—the source, I suspected, of the shrapnel that had hit me, and I shivered a little when I saw it. I had gotten incredibly lucky not to have been utterly pulped. The ground hadn’t fared too well, either, the grenades having carved out a literal—if, in all honesty, rather shallow—crater in the concrete. The ceiling was high enough to have escaped damage, but some of the ducting would probably never be the same, and one of the exterior walls had a gaping hole in it.


I gulped. Granted I’d been operating under the assumption that explosives were used to demolish stone on a daily basis, that was the whole reason I’d used the grenades against the golem, but…wow. I hadn’t intended quite that amount of destruction.


For what it was worth, Tyrfing was unfazed. The sword was stabbed into the floor at the very center of the crater, radiating an aura of satisfaction.


Miraculously, none of us had been damaged by the explosion, either. Oh, there were some bruises, and nobody looked happy, but a quick visual survey showed that all the werewolves were still there, as was Snowflake. They were all looking at me, rage temporarily overwhelmed by shock in their eyes.


I guess Ryan was more accustomed to grenades than the rest of us (no surprise there) because he jogged over to me before any of the rest of us had gotten our heads together enough to move.


He said something. I couldn’t hear him over the ringing in my ears. I attempted to indicate this by tapping the side of my head. Unfortunately, I appeared to still be having some coordination problems, because I wound up smacking myself instead.


Ryan got the message. He moved closer and, about three inches from my ear, all but shouted “What the fuck was that?”


I grinned feebly. “Grenades?”


He rolled his eyes. “I knew that. I meant, ‘what the fuck were you thinking?'” The moron was left unstated, but conveyed itself quite clearly all the same.


I shrugged. “I was thinking that if something didn’t change that thing was going to kill us and nothing we’d tried so far was doing much.”


He opened his mouth, then glanced back at the rubble and nodded reluctantly. “Point,” he said, with equal reluctance. “But there’s no way somebody didn’t hear that. We’re going to have cops beating down our door in about a minute.”


The ringing was finally starting to fade, thankfully, although my right ear still wasn’t working right. My healing meant that I would probably recover eventually, but it appeared I was going to be operating half-deaf for the rest of this gig. “Have somebody call in a hostage situation,” I suggested.


He blinked. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” he asked dubiously. I could see, behind him, that Kyra and Snowflake were jogging over to join us, although the other wolves were staying behind, I thought to tend to various injuries obtained from the golem or the explosion.


“No,” I said, making sure to speak loudly enough that Kyra would hear. I needn’t have raised my voice, given that werewolf hearing would ensure that she heard me regardless, but it was polite. “It’s a terrible idea. But it’s the only thing I can think of to keep them from coming in until we deal with things.” Meanwhile, Are you okay? I asked Snowflake.


Fine, she replied, sounding—God help us—excited. When can we get some more of those things? That was awesome.


“So,” I concluded, “unless we’re calling this off, we have to do something. If you have a better idea that’s wonderful, but otherwise ‘hostage’ is the best I can think of for making sure we have time to finish this.”


He hesitated. Kyra growled a negative. Ryan looked like he wanted to argue, for which I couldn’t blame him—werewolves can cope with a lot, generally, but things that shrug off their attacks like raindrops aren’t included.


But Kyra was Alpha. Her word was law. And, when push came to shove, he wasn’t willing to question that law. He kept to sullen silence.


“Great,” I said. “You make it happen and get ready to move ASAP. I’m going to scout around.”


As I more than half expected from the first time I saw her, it was the cinnamon wolf that actually found the path, less than twenty seconds after the explosion. That was good; we were currently operating under a serious time limit, and I needed us to be moving well before the cops arrived if this plan was going to work.


We all gathered around the stairway in silence. Well, most of us did; as it turned out, the huge wolf had broken a few bones and was in no condition to continue, and Cowboy Bill was limping pretty badly from a shrapnel wound to his left thigh. They left via the hole I’d blown in the wall, bringing us down to six.


The stairway we were looking at was a weird mix of the prosaic and the remarkable. I mean, it isn’t all that uncommon you find a staircase in the back rooms of a store leading to the basement storage area. But it is uncommon that said staircase is little more than a tube of concrete, with layers of wards around the threshold, and a solid steel trapdoor waiting to be dropped over the top.


We stared at it. Werewolves, generally speaking, aren’t much when it comes to feeling magic, but you would have to be blind, deaf, and unconscious not to notice this. The air around the wards fairly hummed with lethal promise, and the air shimmered like a parking lot at noon in July. Anybody who set of those wards was going to be one crispy critter, and the way they were rigged would unleash the full extent of their power if anyone so much as touched a toe to the top step. Even better, they wouldn’t be especially discriminating, turning the entire room into a blast furnace that would leave nothing alive.


Desperate times call for desperate measures. I licked my lips nervously, then said, “Clear the room, please.” Ryan, the only one present with a language-capable mouth, looked like he wanted to argue. I met his brown eyes with my amber ones, and he looked away fast. Moments later I was alone in the room.


I didn’t waste time. As soon as the last tail cleared the door, I drew Tyrfing from where I’d returned it to the scabbard on my belt. I dragged the blade across the palm of my hand, cutting just deeply enough to draw blood. Every drop that touched Tyrfing’s blade vanished, drained almost instantly into the sword, but more dripped down my fingers and spattered onto the wards, where it immediately began to steam and hiss.


Like I said. Blood magic is scary, risky, stupid stuff to play around with—but when you need power badly enough that you don’t care what the cost is anymore, it’s exactly what the doctor ordered.


I didn’t have the time to be subtle and clever. I took all the power I could hold, drew it in from the air around me and the shadows in the corners, from the blood dripping off my fingertips and the anger boiling quietly beneath the surface of my mind. I inhaled, the magic I was holding leashed pressing against my skin from the inside.


And I huffed, and I puffed, and I blew the house down.


I couldn’t outsmart this guy. His wards were a thing of beauty and grace, elegant weaves of power interwoven into a whole that outstripped any spell I could spin by an order of magnitude. That was why I was taking a Gordian-style approach instead. Tyrfing slammed into the ground, which didn’t do nearly as good a job of resisting the blade as the golem had.


Tyrfing was more than merely metal, and its edge could cut more than matter. It was forged by dwarves to be an instrument of destruction, and I don’t know if there’s anything that can really stop it indefinitely. It sliced into the magic of the wards as easily as it had the concrete.


They triggered instantly, of course. That was a given. The structure of the wards snapped, and the energy they had been holding flooded out, trying to produce heat and flame enough to turn me into a greasy stain.


I didn’t let them. Once the potential for heat became actual, it would be unstoppable, way more thermal energy than I could hope to counteract. Until that happened, though, they were just magic, just something that could become real. And that I could control, sending a massive wave of my own magic to swamp it out before it could finish the process of activating.


It didn’t work, not completely. Purely energetic stuff was far from my forte, and it was inevitable that some would slip past me. The air in front of me turned to fire and death in an instant, rushing forward at me.


I couldn’t afford to break my concentration, or I would have a lot more than this to worry about. I spared just enough energy to throw an arm up across my eyes, dropping Tyrfing so as not to stab myself in the neck, and otherwise kept right on grounding out all the power I could.


It hurt, when the flames hit. It hurt a lot. But pain was not a stranger to me, and I refused to allow it to stop me. I endured.


Several long moments later, the fire died out, and the last of the magic faded from the air, taking with it the smell of hot metal and bleach. I cautiously lowered my arm and let the last scraps of the power I’d gathered go, staggering a little with the expenditure of magic.


The room was smoldering a little, but not as much as I’d expected. There just wasn’t much there to burn—concrete takes a lot of heat to set on fire, and while it was charred black in places it was essentially intact.


There was one notable exception. Where I was standing, and in a circle for almost five feet in every direction, the floor hadn’t been burned. It was, rather, covered in a sheen of ice. Frost had formed on the surface of my body, covering all exposed skin in a layer of the stuff. My face had been burned—I knew it had, had felt the flame lick my face and struggled not to scream with the pain of it—but it didn’t hurt now. The skin, which had been burned off, had been replaced with ice, close to my face as a second skin. Even my eyes were covered in a thin layer of ice, which melted away when I blinked and reformed a moment later.


Even stranger, the ice seemed to dull the pain. I could still feel it, but it was distant, almost like I’d been dosed with a topical anesthetic.


Creepy. Useful, but deeply creepy.


I called the werewolves back in, less than fifteen seconds after they’d left. They looked at the fire damage, and then at the frost, and then they saw me.


Only Snowflake had no fear in her eyes when she saw my face.


“Come on,” I said, both a hint of a growl and something eerily like a winter breeze hiding in the depths of my voice, and jerked my head at the staircase. Kyra, well aware of how little time we had remaining, didn’t wait for me to ask twice before bounding down.


Snowflake and I brought up the rear once again. Once we were down, Ryan slammed the trapdoor shut behind us. The steel door must have weighed better than a hundred and fifty pounds, but he lifted it like nothing. “In case the cops try to follow us,” he explained, and took off after his pack.


I didn’t argue. But I did use Tyrfing to cut off the bolt before I sheathed it. Just in case.


The staircase was incredible. After around the first thirty feet, it turned from concrete to stone, masterfully cut and joined, and the fluorescent lighting was replaced by odd, glowing orbs of some white stone I didn’t recognize. It just kept going, one flight after another, twisting and turning back on itself in ways that didn’t always make sense.


I’m not sure how deep that staircase was. The steps were unevenly spaced, generally shorter than I would expect, but sometimes they had to be higher than was allowed by code. I lost track around three hundred, and we kept going for quite some time after that.


This is insane, Snowflake said, bounding down the stairs just below me. Nobody builds shit like this.


No, I replied. Jon probably hired trolls or dwarves or something to make it. Heck of a hideout.


By some miracle, we didn’t encounter any dangers on the way down the stairs. There were no more golems, no wards, not even a tripwire. I wasn’t sure what to make of that. I mean, of course it was good that we weren’t being threatened at every step, but…well, I kept thinking that that could only mean that whatever was coming up next was big and bad enough to make up for the lack.


I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what was so big it dwarfed a fifteen-foot-tall monster made from solid granite that laughed at Tyrfing.


When we hit the bottom, we saw the first signs of opposition in a while. Two creatures—constructs, they had to be, made by this nutter from the stuff of the Otherside—lying dead on the floor. They were hideously ugly things, roughly humanoid slabs of muscle topped by horrific fanged mouths more suitable to a grizzly bear than anything bipedal. They were obviously made for violence, not any aesthetic purposes, and the grievous wounds they’d sustained did nothing to improve their looks.


They were each two hundred or more pounds of claws, teeth, and muscle, more than a match for any human without serious armaments. But four pack werewolves driven nearly berserk with rage had outclassed them rather badly. It was hard to tell with any precision what had happened here, but there was no sign that any of the wolves had been injured, and each of the constructs had been ripped to pieces.


The werewolves, of course, were long gone, down the long tunnel before us. They had outstripped us easily on the stairs, and were obviously too deeply in the grip of the mad rage of a werewolf whose pack has been challenged to wait for us at the bottom.


“Shit,” I said, jogging down the corridor after them. I wanted to run, but I’d been pushing myself hard with all the magic and acrobatics, and I was starting to come up against my limits. That added another layer of urgency to the situation. If this wasn’t over soon, I might not be able to finish it. “I told them not to try and take him alone.” Snowflake, matching my pace easily, growled deep in her chest, either unwilling or unable to express the extent of her reaction in words.


We passed several more corpses, or pieces of corpses, as we went. It was hard to tell precisely what had happened to them—constructs are unstable, and decay very rapidly once they’re destroyed—but I still didn’t see any blood, or anything else to indicate that the werewolves had been hurt.


The corridor—it seemed impolite to call it a tunnel, given the artistry that had gone into making it—continued for what felt like a very long time. The constructs came thicker as we progressed, until after around three hundred yards they were coming in groups of ten and fifteen, and the werewolves hadn’t had the time or attention to spare for absurdly grotesque overkill anymore. I started seeing bullet casings where Ryan had had to resort to modern weapons, and in places there were tufts of fur and blood to mark where their numbers had been so overwhelming that one of the wolves was injured. A while after that, I heard the unmistakable snarls of werewolves in battle ahead.


Snowflake and I picked up the pace. After another twenty yards or so the corridor opened up into a room, the first we’d seen since we descended the stairs. We slowed down a little as we emerged, high on the wall of a chamber I’d have sworn couldn’t possibly be buried under the city. And stopped, stunned, to stare at the scene in front of us.


The room was more stone, boggling the mind with the amount of work it must have taken to cut and fit it all, and had to be about a hundred yards square, and thirty tall. We were just below the ceiling, standing on a narrow ledge that turned into an equally narrow stone staircase that switchbacked down the face of the wall.


In what I judged to be the exact center of the room, four werewolves stood back to back. Ryan’s assault rifle had gone by the wayside at some point, and he was holding his trench knife in his right hand and the Uzi in his left. He was facing us, Kyra at his back. The cinnamon wolf to the left was limping, her left foreleg crushed too badly to bear weight, and only the fourth wolf didn’t look significantly the worse for wear.


Surrounding them was a mass of constructs. They weren’t outnumbered five-to-one, or even by a factor of ten.


From what I could tell, there were more than two hundred constructs in that seething horde. Fifty of them for each of the werewolves.


I stared for a moment from my perch, stunned. In my most pessimistic moments I hadn’t expected that there would be this many enemies here. We couldn’t hope to take that many. The six of us could kill thirty apiece and there would still be enough to bring us down through the sheer weight of numbers.


On the far wall, highlighted by a literal spotlight, was the bait. Laurel was stuck in a contraption remarkably like that the Watchers had held me in, the only immediately visible differences being that she was still wearing that dull red cloak (not a kindness to leave her clothed, given that once soaked clothing becomes more of an inconvenience than anything), and that she was bound with simple hemp rope instead of fancy handcuffs. She was clearly conscious, surveying the scene with an expression of such fury as to impress werewolves, but incapable of affecting things from her current position.


On the other wall, to my right, framed by another spotlight, was a small but literal throne. It was made from more stone, and though it was hardly larger than an armchair, its positioning on a small dais and the mastery of its construction left no doubt as to its nature.


Seated on the throne, wearing a simple old-fashioned suit, was a familiar face, the very same one my instincts had been going haywire warning me about from the first time I saw him. Crazily, even with everything I’d seen, the suit combined with the baldness and the jovial expression made him look like a jolly businessman.


It fit, too, that was the worst part. I’d assumed that he was a Guard, but all he really said was that he wasn’t a part of the Watchers. There’d always been that anger toward me, too, buried much of the time but not hard to see. And then there was the fact that Watcher had made no mention, none at all, of who he was or what his role might be.


Strangely, the constructs weren’t attacking. I would have expected them to swarm forward and overrun the wolves, but they were standing dead still, forming a perfect ring about two feet from Kyra’s nose. That could only mean that the bad guy didn’t want them to move yet, and that could only mean that he wanted something.


I wasn’t sure what I was going to do yet. But I was pretty sure that I needed to be down there to do it, and pronto. So I scooped Snowflake into my arms and jumped off the ledge, pushing off as hard as possible so as not to land on the staircase below. Eighty feet down—no problem. I stretched out my will, thickening the air we fell through and forcing it to press up against us, slowing us down. Eighty feet down, but we hit with no more speed than if we’d fallen ten or so. I dropped Snowflake just before we hit so that she wouldn’t be crushed; like a cat, she landed on all fours and came up snarling. I, being somewhat less like a cat, hit the ground and rolled to disperse energy, but I also finished the motion with a snarl on my face.


Only to freeze as I realized what was going on.


A third spotlight had come on, centered on Kyra, and the bad guy (I really needed a better name for him than that) was laughing. It should have been inaudible, but somehow cut across the distance between us and the snarling wolves without any trouble. The acoustics—or, quite possibly, the magic—of the room must have been arranged such that anyone on the throne had their sounds amplified.


“Wolf!” he exclaimed, sounding just as jovial and just as quietly, homicidally furious as ever. “Jolly good of you to make it! I was afraid you’d miss the fun.”


That was when I realized what was going on, and a quick glance confirmed it. Yep, the constructs were slowly pressing closer to the wolves. And, when I looked over at her, Laurel was slowly sinking into the water. The rope contraption she was in was lowering steadily into the water.


He saw, when I realized that, and laughed again. “I see that you recognize the choice you are faced with, Wolf. Do you try to kill me? Or do you free the person you came here to help? Or will you try and save your friends? I assure you, you have only enough time for one of these things.”

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Blind Eye 4.13

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Three hours later, my phone rang, providing the tragic but necessary end to my break.


The pack had found something.


Kyra came to pick me up personally. I found that highly amusing, in an odd sort of way. Even with all the minions at her command, she took the time to play taxi driver herself. It was funny, okay?


“The van was ticketed on parking violations up on the north side of the city,” she said without preamble.


I stared. “And it took you this long to find that?”


She smiled a sharp, thin, predatory smile. “Of course not. I didn’t see a reason to bother you until I had something better than that.” She pulled out into the light middle-of-the-day traffic.


I waited for a moment, until it became clear that she wanted to be prompted. “What do you have?” I asked, rolling my eyes. Snowflake chuckled.


“My team scent-tracked someone from the car,” she continued. “It took a while—whoever it was, they were expecting werewolves.”


I snorted. “Gosh, you think? Maybe it’s because, gee, they’re after me.”


She shrugged. “True. Anyway, they backtracked like crazy, covered their tracks with pepper and silver, the whole deal.”


I winced. Salting your path with silver was a nasty trick to play. It meant that any werewolf trailing you could, at unpredictable intervals, expect to get a noseful of burning agony, which would at the least render them incapable of following a scent for several minutes, and might (depending on the dosage and the charge) even injure them. It was also, needless to say, quite expensive.


“But they followed it?”


She shrugged again. “Reasonably well. Mostly by not following it, if you get what I mean.”


I did. They would have looked for anywhere that didn’t have the scent, complete with strong smells and toxic dust. It was harder than following directly, and more manpower-intensive, but when you already had the target localized it could be a frighteningly effective tactic. It was especially good at finding someone trying to leave multiple trails by backtracking.


Don’t try and hide from werewolves. It won’t work. Granted it isn’t quite as stupid as running from werewolves—they have the same chase instinct as mortal canines—but not by much. When you go to ridiculous lengths like this guy had, it just makes the game more exciting for them.


“Did they find him?”


She glanced sidelong at me. “Sort of. You should probably take a look for yourself.”


About twenty minutes later, and with more than fifteen hours left on my countdown, we were walking down the street, to all appearances a couple idle people walking their dog. Not that there was much of anyone else on the street; I wasn’t sure whether it was just that this wasn’t a high traffic area, or if Kyra’s people were actively warding people away. Probably both. It helped that this part of town was mostly industrial.


Kyra was wearing a trench coat, which in my experience is never a good thing. It meant that either she was armed for bear underneath and didn’t want anyone to know it at a glance, or that she was wearing nothing underneath because she wanted to be able to change at a moment’s notice. I was guessing the latter; Kyra generally prefers fur for combat.


“This is where they lost him?” I murmured to her.


“Yeah,” she said, equally softly. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed another pair of people leaning against the wall chatting whose eyes were a little too focused to really be as engrossed in their conversation as they wanted to seem. I recognized one of them as one of the female werewolves from the pack. Sentries, which meant that there were probably at least another two I didn’t see.


“The trail is pretty clear coming down this street,” she continued. We were, she said, about two miles from where the SUV had been found as the crow flies, although the actual path they’d had to follow was significantly longer. “Then, at the next intersection, massive dump of scent-blockers. Not just the pepper and silver, either; he dumped cinnamon, monkshood, the works. On the other side, nothing.”


I grunted. “No dust? Or did the wolves get his personal scent?”


“They did,” she confirmed. “And both of them stop right there.”


“If he could conceal it totally,” I mused, thinking aloud, “stands to reason he wouldn’t have bothered with the scent bomb this whole way.”


“Unless it’s a decoy,” she concluded. “Take up our time following a fake trail. None of us has a perp to compare it to, so I don’t even know that this is the right scent, just that it goes from near the car to here and somebody didn’t want it followed.”


“True,” I acknowledged. “But he could just as easily be assuming we’ll go with that and leave off now. That way he gets the satisfaction of seeing us turn around when we’re just a few blocks away. Seems like the kind of thing this guy would get off on.”


“But he’s gone out of his way not to leave traces before,” she countered. “Between that and your history of seeing through that kind of doublethink, stands to reason that he’s expecting you to think that. Best camouflage is not actually being there, right?”


I nodded sourly. “Do you have any other leads? Anything at all?”


She shook her head. “Still looking. We have an APB out for her description, and if there were any sightings in the right time frame we should be getting reports. I have wolves who know the scent searching the major thoroughfares. Airport security came back negative already.” She paused. “Do you think we should arrange roadblocks?”


“Not worth it,” I said absently, most of my attention on the problem facing me. “He could bypass any active measures like that.”


Like I said. Smart people don’t mess with the pack. They tend not to have much middle ground between “No response necessary” and “Retaliate with overwhelming force,” and when they decide to hit back it can be pretty devastating.


“I take it you think I should try my methods?” I asked, more or less rhetorically. She’d already made it clear that I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t have something to contribute. I would have been a bit peeved about that, actually, except that I’d really needed the rest. This gunshot crap was way overrated.


She smiled, still with a little of that hunger underneath but not quite so openly predatory as she had been earlier. She wanted his blood—all of the pack would, after he’d dared to kill one of their own and assaulted another—but she had it under control. Later…well, let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be that guy after five minutes in a room with the werewolves. I’ve seen what happens when somebody makes a pack that pissed off at them, and I was guessing that even a forensics team wouldn’t be able to identify the body.


Hell, they’d probably only give even odds that it was human.


Seemingly without a cue of any kind, another werewolf came walking around the corner, a grocery bag in his hand. I didn’t recognize this fellow, but the purpose in his movement was unmistakable, and once he got closer the scent confirmed it. Werewolf, through and through.


He handed the bag off to Kyra as he walked past us in the other direction, masking the exchange with a sudden coughing fit. Very casual, very low-key; he was good at this game. I wondered if he had some kind of background in theater or something, or if he’d picked the skill up on the job.


Kyra, in turn, slipped it into her coat and turned us neatly off the main street into an empty alley behind an outlet store of some kind. Flooring, I think. It wasn’t hard to see why nobody else was there. There was another man at one end, ostensibly on a smoke break, who paid just that little bit of deference to Kyra that marked him as one of hers even if I couldn’t smell him over the cigarette, and the stray dog at the other end was clearly more than just a dog. I wouldn’t want to be the delivery guy trying to get past those guys, either.


I wasn’t used to Kyra showing her power this openly. She must have called in the entire pack for this; I hadn’t seen this many werewolves all at once since we took down Garrett.


I squatted down near the middle of the alley, closed my eyes, and slipped into a light trance state, mentally questing for any animals nearby which might have information pertinent to the cause. It was harder in the middle of the day, when most of my kind of animal were asleep while waiting for better hunting times, but hopefully I could get something.


Kyra knew how the system worked, so while I was doing this she was opening the package of hamburger meat that the other werewolf had fetched from the grocery and dumping it out on the pavement. You don’t need a bribe to convince an animal to come, exactly, but we were far enough away from my usual neighborhoods that the predators here probably wouldn’t know me very well. And, in all honesty, even with familiar animals the bribe helps a lot. Most animals have very clear priorities in life, and food generally tops the list. (Except when it loses out to mating, but that’s a whole different story.)


I could feel, in that state, all the werewolves around. And it terrified me.


There were a lot of them. I felt more than a dozen different sparks of predatory light. And all of them, every one, was thinking bloody thoughts. I didn’t know how much of the story they knew, but Kyra had told them that the target had killed one of the pack, and they burned with the need to avenge him.


That’s the problem with antagonizing a pack of wolves. First you have the initial flash of rage. But then, as it starts to settle down into a solid flame, it gets into the pack bonds. They aren’t as strong a connection as some versions of the story would have you believe, certainly not strong enough to allow true telepathy, but when it comes to transmitting instincts and emotions they are par excellence.


Once an emotion gets into the pack bonds, usually it dissipates. That’s why the pack helps werewolves who would otherwise succumb to those impulses keep control; the exposure to the feelings and instincts of their packmates, who aren’t experiencing that urge, helps to ground them.


But right now, the whole pack was feeling the anger. It didn’t even matter how they had felt about Enrico, personally; someone had hurt the pack, and any werewolf would feel wrath at that. And so when that anger gets into the psychomagical connections, it doesn’t fade, it amplifies, feeding on the fury of all those werewolves and resonating with it. It grows and grows until, at some point, it takes on a life of its own, and the wolves start feeding on it instead. The positive feedback loop thus formed can easily explode out of all proportion, and when it does…well, there tends to be a lot of wreckage when it’s all over, and the biggest obstacle to identifying the bodies is figuring out how many there actually are.


It takes a lot to drive a pack berserk like that. This one wasn’t there yet, not even close. But I could feel the beginning stages, and that was plenty scary enough.


I say all this so that you can understand, at least to some degree, what I felt in Kyra. She was the first thing I felt, of course, when I started browsing; she was standing right next to me, after all, and even if I hadn’t spent that much time around her recently we still had a fairly solid bond. Her mind brushed up against me, a familiar feather-light touch that smelled of shadows and secrets. The hint of blood that I’d always found in her scent was weaker than before, superseded by something a little like salt, the real-life analogue of which I wasn’t clear on. Not seawater, I would have recognized that. In any case, I could only assume that it was a positive change.


But inside? Well, let’s just say that Kyra didn’t feel as much like I was used to down deep as she did on the surface. I could feel that anger in her, the bone-deep reaction of a werewolf to something that dared to threaten the pack, an enemy with the gall to strike at their own. Perhaps even more unnerving, I could feel her feeling it, recognizing and reacting to it.


She was Alpha, the linchpin, the keystone, the stable axis around which the pack moved. A lot of her function was to keep that kind of thing from happening. It was the Alpha whose job it was to spread a stabilizing influence through those bonds, to keep a controlled and justified killing from turning into a massacre. Kyra was up to it—she might not seem it, but she’s one of the more capable people I know, and she has very good control over her emotions. She has to; she’d have been dead before I met her, otherwise.


But it was a strain, and I could feel that strain in her. It was hard, when I was inundated with sensation from so many other sources, to feel much of anything myself, but even in my current state I felt a flicker of sympathy. Poor Kyra. I never wanted her to have to deal with that.


I managed to keep well away from the other werewolves. I didn’t particularly want to know what was running through their minds at the moment. There weren’t very many animals around, probably because that part of the city isn’t the best place to find scraps of food. I caught the edge of a stray dog, just a fragmentary impression of a smell (I didn’t have enough time to identify it, but he found it quite intriguing), and then skipped across the eyes of a flock of pigeons on the building overhead, each of which saw a slightly different section of the street. Useless. I mean, really, when you’re reduced to pigeons, well, that’s definitely a bad sign.


The task was not in the slightest helped by the fact that the steel ring I used as a focus for animal-oriented magics had been in my house, or that the moon was essentially new. Under ideal circumstances I could have extended my senses more than a mile from my position, and I’d shown that when desperate enough I could reach almost twenty times that, but currently I had to stretch just to touch upon the first werewolf we’d seen.


I’m not sure how long I spent like that. Time is, at least for me, really hard to judge without a body to measure it against, and I was too dissociated from mine to use it right now. Most of the time we judge time by heartbeats and breaths, by the soreness from sitting in one position, by our own boredom. But currently I couldn’t feel any of my own physical sensations, and my emotions were…off, to say the very least. But it felt like a while before anything that I could use surfaced to my touch.


It slipped away instantly, and I felt a sudden surge of frustration. I immediately soothed it away, of course; magic is all about focused intent, and when you want to do something delicate there’s nothing more disastrous than spikes of strong emotion. Once I was sure that I wasn’t about to lose the delicate bodiless trance state I was in, I stretched out toward that mind I’d touched again. It’s hard to express that process in English; it wasn’t a matter of physical location, which I couldn’t even detect. It was more a process of aligning my thoughts to those that I was trying to connect with, making our minds similar enough that I could exert my power to convince the world that they were actually the same.


Eventually, after a long and frustrating process, I managed it. The animal—this presence was definitely animal—was slippery, sliding in and out of my grasp, and it took me a while longer to figure out what it actually was.


A raccoon. Of course. That explained a lot of the difficulty I’d been having, actually; coons are more scavenger than predator, which makes them less than ideal for my purposes. I can maintain the contact well enough, but actually melding with scavengers (or, even worse, herbivores) is much harder for me.


I couldn’t get close enough for actual sensation. But this was the best option there was, depressing as that was, and I teased at it, trying to get the raccoon to come closer. Animals don’t have discrete thoughts to speak of, let alone language (Snowflake being the distinct and probably non-animalian exception). But the message I conveyed was simple enough; you could pretty much distill it into come/food/here, where “here” meant a primal sensory impression of where I was and how to get there.


It took another minute for that to sink in, but eventually I felt the slightest shift in the mind (curiosity?), and relaxed. I sank back into my body gratefully—it was a nice trick, but I’m always a little nervous in that state. It was nice to go back to actually having a body to call my own.


Less nice was the fact that, once I actually did settle back into it, it was eager to let me know that it wasn’t happy with me. My knees ached, as did my back where I’d been shot.


Kyra and Snowflake were still there, thankfully. “Anything?” she asked when I started moving, fingers flying over her phone. She didn’t bother glancing in my direction.


“Maybe,” I said, stretching. “Anything on your end?”


She grimaced. “Nothing useful. Somebody’s blocking me.”


“Blocking you? What do you mean, ‘blocking you?'”


She shrugged. “City police are still in, but I can’t get anything going on a wider scale. It isn’t just a general thing, either; somebody’s keeping this specific investigation grounded.”


I grunted. “Not surprising. I’d wager the Watchers have more contacts that any of us.”


“The Watchers?” she asked sharply. “Is that who we’re up against?”


“I don’t think so,” I said slowly, only then putting the guesses that had been accreting over the past however-many days into words. “The one I talked to struck me as more of a practical, no-nonsense type, which would normally mean she’d straight-up murder me if she wanted to, not pull this kind of complicated stunt. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s keeping things quiet, though. They don’t strike me as the kind of organization that likes a lot of attention.”


She grunted thoughtfully. “Could be, I suppose.”


Right about then the raccoon showed up. He was a surprisingly healthy specimen of the breed, a sleek-furred fellow of about twenty pounds. The pack must have had some kind of instruction about what to expect, because the werewolf in skin let him past without complain. He was utterly fearless, too, ignoring me, Kyra, and Snowflake and going straight for the meat on the ground.


“Hey, not yet,” I said, reaching out and resting my fingers lightly on his back. He, like I would expect from most wild animals, immediately spun and bit at my arm. Fortunately, between the calming influence I was exerting and the fact that his teeth failed to gain purchase, after the initial hostility he was content to hiss and glare at me balefully.


Not the best circumstances under which to make first real contact, but then not the worst either. Skin contact made it much, much easier to extend myself into his mind proper, slipping inside his skin. Amusingly, he wasn’t quite sure what to make of my hand on him; he’d had plenty of interactions with humans before, but never anything this calm and positive, and he wasn’t clear whether he should approve of the light caress or not.


Other than that, his senses provided no novel info. Especially given that he was primarily interested in the hamburger anyway. That, incidentally, was why I usually kept the package sealed and out of sight until after I had what I was looking for. I managed to get him thinking about the previous night, but I had to keep dragging his attention away from the meat.


Raccoons are mostly nocturnal, and I actually had no idea why this one was awake right now. Fortunately, he had also been awake last night. His memories, like those of all animals, were fragmentary and disjointed, one sensory impression after another with no real connection between them, and muzzy even after such a short time. I’ve done this a lot and I knew how to interpret them pretty well, but it was still tricky. Especially given that I wasn’t sure what time period I was looking for.


Making things yet worse was the fact that, as it turned out, this area wasn’t at all a part of this fella’s normal range. After just a few moments, I gave up entirely on finding a memory of what happened when they got to the end of the trail, and focused instead on finding any snapshot memory of the people I was looking for.


In what I would most likely call a miracle before I met Loki, I actually found one. It was truly fragmentary, just the tiniest glimpse from thirty feet away, but it was definitely there. They made a hard couple to miss, the lanky Watcher in her red cloak slung over the shoulder of a shorter figure shrouded in black cloth. I groaned inside when I saw that. Didn’t this guy ever lighten up?


Anyway, I figured that was all I would get from the raccoon, so I slipped back into my own body. “They were here,” I said shortly. “Or on this trail, anyway.”


Kyra nodded. “Where’d they go, then?”


I grinned and stood, leaving the coon to his meal. “Let’s go find out, eh?”


There was no sign of what might have happened when they reached that last intersection. None. There was a scent—I wasn’t walking along in fur snuffling the ground, but I still caught the occasional hint of pepper—and then there wasn’t. Nothing in between, no transition, nada. Not that I’d been expecting anything different—Kyra’s people were too good to miss something obvious—but it was still pretty darn disappointing.


“Found it yet?” Kyra asked me. Her tone was joking, but underneath I could hear the same frustration I was feeling. It isn’t often a werewolf’s prey gets away; they tend not to be used to disappointment, especially not Alphas.


“Not yet,” I said, chewing on my lip. “Don’t suppose there are any cameras on this intersection?”


“I would have told you already,” she said, the faintest hint of…disapproval, for lack of a better word, in her voice.


I nodded. Of course. I wasn’t the only person with a brain here. “I’m kind of inclined to say the crossed to the Otherside. It’d be the smart thing to do. Which is a shame, because I don’t know if it’s even possible to track that.” And we’d been doing so well, too.


She cocked her head to the side curiously, one of those canine mannerisms that make werewolves seem a little odd without quite setting off alarms in normal people. “Only kind of?”


“Yeah,” I said, frowning. “It’s just…this guy isn’t doing the smart thing, you know? The smart thing, the logical thing, would have been to kill me, not to play games with us. Heck, he already shot me once, and he straight-up told me he didn’t want me dead yet. That isn’t the sign of somebody making intelligent tactical decisions.” I shrugged. “What’s the point playing a game like this only to cheat at the last minute?”


Kyra didn’t have an answer for me, and for a moment we walked in silence. It wouldn’t do to be seen to show too much attention to the endpoint of the trail, after all.


It was Snowflake who eventually stumbled on the obvious answer we’d overlooked. Who owns those buildings? she asked me, mental overtones carrying the smooth assured feel of someone who is confident she already knows the answer to the question she just asked.


I blinked, then grinned. “Clever,” I said, and relayed the question to Kyra.


“Why didn’t I think of that?” she asked aloud. “Let me get back to you on that one.”


About half an hour later, I was sitting in another park (I was feeling more paranoid than usual, and it’s hard to sneak up on me when I’m surrounded by animals) when Kyra walked up. “When this is over,” she said, her voice trembling with excitement and that same edge of barely-suppressed wrath, “the dog gets a T-bone on me.”


Said dog, who was sleeping on my feet, deigned to flick an ear but otherwise didn’t respond in either spectrum. “I take it,” I said dryly, “that you’ve got something.”


She handed a piece of paper to me. It wasn’t hard to figure out what she meant, either. One of the shops right next to where the scent trail gave out—the same damn tile store I’d summoned the raccoon out back of, in fact—was owned by one Jon Arnson. It had been closed for more than a year, but Jon hadn’t made any moves toward selling it, and in fact nobody’d heard from him for quite a long time now. Apparently the feds wanted to have a long talk with him about a little thing called tax evasion, but they couldn’t seem to find him either. Oddly enough, they hadn’t actually taken any action on the matter.


“You know,” I said, “I think maybe this is a little suspicious.”


“Careful you don’t hurt yourself there, jumping to conclusions like that.”


At least Snowflake laughed.


There was a short silence as we all considered the information—I’d relayed it to Snowflake, of course, so that we would have her input as well. She’d already demonstrated that dismissing her just because she had four feet was not smart, after all.


“My wolves won’t be very effective in an enclosed space like that,” Kyra said eventually.


That had been my first thought as well, and was more than likely why he’d chosen it. Out in the open, a whole bunch of werewolves could easily surround you, and at that point even a mage would go down fast. Indoors, though…well, no matter how clever and magical you are, when there’s thirty of you you can only go through a doorway so fast, and that creates a bottleneck that a ranged attacker can exploit for massive damage. I had no doubt that whatsisface was prepared to use that advantage to the max.


“Can we get Aiko in to do some scouting first?” she asked, once it became clear I had nothing to add to her previous statement.


I grimaced. “She’s on a mandatory visit home. I can’t get word to her, and I doubt she could make it anyway.” A fact which was increasingly worrisome to me, especially since I still hadn’t heard from her at all.


Kyra grunted. That was one of the nice things about working with her; she wasn’t going to complain, or moan about how bad things were, or wish they were better. Life’s shit, get over it was more like her attitude. “Nobody else is sneaky enough to get in and out without setting off alarms,” she said, her tone more of a flat statement than anything else.


“True,” I agreed sourly. Which meant that we’d be charging blind into a location where the enemy was knowledgeable, and they’d had who knew how long to fortify it. That isn’t a good position to be in. Plus it would be exactly what he was expecting.


What we needed, I reflected, was a game changer.


“I have to go,” she said. Alphas lead from the front, or else they don’t stay Alpha long; no werewolf respects somebody who’s afraid to fight.


“I’m not backing out,” I said dryly, “if that’s what you meant.” Snowflake didn’t bother to say anything, just raised her head and growled softly, glaring straight into Kyra’s eyes for a moment before she laid her head back down and returned to dozing.


Kyra nodded, unsurprised. “I think that leaves us about five slots to fill. More than that, we’ll get in each other’s way more than it’s worth.”


“Sounds about right,” I agreed. “We should probably have at least one person other than me go in human, just in case we need another pair of hands.”


She cocked her head sideways. “You’re going human?”


I shrugged. “I’m more accustomed to it. Besides, Tyrfing trumps teeth most days.” So did a gun, of course, but most serious mages prepare for stopping bullets. I don’t think much of anybody is prepared for stopping a werewolf wielding a wickedly powerful sword forged by dwarves specifically for overcoming any form of defense. How could you, when most people don’t know it exists and I don’t think anybody knows exactly what it is and isn’t capable of?


“Okay,” she said after a moment. “I get you. Then I want at least one person on lookout, so he doesn’t run right out the door behind us.”


“Better make it two or three,” I advised. “One person on each door, and another on the roof with a gun.”


She nodded. “Right. Can you think of anything else?”


I grimaced. “Not really. This is a terrible plan, you know.”


She shrugged. “Yeah. But we can’t afford to back down now, can we?” I understood what she was saying. The thought was something like “someone hurt the pack; we can’t afford the loss of face, even if redressing it means losing even more pack members.”


And that right there is, in a nutshell, why werewolves haven’t taken over the world.


I clapped my hands once, decisively. “That’s it, then. We go in at dusk.” It was around noon now, so we’d have a few hours yet to finish preparing, get the team in place, and rest up for the epic battle. Plus my power was greatest at dawn and dusk, and while it wasn’t a huge difference I wanted every scrap of advantage I could get.


For me, preparation was an interesting experience.


I try to avoid fights, especially large-scale ones with other supernatural critters. But, in all honesty, evidence suggests that I’m really bad at doing so, and it’s happened enough times now that I had a certain amount of ritual built up. Mostly it consisted of spending a lot of time sharpening, polishing, and oiling pointy things, and checking the contents of my pockets a few dozen times as I tried to distract myself from the monumentally stupid things I was about to do.


That was where I ran into problems. I didn’t have an appropriately private location to engage in such activity anymore. Oh, sure, I could have gone to the lab, and in fact I considered the idea, but it didn’t much appeal. The thought of Legion mocking me incessantly during what might be my last hours was not an attractive one.


I supposed instead of distracting myself I’d have to be proactive about reducing the stupidity where possible. There was, after all, no one else to do it for me.


It was bittersweet to say the least.


There were a few things to do, at least, which kept me from going utterly insane with boredom. I convinced Kyra that, as Robert was itching for some payback but still wasn’t fully healed, he should play watchman on the front door, and then had a few words with him. I couldn’t be sure, but I thought that he would go along with what I was planning.


Other than that, there wasn’t much to do. I made a few calls. I sharpened my knives. I paced anxiously around my shop. I tried to whip out a quick stored spell, but I couldn’t focus enough to do work of that complexity.


So, in true lycanthropic tradition, I ate a couple pounds of raw meat and got some more sleep, my dog sprawled across my chest. Food and rest are what a werewolf needs to heal, and I wanted all the healing I could get right now. Not that I got much rest; I was uncomfortable to say the least, and spent most of the time staring at the ceiling and thinking of all the ways this plan could go horribly wrong. But it’s the thought that counts, right?

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Blind Eye 4.12

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It was morning. My phone, which had barely any charge left by now, informed me that it was in fact the next morning, and I had slept through a full day after my, ahem, accident. I wasn’t too terribly perturbed by that; it was a small price to pay for still being alive and moving.


It also told me that I had missed three calls, all from the same number, which I did not recognize. Laurel, most likely. She had told me that I would be hearing from her, and she must have been getting either furious or worried by now.


I didn’t feel quite up to dealing with her yet. Besides, I needed to swap my gear now that I knew more about the opposition. As usual, that meant the lab.


I still didn’t know who to trust, but it was sunny and surprisingly warm out, and under the enveloping coat you couldn’t see the bloodstains, so I could walk the streets without concern. It was a bit of a walk to my lab, but not terribly so, and I’m accustomed to walking through the city.


I might have been concerned, after the way it turned out last time, except for one thing. In the middle of the night, you can reasonably expect to corner somebody alone in a side street. That just doesn’t happen at eleven in the morning, and everything about this guy suggested that he wasn’t into direct confrontation or showing himself. It would have been highly out of character for him to attack me directly in broad daylight.


Thankfully, for once the villain appeared to be willing to agree with my analysis of the situation. I saw plenty of shady business on my way to the lab, but nothing excessive or unusual and nothing that smacked of a setup. Of course, I didn’t breathe easy until I was safely behind locks and wards, and even then it was touch and go.


Snowflake walked most of the way with me. I wasn’t sure that I approved of that—she was still my trump card, and I wasn’t certain that I wasn’t currently under surveillance—but sometimes you have to make allowances. She was, end of the day, still a dog, and that was more than just her appearance. She didn’t like being separated from me for long, and especially not when she knew there was a game afoot. Between that and my unexpectedly long silence, I would have had to beat her off with a stick to keep her away, and even that would have been iffy.


She hadn’t seen, heard, or smelled anything useful since I saw her last, so mostly I told her about what had happened to me, and she stuck as close to me as caninely possible, as though to reassure herself that I was still alive. She didn’t say much, but the feeling of her worry echoed down the connection between us with a message all its own.


Back at the lab, I finally took the time to listen to my voicemail. The first message, as I had predicted, was from Laurel telling me that she’d learned something, and that I should call her as soon as I could. The second, left late last night, said that she was assuming I wasn’t responding because I couldn’t (nice job there, Sherlock) and she was going to try and deal with things solo. Of course, like all good morons, she neglected to mention what it was she’d learned, what she was actually doing about it, and where I could find her.


These people, I swear. One of these days maybe I’ll link them to the Evil Overlord list and totally blow their minds. I mean, come on. Have they never watched a movie in their entire life or something?


The third was less than two hours old. For a fraction of a second, I was hoping that she would be telling me that she’d found our culprit, or maybe even that the problem was solved because she’d offed him already.


It was, of course, not that easy. I knew this as soon as the message started. Because, as you may have predicted (I know I did, after that last message), it wasn’t Laurel speaking.


“Hello, Wolf,” said a smooth, confident, slightly muffled masculine voice. “I do hope you’re feeling better. It wouldn’t do for you to be playing at anything less than the top of your game, you know. As you have most likely surmised, I have your Watcher friend in my custody.” There was a brief pause, punctuated by a groan of pain in the background. Laurel, presumably.


“You have twenty-four hours,” he continued. “If you do not find her within that time, she will die. Good hunting, Wolf. I look forward to our next encounter.”


Snowflake swore. At great length, and with startling originality, in three languages.



I was not a happy camper.


I did not, I feel I should hasten to say, give much of a damn what happened to Laurel. She was weird and disturbing, I had no idea how much of her apparent friendliness was a front, and she’d gotten herself into this mess by charging in solo, which even I could have told her was stupid beyond the bad guys’ wildest dreams. As far as I was concerned, she could pretty much cope.


Unfortunately, I rather doubted Watcher would see it that way. In fact, I reckoned this would be scored as a definite failing mark on my secret police entrance exam. I wasn’t sure whether this would mean, say, a mild reprimand and being passed over for promotions for the next year, or being slowly vivisected. Given that they were the law enforcers for a whole bunch of frighteningly powerful mages and apparently pretty darn good at it, though, I kinda doubted that they would be inclined to be reasonable and understanding about the whole thing. It seemed safe to say that getting one of the boss’s favorite operatives killed on my very first unofficial quasi-mission was a very dumb thing to do.


So I pretty much had to save her, whatever my personal preferences on the matter.


That left me with just one teensy-weensy problem, which was that I still didn’t know who I was chasing, much less where to find his super-secret hideout. And, given that I was working on a short timer now, it didn’t seem like a good idea to just wander aimlessly around town. Colorado Springs, while not exactly Chicago or New York, is still a city of more than six hundred thousand people. The odds of me finding the right place by chance were exactly zero percent.


For that matter, there was no guarantee that she was being held in this city. Heck, given that he’d had at least a couple hours to get his setup perfect, she might be in another state, country, or even a different plane of existence. How the hell was I supposed to comb all the pseudo-infinite depths of the Otherside when I couldn’t even get there without outside intervention, and everyone interested in helping me had already been removed from play?


Not acting was a nonoption. It would cause all kinds of problems later on, and would also leave this freak free to keep torturing and killing my friends.


Looking for her wasn’t much better. It might make me feel better about failing, but it wouldn’t make that failure any less inevitable. Short of divine intervention, there was no way I could pull it off.


And that…well, that was where the problem came in.


Most of the time, when someone says they need divine intervention, it’s just a figure of speech. A way of saying that it can’t happen. I mean, everybody knows that God doesn’t work like that.


That’s not the case for me. I’ve met gods, plural. Occasionally, for reasons of their own, they’ve helped me. It’s never been fun, and it’s never been safe, and it’s never gone the way I wanted it to, but they have helped me.


I could try that route again. This mage might be able to stump me, but nobody hides much of anything from Loki Lie-Smith. He could tell me exactly where to go. Hell, if he felt like it he could arrange every person there to suffer a mysterious case of mass spontaneous combustion. I doubt a being on his level would even notice if the bastard tried to stop him.


The price would be terrible. I was already in debt to him, a debt I took on in exchange for a favor that turned out hardly to be worth it. And that had been from accepting a favor offered. For me to go asking…well, nothing says I’m desperate quite like that. He would know that he could ask the moon of me, and I would have little leverage for bargaining.


I thought about it, I really did, and for once Legion and Snowflake both had the sense not to interrupt.


Then I shook it off. I still had more than twenty hours. There was no need for desperate measures quite yet.


Kyra, recognizing my urgency even if I was still reticent about discussing details over the phone, made it to my lab in record time. I still didn’t have my shotgun, for obvious reasons, but I’d more than made up the lack in other arenas. I even had Tyrfing, on its heavy studded sword belt, stashed neatly under my cloak. It shows up whenever I call—but not always exactly where I want it or expect it, and generally when I know trouble’s coming it’s better just to wear it.


Snowflake, who was still boiling over with emotion from my recent absences, piled into the front seat with me, rather than sprawling across the back as usual. It was a touch cramped with her stretching up from the passenger footwell and across my torso to shove her head out the window, but I didn’t object as strenuously as I might have. To be honest, I’d missed her too. Strange, how you don’t think about how much a part of your life someone is until they aren’t there for a while.


“Start driving,” I said to Kyra, slumping back into the seat. Considering how long I’d spent sleeping, it seemed utterly unfair how tired I still felt. Oh, I know that I should expect it given what I’d been healing, but still. So not fair.


“Where are we going?” she asked. I knew that she was curious about what was going on, but she was also intelligent. She knew that I would tell her, and she knew that if I was talking about something else first there was a reason for it.


Normally I would say it was exceedingly stupid to pull that kind of stunt with a werewolf, doubly stupid with a strongly dominant werewolf, and gratuitously idiotic when dealing with an Alpha. In their world, imperious behavior is something that happens to other people, usually because of them. Fortunately, there are certain benefits to being the Alpha’s best friend.


“Nowhere yet,” I said, rubbing my temples. I guess my headache was at least distracting me from the bullet wound, but that’s a pretty damn pathetic silver lining. “But I reckon, y’know, moving target and all that.”


She did as I asked, but shot me a concerned glance as she did. “Is somebody chasing you?”


Right. She didn’t know the specifics of what was happening, of course. I hadn’t spoken to her since before that Otherside jaunt. Terribly rude of me, really, especially given that Enrico was one of her people.


All of which would have been too much to say. So I stuck to, “Yeah. Look, I need a favor.”


“Anything I can do,” she said immediately. She meant it, too, which was the scary part.


I shouldn’t have that kind of trust. It isn’t wise.


“I need somebody found.”


“Got any leads?”


“No,” I admitted. “You remember the mages that tried to abduct me from your place?”


“Sure. We looking for the female or the male?”


“Female. Last sighting probably last night or very early this morning. She was driving a black SUV, conspicuous as hell.” I pulled a slip of paper out of my pocket, on which I’d written down the plate numbers as soon as I’d seen the vehicle (paranoid, remember? It has some distinct drawbacks, but it’s not without upsides either) and passed it to her.


“Gotcha,” she said, cutting across several lanes of traffic and turning into a parking lot so that she would have her hands free. “What should they do if they find it?”


“Report,” I said immediately. “No recon, definitely no direct action. This guy’s serious bad news.”


“Wait, what guy?”


“Tell you in a minute.”


She frowned, and I could tell that she didn’t like it one bit, but she didn’t argue, for which I was grateful. I didn’t have the energy to argue right now, and it was imperative that this process be started immediately.


She made two calls, the details of which I won’t bore you with (no, really, there wasn’t any secret information in them that would give something important away—they really were exactly what you would think), and sent a few text messages, and that was that.


And that is the beautiful thing about allies. Alone, I couldn’t hope to find anything, not within my time frame and probably not at all.


Kyra, on the other hand, had just set roughly thirty werewolves, their extensive contacts in the police department, the criminal organization I’d never encountered but which (apparently, I had only heard the vaguest of details) the pack had deals with, and who knows what all else on the trail. That’s a lot of manpower, and between them they covered pretty much all the bases for investigation. If there was a trail to be found in this city they would almost certainly find it.


I could probably have called Conn and had most of the world receive, if not the same treatment, at least a cursory examination. I didn’t want to do that, though, because I’m always nervous about asking favors from the Khan and because the layers of bureaucracy involved would almost not be worth it. Better to start here, and if that failed I could always go to my other contacts.


“Are you going to tell me what’s happening now?” Kyra said in a tone which, although still quite pleasant, nonetheless carried a definite reminder that regardless of how much the Alpha likes you it’s wise not to push it too far. There are appearances to be kept up, after all; if there had been anyone else present, I doubt I’d have been able to get away even with what borderline impudence I had.


“Absolutely,” I said, glancing down and slightly sideways and making sure my voice was in no way challenging. Neither of us cared about such things by this point, of course, but the display of submission would help to soothe the dominant-werewolf impulses she was experiencing.


What a werewolf feels and gets the impulse to do, often an extremely strong impulse, don’t necessarily have anything to do with what she wants to do. It’s enough to make me glad I’m not a pureblooded werewolf, frankly; I still get the urges, but they don’t seem to affect me as much as average. You learn to deal with it, on both sides, but still.


“However,” I continued, “it’s rather a long story, and I’m bloody starving, so….” Snowflake made a sort of enthusiastic yipping sound, reminding me that she also hadn’t been eating regularly in quite some time.


Kyra snorted and started the car again. “Of course you are,” she muttered, softly enough to be indecipherable to a human but not enough to suggest that she didn’t intend us to hear it. “You two, I swear.”


We wound up eating takeout, because neither of us knew a restaurant nearby that would let Snowflake in the door and she was in no mood to be separated from me at the moment. Which, incidentally, was (in addition to being true) a most excellent cover for my own disinclination to discuss this in a public area.


Oh, it would have been safe. The Watchers were crazy skilled, granted, but they were still a bureaucratic organization, and I believed The Watcher when she said that they were dealing with serious manpower issues. The chances that whatever faction of them I was dealing with, if in fact that was the enemy here, would have ears in whatever restaurant we wound up in was functionally negligible. It’s just that I was pretty sure there wasn’t such a thing as too careful.


I’ve never been too fond of Chinese food. I don’t really know why. It’s just…meh. It all tastes the same to me. Fortunately, hunger makes everything sweeter, and I tore into the mystery-meat-and-assorted-vegetables-in-anonymous-sauce with a vengeance.


“So since when did you go from the prey to the missing persons specialist?” Kyra asked, arranging her lo mein and soup fastidiously on the ground. We were sitting in a park, which was small and somewhat dilapidated but had a few decent cottonwoods and, most importantly, was otherwise empty. Snowflake, who’d already consumed a sizable amount of food, was napping beside me, where she could use my leg for a pillow.


I shrugged. “Got press-ganged. Couple days ago now, her boss asks me to help deal with this cursing crap and I figured, what the hey, I’ve already got a personal motivation, why not?” I left out the part with the kidnapping; it would only have upset her. “She’s been helping out. Then this morning I got a message from the guy responsible saying he has her captive and she’s dead unless I get there in a day or less.”


She sighed. “Only you,” she said, her tone the sort usually reserved for swearwords. “Only you, Winter.”


“I blame you,” I muttered. “I used to be just a carpenter, you know. But no, you had to go asking me for help. All your fault.”


She chuckled. “So what is the story with that curse, anyway?” She sounded casual, but I wasn’t fooled. I have too much experience with werewolves to be fooled that easy.


“You remember the witch I took down last summer? The one that killed the vampire?” She’d gotten me involved in that one too, as I recalled.




“Starting to look like this is a revenge kick of some kind,” I said, nibbling on an eggroll. It didn’t seem to be toxic, so I went ahead and ate the rest of it. “Somebody who wasn’t happy that we offed him. He’s been going after people with a direct connection to me or to the Inquisition.”


She frowned. “You got a list?”


“Yeah.” I pulled the much-folded sheet out of my cloak and handed it to her. It was a little harder to read now, thanks to my bloodstains all over it, but I’d taken the time to go over it again with a pen at the lab and it was still mostly legible. Besides, as bad as her handwriting is, I don’t think Kyra has the right to judge most anyone’s penmanship.


She got about halfway down. Then, “Michael’s on here?” she asked suddenly.


I stared for a moment. Then I blinked. “Yeah. I guess that with what happened to Enrico—”


—Kyra’s face was, for the barest instant, suffused with the bestial rage that reminds me why werewolves are seen as monsters, and the plastic fork snapped between her fingers—


“—I sorta forgot there were actually two werewolves on there.” I paused. “Shit.”


She already had her phone out again. “He hasn’t reported anything like the symptoms Enrico did,” she commented, sounding almost idle if you didn’t know how to recognize the growl lurking underneath.


My back was aching again, and I rubbed at it—ineffectually, I might add. “Has there been a period, in the last week or so, where you didn’t hear from him for a day or more?”


She frowned in thought. “I think so,” she said eventually.


“Ask him where he was.”


Less than two minutes later, she hung up and told me what I already knew from eavesdropping on her conversation. “Ten minutes after you left my house. He doesn’t know what happened between then and when he woke up the next night in a hotel on the other side of town.”


And Jacques had already known about it. That was some impressively fast work. In fact….


Was it just me, or did that mean he knew before Michael was cured?


And that was when the next piece slotted into place. “Thanks,” I said, finishing up shoveling food into my face. “Call me if you find anything. And remember, don’t try and take this guy solo.”


“What will you be doing?”


I stood and gave her a feral grin. “Preparing. Come on, Snowflake.”


On the way out of the park, we encountered the first assassination attempt since that exploding lightbulb in the beginning. This one was a Goldbergian setup in which a spider web served as the tripwire. Because really, who wouldn’t use a spider web as a tripwire if they could?


Anyway, breaking the spider web triggered a dart launcher, which I dodged easily. Then, as best as I could piece it together later, the impact of the dart against the tree opposite somehow triggered a deadfall. We dove forward, Snowflake easily outdistancing me, and I caught the few pieces of stone that I didn’t dodge in another net of thickened air.


I’m still not quite sure whether it was the triggering of the deadfall, the impact of the rocks on the ground, or maybe even my own use of magic that caused the next stage to activate. What I do know is that, just when I was starting to exhale in relief at surviving another trap, the next one fell. As in, literally; everything beneath the first three inches of dirt had been removed, and somehow then the supporting structure was removed so that the ground collapsed. While I was standing on it.


Let me tell you, twelve feet of vertical drop when you’re not expecting it is nothing to scoff at. Especially when the bottom of the pit is lined with, you guessed it, freaking punji stakes. I managed, by dint of phenomenal good luck, not to get impaled. Hooray. I was not lucky enough to escape what I was confident would be some spectacular bruising patterns, however.


Snowflake, who had been far enough forward to escape both the deadfall and the pit, laughed. Well, in my head it sounded like laughter; audibly, it was more of an amused whining sound.


Oh shut up, I muttered irritably, standing up and brushing myself off. Glancing around, I saw that the pit was only about seven feet across, showing that once again my unknown adversary had been able to predict my reactions with uncanny precision, and the walls were also lined with sharpened stakes.


It was pretty strenuous, but I eventually managed to climb out, using the stakes as handholds. When I finally reached the top, Snowflake was still laughing.


“It isn’t funny,” I said crossly.


No, she said, even her mental voice threatening to be overwhelmed with amusement. It’s hilarious. Man, you should have seen your face.


I thought for a second. Then, “No, I don’t really think so. I mean, I could maybe go for the timing being a little bit funny, but hilarious? Pfft. The thing with the pangolin and the honey badger was way better if you ask me.”


She considered that. The one with the refrigerator? Nah, she said eventually. There wasn’t even any blood that time.


I paused. “You mean there’s blood this time?” I asked cautiously.


Sure, I can smell it from here. You must have nicked yourself on one of the sticks or something.


Now that she’d brought my attention to it, I could smell blood too. I sighed. “It wasn’t the sticks,” I said glumly, twisting around to get a look at my back.


Thankfully, the patch was mostly holding. By which I mean that, rather than a gaping hole big enough to stick a few pencils clear through me, the fall had torn a small hole in my back less than an inch deep.


That was the good news. The bad news was that, even after whatever it was that Mohammed had done, the silver wound was still stubbornly resisting my efforts to simply seal it. Getting at it was more than a little bit of work, but eventually Snowflake and I (Kyra was already gone, in case you didn’t guess that) managed to get a bandage of sorts on it. Lucky me, I’d even thought to pack a rudimentary first aid kit into my pockets. Normally I didn’t bother, because any wound I can take the time to bandage I can take the time to heal, but I’d kinda been expecting something like this.


And I’d just gotten fresh clothes from the lab, too. Some days are just so unfair.


I didn’t hear from Kyra on the way to the shop. I was sorta grateful for that, actually; I had a couple things to get done first, and I knew that when there was a lead she would be wanting to chase it ASAP. I couldn’t blame her for that, but it made it simpler that things were going the way they were.


Kris was minding the desk when I got there. She looked up and tried to plaster the classic hi-how-can-I-help-you customer service smile over the bored expression underneath (I say “tried to,” because she’s even worse at that than I am) when she heard the door. Then she saw that it was me and, in a flash, was out from behind the desk and racing toward me. “Winter,” she exclaimed. “Where have you been? You wouldn’t answer your phone, and nobody knew where you were.”


“Easy,” I said, holding up my hands to keep her from hugging me. “I’m a little tender.” My lips twitched. “You aren’t careful there, somebody might get the idea that you cared.”


“Of course not,” she said. “I’m just saying that if you pull that kind of stunt on me again I’ll kill you and bury you in the backyard so I never need to worry about finding you.” The way she said it was almost creepy, friendly and cheerful and so deadpan I was almost afraid to ask if she was joking. Actually, it reminded me a little of Laurel smiling her little-girl smile and petting her sword.


“Seriously, though,” she continued. “Where were you? And why wouldn’t you answer your phone?”


“Something came up,” I said lightly, flipping the shop sign to CLOSED. That, as much as anything, told her that it was serious. I think it’s critical for a shop to keep regular hours if it wants to attract customers, and I’d made it clear that I didn’t approve of closing the shop during business hours unless there was an emergency or something.


We got Doug from the shop—he’d been running the router, and hadn’t heard a thing—and I explained the whole situation. Except, you know, all the parts I left out. I firmly believe in editing the story to the audience, particularly when it comes to supernatural nasties. Part of what I left out was to remove extraneous details (i.e., traveling the Otherside and learning that Mohammed was a djinn). The rest was because I wasn’t ready to trust anyone, including myself, with the information (i.e., Mr. Nobody the senile mage and my growing suspicion that this mess was in fact part of a bigger picture that I wasn’t quite seeing).


As they listened, an interesting change went over their expressions. Doug went from his baseline of vaguely cheerful, to a closed expression showcasing nothing of what was going on in his head, to something that could only be described as grim. Kris, who was of a naturally more, ah, mercurial temperament, looked progressively more and more angry.


“Do you want our help looking?” Doug asked when I’d finished, his voice as closed and uninformative as his face. Not, I noticed, that he was actually offering to help.


I shrugged. “Maybe if you really want to, but I wouldn’t bother. If the werewolves don’t find something in this city, it’s because there isn’t something to find. No, I was more wondering if you might want to pitch in when we find him.”


Doug hesitated. Kris, eyes gleaming with a very dangerous amount of emotion, did not. “This guy hurt Katie and Erica?” she asked, her voice deceptively calm. Like a lot of the more impulsive, expressive people I know, it’s a bad sign for Kris to sound calm when she should be emotional.


I noticed that she did not mention Jimmy. It’s a crazy little gang they have, and I have no idea how they stay together when so many of them hate each other so much. I guess it’s not really my business, but wow, those people are nuts. Like, more than me.


“Yeah,” I said in answer to her question. “I’m sure of it.”


She smiled nastily. “I’m in.”


Doug looked torn, and for once it was easy to see what he was thinking in his face. On the one hand, he hated violence, and he didn’t really believe that this was the right thing to do. On the other hand, he couldn’t stand the idea of seeing his friends hurt, not when his presence might have prevented it. He might not count me in that regard—I’m not quite sure, and I’ve never had the courage to ask, even indirectly—but Kris most definitely qualified, as did most of the people who would come along to help her.


I felt bad for him, really. Just not enough not to ask.


“Fine,” he said eventually, and unhappily. “Fine.”


I smiled broadly. “Wonderful,” I said. “I’ll be in touch. Spread the word, and be ready.”


The two of them left almost immediately—to get their gear, presumably, and to round up the rest of the gang.


That left me in an interesting position, namely have nothing to do. I considered a lot of options, but none of them really worked. Going out looking myself was a waste of time and energy. I resemble a werewolf quite closely in my fanatical devotion to food, but not even I could really eat again that soon, however much it might have helped the healing process. I was at the shop, but I couldn’t make anything useful in the time available. Normally the work itself would help to calm me and make me feel better, but I couldn’t even convince myself that that would be effective. I was too worked up, too invested. I’d run into a lot of bad things in recent times, but this one hit close to home.


I couldn’t go home, of course. I didn’t have a home to go to.


Eventually, I said screw it and took a nap on the floor of the shop’s showroom. It wasn’t especially fun, but I had my cloak to use as a pillow, and I was tired enough to be grateful for it. Snowflake, who is always grateful for an excuse to sleep, lay down in front of the door, and with that security I took a break from the world.

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