Balancing Act 6.1

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People seldom have sufficient respect for the power a thing can exert by being absent.

 

That’s my experience, anyway. It’s easy to look at something and say, “It’s doing this and this and this, so these must be the important parts of what it does.” It’s easy, but it isn’t always accurate.

 

A lot of the time, the really important stuff is what doesn’t happen, just because it’s there. Just look at the keystone of an arch; you might think it’s ridiculously unimportant, right up ’til you take it away.

 

The same thing tends to happen, I’ve found, with people. It’s easy to look at someone and only see what they do, which isn’t much. But then, once they’re gone, all manner of other things happen that don’t have any obvious relation to that person, but which wouldn’t have happened if they were still there.

 

Case in point: Erica Reilly. In life she’d been a vapid, greedy twit, approximately as self-centered as a gyroscope and with approximately the same intelligence as a lobotomized pigeon, who’d managed to irritate or infuriate practically everyone she met. Eventually one of them decided he’d had just about enough of that and flayed her alive.

 

Literally. I was there. It was not fun.

 

Anyway, as I was now discovering, Erica was having more influence after death than she ever could have alive—an irritation stronger than death, if you will. This was not exactly a welcome revelation, given that I’d had more than enough of her while she was alive.

 

Which is, in essence, why I was currently staring at my former employee Kris Lake across a small table in the corner of Pryce’s bar. “What do you mean Jimmy’s upset that you’re working with Val?” I asked, sipping iced tea.

 

“Sounds like you heard me,” Kris said acerbically. Snowflake, currently curled around my feet, chuckled faintly in the back of my head.

 

“Well, yes, but…what the hell? I mean, seriously, what’s the man thinking?” Jimmy Frazier was a sorcerer specializing in fire magics with less than a decade of experience. Dvalin Kovac was a fae powerful enough to ignore the literally cutthroat world of fae politics. I was pretty suspicious that he’d also been the Dvalin who forged Tyrfing, which would make him one of the most skilled magical craftsmen alive. It also meant he had to be at least a couple thousand years old.

 

That is not a recipe for a fair fight. If I had to guess, in fact, I would say Jimmy was roughly as strong relative to Val as a poodle to a werewolf. For him to pick a fight with the fae was…unwise.

 

“Hell if I know,” Kris muttered darkly, taking a long drink of some sort of cheap beer. “We’re falling apart, Winter. Ever since Erica died, it’s all just falling apart.”

 

Given that this was the sixth time she’d said that, I was guessing that this wasn’t Kris’s first beer of the night. Given that it was just past sunset, that was somewhat concerning. “You wanted to talk to me about something?” I asked, hoping to redirect the conversation into a less depressing topic.

 

She nodded with the peculiar exuberance of the moderately intoxicated. “Yeah. Yeah, I was getting to that. Jimmy got into a fight with Brick a couple days ago—he won’t tell me what it was about, but it was pretty bad. Yeah. Brick kicked his ass, but nobody’s seen him since. I was hoping you could, you know, find him or something?”

 

I sighed. The problem with helping someone out of a couple of seriously unpleasant situations was that they started thinking you could do anything, when the reality was that I had less chance of finding Brick if he didn’t want to be found than she did. Besides which, getting involved in this would put me smack in the middle of a feud between the various mages of the Inquisition, and that was as sure to get me embroiled in a hideously dangerous mess as anything I’d ever seen.

 

The bigger problem, of course, is that once someone starts to look at you like you’re a hero, you start wanting to help them. Especially someone like Kris, who was both fairly pathetic and one of the few people I considered a friend. Which is why, rather than explain why what she was asking was probably impossible, I said, “I’ll see what I can do.”

 

She nodded some more, said “Thanks,” a few more times than was strictly necessary, and wandered off towards the bar itself.

 

You owe me five bucks, Snowflake said smugly.

 

Cheater, I muttered. Someone told you about this already, didn’t they? She’d bet me yesterday that Brick would be the first person to cause a schism within the Inquisition’s ranks; I’d guessed Matthew.

 

Come on, Winter. Would I really conceal a potentially dangerous situation from you for a measly five bucks?

 

Given that I wasn’t willing to bet fifty? Absolutely. I scratched the husky’s ears idly, causing her to twitch a little—it was an astonishingly good impression of sleep, really. I don’t suppose they told you where he’s hiding out, did they?

 

Nope.

 

Great. I’ll add it to the list of things to look into. Fortunately, it was a pretty short list at the moment. We’d had a few slow months now—a welcome reprieve, after the tumult of the spring.

 

In the meantime, I had business to conduct.

 

I’ve always liked making things. There’s a…satisfaction, I suppose, to be had from it, which you can’t quite replicate anywhere else. I mean, it can be intensely frustrating work, but the feeling you get when you look at something beautiful and know that it was your hands and mind that shaped it…well, there’s just nothing quite like it, and there’s nothing I can say to tell you what it’s like. You either feel it, or you don’t. There isn’t much ground in between.

 

Over time, though, the things I make have changed. I spent a sizable portion of my life working with Val, mostly making furniture, and that was good—but making things with magic is better. It adds a whole new layer of artistry, of intricacy in the crafting. I’m not that good at it—my gifts are in other areas, and it’s rare to be talented with multiple types of magic. But I’d put in a few hundred hours practicing, and I’d gotten to the point where I could make things that I was genuinely proud of.

 

I also had some practical reasons for the switch, of course. Namely, you can make really good money in magical items, if you’re clever and you can do something people will pay for.

 

I, generally speaking, am not renowned for my cleverness. So, naturally, it took me a couple years to come up with something good, and when I did it was Aiko’s idea. But it didn’t take me long to put it into practice, and for a few months now I’d been making and selling jewelry. Between spinning shadows and moonbeams into something almost solid and producing ice with a melting point in the vicinity of gold, I could make things you weren’t likely to find anywhere else.

 

Which, in turn, meant that someone might be willing to pay an absolutely ridiculous sum for one of those rings—on the level of a hundred to a hundred and fifty bucks a pop.

 

The cost of materials is nonexistent. I spend somewhere in the vicinity of an hour on the work. That translates into an obscene amount of cash for what is, really, very little work. I mean, I did the math a while ago, and we’re talking more than two hundred grand a year if I were to do that work full time. I don’t, but it’s still a pretty decent income.

 

More than that, though, is that I just don’t have any real expenses. I don’t have to pay rent, or a mortgage—Fenris gave me my house outright. Likewise, I don’t pay property tax, because I don’t officially own the dilapidated house that the Otherside mansion connects to, and the land where my now-burned cabin once sat is long since sold. I don’t pay income tax either, because all of my income is of the shady sort to say the least—in cash, for the most part, and with the sort of customer who thinks you’re insane if you say the word “receipt.”

 

So what’s that leave? Groceries? Eh, not so much—Fenris’s deal also included a steady supply of food, and while I occasionally bought something to supplement it, there was absolutely no chance that we’d be going hungry. I still had my Jeep, but it had been in long-term parking outside Pryce’s for months now, and I drove it once or twice a week at most. Not exactly spending a fortune on gas.

 

I understand a lot better, now, how someone like Aiko can have a family fortune and not even think it’s noteworthy enough to talk about. What good does having money do, when there’s nothing worth spending it on?

 

Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve been spending money. I buy books, some of which are quite rare and expensive. Laboratory equipment and reagents, too, are not cheap—the two pounds of silver sitting in a lead-lined box alone cost me more than a thousand dollars. I have several thousand more stashed in various locations around town—none of which is a bank, because my accounts have been closed for a while now—and in other places where I can get to it if I need to. And I still had a hard time figuring out what to do with the money.

 

Which is why, when I sat down at one of Pryce’s corner tables to start bartering, it wasn’t for the money. It was mostly for something to do, and partially to continue building my network of contacts for the next time something goes disastrously wrong and I need a favor.

 

I would rather that didn’t happen, of course. But, speaking from experience here, that isn’t a realistic hope. Better to prepare for it, so that when the inevitable happened I had some chance of surviving it.

 

And the third reason was that sometimes, you find something much better than money. You find something interesting.


 

I did a brisk trade, over the next two hours or so. I’d been stopping at Pryce’s to sell stuff one evening a week for several months now, which meant that people knew where to find me.

 

It didn’t even occur to me to go anywhere else. I mean, why should it? I was catering to the supernatural crowd, and when it comes to the supernatural in Colorado Springs, everyone goes to Pryce’s sooner or later.

 

This evening followed the same pattern as usual. First, once Kris had gone on her way, Snowflake and I ate a leisurely dinner. Then, pleasantly full, I pulled out the small black backpack that had been concealed beneath my cloak, and Snowflake went to sleep.

 

The first person to approach me at my table was a jittery young man who’d been watching me eat for the past twenty minutes. My bag had hardly hit the table when he was standing on the other side of it. He bought a narrow, glittering band of ice for his mother, in an extremely rushed manner. I knew it was for his mother, because he insisted on telling me so five times, with the slightly panicky tones of someone who’s lying and knows he’s lying and knows he’s lying badly but can’t think of anything else to do.

 

I didn’t care why he wanted the thing, but I don’t take kindly to being lied to. And his smell was unpleasant—too much cologne, not enough washing. So I charged him two hundred, thinking perhaps it would make him just go away.

 

Instead, somewhat to my surprise, he paid asking price in used twenties, seeming positively grateful for the chance to do so. Then he stood back up, jittered a little more, seemed for a moment as though he would say something, and left.

 

That was not a particularly unusual customer interaction. Dealing with unaffiliated members of the supernatural world has a number of upsides, foremost of which may be a real aversion to any sort of question at all, but nobody’s ever said it came without liabilities.

 

After that, things settled into a routine. Rachel took the time off from her pool-shark career (she actually works as a counselor, I believe, though she’s in Pryce’s so much I’ve no idea how she has the time) to chat for a few minutes. She brought her current boyfriend, too, and within a few minutes had him talked into buying something pretty for her.

 

I would have given it to her for free—money didn’t mean much at the moment, and she was a longstanding acquaintance, almost a friend. But there was a gleam in her eye, and a tenseness to her posture, that told me not to go easy on him. I didn’t gouge him like the last guy, but I got my usual price. She walked off, a patch of shadow touched with moonlight wrapped around her wrist, and proceeded to thrash him mercilessly at pool. From his posture I guessed that she’d been letting him win until now.

 

It’s sort of sad. Rachel’s an empath—a small-scale mage with a natural gift for detecting other people’s emotions. She doesn’t go rooting through your brain unless she doesn’t like you—that sort of thing’s deeply impolite. What she’s really doing, as I understand it, is sampling the energy surrounding you, energy which is naturally influenced by strong feelings. Theoretically any mage could learn to examine that cloud of energy to such a fine degree as to pick up emotions, but Rachel did it as instinctively as examining a person visually.

 

It makes her a great counselor—when you know exactly how a person feels, it does a lot to help you help them. It’s an useful talent, and one of great benefit to society, but not one I’d wish on anyone I like.

 

I know it was hard for her to grow up with that kind of power. Even if I couldn’t guess as much, which I could, the occasional comment or sudden silence made me pretty sure that when she’d first started coming into her power, the sensations it had exposed her too hadn’t been pretty ones. I’ve never asked her about it, of course, just as she never asked why I was so quick to change the subject when werewolves came up. Such things are simply not done, among people like us.

 

But you could see the effects in her behavior. Because she’d been exposed to something bad and she could feel people on such an intimate level, she was only too aware of how vile human beings could be—she knew, from the inside out, how it felt to be a bad person. As a counselor, that helped, because she could sympathize and she knew what people were going through. But it had left her with worse relationship issues than mine and Aiko’s put together, and that’s saying something.

 

I’d lost track, over the years, of how many boyfriends she’s gone through. They’re typically scum-of-the-earth sorts, because she doesn’t want to inflict herself on anyone halfway decent. From that interaction, I was guessing this one had two weeks left, tops.

 

That’s the problem with hanging out with the small fry of the supernatural world. Most people fall into one of three groups. They’re either so pathetic you want to give them a hug, so unsettling and generally spooky you want to back away slowly when you see them coming, or—most commonly—both. Rachel was definitely both.

 

Fortunately, it got less depressing from there on out. Luna, who spent so much time working out of Pryce’s that it was functionally her office, stopped to pick up her order. As she was the center of a small-scale but very active black market and information brokerage, I did a lot of business with her. Not the most ethical work, perhaps, but realistically speaking there’s no point trying to shut her down, even if I wanted to. Someone else would pop up to fill the demand within a week, and they probably wouldn’t be nearly so nice as Luna.

 

After twenty minutes of fierce bargaining, she took away three rings, a necklace, and a pair of earrings. She also took away four stored spells—two would produce a dense localized fog when activated, and one a fairly sizable patch of shadow that wouldn’t be dispelled by any natural light. The last was something she’d ordered special, a piece of slate that, when broken, would cause every dog in a mile to start going crazy at the same time. I wasn’t entirely sure what she wanted it for, but she must have wanted it pretty badly, considering what she paid for the thing.

 

In return, I took half a dozen stored spells, a large uncut ruby, and an envelope describing how the rakshasas were going to vote on the upcoming trade agreement between the Council and the Daylight Court. The information was useless to me, but I might be able to sell it to someone else. That was how the business worked.

 

Other than that, I didn’t sell to anyone I knew, although there were a number of strangers, and even more people I vaguely recognized, who were interested enough to fork over some cash. I chatted briefly with a few other regulars, who didn’t buy anything—if they wanted what I made, they already owned it. A large bearded werewolf I didn’t recognize hastened to assure me he was only visiting for the day from Denver and bought a ring. Then he wouldn’t shut up for five solid minutes about how excellent the workmanship was and how he’d never seen the like, which almost made me want to take it back.

 

I like a compliment as much as the next fellow. But there’s only so much a guy can take.

 

There were also a few more interesting cases. A slender woman wearing what looked like genuine—and well-used—hunting leathers whose magic smelled of gardenias traded an oddly shaped knife for a full bridal set in shadows. A human mage, whom I suspected was actually a Watcher out of uniform, bought one of the ice rings. He also, under cover of that transaction, purchased the envelope from Luna—which, I might add, I hadn’t even opened. In exchange he gave me a long strip of leather which would cling to itself more tightly than any glue, which I was hoping to reverse engineer for my own use. A fiery-smelling man I thought might be a djinn took a bracelet of shadow and my last stored spell for sale, a glass marble that would release a sizable gale if shattered, in exchange for a jar full of some odd black sand that smelled like the same magic as he did and felt warm to the touch.

 

Like I said. Interesting is more valuable than diamonds. I know, because a while ago someone paid me in diamonds, and before the week was out I wound up trading them for a glass dagger, a pouch of seeds taken from Faerie grasses, a pair of ivory dice that could be convinced to roll any number on command, a couple stored spells, a tortoise shell of the sort used in traditional Chinese fortunetelling, a deck of illuminated Tarot cards, and a few jars full of various exotic and possibly illegal substances.

 

It wasn’t just a matter of amusing myself, though. I was trying to build a reputation as someone who could make things happen, and that meant dealing in things that nobody else could arrange. It might be years before I managed to sell any of that crap, but it would be worth it in the end.


 

After that was finished, Snowflake and I stood up to leave. We stretched, walked out the door into the cool autumn night, and traveled almost two blocks before someone tried to kill us.

 

As assassination attempts go, this one was pretty weak. An odd-looking fellow in a dark cloak, conspicuous because there was nobody else moving on this particular side street at this time of night, walked up and tried to tear my guts out. It has the advantage of simplicity, I suppose, and a generous enough person might call it elegant, but…sheesh. When you’ve had your life threatened by old gods and faerie queens, something like that’s almost more an insult than a threat.

 

I saw it coming a mile away, of course. I mean, I size up everyone I see as a threat. It’s such an ingrained habit it’s practically instinctive. When that person is wearing a cloak, I pay attention—with the exception of anachronistic freaks such as myself, nobody wears a cloak these days, and that makes it suspicious. When they’re in an otherwise silent part of town in the middle of the night, I automatically assume they’re there to try and kill me, and act appropriately.

 

I would call it paranoia, except that I tend to be right.

 

The figure covered the last few feet in a blur, one hand coming up in a simple strike at gut-level. What looked like a curved knife gleamed in the light of a waning moon, just bright enough to be silver-plated rather than steel along the cutting edge. It was clearly relying on sheer speed to take me out, rather than any form of technique.

 

That was not so smart. I was accustomed to dealing with preternaturally fast things, and I was ready. Almost before it started moving, I was falling backward, and the blade passed through empty air over me without ever being a threat.

 

Snowflake, moving with the sort of coordinated precision that only comes from long practice together, surged over me as I fell. She took the assassin out at the feet before he had a chance to follow up on my vulnerable position. She also, as she blew by him, seized one leg and, with a quick snap-jerk, tore it off at the knee.

 

Snowflake’s a lot stronger than she looks. Stronger than a husky has any right to be.

 

I, too, had a lot of practice with Snowflake, and excellent reflexes. So, before he could even tilt—before I’d even hit the ground—I forced power through the focus of my leather bracelet. The resulting gust of wind was just strong enough to knock the thing off balance, which was strong enough for my needs.

 

Long story short, it happened as follows. A gust of wind strong enough and sudden enough to make a grown man stumble hit the thing sideways. As it was no longer capable of stumbling to that side, it fell, hitting the ground hard and rolling. A pair of sunglasses fell off in the tumble, and I got a glimpse of intensely yellow eyes.

 

Then, without so much as wincing in reaction to its unplanned amputation, it came up to a low crouch. I’d suspected it wasn’t human, or anything like it, but that clinched it. No human spine or pelvis was that flexible. Then it threw itself at me with its three unwounded limbs.

 

All of this happened in the space of a second or two, before Snowflake could so much as turn around.

 

I’ve been in a lot of sticky situations, and I don’t panic the way I probably should anymore. So I had the presence of mind to notice a number of things. First off, there wasn’t any blood. The thing should have been bleeding like a fountain from the leg, and I would have smelled that. I didn’t. Second, it wasn’t a knife it had come at me with—it was a claw. The creature had three of them on each forelimb, and they were definitely edged with silver. Charged silver, too; I could smell it.

 

That told me a lot about what I was dealing with. It had been a long while since I’d seen a construct, but I have a pretty good memory for these things. I knew the signs to look for.

 

I rolled away as it pounced, and it hit pavement instead of me. Then, rather than get up and start fleeing the way it probably expected, I got one foot under me and threw myself back towards it. It wasn’t prepared for that, and I managed to get a solid grip on the front of its cloak with both hands. Then I planted my feet again, arched my back, and threw it away with the strength of my whole body.

 

There is a certain amount of truth in the stories of a werewolf’s supernatural strength, and that is one of the attributes I do share with a true werewolf. The thing flew almost ten feet and hit the ground hard.

 

Snowflake was waiting—and this thing was too stupid to take its attention off of me, its assigned target. When it hit the ground, she pounced. A moment later, her jaws snapped shut and jerked sideways again. A moment after that, the thing was in two pieces, one of which was a head.

 

When in doubt, you can’t beat decapitation for killing something unnatural. The best part is that, even if your attacker actually is human, well, beheading works on them too.

 

It’s convenient that way.

 

The three-limbed, headless figure staggered upright, and for a moment I thought it would come at me again. Apparently that was too much even for something as resilient as this, though, because a moment later it collapsed again. The disembodied head, lying on the ground a few feet away, continued to stare hatefully at me out of urine-yellow eyes. The pupils were slitted, and the result looked more like a snake than anything.

 

Then the whole thing started melting.

 

I sighed and pushed myself to my feet. The whole thing had happened too fast for thought, and I was just now starting to feel the adrenaline rush. I mean, my hands weren’t shaking or anything—I’m too well accustomed to violence for that—but I could feel that my heart and breathing rates were picking up, and my muscles were tight.

 

Gott, dass schmeckt mir abgefuckt beschissen, Snowflake muttered in my head. Construct, you think?

 

I frowned and walked over to examine the body—well, what was left of it, anyway. It was rapidly turning into a puddle of some sort of thick, translucent fluid, which was in turn evaporating into the air. Matter from the Otherside is naturally inundated with magic, and without that power it can’t maintain a physical structure. Looks like, I muttered grimly. We both stared as the construct finished melting and vanished.

 

All that was left behind was a long black cloak of some cheap fabric and a half-dozen claws, long curved pieces of steel with silver along the cutting edge. Those hadn’t come from the Otherside, but rather been incorporated after the construct itself was made.

 

Are you going to do something with those? Snowflake asked me, keeping careful watch down the street. Sending an obvious assassin was an excellent way to hide the presence of another, subtler one while the target was still busy being relieved at surviving the first attack.

 

I can’t say I want to have them around.

 

You don’t want the cops picking them up either, do you?

 

I sighed. Good point. I picked up the cloak and started bundling the claws into it, being careful not to touch the silver with my bare skin. It still itched having so much charged silver around, but it wouldn’t actually burn me unless I touched it. As I did, I thought about what had just happened.

 

The construct was quite similar to the ones I’d seen when I took down the loony witch called Jon. Actually, scratch that; it wasn’t similar, it was the same, right down to the claws and the yellow eyes.

 

Lots of mages use constructs as cheap muscle. But there’s a lot of kinds of construct, custom designed for specific purposes. Besides that, every mage had a unique style, and you could often tell who designed a thing just by the feel of it, the pattern of the magic that went into making it. The likelihood of an unrelated practitioner creating a fighter-construct exactly like Jon’s style was beyond tiny.

 

Okay. So, I reminded myself, the first thing to do was go through the facts available to me, without making any conclusions at first.

 

Fact the first: I’d just been attacked by a construct clearly based on the same design Jon had used.

 

Fact the second: As Jon was entirely deceased, he could not have been the one to send it.

 

Fact the third: All of the Inquisition spent some time taking lessons from Jon before I met them.

 

Fact the fourth: The first time I encountered the Inquisition they were trying to kill me as part of their monster-slaughtering crusade. We’d since come to be a sort of allies, but they were still pursuing the same goals.

 

Fact the fifth: The ten minor mages making up the Inquisition were no longer a unified group. Even before Kris talked to me about it, I knew that the group was starting to fracture under the tension of Erica’s death and a slowly growing divide in philosophy.

 

All of which led to an inescapable fact the sixth: Finding out what had happened to Brick had just gone from a favor for Kris to a high priority for myself. I could handle constructs like that one all day and part of the night, but…well…there were much worse things they could send at me next.

 

That struck me as a good reason to reorganize the to-do list.

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3 Responses to Balancing Act 6.1

  1. Emrys

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

    A scattered and clunky chapter. Not a particularly strong opening to the book, on the whole. It’s not terrible, but as hooks go this one is frankly weak at best.

    I like the scene at Pryce’s, though. I think that whole scene, how Winter is making his money and the people he’s interacting with, it turned out well overall. The writing is a touch clumsy, but it’s a fun scene, and it shows a bit about how he’s changed. These are things that until quite recently he would have regarded as huge, serious magic, and now they’re barely worth paying attention to.

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  2. Ari

    Wait, I thought it was a cabin that Winter used to live in. That was what burned down, not a trailer right?

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