Well, that went well.
Not badly, I agreed, stepping cautiously out Pryce’s front door. I was probably safe—even rakshasas, a species with a reputation for being reckless, egotistic, and arrogant, wouldn’t dare violate Pryce’s truce—but I was feeling especially twitchy at the moment, for some strange reason. I do believe they might even wait for the enemy to be dead before they stab me in the back.
Snowflake snorted. Come on, Winter. If there’s anyone more paranoid than you, it would be a vampire, which means they understand how your mind works. As much time as you spend watching your back, they’ll know to come from the front. There was a brief, considering pause. Or from above, I suppose. Can vampires actually turn into bats?
I frowned. I don’t know. Legion hasn’t mentioned it when we’ve talked about them, but then he might not. My frown deepened. I suppose, if nothing else, they might be able to use blood magic to duplicate a shapeshifter’s talents. Although they’d have to leave their equipment behind for that.
Like that would matter, Snowflake said, laughing. If a vampire hits you from behind by surprise, do you really think you can take him? Even if he is unarmed?
No. I wasn’t actually sure how strong vampires were, in a practical sense. Stronger than humans was obvious—almost all of the stories could agree on that much, and it just made sense, besides. But that wasn’t a meaningful statement, under the circumstances. I mean, hell, I’m stronger than most humans. So vampires might be no stronger than me, or they might be able to rip my head off like a gingerbread man’s. The only way to find out was no way to find out.
They freak me out, she admitted. That bit with the not breathing was fucking scary. Their hearts weren’t beating either, by the way; I don’t know if you heard. And they smell wrong.
You could smell them? I said, surprised.
I shrugged mentally, turning down a one-way alley that was lightly traveled even during the daytime. If someone was tailing me, hopefully they would stand out more here. I could, I said. But I have a hard time sometimes distinguishing between physical scents and magical. Vampires have a really strong magical signature, and that makes it difficult to catch anything but an overwhelming scent. Especially in this body. I shrugged again. Besides, I was a little bit distracted.
She snorted. Yeah, I bet. The things reeked. Almost like old blood, but there was something just wrong with it. They aren’t right. Is it just me, or is that guy moving too purposefully to be just another pedestrian?
I chewed my lip for a moment, then came to a decision. Ready to run double? I asked, drawing my power close around me. Snowflake indicated in the affirmative, and then we did something pretty cool, something I would have said was impossible even a handful of months ago. I was pretty sure it was, actually, and that we could get away with it only because we were both such strange, hybrid creatures. Oh, and we’d practiced it endlessly. That helped.
It happened very, very quickly. It took, from start to finish, no more than a half-dozen heartbeats.
First, Snowflake slid her awareness along the link my magic had forged over years of interaction into my body. It was smooth, swift, and effortless. I felt her presence, instinctively, the barest whiff of a winter storm and the feeling of feet and feet and feet of snow, cold and merciless and just itching for the chance to be an avalanche. I hardly even noticed; we pulled this trick all the time, whenever one of us wanted access to the other’s senses.
The unusual part was what came next.
As Snowflake slid in, I slid out. My mind, suddenly dissociated from my body, cast around for a moment, before I found a raccoon sitting on a window ledge and slipped into his mind and body.
Meanwhile, Snowflake exerted control over my body in my absence. I think the specific way it worked was actually that Snowflake herself remained in her own body, while the wolf that timeshared her mind ran mine, but the distinction was a fine one, even to me. The important thing was that, rather than collapse like a marionette with the strings cut when I removed myself, my body kept walking down the street without so much as a stumble to betray the switch.
While she did that, I was focusing on the raccoon. I attuned myself to his senses—not forcing, not coercing, because that wasn’t something I did. I’m no saint, but I have my limits. I simply accepted an invitation. Like most predators and semi-predators in the neighborhoods I frequented regularly, this raccoon was familiar with me, to some extent. I didn’t think I’d worked with this specific animal before—raccoons are more scavenger than predator, and while I spent a significant amount of time at or near Pryce’s, I hadn’t put in the hours and hours of work to build the network of animalian spies I’d had around my old house. But I had a pretty good rep, all the same. I consistently provided food and water, sometimes shelter, and occasionally more tangible protection as well. Between that and my blend of unusual magic and quasi-human psychology, if an animal can help me without putting taking any risks, they usually will.
It took me less than a second to get my mind into the appropriate shape, and I was looking out through the raccoon’s eyes. I prodded gently, and he amicably turned his attention to the person Snowflake had noticed following us.
It was a big guy, six and a half feet or better and built like a weightlifter. He was wearing a black trench coat, black combat boots, and black gloves, and had a shapeless, broad-brimmed black hat pulled low on his head. I’d say that all that could be seen of his face were his eyes, except that he was also wearing a pair of mirrored shades. The raccoon couldn’t see any details, identifying features, or exposed skin. That could have been coincidence—coons aren’t famed for their keen vision, after all, and the distance and angle were both unfavorable—but I highly doubted it.
I manifested myself more strongly, fitting my psyche more strongly into its current mold. It wasn’t easy—this was more of a connection than I usually established—but for a moment I was more than simply a hitchhiker in the raccoon’s mind. And, for just the barest instant, I could smell this being’s magic, paled and attenuated by distance and disembodiment but still recognizable, the scent of water and rich vegetation and exotic spice. Definitely ginger, with subtler tones of cardamom, turmeric, and maybe a touch of jasmine. It was an exotic but not unpleasant mix.
I expressed gratitude to the raccoon and withdrew from his mind, returning to my own body. It took me a second or two to reorient myself, after which I took control back from Snowflake. It was difficult to do without stumbling, but we had practiced this, a lot. I was confident no one watching would have noticed a thing.
Rakshasa, I said to Snowflake, blinking a couple times. As usual, returning to my own body took some adjustment. Not as much as sometimes—I’d been working out, and I’d only been gone a very short time—and this, too, was unobtrusive. No chance it’s a coincidence.
No shit. Why now, do you think?
I shrugged mentally. Attack of opportunity? They almost certainly have spies in both groups, which means they probably knew about this meeting well before it happened. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had hitters waiting to take out the ringleaders when they left. We just happened to walk out alone, which makes us look vulnerable. I shrugged again. Or maybe there were enough of them to put a tail on all of us.
That sounds more likely to me. If you think about it, this is the last time you’d want to try a hit. Everyone brought their inner circle to this meeting, which means a high concentration of military strength. The smarter thing to do would be to have your minions tail them out, get information, and arrange to attack when they’re vulnerable and not anticipating it.
Snowflake’s pretty good at tactics, for a dog.
What do you think we should do about it?
Well, it’s a beautiful opportunity to send a message, she said, after a brief pause.
A thought occurred to me, and I smiled nastily. Excellent idea, I said. Then I turned around and shot our tail in the knee. He let out a yelp, sounding more startled than pained, and dropped to the ground.
Most interactions people have in the modern world are very, very highly scripted. Greetings between strangers, for example, are so formal and stilted that you can write out the whole conversation before a word is exchanged. But occasionally you get other situations where there aren’t any societal rules telling you what to do. It’s interesting, because without those guidelines you can’t quite predict how anyone, even someone you know well—hell, even yourself—will react. Just what those situations are changes from person to person—violence, for example, terrifies a lot of people when it occurs outside of a handful of tightly defined scenarios, but it hardly perturbed me at all. But there are some that are, in my experience, universal. A person’s first exposure to the supernatural, for example. The sudden, unexpected death of a loved one. Discovering that something you assumed with a bedrock certainty isn’t true. That sort of thing.
I’ve never experienced it. But I imagine discovering, in a violent and painful way, that you’ve been made by the person you were assigned to spy on is one of them. I’ve no idea how I would react to that.
But I know the rakshasa was furious.
After the first yelp, he hardly seemed inconvenienced by having just taken a bullet. He was back on his feet in an instant, his flesh seeming to warble and twist beneath the clothing. He’d just taken a modified, high-powered .45 round to the knee, though, and he hadn’t thrown off his human guise enough to ignore that kind of damage. His leg buckled, and he dropped into a position intermediate between kneeling and crouching. The injury healed itself with an audible, icky sound of bone and cartilage sliding against each other, and he was standing up again, snarling.
Of course, by that time Snowflake and I were standing right next to him. I had Tyrfing in my hand, and unsheathed. Snowflake was growling, the sort of deep and savage growl that begins deep in your throat and concludes deep in someone else’s. Between that and the fact that he’d just taken a bullet to the knee, we were more trouble than the rakshasa wanted to buy right now.
“Good evening,” I said to him, quite calmly. “You’re going to give your superior a message from me.”
He snarled some more and spat half a dozen words at me. I didn’t understand the language, but it didn’t take a genius to guess that he was cursing.
“You know,” I said mildly, “you don’t have to be alive to convey this message.”
The snarls cut off as abruptly as if I’d flipped a light switch.
“Better. The message is really very simple. Get out. Get out now. Be gone from this city by midnight tonight, and I’ll let you go. No harm, no foul, scales even between us.” I smiled. “Or don’t. And I will find you. I will come into your place of power, and I will tear it down around you. I will slaughter you like cattle. You and yours will fall under the edge of my sword like wheat before the reaper. When I leave your fortress will lie in rubble, and there will be not one living thing therein. Those who hear of your destruction will wonder what god you angered, that such a thing should happen to you, and your people will speak of it in whispers for a hundred years.” I smiled at the rakshasa, cold and cruel and sharp as a knife’s edge in the winter. His sunglasses had been knocked off in the fall, exposing startlingly red-orange eyes, and he flinched slightly when I met them with my amber ones. “Your choice,” I murmured.
He stared at me with hate in his eyes, and was silent.
“You got the message?” I asked. He nodded, still not speaking. He must understand English, because his responses were too appropriate and well-timed to be coincidence, but I hadn’t heard one word of it out of him. I backed away a few steps, bringing Snowflake with me, although I didn’t sheathe Tyrfing, and she was still growling a little. He stood, looking only slightly unsteady on his wounded leg, shoved his half-broken sunglasses into place, and hobbled back along the alley the way we’d come.
You should have killed him, Snowflake said. I’d have killed him. I can still kill him. Be no trouble. Just say the word. Hell, you don’t even have to talk, just nod.
No, Snowflake. I sounded, even to myself, very weary.
No, really, I can do it. Look at him. That leg isn’t all the way fixed. There’s no way he can outrun me. I’ll trip him, take the other leg, go for the neck. Rakshasas die when you bite off their heads, right?
We’re not going to kill him. She knew what I had meant, of course. If I wanted him dead, it wouldn’t have taken much work to do the deed. I could have just shot him half a dozen times, then chopped him into pieces with Tyrfing. That, I was fairly confident, would kill damn near anything.
We ought to. You know it’s the smart thing to do.
He’s inconsequential. Their leader wouldn’t send anyone important on a job like this, and if he had half an ounce of sense or skill he wouldn’t have been that easy to catch. Besides, it’s more important to send the message.
That doesn’t preclude killing him, she argued. Shit, Winter, a corpse is a much stronger statement of threat than letting him go. You could even write down your ridiculously melodramatic threatening spiel and leave a copy on his body if you want.
I sighed and turned away, sheathing Tyrfing. It wanted blood, like always, but it was a familiar effort to let the sword go, and I hardly even had to think about it. It might have been just my imagination, but it seemed like it had been getting easier to do recently. The cursed blade hadn’t been showing up inconveniently as often, either, and the entropy curse didn’t seem to be affecting me or my allies as much.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.
I kept walking, in the opposite direction as the rakshasa had taken, and Snowflake came with me. She came reluctantly, still growling almost inaudibly, glancing frequently over her shoulder at the departing rakshasa, but she came.
The problem, I said to her as we walked away, is that if this plan works, we aren’t just independent small-timers any more. I just declared myself as a political entity. That changes what messages people will take from my actions. By letting the rakshasa go, I announce that I’m reasonable, and I don’t go around killing people senselessly—and also that they scare me so little I don’t care that I gave one of them a grudge against me and then let him go.
Yeah? she said sarcastically. Because I’m thinking it says more that you’re such an utter Spatzenhirn that you let your enemy get away. Have you never read Machiavelli, man?
You know I have, I said, amused. Given that I was the one who gave that book to you.
Yeah, well, I think maybe you didn’t pay enough attention. ‘Cause if this doesn’t take you into “despised and hated” territory, I don’t know what will.
Tell you what, if it gets us horribly killed I promise to let you say you told me so without interruption or complaint. Guaranteed.
I think you and I both know you won’t be able to resist making sarcastic comments.
Well, there was that.
“Guess what,” I said, walking into the trophy room. “You’re going to get to kill some rakshasas. Maybe even help take out a skinwalker, if we get real lucky.”
Aiko looked down at me from her perch on a small stepladder. “How’s that?” she asked, adjusting the wreath of holly and mistletoe she was weaving through a spiral of glittering steel blades hanging on the wall which hadn’t been there a few days ago. It took me a moment to recognize them as the claws from the constructs which had attacked Alexis. How they had gotten here was another topic that wasn’t worth worrying about. I’ve pretty much given up on trying to understand how this mansion works.
I looked the arrangement up and down critically. “Not bad,” I said eventually. “Little asymmetric, though. It could use a little more mistletoe on the right.”
“I meant,” she growled through gritted teeth, “how is it that I get to fight?”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Well, it’s not a done deal, so don’t get too excited, but I was talking with Sojobo tonight and he said he’d talk to the nine-tails. It sounds like he’s on really good terms with your kin, and I’m sure he’s got contacts like no other, so I expect he’ll be able to convince them.”
“Actually, for once I’m being entirely serious. You’d better go get packed; I’m expecting this to go down tonight, and we both know how much you’d hate to miss it.”
Aiko did not wait for me to tell her twice. I don’t know that I’d ever seen her move that quickly.
What makes you so sure it’ll be tonight? Snowflake asked me.
Katrin’s a vampire, I said by way of explanation. She didn’t seem to get it, so I elaborated. That gives her a great deal of power—enough to kill both of us without breaking a sweat, if she’s as old and powerful as I think she is. But it comes with a boatload of drawbacks, complications, and weaknesses, and the biggest one is the sunshine thing. All that power won’t do her a lick of good in the daytime—in fact, from what I’ve read, I’m pretty sure she won’t even be conscious. She sure won’t be able to pull out any cool vampire superpowers.
So she knows it makes her vulnerable. Her sanctum will be hidden, and protected, and I don’t doubt she’s got whole swarms of minions, but the fact remains that she’s personally helpless during the day. I shook my head. She hates it. You know she does. Especially when she knows there are powerful people actively trying to off her. Now that she’s got enough people backing her to get the job done, she’ll want the fight over before she has to spend another day with that hanging over her head.
Snowflake considered that for a while. Sounds reasonable, she said eventually. But there’s one problem with your calculations.
Oh? And what’s that?
You have no idea whether they’ll even be able to find the enemy tonight. Or ever, for that matter.
I chuckled dryly. That’s true, I admitted. But I don’t think so. I stood up and left the room. Come on, I said. Let’s go get a bite to eat and then get ready. Just in case I’m not wrong.
You da Boss, she said with a mental shrug. Besides, it ain’t hard to convince me of any plan that has “go eat something” as a first step.
Alexis, as it turned out, was not just obsessed with but skilled at kitcheny things. I knew this, because she’d made steaks fried with fresh onions and mushrooms, couscous with green onions and shallots, spicy black beans, green chili, a large salad composed of vegetables I usually encountered only in the form of pictures, falafel with hummus and tahini, and fettuccine Alfredo with shrimp and chicken.
I stared. It is not often that I am struck literally dumb, but this spectacle managed it. Even more astonishingly, Snowflake was standing next to me, equally speechless, staring at the array of dishes.
Alexis emerged from the walk-in refrigerator (empty-handed, astonishingly enough) and scowled at me. “What?”
“You may not have realized this, since the mansion is so large, but we actually don’t have swarms of people to feed,” I said dryly.
My cousin flushed. “I didn’t have a lot to do today, all right?” she said defensively, gesturing vaguely at nothing in particular that I could tell.
“Hey, I’m not complaining. I like food. Just saying.” I started grabbing dishes and carrying them out to the dining room—not that there was any reason the kitchen table wouldn’t have served, but this seemed an extravagant enough meal that I felt justified in doing so.
It also gave me the opportunity to inspect each dish thoroughly without Alexis knowing about it. Purely a coincidence, of course.
I pulled out a chair and sat, Snowflake resting on the floor beside me. She could have had her own chair, obviously—there was enough room at that dining table to seat twenty times the people who might actually attend, and it’s not like I’d get upset about it. She just enjoys…playing to the stereotypes, I suppose.
Alexis insisted on saying grace before eating, which took me by complete surprise as I had no idea people still did that. She didn’t seem to require my active participation, though, for which I was quite grateful. I had enough to do just keeping my mouth shut, looking at my lap, and trying not to burst out laughing at Snowflake’s jokes.
After that odd little anachronism, I managed to avoid eating for a few moments by excusing myself to go grab a glass of iced tea—tea I had brewed myself, a few days before. It didn’t usually last that long, but I hadn’t been home much recently.
I sat back down and proceeded to eat with much, much more decorum and restraint than I normally exhibited. I only touched things Alexis had already tasted, for one thing, and ate only a small piece of each item to start after that, giving each one plenty of time for any toxins to work. It’s hard to poison a werewolf, and any common poison would be slow-acting and reversible in any dose not large enough to alter the flavor noticeably. I only sipped the tea, as well; she’d had all day to tamper with it, and I couldn’t be sure that Aiko or Snowflake would have caught her at it.
Of course, given that Alexis was vegetarian, it was harder than it might otherwise have been to not taste anything she hadn’t. Out of that entire massive spread, the only things she actually ate were the beans, salad, couscous, and falafel. Given that I’d made it quite clear that I was as enthusiastically carnivorous as they come, it would have been very suspicious for me to restrict myself to the same menu. It wasn’t long before I simply had to cross my fingers (metaphorically; I wouldn’t dream of giving away that big of a hint openly) and take a bite of steak.
It was delicious, expertly prepared to something a bit shy of medium-rare, seasoned with black pepper and copious amounts of garlic. Snowflake, who, being less obsessively paranoid than I was, had skipped right to the steak, agreed wholeheartedly. She usually ate her meat raw, but had no real objections to cooked food, especially when it was cooked well. Besides, her steak was a few steps rarer than mine—more warmed than cooked, really.
Aiko walked in a few minutes later, covered head-to-toe by her armor. It was more or less the same design as mine—not unpredictably, given that they were made by the same person—but significantly more friendly and cheery in appearance. The colors were warm golds and crimsons, rather than the stark black-and-white I wore, and her suit was sleek and smooth rather than being covered in ridges and spikes. She had her favorite wakizashi and tanto on her belt, and a military-grade carbine on a strap across her chest. She was carrying a small black backpack, too, which probably contained an assortment of other weapons.
Alexis paled visibly at the sight. I just congratulated her on the quick equipping time and told her to come get some food. Aiko, who was very nearly as obsessed with food as the average werewolf, didn’t hesitate. She dropped the bag beside her chair, and her helmet, but otherwise retained the martial aspect as she fell to on the food.
It took me that long to realize I was still wearing most of my own armor, easily visible under the cloak—and I had Tyrfing displayed openly on my belt, to boot. I was getting way too comfortable with this. No wonder Alexis kept glancing my direction.
Less than ten minutes later, there was a sudden pounding on the front door. I heard eight heavy knocks, spaced slowly and evenly. Aiko got up immediately to go to the door, her expression the same as you might expect to see on a prisoner who’s just heard word of a letter from the governor but doesn’t yet know whether it contains a pardon or a writ of execution.
I had never before heard someone knocking on the door in that mansion.
I couldn’t see the entry room from where I was sitting, and I was concerned that going to look would violate some principle of etiquette or other. Normally I wouldn’t care, but between Aiko’s demeanor and the fact that we were already expecting something of the sort, I was guessing this was kitsune business, and if they were anything like the other supernatural entities I’d encountered they wouldn’t care for outsiders sticking their collective nose into their internal affairs. Now, again, that wouldn’t normally mean a great deal to me, but in this case it might be detrimental to Aiko’s cause, and that was something I didn’t want.
So I can’t speak, personally, for what might have happened when Aiko went to answer the door. A minute dragged by, then two, then five, and she was still gone. I held Snowflake back when she would have gone to investigate, but privately I was also feeling more than slightly concerned. It didn’t help that neither of us could hear anything. Given that I was a werewolf (sorta) and she was a husky (kinda) we should have been able to at least hear any conversation. Not make out the words, maybe, but we at least should have been able to hear that they were talking.
I put it down to kitsune magic, which I knew was capable of blocking all sound at significantly closer range than this, and kept eating.
Finally, seven minutes after she left, Aiko walked back into the dining room, clutching a piece of paper like a drowning man’s rope and shaking her head. She looked dazed, like she couldn’t quite process the information she’d just been given. She collapsed back into her chair, looking around aimlessly. “Unbelievable,” she muttered. “A full pardon!” She waved the paper in my face, still clinging to it like a lifeline. I didn’t bother trying to read it; I was confident it would say exactly what she had implied.
“A pardon?” Alexis asked, confused. “For what?”
“Oh, you know,” Aiko said evasively. “The usual.”
I snorted. “Aiding and abetting a convicted criminal. Resisting arrest. Obstruction of justice. Aggravated assault. Attempted murder. Hostage taking. Extortion. Carjacking. Conspiracy to commit murder. Conspiracy to commit all the rest, too, I suppose.” I took a small sip of tea, which had so far failed to produce any ill effect. “I sincerely hope that isn’t usual in any broader company than who’s sitting here.”
“Don’t forget vandalism,” she said helpfully.
I frowned. “Actually, I don’t remember vandalism. Are you sure there was a vandalism involved that time?”
“No, actually, I don’t think there was. I just throw that into any list of crimes I commit, because why not? I mean, I’ve done it enough times.” She shrugged. “Of course, I suppose at that rate I also ought to put in burglary. And theft. And larceny, although I’ve never been quite clear on the difference there. And robbery. And crimes against nature. And arson. And incitement to riot. And—”
“Are you serious?” Alexis asked, sounding slightly horrified.
“Well, I’ve only done the arson thing around a dozen times. But one of them was a pretty large building, so I think that should count extra, and then there was the time we used explosives, which I think they might prosecute differently—I only have a rudimentary understanding of the legal system, you know.”
“Yes, she’s serious,” I translated. “That’s actually a fairly abbreviated list, though. We don’t really have the time to discuss every crime she’s guilty of.” I glanced at Aiko. “Actually, now that you’ve got that pardon, we should probably head out. I’m not entirely sure how they’re planning to contact us if they locate the target, and it’ll be easier if we aren’t here.”
She snorted. “How about you go finish getting dressed, then. I’m going to stay here and eat some more. I haven’t had food this good since the last time I was in Italy.”
“I also made dessert,” Alexis said, sounding like she couldn’t decide whether she felt complimented or really, really freaked out. She was starting to look nervous, too, like she was seriously questioning the wisdom of coming here. “Blueberry pie, chocolate mousse, and Black Forest cake. In the fridge.”
“I don’t think we have quite that much time.”
Aiko gave me a pleading look. “I haven’t had good Kirschtorte in a long time, Winter.”
“It’ll keep,” I said ruthlessly. Snowflake, who has very little appreciation for such things at the best of time, laughed at the expression on the kitsune’s face.
A few minutes later, I walked back into the kitchen. I’d put on the helmet and gauntlets, which took me from a five all the way to maybe an eight or nine on the barfighter’s scale of “He looks like he could kick my ass.” (Normally I don’t make it above a two. The only reason I was at a five before was that I had a broadsword on my hip, and that tends to inspire a certain amount of respect in modern punks, unaccustomed as they tend to be to any edged weapon larger than a paring knife.) I also had my very large, very scary-looking shotgun on its strap across my chest, and I’d grabbed the rest of my toys and trinkets as well. The intimidating effect was, granted, somewhat impaired by the fact that I’d shaped my cloak into a head-to-toe blanket of shadow. Anyone casually glancing in my direction would see little more than a man-sized, ragged-edged moving patch of darkness, which—while spooky as hell—engenders a rather different type of fear.
That actually wasn’t as conspicuous as you might think. I know people somehow have this idea that a moving shadow without anything obviously present to cast it would instantly attract their attention, but I honestly have no idea why you would think that. I mean, if you’re looking for it and it stands out against the background, sure, maybe you’ll notice something. But people generally don’t look for things like that, in my experience. So long as I avoided brightly lit areas and similarly idiotic actions, my cloak was damn near as good as actual invisibility.
I found Aiko and Snowflake, both fully kitted out for battle, waiting in the throne room. I also found Alexis, who promptly said, “I want to come with you.”
I stared, and didn’t try to make it a warm stare. “You are aware of what we’re doing, yes?”
She flushed slightly and looked away from me. “Yes.”
“You are aware,” I continued, “that this is an extremely dangerous endeavor, and that while the three of us will do what we can, because violence is intrinsically chaotic and unpredictable, it is quite likely that circumstances will prevent us from helping you? You are, I presume, aware that the three of us are going into this fight aware that we may not be coming back? You are aware that, as you are by a wide measure the most fragile and the least experienced person in this room, it is possible—indeed, probable—that you will be killed or permanently injured?”
Alexis looked frightened—no, not frightened. That’s far too mild a word. Alexis looked terrified. She had the stiff, desperate appearance of a deer in the headlights. Her voice, though, was relatively even, with only the slightest trace of a stammer, when she said, “If it’s that dangerous, shouldn’t I come to help?”
“And what conceivable help could you be?” I asked derisively. I had only respect for her attitude, but I wanted to know how she would react to mockery.
She flushed again, but it was with anger this time, and she had no difficulty looking me in the eye. Interesting. “I can shoot,” she said sharply.
I couldn’t deny that, not after her performance when we came to rescue her. “There’s an enormous difference between shooting targets and shooting people. And there’s no room for squeamishness in this,” I said, more gently. “It’s kill or be killed out there. That’s the sort of experience that changes you, no matter what happens. It’s more than possible you’d have to commit murder—and make no mistake, that’s what we’re doing, however fine our reasons—just to survive. We’ve done this before, and sad to say there’s enough blood on all three of us that I doubt tonight’s activities will add anything much to the stain on our hands.” I left unspoken the implication that she couldn’t say the same, and given her attitudes I was confident she never wanted to be able to.
She could tell I was working up to a flat refusal. Interestingly, though, rather than relief, it seemed to make her terror worse. Her eyes looked desperate, almost hunted. “Somebody tried to kill me,” she said, her voice small and slightly unsteady. “One of the people you’re going out to fight.”
“Probably,” I cautioned. “Occam’s razor be damned, I’ve never yet seen a situation where everything is simple and straightforward.”
My cousin continued as though I hadn’t spoken at all. “You’re putting yourself in danger because of me,” she said quietly. “How can I stay here and pretend everything’s fine while you’re out there risking your lives for me? When I know my presence could make a difference?” She managed a weak, unsteady smile. “Besides, if you do die, how long do you think it will take for them to get me? I can’t stay here forever. Better to come with you. At least then I won’t have to put up with weeks of waiting for them to catch up to me.”
“Are you sure?” I asked.
She nodded, the fear seeming to recede a little.
I sighed. “All right, then,” I said reluctantly. “Do you have your pistol?” She nodded again. “Go grab it,” I said, “and whatever ammo you have. I’m going to go grab some things.”
Alexis took off for the stairs at a near sprint. “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” Aiko asked me, sotto voce.
“Not at all,” I muttered, starting for the stairs myself. “I just can’t think of a better one.”
A couple minutes later, I returned to find Alexis already waiting for me. She had that little semiautomatic in a plastic sheath on her nylon belt. Other than that, she was wearing jeans, a black T-shirt, and a black hoodie. I tossed her the leather jacket I was carrying—too simple, heavy, and ugly to be mistaken for anything other than armor, which it was.
She caught it easily enough. “What is this?” she asked.
“Put it on,” I told her. She did, having only a modicum of difficulty with the old-fashioned ties. I was on the small side for an adult human male, and she was a bit over average for a female, so my old jacket fit her well enough. She looked up just in time to catch a leather belt with a sheathed knife, flashlight, and med kit on it. “How much ammo are you carrying?”
“Two magazines,” she said, wrapping the second belt around her hips. “Fourteen rounds total.”
I frowned. “What caliber?”
“Thirty-two.” Huh. Guessed right for once. Who’d have thought.
I grunted. “Don’t think we have any of those,” I said, glancing at Aiko, who shook her head. Both of us tended to use rather heavier rounds than that—a .32 is fine for most self-defense scenarios, but when faced with a charging werewolf it starts to seem a little…inadequate. “Try to save that for a last-ditch, then.” I didn’t mention that fighting at all would be a last-ditch effort for her, given that her chances of actually contributing to a fight on this level were fairly minimal. She knew that.
I took a certain amount of comfort in seeing the grass-green pendant around her neck. I’d never tried a stored spell quite like it, making it difficult to say for sure whether it would work or not, but it should provide at least a bit of security should worse come to worst.
“Okay, people,” I said, turning to the door. “It’s go time.”