Balancing Act 6.15

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I never saw the skinwalker move. I was watching, too. As far as I could tell, he moved from the bottom steps of the staircase to the middle of the room without actually crossing the intervening space. He discarded his disguise as he moved, and arrived in the center of the room as the same Native American man I’d seen before. He’d traded his expensive suit for hunting leathers, and was wearing a cloak of feathers that reminded me uncomfortably of the garment I’d once seen Loki wearing. These feathers were all black, though. It wasn’t hard to guess where they’d come from.


He wasn’t visibly armed, having dropped the tengu’s sword as he moved. I wished that I could believe that would matter. I wasn’t capable of beating this thing—he didn’t deserve the title of person—at my best. In my current condition, I wouldn’t even be a speed bump.


“I must say, you did an excellent job,” the skinwalker said, his voice supremely confident. “I expected you to make a decent showing, of course, but I never would have guessed this gambit would pay off this well. You not only removed the greatest obstacle to my gaining dominance over this pathetic cesspool of a city, every remaining inconvenience is in the same room! And you’re half dead already, I shouldn’t doubt. Really, my friends, you’ve outdone yourselves this time.” His voice was almost friendly, which made it all even creepier.


“What about the vampires?” I said, hating the way fear made my voice shake.


“They don’t matter,” he said dismissively. “They can’t oppose me, and they’ll flee rather than face me regardless. No, I don’t have to worry about the vampires.”


Kikuchi hissed, an eerie inhuman sound. “You speak too soon, abomination,” he said in a cold voice. He only had one hand with which to wield his katana, but it didn’t look any less deadly.


The skinwalker didn’t even look at him. He just flicked his fingers, and a blast of magical force hit the tengu like a speeding bus. He flew across the room, not dropping noticeably over the course of fifteen feet, and slammed into the wall with terrible force.


The tengu dropped limply to the ground. His sword clattered on the floor as it fell from his hand.


“Always with the distractions,” the skinwalker said, hardly even sounding annoyed. “Where was I? Ah, yes. Mr. Wolf, this battle is over. You’ve lost. But, as I think I’ve conveyed to you already, I hold you in no particular contempt. I admire your determination, your indomitability. I have only respect for you on a personal level.”


“Gosh thanks,” I growled, shifting around slightly where I sat.


“There’s no need to be snide,” he said disapprovingly. “As I was saying, I have no reason to wish you ill. It isn’t too late for you to leave this room alive.”


“Let me guess,” I sneered at him. “All I have to do is abandon any ideals or principles I might, by some miracle, still have, betray and kill my friends and allies, and swear eternal service to you and your evil masters.”


“Nothing so ridiculous,” the skinwalker said. “No, I think killing one of them should suffice. The dog or the kitsune. It shouldn’t be too difficult for you. You and the survivor would be free to go. You are, of course, welcome to remain here and serve me, but frankly I think it would be better for all of us if you didn’t.”


Damn, I was starting to really hate this jackass. I mean, it’s one thing to be a bad guy. It’s bad enough to be manipulated, defeated, tormented, and eventually killed. But for it to happen at the hands of a villain who was so damned cliché, well, that was just over the top.


I pretended to consider it, shifting around uncomfortably, looking at Aiko and Snowflake in turn. There was no way my face could be seen behind the cloak and the helmet, but I kept it properly horrified anyway. I must have done a fairly good job, because Alexis looked like she was about to be sick with terror, and Miyazaki—who was standing a safe distance away from the skinwalker, clutching his club, and trying to pretend he hadn’t been dismissed from this conversation like he wasn’t even there—growled a little.


I opened my mouth to answer. The skinwalker leaned closer, sadistic pleasure writ large in every line of his body. He was enjoying this, exulting in our suffering, getting off on watching me damn myself. It seemed for a moment that the whole world was holding its breath, waiting to see what I would do.


And then I pulled the trigger of my shotgun.


People with a certain amount of knowledge of the supernatural tend to be fairly down on guns. Now, there are entirely valid reasons for that. A lot of critters—vampires spring to mind, but there are others—aren’t even inconvenienced by bullets. More than that, though, people get the idea that magic is better than a firearm. That’s broadly true. Even a minor mage such as myself can typically come up with a counter to a gun. I can’t stop bullets. But that doesn’t mean other mages can’t—they can. Easily. And even for me, stopping the person shooting the gun is a relatively trivial task. For a stronger and more experienced mage, it wasn’t even that.


But all of that assumes that the mage knows about the gun. It’s hard to stop what you don’t know is there. It can be done—for example, some mages never leave the house without a full set of magical protections that protect from that sort of thing, while especially paranoid mages never put themselves in a position where a gunman could conceivably be present without their knowledge at all. But it’s much, much more difficult.


The skinwalker had no way of knowing that I was even carrying a gun. Circumstances during the fight hadn’t been conducive for me actually using it, and it was concealed beneath the cloak. All that shifting around had let me get it aligned properly without being obvious about it, removing the instant of warning he might otherwise have had. And, at that moment, he was so fixated upon what I was about to say, so absorbed by the pleasure he was getting from our suffering, that he wasn’t expecting an attack at all.


I’d loaded the shotgun with custom ammunition roughly based off my anti-nasty dust, a mix of iron, silver, and rock salt imbued with magical energy and blessed. As far as I knew, skinwalkers weren’t vulnerable to any of those things, but I didn’t reckon it could hurt.


The skinwalker flinched away, a number of holes opening on his face and chest, blood spraying out the exit wounds, but didn’t fall. I worked the pump, but before I could get off a second shot some unseen force snatched the shotgun from my hands, overcoming my attempts to hold onto it as easily as if I were a two year old.


Miyazaki took advantage of the skinwalker’s momentary distraction to attack. He charged, uncannily fast for such an enormous guy, whipping the huge club in an overhead strike that could have crushed a cinderblock to dust. The skinwalker saw it coming too late to dodge, and lifted one hand in an instinctive, futile attempt to parry. I felt like cheering.


The spiked head of the club smashed into the skinwalker’s hand…and, contrary to all logic and reason, stopped dead. The tanuki crashed to a sudden halt, almost thrown from his feet just by the aborted momentum of his attack, but the skinwalker didn’t even sway on his feet. He flicked his wrist, the sort of motion you might use to shoo away a fly, and several hundred pounds of tanuki flew through the air to land on the ground several feet away.


Bloody hell. How strong was this thing?


The skinwalker turned back towards me, easily snatching my shotgun from where it floated in midair next to him. I noticed he wasn’t bleeding; every one of the holes from the shotgun blast had healed already. He didn’t even seem to have noticed it. “Well, I suppose I can take that as your answer,” he said. His smile showed many, many pointed teeth, and his yellow eyes glittered with almost sexual excitement. “A pity. I would have enjoyed working with you, Mr. Wolf. But I’m afraid now it’s time for you to die.” He leveled the shotgun at my head.


If you’re going to be a supervillain, here’s a piece of advice that might be worth considering. Don’t indulge in evil gloating. If you absolutely must indulge, wait until the enemy’s already dead. If for some reason you can’t, never ever hand the universe a straight line like that one. It can’t resist.


“Hey, stupid,” a voice called from the front door.


I don’t know who in that room was the most surprised. I think me, but it might have been Snowflake, or even the skinwalker. Certainly we all turned to look.


Brick walked into the room. He was dressed in a robe of some soft grey fabric, complete with hood, and carried a tall staff of some pale wood in his left hand. His right held a rod maybe eighteen inches long and one and a half thick made from polished granite. His blue eyes were almost as cold as Snowflake’s, and I thought that he’d never looked so much like a mage, or so little like the rest of the Inquisition.


And on his chest, hung from a simple silver chain, was an oval of Damascus steel with the image of a serpent on it. The mark, I knew, of a Watcher on assignment (although the significance of the serpent, rather than the flaming sword or all-seeing eye I’d seen other Watchers use as emblems, eluded me). Brick, a Watcher. I’d never really considered the possibility before, but it made a certain amount of sense. If nothing else, I would never have guessed it, and that was the kind of person the Watchers liked best.


“Did you really think I wouldn’t figure out who was sending those constructs?” the man said coldly, walking into the room. His staff clicked against the floor with every step, as did his hard-soled boots.


“Ah,” the skinwalker sighed, sounding more satisfied than upset. “You must be Nobody’s protégé. This night just gets better and better.” He tossed my shotgun aside to clatter on the floor, spreading his hands out to the side. They filled with putrid yellow fire, reeking of sulfur and corruption and magic.


“Alexis my darling,” the skinwalker said, not looking away from Brick. “Be a dear and kill your cousin for me, won’t you?”


She didn’t answer.


“Come now,” he chided. “You’ve come this far already. Surely you know there’s no going back after you’ve already done me such fine service. Do this one thing, and you’re free. You’ll never hear from me again. I swear it.” He sounded sincere, and I thought he might be—if nothing else, most people from my side of things are very hesitant to break a sworn oath. Of course, given that it was a skinwalker talking, I wasn’t sure how much that meant.


I wasn’t sure what Alexis was going to answer, and I didn’t wait to find out. I focused a quick spike of magic at her. A moment later, there was a flash of intense green light behind me.


A second after that, Alexis hit the floor. She fell badly; it’s hard to do otherwise when there’s nobody home in your body. I’d never tried shunting someone else into an animal’s mind, but it seemed to have worked, and I was pretty sure Snowflake would be able to keep her busy long enough to ensure that she wasn’t a threat. If nothing else, the wolf that shared her mind had plenty of practice with this sort of thing.


The skinwalker smiled at me. “Well played,” he said. “Most people are too trusting to ever see such an attack coming, let alone prepare for it intelligently.” Without even looking, or pausing in his speech, he flicked one of those handfuls of fire at Brick, clearly hoping to take the mage off guard.


He failed. Brick lifted his right hand, and the stone rod it held, and spoke a single word. I wasn’t sure what he did, exactly, but the fire splashed against an invisible barrier a foot from his face. A moment later it dissipated. Brick never even moved his feet.


“Not bad,” the skinwalker said, turning to face Brick directly. “Not bad at all. Slightly unimaginative, but then that’s to be expected.”


Brick didn’t rise to the provocation, just pointed that rod at the skinwalker like a gun. He said one word, and a surge of earth-scented magic rose. A tennis-ball sized sphere of brown-and-green light flew from the end of the rod, moving about as fast as a major-league pitch.


The skinwalker made a curious rolling gesture with his now-empty hand and murmured a phrase in a language I didn’t recognize, even vaguely. Flickers of yellow light mingled with the brown and green, and the ball of light curved in the air. It struck the wall, and a circle three feet in diameter began to melt and run like wax. Then he tossed the other handful of flame to the floor, where it began to spread hungrily. The reek of the skinwalker’s magic rose higher in the room, making me gag.


Brick spoke a half-dozen words of what sounded like archaic German and thumped his staff on the ground once, and the fires died away. But he’d lost the initiative, and given the skinwalker another chance to attack. He seized it.


This bit of magic was harder to understand—although the others had been plenty hard enough, even for me. The skinwalker made a gesture that vaguely resembled someone plucking feathers, speaking a few more words in whatever language he was using. A moment later Brick stiffened, his muscles clenching without any apparent volition on his part. His face was frozen in a rictus of fury, and his cheek was twitching.


Apparently the skinwalker’s spell didn’t have as much of an effect as he’d hoped, though, because Brick still managed to riposte. He raised that rod to point forward, shaking but not stopped. He snarled an almost incomprehensible word. The magic that he sent against the skinwalker next was hard to see, visible only as a slight, rippling distortion of the air. It moved fast, too, fast enough that I wasn’t sure whether I’d seen it at all.


Any suspicion I might have had that it was a trick of the mind, though, was dismissed when it struck the skinwalker. The blast of kinetic force was no kinder to him than his had been to Kikuchi in the opening stages of this bizarre little encounter; the skinwalker was tossed across the room. The strange stiffness lifted from Brick’s limbs at once, and he immediately lifted his staff to point at the monster and snapped another word. Frost instantly began to form over the skinwalker’s body, like watching a time-lapse video of crystal growth.


The skinwalker murmured another phrase and yellow flames washed over him, wiping the frost away. He pushed himself easily to his feet, seeming totally unharmed. He didn’t even look fatigued, and I could see that Brick was leaning heavily on his staff just to stay standing.


“Not bad,” the skinwalker said, sounding quite calm and pleasant. Now that I was starting to get an idea of the vileness behind those yellow eyes, that pleasant everyman’s voice creeped me out a lot. “Really, you have a great deal of potential. Quite skilled in your application of varied elements, especially for a sorcerer.”


Brick’s reply was another blast of force. The skinwalker turned it away easily, and it blasted a hole in the ceiling.


“Unfortunately,” the skinwalker continued as though he hadn’t been interrupted, “you’re still acting like a clan mage. That’s a terrible weakness. You’re thinking in two dimensions.” He gestured slightly.


My shotgun went off again. This time, controlled by the skinwalker’s telekinesis, it was pointed directly at Brick’s back.


I didn’t smell any blood, so I didn’t think the pellets had penetrated his robe—it must have had some kind of magic in it, reinforcing it until it was bulletproof. But the force involved was still considerable, and it knocked Brick over onto his face. He grunted, trying to get his staff under him and stand.


He was too slow. The skinwalker ambled over and picked him up by the throat with one hand. Brick was a tall guy, significantly taller than the skinwalker, but he seemed to have no difficulty lifting the mage over his own head, until his toes were dangling an inch above the floor. “You see,” the skinwalker said conversationally, as Brick clawed at his fingers, “you limited your perceptions to fit your expectations. Flexibility of thought, young man, is one of the most important determining factors in any magical conflict, and it is the rigidity of thought engendered by centuries of tradition which is in many ways the greatest weakness of the clans. In order to effectively take advantage of your surroundings, it is imperative that you are aware of them at all times.”


I enjoyed what happened next. I probably shouldn’t, but I’m convinced that irony has a personal vendetta against me, and it’s always nice to see your enemies indulging in a little friendly fire.


At the same time as the skinwalker was giving his little lecture on the virtues of awareness, a shadow dropped from the hole he’d knocked in the ceiling. It landed with perfect grace, in perfect silence, and straightened from its crouch. It took two silent steps forward and rammed a long knife home in the skinwalker’s back.


He immediately dropped Brick, who looked semiconscious at best, and turned to face the new assailant, seeming only mildly inconvenienced by the knife sticking out of his back. His features twisted with rage when he saw the latest attacker, the first real emotion I’d seen on his face. “You!” he snarled.


“Me,” Reynard agreed with a wicked grin, drawing a gladius-style sword from his belt. He had another knife in his left hand. He spun the knife idly in his hand as he and the skinwalker began to circle each other.


“Traitor,” the skinwalker spat, wrenching the knife out of his own back with no signs of pain. “You should never have come here. I will tear your flesh and break your bones.”


Reynard just smiled more. “Big words for a little man,” he said mockingly. “Tell me, abhorrence, did you ever find her? You didn’t, did you?” His smile broadened, sharpened, gained a note of cruelty. “How apropos. All the sacrifices you’ve made, and you never found her. Not that she’d want you to by now. How she must loathe you!”


I didn’t know what Reynard was talking about. It was an inside reference of some sort, that was clear, but I had no idea what he was referring to. It was just as clear that the two of them knew each other, but I couldn’t have guessed how.


What I do know is that hearing that drove the skinwalker mad with rage and hate. He threw himself at Reynard, his face twisted into a grimace that made him look almost as monstrous as he really was, slashing with his appropriated knife again and again. His other hand burned with a yellow radiance too bright to look at directly, and I didn’t doubt it was a weapon every bit as deadly as the knife, if not more so. For his part, Reynard danced away from every blow, occasionally parrying with dagger or sword. He laughed the whole time, a cruel and evil laugh.


And that was my moment.


For the entire fight up to that point, the skinwalker had been calm, collected, in control. He never let himself get too focused on one thing. But even monsters have buttons, and Reynard knew just which ones to push to drive the skinwalker out of his head.


For the first time, the skinwalker wasn’t paying any attention to me.


I was hurt, and terrified, and exhausted. But those were all familiar states for me, almost comfortable. And, end of the day, I was just too damn stubborn to give up now. I got to my feet and crept up behind the skinwalker. Reynard, clearly aware of my intentions, moved straight backward now, keeping the skinwalker from turning and seeing me. He could only do so for a few moments, but that was all the time I would need. Any sounds I might have made were easily covered by Reynard’s ongoing mad laughter. I got into position, sent off a quick and silent prayer to any benevolent deity who might happen to be listening, and lunged.


The skinwalker, by chance or intent, moved unexpectedly at the last moment, and Tyrfing took him in the right hip rather than dead center of the back as I’d intended. The skinwalker shrieked, and for the first time sounded like he was in pain. He tried to spin and do something nasty to me, but evidently Tyrfing’s magic was stronger than whatever vile power had protected him from every injury up ’til now. He stumbled when his weight fell on the newly crippled leg.


Reynard took advantage of his distraction to slash at the magic-wielding hand with his gladius. Two fingers dropped to the floor, foul-smelling blood welled up, and the urine-yellow light of magic faded.


I twisted Tyrfing and wrenched it back out.


Kikuchi, who’d been biding his time since he was batted away when the skinwalker first revealed himself, sprang to his feet, and then at the skinwalker’s back. He had only one arm with which to swing his katana, but it still bit deeply into the thing’s shoulder. The tengu pulled it out and readied for another strike.


The skinwalker had finally had enough. His face contorted now with pain and fear rather than anger, he jumped. Propelled by muscles that were disturbingly strong even to me, he easily cleared six feet of vertical leap from a standing start. As he neared the apex of his leap, he screamed another word in that strange language. His shape seemed to blur and twist, and then a deformed-looking crow flapped awkwardly through the hole in the ceiling.


Kikuchi moved as though to follow—though how he planned to follow a flying enemy, and what he planned to do to it when he got there in his condition, I don’t know. Reynard put his hand on the tengu’s good shoulder, stopping him. “Let him go,” he said quietly.


“We have him,” the tengu said, angrily shaking the hand off. “Now’s the time to finish it.”


Reynard shook his head. “No,” he said, not perturbed at all by the younger being’s anger. “Better not to. Chase him now and he’ll become desperate. That one’s got a fair bit of fight in him yet, if you drive him to it, and you’d not be the only one to suffer for it.” His lips twitched into a wry smile. “Besides, I doubt you’ll need to worry about him anymore. I daresay it’s been some time since a fight went so badly against him so fast, and he won’t want to face you again anytime soon.”


Privately, I thought that a rather optimistic prediction. It seemed likelier to me that the skinwalker would be looking to redress the insult to his pride. He wasn’t the sort to take it philosophically. But now wasn’t the time for such grim discussion, so I let it go.


“See to your people,” Reynard said softly. Kikuchi still looked like he wanted to argue, but he bowed to the voice of reason and went to do as Reynard had suggested.


“Hell of a fighter,” I murmured, watching the tengu walk away.


“He is at that,” Reynard agreed. “A touch hotheaded, perhaps, but he’ll grow out of it.” He glanced at me. “Sojobo said to tell you that de Sousa got away. Realized that the water here was rather hotter than she liked, most likely.”


I nodded in resignation. I’d sort of expected that. “She can’t hide forever,” I said. I wasn’t entirely sure—I mean, evidence suggested she sort of could—but this wasn’t a time for pessimism, either. Reynard nodded, and I got the impression he knew exactly what I meant.


After all the other surprises and confusions, I almost didn’t think it remarkable when we found Anna locked in the pack’s old safe room. Maybe the skinwalker had been working with the rakshasas before we eliminated them for him. Maybe he just found it amusing. It hardly mattered, and I honestly did not want to understand that monster’s motivations any better than I already did.


As I’d expected, the skinwalker had already started abusing Anna. She had a number of bruises, several relatively minor lacerations, three broken fingers, a mild concussion, and was missing the smallest two toes of her left foot. She was conscious, though, and as much pissed as scared. She took a not inconsiderable amount of pleasure in our recounting of how we’d shown the bastard up and driven him off, although she was rather disappointed to learn that he was still alive. I didn’t blame her, and privately resolved that if I ever got a chance, that skinwalker was a dead man. I might even hand him over to Loki to entertain himself with. If ever there was a being that deserved a slow and painful death, he was it.


I don’t normally think in terms like that. I am hesitant to use absolutes, because so little in this world is absolute. But that bastard had the distinction of being the most truly, purely evil being I had ever encountered. He had looked into the heart of darkness, had seen clearly all the evil humanity is heir to, and had embraced it wholeheartedly. Born into a twisted, cruel world, he had devoted himself to making it worse in a million tiny ways, for no other reason than that he could.


No, I had no compunctions there.


A few minutes later, I found myself sitting on the floor next to Anna, slumped against the wall in abject exhaustion. Kikuchi had gathered his people, living and dead, and departed. I hadn’t seen Hrafn since before I went into the building. Reynard had disappeared somewhere along the way, without my noticing, as had Brick. That left just the two of us, Aiko and Snowflake asleep nearby, and Alexis. I’d made it clear to my cousin that she was to wait by the door until we were ready to leave. Maybe it was guilt, or the anger in my voice, or the fact that I was still wearing blood-soaked armor and carrying a shitload of weaponry, but she didn’t argue.


“I’m sorry,” I said finally, not looking at Anna. “I’m so sorry.”


“It wasn’t your fault,” she said softly.


“Wasn’t it?” I asked. “I don’t know. You were only targeted because of me. If I hadn’t been so damned arrogant, this would never have happened.”


“How could you have known what would happen?”


“Maybe with five seconds’ worth of actual thought?” I snarled. A moment later, I sighed. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t take this out on you.”


“It’s all right.”


“No. No, it isn’t,” I said bleakly, staring off into space. I took a deep breath and sighed. “I’m endangering you,” I said eventually. “Just by being around you. As long as I’m around, people like this will target you to get at me.”


Anna didn’t deny it.


“You know,” I said conversationally, a few breaths later, “I always wondered. Why on earth did you want to be around me? It baffled me. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful—you’ve been a good friend, and I’m lucky to have you. I don’t deserve such a good friend.”


“You’re too hard on yourself,” she said, not meeting my eyes.


I sighed. “Maybe. But if not me, who else?” She didn’t have an answer. “Anyway,” I said after a moment. “I always wondered. You and your brother both. I never quite understood why people like you would be friends with a person like me. Well, now I know why Enrico was there. He figured out what I was, or a part of it anyway, and he thought it made me a danger he had to keep an eye on.”


“It wasn’t all that,” she said quickly. “He was your friend.”


“Maybe eventually,” I agreed. “But at first? He wasn’t in it for friendship. Anyhow, what I’ve been thinking is this. You’re every bit as smart as your brother was. And I know how close you were. And I just can’t imagine him having these suspicions all those years and you not knowing it.” I shook my head. “That wouldn’t happen. And then, when you found out for sure, it didn’t bother you. You didn’t freak out. You weren’t even surprised. And you’ve been spending time around werewolves since then. You know them well enough that you recognize them when you see them.”


She didn’t respond. She didn’t really need to.


“Enrico was scared of werewolves,” I said quietly. “But you aren’t, are you? Rather the opposite, I think.”


Anna was silent for a long moment. “Yes,” she said finally. It had the tone of a confession. “I remember when I was a kid, I always got the others—you know, vampires, ghosts, Frankenstein’s monster, sure, those are monsters. I got that. But I never quite understood werewolves. I never got why they were monsters, why they called it a curse. It didn’t make sense. I remember thinking it sounded more like a blessing to me. I didn’t phrase it like that at the time, of course.”


“A blessing,” I murmured. My lips twitched into a bitter smile. “Yes, I suppose it could be at that.” I didn’t tell her that I was thinking of older, darker gods than the one she was, the kind of gods whose blessings were so often worse than their curses, when you could even figure out which was which.


“What’s this have to do with what we were talking about?” Anna asked, clearly uncomfortable with the turn the conversation had taken.


“Everything,” I said. “This is an important question. Do you want to be a werewolf?”


She was quiet for a few minutes, thinking about it. I didn’t interrupt. Better to think it through. “Yes,” she said at last. “I mean, there are definitely some aspects to it that I don’t like. But on the whole, yeah. I guess I do.”


I nodded, and tried to pretend it didn’t hurt to learn that my only real human friend had been more interested in what I was than who I was. I think I did a fairly good job. “I think you could do it,” I said. “It’s always hard to tell, of course, and I’m hardly an expert, but I think you can. I think you would do quite well as a werewolf. Now, to get back to what we were talking about earlier, here’s what I’m getting at. I can’t protect you. I think that’s abundantly clear by now. If you were a werewolf, with a pack, that would give people pause before they tried another stunt like this. If you want, I can arrange an introduction and sponsor your bid to undertake the change.”


“What if it doesn’t work?”


I sighed. “You die. That’s how it works, how the system functions. You become a werewolf, or you die. Once you are a werewolf, you have to learn to control your new urges, or you die. You obey your Alpha and the pack laws, or you die. There’s no middle ground.” I shrugged. “But I think you can do it, or I wouldn’t even offer this. With ideal circumstances, which is what you’d have, you have about an even chance of surviving the first step and becoming a werewolf. You’ve got a strong personality, you’re smart, and your personality is well suited to it, so I give you maybe three in four of surviving the next step. After that, well, it’s pretty much up to you.”


“Those aren’t very good odds,” she noted.


“No,” I agreed. “They aren’t. But they’re all I can offer. The truth is that most people don’t make it as a werewolf. You have better odds than most.”




I frowned. “You remember when Enrico was changed? How unhappy he was? How it always seemed like he was trying to fight himself?” She nodded. “That’s because he was a terrible candidate for it. No one in their right mind would have recommended him for this, until there wasn’t a choice anymore. That’s fairly common with people who have it happen by accident, by surviving an attack or some such. Most of the time, if they can establish control at all, they tear themselves apart fighting between who they were and what they’ve become. Suicide is pretty common.” I shrugged again. “That’s not you. You don’t consider this a curse. That makes an enormous difference.”


“Oh,” she said. I knew she was thinking about her brother, who was pretty much the poster child for what I’d just described. Technically he hadn’t killed himself because he couldn’t accept the wolf, not exactly, but I knew that was in large part to blame for his death.


Of course, he’d only become a werewolf in the first place because of me. The guilt fell squarely on my shoulders.


“You don’t have to decide right now,” I said quietly. “Honestly, I’d worry if you did. At the very least you should learn more about what the rules are you’d be expected to follow. And it will be at least a few weeks, probably a few months before you’re ready to actually do it. Survival rates are higher if you’re healthy before you try it.” I frowned, and tried to ignore how bitter the next words tasted. “Regardless of what you settle on, I’d recommend that you leave the city.”


“Do you really think I’ll be any safer somewhere else?” she said dryly.


“I think you could hardly be less safe,” I countered. “And…well, it looks like I’m going to be an important person around here. More important, at any rate. There’s going to be a lot of details to work out, but it’s safe to say that there are going to be a lot of people in the area with a grudge against me. It would be safer for you to be far away from them; at least then they’d have to work a little to get at you.” My lips twitched. “Besides, if you do decide to try for the change you’d definitely have to move. There are no werewolves here anymore, except me, and I don’t count.”


“Where should I go?” she asked. She sounded very lost, and I reminded myself that she’d been out of the skinwalker’s hands for less than an hour.


“Wherever you want to,” I said with a shrug. “Although if you want to be a werewolf, unless you really dislike the idea, I’d recommend a pack in northern Wyoming. Kyra’s there, and a few of her old pack, so you’d have at least a few friends. And I know the Alpha. He’s a decent guy.” I stood up and offered her a hand. “Come on,” I said. “You’ll feel better after a little rest. I have a spare bedroom where you can stay—it’ll be a lot safer than your apartment.”


“Right,” she said, taking my hand and standing. “And Winter? Thanks.”


Returning home was a bit difficult. Fortunately, of the five of us, four were too tired to care much. Aiko, Snowflake, and Anna were all snoring within minutes of sitting down again. I would gladly have done the same, but someone had to stay up and keep an eye on things.


Back home, I got Anna settled in on the opposite side of the building from Alexis’s room and let my cousin know that I would take it very, very badly if she tried to get away or otherwise do stupid things while I was asleep. I probably should have sat down and talked it out with her right then, but I was simply too exhausted, That was going to be a very delicate conversation, and this wasn’t the right frame of mind to approach it from. For now I stuck her in her room and left it for morning.


That task taken care of, I went upstairs, where I found Aiko and Snowflake already very firmly asleep. We’d already determined, to the best of our abilities, that neither of them needed immediate medical attention beyond what they’d already received, so I saw no harm in letting them sleep.


I didn’t need to worry, of course. If I can stand, I don’t need medical attention.


That doesn’t mean I feel good, of course, a fact of which I was reminded forcefully of when I peeled cloak, armor, and clothing off, taking a little skin with it. It was less than pleasant. Worse was the shower; hot water and soap is pleasant, but not when you’ve got first-degree burns over a significant portion of your skin. I didn’t have to worry about it—dehydration wouldn’t be too hard to manage, and infection was no risk to me—but between exertion and other injuries I hadn’t even started fixing them yet. Any touch on the damaged skin was painful.


I scrubbed the burns clean anyway. It had to be done.


That unpleasant task over with, I toweled dry and limped back out. I hadn’t dressed, because why bother? It would just hurt a great deal in order to conceal my nudity from people who wouldn’t care and had seen it all before. That didn’t strike me as a terribly good trade right now.


As it turned out, that was a fortunate decision. Aiko was awake again, and willing to tend to my injuries, which in this case meant digging shrapnel out of my back. It was a little like extracting bullets, except even less fun, because the projectiles were irregularly shaped. There were almost twenty holes in my back and legs. They were all fairly shallow—the armor hadn’t stopped them, but had certainly slowed them down rather a lot—but it was still pure dumb luck that none of them had hit anything vital. Which isn’t to say that they weren’t painful and bloody, because they were. Very much so.


But that, too, had to be done. I didn’t want to start healing with bits of brick and wood still embedded in my flesh. That was a bad idea.


Finally, necessary tasks done with, I dragged my bruised, burned, bleeding, battered body to bed. One of the main bright sides of being almost too exhausted to stand is that you seldom have trouble falling asleep, and in my experience you don’t need to worry much about unpleasant dreams, either. Certainly that was the case this time.


The next thing I was aware of was waking up the next morning. As always, my unnatural healing had done its work while I slept. I wasn’t bleeding, the bruises were starting to fade, my burned skin had gone from excruciating to merely very tender, while my hip still hurt I was no longer limping noticeably, and my hearing had returned to normal. Yay, me.


I dressed slowly and carefully in light, loose clothes which wouldn’t agitate the burns too much, and which I didn’t have to strain my back to put on. Aiko and Snowflake were already gone, which didn’t surprise me too much when I saw that the clock read noon.


I found Alexis still in her room. She was sitting on the chair, dressed in a somber outfit that I recognized as belonging to Aiko, and had an expression appropriate to a condemned criminal facing the prospect of hanging at dawn. “Good morning,” I said to her.


“Hey,” she said dully. Her eyes were sunken and haunted, and I wondered whether she had slept at all. “Aiko said to tell you she and Snowflake went to talk to a nurse friend of yours.”


That meant Mac. Good. She was probably the best suited person in the city for the task, and it would go more smoothly if I wasn’t there. Mac and I haven’t ever really got on. I doubted that would change now that she’d grown even more pacifistic and I’d become a politician and embraced even more closely moral compromise and the use of violence as a solution to problems.


“Thank you,” I said to Alexis. “Come and sit with me. We have some things to talk about.”


It was not a question. She nodded anyway.


A few minutes later, I relaxed into a comfortable chair by the fireplace in the sitting room (unless maybe it was a studio, or a drawing room, or a living room, or some other sort of room indistinguishable from one of those), put my feet up on a padded footstool, and set my large glass of iced tea on a table. Alexis, who still looked drawn and anxious, sat on a hard-backed chair across the table from me and proceeded to not meet my eyes. The result had an almost surreal resemblance to a student awaiting discipline, and I had to suppress an inappropriate chuckle.


“So,” I said pleasantly. “I suppose there’s something you want to tell me?”


“Why should I?” she said bitterly. “You clearly already know.”


“I suspected,” I corrected. “I don’t know most anything. I mean, I’d figured out that you had some kind of prior relationship with the skinwalker, and it wasn’t hard to guess that you were a plant providing information to the enemy.”


“But…if you didn’t know, why…?”


“Did I give you a trapped amulet?” I shrugged. “I had strong enough suspicions to justify a certain degree of preemptive action. It was inert until activated, and even if someone else had figured out how to trigger it they couldn’t have used to actually hurt you, so I thought it was a safe risk to take. Had you been on the level, the magic would have faded within a few days, and you would never have learned what the real function of the spell was.” I shrugged. “A little excessive on my part, maybe, but I’d rather be safe than sorry. And, in all fairness, it must be acknowledged that your behavior was suspicious enough to justify a certain amount of prejudice.”


“What are you talking about?”


I snorted. “You want a list?” She nodded hesitantly. “First, the immediate question of why in hell you came here. We’ve never been all that close, and I found it difficult to believe that changed overnight. For you to show up just in time to partake in this went far beyond what could reasonably be attributed to coincidence—I mean, hell, you contacted me the same day as the skinwalker did. You accepted the existence of magic without any argument or disbelief, which normal people do not. The logical conclusion was that you had some degree of prior exposure to this world; if so, you did not mention it. You seemed confident that I was a werewolf, yet in the brief time I spent around you, I never gave you a clear reason to think so—in fact, if anything, I would have expected you to realize I didn’t feel cold normally first. That was also long enough ago that, if you remembered it at all, you should have attributed to a childish fantasy. That you did not is further evidence that I was not the only supernatural thing you had encountered. You left that first meeting abruptly and without apparent reason, and since that time have avoided any mention of why, where I would expect an ordinary person to inform me as soon as possible to prevent my drawing unfortunate or embarrassing conclusions.”


Alexis looked rather upset. I didn’t stop. “Later, when you called me to come rescue you, you said that you knew there was a problem because you saw the magical taint of the constructs. However, when I got there, they hadn’t even arrived yet. It’s possible to detect a presence at that distance, but unlikely unless you have some degree of training or familiarity with that specific signature, neither of which you indicated to me. Furthermore, you apparently immediately concluded that it was a lethal danger, where I would expect most inexperienced people to write it off as a hallucination or irrational fear. The timing of that entire incident—my arriving just in time to watch them approach, then getting to your door just as they were entering—was too perfect to be coincidence. The constructs were prevented from entering by a barricade of furniture, which I find unlikely, but entered just in time to be too late for me to save you, while allowing me to see the action. This struck me as the sort of psychological torment a skinwalker would enjoy. You are clearly opposed to violence, philosophically, yet you shot them without any hesitation, and expressed no guilt over their deaths, which suggests that you were already aware of what they were.”


She started to say something. I talked over her. “Once you arrived here, your behavior became even more suspicious. You took the presence of this mansion, which makes absolutely no sense under normal natural laws, in stride, implying that it is not your first experience with other realities. You had no difficulty with the concept that you had magic, and no difficulty describing the pattern of events which told me that you did have magic, whereas I expect most people would have problems seeing the connections between them. You went to seemingly unnecessary lengths to stick close to me, most obviously during Reynard’s little jaunt. Afterwards, there’s the matter of the skinwalker’s ransom letter. There are certainly beings who can come and go as they please here, but I don’t know that he’s one of them. It made much more sense if you’d been given the note. I brought you here, bypassing the various defenses, and then you waited for Aiko and I to be out of the room before dropping it. It makes sense, and certainly you didn’t seem too surprised to see it. And…no, actually, I think that’s about it.”


She stared at me, a bizarre mix of chagrin, shame, and annoyance in her face. I laughed. “Don’t feel bad,” I said, still chuckling. “You’ve not done this sort of thing before.”


“Then…you’re not upset?”


“Of course I am,” I said cheerfully. “You endangered my life. You threatened the lives of my friends. You deceived me in order to do so—the fact that your deception was comically inept notwithstanding. You worked with one of the most purely evil beings it has ever been my displeasure to encounter.” I took a drink of tea and smiled reassuringly. I must not have done a very good job, because Alexis went a shade paler and scooted away from me slightly in her chair. “I am very upset,” I concluded, still in that light and friendly tone. “I have, in fact, killed people with whom I was less upset than I am with you right now, and gladly. I just think I should maybe hear the whole story before I jump to conclusions or do something rash, because your behavior also suggests that you weren’t with the skinwalker willingly, and that you weren’t glad about doing harm to us.” I winked conspiratorially. “That’s your cue, by the way.”


She swallowed. “Okay. Um. Where should I start?”


“At the beginning, I should think. You might start with what really happened when you found out you had magic.”


“Okay,” she said hesitatingly. “Well. It was almost three years ago that this all started. I started seeing things. I thought at first I was just going crazy, but then the things I saw started to come true.” She frowned. “Not like I was seeing the future or anything. I don’t know how to explain it.”


“You had insights about people and things,” I said helpfully. “Insights which, although inexplicable and baseless, turned out to be weirdly accurate. It provided you with information about people’s character and personality which you had no way of knowing.”


“Right. That’s it exactly. And then there was the lightning stuff. It was confusing, and for a long time I didn’t really believe it, but eventually I just figured either the world was crazy or I was, and either way I might as well just go with it.”


Practical answer. I liked her thinking.


“Anyway, I started trying to learn about it. I didn’t get very far, but I found some other people like me. And then the…the skinwalker found us.” She swallowed, looking almost ill. “He started…teaching us things.”


Lovely. Was it just me, or had I heard this story before?


“How long did it take for it to go wrong?” I asked, morbidly interested.


“Almost a year,” she said in a small voice. “It started small. Harmless. He’d encourage us to break the rules. It was…fun, almost. Exciting. Like being a rebel. But it started to get worse. David and Charles—they were two of the guys in our group—started robbing people. Muggings, you know? I didn’t like it, but I didn’t want to argue. I mean, they were my only friends. Then somebody died. They said the guy fought back, and they didn’t have a choice, but I wasn’t sure.”


Damn, this skinwalker was a cliché bastard. I could have finished the story from here without even a drop of imagination.


“Then David killed Charles,” Alexis whispered. “Said it was self-defense, that Charles attacked him and he didn’t have a choice. I don’t know if that was true—Charles was on drugs by then, and he could be irrational, violent. I wanted out, but David wouldn’t let me leave. He had proof that I’d been involved in some of the crimes, and he told me he’d give it to the police if I didn’t do what he said, and they’d throw me in prison.” She frowned. “I don’t think he would have, though. He didn’t want to let us go.”


“Let me guess,” I said. “Right about then, it started to be you guys dying.”


She nodded bleakly. “We disappeared. One at a time. And David was getting stronger, at the same time.” She was silent for a long moment. “When we started, there were almost twenty of us. But by the time we caught on, there were just six of us left, and David. We knew what had to happen, then, and we all agreed to attack him before he killed us.” She swallowed, and the haunted look in her eyes became even more pronounced. “We lost.”


“And the skinwalker came back into play,” I said. I was guessing, but I don’t think that she realized that.


She nodded again. “David had us all tied up on the ground. He was ranting. I couldn’t even follow what he was saying from one moment to the next. Then the skinwalker walked up behind him and broke his neck. I was sure we’d been saved. He hadn’t been around for a while, and I somehow convinced myself that he hadn’t known what was happening.”


She was quiet for a long time. “I was wrong, of course,” she said finally. “Dead wrong. He laughed at us, told us we were weak. And then he started killing us. It took him a long, long time.” Alexis looked like she was about to be sick just thinking of it. I didn’t ask what the skinwalker had done to them. I didn’t want to know. I already knew more than I wanted to of his atrocities.


“Eventually, I think a day or two later, I was the only one left. I thought sure he was about to kill me, but he just cut my ropes off and asked if I was okay. He was so…so friendly. It made me want to puke.”


I could sympathize with that sentiment.


“He offered me a deal,” she said. “I could help him, and he’d let me live. I could be stronger than David ever was. Or I could say no.” She swallowed. “And he’d kill everyone I’d ever met, slowly and painfully. I’d just watched him torture my best friend to death right in front of me. I believed him. I took the deal.”


I didn’t blame her. I’d made my own deals with the devil, and with less justification than she’d had.


“That went on for almost a year. Then he brought me out here,” she said. “And I thought of you. I was hoping you could help me get free. I’d have done anything, to get away from that monster.” She frowned. “I know I haven’t given you a lot of reason to trust me, Winter. But I swear to God, I didn’t help him willingly. It’s true I knew more than I told you, and I recognized his constructs—he uses them a lot. But I didn’t betray you. I didn’t tell him anything. I’d already escaped.”


“No, you didn’t.” She started to protest, and I held up my hand, cutting her off. “I believe you. But you didn’t escape. Trust me, if that man wanted to keep you prisoner, you couldn’t have got away. He let you go, probably specifically so you would come to me for help.” I frowned. “Actually, that was probably his design all along. He didn’t spare you because he liked you; it was because you were my cousin.”




“Well,” I said, “he claims he knew my mother, which frankly takes the cake for liaisons of hers I disapprove of intensely, so that might have something to do with it. But if I had to guess, I’d say it was to cause me suffering.” She looked confused, and I sighed. “At the end,” I said. “He told you to kill me.”


She nodded. “I wasn’t going to. Even before you paralyzed me.”


“It wouldn’t have mattered,” I said calmly. “The skinwalker is a smart guy, Alexis. He’d have known I’d be prepared, and—no offense—you don’t really represent a serious threat to me. He didn’t expect you to hurt me. He just wanted to make me kill my own cousin.”


“Oh. That’s horrible.”


“Yep,” I agreed. “Makes it pretty easy to believe from him, doesn’t it.” She smiled. It was weak and unsteady, but hey. Small steps. “Feel better now that you have that off your chest?”


“Yeah,” she said. “Thanks.”


“No problem,” I said. “So now that we’ve got that out of the way, there’s a few things we need to talk about. Namely, you need to start making choices.”


“What sort of choices?”


“Well, basically, you need to decide what to do with your life.” I shrugged. “You’ve got magic, Alexis. What do you want to do with it?”


“Do I have to do anything with it?” she asked. I didn’t have to ask to know that she was thinking of the skinwalker right now, and that her opinion of magic had been forever sullied by her experiences.


“You don’t have to do anything at all,” I pointed out. “But like I said, it’s hard to have magic and live like you don’t. Now, if you really hate your power, there are ways to get rid of it, permanently. I can’t do it, but I know people, and if you want I can probably arrange it. It’s traumatic, and you’ll never be quite the same again, but it can be done.” I shrugged. “Or you can go on as is. Having magic isn’t the same as using it. You can be just a normal person. Honestly, the bigger problem for interacting with normal people is just knowing that this stuff exists, and removing memories is extremely traumatic. Or you can learn to use it. It’s up to you.”


“What happens if I decide to learn?”


“Up to you,” I repeated. “I don’t know what you’ll be able to do. I don’t have the first idea what you’ll decide to do with that ability. Magic’s a tool, Alexis. Just a tool. It doesn’t make you into a paragon of evil. It won’t turn you into a saint. At the end of the day, all magic can do is make you more of what you already are.”


“You use magic to help people.”


“Some,” I agreed. “But let me tell you something. If you do want to learn this, one of the first lessons you need to learn is this. There is no room for self-deception in this world. Lie to your enemy, sure, that’s just good tactics. Lie to your friends, if you have to. I’d ask that you not lie to me in the future, but I’m not so naive I actually believe you won’t. But never, ever lie to yourself.”


“I’m not a good person, Alexis. I try, I really do, but I fail on a regular basis. Good people don’t do the things I do. I mean, sure, you can say it’s why you do it that matters, but at some point you have to acknowledge that there is something deeply, truly wrong with you. Good people don’t play the game when the rules are this sick, good people don’t run towards the gunman, good people don’t get hungry when they smell blood, good people don’t smile while someone dies. I’m not a good person. I regularly have to burn my clothes because there’s too much blood on them to ever come clean. I couldn’t tell you how many people I’ve killed. I think it’s triple digits, but I can’t even remember anymore who half of them were, and most of them didn’t deserve it.”


“But you help people,” she said stubbornly. “You do. You saved my life.”


I sighed, and all the passion seemed to run out of me, leaving little more than weary desolation. “Maybe I do. I don’t know. I’ve had a long time to gaze into the abyss, Alexis.”


“I don’t understand.”


“Doesn’t matter,” I said dismissively. “Anyway, sorry to have derailed the conversation. What I’m trying to say is this. If you want, I will be glad to teach you. If you agree, you have to understand something. There is no room for mistakes in this business. If you slip up, I probably won’t be able to save you, and if it’s because of your own stupidity I might not want to. One mistake could kill you. If you get unlucky, it can be worse than that. A lot worse.”


She was quiet for a long time. “Winter,” she said finally, “I know you think you’re a bad person. How do you think I feel? When push came to shove, I caved.”


“You didn’t have much choice with the skinwalker,” I pointed out. “Denying him would have been just as bad as accepting.”


“That isn’t what I’m talking about,” she said. “Before that, when we were first starting. I knew what we were doing was wrong, and I did it anyway, because I didn’t want to give up my friends, and because it was exciting. You can hang whatever fancy words you want on it. It doesn’t change the fact that I caved. You say there’s no room for self-deception here? Well, honesty says that I let fear and greed convince me to do things I knew to be wrong. People died because of it, and it’s pure luck that you and I aren’t both among them.” She shook her head. “If I take this power, I can use it to make up for that. I can make it so that people don’t have to suffer what I did.”


I smiled. “I think that’s a very good reason.”


It wouldn’t work, of course. It never does. But I had to respect her for trying.

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2 Responses to Balancing Act 6.15

  1. Anonymity

    hahaha i fucking knew it. fuuuuuck alexis. my instincts were right, i honestly dont care how she was threatened or coerced or whatever excuse shes gonna make. she can be dead and gone for all i care. alas, id also settle for never seeing her again although i doubt itll be that simple, these things almost never are. if only winter was ever so slightly more heartless, just so i can see him kill alexis or cut off a few limbs

    • Anonymity

      damn it, shes gonna be a recurring character, isnt she? fuck. anyways, after hearing her backstory i still don’t like her. truthfully, im probably different from a lot of people (you did a good job trying to redeem her in this final chapter and others will probably disagree with me), but i dont have any sympathy for her and i hope she eventually gets killed off. she leaves a bad taste in my mouth

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