Balancing Act 6.6

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Sunrise was at around seven thirty at this time of year. I’d need somewhere around an hour and a half to drive to where I was supposed to meet Brick, though, which put me leaving pretty early in the morning. Tack on time to get dressed and kitted out for a small war, walk to where I’d left the car, get lost on the maze of back roads I’d have to take, and show up a few minutes early, and I had to wake up at around five in the morning. Between that and the, ah, nocturnal activities of the previous evening, I got less than five hours of sleep. As you might imagine, I was less than thrilled by that condition.

 

I brushed my teeth and threw on clothes more or less at random from my closet, inevitably stubbing my toe on a chair in the dark. Snarling under my breath, I stalked back to the bed, grabbed Snowflake, and unceremoniously dumped her on the ground.

 

Who’s a grumpy werewolf in the morning? she said in the affectionate tones ordinarily reserved for favorite pets, standing right back up. She hadn’t been asleep, of course; Snowflake sleeps often but lightly, and she never sleeps through me getting up. She was, in that respect, quite unlike Aiko, who was currently sprawled across an improbable amount of bed and snoring. Loudly.

 

I did consider waking her up, just to share the misery, but eventually deemed it unworthy even of my pettiness. At five in the morning with my side still smarting, that was not an insignificant statement.

 

My armor had a barely visible hole in it where the construct’s claw had slid between two of the scales, but nothing really problematic. The odds of an attack hitting at exactly that point were pretty minimal, maybe a thousand-to-one odds. Naturally, that made me utterly certain it would happen, and at the worst possible time to boot. There wasn’t much I could do about that in any case, though, so I just threw it on and hoped that for once Murphy would turn out to be wrong.

 

I checked that everything had made it back into my cloak after it was press-ganged into service as a bandage (it had—I’m always careful to keep my cloak loaded with everything I might need, in case I need it really fast when I wake up) and buckled Snowflake into her collar. I went ahead and put a leash on her, too, although it made me rather uncomfortable—she didn’t care a bit, but I always felt there was something intrinsically wrong with putting a leash on another thinking being. Granted, it was a thin leather leash that wouldn’t hold up to one stiff pull from her, and she could bite through it in one go, but it was the principle of the thing.

 

I was, for entirely obvious reasons, very careful about opening the front door, but I actually didn’t eat a sniper round right away. I clomped grumpily outside and, astonishingly enough, continued not dying for several minutes. Nobody attacked me, nobody called me, nobody tried to convert me to a new religion or sell me stale cookies using guilt-tripping tactics sophisticated enough to qualify as psychological warfare. It was strange, wonderful, and—naturally—couldn’t last.

 

Less than five minutes out on the delightfully empty road, my phone started ringing. I glared at it balefully, muttered a few dire imprecations at anyone who called people at five-thirty in the morning, and answered it with a grunt that might generously have been called monosyllabic.

 

“Hello, Winter,” said a female voice I recognized, but couldn’t quite place. “How are you this fine morning?”

 

My niceties take a little while longer to wake up than most of the rest of me, especially after too little sleep. So, rather than exchange polite nothings, I said, “Who is this?”

 

Snowflake rolled her eyes at me.

 

“Katrin.”

 

That placed it. “Oh, right. The vampire.” I’d only spoken with her once, and briefly, when our interests happened to overlap. She wanted a powerful, rather loopy witch dead because he dared to openly challenge her authority; I wanted him dead because he was mad as a hatter and dangerous with it. I wound up doing the deed, with assistance from Aiko, Snowflake, and the Inquisition, and proceeded to never talk to Katrin again. I don’t like vampires.

 

I could practically hear her roll her eyes. “Yes, yes, I’m a vampire, you’re a werewolf, we’re both monsters, we’ve both got enough blood on our hands that we don’t deserve to throw stones. Now that we’ve got that conversation out of the way, could we please move on to meaningful discussion?”

 

“You’d better. Because, if you haven’t said something worth my while in thirty seconds, I’m hanging up on you.

 

“I want a favor.”

 

“See, that’s not advancing your cause any. Why the hell would I want to do you any favors?”

 

“You think I’m bad? You don’t know anything. There are things that go bump in the night that would make your hair curl.”

 

“And let me guess,” I said dryly. “One of them’s in town and you want me to whack ’em for you.”

 

“Essentially, yes.”

 

I snorted. “I repeat, why the hell would I want to do you any favors? Maybe I wasn’t clear enough last time, but I think you’re a parasite. You and your kind are a blight on humanity. I have no intention of picking a fight with you, but if you think I want to help you you’ve lost it.”

 

“Because I would owe you one,” she said easily, not taking offense that I could tell. “And because, trust me, you won’t object to this particular favor. You think I’m a parasite, and in all fairness you have a point, but there are things out there that not even vampires put up with.”

 

I sighed. “All right, fine. I’ll hear you out. But I’m sort of busy right now—I have a meeting to go to, and it’ll be daylight by the time I’m done with that.”

 

“Dusk tonight, then?”

 

I grimaced. “Sorry. There’s an event I have to attend,” and just saying that made me feel like I’d eaten a lemon wedge. Covered in vinegar. After it was left out in the sun to rot for a few weeks. “How about around dusk tomorrow? Same place as last time?”

 

Katrin made an irritated sound. “Fine. But this had better be a damned important meeting, Wolf.”

 

“Don’t worry,” I said. “If I had the choice, I’d rather come chat with you.” I hung up on her without another word.

 

The hell of it was, I was telling the truth. When the interview with a vampire is the least unpleasant event on your social calendar, you know your life’s taken a turn for the worse.


 

Naturally, I did indeed get lost. Jon’s house had been in a forested subdivision way the hell and gone, several miles out of Cripple Creek, which was itself a tiny town an hour from anywhere. The only way to get there is by following looping dirt roads up into the hills. Before the fire, the neighbors were the better part of a mile away. After our little house-burning adventure got a bit out of hand and took out a decent section of forest, along with a number of expensive houses, it was closer to two.

 

Between the seclusion, the driveways—which had to be downright hellish in winter, when the snowplow wasn’t likely to get out here for months at a time—and the risk of wildfire, I really don’t know why you’d want to live there. It has a decent view, I suppose. And all the privacy you could ask for—hell, you could walk out on your back porch in the middle of the day and fire off a few rounds, and nobody would comment. If they even heard it; the trees provided enough insulation that I didn’t think it particularly likely.

 

Not the most comfortable thoughts to have on your way to a rendezvous with a possibly-antagonistic person.

 

I’d also forgotten just how far into the hills it was. Depending on how you defined sunrise, I might or might not have been running late. I wasn’t early by any definition. By the time I pulled into the barren, recently-burned space where Jon’s house once was, I was growling under my breath again, and feeling, if such a thing were possible, even grouchier than when I’d woken up.

 

I was almost hoping whoever showed up here tried to kill me. In my current mood, a bout of savage and destructive violence sounded wonderfully relaxing. Cathartic, even. I could work out my bad temper, go back home, and get a few more hours of sleep.

 

Naturally, the one time I was hoping for a vicious and treacherous ambush, I didn’t get one. Brick was sitting on a small boulder, watching the road and the sunrise at the same time, and apparently chewing gum. “Morning, Winter, Snowflake,” he said as we got out of the car. “I didn’t think you were coming.”

 

“I seriously considered it,” I admitted. “But I really needed to talk to you.”

 

He grunted. I couldn’t tell quite what it was meant to convey, but it was really a very good grunt. “Come on, then,” he said, standing up. “Best we get out of the open first.”

 

I made a show of glancing around. “You got some invisible house out here or something?” Hell, I’d heard stranger things.

 

Brick snorted. “Not exactly,” he said, turning to face the boulder he’d just been sitting on. His fingers began moving at his sides, a gesture a little like he was plucking the strings of some musical instrument. I smelled his magic, a heady aroma of loam and freshly broken stone, with a peculiarly transient tone to it that told me what he was doing.

 

I sighed. “Oh, come on. You can’t seriously expect me to follow you into the Otherside.”

 

He glanced back at me and shrugged indifferently. “I’m going. If you want to talk, you’ll come with me, because I’m not staying here. I give you my word that no harm will come to you by my action, or by my inaction if I could have prevented it, while you are in my home, unless you should first move to harm me or mine.” He turned back to his work.

 

Huh. Interesting. Young people, and I had reason to believe Brick was less than twenty-eight years old, don’t normally talk like that. In fact, people younger than a century or two don’t often talk like that. I do, occasionally, but only because of Conn’s influence, and his family’s. Given that the youngest of them is around two and a half centuries old, I don’t think it’s particularly surprising that spending a few years with them would make me sound a bit archaic sometimes.

 

Brick took around eight or nine minutes to get his gate up and running—a lot faster than me, but not nearly as much so as some of the people I’d seen do it. There were a couple of people on the Conclave who could do it faster than blinking, and with less apparent effort. Caller, in particular, had opened a portal with a flick of his fingers, and only the smallest trace of magic to show it. Brick wasn’t on that level, or anywhere close to it, but he was still an order of magnitude beyond the next-best of the Inquisition. He was almost certainly stronger, more experienced, and better educated in the exercise of magic than I was.

 

I would be a fool to forget that. I could crush him like a bug in physical combat—a human seldom stands a chance against any sort of werewolf, much less one reasonably skilled at hand-to-hand wielding Tyrfing—but unless I got very, very lucky or had absolutely the right set of circumstances, I would never get to that point. He would squash me from a hundred yards away and walk away laughing.

 

Eventually it was open, a tidy little gap cut in the world just above the rock. He turned towards me inquisitively, pun intended. I sighed, set my shoulders, and walked forward.

 

Are you sure this is a good idea? Snowflake asked me, trotting along at the end of her leash. Brick was aware that she was a bit tougher than the average dog, and better behaved, but he couldn’t know exactly how extraordinary she was. We wanted to keep it that way, which meant making her look as much like an entirely ordinary canine as possible.

 

Of course not. This is a terrible idea, I said to her, not stopping. But it’s also the only way I can think of to learn what’s going on with these nutters quickly. I could leave you here if you want….

 

Snowflake huffed, and glared at me a little bit, but otherwise didn’t respond. A moment later we stepped into the void, and she couldn’t respond. Somewhat to my surprise, this transition wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d expected. Oh, it was still a horrific, nightmarish, nausea-inducing experience of the sort that I could quite happily have gone my whole life without experiencing. It’s just that I didn’t actually throw up on anything, and even Snowflake stayed standing.

 

Of course, that relative pleasantness was quickly mitigated by the fact that we were standing in total darkness on the other end. I could smell the same sort of smell I associated with Brick’s magic, the damp stone of tunnels deep underground, and from the way the air moved the ceiling had to be less than eighteen inches over my head, though the cave stretched out in every other direction as far as I could sense.

 

I have issues with enclosed spaces. Oh, nothing horrible, not like I couldn’t stand to be indoors or anything. I’d just spent enough time locked up, often in pretty terrible circumstances, not to like feeling trapped. Between that, the complete lack of visibility, the fact that any air magic I could work would be of limited strength underground, and—oh yeah—the way that this felt exactly like a trap, I wasn’t very happy. If it had gone on for longer than a few seconds, I might have started hyperventilating.

 

Fortunate for me, then, that only a second or two later I heard a sudden click behind me. A moment later I could smell Brick—not a terribly strong scent or anything, but his leather jacket wasn’t too far removed from its tanning, and I could smell that from across the room. “Okay,” he said, sounding only slightly rough from the travel, and unaffected by the dark and the closeness. He was accustomed to such things, presumably. “I’m about to touch your shoulder, so don’t jump.” It was a good thing he said so, too, or I would probably have panicked and done something all three of us would regret.

 

He moved forward to stand just in front of us. “The next portal will open just in front of me,” he said in a whisper. “Try not to move around when you get to the other side, there’s not a lot of room.”

 

I nodded tensely, not trusting my voice to be entirely steady. It’s very important to keep things like that in mind if you want to keep up a reputation as a badass. Presumably he had some way of telling my motion despite the darkness, because a moment later he began the magics to open another gate.

 

Objectively speaking, it probably took him the same amount of time as the last one. Heck, it was probably less—he was opening a portal to his inner sanctum, after all, to the place where he felt safe despite whoever or whatever was after him. He would be intimately familiar with such a place, and that always makes it easier and simpler to go there.

 

Subjectively, of course, it took rather a lot longer than that. The darkness was absolute, so thick and oppressive as to be nearly a physical object. As a werewolf, I’m not used to being blind—even in human form, my eyesight adapts more quickly and more thoroughly to the gloom than a real human. The wolf’s eyes are even more suited to nocturnal activity (not that vision is nearly as overwhelmingly important in that shape), and even starlight is quite adequate for most purposes.

 

But down here, there was no light. None. Nada. Zip. None whatsoever. If you’ve never been underground—deep underground—you really can’t grasp what it’s like. It’s so dark that your eyes start playing tricks on you, shapes and colors crawling around at the edge of your vision. The air is thick with the smell of rock, of moisture, of air that hasn’t known a breath of wind in thousands of years. Sometimes you can hear the drip, drip, drip of water somewhere off in the dark, but often the silence is as flat and overbearing as the dark, and that’s how it was here. It seems that you can feel, with some atavistic sense long since forgotten by your conscious mind, the thousands and thousands and thousands of tons of rock hanging over your head.

 

I knew, of course, that this wasn’t really some primeval cavern or abandoned mine. Even if Brick hadn’t just made a portal here from my world, the air was suffused with the indescribable intensity of the Otherside. This wasn’t the real world, it was someone’s creation.

 

But they’d created pretty damn well. To all my senses, including the magical ones, it seemed I was surrounded by nothing but stone and blackness. I stretched myself out through the air around us, as far as I could, but to the limits of my range there was no difference. In fact, as near as I could tell, this short, open chamber extended for over a hundred feet in all directions. There were no walls, no changes in height, not even the smallest projection from floor or ceiling.

 

I knew it wasn’t real, at least not according to my usual conception of reality. It just didn’t matter. It was the equivalent of making an unbelievably realistic fake snake, right down to the movements and the sounds and the venom dripping off of its inch-long fangs, and trying to tell an ophidiophobe not to panic, because it’s not really scary.

 

It didn’t help that I was inexplicably certain that there was something, or somethings, out there in the darkness, something unseen and dangerous and entirely inhospitable to me. I would have dismissed it as a reaction to being enclosed in the dark, except for two things. The first was the utter, perfect regularity of this cave. There’s no such thing as a natural cavern without even the slightest imperfection or roughness. Granted, it was possible that whoever had made this domain simply designed it that way, but I didn’t think so. There was something about it, some indefinable quality that was more felt than sensed, which suggested that it was the product of constant maintenance and upkeep. If so—and I was more inclined to pay heed to my instincts than to my rational mind, on the Otherside—then logically something had to be keeping things neat.

 

The second reason was that Brick had whispered his instructions to me. Now, there are a lot of kinds of whisper out there. Sometimes you whisper because it’s appropriate to the sentiment being conveyed, or because you’re in a hallowed place where a raised voice feels wrong, or simply because it isn’t necessary to speak any more loudly. This wasn’t any of those kinds of whisper. It was almost like the whisper you use around a sleeping person so as not to wake them, but not quite, not entirely. It was more like there was a sleeping tiger right next to you, and it hadn’t done anything to you yet—but you really, really didn’t want to do anything that might change its mind on that subject.

 

Whatever was out there, Brick was afraid of it. Between that and my own instinctive impression of whatever it was, I thought it would be wise to treat it with respect.

 

I wasn’t shaking in my boots by the time Brick had his portal finished—but only by a serious effort of will.

 

When I felt the portal solidify and open in front of me, I didn’t wait for Brick to give the signal. I stepped forward, making sure that Snowflake was with me, and switched from here to there.


 

There, as it turned out, wasn’t all that different. It smelled the same, it looked the same, and it irritated me to about the same degree. It wasn’t the Otherside, and I didn’t feel any strange and malevolent presences sharing the darkness with me, but that was about made up for by the fact that my first experience in the new cave was bouncing my nose off of a rock wall. My second was falling on my ass and cracking my head on the stone (I’d worn the armor under my cloak, but left the helmet at home. For politeness’s sake, more than anything; I was pretty sure Brick would be able to feel the metal regardless). My third was Brick stepping on my crotch as he exited the gate.

 

I was wearing armor, sure, but it actually doesn’t incorporate a lot of protection at the joints. It was designed on a feudal Japanese style, putting a lot of emphasis on mobility and relatively little on standing there and taking all the punishment they could dish out. The chest, and back—pretty much any large expanse, actually, including most of the limbs—were covered by metal plates, or else scale armor. But at the joints, including the crotch, it was just a layer of mail over the Kevlar. For stopping sharp cutting edges, or bullets I suppose, that isn’t bad. When it comes to muting blunt physical trauma, it’s…less than ideal.

 

Oh yeah, and Brick was wearing cowboy boots. Fun times all around, really.

 

A moment later, a light of some sort kindled above me. It wasn’t very bright, just enough to illuminate a bubble around us, but to my dark-adjusted eyes it was painfully intense. Brick spent a few seconds looking around, head ducked to keep from hitting it on the ceiling—thankfully, I was too short to have that particular problem. After a couple seconds of that, he happened to glance downward, and did a movie-quality double take when he saw me lying on the ground. It would have been hilarious, under slightly different circumstances.

 

“Winter?” he asked in the tone of voice usually reserved for potentially dangerous lunatics—which, hey, I qualify! “What are you doing down there?”

 

I muttered a few imprecations under my breath and stood up. “Oh, nothing. There’s no blood on my face, right? I don’t think I broke my nose on your wall, but it’s kinda hard to tell sometimes.”

 

He winced slightly. “Sorry. I did try to tell you.”

 

You have no idea, Snowflake said from where she was sitting on the floor waiting for me to get my act together, how funny that was. You should see your face, man.

 

I muttered something that might generously have been taken for an apology, and looked around. Brick’s light, which appeared to be a small battery-operated lamp, didn’t stretch more than a few feet in any direction. We were standing in a tunnel, rough-cut through what looked like granite, barely tall enough for me to stand up in. Brick was hunched over with his head and neck pressed against the ceiling, and he could have stretched out his arms and touched both sidewalls at the same time without any particular difficulty. It wasn’t a lot like the last place, despite the surface similarities. I could easily see tool marks on the walls, and signs of blasting. This place hadn’t been shaped by magic, but by backbreaking labor and the liberal application of explosives. There was a certain amount of timbering holding things up, but it looked to have seen better decades. It was completely rotted away in places, and I wouldn’t have relied even on the better parts to hold my weight.

 

“Isn’t this a bit dangerous?” I asked, prodding one of the timbers hesitantly.

 

“No,” Brick said dismissively. “This is hard rock. It’s stable. The timbers are only still here because I haven’t felt like going to the effort of taking them out. I really don’t know why they bothered putting them in.” He set off, evidently at random, down the tunnel, moving at a pretty brisk pace. He had a lot longer legs than me; I had to hurry a bit to keep up.

 

“Where are we?” I asked, glancing around a bit nervously. It wasn’t nearly as unpleasant as the Otherside domain had been, especially with a light, but I still don’t care for being underground. If there were a collapse or something—and, considering Brick’s mastery of earth magic, a collapse would be a trivial thing for him to arrange—I wasn’t at all certain that I could get out before Snowflake and I suffocated.

 

“You ever been to Victor?” Brick asked me.

 

I shrugged. “Briefly. Never saw the point in going back. Victor’s the geographical equivalent of Al Bundy.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yeah. It won a game of high school football a hundred years ago, and hasn’t shut up about it since.” Snowflake laughed, although where she ever saw that show I haven’t the faintest idea. Brick didn’t, but then he never did strike me as having a terribly healthy sense of humor.

 

Once upon a time, Victor really was The World’s Greatest Gold Camp. An almost obscene number of people had come to Pikes Peak to tear the shiny metal from the ground. The Peak itself didn’t turn out to be worthwhile, but—by some truly bizarre coincidence—nearby Cripple Creek was absolutely loaded with the stuff. Gold rushes were the day’s equivalent of the lottery, attracting the desperate and the foolish and the adventurous and everything in between. People flocked there in droves, and at its heyday there were dozens of towns in the area.

 

These days there’s two: Cripple Creek, and Victor. Cripple Creek was a city of perhaps a thousand people, stumbling along on the tourist trade and a handful of casinos. Victor was even worse, an almost literal ghost town. The one time I was there, walking down the dirt roads past crumbling buildings and overgrown lots, I was reminded forcibly of the pictures I’ve seen of Giza. Here, it seemed to say, was something which had once been great—the World’s Greatest, even.

 

Once. But not for a very long time. Victor’s glory days were long behind it, and it could never get them back.

 

And that was before the pit mine razed whatever was left of its rich history and cultural heritage.

 

“Just as well,” Brick said, oblivious to my reminiscences. “You wouldn’t be welcome here, not for any length of time. The Ellers own the whole district. They aren’t fond of visitors.”

 

“Ellers?”

 

“Eller clan,” he clarified. “They’re on the small side for a mage clan, just over a hundred members, but they’re decently powerful on their home ground.”

 

That’s what I love about dealing with supernatural thingies all the time. Power comparisons are just absurd. A hundred mages, for example, could squash me and all my friends without even trying—but they were still so weak as to be utterly inconsequential in the greater scheme of things.

 

“I didn’t realize you were a clan mage,” I said casually.

 

Brick snorted. “I’m not one of them. But we have a deal worked out. They let me live down here in the old mine tunnels. I keep all the nasty things that don’t like the sunlight out, and don’t cause trouble. They get cheap muscle to deal with the trolls and vampires and such. I get cheap lodging in a really defensible place.” He shrugged. “It works pretty well.”

 

Defensible was an understatement, I was pretty sure. Hell, being killed while attacking a sorcerer with a specialty in earth and rock while in an old gold mine was one of those things that’s legally classed as suicide. Or should be, anyway. It really doesn’t matter how badass you are, unless you’re freaking godly you die when a thousand tons of granite land on your head. It was a sobering thought. Right now, we were utterly within Brick’s power. If he decided not to let us walk back out, there wasn’t a whole lot we could do to argue the point.

 

We walked down narrow, lightless corridors in silence for a while. I didn’t even bother trying to remember all of the turns we took. No one had ever mapped these mines. On the surface the gallas frames and shafts and adits marked out property and territory, but underground it was a different story. These miners had followed the twists and turns of ore veins, and the miles and miles of tunnels they’d laid out—in three dimensions, which—didn’t necessarily follow property lines and such. It was anyone’s guess how much of the old mines survived, but I was guessing that you could still walk the seven or so miles from Victor to Cripple Creek without ever once setting foot above ground. Never mind all the passages Brick might have made himself.

 

There quite simply wasn’t a point to keeping track of where we went. Even if I’d had any idea where we came in, there was no way I would be able to find my way out of here without help from someone who knew these tunnels—and, from what Brick said, I was pretty sure he was the only person alive who really knew their current shapes. If he decided to abandon us here, the only way we were getting out was via the Otherside. Even that would be iffy, because there was an enormous physical and spiritual difference between this place and any of the connection points I’d branded into my memory, most of which were in forested areas. With my relative lack of skill, trying to bridge such a huge gap would be exhausting. It was quite possible that I would slip up somewhere, in which case…well, nobody’s quite sure what happens to you in that case, because nobody’s ever come back from a botched portal to complain about the food, if you get my drift.

 

Finally, just when I’d started to wonder whether Brick was leading us in circles, he took a sharp right turn out of the old mine tunnels. This part was clearly his own addition; the stone was smooth and almost polished, carved out of the earth with magic rather than mundane techniques. A few feet ahead of us, the tunnel opened into a room.

 

At the edge of the room, a thick band of carving was incised into the stone. The basic shape appeared to be Celtic-style knotwork, with harsh, angular lines reminiscent of Norse runes interspersed here and there. As art goes, it wasn’t great. The lines were of inconstant thickness, and almost clumsy in their placement, their edges rough—they’d been cut into the stone with a chisel, not Brick’s magic. But I could smell the magic in them, a scent much like the rock around us but more sharply edged.

 

“Nice wards,” I said, examining them more closely. “Is it supposed to trigger a cave-in if crossed?”

 

He smiled sharply. “Among other things. Excuse me.” He stepped forward and placed one hand on the carving, and the smell of magic surged forth from him. It flickered and changed, ever so subtly, several times in a few seconds, before he dropped his hand and stepped across, gesturing to us to follow.

 

Interesting. From the way the wards’ magic had interacted with his, I was betting they were designed like a combination lock. Expose them to that specific sequence of energies, and they drop for a few seconds. Mess it up, even slightly, and they go off in your face. Given how difficult it was to mimic another person’s magical signature—even just one signature—it would be a very, very difficult code to crack. Certainly much more so than my defenses, which just required that the patterns of magic making up the wards be manipulated in a certain way. Theoretically, anyone could hack that if they knew the right things to do, or maybe even just figure it out by examining the structure of the wards themselves. This was less like a password, more like a biometric—I’d just seen Brick take them down, and I still didn’t have the first idea how to go about mimicking it.

 

It took a lot less time, too, which could be very useful under some circumstances. I was definitely going to have to look into duplicating that trick.

 

He hung his electric lamp on a hook near the entrance, where it cast decent light, and then went around and lit a bunch of oil lamps, a couple candles. I’m pretty sure he wanted me to think he was doing it with magic, but I could smell the match, which made that a rather pointless effort. Once that was done he turned the electric light back off, leaving the room bathed in a cheery, old-fashioned glow.

 

Brick’s hidden sanctum was…pretty cozy, actually. It was fairly large, bigger than most apartments, although I guess space was one of the few resources he had a surplus of down here. He had an old couch there, and a double bed, though I’ve no idea how the heck he got them down there. The huge desk was formed by an outfolding of the cavern wall, but the office chair was leather, and looked relatively expensive. There were several notebooks on the desk, and a pen cup made from what looked like an enormous drill bit. There was also an expensive-looking laptop, currently powered down; presumably he took it back to the surface when he needed to charge it.

 

Brick walked over to the chair and sat on it with a sigh. It was sort of funny, actually; the whole way there he’d looked confident and calm, but the second he sat down it was like watching somebody put down a ridiculously heavy load they’d been carrying way, way too long. He just slumped back against it, almost like he’d forgotten what it was like not to have that weight on his back. “Please, sit down,” he said. “Can I get you something to drink? I don’t have a lot to offer, but I have soda, or water if you’d rather.”

 

“No, thank you,” I said, sitting down on the couch. It was surprisingly comfortable. Snowflake, of course, immediately found a position laying across my feet.

 

He shrugged, reaching under the desk. “Suit yourself,” he said, pulling out a can of cola. He opened the can, drained it, and tossed it into a corner of the room.

 

“So,” I said as nonchalantly as I could manage, which wasn’t especially. “I hear you and Jimmy had something of a falling out.”

 

“So that’s what you’re here about,” Brick said. “I was wondering.” He sighed. “Jimmy’s a good kid, but he’s more balls than brains, you know?”

 

Privately, I had my doubts. Not that my opinion of Jimmy’s intelligence was particularly high; I just happened to know that the man was a coward and a hypocrite. He was incredibly arrogant, much of the time, but lacked both the courage and the skill to back it up.

 

“Kris mentioned that he was getting on her case about working with Val,” I mentioned.

 

“Is he really?” Brick sighed again, shaking his head. “Damn fool. Kovac’s harmless. Hell, I’d trust him further than most humans.”

 

“So would I,” I agreed. “Not to mention that he could kick all our asses together, and make it look easy.”

 

“True.”

 

“So,” I said lightly, “what stupid thing did Jimmy do to set you off?”

 

“It was the other way round, actually. He keeps talking about how we should take advantage of this territory war to claim it for ourselves, says we could keep the whole city under our protection.” Brick sighed. “I try to tell him that it’d never work—we couldn’t compete on that level of fighting, and even if we somehow came out on top nobody would respect our authority. But he wouldn’t listen, of course.”

 

That fit pretty well with what I knew of the man. “Let me guess,” I said dryly. “A few days ago you were talking with Jimmy about this. Things got a bit heated, and he decided to slap you around a bit to put you in your place. Except you handed him his ass on a platter, at which point he realized you were sharking him this whole time and you’re way better than he thought. He lost the fight, at which point you bugged out and hid out here.”

 

“Not bad,” Brick said, laughing a little. “I’d ask how you knew, except it’s so damned predictable.” He shook his head slowly. “What about you? What’s your stake in this?”

 

“Well,” I said, “it started out as just a favor to Kris. But I and my associates were targeted by constructs starting right after I heard about it, which makes it a bit personal for me. I don’t take kindly to that.”

 

I’m not sure what I was expecting at that point. Expressions of surprise, perhaps, or meaningless declarations of sympathy and condolence.

 

I most definitely did not expect what I got, which was for Brick to jump up and exclaim, “Dammit, you too? Damn. That changes things.” He shook his head slowly. “They’ve been taking swings at me whenever I go outside for the last two weeks.”

 

“Really?” I said, surprised. “That does change things.” There was a sullen pause as we both integrated this into what we already knew. “It’s the same model as Jon used,” I said after a moment.

 

Brick shook his head. “Doesn’t mean anything. Jon didn’t make those, he bought them. Some mage mass-produces the things for sale—they’re pretty common cheap muscle, actually. I remember my old boss had swarms of the bloody things.”

 

I frowned and thought. “These were a little different than I remember his being, though,” I said slowly. “Slower, a bit stupider. Much more fragile. Almost quadrupedal.”

 

“I guess someone could have adapted the design,” Brick said after a moment’s pause. “I don’t suppose you have any idea who sent them?”

 

I shrugged. “Honestly, my best guess was you. I mean, no offense, but you’ve gotta admit your fellow vigilantes aren’t exactly the sort to do that quality of work, are they?”

 

“Hm. No, not really.” Brick frowned. “I don’t know that any of them can make any sort of construct, let alone a combat-capable one. You think it’s one of them behind it?”

 

“Don’t have a better idea,” I said honestly. “Besides, they’ve got the motive. I’ve never got along too well with some of them, and I know there’s a couple that blame me for Erica dying. And it sounds like you really pissed Jimmy off.” He wasn’t the sort to take being shown up in stride. I frowned. “I suppose the rest of them are following him to their glorious deaths?”

 

“Some of them,” Brick said reluctantly. “I’ve tried to tell them it’s smarter, safer, and more effective in the long run to stick to small stuff. Keep everything low-level, don’t do anything that could attract the wrong sort of attention. Some of them listened. Mac and Chuck have stopped helping out entirely, and Kris isn’t far behind, but until then she’s with me on this one. So is Doug, and Matthew.”

 

“Matthew? Really?” I said, surprised. “I’d have thought he’d be all for Jimmy’s plan.”

 

“The man’s insane,” Brick said wryly. “Not suicidal. Say what you will about him, he isn’t stupid. He knows as well as you do how to run away and live to fight another day.” Brick sighed heavily, and the humor faded from his eyes. “But yeah, the rest of them are with Jimmy. They’re so proud of their successes, they refuse to listen when I tell them those were the bottom dwellers of the supernatural crowd, the ones too weak or stupid to not get caught.”

 

I winced. It sounded like most of the more moderate of them were opting out of this conflict, leaving the Inquisitors I thought of as being more overzealous, self-righteous, and generally extremist. Without more level-headed voices to balance them out, that could get ugly, fast. I knew, too, that what Brick was saying was true. The Inquisition wasn’t half bad at what they did, but they were nowhere near the level they’d have to be to play this game. I knew that, because I operated on a higher level than them and I was scared shitless at the prospect of interfering in it.

 

They wouldn’t stand a chance.

 

“Are you getting involved?” Brick asked me, his voice guarded. I couldn’t tell what emotion he was masking, if indeed he felt anything about the prospect at all. I hadn’t spent enough time around the man to know him all that well. In fact, this was probably the longest I’d ever spoken with him.

 

I sighed. “Dunno,” I said, feeling very tired. “Can’t say I want to, but it’s starting to look like I don’t have a choice.” Not if I wanted to be able to live with myself, at any rate.

 

Brick nodded, not looking particularly surprised. “Be careful, Winter. These are deep waters. They could swallow you whole and not even know it.”

 

I couldn’t argue with that. “Maybe you could answer a question for me,” I said, leaning back against the couch. “If you don’t mind.”

 

“You can ask whatever you like,” he said dryly. “The answer is another story entirely.”

 

I snorted. “What’s with this?” I asked, reaching down to rub Snowflake’s ears. “The territory war, I mean. I know that werewolves have territorial instincts, so it’s no surprise they’d claim land, and they need a large population base to blend into. But what’s with the fighting over it? It isn’t that valuable.”

 

“Part of it’s just that it’s a desirable city,” he explained, shrugging. “Lots of people, lots of money. It’s common sense that any herd can only support so many predators, right? Well, the same goes for cities.”

 

“I just don’t buy it,” I said. “It can’t be worth that much. Besides, why the heck would there be a mage clan in Victor? That’s about as far from a big, prosperous city as they come.” I shook my head. “No, there’s got to be something else to this.”

 

“Well, of course there is. Alexander never told you about it?” Brick asked. I was somehow unsurprised that he knew who I’d learned the finer points of magic from.

 

“Nope.”

 

Brick grunted. “Weird. I always figured that was why you came to Colorado Springs in the first place.”

 

I snorted. “I just came here to go to school. I stayed because, well, where else was I gonna go? Not like I had a lot waiting for me.”

 

“Let me guess, though. It was the Khan that suggested you come here, right?”

 

I paused. “Yeah, actually.”

 

Brick nodded. “Figured so. He might not be a mage, but he knows the shape of things—not that I’ve ever met the man, or wanted to. He’s got a scary reputation.” He shuddered dramatically, the motion absurdly exaggerated on his long, lean frame. “It isn’t the city they want, Winter, or at least not entirely. It’s the mountain.”

 

I blinked. “You mean Pikes Peak?”

 

He nodded.

 

“But that’s ridiculous. What the hell would a vampire want with a mountain?”

 

“Did you know that it’s the second-most-visited mountain in the world?” Brick asked me. I shook my head. “It’s true. Only Fuji gets more people, and it’s right next to Tokyo, not to mention that the place is all kinds of holy. You ever wonder about that?”

 

I frowned. “I always figured it was just that the Peak is so close to the city. There aren’t many mountains that size so close to the beaten path.”

 

“True enough,” Brick allowed. “But then you have to ask yourself, why is it so close to the path in the first place? Winter, people have been coming to this mountain for a long time. They made pilgrimages here before Europeans ever came to this continent.”

 

“Why?” I asked, genuinely baffled. I mean, Pikes Peak is a wonderful mountain and all that, but it’s nothing that special.

 

Brick shrugged. “I don’t really know the specifics. It’s just…a special place. I know some high-level mages swear magic works better in certain places. Things near the Otherside have a tendency to show up more often around them. People congregate there, for no real reason.” He grinned suddenly. “But the city is a big part of it, trust me. It’s not as easy to find a decent urban area to claim for yourself as you might think.”

 

Well, Snowflake said. How nonspecific and vague. It’s almost frustratingly uninformative.

 

You’re telling me? I said, irritated—not at Snowflake, really, just generalized irritation. To Brick, I said, “Thanks for the help. I’ll let you know if I find anything out about who might have sent those constructs.”

 

“I’ll do the same,” he said, nodding. “You two leaving, then?”

 

“Yep. Got a lot of things to do today.”

 

“I’m sure,” he said, still grinning. “Let me show you out.”

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