Balancing Act 6.8

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Of all the archetypes which have ever captured the imagination of people, there is perhaps none either more widespread or more difficult to understand than the Trickster. There are a very, very great many gods and heroes which have filled that role, from Anansi to Ulysses. These days, though, I think the best-known two are probably Loki and Coyote, and in some ways you can understand how huge a variety exists among tricksters just by those two examples. Both were unpredictable, mercurial, cunning and shrewd, liable to flip between extremes at a moment’s notice. That’s kind of what a trickster does, after all. But other than that they have fewer things in common than divide them.


The myths describe Loki as a dangerous and deceptive person, and I knew from experience that they weren’t lying. He was a cruel, malicious meddler. He terrified me more than any other being—and, given the competition he’s dealing with, that is not an insignificant statement. I have seen him go from death threats, to jovial laughter and good humor, to painfully killing someone for betraying him, and back to laughter, all in the space of a few minutes.


I’d never met Coyote, but the stories of him are very different. He’s cunning, yes, but not particularly wise. He’s typically good-humored, and relatively easygoing. He plays pranks and tricks on people not out of malicious intent, but for the simple joy of it. Often as not, they’re laughing too by the end, and often as not they end up better for being tricked. In some ways I’d even say he’s Loki’s opposite, the creation to balance his destruction. Sometimes he kills people, yes, but they usually deserve it, which is more than Loki could ever say.


Reynard the Fox is another such trickster, one who falls partway between those extremes. Like Coyote, his stories were mostly a matter of oral tradition and folklore rather than an established or systematic mythology, and all through Germany, France, and the Netherlands you might have found all sorts of different versions of his exploits. Of course, because they were mostly orally transmitted, it’s hard to say what proportion of them we’ll never know.


The stories only have a few things in common. Reynard is always the villain. It couldn’t be more obvious he was the bad guy if he dressed all in black, had glowing red eyes, ended his sentences with prepositions, and considered “evil laughter” both one of the most important things on his resume and his preferred form of entertainment. He’s a sly, vicious son of a bitch, a cheat, a murderer, a thief, and a pathological liar. In spite of that, though, there are three things you have to take into account, which in my opinion set him aside from a simple monster.


First off, he’s clever. In fact, his stories remind me a bit of a heist movie. He’s clearly the bad guy, and his enemies are clearly in the right, but he’s so cunning and so quick-witted and just so damn good at what he does that you want him to win anyway—which he pretty much always does, another thing setting him apart from both Loki and Coyote. Reynard’s the kind of guy who, on his wits alone, could take on an entire army of people who were absolutely frothing at the mouth with rage, and had assembled specifically to see him dead, and manage to talk them out of it. Even better, he’d talk them into giving him lands and privileges and their daughter’s hand in marriage at the same time, and by the time he finished with them they’d be thanking him for the opportunity.


Second, he’s not unilaterally evil. In fact, in some ways I think he’s a bit like a prototype of Robin Hood. He takes on the Church and the aristocracy and makes them look like utter fools. His entire history is one of cunning and shrewdness triumphing over book-learning. Everything he does exposes the rampant hypocrisy, corruption, and nepotism of the upper classes. He might not be the best person in the court, but he isn’t the worst either, and it’s hard to really blame him for his lack of a conscience considering the background he comes from.


Third, and most importantly, Fenris considered him a friend. Now, Fenris himself was usually considered a ravening monster fit only to be put down at the end of time. But he was my distant grandfather, and more importantly he’d never failed to do right by me. He ranked high on my list of Least Untrustworthy People, actually, and a good word from him meant far more to me than a bunch of second-hand stories written by strangers hundreds of years ago.


Thus, it was with a certain amount of caution but not any particular fear that I accompanied Reynard out of the bar. It had begun to drizzle outside, a hard cold rain, and between that and the wind I was just as glad I was wearing my cloak—I don’t really get cold, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy being waterlogged and windblown as a drowned rat in a tornado. Alexis, who hadn’t dressed for Colorado’s notoriously unreliable fall weather, looked like she was starting to regret it, and even Snowflake wasn’t happy.


Reynard didn’t appear to notice a thing. But then, he wouldn’t.


“I meant to be there sooner,” he said, walking briskly down the street. “But you were rather busy, and I did not wish to interrupt your conversation. What I have to show you will not suffer for a few moments’ delay, regardless.”


“I don’t suppose it’s good news, is it?” I said hopefully.


He glanced back at me. “No. No, I don’t suppose it is.”


“Of course not,” I muttered. I grumbled a few more things, too, heartily encouraged by Snowflake. She thinks I don’t let my feelings out often enough. Easy for her to say, considering that practically nobody can hear her griping.


Reynard, as it turned out, had a car parked only a few minutes’ walk away, a two-seater Lamborghini. It was rather cramped trying to fit us all into it, and there were a few tense moments when I half thought Snowflake was about to bite someone. But eventually we managed, and Reynard took off to the north at a speed both highly illegal and more than slightly hazardous. I didn’t complain, because I was pretty sure he was doing it to get a reaction, and giving him one would just encourage him.


Long story short, it took only a short time before we were up in the north end of the city. The houses here were larger, more expensive, mostly located in bland subdivisions with ridiculous names where you weren’t allowed in the gate without a damn good reason. Such places always struck me as disturbingly soulless, and I was just as glad when Reynard drove to one of the few that wasn’t.


Oh, it was a big house, and I don’t doubt it was expensive as hell. But it was just past the ever-expanding border where the city meets the plains, and the nearest neighbor was several hundred feet away. It was a quiet sort of place, one where I imagined strangers seldom went. Perhaps it was just my imagination, overstressed by the events of the past days or by Reynard’s presence, but there seemed to be some intangible aura around it, and not a very pleasant one. Looking at it I got the impression that people would avoid it, and that they would be right to do so.


I knew better than to dismiss such instincts. All too often, they were absolutely correct.


Especially about the bad things.


Reynard whipped his Lamborghini through a highly illegal U-turn and parked, tires squealing, right outside the house. Unlike my usual modes of conveyance, it blended in just fine with all the expensive cars around here. We all piled out of it, in a manner almost but not quite as ungainly as we’d piled in, and stood on the sidewalk looking at the house. I don’t know about the others, but I was reluctant to go closer.


This was not a good place. Not at all.


Finally Reynard turned and cleared his throat, his face grim and still. I could tell, even after so little time around him, that it was not a normal expression for him; his features were made to be mobile and full of laughter, not locked down harder than a birdcage at a cat fanciers’ convention. “You may want to remain outside, miss,” he said to Alexis, his voice unwontedly serious.


I hadn’t had a chance to tell her how dangerous and powerful this guy probably was, but she wasn’t stupid. There wasn’t a trace of flippancy in her voice as she said, “What I want is of very little importance here.”


He nodded, the impression conveying respect, and turned to lead us up to the door. I had to restrain a shudder, and was powerless to keep the hairs on the back of my neck from rising. Had I been a wolf my hackles would have been doing their damnedest to part ways with my body, and I don’t doubt that I would have started growling. Strangely, I appeared to be the only one so affected; I wasn’t surprised that Alexis wouldn’t notice anything, given how inexperienced she was, but Snowflake is usually very sharp about such things, and not shy about showing it most of the time. Never mind me, I was surprised she wasn’t growling and snarling by now.


Reynard glanced back at me. “You feel it already, don’t you? Fascinating. There aren’t many that would. Mayhap your grandfather was not exaggerating.” He climbed the front steps, and as he did I noticed something interesting. He seemed relaxed, very cool and casual, but he wasn’t used to deceiving werewolves. The tension he carried in his spine gave the lie to his act.


Whatever this was, he felt it too.


He opened the door without knocking, and proceeded inside without any hesitation. I noticed that the lock itself wasn’t just disengaged, it was broken. A quick glance, and a breath of wind slipped into the housing, confirmed that the deadbolt was entirely nonfunctional, apparently disconnected from the locking mechanism. Reynard closed the door quietly behind us.


Within was…well. Suffice to say it impressed me, and that takes some doing. Snowflake made an awed sort of sound in my head. Alexis gagged. I would have too, were it not for the need to keep up a good front.


Most of the corpses were simple enough. I saw several which had been stabbed with some slender weapon, a dagger or a very light sword. Maybe even an icepick. Three had heavy, ugly ligature marks around the neck, speaking of slow and nasty death by strangulation. Two of those appeared to be simple strangling cords, but the third formed the clear outline of a chain. One man’s head lolled about on a broken neck. Another had been entirely beheaded, his head resting on the ground between his feet. They filled the living room almost to bursting, barely leaving enough room between them to walk.


Alexis looked away, still gagging, and Reynard silently opened the door for her to go outside. Snowflake went with her, to act as her bodyguard—it didn’t seem likely that someone would vanish her while we were right here without us knowing, but it wasn’t unprecedented. He closed the door behind them, but I clearly heard vomiting, and smelled stomach acid. That I could pick out the smell so easily suggested that all these bodies had yet to really start rotting, which in turn implied that they had died quite recently—hours, at the most.


I didn’t feel too happy, myself. But somebody had to pay attention, and at the moment I was the only choice available. So I took a deep breath and forced myself to look at the scene logically, rather than reacting to it. If I let myself feel emotion in response to this, I would rapidly become useless.


So. Eighteen corpses. Nine were dead of stab wounds. Three strangled. One broken neck. One decapitated. That left four with no obvious injuries. I walked over to look at them more closely, idly noting as I did that none of the corpses in the room showed defensive wounds. They hadn’t fought back. None of them looked like hardened killers, but they should still have fought if they’d had warning, which meant that they hadn’t all died here. They’d been moved. That fit with the way they were all arrayed so neatly, almost as though laid out for funeral. None of them had any obvious physical or magical scents, which was unusual. Most people, so soon after death, would still have smelled of cologne, perfume, deodorant, soap, lunch—something.


The coffee table had been moved aside to make room for these four corpses to be laid out on the carpet, which was an almost bizarrely pristine grey. These really did look like the mortician had already done his work—totally composed, peaceful, with arms crossed on chests. Three were male, one female—around the same ratio as the rest of the bodies. They had no apparent injuries, and hadn’t been dead long enough for discoloration to set in yet.


It could have been poison, I supposed. It could have been four simultaneous heart attacks. It could have been, but it wasn’t. I knew that, because on these corpses I caught the first clear smell in the building.


They smelled like nothing. Not the mere absence of smell, which was general throughout the house, but the smell of absence.


Son of a bitch.


I turned to look at Reynard, who had come up behind me. He moved so silently I’d have never known except that I smelled him. “Do you know how this was done?” I asked him, my voice steady and cold.


“Better,” he said with a grin that struck even me as inappropriate for the circumstances. “I know who.” He tapped one finger on his lip for a moment, evidently thinking, then nodded firmly. “Yes. Come with me.”


I expected him to go further into the house, although I’m not sure why. All the evidence had obviously been moved down here. Instead, he went right back out, closing the door neatly behind us. Clearly whatever happened here had been utterly silent, because there was still not even the smallest bit of attention being paid to the place.


“There’s someone you need to meet,” Reynard said crisply. “I will convey you there and back.” He glanced at Alexis, who was standing near the car with Snowflake, and then looked a question at me.


I had no intention of making that choice. “Do you want to come with us?” I asked Alexis. “You’ll learn some things, but I won’t lie, it could be dangerous.”


“What?” Reynard said, amused. “You don’t trust me?”


“Of course not. But actually, I’m more concerned about whoever we’re going to meet.” I shrugged. “Besides. Knowledge is always a dangerous thing.


Reynard smiled, but only with his eyes and posture. I had to wonder whether he was as unaccustomed to werewolves as I had initially suspected; he sure seemed to do a lot of his communicating nonverbally, which wasn’t a trait I associated with people who spent most of their time around humans.


Alexis was smart enough to think for a moment before she answered. “Will it help catch the person who did that?” she asked, her voice surprisingly hard.


I looked at Reynard, who shrugged. “I doubt her presence will tip the scale in either direction. But I have been known to be wrong before. It isn’t impossible.”


Alexis seemed to take that as a useful answer, for some reason, and nodded. “All right then. I’ll come.”


“Very well.” Rather than get in the car, Reynard turned to the open air just at the edge of the street. He held his arms out in front of him. His magic surged, filling the air with smells of the wild and the hunt. Perhaps ten seconds later, a portal unfolded between his outstretched hands, the motion reminiscent of a flower opening.


“Oh, bloody hell,” I muttered. Then, to Alexis, I said, “Okay, this is gonna suck. Step through all at once, don’t try and inch through it.” I didn’t actually know what the result would be of trying to be inside and outside the gate at the same time, but it didn’t sound like a good idea. “Other than that, try not to throw up on anyone, and remember that no matter how bad it feels, you’ll be okay. Ready?”


She nodded, looking less perturbed than I would have expected from someone watching a hole open in the fabric of the world. I took a deep breath and went through first, because I was less fragile and it would be more pleasant for all of us if Reynard went last. The portal would stay open for a couple seconds after the maker went through, presumably because that was the time spent in transit, but it was less stable, and therefore more horrible.


It was not very much fun. In point of fact, it was very much not fun. But it didn’t feel much worse than any other portal to the Otherside, which was about all that I could ask for.


When I came back to myself again, we were in a small, dimly lit room. It was barely tall enough for Reynard to stand up in, and barely wide enough for all of us to fit—although that wasn’t helped by the fact that Alexis was still prone on the stone floor, unconscious. The walls and ceiling were oak, and the light was cast by an oil lamp. I noticed all those things in the first few seconds, and one other as well. It was that last one I asked Reynard about.


“We aren’t on the Otherside,” I said to him.


He grinned a sharp, vulpine grin. “You’re quick on the uptake, aren’t you?” he said. I couldn’t tell whether he was being sarcastic or not.


“I thought it wasn’t possible to open a portal between two spots on the same plane,” I noted.


“It isn’t,” he agreed. “Technically, we actually passed through two portals. The trick is to open one, then open another just on the other side of it, and step through both at once.”


Huh. That was an interesting trick—not to mention hard as hell. I couldn’t even really estimate the kind of power it would take to hold open two simultaneous portals, let alone how skilled you would need to be to hold two spells that complex in your mind at once. If I’d had any doubt that Reynard was a badass like few I’d seen, this dispelled them.


Alexis started to sit up at around that time, just in time for someone opening the door to hit her in the side and knock her back over. The newcomer was dressed in a black outfit not unlike Reynard’s, but hers didn’t look nearly so deliberately dramatic—more like she was tired of stains, and didn’t get out enough to care about her image. Her hair was a shade of brown that made me think of rat’s fur, and cut very short and plain. Her eyes were likewise brown, and hidden behind classic librarian’s glasses. In fact, the only thing about her which was at all remarkable was her one article of jewelry—if it could be called that; I wasn’t sure. Hanging on a long silver chain around her neck was an ornate bronze key. It was the type of large, heavy key used in a warded lock—you know, the ones they use in movies when they want to make it clear how archaic and old fashioned a person is, the ones with keyholes you can spy through.


Her expression when she walked in the door was neutral and professional, which lasted all of the two seconds it took for her to lay eyes on Reynard, at which point it was replaced by distaste, lightly seasoned with anger. “You,” she said in a similar tone of voice.


He sighed. “Hello, dear,” he said. “Monsieur Wolf, meet Keeper Jacqueline Fleur. Jacqueline, this is Winter Wolf.”


She stopped glaring at Reynard for a couple seconds to glare at me. “I know who it is,” she said coldly. “What do you want, Reynard?”


“They need to know about the stone.”


Jacqueline Fleur suddenly stopped looking like a frumpy woman of indeterminate years and started looking like something altogether different, something more than a little frightening. Her gaze sharpened to a glare, the iciness of which I’d seldom seen surpassed. Her fingers curled into claws at her sides, and the smell of magic filled the room, human’s disinfectant overlaid with something almost papery. Her power hung in the air around her almost like the heat haze over asphalt in the summer.


Damn. I’d seen stronger mages—but I’d never seen one this close to throwing down.


“You have no place in deciding that,” she said, her voice impressively chill.


Reynard’s was no less cold, although he made no threatening moves to match hers. “It should never have been entrusted to you. I said so long ago, and now that I am proven correct, you would tell me my place? You overstep yourself, Keeper.”


She maintained her coldly furious demeanor for another second or two, then crumpled. The smell of readied power faded, leaving just the milder aroma of a mage not currently magicking. “Very well,” she said in a resigned tone. “Your dog had best behave itself,” she told me, sounding perhaps a bit spiteful.


I snorted. “Don’t worry,” I said dryly. “Unless you piss her off, she’s probably the best-behaved person here.”


The Keeper looked doubtful, but didn’t argue with me. We stood around and waited for Alexis to finish getting herself together. It took a few minutes, and she didn’t say a thing the whole time. I got the distinct impression that my cousin was feeling seriously out of her depth, and it was making her subdued. I couldn’t blame her for that, though; I was rather overwhelmed myself.


“Please refrain from touching anything. Many of the things here are both fragile and irreplaceable.” the Keeper said as she opened the door and led us out down a short hallway. Her professionalism was firmly back in place, and you couldn’t have determined anything of her feelings from her voice. “You should feel honored, really. Usually only clan members in good standing are allowed in here, and even then only after completing a great deal of paperwork.”


She was so serious, I couldn’t resist teasing her a little. “What about Reynard?” I asked, keeping my voice utterly innocent.


She glared at me, and I got the definite impression that she wasn’t fooled a bit. “Reynard,” she said, biting off the words, “is the exception to a great many rules.”


“Yes,” he agreed, good humor evidently restored. “It’s part of my charm. I wouldn’t be half so fun if I were unexceptional.”


He might have kept talking after that, but I sort of lost track when Jacqueline opened a wooden door about halfway down the hall. It was an ordinary enough sort of door, opening into a very unordinary sort of room.


It was a little on the small side, which surprised me a little. I’d expected a vast warehouse of some sort, I suppose, but the room was only perhaps fifty feet wide, with a seven foot ceiling. I couldn’t see how long it was, because there were obstructions in the way, but from the way the air moved I was guessing no more than twice its width.


What it lacked in size, though, it made up in content. The walls were lined, floor to ceiling, with oak bookshelves, and the shelves were straining under the weight of the books on them. More shelves filled the room, leaving crooked aisles barely wide enough to walk down. There were all sorts of books, from ancient tomes two feet thick bound in faded, cracked leather to the most recent hardback bindings. None of them had any kind of label, and I didn’t look closely. As we moved through the stacks I saw racks of scrolls, tablets of stone and bronze, even a standing runestone of the sort that still dots the Scandinavian countryside. It wasn’t hard to figure out where we were. This mage didn’t just resemble a librarian, she was one—and of a library the likes of which I’d never imagined, let alone seen.


“Wow. This is incredible. I’ve never seen a library its equal. What all do you have here?” That’s what I didn’t say, because I was trying to come across all cool and worldly to everyone present except Snowflake, who knew better, and that wasn’t the sort of thing that went with that image.


Instead, I commented, “You’ve got a lot of books here,” as though it was inconsequential. The reality, of course, was rather different. I somehow got the idea that these weren’t the sort of books you bought at Barnes & Noble. Between the reek of magic and the fact that the librarian was a clan mage, I was pretty sure these were the sort of books that were filled with old knowledge and secrets man was not meant to know.


You don’t buy that sort of book with simple money. You don’t keep it with simple locks.


“It’s one of our larger collections,” our guide agreed. “Mostly the Keepers prefer to maintain numerous smaller archives. The objects here are mostly of historical value, though, making their loss a minimal danger, and the defenses here have been built up over a longer span of time. As such it was deemed safe to store more things in this location.”


Reynard snorted. “Yeah, right. And I’m sure the fact that it lets you assign one Keeper to it instead of ten didn’t factor into it at all. Face it, Jack, you don’t have the manpower to keep up all your old archives.”


Some of the wind seemed to go out of her sails. “True,” she admitted. “But that doesn’t invalidate the logic behind it. It should have been safe.”


Reynard snorted again. “Should have. Would have. Could have. And yet, strangely, was not.”


“No. It wasn’t,” she said, drawing us to a stop beside a small glass-covered table. We’d passed several of the sort on the way, with miscellaneous items on them. I’d noticed that they smelled quite strongly of magic, although it was mostly masked by the general reek and hidden behind seriously heavy-duty protections. Other than that I hadn’t examined them closely. I got the impression that showing too much interest in such things wasn’t a healthy action to take in this place.


Besides. I didn’t really want to know. There are reasons magic has been so poorly regarded throughout history, reasons why reason and science and civilization have been so eager to dismiss it as a myth and a fantasy. Magic is absolutely freaking terrifying, even to me. I didn’t want to know what the Conclave’s archivists had felt a need to keep hidden and protected.


I had seen enough, though, to know that there was something wrong with this particular case. Namely, it was empty. There was a depression in the jet-black velvet the size of my fist, but it was hollow, and from the dust I was pretty sure it had been that way for a long time.


“How familiar are you with the story of Sessho-seki?” the Keeper asked me. I must have gotten a blank look on my face, because she clarified, “The Killing Stone.”


“Can’t say I’ve heard that one,” I admitted.


“I see,” she said disapprovingly. “It’s not a very complicated story, really, although the implications are fairly interesting. In the reign of Emperor Konoe—this was around the middle of the twelfth century in Japan—a beautiful courtesan called Tamamo-no-Mae came to court. She was sweet-smelling and very neat, and though she looked young there was no question she couldn’t answer.”


“Sounds too good to be true,” I noted.


Her lips twitched faintly before she remembered that she didn’t approve of me and went back to frowning. “It was, by all accounts. Needless to say the young Emperor was utterly smitten with her, and began lavishing attention on her as though she were his Empress rather than a glorified prostitute. At the same time, he became mysteriously ill. He spoke to all manner of doctors and mystics, all of whom told him the same thing. Whatever was wrong with him had been caused by evil magic, and they couldn’t do a thing about it.”


“I can’t imagine he liked that answer.”


“No. He became convinced that he was going to die, but continued asking for help. This whole time Tamamo-no-Mae had been rising higher in the court, until by this point she was the only person the Emperor would listen to. Finally, an astrologer told the Emperor that his beloved Tamamo-no-Mae was actually a nine-tailed kitsune, and had been the one making him ill the entire time. When he returned to court the courtesan had fled, and he sent his two finest hunters to hunt her down. To make a long story short, she begged them to spare her life, they refused, and one of them shot her dead with an arrow.”


I frowned. “No normal arrow ever killed a nine-tailed kitsune.” Hell, Aiko had only one tail, and she could go toe-to-toe with a werewolf and walk away whistling. Given that a nine-tail was the height of power among the kitsune and was, of necessity, not less than nine hundred years old, you’d have to be both very powerful and very skilled to even get near her.


“That’s one problem with the official story,” Jacqueline agreed. “There are several others. But I digress. To conclude, the kitsune died, and her body became the Killing Stone. As you might have guessed from the name, anyone who touches the stone dies, instantly.”


“What happened next?” Alexis asked, making me start a little. She was standing behind me, and she’d been so quiet for the past several minutes that I’d almost forgotten she was there.


The Keeper shrugged. “Nothing. That’s the end of the story, with the exception of a Buddhist morality tale which was rather obviously tacked on at the end.”


“So that’s the official version. What really happened?”


“We don’t know. The Emperor didn’t approach any clans for advice, and between that and the poor communication of the day we didn’t know any of this at the time. We do know that there are a number of inconsistencies in the story as given. Why should Tamamo-no-Mae have tried to kill the Emperor, when it would surely be more valuable to keep him alive and besotted with her? Why wouldn’t any of the other people he consulted, some of whom did know a certain amount of magic, have been able to identify the source of his illness? As you said before, how could a simple hunter possibly kill an elder kitsune? To make matters even more unclear, the Emperor died shortly thereafter, in spite of the astrologer’s assurance that the kitsune’s death would cure his ailment.”


“Gosh,” I said dryly. “What an informative and reliable story that is.”


“Fortunately,” she said sharply, “this is the point where Conclave records do begin mentioning the stone. For the next several generations, adventurers and thrill seekers of all stripes came to the Killing Stone to test themselves against it. Monks and mystics came to exorcise it. Hotheaded young samurai came to prove they could survive where others had not, or simply so they could say that they had spent the night in the vicinity. Conclave mages came to study it. Only the last of those survived the experience, and not many of those.”


“The effects of the stone are exotic, but predictable,” she continued, settling more firmly into lecture mode. “Making skin contact with it is instantly and invariably lethal. There are verified records of contact with men, women and children, with werewolves, vampires, fae beings, and mages. It does not matter what you are or what defenses you have in place, you die. If it comes into contact with any variety of magic, it drains it—and, assuming there’s an open connection to the mage responsible, it begins to drain them as well. Several of the Conclave were unable to shut down the connection fast enough and were killed. Spending time around it produces feelings of unease, and is detrimental to the health over time. Anyone sleeping in the area experiences horrible nightmares, which were in many cases severe enough to cause insanity or suicide.”


“Nice,” I said after a moment. “I think I’m starting to get why you had it locked in here.”


She smiled humorlessly. “Oh, it gets better. Prayer, exorcisms, and persuasion have all failed to remove the curse. However, it does react to them—violently. The nightmares and the draining effect seem to worsen dramatically directly after such an attempt. The stone particularly appears to hate being prayed over, and in several cases actively attempted to kill those responsible. These incidents, as well as several other pieces of evidence, make us suspect that the stone wasn’t produced by Tamamo-no-Mae, it is her, or what’s left of her. Not just her body, but her mind, and her soul if you believe in such things.”


I imagined what that would be like. Start with the fact that I was pretty sure she’d been framed. It couldn’t be much fun to be betrayed and sentenced to death by the Emperor you thought loved you, and whom you just might have actually loved in return. Then to spend the next nine hundred years trapped in a rock, paralyzed and incommunicado, just stewing in your anger and hate for centuries….


I shivered.


“The stone was given into our keeping around three hundred years ago,” the Keeper continued. “We performed a number of experiments on it, and failed to discover anything particularly useful. After around fifty years, it was simply placed in containment. We had no problems with it—unlike many of the more dangerous collections we maintain, it was essentially inert. There were no escape attempts, nor any apparent manipulations of the environment. Our higher security sites are always stretched for resources and personnel, and over time it was deemed essentially harmless and moved here.”


“Somebody stole it,” I guessed.


“Indeed. Eighteen years ago, someone broke in here.” She frowned. “Mister Wolf, I think perhaps you have been given an inaccurate perspective on the security of this location. We are currently several hundred feet underground in France, in a cave system which was collapsed two hundred years ago. The only way to access this archive is with an Otherside portal, and outside of the Keepers there are very few individuals with the appropriate coordinates. Additionally, there are a number of wards which would trigger at the presence of an unauthorized person, and the Killing Stone itself was behind a number of additional wards and protections. It would be significantly easier to break into a secure government area than this archive.”


“And yet,” I commented, “somebody did it anyway.”


She nodded shortly, her lips pressed tightly together. “Yes. They managed to gain access without setting off any alarms, which not even authorized visitors can do. They bypassed all of the protections and went straight to this case—and I assure you, Mister Wolf, that there are much more valuable things in this room than the Killing Stone, and more lightly guarded as well. In spite of that, they took nothing else, didn’t even touch anything else.”


“Unfortunately for them,” she said, “we also maintain more subtle protections. Everything that passes through this room is tagged with an energetic marker to make tracking it simpler. The stone was hidden in some manner for the first several weeks after its theft, but we eventually tracked it down to an ordinary enough human woman. She must have purchased it from the original thief—indeed, she may have commissioned him in the first place—because there is no way that a normal human could have stolen it.”


“I can’t imagine you just sat around once you found that out.”


“Indeed,” she said wryly. “Two Keepers were dispatched immediately. They weren’t combat-trained, but it was deemed unnecessary. The Killing Stone is very dangerous, but more as a trap than a weapon. They were prepared for it—both of them had worked with the stone in the past, in fact, and were inoculated to its effects on the mind—and two mages of any disposition were deemed more than enough force to handle a single human.”


“What happened?”


“She killed them. We don’t know how. She killed them, looted them, and left the bodies in a public area as a challenge to us.” She took a deep breath. “It was deemed necessary to make a gesture of strength. Not just to recover the stone, which was clearly more dangerous than we had realized, but to ensure no one thought we were weak or vulnerable. We could not afford to seem weak. A team was assembled, consisting of four Guards, four Watchers, and one Keeper, and given orders to kill the thief and return with the Killing Stone. None of them came back.”


“Wait a second,” I said. “You’re telling me this totally ordinary human took out nine fucking clan mages?


“Trust me, it gets worse,” she assured me. “We took the time to do some research after that. Nobody knows what name she was born under, possibly including her anymore, but these days she goes by Vivian de Sousa. Twenty-one years ago she married Felipe Louis de Sousa. Two years later he was the victim of a highly public case of spontaneous combustion, the work of a local wizard on behalf of conflicting business interests. De Sousa was left the sole heir to a sizable fortune, including stakes in numerous major companies.”


“Since then,” Jacqueline continued in a grim tone, “she has dedicated herself to a life as a witch hunter—although her targets are much more varied than that would indicate. Since obtaining the Killing Stone, she has assassinated thirty-six mages that we know of. She has slaughtered more than a dozen of the fae, eradicated at least one nest of vampires, killed twenty-seven werewolves resulting in the dissolution of two different packs, and been the death of innumerable miscellaneous magical creatures and lesser talents.”


“Unlike most serial killers and extremist sects, de Sousa has never ritualized her murders, and in no cases are there signs of torture prior to death—it appears clear that she is motivated less by the suffering of her victims than by a desire, however twisted, to protect others. However, collateral damage apparently does not upset her; in her efforts to exterminate the supernatural she has also killed at least a thousand human beings, and probably a great many more. While she seems to prefer precise, surgical strikes, she adapts her tactics to the situation, and has been known to utilize a wide variety of weaponry. She is a skilled marksman, trained in demolitions, a practiced martial artist, a poisoner, and an arsonist. We cannot accurately estimate how many other artifacts and magical items she may have acquired over the past eighteen years; however, it is safe to say that she has taken several from her victims, and she isn’t without the contacts to commission more herself.”






“The smell you noticed was left by the Killing Stone,” Reynard said as he started his car again. “It’s her usual practice to touch it to each of her victims, in order to ensure they aren’t simply feigning death and to remove any identifying traces she may have left. It leaves a distinct trace.”


Behind us, Alexis looked more than a touch nauseous. “Jesus,” she muttered. “This woman killed all those people?”


“Yes,” Reynard agreed. “Four of them were rakshasas—demonic beings from India. The remainder were human servants they had retained, most of whom were mentally dominated or compelled into service.”


“But that doesn’t make any sense,” she protested. “I mean, they were just people. They were victims. Why would she kill them too?”


You sure it isn’t stupid? Snowflake asked me. Because I’m really thinking she might be dumber than a post. Never mind the vegetarian bit.


“Perhaps you were not paying attention, Miss Hamilton,” Reynard said dryly. “De Sousa is not a rational being. Attempting to apply logic to her actions is not a worthwhile investiture of time. Monsieur Wolf, where would you like me to drop you off?” I’m not sure why he called me Monsieur; he clearly spoke perfect English, and besides, he used Miss not five seconds before.


“Home, if you don’t mind,” I said, feeling very weary.


Reynard didn’t need directions. I tried to pretend that didn’t scare me.


Back at home I got a solid four hours or so of sleep, then reluctantly rousted myself, showered, and got dressed. I’d been thinking for a while about my costume. I didn’t believe for a minute that I wouldn’t be judged for it, which made the choice a rather important one. Fortunately, I thought I’d come up with something that might actually work.


I wasn’t trying to show off or look fancy. I wouldn’t have a chance with that, not when I was competing with the Sidhe. No, my objective was just to make an impression, to do something bold enough that people would have to pay attention, and respect me for having the balls to try it. It wouldn’t earn me many friends, but then, that wasn’t why I was going. I couldn’t afford to be seen as weak at a party like this; everything else was secondary.


Thus, rather than the armor I would rather have worn, I dressed in a loose black silk shirt with bands of white embroidery at wrists, hem, and neck, more lightly embroidered across the chest and back. All of the embroidery was of naturalistic designs, mostly wolves with a handful of ravens and snowflakes scattered in the mix. I matched it with loose black pants, more silk, held up by a broad black leather belt studded with bronze which wasn’t quite a sword belt. The pants tucked into tailored leather boots with more designs worked into them, in something that looked like silver but didn’t burn my fingers the way silver would have, and I tucked a pair of black silk gloves into my belt. I swept my cloak of shadow over the whole, pinning it unnecessarily at the neck with a gold wolf’s-head brooch. The eyes of the wolf were emeralds, and glittered when the light hit them.


I glanced in the massive full-length mirror lining the back wall of my closet and nodded in satisfaction. The ensemble looked both obscenely expensive and more than a little bit scary. Perfect.


To that I added enough jewelry to really drive home the “I have more money than God” image. I put a gold earring and a platinum one in each ear (as a werewolf, I can’t actually have piercings, because they heal too quickly. Instead, I had to shove the pins through my flesh every time, which was why I didn’t wear such things often. It was irritating, painful, and bloody to put in, and even worse taking out—but tonight I felt it was worth it). The pendant Edward had made in the shape of my mother’s lupine form had too much iron in it to wear to a Sidhe party, so I made do with a heavy gold chain, the pendant of which was a large chunk of black opal carved to resemble a wolf’s head. I wrapped my leather bracelet around my left arm, under the shirt, and put a gold bracelet set with amber on my right. I added a pair of gold cufflinks set with emeralds, and checked in the mirror again.


Yep. I looked like I was really, truly, disgustingly wealthy, and not afraid to flaunt it. I also looked like I hadn’t yet ruled out the possibility of attending a funeral after the party—all I’d have to do is lose a little bit of the jewelry and I’d blend in perfectly, assuming it was a very high-class funeral. Like, for royalty, maybe. Anywhere else it would look like I was considering buying the cemetery, or possibly the town it was situated in.


I made my way downstairs, where Aiko had already gotten herself prepped. She actually looked like she belonged at a party of this sort, which was a relief. The last time we’d gone to such an event she dyed her hair green and wore heavily patched jeans and a T-shirt with the legend Meddle not in the affairs of dragons, for you are crunchy and taste good with ketchup. To the court of the Dragon King. Aiko is not necessarily the most stable, danger-conscious person around. She’d said she wasn’t going to do anything like that this time, but you can never quite tell with her.


She’d cropped her hair raggedly just above her ears, most likely with a knife, but it was still black, which was something. She wasn’t wearing a dress, but that was to be expected; I’d never once seen her in a dress, and in fact had a hard time imagining it. But she was dressed in a manner which could at least vaguely be construed as somewhat formal, sorta, in a perfectly white judogi jacket belted with a narrow obi striped red and white, a jet black hakama, and black slippers. She wasn’t wearing nearly as much adornment as I was, just one ring each of shadow and ice, another of twisted gold wire, and a close-fitting necklace of fancy chainmail (gold, of course, because really, why not?). There was a tanto tucked into her obi, just discrete enough to not look like she was trying to conceal it, which was almost pretty enough with its jeweled sheath and carved bone handle to qualify as jewelry itself.


It wasn’t that far off from what I was wearing, actually, at least in intent—a little classier, a little more understated, subtler, but not any less threatening. Not any less of a statement of wealth, either; that necklace wasn’t as flashy as what I was wearing, but it was perfect craftsmanship using very small rings. You have to pay through the roof for that kind of quality—not to mention that it was several ounces of gold.


Of course, at the moment she was sitting in front of the enormous fire in the sitting room prodding Snowflake with one slippered foot and trying to convince Alexis of the virtues of the electric cello, which did a lot to subtract from the image. But that was the sort of thing you got used to around Aiko.


Alexis looked up when I walked in, then blinked and did a double take. “Holy shit, Winter. You look scary.”


I grinned. “You wouldn’t say that if you’d ever seen her use that knife. It only looks like it’s for show.”


Aiko snorted. “At least I’m not carrying a grenade.”


“It isn’t technically a grenade,” I said in a wounded tone. “Besides, it’ll only trigger if I say boom, and I don’t—” I broke off suddenly, and turned a horrified stare on my cloak pocket.


Alexis, proving that her survival instinct was developing apace, promptly threw herself behind a couch. Even Aiko stood up and quickly put some space between herself and me. Snowflake didn’t move, but then she could see my intention, so she hardly counted.


I held it in is long as I could before I broke out laughing. Aiko, being quicker on the uptake and more accustomed to this sort of prank, stalked back to her upset chair, righted it, and sat back down. “Bastard,” she muttered, not without a certain amount of admiration.


“The person I bought it from promised me it takes a command phrase—which I’m not going to say—and an effort of will,” I said, laughing. “Come on, people. Do you really think I’m that dumb?”


“With reason,” Aiko said. “Remember the Hamadryad Incident?”


“You were the one picking music for that,” I said in an outraged tone. “And don’t even mention the Koala Incident, that was all you.”


“Uh-huh,” she said skeptically. “And the Chinchilla Incident?”


I sniffed. “Could have happened to anyone.”


“Right. And the Steampunk Incident?”


“That one was not—wait. Which one was that?”


“The one with the hairbrush,” she said helpfully. “And the cowboy boots. And the glass of punch. I think there was a cursed teapot involved, too.”


“Oh, right. That Steampunk Incident. I don’t even know what the hell was going on there.”


“Are you two for real?” Alexis interrupted.


I snorted. “Think about it. Do you really think I’m creative enough to make this sort of thing up?” I glanced at the enormous grandfather clock in the corner. “We need to go.”


“Where are we going?” my cousin asked.


We are going to a party. You are staying here.”


“Why?” Give her credit, she sounded only moderately defensive.


“First, you aren’t ready for this sort of thing. You walk into this sort of party with as little as you know, you’ll be very lucky to walk back out. Second, I can’t afford the distraction. I walk into this sort of party trying to look after you, I’ll be very lucky to walk back out. Third and most important, the invitation was for two only, and they’re expecting both of us, so I couldn’t bring you even if I wanted to.”


She’d been looking progressively more outraged as I went on, but her expression fell at that last bit. “Oh.”


I grinned. “Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll get to risk your life for no reason doing something pointlessly dangerous and mind-bogglingly stupid again soon. Until then you’ve got the run of the house, with the same rules as before.” I didn’t offer to tell her said rules again; if she couldn’t handle a memory exercise that simple, she had no business sticking her nose into this sort of thing anyway. “Remember, if Snowflake tries to tell you something, pay attention. She’s probably the smartest person in this room.”


Gosh, not setting the bar very high, are you? She came over and butted her head against my thigh, making a sort of soft growling noise. Go on, get out of here. The sooner you two leave, the sooner we can get the part where you get kidnapped or some such shit because I’m not there over with.

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