It took almost an hour for Kyra and Anna to follow the trail to the end. When they had, I no longer had any doubt as to whether it was Katie’s or not.
“I don’t get it,” Alexis said. “A tile store?”
“A closed tile store,” I corrected, watching the building from a hundred yards away. “It’s been closed for a while. There’s a fairly huge tunnel complex underneath.”
“How do you know about this?” my cousin asked.
“There was a witch using them a couple of years ago,” I said. “And Katie was there when we shut him down.” The building had been almost demolished in that fight; someone must have fixed it up and kept it from being repossessed on back taxes.
“Oh. So this is it, then.”
“Looks like.” I dropped the binoculars; there didn’t appear to be any activity near the building. Less so than there should have been, even; this wasn’t a high-traffic area, particularly at this time of day, but in the past five minutes I’d noticed people giving the tile store a wide berth even by those standards. I wasn’t sure whether that was because people could tell, on some level, that there was something bad going on there and avoided it as a result, or because Katie had taken more active measures, but either way it was good news for me.
The last thing I wanted right now were witnesses.
“I want you to take the werewolves and go,” I said, handing the binoculars to Alexis. “Get well out of town. I would recommend France.” I was referring to another safe house, a relatively small place in the French Riviera. Alexis, Aiko, and I all knew a gate terminus nearby. Aiko was the only one who spoke French, but there were so many foreigners in the Riviera that you could pretty much always find someone who spoke English.
Alexis clearly wanted to argue. She didn’t. One of the qualities I’ve appreciated in my cousin is a willingness to realistically consider the dangers involved in a situation, and bow out when those dangers become too much for her to handle. She’s serious about using her powers to help people—which, I might add, she does in a rather more intelligent way than the Inquisition ever managed—but she isn’t stupid.
“You sure?” she asked instead, her tone unhappy.
“Yeah,” I said firmly. “Take Snowflake with you, too.”
Hey! Snowflake said, sounding distinctly upset. You can’t send me away!
I sighed. You saw that thing, Snowflake. You can’t do anything to help me against it. I can get out through the Otherside, if I have to; you can’t. And if there’s one place Loki would be extra thorough when he destroys the city, it’s right here.
I know that! she said indignantly. I’m not stupid, Winter. But bad things always happen to you when I leave you alone. If I let you go in there alone, you’ll die.
Do you think I’ll do better if I have to spend my attention making sure you’re safe?
You can’t do worse, she said defiantly.
I sighed again. Look, Snowflake, I said, feeling very tired. I know the odds here. I know there’s a pretty good chance I’m not coming back out of there, whether you’re there or not. If I’m going to hell tonight, I’d rather not take you down with me.
Now you’re just fighting dirty.
That’s my specialty, I agreed. Will you do it?
Fine, she said bitterly. But you’d better come back. Aiko and I wouldn’t make it very far without you.
“Hang on a second,” Alexis said suddenly, interrupting my train of thought. “Aren’t we overlooking something? Loki said if you told him where to go, he could deal with it. Why don’t you just call him up?”
“That’s a good thought,” I said. It was also one I’d already had, as soon as we started tracking Katie back to her hideout, but I didn’t mention that. “The only problem is that the tunnels under this place are huge. I haven’t explored them in any detail, but I know there’s at least one tunnel that’s about twenty miles long. I don’t think that level of precision would make Loki happy.”
“Oh,” she said, clearly disappointed. “Shouldn’t you tell him anyway, though? It could at least narrow things down a little.”
I paused. “Probably,” I admitted. “But considering how pissed he was the last time, I think he’d kill me if I called him again without having an answer for him. If I can’t figure anything out soon I might have to take that option, but for now I still have a chance of resolving things myself.”
“I guess so.”
“It was a good idea,” I reassured her. “Now go on, get out of here.”
I had a lot to think about, as I walked up to Katie’s lair. Did I seriously believe I had a chance of pulling this off? I knew all too well what this thing was capable of, and I was well aware that the idea of me presenting a serious challenge to it was laughable. Was this really an attempt to solve the problem, or was I just throwing my life away for no gain, trying to assuage a misplaced sense of guilt? Was what I’d told Alexis true? Did I refuse to contact Loki—if I could even do so, which wasn’t at all certain this late in the game—because I thought it was the best way to stop Katie, or was I just frightened of what he might do to me if my performance wasn’t satisfactory?
Or, more disturbingly yet, did I just want to take her out with my own hands? She’d done more to hurt me, personally, than anyone had managed in quite a while, and I’ve never been good at forgiving and forgetting. Was I risking my life for justice or revenge? What was the difference, in the end, if the consequences were the same?
It felt like a long, uncomfortable walk, alone in the night.
Finally, I reached the long-abandoned tile shop. I made no effort to hide my presence; to the contrary, I marched quite openly up to the front door. My armor had been lost when their pet monster destroyed our mansion, but I’d had a reasonable wardrobe stashed in the safe house. Currently I was wearing black leather pants and a white silk shirt. The shirt had my coat of arms, a black shield with a ragged-edged wolf’s head in white, prominently displayed on the chest.
I had reinforced both the shirt and the pants fairly heavily with magic. They wouldn’t provide nearly the protection that actual armor would, but unless I got unlucky they should at least stop small-caliber bullets, and knives driven by merely human muscles.
That would have been a lot more comforting if Katie were using either of those weapons.
Anyways, what I’m getting at here is that I cut a fairly impressive figure. My left hand was still a maimed, shredded hunk of raw meat, but that just made the result scarier.
I didn’t bother trying to open the door. Katie was smart enough and skilled enough to have some way of monitoring the area, either magically or with security cameras. Between that and my rather distinctive appearance, I didn’t think I had much chance of sneaking in.
It was possible that she was about to send her otherworldly monster down my throat, in which case I was about to be in a lot of trouble. But I didn’t think that was too likely. From what she’d said I was pretty sure she really didn’t want me dead, and she had to be curious what I was doing loitering around outside her door. I was pretty sure she’d come to check it out personally.
To encourage that attitude, I’d deliberately kept my appearance as low-key and nonthreatening as I could. I had a whole bunch of weapons in my cloak, but nothing visible or obvious. That was a bit chancy, but I didn’t really expect a knife or a shotgun to stop Katie at this point anyway. I thought it was a chance worth taking.
I’d been standing there maybe fifteen minutes when the door opened—long enough that I was starting to feel pretty antsy, but not long enough to eat into my margin of safety before dawn. I was expecting to see Katie on the other side, and I wasn’t disappointed.
I just wasn’t prepared for how wretched she looked. Katie had always been on the small side, and slender. But sometime in the last couple of months she’d gone from slender to starved. Her clothes hung loose on her frame, as though she were a scarecrow; I was pretty sure that if she hadn’t been wearing them I could easily have counted her ribs. Her forearms, where they stuck out from her ratty T-shirt, were stick-thin, with a clearly visible indentation between the bones. Her face was almost cadaverous, with cheekbones that could have cut a tense silence. Her hair was filthy and matted, and could have benefited from the attentions of a lawnmower. Her dark eyes were sunken and haunted, but feverishly bright.
The man standing behind her looked hardly any better. Mike Adams had been a lot bigger to begin with, and so he could sustain it a little better, but he still looked like shit. He must have lost fifty pounds of muscle, and his skin was so pale that I wondered whether he’d been aboveground since he quit his job. His hands, when he moved them, had a slight but noticeable tremor. Both of them put off a stench so thick I gagged almost ten feet away; neither their bodies nor their clothes seemed to have been washed in weeks.
Summoning literally ungodly monsters from beyond the edge of the universe could give you vast power, but it turns out that maybe it didn’t come for free.
Katie stared at me for several seconds. Her eyes didn’t seem to focus quite right, and her face was curiously slack, as though she wasn’t sure how to form expressions anymore. “Winter,” she said at last, her voice quiet and dead tired. “What are you doing here?”
“I came to give you one more chance,” I said, silently panicking. Coyote had said that anyone stupid enough to try this stuff lost control eventually, and looking at them it wasn’t hard to see why. With the condition Katie and Mike were in, I doubted they would be able to maintain the degree of concentration required for that kind of heavy-duty magic much longer. Never mind dawn, it might break free the very next time they sent it out. If that happened, I had a sickening fear that France might not be far enough to run.
“One more chance?” Mike asked, his voice slow and somewhat unsteady. “For what?”
I kept my gaze focused on Katie. She’d always been more willing to listen to reason, zealot or not. “To stop,” I said, keeping my voice fairly submissive. I remembered how volatile Katie had been in our last conversation, and I couldn’t afford to set her off right now. “If you stop now, everything can still be all right. We can work together and fix this mess.”
Katie’s eyes focused on me for the first time, and her expression went cold. “You can’t push us around anymore, Winter,” she said, her voice flat and bleak. “Nobody can. We’re stronger than you now. Go away, Winter. Go away and don’t come back.” She started to close the door.
Well, shit. I’d said exactly the wrong thing to get through to them. I didn’t stand a chance of chasing them through the tunnels, not when they’d had who knew how long to learn their way around and prepare traps. I needed to get them out of the building, and I had to do it before she could close the door.
And then I realized exactly what to say.
“‘He who fights monsters should be careful that he does not become a monster himself,'” I quoted, slowly and distinctly. Katie stopped moving the instant I started, and I knew I’d chosen right. “‘And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
Katie opened the door again, and I was legitimately frightened by her face. She glared at me with a hatred that bordered on madness, and that hatred transformed her. Her skeletal frame ceased to be a cause for pity, and became terrifying instead. “How dare you,” she breathed, her voice unsteady. “How dare you say that to me?”
I leaned back against the wall, several feet away from the door, and smiled. It was a provocative smile, deliberately so. “I was chatting with Katrin Fleischer a couple days ago,” I said casually. “I don’t know if you know her, but she’s the baddest vampire in the city. Real nasty character, believe me. Even she thought you guys were going a little far. I mean, I don’t like her, but I’ve gotta say, at least she only kills the people she means to. Hell, you two have a higher body count than anybody I’ve dealt with, and you haven’t gotten any of the ones you say you hate. Really makes me wonder what you’re trying to do here.”
By the time I’d finished the third sentence, Katie’s face was locked in an expression of apoplectic fury. When I started questioning their motives, she lunged out the door, her hands raised as though to strangle me, which I strongly suspected was her actual intention. Mike reached out and caught her by the elbow; his reactions were too slow, at this point, to catch her before she crossed the threshold, but he made her pause before she actually reached me.
In that momentary pause, Aiko pulled the trigger.
I had an excellent view, from less than five feet away. The first round hit Katie in the side, just under her arm, and proceeded through her body at a fairly sharp angle. There was no question of it stopping; the .50-caliber rifle Aiko was using could put a bullet through a brick wall no problem. Flesh and bone didn’t even slow it down.
Blood and meat sprayed out the exit wound, a hole the size of my hand just to the right of the center of her chest. It wasn’t a heart shot, not at that angle, but her lung was destroyed. It was a damn good shot from a hundred yards, even with a sniper rifle.
Katie staggered to the side, all but thrown from her feet by the impact, and hit the wall. Her expression was one of total shock—no pain, that hadn’t had time to register yet, but she looked almost stunned as she saw the damage that her body had just taken, an injury far more severe than anything I’d ever received.
A moment later, as my ears started to ring from the sound of the first shot, the second bullet hit her. Thanks to Katie’s movement, this round hit a little lower, on her abdomen. It punched through her liver, possibly clipping the kidney on the way by, and then shredded her intestines on the way through. More blood sprayed across the wall, mixed with feces and chunks of organs.
I watched for sudden realization and pain to come over Katie’s face, for her to stagger and fall. She didn’t. Blood was pouring out of her in buckets and I had bits of her innards splattered on my face, but she didn’t show any sign of pain, and she didn’t fall. Her face was contorted by even more vicious fury instead, and she turned to face the direction the bullets had come without hesitation.
A moment later I was hit by a hammer of magic, scented with shadows and iron. It was overpowering, an order of magnitude stronger than anything I’d ever seen a human produce; the sheer sensation of it literally knocked me from my feet, and it wasn’t even directed at me.
Almost instantly, darkness seemed to boil out of nowhere in a massive, hemispherical shield, cutting the three of us off from the rest of the street. It was absolutely opaque, blocking out any light from the other side. Presumably Aiko was equally unable to see us through Katie’s spell. It was a brilliant defense against a sharpshooter, and I had to applaud Katie for thinking on her feet, even if it was a little late.
Except, apparently, it wasn’t. She turned to face me, and as I watched more shadows seemed to crawl from her feet up her body. They were thick, almost oily, and as they moved I was struck by how alive they seemed. It was like watching a time-lapse video of rot spreading across meat. The shadows lapped at the edges of her wounds, almost tentatively, then slipped inside.
Katie shivered. Her eyes were half-closed, and her expression was touched for the first time with pain, and also a strange, unsettling pleasure. I felt intensely uncomfortable watching it, yet couldn’t tear my eyes away. I wasn’t sure whether this was the first stage of some sort of parasitic infestation or just a particularly disturbing bit of magic, but either way it was creepy as fuck.
As this was going on, I heard another gunshot. It didn’t penetrate the wall of shadows.
That was beyond terrifying. Shadows aren’t supposed to have any physical strength, and magic can only twist something against its nature so far. I was reasonably skilled with this kind of magic, and I’d never managed to make a shadow much stronger than duct tape. Even that was difficult, and I couldn’t keep it up for more than a couple seconds.
Katie had just bounced a bullet that could pose a serious threat to tank armor, with no sign of effort, while simultaneously shrugging off damage that could have put any werewolf I’d ever met down for the count.
Coyote had said that the monster they were summoning could provide power. I was kinda wishing he’d mentioned that, in maybe two weeks’ exposure, it could turn a crappy half-trained mage into a world-class nightmare.
Katie didn’t even seem to notice that her shield had just been shot. She was standing steady on her feet again, and her wounds were completely covered in those thick, unnatural shadows. She didn’t even seem aware that most of her guts were now splattered across the wall. “Get Wolf,” she said. Her voice was thick and wheezy, and blood flowed from her mouth when she spoke. It looked wrong, oily and a couple shades too dark, laced as it was with those unnatural shadows. She didn’t seem to notice that either.
Mike nodded and started walking towards me. He didn’t seem to have reacted any more strongly to what had just happened than Katie did; his expression was blank, and he didn’t hurry at all. When another bullet hit the wall of shadows without penetrating, the shaman didn’t even flinch.
I scrabbled away, startled out of my reverie by sheer panic. I was so terrified that it hardly even registered when my ruined hand hit the ground. It was fair to say that I was scared shitless of Katie and Mike, and in that moment I honestly would rather have faced Loki’s disapproval than spent another instant in the company of these supercharged lunatics.
I didn’t get the choice. Mike, without accelerating or showing any sign of effort, gestured with one hand. A moment later I was hit by a wall of magic, driven by the same unbelievable power as what Katie had been doing. I didn’t have a prayer of resisting that overwhelming force; all my mental defenses crumbled before it like dust before the wind. I’d barely had time to recognize what was going on before I lost consciousness.