I woke up screaming.
That is, for the record, not normal. That scene in the movies, where someone sits bolt upright and screams coming out of a nightmare? Yeah, that doesn’t happen.
It took me a minute to get my head together enough to get my bearings. I was deep underground—I wasn’t sure how I knew that, but I was absolutely sure of it—lying on a cheap cot. The room I was in was reasonably spacious, albeit not as high-ceilinged as some would like, and smelled of long-term habitation.
“You’re up,” Brick said from somewhere nearby. He sounded vaguely surprised.
I looked around frantically, still panicky and disoriented, until I located the sorcerer sitting on the floor about ten feet away. He was wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans two sizes too small, and smelled almost as filthy as Katie. I was a little scared by that, until I realized that he looked to be in much better health than they were. Brick was a far better mage than either Katie or Mike had ever been, but I was pretty sure he would have shown some effect if he were involved in summoning that monster.
“Where is this?” I said haltingly. My heart was still pounding, and I thought it would be a while before I forgot what I’d seen in the spirit world.
“I’m not totally sure,” Brick said, leaning against the stone wall and stretching his legs out casually. “Those nutjobs stuck me in here about two weeks ago. I haven’t gotten out since.”
“How’d they get you in the first place?” I asked. I’d been wondering about that for a while now. I was pretty sure Brick stood no better of a chance against their new and improved talents than I did, but unless I was mistaken they’d hit him before they summoned their monster.
“Katie kept me busy, and then Mike blindsided me. He locked me in some sort of dream sequence, and then woke me up here.” He grimaced. “Teach me to overlook a shaman.”
So Brick hadn’t been able to get out of the spirit world? That was interesting. I wondered whether I was just more experienced or better able to recognize what I was looking at, or my subconscious had been right and Mike hadn’t understood what I was. Something to think about later.
“Why haven’t you left?” I asked, standing up. My hand hurt like hell, and I was a little hungry, but otherwise I felt fine. I was guessing that meant I still had a little time before the shit hit the fan. I just wished I’d known how long; Katie and Mike had taken all my stuff before they dumped me here, and I couldn’t really estimate time underground.
Brick looked about as happy as I felt. “Mike again. He did something to stop magic from working in here. We can’t get out.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said grimly. I was truly pissed now. There were a lot of things I could forgive; Mike had done the one I couldn’t. “Where’s the door?”
The door turned out to be a massive, ugly thing deeply inset into the stone of the walls. It took me about thirty seconds to determine that Brick was right about our chances of getting through it. It appeared to be solid steel, and could have laughed off a battering ram. It was hung to open inward, and there was no handle on our side.
I’m pretty good with locks, but that only really works when there’s a lock to work with. This door didn’t even have a latch. And, inhumanly strong or not, I didn’t think I could kick this thing down. What Brick had said about doing magic in here was true, too; I tried several times, but no matter how I strained, I couldn’t stir even the tiniest breeze, or bend a shadow even slightly. There was just nothing there.
I sat down in front of the door to think about it. Brick went back to sitting against the wall, his attitude making it clear that he was waiting for me to give up. No surprise; he didn’t realize what a short deadline we were on. Heck, if his senses were locked down that tight, he might not even know what they’d been getting up to.
A couple minutes later, I grinned. Then I closed my eyes and concentrated. I was really hoping Mike hadn’t realized that I was more than just a werewolf with some magic tricks. Considering the Inquisition’s track record for competency, I thought it was a reasonable hope.
Whatever he’d done, it wasn’t powerful enough to keep Tyrfing away. When I put my hand down, it came to rest on the sword’s hilt naturally, as though I’d known it was there. I stood up, drawing the sword, and stepped forward.
The door was thick, heavy steel. It took me almost five minutes of swinging to embed Tyrfing deeply enough to stick. Once I had, I managed to twist the blade and use it as a lever, pulling the door open far enough to catch it.
“How did you do that?” Brick asked. His voice was quiet, almost awestruck.
I laughed, and Brick flinched away. Maybe he could hear the wolves and the wind, howling beneath the surface of the sound. Or maybe it was just a scary laugh. “Mike doesn’t understand the first thing about me,” I said, in a cold, remote voice. “Or he would have known better than to think I’d be caged.” I pulled the door open, and held it long enough for Brick to follow me out. It slammed shut behind us with a hollow boom. Katie might hear it and realize that we were getting out. That was fine. I hoped she did.
“What’s going on?” Brick asked, sticking close to my heels.
I smiled a wide, cold smile as we moved forward into a dark, low-ceilinged tunnel. White globes on the walls cast enough light to see, but not enough to make out any details. “What it comes down to,” I said to Brick, “is a con game. The thing about a con game is that every layer you add makes all the previous layers obsolete.”
“I don’t get it,” he said, sounding almost plaintive. He was lost and confused, and totally out of his depth. So was I, but I was a lot more used to it. Brick was a Watcher, a certified magical badass; he was used to being the one terrifying his enemies and running circles around people, not the other way round.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said kindly. “Listen, we’re outside the radius of whatever Mike did to shut down magic. Can you open a way to the Otherside from here?”
“I think so,” he said after a moment.
“Good. Do that. Get away. Either stay on the Otherside or go somewhere at least a few hundred miles from Colorado Springs. Stay there until this all blows over. Can you do that?”
“Yeah. What will you be doing?”
My grin felt sharp and icy, more a wolf’s expression than a man’s, and more a monster’s than either. “Hunting,” I said softly, and turned away into the darkness.
What I’d said to Brick was true. This whole thing—everything that had happened—was nothing but an enormous, epic confidence game. I wasn’t sure who was pulling all the strings—the obvious answer was Loki, but my gut said he’d gotten played just as hard as I had—but I was totally sure that strings were getting pulled.
Well, I’d had just about enough of getting my strings pulled. It was painfully clear that there were always going to be games being played around me. This time, I’d chosen to play one of my own.
I’d known that my little chat with Katie wasn’t going to end well. There was just no chance that I was going to get through to her, particularly when she was unbalanced by the stresses of the magic she’d been doing. Thus, I’d had Aiko waiting with a sniper rifle.
Katie had known that I knew that things would devolve into violence. Thus, she’d been prepared for me to throw the first punch. My treachery, if you could call it that, hadn’t caught her by surprise at all. She was too well acquainted with how I operated to expect me to fight fair.
I’d known that she would know that. Katie’s not a moron, and she’d seen me throw sucker punches and arrange traps often enough that she wouldn’t be terribly surprised by one more. I’d also known that she didn’t really, truly want to kill me. I’d been gambling that she would use a nonlethal takedown instead, and that I would be able to get loose. So far I’d won on both counts.
Katie knew that I would foresee that possibility. Thus, she’d taken all my stuff. I had no doubt that she was fully expecting me to get out of Mike’s lotus-eating trap, and she couldn’t seriously think that I would be caged by a heavy door and a little bit of shamanic magic. By depriving me of my equipment (I didn’t even have clothes, although I was too focused to pay much attention to the lack) she’d gone a long way towards defanging me.
I knew that I couldn’t expect Katie to rely on me being held captive, and would take measures to weaken me if I should get out. As a result, I was carrying several different tracking devices. They were not your cheap, run-of-the-mill products; even deep underground, at least one of them should have been able to get some kind of signal out. Once they pinpointed my location, backup would have a fairly easy time getting to me. It wouldn’t be as simple as walking in the front door, but I’d called in some fairly heavy movers and shakers; they’d get there eventually.
I had no doubt that Katie had seen that coming, as well. Using myself as bait and then bringing in hardcore backup was a tactic I’d used in the past, at least once that she definitely knew about. She’d be a fool not to search me for tracking devices. I was pretty sure she’d found and disabled all of them.
And, naturally, I knew that she would do so. Those devices hadn’t even been broadcasting to anyone. I didn’t know anyone with a better chance of taking them down within the time limit than I had.
There was no backup coming. Aiko, with any luck, was already in France, and everyone else who might take me seriously had gotten instructions to run hours or days earlier.
I wasn’t here to play games with Katie and Mike. I was here to kill them.
I wished that I knew how long I had to do the deed. I didn’t have any way to tell how long Mike’s little trick had kept me down. I might have only been out for half an hour, in which case I still had a couple of hours before dawn. Or it might have been a week, in which case the city had already been destroyed and I’d only survived by being underground. I just didn’t have any way of knowing.
That was incredibly stressful. At any moment, the world might dissolve into the fire of a mad god’s wrath, and I would have no warning. I resented every moment that I wasn’t running them down.
I forced myself to slow down and think it through anyway. Rushing in would just waste time I didn’t have available, even if it didn’t get me killed horribly. With half a million lives riding on me getting this perfect, I couldn’t afford to take chances.
The problems I’d listed for Alexis earlier were still valid. These tunnels ran for miles and miles, and I had no idea where in the complex I was right now. I’d never gone back and explored them after I took out the lunatic that owned the place; there were too many bad memories associated with it. Just now I was starting to regret that.
That made my task very simple. I needed to localize, reach, and kill my prey, as rapidly as possible, with no mistakes and no hesitation. That made my next step an obvious one.
Normally, I take ten minutes to change. In a rush, I can cut it down to five, at the cost of considerable pain.
I wasn’t sure whether I’d ever been in so much of a rush as I was right then. I started the change and then forced it, faster and faster, throwing magic at it desperately. I kept moving as I did, which I’d never tried to do before, shambling along down the tunnel. There didn’t appear to be any branches on this path so far, which made it easier to choose where to go.
It hurt. Oh, it hurt. It felt like pumping acid through my veins. My muscles screamed at me, and putting weight on a bone while it’s in the process of changing shape was an agony like nothing I’d ever experienced. At some point I fell, and when I rose it was on four feet. My joints screamed, burning, as I forced them to carry my weight without giving them a chance to align themselves properly, and it was all I could do not to scream. Where I walked, blood and frost mingled on the ground.
But I never stopped. Amazing, really, what you can do if you want it badly enough. I just wished I hadn’t needed a catastrophe quite this serious to discover what I was capable of.
By the time I’d reached the first intersection, perhaps a hundred yards or so from the cell door, I was fully lupine. Brick had completed his portal and vanished to the Otherside by that point, which was some small gratification; I’d saved at least one life tonight. I was panting pretty hard, but I’d gotten my legs back under myself, and the stabbing pain in my knees had died down to a dull throb. My left forefoot hurt like hell every time it touched the ground—changing had helped the healing process a little, but not nearly enough. I forced myself to ignore it.
At the crossroads, I lowered my nose to the floor and took a deep breath. I was assaulted by a wave of odors, foremost among which was a dry, dusty scent, the smell of long neglect in a place that never saw the sun. Under that, and not deeply, was the stench of human bodies gone weeks without a shower. Katie and Mike had passed this way, and recently.
I was expecting to have to work for it—like I’d told Alexis, parsing scents wasn’t something I’d practiced as much as I should have. But as it turned out, it was so easy that I don’t think I could have missed it if I tried. Katie and Mike were both a great deal more pungent than most people, and there weren’t a lot of scents to compete with down here. It helped that it was underground. With no wind or rain to wash things away, an odor could last for years down in the dark.
It took me maybe a second and a half to establish that one of the paths leading from the intersection had been traveled repeatedly, while the other two had seen little if any recent use. That tracked; this tunnel complex was far larger than the two of them could possibly need on a regular basis. I was guessing that there was a relatively small section that saw consistent use, while the rest went empty.
I turned down the tunnel that smelled of use and started running.
I started out at a normal, sane wolf’s speed of perhaps thirty miles per hour. Then I sped up, until I was doing maybe fifty through the tunnels.
It hurt. A lot. My maimed limb was not, in any way, healed enough to take this kind of abuse. I ripped the half-healed skin open almost immediately, and I knew I was leaving a trail of blood behind me. Ordinarily that would have been a cause for some concern; if a mage gets a bit of your blood, they can use it to do horrible things to you. As it was, I had bigger fish to fry.
As it happened, though, it was more of an immediate problem than I’d thought. It turns out that a layer of blood between your foot and the floor isn’t all that great for your footing. The loss of a few toes had also wrecked my balance, and the floor was too smooth to provide much traction. The first time I tried to take a sharp corner, following the scent down the only tunnel that had seen any recent use, my feet slipped out from under me, and I went sliding into the wall.
For the record, sliding into a stone wall at the next best thing to fifty miles an hour is not anyone’s idea of a good time.
It took me a minute to get my breath back after that. I was pretty sure my ribs were cracked, too, which was a lot more painful than it sounds. I went more slowly after that, and took care with corners.
Thirty miles an hour is still a pretty good pace, though. It took maybe half an hour, during which I only got sidetracked twice, before I started hearing voices. They belonged to Katie and Mike, indisputably; the sound was too faint and distorted to make out any words, but I knew whose they were.
I slowed down at that point, until I was only moving at a fast lope (which was still almost a sprint for a normal human, granted). I had no idea how far away they were—sound carries strangely through tunnels—but I didn’t think I could be too careful. I couldn’t take them in a straight-up fight anymore, that had been made abundantly clear earlier. I was only going to get one chance to sucker punch them, and I had to make it count for as much as I could.
After another five minutes of walking, I saw a brighter light up ahead. The voices were louder now, and clear enough that I could make out words easily. I slowed down even more, until I almost crawled up to the tunnel mouth.
I was looking out onto a massive chamber, lined with cut stone. It was about a hundred yards square, and thirty yards tall, with numerous tunnels leading off of it. The one I was in was at floor level, midway along one side of the room. Maybe forty yards away, in the center of the room, Katie and Mike had set up shop.
I’d seen a lot of magic circles in my life. Almost every spell more complicated than quick and dirty combat magic used one. It prevented natural currents of power from disrupting the structure of the spell and provided a foundation for the more complex layers to build upon. They vary a lot, though, in appearance and function. For a simple spell, all you needed was a ring of steel set in the floor, a bit of spray paint, a few stones set out at strategic locations—almost anything would do. It didn’t even need to be circular; that was just the easiest shape to envision.
More complicated spells tend to use more elaborate circles. They might involve multiple layers, designed to perform different functions. They almost always require a variety of materials and objects, meant to resonate on an energetic and symbolic level with the task being performed and the mage casting the spell. I’d seen circles with half a dozen layers, made of precious metals and other exotic materials.
I’d never seen one quite like this, though.
The outermost edge of the circle was thirty feet across, laid down in silver. Then came a foot of blank stone, in which were painted all manner of symbols. Most of them were simple geometric patterns, meant to channel energy into a certain shape. I also saw a number of runic inscriptions. The runes had no intrinsic power, but they expressed a meaning, helping to focus the mage’s intention. The designs were painted in a dozen colors, crossing and overlapping to form an intricate, almost fractal look.
The inner bound of the designs was at another circle. This one was a deep groove, maybe six inches across, filled with water. The water moved counterclockwise around the circle, at a fairly brisk pace; they must have had some sort of pump installed. Inside of that was another trench, this one filled with some sort of slow-burning oil. The flames were a pale, sickly looking green, and formed a wall almost as tall as I was.
Inside of that was the monster.
It looked much the same as when I’d seen it previously, a roughly spherical shape perhaps ten feet across, hovering close to thirty feet above the ground.. Thirty or so appendages sprouted from its surface, without any apparent order to their placement. They were almost eight feet long, and writhed continuously. The only difference I could see was that it didn’t seem to be destroying the integrity of the world around it, presumably because it was caged in the circles.
The thing had grown, since I’d seen it last. That couldn’t be good.
Mike and Katie were sitting in a smaller circle, between me and the monster. The interior of this circle was hardly big enough to fit them both, but it was just as elaborate as the circle holding the monster, and looked about the same. The flames were only knee high, and the water wasn’t moving quite as quickly; other than that, they were identical. Both of them were staring at the thing they’d summoned, as though entranced by its ceaseless movement.
I’d thought that they looked horrible before. I was wrong. Mike had lost another ten pounds, and it looked like his hair was starting to fall out. Katie was….well. Imagine the scariest cyborg you’ve ever seen in a movie, and double it. Half her chest was held together only by shadows. They still looked just as unnaturally thick and oily as when she’d summoned them, and they pulsed rhythmically, like a second, horrid heartbeat. She’d lost more weight, as well, to the point that she would make someone starving to death feel better about themselves. It looked like a stiff breeze could knock her over.
“We should move,” Mike said. His voice was dull, lacking any animation whatsoever. “Winter found us. It’s possible that someone else will.”
“No,” Katie said. Her voice was quiet, and skittered oddly across tones. No wonder I hadn’t been able to overhear them clearly; both of them sounded wrong, as though they no longer quite remembered how to talk. “We don’t have anywhere else to keep it.”
“So let it go. We can summon it again when we set up another location.”
“Where can we go without attracting attention?” Katie asked rhetorically. “No. We finish this tonight and then let it go for good. Just one more push.”
Well, that wasn’t good. Looking at them, I was sure they couldn’t keep control when they let it out of the circle this time. Using the vast, unnatural powers they’d gained clearly took something out of them. If I gave them a chance to get started again, everything I’d done would be for nothing.
I resented the time lost. But I needed to be lethal, instantly, on the very first stroke, and I only had one weapon that might be capable of that where two .50-caliber rounds had failed. So I took a deep breath and changed again.
The pain was, if anything, worse this time. I wasn’t used to changing this often, and the less time you left between changes, the more they hurt. On top of that, I was starting to feel seriously tired. But I pushed it as hard as I could, and five minutes later I was human again, lying on the floor. I was breathing harshly, but I’d made almost no noise during the change, and they hadn’t noticed me.
I’d lost track of the argument through the pain, but apparently Katie had won. The two of them were chanting, now, in a language I didn’t recognize. The smell of magic filled the room, terrifyingly strong. The scent was the disinfectant-like odor of human magic, touched with a sick, rotten undercurrent that was painful to smell. The monster seemed to be responding to whatever they were doing; the churning motion of its tentacles had slowed somewhat, and it appeared to be descending towards the floor.
I started moving out onto the floor, and almost tripped on the first step. I was just too tired, in too much pain, to be graceful. My hand hurt like hell, and hadn’t stopped bleeding. My ribs were definitely cracked, and it hurt to breathe. I was scared there might be internal damage, too; sliding into the wall like that was a great way to cause internal bleeding, or even rupture organs.
But I couldn’t afford to be less than perfect. So I did something I very, very rarely did, and with good reason.
In my nightmarish sojourn to the spirit world, I’d seen a lot of faces of myself, most of which I didn’t care for. One of them had been a wolf, tightly bound and muzzled. It didn’t take a genius to figure out the metaphor there. I’d always kept that part of myself under a tight leash. It was wild and dangerous, lethal power without conscience or restraint. It was never made to deal with the modern world, with the small indignities and civilized restraints that society demanded.
But I didn’t care right now.
I wasn’t wearing fur. That didn’t matter. A lot of young werewolves assume that the wolf is just another body, but that’s wrong. The wolf was a state of mind, a part of me. Wearing a different shape made it easier to dismiss, but deep down I’d always known that the thing standing in the way of my dreams of peace was that the person having them was me. There had always been a wolf inside my skin, whether I could turn into one or not.
So I took a deep breath, and then I took the muzzle off.