This one wasn’t a formal meeting at a neutral location. In fact, the person I was here to meet didn’t know I was coming at all.
There was a very good reason for that. Selene hadn’t been able to dig up much on the leadership of any of the independent factions—apparently they’d all been content to keep their activities quiet until recently.
But Shadow was the spokeswoman for the camp that felt that people with magic were better than normal humans, that they deserved to be in charge. They were a group that was defined by a serious and extreme agenda, and apparently they were willing to use violence to advance it, even while the world was going to pieces around them.
The funny thing was that, on some level, I understood where they were coming from. When you can stop bullets, or bench press a small car, or blow things up with your mind, it can be hard not to look at a plain old human being and think of them as lesser. People on the fringes of the supernatural got used to being marginalized, from both the connected players and normal society. It wasn’t hard to see why Shadow had been able to attract followers under the platform of “It’s our turn now.”
And just from that, I could be fairly confident that Shadow wasn’t the kind of person who would respond to diplomacy and negotiation. Someone who thought of personal power as the appropriate basis for societal power, who wanted to move up in the world and instantly looked to move someone else down, had a very different outlook on life than the idealists I’d met with earlier.
I intended to convey my message in terms that she could understand.
So rather than a restaurant or a park, we pulled up in front of an apartment building. It was nice enough, as such things went, a fairly small building with lots of windows. There was a guy at the front desk just inside the door who looked like he wanted to stop me. I just smiled at him and kept right on walking.
People don’t usually stop you if you look like you know what you’re doing, and this guy was no exception. Even though I was wearing a hooded grey-black coat, and accompanied by a ridiculously scary-looking husky. Snowflake wasn’t wearing armor, and mine was covered by the cloak, but it was still not the sort of ensemble that you should probably let walk into your apartment complex unchallenged.
Then again, maybe he was calling the police behind us. It might not matter—I imagined they were too busy to respond to every suspicious person call. Either way, it was probably best to work fast.
I hadn’t been able to get Shadow’s residence narrowed down any further than this building, so I was going to have to find her apartment the old-fashioned way. I started on the ground floor, walking slowly down the hallway and looking for anything out of place.
I found plenty of things. The cat in 103 was in heat, and pissed off that she couldn’t do anything to relieve the tension. From 107 I caught the scent of raw beef, and lots of it. That had nothing on 112, where I smelled blood and camphor, and heard a low moaning coming from inside. I almost went into that apartment, until I realized that they had a pet dog and got a look at things through his eyes.
Then I realized what the residents were up to, blushed, and kept walking. I considered myself fairly open-minded on the subject—Aiko has a rather bizarre imagination, after all, and my pain tolerance and healing rate were both off the charts. It would have been somewhat odd if we hadn’t played around a little. Watching other people going at it, though, that was a different story.
I didn’t run into anything else quite that exciting as I finished surveying the ground floor, but there were plenty of other oddities. It was amazing, really, all the things that happened behind closed doors. This was a pretty normal apartment building, pretty bland, and after a casual examination of the place I still had a ridiculous amount of blackmail material.
I finished looking around and moved up, doing the same thing on the next floor. It was a good thing that it was a smallish apartment complex; I couldn’t have done this in a really big place. But there were less than two dozen apartments per floor, and I only needed about thirty seconds to clear each one. It didn’t take too long.
Finally, when I was midway through the third floor, I caught what I was looking for. Apartment 309 smelled of magic, the sharp disinfectant tone of humanity cut with a shot of darkness. There was something odd about that smell, something I hadn’t encountered before. It was quiet and dusty, but there was something about the scent that was deliberate, the result of action rather than chance.
To put it in simpler terms, there was the darkness you got when you couldn’t see, and the darkness you got when you closed your eyes. This was the second one, and I didn’t know what that meant.
There was nowhere to go but forward, though, so I walked up and knocked on the door. I had to knock a couple more times before I heard rustling cloth inside, and then it was almost another minute before footsteps approached the door.
I hated not knowing what was going on. There were no pets in this apartment, so I had nothing to go on but what I could hear from outside to guess what was happening.
Finally, just when I was contemplating picking the lock and going in, the door opened a few inches before being caught by the chain. The woman on the other side was short and thin, with brown eyes and dyed-black hair that was rather disheveled. She was wearing a black robe and a black mask that covered everything but her eyes.
“Hi,” I said dryly. “You must be Shadow.”
“Who are you?” she asked suspiciously.
“Winter Wolf. Can I come in, please? I’m afraid one of your neighbors will see us.”
She frowned at me suspiciously. But apparently she couldn’t think of a good way to tell me no, because a few seconds later she reached up and unhooked the door chain.
I went in, taking a look around the place as I did. It was a nice apartment, not terribly large, but nice. The furniture wasn’t ridiculously expensive, but it hadn’t been purchased at a garage sale or IKEA, either. There were a few bookshelves, with a whole lot of books stacked on them, mostly paperback fiction.
I took a seat on a leather couch that had seen its fair share of use. Snowflake sat next to me and rested her head on my thigh, where I could scratch her ears while Shadow locked up.
A few moments later she came back and sat on the other couch, which was at right angles to the one I was on. That gave both of us a decent view of the other, while also putting the coffee table between us.
“Would you care for some tea?” she asked after a few moments. It sounded like she wasn’t sure what else to say, so she fell back on that by default.
“Please,” I said. “Also, no offense, but I’ve gotta ask. What’s with the robe and mask?”
“I was asleep,” she said. “The robe was the simplest thing to throw on. As for the other…well, look at it from my perspective. If you got woken up by a strange mage knocking on your door, would you really want to answer it without some kind of protection?” She smiled wryly. “Obviously not, given what you’re wearing.”
“The armor serves a practical purpose,” I said defensively. “It makes sure that if someone tries to shoot me, it won’t work.”
“The mask is another kind of protection,” she said quietly. “Although not one that will do me much good here, I guess.” She stood up. “Let me get that tea.”
It took a few minutes for the water to boil, which I mostly spent scratching Snowflake’s ears and trying to reconcile this homey apartment and being offered tea with a power-hungry faction of mages.
When Shadow returned, she’d ditched the mask and traded in the robe for a black T-shirt and jeans. Without the mask her face was a little pale and visibly freckled. Her hair was still mussed, but now it was artfully mussed, the sort that happened on purpose for stylistic reasons.
She set two cups on the table, followed by a jar of honey, a small pitcher of cream, and a teapot. She made no move towards either cup, letting me choose. Courtesy in the supernatural world, particularly between those who weren’t quite enemies but certainly weren’t friends, had a lot to do with minimizing the possibility for assassination.
Not that I was safe. There were all kinds of ways to get around the standard precautions, after all. She could have just taken a preemptive antidote and then slipped the poison into the teapot, for example. But it limited the danger, and the fact that she’d done things this way said a lot.
“Thank you for the hospitality,” I said, taking one of the cups and pouring tea into it. It was something of a loaded phrase; the rules of hospitality were taken very seriously by the vast majority of supernatural beings. Do something to violate them, and you could expect very little welcome once word got out.
“Of course,” she said, taking the other cup. “Would you like some honey?”
“No, thank you. I don’t care for sweet tea.”
She shrugged, spooning some into her cup. “Suit yourself.”
I settled back into the couch, taking my helmet off and setting it next to Snowflake. It would be hard to drink while wearing it, and removing it would send another message, a less hostile one. “Okay,” I said. “No offense, but you’re really not what I was expecting.”
She raised one eyebrow, blowing on her tea to cool it. “Really?” she said. “And what were you expecting?”
“I’m not sure. Something a little less pleasant, I suppose. I mean, you’re the ringleader of the most aggressive, power-hungry faction of independents in town right now. No offense.”
“Is that how you think of us?”
“Your central tenet is that people who don’t have magic should be subservient to those who do,” I said dryly. “It’s kinda hard to interpret it any other way.”
She was quiet for a few seconds, then abruptly asked, “How many dogs are there within a block of us right now?”
“Nineteen,” I said instantly, then paused.
It was the strangest feeling. I hadn’t thought about that beforehand. Oh, I’d been aware of the animals nearby, but I hadn’t stopped to count them or anything. And yet, the instant she asked, I knew the answer, and there was no doubt in my mind that I was right.
“And cats? How many of them?”
“Twenty-four. I’m sorry, is this relevant?”
She shrugged and took another sip of tea. “How hard would it have been for anyone else to answer that?” she asked idly. “I mean, a ‘normal’ person, a plain old standard-issue human being, would have to work for it. They could go door to door and ask people, but that wouldn’t account for strays. Or they could do research on the demographics of the area and compare it to standard values, and maybe get in the right general area. Either way it would take a lot of work and the answer you get would have a certain margin of error. I ask you and I get an answer right now, no delay, no uncertainty. Just boom, there’s your number.”
“So you of all people should agree with me,” she said, setting her cup down. “When I say we’re better than they are, it isn’t racism or classism or whatever ism you want to call it. It’s a statement of fact, plain and simple. You’ve got access to information on a level they can only dream of. I can walk into their house right in front of them, pick up their treasured belongings, and walk back out, and they won’t do a thing to stop me.”
“Can,” I asked quietly, “or have?”
She smiled a little. “This apartment doesn’t pay for itself.”
I nodded. “So what you’re saying is that might makes right. We have the power, so we should use it. Is that about right?”
“I guess so, yeah. Although it’s really not any different from what you’re doing, is it? I mean, I’m not going to pretend I know everything you do, but you’re taking power, right? Taking control?”
“That’s different,” I said, although I didn’t sound convincing, even to myself. “I’m doing it to help people.”
“Sure,” she said. “I get that. That’s why a lot of the people with me are speaking up now, when they haven’t before. The old rules, the old protections, they don’t apply anymore. That means that we’re the only ones who have the knowledge and the power to keep people safe. But we can’t do that while we’re too attached to the way things have always been to move forward.”
“You know,” I said quietly, sipping just a tiny bit of my tea, “there are a lot of people that would say that you’re wrong. That the ones who have that kind of power should be answerable to the people, not the other way around.”
She snorted. “Yeah, right. Since when has that ever happened? Don’t get me wrong, it’s a nice idea, but the real world doesn’t work that way. The people in power always rig the game in their favor. I’m just not in denial about it.” She grinned. “Besides, if you really believed that, wouldn’t you be doing things aboveboard instead of just taking power by yourself?”
I winced. Shadow had scored a very palpable hit, there. “I get what you’re saying,” I said. “But there are a couple of things you’re overlooking. First, your estimates of relative power are whacked. There are like a hundred of them for every one of you, even if you convince all of the mages and minor talents to side with you, and they’ve got things a hell of a lot nastier than torches and pitchforks these days. Second, this is a temporary situation. Anarchy is a nice concept and all, but there’s too much pressure from above for it to last long. The major players want things stable and orderly.”
“And you don’t think that we could make things stable?”
“No,” I said. “Not in the long term. Have you ever read Leviathan?”
“It’s an old philosophy book by Thomas Hobbes,” I said. “The way he looks at it, the natural state of things is a lot like what you’re describing. It’s all about personal power, who’s the strongest, that kind of thing. But if you want a stable society, you need a unified government backed by something more than who has the biggest stick, you know? If the system is based on personal power and strength, then there will always be someone who thinks he’s the baddest guy around. Things will never really be stable.”
“That’s a fair point,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s the only way to run things. Think about it. How much of what you’re saying here is based on reality, and how much of it is just what you’ve been taught to believe? Right, wrong, good, bad, they’re all just rules that the people in charge made up to stay in charge, and keep the masses down. Well now it’s our turn, and we don’t have to listen to any rules but the ones we choose.”
I was still trying to think of how to respond to that, or how to convince her that what she was doing really wasn’t a very good idea, when there was a sudden boom outside.
Most people probably would have been confused then, or wondering what was happening. I wasn’t. I’d heard explosions before, and I knew one when I heard it. This had been louder than some, but not ridiculously, which meant that my ears were ringing but my balance wasn’t thrown off.
It only took a couple of seconds for me to be on my feet, Tyrfing in one hand, pulling my helmet back on with the other. Snowflake rose beside me, a snarl bubbling up in her throat, lips pulled back to show metal teeth.
Shadow was apparently no amateur herself, though. By the time I was ready to go, she was on her feet and looking out the window. A moment later there was another explosion, and this time I could see the red glow from outside. Somebody was starting fires out there.
“Unbelievable,” she said, letting the curtain fall. “That’s Newton. He’s one of my inner circle.”
“Not anymore, apparently,” I said dryly. “That’s the trouble with preaching the übermensch philosophy. Sometimes people take you seriously.”
“I’m not surprised he wasn’t loyal to me,” she snapped. “I’m surprised he was stupid enough to turn on me like this. He of all people should know better.” She turned to me. “Winter, I’m sorry, but we have to put this conversation on hold. You want to give me a hand with this, it might be good for both of us. Newton is…he’s not someone that you could have this debate with, let’s just put it that way.”
I pursed my lips and nodded. “Fine,” I said. “But you’ll owe me.”
All right, Snowflake said, sounding a little more excited than was comfortable. And here I thought today would be boring.