Monthly Archives: November 2015

Building Bridges 12.11

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I had some warning, some reason to expect things to get ugly. Not a whole lot of warning, but it’s amazing how much difference even a couple of seconds can make when it comes to that sort of thing.


It was enough time for me to brace myself. It was enough time to be ready for something bad to happen, even if I didn’t have any real idea what it would be.


The explosion wasn’t that large, but that was the kind of phrase that had to be appreciated on a relative scale. It didn’t level the building. It didn’t instantly kill anything and everything inside. It only really took out one wall.


But even a small explosion was still a force to be reckoned with. It threw me to the ground, knocked the wind out of me, and generally took the fight right out of me.


I was dazed for a second before I started pushing myself to my feet. Next to me, Aiko was also struggling back to her feet, grabbing for a knife as she did.


It was hard to figure out what was going on. The air was filled with smoke and dust, and most of the lights were out. The ones that were still on were flickering, casting the room into a chaotic mess of light and shadow.


About half the people in the room had been knocked out of their seats. It was worst next to the wall that had been demolished, a short distance to my right. Very few of the people sitting there were still sitting there, and a couple of the ones that had been knocked down didn’t look like they’d be getting back up. It was hard to say whether that impression was accurate—this was a Pack meeting, after all. Werewolves had a well-earned reputation for being quite hard to put down for good, and they weren’t the toughest creatures in the Pack. Even the people that looked like they’d been shattered by the force of the blast might be running around good as new in half an hour.


Maybe ten seconds after the explosion, people started rushing in through the gap in the wall. They moved like they knew what they were doing in a fight, and they were well-equipped. Each of them had some sort of bulky goggles strapped to their heads, and they carried assault rifles.


When they walked into the room, they started shooting.


They weren’t just spraying the room, the way amateurs would have. This was skilled, disciplined shooting, laying down tight, focused fire. One of the bullets glanced off my armor, and I felt a spike of pain even though it hadn’t penetrated. Silver, and heavily charged with magic.


The moment that happened, two things passed through my mind. The first was that I was sitting in a room with a hell of a lot of backup, for once in my life. Without even factoring in the people whose nature I wasn’t clear on, there was enough firepower in this room to level a city.


The second was that with the poor visibility, they didn’t necessarily know where to direct that firepower.


When I looked at it like that, it was pretty easy what I should do. I reached out and called the wind.


I wasn’t David. I couldn’t whip up a gale that shredded people like razors, or crushed them with the sheer force of its passing. I wasn’t walking artillery.


But I had something of a knack with air magic, and I had my bracelet to use as a focus, making the process much quicker and more efficient. And I was willing to throw a lot of power into this. The wind I conjured up wasn’t really a weapon, but it cleared away most of the dust and smoke in a couple of seconds, making it much easier to see what the hell was going on.


There were fifteen or so of the people with guns. They were identically equipped, and they were moving as a unit. These people had worked together before, enough to work together well. Between that and the quality of their equipment, I was fairly confident these people were professionals.


A couple of seconds after I cleared the air, one of the shapeshifters gestured, and sent a wave of fire at the gunmen.


It washed over them without so much as singing their clothes, though the building around them was left smoldering in its wake.


“Your sorcery can’t touch us,” one of the gunmen said, with a surprising amount of swagger in his voice for someone who’d just come within inches of being set on fire. “We’re protected.”


The skinwalker stood. I wasn’t entirely sure why I was aware of that. I could barely see her out of the periphery of my vision, and it sure wasn’t like she was the only person moving. But there was something about her that drew the attention, for no discernible reason. Elsewhere I might not have tried to put a label on the feeling, but here I could just label it dominance. She wasn’t a werewolf, but many of the same concepts applied, and I had the distinct impression that she’d have been one hell of a dominant wolf.


“You’re warded,” she said, sounding totally casual and confident. From what I’d seen of skinwalkers, I didn’t think that confidence was unjustified. “But not well enough.”


She didn’t gesture or otherwise show any sign of effort. But the guy that had been bragging broke. I couldn’t explain it any better than that. It was hard to see from where I was standing, but I was pretty sure that every joint in his body bent backwards, all at once.


He crumpled to the ground, instantly. He didn’t scream. I got the impression that his body probably didn’t have the structural integrity to breathe anymore, which made it pretty hard to scream.


But he tried.


After that, the fight was short, ugly, and entirely one-sided. Most of the mages didn’t seem able to get through whatever wards the gunmen had. I didn’t even try. Most of the people that preferred to mix it up in hand-to-hand were still dazed, off-balance, and too far away to take full advantage of their physical superiority. The gunmen had practically the perfect position.


But they’d tried to attack Conn Ferguson with just a handful of guys with rifles.


They never had a chance. I wondered whether they knew it.


The terrifying thing about Conn, on the very rare occasion that he let his real face show through the harmless mask, was that he didn’t look half as terrifying as he ought to. He didn’t turn into the Incredible Hulk, didn’t transform into a monster. He still looked like a teenage kid, short and slender, closer in build to a mildly athletic geek than a bodybuilder.


Right up until you looked at his eyes. Conn’s eyes had always shown the truth behind the lie he told the world. His eyes looked old, and full of a bitter wisdom that no human had ever matched.


Now, I saw all of that, and also the violent wrath of the most dominant werewolf on the planet with someone trespassing on the territory he’d claimed.


I met his eyes for maybe all of a quarter of a second, then I looked straight at the ground, my head bowed. I damn near knelt, and if there hadn’t been a fight I probably would have. Conn typically didn’t care about open displays of submission; he was the boss, and he knew that with a certainty that made display unnecessary. But just now, I wanted to make it very clear that I was not his enemy.


He didn’t seem to be moving particularly quickly as he crossed the room. He wasn’t moving in a way that suggested he was running, his attitude wasn’t terribly rushed. But somehow he crossed the distance in less than a second.


They tried to shoot him, which almost made me laugh. I could have told them that was a waste of time. They couldn’t hit him on the best day they ever had, and even if they somehow pulled it off, it was just an assault rifle firing silver bullets. That was something you used on a werewolf, and this was the Khan.


He walked through them, and then he walked out the other side, not slowing down.


After he passed, they were dead. All of them. He hadn’t even grabbed a weapon. He didn’t need one. His bare hands were more than enough to get the job done. He shattered spines through their body armor, crushed skulls under their helmets, and he wasn’t even trying.


Conn continued out through the hole in the wall. A few people joined him—the French werewolf, the skinwalker, a couple of people I didn’t recognize. I didn’t bother following. Anything that crew couldn’t handle was so far out of my league I couldn’t even be a credible annoyance.


Aiko stared at the wreckage left behind for a couple of seconds. “Damn,” she said, putting the kind of weight on the word that was usually reserved for names of deities. “Überwerewolf has his angry hat on today.”


“That wasn’t angry,” I said. “Not really. You can tell by how the building’s still standing.”


She grinned. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew her well enough to see it in her posture. When Aiko really grinned, she did it with her full body. “You aren’t laughing,” she commented after a moment.


“I wasn’t joking,” I said. “Come on, we should check on the injured.”


There were only three dead, which was probably a minor miracle. One werewolf had taken a silver bullet in the eye in the first barrage of gunfire, and died instantly. Werewolves were tough creatures, but there were limits. A shapeshifter had been caught in the crossfire between two of the attackers, and took a couple dozen rounds in two seconds. Shapeshifters were tougher than humans, from what I’d seen, but again, there were limits.


The last corpse was the kitsune who had spoken up earlier. Aiko paused by that body, looking down at him.


“Did you know him?” I asked, more out of a vague feeling that I should say something than because the question made much sense.


“Nah,” she said. “Like, I knew who he was, but we never really talked. I just feel a little bad for threatening to tell people his son raped me when I was nineteen. Probably not a great experience to go out on.”


“Did he? Rape you, I mean.”


“Nope,” she said cheerfully. “But he didn’t know that. It was a pretty believable story. That kid was the kind who’d have done it if he thought he could get away with it. Nobody cried when somebody stuck a needle in his ear.”


“I thought people were laughing when you reamed this guy out,” I said after a moment. “Nothing you’ve said so far sounds funny in the least.”


“I said other things too,” she said.


I considered her for a moment. “You know what?” I said at last. “I’m not even going to ask.”


She grinned. “Smart move.”


And then we moved on, leaving the dead kitsune on the ground behind us.


There were more injured than dead, and I spent a minute trying to figure out what I should do for first aid, or triage. Then I realized how silly that was. These people were shapechangers, of one stripe or another. That was the whole point. That was what the Pack was. That particular talent wasn’t universally tied to a superhuman capacity for healing—Aiko was a great example of that. But there was a lot of overlap, and it looked like all the injured here were in the category that didn’t spend a lot on medical bills. If they weren’t already dead, they’d probably be fine.


So we just sat and waited for the people who’d gone out hunting to get back. Snowflake came in and sprawled across my lap, more for comfort than anything else, I thought. She tended to get stressed when things happened while she wasn’t around. She thought things went poorly for me under those circumstances. Considering how often she’d been right, I didn’t have a lot of grounds to argue with her.


After a few minutes, Conn walked back in, followed by the other people who’d followed him. He’d managed to get the blood cleaned up—I wasn’t even going to ask how he’d managed that—and looked like his usual self once again.


“Seems like it was just this group,” he said, taking me and Aiko off to a quiet corner of the room. “We’ve tangled with these people. They’re paramilitary, a bunch of people from police and military backgrounds with a hate on for magic. As far as we can tell they’re mostly going after werewolves, probably because it’s a target they don’t instantly lose against.”


“How did I not know about this?” I asked.


He shrugged. “There’s a lot to know about right now,” he said. “And these guys are new. Small-scale, so far, and they weren’t on the scene before things changed. You’ve had a lot on your plate since then, from what I’ve heard.”


“We all have,” I said dryly.


He chuckled. “Yes, well, I can’t argue with that. In any case, these people aren’t that much of a threat. They’re small-scale, and I don’t really see them hanging around that long. Too much opposition, not enough numbers. They’ve been more of an annoyance than a problem so far.”


I frowned. “Do they usually have warded armor?” I’d managed to track the protections down to spells woven into the body armor. It was solid work, generic and mass produced, but solid.


“That’s new,” he said. He didn’t say that he’d have known if they were wearing it before. Some things were just a given.


I nodded. “I thought so. And how’d they even know where this meeting was being held? No, I think there’s something more to it than that. At a guess, some people I annoyed were using them to get at me.”


He narrowed his eyes slightly. “Something you need a hand with?”


I shuddered. “God, no. I’m already on thin ice politically, here. The last thing I need is to get in more trouble by bringing werewolves into mage business. No, the only thing you can help me with right now is making sure I don’t have to worry about the Pack too, I think.”


“That should be dealt with,” he said. “You’d mostly convinced people already, and then when we were attacked, you instantly started helping. That says a lot. I talked to some other people while we were out chasing accomplices, and I think you’re in the clear.”


I relaxed a little. “Good. Thanks. I’ve got enough people after me without adding you guys.”


“Yes,” he said. “You’re leaving, then?”


“Yeah,” I said. “I’d love to stay and chat, but I think we’ve both got enough things to keep us very busy right now.”


“Yes,” he said again. “Good luck, Winter.”

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Interlude 11.y: Prophet

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The problem with leadership is that by the time you understand what the job entails, it’s too late to run for the hills.


Once upon a time, I’d dreamed of this. Holding this power. Being strong enough that no one could hurt me, that no one dared to try.


Such a tragic comedy, I reflected. There was so often trauma in our pasts. We were so badly flawed, broken before we were made.


I picked the robe up off the stand by the door. The white fabric was lighter than it looked. Woven through with magic until the heavy velvet weighed no more than a wisp of silk.


It felt much heavier than that, like donning a coat of gilded lead, dragging me down with a weight that was nothing physical.


They said that crowns weighed heavy on the heads that wore them. I’d never worn a crown, but if the feeling was anything like draping that robe around my shoulders, I could sympathize with the heads of state. It was like carrying the weight of the world on my back.


Outside, I stepped up to my podium. It was smooth, dark wood, lined with weapons on the back side. I had all the implements I needed to lay waste to a small nation, ready to hand. The robe I wore was better than armor. Lacking any of the above, I would still be a force to be reckoned with, an army unto myself. It had been ages since anyone really threatened me. Nothing less than a demigod could do much to me, and even from most of them I could at least hold out long enough to flee.


The only monsters that really frightened me were the ones inside my skull.


I was the first to step on stage. I was usually the first. That was my task. To look forward, to guide our course through all its twists and turns. Foresight was both my nature and my name, for all that I lacked it. The future was as cloudy to me as anyone else.


Not for the first time, I thought that my long-ago predecessor had done me no favors by lending me her title. She’d had the true power of prophecy, magic that could look down the winding roads that branched out into the future, the power to make time itself her pet. Of all the Prophets that had followed her, through all the centuries since, perhaps two or three had shared that gift.


They’d been quite mad, of course. Or perhaps they were saner than the rest of us, but either way, they only barely existed in the same world as human beings. One does not violate something as fundamental to the nature of the world as causality without certain consequences. Towards the end, they didn’t even share the most basic concepts with other people, even other mages.


The rest of us simply had to muddle our way through the murky waters.


Arbiter joined me on the stage, his robe of unrelieved black standing at the other end of the arc. He nodded politely to me as he stepped up to his own podium, with his own selection of weaponry. He and I had always had a solid understanding of one another. We were in similar lines of work, broadly speaking. We were the ones who held things together when they would otherwise fly to pieces.


One by one the rest of the Conclave joined us.


Maker, in his indigo, looked like he was taking things seriously for once. Proof, if proof were needed, that this was a very serious matter. He blazed with magic, caged power on a scale that dwarfed even the rest of us. For all his considerable skill, I knew it wasn’t his work I was sensing. He was carrying one of the first Maker’s weapons, one of those that we couldn’t use without breaking the world in ways we couldn’t necessarily fix. He nodded to me as well, his face eerily calm. He didn’t feel emotions, not the same way the rest of us did.


Keeper, dressed in warm honey-yellow, looked at Maker distastefully as she took her place. She had held that weapon in safekeeping for the entirety of her adult life. She knew better than any of us the destructive potential it held. Letting it out of her grasp must rankle. But she also knew why it had to be done, and her work had left her with a great understanding of necessity. This was not the only weapon that would be released from her keeping. Some of the most dangerous were being brought out of their cages and lockers even now.


Guide—the new Guide, not the old, and that I had to make that distinction still hurt on some level—looked overwhelmed, swamped in his green robe. This was his first crisis, and it wasn’t one that I’d have wished on anyone in that position. He was fundamentally a political animal, appointed because of who more than what he knew. He was utterly unprepared for this.


Guard carried himself more confidently, wearing an immaculate suit under the red robe. He met my eye and opened his mouth, closed it without speaking. He’d often spoken of this day in terms that were not entirely unfavorable, but now that it had actually come to pass, he had nothing to say. He’d never really wanted this, whatever he might sometimes have said. I knew that.


Watcher stood beside Arbiter, looking small and frail in her violet robes. It was a miracle that she’d lasted as long as she had. She’d made the most enemies of any Conclave member that I could remember. To have held firm for so long, blind and crippled and with remarkable enmity even within the ranks of her own organization, had required incredible force of will. She showed that will now, nothing on her face but quiet resolution, though what had happened must be breaking her heart even more deeply than my own.


Caller and Walker were the last to arrive, wearing orange and blue respectively. They looked concerned and serious, but they lacked the masked horror and despair the rest of us exhibited. They had less to lose than we did. The nature of their positions was such that they had little investment in this situation. Their work was centered in other worlds, only tangentially related to this one.


As they took their places at last, I turned my attention to the audience. There were thousands of them. I didn’t take the time to look past the surface. Time was a resource we did not have in abundance, and looking too deeply was painful when so many of them would die soon.


“Ladies and gentlemen,” I said, hearing the whisper of translators in the crowd like rustling leaves. “We are at war.”


Once upon a time, they’d burned us at the stake. Torches and pitchforks, drowning and hanging, had all been quite popular.


That had been a long time ago. Now they had guns. They had bombers and lasers. When they burned us now, they did it with nuclear fire.


And we retaliated in kind. How could we do less? We were as human as they, in some ways. We lashed out at them, the same as they lashed out at us. Our weapons were older and stranger, more abstract, but no less destructive in their own way.


We tore the world apart between us, and when we were finally done there was nothing left but ruins.


I blinked and looked away from the mirror.


Reminding myself of the worst-case scenario served two purposes. First, it reminded me how much worse things could be. The world wasn’t broken. I wasn’t going out to announce World War III. Things were tense between us and the normal humans, but it hadn’t escalated nearly that far. This was just a routine meeting, adjusting the budget now that the gods had finally made their play.


Second, it reminded me of how much worse things could be. The scenario I had just played out in my head was an unlikely one, but not impossible. One false step and we could slip off the path into the quicksand. All it would take was one mistake at a critical moment.


I didn’t have sole responsibility for that. But I might as well. As Prophet, I was the only member of the Conclave with no clearly defined role or job. The others had their areas of concern, their areas of influence, but I wasn’t assigned anything in particular. My job was more to make sure that the rest stayed on the path. I was supposed to ensure that things didn’t deteriorate to the point I’d just envisioned. We didn’t have a ruler—there was no leader of the Conclave. But when we negotiated treaties, it was my signature on the dotted line.


When I’d dreamed of holding that kind of power, I hadn’t realized quite what it entailed. I hadn’t imagined the responsibility.


It never occurred to me, until it happened, what kind of burden it was to know that my choices could decide the fate of the entire world.

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