Monthly Archives: December 2015

Building Bridges 12.23

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The contrast between Lucius’s house and the vampire hunters’ headquarters was striking.


It was a small, simple building. A rundown cube of a place, it looked like it might be older than I was. The neighborhood was a match for the building, quietly impoverished and faded. The people looked tired, worn down. Somewhere a radio played an old jazz song, quiet and distant, contrasting with the buzzing of flies.


It was a warm night. A very warm night.


My guide pushed the door open without knocking. It groaned quietly as we stepped inside, and he turned on a light. It was a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling.


Everything about this place felt…old. Tired. Snowflake looked around distastefully, and sneezed from the smell of dust.


The old man opened a door and led us down a flight of stairs. They were bare concrete, starting to crumble at the edges. There were so many stains that they didn’t have distinct outlines any more, blending together into a single mass instead.


At the bottom of the stairs, he opened another wooden door and we walked into the basement.


It was a kitchen. Linoleum floor, wooden furniture, another bare bulb for light.


“Sit, please,” our guide said, gesturing at the chairs. There were only three of them. “I will bring him.” He walked off down a narrow, slightly crooked hallway.


I glanced at Aiko, then shrugged and sat in one of the chairs. It creaked rather alarmingly under the weight, but didn’t actually collapse. Aiko had looked like she was planning on sitting on my lap, but she changed her mind at the noise and sat on the floor instead, resting her head on my thigh. Snowflake sprawled on the floor next to her, and she scratched the husky’s ears absently.


It was a few minutes before our guide came back. He had another guy leaning on him, an even older one. This man must have been well past seventy, and he carried the years heavily. His back was stooped, and even with the help he walked slowly, with a pronounced limp. The other man lowered him gently into a chair, then stood behind him, leaving the last chair empty.


“My name is Rafi,” the older man said. He said it like it had weight, like it mattered. Unusual in a human.


“My name is Winter,” I replied, in a similar tone. It felt…more solemn than most introductions.


“Winter,” he repeated. “It suits you. It wouldn’t suit me, I think. My joints ache when it gets cold.”


“I wouldn’t have thought it would get that cold here.”


“No,” Rafi said. “Not for you.” He looked at Aiko. “And you?”


“Aiko,” she said. Her tone was…slightly chilly. Not hostile, but less cheerful than usual.


He nodded. “And the hound?”


Please tell me you’re going to say something funny, Snowflake said. Come on, you know you can do it.


“Her name is Snowflake,” I said.


Boring as usual, she sighed. She shifted a little, pushing her head into Aiko’s hand.


“Snowflake,” Rafi said. “You’re a cold man, Winter.”


“I wasn’t always. But I’ve found that life will make you one, if you let it.”


He nodded. “True enough. Something to drink?”


“Only if it isn’t too much trouble,” I said. I wasn’t thirsty, but hospitality demanded a certain response. Refusing outright was at least as rude as taking too much.


Not that it probably mattered. Those rules mostly only mattered when you were dealing with particularly traditional, usually very old creatures, and Rafi smelled as human as anyone. But you couldn’t be too trouble.


He nodded. “Something to drink for our guests,” he said. The man lurking behind him walked to the ancient, battered refrigerator in the corner and started rummaging around in it.


“Tell me, Winter,” Rafi said. “What brings you to my home?”


“I hear that you’re fighting with vampires for…control, I suppose, is the word…of the city. And I’d like it if we could find a way to settle things peacefully.”


Rafi sighed heavily, and seemed to age ten years as he did. His face fell, and his shoulders bent further. “And if we don’t?” he asked wearily.


I paused. “I don’t want to hurt you,” I said. “But I think we both know that this fight can’t end well for your side.”


He nodded sadly. “That’s true,” he said.


The other guy returned a moment later, setting glasses of a frothy green liquid in front of us. He set Aiko’s on the table in front of me, after a slight hesitation.


I picked my glass up and sniffed at it. It smelled very strongly of lemon and mint, enough that I almost sneezed. I picked it up and sipped at it, but didn’t actually drink. This wasn’t from fear of poison—I was hard enough to poison that it was a relatively minor concern, for the most part, and I was pretty sure these glasses had all been poured from the same pitcher. Not a perfect guarantee, but enough that I wasn’t that scared.


No, I just wasn’t sure whether I wanted to taste it. Not if it smelled like that.


Rafi picked up his glass and drank with apparent enjoyment, then set it down with a soft click. “What brings you here, Winter?” he asked. “Truly. Why are you on his side?”


“Who says I’m on anyone’s side?” I countered. “See, I don’t think that ‘sides’ necessarily has to be a relevant concept here. Why are you fighting him?”


“He takes our young people,” Rafi said.


“From what I’ve seen, they want to be taken,” I said.


“Many of them don’t come back,” he said. “Many men and women have gone, and not returned.”


“Why would they?” I asked quietly. “Lucius has the world to offer them. And, meaning no offense, Rafi, but you don’t. Why would they stay here, given the choice of everything they want if they leave?”


Rafi looked like he’d been struck. He flinched away from me, then stared at the table. “We need them,” he said quietly. “If they leave, we have nothing. There will be nothing left of us. No one left when we are gone.”


“You know,” Aiko said, “it’s funny. Lucius is almost two thousand years old. But you’re the ones that are terrified of change.”


He started to say something, but she interrupted him. “No, let me finish,” she said. “He’s two thousand years old, but you’re the one that’s trying to cling to the past. If people don’t want to follow in your footsteps, taking away their way out isn’t going to solve anything. At best, it’s covering up the problem for a little while.”


Rafi didn’t look much happier about that. “Some of them die,” he said.


“Everybody dies,” I said. “Now look, Rafi, I have a question before we go any further. Lucius says you killed a few of his vamps. You as a group, I mean, not you personally. Is that true?”


He hesitated, then nodded.


“Nice,” I said. “But, uh…how?”


“There is value in the past, whatever your friend says. We have fought vampires before. We remember how.”


“I thought they were European.”


Rafi’s lips twitched. “Two thousand years is a long time.”


I snorted. “Fair enough,” I said. “So tell me, Rafi, why are you lying to me?”


“Excuse me?”


I sighed. “Come on. I’m not dumb. Reading about how to take down a vampire in an old book wouldn’t cut it. For one or two, sure. They’ve got enough weaknesses that if you know how to capitalize on them you could manage a couple. But we’re talking about going up against an organized, numerous group, one with plenty of resources and minions. We’re talking about going up against Lucius. He’s freaking ancient, and even when he was human he was a scary guy. If it was just a matter of you ‘remembering how,’ he’d have crushed you.”


“Perhaps you underestimate us.”


“It’s possible,” I admitted easily. “That’s one of the explanations I’ve come up with. You might be as far from human as anyone in this room, and just better at hiding it. You might be something that can go toe-to-toe with Lucius and walk away from it. That’s the first possibility.”


He smiled a little. “I don’t think that’s it.”


“Me either,” I agreed. “You don’t seem the type. Second, you might genuinely think that you’re winning, but be wrong. I could see him manipulating you like that. Maybe he’s using you as a tool to get rid of some undesirable people, or this whole thing is just a game to him.”


“I don’t like that idea much.”


“Understandable, and it’s got some holes, as well. Particularly the fact that he’s offering me a fairly meaningful payment for removing you from play, and a man like Lucius doesn’t do things without a reason. So that leaves the third option. You’re what you seem, but there’s someone else pulling the strings to make you a legitimate threat.”


Rafi shifted uncomfortably. “It is…possible that we have received some assistance,” he admitted.


I grinned. “Here we go,” I said. “From whom?”


“That would be us,” a familiar voice said from the stairs.


I turned and, as expected, saw a rather predictable trio at the top of the stairs. The man in the suit looked untouched, as did the guy whose abilities were still an unknown to me. The force mage was obviously starting to get tired, but she also looked excited, almost thrilled.


“I was wondering when you’d turn up,” I said. “Come on, have a seat. Only one chair left, I’m afraid, but your friends can stand. You can have a glass of…whatever this is.”


“We could kill you where you sit,” he said, not moving.


“Probably,” I agreed. “But who knows? I might get lucky. And Rafi’s sitting right there. Whatever you’re planning, I don’t think you can guarantee that he wouldn’t end up as collateral damage.”


“You think using him as a human shield will protect you from me?” he asked.


“You?” I shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get much of a read on you. Your friends, though? Yeah, I think it will. They think they’re the good guys here, and good guys don’t murder innocent old men.”


He didn’t glance at his associates. But they did glance at each other, and we all knew that I was right.


“That’s a bit of a low blow,” the man in the suit commented. “You really are scum.”


“You’re trying to kill me,” I said patiently. “And I’m disinclined to let you. If that makes me scum, then I’ll wear the title with pride. Now come on, take a seat. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”


He grimaced, and picked his way slowly down the stairs. The other two followed him, looking a bit uncertain.


“A drink for our new guests,” I said, looking at the vampire hunter. He, in turn, looked at Rafi, who nodded. Thus satisfied, the vampire hunter went and started getting more glasses of that green drink.


“So what are your names, anyway?” I asked. “Don’t think I’ve caught them.”


“What, so you can use it against us?” the force mage said. She was standing behind the chair, as I’d suggested, but she was fidgeting, shifting her weight, practically vibrating. I got the impression that she wasn’t much of a one for standing still.


“Mostly I just want something more convenient than ‘hey, you,'” I said dryly. “Here, I’ll go first. I’m Winter, and this is Aiko, and Snowflake is napping. Our host is Rafi. Now you go.”


“My name is Jason,” the guy in the suit said. He seemed vaguely amused. “My friends are Reese and Sarah.”


“Nice to meet you,” I said. “So how about you explain why you keep trying to kill me when I’ve repeatedly explained that I’m really not interested in fighting you guys?”


“We’ve been over this,” Jason said. “You need to face justice for your crimes. And if that means that we need to take matters into our own hands, so be it.”


“You keep saying things like that. But I haven’t actually heard what crimes you’re so upset by. Please, enlighten us. What have I done to offend you so freaking much?”


“You say that while you’re working for a vampire?” Jason shook his head. “Open your eyes, Wolf.”


“We were just going over this with Rafi, here,” I said. “Maybe you can explain it better than he could. Just what has Lucius done to merit summary execution for everyone that has anything to do with him?”


“He’s a parasite,” Reese said suddenly. “A leech.”


“Yeah,” I said. “I used to feel that way, too. But what do you think will happen if you kill him? You think the problems will just go away? That killing Lucius will somehow eliminate vampires? That it will eliminate the things that let him get so much power in the first place?”


“It’s not about that,” Reese said. “It’s about doing the right thing. Whatever it costs.”


“See, that’s the thing that really pisses me off,” I said cheerfully. “It’s not that things are shitty. It’s that the people who are trying to fix them usually end up making them worse. Because of that attitude, right there. Sometimes things aren’t black and white.”


“And sometimes they are,” Reese said. “It’s easy to choose the lesser evil. But if you do, you’re compromising with it. And evil’s never satisfied with a compromise.”


I rolled my eyes. “And if you don’t choose the lesser evil, you’ll usually end up with the greater by default,” I said. “Look, I’ll make this simple, since you guys seem to be allergic to complexity. Does anyone in this room have a comprehensive plan for what to do after killing Lucius, which they can plausibly carry out? One which doesn’t plunge Alexandria into chaos that will ruin more lives than he ever would.”


The room was very, very quiet.


“All right, then,” I said, clapping my hands. “That’s settled, then. If you come up with one I’ll be glad to hear you out, and I might reconsider my stance on the whole topic. But for the moment, keeping Lucius alive and keeping his organization intact does less harm than the alternative. So. Next complaint?”


Aiko giggled a little. Snowflake was still and silent, though I could feel that she was ready to move at a moment’s notice. No surprise there. We both knew how this would end.


“You’ve killed a lot of people,” Sarah said.


“Yeah,” I said. “Most of them deserved it.”




I shrugged. “I’ve made mistakes. I don’t think I’ve ever denied that.”


“Enough of this,” Jason cut in. “We all know where this is going. You killed Guide.”


I sighed. “Yes,” I said. “I did. While saving all of our asses from a nigh-apocalyptic threat. Doesn’t that count for anything? Some kind of amnesty?”


“Not with us,” Jason said quietly.


“So you won’t listen to the voice of reason,” I said. “Even though I’ve repeatedly offered you the chance to just walk away, you won’t let this end with anything other than a fight.”




“And there’s nothing I could say or do to change your mind, short of killing you?”


“No.” Jason’s voice was quiet and very, very final. Reese and Sarah didn’t look as certain, but they didn’t argue.


“Okay,” I said. “So you know, I’ve been recording this whole conversation. I’m guessing a recording of what you just said is enough to make a solid case for self-defense. So next time I see any of you, I’m going to be trying to kill you. Nothing personal on my part, but if I leave you running around, sooner or later you’ll get lucky. You might as well head out now, then. I don’t see this conversation going anywhere.”


“That’s where you’re mistaken,” Jason said, smiling broadly. It wasn’t a very nice smile. “You see, Wolf, we didn’t come alone. Benjamin’s been waiting outside compiling constructs while we’ve been talking. He must have a small army of them ready by now. So no, we aren’t leaving. We don’t need to postpone this fight any longer.”


“How rude to bring it into Rafi’s house,” I said, shaking my head. “Sorry about that, my host. Oh, and there are also two glaring oversights in your plan. First off, you think you’re the only one who thought to bring a small army and have them wait outside? Not even remotely.”


Jason nodded, like he’d expected that. “And the second?”


I grinned. “You morons,” I said, “were actually dumb enough to get within our reach.”

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Building Bridges 12.22

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It didn’t take long for the target to show up. Or targets, more accurately. There were four of them. They were all human, or else they were very good facsimiles of human. They looked human, they smelled human, they moved human. There were three males and one female, ranging from around eighteen to a solid fifty in age.


In spite of everything, I had to respect them. It takes a lot of courage, as a plain old human being, to go up against a vampire. They clearly understood the danger. I could see the fear in the way they carried themselves. They knew what they were letting themselves in for.


And they were willing to do it anyway. For the sake of a stranger.


Those were brave people. A bit dumb, but brave.


The oldest of them, a grizzled man who looked like he’d lived through more than one war, raised a scrap of paper and begin to recite something in Arabic. A prayer, most likely.


The vampire recoiled at the sound, and it wasn’t faking. Genuine expressions of faith were uncomfortable to vampires, even painful, and I supposed that theoretically they could be lethal. It was a complex reaction, one that had a lot to do with how malevolent spirits could be warded away with similar expressions of faith. A spirit was repelled because it was a creature of thought and meaning, and the meaning being expressed was one that was antithetical to its nature. It was something like acids and bases; the one opposed the other, potentially canceling it if there was enough of it.


Vampires weren’t spirits. But they were utterly dependent on their stolen life force, and their grasp on that life force was fragile. That was the root of many of their weaknesses, really. Anything that challenged that grasp was something they would instinctively avoid. It weakened them, and it could potentially kill them. That was why they couldn’t tolerate the sunlight, it was why they couldn’t enter a home without invitation, and it was why they were repelled by faith.


Against, say, Lucius I doubted this would have done anything. He was old enough, and powerful enough, that a great many things that worked on lesser vampires wouldn’t do much to him.


But this guy was a newbie. And when the man presented that scrap of paper—a written prayer, perhaps?—and started reciting the words of his genuine, strongly held faith, the vampire flinched. He began retreating into the alleyway, carrying Aiko with him.


I watched that part carefully. I really hadn’t been bluffing earlier. I was sure that Lucius could be enormously cruel to those that displeased him, but I was also sure that Loki could trump him any day, and if this vamp hurt Aiko I fully intended to hand him over to the mad god. I was certain that Loki would be overjoyed to take him.


But it looked like he was playing his assigned role. Aiko looked like she was scared and in pain—and she sure as hell played her role up, shrieking and kicking—but the reality was that he was holding her quite gently. It was harmless.


The vampire hunters bit. They bit hard. The four of them rushed into the alley after the vamp, calling out in Arabic. I didn’t understand them—I had no grasp at all on that language, though I’d at least heard enough from Aiko to recognize it—but it wasn’t hard to figure out what they might be saying.


“Showtime,” I said, returning my consciousness to my own body. There were some nods and murmurs as the order was passed down the line.


A few seconds later, someone cut a rope. The mechanisms holding the walls in place disengaged. I could hear the buildings collapse, cutting off the alley with several tons of debris. It was a fairly impressive crash; we’d basically collapsed large chunks of the buildings on either side into the alleyway. Not half bad, considering how little time they’d had to arrange the trap.


I heard the shouting a moment later, people crying out in Arabic. Or something like it. Honestly, my ability to recognize the language was probably nowhere near reliable, and I hadn’t checked what they spoke in Egypt. I wasn’t staying, after all. If I had my way, after tonight I’d never see this city again.


Once upon a time, I’d have kicked the door open, for the sheer drama of it. Not today. I didn’t feel dramatic. I felt old, and tired. So I opened the door quietly and stepped out into the alley. I didn’t have a weapon drawn. I didn’t feel the need. This wasn’t a fight. Four of them, a dozen of us, and they were the weakest ones present. We had positioning, we had preparation. Hell, we had snipers. That alone could have won this fight, I was guessing. Everyone else was overkill on a grand scale.


Which was my usual approach. But…usually it was against something where overkill was needed. These were just people.


I’d always thought of myself as the underdog, with reason. This was the first time I could think of that it had quite occurred to me that wasn’t necessarily true, anymore. Oh, against someone like Lucius, sure. Measured against Loki or Coyote, I didn’t even register.


But here and now? With these people?


They were the scrappy underdog. And I was the big bad wolf.


The vampire tossed me a mocking salute as I stepped out. Then he jumped, easily grabbing the edge of the roof and pulling himself up. You could do that, when you were that strong and you weighed that little.


The vampire hunters recoiled from me, Then the doors opened behind them, and more of us came out from there. My people spread out in a loose ring, enclosing them with me.


Aiko walked over to me, grinning widely. Snowflake stepped up a moment later to stand on my other side.


“Why?” the old man said. “Why do you do this? You are not one of them.” His tone made it almost a question.


“No,” I agreed.


“Then why? Why would you defend them?”


I sighed. “It’s complicated,” I said. “I don’t…disagree with what you’re doing, exactly. But I’m not comfortable with some of the details of how you’re doing it.”


“Neither am I,” he said frankly. “But sometimes we must do things we do not like to achieve a worthy goal.”


“I know what that’s like,” I said. “I guess in a way that’s what I’m doing here.”


He nodded. “The beast sent you.”


“The beast?”


“Their leader here. You were seen leaving his home.”


“Ah,” I said, understanding. “Lucius is the name I know him by.”


He gestured dismissively, the meaning very clear. It doesn’t matter. “Why do you help him?”


I thought about it for a minute, trying to think of how to respond. He didn’t seem inclined to rush me. I could feel Snowflake getting impatient, but outwardly she was utterly still.


“I’m tired,” I said at last. “I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like fighting. I like the thrill of it, the rush. I always have. But…I guess I’ve gotten tired of fighting for no reason. It seems like I’ve spent a lot of time fighting with people when in the end we really didn’t have much to fight about. And I feel like Lucius and I are probably in that category.”


“He eats people.” The man said it flatly, without emotion.


“Granted you know him better than I do,” I said. “But from what I’ve seen, he mostly eats people that want to be eaten.”


There was no response to that.


“Don’t get me wrong,” I added. “I don’t like it. I don’t like him, what he does, pretty much anything about him. I’m just not entirely convinced that he’s so awful that eliminating him is worth doing no matter what it costs.”


“His being hurts others,” one of the younger men said. “People more than you see there.” His English wasn’t as good, though it was still more or less understandable.


“I could say the same about how you were planning on removing him,” I said. “That kind of thing isn’t exactly a surgical strike. It would hit people beyond who you were aiming for.”


“True,” the older man said. He sighed heavily. “It can be hard to know the right thing to do.”


“I know that feeling,” I said wryly. “I’m guessing you aren’t going to show me to your leader.”


“No,” he confirmed.


I nodded. Fair enough. I hadn’t been planning on it. They’d left a trail coming here, I was guessing. Out of the people here, someone could follow it. I was fairly confident of that.


No need to tell them that, though. “Sorry about this, then,” I said, drawing a knife. “It’s nothing personal.” There was a soft, whispering chorus as a great many other weapons also left sheathes.


And then I heard a sort of crunching, grating noise.


“Oh, no way,” I said, turning towards the barrier of rubble. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”


There were more noises, and it quickly became clear that they were not, in fact, kidding me. The improvised wall of stone and wood was reshaping itself.


After only a handful of seconds, the last pieces shifted, forming a clear path through. It wasn’t built into an arch or anything like that. No, there was just an open aisle straight through the rubble, like there were invisible walls holding it open. It made me think of Moses parting the water. Except it was happening right in front of me, on a rather smaller scale.


Three people walked through. In the lead was a familiar face in a cheap suit. Magic sparked at his fingertips, something so subtle that it was almost impossible to detect. I didn’t recognize either of the people with him. One, a woman with long dark hair, had an expression of intense concentration on her face. I was guessing she was holding their path open. The last one was a much older guy with flinty eyes and a rather impressive mustache.


“Hello,” the mage in the suit said. “Seems we’re just in time.”


I growled. “What is it with you guys?” I asked, as the people I’d brought began to subtly shift position, focusing most of their attention on the newcomers. “I mean, seriously. What is your problem?”


“We’ve made this very clear,” he said, stepping through into the clear space. The magic holding the rubble out of the way snapped off a moment later, letting it collapse back into place.


“We want you to face justice for your crimes,” he continued, once the noise from the settling rubble faded. “And, in this case, we seem to be just in time to stop you from adding to the list. You know, Wolf, I’m disappointed. My opinion of you was never the highest, but I really thought better of you than to protect vampires.”


“I’m not protecting vampires,” I said quietly. “They were going to gas a residential neighborhood. I’ve got the freaking chlorine.”


“I seem to recall you doing something similar,” he commented. “Different choice of weapons, of course, but you do have a history of collateral damage.”


I opened my mouth, then paused. I…didn’t have much of a retort for that.


“You’ve got a point there,” I admitted.


“Not really,” Aiko said. “I mean, first off that vamp was actually, you know, doing things. There were actual reasons to stop her.”


“I did try to negotiate with her first,” I added. “For years. She just wasn’t willing to listen.”


The mage snorted. “You always have an excuse, don’t you?” he said scornfully.


“No, you know what?” I said. “Screw you. I did the best I could, within the limits of my ability. Including my ability to figure out the best thing to do. And if I’m stopping other people from making the same mistakes I did, it’s not because I’m a hypocrite. It’s because I’ve realized that my best wasn’t good enough.”


“How touching,” he said. “We’re still going to kill you, though. Pretty words don’t make up for all the things you’ve done.”


“Funny thing about that,” I said. “You didn’t seriously think that we’d triggered all of the traps before we came out, did you?”


On cue, one of the housecarls hit the wall, hard. Things broke, including the only really solid support left in that wall.


I wasn’t anything like an engineer. So I didn’t really understand how this system worked. But I knew the result. The rest of the building was stable, sort of, but it was only stable because it was leaning on that pillar. Knock it out, and the weight it had been supporting would fall on another part of the wall—one that wasn’t able to bear it. Like falling dominoes, as each portion of the wall collapsed in turn it would place more and more of a burden on the rest.


End result? After that first hit, things started going to pieces. And it was only a short time before the whole building collapsed into the alleyway.


And on the other side, the other building was rigged in the exact same way.


The really funny thing? When I’d first heard that there was a minor wizard in town who specialized in setting buildings up to collapse in highly controlled ways, I hadn’t thought she’d be worth much. Which, normally, she wasn’t—I hadn’t even hired her, really, because her talents were just too circumstantial to have on as a permanent position.


Just now, though, it was rather a useful knack to have on hand.


I started running, and the rest of my crew did too.


It wouldn’t kill them, of course. That force mage had held off a sizable proportion of this weight for the sake of that dramatic walkway, after all. I was confident that she’d be able to at least keep this off them long enough to get out.


But it would take all her focus to do so. And unless I missed my guess, she’d only been able to do that because the guy in the suit had been helping. Alexander had said that one of his abilities would be to increase the effective strength of other mages, and that would explain why I’d felt his magic as well.


If those two were busy, that left just the other guy to attack us. The three of them together was enough of a threat that I’d rather not chance it, but one? That I thought I could handle.


Apparently he agreed with me on that, because he didn’t bother us as we ran. We scrambled up over the barrier at the other end of the alley and kept running. After a few minutes, when we were pretty thoroughly lost in the alleys of the city, I finally slowed from a headlong sprint.


The nice thing about being lost is that is that it’s hard for anyone else to figure out where you are logically. I mean, if you don’t have a clue, it’s hard for anyone else to. I supposed they might have a way to follow our tracks directly, but I doubted it. If they did, they’d have been causing me a hell of a lot more trouble than this.


I did a quick headcount, and came up with everyone being present and accounted for. Good. The problem with that panic button had always been that it had a serious potential to go wrong. If someone was slow or unlucky, it could turn deadly very, very quickly.


But we’d gotten lucky.


I’m almost disappointed, Snowflake said to me. I was hoping we’d at least get some fun out of that.


I snorted. Don’t worry, I said. Something tells me we’ll be having plenty of that kind of fun pretty soon. For the moment, I’m fine with catching our breath.


After a couple minutes, I was starting to think about where to go next. It wasn’t obvious. On the one hand, I thought I could probably go back and sort out that trail. I could follow it back to the vampire hunters’…whatever they had. I wasn’t sure what to call it. But on the other hand, those mages were back there as well. I did not want to pick a fight with them. There was no way that would end well.


Before I could decide what to do, someone poked his head into the alley. It took me a second to recognize the eldest of the vampire hunters from earlier.


“Did you mean what you said earlier?” he asked.


I thought for a second, trying to remember whether I’d lied. I couldn’t think of any, so I said, “Yeah. I did.”


He nodded. “Good,” he said. “I will take you to speak to our leader.”


“Why’d you change your mind?”


He smiled a little. “I am tired of fighting for no reason,” he said.


I chuckled a little. “Touché,” I said. “Lead on, then.”

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Interlude 11.x: Lucius

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The problem with power was that there were limits.


I’d worked for my power. I’d fought for it. I’d struggled and schemed and bled, and in the end I won. I crushed my enemies underfoot. I was the most powerful man in the most powerful empire in the world. My people loved me, and my enemies feared me.


By any reasonable measure, I had achieved success. I had risen as high as any man could hope to.


And yet before the pale specter of death, I was as helpless as any plebeian.


The wars in the east had been successful. More successful than my last attempt, certainly, though that had served its own purpose. This time I had carved out a new territory for the empire. I had expanded our borders, devastating the Parthians in the process.


More to the point, I had captured several cities. Cities with libraries.


I was hardly the first man to be frustrated by my own mortality. It was, I thought, a universal feeling. It was a natural response.


In all these years of trying, someone must have found a way to surpass that mortality. I intended to find out what it was.


Some would call what I was attempting hubris. They would say I was going against the will of the gods, and that such things always ended in sorrow.


Those people, I thought, were small-minded. They couldn’t attain it themselves, so they consoled themselves with the assertion that it wasn’t worth seeking. It wasn’t an uncommon response, in my experience. How many philosophers had claimed that the powerful were unhappy, while neatly ignoring the fact that they themselves were miserable in their powerlessness? Diogenes in his jar could claim that decadent society left people confused and unhappy, but at the end of the day I doubted he was any more joyous in his poverty than I was in my riches.


To accept the limitations of one’s birth betrays a disappointing lack of ambition.


I had more respect for those who said that immortality should be sought in other ways. These people, I thought, had a more reasonable position. It was true that the works of great men lingered, and some names would be spoken forever. Would anyone forget Caesar, or Alexander, or Plato? Not likely.


But was there any satisfaction in that? I doubted it. They were still dead, after all.


And aside from that, achieving such a status was not an easy task.


I knew my own strengths. Humility was not a sin I had often been accused of. I was a skilled general. I was a skilled politician. I knew how to gain power, how to keep it, and how to exercise it. Within this narrow field, I was a genius. But my talents were not the sort that would be long remembered after I was gone.


I could have made Rome itself my legacy, as Augustus had. But I was wise enough to know that not even our empire, the greatest the world had ever known, could last forever. The people of the Nile were proof enough of that. In their day they had been the masters of the world, and none had ever surpassed the great monuments they built. But we had beaten them in the end, and left them little more than a memory.


The people who sought immortality through great works were to be admired beyond those who scoffed at the notion entirely. But it was still settling for second place, and I had never been able to tolerate that.


I much preferred the notion of living forever by simply not dying.


The libraries had proved useless, in the end. My scholars combed through them thoroughly, and all agreed on that. There was much mention of eternal life, of those who sought for it, and no consensus of how it might be won. After searching through all the works of the ancients, they had no answers for me.


Some of them dared to tell me that this was a sign. That I should give it up. Memento mori, they said. Remember that you are mortal.


I had them reminded of the broad applicability of this fact in a rather permanent fashion, and then arranged for more scholars. Ones with more ambition.


In the meantime, I fought a campaign in Africa, eradicating our rivals there and strengthening the defenses. While I was there, my scholars studied in Egypt, in Alexandria and in the tombs of pharaohs. I had, at considerable expense, arranged for various texts to be imported from the east.


All of them were useless. The alchemists attempted various concoctions, but half of them were poison and the other half did nothing. Not that I was foolish enough to test them on myself, of course. There was no shortage of test subjects for their experiments.


As the wise and learned had proven useless, I next turned my attentions to the barbarians. The shamans of the Germanic tribes, it was said, were given many strange powers by their gods. Perhaps, I thought, one of them had the answer I sought.


And this did prove to be more successful than my previous attempts. It was in Gaul that I met an immortal for the first time.


Despite all my searching, this meeting happened by pure chance. It was his whim, rather than any action on my part, which brought us together. He had heard that the emperor of Rome was in the area, and decided to see for himself.


Some of my guards tried to stop him. They failed, thoroughly. He didn’t even kill them. He didn’t need to. They ended up chasing him into my presence, although his confidence was such that they seemed more an honor guard than armed pursuers.


He did not abase himself before me, showed none of the respect which was typically paid to me. I couldn’t honestly blame him, though. His sheer presence was such that I almost felt that I should kneel to him rather than the other way around.


“Good day,” he said. His Latin was very smooth, very clean. He could have been mistaken for a senator or legate, from how well-spoken he was.


“And with whom do I speak?” I asked.


“My name is Conn,” he said. “Pardon the intrusion, but I had heard that you were staying here, and thought that I would come and greet you. I am a king myself, you see, though I recently abdicated the position. I found it growing tiresome.”


“I cannot imagine growing bored with governance,” I replied.


“One grows bored with all things in time,” he said lightly. “Tell me, oh mighty governor, what brings you to this corner of the world? You are far from Rome.”


To this day, I don’t know why I told him the truth. But I did, explaining my goals, and what I was looking for in this region of the world. I told him that I had looked for answers in the south and east, and found nothing, and thus I had come to the north and west to see what I could find here.


Conn listened throughout in patience and silence. When I had finished, he simply smiled. “I know what you seek,” he said. “You see, I am myself what you would like to be. I am old…older than your city, and then some. So you may rest assured that it can be done. But I won’t be sharing my secrets with you. I think that would end badly.” His smile broadened. “Well, thank you for satisfying my curiosity. I will be leaving now.”


“I could make you stay,” I said. “I could make you give me what I want.”


“No,” he said, with not a trace of fear. “You couldn’t. And if you tried, a great many of your men would die. Good day.”


He walked out, and I let him, because I believed him. Though he looked like a youth, I believed that he was ancient. And though he was unarmed and unarmored, I believed that he was a match for any of my men.


Afterwards, one of my guards said that this man Conn had sounded like a Briton. So we turned in that direction, thinking to find more of his kind. Preferably one who was not so…singularly impressive as he had been.


We were not successful. Or perhaps we were; how would I know? He had seemed like any other man, but for his commanding presence, and his strength. Perhaps there were dozens of them among the barbarians my legions fought.


In any case, it soon became a moot point. Another man arrived, not long after. I later learned that Conn had sent him to me, and my opinion of him improved when I did.


But at the time, all I knew was that a man had arrived, saying that I would want to speak with him. He knew enough of what I wanted to convince my officers, and eventually he was shown into my presence. He was an easterner, a Hun, or something like one.


Immediately, I knew that he was not Conn’s equal. He lacked that man’s authority, that presence that had so impressed me. Then again, even at the time I knew that few were on his level. The world could not have born many.


“I can give you what you want,” he said without introduction. “I can give you freedom from the ravages of time. And I will, if you serve me for a year and never once disobey, no matter how menial the work I give you is.”


“I could give you a great many slaves,” I said. “They could do more service than I, in that year.”


“You could,” he agreed. “And if I desired slaves, that would be meaningful. But I don’t. What I want is to see the Caesar on his knees, scrubbing floors.”


“I could have you put to death for speaking to me like that,” I said coldly.


“You could,” he agreed again. “But what would that gain you? Kill me, and your own death will still be just around the corner. Serve me, and it need never come.”


“I will require proof,” I said. “And time to put my affairs in order.”


“Quite understandable,” he said, smiling.


“Very well, then,” I said. “A year is a small price to pay for eternity.”


Not long thereafter, I died after a short and sudden illness. It was a simple enough thing to arrange, and it would be accepted by my people more readily than abandonment. There was no betrayal in dying at the whim of the gods, after all.


I left the empire to the rule of my sons, though I knew that neither of them was fit to hold it. Those who left their legacy in the form of their bloodline were blessed with better offspring than I. I had tried to impart the cunning which brought me to power, but neither one grasped it. They could repeat what I said, but they didn’t understand why I said it. I was confident that neither would hold power long.


Time proved me right. The one was a trusting fool, the other a raving madman. Both died in ignominy.


I served my year, and never once did I complain. True to his word, he killed me and brought me back, to feast on the lives of others and extend my own.


I murdered him afterwards, of course. I don’t share power gladly or willingly, as he would have known if he had any sense at all. But for all his age and all his power, he was still a great fool. I ended him easily.


The nature of power was much the same among my new peers as it had always been, and it wasn’t long before I was navigating the new systems as easily as I had the old. I set the established powers against one another, subtly, carefully, until at last they had been weakened to the point that I could seize power myself.


I returned to the continent of my birth at that point, making it the center of my empire. I lacked the total dominance over my peers that I had once enjoyed, but I had enough prominence to satisfy me. I had found immortality; I was hardly going to lose it battling even older vampires than myself for the sake of pride.


The city I had been born in was abandoned by that point, but Alexandria still stood. Though its libraries had failed me when I was there as a mortal, I still felt some fondness for the city. If nothing else it still existed, which relatively few things from so long ago did. I established the center of my power in Alexander’s city, where it has remained ever since, through all the many challenges I have weathered.

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Interlude 7.y: Carmine

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People call me a hedonist sometimes. I don’t think that’s entirely fair.


I mean, it’s true. I’m a hedonist. I won’t deny it. Hell, I’ll preach it.


I just don’t get how people think that’s a bad thing. The way I look at it, there’s a huge world out there, and I’ve only got a little bit of time to live in it. Nothing lasts forever, after all. So how is it something to be ashamed of that I want to experience as much of what the world has to offer in this tiny little slice of eternity that I get to spend in it?


And it’s not just about pleasure, or sex, or physical gratification. That’s maybe the thing I don’t get, out of all the things that make people upset with me. Sure, that’s all part of it, but only part. Not even really the most important part. It’s about experiencing everything, good and bad and in between. It’s about taking everything you can get, everything the world offers you and a little bit more.


It’s about living.


The party was a disappointment. The guy who’d invited me said that it was going to be crazy and intense, but of course most of the people there were boring. They just wanted to pretend to be hardcore, and I was looking for the real thing.


Most. Not all.


One guy was doing some crazy things with fire. I watched him for a while, but after a few minutes it started to get repetitive. Still pretty awesome, and it looked like it’d be all kinds of fun to do, but there was only so long you could spend watching before it started to get boring. Like golf, kind of. I made a note to talk to him after he was done, though. Anybody who did that for fun was worth talking with.


Another couple was doing a fast, intense fiddle duet. That was worth watching too, though I wasn’t nearly as interested in taking part in that show. I appreciated music, rather a lot, but I had no ability to actually perform it. It just wasn’t one of my talents.


More than anyone else, though, my attention was caught by a guy standing alone on the periphery. He wasn’t doing much, but there was something fascinating about him. I wasn’t even sure what it was. Something about his attitude, his posture, something told me he was feeling the same sort of bored indulgence that I was. Like me, he was disappointed by how tame this whole thing was.


I sauntered up to him, smiling. “Hi,” I said.


He grinned widely, in a way that emphasized his teeth. “Hi.”


I’ve got a simple rule, one that’s always served me rather well. I’ll try anything once.


I mean, you kind of have to, right? If you don’t try something, you can’t know whether you’ll like it. Sometimes the best things in life are the ones you never realized you wanted at all. I’d seen so many people that didn’t get into something until they were past middle age, and then they really got into it. Ask them what took so long, and the answer is, “Oh, I didn’t think I’d like it. It seemed like a bad idea. It was never the right time, and then there was the pension to think about, and the retirement fund, and the kids need to go to college.”


There’s always an excuse not to try new things. It’s easy to put things off until it’s too late.


I never wanted that to be me, and I acted on that.


The dance floor was crowded with gyrating bodies, nice shoes and fancy hats. The music was quick and exuberant, a brass section playing like it was all they ever wanted to do and a pianist so fast with her fingers that you had to check that there wasn’t two of her.


I danced the first round with a man who lived for it. You only had to look at him to know that dance was his life, that everything else he did was just passing time until he could get out on the floor again. He lived in the music, his heartbeat keeping time with the rhythm, the dancer and the dance mixed together until not even he knew where one ended and the other began.


When the music switched to something too slow for his taste, I found myself partnered with a girl who looked like she’d been built by an artist. Her skin gleamed like marble, her black hair in such effortless curls that I was sure she’d spent a solid two hours getting it just right. It was like a statue come to life. It seemed unfair to the world that bodies like that could actually exist in real life. Granted she couldn’t dance for shit, but still. God damn.


And then I was looking him. I’d seen him around a few times since that first party, spent a little while talking to him. His name was Francis. Not what most people would call a particularly manly or dangerous-sounding name, but he wore it well. He spoke it without an ounce of shame or hesitation, like he was daring you to make fun of him for it. Like he was just looking for a reason to beat your face in, and you’d make his day if you gave him one. Francis was the kind of guy who had a beef with the whole world.


I didn’t know much about him beyond that. He was sly, evasive on pretty much every topic. He danced around mentions of his family or his past, didn’t talk about where he got his money. He probably thought it made him seem dangerous, and interesting as a result.


The hell of it was that he was right. I knew it was an act, of course. But you had to respect someone who did it so well.


He smiled like a wolf and pulled me back out onto the dance floor. I was sweaty and tingling and alive all over, and I was loving every moment of it.


Nothing lasts forever. Nobody lasts forever.


People say they know that, but they don’t act like it. So many people live a life they hate, thinking they’ll be happy someday. In twenty years, or thirty, or fifty, they’ll be happy, they’ll be able to do the things they want to. Of course, they’ll be too old to enjoy it by then, but it’ll all be worth it!


And I suppose you could say that they’ll be happier overall, that the sum of the happy in their life will be larger than if they hadn’t delayed their gratification. But that’s a trap. Because what if you don’t last long enough to get that payoff? Suddenly you’ve got the worst of both worlds.


Because of course that’s the best part, the twist of the knife. Not only won’t any of us be around forever, we don’t even get to know how long we’ll be around.


When I was in school, a girl I knew died crossing the street. She didn’t do a thing wrong, but it didn’t matter. She got in a wreck with a drunk driver, except she didn’t have a car. Poof, gone. One day she had her whole life in front of her, a bright future and great prospects. The next they’re scheduling a closed-casket funeral. It’s that fast, that easy.


So why on earth would you put life off? You never know when that van is coming your way. Or you slip on the stairs, or catch a cough that turns out to be a little bit worse than you thought, and then a lot worse. Just like that. Poof, gone.


So I say get out there and carpe that diem. Live for today, not for the day after tomorrow. And when you see something you want, you don’t put it off, you go for it. Because otherwise, you’ll see your last chance come and go, and you might not even know it.


When Francis first told me that he wasn’t human I was skeptical. Of course I was. I wasn’t a total idiot. When he offered to show me privately, as proof, I figured it was a setup. Of course I did. Again, not a total idiot.


But I went anyway, after taking appropriate precautions. Because what if it wasn’t? It was, it had to be, but…what if? I knew I’d spend the rest of my life asking that if I didn’t. And I wasn’t willing to do that.


When I saw him change, I knew that I wanted what he had. There was no doubt, no hesitation. The right answer was obvious to me. I mean, when you live to experience everything you can, being offered the chance at a whole new world’s worth of experiences is a no-brainer.


There were risks, of course. Even before he explained them, I knew that. There were risks, there had to be risks, because nothing good came without some kind of risk. That was all right. I wasn’t afraid of risks. There was no reason to be, from where I was standing. After all, even the guy that stands around and frowns in disapproval at how careless I am has to cross the street. It doesn’t matter how careful you are, there’s a van with your name on it.


And even if there isn’t, so what? You get to live to be old and sick and die in a hospital after one hell of a boring life? That’s hardly a fair trade, and not in their favor.


I thought Francis was actually a bit disturbed by my response. He was used to being the outsider, the freak, dangerous and mysterious. He was expecting shock and fright. Getting curiosity and enthusiasm instead threw him a bit. But eventually I convinced him that I was serious, and then I convinced his boss, and then I got to change myself.


And it was everything that I’d hoped, and more.


There are mistakes, and there are regrets. It’s inevitable. If everything works out the way you want it to, you’re not actually alive. Because nobody’s that lucky.


But you have to move on. Because otherwise your mistakes trap you. When you dwell on the bad things, you’re letting them rule you. Learn your lesson and move on.


It’s not always easy, but it’s the only solution. Anything else just makes things worse.


Sometimes you move on with scars. That’s fine. We’ve all got scars and broken parts. It’s another of those universal things. There are wounds too deep for healing, and if you live long enough you’ll pick some up. They hurt. But you have to get back on the horse.


Only the dead feel no pain, and they don’t feel anything else, either. You have to be in one hell of a bad place for that to be a decent trade.


Being a wolf reinforced my habits. For better or worse was an open question, of course. I thought it was a good thing, but I didn’t pretend to be a neutral source.


Either way, though, there was no question that it fit with my philosophy. It’s very easy, as a wolf, to live in the moment. For some people that was a problem. It got in the way of their planning, of their ordered life. It pulled their focus from past and future into the now.


But that was how I wanted to live anyway. In the past I’d sometimes had problems with it, with my brain getting in the way. The fact that my new nature helped with that was a nice perk to the whole thing.


Not that I needed another perk. There wasn’t much to it but perks, from where I was standing. Lycanthropy had opened as many doors as I’d hoped, and then some. Hunting, of course, was a thrill unlike any other. My body being so much tougher was a nice addition, as well. It meant there were a lot more things I could do to it, and I got over them faster. There were so many options that I’d never had before.


There were downsides, of course. Having to answer to Edward was annoying, and there were things that were hard to explain. I ended up having to cut ties with a lot of my old friends.


But it was worth it.


In some ways, the most interesting thing was how many things hadn’t changed. Parties, for instance, were still so often a disappointment. Poseurs were just as common as they’d ever been, and just as annoying.


A vampire smiled at me from across the room, and I considered it for a moment, but eventually shook my head. He nodded and turned away, moving on.


It was a tempting offer. Being fed on was….well, it was one hell of an experience. It felt like nothing else, that was for sure. Some people even found it addictive, though I’d never had that reaction myself.


But I was looking for something else, tonight. Something new.


I eventually found it in the form of an Indian man with brilliant yellow eyes. He had a sharp, mocking sort of smile, like he knew something no one else did. And his scent was…different. On the surface it was unpleasant, a nasty, sickly sweetness like something rotting. But there was something oddly compelling about it, as well, a depth and richness that most people never got close to.


“Good evening,” he said, smiling at me. It reminded me of Francis, those first few nights. A smile that looked down on the world and was amused at what it saw. “You, my dear, smell delightful.”


“And you don’t,” I retorted. I was still amused at how much of an additional dimension my sense of smell added to interacting with people. Though it should have been a dimension that this guy missed out on, since he was very definitely not a werewolf.


“Yet you choose to converse with me all the same,” he said dryly. “Why, I’m flattered. To what do I owe the pleasure?”


I shrugged. “Sometimes you want something that isn’t nice,” I said.


His smile sharpened slightly. “Ah,” he murmured. “Why, that I can offer you.”


I’m not anyone’s idea of a saint. That’s never really been in question. If basically any major religion has anything right, I’m bound for Hell. Or the closest thing they have. I’m no theologian, but I know that not everyone got into the whole punishing of sinners thing.


There’s something oddly liberating about that. About knowing that, hey, your ultimate fate is settled. Even if it’s for the worse, there’s a very comforting certainty about it. It removes a lot of your worries. It’s the equivalent of being given a death sentence. Sure, it might suck, but you can’t really make it worse. You don’t have to care about people’s opinion of you anymore, because you’ve made it about as bad as it gets.


There’s a very sweet freedom in knowing that you’re terrible, and accepting yourself despite that. Or because of it.


For all that, though, I did have my boundaries. There are lines that I won’t cross. There are things that even I think are unforgivable.


It didn’t take long for me to realize that my newest associate was far across those lines.


The skinwalker looked almost shocked. He wasn’t beaten often. I knew that. His ego was immense, but it wasn’t unjustified.


That probably meant that it stung even more to lose to someone like me.


The people with me weren’t much better. A changeling, a newborn vampire, another werewolf, a druid that wasn’t good for much more than a stage magician. We were small fry, as such things went.


The nice thing about being small is that you’re negligible. Even knowing that he’d made an enemy of me, the skinwalker hadn’t done a thing to guard himself against me. Why should he? He was a terrifying powerhouse, and we…weren’t.


Which probably made it particularly embarrassing that we’d not only taken away his victim, we’d also humiliated him in front of the world. Hell, this might even be the first time he’d ever been on camera.


“You know I’ll punish you for this,” he said quietly. His tone was quietly, utterly hateful, nearly to the point of madness. That was really what drove home just how much we’d pissed him off. He was usually very good at keeping his mask intact.


“Yep,” I said casually. There wasn’t much I could do about it. His ability to escape was vastly superior to our ability to capture him. He couldn’t really beat us right now—not with how thoroughly we’d outmaneuvered him. But there would be a reckoning someday. I knew that.


That was fine. It was in the future, after all, and I’d never cared too much about the future.


And then I found what I’d been looking for.


I was lying on the floor, panting. It had been a long run back, and the baby growing in me made running harder than it had been. That was really the only downside of the whole thing. I’d never intended to have children. Now that I was, the physical burden it put on me was a constant source of annoyance. Less so as a wolf than a human, but it was still noticeable. These runs left me exhausted.


But it was worth it. To be with him, it was worth it. It was the whole reason I’d moved back here, after all.


I was reasonably confident that someone had been trying to keep me from seeing him again. It was really the only explanation that made sense. He hadn’t concealed his own trail from me, after all, and that wasn’t something that just happened. So someone else must have done it, and the only reason I could think of was to keep us apart.


If so, whoever had done it had a rather perplexingly low opinion of us. I mean, it wasn’t that hard to get back to Canada. And given that he wanted to find me again as much as I wanted to find him, it wasn’t that challenging to arrange.


I’d come more prepared on that second trip, enough to stay for a few days. We’d worked things out then. He was smarter than I’d given him credit for, at first. He understood what I said, at least enough to make plans.


Since then, I’d seen him close to a dozen times. It wasn’t that hard to arrange. Oregon to Canada wasn’t that hard of a trip for me. Even as the pregnancy got more burdensome, it wasn’t too terribly difficult.


At the moment, I was lying on the floor of my sister’s garage, recovering. I was tired, and hungry, and considering a nap. I knew I should change back first, though, since she still didn’t know what I was. I was trying to work up the energy when someone else showed up.


He looked human, mostly. But his eyes resembled pits of fire, and his smile was twisted and scarred, and he hadn’t opened the door to come inside.


“Hello there,” he said, sitting on the floor beside me. “I’m sorry if this is a touch awkward. I don’t normally do the dramatic monologue thing. It’s tacky. And also rather stupid, but mostly tacky.”


I lay still and listened. So far, this was an interesting experience. Strange, but interesting.


“I’m sorry, you know,” he said. “For what I’m about to do. I don’t say that often. It’s not a natural reaction for me. I don’t have much capacity for remorse.”


At about that point, I started freaking out. I tried to stand, though I wasn’t sure whether I was planning to run or attack.


It turned out not to matter much. I couldn’t move. Not a muscle. I was still breathing, I was blinking, but I had no control over my muscles.


“I suppose you remind me of me, about a bazillion years ago,” he continued, ignoring my attempt at struggle. “I’d prefer to spare you. And, you know, the funny thing is that I probably could. I’m guessing you wouldn’t want much to do with the kid. You don’t seem the type. But I can’t take the chance at this point. I’ve got a lot riding on him, and I’m not sure I have enough time to start over again. Things are progressing faster than I was expecting. There’s an external force acting to speed it up, I’m sure of it. Though I suppose it doesn’t really matter.”


I continued struggling, without moving a muscle. I might as well not have bothered.


“I guess that’s really all I wanted to say,” he said. “That I’m sorry. It isn’t much, I know, but it’s about all I can offer you. And it would be cruel to drag this out any more. It will be painless, at least. I can manage that much.”


He fell silent, and a moment later I felt him grasp my mind.


And squeeze.


Poof, gone.

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Building Bridges 12.21

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“Unbelievable,” I said, watching a car burn. It crackled rather nicely.


“What’s that?” Aiko asked, warming her hands. It was just for show, of course; it wasn’t that cold out.


“Since when do I help vampires?” I asked. “Yet here we are. Lucius is one of the biggest, baddest vampires out there, and I’m seriously planning how to deal with his enemies.”


“You making any progress on that?” she asked.


I glowered at the papers he’d given me. “Not much,” I admitted. “He wouldn’t have bothered asking if it was easy. Plus they’re human. I’m…a bit out of practice at fighting humans, honestly.”


The files he’d given us had been fairly straightforward. The group he was competing with was almost entirely human, just a bunch of people with no real connection to the supernatural at all. But they were also aware of who he was, and what he was, and they weren’t happy about it. Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that they had a bizarrely good track record when it came to acting on that dislike.


They’d killed four vampires so far. That, really, was all that I needed to hear. Human beings did not kill vampires without either getting very lucky or having something special going for them. One or two I could explain away with luck, but four? That was a bit beyond what could be attributed to random chance. Even if they managed to hit all four of them in the daytime, it couldn’t have been easy. In my experience a decent proportion of vampires were still conscious and lethal when the sun was up, and the rest tended to be paranoid. Even finding their lairs was usually a struggle, and they had plenty of protections in place once you made it in.


There were only three ways that I could think of for a group of plain vanilla humans to manage that feat. The first was that their targets had whatever members of the neighborhood they happened to be annoyed with at the time, rather than actual vampires. Given the source of the information, I thought I could safely rule that explanation out. The second was that the entire thing was an elaborate deception of some kind. Given the source of the information, that seemed remarkably likely, but it was hard to figure out the details, if it was.


The third explanation I could think of involved major weapons. Not just guns and stakes, but things like bombs and fires. The kind of weapons that would inflict serious collateral damage, especially in the middle of a major city.


Considering that I already had solid evidence to suggest that they were willing to use toxic gas on people, that sounded disturbingly plausible. By the time you were even contemplating that, you’d taken a few steps beyond caring about collateral damage. I mean, I had some problems of that sort myself, and even I cringed at the thought of what they’d had planned.


Unfortunately, that didn’t give me any better idea of how to track them down. Alexandria wasn’t exactly a small town. Hunting down a group of humans in that crowd was nearly impossible.


Oh, it was hard to find other things in a city as well. A vampire or werewolf could hide very well indeed in a city of almost five million. It could be like finding a needle in a haystack. But this was more like finding a needle in a needlestack. It was just as hard to locate it, if not harder. More than that, though, even if I did find them, I’d have a hard time knowing it.


“I still wonder why he even needs us,” Aiko said. “I mean, he can obviously handle this. They’re just people, and he’s…not.”


“They’re people who’re expecting him, and have a proven track record of beating vampires,” I pointed out. “There’s a difference.”


“Does it matter? He’s like two thousand years old, right?”


“Yeah, and he didn’t get to be that old by doing what people were expecting from him.” I shook my head. “I’m sure he could take them head-on, but that isn’t how he operates. It’s not how his brain is wired, you know? He’s all about manipulation, schemes, hitting people when they don’t expect him. And he’s paranoid. He must have been, to live this long. No, it makes perfect sense for him to want someone else to deal with this.”


“Are you dealing with it, then?”


I shrugged. “I figured I’d ask you, see if you had anywhere else to be. But at the moment my inclination is to say yeah. Having Lucius owe us one is worth quite a bit. Particularly when the only thing we have to do to get it is kill some people that honestly sort of deserve it.”


I felt a bit uncomfortable saying that. It was hard to admit that they did deserve it. They were trying to do the right thing, after all. In their own way, I really thought that they were trying to do the right thing. But the lengths they went to in that effort were too much.


“It is kind of nice to be working with the system for once,” Aiko said meditatively. “I spent so long on the other side it almost feels weird.”


“I know what you mean,” I said. “Although it’s not as nice as I thought it would be. It’s not like we’re actually getting any help out of it.”


“Oh, I don’t know,” she said thoughtfully. “I think we might be able to get some assistance. It’s just a matter of knowing what to ask for.”


“What do you have in mind?”


She told me.


I stared at her for a few seconds after she was finished. The only sound was the crackling of the flames.


“Well, it’ll work,” I said, after a few moments, my tone a mix of admiration and disgust.


“Of course it will,” she said. “Just like old times, huh?”


“What do you mean?”


“Well, it’s basically the first trick we ever pulled together,” she said. “Almost brings a tear to your eye, doesn’t it?”


“Not quite,” I said. “Well, we might as well get started with setup. Tomorrow night we can do it.”


“Yep,” she said, grinning. I couldn’t help but smile as well, and felt guilty for doing it. I shouldn’t feel happy about this plan, but it was so slick I couldn’t help it.


The next eighteen hours were a blur of frantic activity. I stopped in at Lucius’s, where the party was pretty much over. The music had changed to ambient electronica, and quieted down; the lights were dimmer, and slower. The room had emptied out considerably, and most of the people who were left were out cold.


Lucius was still up in his office, though, looking out over the room. As expected, once I’d explained our plan he was more than happy to loan us a vamp. He seemed to find our scheme deeply amusing; he was still grinning as I left.


I hugged Aiko, and then took off for Italy. In Milan, I found Jacques and reminded him that that request for info on Lucius had been an urgent one. He griped about that, and more when I added the vampire hunters to the list, but a few thousand dollars shut him up.


Next I imported half a dozen jotnar and twice as many ghouls to Alexandria, along with a couple of mages that were rather important to my plan. Aiko’s plan, really, but I was the one making it work. She was good at a lot of things, but logistics weren’t really one of them. Snowflake came with, bouncing excitedly. She was looking forward to this.


Once they were settling into the city, I went back to Colorado Springs to manage my plans. I finally had those meetings that I’d been putting off. Selene had made appropriate reparations for the shop that Aiko had burned, but there was nothing quite like a personal touch with that sort of thing. The new wards needed their final checks, and I had to finish paying Alexander for his work. That entailed a long chat with Tindr, since Alexander’s payment was the kind of thing that put a noticeable dent in even my budget.


Once that was done, it was time to go chat with the Guards and keep up my identity as Jonathan Keyes, better known as Shrike. Things weren’t great there. Tawny was clearly out of sorts about the creature she’d summoned and which I’d arranged to have stick around, and she was terrible at keeping secrets. Everyone could feel that there was something uncomfortable between her and me. They came to some rather hilariously wrong conclusions about it, though. The general consensus seemed to be that she’d tried to hit on me and gotten nowhere. The comments on that topic got laughs from both of us.


That was damn near the only positive thing about that situation, though. David wasn’t happy about how little time I’d been spending with the group, and even less happy when I told him that I had other work to do again the next day. The others didn’t ask questions, but I could tell they were burning with curiosity about what was so urgent.


If the intention had been to set myself apart from the rest of the group, I was starting to think that I’d been too successful. There had already been a fair amount of tension there, but now it was a constant presence, impossible to ignore. More importantly, it was starting to reach the point of being a problem. Almost all of them could plausibly screw me over at this point, and with that relationship in its current state I wasn’t sure they wouldn’t.


It would be hard to change the first impression I’d made, though, and it was a delicate balancing act between the dangers of alienating them too much and all the reasons I’d wanted distance to begin with.


And I just didn’t have the time right now. As soon as I’d made my excuses, it was back to my other crew to check on the thing from the Badlands, since Tawny had reminded me about her. I eventually found her sitting on the roof, seemingly asleep. The cold and snow didn’t seem to bother her any more than me.


I didn’t wake her. She looked bizarrely peaceful in her sleep, and I got the impression that it had been a long time since she last slept. I’d have felt bad disturbing her rest. And besides, I still had a lot to do. I confirmed the financial transfers Tindr wanted to make to settle out various debts, grabbed Kyi’s latest report to read, and then started on the next portal.


Another couple of hours went by as I was picking up various useful tools from our castle in Romania, largely because I had to pause and make one of them. I’d used the last of my disposable alarm wards a while earlier, and forgotten to get more. The one I made was reverse engineered from that design, and it was at best a crude copy. But it was functional, and it wasn’t like I cared how long it would last. If it went twelve hours without being used, I’d be quite surprised.


Then it was back to Egypt, where it was already well into morning. I did one more check to make sure that everyone knew the plan, then ate a solid five pounds of meat and crashed for a few hours in the house we’d taken over as our temporary headquarters. I didn’t need to sleep, but I’d thrown quite a bit of magic around on all those portals, and sleep would help me recover faster. It also kept me from obsessing over whether every detail of the plan was right, which was a good thing.


Snowflake licked my face around an hour before dusk, waking me up. Come on, she said. It’s almost time to go.


I groaned and pushed myself upright. “Fine,” I growled, getting out of the couch. “Tell me there’s food.”


Vigdis picked up some fast food. I think she probably bought them out of stock, actually.


“Close enough,” I said, tugging my armor on. I hadn’t taken most of it off, of course. Sleeping in armor was all kinds of uncomfortable, but I’d cope.


Snowflake hadn’t exaggerated the quantity of food involved. Jötnar and ghouls eat a lot, and there were a lot of them here. Add in the rest of us, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if Vigdis had needed to bring along a minion to carry it all.


I practically inhaled two of the cheapest hamburgers I’d ever laid eyes on, and grabbed a third as I headed out to survey the scene and make sure it was ready.


I had to admit, I was impressed with how well it had been arranged. The alley was already narrow, but carefully placed heaps of garbage cut the space down further. There were two snipers with a good line of sight, though I could only see them through the eyes of a raven. The entrances to the alley were rigged to collapse on trigger, leaving anyone inside nowhere to run. The bombed-out shop across from the house was still boarded up, but it was mostly for show. From the inside, the door would open smooth and easy.


We were ready.


The vampire showed up about half an hour after dusk. It wasn’t Lucius, or anyone like him. This one could have passed for a living teenager with minimal effort, and while appearances could be deceiving, in this case I thought it wasn’t too inaccurate. He’d have sent one of his weakest minions for this.


“I’m guessing that Lucius told you to follow my orders, and that you’d die horribly if you failed him,” I said, standing in the street outside our carefully prepared alley.


The vampire grinned. “Good guess,” he said.


“If she gets hurt, I’ll do worse,” I said.


“How cute,” Aiko said dryly, pushing me away. “Come on, let’s do this thing.” She grabbed the vampire’s hand and simpered at me.


I snorted and walked into the alley, doing my best to make it look like I was throwing a temper tantrum. The vampire leaned into Aiko, nuzzling her neck. Not biting, if he knew what was good for him. I hadn’t been bluffing.


I walked into the house and settled in to wait with the rest, wrapping shadows around us. The others layered on their own concealments, of whatever sort, until we were practically undetectable.


The same as our first trick, sort of. Except turned inside out. Way back when, we’d used Aiko as bait, counting on our enemies’ nature as predators to drive them to attack vulnerability.


This time we were counting on…well, more or less the opposite of that.


I almost felt bad about it. Almost.

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Building Bridges 12.20

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I was sure something would go wrong on the way out of the party. Lucius would stop us, or a gang of monsters would be waiting when we made it back out to the dance floor, or those drugs Aiko had grabbed would turn out to be less harmless than she’d thought. Hell, even if the guards just didn’t let us out, that would potentially be a very big problem.


But none of those things happened. The most dangerous thing waiting when we got out into the main room was pounding music, a nausea-inducing lightshow, and an instant headache. The wendigo—Annabel, according to Lucius, though I had my doubts as to whether the concept of a name was even applicable to such a creature—was standing near the door into the back hallways. It just smiled at us as we passed. There were scraps of meat in its teeth, fresh since the last time I saw it. No surprise; a wendigo was always hungry. It was almost the definition of what they were.


The party itself was going at about the same pace, or a little slower. The atmosphere was a little different, a little less frenetic. There were fewer people dancing, and more people partied out and collapsed in the corners. It wasn’t just the food, either. Even most of the monsters were slowing down.


The guards waved us out without question or comment. Presumably Lucius had told them not to bother us.


That, or they weren’t actually keeping people in at all. Now that I thought about it I wasn’t sure I’d actually seen them stop anyone. I’d just been assuming that it was a sort of pitcher plant, a lure to get the prey inside and the goons to keep them from leaving once they realized what they’d gotten themselves into.


In an odd way, that was more comforting than the alternative—that Lucius was being honest, and these people were here because they wanted to be. Even knowing what happened here, what was going to happen to them, they didn’t want to leave. That was an incredibly disturbing prospect. I knew that some people glorified leeches, but for it to be happening on this scale and to this degree was something else.


I was feeling deeply, deeply unsettled as we climbed out of the basement up into the cleaner air of the street.


I took a moment, once we were out, to breathe deep and clear my head. Just being down there left me feeling dirty, in a way I couldn’t quite explain. The funny thing was that it wasn’t like this was the worst thing I’d ever seen. Not by a long shot. There was just something about it that bothered me to a rather disproportionate extent.


“Well, I’m not sorry to leave that behind,” Aiko said, echoing my thoughts. She shook her head briskly. “I’d forgotten how nasty those parties were.”


“Have you gone to many?” I asked.


She shrugged. “A few. They were never really my thing, but I used to know some people that went to them all the time, and I tagged along a few times. Not many. Is it just me, or is that guy down the block looking this way a little too closely?” The segue was smooth, without even a hitch to mark the transition.


“Yeah,” I said, not looking directly at him. I didn’t need to. Alexandria, it turned out, was a decent city for raccoons. “You want to go check it out?”


“I’m undecided. On the one hand, he’s probably with this mysterious rival trying to take over the city, which means that going over there is basically guaranteed to get us involved with a mess that’s none of our business. On the other, not knowing what the fight’s about is going to drive me crazy.”


I shrugged. “If you’re that curious, I’m fine with heading over and finding out.” I started walking in that direction.


Aiko had to hurry for a few steps to catch up. “Are you serious?” she asked, drawing even with me.


“Yup,” I said. “See, I’ve heard the whole ‘you’re free to go and I won’t coerce you into making a deal’ line before. In my experience, they pretty much always find some way of roping me into it anyway. So I figure we might as well beat him to it and at least go check it out.”


“That’s an exceptionally cynical way to look at it,” she commented.


“Not an inaccurate one, though.”


“Nope. Oh look, he noticed us.”


Sure enough, the guy had clearly realized that we were walking towards him deliberately, and not just coincidentally wandering in his direction. He looked like he wanted to bolt, but couldn’t quite make up his mind.


I wasn’t in the mood to chase him down. Especially not in a city I’d literally never set foot in before tonight. I was guessing that I was faster than him, but raw speed didn’t necessarily guarantee success in chasing someone down. Not when he knew every twist and turn, every back street and hidey-hole around.


So as we got closer, I raised my hands to display that there were no weapons in them. I wasn’t sure whether I had a language in common with him, but some messages are universal.


Aiko’s was another of those. She had her carbine out and pointed in his general direction as we got closer. Which was probably sending a bit of mixed messages, but I thought we were getting the point across. We were here to talk, and unless he was faster than a bullet running wasn’t the best option for him.


“You come from the monster house,” he said as we got within about fifteen feet. His English was rough, at best, but I could more or less figure out what he was saying.


“Yeah,” I said. I was trying to get a grasp on him, and it was hard. He stank of chlorine, to such an extent that I was almost sneezing fifteen feet away from him. I couldn’t remember having run into magic that smelled quite like that in the past. The closest I could think of were a couple of mages who’d had a note of bleach to the standard human disinfectant.


“They tell you to kill me?” he asked. He seemed fairly comfortable for a guy with a gun pointed at him.


I shrugged. “Maybe,” I said. “The guy that owns that place wanted me to take out some enemy of his. He might have meant you; I’m not sure. I told him I wasn’t interested.”


“And he let you leave?”


I snorted. “For the moment. In my experience people like him always find a way to drag you back in somehow. But enough about me. I want to talk about you. More specifically, why you’re so interested in what’s going on over there.”


“You no like the people there, yeah?” he said. “Us either. They are evil. So we work against them. Tonight we heard that they have many people here, so I come to watch and see if this is true.”


“Okay,” I said.


Then Aiko sneezed.


I knew what that meant. The reason that scent seemed odd was that it wasn’t magic. He just actually smelled like chlorine.


On its own that wasn’t such a bizarre thing. A lot of people smelled like chlorine, at least by my standards. My sense of smell was acute enough that I could sometimes pick it up even if someone just washed their clothes with chlorine bleach.


But this was something else. This guy stank like a swimming pool. It wasn’t just me and Aiko. Normal humans would notice this stench. They’d probably give him a wide berth to avoid it.


There weren’t very many reasons to smell that strongly of chlorine. Given that I knew he was here to deal with his enemies, the only one that really came to mind was poison gas. Chlorine was an old chemical weapon, but it was still nasty.


Except that it was an asphyxiant. Chlorine had other effects, but it was strongest by far when it got into your lungs.


And vampires didn’t breathe.


The second I put that together, everything clicked into place. Just to be sure, though, I looked at him and said, “That gas won’t work on the monsters.”


He twitched, obviously caught by surprise. It took him a second to recover his composure. “It isn’t for the monsters,” he said after a few seconds.


Of course not. I almost laughed. “The humans in there are the victims,” I said. “They don’t deserve to die.”


“They are food. The monsters will be less without them.”


I nodded. “You set this up, didn’t you?” I said conversationally. “You arranged this whole thing. Well played.”


“I do not understand.”


“Not talking to you,” I murmured. “You might as well come out now. You’ve made your point.”


There was no warning. No hint of movement. Lucius just appeared next to the man, and snapped his neck in an instant, with a flick of his fingers.


“Bit of a drama queen, aren’t you?” I asked. “You told them to show up tonight?”


“Through certain channels,” he confirmed. “They knew it was a trap, of course, but their responses are somewhat predictable.”


I nodded. “How did you know I’d follow up on it?”


“The same reason that I know you can’t tolerate this attack,” he said. “I know you, Wolf. I know you better than you know yourself. You’re as bad as Voltaire, in your own way. You may disapprove of the choices my guests make, but you’ll defend to the death their right to make those choices. That goes for you as well, of course,” he added, nodding to Aiko. “But I think we all knew that.”


“And this is a typical attack for them?” I asked.


“This is the first time they’ve tried something quite like this,” he said. “But it’s very much in keeping with their general approach, yes.”


I groaned. “Fine,” I said. “Give me the info.”


He smiled and handed me a sealed envelope. “I thought you might say that,” he added unnecessarily. “Have a pleasant evening.” He tipped a fiercely violet hat and disappeared as suddenly as he’d shown up.


“See?” I said to the corpse. “I told you they always find a way to pull you back in. Come on, we have a car to set on fire. I’m very definitely feeling the need for that pick-me-up right about now.”

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