By the time I’d reached twenty-two hundred and thirty-nine, I’d arrived at Billy and Georgia’s place.
Life had changed for the young werewolves since Billy had graduated and started pulling in serious money as an engineer, but they hadn’t moved out of the apartment they’d had in college. Georgia was still in school, learning something psychological, and they were saving for a house. Good thing for me. I wouldn’t have been able to walk to the suburbs.
Georgia answered the door. She was a tall woman, lean and willowy, and in a T-shirt and loose, long shorts, she looked smarter than she did pretty.
“My God,” she said, when she saw me. “Harry.”
“Hey, Georgia,” I said. “Twenty-two hundred and…uh. Forty-three. I need a dark, quiet room.”
She blinked at me. “What?”
“Twenty-two hundred and fifty-one,” I responded, seriously. “And send up the wolf-signal. You want the gang here. Twenty-two hundred and, uh…sixty…seven.”
She stepped back from the door, holding the door open for me. “Harry, what are you talking about?”
I came inside. “Twenty-two hundred and sixty… not divisible by three, sixty-nine. I need a dark room. Quiet. Protection.”
“Is something after you?” Georgia said.
Even with the help of Eratosthenes, when Georgia asked the question and my brain answered it, I couldn’t keep the image of that thing from invading my thoughts, and it drove me to my knees and would have sent me all the way to the floor—except that Billy caught me before I could get there. He was a short guy, maybe five six, but he had the upper body of a professional wrestler and moved with the speed and precision of a predator.
“Dark room,” I gasped. “Call in the gang. Hurry.”
“Do it,” Georgia said, her voice low and urgent. She shut the door and locked it, then slammed down a heavy wooden beam the size of a picnic table’s bench that they had installed themselves. “Get him into our room. I’ll make the calls.”
“Got it,” Billy said. He picked me up the way you’d carry a child, barely grunting as he did. He carried me down the hall and into a dark bedroom. He laid me down on a bed, then crossed to the window—and pulled and locked a heavy steel security curtain over it, evidently another customization that he and Georgia had installed.
“What do you need, Harry?” Billy asked.
“Dark. Quiet. Explain it later.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Right.” Then he padded out of the room and shut the door.
It left me in the dark with my thoughts—which is where I needed to be.
“Come on, Harry,” I muttered to myself. “Get used to the idea.”
And I thought about the thing I’d Seen.
It hurt. But when I came back to myself, I did it again. And again. And again.
Yes, I’d Seen something horrible. Yes, it was a hideous terror. But I’d Seen other things, too.
I called up those memories, too, all of them just as sharp and fresh as the horror pressing upon me. I’d Seen good people screaming in madness under the influence of black magic. I’d Seen the true selves of men and women, good and bad, Seen people kill—and die. I’d Seen the Queens of Faerie as they prepared for battle, drawing all their awful power around them.
And I’d be damned if I was going to roll over for one more horrible thing doing nothing but jumping from one rooftop to another.
“Come on, punk,” I snarled at the memory. “Next to those others, you’re a bad yearbook picture.”
And I hit myself with it, again and again, filling my mind with every horrible and beautiful thing I had ever Seen—and as I did, I focused on what I had bloody well done about it. I remembered the things I’d battled and destroyed. I remembered the strongholds of nightmares and terrors that I had invaded, the dark gates I’d kicked down. I remembered the faces of prisoners I’d freed, and the funerals of those I’d been too late to save. I remembered the sounds of voices and laughter, the joy of loved ones reunited, the tears of the lost and bereaved.
There are bad things in the world. There’s no getting away from that. But that doesn’t mean nothing can be done about them. You can’t abandon life just because it’s scary, and just because sometimes you get hurt.
The memory of the thing hurt like hell—but pain wasn’t anything special or new. I’d lived with it before, and would do it again. It wasn’t the first thing I’d Seen, and it wouldn’t be the last.
I was not going to roll over and die.
Sledgehammers of perfect memory pounded me down into blackness.
* * * * *
When I pulled myself back together, I was sitting on the bed, my legs folded Indian-style. My palms rested on my knees. My breathing was slow and rhythmically heavy. My back was straight. My head pounded painfully, but not cripplingly so.
I looked up and around the room. It was dark, but I’d been in there long enough for my eyes to adjust to the light coming under the door. I could see myself in the dresser mirror. My back was straight and relaxed. I’d taken my coat off, and was wearing a black T-shirt that read “PREFECTIONIST” in small white letters, backward in the mirror. A thin, dark runnel of blood had streamed from each nostril and was now drying on my upper lip. I could taste blood in my mouth, probably from where I’d bitten my tongue earlier.
I thought of my pursuer again, and the image made me shudder—but that was all. I kept breathing slowly and steadily.
That was the upside of being human. On the whole, we’re an adaptable sort of being. Certainly, I’d never be able to get rid of my memory of this awful thing, or any of the other awful things I’d seen—so if the memory couldn’t change, it would have to be me. I could get used to seeing that kind of horror, enough to see it and yet remain a reasoning being. Better men than I had done so.
I shivered again, and not because of any memory. It was because I knew what it could mean, when you forced yourself to live with hideous things like that. It changed you. Maybe not all at once. Maybe it didn’t turn you into a monster. But I’d been scarred and I knew it.
How many times would something like this need to happen before I started bending myself into something horrible just to survive? I was young for a wizard. Where would I be after decades or centuries of refusing to look away?
I got up and went into the bathroom attached to the bedroom. I turned on the lights, and winced as they raked at my eyes. I washed the blood from my face, and cleaned the sink of it carefully. In my business, you don’t leave your blood where anyone can find it.
Then I put my coat back on and left the bedroom.
Billy and Georgia were in the living room. Billy was at the window that led out to the tiny balcony. Georgia was on the phone.
“I’m not getting anything out here,” Billy said. “Is he sure?”
Georgia murmured into the phone. “Yes. He’s sure it circled this way. It should be in sight from where you are.”
“It isn’t,” Billy said. He turned his head over his shoulder and said, “Harry. Are you all right?”
“I’ll survive,” I said, and paced over to the window. “It followed me here, huh?”
“Something’s outside,” Billy said. “Something we’ve never run into before. It’s been playing hide-and-seek with Kirby and Andi for an hour. They can’t catch it or get a good look at it.”
I gave Billy a sharp look. There weren’t many things that could keep ahead of the werewolves, working together. Wolves are just too damn alert and quick, and Billy and company had been working Chicago almost as long as I had. They knew how to handle themselves—and in the past couple of months, I’d been teaching my apprentice a little humility by letting her try her veiling spells against the werewolves. They’d hunted her down in moments, every time.
“So whatever’s out there, it isn’t human,” I said. “Not if it can stay ahead of Kirby and Andi.” I crossed to the window and stared out with Billy. “And it can veil itself from sight.”
“What is it?” Billy asked quietly.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But it’s real bad.” I glanced back at Georgia. “How long was I down?”
She checked her watch. “Eighty-two minutes.”
I nodded. “It’s had plenty of time to try to come in, if that’s what it wanted.” I felt a nauseated little quiver in my stomach as a tight smile stretched my lips. “It’s playing with me.”
“What?” Billy said.
“It’s dancing around in front of us out there, under a veil. It’s daring me to use my Sight so that I’ll be able to spot it.”
From outside, there was a sound, a cry. It was short and high-pitched, loud enough to make the windows quiver. I’d never heard anything like it before. The hair stood up on the back of my neck, a purely instinctive reaction. My instincts had been tracking this thing well, so far, so I trusted them when they told me one more thing—that cry was a statement. The hunt was on.
An instant later, every light in sight blew out in a shower of sparks, and darkness swallowed several city blocks.
“Tell Andi and Kirby to get back here to the apartment!” I snapped at Georgia. I grabbed my staff from where it leaned against the wall by the door. “Billy, you’re with me. Get your game face on.”
“Harry?” Georgia said, confused.
“Now!” I snapped, flinging the bar off the door.
By the time I’d reached the bottom of the stairs, there was the sound of a heavy, controlled impact, and a wolf with hair the same dark brown as Billy’s hit the floor next to me. It was an enormous beast, easily as heavy as Mouse, but taller and leaner—a wolf the world has rarely seen between here and the last ice age. I slammed open the door and let Billy out ahead of me. He bounded over a parked car—and I mean completely over it, lengthwise—and shot toward the buildings at the back of the complex.
Billy had been in contact with Andi and Kirby, and knew their approximate positions. I followed him, my staff in hand, already summoning up my will. I wasn’t sure what was out here, but I wanted to be ready for it.
Kirby appeared from around the northernmost corner of the other building. He hurried along with a cell phone pressed to his ear, a lanky, dark-haired young man in sweat pants and a baggy T-shirt. The active phone painted half his face like a miniature floodlight. I checked the southern corner of the building at once, and saw a dark, furry shape trotting around the corner—Andi, like Billy, in her wolf form.
Wait a minute.
If the whatever-it-was had taken out the local lights, how in the hell had Kirby’s cell phone survived the hex? Magic and technology don’t get along so well, and the more complex electronic devices tended to fall apart most quickly. Cell phones were like those security guys in red shirts on old Star Trek: as soon as something started happening, they were always the first to go.
If the creature, whatever it was, had blown out the lights, it would have gotten the phone, too. Unless it hadn’t wanted to take the phone out.
Kirby was the only clearly lit object in sight—an ideal target.
When the attack came, it came fast.
There was a ripple in the air, as something moving beneath a veil crossed between me and the light cast by Kirby’s phone. There was an explosive snarl, and the phone went flying, leaving Kirby hidden in shadow.
Billy flung himself forward, even as I ripped the silver pentacle amulet from around my neck and lifted it, calling forth silver-blue wizard light with my will. Light flooded the area between the complex’s buildings.
Kirby was on his back, in the center of a splatter of black that could only be blood. Billy was standing crouched over him, his teeth bared in a snarl. He suddenly lunged forward, teeth ripping, and a distortion of the air in front of him bounded up and then to one side. I lurched forward, feeling as if I was running through hip-deep peanut butter. I got the impression of something four-legged and furry evading Billy’s attack, a raw flicker of vision like something seen out of the very corner of the eye.
Then Billy was on his back, slashing with canine claws, ripping savagely with his teeth, while something shadowy and massive overbore him, pinning him down.
Andi, a red-furred wolf that was smaller and swifter than Billy’s form, hurtled through the air and tore at the back of the attacker.
It screamed again, the sound deeper-chested than before, more resonant. The creature whirled on Andi, too swiftly to be believed, and a limb slammed into her, sending her flying into a brick wall. She hit with a yipping cry of pain and a hideous snapping sound.
I raised my staff, anger and terror and determination surging down into the wooden tool, and shouted, “Forzare!”
My will unspooled into a lance of invisible energy and slammed into the creature. I’ve flipped over cars with blasts of force like that, but the thing barely rocked back, slapping at the air with its forelimbs. The blast shattered against it in a shower of reddish sparks.
The conflicting energies disrupted its veil, just for a second. I saw something somewhere between a cougar and a bear, with reddish brown fur. It must have weighed several hundred pounds. It had oversized fangs, bloodied claws, and its eyes were a bright and sickly yellow that looked reptilian, somehow.
Its snarling mouth twisted in a way that no animal’s could, forming words, albeit words that I did not understand. Its form twisted, changing with liquid speed, and in maybe half a second, a cougar bigger than any mountain lion I’d ever even heard about was hurtling toward me, vanishing into the rippling colors of a veil as it came.
I brought up my left hand, slamming my will into the bracelet hung upon it. The bracelet, a braid of metals hung with charms in the shape of medieval shields, was another tool like the staff, a device that let me focus the energies I wielded more quickly and efficiently.
A quarter dome of blue-white light sprang into existence before me, and the creature slammed into it like a brick wall. Well. More like a rickety wooden wall. I felt the shield begin to give as the creature struck it—but at least initially, it stopped it in its tracks.
Billy hit it low and hard.
The great dark wolf sailed in, teeth ripping, and got hold of something. The creature howled, this time more in pain than fury, and whirled on Billy—but the leader of Chicago’s resident werewolves was already on the way back out, and he bounded aside from the creature’s counterattack.
It was faster than Billy was. It caught him, and I saw Billy hunch his shoulders against its attack, his fur being bloodied as he crouched low, standing his ground.
So that Georgia could hit it low and hard.
Georgia’s wolf-form was dusty brown, taller and more lithe than Billy’s, and moved with deadly precision. She raked at the creature, forcing it to turn to her—only to be forced to keep whirling as Billy went after its flank.
I brandished my staff, timing my shot with my teeth gritted, and then screamed again as I sent another lance of force at the creature, aiming for its legs. The blast tore gashes in the asphalt and brought the nearly invisible thing to the ground, once more disrupting its veil. Billy and Georgia rushed toward it to keep it pinned down, and I raised my staff, calling up more energy. My next shot was going to pile-driver the thing straight down into the water table, by God.
But once more, its shape turned liquid—and suddenly a hawk with a wingspan longer than my car tore into the air, reptilian yellow eyes glaring. It soared aloft, its wings beating twice, and vanished into the night sky.
I stared after that for a second. Then I said, “Oh, crap.”
I looked around in the wildly dancing light of my amulet, and rushed toward Andi. She was unconscious, her body reverted to its human form—that of a redhead with a killer figure. One entire side of her body was a swelling purple bruise. She had a broken arm, shoulder, ribs, and her face was so horribly damaged that I had to worry about her skull as well. She was breathing, barely.
The shapeshifter had been strong.
Georgia arrived at my side in wolf form, her eyes, ears, and nose all alert, scanning around us, above us.
I turned my head to see Billy, nude and in human form, crouched over Kirby. I lifted my light and moved a couple of steps over toward him so I could see.
Kirby’s throat was gone. Just gone. There was a scoop of flesh as wide as my palm missing, and bare vertebrae showed at the back of it. The edges of the gaping wound were black and crumbling, as if charred to black dust. Kirby’s eyes were glassy and staring. His blood was everywhere.
“Hell’s bells,” I breathed. I stared at the dead young man, a friend, and shook my head hard once. “Billy, come on. Andi’s still alive. We can’t leave her out here. We’ve got to get her behind your threshold and get her an ambulance, now.”
Billy crouched over Kirby, his face twisted in confusion and rage.
“Will!” I shouted.
He looked up at me.
“Andi,” I said. “Help me get her inside.”
He nodded jerkily. Then the two of us went to her. We laid my duster out on the ground and got her onto it as gently as we could. Then we picked her up and carried her back toward the apartment building. People were calling out in the buildings around us, now. Flashlights and candles and chemical glow lights had begun to appear. I had no doubt that within a few minutes, we’d get sirens, too.
From somewhere above us, there was a contemptuous brassy cry—the same tone I heard before, though modulated differently now, coming from an avian throat.
“What was that?” Billy asked, his tone dull and heavy. “What was that thing?”
“I’m not certain,” I answered, breathing hard. Georgia was coming along behind us, dragging my staff in her jaws. “But if it’s what I think it is, things just got a lot worse.”
Billy looked up at me, Kirby’s blood all over his face and hands. “What is it, Harry?”
“A Native American nightmare,” I said. I looked at him grimly. “A skinwalker.”