vii. Ocelot

After Aubrey left with Winterhawk after the magic ritual, I hung around the hall for a few minutes, looking at the remains of the circle still spread out over the large room. I didn't disturb any of the blasted obelisks even though I was pretty sure that touching them now would have no effect, good or ill, on them or me or anything else. They looked dead, used, like trash left out by the side of the road. A little while ago, a tremendous amount of power had coursed through these simple objects, enough power to find an individual with the amplified intensity of a simple detection spell, if I'd been following Winterhawk's lecture at all. Now, they were so much twisted metal and shattered crystal. The thought somehow depressed me, though I didn't know why.

I figured that from the look of things, Winterhawk would be out for the count for at least a couple of hours, so I decided it might be a good time to try to catch some sleep myself. In my mind, there was no doubt about the fact that we were going after the vampire as soon as Winterhawk regained his strength, so a couple hours of sleep, especially after last night, would probably be my wisest course of action. I wasn't tired, or at least not sleepy. I could feel the stiffness and weariness in my muscles, though—my body was trying to tell me to rest even if my mind could not.

Retrieving the Defiance from where I had left it leaning against my chair and grabbing a handful of the fruit and cheese on the untouched platter to nibble on, I went upstairs to my room. When I got there, of course, I had to go through my stash of weapons and figure out what I was going to take with me—I could no more have rested with that detail untended than I could have flown to the moon using feathers for wings. Carefully, I laid out the Defiance, katana, flare gun, and my monowhip on the bed: a small stock of weapons, but I couldn't bring much into England. Even with Winterhawk pulling a few strings for me, this was about all I could risk. Sitting down next to them, I checked the shotgun's chamber for what had to be the twentieth time that day, then set it aside along with some extra ammo, both shot and slug. The gun had five shots, and I hoped I wouldn't need more than one or two of them, but one couldn't be too careful, especially when vampires were involved. Besides, nothing negated the possibility that she might have friends. I shuddered: more vampires? I considered remembering a previous engagement and hopping the next freighter for home, but quickly discarded the thought; for one thing, the vampire, despite Winterhawk's assurances, might have a grudge against me for doing a little impromptu rearrangement of her innards, and second, even if she wasn't after me, she was after 'Hawk, and we were a team. You didn't run out on your teammates. Not without better reason than simple fear.

I stuck the monowhip into its specially-designed pocket in my armored longcoat, the flaregun in a loop in the other side, and leaned the sword inside the armoire next to the coat. The shotgun, I put down on the floor next to the bed, within easy reach should anything decide to try invading my privacy. Then, taking off my shoes, I lay down on the tall, four-poster bed and stared up at the beams in the ceiling, certain that I would still be in the same position, staring at the same beams, all afternoon.

When I awoke, the room was dim, the last shafts of sunlight streaming in weakly through the window. A quick glance at my chrono confirmed to my surprise that I had been asleep for just under three hours. That wasn't like me, but I didn't begrudge it. Already my tired muscles felt better, and I felt generally more refreshed if a little logy from my nap. Raising up, I checked to see if the Defiance was still where I'd left it: it was, and it was still loaded. As far as I could tell, there was no evidence that anyone, even Aubrey, had been in the room while I was asleep. I wondered if Winterhawk was up yet. Dinnertime would be soon; I expected Aubrey to be knocking on my door to announce it within the next half hour or so.

I took a quick shower, changed into loose-fitting pants and snug T-shirt, tied back my long tangle of wet hair without combing it, and headed out to see what was going on. I almost took the shotgun with me, but at the last moment decided that was taking paranoia to absurd levels. Instead, I retrieved the tiny monowhip from its hiding place and put it in my pants pocket. Then I left the room and closed the door behind me.

As I descended the long staircase to the first floor, my bare feet making no sound, I heard someone moving slowly across the main hall from the other side of the house. I stopped, watching, my hand on the handle of the whip, but then I let it go when I saw it was Winterhawk.

I observed him for a moment before he saw me. He was too far away for me to get any detail, but his posture suggested that he was upset about something. Head slightly bowed, hands deep in his pockets, not walking with his usual quick stride, he looked like a man who had just received very bad news. I continued my progress down the stairs, and finally he looked up and spotted me. He nodded, but did not speak.

I returned the nod. "Feeling better?" Reaching the bottom, I leaned on the newel post and waited.

"Yes. Fine." His voice held no conviction. He was normally a much better liar than that. He approached me, shrugged, and started up the stairs.

"Wait a second," I said to stop him. "You gonna be ready to go after the vampire soon?"

He halted two steps up. "I don't know," he said, looking me right in the eyes. He still looked like he hadn't slept.

"What do you mean, you don't know?" I demanded. I turned to face him full-on, having to look up because he was now about a foot higher up than I was.

"I mean, I don't know," he said peevishly. He didn't move, but he looked uncomfortable, like he wanted to leave. "I haven't decided yet."

I paused a moment to make sure that what he'd said was what it sounded like he'd said. "Look," I finally said bluntly, "There's no deciding about it. We have to find her and deal with her before she comes back here. You're not gonna be safe until she's dead. Maybe you won't be so lucky next time." My mind was reeling with the realization that it wasn't a foregone conclusion to Winterhawk that we had to kill this vampire. To me, it was a virtual certainty.

"I don't know what you're worried about," he said, still in the same annoyed tone. "She isn't after you."

"Maybe not," I agreed. "Maybe she doesn't give a damn about me. But tell me this—vampires can make other vampires, right?"

He shrugged. "Then can, but they usually don't."

"But they can, right?"

"I just said so," he said, irritated. "But what's that got to do with—?"

"Easy," I said, cutting him off brutally. "Maybe she makes me into a vampire, huh? It wouldn't take much—there isn't much meat left of me, and that's what they drain, right? Life essence? That's really what they're after, isn't it?" As he drew breath to answer me, I forged ahead: "What if she turns me into a vampire and turns me against you somehow? Do you really want both of us after you? Or Aubrey? He can't defend himself at all—he'd be helpless against her. Is that what you want? Even if you could stay awake all the time and look out for her, there's plenty of ways to get to you." I glared at him. "Am I making any sense here?"

He glared right back. "When did you appoint yourself my bloody keeper?" he demanded, eyes flashing. "I assure you—I don't need one. If you're worried, you can get on the next plane back to Seattle, and she won't bother you any more. I doubt she'd go all the way over there after you."

I gripped the heavy wooden newel post more tightly, hoping I didn't break it. "Why do I care?" I exploded. "Why? Because I got maybe three friends in this whole damn world, that's why, and I don't want to see one of them get himself killed or worse because he's too bullheaded, or sentimental, or whatever, to do anything about it!" I stopped, took a deep breath, and tried to calm down. "Listen—if you don't go after her, I'm going to. By myself."

"You don't know where she is," he said bleakly, the fire having apparently drained from him at my outburst.

"I'll find her. Maybe it'll take me longer than it took you, but I'll find her." I looked at him, realizing something. "What's with you, anyway? Before you wanted to go after her. Now it sounds like you don't. What happened?"

He stared at me a long moment, his eyes like two bright blue neon lights in the dark shadows that surrounded them. Then he sank down on the steps, his knees drawn up and his hands locked around them, head bowed. "Because it might mean killing Nigel," he said quietly.

That stopped me cold. After a pause where I attempted to make sense of what he'd said, and failed, I demanded "Nigel? What's Nigel got to do with anything? I thought you said he wasn't even your real son."

"I'm not so sure of that anymore," he mumbled.

Sighing, I leaned back against the railing of the stairs. "I don't get it. So what if he is your son? Why do you have to kill him?" I was trying anything I could think of to come up with some way to get through to him, to pierce this strange mood of his so we could get on with what we had to do.

He raised his head and stared up at me again. In a soft, haggard tone, he told me what he suspected about Nigel. When he finished, my eyes were locked on his with equal intensity. "You mean—she can turn people into slaves, not just vampires?"

Something in his gaze changed, just a bit. "I don't know," he said hopelessly. "I've no proof. Like I told's just a guess. I don't know if that's what's going on at all." He looked away, returning his head to its former position on his crossed arms.

"But don't you get it?" I said, my voice rising louder than I wanted it to with my anger and frustration at his failure to act. "That only means we have to go get her even more!" I leaned down and grabbed his shoulder, trying to force him to look back up at me. "Don't you see? You've never been like this before—you've never let your emotions blind you to the truth, and I'm not gonna let you do it now. There's too much to lose here. Don't you see what she could do to you, or to me, if she got hold of us? Damn it, look at me, 'Hawk!" I gripped his shoulder more tightly, shaking him a bit in my rising fear and anger. I was probably hurting him, but right then I didn't care. When he did look at me, with none of the dangerous glimmer he usually got in his eyes when anyone touched him uninvited, I said in a quieter tone, "There's too many things she could do, and none of them are good. She could turn me into a slave, right?"

"I don't—"

"Right? I know you know. Yes or no?"

He nodded miserably. "Yes."

"And she could turn you into a slave—a...a pawn, right?"

He shrugged. "Possibly. It—it would be...difficult." His voice trailed off.

"But she could do it, right? There's the chance?"

This time, the nod was his only reply.

"And she could turn either you or me into a vampire, yes? Under her control?"

He looked up. "Very difficult...under her control. I don't think she—has the power."

"Yes or no? A chance?"

"Always a chance," he whispered reluctantly, as if the words were being pulled from him against his will.

"So," I said inexorably, leaning down to get in his face, "What if she turned you into a vampire and sent you after me? I don't know if I could take you in a fight now—I sure as hell don't want to try if you've got a strength advantage on me too. Or maybe she turns me into one, or into one of these slaves, and sends me after you. Do you really want two deranged vampires after you, one with my speed? I'll tell you—I sure as hell don't want to spend the rest of my life as some mindless slave to that crazy woman!" My voice was rising again; I willed it back down to normal. Winterhawk's head was bowed so he didn't have to look at me there not ten centimeters from him. "Listen," I said, taking a deep breath to calm my jangled nerves, irrationally half expecting the vampire to appear behind me any minute, "You may be playing the English country gentleman right now, but you're a shadowrunner too. You're not looking at this from a professional viewpoint at all. If somebody was out to kill you in Seattle, somebody with powers like this woman's got, would you be sitting here with your head in your hands, dithering about what to do, or would you be out looking for her, getting her before she got you?"

Once more, Winterhawk looked at me. "If I kill her," he said softly, "I might be killing Nigel. I don't know if I have the right to do that—I don't even know if any of this was his fault, or if he was just following her orders."

I stood. I'd finally had enough. "Look," I said, my voice cold, "Life's not fair, okay? I learned that one early on, and it's about time you learned it too. Sure, maybe it isn't the kid's fault. So? It isn't yours, and it isn't mine, either. Sometimes you gotta do things you don't want to do, That's just the way life is. Get it?" I didn't stop the exasperation from coloring my tone: I was getting tired of his indecision in the face of what to me seemed like an easily-solved problem. "If the kid's a slave, there's nothing you can do for him, you said. If he's your son and he's a slave, do you want him to live the rest of his life like that? That sure doesn't sound like you're doin' him any favors to me." I crossed my arms and waited for his response.

He continued watching me for perhaps thirty seconds, then slowly rose, with little of his usual grace. "All right," he said in a flat tone devoid of any emotion. "I'll think about what you said. Come down to my library in half an hour, and I'll give you my answer." Without waiting for my reply, he turned and made his way slowly back up the stairs toward his rooms. I stood there, following his progress upward until he disappeared into the hallway on the second floor. When I heard his door close, I went up to my room and got dressed in my "work clothes." Even if he decided not to go, I hadn't been kidding: I was going to find that bitch and make sure she never bit anybody again, and God help anybody who tried to stop me.

I paced around in my room for most of the half hour, wondering what I would find when I went down there. Had Winterhawk gone soft on this one, so soft that he wouldn't risk killing the boy to get at the woman? I could see his point—If I had had a son, I wouldn't have relished the thought of causing his death for something that wasn't his fault either. But sometimes these things had to be done, and getting emotional about them only made it worse. Better to do it fast, get it over with, and move on the best you could. It never got any easier, but that was the best way to deal with it in my reckoning.

When my chrono told me that twenty-five minutes had passed, I pulled my coat together to hide the shotgun under it, left my room, and went back downstairs. Aubrey was standing in the doorway on the other side of the hall, seemingly lost in thought. He looked at me, and a strange expression grew in his eyes—resigned, sad, a little scared. He said nothing to me, but instead turned and disappeared back through the doorway from which he had come. I continued across the hall toward the study.

The door was open about a quarter of the way. There were no lights on inside—the only illumination came from the moonlight streaming in through the large window. I pushed open the door gently, my low-light cybereyes taking in the room in a quick glance. At first, I didn't see him. Then I looked over at his favorite chair.

He was sitting there, his back to me, staring out the window. As I moved closer, into the room, he did not move to look at me. He was no longer wearing the jeans and black sweater; now, he was dressed in a loose-fitting, stylish charcoal gray suit, black turtleneck, and black leather armored duster. Propped up next to the chair was his mageblade, the blue gem on its hilt glittering faintly in the dimness.

He turned to look at me, and I had never seen such a closed, emotionless expression on his face. "You're going?" I asked, but I didn't need to.

He rose from the chair, picked up the blade and stowed it in its place beneath his coat. "Let's get on with it if we're going to do it," he said. I couldn't identify any feeling in his voice at all. He indicated the door, and I preceded him out of the room.

I didn't speak to him as we crossed the main hall toward the door; I didn't think he would answer anyway. He did not walk quickly, but there was a purpose about his stride that hadn't been there before. He seemed resigned to what he had to do, which was about the best I could expect at the moment. It would have to be enough.

Aubrey was back. This time, he stood near the front door, off to one side, hovering there uncertainly as if he was unsure if he should be there at all. As Winterhawk approached, he stepped out of the shadows. "Sir..."

Winterhawk stopped in front of him. "Yes, Aubrey?"

"Are you certain this is what you want to do, sir?" The old man still had the same look in his eyes I'd seen a few minutes earlier. He looked Winterhawk up and down, noting his change of clothes.

Slowly but without hesitation, the mage nodded. "Yes, Aubrey. I'm certain." Reaching out, he put his hand on Aubrey's shoulder. "I want you to stay in the house until we get back, all right? Go someplace where there's only one way to get in, and keep your shotgun with you. If she comes in, shoot her. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir," Aubrey said sadly. "I'll do as you say. But do you think she'll come here?"

"No, not really. But I don't want to take chances. If we're not back by morning—" he paused, sighed, shook his head. "Just be careful, Aubrey."

Aubrey nodded, sighing too. "Yes, sir." He looked at me, back at Winterhawk, and then took a step back to watch us leave. He did not speak again as we left, closing the door gently behind us.

We were in Winterhawk's car and halfway across London before the mage even acknowledged my presence. "She isn't alone," he said then, his eyes still riveted on the road ahead of him. Outside, a light mist was falling in the darkness. The glow from the streetlamps bouncing off the shifting mist made eerie shadows dance along the side of the road. Traffic was sparse at this late hour.

My eyes widened a bit as I turned to stare at him (it was still weird turning to the right instead of the left to look at a car's driver; I didn't think I'd ever get used to it). "She isn't?" Then I realized what he meant. "Oh, yeah, of course. Nigel's with her, right?"

He shook his head. "No, that's not what I mean." He still didn't turn his head. "Nigel is there too, but there's someone else with her."

"Someone...else?" I tensed up, quickly scanning the area around the car as if I expected this unknown new person to be following us. "Who?" When he didn't answer after a short pause, I said, "Another vampire?"

"I don't know. I don't think so." He made a right turn onto a smaller street. "After I left you and decided to go after her, I did a little astral scan to make sure that she was still where I left her. She has a man with her."

"Did you get anything about him? Is he anything to worry about?"

He shrugged. "He might be. I didn't stay long, but I think he's magically active."

I slammed both hands down on the car's dashboard, causing him to start a bit. The car veered and he righted it. "What?" I demanded, glaring at him. "And you weren't going to tell me about this? She's got a mage with her and you didn't think that was important enough to mention until now?"

"I didn't say he was a mage, did I?" he asked, his stress obvious in his tone. "I think he might be a physical adept, from the look of his aura."

"A physical adept? You mean the guys who can imitate cyberware with magic?"

He nodded. "That's a rather crude way to put it, but essentially correct. If that's what he is, he may be as fast as you, so be prepared."

"No problem," I said, smiling for the first time in a long while. This, I could handle. "They can't cast spells, right?"

"No. Not if that's what he is."

I cracked my knuckles for emphasis. "No problem," I repeated, my nasty smile growing a little wider.

By the time Winterhawk stopped the car, we had crossed London and had driven a short distance out into one of its suburbs, to an area where the houses were two-story, fifty meters or so apart, and obviously had been around since at least a century ago. Each one was large, larger than the typical dwelling of the day. They looked well-kept, as if their occupants were not wanting for money. It was quite dark except for the moonlight, the widely-spaced streetlamps, the occasional pale glow in the homes' windows, and the headlights of Winterhawk's car. He pulled the car off onto a side street and turned off both the lights and the ignition. "This is it?" I asked.

He pointed toward one of the houses. There was another between us and it, but I could clearly see its dark bulk ahead of us. There were lights on on the second floor. "That's where they are. I didn't want to park too close, in case..." he didn't finish. "Stay here a minute, and I'll see if everything is still as we expect." Leaning back in his seat without further explanation, he closed his eyes. His posture slumped, his head falling forward until his chin rested on his chest. I waited silently while he did his astral reconnaissance, looking around the surrounding area and memorizing the location of the other nearby houses, the cars, and the adjacent roads. Never knew when you might need such information.

In only about thirty seconds, Winterhawk was back. His head snapped up and he blinked a couple times to clear his vision. "All right," he said briskly, in almost his old familiar tone, "They're on the second floor. Two of them, her and the man. I think they might be—busy—at the moment." His eyes glittered with malicious amusement. "She'll be surprised to see us, won't she?" Opening the car door, he got out, adjusting the sword under his coat.

"Where's Nigel?" I asked, getting out too.

His amused expression disappeared. "He's downstairs." Turning to face me, he looked hard into my eyes, and his jaw was set coldly. "We won't harm him. Understood?"

I nodded. "Not unless I have to. If he comes after me with a knife, though, all bets are off."

"I don't think he will. If we do this right, he may not even be a factor." He started off, then stopped. "Oh, and one more thing."


"She's mine," he said quietly. "You take care of the adept, but she's mine."

Again, I nodded. "Like I said, that's fine unless things get out of hand. I'm not gonna stand there and let you get your throat ripped out because you wanted to kill her."

Winterhawk didn't answer. He continued up the street, staying to shadows as much as possible. I followed him, doing it much better than he did, but I didn't think it mattered. As we approached the house, I had to wonder what had possessed us to go after a vampire in the middle of the night. "Hey," I whispered loudly.


"Can you tell me anything about vampires? You know, things I might need to know?"

He shrugged. "You already know they can turn into mist."

"Can I affect the mist?"

"No, but I can."

"What else?"

He considered. "Well, they're allergic to sunlight, but that doesn't do us much good right now. They don't like wood much. They're quite strong, as I'm sure you know, especially after they've fed. And you seem to know quite enough about their ability to drain one's essence." He stared hard at me. "They're not supernatural beings, though," he said sternly. "They're just human being with a disease, when you get right down to it. They have certain abilities, and many of them are mages, but deep down they're just a different kind of person. Remember that."

I nodded, not sure I was convinced, and we continued on.

Closer, I could see that, despite its age, the house was in good repair, newly-painted and carefully landscaped. Whoever lived here definitely had money. I wondered if she had a security system installed; neither Winterhawk nor I had any expertise in such things. It wouldn't do to be caught here by the authorities, not for either of us. I'd probably get deported at best, and 'Hawk's eccentric college professor persona would be in shreds unless he could use his unexplained government connections to somehow get out of trouble. I didn't think he really wanted to call on those connections right now, especially when he was out trying to kill someone. For both our sakes, we had to be very careful.

We went around to the side of the house opposite the one Winterhawk said he'd seen the astral presences of the vampire and her male friend. There were several windows, both on the first floor and the second. I looked at him questioningly, and he pointed up. I immediately got the picture, standing still while he made the necessary small gestures to call up a levitation spell. My feet and his lifted off the ground simultaneously as the spell took effect, gently floating us upward until we were standing on an outcropping of the first-floor roof, near two windows. I waited until he set us down and then moved toward one of the windows, while he moved toward the second, both of us trying to make as little noise as possible.

Surprisingly, the locks on the windows were very simple ones. They looked like they hadn't been updated much later than the house had. I motioned Winterhawk over after looking at the one I was near, and then used my pocketknife to slip in between the two surfaces and slide the catch silently up and off. "That was almost too easy," I whispered to him.

"Maybe she's expecting us," he whispered back, not seeming too frightened by the prospect. "Or p'raps she's sloppy about security. She is insane, after all. Crazy people sometimes don't worry about mundane things like whether intruders can get into their homes." He motioned for me to open the window. "Just be careful. Be ready for her to be anywhere—I can't check the astral plane constantly."

Quietly I slid the window open and pulled off the screen, noting that the window glass was not armored. Another serious security faux pas, at least from my paranoid shadowrunner point of view. The room opened on what looked like a spare bedroom; even before I entered, I could see the large form of a bed, plus two nightstands and a dresser. The darkness in the room was no problem to my and Winterhawk's cybereyes.

I went through first, dropping silently to the thick carpeting inside the window. Winterhawk followed more slowly, knowing he wasn't as quick on his feet as I was and compensating for it by paying careful attention to where he was going before committing himself. I made a swift move for the closet, seizing the handle and pulling it open, expecting to see her waiting there.

The closet was empty.

"Come on," Winterhawk whispered edgily. "I said careful—I didn't say terrified." He moved toward the bedroom door, then stepped aside to let me through first.

Before I took another step, I withdrew the katana from its scabbard on my back and held it out in front of me. In such close quarters, I felt more confident with a hand weapon than I would with the Defiance, but it was right there, its weight reassuring beneath my coat, if I needed it. I turned the doorknob and pushed the wooden door open. It moved noiselessly on well-oiled hinges, opening onto a carpeted hallway lined with three other doors, two on one side and one, along with this one, on the other. The hallway was unoccupied, except for the tasteful abstract prints hanging on its wall and a small occasional table at the far end, currently containing a flower in a crystal vase. Beyond that I could see the top of the stairway leading down to the first floor.

Winterhawk stepped out alongside me, oriented himself for a moment, and indicated the other door on the same side of the hallway as our own door. "They're in there," he whispered.

I nodded and started to move forward, but he touched my arm. "No. Let me go first."

"You sure that's wise?" I asked, but he had already taken the lead. I shrugged and followed.

The door that was our objective was not closed, at least not all the way. There was about a centimeter or two of space between the edge of it and the doorjamb, as we could see when we crept down the last few meters and stood next to it. Winterhawk looked at me, nodded, and stepped forward, pushing the door open. I was right behind him.

I took in the room in a split-second: large room, with bed, two dressers, armchair, walk-in closet, two nightstands with lamps, trid unit, door to a bathroom, and tiny table with two chairs near the window. The whole room was done in bold reds, with black and white accents. As Winterhawk had said, the two we sought were in the room all right: in fact, he had been right—they were in the bed amidst disarrayed covers, having obviously recently finished lovemaking. She looked just like I remembered: dark-haired, wild-eyed, pretty but not beautiful in a strange, bony sort of way, wearing a red satin nightgown. The man with her was an Elf, tall, thin and handsome, with lean, well-defined muscles and the look of someone who knew what he was doing in a fight. Both of them looked up quickly as we made our appearance in the doorway.

Winterhawk boldly moved into the room, never taking his eyes off the woman in the bed. "Hello, Ann," he said, his voice dripping with ice and sarcasm. "So nice to see you again. I do hope we're not interrupting anything."

If the woman was surprised to see us, she didn't show it. She smiled with evil mirth. "Alastair. I thought you might be coming." She indicated the Elf. "But as you can see, you're far too late to have me now. I've found Glenrik here, and believe me, he's much better in bed than you ever were." She chuckled, stroking her companion behind his pointed ear. The man smiled too, in the same cold way as her own. My eyes widened in horror as I saw the twin holes on the side of his neck, a tiny bit of blood trickling down from them. Any other blood was invisible against the red sheets. What was going on here? The man wasn't dead; he didn't even look unhappy. What—

Winterhawk apparently saw it too, because he said, "Yes, I see you've found someone new. He's letting you feed off him, is he? Or have you turned him into a pawn like you did Nigel?"

For a brief second, a look of fear flashed across her face, but then it was gone and the smile was back. "Oh, so you figured that one out, did you? You always were so curious, dear Alastair—so methodical. So boringly scholarly. But no, Glenrik isn't one of mine, like our little Nigel. I must admit, that was one of my better plans. Too bad I had to wait awhile to get back at you, though. This way, I get to have my revenge on you by destroying your child first, then you." Languidly, she stretched, writhing on the sheets. If she had been any other woman, it would have been extremely sexy. With her, it made my skin crawl. I wanted to look away, but I dared not.

"Then—he is my son," Winterhawk said in a dead tone. No, I thought, don't lose it now, 'Hawk...

Ann laughed. "Of course he is, stupid! What, did you think I slept around when I was engaged to you? He's yours all right. How do you like being a daddy?"

Winterhawk stood there, clenching and unclenching his fists, trying to regain control. I could see his whole body shaking with rage, and I willed him to hold it together. If he cracked now, I didn't think I could take both the vampire and the Elf alone. "You...insane...bitch," he hissed through clenched teeth.

She laughed even louder, the sound rising to the pitch of hysteria. If there had ever been a doubt in my mind that this woman was certifiably insane, it was driven away by the harsh, twisted peals of her laughter. "Oh, Alastair," she said, trying to get control of her giggles, "You're so amusing. But that wasn't a very nice thing to say to me. Glenrik?"

With frightening speed, almost before she'd finished pronouncing his name, Glenrik was leaping out of bed and diving toward us. He was clad only in a pair of shorts, but from somewhere he had produced a katana much like my own. His eyes were cold and merciless, the eyes of a hired executioner; his mouth was curled upward in an enigmatic smile, as if he enjoyed his work.

Swiftly I stepped in front of Winterhawk. I didn't move much slower than the Elf, and I was expecting an attack, so I was ready. I slashed at him with my blade, but somehow he twisted out of the way and landed on his feet behind me. Instantly I whirled to face him, noting from the corner of my eye that Winterhawk was moving toward the bed and Ann was rising from it. Then there was no more time to worry about them.

Glenrik was a madman, and quicker than I was. He slashed at me once, then twice, the second time managing to make a small slice in my side before I could counter the blow. I winced as hot pain lanced through me, and staggered backward to get my bearings. Every swing I took at him he blocked almost without effort. He was good, there was no doubt about it. I realized if I was going to beat him, I was going to have to employ the unconventional tactics of the street. The conventional stuff was going to get me killed. This fight was progressing at the breakneck pace of a speeding freight train; one wrong move would be my last.

Behind me, I sensed rather than saw the blossoming of a spell, and heard the vampire's agonized cry. She wasn't down yet, though—I could still hear her back there, slamming Winterhawk into a wall. Then Glenrik was pressing his attack again and I turned my attention back. Raising my sword as if to slash at him, I swiftly reached into my coat and withdrew the flare gun. Not what I wanted, but it would do: a flare at close range could definitely rearrange an opponent's anatomy, even if that wasn't what it was designed for. Bringing it up in a quick-draw, I fired straight at his chest.

Damn, that man was fast. Somehow, I don't even know how he did it, the Elf got out of the way of the flare. He ducked to one side, allowing the flaming projectile to pass harmlessly over his shoulder. It struck the filmy curtains hanging over the room's one large window, and they burst into flames. I only had a second to look, but it was enough: I saw the fire move from the curtain to a nearby table, where the flames licked at the wood and took hold. The house was on fire! We'd have to get this over with quickly, or none of it would matter—we'd all be trapped inside the burning building.

Glenrik, oblivious to the beginnings of an inferno behind him, was making another attack. He vaulted up on the armchair and then jumped at me, katana outstretched, intent on turning me into Ocelot kabob. Suddenly, in a flash of insight, an idea came to me. I raised my arm, the one without the katana, in a defensive position. From his viewpoint, I looked like I was trying to ward him off with my bare arm. I could hear him laughing as he came down—at least until I popped my cyberspur from my hand at the last moment, slashing cruelly across his arm and at the same time sidestepping his advance. The blade parted flesh, leaving a bloody trail in its wake. Not deep, but long. That would slow him down, I hoped.

The Elf landed badly, but still managed to turn himself to face me as he got up from his knees. Behind me, as I dropped the flaregun, I could see Winterhawk struggling with the vampire. She had him by the shoulders and was attempting, with success, to shove him across the room toward the window. If he had been right and vampires were strongest right after they fed, then he was in trouble: he wasn't strong to begin with, and she was more than my equal. I had to finish off the Elf fast so I could help 'Hawk before she killed him. The blood was trickling down my side beneath my coat, but I didn't think it was too serious. Not yet, anyway. I swung on Glenrik again, and again he danced just out of my range. Then he closed the distance to me and we were locked in hand-to-hand combat.

Surprisingly, I fared better there. He was good, but not as good as I was. When he loosed his grip on my arm to try to get a better one, I acted quickly, using my weight to pitch him over my head and into the wall. He hit heavily and was stunned for a moment.

Enough of this. Winterhawk couldn't last too much longer against this madwoman, since she obviously wasn't letting him get his concentration together sufficiently to cast another spell. Taking advantage of the respite provided by the Elf's recovery, I dropped the katana and pulled out my Defiance, slapping a shot clip into it, then opening the choke to its full range. He may be fast, but nobody was fast enough to get out of the way of a full spray of shot. And unless he was wearing armored underwear, this was going to hurt. Bad.

I spared one quick glance to my side as Glenrik rose: the fire had engulfed the small table and had spread to the armchair. The smoke was making it difficult to see. Ann had succeeded in steering Winterhawk over to the window, where as I watched in horror, she shoved him backward toward it. He caught himself at the last moment, but his head smashed through the glass, splintering the window into a thousand shards. I heard him cry out, saw the blood, and felt the heat of the flames rise with the new influx of oxygen. Then Glenrik was on me again. I almost didn't have time to pull the trigger. Almost.

The shotgun went off with a great roar, firing out a deadly cone of tiny metal fragments from its barrel. Several rounds caught the Elf in the belly, stitching little red wounds across his pale, muscular abdomen and part of his lower chest. His hands were raised to grab me, but he never got the chance. In midair, his eyes glazed over and he dropped, eighty or so kilograms of dead meat, into my arms. Both of us went down. I quickly disentangled myself, hoping I was not too late, and sprang up to confront the vampire.

She had Winterhawk halfway through the window and was leaning down over him, her fangs bared in an obscene grin. He looked semiconscious, blood coming from several wounds in his head. I gathered my strength to grab her and pull her away.

Before I could do that, though, something else happened. A small form darted into the room, past my line of sight, and up to the woman's back. Lunging up onto one of the half-burning chairs, he threw something—a towel?—around the vampire's face and clutched it tightly behind her head, blocking her vision. My eyes got wider: it was Nigel! "Now!" the boy yelled. "Kill her now! I can't hold her—" That was all he got to say before the vampire flung him off with an enraged bellow, snatching the towel from her face and turning toward Winterhawk again.

But that had given him the opening he needed. He pulled himself up, faster than I would have thought him capable at the moment, and drew the black-bladed magical sword from beneath his coat. He stood, swaying, for a second, then swung the sword in a great arc toward the vampire's head. From the look on his face, I suspected that every ounce of hatred, frustration, and anger he had toward his former lover was channeled through that blow.

For a moment, I thought she would get out of the way, the same as the Elf adept Glenrik had done so easily with my attacks. But she was not Glenrik, and she did not have even Winterhawk's cybernetically enhanced reflexes. Her eyelids peeled back in terror as the blade contacted her neck, met momentary resistance, and then went through, leaving spurts of bright red blood to follow behind it. For a sickening instant, her head and her body remained where they were, frozen in some sort of ghoulish equilibrium, and then each toppled separately to the ground. As I watched, speechless and unable to move, both head and body crumbled to dust, leaving only the slashed red nightgown and drifts of what looked like charred ashes.

Winterhawk just stood there, in the midst of the burning room, the sword now held numbly at his side. I think if I hadn't gotten my senses back, he would have just remained there and allowed the house to fall down around him. "Come on!" I yelled to him, grabbing my katana from the floor. "We have to get out of here! The house is on fire!"

He shook his head as if to clear it, but it didn't appear to work. "House?"

"The house is on fire!" I repeated, yelling in his ear. Far in the distance, I could hear sirens—one of the neighbors must have called the fire department already, and in neighborhoods like this, they actually got here with enough time to be effective. "We have to go!" I grabbed his arm and pulled him along. Then I noticed Nigel, huddled in the far corner of the room away from the flames. "Come on, Nigel," I said to him, trying to be gentle. "We have to leave. The house is going to fall down soon."

The boy nodded, coughing, and rose, coming over to me in a daze. Winterhawk shook his head again; this time, it seemed to work. "We have to go," I said to the mage for the third time.

He nodded this time. Together, silently, the three of us left the house out the same window into which we had come earlier. I held Nigel as 'Hawk worked his spell again (it was harder for him this time, I knew, since he was injured, but we didn't have far to go) and we made our way back to the car down the street. By the time we reached it, the flames had engulfed the entire top floor of the house. I didn't think any evidence of what we had done would remain by the time the fire department arrived and was able to douse the inferno.

We reached the car. I was glad we didn't encounter anyone on the street, since we probably made quite a threesome: charred, smelling of smoke, me favoring my left side which was now bleeding more profusely, Winterhawk staggering along like a drunk, and Nigel trailing uncertainly behind us. "Can you drive?" I demanded as the mage opened the car door and pulled the seat forward so Nigel could slide into the back. I looked at him, really seeing him for the first time since we'd entered the house. He looked like something out of a nightmare: rivulets of blood matted his hair and ran down his face from where the vampire had put his head through the window. There was so much blood that the stark white stripes in his hair had turned red, giving him an eerily demonic appearance. None of the wounds looked too serious, though, and all of them seemed to have stopped bleeding. I regretted once more my inability to drive four-wheeled vehicles, and vowed once more (how many times had it been now?) to learn at the next available opportunity, but that would do us no good now. I didn't think Nigel knew how, either.

He nodded. "I—I think so," he said uncertainly, sliding into the driver's seat. I quickly went around the front and got in the other side, and he fired up the car and took off. Nigel, in the back, said nothing.

"Can you mask the car?" I asked, looking nervously over my shoulder at the still-visible burning house that was rapidly receding into the distance. "They might be looking for vehicles."

"We'll have to take our chances," he said softly. "I...don't think I'm up to any more magic right now." He turned slightly to face me. "You're wounded—I can take care of that, I think—"

"Don't bother," I told him. "It'll be fine." It may have been a lie; I wasn't sure yet, since I hadn't had a look at it. I was feeling a little woozy, but that could have been smoke inhalation. In any case, I figured it would be all right until we got back to the house.

For a long time, no one said anything, each of us alone with his own thoughts. I stared out the window of the car at the mist, which had turned into a full-blown fog by now. Occasional dark shapes rose up out of it, but few of them were identifiable. It felt strange to be driving through this unending whiteness, but it didn't seem to bother Winterhawk. Finally, after about twenty minutes on the road, I ventured, "'Hawk?"

"Yes?" He did not change position at all.

"How did you—you know. I thought she regenerated damage."

In a monotone, he said, "My sword is a weapon focus. It negates regeneration."

"Oh." A long pause, and then, " we do now?"

He shrugged, a tiny movement of one shoulder. "We go back home. Roust Aubrey out of whatever hiding place he's found. We go on." He turned to face me then, his blue eyes sad and resigned in his bloody face. "That's what you said we have to do, isn't it? Go on?"

Slowly, I nodded. "Yeah."

But I wasn't at all happy about saying it.

[Prev] [Magespace] [Blood Ties] [Next]