Chapter Fourteen

“Okay,” Ocelot said. “You want to let me in on this now, finally?” He checked the window one more time, but the view out into the vacant lot was as quiet and threat-free as it had been the last three times he had checked.

They were in a tiny house at the end of a cul-de-sac in one of the area’s white-bread suburban neighborhoods. When they had pulled up in front of it half an hour ago and stowed the Triumph in the garage, it had seemed to both of them that the place couldn’t keep a stray kitten safe, let alone a couple of paranoid runners. But Harry had never let them down yet, so they decided to see if the house was more than met the eye. When they keyed in the code he had supplied and gotten inside, things had become clearer. Windows which had appeared from the outside to be unremarkable glass revealed a second layer of Armorlite on the inside, while the walls showed signs of some heavy-duty reinforcement and all the locks were significantly more formidable than the average suburban homeowner would find useful. An impressive but unobtrusive security system, controlled from one of the bedrooms, kept tabs on the outer areas of the house, while the kitchen was stocked with enough food and bottled water to keep a full team fed for at least a week. Ocelot had done a quick walk-through and pronounced himself satisfied; Winterhawk, contrary to his usual behavior, had actually not only taken an interest in the place’s security, but had done a more thorough examination of his own before finally settling down on one of the couches in the living room. Ocelot had dropped down in a chair across from him, and that was where they were at the present moment.

Winterhawk sighed. He was still a little shaken from the trip over: Ocelot had not altered his reckless riding habits to account for a passenger’s presence, and the mage was still feeling a bit like his world was tilting crazily from one side to the other. Picking up the leather bag, he set it on the coffee table between them and unzipped it, pulling a wrapped bundle from inside. “This is what’s been causing all the trouble,” he said. Careful not to touch the contents, he unrolled the bundle.

Ocelot stared at the unassuming-looking, dirt-encrusted staff that lay on the table and his eyes narrowed. “That thing is what your friend got killed over?”

‘Hawk nodded soberly. “And what we almost got killed over as well, from the look of things.”

“So...uh...what is it?” Ocelot leaned forward a bit to get a better look. “Some kind of ancient magical doodad, but what’s it do?”

“I don’t know,” ‘Hawk said. “Not entirely, anyway. It’s very old, that’s certain -probably dates to the last Age of Magic. As for its mundane purpose, it’s obviously a staff of some sort--the kind of thing used by a ruler...strictly ceremonial, usually. You might have seen pictures of a similar item if you ever watch the history trids on ancient Egypt. But as for its origin--” he shrugged. “Without further study, I--don’t touch it!” he yelled suddenly.

Ocelot jumped back, startled, from where he had been preparing to do just that. He glared at Winterhawk. “What?

Winterhawk shook his head. “Don’t touch it. It might be dangerous.”

Ocelot sighed. It was going to be a long day. He was beginning to wish he’d just let his phone ring and spent the day buying shoes. Too late now, though. He was in the middle of it. “So what do you know about it, then?”

The mage, apparently satisfied that Ocelot wasn’t planning to touch the staff, leaned back on the couch. “All I’ve been able to determine so far, with a few hours’ worth of research at the University thaumaturgy lab, is that it’s got some sort of low-grade enchantment covering up some very potent magic.”

“What kind of magic?” Ocelot asked rather slowly, casting a nervous glance between the artifact and Winterhawk.

“Not sure exactly, but it seems to have something to do with control, or influence.” Winterhawk got up and began pacing, although Ocelot noticed that he never took his eyes off the staff for longer than a second or two. “What I haven’t been able to determine thus far is whether the staff itself exerts influence over the wielder, or if it confers some kind of influence- or control-related powers on whomever is using it.”

“Is there any way to find out? Anybody you trust who we could ask?”

‘Hawk sighed and shook his head. “That’s the problem. Since this thing is technically stolen evidence from a rather messy murder, I’d rather not let anyone in the reputable magical community know that I’ve got it in my possession. If they find out back home, I could be in a great deal of trouble.”

Ocelot nodded. “Yeah, I hear that. So what about anybody in the disreputable magical community?”

“That brings up a whole new set of problems,” ‘Hawk said, dropping back down on the couch. “Somebody killed my friend Toby to get hold of this thing, which means that somebody must have known he had it. The question there is: why did they wait this long to do it? Was it a coincidence that they chose to make their move right after Toby would have taken off for Amazonia, or was there some reason they decided it would be easier to grab the thing from my home than from Toby’s?”

Ocelot thought about that for a moment. “Were his magical defenses better than yours?”

‘Hawk shook his head. “Toby had no enemies. He had the typical wards and probably a watcher spirit or two on patrol, but nothing a determined thief couldn’t bypass. If they were looking for trouble, they were much more likely to find it at my place, given the augmented wards I maintain around it and my own protective abilities--not to mention Maya.”

Ocelot chuckled slightly as a picture of the big black cat formed in his mind. He had met Maya on a previous visit to Stone Manor a year or so ago, and she had pronounced him ‘hers’, meaning she approved of him. “I sure as hell wouldn’t want to run into that little kitty in the dark if she didn’t like me.”

“Exactly,” ‘Hawk agreed. “So either they had no idea what they were up against, or else they did know and just didn’t care. That latter case makes me very nervous, because it seems they will stop at nothing to get hold of this little trinket.”

Ocelot looked at the staff again. It really was an ugly thing. Still, there was something...compelling about it. He shrugged and looked back at ‘Hawk. “So--what do we do now, then? We can’t stay here forever.”

Winterhawk took a deep breath; he looked almost like he was thinking about saying something and trying to decide whether he should. Finally, he let the breath out slowly. “Well...” he said in a speculative tone, “we could try a little experiment. But I warn you, it could be dangerous.”

“What kind of experiment?” Ocelot’s voice was laced with suspicion. When ‘Hawk started talking about experiments, things usually got weird--or dangerous. Sometimes both.

The mage paused to look at the staff before answering. “I could pick the thing up and see if I get anything from it. If I start doing anything strange, you should be able to incapacitate me before I can do any harm.”

Ocelot shook his head emphatically. “No way, ‘Hawk. You have no idea what that thing does. What if picking it up kills you where you stand?”

“I can be reasonably sure that won’t happen,” ‘Hawk said. “It’s possible that nothing will happen, given that magical items must usually be attuned to the user before they can be utilized. But if I don’t do something, we’ll never know it. At least if we’re going to be carrying the thing around with us until we figure out what to do with it, I’d like to have some idea of what I’m carrying.” He looked up, meeting Ocelot’s gaze; his own was very serious. “Listen. You’re a lot faster than I am. If I do anything that makes you nervous, just pop me a good one. When I wake up, you can tell me what I did. Okay?”

Ocelot regarded ‘Hawk for several moments, trying to make up his mind whether his friend actually had a plan or if this was just more of his catlike curiosity rearing its head. He did have to admit that ‘Hawk had a point, though: it was dangerous to carry the thing around without knowing its capabilities. Finally he sighed. “I’m gonna regret this,” he said, “but let’s give it a shot.” His eyes narrowed. “You sure you want this? ‘Cause youweren’t kidding--if I see anything strange at all, you’re going down.”

“Anything for science,” ‘Hawk said cheerfully. “Just be sure you don’t touch the staff if I drop it. And besides, I really don’t think it’s going to come to that. All I’m really hoping is that I can do a bit more analysis. I’ve no intention of attuning the damned thing.”

For a moment there was silence between them and then Ocelot nodded. “Okay. Let’s do it before I lose my nerve. What do you want me to do?”

Winterhawk stood, moving over next to the table. “Stand near me, but don’t touch me. I’m going to pick up the staff and I’ll try to relay to you any impressions I get or feelings I experience. That way if something goes wrong, at least one of us will know a bit more.”

Ocelot looked at ‘Hawk; despite the lightness of his tone, strain showed in the set of his jaw and the odd gleam in his bright blue eyes. “You sure about this?” he asked again.

Winterhawk nodded, but did not speak. He exchanged one last glance with Ocelot, then picked up the staff. He moved gingerly, as if expecting it to explode in his hand. Then he pulled himself back up to a standing position.

Ocelot watched him warily. “Anything?”

He stood there a moment, gripping it lightly, holding it at his side. He shook his head. “I don’t feel any different.”

“Any--I dunno--magical weirdness? Buzzing in your head? Tingles? Whatever the hell magic stuff does when you use it?”

‘Hawk glared at him in mock annoyance. “I assure you, there aren’t any tingles involved. You’ve been watching far too much trideo.”

“Maybe you’re just not getting the right magic items,” Ocelot said, shrugging, with a small smile. He could already feel himself relaxing as it appeared that they mysterious item wasn’t doing ‘Hawk any harm.

“Well, it isn’t as if I haven’t looked,” ‘Hawk admitted.

Ocelot glanced up. There was something...odd about the mage’s voice. Something that made ‘Hawk’s normally pleasant, upper-crust-Londoner tones sound somehow...different. Ocelot shrugged, unable to put his finger on the difference. ‘Hawk wasn’t doing anything unusual; he was just standing there holding the artifact, carrying on a perfectly normal conversation.

A conversation that Ocelot did not want to take his mind off for even a second, for if he did, he might miss something ‘Hawk said. That would be a bad thing. He had so many important things to say, it would be wrong to miss any of them.

“Terry?” ‘Hawk’s voice sounded a bit concerned. “Are you all right? I thought it was you who were supposed to be watching for odd behavior in me, not the other way ‘round.”

Ocelot stared at him, leaning forward a bit. “Yeah...” he said. “Yeah...I’m fine. Go ahead...What were you saying?” It did not seem strange to him that he was staring. ‘Hawk was just more...interesting than usual today. His eyes were brighter, his voice more compelling, his gestures drawing Ocelot into the conversation.

“I wasn’t saying anything,” ‘Hawk said slowly. “Terry--are you sure you’re all right? You’re acting quite strangely.”

“No, really. I’m fine. Just go on. I’m listening.” Ocelot’s gaze had not yet left Winterhawk’s face.

“Hmm...” Winterhawk looked down at the artifact in his hand, wondering if it was somehow affecting Ocelot instead of him. That seemed unlikely, though--at least not without his knowledge. He shrugged. “Well, it looks as if this thing needs a bit more prodding before it does anything nasty, so at least we can be reasonably sure that we can touch it without setting anything off.” He sat back down on the couch and leaned forward to put the staff back on its protective cushion of old clothes--

--and stopped, leaning back again, the staff still in his hand. He moved casually, so as not to startle Ocelot, but he needn’t have worried. Ocelot was still watching him intently, apparently waiting for him to speak again. “So,” he said at last, “where shall we go from here?”

Ocelot shrugged. He didn’t have any ideas. In fact, he was thinking that he should just sit back and let Winterhawk make the decisions. He was, after all, much better at it.

Winterhawk’s gaze sharpened. “Terry--what’s gotten into you? Why are you so quiet all of a sudden? Say something!”

“Something!” Ocelot spoke quickly, involuntarily. It was as if another consciousness had suddenly taken control of his mouth. He looked startled for a moment, then something poked its way up to the top of his awareness and his eyes narrowed. “‘Hawk...”

“Yes?” Winterhawk was still leaned back on the couch, the artifact gripped in one hand. “Terry, you--”

“Tell me to do something,” Ocelot said through his teeth. “Something small, but something...weird. That I wouldn’t normally do.” He forced himself to look away from Winterhawk’s face, so as not to get caught in his gaze again.

The mage looked at him oddly. “Terry, you’re not making sense. But all right--if you want to get in on the experiment, so be it. Uh...wave your hands over your head.”

His eyes widened in surprise as Ocelot did just that. “You’re having me on, aren’t you? This is some sort of joke, to make me think--”

He didn’t get any further than that before Ocelot’s fist snaked out and caught him on the point of the chin. As blackness took him, he felt the staff slipping from his grasp and dropping to the floor.