Harry was not altogether pleased to have had his presence requested in a face-to-face meet with ‘Hawk and Ocelot, but he had worked with the two of them long enough to know that they wouldn’t have done it without good reason. The fixer had been in business in Seattle for quite a few more years than these two had been running the shadows, and in all that time had developed some pretty good instincts about who could and couldn’t be trusted. These two, along with the other two members of their team, were up very near the top of his list; sometimes that meant they got special treatment. As long as they didn’t abuse the privilege, that was.
He leaned back in his chair and looked the two over as they came in through the door to the back room. The meet had been set up at an Italian restaurant called Morelli’s; Harry had helped out the owner with some trouble a few years back and the man had never forgotten it, so he had thought of the place when Winterhawk had been adamant about not meeting at any of their usual haunts. Weird, he had mused. Usually it’s Ocelot who’s the paranoid one of that pair But Antonio Morelli was trustworthy, and so Harry had agreed to the meet. Just to be safe, his bodyguards had been stationed at a table near the door, outside the room but still close enough to be effective should anything go wrong. One male, one female, they looked like a pair of romantic diners and would continue to do so until and unless someone started trouble.
The first thing Harry noticed about both ‘Hawk and Ocelot as they came in was that they looked nervous. They were trying to hide it, but Harry was nothing if not perceptive. ‘Hawk, especially, looked like he was expecting to get jumped any minute. He also looked like he hadn’t slept in a very long time: there were deep circles under his eyes, and his normally pale complexion was even paler than usual. He came in before Ocelot, carrying a leather duffel bag that didn’t go with his suit. Ocelot checked the door and then closed it behind him.
“So,” Harry said, going straight to business. “What couldn’t get taken care of on the phone?”
Winterhawk sighed, dropping into a chair across from Harry with an air of weariness. Ocelot didn’t sit down but instead began pacing the room, paying particular attention to the door.
“Someone is after us, Harry,” the mage said. “We want to know who it is.”
The fixer’s eyes widened a bit as he realized that ‘Hawk’s voice held none of the usual flippant cheerfulness he usually employed when speaking to Harry. The banter was gone; that meant something was seriously wrong. “Somebody’s after you,” he repeated slowly. “I think I’m gonna need a bit more than that to go on. And why don’t you have a cup of coffee or something? You look like you ain’t slept in a week.”
“Hasn’t been a week yet. Might be before this is over.” Hawk’s hands moved over the handles of the leather bag in his lap almost obsessively. He looked at Ocelot, who nodded. If they had to trust somebody, Harry was a good bet. Slowly, with many glances around the room—including a few of the magical variety—he began the story, starting with the murder of his friend and ending with the trip to the university library and their discovery there. He did not give details about the events in England, but aside from that he did not leave anything out. As he spoke, Ocelot continued to pace. Harry noticed that he too kept a close eye on the door.
Harry listened in silence, the drink in front of him forgotten as ‘Hawk went on. When he finished, Harry let out a long breath. “Well,” he said, “I must say that you guys don’t get yourselves into simple trouble. It’s always the weird stuff with you. Can’t you just piss off the Yak or Lofwyr or something?”
“Mages.” Ocelot came over and straddled a chair next to Winterhawk. “It’s mages. They can’t get into regular trouble. It’s their nature.” The look he gave ‘Hawk was hard to read: he could have been kidding, but then again, he might not have been.
“Listen,” Winterhawk said, his tone more than a bit testy—and more than a bit strained. “I didn’t ask for the damned thing to drop into my lap. I would have been just as pleased if I’d never agreed to take Toby’s blasted pile of stuff! Then p’raps they would have simply broken into his house, taken the thing, and been on their way. Toby wouldn’t have died, and I wouldn’t be sitting here now! Do you think I wanted this?”
“Easy, ‘Hawk,” Harry said quietly. “Nobody’s sayin’ you did. I was just commentin’ that weird stuff seems to follow you guys around, that’s all. This sure’s hell ain’t the first time.”
“So what are we gonna do about it?” Ocelot eyed Harry’s beer and considered ordering one of his own—or maybe something stronger. “Somebody’s looking for us, and from the look of things they’ve got some high-powered types on their side. We can’t just keep running away from them.”
“No,” Harry agreed. “Cause it sounds like, assumin’ the same group that was after ‘Hawk in England are the guys that are after you here, that means they either followed you here, or else they’ve got more guys over here. Either way, it don’t look like they’re plannin’ to give up.” He looked at Winterhawk. “Can I see this thing?”
Two pairs of suspicious eyes met his query, but then ‘Hawk sighed. “Yes—but only from a distance. We don’t want a repeat performance of a few hours ago.” He set the bag carefully on the table and unzipped it, then used a levitation spell to bring the cloth-wrapped staff up out of its resting place. The cloth dropped away, leaving the staff itself floating a meter or so up in the air, out of reach of any of the three at the table.
Harry examined it carefully for a few moments; he didn’t look impressed. Shrugging, he said, “Okay, well, I’ll take your word for it that it’s a bigger deal than it looks like. And you’re sayin’ it’s older than ancient Egypt?”
Winterhawk nodded. “I won’t go into the whole lecture now—”
“—thank God for small favors,” Ocelot put in.
‘Hawk gave him a dirty look and continued. “—but the short version is that there was another age of magic, several thousand years ago, and it’s a good bet that this thing is from that age.”
“And there’s another piece that goes with it,” Harry said, still looking at the floating staff. “You think it’s a...flail. Like on Tutankhamen’s sarcophagus and that kind of thing.”
“That’s what we’re figuring, though we could be wrong. We were hoping that, in addition to trying to find out who is after us and why they want the staff, p’raps you could get a good decker looking into the history of this thing—or more specifically, if anyone’s been on record as looking for it. Probably nothing to be found, but you never know.”
“You guys don’t want much.” Harry was grumbling, but both runners recognized it as his I’m willing, but you’ll need to make it worth my while tone. As if to confirm this, he added, “Deckers don’t come cheap, you know. Neither do street contacts and other folks who might have some answers.”
“Don’t worry about that,” ‘Hawk said almost immediately. “I’ve got it covered.” He sighed and lowered the staff back into the bag. “I promised Toby I’d figure this out for him. I’m not going to quit until I do.”
Neither Harry nor Ocelot brought up the alternative; it hardly seemed the thing to say at the moment. “Okay,” Harry said at last, sighing. “I’m on it. Just try to stay out of trouble until I turn something up, willya? You goin’ back to the safehouse?”
Ocelot shook his head. “‘Hawk seems to think that if they’ve got the other item, they can use it to track this one, so we’re not really safe there. Besides, I hate the idea of just sittin’ around waitin’ for something to happen.”
“So where you gonna be if I need to find you?”
“Visiting an old friend,” Winterhawk said. “Someone who might be able to shed some light on the story. And one of the few places I know where we might be safe for awhile.”
The little house at the end of the street was nondescript but well cared for, set far back from the road and surrounded by a neat fence. Winterhawk and Ocelot hadn’t called ahead, but when they pulled the sedan up in front of the gate, lights came on inside the house. They never had to call ahead. Somehow, Trixy always knew they were coming. As they silently got out of the car and headed up the walk toward the front door, several dogs of varying sizes, from tiny chihuahuas up to a couple of Great Danes, padded up to them, sniffed them, and then moved off without a sound. Winterhawk noticed that none of the dogs got anywhere near the leather bag containing the staff.
The front door opened when they reached the porch, revealing a small, kindly-looking black woman. Flanking her, one on each side, were two more dogs; the shapes of others were visible behind her. Her eyes, behind old-fashioned glasses, sparkled as she saw ‘Hawk and Ocelot, and her face lit up with a smile. “Well,” she said. “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you two. Come in, come in...” Her voice was soft, low and mellifluous. She stepped aside to allow the two runners to enter. “I had a feeling you might come. Dog sent me a dream of you last night.”
‘Hawk and Ocelot looked at each other, but it didn’t surprise them. “How have you been, Trixy?” Winterhawk asked. One of the dogs, an English springer spaniel, immediately came up to him and nosed his hand to be petted; smiling, he obliged. The dog always remembered him—he had given him to Trixy in gratitude for a time when she had saved his life. The dog had been only a puppy then, but under the elderly woman’s loving care, he had grown into a fine, beautiful adult.
“Oh, can’t complain,” she said. “The old bones have been aching a bit, but that’s the price I pay for living in a place where it rains so much.” She motioned them toward the tiny living room, which was filled with old but comfortable furniture and dominated by a large, cheerily-blazing fireplace. “Sit down, rest...I’ll bring us some tea and then we can talk about why you’ve come.” Without waiting for their answer, she disappeared through the door the runners knew led to the kitchen, her long skirts rustling around her.
The two runners settled down on opposite ends of the overstuffed couch, leaving the easy chair opposite it for Trixy. Immediately, two of the smaller dogs jumped up on the couch, but when the one approaching ‘Hawk sniffed at the duffel bag in his lap, it just as quickly leaped back down and moved off. The mage watched it with a raised eyebrow, but said nothing. The spaniel was curled up at his feet, seeming content.
Despite the abundance of dogs in the small home, the place did not have the smell of them beyond a faint, not unpleasant hint of the odor of clean, healthy animals. Mingled with that was incense, baking, and a homey burning smell from the fireplace. ‘Hawk leaned back against the soft couch, feeling relaxed for the first time since he had acquired the item to which he still held tightly.
“We’ll figure this out, ‘Hawk,” Ocelot said. He too sounded more relaxed here, the strain mostly gone from his voice. His hand idly stroked the silky fur of a little sheltie who had laid her head across his leg and was now looking up at him with adoring eyes.
Winterhawk nodded. Somehow, right at this moment, it seemed like Ocelot could be right. He struggled to keep his eyes open as the combination of the room’s inviting warmth, the pleasant odors, and the gentle flickering of the fire lulled him into a state of restfulness.
Trixy chose that moment to return, bearing a tray containing a teapot, three cups, a sugarbowl, and a small plate of cakes. Several of the dogs moved with her, but none interfered with her balance in the slightest. She distributed the items from the tray around to her guests and then herself, then settled down in her chair and regarded them over the top of her glasses. “Tell me of why you have come,” she said. “As I said before, Dog has sent me dreams of you. Dreams of danger and an ancient mystery.”
In answer, Winterhawk handed her the duffel bag. “Take care,” he warned. “Don’t touch the item inside. But I’d be very interested to hear your opinion of it.”
As Trixy opened the bag with slow, methodical care, both Winterhawk and Ocelot leaned forward, their attention fixed on her. She looked inside, then lifted the bundle out and folded the clothes away to reveal the staff. All around her, the dogs that had gathered in a circle surrounding her chair moved away, their eyes wide and fearful. After a few moments, there was not a dog left within a two-meter diameter of Trixy’s chair. “Oh, dear,” she said softly, still making no attempt to touch the staff. She looked over her glasses again. “Dog does not like this item at all.”
“That makes three of us,” Ocelot said, only half sarcastically.
“Four,” Trixy corrected. She returned her attention to the staff; it appeared that she had to force herself to look at it at all. “Where did you get this?”
Once again, Winterhawk went through the story. If he was getting tired of telling it, he showed no indication of this. When he finished, Trixy nodded. The lines and wrinkles in her face stood out starkly in the flickering firelight; it reflected in her glasses and made her eyes dance. This time, though, it was not a dance of pleasure. “I cannot tell you more without further examination—and perhaps not even then,” she said. “But I can tell you this—this is an item of great evil. It is not something you should have in your possession.”
‘Hawk sighed, remembering the last time Trixy had said something similar. It had been when they had first met her, on a run far back in their early days. Then, it had been in reference to yet another magic item that had probably dated back to the Fourth World—a cursed item that conferred great power but tried to destroy any tempted to wield it. That item had had to be destroyed by a dragon. The problem was, at the moment, they were fresh out of dragons. Of the only two they knew and trusted, one was dead and the other was off somewhere traveling the world and hadn’t left a forwarding address. There was no point in wishing things to be otherwise. “Unfortunately,” he told her, “that isn’t an option at the moment. But I assure you, we don’t plan to touch it again. Once was quite enough.”
Trixy nodded, distracted. “Do you mind if I examine it now? Perhaps if Dog is willing, he will share an insight with me that might aid you in your endeavors.”
“Please do.” ‘Hawk was still leaning forward, his bright blue eyes fixed on Trixy’s face. “Anything you can tell us will probably be more than we know.”
She smiled kindly at him, and then at Ocelot. “Please. Rest. You both look tired. This will take some time, and you are well aware that there will be nothing for you to see.”
Winterhawk, secure in Trixy’s wisdom and her ability not to be seduced by curiosity, nodded. Leaning back on the couch, he closed his eyes, certain that he would not sleep but at least he could rest himself for awhile, recharge for the time to come. The dog who had moved away from him before, a little brown foxlike creature, returned and curled up in his lap now that he no longer held the duffel.
Ocelot could not rest, trust or no trust. It had taken awhile for Winterhawk to convince him that there was something worth this level of vigilance, but now that he was convinced, there was no turning back. His senses were heightened, his every nerve on edge. The feeling was mitigated somewhat by the comforting atmosphere of Trixy’s sanctum, but even that could not drive it away entirely. He sat still for only a few more minutes, then rose and began pacing the room.
He lost track of how long it was before Trixy stirred from her trance. She did not move, but instead sat cross-legged in her chair, the bag open in her lap, her hands at her sides. Her lips moved slightly in a near-silent chant, and her features seemed to have elongated slightly, taking on a canine appearance. Sweat stood out on her brow, each droplet picking up the flickers from the ebbing fire. Winterhawk had drifted off to sleep quite some time ago; his breathing was soft and even, his hand resting gently on the little fox-dog’s back. Ocelot had decided against waking him—he knew how exhausted he must be if he hadn’t slept since leaving England. Instead, he contented himself with moving around the room, petting the dogs, stoking the fire, and occasionally glancing out the room’s small window to see if anyone was approaching. No one was; the street was quiet and devoid of life. Just the way Ocelot liked it right now.
Trixy raised her head, her eyes opening, and stretched to work the kinks out of her muscles from having sat in the same position for so long. When she noticed Ocelot, her gaze settled on him. Her expression was not a happy one. “What is it?” Ocelot asked, returning to the couch to nudge ‘Hawk awake. “What did you find out?”
She waited for the mage to come to his senses and pay attention before she spoke. “This is not good at all,” she said.
“What has Dog told you?” Winterhawk was once more leaned forward, all signs of sleep-induced bleariness gone from his eyes.
Trixy paused a long moment before speaking. She carefully folded the clothes around the staff and lowered it back into the bag, then zipped it up. “You are right about its being very old,” she told him. “It is almost certainly from the last Age of Magic...possibly even older than that. You are also right about its having a mate. But what Dog has told me in addition is what disturbs me.” Her eyes came up to meet theirs. “This item seeks its mate...and when they are united, a great evil will come to pass.”
Winterhawk and Ocelot looked at each other. “So...” Ocelot said slowly, “...it’s really in our best interests not to try to find the mate to this thing. We don’t want them to be anywhere near each other. Is that right?”
Trixy nodded. “That would be consistent with what Dog has showed me in my vision. But I fear that it will not be as easy as you might hope. You see,” she said very quietly, “the mate to this item is very close. And it too will seek its counterpart.”