The Wizard and the Weaver, Chapter 11: Predator on Speed

Chilly Bronson opened his eyes…just a slit. Just enough to take in his surroundings, get an idea of the lay of the land before letting anyone or anything know he was awake.

Not that there was any lay of the land to look at. He remembered now; they were in a motel, somewhere within striking distance of Heartbite headquarters. Jewel slept deeply, spooned snugly into him, the only way she’d felt safe and secure since that first night together. She smelled good, too. Not that the dainty were girl ever smelled bad, not really, but they’d all had hot showers before going to bed. It made a difference.

It was still dark out. That was good; he didn’t have to get up yet, nor did he need to waken Sleeping Beauty.

On the other hand, Jack Hill was up and at ’em. Sort of, anyway; the old wizard had the pillows piled high on his bed, allowing him to sit in comfort, reading his…whatever it was. A Kindle, maybe, though Chilly wouldn’t know one of those if it bit him. A hi tech redneck he was not. Was the old man acting as a guard of sorts, not exactly ready to trust their story? Or had he been telling the truth about being assigned to their room by Treemin Jackson to keep watch for their mutual enemies?

A bit of both, most likely.

On the other side of the door to the adjoining room, of course, Jackson and Harms were doing whatever. The young werewolf shuddered, thinking. Having seen both of them in action, he still didn’t know which one scared him the most, the were bear or the big black man with the silvery sword. Where was that sword, anyway? It would be with them somewhere; no way was Treemin heading into battle without it. The man couldn’t shift, couldn’t cast spells or throw fire, wasn’t even a vam, yet he was still the leader, still capable in combat against all sorts of opponents, and the sword was clearly an essential part of his weaponry.

Theodore Kraznick would never believe that. He’d been told more than once, but he didn’t believe. The billionaire vamleopard with the venomous tail remained convinced that his nemesis was either hiding his true ability somehow…or he was not the real Weaver. No mere mundane could be truly dangerous, eh?

His mind wandering over these matters, Chilly drifted back to sleep. The first person he saw in the dream state was Jewel herself. She was standing, staring at a distant group of people, maybe twenty or so. Treemin Jackson was talking to them. Impressively, they all seemed to be listening, too. Why was Jewel so intrigued? Did she have a thing for the big black man? By the sweat on his palms, he hoped not.

“Orange tornado.” The girl’s voice was a bare whisper.

“What?” He’d heard that old song once, something about a yellow submarine, but an orange tornado?

“You mean you can’t see it?” Her eyes were fixed on that group. On Jackson.

“Honey, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Mr. Jackson. Treemin. Tree. There’s so much light around him…coming from him or through him, I think. You really can’t see it?”

“Um…no. All I see is a guy talking. Charisma, maybe.”

She shook her head. “It’s not just charisma, though he has that for sure. It really does look just like a tornado, spinning counter clockwise, bright orange color. There’s so much light, I can hardly make him out in it, even though it’s coming from him. Or through him. Or something.”

A thought occurred to me. “Do you suppose this has to do with him being, you know, the Weaver?”

She shrugged her pretty shoulders. “I don’t know, baby. But I think that light…I think it’s a healing light. I’d swear that guy who just shook his hand was limping when he walked up there, but he’s not now.”

Healing? Treemin Jackson was a healer? That couldn’t be; he slaughtered his enemies without compunction. Healers didn’t do that, did they? “Bet that light isn’t orange when he’s fighting.”

“Sucker bet,” she grinned, and the scene faded.

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When Chilly’s eyes opened again, the clock said 4:01 a.m. and everybody else was up, including Jewel. That’s what had awakened him, he realized; the girl’s body heat was no longer warming the bed. He rolled out, feeling a bit sheepish. Not that he was really holding anybody up or anything like that; they weren’t scheduled to leave the motel until 4:30. But still.

The bathroom door was closed; Jewel was apparently in there. The adjoining room doors were open; Jack Hill’s legs were visible as he chatted quietly with Treemin Jackson. Rather, Jack talked while Tree listened; the big black man was in his jeans but barefoot and shirtless, doing upside down pushups against the wall. Man, what I wouldn’t give for muscles like that, the young werewolf marveled, completely unaware that his own musculature was already impressive, albeit on a somewhat smaller scale.

Sissy Harms was nowhere in sight, so presumably she was using that bathroom. Women.

Wait; what are Jack and Tree talking about? The Weaver had finished his workout and was putting on the rest of his clothing for the day, including a pair of hand tooled cowboy boots that must have cost as much as a small car. It was the quiet conversation that held Chilly’s attention, though; he eavesdropped shamelessly while donning his own Walmart apparel.

“What do you think,” Jack was saying, “about time travel?”

Treemin snorted. “That’s all we need, old man. With everything we have on our plate, you want to add that into it?”

“Not really,” the Wizard replied mildly, “just making morning conversation.”

“Huh. And before we’ve had even one cup of coffee, too. Well, Jack, you asked, so I’ll tell you what I think. Obviously, time travel exists.”

“Why obviously?”

“Because the topic fascinates so many humans, and what the mind can conceive does exist somewhere, somehow. That’s a known fact, and you’re just playing devil’s advocate to stir me up if you can.”

“Aw. Would I do that?”

Another snort. “Would a politician break a campaign promise after he’s elected to office? So yeah, it exists. But it sure as hell isn’t something I want to mess with. Not ever. Not with a time machine, anyway. As Soul, yeah, been there, done that.”

What? Had C. W. Bronson been in his wolf form, his ears would have pricked straight forward at that remark. He was so startled, he almost missed the next sentence.

“But physically? You know what the writers keep saying, right? That either messing with the time continuum is a major problem or it isn’t. If it is, then this life only exists until somebody goes back in time and jacks around with something he or she shouldn’t, and then poof! No more here and now. That’s one theory. Then there’s the Soul travel bunch. They say you can pop outside of the time line, check out the past, the present, the future, but at least they mostly stick to doing that as Soul, not trying to change things. I could probably live with that much. But then you add in the idea that time is not linear, and you start to get alternate universes and a whole lot of confusion. Worst of all, though, are those yahoos who figure they have to avoid interaction with the past so as to avoid changing the future, right? And yet they zip back in their time machines, tinker around, and return thinking they’ve gotten away with something. But they never get away with it. They think they can be all sterile about their journeys, but they can’t. DNA gets exchanged all the time, for example. Leave one molecule of one modern day chemical in the Jurassic period, and who know what change you’ve wrought, right there? Bring back a single spore from a long extinct fungus, and who knows what you’ve introduced to modern day Earth?”

Chilly’s head was spinning. It was Sissy who saved him, exiting the bathroom and asking, “What are you two cowboys yakking on about now?”

“Nothing, Sis,” Jack said innocently. “Turns out Tree has a few strongly held views on the subject of time travel; that’s all.”

“Huh. Well, it’s 4:20. Suppose maybe it’s time to go get some breakfast? I don’t know about you guys, but we’ve got a billionaire tyrant to kill today, and I’m going to need some fuel for that.”

Jewel was ready, too. When had that happened? He hadn’t heard the toilet flush or anything.

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As had been our habit from day one, Jack and I sat on opposite sides of the booth, watching each other’s backs, each trusting the other to give warning if trouble approached. It was his turn to have his back to the wall, though with both kids crammed in next to him, he did have a slight shortage of elbow room on his left side. I felt Sissy’s hand on my thigh, squeezing in a way that communicated volumes. Look at them, she was saying. Aren’t they cute? Or something like that. Pretty little Jewel, snugged in between her stocky boyfriend and the ancient Protector, positively sparkled.

It was no accident, of course, that the black couple would for all intents and purposes remain invisible until we got up to leave. Other than a few tourists and an occasional trucker, there weren’t many people of our color in this neck of the woods. Not only that, but Kraznick no doubt had my photo plastered all over his Most Hated posters; there wouldn’t be a Heartbite operative alive who didn’t have some idea of what I looked like. True, I wasn’t wearing my cowboy hat and I was wearing a high tech pair of glasses with skills of their own, but still.

“Clear?”

Hill nodded slightly; this Denny’s dining room at the Flying J was sizeable, nobody else but the cook and one waitress were up yet, and they obviously didn’t want to be. Our breakfast orders would be slow in coming, but the upside was that no one would hear us holding war council. I took a deep breath and kicked off the briefing.

“Chilly, first off, I want you to know we appreciate your input. We knew a few things about Kraznick’s home layout, but you’ve lived there. I know for a fact that we’d never have gotten past his outer defensive perimeter, especially the infrared sensor setup, without tripping some kind of alarm. That, and fifty other things you’ve told us, including the fact that Lord Heartbite sleeps no more than two hours in any twenty-four hour period, so we have to assume he’s going to be awake and alert no matter when we attack. You may have made the difference that allows us to complete this mission and come back alive, and for that I thank you.”

“Me too,” Sissy muttered fervently. Hill just smiled and nudged the girl, who smiled wide and nudged Chilly in return. The young werewolf, for his part, looked more embarrassed than anything else.

“That said,” I continued, “the three of us Rodeo Iron folks don’t dare split up when we attack. We simply don’t dare. Without question, Jack is our most potent weapon, but Teddy boy knows that. He has your report, Chilly, so he knows the old man is really a Purple Fire Wizard, and that means that the moment he’s spotted, the Wizard will also be the prime target. So Sissy and I absolutely must stick to him like glue, keep the enemy from getting at his back..

Chilly Bronson couldn’t contain himself. “Treemin…Tree, can’t he protect himself?”

“He’s right there, Chill. Ask him.”

“Oh. Right. Mr. Hill, I thought a wizard could, you know, cast a defensive sphere around himself that would keep pretty much anything from penetrating. Isn’t that true?”

Hill thought for a moment before answering. “I know some witches who can spellcast mighty powerful defenses, sort of set ’em and forget ’em. Tree’s daughter Willow is one such. It comes natural to her. You saw her get bowled over by a bullet in that last battle, right?”

“Yeah. That’s why I thought–”

“I get it, son. Here’s the thing. Obviously, some witches can do things like that. Quite possibly, some wizards can as well. But I haven’t yet figured that part out. I can throw up a defensive shield, yes, even a full sphere, but it only stays strong if I keep my attention on it. That is, it’s powered by my will, but the will has to be continually applied. When I go on offense, my attention is all on that. Every fiber of my being is focused on the outflow, not on preventing unwanted inflow. I have some residual things I’ve been working on that provide a degree of protection against nonphysical attacks. You know, against hostile spells, that sort of thing. But a bullet or a blade or a spike in the butt by a vamleopard’s venomous tail, I’m as vulnerable to those as any other man.”

“Oh.” The young werewolf’s voice was small. “I didn’t know.”

“Hopefully,” I pointed out, “Teddy boy doesn’t know that, either. But we have to assume he does.”

“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

“You got it. Now, Chill, are you and Jewel absolutely certain you can pull off the diversion?” I didn’t much like assigning the kids a separate task, away from us, but there didn’t seem to be any other viable option. There was going to be a whole lot of hostile action focused on us even if things went well…and besides, we really did need the diversion.

“We can do it,” the boy stated firmly. I liked the look in his eye, though Jewel was another matter. Bronson knew the grounds intimately, but this would be the girl’s first time on Heartbite premises. Beyond that, her inability to shift without losing her clothes was a definite liability.

Even so, the kids gave us a real chance of success, vams being what they were. The books and movies almost got some of that right; the virus really did make a vampire happier at night. Oh, vams could survive direct sunlight; they didn’t disintegrate immediately if they failed to reach their coffins before dawn. But the virus, like many a mushroom, preferred relative gloom. Chilly had assured us he could blow both the primary power and backup power sources, taking out the high tech window shading in every one of Kraznick’s office buildings as well as shutting down the computers that controlled the electronic defenses for the entire complex. It wouldn’t quite blind anybody, but the key management types were all vams who would be uncomfortably confused at the very least.

It didn’t really sound like that much of an edge, now that I thought about it, but it was all we had.

The waffles sucked, though. I hoped that wasn’t an omen. Or, at least, that billionaire vamleopard Theodore J. Kraznick was having an even suckier breakfast at this very moment.

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“This lamb’s blood is way out of date,” the billionaire complained. “It’s so hard to get good help these days.”

“Truer words were never spoken,” Paps agreed. The werewolf would have agreed with anything Kraznick said. He’d bought the story; that was worth a little bit of toadying here and there.

“Run it by me again,” Kraznick said, cracking raw eggs one after the other and sliming them down his throat. It wasn’t true that vams ingested nothing but blood, and only human blood at that, although it was necessary to add a quart or so of fresh blood every so often. The human-blood-only diet worked nicely for propaganda purposes, though. “Your successful hunt is about the only good news I’ve had in a long time. Unless you count your son, that is. He’s not recovered from the vam-spiking I gave him, but he’s not managed to die yet, either.”

Paps nodded. He couldn’t care less about his idiot son’s status, but making the Boss happy was always a good idea. Especially since making him unhappy inevitably led to fatal consequences. “Like I said, Boss, I caught up to Bronson on the Rez. My renegade daughter was with him, but her scent was masked. I took Bronson down, had his throat in my jaws when that little turncoat hit me from behind. The two of them gave me quite a tussle before I killed them.”

“Ah yes. And how, exactly, did they die? I know you told me, but I’d like to hear it again.”

“Um, yeah. Neither of them was a match for an old fighter like me, of course, but together they could be a problem. Bronson was stronger, but my girl was faster. So I took advantage where I could. Slowed Jewel down by hamstringing her, then Bronson tried to protect her and I got him good. Not the throat this time; cracked his spine. You know, the neck, right behind the head. Paralyzed him on the spot. Didn’t take long to run down Jewel, then, three legged as she was, and rip her to pieces. Then I gutted Bronson, left him for the ravens.”

Kraznick brushed his blond hair back with one hand, an unconscious habit dating back to his childhood years. With the other hand, he toyed with the pair of wolf’s feet lying on the table next to his plate. “And you brought back these paws as proof, the heads being too big and also too obvious to carry. Once you’d healed up enough to travel, of course.”

“Of course,” Paps nodded. “It was the best I could figure to do.”

“Your best, was it?” Lord Heartbite smiled gently. “You sacrificed two innocent wild wolves in this feeble attempt to deceive me. That’s your best?”

“What? No! Mr. Kraznick, I would never–”

“You could never, is more like it.” The vampire’s eyes were suddenly reptilian, pinning his helpless prey. “Your injuries? Those are real enough; I’ll give you that. You lied to me, Meeker. Most people who do that don’t live to get a second chance. You? You’re going to get one more shot at saving your worthless hide. Do you know why, you worthless piece of excrement?”

“N-n-nosir,” Paps stammered. He wasn’t sure about that big word, excrement, but the context was clear.

Because you’re so worthless, I may still be able to use you. You’ll lie, cheat, steal, abandon your own daughter, murder your own daughter, anything if you think it’s to your own benefit. I’m a predator, Meeker, the ultimate predator, yet I could never stoop as low as that. But I’m willing to use a nothing piece of doggy doo like you, on one condition. You tell me the absolute truth from now on.”

“I will! I swear I will!”

“Your swearing is worth less than nothing. What you’re going to do is provide a sample of your blood. We only have a few witches on staff, but a couple of them can do amazing things with blood samples. Would you like to know what will happen to you if you ever lie to me again?”

“No,” the scarred werewolf gulped. “I really don’t.”

“That’s the right answer! Because, my worthless servant, your mind would break, right here, right now, if you did know.” Besides, they didn’t have any blood rituals that amounted to anything. The man’s imagination could conjure up all the horror scenarios needed. “So. Tell me how it really went down.”

Paps did. By the time he finished, admitting in detail just how badly the pair of youngsters had trounced him during their Rumble on the Rez, Kraznick was doubled over laughing. Comedy relief. It’s what’s for lunch.

It took him several seconds to realize what was happening when the lunch room window suddenly brightened. He blinked rapidly, one hand automatically shading his eyes. The digital clock on the wall was out. The EXIT sign, with battery backup, was still on, though looking rather dim in the blazing daylight. His head hurt, but there was a reason Theodore J. Kraznick had lived as long as he had. He hit the button on his wrist communicator–an idea stolen directly from the old Dick Tracy comic strip, no less–and snapped. “Code Red! We’re under attack!”

There was no answer. “Meeker!”

“Yessir!” The werewolf might not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but he knew an opportunity when he saw one. The Boss had gone from threatening him to needing him, just like that. His prospects were looking up.

“This is building A.”

“Yes, I know–”

“Shut up and listen. I will handle things here. You hit buildings B, C, and D, in that order. Tell each doorman, Code Red. Got that?”

“Yessir, Code Red.”

“Go!”

Paps Meeker went, still in human form for the moment because it was easier to communicate that way, his limp slowing him down only a little.

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It was a relaxing time for me. Securely ensconced some sixty feet above ground, my legs stretched out along a limb that remained sizeable even at this height and my back resting against the trunk, I settled in to enjoy the show. As deeply shadowed as I was in this huge blue spruce’s thick foliage, I would not be spotted by anything but sheer luck on the part of the opposition. The mini-binoculars, powerful despite their diminutive size, provided a close-up view of action around the south and east sides of Building A.

The enemy showed definite signs of both alarm and confusion.

I pressed the headset clicker button twice, the signal for everyone else to check in. It had been Sissy who insisted we bring five headsets along on this mission, just in case. I blessed her for that. Jack acknowledged first, his three click ID. Four clicks for Sissy, five for Chilly. Jewel didn’t need to respond; she was with her boyfriend.

“All right,” I whispered softly, “clear to talk. Chilly, report.”

The young werewolf’s whisper sounded almost like a growl. “All power down except for equipment with battery backup. Estimate twenty minutes before generator power will be restored.”

“What about the main lines?”

“I sabotaged them good, Tree. They’ll have to bring in the power company guys.”

“Which you’re certain they will not do while Kraznick believes hostiles are in the area.”

“Guaranteed they won’t. Teddy boy is even more paranoid about outside witnesses than you are.”

Thanks kid. I think. You went wolf and peed all over everywhere?”

“Gallons. Don’t know how I held it that long. Jewel said she saw her Dad. Limping, but he’s here. He’s shifting back and forth; there’s no way he missed my urine smell. He knows I’m here, without a doubt.”

But not exactly where, of course. I saw him then, shifting back from wolf to human on the run, barely missing a lick as he palmed Building A’s front door and disappeared inside. Everybody waited until I was ready to speak; they all knew I had to take my time. “Confirmation. Paps Meeker just went back into A. Jack?”

“I’ve got a solid view of the main entrances for B and C, Tree. Heh. Never mind the rhyme. Puzzle for the day, has anyone seen a single solitary Soul moving around? Other than Meeker, that is?”

“Not me.” This was something to think about. “Chilly?”

“Nobody.”

“Sis?”

My lover’s voice, whispered or not, could be recognized anywhere. “There was one yard guy working on the lawn outside D when the power cut. He ran inside right away. As nearly as I can tell, he hasn’t come out again. Unless somebody’s using the back doors.”

“No.” Chilly again. “Jewel and I can see all four back doors, where they empty into the company courtyard. They’re staying buttoned down.”

“All right,” I said. “So are we. Radio silence now unless we’ve got something to say.” I scooched my butt around a bit, settling in for the long haul. Presuming we all lived through this day, we’d have to do check everybody over for ticks when this action was completed. These live, happy, vertical trees weren’t likely to be as tick-abundant as a typical dead snag, but none of us would be tick free, either.

Not that any of that mattered right now. I checked my watch. Seven minutes after twelve. Kraznick had to be unsure at this point, but he wasn’t sticking his head out, nor was he risking any of his people prematurely. I had to give him that; the vamleopard head of Heartbite Clan was no fool. Scratch that; he was part brilliant general, part arrogant idiot. With him, it was sort of like one of those shaggy-dog-long, good news vs. bad news stories.

His preference for thick stands of timber around his office buildings did allow a whole lot of close-in cover for his enemies–that would be us–once Chilly’s sabotage had gotten us safely through the perimeter. Good news.

On the other hand, despite having to know full well he was under attack, he was maintaining strict discipline, keeping everybody inside except for messenger dog Paps Meeker, a lowlife critter who would have to be considered expendable by almost anybody’s standards. Bad news.

There had been no booby traps waiting to nail us when we started climbing trees, something we’d have been hesitant to do without Chilly’s assurance that he’d climbed most of them at one time or another. Good news.

Cell phones would still work, so he might have reinforcements on the way even now. Possible bad news.

Again according to Chilly, the brightness pouring through those unprotected office windows would only increase for a while, peaking at roughly one-thirty p.m. when conditions would theoretically give us the maximum possible edge against photosensitive vamvirus types. Theoretical good news.

Unfortunately, that much time also gave Kraznick time to think, perhaps to equip his troops with dark glasses or some such. Bad news.

And so it went. All we could do was–ah.

They’d let the dogs out. Weird that they hadn’t been patrolling all along, but the boy’s advice had been on the mark; never having been attacked at his corporate headquarters, Kraznick had grown sloppy. The canines were a mix, powerfully sensitive bloodhounds and lean, nasty Doberman Pinschers. Had it not been for our favorite werewolf’s pee spree, those sniffer hounds would have had us pointed out to the Dobermans in nothing flat, but the wolf scent threw them. So did the cayenne pepper Chilly had dropped here and there. So far, so good; the dog squad didn’t seem likely to figure out where we were, at least not anytime soon.

But later? I’ve never liked Dobermans; they scare the dickens out of me. I could shoot them without losing any sleep over it…but I’ve always had a soft spot for bloodhounds, thanks most likely to watching Huckleberry Hound cartoons on TV as a child. Where was a tranquilizer dart gun when you needed one? We could have brought one; it simply hadn’t occurred to any of us. Not until Bronson told us about the guard dogs, it hadn’t. We hadn’t brought any raw steaks, either; our werewolf intel made it clear the dogs were trained to avoid food provided by any hand but that of their trainer.

Well, foo. Murphy’s Law, alive and well.

My eidetic memory logged the changes.

12:37 p.m. Backup generators back up and running. It had taken Heartbite a bit longer to fix whatever Chilly had done than they’d thought it would.

12:59 p.m. Foot traffic between buildings resumes, a dozen or more employees from buildings B and C heading to building A’s lunch room. Nobody from building D, which has its own break room and is staffed by whiz kid computer hackers who either forget to eat or brown bag it. Dogs are recalled; despite the abundant wolf pee scattered all around the grounds, identifying Chilly to any were critter with half a nose, no one seems to have noticed. Is the power outage being written off as a false alarm? Or are we being lulled into a false sense of security by a master strategist?

1:04 p.m. Generators go out again. Chilly had said he knew more than one way to shut them down long enough to give Teddy boy a fit of apoplexy; he was right. Nobody comes back out of building A, though; once again, they’re on war footing. They must be; there’s no light left in that room’s windowless space except for the battery powered EXIT sign.

1:11 p.m. Generators back on. No human foot traffic. No dogs showing. Note to self: Dogs are housed in an unmarked kennel building behind building B.

1:27 p.m. Foot traffic resumes, employees returning to buildings B and C.

I double click. Everybody clicks back in response. “Damn, kid,” I breathe, “you did it. They’ve bought it as a phantom electrical problem.”

“Or want us to think so,” Jack cautioned.

“Either way, we got it to do. Sissy, let’s go.”

Trusting the others to do their part, I eased down out of the tree, worked out a couple of kinks after reaching the ground, and ghosted forward. I was in position, tucked in behind a sugar maple on the left side of the driveway. Sissy should be on the right side, behind a red maple. I took a deep breath and–

“Tree!” Chilly’s whisper, desperate. “They’ve let the dogs out!”

There was no time to think. “Jack! Now!”

Except that the second word was buried under the thunder of Hill’s Purple Fire strike, the colorful lightning bolt blasting building A’s front door to smithereens. Goggles in place to protect my eyes from flying bits of bullet resistant glass, I shot forward, never the fastest on the football field but adrenaline giving me wings, diving through the smoldering opening while things were still raining from the sky. It was my job to secure the hallway, point man for the Wizard, Sissy following behind to cover his back. I almost wasn’t fast enough; not one but three weres came racing down the hall, shifting en route. The fastest was a…raptor? A freaking dinosaur, Jurassic era predator on speed? My body might not move that fast, but my mind went into overdrive. Superfast, brain too small to know it’s dead when it’s dead. The thing was practically blurring, it was moving so fast, but I had time–barely–to sling the .30 caliber carbine over my back and unsheathe the silver laced sword. It lunged, jaws gaping. I wasn’t quick enough, not nearly quick enough to come in with a curving stroke from the side; instead, I nailed it in the nose with a two-handed stab. The creature’s forward momentum drove me right out back through the doorway I’d just entered, my feet hitting nothing but air as I sailed over the steps and landed on the concrete sidewalk, finding my footing, still hanging onto the sword, but being forced back, back–

–and Jack’s second lightning bolt took the thing’s head off. I could feel the heat, smell the dead dino-on-meth’s rank breath mixed with the odor of fresh blood, much of which was covering me now, standing in front of the beast’s severed neck as I was.

It was still too stupid to know it was dead, but at least without a head it wasn’t having much luck at figuring out which way to go. By the time it finally stumbled over sideways, I’d gotten a boot on the snout and yanked the bone-stuck sword out, never mind the rhyme.

Jack would have died then. He’d struck from the side, drawing the attention of bad beasties number two and number three, a classic mountain lion and a coyote the size of a healthy timber wolf. Neither was as fast as the raptor, but fast enough. Hill was turning, but he’d never make it in time. I barely had my sword unstuck; I would definitely be late to the party. But that’s why we pay Sissy the big bucks. Her favorite AK-47 opened up on full auto, the beautiful weapon inherited from the late, great Horace Tamblyn spitting out thirty rounds of silver laced bullets. Some missed, mostly because she had to spray both charging animals without lifting her finger from the trigger, but the cougar and the coyote caught at least a dozen hits apiece. They weren’t killed, but they were slowed down enough, just enough for Jack to finish his turn, blasting the cougar’s head into itty bitty bits, just enough for me to find the staggering mega-coyote’s heart with three feet of double edged, silver laced steel. Not that I quit there; in our line of work, the job isn’t finished until the head is severed from the body.

Strangely, silence fell, a complete cessation of noise. From the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of the dog pack, every animal slinking silently into the woods, as far out of sight as they could get. Intelligent, they were, wanting nothing to do with the likes of us.

I wiped my bloody sword on the cougar’s tawny fur. Jack shook his hands, loosening his fingers for whatever came next. Sissy changed magazines in her AK-47. We looked at each other, at the blood covering most of me, a good part of Jack, and even a bit of Sissy. We looked toward the other buildings to see if anyone else wanted a piece of us. Apparently, no one did. We looked at the ragged, gaping maw leading into Lord Heartbite’s personal fortress, the seat of power for his entire slumlord empire. Then we looked at each other again, one last time, and I once again took the point position. Somewhere in this four story building, Teddy boy was waiting.