Ellen kept her breathing deep and steady against the fear that made her want to pant as she walked the streets of Paris behind the professor.
The professor who’s about to be ambushed by werewhatsits and hired killers. What a way to See Europe and Die Screaming. The other parts of this honeymoon trip were a lot more fun.
She pulled the raw chilly air deep into her lungs, freighted with traffic and cooking and old stone. A little fog lay on the river, with the riding-lights of boats shining through it like a blurred Impressionist cityscape, and wisps of it were pooling along the cobblestones. Beads of moisture starred her eyelashes, and a lock of hair came out from under her floppy hat and stuck to her brow.
"He's crossing the river on the Pont Marie and heading for the Saint-Paul metro station," Adrian said. "Not long now."
They followed. Already Ellen had a sense that she was in a bubble of non-space, and it grew stronger with the thronging life of Le Marais moving around; it was that kind of neighborhood. Ellen kept her head slightly down, avoided eye contact, neither hurried nor dawdled.
She spotted the professor's ponytail as he walked along, deep in thought, his hands in his jacket pockets and his head down. The street life was busy this early in the evening, dense traffic, thronged sidewalks, light from lamps on curled wrought-iron brackets reaching out from the walls. Nothing was high-rise—older stone-and-stucco buildings for the most part, in pale colors. But it felt densely urban in a way that even far more built-up American cities didn't, as if you could feel the layers of time here beside the Seine, all the way back to the Lutetia Parisiorum of the Gauls and Romans. The latest included a restaurant that had a menorah in the window and advertised Blinis, Saumon, Zakoushkis et Vodkas, and some remarkably well-stocked gay-themed fetish stores.
She eeled through it all, keeping her target in sight without being obvious about it.
God, it's like I've done this a thousand times before! she thought, unconsciously sliding away from Adrian so that they wouldn't be together to jog his memory if the target turned around, pausing now and then to pretend to look in a window. And I have, in Adrian's head.
Tailing, detecting a tail, losing one, in cities that had included Paris and a dozen others, or the equivalent skills in forest or desert... that and a hundred other things, things more arcane and terrible. There in her mind, ready to surface when she needed them.
And I'm not even very frightened. I was frightened at first in there, because it was all so real, but I could keep it under control because I knew consciously that it wasn't. Now when it's really real I'm just... just taut and ready. And a bit apprehensive in a sort of reasoned way, as if this was something I was used to doing. I've even beat Adrian at it a couple of times, the non-Power parts at least.
"This is weird," she murmured almost inaudibly. "Hey, isn't it a cliché that marriage doesn't change you? Well, it has changed me, already!"
Adrian had turned. Now he lounged past her, heading in the other direction, then leaned against a wall like any man out for a stroll and eyeing a pretty girl.
"You are doing splendidly. They will act soon," he said quietly as she passed. "And if we had not married, I would still be sitting on a mountaintop brooding."
Then he ducked behind an elderly Jewish couple, came back through a gaggle of Chinese teenagers chatting in French—there were a lot of East Asian immigrants around here—and strolled slightly behind her. His looks made it easier for him to blend in; her blond height and figure always attracted attention.
Duquense was speeding up when he suddenly turned left into a narrow alleyway.
Wreaking, Ellen thought with a shiver. There was a possibility that he'd do that, no matter how remote. So a little push with the Power, and he does do it, willy-nilly.
Ellen walked past it, stopped and stooped as if to fiddle with her shoe an arm's length along the next building. Adrian came up behind her and turned directly into the narrow curving backstreet. She reached under her jacket and laid her hand on the butt of the little Five-SeveN automatic, drew it, then turned and followed him in, holding it down near her thigh. The heavy silver amulet around her neck was tingling, seeming to itch at her skin.
A tableau was frozen for an instant as she and Adrian entered the alley. Three men, and Duquesne. The academic's hand was raised in futile protest as one of the men drew a long knife from under his jacket and the other held him by an elbow and the back of his neck. Adrian faced the third, further in, who'd been standing with his hands resting on the knob of his walking-stick as he surveyed the murder-in-progress.
Shoot the one with the knife, her training told her. He's the immediate danger. Don't assume he'll go down with the first round.
Ellen blinked at the calmly ruthless thought, even as her hands came smoothly up with the gun ready. The two men threatening Duquesne were unremarkable, except that they both looked very dangerous, moving like lethal dancers—one squat and a little darker than Adrian, the other with the drawn blade taller, with oddly silver hair.
Even the single glance aside as she brought the weapon up and aimed showed that the man her husband faced was different—he could have been Adrian himself, aged a decade, and dressed in an opera cape, tails, white tie, gloves, gold-headed ebony cane, shining topper and gleaming shoes with spats, a white flower in his buttonhole... the complete outfit of a boulevardier from the earlier part of La Belle Epoque.
All that as her eyes flicked across. The man with the blade who'd been about to stab Duquesne snarled:
"Hold him, Joko," he said; he spoke in French with a British-English accent. "I'll handle the bitch."
Then he was coming at her, knife held low with the point up, fluid and sure—only three long strides away. She was slightly crouched, leaning into the weapon with her left hand under the butt...
And her finger froze. This is real! That's a human being! I can't do it!
The knife caught a glitter of distant streetlight. That made her act, and without thinking. Without thinking with the foreward part of her brain, the one that was a good small-town girl with a slather of self-made junior-grade artsie-academic across it. A chunk of her hindbrain had met knives before, in the memory palace.
The somatic memory didn't give a damn that the experience had been imaginary; it knew exactly what it was like to die with seven inches of blade through the lungs. Her finger contracted just as the man's shoulders tensed to drive the steel home. That put the muzzle barely a yard from his chest.
The little pistol didn't have much recoil, but it was loud. The sound slapped back and forth between the limestone facades of the buildings on either side of the narrow little street, like someone snapping an elastic right into her ear. The flash was almost blinding through her slitted eyes, flicking through the dimness like miniature lightning.
The sequence went automatically after that. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! CRACK!
Six shots into the center of mass. The man turned as he fell to come down on his face, and the knife skittered away ringing on the granite paving. The little sharp-pointed hypervelocity bullets deformed and tumbled through bone and flesh like miniature saws; six neat holes in the shirt, and a shower of bone and flesh fragments punching out his back to leave a crater the size of her paired fists.
Some distant part of Ellen's mind thought: I just shot someone! A real human being, and he's dead for real!
The rest of her was moving, a swift half-skip sideways to get a clear shot at the squat man who held the professor. That part of her had shot hundreds of men—and women. Just projections of Adrian's mind, or sometimes his mental image of himself, but the sight and the feel and the very smell were the same, the acrid scent of burnt nitro powder, the jerking thump of impact, the tang of blood and the boneless finality of the dead body.
My subconscious thinks I'm a mass-murderer and this is all in a day's work. Jesus!
The platinum ferrule on the ebony cane in the dandy's hand poked towards her; she grunted at the impact of an impalpable force. Her mind seemed to blur, as if her brain had been invisibly shaken, and the amulet was uncomfortably hot now. Everything from a slip and cracked skull to a stroke, epileptic seizure and heart attack trembled on the verge of realization. Adrian's hand moved, and the instant passed, but the trigger froze under her finger as something malfunctioned.
The second renfield killer had wasted a second staring incredulously at his dead comrade, and another drawing a gun and firing at her. It jammed too. Ellen dropped her weapon, leapt backward and drew the knife from under the tail of her jacket, where the sheath lay point-up along her spine. The steel came out and up, leading; she stood with the right foot a little advanced behind it, crouched, left arm held across her chest with the hand stiffened into a blade.
"You kill Chance, putain," he growled at her.
He chopped Duquesne under the short ribs with the edge of his hand, paralyzing his diaphragm, then shoved him at her. She swayed aside and let the Frenchman fall; time enough to help him later. He thudded into the wall and slid down it, struggling to breathe, his eyes wild.
"If that was his name," she said, much more calmly than she felt; any delay was welcome.
"Salope," he snarled, which meant bitch, more or less. "I will cut you deep for that."
He drew a knife, a balisong that skittered through a sinister metallic chink-click-click as he flicked it open and locked. The angry rush she half-expected stopped before it began. He saw the stance, the way she held the blade and kept most of her weight on her back foot. She could see it flowing into his mind along with the way she'd shot his partner and dodged Duquesne.
All moving instantly into his fighting gestalt as: Much more dangerous than she looks. Don't take any chances.
He advanced warily, his own weapon held in a different grip, point down with his thumb on the pommel.
"Vous êtes une pomme de terre avec le visage d'un cochon d'inde," she said.
She'd always wanted to call someone that: it meant you are a potato with the face of a guinea pig. It was much more insulting and less funny in French.
He cut-and-stabbed, a horizontal slash and then a backhand punch of the knife towards her face. She leaned back, just enough to let the steel pass.
It was disconcertingly as if someone else was operating her body, and doing it by fits and starts. Stopping doing it when she thought about it.
Then stop thinking or you'll die! she scolded herself desperately.
The thickset man had staggered a little as the counter-attack he expected didn't come, then almost ran himself onto her knife as she let the conditioned reflex thrust underam towards his belly.
Just more practice, she told herself. You can get hurt but the pain's all there is to fear. No real people involved.
As they circled and feinted another part of her was hoping desperately that Adrian would finish whatever he was doing and come to the rescue, fast.
"Nephew," the Shadowspawn said, slinking a pace closer.
"Great-uncle Arnaud," Adrian acknowledged, with a slight inclination of his head. "Looking as vicious and depraved as ever, I see, mon tonton."
"You always were a charmingly polite lad."
The other man looked solid; Adrian could even smell his rosewater cologne. But there was a something, a glitter that the eyes did not quite see...
Of course, he's been postcorporeal for seventy years. But I'd know it anyway. Not really a man there, something that looks like a man because the hindbrain remembers.
"And I always did hope I'd meet you like this," Arnaud said amiably. "Killing you will be an intense pleasure in a life grown a trifle dull."
His hands turned the walking-stick, and nearly a meter of narrow blade slipped free. The gloves must be insulated very thoroughly; there were silver inlays on the blade as well, and there were preactivated glyphs, warping probability towards bane and ruin and sickness. Adrian could feel them buzzing through the fabric of things, drawing the paths negative. His own blade came into his hand, a Brotherhood-style tanto. He excluded all worry for Ellen from his consciousness; it would do her no good at all if he lost this fight, and it would take all he had.
"As I recall," Adrian said, "Killing me wasn't quite what you had in mind last time we met."
"Oh, the two are related," Arnaud said. "You were a beautiful boy."
He fell into a fencer's pose—an exceedingly old-fashioned one, knees bent at right-angles, like a Victorian duelist—and whipped the cloak around his left arm, keeping the sheath in that hand.
Watch that, the fighting part of his brain reminded him. Arnaud was always good at la canne too.
"And perhaps I had a killing in mind as a finale at the time, eh?" the older Shadowspawn said.
The point of the sword darted towards his eyes, fluid and swift and sure. If that sliver of graven steel went home in his brain, it would be the Final Death. And Adrian had more than his own life to save.
Ting, as the long knife beat the slender spike aside, a shivering quiver up the nerves of his right hand.
He whirled inside the thrust and struck with the knob that tipped the tanto's hilt. Arnaud parried it with the sheath portion of the sword-cane; for a moment they were locked, faces inches apart. Then Arnaud broke back, whirled in again with a looping elliptical savate kick. It was blindingly quick; Adrian took it on his crossed forearms, and it was like being kicked by a horse. He rode it in a double back-summersault and came up again, breathing hard.
"Bah, an apache weapon, that knife," said Arnaud as he came back onto guard. "Could you at least not use a decent stiletto?"
They circled. The steel whipped down towards Adrian's foot; he danced over it, and felt his mind automatically snarling through Mhabrogast phrases as he did. Their psyches grappled, slid, retreated baffled. Nature reasserted itself as the Power cancelled out.
I am more purebred, but he has been beyond the flesh for long and long. They grow stronger as they age.
"Why kill the human?" he asked.
"Why not?" Arnaud shrugged. "It seemed a lucky thing to do, and I was here in Paris and had no pressing engagements."
Which made perfect sense, in Shadowspawn terms. He could even sense lack-of-will-to-deceive in the words, though with an adept you never knew.
Another lunge, and then a whistling blow with the sheath. Adrian threw the knife, and as Arnaud blocked it he threw himself forward and down, heels to buttocks and head to knees with his arms wrapped around his shins. Rolling like a ball, the pavement battering at him, and then into the other man's legs. Arnaud managed to catch himself on his hands, but the younger man was already turning, leaping his own height in the air, driving one heel down between the shoulder-blades...
Of an empty dinner-jacket.
He hissed the curse in pain, as his foot slammed into the pavement, only slightly cushioned by the empty clothes, and nearly pitched over backwards. The impact jolted all the way into his pelvis and up his lower back, pain just short of tearing gristle and cartilage. A wrenching effort let him regain his feet and stance. Something like a cross between a seven-foot weasel and a great cat ran up the wall and paused to hiss at him before it disappeared over the roofs.
Ellen, he thought, spinning away.
That gave him just enough time to see the second renfield turn and run four paces away from her, then spring up into the angle two walls made. He scaled it in an acrobatic zigzagging rush, looking as if he were walking up the vertical surface by vaulting from one wall to the next, then twisted backwards over her head in a summersault.
Le parkour, Adrian thought. Very impressive if—
Ellen did not let herself be hypnotized by the seemingly impossible arc. Instead she turned calmly beneath it, and was waiting as the man fell out of the sky. There was a strangled shriek as her tanto flashed, and then the man staggered away out the mouth of the alley. Screams of alarm came from the crowd outside.
Adrian suppressed his grin; Ellen was looking shaky as she wiped her knife and retrieved the automatic, and wouldn't appreciate it. He could sense the bubbling horror beneath her control, and stepped up to lay a hand gently on her shoulder.
"You did splendidly, my dear," he said softly. "I could not have dealt with all three of them."
She nodded jerkily, taking deep deliberate breaths as she'd been taught.
"What was that thing? The thing that ran away?"
"A giant fossa, a predator from Madagascar. Arnaud was there for a while, nearly a hundred years ago... no matter. We must see to Duquesne."
The professor was slumped against a wall, his face wet with sweat and glazed with horror as he stared at the bleeding body of the man who'd been about to kill him, and then up where the fossa had gone. He'd been looking directly at Arnaud when he transformed, too. An ordinary human wouldn't see anything but instant change.
"That... that thing..."
Abruptly he turned and vomited, the sharp stink cutting through the smell of blood. Adrian waited, and then offered his flask.
"This will help, monsieur," he said.
The man accepted it with both hands after he'd wiped his mouth on a handkerchief. "My god, what happened?" he mumbled.
"Alas, you have become a danger," Adrian said.
Indignation drove out some of the bewilderment. "A danger? To who? How?"
"To... the people we were discussing. It is not necessary that they know why or how you will be a danger. The fact itself casts its shadow in their minds."
"Then why didn't they kill me when I was a baby?" Duquesne asked skeptically.
Adrian clapped him on the shoulder; it was a good question, and a good sign that the man was thinking again.
"Because the possibility was faint, one among an almost infinite number. When you took the first steps towards investigating that data... then the fan of might-be narrowed down enough to be noticed."
"They... that man, that thing, was going to kill me just on a suspicion? They can do such things? The police, the authorities—"
"Monsieur Duquesne, I cannot give you all the details of the last century and a half in this alleyway. Think of this: men who can walk through walls, read thoughts, transform themselves into the likeness of carnivorous beasts, bring ruin and death with a thought or a touch... are they likely to be constrained by the authorities?"
"No," he whispered.
"It's a shock," Ellen said sympathetically. "But you've got to get going and accept it, M. Duquesne."
"And they have noticed me," he said.
Thankfully, you are not blaming me for that, Adrian thought. Yet.
"And if they take notice they act," he confirmed. "Your life is less to them than a cockroach. Arnaud would have sensed it because he was close to you, like a scent drifting through time. And that closeness, it may have been the Power influencing his choices. Though he always did spend much of his time in Paris."
Ellen crouched to put her face on the same level and took the man's hand in hers.
"I know it's awful to find the world isn't what you thought it was, Professor Duquesne. It was for me, too, when the curtain got raised and I saw, saw the things underneath. But you've got to think now, no matter how hard it is. Or you'll end up like..."
She swallowed, then visibly recovered by an effort of will.
"... like him," she concluded, and pointed to the corpse of the man she'd shot.
It lay with limp finality in a spreading pool of blood; the three little wounds between the shoulder-blades were small, but the Five-seveN's bullets would have chewed exit wounds the size of her fist.
"Not that he didn't deserve... well, more about that later."
She pulled him up. "Come with us if you want to live."
"I... my colleagues..."
"Your family?" Adrian asked sharply.
"I am a widower, my parents are dead, and so is my only sister. No children..."
"Then you are relatively immune to pressure through your loved ones, Professor. Now come."
They turned and began to walk rapidly, almost hustling the stunned academic between them, down the opposite way from the way they'd entered the narrow alley. Behind there was a rising chorus of voices; a bleeding man had staggered out into the crowds and collapsed.
That was not common in this part of Paris; they were far away from the banileus. By the time they were among people again he was walking almost normally but Adrian could feel the stuttering tension in his mind, a sensation as of thoughts breaking off into fragments, almost like free-association.
Adrian looked over his shoulder. Was that too easy? he thought.
"Well, now we've got a physicist, lover," Ellen said.
Her color was better now, but her mouth looked drawn. Pauvre petite, he thought, not for the first time. Caught in the contentions of demons. Poor humanity, nursing its own nemisis in its bloodstream, unawares.
"Yes," he said. "And perhaps he can actually do something. The very fact that Arnaud was moved to kill him indicates that he might."
She frowned, a single line occurring between her brows; he'd long since concluded that she was even more intelligent than she was beautiful. The Power didn't make you any smarter, and it often made its possessors intellectually lazy. Why bother to shed skull-sweat when you could just sense the best course of action, like guessing?
"Funny that nobody else has ever thought to study the Power scientifically."
Adrian grinned. He was beginning to feel exhilarated; Great-Uncle Arnaud had tried to nip off a negative pathway... and he'd ended up expediting Adrian's purposes instead, swinging the course of events to favor his enemy more than if he had not acted at all. It was often so when adepts clashed; physical defeat was less than half of it.
"Not so odd," he said. "There are so few Shadowspawn, and modern physics has only existed for a few years. Probably your Peter was the only scientist who has ever been so closely exposed to someone with the Power who was willing to tolerate curiosity."
They turned out the far end of the alley. Behind him he could hear the distinctive Oooo-an, Oooo-an of French police sirens.
"Nothing else has worked," he said. "Perhaps this will."
"I wish we had Peter, though," Ellen said wistfully.
Copyright © 2010-2011 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>