I popped the Lincoln's trunk and got into
our duffel bag of supplies; I found a packet of Advil and a warm bottle of Gatorade. Hoping the combination would kill my headache, I popped the two pills
and chugged the drink. I found a PowerBar gel packet and stuck it in my thigh
pocket for later, just in case.
Next, I opened up the long black gun case.
Inside was a 12-gauge, pump-action 9-shot Mossberg 590 "Intimidator"
with a black plastic stock. It was fully loaded with cartridges that contained
18 pellets of mixed silver and iron buckshot: a little something for any sort
of hostile creature Cooper and I might encounter out in the woods or in the bad
parts of the city. We'd started toting firearms after a close call with a pack
of drunk werewolves in Logan County. I hoped the shot would be enough to
penetrate Smoky's thick scales, if it came to that.
A sheathed silver dagger and a bandolier of
20 extra cartridges lay in foam cutouts above the shotgun. Below the shotgun
was a hostered Colt .380 "Pocketlite" automatic pistol and a 7-shot
clip loaded with silver bullets half-jacketed in iron. Cooper had enlisted the
Warlock's help to put various minor enchantments on the weapons to improve
their accuracy and stopping power; Cooper's skills definitely lay in making
love and not war.
Some mundanes -- specifically the farmers --
wondered why we relied on firearms for defense instead of magic. Sure, there
are binding spells and such ... but think of the opera singer trying to perform
in a riot. If you're in a panic, squeezing a trigger is a whole lot more
reliable than trying to cast a spell.
Make no mistake: there are killing
words. But using a killing word on a familiar or a human being is as serious as
deciding to ram your car full-speed into a crowd of pedestrians; it should
never be done unless you're left with no other choice, and even in a clean-cut self-defense situation the consequences are severe. There's an allowance for
word-killing demons and other bad characters, but most Babblers won't go near
that kind of magic, no matter what. Once you've crossed the border into necromancy, it's hard to get your spirit clean again. You start losing your
ability to do white magic, and pretty soon all you're good for is death magic
on the fast lane to Hell.
And there's the little detail that grand
necromancy is illegal and will get you imprisoned or worse. So, killing words?
I was sure I'd never use them. Guns and knives seemed far less dangerous.
I slung the bandolier across my body, loaded
the Colt and clipped the holster and the dagger to the waistband of my cargo
pants, then hefted the shotgun. Palimpsest ran across the roof onto the trunk
lid and hopped onto my shoulder, perching on one of the shotgun cartridges.
Cooper had taken me out to the range every
few weeks so we could practice target shooting; the first time I'd fired the
shotgun the recoil had damn near knocked me flat. The bruise under my
collarbone would have lasted a week if Cooper hadn't healed it. But since then,
I'd learned to properly brace myself and could handle the gun pretty well. I'd
been good with the Colt from the start; the small gun fit my hand perfectly.
I slammed the trunk shut. Smoky had wobbled
to his twelve feet and was snorting the air, apparently searching for the scent
of something. His scaly skin steamed in the rain, smelled of hate and pain and
I raised the shotgun to my shoulder, my
heart pounding. His eyes looked most vulnerable. I hated everything about this
I said, struggling to keep my voice and hands steady. "Smoky, look at me,
Smoky ignored me and launched himself across
the park toward the Statehouse. He moved like a giant centipede across the
street and down the ramp to the Capitol Square's underground parking garage.
"Don't let him get away!" Pal
exclaimed. "The farther he goes, the worse the damage might be!"
Cursing, I pelted after Smoky, even though I
knew there was no way I could keep up with him. The rain was cold against my
skin, and my hair and clothes were getting soaked. At least the downtown area
was nearly deserted. Except on the evenings when there was a Blue Jackets
hockey game at Nationwide Arena or a concert at the Ohio or Palace theaters,
the city's downtown pretty much rolled up its sidewalks and shut down after 7
p.m. on Sunday nights.
My foot hit something soft and slippery, and
I nearly twisted my ankle. I looked down, and realized I was standing in a pool
"Jesus! What the ...."
There were three corpses, best as I could
tell. It looked like they'd been turned inside out, exploded. Bits of flesh and
bone were everywhere. I saw shreds of gray maintenance uniforms amongst the
gore. I felt intensely sick, and fought down the urge to vomit.
"God. Poor guys. How -- how could Smoky
do this?" I asked the ferret. "We were barely thirty seconds
behind, and these guys look like they swallowed dynamite sandwiches ... how did
"I don't know," Pal replied, his
sinuous body weaving to and fro as he sniffed the air.
The rest of the garage was empty except for
a maintenance van and a motorcycle. A wide smear of blood trailed to the far
end of the garage, where Smoky was nosing around the underground entrance to
the Riffe Center. I didn't see any blood on his muzzle. The glass doors to the
center were smashed; huge pieces of thick plate glass lay shattered on the
"I didn't hear him do that," I
said. "Is there something else out here? Is he tracking something? Did something come through the
The ferret sniffed the air. "I can't
I tried to force down my
panic. "Are you saying you don't know, or know but won't tell me?" My
words came out angrier than I intended, but I didn't feel like apologizing for
my tone. I began to walk toward
Smoky, hoping he wouldn't slither into the Riffe Center before I got close
enough to either shoot or try some kind of a binding spell.
"I don't know if anything else is
here," the ferret replied. "Why would you think I'd withhold
information from you?"
"Let's see," I replied. "Cooper's been sucked
away to God-knows-where by some evil force and his little dog's turned into a
monster. Tom, Dick, and Harry on the night cleaning crew just got turned into
stew meat. And my familiar suddenly wakes up and starts telling me what to do
... yet won't tell me what it really is. And it can't tell me the most important
thing I need to know, which is whether or not I've got some other freakshow to
deal with besides Hopalong Smaug here."
"Are you saying you don't trust
me?" The ferret sounded supremely offended.
"Yes, that's exactly what I'm
saying," I said, stopping. "Fear? Check. Worry? Check. About to pee
my pants? Check. Trust in my new mystery familiar? Nope, sorry, just ran out.
How do I know you're not some ... some evil spirit who came through the portal
to possess the body of my ferret?"
"You're paranoid," he said.
"Convince me," I replied.
"I'm not sure how I can do that,"
the ferret said, agitated. "There are spells to prove I'm telling the
truth, but I imagine you don't know them. And we can't spare the time to
"Okay. Go back to the car and wait for
me. I'll come back for you when I'm done."
"You can't do this by yourself, you're
not experienced --"
"I know how to shoot. And I know Smoky.
The ferret reluctantly climbed down my back
and humped back up the garage ramp into the rainy night.
Did I just do a phenomenally stupid
thing? I wondered. He's right, I can't do this alone ... but I guess I'm
going to have to try.
I paused. Maybe I didn't have to do this
Palimpsest's way. Maybe Smoky was still sane enough to listen to me and stay
put. Maybe I could find a land line in the building that actually connected to
the real world. I could phone Mother Karen to find someone who knew about this
kind of stuff and could put things back the way they were supposed to be.
And then we could figure out how to get