It certainly didn't seem like it at the moment, but Wendy knew she'd been lucky. That mutant eldritch bear thing that had burst out of the wall in the abandoned warehouse the day before – not 'through,' 'out of,' via some weird portal – could have taken off her entire leg or worse, instead of leaving her with a series of gashes along her calf that would keep her off her feet for several days and probably scar up something fierce, but which shouldn't cause any permanent damage. Which was small comfort, considering how much she was hurting at the moment. Or how much she was hating being stuck at Headquarters while her boss tried to hunt the creature down.
But she hadn't been entirely sidelined, at least. The only way to banish whatever the bear thing had been was to find the spell that had summoned it in the first place, something that apparently required more human ingenuity and intuition than Ida could offer. And since Wendy was the only one who'd been close enough to see the fragments of the symbols on the wall before the entire warehouse went black hole, and since she was also the only human in the organization who didn't get touchy on the subject of magic, she was spending the day in a comfy chair in the archive room, accompanied by several stacks of thick, dusty books and a lot of coffee. Her boss had also promised that she'd have expert help available, but he hadn't stuck around long enough to elaborate on that, and Wendy had been alone and in comfortable silence for a couple hours now. Not that she minded; for as sarcastic as she'd been last time they'd been stuck doing research, this was fascinating. The books she'd already gone through were thick with color-coded paper flags: Green for passages that might actually be related to the spell they were looking for, red for the ones she just wanted to go back and read more about later. The red ones vastly outnumbered the green.
"No wonder you need help finding anything. It looks like someone's grandmother's attic in here."
Wendy wondered if the way that voice, combined with the tapping of high heels and the swish of expensive fabric, triggered her 'cornered small animal' instinct had more to do with its owner being demonic, or its owner being in the fashion industry. There were predators, and then there were predators. "You must be my expert help."
"And who better?"
"I certainly can't think of anyone." Wendy didn't have to try all that hard to smile. Soul-sucking and clothes-designing aside, there was something likeable about Roxy. Maybe it was the boatloads of self-confidence, or the fact that she was one of the few people in the world who knew what Wendy did all day.
Or maybe it was the way she considered aesthetic critique a form of punctuation. "I can't believe you redesigned your uniform and didn't call me first. Well, stand up and let's take a look at it."
Wendy tried not to roll her eyes. It was mostly ego that pulled her to her feet – well, foot. Ego and the suspicion that showing weakness in front of a succubus was up there with getting involved in a land war in Asia as far as bad ideas went. "You have to imagine it with the boots, obviously."
Roxy shushed her, examining the ensemble with a cold and critical eye. "It's an improvement, certainly. Clean lines, professional, functional, and just a little bit sexy. Not bad, not bad at all." A decisive nod. "I like it."
Wendy hadn't been expecting a compliment. She'd been expecting even less to appreciate one if it came. "Thank you," she said with a real smile as she fall back into the chair.
"And as pleased as I am that there's finally someone in this building with a shred of fashion sense, that's not why you called me. What horror from beyond the realm of science did you drag up this time?"
"We didn't –" Wendy shook her head. No point in quibbling semantics. "It was a bear. Sort of. It was about the size of my car and it came through a portal on a warehouse wall. It had curved horns and a spiked tail and there may have been wings. It also might have been purple, but that could just be the light from the portal." Even with everything she'd seen and dealt with, it still sounded like a ridiculous description.
Roxy was taking it seriously, though. "I can think of at least four things that fit that description," she said after a moment. "None of them are good news."
Not what Wendy wanted to hear, but it was better than nothing. "So do you know how to banish it?"
"No. There are a dozen possible permutations on the summoning spell for each of those options, and banishing the creature only works if you find the right one. Did you see any of the spell itself?"
"Just the writing on the wall." Wendy held up a sketch of what she'd been able to see of the portal. Most of the blood-red marks – just acrylic paint, and not even the quality stuff; she had not been impressed – had burned away in the wake of the spell; what had remained was just fragments of symbols arranged in a vaguely circular pattern.
Roxy studied the sketch for a long moment. "Still not enough on its own, but I can narrow down your search." She made soft sounds as she ran a perfectly French-tipped nail down the stack of books, almost like she was talking to a cat. The book she finally pulled out was bound in dark blue leather, the cover stamped with symbols Wendy couldn't read. "Your summoner was definitely using a Ralston technique," she said, laying the book open on the table. "Amateur."
"'Amateur' as in, 'Ooh, he'll be easy to find,' or as in 'He's not gonna be able to control this thing'?" Wendy was pretty sure she already knew the answer to that one. Some people would have called that cynicism. She called it pattern recognition.
Two approving looks from Roxy Wasserman in less than ten minutes. That had to be some kind of record. "The second one," Roxy confirmed. "Which means there are going to be a lot of injuries worse than yours if we don't act fast." She flipped to a page somewhere in the middle and indicated the detailed illustrations, each picture captioned in the same indecipherable symbols as the cover. "Start here and look for anything familiar. I'll translate."
"It's a little hard to concentrate when someone's just told me there's a monster on the rampage while half of Earth's best defense force is benched."
Roxy rolled her eyes. "Leaving aside the 'best' part, you're hardly out of the game. A big gun is just a temporary solution this time around. You and I are going to find the permanent one." There was a pause before she continued, a little softer than before. "Besides, you're not permanently benched. Appreciate that, at least."
Wendy was about to say something appropriately dry when she caught the wistful note. "That's the voice of experience talking, isn't it?"
The only response was the click of Roxy's heels as she crossed the floor. Wendy had barely noticed the sword hanging from the end of one shelf, though she wondered now how she could have missed it. It came up to Roxy's chest when she lifted it effortlessly from its rack, and it was as wide as her arm. The succubus was still as a portrait for a moment, holding the sword with a thoughtful look, and then the dance began. The blade cut through the air like something alive, arcing into fragments of light that Wendy could barely follow. It finally stopped a handspan away from her throat, shining and motionless and not as sharp as the smile that wielded it. It was an angel's smile, from the days when nobody would ever dream of painting an angel without a weapon. "I may love my job, but community service is not where I started when I agreed to buy back my soul."
Wendy gingerly pushed the blade away with the flat of her hand – it had been one of the first things Sensei Ping taught her. There was really not a lot she could say to that, other than 'That was kind of awesome,' which she didn't feel comfortable saying even if it had been. "I'm glad you're on our side," she finally managed.
A chuckle, and the world's best-dressed avenging angel was gone again, leaving a woman who wasn't much less imposing. "You and a lot of others. Half a legion followed me when I reformed, just because they knew which end of my sword they didn't want to be on. Although I'm sure you think I'm exaggerating."
"I really don't," Wendy said sincerely. It was hard to doubt the way she carried herself while she carried the sword, like it was something she'd been without for too long. "So what happened?"
Roxy shifted the sword to her left hand and gave an exaggerated shrug. Her shoulder clicked unpleasantly and she winced. "You give up stealing souls, you give up some of the immortality that goes along with it. Eventually time catches up with you." She returned the sword gently to its resting place, hand lingering on the hilt. "So don't talk to me about being benched."
"Right. And now that my foot and my mouth have gotten better acquainted…"
Roxy waved away the semi-apology. "Water under the bridge. You're young, you're new, there's still plenty that you're excused for not knowing. We'll get together and swap war stories once you've been around long enough to accumulate some."
Once again, there was a pause that Wendy would normally have filled with banter. "You know, I think I'd actually really enjoy that."
A snort. "If you're trying to get on my good side, I should remind you that I don't have one." She leaned over the back of Wendy's chair and tapped at the book. "Read."
Twenty minutes, countless unidentifiable horrors, and two mutant eldritch bear things ("Not enough teeth" and "I would have remembered a feather mohawk") later, the painkillers started to wear off. "Gotta move," Wendy said, trying to find a more comfortable position while keeping track of the illustrations as she flipped by them. Dragon, blindfolded monkey, alien cow…
Roxy leaned back on her heels, waiting. "You're a rare creature right now, you know."
Oyster with unicorn horn, five-eyed rabbit, not even gonna think about what that might be… "What, a mutant bear attack victim?"
"An injured Middleman."
Wendy laughed. "You're kidding, right? This job makes Alaskan crab fishing look like insurance adjustment."
"Exactly. It's not a job that injures. You either come out of a mission miraculously unscathed, or you get killed. Which means you're either incompetent or well above average." Roxy gave her a speculative look. "Judging by how long you've lasted so far, I'm guessing it's the second one."
Wendy could have let the rest of the day's praise slide without comment, but that raised her eyebrow. "Now it's just getting weird. You wanna tell me what this flattery is all about?"
Roxy smiled slowly, a look with too many teeth. "I know your current employer does things a little differently, but I find that a few kind words are the best way to lead into a job offer."
If Wendy had been drinking anything, she would have choked. She almost did anyway. "Excuse me?"
"Oh, I don't mean right now," Roxy said with a wave of her hand. "Or any time in the near future, most likely."
Wendy continued to sputter. "You realize that I'm currently preparing for a very permanent job, right? You put this uniform on, you die in it."
Roxy nodded. "Or you retire."
"Middlemen don't retire." It was something that was really starting to sink in for possibly the first time. It wasn't just that the job was dangerous enough that it would probably take you down young, well before you even considered hanging up your molecular stun cannon. It was the way the job infected you, turned into part of your soul so quickly and so cleanly that you could never even dream of giving it up.
"You're half right," Roxy agreed. "Middlemen don't retire willingly. And I can see that you're already starting to understand why." This one was a real smile, the sad and rueful one of someone else who hadn't retired willingly. "But things happen. Time catches up with you. And you may be one of the few who could survive that." She spread her hands. "All I'm saying is, if the spirit remains willing but the flesh grows weak, the exotic consulting business could use you."
Wendy blinked. This was obviously not an offer Roxy extended to just anybody, but it was one she couldn't even begin to contemplate. She'd barely started adjusting to this new life. It was too much to consider that there might be something after. "I…have no answer to that."
"Good. I didn't expect one. It's just something I wanted you to be aware of." Roxy gestured at the surrounding room. "And if I ever need to repeat the offer, it's not like I don't know where to find you."