(Would take place a year or so after Magic Bleeds; assumes you've read through that book [significant spoilers otherwise]; written before any later book had come out. This is all fairly random... I've taken a few of Erra's tossed-off remarks and run with them. Sorry if I flatly contradict anything canon. I read this series as the books came out, and have forgotten a lot of the earlier stuff.)
I stopped short at the edge of the river, breathing hard.
Clearly, there had once been a bridge across it. Fragments of that bridge still lay scattered along both banks, and the road continued on the opposite side as if nothing were out of the ordinary. The water was fast-moving. Deep enough to preclude wading across. Narrow enough to swim, but it'd be cold, and Slayer wouldn't thank me for the bath.
Dense woods flanked the road I stood on: young trees crowded close together, interspersed with thorny underbrush. The pavement was covered in a blanket of dry leaves, and the leaves still on the trees were red and gold. On the left, ten feet back from the road, a barbed wire fence marched through the woods, one in ten of its metal posts toppled. Once, I took it, this had all been farmland. That had probably ended when they exploded the bridge, if not before.
I could cross the river. I could crash through the trees. But either choice would slow me down considerably, and I'd no doubt already been standing here for too long…
"Glad you've stopped," said the man behind me. "Lovely place for a picnic. I think the blackberries are ripe."
I turned automatically to face him. Some easily-distracted corner of my mind noted that the bushes by the roadside were indeed blackberry, and the berries were dark and plentiful. Also, that it was early March. No self-respecting blackberry should be ripe for months yet, and for that matter, the trees ought to be green. Given that, I wasn't about to touch them. The magic was up, and seemingly ordinary things could be far more dangerous than they looked.
Things like the smiling man in front of me.
He was not quite so tall as his sister, but stood nearly a head above me. Finger-length dark hair fell jaggedly about his face. His clothes were black and simply cut. He wore no armor and carried no weapons; mere steel would only weigh him down. He looked thirty, if that, but I knew better.
My twenty-seven years of training and experience had come down to this, and I had no illusions I was remotely ready. All my instincts screamed at me to get away – but there was nowhere left to run. The game was over. Best to end this quickly, before Curran noticed I was missing and got the blockheaded idea to come after me. Before Andrea followed the leads I'd left behind and came to the same conclusions that had started me running as fast and as far as I could away from Atlanta.
I'd come to rely far too much on a network of friends and allies I'd barely begun to build. With their help, I'd taken down enemies and dealt with situations far beyond anything I should have been able to handle. But I'd known the price. Leaving them all without a word, knowing that one way or another I wouldn't be coming back, had hurt.
By the time I was ten years old, Voron had drilled into my head that I couldn't get close to people. That friendship would inevitably end in severed ties and pain. I wasn't sure I was sorry to have disregarded his advice… but I wished the inevitable had come less quickly.
"Hello, daughter," the tall man said, infuriatingly calm and polite. I wondered fleetingly what he'd been thinking, while I reflected on my misspent youth. "A pleasure to finally speak with you."
"Hello, Roland," I answered. My voice caught a little on the name, and I hated myself for it. Of course I was terrified of him. But I didn't have to show it.
"I haven't seen you since…" He reached out slowly, as if to touch my cheek. I spun away reflexively, Slayer's hilt cool comfort to my fingers.
A shadow passed across his face, quite literally. I couldn't tell whether it was consciously crafted illusion or some habit that had over millennia become reflex. "Child, I am not your enemy. I mean you no harm. Can you believe that?"
I supposed it was possible, but I doubted it was likely. I'd grown up with the story: Roland, deeply in love with my mother, had agreed to have a child with her against his better judgment. Had thought better of it, later. She'd refused to give up the baby, instead seeking sanctuary with Roland's chief warlord – who had barely managed to escape with the little girl when Roland came for them all. "You killed my mother. You meant to kill me."
"Do you remember that day?" he snapped. "Have you scried upon it? I think not."
"Voron told me what happened."
"Voron," he repeated. "Voron, who stole off with your mother before I had any hint that something was wrong. Who, unless I miss my guess, groomed you from infancy to destroy me. And you trust his word without question, even now."
"It didn't seem terribly implausible," I said a little defensively, "considering you've killed all your other children."
"And who exactly told you that?" he asked quietly, the anger gone from his voice. His tone sounded almost of defeat, but I doubted Roland would give up so easily at anything.
"Erra, for one, didn't contradict it." Even as I said it, I knew I shouldn't have raised the topic.
He turned aside a little, contemplating the blackberries. Some calculating core of my mind noted that he was distracted, that now would be as good a time as any to strike quickly and keep running. But I hesitated for a moment, and in that moment he glanced back at me. I felt as though I'd been tested. I wasn't sure whether I'd passed. "Erra… was not known for her consistency," Roland said, again looking away from me. "It is possible that in ending that life you did more good than any of your siblings have managed. Still I wish you had not. I have lived uncounted centuries. I have watched the civilization of my birth crumble and fall. I have loved and lost more times than there are days in a year, and I have come to value certainties. Erra was, in some sense, all I had left of my childhood, of the days before the magic fell – and you have taken that from me." His voice went very soft. "That disappoints me, Kate."
"I didn't have much of a choice."
"She meant to destroy Atlanta."
His eyes snapped to mine. " 'Destroy Atlanta'. Not, 'kill you'."
"If she'd been after me alone, I could have run. Would have. As I ran from you."
He sighed. "You didn't have to run, Kate. I am not some savage Titan who eats his children out of blind and senseless fear."
"Your track record says otherwise," I pointed out.
He said nothing for a moment, and I started to worry that my talent for irritating authority had finally brought about my doom. Then he admitted, "Yes, I have spilt blood of my blood before. Eleven times on the field of battle, amongst clashing armies and the sound of drums. Thirteen times in answer to personal challenge or response to personal attack. Five times as a matter of cold calculation, in despairing certainty that, if I allowed my child to live, he would destroy everything I had ever worked towards. Never without provocation. And never once, Kate, have I slain an infant daughter. I did not mean to start with you. Voron was… overzealous. Although…"
He trailed off into silence, studying my face. "What?" I prompted impatiently.
"Perhaps it was for the best. That you grew up in rebellion, rather than choosing it when you came of age. That your greatest act of defiance has been to build a family for yourself. This city of yours that you protect, Atlanta… that, too, is well done. Flailing. Frenetic. You could stand to be a good deal more organized about it. But I cannot fault your intentions or, for the most part, your results."
Just how much did he know about me?
My shock must have shown on my face. At least… I was pretty sure I'd be able to tell if he were reading my mind. "Blood calls to blood, Kate," he answered the question I hadn't asked, "and neither Voron nor Greg knew enough to hide you from me completely, though Voron managed to misdirect my searches for a while. I have been watching you for some time, now. I am proud of you in most respects. I do not want your enmity; I've had enough of that."
"So why'd you chase me, then? For—" I found the sun, checked the angle; magic was up, and my watch had stopped— "eleven hours?"
Had it only been that long? It felt like days.
We'd first realized that something had stirred up the People when a band of seven vampires tried to sneak into Pack headquarters and assassinate Curran. Not, all things considered, the brightest of moves. I suspect the Beast Lord could have taken them out on his own, though perhaps not without getting hurt. With me beside him, the odds were overwhelmingly on Curran's side—my sword fed off undead flesh, and if all else failed my blood would command or destroy them.
At four in the morning, as soon as the dust had settled, I'd gone to my office and started making calls—the People kept late hours, and I couldn't sleep—trying to figure out what the navigators had been thinking, whether this was an intentional attack approved by the People's leaders, whether it had been a setup by some enemy to sow discord, a contract taken by some splinter group, or a feint to keep us from looking in some other direction… I'd woken up Saiman, and now owed him several favors to repay that debt. It was barely possible I'd even survive long enough for him to cash them in. Lucky me.
The People had flatly refused to speak with me. I kept my distance from them normally—necromancy isn't really my thing, and on top of that, they were Roland's—but I'd consulted them before and been answered. Total silence was unusual. I'd attempted to place a personal call to Nataraja, Master of the Dead in charge of the People's operations in Atlanta, and been told by his secretary that he was unavailable. Pressed for details, she'd said, "He's in a meeting that can't be interrupted." And hung up.
And in a flood of connections and suppositions, on adrenaline and too little sleep, I'd begun to put together a picture of a situation I very much disliked. A distant lord had arrived for an unaccustomed visit. A group of disenfranchised young journeymen had seized what they feared would be their only chance to impress him or anyone. The Pack was the People's primary rival for political control of the magical world, and Erra at least had seemed to hate shapeshifters for more personal reasons. Successfully taking out the Beast Lord who had consolidated all the shapeshifter factions into one Pack might indeed have vaulted a novice necromancer to a prominent position within the People. Failure… could not have helped that standing.
My conscious thoughts had actually been closer to, What could possibly make the People do something so— Roland. Oh, shit.
Just before dawn, I'd gathered some food and maps and all the steel I owned, and left before Curran could find me and ask if I'd uncovered anything. The tech had fallen around noon. I'd abandoned my car in a decrepit suburban parking lot and started walking, heading vaguely north and west.
Roland had caught up with me somewhere in Kentucky.
"I would appreciate your friendship, Kate," he answered my question, having apparently given it careful thought. "I thought, perhaps, you might bring yourself to trust me, now that you have found others whom you trust."
I spoke without thinking: "That doesn't make any sense."
"No?" His gaze went a little abstracted, as if he were going back over the words. "Perhaps not."
"Dammit, Roland," I said, nearing the end of my sleep-deprived patience, "are you going to kill me or not?"
He sighed. "Are you going to force me to it?"
There was a deep sadness in his voice, shot through with grim resolution, and for once in my life I shut up.
"I played the guardian of cities, once," Roland reminisced, "when I was young. Before the magic fell and the cities crumbled. It was… satisfying, as best I can remember. Until the day came when I failed, and the people huddled in their broken towers and stared at me with haunted eyes. Why, great Roland. Why have you forsaken us?"
"I've never claimed to be all-powerful."
Roland laughed bitterly. "Godhood is not something you can claim. It is something thrust upon you. When you have a few centuries under your belt, and your Atlanta is a beacon of light to the otherwise dark and dangerous world, you will understand. Save a city once, and they will thank you graciously: a good citizen, an example to all. Save a city five times, and they will accolade you as a hero in the streets. Save a city fifty times, and they will no longer thank you. They will expect it of you the fifty-first."
"You're not a god," I pointed out. "Blue m-scan."
"M-scans, Kate?" He did not move, did not twitch a muscle, but his disgust was palpable even so. "I should have guessed that your people would be unable to resist shackling the magic into lovely color-coded categories, even as it blew like wildfire through your careful machines with their ones and their zeros. Yes, I am human, born of man and woman. I am not some twisted idea sprung from the collective imagination of a deranged society. And yet I am immortal. And the blood that flows through my veins is mine to command, as is so much else in this world… and, in the end, so little. In the days when people were not slaves to boxes that trace out pretty patterns, no one beheld my power and doubted I was a god. No matter what I said to dissuade them. Semantics, Kate. No one cares. They will worship you, will sacrifice to you, no matter what color an unimaginatively charmed piece of paper turns in your presence."
"Not if I can help it."
"Don't you see? That's just it. You can't." He shook his head, and ran a hand through his hair, flipping it back out of his eyes. "Kate… carrying this blood is not easy. You're twenty-seven; you haven't hit most of the walls yet, but you will. I can help with some of it. Forewarn you of the rest."
"Like what?" I'd been able to shape my blood, once, a few years ago, in a spectacularly dicey conflict with a bunch of rakshasa. I hadn't managed it since, and wasn't sure why not. I didn't think I could particularly trust any information Roland gave me, but I'd take what I could get.
"To begin with… your Beast Lord. He will die. Shapeshifters age well, but they do not live forever. Have you given any thought to what you will do, when that happens?"
That hadn't been the sort of advice I was expecting. Though maybe I should have anticipated it, given the depressive trend of Roland's conversation thus far. "I hadn't thought that far ahead," I admitted. Hadn't expected to live that long, in all honesty, but I wasn't about to say that to the man I'd expected to kill me, especially when for all I knew he still might.
Roland nodded in amusement—condescension, almost. "A century no doubt seems like a long time, to you."
It did, yeah. I wasn't about to say that either, even though I suspected he could read it from my face. "How far ahead do your plans go, exactly?" I asked instead.
He spread his hands. "I don't count moves, anymore. I push the board toward a position that favors me. When the attack comes is immaterial, so long as my forces are prepared."
He seemed to be expecting me to say something. "I see," I said, although I didn't really. I knew the rules of chess, sure, but I'd never gotten philosophical about it.
"Kate… you are growing into a piece on that board. It would please me greatly if you were to wear my colors. This world could be yours, to command, to protect. Follow me. Join me. Look beyond your little city, and think what towers you could build if you stopped hiding in the shadows. I can offer you a wealth of experience. I can help you, if you choose not to oppose me."
"I'm not the first one you've offered that deal to," I realized, "am I?"
"Did all the others turn you down?"
"Variously… yes. The one you are most likely thinking of, two thousand years back, was a stubborn young idealist—your age, or thereabouts. Dedicated to reform beyond all good sense. His principles were for the most part admirable. His strategy left much to be desired. Threw himself against a wall that if he'd had any patience he might have worn down… He died well, as such things go, but somehow I question that martyrdom during one's first half-century is the best use of immortality."
"You didn't kill him, then."
"Kate, I am not so bloodthirsty as that, whether or not you will believe it of me. No, I did not kill him. He posed no threat to me. Neither did I save him, when the local authorities charged him with treason and sentenced him to death… though I did offer to. He refused. A matter of principle, I gather."
Offered with what conditions, I wondered, but said nothing.
"Will precedent be your guide, then, daughter? Or will you make a different choice?"
"Let me think about it," I muttered.
"Gladly. Take all the time you need," he said with a half-smile. "I am not in any hurry."
I thought about it.
I was reluctant to trust anything Roland had said. He played the jaded but honorable immortal, the depressed and misunderstood builder of towers, far too well. I knew he must have had some reason to come after me—Roland was much too old to do anything without reason—and I doubted any sudden resurgence of family feeling could justify pursuit across three states. Not when, if he was telling the truth, he could find me whenever he wanted to. Which, come to think of it, was more than a little disturbing… and might explain how he'd followed me so easily, despite the pains I'd taken to cover my tracks.
He hadn't killed me yet, which meant he wanted me alive. The question was for what. To even guess at the answer… I'd need to understand his hopes, his dreams, his fears.
I'd studied my father for most of my life. I hadn't realized, until now, how carefully I'd avoided thinking about what drove him. I'd memorized a catalog of facts, chronicles, abilities, weaknesses. I hadn't looked for reasons.
I'd been, perhaps, afraid of what I'd find.
"Why vampires?" I asked slowly. "Why casinos?"
"Better an army of the dead than one of the living," said Roland immediately, his voice filled with conviction. "The undead do not feel love, or pain, or loss. Ten thousand vampires can fall in battle without a tear shed, if their navigators are skilled. And beyond that, there are considerations of practicality: they do not eat much, and you do not constantly need new, younger ones."
"They were people. Once."
"Dead people, Kate, or very close to death. Anonymous, and dead to the world. And none forced to undeath unwillingly. If you know otherwise, tell me, and I will make it right."
The People were very careful to tell everyone they dealt with about those rules. I didn't know for certain they were followed, but I'd seen no evidence against it. "So the question then becomes… why do you need an expendable army?"
"Kate," he said with a smile and a shake of his head, "if I could know that in advance, I would not need one. Have you never found a use for such a thing?"
My final battle with Erra leapt to my mind, when the People's vampires had filled the streets, a distraction and a wall of flesh. I suddenly wondered whether—no, to what extent—Nataraja had risked Roland's wrath in doing that much.
"No," Roland answered his own question; "you have not yet seen true war. You are so young, Kate. It breaks my heart."
I wasn't sure what to make of that. "And the casinos?" I asked instead.
"A means to an end, to make money. Money to care for the dead, and to persuade the dying to allow us the use of their corpses. I'm sure you have guessed as much, my daughter."
I had, yeah. But I'd been wrong before. And I wasn't trying to analyze the People's business plan. I was trying to uncover the emotions and the principles behind it.
Granted, Roland wasn't making it easy.
"Roland… what would make you go to war?" I asked bluntly.
"Any number of things. Most generally and most often, a serious threat to the stability of this world."
"A serious threat to your control over it?"
"That would also be a problem, yes, if I did not believe that whoever struck at the seat of my power would deal competently with the next threat, and the next… Mortal governments are terribly transient, Kate. Easily toppled at the first sign of trouble."
"Accountable," I muttered, "to the people…"
"Kate," he protested, disarranging his hair. "I am no tyrant. I do not ask for tribute, for worship, for obedience, for acknowledgment even. In fifty centuries I have not, and before that I was young and foolish. No. I wait quietly in my hidden citadel. I tread lightly across the earth. I watch. And in humanity's darkest hours, when all your towers are poised to fall, then, Kate, I protect."
"Whose side did you fight on in World War Two?"
"The largest skirmish of last century? None. I was not needed. Human fought human, and the deaths were in the millions, yes, but two billion survived. My intervention would not have been welcomed. Would not, I think, have shortened the conflict significantly. When a horde of giants pours across the continents, crushing everything in their wake, then look to me. I have learned to ignore hordes of human children trying to kill each other; they can do that well enough without my help."
"When was the last time you fought a war, then?"
He thought back, calculated. "Seven centuries ago." He did not seem inclined to elaborate.
"So… you're asking me to wait with you. To watch. To turn a blind eye to the deaths of millions, and let friends and cities fall without a fight."
I shook my head. "That's not something I can do."
He nodded acceptance. "Not yet, in any case. I suspected as much."
We stood in a silence that stretched for what seemed like several minutes. It was hard to tell exactly, given that my watch had stopped. "What happens now?" I asked finally, still not certain I wasn't about to die.
Roland laughed. "I suppose you will go back to the city under your protection, though I do not envy you the walk. I wish you luck in that endeavor. I will not trouble you further unless you seek me out."
And with that, he was gone.
I started back along the road to home, thinking of Curran and Andrea and Julie, not-thinking of Roland or Erra or epic battles ancient and to come. I was astonished and delighted to be alive. I hoped to hell I wouldn't live to be five thousand.
Fallen leaves crunched under my feet, and the road stretched out endlessly ahead.