"Wow," Derek said.
Men and swords. My father said that if you put any able-bodied man, no matter how peaceful, into a room with a sword and a practice dummy and leave him alone, eventually the man would pick up the sword and try to stab the dummy. It is human nature. This young wolf was no different.
"Choose a weapon."
"Whatever I want?"
"Whatever you want."
He examined the row of cutlery, his face thoughtful. I thought he'd go for a leaf blade, but he ignored it and his fingers strayed toward Bor instead. It was a good sword, especially for a beginner, with a thirty-two-inch blade and an ash-sheathed hilt just under eight inches long. It had a straight steel guard with sharp tips pointing downward and a no-nonsense steel pommel. Like all weapons I owned, it had a superb balance.
Derek held it upright.
"It's light!" he said. "I went to a sword fair once, and the swords there were way heavier."
"There is a difference between a sword and a swordlike object," I said. "What you saw at the sword fair were mostly reasonable imitations. They are pretty and heavy and they make you slower than a slug on vacation. This one only weighs two pounds."
Derek swung the sword in a practice slash.
"It's a working sword," I said. "It won't break and it doesn't send a lot of vibration back to your hand when you strike a target."
"I like it," he said.
I grabbed my utility bag and we were ready to go. Derek made some sniffing noises at the bag. "I smell gasoline."
"You smell right," I told him and left it at that. Explaining that I carried a large canteen filled with gasoline in my bag in case I spilled some of my blood and had to clean it up in a hurry would've been too complicated.
THE PACK LENT ME A MARE. HER NAME WAS FRAU. The stable master swore that while she wasn't the swiftest beast in the stables, she was obedient, strong, and steady as the rock of Gibraltar. So far, I had no reason to doubt him.
Derek's dun gelding was perfectly content to let Frau take the lead. The kid rode with the stiffness of a moderately trained rider who had never got quite comfortable with horses. Some shapechangers rode like they were centaurs. Derek wasn't one of them.
Neither of us had spoken since we left the shapechanger keep fifty minutes ago.
If I were to work with him, we had to at least be able to talk. I dropped back, drawing side by side with him. The sounds of hoofbeats echoed on the deserted street.
"Why the arm?" Derek asked.
He was looking at my burn. The custom called for a hand to be thrust into the flame.
"Because I don't heal as quickly as you do. I need my hand to hold my sword."
"Oh. That was a dumb question." He looked away toward the city. Atlanta sprawled, looking relieved to be free of magic and yet also apprehensive, knowing its reprieve would be short-lived.
The moon shone on the sable of the night sky, a pale sliver of a face behind a veil of shadows. Its delicate radiance, a tangle of light and darkness, was all but lost, held at bay by bright street lamps. Electric lights, like the sun, offer no compromises. There are no shadows mixed with their glow, no duality, no promise of hidden depth and mystery, nothing but light, pure and simple.
"Have you ever noticed how some things work during magic and some don't?" he asked.
"For instance, phones. Sometimes they work during magic and sometimes they don't."
He wanted to talk. Probably looking for some common ground. I'd be an asshole if I didn't oblige. "There are a couple of theories on that. One says that the intensity of the magic wave determines to what extent technology will fail."
"And the other one?"
I grimaced. "Magic is a fluid thing. It's not a strict system set in stone. Every one of us filters it through ourselves and our thoughts and perceptions shape and change it. You've heard how powerful Pope is?"
"He derives his power solely from the faith of his congregation. Thousands and thousands of people believe he can heal the sick and so he can. Now let's take a car. How does it work?"
Derek frowned. "I'm not sure. There is an engine, which burns gasoline and turns it into gas. Gas expands and pushes something, a valve of some sort, which makes the wheels turn. Something like that."
I nodded. "Okay, now how does the phone work?"
He looked at me. "Ummm, your voice makes the wires vibrate?"
"Yes, but how does dialing a number translate into reaching the right person? And what if a bird sits on a wire? Does it still vibrate?"
Derek shrugged. "I have no idea."
"I don't either. And most other people don't. They never had to stop and think about how the phone works. It just does. Cars are a different matter. They require more maintenance and break down more often man a phone, and the repairs are a good deal more expensive, so any car owner will educate himself about his car's inner workings at least to some degree."
"To keep from being ripped off," Derek said.
"Yes. The theory is that since so many people are ignorant of the basic mechanical principles involved in making the phone work, to them it might just as well be magic. They believe blindly that it will work and it does. On the other hand, cars are viewed as the sum of mechanical parts which are prone to failure, therefore when magic hits, they fail."
"That's a cool theory," he said.
"Unfortunately, it makes my job that much harder."
The magic fluctuation crashed into us. The electric lamps went out and absolute darkness drenched the city. Just when my eyes adjusted to the lack of light, we turned the corner and were greeted by a row of feylanterns. One more turn and we'd reach Casino.
"Do you know where we're going?" I asked.
"To the People's shithole."
I shook my head, waving good-bye to any hopes of preserving my neutrality with him at my side. "I want this to be very clear. No matter what happens, I don't want you to change form unless you have no choice. They can't smell you, since you've showered. Unless you go furry, they have no way of knowing that you belong to the Pack and I'd like to keep it that way."
"One, I want to keep my cooperation with the Pack out of the spotlight. It creates an appearance of impropriety."
"The People wouldn't be thrilled to know you have a wolfman with you."
"Yeah." Ted wouldn't be thrilled either. "And two, once you turn and fight, you'll have to be fed and given a peaceful spot to sleep it off. I don't always have a peaceful spot handy."