A Matter of Taste

By Robert Moriyama




(AUTHORíS NOTE: http://www.pathcom.com/~bmoriyam/Materia%20Magica.htm contains a quick recap of the previous adventures in this series, which (they tell me) may be needed to understand everything in this story.)

The light of several dozen candles bathed the Countess Lamia in a flickering golden glow, both emphasizing her flawless beauty and concealing her unnatural pallor. Still, Al Majius could see something feral in her eyes; he was glad that he had brought his full arsenal of magical weapons and defensive charms.

"Are you sure I canít offer you a drink?" Lamia asked. "You have travelled far to meet me here in my home."

Al looked at the crystal decanter on the silver tray at Lamiaís side. The contents were far too murky to be any kind of wine, which meant --

"Um, no thank you, really," Al said. "When you travel by apportation, distance doesnít really matter. And anyway, I donít drink -- blood."

Lamia smiled politely. No doubt she had heard that joke on a regular basis for many, many years.

"But I do drink blood," Githros said. "Come on, Al, she knows Iím here anyway. And itís not like she hasnít seen a demon before."

Al sighed. "I must apologize, Countess. I didnít introduce you to my partner. May I present Githros, my Vice President of Research and Development -- "

Githros emerged from Alís left ear, jumped the last few feet to the floor, and then grew to his meeting-the-public size of two meters.

The demon bowed deeply, the knuckles of one scaly hand scraping the stone of the floor.

"Itís an honor to meet you, Your Grace," Githros said. "Your family is well-known in the highest circles of Pandemonium."

Al wondered when or if Githros had ever seen the highest circles of Pandemonium, aside from being called on the carpet for punishment, but said nothing.

The Countess smiled again, this time showing canine teeth that would have made Billy Taylor, werewolf-at-law, whine with envy.

"Ah, yes, the famous Githros na Eídran," she said. "The first demon in many centuries to be treated as an equal by the wizard who summoned and bound him to service."

Al and Githros exchanged looks of surprise. That Githros was now unbound had been common knowledge for some time now. But Lamia had used almost all of Githrosís full Name, and that was known to very few outside of Pandemonium. If she knew the rest, she could bind Githros as Al once had.

Lamia laughed. "Do not fear. I have no desire to bind you, my demon friend. You and your former master will be more valuable as allies -- or independent contractors -- than as bound creatures."

"About that drink," Githros said. "I think I could really use one now."

Lamia picked up the decanter and poured a healthy portion of barely-translucent red liquid into a gold-rimmed crystal goblet.

"Carpathian accountant, vintage -- yesterday, I think," she said. "A bit dry for my own tastes, but you might find it amusing."

Githros looked at Al, not quite seeking permission, but apologizing for indulging the darker side of his nature. Al shrugged -- when in Walachia, one did as the Walachians did.

Githros accepted the goblet, swirled its contents and sniffed delicately to sample the bouquet. "A hint of garlic -- I guess you get that a lot around here, with the sausages and all -- beets, onions, manganese -- something in the water?" He took a sip, worked his mouth to distribute the flavors over his tongue, and then swallowed.

"Youíre right," he said at last. "It is a bit dry -- thatís the accountant thing coming through, I guess. But itís very good, quite fresh -- and warm?"

"A little magic that has been passed down through our family for many generations," Lamia said. "It preserves -- everything -- so that the blood tastes as it did at the moment it left its -- original container."

"We should get back to business," Al said. "Your message said that you had a task that only Majius Magical Services could handle?"

Lamiaís smile faded. "There is a problem in our -- vineyards," she said. "Someone is -- harvesting the crops -- before their time, with no regard for the way such things must be done."

Githros put down his drink. An odd expression twisted his face into a configuration that Al had never seen before: not fear, not anger, but -- disgust? Considering Githrosís nature, anything that he found disgusting had to be either terrible -- or holy.

Even if Githros knew what Lamia meant, Al did not. "By vineyards, I assume that you mean the people that supply your, uh, beverages. And I gather that someone is, um, breaking the rules. But Iím not that great at interpreting Significant Pauses. Exactly what, in non-Walachian terms, is the problem?"

"Children, Al," Githros said. "Someone is draining children -- completely."

Al gasped. "Under the Covenants between the Walachian Council and the Rumanian government, you make legal contracts to purchase your, uh, beverage of choice," he said. "Children canít sign contracts. So if children are being drained, even killed, then -- "

"Yes, Mr. Majius," Lamia said. "The Covenants are being broken, in the worst way imaginable. If this continues, they will soon be declared null and void, and the Walachian people, the children of Vlad Tepes, will be hunted down and destroyed."

"Your defenses -- "

Lamia shook her head. "Our defenses are strong," she said, "but for every Walachian, there are thousands of humans. Wizards of your caliber and stronger will join the hunt, and men armed with your most terrifying technology -- devices that see in the dark, that fire holy water and cruciform darts in streams that can tear my kind to shreds -- they will come, and we will perish.

"Your company offers a unique combination of assets, Mr. Majius: the skills of a powerful wizard, the strength, speed, and senses of both a demon and a werewolf, and the knowledge of a human experienced in dealing with both the human and the supernatural worlds.

"You must do what we have been unable to do, Mr. Majius. You must find the creature that has made it seem that we have broken the Covenants, and you must bind it or destroy it."

###

Countess Lamia believed that Alís magical skills and Githrosís demonic senses would be able to find evidence that normal forensic science and even Walachian abilities had missed. Thus, after a few crystal calls by the Countess, she had obtained permission for them to examine the bodies of the most recent victims.

Still, the prospect of seeing them -- the bodies of children -- made Alís heart feel like an anchor in his chest. It took considerable effort to keep his knees from giving way as he was escorted into the high-security room in the morgue.

"I donít know if I can do this, Githros," he said. "Iíve seen plenty of dead people -- hell, I used to raise spirits and even animate bodies for a living. But these are children -- some of them not even ten years old."

"What was that, Mr. Majius?" Sandu Drabczyk, the assistant medical examiner, asked.

"Nothing," Al said. "I was -- consulting my partner."

Drabczyk, a short, balding man with gold wire-frame glasses perched on a bulbous nose, blanched and took a step back. "A spirit?"

"No, a demon," Al said. Seeing Drabczyk cringe, Al added, "A friendly demon. Really." He extended his left arm and turned his hand palm-side up.

Githros clambered out of Alís ear and ran down his sleeve. Once perched on Alís hand, he grew -- but only to a reassuringly tiny three centimeters in height.

"Down here," Githros squeaked. They had decided that Githros should make himself look -- and sound -- as harmless as possible in public, except when dealing with entities like the Countess Lamia (who was scarier than Githros).

"Oh -- there he is!" Drabczyk said, obviously relieved. "He is -- what is the word? -- cute."

Al partially closed his hand to remind Githros that Vice Presidents of corporations had to be mindful of the consequences of bad public relations. Githros, in turn, bit Alís finger to make it clear that he was not an idiot, and would not run amok -- but he reserved the right to be annoyed.

Al winced. "Um, yes. Heís cute, all right."

"We have placed the bodies of the three most recent victims on the examining tables here," Drabczyk said. "There are a few more still on site if you need to see them -- the others have been claimed by their families after the autopsies."

To delay the moment when he would have to see the child-corpses, Al asked, "Did the autopsies reveal anything useful?"

"You will receive copies of all the reports, of course," Drabczyk replied. "But I can summarize in laymanís terms. All died of severe blood loss -- almost every milliliter of blood was removed from their bodies while they were still alive. And in every case, the only significant injury was a pair of puncture wounds, with tooth marks -- apparently human -- to either side and between the punctures."

"So you think the killer is, um, Walachian?"

Drabczyk made the sign of the cross. "Yes. Nosferatu. They have not killed in many, many years, however, and their leadership claims -- but of course you know what they claim. If the Covenants have truly been broken, there will be war. It will be terrible for us -- the Walachians are very powerful -- but in the end, the Walachians will be wiped out, and with them, a part of our history. Please, do what you can to find what is happening, before it is too late." He turned and left the room, pausing only to say, "I will see you later, little fellow."

Githros bit Alís finger again, harder this time. When Al yelped and opened his hand, Githros ballooned to his two-meter size and grunted incoherent threats in the direction of the door.

"Iíve been called a lot of things, Al, but cute? Iím a demon, Al. Demons are not cute!"

"Except when youíre angry," Al said.

Githros snarled. "Let me scare him, Al. Just a little. Make whatís left of his hair turn white -- "

"We have more important things to worry about than whether youíre -- you know what. Murdered children, impending race war, stuff like that, remember?"

Githrosís anger faded. "Children. War. Right. Iím sorry, Al -- itís okay when you yank my chain, because I know you respect me. But twerps like that guy havenít earned the right."

"Did I say that I respect you? I must have missed that."

"Har har. Let me take a look at these bodies."

They removed the sheets covering the three small bodies. Al found it hard to breathe; he clutched the edge of an examining table to steady himself as the floor seemed to tilt under his feet.

"Theyíre so small," he said. "So young. Even you looked upset when you figured out what the Countess was saying. How could anyone -- anything do this?" His grip on the table tightened convulsively.

Githros patted Al on the back, being careful to keep the tips of his claws from making contact. "Easy, Al. Whatever did this, weíll find it and give it what it deserves."

Al nodded. "What it deserves," he said. He took a deep breath and held it for almost a minute. When he exhaled, he tried to let the suffocating rage and grief go with the stale air. It helped -- a little.

Al reached into his jacket and pulled out one of his special-purpose wands, a more sophisticated version of the one he had used to diagnose Billyís problems a few months before. Through the loop at the end, he could see things hidden from the naked eye and even undetectable by conventional instruments.

Al brought the looped end of the wand close to the wound on the neck of the first corpse, a small, dark-haired girl. A magnified image of the wound appeared in the air.

As Drabczyk had said, it looked like a vampireís bite. But there was something wrong with it; Al muttered an incantation that magnified the image further and shifted the colors to improve contrast. After a few seconds, he swore under his breath and moved on to the second body, a boy slightly older than the first child, but still no more than ten years old.

Meanwhile, Githros had been conducting his own examination using his inhumanly-acute vision and sense of smell. "Thereís no saliva," he said. "Even after the bodyís been washed and autopsied like this, I should be able to detect traces of the vampís -- er, Walachianís, I gotta be polite about íem until the check clears -- saliva."

Al looked up from his scrutiny of the third childís injuries. "The wounds are too perfect," he said. "The holes are perfectly round, and the other tooth marks are perfectly symmetrical, evenly spaced, and equal in depth. And theyíre as close to identical from victim to victim as possible, given the differences in size."

"No real teeth would be that perfect, even if they were capped," Githros said. "It isnít a Walachian or even another kind of supernatural creature doing this, then."

Al frowned. "It still could be a Walachian. Nothing to say that one of them couldnít use artificial means to ensure that they didnít leave traces that could identify them."

"But why make it look like a bite, then? Why make sure that Walachians take the blame?"

Al grimaced. "Kinda reminds me of what that dart did to Billy -- making him look like a threat."

Githros raised an eyebrow (actually a bony ridge with protruding spikes, but it served the same purpose). "You think the Baldy Brigade is involved? I thought they only hated werewolves."

"They do," Al said, "as far as we know. Zithiel said that their symbol was a crossed-out wolfís head. But maybe theyíre part of something bigger. This could be a case where the same tactics get used by another tentacle of the same godhead."

"Another tentacle of the same godhead? No more Lovecraft stories for you, pal," Githros said.

"Iíll inform the authorities here of what weíve found so far," Al said. "I think you should go tell Billy and Janine to get over here -- Billyís tracking ability may be useful, and Janine can probably figure out where somebody could get fake Walachian fangs."

"Um, okay," Githros said. "I guess I can do the old crystal-diving trick to get me home. But I canít bring Billy and Janine back that way."

Al sighed. "Tell them to use a commercial apportation line, and to be sure to keep the receipts. Legitimate expense, should be deductible, right?"

"Donít ask me, Iím R&D. Janineís Finance," Githros said. "Your crystal, if you donít mind?"

Al rummaged through his pockets until he found his new, top-of-the-line pocket crystal ball. It was supposedly good anywhere in the world, and in most other dimensions, but heíd already found it tended to be unreliable around too much cold iron. Still, it beat his old crystal, which had been mistaken for a doorknob on several occasions.

Githros jumped high into the air, shrinking rapidly as he gained altitude. As he descended toward the crystal in Alís hand, he executed a neat triple somersault, but over-rotated and made a discernible splash when he struck the crystal and vanished.

"Ouch," Al said. "Thatís what he gets for showing off. If that rated better than a four point five, Iíd be checking the judges for evidence of taking bribes."

Tenderly, Al replaced the sheets over the three pathetic corpses. But as he turned to leave, he groaned and slapped his forehead.

"Talk about missing the obvious," he said. "I used to do this for a living ..."

He uncovered the face of the most recent victim, then quickly read her name from the tag attached to her big toe. With the greater power he had gained from the rigorous training of the past months, he could now perform a Summoning with a bare minimum of ritual. The spirits of the recently deceased were especially easy to Summon -- and the spirits of those who had died by violence were the easiest of all.

"Jenica Comaneanu, I Summon your spirit from its place of rest," Al said. He extended his hands toward the little girlís body, palms up, and then stepped back, pulling his hands toward his chest as he did so.

Glowing mist rose from the childís shrouded form, quickly taking the shape of a small girl identical to the one on the table. This silvery doppelganger looked around the room, obviously confused, then bit its lower lip and turned back to speak to Al.

Al heard her words as English, thanks to an inverse-Babel charm he had prepared for this job.

"Who are you? What is this place? Whereís mommy and daddy?"

Al felt like he had been slapped by a troll made of warm mud. Jenica didnít understand what had happened to her. She didnít know that she was dead.

"Theyíre not here, Jenica," Al said. "They asked me to let you know that theyíll see you soon."

"Are you crying, mister?"

Al grunted. He wasnít -- quite. He wanted to learn as much as he could without causing this girl -- this spirit, he reminded himself -- any more pain, and that meant not letting her know what was wrong.

"Iím just tired, Jenica. But your Mommy wanted me to ask you about -- about why you didnít come straight home from school today."

"I donít know," Jenica said. "I feel funny ..."

Al closed his eyes, forced himself to think angry thoughts, thoughts of vengeance, because rage was better for what he needed to do than sorrow or pity.

"I need to do something, Jenica, and it might be scary for you," he said. "But it wonít hurt you, and it will only take a second."

The spectral Jenica shrank back against the autopsy table. She had been just old enough to know that anytime a grown-up promised that something wouldnít hurt -- it would. But she turned as her ethereal form began to intersect the table, and she saw the face of the child that lay there, her face.

"She looks like me," she said. "Why does she look like me?"

Al saw panic growing in her eyes, and knew that he had to finish this quickly. "Jenica," he hissed, "Look at me!"

Startled, the Jenica-spirit turned back toward Al. When their eyes met, Al muttered a spell he had used only once before, and sworn never to use again.

Suddenly, he/she was seven years old, and happy, so happy that the school day was over. It had been a good day, with songs and painting and a spelling quiz that had gone very well, but it was better to be outside, free to run and skip and sing and dance wherever and however he/she wanted.

As he/she ran giggling past over the footbridge in the park, a sparkling something caught his/her eye. He/she detoured to pursue the pretty lights, off the path and into a less-travelled area where the trees and undergrowth were thicker and the afternoon sunlight gave way to cool shadows.

Then one of the shadows moved, and he/she tried to scream --

###

"Al, snap out of it!"

Al opened his eyes and found Janine, Billy, and Githros looking down at him. He was lying on the floor, next to the table holding Jenica Comaneanuís body.

Janineís face looked older than Al had ever seen it.

"Al, what happened?" Janine asked. "We íported directly here as soon as we could, and we found you lying here, not moving. You werenít even breathing!"

"Iím all right, I think," Al said. "I -- I Summoned the spirit of the girl on the table, but she was so young, she didnít -- she didnít understand where she was, what had happened. So I did a merge spell, to see what see saw before she -- before they -- "

"You said you never wanted to try that one again," Githros said. "Being somebody else, even for a few seconds, can really mess up your mind. Getting caught in the moment somebody dies -- "

"Can kill you," Janine finished. "Oh, Al, was it worth it?"

Al shook his head. "Iím not sure. It happened so suddenly, I didnít have time to back out. One second, she was chasing some kind of sparkly light, then she was in a shady area among some trees -- and then the shadows moved, and she -- Janine, are you all right?"

With Al awake, Janine had allowed her surroundings to come into focus. She walked stiffly from one examining table to the next, gently pulling back the sheets so she could see each face in turn.

She shook her head. "I canít believe it. Githros told me what you were investigating, but to see it, to see these babies lying there -- "

Al climbed to his feet and took her into his arms. "I know, Janine. It feels so wrong that anyone or anything could do this. But we -- all of us together -- will make it right."

Janine raised her hands to Alís chest, pushing him back a step, then looked into his eyes. "All right, Al," she said. "Letís make sure this rat bastard whatever-it-is never hurts another child.

"The shadows moved, you said. But what was in the shadows? Was it a man, or something else?"

Al closed his eyes, his fingers forming Hebrew and Arabic words for memory and clarity. The final seconds of Jenicaís life replayed themselves, this time in slow motion. Every detail was amplified, the sound of his/her shoes on the grass, the scent of damp earth and growing things, the brilliance of the narrow shafts of sunlight lancing through the canopy of leaves.

Then the shadows moved, but this time, he/she could see that it was a man, dressed oddly in something that looked like Daddyís bathrobe, except that it had a hood that almost covered the whole head. The man had something funny-looking in his hand, something that glinted as it passed through the few beams of sunlight in this quietest and most secret place, something sharp --

"It was a man," Al said. "He wasnít bald, but he was wearing a robe like the ones that you and Billy said the Baldies wore when they attacked you last month."

"That fits what Al and I were thinking before he sent me to get you," Githros said. "The Baldies arenít directly involved, but they may be connected to the ones who are behind this mess."

Al turned to Billy. "Did you bring the dart?"

Billy fingered a pouch around his neck. "Right here, and the amulet you gave me is inside my shirt."

"Great. Iím going to tell the authorities what Iíve learned -- sorry, Githros, what weíve learned. I didnít get around to it before I tried talking to Jenica, here. Once thatís done, and we get a copy of Jenicaís file, we are going hunting. And for that, Billy, weíre going to need your nose."

####

Al and Githros had established that the victimsí wounds had been made by a weapon rather than the teeth of a living creature. Forensic tests had found no traces of any conventional materials, so the fake fangs had to be demon-made. This gave Janine a lead to follow; her trading contacts in other Realms might be able to identify the maker of the weapon, bringing them closer to the killer. She left the group immediately to start making inquiries.

With Jenica Comaneanuís case file and a map of the vicinity, Al had identified the park where she had been murdered. Her body had been found elsewhere, so the police had never performed a full forensic examination of the true scene of the crime; this meant that there was a chance that traces left by the killer would be relatively undisturbed. The police had agreed to allow Alís team to visit the site before crime scene experts moved in; magic and demonic senses had already proven to be more effective than conventional police methods in this case.

Al íported himself, Billy, and Githros to a spot at the entrance to the park near Jenicaís school, with Githros in travel mode in Alís left ear. They followed the path into the park until they came to a small creek spanned by a narrow wooden bridge.

"This is the footbridge I saw," Al said. "The lights -- probably a simple glamour, now that I have a chance to think about it -- led Jenica over to the right. You see that grove of trees?"

"Yeah," Billy said. "Even on two legs, Iím getting traces of her scent from that direction."

They moved quickly across the open ground and into the concealing shadows of the trees.

"I think weíre alone," Al said. "Githros, youíre clear. Billy, time to get hairy."

Githros emerged from Alís ear and grew to his two-meter size, this time with no fancy acrobatics.

Billy removed his shoes and clothes, stowing them in a knapsack he had brought along for that purpose. He checked to make sure that the amulet that Al had given him was firmly in place, then opened the second pouch that he wore around his neck.

Reaching into the pouch, Billy withdrew a barbed dart of steel and silver and tiny gemstones. A dart identical to this one had forced him to Change into wolf form and had trapped him there, and more: it had triggered a rage that he could not control, making him a danger to everyone and everything -- except Janine. Al had removed the dart, freeing him, and had given him the amulet that they hoped would counteract the rage if he was ever struck by another like it.

"Githros, are you ready? If the amulet doesnít work, youíll have to grab me."

Githros nodded, moving close enough to capture Billy if his wolf-form came out fighting mad.

"Here goes everything," Billy said. He plunged the dart into his shoulder, and Changed. Bones shifted form, grew longer or shorter, thicker or thinner, as his human form twisted itself into the shape of a huge timber wolf. His canine teeth tripled in size, while others shrank into smaller, pointed versions of themselves; his ears slid up the sides of his skull and melted into triangles. And everywhere on his body, thick grey and white fur sprouted.

The whole process took only a few seconds. When it was over, Billy raised his great shaggy head, looked Al in the eye, and winked.

"I think heís okay, Githros," Al said. "Billy, do you need another whiff of Jenicaís sock?"

Billy chuffed and shook his head. He still remembered the scent that his human self had sampled; as dim and diffuse as that scent had been to his mostly-human nose, it had enough distinctive elements that he was sure that he could track it.

After a few seconds of searching, Billy found the strongest concentration of the little girlís scent. This was where she had fallen when her attacker caught her; the reek of fear-scent and traces of blood stung his nostrils. From that point, her scent diminished; her assailant must have picked her up and carried her. The man-scent, however, was also distinctive and still strong.

Billy followed the new scent trail deeper into the undergrowth, then snarled in frustration as the trail came to an end in a deep pool of shadows. Backing out of the bushes, Billy yipped and turned his head to expose the dart.

"Damn. He ran into a dead end," Al said. "Looks like they used a shadow-gate, just like our friends the Baldies. Get the dart out of him, Githros, and letís hope that Janine is having better luck."

Githros retrieved the dart, allowing Billy to Change back into human form. While Billy dressed, Githros removed the traces of Billyís F.A.C.T.-cursed blood and tissue from the dart by the simple expedient of licking it clean. Then he handed it back to Billy, who carefully replaced it in its carrying pouch.

"Sorry, Al," Billy said. "All I can add to what we know is that the guy was human -- not Walachian, no demon scent at all. I could identify him easily enough if we get within sniffing range, but that wonít help us find him."

"He used a shadow-gate to transport himself and the girl away from here, so our hunch about the Baldies and these bastards being connected seems to be confirmed," Al said. "According to the College, shadow travel is a pretty rare skill; itís harder than ordinary apportation, and the only advantage is stealth. Letís get back to the hotel. I can relay our report to the local police, the College, and the Countess while we wait for Janine."

####

Erkadís Emporium looked a little like Tiffanyís, if Tiffanyís sold magical artifacts instead of jewelry. It was one of Janineís favorite sources for quality goods for the magic-using community in the human Realm; she had come there hoping that the proprietor could supply information of similar value.

"Youíve never taken an order for that sort of thing?" she asked.

Erkad the Artificer shook his head. Then he shook his other head, just to emphasize the point.

"Fake Walachian teeth, even high-quality ones, are joke-shop items. I deal in serious things, talismans and amulets and wands and rings from across the dimensions."

Janine sighed. "Sorry. I should have known that, after all the business weíve done in the past. But maybe you might know who would deal in something like that ..."

Erkad scratched one head with one hand, while he rubbed the chin of his other head with another hand. The fingers of a third hand drummed restlessly on the dragonbone inlay of his desk, while a fourth hand carried on signing invoices and other routine papers.

"If you are sure this thing wasnít made in the human Realm, Iíd try Yeshmael. Heíll make anything for anybody, no matter how silly it may be."

"Yeshmael," Janine said. "Yes, Iíve heard of him, but Iíve never dealt with him directly. He does have a reputation for handling some rather undignified stuff."

"No class, no principles," Erkad said.

"Schoolís out for summer?"

"I never understand your jokes, Janine," Erkad complained. "But anyway -- while you are here, you want to place an order for anything?"

Janine hesitated. "I hadnít planned to -- but as long as Iím here, put me down for another dozen amplifier gems and a dozen of those general-purpose rosewood wands."

"Ah, the rosewood. Good for scrying, good for blasting, too," Erkad said.

Janine sighed again. "Yes. We seem to be doing a lot of both, lately."

####

Unable to walk between worlds under her own power, during her years in the interdimensional import - export business, Janine had accumulated a collection of Keys -- talismans that allowed her to travel to and from the pocket dimensions where most of her human and non-human trading partners did business. She did not have a Key to the particular Realm in which Yeshmael had his shop, but Erkad had supplied one (he personally would never trade with anyone who dealt in trinkets and trash, but ...).

The Bazaar where Yeshmael did business was a cross between a suburban flea market (in fact, some of the patrons and shopkeepers resembled oversized fleas), the Kasbah circa 1938, and Hieronymus Boschís depiction of bedlam. Janine found herself instinctively reaching for a blasting wand and amplifier gem, replacements for the ones she had burned out erasing a knife-wielding Baldy assassin a few weeks before.

After a few minutes, some of the queasiness from the world-jump faded, and things looked a little better -- enough to put away the amplifier gem, anyway. The blasting wand (which Al said could knock Githros off his feet, even at his largest and most powerful size) she held loosely in her hand, which in turn was half-hidden in her purse. The suggestion of a concealed weapon and the obstacle presented by her hand at least served to slow down the near-constant attentions of pickpockets and thieves.

Yeshmaelís shop was easy to find -- it was the largest and gaudiest in the noisy and noisome collection of tents and carts and crude stands. Getting through the crowd intact required only slightly more fortitude than reaching the bar in a singlesí joint Ďback in the dayí, with a few significant glances at her wand-hand to emphasize that she was no rookie.

"Mr. Yeshmael?" Janine asked. "Erkad said that you might be able to help me -- "

Yeshmael laughed. "Erkad? That self-important toad! How it must have pained him to admit that I could do something that he could not!"

The demon looked like a short, round human, except that his skin was covered in tiny scales that seemed to change color with his mood. He wore what looked like a sports jacket in a particularly loud, oversized tartan pattern that clashed horribly with his skin colors.

Janine winced as the "sports jacket" changed color along with Yeshmaelís skin and she realized that it wasnít a jacket at all. And that meant that the dangly bits below the jacket werenít accessories, either. At least Githros wore a loincloth -- or she hoped it was a loincloth ...

"Um, yes, Erkad was very upset," Janine said at last, staring at the ceiling.

"So what can Yeshmael do for a pretty lady that the great Erkad cannot?"

Janine knew that what was attractive to humans was usually considered grotesque by demons, but pretended to be ignorant enough to be flattered. She pulled a scrap of parchment from her purse with her left hand, leaving the other hand and the wand it held still half-concealed. The parchment bore a police sketch of the fangs that they believed had made the wounds on the dead children.

"Did you make a set of Walachian teeth that looked like this? Theyíd be high-quality jobs, not the usual mass-produced junk -- "

Yeshmael turned a peculiar shade of green and took a step back toward the dim recesses of his cluttered shop.

"Toy teeth? Ridiculous! You could get such things in your own world -- "

"And they could be traced by the police," Janine said. "These things left no traces of any material used in the human Realm, Yeshmael. They are being used to kill human children. And the murders are being used to stir up trouble between humans and Walachians."

Janine moved forward, and Yeshmael retreated. When they were far enough back in the shop to be hidden from the street, Yeshmael suddenly produced a gleaming object from the folds of his "jacket" and tried to aim it at Janine.

Janine was faster. She pulled the blasting wand up and out of her open purse in a fraction of a second, and she thought the triggering word an instant later.

Without the boost from an amplifier gem, there was no light show, no sound, nothing to show that the wand was working at all, except that Yeshmael flew backwards at high speed as if pulled by a rocket. The weapon -- whatever it was -- flew from his hand as he crashed through piles of assorted trinkets and cheap magical junk and landed in a groaning heap of multi-colored flesh.

"Who bought the teeth?" Janine shouted, clambering over the debris. "Who is killing the children?" She aimed the wand at Yeshmaelís head; at this range, with the floor only a few centimeters away, a blast would probably kill him.

"That would be me," a voice said behind her.

Janine tried to turn, to bring the wand to bear on the owner of the voice, but a sudden chill made her whole body numb, and she fell.

She managed to turn her head so that she could at least see who had blindsided her. As they had deduced, the man was wearing robes very similar to those worn by the anti-werewolf cultists, but as Al had observed from Jenica Comaneanuís memories, he was not bald.

"You must be Janine Majius, wife to the meddling wizard and cousin to the wolf who escaped our berserker hex," the man said. "I would tell you my name, but it would mean nothing to you."

"Would it be Scumbag?" Janine asked. "You look like a scumbag to me."

The man laughed. "So brave in the face of death. So foolish."

He raised one gloved hand and turned the palm toward Janine. The Walachian teeth were attached to the inner surface of the glove, so that the man could make "bite marks" by simply grabbing his victimsí necks.

"Why? Why persecute F.A.C.T. sufferers? Why kill children and try to blame the Walachians?"

"Ah, this must be the scene where the villain Explains Everything to the hero," the man said. "But there will be no miraculous escape for you, my dear -- this isnít a movie."

"I donít care about being rescued," Janine said. "You have me helpless; Iím dead, and I know it. So tell me, you bastard. You know you want to gloat." Every second that she could keep him talking increased the chances that Al and Githros would arrive to investigate her triggering of the blasting wand -- and in any case, she wanted to know what the robed cultists were doing.

The man laughed again. "Very true. I will indulge your curiosity, and bask in the terror and wonder the truth will bring."

Janine suppressed the urge to spit. On the one hand, she hoped Al and Githros would not appear until she had a chance to learn the truth; on the other, she wished Githros was there to put the robed man out of her misery right now.

"I will begin with the basics," the robed man said. "Werewolves and vampires both partake of the same primal form of magic -- The Wild. The Wild is raw magic, not subject to the limitations that apply to more civilized forms, and as such it is a source of great power.

"But the supply of Wild energy is finite, as is the supply of Mana in general. We cannot capture it, harness it, unless its current holders are exterminated."

Janine grunted, trying and failing to move her wand hand. "You used those hex darts to make Billy into a berserk monster, to force humans and wizards to hunt him down," she said. "You tried to ruin the business of another F.A.C.T. sufferer by having a minor demon screw up his computers."

The robed man snorted. "I wouldnít know about that second one," he said. "My bald comrades donít know about The Wild -- they believe that anyone with a disproportionate share of hair is contributing to their own lack of tonsorial splendor."

Janine frowned. "Say what?"

"They believe in the Law of Conservation of Hair," the robed man said, smirking. "They are convinced that their baldness is at least partly due to the F.A.C.T. sufferersí hoarding of too much of the universeís supply of hair follicles. Idiots, but useful to the cause."

"They tried to kill me, and my cousin," Janine said. "Pardon me if I donít find that amusing. But that doesnít bug me nearly as much as what youíve been doing in Rumania.

"Youíve been murdering children, you piece of crap! All to start a war between humans and Walachians, to trick humans into destroying them, too."

The robed man clapped his hands three times, slowly. "Very good. But do you know what we did with the blood of the children?"

"Let me answer that," Al said.

The man spun, amazingly staying on his feet despite the shifting bits of magical junk on the floor. He raised his left hand and a wand appeared in it, sliding from a sheath concealed in his sleeve.

Then a very large hand closed on his body and slammed him to the ground, shaking the wand loose and driving the air from his lungs.

"íScuse me, bathrobe boy, but thatís my partner over there," Githros said, bent double to fit his six-meter body into the confined space of the shop. "Iím a little touchy about people trying to hurt him, or the lady on the floor there. Us executive types have to stick together. So -- anything youíd like to say before I squish you?"

The man roared, "Die, demon!" and slashed at Githrosís neck with his false-fanged glove. The fangs caught in Githrosís scaly hide, which at this size was nearly as thick as the fangs were long. Githros leaned forward a bit, putting more pressure on his hand, and the roar became a squeak.

"Donít kill him, Githros. We have a lot of questions about this cult -- or cults -- of his."

Githros grunted. "Spoilsport." But he eased up enough that the man was able to draw a long, wheezing breath.

Janine picked herself up, brushing dust and miscellaneous powders (some of which she did not care to identify) from her clothes. She waved off Billy, who showed signs of wanting to be protective again. "You said you knew what he -- or they, whatever -- were doing with the childrenís blood?"

Al nodded. "When I compared the files, I discovered that all the children had two things in common. They were all unbaptized, and they were all virgins."

"The cult could have sold the blood for a fortune on the black magic market," Janine said. "Or they could have used it themselves for the nastier kinds of sorcery -- "

"Or they could have consumed it themselves," Githros said. "Blood -- itís not just for Walachians and demons anymore."

"On behalf of all the more-or-less humans here, eeeewwwww," Billy said.

"Hey, I personally like my blood from a more mature source," Githros said. "More body, if youíll excuse the expression, more interesting nuances. But there are some who really like young blood, sang nouveau. And for a certain kind of black sorcerer, itís like ginseng, a vitamin shot, and heroin all rolled into one.

"Itís a matter of taste."

####

"You have done well, marvellously well," Countess Lamia said. "The Walachian aristocracy will be in your debt forever."

"Youíve paid us more than enough," Al said. "The books youíve thrown in are worth a fortune, as well, although I think Iíll be studying them instead of selling them."

"That is as we intended," Lamia said. "We know that you have certain -- troubles of your own."

Al grimaced. "So the Morgenstern thing is pretty widely known, even over here?"

Lamia laughed. "A threat carved into a mountainside in letters three times the height of a man is -- unusual." Then, more seriously, she added, "The Morningstar, as he calls himself, is a threat to all. So much power in the hands of a madman must lead to disaster."

"Disaster. A malevolent star," Al said. "Maybe Morgenstern should change his name again."

"He does not see himself as evil, or as good. He sees himself as above such considerations."

"Yeah. Iíve heard he wasnít exactly a Wizard Scout when he was alive, either," Al said.

Lamia shook her head. "When I knew him, many years ago, he was ambitious. He wanted power beyond anything that a mortal had ever wielded since the beginning of time.

"Now he has that power, but he is neither mortal nor sane enough to use it for anything but the fulfilment of his own mad whims."

"I just wish everybody -- including you -- would stop looking at me as if itís up to me to do something about him," Al said.

Lamia shook her head again. "I wish that I could comply with your wishes," she said. "But you are linked to him, in ways that none fully understand. And in the end, you will play a vital role in deciding his fate."

Al sighed. "Itís that Ďin the endí part that worries me, as in Ďthe end of whomí?"

"Study the books we have provided," Lamia said. "You depend too much on what you have learned from Morgensternís books -- and he mastered all of them before you were born."

"Thank you, Countess," Al said. "I will do that -- if Morgenstern leaves me alone long enough."

Al íported home, bearing wealth that would have made him a happy man not long before, when his world was a much simpler place.

The End

Copyright © 2003 by Robert Moriyama

Robert Moriyama is a systems analyst who somehow wound up in Airport Planning at Torontoís main airport. He has been writing sporadically for most of his life (with readership limited to family and friends) but has placed stories in various webzines over the past several years, including Dementia (now Demensions), Titan (now defunct), and Aphelion. His most recent Aphelion appearances were June, 2003 and August 2003.

E-mail: bmoriyam@pathcom.com

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